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The growing number of Japanese nationals residing abroad — expected to surpass 1 million by 2006 — is being matched by the need for specialist counseling agencies that help with the stress of living in an alien culture.

Many Japanese expatriates been sent abroad by their companies, so some of the stress they suffer is work-related. All too often, their employers offer little or no help.

The Industrial Safety and Health Law states that employers must make efforts to ensure their employees’ workloads are not excessive, and a 2000 health ministry guideline says firms must try to care for their workers’ mental health. Neither, however, is binding.

Work-related stress is meanwhile exacting a toll. 2003 saw a record 1,878 suicides in Japan alone directly related to work out of the 34,427 suicides for the year, according to the National Police Agency. Company employees who killed themselves, including those posted overseas, also hit a record 9,209 for the year, although they may not all be directly linked to work.

Labor experts say these figures are not unrelated to the increased burden placed on workers amid Japan’s prolonged economic slump, and they note there is a pressing need for mental health care, especially at small firms and companies’ overseas offices.

Osaka-based counseling institute Career Management Consulting Co. offers counseling programs to client firms’ employees both in Japan and abroad.

The firm believes overseas workers need special attention, because their numbers are on the rise as industries expand abroad, especially in China. While the number and age of employees sent abroad per company are declining to keep costs down, their overall mental health-care needs are not.

Career Management Consulting President Junichi Yoshida believes, however, that only major companies really attempt to address such needs.

“Only global corporations that are aware of the legal consequences of someone dying from overwork want to seek contracts with us. Other high-risk firms are totally uninterested,” Yoshida said, citing general contractors with offices in the Middle East involved in Iraq’s reconstruction whose employees might need such care.

Tokyo-based Peacemind Inc., which has offered counseling to people both in and out of Japan since 1998, last month opened its first overseas office in New York, naming Motoaki Ibano, former president of the information conglomerate Recruit Inc.’s U.S. unit, as the representative.

New York was chosen as its first overseas office because of a large number of Japanese companies operating there, but Peacemind plans to open offices in Los Angeles, London, Hong Kong, Singapore and other cities.

Peacemind President Kunihiro Ogiwara said Ibano, who worked for 13 years at Recruit’s U.S. unit, is ideal for the job because he is well aware of the troubles Japanese expats often encounter, including the work ethics of locally hired staff that often differ greatly from Japan’s.

Locally hired staff in many cases value their private lives much more than their jobs, unlike typical Japanese workers, and some are extremely competitive and uncooperative, Ogiwara said.

Some locally hired staff also feel their expat colleagues benefit from an unfair double standard, including housing allowances and higher salaries, he said.

Japanese transferred overseas often are accorded higher living standards than local hires, and when the latter complain, this becomes a source of serious stress for Japanese used to workplace harmony back home, Ogiwara said.

He added that expats ordinarily prefer to consult with fellow Japanese who understand what it’s like living abroad, but this can be difficult because they fear that confiding to colleagues or superiors back in Japan may lead to a poor evaluation, and their usually small overseas Japanese communities often are gossip mills.

A third party like Peacemind can assist those people desperately seeking help, he said.

In addition to its counselors in New York, Peacemind has 20 licensed counselors in Japan who can be contacted 24 hours a day via e-mail or phone. The counselors, most of whom have lived abroad, are especially geared to address the needs of overseas residents, he said.

Peacemind plans to expand its services to individual clients to meet the needs of people whose companies do not have a contract with a counseling agency.

Some firms are also looking specifically to address the mental health needs of the increasing number of Japanese women living abroad.

Sachiko Harada, 27, operates Quality Life Consulting Ltd., an online agency in Sydney that caters only to individual female clients.

Harada, who herself experienced a fear of people and an excessive appetite while on a working holiday in Australia, came up with an original self-help training aid for women suffering mental problems.

More than 100 women overseas now use her Happiness Seminar training kit, which includes a set of five CDs and five textbooks touted as being able to help women develop their ideal self. Harada and her staff also offer e-mail consultations.

Harada observed that women who live abroad and seek her help typically are in three social positions with three typical problem types.

“The first are expats who feel they have missed out on women’s happiness by solely pursuing their careers,” Harada explained. “The second are expats’ wives suffering an identity crisis who want to shut themselves in because they feel they aren’t good for anything, and the third are students who study abroad because there are no jobs in Japan but have lost confidence trying to cope with a foreign language and culture.”

She gave the example of a woman in her late 30s who was sent to Shanghai by a Japanese TV production agency.

“Although she always liked her job, fatigue began to set in from the stress of working in a land with a totally different culture.

“She soon began to resent that the other expats around her, all men, had happy family lives outside of work, while she was all alone. The constant reminders by her family back home that she needed to think about her biological clock only made matters worse,” Harada said, noting the woman was in a serious state when she finally sought counseling.

Harada said she managed to gradually convince the woman that what she had accomplished was very special and not something other women were able to do, and that helped the client see her life in a wider perspective.

“The choices for women are rapidly expanding. We want to keep helping women overseas who are in all kinds of situations,” Harada said.

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