Hikikomori and the Call for Ministers to Japan

We all need time in which to be alone. But this has been taken to extreme proportions with boys and young men in Japan. Have you heard about Hikikomori, which means withdrawn?

We all understand how a child might want to be alone after receiving a bad report card or not making the final cut for the basketball team. It is hard to understand how a boy who was bullied, or a youth who felt too much pressure to get into just the right university, or a young man who failed to achieve the right grades would just check out and withdraw into his room for a year. But Maggie Jones reported in her New York Times article[1], that total withdraw is going on for thirteen years or even longer with epidemic numbers of young men in Japan.

I learned about hikikomori from the Presbyterian Church in America’s Mission to the World missionary, Miss Judith Newland. She has served in Chiba, Japan on the northeastern shore of Tokyo Bay for over a decade. She told me,

“This is the latest trend that reveals the extraordinary pressures of modern life in Japan.”

As I listened to her speak at a World Missions Conference in Charleston, West Virginia, where I was the keynote preacher, I heard the story of hikikomori and was amazed (if not honestly frightened that this new strain of social disease could be the next pandemic to hit the West).

I realized that withdrawing into a room to escape the pressures of life didn’t sound like a bad idea for a preacher sometimes overworked and under-studied and under-prayed! But my momentary light-hearted, sarcastic internal response to a most serious situation almost instantly morphed into an awareness that this was no monastic journey into time with God. It was a withdrawal from any thought of life or God or eternity or anything but playing games and letting mom put your food tray at the door, knock and go away. How incredibly sad.

But of course, with hikikomori one does avoid hearing the news of a crazed Islamic terrorist in an Army uniform killing soldiers at Fort Hood. One does not hear about the times in which we live in, where an Iranian madman can call for the annihilation of Israel, dreams of a post America planet, and still be treated with the same diplomatic courtesies that are extended to Great Britain. One misses the earthquakes that kill thousands of men, women and children. One escapes the pain of seeing reports of the catastrophic floods washing out entire homes, and photographs of families floating in a muddy river. One misses the heartbreaking moment when a friend loses his wife to cancer. In short you miss the day-in and day-out pain that comes from living in a 24-hour news cycle world. But then again one misses a child’s first birthday or ninetieth birthday. One misses the weddings of family and friends. One escapes the hormonal highs and lows of relationships, and making friends, and learning to forgive and be forgiven by living in community (with hikikomori, the youth, almost always a boy, actually drops out of high school or college altogether).

The young man misses the experience of slipping his arm around a girl in a movie theatre and then taking it back when she makes the slightest move (did she move because of your arm or did she move because of something in the movie which you have not been watching since you got there?). All right, maybe I am Americanizing that one. But you get the point. It is for sure that if you stay locked up, you will miss the pain. But you will also miss the frosty first air of winter that blew past the last red leaf on the Sugar Maple tree, or waking up to the singing birds as spring arrives and the cherry trees explode into every shade of pink. In short, you miss life. You miss what it means to be human. Psychiatrists in Japan say that even the slightest time in hikikomori can produce life-long negative effects.[2]

I listened to the missionary tell us more:

“This is the 150th anniversary of the arrival of missionaries and the founding of the Protestant church in Japan. Yet Christianity represents only one-fourth of 1% of the Japanese people.”

Judith spoke of the anniversary and announced the statistics in an undaunted way, knowing that in Japan it takes a long time to see Gospel results. She spoke in personal terms as she told the story of one woman who came to a women’s Bible study for ten years, and yet did not confess Jesus as Lord. This Japanese wife from an upper income family continued in the Bible study for 12 years. No conversion. She went for 15 years. No faith. Then, at year 16, she professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and was gloriously converted. The story, Judith told us, points not only to how the Spirit is moving in Japan, but also to the consequential fact the Lord is calling missionaries to commit their entire careers to the people of Japan. God is on the move in Japan; but on His terms and in His time, not ours.

The other thing that the story reveals, Judith told us, is that the Church in Japan is overwhelmingly female. There is little male leadership. She went on, “As in Japanese society itself, there is a crying need for men to be leaders.”

I wondered if this hikikomori has captured the hearts of the men in Japan who don’t stay in their rooms. The men of Japan are not all locked in their rooms, of course, but their hikikomori is a disease of the soul in which they are locked-in to their careers, locked-in to a religion, Shintoism or Buddhism, that will not let them come out and lead their families. There is a spirit of passivism in the men of Japan that is keeping them withdrawn from male leadership, which the women themselves crave.

When a man was converted some time ago, and recently ordained as an elder in one of the churches where Judith is ministering, it was, of course, cause for a tremendous ceremony of thanksgiving and praise. In a real way, this man’s conversion and ordination, over slow but persistent teaching, represented hope for the nation. She told me how the men of Japan respond best to other men. And so Judith told me that what is needed most right now are ordained men of God who will give their lives to Japan. In fact, this mild-mannered lady from Kingsport, Tennessee, who has given her years, her very life to the Japanese people, looked me in the eye and charged me,

“Please, tell the men at your seminary that there is a calling to Japan. Please send us theologically trained, gifted, God-called ordained ministers of the Gospel to Japan.”

I could not speak. My heart was full of conviction. I felt that a Macedonian—a Japanese—call was now in my hands to deliver to others. And that is when I began to read, to study, to inquire as to how missions in Japan came to be; and to wonder how to coax the Japanese out of their spiritual Hikikomori.

Dr James Curtis Hepburn[3], a medical missionary of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, arrived in Japan in 1859, just a few months after the coming of the first Protestant missionary, The Rev. C.M. Williams of the American Protestant Episcopal Church.[4] But many more Presbyterian missionaries would leave America’s safe shores, and the theologically fertile, God-glorifying living room of Charles and Sarah Hodge to travel to unreached Japan. Indeed, the role of seminaries and missions to Japan is integral and specifically to Presbyterian missions. The Rev. Charles Hodge, perhaps the greatest theologian America has ever produced, promoted a vision for missions as he taught at Princeton Seminary. His commitment to cross-cultural missions to unreached and under-reached peoples came one evening as he listened to the testimony of a missionary from India:

I never felt the importance and grandeur of missionary labors as I did last evening. I could not help looking around on the congregation and asking myself, “What are these people living for?” Granting that each should attain his most elevated object, what would it all amount to? Then looking at these men in India, giving the Bible to so many millions, which I know can never be in vain, I see them opening a perennial fountain, which, when they are dead for ages, will still afford eternal life to millions.[5]

I felt like Hodge at this missions conference. I heard very clearly of the need for ministers in Japan, who would give their lives to the cause of Christ on this 150th anniversary of the coming of Protestants missionaries to the Land of the Sun, where emperor worship continues, where pressures of modernity have forced young men to retreat into isolation, where women cry out for godly husbands and leaders for their nation, and I have been challenged by one of our own missionaries to “send ordained ministers now!”

I must turn to Reformed Theological Seminary and, indeed, to our sister seminaries and say, Listen to the call of the Lord coming to you now from Japan! Do not commit a Christian Hikikomori! Do not retreat into the safety of a suburban call if the call of this Mission to the World woman has become now the “Hound of Heaven” that is tracking you down! Come out! Come out! Come out of the Hodge-like living room at your seminary, never meant to be comfortable, but always meant to be convicting, and leave these shores and give your life away to a people withdrawn from God! Then, you call them out with the voice of the One who called you out. You speak the words of eternal life that drew your soul out of the tombs of hikikomori in your life. You go and you take what you have been given: the Bible, the history, the pastoral theology, the systematic theology, the counseling, and the experiences. And come, tenderly, mother-like, Christ-like, and place the food of Jesus, the nourishing, life-giving, shackle-snapping, freedom-giving food of the Gospel at the door of these people in hiding. No man can stay locked up forever when Christ speaks peace to His soul. And Japan cannot stay in hikikomori forever. These are God’s people. They must be reached.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (John 3:8).

Is it not time to pray that His Spirit will wish to blow across Tokyo Bay and through the vast metropolitan areas of that great nation, and the great agrarian regions, where so many souls are locked away in spiritual deadness?

As the East erupts in genuine revival in so many places, we must not forget them. And we must not forget our own. For this is a place where our missionaries labor for long years, amidst incredible wealth, cutting-edge technology, and yet unimaginable pressures, and demonic strongholds of ancient pagan religions. Yet this is a place where our missionaries look up, as it were, to Mt. Fuji, and believe in the God who did not stay withdrawn from sinful man, in the majestic throne room of heaven, but who came in the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. And there are those who therefore believe that this One stands and looks over this land with love. From the Scriptures and from Japan’s highest peak, they still hear these sacred words in the deepest parts of their souls:

When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” ( Matthew 9:36-37 ESV).

Judith, thank you for moving my heart to pray for Japan. And I promise you: I will tell them. I will ask our young men to give their lives away, for the sake of the Gospel; that there will be Hikikomori no more.


(1867-1947), Robert Elliott Speer. Presbyterian Foreign Missions: An Account of the Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publications and Sabbath-School Work, 1901.

Calhoun, David B. Princeton Seminary. 2 vols. Edinburgh ; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994.

“Dr. James Curtis Hepburn (March 13, 1815-June 11, 1911) and Clara Hepburn (July 25, 1818-March 6, 1906).” In Presbyterian Heritage Center. Montreat, NC.

Jones, Maggie. “Shutting Themselves In.” In The New York Times. New York, NY: NYTimes.com, January 15, 2006.

[1] Maggie Jones, “Shutting Themselves In,” in The New York Times (New York, NY: NYTimes.com, January 15, 2006).


[2] Ibid.

[3] “Dr. James Curtis Hepburn (March 13, 1815-June 11, 1911) and Clara Hepburn (July 25, 1818-March 6, 1906),” in Presbyterian Heritage Center (Montreat, NC).

[4] Robert Elliott Speer (1867-1947), Presbyterian Foreign Missions: An Account of the Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publications and Sabbath-School Work, 1901).

[5] David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 2 vols., Volume 1: Faith and Learning (Edinburgh ; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 140.

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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