The surprising story of how Japan accepted (finally) the existence of depression

The surprising story of how Japan accepted (finally) the existence of depression


Until recently, many Japanese people did not recognize the existence of depression as a physical and psychological condition The sales of antidepressants were minimal until an advertising campaign managed to start talking about depression .

“My world is cracking and disappears! I can not even get up now!” Says Watashi, a Japanese manga character that illustrates this note .

It’s the same thing that the creator of Watashi and comic artist Torisugari began to feel about ten years ago.

Then, a single thought was spinning in his head: “I have to die.”

At that time he did not know what was happening to him, and his fear grew bigger and bigger due to the incomprehension of those around him.

Manga image of someone with depression
Copyright of the TORISUGARI image
Image caption Until the late 1990s, doctors prescribed rest for patients with depression.

He tried to commit suicide and did not tell his parents. Instead, he went to a doctor to check the state of his heart. But as he told him, nothing was wrong.

At 29, Torisugari begged his mother not to leave home without him.

But his father insisted that everything he did was just to get attention.

His best friend told him the same thing and encouraged him to exercise.

The world was becoming a strange place for him , and his relationships were failing him, he felt.

Finally, another doctor gave him a diagnosis: depression.

I had never heard of her.

And this was not uncommon in Japan at the time.

Image of a person about to fall
Copyright of the TORISUGARI image
Image caption The world cracks under my feet.
Manga image of a person begging his mother not to leave
Copyright of the TORISUGARI image
Image caption Watashi says: “Do not leave, do not leave, do not leave me!” The answer: “Enough with that!”

Until the late 1990s, in Japan the word “depression” was hardly heard outside of psychiatric circles.

Some said that this was because in the country they did not suffer it.

The Japanese found ways to accommodate that state while continuing with their lives.

And they expressed aesthetically those emotional moments in art, in cinema, in the enjoyment of cherry blossoms and their fleeting beauty.

Image of a person exercising
Copyright of the TORISUGARI image
Image caption A friend told him to play sports.
Watashi receives the diagnosis of depression
Copyright of the TORISUGARI image
Image caption Watashi receives the diagnosis: “Mr. K., this is depression, I’m going to give you a medication, please go back to your boss.”

But a more probable reason for this ignorance of depression is that in the Japanese medical tradition, depression was perceived as something primarily physical, rather than a combination of the physical and the psychological.

To the people who had the classic symptoms of depression, their doctors told them many times that what they needed was rest.

All this made Japan a bad market for antidepressants, so much so that the manufacturers of the famous Prozac simply gave up promoting it there.

This situation was reversed at the end of the 20th century thanks to an extraordinary marketing campaign of a Japanese pharmaceutical company.

The depression began to be called kokoro no kaze, a ” cold of the soul “.

It could happen to anyone and could be treated with medication.

The number of people diagnosed with a mood disorder in Japan doubled in just four years and the antidepressant market flourished.

In 2006 it reached a value six times higher than it had eight years ago.

In a country open like any other to the confessions of celebrities, everyone was willing to say publicly that they had experienced depression.

This new disease was not only now acceptable, it was also slightly fashionable.

Image of a person disintegrating
Copyright of the TORISUGARI image
Image caption People with depression feel that their world is coming down.

The depression even went to court.

Ichiro Oshima’s family took his employer Dentsu (Japan’s largest advertising agency) to court, after Oshima committed suicide after working excessively daily, for months.

The family lawyers successfully demonstrated two things. First, that depression could be caused by someone’s personal circumstances, including working too much.

And the second, that it was not just a matter of genetic inheritance, as Dentsu tried to argue.

It was also seen that the idea that still prevails in Japan that suicide is clearly intended, even noble, was inadequate.

The leaders of the country were restless.

Mental illnesses had gone from being a domestic and hidden issue to being at the center of a movement for workers’ rights .

In 2006, a suicide prevention law was passed to try to reduce rates and declare it a social issue, not just a private problem.

Image of a person working
Copyright of the TORISUGAR Iimage
Image caption Work stress can cause depression.

And since 2015 , stress tests have been done in companies.

A complete questionnaire that covers its causes and symptoms is evaluated by doctors and nurses, and there is support from doctors for those who need it, who keep the results confidential.

This is mandatory for companies with more than 50 workers, and the smallest are encouraged to do the same.

So, does Japan already firmly believe in depression?

Well, maybe yes, or maybe not.

There are signs that a pendular movement is taking place in the opposite direction.

The increase in work absences and absences seems to be generating a climate of frustration, and even suspicion about how people obtain and use the diagnosis.

Some Japanese suffering from depression feel that the increased public awareness of the condition has relieved them, allowing them to talk openly about it.

But they also believe that recovery and return to work are hampered by the cynicism of those around them and mentions of a “false” or “invented” depression.

Image of a person floating
Copyright of the TORISUGARI image
Image caption In Japan, it was believed that mood drops could be alleviated through aesthetic expression.

On the other hand, the limitations of the campaign on the “cold of the soul” are evident.

At the time, he was criticized for misleadingly linking the common cold to a depression.

But, beyond that, Japan’s experience with depression shows the intense link between some forms of physical and mental illness and cultural attitudes towards work, for example, or toward levels of responsibility towards others.

Nobody knows this better than Torisugari, who still has to deal with his illness and with some of the misunderstandings that he had to face in those first surreal weeks.

For this reason he has decided to create the drawings that we see in this article, and that is why his manga has a growing and grateful audience , both on the internet and on paper.

For him it is something like a “manga therapy,” as his psychiatrist calls it.

For the rest, it is an aid to understand this disease so poorly understood until recently in Japan.

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Rava Desk

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