Imagine a world where a country’s youth begin to develop a national malaise thanks to a hyper-technological society and antiquated social structure. To deal with their struggles to adapt to the changing society, these young people decide to retreat into their bedrooms and completely withdraw from society. It may sound like an extreme reaction, but this phenomenon is very real and it is happening right now in Japan.
Also known as hikikomori, these Japanese youth (often young men), sparked senior Katy Lea Todd’s curiosity while she was studying at Tokyo Joggakan College in Japan last fall and became the subject of her 2010 Capstone prize winning research project. Last weekend, her paper, “Hikikomania: Existential Horror or National Malaise,” was recognized as the best undergraduate Asian studies paper in the southeastern United States winning the 2010 Southeast Conference Association for Asian Studies (SEC/AAS) undergraduate prize.
Todd, who is the first Mary Baldwin student to win the prestigious award, will receive $100 and her paper will be published in The Southeast Review of Asian Studies, the annual peer-reviewed journal of SEC/AAS. The philosophy and Asian studies major traveled to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with her advisor Daniel Métraux, professor of Asian studies, to receive her award and present her paper in a panel discussion. As the only undergraduate presenter at the conference, Todd impressed many.
“Katy presented her paper in a very sharp and crisp manner and won verbal praise from several prominent professors in the field who both praised her for the high scholarly content of the paper and her great poise in presenting,” Métraux said. “One of these professors came up to me at lunch and said Katy’s paper was one of the very best undergraduate papers he had ever heard.”
The conference is held annually by the SEC/AAS — a chapter that includes all the major colleges and universities in the southeast, including University of Virginia, Duke University, and University of North Carolina.
Todd didn’t go to Japan intending to research the hikikomori, but she was inspired by her mother’s curiosity about the subject and so decided to investigate it further while abroad.
“I was really very privileged to come across the topic during its early stages of examination,” Todd said. “It was only after some time that I realized how taboo of a subject [the hikikomori] can be — the Japanese government only recognized it as a problem in 2008.”
During her semester in Japan, Todd interviewed her peers to help her better understand Japanese society. She also looked at research by Japanese psychologists and watched documentaries on the hikikomori. While she wasn’t able to come into direct contact with a hikikomori, due to their hermit-like existence, Todd was able to read their statements online.
“I never thought so much could come out of one paper. I’ve been so blessed to be working in a somewhat unexplored branch of academic territory,” Todd said. “Mary Baldwin faculty and staff worked so hard for me to be able to study in Japan. Without their help and their support, I would not be visiting such interesting places in the world or in my studies.”