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The doomsday cult of 9-to-5 depression

by Michael Hoffman

One of the enduring mysteries of the Aum Shinrikyo atrocities of the 1990s is the ease with which the cult attracted members. The arrest this month of the last two fugitives allegedly involved in Aum’s fatal 1995 sarin gas assault on the Tokyo subway system recalls the whole ghastly episode, together with its unsolved riddles. What would draw sane, relatively prosperous, in many cases highly intelligent people to the incoherent blend of pseudo-philosophy, pseudo-enlightenment and pseudo-mysticism that elevated robbery, murder and terrorism into acts of religious devotion?

Even now, with cult founder Shoko Asahara and 12 leading disciples on death row, the cult, reconstituted as Aleph, continues to attract adherents. Why?

Probably no definitive answer is possible, and this certainly is not an attempt at one. But the business magazine Shukan Toyo Keizai provides a clue, though without making the connection. Its June 16 edition devotes 50 pages to an issue it fears is getting out of hand: depression.

It is actually a followup report, for last June it was on a similar track. It said then that at least 60 percent of Japan’s workforce suffers from stress. The causes are various: overwork, unrewarding work, loneliness, relationships gone wrong, financial trouble, a degraded environment, unnatural lifestyles, and nature itself in the form of earthquakes, tsunami and global warming.

This month’s return to the topic opens with another alarming statistic: 24 percent of Japanese are likely in the course of a lifetime to suffer some form of mental illness, depression in particular. Last year the health ministry added depression to its list of Japan’s most dangerous diseases: cancer, brain hemorrhage, heart disease and diabetes.

The numbers available are suggestive but inadequate. In 1996 the health ministry documented 207,000 cases of depression; in 2008, 704,000. That shows the upward trend but not the true extent of the problem, given that only an estimated 20 percent of sufferers seek treatment. Suffer in silence is the rule most people continue to play by.

We don’t need a new form of depression, the old forms being quite oppressive enough, but we have one anyway, says Toyo Keizai. It first became noticeable seven or eight years ago and surged in the crumbling of the global economy following the 2008 Lehman Shock. Young people are especially vulnerable. One name for it is “9 to 5 depression.” Unlike conventional depression, which is an ever-present dark shadow on the sufferer’s life, this new breed descends during working hours and lifts at quitting time. It’s not a joke, though some experts do wonder whether it qualifies as an illness. Classify it as you will, it takes its toll, psychologically and of course economically, in lost productivity. The most frequent trigger is criticism from the boss. Young people, it seems, are ill-equipped to cope with normal office give-and-take. Normal social give-and-take too, so they say. They go to pieces at the slightest reprimand.

Bring in the psychiatrists and other experts, and give them their word. Among the causes they cite are the Internet and its dissolution of non-virtual human relations, the non-stop sea of information which flows too fast for adequate or even inadequate digestion, relaxed parental upbringing which results, Toyo Keizai hears from one psychiatrist, in “an increasing number of young people who have never seen an angry parent,” and yutori kyoiku (“relaxed education”), introduced by an embattled education ministry in 2002 in response to the intolerable stresses and strains of the “exam hell” education which preceded it. Yutori kyoiku has since been jettisoned as a failure that played its part in making Japan less globally competitive.

Experts’ opinions are always interesting, partly for the germ of truth they contain, partly for less flattering reasons. Among the latter is their tendency to explain whatever ails society by citing whatever circumstances happen to prevail. If young people are socially dysfunctional, it’s the Internet’s fault. If they are dull and unproductive at work — yutori kyoiku. But as far back as 1994 — before virtual reality became as real as real reality — the weekly Spa! was describing communication breakdown in terms that sound perfectly familiar today. It discerned an “eerie penchant” among young people to shrink from conflict and withdraw into themselves as though from a world that did not suit them. And in 1996 the weekly Aera surveyed “classroom breakdown” — the state of sometimes violent chaos then rampant in the nation’s elementary and junior high schools — and lamented, “Too little education is aimed at the heart” — meaning too much of it was aimed at exams, from which was inferred the need for yutori kyoiku, which is now being blamed for things like 9 to 5 depression.

However it is explained, mass depression, old-style or new, seems open to one of two interpretations: Either inhuman conditions are being imposed on us by outward circumstances, such as war or natural disaster, or else we’re creating those inhuman conditions ourselves. Writing in Toyo Keizai, Tsukuba University psychologist Ichiyo Matsuzaki observes, “Depression has existed from way back, but workplace depression was formerly rare. If you work hard and your efforts are rewarded, you don’t feel stressed. It’s when effort and reward are not in balance that problems arise.”

Problems have arisen; therefore, if he is right, effort and reward are not in balance. Matsuzaki does not specify whether he means financial rewards or others less tangible. Probably he means both. Might that imbalance be why, to significant numbers of people, a mad and criminal doomsday cult can seem a solace?