Mental health has always been a touchy subject for myself. I’ve personally struggled with depression and self-harm in the past, and I’ve been very close to a lot of people that struggle(d) with it too. Even today I still have days where I feel like depression gets a hold of me, even though I consider myself the ‘happiest’ I’ve ever been. I think mental health is an issue that is often overlooked in today’s society, especially male mental health. More often than not, you get a reply to man up, when all you want to do is ‘man down’ and talk about your issues with someone.
In Japan, mental health is an issue even more often overlooked, especially for young people. The Japanese school system is one of extreme competitiveness, and this carries through from junior high all the way into university studies and even to work and business life (work-life balance is a whole other issue too). However, the media and controlling powers of Japan often put these issues aside ‘for the greater good of the country’. So I was very surprised when I noticed a new series pop up that openly talks about mental health as a real issue without downplaying the seriousness of it.
First of all, let me say I stumbled upon this series completely accidentally. The main actor in Hikikomori Sensei is Sato Jiro, an actor I have been following for a few years now. I know him mostly for his comedic roles, such as Hotoke-sama (the Buddha) in Yuusha Yoshihiko, Takechi Henpeita in the Gintama live-action movies, or the lead role in Dareka ga, mite iru, a slapstick comedy without ANY seriousness at all.
So when I first found the series, I thought “A hikikomori as a school teacher, now that’s just going to be funny and awkard situations galore.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. For those who don’t know, a hikikomori is someone who has totally withdrawn from society, seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement. This is a serious issue in Japan, yet this exact issue is often underestimated in Western society. I cannot lie, I’ve often considered myself as partly hikikomori, since I have no issues with staying indoors days at a time with minimal social contact. But hikikomori is way more serious than that. In the West, we could call it something like severe chronic depression. A huge issue in Japanese society that seems more often than not overlooked.
In recent years, mental health topics have however become slightly more acceptable to publicly discuss, both in the West and in Japan (which you could consider a Westernized Asian country, easily). Identity and selfcare issues have become more important, and the media should reflect that. This series handles it beautifully.
The main character, Uwashima Yohei (played by Sato), is a so-called ‘hikikomori survivor’, who had withdrawn himself for 11 years. He somehow ends up teaching at a school that’s looking for someone who can look after truant students in their aim for “zero truancy, zero bullying”, as the principal keeps stammering on about. He, the principal, seems deadset on there being NO bullying in his school, and wants to make sure every student comes to school and takes classes – so no truancy either. Yet, he is clearly in denial about anything related to his students’ life or wellfare, and only cares about results. He overlooks the mental status of his students all the time. Obviously, he takes the role of antagonist in this 5 episode short series. At the moment of writing this, I haven’t watched the final episode yet, but I can assure you, he is diligently staying the course in his disillusions.
Without spoiling too much of the series, since I clearly think it is a MUST WATCH, I can say that this feels like one of the first times in Japanese popular media both adult’s and student’s mental health is taken as a serious issue, and is openly discussed as one. I am writing this blog right after watching episode 4, with tears in my eyes, because what happened in the show – especially in this episode – hit so close to home it hurt. The children screaming “It is okay for you to stay there! You don’t have to come to school!” felt like a weight dropping from my own shoulders. You don’t always have to struggle to do what you think you have to do. You are allowed to take your time, do your thing at your own pace. And I think that is something that is often overlooked in our performance and pressure filled society, which is even more true in Japan.
For anyone who needed to hear it:
You matter to me.
Take your time.
You will get there at your own pace.
And, if you have read my ramblings up until this part, I hope you will give the series a chance. I don’t know if you can watch it subtitled online, but I shall provide you with a link where you can download the Japanese RAW episodes, and a link to the forum where you can download the subtitles from. Believe me, it is worth it!
Thanks for reading this post and keep on keeping on!
EDIT: a short update, but I just finished the series and I had to share my final thoughts. Spoiler warning for the next image!
I too was robbed of my graduation ceremony, from University in my case. In June 2020 I graduated from the bachelor of Japanese studies, after a mostly full semester of online classes, and to this day I feel like I was robbed of a formal chance to say goodbye to my teachers, my school and my classmates. At that point I wasn’t planning on doing a masters, but I doubt I’ll see a graduation ceremony for that one either, if I look at the recent numbers in Belgium…
Either way, thanks for checking in. I hope you’ll give the series a chance, and I hope I haven’t spoiled it too much!