According to a recent government survey, in Japan, more than 1.5 million people are living a reclusive life, confined largely within the walls and doors of their homes.
The Japanese government defines hikikomori as those who have been shut in for at least 6 months. Some go out only to shop or do occasional activities. Others don't leave their rooms.
According to a survey done by the Children and Families Agency in November last year, Covid-19 made matters worse.
In the nationwide survey, it was found that out of 12,249 respondents aged between 15 and 64, approximately 2% identified themselves as hikikomori. This percentage increased slightly among those aged between 15 and 39. If this percentage is applied to the total population of Japan, then there are approximately 1.46 million social recluses, according to an agency spokesperson.
Covid-19 was cited as the top reason for social isolation. More than a fifth said that it played a major role in their secluded lifestyle.
There were no further details provided about the impact Covid-19 had on respondents.
Japan, along with many other countries in East Asia maintained strict pandemic restrictions until 2022, even as others embraced "living with Covid." The country only opened its borders for overseas visitors in October last year, two years after the outbreak began.
The toll of recent years is still being felt.
A separate paper, published in February by Japan's National Diet Library, stated that 'Due Covid-19, the opportunities for contact with others have decreased'.
The report also said that the pandemic may have worsened social problems such as loneliness, financial hardship and isolation, pointing out an increase in suicides and reports of child and domestic abuse.
Experts told CNN previously that hikikomori can be attributed to psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, but societal factors such as Japan's patriarchal culture and its demanding work environment also play a part.
Japan's ageing population
Hikikomori was around before the pandemic and tied to Japan's second looming issue: its population problem.
Since the economic boom in the 1980s, Japan's population is in decline. The fertility rate and the number of births each year have fallen to record lows for several years.
The elderly population continues to grow as more people retire and leave the workforce, causing problems for an economy that is already stagnant. The situation is so bad that the prime minister said this year the country was "on the verge of not being able maintain social functions."
Families with hikikomori family members face a double problem, which has been dubbed '8050'. This refers to social recluses, in their 50s, who depend on their parents, in their 80s.
Other factors have been cited by authorities, such as the rise in single adults, as dating and marriage are less popular, and the weakening of real-life relationships as people shift their communities to the internet.
In 2018, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan established a regional support group for hikikomori to assist those affected by this phenomenon.
Takumi Némoto, the then-head minister, said in 2019: 'We think it's important to restore links with society, while also providing detailed support to those who have been withdrawn, by attending to their personal situations.
He said that both local and national authorities have launched a variety of services, including consultations and home visits for those affected by Hikikomori, housing assistance for older and middle-aged people, and community outreach for "households who find it difficult to report an SOS themselves."
These efforts were overshadowed by the challenges of the pandemic. The government decided to conduct nationwide surveys on loneliness in 2021 and release a more comprehensive plan of countermeasures for December 2022.
Some of the measures include promoting public awareness campaigns and suicide prevention through social media, assigning more social workers and school counselors, and maintaining a 24/7 telephone consultation service for people with "weak social ties."
Programs are available for single-parent families, including meal plans, housing loans and services to help those who are going through a divorce.
The government's plan stated that the pandemic could have brought to light long-standing problems which are often overlooked.
It said that 'as the number single-person homes and single-person elderly households are expected to grow in the future, the problem of isolation and loneliness will only become worse'.
"Therefore, even though the spread of Covid-19 can be controlled in the future, the government will need to deal with loneliness and isolation that are inherent in Japanese culture."