Japan: a haven for the psychologically troubled


Special To The Japan Times

In an interview in 2009, Tokyo-based musician Jim O’Rourke said that Japan is the only place he feels happy. According to the article in The New York Times, “Every time he returned to the United States, his mood sank.”

I found myself relating to this sentiment. At age 16 I was in counseling, and at 18 I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and depression. Just months before I moved to Japan, I was afraid to touch raw meat and couldn’t sleep at night for fear the freezer door was open (thus causing food poisoning and killing all of my flatmates).

Yes, that was how I ruminated. I used to wish I could turn my brain off somehow without sleeping or drinking. Although that isn’t possible, living in Japan has at least dialed those thoughts down.

One of the main reasons my OCD is in remission here is because the Japanese are so forgiving. In Britain, I lived forever in fear of persecution by outside forces because of mistakes I was sure I was making through ignorance. But in Japan, there’s a comforting sense that things will work out OK regardless of my lack of understanding of practical concerns.

Pay your bills late and have your electricity cut off? You can call them on the day and sort it out. Fail to pay your taxes on time or even report them incorrectly? You can negotiate a payment plan. People don’t assume you’re deviant; even immigration is more like a game of roulette than a process based on passing a rigid set of standards.

These allowances come out of a combination of being able to play the “I’m a foreigner” card and the Japanese presumption that people are good-natured and, yes, sometimes may need to be babied. The service industry is so overwhelmingly customer-focused that even people unable to deal with simple transactions and interactions are not left to feel stupid; rather, they are apologized to for being inconvenienced due to the staff’s inability to assist them appropriately.

In the past I avoided those things I felt I should already know how to do, and just chalked them up as stuff I couldn’t do and wouldn’t tackle until I absolutely had to. The fear of my ineptitude going public dictated some of my behavior patterns, so when society factors in such shortcomings — even without the added leeway that comes with foreigner status — it doesn’t seem so bad.

The worst-case scenario tends to fester in the minds of people with anxiety disorders, until you reach the point where you’re living in that space in your head and are no longer able to connect with what’s happening in the real world and function in the present. Yet at times in Japan, the worst-case scenario is intangible — and that’s something that can be oddly relaxing. There’s a feeling of being one step away from reality when living abroad, so when my brain calculates all of the worst things that could happen — losing my job, becoming financially destitute, losing contact with all my friends, hitting emotional rock bottom and then being forced to leave Japan — this can be bittersweet. Back home, there was doom and gloom that my life in that zone was all my existence ever would be, yet here, one part of my brain always feels that this phase will end at some point or another, either through necessity or a decision to leave.

Japan is a comfortable stomping ground for socially awkward people. Serious character and personality defects go unnoticed or are put down to foreigner status, and rather than tarnishing your self-image, they can even help you romanticize yourself, with a bit of imagination.

I often feel overly uncomfortable in everyday situations — such as when using a changing room in a clothes shop, to the point that I avoid spending time on shop floors unless it’s absolutely necessary. But here, the voice in your head yelling “You’re not normal” doesn’t scream so loud, because even when you are behaving in a “normal” way, there’s an expectation for you to be somehow abnormal anyway. So, by appearing odd, you’re confirming the common perception among Japanese that foreigners do things differently. If you’re all hot and flustered around a changing booth, “adult male who can’t buy clothes for himself” becomes “foreigner who feels uncomfortable in Japanese shops” — it becomes normalized, and the self-image problems that come with the whole episode are alleviated.

Back home I’d sometimes become the object of mindless banter between third parties — usually based on the easy targets of my having long hair and walking with flat feet. Yet in Tokyo, you can take your appearance to extremes of negligence or ridiculousness without anyone commenting or even acknowledging it: As an awkward type or even a full-on oddball, you can bask in anonymity.

There also seems to be a different attitude towards psychological health in Japan in general. In the West, self-diagnosis has reached a point where some people are proud of listing their issues like emotional battle scars, and as proof that they think, feel and experience life at a deeper level. This is not to say the diagnosis or the intensity of the feelings are invalid, but there’s a danger that when you define yourself as “messed up” or “depressed,” you’ll continue to act in what you feel is an appropriate way for a messed-up or depressed person to behave.

Japanese people I’ve met with reclusive behavior patterns or other signs of psychological issues, however, do not necessarily view these traits as problems that need to be tackled. Many continue these lifestyles and seem to have found some peace in accepting the antisocial part of who they are. They discover joy in other forms, even if their means of finding happiness — often avoidance — is unlikely to lead to a major change in their way of thinking.

The modern world of self-help books has many mantras — “Change your life,” “Be the person you want to be,” “Get your priorities straight” — but here in Japan, the character isn’t seen as being so malleable: People are what they are. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is based on perception. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is all about going against your nature and changing the wiring of your brain, whereas in my experience, many Japanese tolerate their nature, for better or worse.

In fact, there’s sometimes a sense of nobility to otaku recluses in their attempt to live an alternative lifestyle and their stubborn refusal to accept the oppressive norm. I recall being at a house party where the female-to-male ratio was about 60-40, yet I spent several hours on the floor playing “Donkey Kong” with a Japanese friend. After we turned it off, one girl asked why we weren’t talking to them, to which my friend replied, “Otaku dakara” — “Because we’re otaku.” I found this realization — the ability to believe connecting with the opposite sex didn’t matter — strangely empowering. A therapist might call this an example of lying to yourself, but it didn’t feel like it.

Being around people comfortable in their decision to sidestep conventional behavior is, on one level, a welcome escape from the suffocating world of self-help — and from people who speak like self-help books. The reality of being on another continent mixes with normalized antisocialism to form a cocktail effective in tuning out a lot of the “just be a normal adult” voices, whatever those voices might mean. Maybe my fear of going back to the U.K. stems from the fear that those old thoughts would then return.

Am I recovered or delusional? Well, as one famous worrywart once said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

William Bradbury is a freelance writer and musician in Tokyo. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on Thursdays. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Dan

    I`m never sure the locals accept eccentricity, embrace it or just don`t give a monkey`s. Sadly I think its the latter and apathy while may be the safest option, is usually the least attractive and I find it increasingly harder to appreciate the risk aversion techniques the people in this community employ just to save them from having to address any kind of confrontation, whatsoever.
    Tolerance is not the same as acceptance just think of the gay community in Japan tolerated but never accepted. To live in a world where you are largely ignored because you are different is not healthy and to bask in it as Mr Bradbury does is surely going to lead to trouble, I think Mr Bradbury is a walking time bomb.
    My advice; the next time you want to buy a t-shirt William, go into that shop snap a pencil and scream from the top of lungs “I am normal”.

    • William

      I feel a lot of apathy living here.

      Living in such a densely populated country and city people are always surrounding you. Everyday you use a train, line up to pay at a convini, walk past a few restaurants because they are full, people are unavoidable.

      It becomes impossible to avoid this attitude as a whole, it’s just a way of coping.

      One things I’ve also noticed is a lot of the 2 extremes.

      Either you’ve purchased 2 things at a 100 yen shop and you are been treated like royalty with a full deep bow
      you’re treated as an object with no feelings that is pushed out of the way as quickly as possible.

      I see a lot of the in between too though, but of course the extremes are the most interesting.

      This is a part of the world with a different set of values.
      Here the common good is over personal happiness.
      Work and study above anything else.

      This is the far east Asian way of life.

      • Dan

        I guess apathy as a control mechanism is one way to cope and when in Rome do as the Romans right? But its not for me, when it comes to taking my shoes off its no problem but if I ever feel my identity is being sacrificed I`ll stick 2 fingers up to anyone no matter how polite they are. The Japanese belief that some things are just too difficult for foreigners is nothing more that putting you in a box and leaving you in the cupboard. Stand up, because its not that hard to understand especially if they bother to explain it.

        The “You are just a foreigner so you don`t understand” Is just narcissism in a shiny wrapper because underlying the sentiment is definitely a sense of superiority in the Japanese way. Team America hit the nail on the head with “Your American penis` are so big, we small”. “You wouldn`t understand” is just a way to say “Stupid foreigners, you don`t understand anything” and keep a smile on your face. Never allow this attitude to fool you into thinking you are accepted, you are just tolerated and personally I want more.

      • kyushuphil

        You want “more”?

        Join the long tradition of Japan’s best also wanting “more.”

        Sōseki wanted “more” from his fellow countrymen. Yosano Akiko wanted “more.” So did Junichirō Tanizaki. Same for Ariyoshi Sawako and Hayashi Fumiko — the latter of whom hated to see so many just drifiting, like “Floating Clouds” (the title of her 1951 book, as it was of Japan’s first great modern novel, Futabatei Shimei’s 1887 book of same name).

        The great poets and writers have had to face this set of habits of people drifting, settling for less, maybe because of the group harmony goal also built into the culture here. This is kyō-chō-sei ( 協 調 性).

        Whatever the cause obliging people to shear, reduce, or silence themselves, good luck wanting “more.”

      • Dan

        I got more!!! Seriously, I was looking for some recommended reading, especially poetry, and you gave it to me. Do you know any blogs for Japanese literature.

      • kyushuphil

        Wish I knew of some, Dan.

        What I really wish is that groups of Japanese students would be writing of their own learning of Japanese lit — or groups of, say, American students doing that at schools in the U.S. — and the groups in both countries swapping rounds of essays with each other, the essays also acknowledging the interests and further connections of the other students. All would be reading all — and expanding off that.

        If you’re going to read classics, please don’t miss.Junichirō Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters” — the book original. (Film version is soap opera by comparison.)

        From Sōseki, the four indispensable works are “Now and Then,” “Kokoro,” “Light and Dark,” and “Kusamakura.”

        So much more beyond that. Osamu Dazai”s “No Longer Human” is absolutely frightening. Yosano Akiko’s “Midaregami,” or “Tangled Hair” is just vital.

        And then, the great movies from here.

        But, see, these are lists, or parts of lists. I’d love to see students doing the reading, and expanding from that to essays including things from the other students, too.

      • Dan


      • Guest

        Whimper: “You wouldn`t understand” is just a way to say “Stupid foreigners, you don`t understand anything” and keep a smile on your face.

        Now you know hahaha!!!

      • Guest

        And keep trying to talk tough on the Internet and in Japland.

      • phu

        “This is the far east Asian way of life.”

        No, this is your perception of life in far east Asia. There is a very significant difference.

        It’s true that many parts of the world have, very generally speaking, different values from one another. Your analysis of “far east Asian” values is, however, a massive oversimplification. Even simply applied to Japan it should come with serious caveats and a discussion of ongoing social change; applied to the entirety of “far east Asia,” though, it’s an absurdly generalization, to the point of being nonsensical.

        If you’re the same William that wrote this article, I can only imagine you still find such a description of values accurate, despite having lived in Japan for some time, due to your lack of interest in actually interacting with and learning about people (at least, that is, people who don’t share your introversion).

  • jake Harods

    “Otaku dakara” — “Because we’re otaku.” I found this
    realization — the ability to believe connecting with the opposite sex
    didn’t matter — strangely empowering. A therapist might call this an
    example of lying to yourself, but it didn’t feel like it” I call it lack of joie de vivre! You’d rather grapple with donkey Kong as opposed to grappling a girl? lol

  • qwerty

    I bet there are a lot of ‘charisma men’ out there thinking – woah, is he talking about me?

  • Joe Kurosu, M.D.

    I am glad that the author is in “remission”, but my experience (perhaps on a biased sample) is quite different. I see patients daily in whom symptoms have been exacerbated by the fact that they are in a foreign country. The stresses of living in this country should not be underestimated. These individuals often face a community that is unsympathetic, employers who are unforgiving, with few resources to help them…I would caution readers of this piece on the meaning of “haven”.

  • I do get what he says. Even if I was uber perfect in every way someone here would still put me down anyway (as I am not Japanese) and that realisation actually frees me from anxiety as I think to myself “well no matter what i do someone won’t like it so bugger it I just live more openly” I do feel mentally freer here in Tokyo than I did in London because of this foreigner aspect (but that’s just a personal thing)

    • 내가 제일 잘나가

      That’s weird because as a native Londoner that’s only moved to Bristol, I have those feelings about London. You can do what you like in London and people will think your weird for a split second (if what you do even gathers attention as London has seen everything of everything) then moves on with their lives, no one has time or cares that much about other people’s actions or lives compared to other places I’ve been to and I prefer that a lot better.

  • ScottyP

    I don’t agree with everything written, but I appreciate the piece nonetheless.

  • >Am I recovered or delusional?
    a little of both imho. You just need to make the right friends (people such as yourself, Otakool bros) in the UK.

    And about your experience something similar happened to me… I just responded with basically the same thing: “because I’m a turbonerd” and everyone was okay with it. You just need more confidence and the right friends.

  • blondein_tokyo

    It’s really true that Japanese are very forgiving of people who don’t quite fit in or who have problems with socialization. I’m very impressed by the level of kindness and patience shown to them. But should we really coddle and baby people with regressive personality disorder rather than trying to help them become active members who can contribute to society? I’m all for letting shy or introverted people do their own thing to be happy, but a lot of them aren’t actually happy – take the hikikomori as an example. It’s a real problem that their parents just let them be, and don’t even attempt to help them learn how to form relationships or live by themselves. Those kinds of people need help, not to be enabled and babied.

    • Laj

      Well but who are we to decide if they are happy in their own way or not? Some people are just not born to fight. And furthermore, who says we now know how to help these people, who says our treatment or help that we propose instead is adequate and efficient?

      • blondein_tokyo

        We don’t decide if they are happy. In fact, “we” don’t do anything at all- there are professionals whose job it is to make such assessments, such as, can this person support themselves? Can this person interact in a positive enough way with others so as to get their needs met? Does this person have sufficient personal hygiene? Does this person have a support system for when they get sick, or have emotional needs? I’m sure there are other questions a professional would know to ask.

        And what if their anxiety increases, or crosses some threshold where they are no longer able to care for themselves? If they have no support system, what will happen to them? These people age, too- what happens when their parents are gone, they have no jobs, and don’t even have the ability to leave the house to get food or apply for government assistance or get their pensions? There have been cases lately where they’ve found an older person living with his/her son or daughter, where they have both starved to death or otherwise died due to not being able to care for themselves.

        Their happiness isn’t even really an issue, here. Wether they are happy being alone in their room every day is not as important as whether they are getting the care and help they need.

  • kyushuphil

    Nice, this: “here in Japan, the character isn’t seen as being so malleable.”
    This is another way of saying that schools don’t really matter. Or, that schools are never going to change anybody — and never going to try.
    Thus, no one at any seriously high level questions schools — their regimentation, their lack of questions and questioning, their stupidly depersonalized testing regimes, their repetitions to preserve the conformities that “ikeru shikabane” (zombie) teachers have already instilled in themselves.
    “The character” isn’t going to change. This thus excuses all the schools from taking seriously essay writing — no one’s going to have an individual voice, and certainly no one’s going to notice anyone else’s voice in any meaningful way.
    So happy, happy when conformity — i.e., stupidity — so totally rules, at least in schools.

  • phu

    I’m not a fan of treating people with psychological issues as defective out of hand, but this is someone who knows he has significant problems looking for excuses to avoid addressing them.

    You’re exploiting and encouraging the Japanese perception of foreigners as incompatible with their culture. The only person that helps is you, and only in a very shallow and short-sighted way: Even if at some point you do decide to seek help, you’ve already painted yourself as pathetically helpless.

    Then you go on to disingenuously portray people who would advocate therapy as self help book freaks, which unfairly dismisses a lot of well-considered and accepted points of view that you simply don’t like. Centuries of behavioral study and advancement? No thanks; otaku dakara.

    It’s nice that you’re happy. It’s just too bad you’re content with being happy at the expense of the image of foreigners in Japan and without addressing the serious issues you are aware that you have.

  • thirdman2002

    Oh great. Another batch of freaks coming into Japan just because they can get away with it, because of Japanese being too nice to Westerners on the surface and because of their language barriers. And not to mention Japanese girls being slobbering whores to any, and I mean ANY, western guys. You freaks have it good in Japan.

  • Jay

    so what you’re really saying is that you are a loser, but that’s OK, because the Japanese can’t tell the difference. Marvelous. I think Tom Waits said it best in his amusing song, “Big in Japan.”

    • Laj

      My guess is that the author is trying to say that in Japan people never say “you are a loser”, they try not to judge so openly and self-assuredly here, and he likes it more here than the place you are from. That’s it.

      • Jay

        Actually, where I am from there is a whole subculture that celebrates the institution of “loserdom.” It’s called The Blues, and I know the Japanese appreciate it, too. But the Japanese are not quite as forgiving and accepting as you think: mental health issues are still regarded here with a considerable degree of shame. Mental institutions are strategically located in very isolated areas, “out of sight and out of mind.” A history of mental health problems can destroy an individual’s chances of marriage here; the least said about it, the better. Indeed, Japanese attitudes to mental health remind me of my grandmother’s, or perhaps the 19th century Jane Eyre, in which the madwoman is kept in the attic, and about whom we don’t speak. The author’s public admission of his psychological weakness is in fact an indulgence not in Japanese tolerance, but in the very Western institution of the confessional, in which sins are admitted and forgiven. It is especially popular nowadays, akin to coming out (“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” [Radiohead]; “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me” [Beck]) and the author relies on political correctness to function as his defense against criticism. In sum, I would agree with the poster below–phu–who suggests that the author avoids dealing with his problems: first by escaping to Japan; and then by “painting himself as pathetically helpless,” but all the while pleading for forgiveness.

      • Laj

        I never meant to say that Japan was more tolerant, just that their intolerance manifests itself in a different way. The Japanese are much more indirect and for those coming from the tradition of less intricate social interaction it might be easier here to be different because they don’t belong, their difference is accepted automatically and no one judges them so openly and uncompromisingly. (Here you go again with more choice epithets for the article and its author, ‘pathetically helpless’ and ‘a confession of a SIN’!) Yes it often borders on indifference here but their own culture’s “interest” sometimes borders on bullying or straightjacketing goodwill and force feeding. The author seems to choose indifference over outright condemnation.

  • doonga

    Japan certainly is a very forgiving place in that it lacks the rigid personal morality of the West, which labels things wrong if they are perceived as acting against the individual’s “true interests” while Japan tends to label things problematic (rather than “wrong” perhaps) if they are perceived as bad for the immediate community. However, that makes for a lot of people (or should I say, men) of retired age who still lack even a shred of reflectivity and are stuck with the gauche mindset of their teen years. Japanese people deny each other the (often tough) courtesy of holding a mirror up to each other. And never being confronted with ugly truths about yourself makes living here “easy.”

  • Laj

    Just one comment, a quote by Leo Tolstoy “He is right who is happy”.

  • melatonin

    I’m actually quite sad to see that this article over-extrapolate
    experiences from an person who suffers from OCD to ‘psychological
    disorders’ in general. As someone who works in mental healthcare in
    Tokyo (which by the way, is not representative of the rest of the
    country), I am quite dismissive of all the generalisations made within
    the article – the views expressed here pertain to a particular case of
    OCD, mixed in with the liberations of living in a foreign country where
    societal norms are ‘different’ than where that person grew up. I can
    understand the feeling of identifying with a country that fits your
    societal ideal, but we all know this is a matter of perspective. I have
    known many OCD patients (some foreign, some Japanese) who share quite
    opposite experiences living in Tokyo, due to frequency of contact from
    over-crowding, prevalence of communicable diseases (and fear thereof),
    unsanitary city-life, etc. and I am not at all convinced that this
    article deserves the sort of “Japan is a great place for people who
    suffer from the rest of the world!” editorial in a newspaper. This
    idealisation and failure to see beyond personal perspective, is also a
    behavioural symptom of OCD, to which readers should be aware. I am glad
    this author found solace in Tokyo, but please be a little mindful of
    hyperbolising personal experiences (this is a comment mostly to the
    editorial staff, not the author of the article).

  • Gordon Graham

    People who genuinely want to become part of society have the option of becoming a Japanese citizen.

  • Chandrakant Kulkarni

    The root cause behind a majority of these so-called psychological cases is: unbalanced Vaata (वातदोष). When an excessive Vaata enters the ‘Srotas’ (स्रोतस) = ‘carrier channel’ of Mind, the person concerned starts behaving in an erratic psychological way. Ayurveda offers a wide range of safe medications + a variety of Therapies like Nasya (नस्य)= administering medicated drops into nostrils, Shirobasti (शिरो-बस्ती)= holding medicated oil / ghee over head, Shirodhara (शिरोधारा)= pouring a small stream of medicated oil upon the mid-brow zone etc.
    Homeopathy and Bach Flower Remedies also give us very effective medicines for treating a wide spectrum of Mind Disorders.

  • So this is the bulk of Japan’s social and even economic problems. Expensive as ever, the men and women being asexual, the otaku multiplying like sick rabbits with pride, extremist and violent crimes (like a man using a sword to attack a girl band in public from out of nowhere as one mild example) appearing frequently on the streets and of course tabloids, the elderly politicians often making insensitive remarks to locals and foreigners and are incapable of leading the country, the ever-hanging threat of nuclear contamination and even destruction, et cetera. A tall order.

    It’s okay to be white losers for they view them as something different to be ignored quite like their own, but I also think that just as it’s stupid for the nerds (of any colour) to not talk to the girls when the opportunity presents itself and in abundance it’s also stupid that you don’t want to get help even when the environment is tolerating you. I’m surprised you can’t even perform normal everyday functions, which means your condition is grave. Everyone take cover!

    Anyway you should learn the language harder and bow more and lower and maybe they’ll take you in as one of them. It’s a dream worth pursuing if you think about it. You’re winning beyond the overrated land of opportunity too, so why not cross the finishing line?

  • dawnshine

    Wonderful!!! I simply Loved this article!! And I get the same sense about the Japanese, that they in their current state (in the large city anyway), more than any other culture I’ve been exposed to, totally accept the diverse natures of people, Not attempting homogeneity in personality and character like seems to be so popular now. I cannot express how tiring it is to see the Entire social order and textbook dictum (psychology and criminal fields) read that anti-social is equal to some serious mental disorder and future of delinquency. Seriously, there are Many great reasons to be anti-social. And anonymity no matter the personality or extreme of dress expression… ! How wonderful. This is however possible in Most very large cities throughout the world, certainly.

    Thanks for this article! I tire of so many articles seeming to diss Japan, even though the title of this article suggested it might be the same…as if Japan accepts the “disturbed” more than others. But I was pleasantly surprised, accepting it as one person’s experience, and glad I finally read it. :)

  • Johnnybag

    You’re at a party with a 60/40 female to male ratio, and you sit around playing donkey kong for hours and don’t talk to the girls??? Life is short…you, my friend, are missing out on it. I don’t think it’s a good thing that Japan lets u indulge in your problems. And, to be honest, after 10yrs in Japan, I’ve just about had it up to here with empowered socially awkward types such as yourself. The obnoxiousness of indulgence is nearly as bad as bullying by dumb jocks we’ve all experienced in high school. Not saying you have to be normal, but at least make an attempt to be more middle ground so as to not irritate others with your peculiarities. Other people do exist in the world, and it doesn’t revolve around you! And don’t get me wrong, I’m as weird as they come, but socially I adjust to whoever is around me, and thus I can be successful both at home and abroad. Key is, think about others around you, and make an attempt to have them enjoy your company.