The rate of "school refusal" (kids who skip school for one month or more a year, which is sometimes a precursor to hikikomori) has doubled since 1990. And along with hikikomori sufferers, hundreds of thousands of other young men and women are neither working nor in school. After 15 years of sluggish growth, the full-time salaryman jobs of the previous generation have withered, and in their places are often part-time jobs or no jobs and a sense of hopelessness among many Japanese about the future.
Also, this is a society where kids can drop out. In Japan, children commonly live with their parents into their 20's, and despite the economic downturn, plenty of parents can afford to support their children indefinitely - and do. As one hikikomori expert put it, "Japanese parents tell their children to fly while holding firmly to their ankles."
One result is a new underclass of young men who can't or won't join the full-time working world and who are a stark counterpoint to Japan's long-running image as a country bursting with industrious salarymen. "We used to believe everyone was equal," said Noki Futagami, the founder of New Start. "But the gap is growing. I suspect there will be a bipolarization of this society. There will be the group of people who can be in the global world. And then there will be others, like the hikikomori. The ones who cannot be in that world."