This article from the Yomiuri Shimbun is part of a series of articles that focus on social phenomena among young Japanese people.
Recent surveys suggest that Japanese university students are finding it increasingly difficult to make friends, and that this is a leading cause for them failing to attend classes, and even dropping out of university altogether. But most striking of all, are the stories of those who are so afraid of being seen alone and labelled as a ‘loner’ by their peers.
From Yomiuri Shimbun:
Not Going To Class Because They Can’t Make Friends: Frightened of loneliness…Eating in the toilet, renting friends.
Prompted to ‘get into pairs with someone you think you’ll get on with’, around seventy young people face each other in twos, and begin to introduce themselves.
At Kansai University of Welfare Sciences (Kashiwara city, Osaka Prefecture), there is a ‘get-together’ that gathers together third year high-school students set to enter the school. It was held among those meeting for the first time, an ‘interview game’ in which they can ask about what their partner is good at. Little by little the atmosphere becomes more comfortable, and here and there the prospective students begin to exchange e-mail addresses.
The meeting was first held three years ago, to help students make friends. ‘We hold it since there are even students who don’t attend classes and who quit school altogether because they say they can’t make friends’, explained Associate Professor Nagami Makiko, who acts as the host of the meeting.
According to the Ministry of Education, in 2012 those not attending classes in university rose to a record high of 31,000 students, which means that in the past ten years, it has increased by almost 10,000 students. On the other hand, in a survey held in 2009 in 57 national universities by Fukushima University Professor Uchida Chiyoko shows that this trend has been continuing since 2003, when the most common reason for not attending classes, given by 31% of students, were ‘reasons of passiveness’ such as they’d lost the will to do it anymore, and so on.
In the case of Shouta (24, alias) who attends a national university in the Kansai region, he stopped going to university one month after matriculating.
It’s different from middle school and high school; in university you decide which classes you’re going to take yourself, and for each class the classroom also changes. Even though he waited, no one spoke to him. Still, he couldn’t go and talk to them, because he thought people would think him strange. Before he realised it, he was alone. He didn’t want people to think that he ‘didn’t even have anyone to eat with’, so he would take bread and onigiri into a bathroom stall, and eat there with bated breath.
When he looked on internet message boards, he was being called ‘loner’ by the students around him who’d isolated him, and being made a fool of. ‘My hands would shake even if I just went towards university, and my stomach would hurt. I was frightened of people I didn’t know,’ said Shouta, looking back on his anguish from 6 years ago.
In a survey by Ide Sohei, a part-time lecturer at Osaka University, and his colleagues, over 80% of university students who fail to attend school had attended regularly up until high school. ‘Now university students don’t attend circles and clubs as much as they used to. If they fail to make friends in the first instance, they’ll be isolated the whole time,’ suggests Ide.
Last summer, the place that Koichi (25, alias) phoned an odd-job firm in Tokyo called Client Partners, requesting ‘Won’t you come along with me?’. He wanted to go to a club that was bustling with young people who liked dancing, and applied for a paid service called ‘rent-a-friend’.
It cost 30,000 yen ($344) to go the club with two girls pretending to be his friends. For a freeter this was a painful expenditure, but he was reluctant to go alone, and he hated being turned down by acquaintances he’d asked to go with him.
Late night one week later. ‘Koichi, do you want to dance?’ The girls came up to ask him to dance in a friendly way, never failing to smile. Even after he left the club over an hour later, he had fun with them in a restaurant until dawn.
‘It’s a relief that they will just accept you unconditionally. My loneliness was soothed’, said Koichi, who in his school days had only talked about himself to people he thought he could make friends with, and had ended up being disliked. ‘If you’re going to get hurt, it’s better to spend some money instead.’
Requests for rent-a-friends at Client Partners are around several tens per month. Most are from young people who are bewildered by the distance they feel from other people, who are anxious, and who have lost their confidence. Abe Maki (37), a representative from the company, said:’These people don’t have any strong sense of self-worth, so they take more care than is necessary of how others judge them. Still, more often than not, they have a lot of online friends. That’s because online they have one-directional communication with people, where they don’t need to the other person to think well of them’.
For Shouta, who was able to pick himself up after attending a self-help group he looked into after being recommended to do so by his parents, the feeling of those young people who use rent-a-friend is painfully familiar. ‘They don’t really have the choice per se of going alone to a place that you should be going to with friends. It’s awful to think that people will see you as one of those losers who goes to those places alone’.
Comments from 2ch.net:
It’s only the eating food in the toilets part that I just can’t believe.
So I guess there aren’t many guys who just think ‘who cares if I can’t make friends’?
If they get to the stage where they’re university students and they can’t bear to be alone, then they’re just too weak mentally.
If they’re going to eat in the toilets they may as well go to the canteen! Or the park, or somewhere.
I’m a bit frightened of rent-a-friend and stuff…If these people have such interest and courage, then I reckon they could make loads of friends.
If they joined a circle they’d at least have people they could talk to, though.
If they’d go to the trouble of eating in a toilet, then they can go home or eat in a restaurant or whatever. I just can’t believe they’d eat in a toilet.
What are they going to university for? Friends or no friends, just study and do your best so that you can find a job in a good place. Saying that, if you have communication issues I guess you’d have a massive problem job-hunting, too w
They’re joking about eating in a toilet, right? I don’t want to accept the existence of such freaks.
Just eat in the school canteen as usual. There must be loads of guys eating alone there.
It’s important to just be yourself. It’s fine if you can’t make friends, you don’t have to think that you should go out of your way to make friends, either. Hold your head high. It’s just too wretched to eat in a toilet!
Far too self-conscious. Nobody’s taking any notice of you. If your goal is to go to university, but you don’t like studying that much then you pay attention to trivial things.
Once you get used to being a loner, there’s nothing more comfortable.
Before long being with people will become a pain in the ass. Just be a bit more patient.
How is rent-a-friend different from enkō['compensated dating']?
They hit upon any number of business opportunities! I mean, it’s not part of the sex industry, so they should only supply same-sex friends.
What are they going to do when they start working? It’s pretty normal to eat alone then.
University students are only capable of thinking like this…