[Anime is Culture] Hide to Survive: Otaku, NEET, and Hikikomori

Continuing from the last article (Jason’s note: Here’s a link to it, published close to a month ago … yikes, I’m sorry!  I’ve been a bad and terribly busy editor …): What do you do to survive in the economic climate of Post-Bubble Japan?  Everything your parents told you to do to be successful doesn’t work anymore.  Your job prospects are almost nil if you aren’t in the top 10 percentile of graduating students, and you now have a huge influx of hyper-capable women to add to the already huge competition pool.

Many post-bubble men lost their confidence in life after not making it in high school.  Others held onto belief and worked their way through the top colleges only to be greeted with rejection because they weren’t in the top 10 percent.  When faced with these seemingly impossible barriers, almost anyone would lose confidence and hope.  As a result, many young people began to retreat from the world.  Life’s struggles were too painful, and they were too ashamed of their failure after trying again and again and again.  How could they face their parents after failing so many times?

This phenomena is what created the image of the stereotypical otaku in Japan.  Young men (and women, too) would retreat into various hobbies and the Internet to cope with the struggles of life.  These otaku were people that were unable to fit the mold of the expected, mainstream Japanese male.  Unable to secure a steady office job or a relationship, many ended up surviving off working various temp jobs.  As for relationships, some would find love (watch the movie Densha Otoko) while others would retreat into the fantasy of anime and manga and forego the need to find a partner (i.e. Love Hina).

Seeing that society had already labeled them as irregular, the otaku sub-culture decided that instead of always worrying about what the rest of society thought, they would instead revel in their irregularity.  This mindset would help them forget about their societal struggles, and they linked up with other like-minded individuals in person or on the Internet, creating a safe environment where they could act freely.

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Why risk your self esteem and self worth interacting with real women that could hurt you?  Anime will never betray you!

However, the circumstances proved too great, and they retreated even further into themselves.  These people would end up becoming what are known as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and hikikomori (shut-ins).  NEETs were people who tried again and again to make it in the world, but the lack of opportunity and selective hiring practices of the companies proved too much, and they just gave up.  They end up staying home all day, every day, absorbed in their hobbies, trying to ignore the world.  A more extreme version of this is the hikikomori, or shut-in.  The individuals totally isolate themselves in their rooms, refusing to go outside.  Their spirits have truly been broken.

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Sometimes a person can retreat too far into themselves, until they forget how to interact with normal society.

In recent years, it’s been thought that there are more than 1 million hikikomori in Japan, yet it is a problem that is rarely addressed.  Perhaps this is because of the Japanese cultural respect for privacy, as well as the social stigma and shame that comes with being related to a hikikomori.  However, it has been gaining more recognition in recent years, as the problem has remained strong despite the economy starting to take an uptick, and there are efforts to bring these shut-ins back into society.

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A good anime to show the struggle and mindset of the Otaku NEET/hikikomori is the underappreciated title Welcome to the NHK(Jason’s note: You can watch the series on free Crunchyroll streaming now.)  In this anime, Tatsuhiro Satou is a hikikomori who’s been holed up in his apartment for more than two years.  He dropped out of college after being disillusioned with his education and hearing the rumors some people in the neighborhood spread about him … or at least what he thought he heard them say.  His parents support him by sending him money, but he must lie to them about his lifestyle.

He cannot bear the shame he must be to his parents by being a hikikomori.  However, he receives a glimmer of hope from a girl named Misaki, who wants to help him out of being a shut-in.  Along the way, he re-unites with Kaoru, an old friend from high school.

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22 years old with his life at a standstill.  Satou is a Hikikomori who broke under social anxiety.
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Kaoru is an Otaku that has given up on finding a relationship.

As Satou works with Misaki to recover from his hikikomori ways, he must face the anxiety and pressure he had been ignoring for two years.  He deals with the crippling fear of interacting with others, and his own sheltered mindset.  He wants everything in the world to be perfect and fine, where nothing bad can happen to him, but reality just doesn’t work that way.  His mind and spirit are fragile.  It was shattered once already, and his effort to work with Misaki is like trying to hold together a broken vase with scotch tape.

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However, one should not look down on these shut-ins and NEET.  They tried just as hard as everyone else.  They just didn’t make it.  The society of the post-bubble still made it possible for anyone to achieve their goals.  The only difference is that those opportunities are located on a mountain and you have to fight, claw, and step on other people in order to get it.  This hyper-competitive environment was something that developed when the post-bubble generation.

In the most recent years, this world of competition has only become more competitive as a new generation comes of age.  This is the generation born after the burst of Japan’s economic bubble.  This generation is what some in Japan have been called the “Enlightened Generation.”  Unlike the Post-Bubble generation, which knew what life was like before the burst, this generation was born with no knowledge of “the good ol’ days.”  Yet, they still struggle with the same difficulties of the post-bubble, if not more so.  However, that is changing as the generations age, and what was once impossible at one point has now become possible.

If you could Re:Start at a point in your life and fix the mistakes you may have made, would you?  In my final article for the semester, I’ll talk about the Enlightened Generation and their take on the world.

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[Anime is Culture] Get in the Robot, Shinji: “Evangelion” and Post-Bubble Japan

The future is grim.  You did everything your parents told you to do to succeed.  You studied hard. You passed your exams. You graduated and applied for a job at a company.  Surely, there would be a job waiting for you.  Just like it had been for your father.

Instead, everything your parents told you was a lie.  Companies are no longer hiring younger workers en masse, preferring to hold onto their older employees to not break their promises of lifetime employment to them.  Only the top 10 percent of graduates are even considered now, with those missing that cut falling by the wayside.  What’s even scarier is that the competition to enter the workforce is nothing like what your parents faced.  Hyper-confident and hyper-capable women are now able to enter the running, and the companies are scooping them up in droves.

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Every year, thousands of students take college entrance exams trying to make it into the top universities.  Many of these students will not make it. (image via japantimes.co.jp)

Welcome to the Post-Bubble Era of Japan.  As you may recall from my last Anime is Culture article, Japan started making huge concentrated efforts to rebuild their broken country after World War II.  With the rise of democracy and assistance from the American government (as shady as it was, it did help their recovery), Japan rose from the ashes like a phoenix.

With Article 9 in place, the Japanese were prevented from funding a full standing military.  Instead, they focused on promoting their peace policies by developing technology that could be used to improve the lives of people around the world.  In doing so, during the 1970’s and ’80’s, Japan became an economic powerhouse.  Companies like Toyota and Sony were worldwide names that put out products sought by millions around the world.  This would be Japan’s economic bubble.

Such success led to the prosperity of the Japanese people.  During this time, the vast majority of Japanese considered themselves middle-class on the socioeconomic scale.  Men would go to school and then apply for company jobs.  After graduation, these companies would pick them up, and their careers would be set.  Everyone was able to earn a living wage and live relatively comfortable lives.

However, this would not last.  Around 1990, the economic bubble burst, causing thousands of companies to lose money and default on loans.  This led to massive unemployment, and a huge economic crisis fell upon the people.  The generation of young men and women that came of age during this time were promised the same opportunities that their parents had enjoyed, but the bursting of the bubble effectively shut them out.  Instead of accessible employment, there was now a small window where only the elite could enter through.

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If you can’t make it into a steady job, you end up working multiple part time jobs to make ends meet.
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These office workers are the ones who made it.  They had to fight and struggle VERY hard to get to where they are now. (image via shutterstock.com)

This grim and foreboding atmosphere was what influenced the tone and stories of anime during the ’90s.  One of the greatest examples of a post-bubble series is the highly influential anime Neon Genesis Evangelion.  In the series, the world has been destroyed by a cataclysmic event known as the Third Impact.  As a result, more than 50 percent of the human population was wiped out, and those who are left struggle to survive in a world where the sea is dyed red like blood.

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One of anime’s cult classics and the series that defined a generation.

The main character, Shinji Ikari, is a young adolescent man that is forced by his father to fight in a giant robot against alien lifeforms known as “Angels.”  However, this isn’t the only struggle he faces.  He also struggles to come to terms with the new social norms he’s entering into.

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Shinji is the representation of the Japanese post-bubble male.  He doesn’t want to pilot and fight in the EVA, but he is forced to do it.

He is forced to do the dirty work of NERV headquarters when fighting the Angels.  When he’s not fighting, he’s under rigorous testing and examination.  Not only is he constantly bombarded by work like this, he is also surrounded by capable women that outshine him.  Rei Ayanami, the First Child, is a model soldier, following her orders without dissent or complaint, almost like a machine.  Asuka Langley Soryu, the Second Child, is a German-born pilot that demonstrates superiority in everything she does.

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Rei (White) and Asuka (Red) represent the hyper competent women that are entering the workforce and realms that were traditionally reserved for men.
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Shinji is constantly overwhelmed by the pressure of the expectation put on him and often retreats into himself.

This is representative of the the world seen by the Post-Bubble Generation.  Shinji is the post-bubble male who has to struggle to survive in the unforgiving world of NERV, which is representative of the Japanese company.  He managed to get in, but only because his father is the head of NERV.  However, his performance as a pilot is an utter disappointment  compared to the other more capable women, and it shows in his father’s favor for Rei.  This relationship he has with the other pilots shows how the post-bubble male viewed his job prospects.  If he was lucky enough to get a job, he still would never be able to compete with the influx of women into the workforce.

This mindset lead to many men losing confidence in themselves.  Just like Shinji, they viewed themselves as weak and unable to do anything by themselves.  They want to rely on the help of their parents, who know that they are struggling but can’t really help.  This leads into Shinji’s struggle with the adults in his life.  Much like his strained relationship with his father, Gendo, the post-bubble male wanted desperately to gain the recognition and acceptance of the older generation, but they were left to fend for themselves instead.  The companies would only accept them into the fold if they found a use for them, just like how Gendo did with Shinji.   The women who entered the workforce ahead of the post-bubble men could now exert their power over these young males, and the shift in gender-power dynamics was incredibly daunting to them.

On one hand, you have Ritsuko, NERV’s chief scientist and the one in charge of monitoring the usefulness of the EVA pilots.  She is cold, calculating, and regards Shinji not as a person, but more of a lab rat or tool to further her own research and goals.  On the other hand, there’s Misato, Shinji’s direct superior and caretaker.  She pushes herself onto him, making him roommate with her.  While she does it in good nature, Misato lords her femininity over Shinji as she tries to mold him into what she believes is a better man.

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Misato is a woman who isn’t afraid to flaunt her femininity.
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Ritsuko is job oriented and sees others as tools to further her own research and goals.

So what do you do when your world view and job prospects mirror the apocalyptic world of Evangelion?  How do you survive in the world when you can’t get a job because of the rise of women and the highly selective hiring process?  We’ll discuss this in my next “Anime is Culture” post, “Hide to Survive: Otaku, NEET, and Hikikomori.”

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Welcom to the NHK was a series that really captured the thoughts and mindsets of NEET and Hikikomori.