Japan: a haven for the psychologically troubled

by William Bradbury

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

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