Hikikomori by Virginia Aronson
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

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Shanti Arts Publishing, 2021
$14.95, 90 pages
ISBN: 978-1-951651-92-3

Virginia Aronson’s collection shines a light on a particular Japanese phenomenon that with the pandemic and social media has morphed into a worldwide situation. The term hikikomori (derived from the verb hiki “to withdraw” and komori “to be inside”) was coined in 1998 by Japanese psychiatrist Professor Tamaki Saito. “Hikikomori” refers to both the phenomenon in general and to the recluses themselves. Hikikomori have been described as “loners” or “modern-day hermits.” Hikikomori is currently viewed as a sociocultural mental health phenomenon, rather than a distinct mental illness.

The first eleven of the dozen poems that make up Hikikomori are related in the first person by a hikikomori, living at home with the parents. The final poem, “We Are All Hikikomori Now” is also from the first-person perspective but is now plural. It’s written in the age of Covid isolation and generally describes how the situation evolves (“It starts with the food / delivered to the door”) and becomes an entrenched lifestyle.  After the food come the masks, the gloves, the plastic shields and PPE until

Eventually nobody leaves
except online.

The poem - the sequence of poems - ends:

By then we are alone 
shut in, shut down 
the hikikomori lifestyle 
trending, trending.

Each poem is accompanied by an expository text and intriguing abstract anime-like (in the sense of seeming sort of computer-generated) drawings by Rose-Ann San Martino, an artist living in North Carolina who has likewise provided illustrations for a self-help book on depression.

From an etymological explanation of the word as both noun and verb (“to confine oneself indoors”) to the policies of the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare Ministry regarding shut-ins, to the way Japanese parents feel a sense of failure and seek to hide the truth rather than seek therapy, Aronson’s prose paragraphs illuminate the sad existence of the characters of the first-person poems. 

The poem, “My Rental Sister” highlights a truly intriguing part of the hikikomori phenomenon. In Japan, Aronson notes, rental brothers and sisters are regularly employed to communicate with hikikomori clients. “With permission, they will sit outside a closed door while they try to reassure, befriend, and eventually coax hikikomori out of hiding.” The poem takes us through the responses of the hermit. It starts out:

The letter was kind.
I did not respond.

The letter was funny.
I did not respond.

The process continues through emails and visits, conversation through a closed bedroom door.

A few months later
sun warmed us
the door open
all the way
she came inside 
all the way 
my heart raced
my rental sister 

said, “Your life
is exactly 
as I pictured,”
and smiled 
like that was good.

The poem “Invisible” captures the alienation of the hikikomori, the subjective feelings of isolation and inconsequentiality. After drinking a beer (biiru in Japanese. The book comes with a helpful glossary of relevant Japanese terms.),

I can finally relax
into my real self
compose a song
lyrics, a poem
before old voices
inside me
drown out, drenching me
the sudden downpour
reminding me
I am but one
of the herd, a follower
in a land of followers.

Honne is a Japanese word meaning one’s actual feelings – the private self.  Aronson’s note that follows explains that in Japan there is no private self separate from society. “School and work are collective,” she writes, “and deny the self rather than enhancing the ego. Without a social context you have no identity. You are socially invisible.”

The speaker of “On the Way Out” tells us how he became a hikikomori. As a child “I wanted / to be a novelist / writing stories.” His father would mail the stories out to literary journals and publishing houses. He wanted to be “the successful son / my parents prayed for,” but then his father died and he stopped writing, started drinking and playing video games all night long. Then his mother died. At that point he was over forty,

lacked self-esteem
locked in my childhood

This phenomenon of children living at home well into adulthood has been dubbed “the 80-50 problem” in Japan. After the parents die, the children are incapable of making it on their own, having been isolated and supported financially all of their lives.

The poem, “Spirited Away” describes another strategy for easing the children out of their isolated lives. Some Japanese parents hire hikidashiya – “those who pull people out” – not unlike the “rental siblings” we’ve already seen, but more aggressive. However, this strategy of trying to extract the children from the family home can often lead to PTSD, but the parents have been influenced by sensational news accounts of violence enacted by the hikikomori against their parents and are frantic to avoid that. But the speaker of the poem, the hikikomori son, proclaims his innocence, almost reminiscent of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho who “wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

I would never attack my family
with a crossbow or hunting knife
that I ordered
over the internet
and hid
in my room
where I am safe
from people who do things
like that.

But later in the poem, he confesses,

When the therapist asks
if I have violent thoughts
I say no
inside I rage
imploding I am
broken apart from others
and captive here
from my safe place.

Virginia Aronson’s collection is not only beautifully put together, the poems, the drawings, and the expositions all working harmoniously together, but it raises a red flag about our world today, in the second year of the pandemic.