Although rare in the west, in Japan and in some other advanced countries on the Asian-Pacific rim, there is a popular perception that there has been a significant increase in the numbers of young people who withdraw socially for protracted periods of time (referred to by the Japanese term ‘hikikomori’). This paper describes the hikikomori phenomenon in Japan, considers evidence relating to its prevalence and examines views about the causes. I argue that the tendency to think of hikikomori as a homogeneous group characterised by psychological malaise is misleading and that withdrawal and disengagement can also be linked to changing opportunity structures. The collapse of the primary labour market for young people and the growing prevalence of a precarious secondary sector has led to a situation in which traditional and deep-rooted norms are undermined and young people forced to find new ways of navigating transitions within a highly pressured and rigid system. Under these circumstances, acute withdrawal often represents an anomic response to a situation where tradition no longer provides adequate clues to appropriate behaviour rather than as a malaise reducible to individual psychologies.