HONG KONG — “She just took the razor and then she started cutting in front of me.”
That was how the photographer Kosuke Okahara began a six-year connection with several young Japanese women who regularly harmed themselves through cutting, making thin, repetitive slashes on their wrists, forearms and thighs.
The theme of his photographs, assembled in a compelling new video presentation by the Asia Society, is called Ibasyo, which Mr. Okahara says means inner peace or “a place where one can feel.” His poignant pictures are all the more remarkable for their rare penetration of Japan’s famously closed-off society and what he calls “our culture of shame.”
“The story’s not only about cutting, but more like a feeling of how they live,” he tells the executive producer of the piece, Shreeya Sinha, now a Web producer at The New York Times. “Sometimes loneliness they face. Sometimes anxiety they face.”
Mr. Okahara, 31, says he had heard about cutting as a social phenomenon. But he didn’t know why the young women would do it.
“I could assume, OK, depression, but why depressed?” he said. “What I encountered was a story inside a family. Like violence. Also rape. I knew there was rape in the society and many women shut their mouths because they don’t want to talk.”
One of the young women, Sayuri, said she had been raped by a relative. “I don’t feel like I’m worthy of anything since then,” she told Mr. Okahara.
Statistics on cutting and self-injury are rarely collected or reported in Japan, and the behaviors are almost certainly underreported, experts say. But a survey in 2008 asked nearly 3,000 students this question: “Have you ever injured yourself deliberately with a knife or other sharp material?” The survey, published in the journal Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, found that 12.1 percent of girls reported at least one experience of self-harming. (For boys it was 7.5 percent.)
In the United States and Canada, studies of high school students “consistently show a 13- to 24-percent prevalence rate,” according to a useful fact sheet from Cornell University’s Research Program on Self-Injurious Behavior. A survey in Britain in 2004 found that about 10 percent of young people between 11 and 25 had self-injured.
Also from the Cornell information:
Many individuals who practice it report overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or emotional numbness as common emotional triggers. Self-injury, they report, provides a way to manage intolerable feelings or a way to experience some sense of feeling. It is also used as means of coping with anxiety or other negative feelings and to relieve stress or pressure.
As he photographed the young women in Japan, Mr. Okahara gradually became friends with them. “Part of my life,” is how he puts it.
“Sometimes they cut every day, sometimes once a week,” he says. “Sometimes when they feel better they don’t cut even once in a month.”
One of the women, Kaori, called him one night, sounding drunk, saying she had taken a number of the pills she normally used to allay her anxieties and help her sleep. How many pills?
“About 270,” she told him.
He rushed to her house and called an ambulance, despite her protest that she couldn’t afford it. The rescue squad came, and she recovered.
All six young women went to psychiatrists, Mr. Okahara says, and three of them have gotten better.
There is a parallel phenomenon among young Japanese men, one that is more widely known and chronicled, called hikikomori, which means “withdrawal.”
“The anxiety, loneliness and stress felt by these women mirrors the unhappiness and dislocation felt by the hikikomori, or social isolates,” says Michael Zielenziger, the author of “Shutting Out the Sun,” which examines the shutting-off syndrome in Japan. He says he is “not surprised that these girls would find such negative ways to express themselves.”
In a story in The Times Magazine, Maggie Jones said that while “female hikikomori exist and may be undercounted, experts estimate that about 80 percent of the hikikomori are male, some as young as 13 or 14 and some who live in their rooms for 15 years or more.”
In his book, Mr. Zielenziger writes about this “cadre of 1 million young adults, the majority of them men, who literally shut themselves away from the sun, closing their blinds, taping shut their windows and refusing to leave the bedroom in their homes for months or years at a time.”
Mr. Zielenziger says Japan’s rigid and hierarchical society, combined with a bleak economic future, has literally sent kids to their rooms. As Maggie began her piece:
One morning when he was 15, Takeshi shut the door to his bedroom, and for the next four years he did not come out. He didn’t go to school. He didn’t have a job. He didn’t have friends. Month after month, he spent 23 hours a day in a room no bigger than a king-size mattress, where he ate dumplings, rice and other leftovers that his mother had cooked, watched TV game shows and listened to Radiohead and Nirvana. “Anything,” he said, “that was dark and sounded desperate.”
“There are plenty of 19-year-olds in America who think they’re facing a pretty bleak future,” Mr. Zielenziger told Rendezvous in a phone interview. “But imagine a 19-year-old in Japan where there’s much less freedom to be yourself. You have no power in society. There are lots of reasons to be depressed. To them it makes sense to hide out. To hide out in your own little subculture.”
Almost to a person, he says, the hikikomori he met were smart, inventive, sympathetic, imaginative — “the kinds of kids in America who are starting Facebook or Instagram.”
“They just want to be different, but their world won’t let them,” Mr. Zielenziger says, noting that these kids are often bullied or punished at school. “They’re called schizo or lazy. Crazy or lazy. But they’re not that. They just want to be different.”
International Herald Tribune Rendezvous
I put the whole article under an lj cut because it starts off graphic and I don't want to upset anyone who doesn't want to read it. I'm also not sure what other tags to use for this article besides 'health'.