Living with depression in Japan



In 17th century Japan, suicide was considered honorable and was even tolerated in samurai culture to prevent shaming one’s family or employer.

In modern Japan, this tolerance of suicide lives on.

It contributes to some 26 suicides per 100,000 people, according to a 2009 issue of Mainichi Shimbun — which literally translates to "Daily News" — one of the major newspapers in Japan.

Although the suicide rate in Japan consistently tops world ranks, the country had a surprisingly low recorded rate of individuals suffering from depression and anxiety. Until recently, that is.

According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the amount of depressed people has risen exponentially since 2002 — but this data is far from easy to gather.

It is greatly frowned upon in Japan to ask for help or to rely on someone. This is what the Japanese people call “meiwaku (迷惑)” — meaning to cause trouble or to be a nuisance to others. In recent years, more people have been diagnosed with depression due to rising awareness in Japan, mostly through the media and improved counseling.

Still, a strong sense of victim shaming exists in the Japanese work environment, which has been seen as the leading factor of suicides in Japan.

The high suicide rate rose after the economic recession hit Japan in the late 1990s, as many companies were forced to make cuts in their staff. Once unemployed in Japan, it is extremely difficult to find another occupation due to the tradition that started in the early Showa period — the lifelong employment system (終身雇用制).

In this tradition, one works at the same job from new hire until retirement. When people are fired from their jobs, they often spiral into depression because they are unable to meet their financial needs, and some go on to commit suicide in order to spare their family and friends from burden or shame.

When I experienced a sense of numbness and inability to interact with people, it did not occur to me that it might have been depression. As a middle or high school student, the concept of depression was not talked about among peers, let alone teachers or parents.

Japanese society has a general mentality of disregarding mental illness as something unreal, and is only applicable to a handful of people suffering at a severe degree. Unless one attempts suicide or physical self-harm, those in the surrounding environment do not step in for help.

As a Japanese native who grew up confronting questions of undiagnosed depression and anxiety, I experienced first hand how hard it is to ask for help.

Personally, my experience of undiagnosed depression and anxiety stems from a social division of my Western heritage, as well as the struggles I experienced throughout my early teen years confused with my own sexuality. After being homeschooled for years, I started attending the local middle school in northern Saitama Prefecture, Japan. During my time there, I was blatantly made fun of for being half-American, opposed to being "full Japanese."

With my teachers and peers constantly directing racial remarks at me, I suppressed my individuality. I tried to act more Japanese so I could blend in with those around me.

During my three years in middle school, I developed a light case of anorexia — I often refused to eat as a form of self-harm. When I was 15 years old, I was about 5 feet and 9 inches tall, and weighed under 110 lbs.

Also during my early teen years, I realized that I was attracted to both men and women. I was terrified of acknowledging my attraction toward men because of the social stigma and non-acceptance of homosexuality in Japan.

With each passing moment that I denied who I was, the more my stress built up, aggravating the depression I always tried to ignore. It did not take long for me to feel my growing social anxiety — even spending days stuck in bed, feeling so empty and numb.

Later on, I went to a private high school in a fairly large school district, keeping a safe distance from my hometown. At my new school, my classmates accepted my American heritage. My teachers even celebrated my bicultural background and helped me become more comfortable with myself.

Even though I did not admit it to anyone — not even my parents — I made a choice to acknowledge my sexuality and stopped pushing it away. To this day, I believe my high school years saved my life, both literally and rhetorically.

Luckily in recent years, Japan has been attempting to create awareness around depression and anxiety, through both promotion in the media, as well as providing more counseling opportunities in schools.

LGBTQ rights have been a rising topic in Japan due to the media, by representing more people from the community and creating television shows with more LGBTQ characters. In March 9, 13 members of congress came together and hosted the “Rainbow Congress” where they addressed current issues regarding LGBTQ rights and new laws that need to be made to protect sexual minorities in Japan.

As social values shift in Japan, the lifelong employment system has also been decaying in recent years, allowing people to have a greater sense of freedom in the workplace.

These factors are thought to be the reason to the decreasing suicide rate in Japan.

However, honorable suicide has been woven into Japanese culture for 400 years. It will be impossible to resolve overnight.

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