guardian angel, by jake ritari–a story about extreme introversion as a rational response to an irrational world
As a software developer born and bred in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m no stranger to odd people. It is the only place in the world where you can meet young devs who will stare into your eyes and explain, with all sincerity, that the only reason they can make as much eye contact with you as they can right now, is because they took a class at the Center for Applied Rationality. I have not been to CFAR myself, but my understanding is that if you go to the bathroom there, you will see flyers strategically positioned by the exit that say, “Have you been rational today?” So. My homeland is a magnet for quirky, shy nerds, but even so, I don’t think it has anything on Japan. Because Japan has hikikomori.
Predominantly young men, hikikomori are those Japanese people who have chosen to stop leaving the house completely, in a kind of modern monkhood–though with video games and anime in place of religious contemplation. The standard stereotype is of someone with extreme social anxiety who lives with their parents but does not leave their own bedroom, keeping the door shut at all times and communicating through notes. The technical definition, as used by the Japanese Health, Labor, and Welfare, Ministry is someone who has not left their home or interacted with someone for at least six months. Some half a million Japanese citizens fit the definition, though due to social stigma, and the private nature of the phenomenon, the official number is likely to be a significant underestimate. Unofficial estimates are around a million.
Guardian Angel, a novella by Jacob Ritari, has an excellent premise. Protagonist Kyouko Satsumura is a Japanese millennial laboring beneath the same burdens that curse her American peers–a poor job market, and student loans for a worthless college degree. And like any American millennial, her income is inconsistent and she has to resort to–well, I don’t know what catchy slang they used to describe intermittent piecework during the first Gilded Age, but these days we call them “side hustles.” One of her side hustles is coaxing hikikomori out of their rooms and back into the real world. She’s delightfully cynical and blunt about the job in a way that truly warms my heart. In her own words, “The best part about the job is, I get to see that there are even bigger losers than me.”
While Kyouko’s problems (and maybe some of that attitude) will resonate with any American reader of a certain age, the story maintains a convincingly Japanese feel, thanks to little touches like a school club named the Fighting Carp, or characters asking Kyouko what the proper kanji to use for her name is. It reminded me of the conversations my parents have had when meeting new acquaintances–“ah, your name is Li? Is that li like the character for ‘beautiful,’ or li as in ‘powerful’?”
The plot follows Kyouko as she accepts a job to bring out a particularly recalcitrant hikikomori, Ryoji Tamura, out of his room. What makes Ryoji a difficult case is that his hikikomiri-ness is not due to some innate mental illness, but a considered, rational response to society. And why not? Work sucks. As my friend Larry is fond of reminding me, there’s a reason it’s not called play. Being a grown-up period, sucks. If you’re sufficiently introverted and your parents aren’t willing to let you starve, why not retreat from the world?
There’s the potential for a lot of interesting parallelism and a well-matched psychological cat and mouse game, as Kyouko turns out to be just as much of a misfit as Ryoji. Both of them have failed to live up to the standard norms of what a successful adult should be, and each of them have chosen their own form of rebellion. Overall, I enjoyed the story, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend reading it, but it feels incomplete. The ending comes together well enough as Kyouko’s hikikomori side hustle unexpectedly collides with her yakuza side hustle, but it’s something of a pity that Ritari doesn’t take his premise all the way to its logical conclusion. If it’s true that Japanese society is insane enough that becoming a hikikomori is a sane response (and frankly now that I think about it, I don’t understand why more Americans aren’t doing the exact same thing), then what kind of reintegration is really possible, and on what terms? What’s wrong with Japan, and why would it be worth returning to? There’s questions enough for a thousand-page novel here, but sadly, Guardian Angel just isn’t long enough to answer them.