Virtual online spaces are providing social recluses, known as "hikikomori" in Japan, a way of staying connected to the world while also allowing them to edge closer to making a full return to society.

In addition to providing consultation support and introducing work-from-home jobs, local governments and private companies are making efforts to establish unique "club activities" based on common interests as the problem of social disconnection continues to spiral.

The Kyoto prefectural government has held twice-per-week virtual meetups for shut-ins since June 2022, aptly called "online place to be."

When people access the virtual space, their avatars -- sometimes pandas or other characters -- gather at a table surrounded by trees. The avatars are designed and operated by the participants who address each other by nicknames and chat without having to reveal their actual faces.

Screenshot taken in January 2023 shows "online place to be," a virtual space set up by the Kyoto Prefectural government for social recluses. (Kyodo)

The virtual community is managed on behalf of the prefectural government by Kizuki, an operator of cram schools for troubled children.

Company staff join participants in watching live video games on YouTube and discussing their thoughts, and they chat about their favorite foods, the weather in their area and other topics. Sometimes casual conversations reveal deeper issues they are reluctant to talk about with others, an official said.

A 2017 survey conducted by a commissioner for child welfare in Kyoto Prefecture and other residents identified some 1,100 people who had withdrawn from society, and 44 percent of them were not receiving support.

The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the situation for shut-ins, while the prefectural government searched for ways for people to meet virtually.

Still in its infancy, the virtual community currently has a small group of participants ranging from preteens to those in their 40s. Social recluses can "easily" participate even if they are hesitant to visit the prefectural government office in person, Yoshimi Kimura, an official in the government's family support division said.

The Kanagawa prefectural government is planning to host a similar virtual space for social recluses in fiscal 2023.

Tokyoite Kunio Yamada, 37, launched an employment service in 2020 called "Comoly" at a company he runs that develops and provides vocational aptitude tests. He receives orders for jobs in data entry, transcription and app development, among others, and offers the work to shut-ins based on their skills and experience. Many earn up to 60,000 yen ($450) per month.

Kunio Yamada, who runs Comoly, a service for people who have withdrawn from society, is pictured in Tokyo in November 2022. (Kyodo)

Yamada created the service because an elementary-school friend of his who was unable to find work as a university student became a social recluse after graduation. He advised his friend to learn computer programming so that he could work anywhere. Now the two jointly manage Comoly.

Comoly has some 750 registered members nationwide. Along with facilitating in-home work, it offers a wide variety of activities, including "metaverse parties," online club activities and more.

In the "Cooking Club," comprised mainly of women, members post photos and recipes of their culinary creations, while a shut-in, who once aspired to become a professional Go board game player, teaches members of the "Go Club" the fundamentals.

Some people registered with Comoly venture out into the real world to participate in annual work camps. In Kamiyama, Tokushima Prefecture, western Japan, specialty "yuzu" citrus fruits that had been abandoned due to a worker shortage were harvested by hikikomori for jam production.

Yamada calls these and other projects "co-creations" instead of "support."

He thinks that the stereotype of "independence equals employment" is what pushes shut-ins further away from society.

"In rural areas, by making use of vacant houses, shut-ins can live and make tens of thousands of yen each month by working remotely. I would like to create such a new kind of life with them," Yamada said.

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