Tung’s hat was pulled low to cover half her face. She dressed like someone who wanted to remain anonymous, like her clothes were a protective barrier between herself and rest of the world. A thick scarf was wrapped around her neck. Her gray Snoopy hoodie was layered under a denim jacket. But what she chose to show was telling—a drawing of a fish inked on her hand. Tung told me that she has a thing for fish because, in a very real way, she wished she could be more like them and less like herself. That’s because fish, she said, always see the world through fresh eyes.
“A fish is always under the water,” she explained. “They only have seven seconds of memory. After seven seconds, it's a new world to them again. This sort of mindset is what I would love to learn. Maybe the world seems to be one way. But if you change [your] perspective, it might be another thing.”
Tung is trying to see the world in a new way. Two years ago, she pulled the edges of her world tighter and tighter until her entire life was enclosed within her parent’s cramped Hong Kong apartment. It's where she spent her days in self-imposed confinement. Tung, like millions of others, was afflicted with a hidden psychological problem that is plaguing cities and perplexing doctors across East Asia, one that causes young people, men and women in the prime of their lives, to just… stop. Stop trying. Stop engaging. Stop everything—shy of just existing.
Tung lives in Hong Kong, but her condition was first classified in Japan—where this extreme social isolation phenomenon is called hikikomori. The condition was first described in the ‘90s by Tamaki Saitō, a psychologist who claimed there were one million hikikomori in Japan at the time. Each of them had become, to varying degrees, a shut-in, someone who remains in their home and refuses to go outside or engage with other people. The idea, that there was this huge, hidden population of young hermits struggling to even walk out into the world, let alone find success inside it, quickly captivated attentions worldwide.
Soon, dozens of books and hundreds of articles were written about the phenomenon and the image of the hikikomori male—most of those afflicted are men—had cemented itself in the global consciousness to the point that it became a character archetype in numerous anime series and was the focus of a short film by Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho for the omnibus movie TOKYO!.
To many, the psychological condition seemed like the perfect metaphor for pop-Bubble Economy Japan—a nation that was outwardly healthy and functional, yet still unable to respond to the shifting demands of the modern world.
In Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation, journalist Michael Zielenzinger, who met several hikikomori during the course of researching his book, wrote:
These men … cannot be diagnosed as schizophrenics or mental defectives. They are not depressives or psychotics; nor are they classic agoraphobics, who fear public spaces but welcome friends into their homes. When psychiatrists evaluate hikikomori … their symptoms cannot be attributed to any known psychiatric ailment. Instead, Japanese psychiatrists say hikikomori is a social disorder, only recently observed, that cannot be found in other cultures.
In the confinement of Japan’s neo-Confucian society, which preaches the importance of obedience, discipline, self-inhibition, and group harmony - and where even individual identity is deeply swathed in mutual interdependence - men like Jun and Kenji have imploded like vacuum tubes, closing themselves in, cutting themselves off, and utterly marginalising themselves.
…I began to see that their tragic syndrome might indeed reflect something unique about Japan’s history and its culture as it collided with the modern world.
For some, this “discovery” of a huge number of disengaged young people right at a time when Japan needed a scapegoat for its economic failings seemed a little too convenient. And later, much like otaku, hentai, and waifu, it became a kind of shorthand for the eccentricities of Japan as a whole, regardless of the fact that none of those things could accurately capture the national consciousness of a nation of 126 million people.
But just as hikikomori isn’t necessarily indicative of wider Japanese society, it’s also not a problem that’s exclusively Japanese either. Tung is from Hong Kong—a city that, as one of the most densely populated places on Earth—is pretty hard to avoid people in. And she’s not alone, an estimated 140,000 people—or 2 percent of the population—are living as hikikomori in Hong Kong, according to Dr Paul Wong, a clinical psychologist at Hong Kong University and author of numerous papers about social withdrawal. Is it a sign that the phenomenon is spreading or can the root causes of this social withdrawal syndrome be found outside Japan too? I was sitting with Tung to try to figure this out.
Tung was surprisingly chatty and articulate, her voice calm and assured, not timid or meek. But her body language was still that of someone trying to hide away from the world. She was talkative, but reluctant to make eye contact.
Had I met her two years ago, she wouldn’t have said a word. She would have communicated by writing on little scraps of paper. For a year she barely left her parents’ apartment, a dank, claustrophobic space in a northern Hong Kong housing estate.
It’s hard to pin the cause for this kind of self-inflicted isolation on a single thing, but Tung herself described her crushingly low self-esteem as a result of failures at school. Hong Kong’s school system is notoriously demanding, with large amounts of homework for students as young as five years old that culminate in a series of extensive, and stressful exams by graduation.
"My school exam results weren’t what I expected,” Tung said. “I sent out many job applications but no one replied. I started feeling depressed, and didn't feel like meeting with friends anymore. I felt like an outsider. I didn’t want to communicate with anyone and I just stayed home.
"Plus my older sister got through the exams, and had a clear career path. I felt like my parents were comparing me to my sister and I started getting more isolated."
She retreated, physically and mentally, and over the course of the next year left her parents’ flat just two or three times, and even then only briefly.
"Even when I met friends, I felt like I didn’t have anything in common anymore. I felt different. I thought I didn't deserve those friends. I didn’t hate them; I hated myself."
This kind of pressure, while not unique to Asian societies, is definitely felt with more weight there, Wong explained.
"Asian societies, especially Confucian societies, are more susceptible to hikikomori,” Wong said. “In Asia we are more narrow-minded when it comes to youth development. “We make our young people study very hard, then get a job, and it should be with a big company, and so on.
"Our parenting and guidance is narrow-minded compared to Europe or the United States, where young people are also encouraged to become artists or find their own path. The industries they can enter are much larger, and there is less pressure to follow a set path.”
Watch: Hong Kong Is Running Out Of Space To Bury Its Dead (HBO)
So we can blame the tiger moms?
“This is not a biological problem,” Wong continued. “It originates with the family and the parenting style, either over-parenting or dysfunctional parenting or authoritarian parenting. Young people lack motivation if they are over-parented or if they have authoritarian parents who push too hard. It’s escapism and avoidance—the very high expectations of parents and society are pushing young people into these conditions.”
Wong considers these kinds of parents victims as well, susceptible to societal pressures themselves that they project onto their kids, who then withdraw. And once withdrawn it can be a hard and lengthy process to reintegrate into life as the rest of us know it. Tung’s single reclusive year is relatively acute compared to some who often spend a decade or more confined to their homes.
“During that year, I drew a lot. But I had less inspiration,” Tung said, flashing me the briefest of glances. “Even if I picked up the paintbrushes, I would just stare at the wall and think, what I am doing? I think I was just using that time for self-reflection, self-hatred. I just held the paintbrushes, sat still, until my family came back home.
"I would hold those paintbrushes for three hours like that. I don't really know what happened during those hours. I would just stare at the window, asking myself, ‘What am I doing?’ That whole year was wasted. I didn’t have anything, I was worthless."
Tung credits her art and painting during that period with saving her life. While many withdrawn youth are listless, idly browsing the Internet, drinking, or playing video games during their days, Tung’s artwork not only allowed her to feel productive, it also led to a stint at art school which concluded with an exhibition of her work, and some voluntary work for an NGO.
Today she is considerably improved, having worked with CLAP For Youth, a local nonprofit for the socially withdrawn, and even qualifies as a successful case study.
“When she first came to us we never saw her eyes,” said Jack Chiu, a manager at the nonprofit. “She was always hiding. But we had a breakthrough when we had one of our therapy dogs in, and she asked about the dog’s eating. After that she took part in the animal-assisted therapy part of our program, and we made small gains until finally she took an art design course at a local school, which ended with her exhibiting some of her work.
"She still stays at home a lot, but she has purpose now and meaning. We’ve helped her to clarify her intentions and opportunities and see her value, and make career choices.”
Tung told me that she now had modest, but defined, goals of her own.
“In five years? I would love to have some kind of skill that makes me feel less empty," she said. "A stable income. Working somewhere interesting where I can accept myself. I hope to get along with my family better, to blend in with them. I still love my family a lot.
"I don't really think about relationships, there's not much to talk about. I don't think it's possible at this moment. I can't even stand my own personality. But I hope to meet more friends, and when I meet up with them I hope to be someone who is confident again, just like when I went to school. I don't want to feel different from any of you."
James Durston is freelance journalist and editor in Hong Kong. He tweets here.
Stephanie Teng is a Hong Kong based commercial and documentary photographer. Her creative vision is shaped by her passion for exploring and depicting the human condition. See more of her work here.