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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Window into Darkness

Mar. 21, 2017

It's estimated there are half a million people in Japan who are shutting themselves away at home, but a newspaper is trying to draw these recluses back into society.

They are known as “hikikomori," a combination of the Japanese words for withdraw, and shut-in. They avoid people outside their immediate family, and have difficulty coping with social demands and holding down a job.

The Hikikomori Newspaper, Japan's only paper written by and for shut-ins, is published once every two months. It launched last November and costs about 4 dollars.

Naohiro Kimura, the editor-in-chief, says he was a hikikomori. Whenever he encountered obstacles, such as failing an exam, he would withdraw from society. Such a reaction didn't help him, but he felt there was little else he could do.

“Whenever I cut relations with people, I got depressed, and my worries got that much worse. I can’t explain it well, but my life felt really empty,” Kimura says.

He founded the newspaper with help from supporters, and also writes for the paper.

"We wanted to convey the things people like us want to say, and help spread them," Kimura says. “The key to breaking the solitude of someone struggling as a hikikomori is to help them connect with others with the same experience.”

Kimura went looking for others who could share their experiences to help those who are struggling. One of the recruits was man we'll call Ikeida, who has been a hikikomori for over 30 years. He struggled with depression after graduating from college. Although he got a job, he found himself withdrawing from society, and is now living on welfare.

“A large part of the pain hikikomori feel is caused by criticism," Ikeida says. "Being told I shouldn’t be a certain way, that was hard to take.”

When Ikeida read the first issue, he decided to join the editorial team as a reporter. It gave him a reason to leave his apartment and meet other people.

“I can come here and share my thoughts, and it's comforting to know I'm not the only one," he says.

On one day recently, Ikeida had a special assignment. He was interviewing the novelist Shinya Tanaka, a winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Prize literary award. For 15 years after graduating from high school, Tanaka lived as a shut-in.

The interview was Ikeida’s idea. He knew Tanaka had managed to pull himself out of depression and isolation, and he thought the novelist could inspire others to act positively.

“You need to take a hard look at your solitary lifestyle," Tanaka says. "Then it's up to you to go out, and if you can begin communicating with the outside world, that's good.”

Ikeida came away from the interview inspired.

“I can still be of use. I’m so grateful to learn my skills still matter,” he says.

Working on the story became a further step for him to reconnect with society. Editor-in-chief Kimura hopes to attract more hikikomori like Ikeida to join the team.

"Publishing our experiences helps us see there’s value in them. The process of making the newspaper helps us acknowledge our own worth, and I think that can help lead to recovery," Kimura says.

There's a vicious cycle to being a shut-in. The more you shut yourself away, the harder it becomes to rejoin society. The Hikikomori Newspaper is an attempt to break that pattern, a window of light from outside.