A Cold Of The Heart: Japan Strives To Normalize Depression

George Kendall Vickery

PhD Thesis 2005

In 1999, the Japanese government began approving the use of SSRIs, those antidepressant medications including Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil that had years earlier triggered the “Prozac Revolution” in the United States. Before then, depression was not commonly diagnosed in Japan, and it was argued that the infrequency was due to cultural factors. Since 1999, however, rates of diagnosis have surged and depression had garnered increasing attention in the popular media. As a result, the mainstream conception of depression is shifting from that of a serious mental illness affecting a small number of individuals to a less severe condition from which virtually can suffer. In short, depression is becoming “normalized”.

Based on 18 months of ethnographical fieldwork in clinical settings in Tokyo from 2001 to 2003, this dissertation argues that Japan is “fertile ground” for the normalization of depression and that depression is increasingly resonating because of its ability to encapsulate the pressures and insecurity that are dominating the lives of many individuals. This normalization represents a medicalized response to a variety of novel stresses - especially layoffs, financial insecurity, and overwork - that many citizens are facing in the new millennium, with many of these stresses stemming from Japan’s ongoing economiic restructuring. Depression is emerging as a means of discussing the impact of these stresses on the lives of working adults, especially men. The increasing focus on depression, therefore, represents changes in social experience and the increasing recognition of those changes.

By showing the degree to which the emerging understandings of depression in Japan are embedded in the socio-economic context and by comparing Japan’s “depression boom” with America’s Prozac Revolution, this dissertation examines depression’s capacity to operate as an idiom of distress within which modes of personal suffering are imbricated with wider socio-economic forces.