In September 2013, a group of 31 Japanese people flew to Los Angeles, California for a two-week road trip. One 15-passenger van and two 8-passenger mini-vans caravanned together for the 6,000-mile trip, journeying around the western states of the United States of America, through Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and California. We visited several national parks and stayed at churches in these states for the two weeks.
Out of 31 travelers, seven were hikikomori.
The purpose of the trip was to help hikikomori people get out of the hikikomori mode to which they had become accustomed. It was a test for our future ministry as much as it was a good opportunity for the participants to experience life in a completely different environment.
I had worked with a professional counselor (a member of Tokyo Horizon Chapel) for more than five years to find a way to help them. Hikikomori people have so much debilitating fear and anxiety they are prevented from having a social life. Their voice can be hardly heard. Eye contact with anyone is avoided. They draw themselves in and hide their faces from others. They can’t enjoy themselves or others around them.
The seven hikikomori people who involuntarily joined the trip were exactly like that when I met them at Narita Airport. (Their parents applied for the trip for their sons and daughters out of desperation.)
One covered his face with a hood. Others wore sunglasses to avoid eye contact. One wore a t-shirt with the slogan, “Hottoke Oreno Jinsei” (Leave me alone, it’s my life.) I could easily predict that problems awaited us, especially when I thought about trying to help them connect with the rest of the travelers who had had no exposure to hikikomori people before. I was both excited and worried. It would be a wonderful trip if we could all enjoy each other’s company. However, it would be a disastrous trip if the seven of them became burdensome to the others due to their lack of interaction.
I believed that only Christian fellowship could help hikikomori people regain their confidence and self-worth, as well as give them the hope and new future they desperately needed.
As soon as we arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport, we rented vans. We set out on the freeway and headed to our first destination, Lancaster United Methodist Church in Lancaster, California. Years ago, I ministered to a group of Japanese people who had met there for worship and fellowship. It was the first in a series of accommodations I had arranged with American churches in the places we would visit. The churches all welcomed us with Christian love and hospitality.
In the car to Lancaster, the hikikomori people never spoke a word. They looked uneasy, being squeezed in the seats, sitting tightly next to each other. I hoped they would not develop claustrophobia. At home in Japan, I knew that they usually had their own space to themselves apart from their family, and confined themselves to their rooms. So, packed in the car, even an American-sized car, I was sure that they felt uncomfortable.
I hoped that someone would start a conversation, but to my dismay, none of them spoke a word. Not that day nor for a whole week! Later, a young man said that he didn’t know what to do in that situation so he kept his mouth shut.
And then came trouble.
To minimize costs for the trip, we cooked meals ourselves. A capable volunteer leader oversaw and managed the menu and meals for us. But she became ill and could no longer serve as cook and manager. This gave us the opportunity to talk about how we could prepare meals, and we came up with a plan. We decided to divide into several groups, each taking turns preparing breakfast and dinner. Of course, the new strategy did not let the hikikomori people off the hook.
The counselor that I mentioned earlier encouraged the hikikomori people to cook meals for the group. Not one of them had ever touched cookware before. Just peeling apples took tremendous effort on their part. Nonetheless, they joined in. After they prepared the meal, we thanked them for their hard work. They began to open up their hearts to others in the group. They began to talk to each other. They even introduced themselves.
A turning point came at a lookout point in Bryce Canyon National Park. Some of the hikikomori youth jumped out of the car, and ran up and down the hill. They wanted to experience the vast space and beauty of the national park. Actually, I could say that nature had brought back to them the youthfulness they had previously lost or forgotten. They awakened to their true selves, full of energy and hope.
When the trip started, the hikikomori people did not say, “arigato (thank you).” They had learned to disassociate themselves from any interaction with other people. However, toward the end of the trip, there was another incident. This time it was a heart-warming one. A hikikomori person had dropped a spoon, and when someone else picked it up, he said “arigato.” This was a new revelation, an important lesson in their lives. They served others by cooking meals for them and were appreciated for their labor and service. As a result, they were able to say “arigato” when kindness was shown to them.
For the rest of our trip, they became friends. Just as young people should, their voices were loud and filled with excitement for their new discoveries of themselves and of their new friends. They were now always together. At a shopping mall, they were joking with each other. No hood. No sunglasses. No “Hottoke Oreno Jinsei” t-shirt. They were transparent. When someone was late for the meeting time, the hikikomori people went to bring them back to the group. Actually, they were no longer hikikomori but responsible and self-confident young people.
After they came back to Japan, their lives were completely changed. One started to work part-time (he is still working today). One young man discovered what he wanted to do with his life; he began studying for a certificate and passed. Another started to cook meals for his friends. Yet another wants to travel around the world. The lives of the seven hikikomori people were completely transformed through the love of God shown to them in Christian fellowship.
We believe that Christian fellowship can transform the lives of hikikomori people. This is a great opportunity for the church to help in the lives of many affected people.
We want to take young people to the US for short trips. We aim to take 12 people for three months. In this way we could take 48 young people to the US per year. Some people told us that it’s not possible for hikikomori people to leave their homes and go to a foreign country. However, I believe they want to go to the US. If they walk around in their community, neighbors may become suspicious of them. However, no one in the US will treat them like this. They can feel free from the stress of human relationships.
In addition, Americans can impact the lives of these hikikomori people with their expressive love, like hugging, talking openly, and doing things together. In this way it will be easy for the hikikomori people to feel loved.