Epistemologies of the Withdrawn: Exploring Hikikomori Subjectivities in Digital Spaces
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Epistemologies of the Withdrawn: Exploring Hikikomori Subjectivities in Digital Spaces


In recent years, the “phenomenon” of shakaiteki hikikomori, translated from Japanese as social withdrawal, has risen to international prominence. Originally considered a uniquely Japanese issue, its growing presence in other countries is illustrative of its global presence. Often referred to simply as hikikomori, the term refers to individuals who retreat from their daily social interactions to spend prolonged periods secluded in their homes, for months or even years at a time. The term itself carries a dual meaning, indicating both the state of extreme social withdrawal and those struggling under such circumstances. Differing explanations have been offered by various disciplines, principally from the fields of psychology and psychiatry though more recently anthropology and sociology, with no consensus across fields. As a result, hikikomori studies have fallen under two epistemological models: an individual/medical model that sees withdrawal as a matter of individual pathology that must be treated and overcome; or a social model that sees hikikomori resulting from the structures in the social environment requiring reintegration of the individual. Hikikomori drop out of more traditional or accepted forms of communication and social interaction. Yet, some hikikomori have taken to the virtual space of the internet as a new way to make connections; however, to date such interactions have not been studied. This work is meant to address this gap in scholarship by examining the posts and comments of withdrawn individuals belonging to the community Hello Hikikomori, on the English language forum-based website Reddit.com. Analysis of the texts from members of this community reveal what I have termed hikikomori subjectivities, encompassing the myriad experiences that lead them to identify with the term despite its foreign origin. At the heart of these subjectivities are feelings of inability, and in recognizing this I argue that hikikomori embodies an experience of the built world as socially disabling. Individuals withdraw because they do not feel they can participate in normative mainstream society, and instead live lifestyles bounded by the things they “can” and “cannot” do. In this work, I illustrate this by drawing from the words of individuals in withdrawal the different ways they experience inability in their lives, and how the physical act of withdrawal acts as a coping mechanism for dealing with experiences of social disablement.

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