My elderly Japanese friend is quite a wonder. A child during the war, he knew what it was to have his world come crashing down. He is part of the great generation here who built an economic powerhouse from the ashes of devastation. Though a large part of his ideology was literally blacked out, there still remained an unshakeable determination to rebuild Japan no matter what it took. This man and the other survivors of that time gave themselves completely to their jobs. They endured what few of us could.
What is inconceivable to this man, still strong and working every day, is that his Japan is fading away. What made Japan a world leader—hard work, living for the company, following the rules, and never admitting weakness—just isn’t enough anymore. I read on a Japanese professor’s blog recently that Japan’s process-driven approach to doing business wouldn’t need to change if not for the harsh reality of globalization. Japan achieved great success, after all. He’s exactly right, though I wonder if subsequent generations could ever have continued long in the footsteps left by the war-children generation.
Instead, the time has come for them to set Japan on a different path, it seems. Japan may not end up as wealthy, yet its people could still come to enjoy a higher quality of life.
An article in The Japan Times Online (2/12/2012) asserts that depression is the greatest health issue facing Japan today. The 800,000 to 1,200,000 people staying away from or dropping out of work each year due to depression attests to the fact that many cannot push through as their forbears did. Numerous Japanese people, both men and women, have complained to me about being bullied at work. While bullying in the past may have been a normal way of keeping everyone in line, people today can’t just ignore the pain and do their duty for the good of the group.
And of course, as in Western countries, depression here affects women more than men. For example, I have been told that when a Japanese husband is unfaithful, it is considered beautiful for his wife to endure it in silence, with patience and strength. Today’s Japanese wife, however, may instead fall into depression, as I have seen.
I have a very good Japanese friend, “Taka,” in his 40s who dropped out of work due to depression over 10 years ago. He told me recently that the question that hit him at the time he became depressed was, “Why am I alive?” It’s a question I have often heard here. Unfortunately, many can’t find a good answer and end their lives by suicide.
Taka’s journey has been a long, difficult one, where he too came close to suicide, but he has definitely taken a turn for the better lately. His sister recently asked him, “What happened to you? You have emotions again!”
When I asked what had helped him, he said, “I became able to show my true self, not just be like everyone else. I can admit what I really want to do. I have learned not to worry so much about what other people think.” Traditional Japanese culture may not encourage such thinking, but regardless of cultural norms, at bottom, we are all human beings with the same basic needs.
Taka also said, “I got a connection to people, without whom I wouldn’t be improving. Spending time with people who accept me and volunteering have been important.” We all need deep, mutually beneficial relationships with other people to live healthy lives. While we are evidently living in a global community, we have more and more difficulty forming a local one.
Another Japanese friend and licensed clinical psychologist confirmed that what has helped Taka also helps people dealing with depression all over the world. “People with mild depression or who are in the recovery stage of clinical depression will benefit by participating in a supportive group where they are not only receiving but also giving. This helps people feel their life has value and worth.” She has also found that cognitive behavioral therapy, which leads people to challenge their core beliefs with truth, works very well in Japan, just like anywhere else. It seems that when we are weak and at the end of ourselves we are pretty much like suffering people everywhere.
The Japanese caught in a hard time of transition may not be able to bear up as well as their parents did when the world was simpler. They are more like us and suffering, unfortunately, from the same ailments. And like people everywhere, they need the people around them to understand and accept them, which is the first step to getting better.
I also think that Japanese people need to be more understanding when someone searches for ultimate meaning in a time of crisis. The words “faith” and “religion” are bad words in Japan, especially to the older generation who learned that they couldn’t trust anyone but themselves. One of my friends, while fighting cancer and mild depression, started attending church and is doing very well now. Unfortunately, she had to bear criticism for “needing religion.” The point is that Japanese need to feel freer to seek out new ways to create communities where they can be themselves and help each other. Ideally, these communities need to provide meaningful volunteering opportunities.
I have also seen a small company here trying to change its environment into one where people can be creative and question things openly. It’s tough in this country that is very adverse to change, but as I’m seeing, it’s possible. While many companies in the same industry are failing, instead of panicking and pushing people beyond their limits, this company is trying to work smart. And it’s still going strong.
One thing Japanese still recognize better than most is that suffering has value and makes us better people. Maybe it will produce Japan’s next great generation, the generation that led the country toward a better life. As a Japanese businessman recently told me, “We may not have as much money in the future, but maybe we’ll be happier.”