Kato connected his findings about these patients to Japan’s public discourse around modern-type depression because he found the term useful for exploring a fairly recent cultural flux. Modern-type-depression patients, Kato believes, are in an uncomfortable limbo state, trained to be dependent in their family and social lives and unclear on how to adapt to a quickly evolving company culture that asks them to be more assertive. While they want to speak up for themselves, their ways of going about it are ineffective and immature.
Read: The social contradictions of Japanese capitalism
One patient Kato introduced me to was a 34-year-old engineer. At first, the engineer was happily employed at a government office, but he says he was transferred against his wishes to another known for its long hours. He repeatedly asked if he could be moved again, but his supervisor told him it was impossible. He lost his motivation. Months after he started asking, he was finally granted the transfer, but it was too late for him to snap out of his withdrawn state. When we spoke, the engineer was in the middle of a long hiatus from work.
Kato has found that a variety of disruptive changes in Japanese culture, from childhood through the workplace, have made it difficult for many workers to adjust to a corporate ethos in the country more and more based on Western individualism. He lays out these causes in two papers in the journals Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences and American Journal of Psychiatry.
Japanese parenting is one major factor. As Japan focused on rebuilding economically after its defeat in World War II, Kato observes, men were busy working and mostly absent, so the culture began promoting the ideal of the nurturing, even coddling, mother. The mother-child bond became symbolic of the Japanese behavioral pattern of amae, a desire by children to be loved and act self-indulgently well into adulthood. While some psychologists have promoted the importance of this nurturing relationship, others say that, taken to extremes, it discourages children from becoming autonomous adults.
Kato believes that this problem of dependence was compounded by Japan’s education structure. In the 1970s, the government education system deemphasized competition and focused more on allowing students to develop their own interests. This approach, called yutori kyōiku, was a huge contrast to the strict schooling that had led to Japanese success in the past. Today, yutori is widely criticized for bringing down the overall rigor of Japanese education. Some blame the idea itself, and others believe that it was just implemented incorrectly. Either way, the more relaxed system offered fewer opportunities to contend with demanding authority figures or competition from peers.
As Kato explains, many who were brought up within this environment had a major wake-up call when Japan’s economy hit a period of stagnation in the 1990s. At work, they faced an older, paternalistic model of leadership and had to put up with heavy criticism from bosses. In the past, unending diligence under such pressures would at least lead to senior positions; job stability was pretty much guaranteed as the country experienced years of steady economic progress. But the rupture of the bubble economy meant that this silver lining had disappeared.