August 22, 2004

Language, thought and marketing

A NYT magazine article by Kathryn Schulz suggests a key causal role for terminology in the evolution of Japanese thinking about depression. Or at least, in the evolution of Japanese spending about depression.

Talking about depression in Japanese has always been a fundamentally different undertaking than talking about it in English. In our language, the word for depression is remarkably versatile. It can describe dips in landscapes, economies or moods. It can refer to a devastating psychiatric condition or a fleeting response to the Cubs losing the pennant. It can be subdivided almost endlessly: major, minor, agitated, anxious, bipolar, unipolar, postpartum, premenstrual.

But in Japanese, the word for depression (utsubyo) traditionally referred only to major or manic depressive disorders and was seldom heard outside psychiatric circles. To talk about feelings, people relied on the word ki or ''vital energy.'' A literal translation of Japanese synonyms for sorrow reads, to Westerners, like the kind of emotional troubles that might befall a kitchen sink: ki ga fusagu, sadness because your ki is blocked; ki ga omoi, sadness because your ki is sluggish; ki ga meiru, sadness because your ki is leaking.

About five years ago, according to Schultz, some advertising genius coined the phrase kokoro no kaze -- "a cold in the soul" -- in order to "explain mild depression to a country that almost never discussed it". And, not coincidentally, to sell Depromel, Paxil, Prozac and the rest. As a result, "depression has gone from bad word to buzzword":

Over the past five years, according to the Japanese Bookstore Association, 177 books about depression have been published, compared with a mere 27 from 1990 to 1995. Earlier this month, the country's most popular online bulletin board, Channel 2, carried 713 conversation threads about depression -- more than music (582) or food (691) and almost as many as romance (716).

This has certainly been a good thing for the pharmaceutical industry. It may be a good thing for the Japanese, whose suicide rate is twice that of the U.S., though the article doesn't indicate whether there's any statistical evidence that the increased sales of anti-depressants are having an impact on this. But Schulz seems to feel that it might be a bad thing for Japanese culture:

For 1,500 years of Japanese history, Buddhism has encouraged the acceptance of sadness and discouraged the pursuit of happiness -- a fundamental distinction between Western and Eastern attitudes. The first of Buddhism's four central precepts is: suffering exists. Because sickness and death are inevitable, resisting them brings more misery, not less. ''Nature shows us that life is sadness, that everything dies or ends,'' Hayao Kawai, a clinical psychologist who is now Japan's commissioner of cultural affairs, said. ''Our mythology repeats that; we do not have stories where anyone lives happily ever after.'' Happiness is nearly always fleeting in Japanese art and literature. That bittersweet aesthetic, known as aware, prizes melancholy as a sign of sensitivity.

This traditional way of thinking about suffering helps to explain why mild depression was never considered a disease. ''Melancholia, sensitivity, fragility -- these are not negative things in a Japanese context,'' Tooru Takahashi, a psychiatrist who worked for Japan's National Institute of Mental Health for 30 years, explained. ''It never occurred to us that we should try to remove them, because it never occurred to us that they were bad.''

I'm less willing to tell the Japanese that they should cultivate aware and leave happiness to us Westerners. Anyhow, it sounds like the Japanese are not removing mild depression at all, but rather beginning to obsess about it just like Americans do. Though perhaps they always did, but just with different terminology?


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 22, 2004 03:08 PM