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The New Inquiry: An Infantile Disorder

By Max Fox
The New Inquiry

saito_hikikomori coverThere is nothing more desirable than a dead teenager. As soon as teenagehood was defined as distinct around the turn of the past century, nations developed industrial techniques to kill them on a mass scale. In boy form, the dead teenager is still the defense industry’s flagship domestic product. Fashion houses and magazines stalk it as a girl. And why not? Teenagers established themselves as a class by negotiating a confluence of unemployment crises, consumer-­society-building, and war. What could anyone do with this pool of spillover at the entrance to the labor market? Their consumptive bodies, with uncurbed capacity to work, lay just this side of receiving a wage. Dead, they are demand without demands.

But some teenagers don’t die. In Japan in the early 1990s, a young psychiatrist named Saitō Tamaki began seeing patients with a cluster of strange symptoms. Actually, he barely saw them at all; more often than not, other family members would approach him about a brother or a son who was afflicted with an unfamiliar state. Mostly men on the threshold of adulthood, they were retreating to their rooms, shrinking from all social contact or communication, and closing off into themselves, often for periods of a year or more. Not wanting to kill themselves but unable to live in society, these youths folded inward in an attempt to fit themselves away. Saitō began calling them hikikomori sainen, “withdrawn young men,” and in 1998 published a book with his findings called Shakaiteki hikikomori—Owaranai Shishunki, or Social Withdrawal—Adolescence Without End.

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