Some women who shared their stories on an NHK platform say they have lost confidence after struggling with discrimination and unrealistic expectations.
"I sometimes think about taking a walk in the morning, but then my muscles become stiff. I cannot get my body to go out," says Michi, 45, who prefers to go by a pseudonym. She lives in Tokyo with her husband.
Michi used to work part-time at a real estate agency but she lost her job when the coronavirus pandemic caused an industry downturn. She has been unable to find new work.
At one job interview, she was asked if her mother was well and needed any care. "People assume it's a woman's job to take care of children and the elderly," she says. "It's as if a woman cannot even get a job unless she proves she has no one to look after."
Michi says the rejections made her feel unneeded. She lost the spirit to talk to people and fell into a downward spiral for which she blamed herself.
She felt conscious that she was doing none of what most women her age were doing: housekeeping, working and raising children. "People simply think I'm spoiled and entirely dependent," says Michi. "I want to talk to people but I'm at a loss what to say."
Almost 1.5 million social recluses
Japan's Cabinet Office conducted a nationwide survey last November to determine the extent of social reclusion. Among 13,769 respondents, more than 2 percent of people between the ages of 15 and 64 reported they rarely leave home.
One in five of the recluses cited the coronavirus pandemic as a reason.
The survey concluded there are an estimated 1.46 million people in Japan who have withdrawn from society, about 40 percent of them women.
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Hard to speak out
Women who are struggling to find their place in society shared their experiences in the comment sections of online NHK stories about the problem. Many of the 1,000 posts mentioned how difficult it was to speak out about the challenges they face.
One woman in her 50s wrote she supported her family with housework and nursing care, but was unable to find paid employment as no one wanted to hire a middle-aged woman. She was repeatedly rejected.
Another aged in her 40s wrote that she had quit a demanding job to try and have children. That didn't work out and she now felt distant from her friends.
Journalist Ikegami Masaki, who has covered the issue for more than two decades, says female recluses face different kinds of pressures than men.
"They want to pursue their aspirations and dreams, but they have housework and have to raise children. They likely refrained from making their voices heard even though they found life intolerable," he notes.
A safe place to share worries
Efforts are underway to help women gain the confidence they need to connect with others.
A support group holds a monthly meeting in Tokyo for women who have withdrawn from society. Participants share their stories in a safe, accepting environment.
NHK was invited to hear some of them speak. One woman said all her peers had married, had children and built a home. "I can't tell them I'm having a hard time because I can't do what they've done," she explained.
Another participant said she blamed herself for failing to achieve any of the goals that women were expected to aspire to, so she shut herself away at home.
Ikegami says female recluses need to be able to find help in a comfortable place outside their homes. He notes they need time to adapt and be free from the gender stereotypes that have led to so many struggles.
One step at a time, people can find happiness, says Ikegami. He believes if recluses can find a way to talk with others in a trusting relationship, they can reconnect.