I hear my alarm on my phone, so I know it must be around 7.30 am. I switch it off and pleasantly look to the date on my phone, Thursday, 8 October. It is already day 4. As a well trained circus animal, I walk to the door, disarm the locks and open the door. Surprisingly, I don’t hear the alarm, the alarm that needs to remind me that have to stay inside. Is there something wrong with the System? In a split second, I think about running away, without phone so they can’t track me, just run! In the top left corner of my eyes, I see a black device on the ceiling, the size of a ice hockey puck. I stay in my doorway, and inspect the unit and I see vaguely a camera, pointed towards me, towards the hallway. Of course, I realize it is security camera and I am sure there are many more cameras in the building, for ‘security purpose’. If, and I emphasize IF I would run away, there would be so much evidence that a ‘wai-guo-ren‘ — which is the Chinese word for a ‘outside country person’, literarily translated of course — ran away during his quarantine. I am sure, it will be broadcasted on each individual TV channel here, and probably will position me as a bad person, who is purposely put many people in danger. It will be followed by a manhunt operation by the police, and probably I will end up in jail within a couple of hours. In jail, I will be locked up in a room, size might be similar as this one, but without internet, without my clothing and other personal belongings. I close my eyes, imagine that very situation, and decide to continue my voluntary stay in is this very room.
I grab the breakfast from the cupboard, and bring it as always to my desk and sit down on the chair. I was hoping for a decent breakfast, no artificial engineered items like yesterday. I make a picture with my phone of the breakfast that I got today. I close my eyes, and remove the rubber band that is wrapped around the box. I feel that my heart is pounding more rapidly than before. I take a deep breath and open the box, and subsequently, slowly open my eyes, and hoping for a Taiwan style breakfast, like hoping for a sunny day, when you have planned outdoor activities with friends. My eyes are in direct contact with the product. I recognize the product, I can’t control my self, and get up, the chair falls down behind me. It is Taiwan pancake! I jumped from happiness, and made quick dance on the spot like when scoring the winning goal of a soccer match. Quickly I opened the paper bag, and I feel I am scream loud inside myself, YES YES YES, it is a kind of BaoZi (Chinese for a steamed bun) filled with egg! I take a sip of the beverage, and get all weepy. Slowly I feel the fresh soy milk flowing trough my gullet. Thank you System, thank you so much for providing me this euphoric moment. I would never think, that a breakfast in a hotel room could bring so much positivity and happiness. I finish with pleasure the breakfast and move to my next item on my list.
Because I finished my Netflix series yesterday, I decided to started a new episode from the ‘Queen of the South‘, a crime drama from the US and Mexico. While watching an episode, I run my sports exercise program and finish with a refreshing shower. While drying myself, I look forward to my next activity! Yesterday I received a package with Starbucks coffee beans, coffee spoon, filter, filter holder, grinder and cup. Basically, all the things you need to prepare for a Do-It-Yourself coffee. Of course, I could order another cup of coffee from Foodpanda, but this time I prefer to work for my coffee. I opened the package, while boiling the water in the electric kettle. Transfer two spoon to the top part of the grinder and start grinding. It reminds me of the grinder from my home town, that was positioned as a decorative item, like a piece of art on the wall. To honour the time that we had to manually grind our beans. Nowadays, lots of people have so-called full-automatic all-in-one devices: beans in, cappuccino out, by just pressing a single button on the unit. Like you have the industrial machines for processing chicken: whole chicken in, packaged chicken breasts out. Both are focused on automation, reproducibility and maximum productivity. I screw off the top of the grinder and place the powder in the filter, and pour slowly hot water over it, like a barista from your local coffee shop. I smell the coffee and hear the satisfying sound of drips of freshly prepared coffee in my porcelain mug. I close my eyes, bring the mug towards my lips, and carefully take a nip of the coffee while inhaling the vapours of it. Another joyful moment. I realize, again and again, that these small moments are very important and valuable to me during this stay, and I feel that they help me to get through this quarantine more smoothly.
I am sitting on my chair, and think again about yesterday, about my thoughts about the rat race, and the question about being trapped, yes or no. It reminds me of group of people in Japan that are referred to as the ‘Invisible Youth’. In Japan the this group is suffering from Hikikomori (引き篭り) which literally translated means ‘being confined’. You are regarded as a Hikikomori if you are voluntarily stay at home and don’t leave that home for at least 6 months and shut yourself off from society.
Some of them are already confined for more than 10 years. The first time I heard about this, and saw a documentary about it, my heart broke and especially to be confronted by the fact that this growing group of people is estimated to be more than 500,000 individuals. Some reports even claim that the real number is probably more than 1 million, as many feel so ashamed of being a registered as Hikikomori. I lived, as part of my PhD study, a short while in small room in Tokyo. Conducted research at the #1 university of Japan, The University of Tokyo or in Japanese: Tōdai. Japanese society and culture was on first sight to me, so different from my own culture. As a person, I have always loved to understand new technologies and this also counts for a new cultures, surroundings or people. I love to learn and I try to understand the system, like Neo from the Matrix understanding his system at the end of the movie. If you understand the rules, you can better manage and control it. On the other hand, I also have accepted, that not everything is explainable and you cannot understand, manage and control everything in your life. Just let it go. We sometimes just need to accept a situation ‘as is’. During my stay in Japan, I was confronted with many strange, or better ‘unknown and different’ situations that, even today, I still don’t understand them. I remember, I felt many times like a complete stranger, that is willing and eager to learn about the Japanese culture, but couldn’t get my head around it. It is a feeling of helplessness, and that feeling comes to my mind when I think about the Hikikomori. But let’s dig deeper into this subject. Who are they? Why do stay inside their rooms? Why don’t they get out, and enjoy the outside world? And what happened that they want to stay inside? Or maybe, they don’t want, but have to? So many questions. I am absolutely not a specialist in this field, I just want to introduce this group of people to you. First of all, you need to understand, that in general the Japanese people live and work under a lot of peer pressure, and that in general you need to blend in, you need to follow the societal rules. Don’t be an outlier, as it might results in a rejection of group towards you. Secondly, also parents in general put a lot of pressure on their children, as they want their children to be successful. To increase the chance of success, they are pushing and pushing their sons and daughters to the highest possible schools and universities, from which Tōdai -as I mentioned before- in the #1 in Japan. Now, I understand better why people almost treat me as a super-star after I mentioned casually that I was performing research at Tōdai. For them it is the highest possible education level in Japan like MIT and Harvard in the US. Education gives you in general a higher chance of success in society, buy that does not mean, that the chance of happiness is automatically also higher. Thirdly, children in Japan leaving their parental household relatively late compared to many other countries. It is not unusual that children stay at home till they are married (e.g. 25-30 years old). And Fourthly, men can make very very long working days, so don’t be surprised that some of them need need to get up at 5 am in the morning, and arrive back at home at 2 am. So these dads don’t participate in the family life as they are always working. As a result, the parenting is primarily taken care off by the mothers and they become many times obsessed with education and teaching their children things. So you can image, that their is a lot of pressure on these children to participate in this rat race, keep running and running. Slowing down for children is not an option, as it might lead to rejection from the group. So one of the options is not to slow down, but to step out, step out of this endless marathon by make the decision to quit going to school, university or work. Other reasons to step out, are that they are bullied at school, or lack the love from anyone especially their parents. Question remains whether they really ‘choose’ to become Hikikomori, or that the society is putting so much pressure on them, that they don’t feel they to have another choice. Many of them loose the strength to go out of bed and have lost interest in the outside world. In Japan, there are a lot of doctors that can help you with physical problems, but compared to the West, there is only a small group of doctors that can help you with mental illnesses. Japan is still regarded having a shame culture, and asking for mental support is still not as widely accepted compared to Western countries as people in Japan feel ashamed for it. The longer you are a Hikikomori, the more difficult it becomes to get out of this isolation. Some of them might like to get out of the seclusive way of living, but they are afraid that world doesn’t accept them, that people look strangely to them. And that the Hikikomori is a result of the current society. Since the introduction of social media like Facebook and Instagram, there is an additional layer of stress amongst the younger generations. They compare themselves more and more with their online super stars, making the level of stress even higher. So it didn’t surprise me at all, that this group of Hikikomori is still growing and growing. For me it is really difficult to understand, especial based on my very limited know-how and experience on this topic, whether they really want to be released and saved. It is logically to think that for ‘us’, if your regard ‘us’ as normal people, we feel we need to save them, but maybe they feel we need to be saved and we need to change our society, to have less pressure and end this endless, self-defeating, or pointless pursuit of success in society. In addition, most of the time, when people say Hikikomori, you think about the adolescents living in isolation, but in fact, also more and more adults living in isolation, don’t have any real social interaction and don’t have to leave their house, as you can order your food just from your tablet. It really hurt me to tell you, that in Japan more and more professional companies take care of the cleaning process when an individuals dies in their isolated home, completely alone, completely unnoticed. Maybe that is want they want, not to bother others and the society with their own problems. On the positive note, there is a way out for the isolated, and especially the people who came out, are helping them at the moment. It give me faith and hope at the same time that some of them can be saved.
For some people, it might be easy when you read or hear about Hikikomori, to ignore it, to stop thinking about it, like putting your head in the sand like an ostrich. Like it is only an issue in Japan, not here, not in my country. But in my humble opinion, look around us, think about the people you know who either ARE or FEEL isolated for the last 6 months, especially during this global pandemic crisis, I think there are much more Hikikomori than you think. Not only in Japan, not only in Asia, look closely around you, maybe your neighbor might be a Hikikomori. I look around me, and see the four walls, very close to me, every day this rooms becomes smaller and smaller. I didn’t leave this very room for the last 4 days, and realize that if I would stay here for 6 months, I also will be regarded as a Hikikomori. Currently, I still want to get out of this quarantine hotel, but a small, a very small voice inside me, tells me that this place is safe, and there is not a need to go out there, to the world outside this hotel. I hope that his very small voice will not grow in me.