The taxi from Osaka Itami airport sped the English family into a confusing new world. It was dusk, and the multicoloured neon lights of the city blurred as the people carrier threaded its way through six lanes of traffic. Signage, adverts, even road markings, in Japanese characters seemed to gabble incomprehensibly at them.
‘Look at that train up there!’ shouted Freya. The monorail was high on pillars above them. Beneath it ran a cat’s cradle of telephone wires. Nadine looked at the passing landscape of oblong houses and apartment blocks, at shopping malls decorated with bright cartoon characters, at painted metal and pastel concrete and red and yellow plastic, at neatly dressed people bustling along.
‘I hope we’ve done the right thing, buying the apartment over the Internet,’ she said to Gerald.
‘Paying rent’s a waste of money,’ he said. ‘And the apartment was a bargain. You said so yourself, you researched it all. You said it was a prime location.’
‘It was a lot cheaper than others in the same complex,’ said Nadine, ‘but maybe just because it’s three bedroom and the others are four. I’m not sure. It did seem good value.’
They checked into a hotel for the night. The children leafed through a brochure.
‘When can we go to Universal Studios?’ was all Freya wanted to know.
‘Soon,’ promised Nadine. ‘Won’t we darling?’
Gerald made a face. Theme parks were not his thing.
‘Can we go to the aquarium?’ asked Jacob.
‘It’s not a holiday,’ said Gerald. ‘We’re going to live here. I’m going to be at work, and you two need to concentrate on getting settled at the international school. It won’t be like England, you’ll be expected to work hard and get good results.’
They met the estate agent at their new apartment the following day. It was on the top floor of a ten story block. The foyer was panelled in rosewood and the lift, carpeted and lined with smoked glass mirrors, could have been in an expensive hotel. The agent bowed formally as she greeted them. They returned the gesture awkwardly. She opened their front door and they piled their bags in the entrance hall. Their furniture was already in place. The children wandered through the apartment opening doors.
‘It’s great,’ said Freya, climbing on her bed, and looking out at a distant view of skyscrapers.
‘What’s in here?’ Jacob was trying the handle of a locked door. There was a red sticker on the door with some Japanese writing, and an exclamation mark.
‘Water tank. No entry,’ said the agent. ‘Only for maintenance.’
Jacob moved on to his own room.
‘I like it here,’ he said, ‘it’s really smart and modern. My own ensuite bathroom! No more fighting with Freya!’
‘I’ve got one too!’ called out Freya.
Nadine smiled at Gerald.
‘They seem to be settling in,’ she said. Then she turned to the pile of crates in the living room.
‘Come on guys,’ she said.’ Time to unpack.’
They spent the day unpacking and Gerald ventured out to get some food from a nearby shop.
‘I’m glad the shop girl speaks a bit of English,’ he said, emptying a carrier bag of illegible packets on the kitchen worktop. ‘I think these are probably noodles. And these are definitely rice crackers, and this is some sort of cola.’
It took the children a long time to settle that night in the strange new apartment, with the streetlights penetrating through the curtains, and the time difference. Jacob kept getting up.
‘Try and get to sleep,’ Gerald told him. ‘You’ve only got the weekend, and school starts on Monday.’
‘But Dad, I don’t feel sleepy,’ said Jacob. ‘It’s only 1pm at home, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Gerald, ‘but this is home now.’
In the morning the rice crackers and cola had gone, although Jacob denied all knowledge.
A few nights later Nadine woke at 2am. She had, she thought, heard a door open. It was happening every night and she presumed the children were still having difficulty adjusting to the new time zone. There were footsteps in the corridor.
‘Did you hear that, Gerald?’
Gerald grunted in his sleep and rolled over on his side.
‘Jacob?’ Nadine called out, but not too loudly, as she didn’t want to wake everyone. Gerald had emphasised that he needed his sleep, as he had an important presentation to give in the morning.
There was no reply, but she could definitely hear the fridge door, and the hiss of a fizzy drinks bottle being opened.
‘I’m fed up with the children robbing the fridge in the middle of the night,’ she said to Gerald, who did not respond. ‘I know they’ve got jet lag, but they’re just going to have to get themselves into a better sleep pattern.’
She heard the rustle of a biscuit packet.
‘And it’s bad for their teeth,’ she said, getting up and pulling on her dressing gown.
The light was on in the kitchen, its sliding door partially open, but all of the bedroom doors were closed. Expecting to see Jacob in his pyjamas, Nadine stuck her head into the kitchen.
To her horror, she saw a young Japanese man in a t-shirt and shorts, his bare feet on her kitchen floor, swigging from a bottle of cola. She let out a scream, and as he turned his head towards her, his eyebrows shot up and he began to choke on the drink, fizzy liquid running over his chin. He put the bottle down and cried out in alarm.
‘あなた誰？私の母はどこですか？’ he said, wiping cola from his face with the back of his hand. He was slightly built, and had black spiky hair that stood up in a great shock from his head.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing in my kitchen?’ demanded Nadine. He looked at her blankly.
‘私はここに住んで！それは私の家族のアパートです。あなたはここで何をしているの？’ he said. He obviously couldn’t speak any English.
‘Look, I’m going to call the police if you don’t get out of here!’ said Nadine. Her phone was charging on the worktop in the kitchen, and she couldn’t get to it without going past the intruder. ‘Gerald! Gerald!’ she shouted back towards the bedroom, hoping he would wake up.
The young man launched into a torrent of Japanese, from which she caught only the words ‘Call of Duty’. There had been no response from Gerald, and, before she could do anything, the intruder had pushed past her and out of the kitchen, taking the cola and the biscuits with him. She saw him open the water tank door, then he slammed it behind him, and she heard it lock. She had had a brief glimpse of a dark room lit only by a TV screen.
The policeman was very polite, and extremely slow and methodical. Gerald sat blearily in his dressing gown, doubtless worrying about his presentation, while Nadine gave a statement and a description of the intruder. The police officer had difficulty understanding Nadine’s English, so this took a long time. Eventually he went to the door of the ‘water tank’ and rapped on it, shouting something in Japanese. There was a noise from inside and the door opened a couple of inches. The young man’s profile appeared, and he spoke to the policeman briefly before closing and locking the door. The officer turned to Nadine.
‘His name Hiromi Takamura. He a hikikomori,’ he said. ‘He say he live here. He don’t know who you are.’
‘We’ve just bought the apartment from the Takamuras!’ protested Nadine. ‘We have the documents to prove it!’ She looked at Gerald for support.
‘What’s a hikikomori?’ asked Gerald.
‘Hikikomori is Japanese mental health problem,’ said the policeman. ‘Young man finish university, not get job. Very ashamed. Live in bedroom and not talk with family. Only talk on Internet.’
‘Why is he living here?’ said Nadine.
‘His parents must have sold the apartment with him in it,’ said Gerald. ‘Does he know they’ve gone?’
‘He don’t know where his parents gone,’ said the policeman. ‘He not realise you here. He sleep in daytime, so, not noticing movement.’
‘No wonder the apartment was a bargain,’ breathed Nadine.
After numerous meetings with the lawyers, it was several weeks before Mr and Mrs Takamura, who had retired to Hokkaido, returned to the apartment. Nadine had started to leave food out overnight for the hikikomori. Finally, she returned from the school run one morning to find that the Takamuras had parked a hired van in the street, obviously with the intention of moving Hiromi out. Mr Takamura spoke a little English.
‘Very difficult to move him,’ he said. ‘So, apartment cheap.’ It was all they were getting by way of apology, thought Nadine. She offered them green tea, which they accepted with a smile.
Mr Takamura rapped on Hiromi’s door, calling out in Japanese. There was silence. He turned to Nadine.
‘Sleep in daytime,’ he said, frowning.
‘I know,’ said Nadine.
Mr Takamura knocked harder. Still silence. He knocked again, letting out a tirade of Japanese. Still there was no reply. He put his shoulder to the door.
‘Try to break door?’ he looked at Nadine, raising his eyebrows.
‘Oh no!’ she said, ‘think of the damage! And you’ll frighten him. I’ll try.’
Nadine took a deep breath.
‘Hiromi!’ she shouted. “Hiromi!’ There was a quiet groan from inside, which was answered in stentorian tones by Mr Takamura. How dictatorial Japanese sounds, thought Nadine.
Mr Takamura began to knock again, and the voice inside responded. Eventually the door was unlocked, and then Hiromi’s shock of black hair appeared. He gave a start on recognising his parents, and Mrs Takamura pushed forward and embraced her son, who stood awkwardly in her arms, his eyes screwed up against the daylight. A vigorous debate began between the three of them, and Nadine peered into the darkened room that lay behind the door. Light seeped around the edges of the blackout blind, and she could make out a desk with a computer, a bed, and a huge TV screen surrounded by games consoles. There was a strong smell in the room, and the floor was strewn with rubbish. She switched on the light and saw dirty clothes, biscuit packets, unfinished meals, half empty drink bottles, coils of electrical cabling, bits of paper. Everything was covered in thick grey dust. It was going to be a nightmare to move him out.
In the corridor, Hiromi had started screaming, and had slid down on to his knees, embracing his mother’s legs, weeping and begging. Nadine could not make out what he was saying, although he repeated the words ‘FIFA Soccer’ a number of times. His parents argued with him relentlessly for twenty minutes, but he merely shook his head and wailed.
Eventually a silence descended. Hiromi had let go of his mother and was now clinging to the door jamb of his room. Nadine looked helplessly at the three of them. The grey-haired parents did not look capable of manhandling their son to the van. Then there was the problem of sorting his room out. She gestured vaguely with her hands, and they turned to look at her.
‘Let him stay,’ she said, heaving a sigh.
Gerald, bogged down in the corporate accounts, was surprisingly indifferent to the problem.
‘It’s up to you, darling,’ he said. ‘If you think you can handle it.’
‘It’s just a matter of leaving him some food out,’ Nadine said. ‘No worse than maintaining a bird feeder really. It’s not like he’s going to bother us.’
Jacob and Freya were similarly uninterested in the hikikomori.
‘So he stays in his room all the time?’ said Jacob. ‘What’s the problem with that? Anyway, I’ve got to start my homework.’ He disappeared into his bedroom and shut the door.
PS – July 2015: A friend sent me a link to an article in the Daily Mail about Hikikomori.
It made me feel guilty about mocking this condition, although many a parent of a teenage or early 20’s youth might recognise some of the characteristics in their own offspring…
It was good to read that there is now help available.