Written by Vosot Ikeida and Francesco Pantò
Photos presented by Francesco Pantò
.....Continued from Round 5
Communication in Japan from the Perspective of Cultural Psychiatry
Vosot Please tell us a little more about your upcoming book.
Will you be writing a lot about Japanese anime culture, which you have always loved, in that book?
Fran No, the content of the book to be published this fiscal year is different from my usual interests in animation. However, it is a very important project for me. I can't go into too much detail yet, but since I came to Japan, I've been having a lot of trouble with emotional communication. Then I began to think, "Maybe interpersonal relationships and communication between people differ from culture to culture."
So I started to record my various communication experiences in Japan in a notebook. Since I had accumulated a lot of them, I decided to conceptualize them in an easy-to-understand way and publish them in a book.
Vosot Then it seems I can't ask about many details of your upcoming book (laughs), but what is the background to publish it anyway?
Fran Well, I don't know if you've heard of it, but there is a minor field of psychiatry called cultural psychiatry. It's a quite interesting field.
Culture-bound syndrome or culture-specific syndrome refers to a phenomenon that is specific to a certain culture in a certain country. These phenomena do not always have a positive impact on mental health. They are often only understood or identified when compared to other cultures.
Vosot The perspective of cultural psychiatry is very stimulating, but it is also very difficult to handle. It could turn out to be just Orientalism any time, if you are not careful.
Psychiatry is a branch of the Western academic system of medicine that began with Hippocrates, so cultural psychiatry has been also observing the mental phenomena of people in various cultures from a European-based perspective.
In the field of internal medicine, infectious diseases that occur in places other than Europe, such as Africa, are considered "endemic". Likewise, there is always the danger that any behavioral phenomenon that differs from the European norm and occurs in social settings other than Europe could be labeled as a culture-specific syndrome. In that case, it may end up with the evaluation that a culture-specific syndrome is like an endemic disease of the psyche.
Fran Cultural psychiatry is always confronted with such dangers.
For example, some researchers have a nuance that hikikomori is a phenomenon unique to Japan. As I said in our previous interview, there is certainly a nuance that cannot be denied.
If it turns out that the emergence of hikikomori is related to the culture, then it is possible that hikikomori also becomes culture-specific syndrome. At present, it is thought that hikikomori has both universal and culturally-specific elements.
Vosot That part "both universal and culturally-specific elements." is a big question. I mean, how to separate or to relate the two.
If it is assumed that hikikomori is a Japanese culture-specific syndrome, then it would be necessary to explain how it is connected to the "universal syndrome" of global hikikomori.
Even before that, we have to be cautious about treating hikikomori as a syndrome. It is the situation described with a Japanese proverb "Shaka ni seppoh", meaning lecturing to the Buddha, to talk about such a thing to one of Dr. Tamaki Saito's disciples, but let me say again. A hikikomori is a condition, not a disease. However, a syndrome is supposed to be a collection of symptoms, so if we treat hikikomori as a syndrome, it will inevitably become a mental illness to treat.
Fran Yes, of course, we have to be cautious about that too.
What I noticed was that there is a specific method of communication in the Japanese social scene. I thought that the way Japanese people communicate may not have a positive impact on their well-being, so I compared it to the flat interpersonal communication system in the West and discussed it.
Vosot Roughly speaking, what do you think are the characteristics of the Japanese communication system?
Fran In Japan, communication is based on the distinction of tatemae and honne; ( social facade and true intents). This may be leading to negative psychological effects. I believe that this theme is closely related to the formation of hikikomori and other issues.
Vosot What experiences have brought you to think this way?
Fran I have come to think this way as a result of talking with many people during my work, who have been away from school or have experienced social reclusion , as well as with young people who have suffered emotionally without any special mental illness but are still suffering. I found that many of them were trapped in some kind of unpleasant interpersonal relationship and fell into a pattern of not being able to express their true feelings, having to endure, not being accepted, or not being able to change the character they show to the society.
So I started thinking,
"Is there a pattern of communication that prevents us from being our honest selves?"
Then I came up with a hypothesis to support this theory. First, I introduced the evidence from previous studies, and thereafter I started my hypothesis.
Vosot I see. What is the picture like when you conceptualize it?
Fran First of all, communication is an essential means for human beings to fulfill their individual and organizational needs. When it comes to individual needs, the first thing we need to do is to communicate our feelings to others without making value judgments. The process is delicate, and if you are not careful, before you know it, you may be led to believe that your feelings are not fully understood and that you are not worthy. I believe that the more "rituals," structures, and rules there are in communication, the higher the risk of this happening.
The Rationality and Endemic Nature of Culture
Vosot I was a sotokomori and spent most of my twenties as being a shut-in overseas, and when I came back to Japan in my thirties, I did not know how to communicate with the way of Japanese adults, so I could not communicate well with other Japanese people, and get isolated and became a shut-in again.
To this day, I am not able to communicate in the standard Japanese way. I am not used to making pre-negotiations before the main discussion. I don't guess what the counterpart should do but can't insist. I say everything straightly. So I tend to get isolated in Japanese society.
So I understand what you are saying, but on the other hand, I think that caution is required here as well, as I mentioned earlier.
The Japanese way of communication, with its characteristics such as not responding directly as Westerners do, may indeed seem to the West to be unhappy. However, not only in Japan but also in other countries, customs cultivated over a long period have a certain rationality hidden deep within them.
Fran That can be said about my home, Sicily. The island in the southern tip of Italy, has a very strong culture and customs as it was made famous by the movie "The Godfather".
From the point of view of northern Italy and other regions that have been in contact with other European countries for a long time, this may seem like an irrationality. However, there was a certain inevitability and rationality at the time for such customs to be established.
Vosot And I think this can be said so, not only in Sicily and Japan, but universally in all cultures around the world.
Fran Cultural customs may indeed have an internal rationale, but as the cultural sphere begins to interact with other cultural spheres and comparisons are made, it is possible to understand for the first time what is inevitable and universal in a custom and what is non-universal and endemic. In this sense, the outsider is a treasure.
In my opinion, the needs of human mental health are almost the same everywhere, regardless of culture or country. This means that the customs of a culture do not necessarily have a positive influence on the universal mental structure of the people who live there.
Of course, we need to be extremely cautious when talking about a culture that is different from the one we were born and raised in. Because culture is like intellectual property . It does not mean that only those who grew up in that culture are qualified to talk about it, but culture is extremely valuable, and respect is basically essential when dealing with other people's culture. Otherwise, I don't think I have the right to speak.
Vosot That's right. I think it's really important.
Fran On the other hand, it is reasonable that I, as a specialist, point out, with some background of scientific knowledge, that some customs are not properly the best for our mental health, and people should never miss it. For me, Japanese culture is my favorite, it is the best, which motivates me to make this point even more. I want to point this out because I want everyone living in this country to be happy, including myself now.
Vosot Well, that would lead to the transformation of the culture itself, but I guess that's the way the history of the world goes.
What is it to be Happy for Everyone?
Vosot Let me step in further. When considering whether a certain communication style brings happiness to a person or not, I think it is necessary to ask whose standard the "happiness" is judged by in the first place.
For that matter, Japanese people may behave towards you in the way you would be pleased, especially if you are a Westerner, due to the Japanese character. So Japanese people you interview may behave as if they have adopted the standard of happiness that you Westerners may have, just on the surface, to adapt themselves to you.
Therefore, when you research this theme, you may need checks doubly, just like double-blind in clinical trials. So I imagine you can't say you measured the degree of true "happiness" until the same experiment produces the same results in different subjects. What do you think?
Fran Yes, of course, happiness is a concept that is mainly based on subjective views, so it is a fair question to ask whose standard determines happiness.
However, as I mentioned earlier, studies have shown that the structure of the human psyche is the same whether you are Japanese or Italian. To give an extreme example, drugs that work on serotonin work on depression patients from any country, right? This is because the structure of the brain is the same.
Of course, if we could take more precise images of the brain, we might be able to point out that there are some differences in the brain at the molecular level depending on the environment in which we live. But this is more like science fiction at the moment (laughs).
Vosot It sounds possible, though, that if you consume a lot of olive oil like the Sicilians, your neocortex will get bigger. (laughs)
Fran For example, the pyramid of Maslow's Self-Realization Theory can be applied to any human being in the world. The content of happiness may differ from person to person, for example, Mr. A may be happy if he has a dog, and Mr. B may be happy if he has a cat, but the human need for happiness is basically the same for everyone. We all have different needs, such as social needs, needs for approval, needs to be loved, needs to be recognized for our uniqueness, and so on.
If communication is good, our needs for self-actualization will be met, but if it is not good, we will inevitably fall into isolation and suffer. It is the same for people everywhere.
I believe that emotional communication is the biggest Achilles heel of interpersonal relationships in Japanese society. If you read my book, you will understand why. (laughs)
Vosot Now, I'd like to talk to you again when the responses to your book are coming in from all over Japan. Thank you very much for this long interview.
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