“My boss won’t let me make espressos,” says the barista. “I need a year more, maybe two, before he’s ready to let customers drink my shots undiluted by milk. And I’ll need another whole year of practice after that if I want to be able to froth milk for cappuccinos.” Only after 18 years as a barista in New York did his boss, the cafe’s owner, feel qualified to return home to show off his coffee-making skills. Now, at Bear Pond’s main branch, he stops making espressos at an early hour each day, claiming that the spike on the power grid after that time precludes drawing the voltage required for optimal pressure.
Such obsessive—some might say insane—pursuit of perfection, in coffee and cuisine, clothes and comforts, isn’t unusual in Japan…
…High-end consumer culture in Japan survived 20 years of economic decline and has actually become much better, in critical terms, though also less profitable than it was when Japan, Inc., ruled the world. The Japanese, animated by the principles of perfection, specialization, craft and obsession that they have long brought to their own culture, have applied the same standards to Basque cuisine, Rhum Agricole cocktails, American-style outerwear, and almost everything else wondrous and obscure from the rest of the world. And while the Japanese have done an admirable job of exporting their native cuisine and culture, perhaps the next challenge for their flagging economy is to learn to export everything they do best.
In Japan, in the 1980s, the term “karôshi”, or “death from overwork”, was coined to describe cases where people have essentially worked themselves to death. In the late 1990s, when Japanese began to see suicide rates skyrocket, another term emerged in the media as a national concern. This was “karô jisatsu”, or “overwork suicide”, that refers to the suicide of people who are driven to take their own lives by excessive overwork.
…[S]uicide in particular has long been a site of conceptual struggle for psychiatrists, who have encountered resistance from lay Japanese holding on to the cultural notion of suicide as a morally positive act of self-determination, carried out at times as a protest against social injustice. The persistence of this cultural notion was demonstrated, for instance, in 1999 when literary giant Etô Jun killed himself after leaving a note: “I’ve decided to do away with what remains of me.” Admiration from fellow intellectuals flourished in the media, where they lauded his act as “embodying first-class aesthetics.” The voices of a few psychiatrists, who dared to suggest that his suicide might have been caused by depression, went largely ignored. Indeed, psychiatrists who have explicitly linked suicide with depression have at times been criticized for pathologizing free will and trivializing the existential and social meanings of suicide.
Finally, depression had been assumed by psychiatrists themselves to be “rare” among Japanese. Some prominent psychiatrists had even attributed this supposed rarity to a cultural difference whereby Japanese—unlike “Westerners,” who pathologize depression—maintain high tolerance for, and even find aesthetic dimensions of, depressive experiences.
…Psychiatrists and lawyers have used a distinctive, localized theory of melancholic premorbid personality—which is often assumed to be a scientific theory despite the fact that it is rarely heard outside Japan—in order to support claims for the social causes of depression. This indigenous psychiatric theory asserts that the depressed tend to be the ones who most clearly embody a “Japanese” work ethic, marked by hard work, thoroughness, excessive consideration for others, and a strong sense of responsibility.
…In light of global political movements that are beginning to problematize the psychological burden of work through the discourse about depression, one can reconsider the local forces of medicalization. Is the fact that more and more Japanese people are claiming depression in order to demand public responsibility and economic compensation in itself suggestive of a new political environment under the influence of neoliberalism, whereby the Japanese are having to become more informed, responsible and autonomous workers? If so, then increasing calls for psychiatric care for the depressed should not be naively celebrated as an advancement in health care, but has to be carefully examined in light of the legal and social apparatuses that have legitimized, and indeed necessitated, the move to make the depressed into agents of their own management and into more “productive” citizens.
I’ve got nothing to add; I just wanted to juxtapose these two articles. I have to wonder how many of the admiring remarks I’ve seen on the first story around the blogosphere would change if both were read in conjunction.