"They have mastered the space and their emotion": Maika Elan on Photographing Reclusive Japanese "Hikikomori"
"It contributes to a natural flow that helps society become more balanced when there are people who dare ignore all the rules and instead live up to their personal preferences."
By Cailin Loesch
After a few years of working as a fashion and editorial photographer in Vietnam, Maika Elan turned to documentary photography in 2010, thereby beginning a new venture that would result in some of her most celebrated work. Perhaps best known for her award-winning series The Pink Choice, a look at the personal lives of gay couples in Vietnam, Elan is continuing to break new ground with her compelling photo stories which seek a deeper understanding of humanity. Last month, her recent project, an intriguing photographic profile on the Japanese recluses known as "hikikomori", was featured on NationalGeographic.com. I spoke with Elan about how she was able to get close to the hikikomori who shut themselves out of all or most human contact, why she feels they opt to spend their lives hidden away in their rooms, what she has learned from their unique way of living, and her plans to next profile the "rental brothers and sisters" who have been able to successfully reintroduce the hikikomori into society.
Cailin Loesch: I read in your profile on National Geographic that rental sisters, like New Start’s Oguri Ayako, sometimes must speak with recluses for months through letters, then phone calls, then from the other side of their bedroom door before they finally agree to let her in. I know that it sometimes took five or six visits with a hikikomori before he or she allowed you to photograph them. What did you do during those first visits? How did you earn their trust?
Maika Elan: At first, after I was introduced to them by Oguri, I had to send my CV to families with hikikomori children for them to agree to let me follow them to their home. At the first meeting, I could not enter the house and had to stand out at the door, or find a seat or cafe, and wait for Oguri—usually two hours. The next two or three meetings I was able to get in and sit in the living room while Oguri and the hikikomori talked in the room. Usually after 3 or 4 sessions, I was allowed to go to hikikomori’s private room with Oguri, and after 5 or 6 meetings I was allowed to take pictures. So, during six months in Japan, on dozens of different visits in Tokyo and Chiba, I followed Oguri to find and photograph her clients who also are my hikikomori characters. Some of the hikikomori can speak a bit of English but not well—even the rental sister—so we have to use Google translate a lot!
CL: I know that making subjects feel comfortable is something that is important for every photographer to do, but I imagine that it’s especially important in a situation like this, where you are working with people who base their lives around being private and without a connection to other people. Do you have a specific method of helping the hikikomoris to feel at ease?
ME: I think the fact that I am a woman makes them feel more comfortable. Furthermore, I am an foreigner so they will tend to help me more. Going and shooting anyone, anything, I also have only two things: sincerity and patience. Sincerity to the character—that is the prerequisite. When I met any person, I also said very clearly the purpose of me taking pictures, and if they agreed, where they would be used. And what is more, this is just a project I work on by myself. I bear all the responsibility. I never enhance my perspective or embellish flashy prospects for my work. To understand the character, you must first give them the opportunity to understand what they are involved in—for they are sometimes the only ones who have to deal with a lot of things, not you.
CL: Did you have conversations with them about their feelings toward being photographed and having their stories shared publicly? How did they feel about the idea of details of their lives being shared?
ME: In fact, almost the hikikomori are not too interested because they are not ready to return to the community yet, so it is not important to them if the society recognizes them or not. They agreed to let me take pictures because they wanted to help me more than to show something. They simply want to feel themselves useful, at least to me.
CL: You’ve admitted that before you spent the time that you did getting to know the hikikomoris, you thought of them as being “selfish and lazy.” What changed your mind? Do you remember a specific moment or conversation?
ME: I did not have a specific moment, it is a feeling I got from the whole process. When I came in contact with them, I found that they were at home but they still kept track of what was happening outside, and they kept learning new things and researching their interests. Some of the hikikomori I meet even talk a lot and are very curious; they constantly ask about my country and ask me to tell stories for them. There is a very young hikikomori who even knew a Vietnamese song and sang it to me. Some call them lazy, but in reality they are paralyzed because of too much social fear, and become stuck there and cannot escape. They know that it is a negative behavior, but locking themselves in their rooms makes them feel "safe,” and they do not want to change. Parents also know that their status in society will be affected if they disclose their children’s lifestyle, so they often expect them to return to normal for months or years before seeking help. Most parents feel that hikikomori is a failure of their child-rearing. And consulting someone about it is getting rid of your responsibility as a parent; it's like getting rid of your child.
CL: As a photographer, what do you focus on when profiling these recluses? How do you use your camera to capture their isolation and feelings of inadequacy?
ME: The implementation of the Hikikomori photo project only came about when I came to Japan and lived there for 6 months as a resident artist of the Japan Foundation Asia Center (03/2016 - 09/2016). However, it is also related to my previous work that I did while still in Vietnam. If you look at my portfolio (www.maikaelan.com), most of my previous photo stories involved shooting people and their personal choices. I am always fascinated and curious about the relationships between people (as in The Pink Choice), how people face sickness (like in Like My Father), and the relationship between people and animals (as in Aint Talkin 'Just Lovin'). The hikikomori is a completely different choice of connection—the choice to have no connection at all, to lock away in your room and cut off all contact with friends, family, society ... In a interesting way, it's a relationship of no relation at all. Also, as a person who came to Japan for the first time, I wanted to work on issues that are only in Japan, problems that have arisen from the very old and unique cultural characteristics of Japan. Hikikomori is the perfect choice for this aspiration. It is estimated that more than 1 million Japanese people have hikikomori syndrome (about 1% of the population)— more than anywhere else in the world. I think that when I shoot hikikomori in their room, where they feel the safest, they feel like they have mastered the space and their emotion already, so my job is simply to capture what I see.
CL: I read that you plan to continue this project by next moving your focus to the rental brothers and sisters. What would you like people to learn about them through your photography?
ME: What I care to show for this project is not the hikikomori's life, but the relationship between the hikikomori and rental sister or rental brother. To me this relationship is very important, because even after years of helplessness, when family and friends and the hikikomori himself cannot pull himself out of his room, somehow, the rental sister or rental brother does. They have a great power. My wish is to take Oguri, a rental sister, as my main character. She has a special job, going to meet the hikikomori daily. She is the one who will tell this story, not me.
CL: What has your experience with the hikikomoris taught you? Has hearing their stories or seeing how they live changed you in any way?
ME: I learned that Japanese society is very diverse, and they respect each person’s individual choice. Japan has so many people who only work and dedicate themselves to corporations and businesses, but they are not sure that they are happy. It seems at first that hikikomori is a problem, as it happens mostly to young people, causing Japan to lose a large part of their workforce. But on the other hand, it contributes to a natural flow that helps society become more balanced when there are people who dare ignore all the rules and instead live up to their personal preferences.