Paris: city of love, romance, food and… mental anguish?
In an article over on Gold Rush, writer Senya talks about the devastating psychological condition that has come to be known as “Paris Syndrome”; a condition that, bizarrely, seems to affect Japanese people in particular, with many visiting the city suffering from symptoms similar to depression that, in rarer cases, results in suicide.
What is it about Paris that has such a debilitating effect on Japanese? What could they do to avoid it or lessen the symptoms?
We delve a little deeper to find out…
Before I came to Japan in 2006, I heard a lot about “culture shock”. People warned me that life in Japan might not necessarily be what I had imagined and that I should be aware that everyday life might, even mundane things like grocery shopping or using public transport, be difficult, if not unpleasant at first.
Arriving in a new country, especially one in which you don’t yet speak the lingo or are accustomed to the way of thinking or doing things, can be tough. Many people feel entirely lost, and in some cases bail out before they’ve even had a chance to get used to their new environment.
Thankfully, I had a supportive group of people around me and, along with caring employers who treated me to meals out and helped me get settled in, I had family back home who were in touch almost constantly via e-mail and Skype. If anything, I felt more culture shock when I returned to the UK for a visit a year later than when I first arrived in Japan.
Paris Syndrome, however, might not be so easy to write off as simply a severe bout of culture shock.
Cases of Paris Syndrome have occurred so frequently, particularly in Japanese visitors to the city, that it has been documented in psychological journals like Nervure, the French journal of psychology, and has come to be recognised as a condition entirely of its own. With the condition mostly affecting exchange students and Japanese who have moved to the city for work, Paris Syndrome sufferers often exhibit symptoms similar to depression, and in some cases severe paranoia or “persecution complex” wherein they feel that they are somehow being singled out or treated differently because they are different or simply disliked.
It’s natural to feel a little lost or even scared when plonked down in an unfamiliar setting, but why would Paris of all places be so notoriously hard to adjust to? And why are Japanese people overwhelmingly the majority of sufferers?
Gold Rush’s writer Senya suggests that there are four contributing factors that Japanese people ought to be aware of:
- Culture shock
- Communication barriers
- Difference in culture
- Physical fatigue
The first point comes as no surprise, and could perhaps be considered a rather vague heading, but the main thing to recognise here is that our dreams and media-inspired expectations of a city or country are usually quite different to the real thing; images beamed into our living-rooms and scenes from classic movies set in France featuring fashionably dressed people sipping apéritifs outside cafes, or beautiful couples arguing over the last croissant are misleading to say the least. Perhaps in much the same way that many Americans are treated to warped Hollywood interpretations of England like Love Actually‘s images of quaint, snow-topped London where everything is rosy and heart-warming, many Japanese arrive in Paris expecting something that simply doesn’t exist (sorry, guys!).
▼Love Actually, where stalking your best friend’s wife is considered charming…
Communication barriers are, of course, something of a given when visiting a foreign country; if one can’t speak the lingo, life will be tough. But there again, some of the best Japanese-speaking foreigners I know are people who were dumped in towns with hardly any other foreigners or native English speakers to socialize with- boy do you learn fast when you have no other way of communicating!
But it’s the difference in culture that is perhaps the biggest shock to Japanese visitors’ systems.
“In France, a country where people speak their mind sometimes forcefully and without hesitation, it can be difficult for mild-mannered Japanese to feel at ease or make friends,” suggests Senya.
Japanese are known across the world for being polite, quietly-spoken people who are ever careful not to offend. Rules and social etiquette are two of the main pillars of Japanese society, and it’s commonplace to keep your innermost feelings, or hon-ne, to yourself in public or at work and to avoid making waves. It’s a tired old saying, but “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” still rings true for the most-part in Japanese society, so it’s no wonder so many Japanese find it nearly impossible to make friends of find a place for themselves in Paris, surrounded by people who are not afraid of letting them know precisely what they think.
With this in mind, Senya’s advice to Japanese visitors to Paris is firm but fair:
“Forget the movie image of Paris. The city that exists in movies is little more than an artistic facade, and the real thing is quite different … so be assertive. There are few friendly people in Paris, so wandering around with your map out hoping that someone will come to your aid will get you nowhere; if you need help, you’re going to have to ask for it yourself.”
Lastly, it’s important to remember one of the simple facts of life: travel and moving house makes you tired and causes stress. We all know how, exhausted after a long-haul flight, the slightest hiccup can cause arguments and spats and put a negative slant on thing. So settling in to a new, unfamiliar location is bound to take its toll on a tired body, and is perhaps one additional reason why so many Japanese, arriving on the other side of the world in a seemingly hostile location, can start to feel a little down in the dumps in Paris…
So if you’re strolling through the streets of Paris one day and you happen to see a Japanese person looking particularly lost or like a startled rabbit, do the decent thing and help them out. It might just make their day.