On Being Depressed & Social Awkwardness in Japan

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. – William Bradbury in The Japan Times

Whilst never diagnosed with depression, I have always been a glass-half-empty kind of person, a bit down, a bit depressed. I rarely talk about it, because I often feel that mentioning it, breathes life into to it, and sometimes, despite the wisdom of self-help books, talking about it doesn’t help, talking often magnifies the problem, making my situation seem worse than it actually is in reality.

William Bradbury’s quite excellent article, in a recent edition of The Japan Times prompted me to write something. Bradbury notes how his OCD is remission in Japan, because ‘the Japanese are so forgiving’ and goes on to note that:

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 can recognise much of myself and my experiences of being physically disabled, certainly socially awkward and, at least in an on-off relationship with depression in Bradbury’s article. I would go further, it is not merely that Japan, at least in its foreigner population, tolerates eccentricity, it positively encourages it. Also there are two other factors at play.

The first is to do with boredom. There is a large component of depression that is to do with boredom. A person that is bored is capable of doing anything and everything, and usually does. It is simply impossible to be bored in Japan; buildings are many stories high, convenience stores are open 24/7, and just occasionally the earth shakes or the wind blows during typhoons, just in case you are getting too comfortable. Boredom is impossible.

The second thing is this: along with the encouragement of eccentricities, Japan is also a place that does not allow you to be anti-social. If you are in say a bar, even on your own, you will be encouraged to talk, perhaps even flirt with fellow patrons, something which would be unthinkable in Britain at least. If Japan has one commandment it is this: ‘Thou Shall be Social!’

All of which is very good for a person who experiences depression. Isolation fosters depression, but Japan will give you every opportunity to avoid depressive episodes. I’m not going so far as to suggest you move here if you have depression, but if you did have depression, and are wondering what to do about it, well I leave you with William Bradbury’s words:

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.


How I Live in Now in Japan

[T]here remains a general tendency amongst expats, not to mention tourists, to accentuate their adventures and downplay their daily routine, those few moments and, over the course of one’s time spent overseas, increasingly unremarkable encounters. That’s something of a regrettable thing. I believe it’s often the case that the seemingly normal things, if savoured, can become uncanny things. These strange mundanities then weave themselves into the fabric of moment-to-moment life and incorporate slightly off-base or out of whack aspects into that which would otherwise (and unfairly) consider an ordinary day. –Richard Russell, Dancing over Kyoto, 2013

It’s been awhile since I wrote anything, almost a month in fact. Mostly it is because I have been busy teaching at the University, which allows me little time to think of interesting ideas to write about. But also because I was thinking about this quote, I can appreciate the author’s regret, it is one I share. Maybe it is because I am not a great writer, that I cannot capture the mundane as Richard Russell (and myself) would like to do. I had almost given up writing anything to do for public consumption, and concentrated instead of updating my diary. I re-read my post to spell check it. It read:

Sunday 6th July 2014

Busy and now typhoon season is upon us. Typhoon Neoguri, the second typhoon of the pacific season for this year approaches Japan. Should make landfall in Okinawa on the 8th and should be on Honshu on the 10th. Usually brushes past Osaka. Still flashlights bought, lithium batteries charged in case of blackout. Minae flying up to Sapporo on the 11th which is worrying could still be windy and stormy around Hokkaido.

As I read it back, I realised why recording the ordinary and the everyday of life in Japan is so difficult.

It really isn’t ordinary. Of course, here in Japan like everywhere else, there is the ordinary, minutia of everyday existence; hair needs cutting, food needs eating, apartments needs vacuuming, bills need paying an so on. People here, get up, have breakfast, go to work, come home, maybe read a newspaper and watch the news before going to sleep. Only when they watch the news and weather report, sometimes this happens.

Yes, its typhoon season again as typhoon Neoguri, approaches Japan.  Maybe it is different if you a foreigner from a country that has more extreme weather, Britain is virtually mono-seasonal, it has Winter; which runs from November until February and Autumn for the rest of the year.  A gale force wind or temperatures in excess of twenty centigrade are considered extreme.  Nobody needs to remind you to make sure your flashlight batteries are at full power, or whether your lithium battery is charged in case of blackout, aside from the occasional powercut there isn’t going to be a blackout, although floods are becoming more common.

Of course, it isn’t really odd routines about the weather, whether they be earthquakes, tsunami or typhoons, that make living in Japan un-ordinary but how quickly you incorporate those routines into your way of living, they become, not just normal and everyday, it becomes unthinkable that you could act otherwise.  And it’s not just a routine for typhoons, for example passports are kept in a safe, but accessible place in case of emergency evacuation due to earthquakes or tsunami, passports and some other documents related to marriage and residency in Japan in fact, and a bit of cash, in case you haven’t been to the bank when calamity strikes.

Surely, you might say, there are humdrum things such as paying bills. Bills you say, you mean things like electricity and water bills which you pay at convenience stores?

Nothing is ordinary, everything is experienced as exceptional, and it when you reflect on it, and recognise it as an experience of the uncanny, that sense of exceptionality is heightened.  And yet the writer in me is not satisfied with that, there must be a way to capture the mundane.  But I have yet to find the way, and now typhoon season has begun, everything will a little more ‘exceptional’ than usual, as I now live in a world where, with great regularity you have to check your flashlight, lithium battery, as well as water and food supplies.

It is in no way ordinary, but this is how I live, at least for now.

Japan calls for safety of disabled in disasters

Originally from NHK World June 11th 2014

In its first appearance at a UN conference on the rights of persons with disabilities, Japan has called for ensuring the safety of disabled people during natural disasters.

The meeting of countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities began at the UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday.

The meeting includes delegates from more than 140 nations. Among them are representatives of groups for the disabled.

The convention, which went into effect 6 years ago, aims to prohibit all forms of discrimination against people with disabilities and to promote their participation in all areas of society. Japan formally became party to the treaty this year.

Japan’s ambassador to the UN, Motohide Yoshikawa, said his country has revised some of its laws and enacted a new one to allow people to take legal action in cases of discrimination against the disabled.

He said Japan revised its disaster management law after disabled people suffered disproportionate harm in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The revision mandates the creation of lists of people who need support in case of evacuation.

Japan Disability Forum executive Katsunori Fujii said the ratification of the treaty will help Japan become a more hospitable place for people with disabilities. He said Japan can make a global contribution in such areas as engineering for personal welfare.

The 3-day conference will aim to include support for the disabled in the UN’s list of sustainable development goals.

Have you seen the ninja granny?

Japan is a place for sub-cultures; we have our Oaku, our Harajuku gilrls, they are a well-established sub-strata of Japanese society.  But today I discovered another sub-species, ladies and gentlemen may introduce to the ninja oba-chan.

Even long term residents of Japan might be confused, so let me explain. An ‘Oba-chan’ is a granny, a  elderly Japanese lady, one day all women of Japan, whether they have grandchildren or not shall be called ‘oba-chan’.  ‘Ninja’ of course, you know, they are those stealthy assassins, the most famous of which was Hattori Hanzo, not, as Quentin Tarantino would have us believe, a great sword maker, but a great assassin, who become a samurai for saving the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu in the sixteenth century.

What has all this talk of ninja got to with Japanese granny’s I hear you ask?  Well, I shall tell you, you see I have this theory: Japanese grannies are all descended from ninja.  Sounds crazy right?  So let me explain.

I’m out shopping, buying stuff for my Friday night meal, and fancied some sausages.  In Japan there is a really cool treat, a sausage fried in cornmeal, a corn dog to American readers, an ‘American dog’  to Japanese readers and simply awesome to this British writer.  You can eat in the convenience store, but I had bought two, one for me and one for the wife.  Taking it home meant the following: trying to stuff convenience store sausages into the small plastic container in the world, trying to whip an elastic band around.   I cannot do it, I have tried but my palsy effected left side will not let it happen.  I do try, I had at least t five good goes, but no avail.  Time passes; I get frustrated and seriously think about giving up on my beloved sausage.

It is at this point, and only at this point, that ninja oba-chan will appear.

Because suddenly an elderly Japanese lady appears, seemingly without making any sound, takes the plastic carton and then a whip-splat-kerpow – hey presto, I am presented with one neatly wrapped carton of food.  I try to mutter a arigatogozaimasu – Thank you, but before I can finish my sentence, I get a hai dozo There!  And as quick as ninja oba-chan appeared, puff like that, she’s gone.

Let me know if you encounter her.


Michey is Both Other and Lame!

Everyone is the other, and no one is himself. – Martin Heidegger

Recently in Japan, Uniqlo, a clothing chain, started a clothing range, with involvement from Pharrell Williams of ‘Happy’ videos fame.  The range is called ‘i am OTHER’, and it is a serious of hats, shirts and blouses.  Each has a phrase on it, phrases such as:

‘Unlike any other

Think other’

And my personal favourite:

‘The Same is Lame’

I love the idea of this as an academic philosopher; there is a long tradition in philosophy about interrogating the concept of the ‘same’ and ‘the other of the same’.  Google ‘Other of the Same’ and see for yourself.  Also as someone with cerebral palsy, I especially enjoy wearing a hat that read ‘The Same is Lame’.  Let me explain why:

Merriam-Websters defintion of lame:

 adjective \ˈlām\

: having an injured leg or foot that makes walking difficult or painful

: not strong, good, or effective

: not smart or impressive


:  having a body part and especially a limb so disabled as to impair freedom of movement

:  marked by stiffness and soreness <a lame shoulder>


:  lacking needful or desirable substance :  weak, ineffectual <a lame excuse>


slang :  not being in the know : 

So I am both Other and lame.  Deal with that Mr. Williams!


Summer is Coming!

Here comes the summer!   Summer announced itself today with a wall of rain outside my apartment. Yes the report is in, for the next few months it is going to be hot and wet.  Time to break out the poncho and drink plenty of water, When I first moved to Japan in August 2012, more than the excellent train service or the twenty-four convenience stores, the summer was my biggest shock, and not entirely a pleasant one.

By July it will be mid to late 30’s Celsius, in fact, summer started early this year since it’s been that hot since the last week in May.  Come August it will feel like 40 Celsius. So you may think, ‘cool you can go to the beach and drink alcohol’.  Nah, sorry, not going to happen.  There will be late 90% humidity, so beer is really not a good idea, your best friend will be soft drinks until at least until late August.  It is so easy to faint from heat exhaustion and dehydration.  Japanese summers have body counts, people dying, and not just the elderly, from heat exhaustion.  So not excessive drinking children, which sucks.   

With the heat, also comes the rain and the beginning of typhoon season. The first typhoon system actually often appears in January, but those of any threat happen from May or June onwards. So stock up on water, buying a flashlight and a rechargeable lithium battery (so you can film the power cut black out with your smartphone), and prepare to batten down the hatches at a moment’s notice.

You may also find eating difficult, heat often kills hunger, or at least food doesn’t always taste nice.  There is of course an upside, you may lose weight.  So eat healthy, else the lack of exercise due to the rain and heat will leave you fatter in September than you were in May.

You will need to take at least two baths or showers a day from late June onwards, and three in August.  If you don’t you will smell, which can really effect both your love-life and employment opportunities , I sweat so much by August nobody wants to employ me, so maybe also save up Yen for the lean and overheated times!

There is however one good thing about summer, the summer sun. It is called the Land of the Rising Sun for a reason, and the sunrise by July will be breathtaking.

Would be nice though if it were a bit less melty and sweaty.


Badges for ‘invisible disabilities’ catching on

Via the Japan Times/Kyodo news

by Miki Shirasaka

Patients with hidden physical impediments — internal conditions not immediately recognizable by others — are increasingly wearing badges as they try to increase awareness of the difficulties they face.

“In all my life, I have never once been able to run,” said Nobuyo Shirai, 45, an activist who has a serious heart ailment and is registered as disabled.

Shirai visits a large hospital in Tokyo from her home in Saitama Prefecture once a month, but the one-hour train ride is tough because she is physically weak.

It is a huge ordeal when she cannot get a seat. But it is even more painful when other passengers glare at her for taking a priority seat designated for elderly and disabled passengers, she said.

People with invisible impediments can be those with heart, kidney and liver conditions. Like people with visible physical disabilities or visual and hearing problems, they are eligible for physical disability certificates.

Figures from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry show there were an estimated 930,000 patients with internal ailments as of 2011. They accounted for 24 percent of all certificate holders, a number surpassed only by people with limb disabilities.

To enhance public awareness, Shirai’s non-profit Heart Plus organization created a “heart plus” symbol in 2003 to signify an internal ailment.

People with invisible impediments used to have no way to indicate their needs, Shirai said. “People who have had ostomies would get yelled at for using the toilets for the disabled,” she said.

The mark is winning public recognition. Five years ago, Kitakyushu City Hall began placing heart plus stickers on priority seats on trains, buses and other public transport and providing badges with the mark to those wish to wear one.

Eriko Yoshida, an associate professor at University of Nagasaki, surveyed 471 people with internal impediments last year and found that 52 percent of the respondents reported being in need of assistance or support.

Fifty-four percent said they need assistance or support even with such household chores as cooking and cleaning. A further 42 percent cited daily shopping, with a similar number saying they needed help to make hospital visits or commute to work or school.

Even people who said they needed no help may in fact be struggling, Yoshida said.

Author Sarasa Ono thus developed an “invisible impediment badge” to help people with internal ailments discuss their difficulties with others.

Ono, who suffers from an intractable immune-system condition, writes about people who receive insufficient support because of shortcomings in public assistance.

The badge, which costs ¥350, has received 30,000 orders, Ono said, with interest both from patients with chronic diseases, developmental difficulties and mental ailments, and their families.

“People need the courage to talk about their own impediments,” Ono said. “I hope they don’t feel alone, because everyone with a badge is in the same situation.”