HOUSE OF MIRRORS
Review of Hikikomori: Poems by Virginia Aronson
Shanti Arts, June 2021
In her deftly constructed poetry chapbook Hikikomori, Virginia Aronson builds a house of mirrors reflecting our social isolation. Her interlocking poems and metaphors draw inspiration from a phenomenon the Japanese define as hikikomori, or “pulling inward,” the impulse to withdraw from the pressures of modern life, which resonates with our current experience of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Told from the point of view of a person afflicted with hikikomori, the poems are succinct in their impact. In the title poem, for example, the narrator inhabits a small room, which is both his world and his inner landscape. He describes himself like a specimen: “alone / in your own world / alone / with yourself / your swirling thoughts.” His urge to confine himself indoors is further outlined in the poem “Brave New World” and echoes Aldous Huxley in reverse. The victim of hikikomori does not experience the evolution of society but its denial.
Cultural pressure and lack of respect for the individual inform the poem “It Can’t Be Helped,” where is the reader is haunted by images of ultimate isolation: “Japan is a suicide forest / the people wandering / in the ancient woods / … / to gut the emptiness.” Sadly, young people are most vulnerable to social oppression and parental pressure as described in “Anime Me.” The child in the poem succumbs to the lure of online entertainment, including video games and binge watching as a means of relaxing and evading social interaction, which sound familiar but frightening in this context as symptoms of deeper withdrawal.
Aronson shows how self-isolation can evolve into a psychological or medical condition. In extreme examples of hikikomori, adult children continue to live with their parents and depend on them for support well into their own middle age: “over forty / lacked self-esteem / locked in my childhood / bedroom / dreamless / alone.” In the poem “Homosocial” while thinking of women in society, the poet writes: “I sit in my dark / womblike room / thinking of them / living in the / present / no future for us.” The tragedy of the hikikomori is characterized by the victims who are no longer able to live or participate in society, excluding them from such essential endeavors as holding employment, having relationships, and raising a family. The individuals and society both suffer.
I found Aronson’s description of hikidashiya, or “those who pull people out,” to be quite chilling. In “Spirited Away,” the narrator endures an extraction reminiscent of attempts to force people to change sexual identity or religion. These violent attacks, often undertaken by one’s family members, are justified as necessary or well meaning, but they are painful to all involved.
One of the most beautiful images in the chapbook is also one of the most haunting. Given the Japanese sense of society and how those excluded tend not to exist, the victim describes his view of the hierarchical culture: “the pyramid leaving / me: / a grain of sand / at the very bottom.” We see the traditions of college, hiring, and corporate meetings evolving into drinking marathons from the eyes of one who has bound himself to nonconformity by retreating to his room.
This sense of loss and rationalization informs many other historical traditions of religious and philosophical inquiry from ancient hermits and monks to modern attempts to achieve enlightenment and insight through meditation or nature. But here the withdrawal feels tragic because of its permanence and emotional toll. The poem “Day #3652,” for example, finds the poet describing “my life floating past / on a dark thundercloud / … / And if the Earth stops spinning / I’m sure / I won’t notice.” Not only is the victim removed from society and the world, but he experiences a sense of timelessness and eternity in his condition.
My enjoyment of the collection was enhanced by the notes following each poem explaining the aspects of hikikomori in Japanese and English terms. The phenomenon of hikikomori has a rich history in Japanese culture, and I came away with a deeper understanding of hikikomori and its resonance with modern society. Hikikomori is an appropriate metaphor for the lure of staying home and withdrawing into binge watching and gaming despite its potential impact on the individual and society, even before the pandemic. This is the final epiphany of Aronson’s chapbook, that we are all reflected in her house of mirrors.