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Examining the cold hard facts of dependency

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Everybody’s hooked on something. What’s life without its little pleasures? Mere struggle for survival. Smokers crave nicotine, coffee-drinkers caffeine, gamers games. The pursuit of happiness takes many forms. Society approves of most, frowns on others. Some it bans outright.

One Golden Week morning in 2016, NHK announcer Kenichi Tsukamoto opened his door to unexpected company. Police, they said, narcotics squad: “You’re under arrest.”

The Asahi Shimbun published his story in December. The brief imprisonment and ¥500,000 fine were just the beginning. NHK fired him. No one would hire him. No one would rent him an apartment. His name was all over the internet — coupled, he says, with the most outrageous lies. He was persona non grata.

His clash with the law shattered a good life. He joined NHK in 2003. He was 25, fresh out of college. It was a dream job. He rose in the ranks. Shortly before his arrest he was put in charge of creating a new program. It was just getting off the ground.

Why drugs? One thing and another, he says. Pressure. Stress. The eternal search for distraction, novelty. With a do-it-yourself kit purchased from a random website he mixed his own medicine. How he drew police attention is not mentioned. Having drawn it, he found the world a coldly unsympathetic place. The worst seems over. He now works as counselor specializing in “dependency syndrome prevention.”

“Dependency per se is not bad,” explains psychiatrist Toshihiko Matsumoto to Shukan Josei magazine (Jan. 28). “We all live dependent on this and that. If on many things, so much the better. It prevents excessive dependency on any one thing.” At what point does dependency become “dependency syndrome”? “When it hijacks the brain,” says Matsumoto.

Sex is one potential brain hijacker. Shukan Josei introduces a man in his 20s, arrested in an Osaka train station for photographing up a woman’s skirt. The technical term for it — scopophilia — suggests a medical condition. Does that make it innocent? Does the man’s background? He grew up with a development disorder under a high-achieving, demanding father. Mental health can buckle under such an assault. Would the victim understand? If not, does that make him guilty? Would her sympathy cleanse him of guilt?

“Kyoko” is a compulsive shoplifter. She hardly looks the part, as Shukan Josei describes her. She’s 81, neatly dressed, soft-spoken. It started 20 years ago, after her husband died.

She stole some food items from a supermarket. The merest impulse at first, it quickly became a thrill. Success spurred her on. She wasn’t poor — not rich either, but she could easily afford to feed herself. Sometimes she stole food she didn’t even like. Stealing was an end, not a means.

She was eventually caught and released with a warning; then a second time. The third time made her a “habitual offender.” Jail time didn’t deter her. Released, she stole again — and again. She couldn’t stop. She’s currently in therapy, appealing a three-year sentence.

Her tale is a sad one. Emotional wounds launch a downward spiral — into crime? Or mental illness? The West, generally speaking, is moving steadily from punishment to treatment as the most hopeful solution. Japan too — but much more slowly.

“I wasn’t good to my husband,” Kyoko says. It was a company marriage, co-worker and co-worker nudged together by a boss — a common arrangement in the postwar period. She knew from the start she didn’t love the man. They had two children; he loved them; he worked hard, provided well, didn’t philander; she had nothing to reproach him with but grew colder and colder. Finally he moved out, into a small apartment, though continuing to support the household. Suddenly he died, alone in his room.

The guilt that surged in Kyoko was more than she could bear. “My life was all wrong,” she thought. “If he hadn’t married me, he’d have had a better life.”

There is no predicting where such a state of mind can lead. Suddenly she found herself stealing.

Someone at some point steered her into therapy. Shukan Josei’s reporter met her at the Akasaka Kogen Hospital in Gunma Prefecture, which specializes in dependency syndrome. In groups of about 40, individuals variously dependent address one another — confiding, confessing, exchanging experiences, drawing mutual support.

Does it work? Not instantly, not magically. It’s a long, halting process. “Relapses are part of the cure,” addiction therapist Akiyoshi Saito told Spa magazine (Dec. 3-10).

From a number of points of view, it seems preferable to prison — cost not least among them. Each prisoner costs the state on average ¥3.8 million a year, Spa figures — versus ¥1.29 million for treatment at a live-in facility and ¥290,000 for outpatient treatment.

Human rights is another concern. Incarceration in such cases, psychologist Matsumoto told the Asahi Shimbun in December, amounts to “punishment for being ill.” Shukan Josei introduces a kleptomaniac who has spent 22 of her 57 years behind bars. Her father committed suicide, her mother lived on welfare. The child grew up stealing. Somehow the social safety net missed her. Would therapy have helped her? We’ll never know. Certainly prison didn’t.

It’s what she deserved anyway, the consensus seems to be. The stern frown of the law only reflects public opinion, as former NHK announcer Tsukamoto was dismayed to learn. The general attitude seems to be, says Shukan Josei, that dependency syndrome reflects “weak will, lack of self-control.” Sufferers have problems in their lives? So do we all. We cope. Why don’t you?

It’s a harsh, unforgiving stance — explicable in part, writes psychologist Akira Iwanami in Bungei Shunju magazine (January), in terms of Japan’s enduring “village culture.” Modernity surges and surges; Japan never quite sheds its ancientness. “Japan,” says Iwanami, “has never, until now, experienced a mass influx of foreigners. It has never been under foreign occupation.” Insularity is second nature: “No one is allowed to stand out.”

Moral hardliners might do well to consider the mutable nature of morality. During World War II, Iwanami explains, methamphetamine, now under the strictest moral and legal ban, was both moral and legal — supplied by the armed forces to soldiers to fire them up for battle.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”