Alcohol. Drugs. Sex. Gambling. Gaming. Working. Eating. Buying. Stealing. Anything we do is a potential addiction. Pain is as addictive as pleasure, hunger no less than satiety. In Japan, says Shukan Josei (Jan 28), 20 million people, one-sixth the population, are actually or potentially dangerously “dependent” on something – a thing, a pursuit, a state of mind.
Dependency itself, says psychiatrist Toshihiko Matsumoto, is not necessarily bad. We depend on food, clothing, shelter and air. If a thing gives us pleasure – sex, a drink, a cup of coffee – its temporary absence may cause us more frustration than our reason tells us it’s worth. That’s nothing. Where it becomes a problem is when, in Matsumoto’s words, it “hijacks the brain” – makes normal life impossible. Then we may be in trouble.
When it leads to crime, we’re in even more trouble. Then the question arises: to punish or to treat? Japan lags some distance behind the West in evolving away from punishment towards more clinical solutions. Slowly but surely, however, it’s getting there, Shukan Josei finds – too late, unfortunately, for some people.
“Sakura” (a pseudonym) has spent 22 of her 57 years in prison. She’s there now. The reader’s first thought is that she must have done terrible things. Beyond question she is a chronic offender. Her crime? Compulsive shoplifting – kleptomania. It’s more common than most people know. The Justice Ministry counts 48,800 convicted criminals aged 65 and over. Seventy percent of them are thieves, 90 percent of the thieves women. That’s just a partial total. The number of younger thieves is not given.
Sakura began young. Her father had committed suicide, her mother lived on welfare. Stealing was all the poor girl knew. She stole, was caught, stole again, was caught again. The third time she was classified as a “habitual offender” and imprisoned. Released, she stole again. Her second jail term was longer, her third longer still. She’s now serving her eighth imprisonment. Some public agency or private NPO should have taken hold – and care – of her at some point, but she is one of more than a few who seem to slip through the cracks in the nation’s far-from-airtight social safety network.
The harsh online reaction to the arrests on drug charges last November of three show business personalities, most famously actress Erika Sawajiri, was that it basically served them right. Addicts are “weak-willed,” “spiritless.” It’s not that simple, Shukan Josei shows.
There’s a lot of pain gnawing beneath Japan’s business-as-usual surface. Some people are dealt very bad hands at birth. Others take a wrong turn somewhere, or something happens to them, or they do something to themselves unmindful of future costs. There is “Reiko,” for instance – a 40-year-old woman whose soft feminine charm the magazine’s reporter finds hard to reconcile with addiction, but her addictions are multiple: alcohol, pachinko, sex, even hunger.
She grew up in a home with a father weighed down by debt. He was a loving family man, however, and did his best. He loved his daughter. She loved him. She was 13 when her parents separated. The light went out of her life. Life with a single mother was rough. It was worse when the mother remarried: “I felt betrayed.” She graduated from junior college and got a job in a medical office. She sought love on the streets, but found only sex. She dieted to slim down to please – and discovered hunger pangs as a kind of stimulant.
Eager to settle down, she married a man old enough to be her father. He was a drug addict who promised to quit. When she reminded him of his promise, he beat her. She fled, finding solace in pachinko. She won, got hooked; lost, got more hooked, drank to forget – and was lucky: someone steered her to a group therapy clinic before her life’s savings ran out altogether. It’s doing her good. The struggle goes on. “The sadness deep inside me isn’t gone,” she says, “but I’m learning to live with it.”© Japan Today