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In South Korea, Some Parents Are Choosing to Isolate Themselves in Cells. There’s a Word for It: ‘Hikikomori’

The Asian country is facing a significant issue with young people who voluntarily isolate themselves and completely disconnect from the outside world.

Korea
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Jin Young-hae is a made-up name, but her story is real. The South Korean mother, who chose to remain anonymous, recently shared her experience with the BBC. She explained why she willingly put on a blue jumpsuit and spent many hours in a small, bare cell, not much larger than a closet. She had no company, cellphone, or laptop–just her thoughts. The only connection to the outside world was a small open hole in the door through which food was delivered to her occasionally.

This may sound weird, but there’s a word to describe it: hikikomori.

Goal: to isolate from the world. Jin’s choice may seem unusual, but she’s not the only one in South Korea to have made this decision. The BBC has interviewed other men and women who have volunteered for this and have asked to remain anonymous.

They all share two key characteristics: First, they’re parents of young people in their teens and 30s. Second, they’ve chosen to take part in a special program that involves being in solitary confinement for a short period of time. Literally. Jin and the other participants are placed in small rooms where they’re not even allowed to have cellphones.

But... why? To understand. Jin and Park Han-sil, another pseudonym used by the BBC to recount a real case, are mothers of young South Koreans who have decided to isolate themselves from the world. Jin is the mother of a 24-year-old young man who lives withdrawn in his room, neglecting his grooming and nutrition. Park has a slightly older son, 26, who decided to cut off all communication with society seven years ago. He now barely leaves his room and refuses to take the medication prescribed by his doctors.

By voluntarily confining themselves, Jin and Park are trying to understand their children better, putting themselves in their shoes in an extreme way, and, above all, aiming to find tools to better communicate with them. “I've been wondering what I did wrong... It’s painful to think about,” Jin, 50, told the BBC. After her time in the cell, she claims to have “gained some clarity.” Park also acknowledges that solitary confinement has helped her understand her son's feelings: “I’ve realized that it’s important to accept my child’s life without forcing him into a specific mold.”

A “confinement experience.” Park and Jin didn’t just decide to confine themselves at home all of a sudden. After careful planning, they went to the so-called Happiness Factory, where people go to experience “confinement” first hand.

While on the premises, they wear uniforms, leave their phones and laptops behind, and are confined in bare-walled cells—completely alone. As the BBC notes, since April, many other parents have participated in this 13-week special parental education program, funded by organizations such as the Korea Youth Foundation and the Blue Whale Recovery Center

The program’s clear yet complex goal is to teach parents how to improve communication with their children. As part of the program, participants spend three days in rooms in Gangwon Province that replicate a solitary confinement cell.

The key word: hikikomori. Jin and Park are mothers of hikikomori, a term coined in Japan decades ago that identifies young people who, at a certain point in their lives, decide to seclude themselves almost completely, cutting off contact with the world beyond their homes or rooms.

The phenomenon isn’t new, but it’s serious, at least according to the estimates of the South Korean authorities. Not long ago, the country’s Ministry of Health and Welfare surveyed 15,000 young people between the ages of 19 and 34 and found that more than 5% were living in isolation. If these figures were translated to South Korea as a whole, they would show that the nation has hundreds of thousands of people in a similar situation, or just over half a million (540,000).

Understanding isolation. Park believes that the program gives the parents of these young people a better understanding of the reasons for their confinement. In her case, for example, reading notes written by other hikikomori helped her understand her own son’s silence. The South Korean government also provides courses that help the public to get a clear picture of the phenomenon of isolation among young people without having to go through an experience like the one at the Happiness Factory.

A study by the South Korean Ministry of Health shows that 24.1% of young people between 19 and 34 years of age who decide to disconnect from the world do so because of difficulties in finding a job, 23.5% because of problems with socializing, and 24.8% because of family or health issues. The backdrop is the competitive South Korean society, where parents take their children to academies from a very young age so that they can eventually enter the country’s most prestigious universities. South Korea is also known for its marathon working hours.

Concern beyond the home. The issue of hikikomori is a cause for concern beyond just families. In 2023, the government launched a campaign to encourage lonely young people to reintegrate into society. They even offered allowances of 650,000 Korean won (almost $500) for young people up to the age of 24. Reports suggested that there were hundreds of thousands of people living in isolation in the country at that time.

The benefits of taking a break. Hikikomori mothers and fathers aren’t the only ones in South Korea who seek voluntary isolation. Some in the country also decide to confine themselves at their own choice, often paying a lot of money in exchange for the experience, simply to take a break from their busy routines.

In 2018, the CBC reported the case of Suk-won Kang, a 57-year-old engineer from Seoul who paid 500,000 Korean won (about $360) to spend seven days at Prison Inside Me, a center in Hongcheon, a city north of South Korea. During his peculiar vacation, Kang dressed in uniform and stayed in a 54-square-foot cell in solitary confinement. He wasn’t entirely alone, though, because the facility housed 13 other guests.

Image | Grant Durr | Daniel Bernard

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