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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Paris Syndrome

After the horrific massacre in France last week, I thought I would see if any Japanese people were among the 127 victims.

Instead, what popped up on my Google search was something called Paris Syndrome, or Pari shōkōgun (パリ症候群) in Japanese.

WTF?! Why would there need to be a Japanese translation?

First off, what is the Paris Syndrome?

As with any sort of syndrome, it is indeed a psychological problem, in this case it is something experienced by people visiting or vacationing in Paris (or other parts of western Europe).

Symptoms include acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (including prejudice, aggression or hostility from others), derealization (the real world seems unreal), depression, anxiety and psychosomatic occurrences of dizziness, sweating, excessively high heart rate and more.

It's a severe form of culture shock.

If that were true, then one might see the same symptoms and reactions from Japanese in other cultures… in my opinion…. but perhaps a visit to France where they can't even use their high school English is a trigger.

Why Japanese people?

First off, in my opinion, the Japanese are, in a general sense, very insular. That means they are essentially ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one's own experience.

Not every Japanese person is like this, of course, but anyone who has ever lived in Japan or visited and hung out and talked with the Japanese will understand that they seem to, on the whole, have a limited understanding of how cultures outside of their own work.

Of course, the same could be said for anyone in the world with regards to another country—most Americans do not have much of a cultural understanding of Canadian, swearing we're a bunch of puck-slapping, maple syrup guzzling hosers who say 'eh' and 'oot and aboot'. I'm sure some do, but as a Canadian, it's not heard or part of the daily conversation in the majority of Canadian cities or towns.

Many of us do, however, like hockey, but certainly not everyone is a fan. As well, some of us even know how baseball is played, seeing as how we've had professional baseball teams all across the country since the 19th century. Just remember… American Abner Doubleday did NOT invent baseball. That was a story made up by Major League Baseball. That's a true fact. Look it up yourself, if you don't believe me.

Anyhow… wither the Japanese?

In my great and humble opinion, the Japanese are taught from a very early age that things Japanese are great. There's a bit of national pride going on there… Japanese rice, Japanese chopsticks, Japanese kimono… terms they use to describe their own products when in Japan. There's no need. Yes, there are different types of rice, chopsticks and kimono, but when in Japan, what else would one expect? Adding 'Japanese' as a descriptive term is moot, but a sense of Japanese pride.

Japan-this, Japanese-that. We get it. We're proud of our country, too.

I still recall how every single junior high school class I was involved with over three years was asked what they knew about Canada, and all they could come up with was: snow, ski, salmon, Anne (Anne of Green Grables)… and that was pretty much it. I don't know everything about Canada, but I'm pretty damn sure we've got a lot more than that going on. Most Canadians born in the past 50 years probably have never read Anne of Green Gables. I have, but that was to see what all the Japanese hubbub was about. Very good book, but nothing that would make an old man want to go and visit a theme park devoted to the book's title character.

A 2012 issue of the French psychiatry journal Nervure cites the following as possible causes for Paris Syndrome amongst the 20 or so people afflicted with it every year upon visiting France. Who's kidding, whom - Paris… tourists go where tourism dictates they should go. No Japanese tourist would go to Lyon unless they knew someone there:

  1.  Language Barrier: As I sad, the Japanese don't learn French in school (except for those rare few), and the French sure as hell don't need to know how to speak and Japanese. When in Paree and all that. God help you, when one tries to translate French to Japanese and vice versa, there are difficulties for the tourist. Hells, I know of several instances in my English-Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries where the translations offered were less than correct. Hilarity ensued after much confusion. Hey... do the French really say 'Sacre bleu?' Holy blue... is that a swear... seems kinda weak when translated to English. Do the Japanese actually say "Ah, so"? No... but whatever - a so desu ka.
  2. Cultural Differences: when visiting anywhere, the Japanese attempt to be polite… high-level polite… it's part of the culture to show respect in a new situation… whereas the French are more cool and have no problem talking informally. The journal says that rapid and frequent fluctuations of mood, tense (word) and attitude especial in regards to the delivery of humor, cause problems for the Japanese. Basically, I think the Japanese just aren't ready for the loosey-goosey manner the French treat them. I don't think this is a problem. I treated the Japanese as though everyone was a friend - and while I think it threw them for a loop and enabled them to open up to me in return, one has to consider that I was at least on their home turf speaking their language within their comfortable social mores.
  3. The Idealized Image of Paris: Dammit, most people not trying to kill people think that Paris is the most romantic city in the world. For crying out loud, it's called The City Of Light. The recent Heroes Reborn television series shows a young teenager transporting his girlfriend to Paris, because that's her idea of romance… so he even buys her an Eiffel Tower charm for a bracelet. Romance, n'est-ce pas? For some reason, many Japanese (at least 20 a year), seem to have a difficult time in accepting that the Paris they heard aboot and the Paris that exists in the 21st century aren't the same. Japan is like Tokyo, but instead of Japanese people, there are French people. Both are the same height (generally), but the French are plumper (generally). Paris isn't the land of dreams, of beauty, culture or romance… it is, but not THE place of such romantic ideals. You can find all of that in any place one goes too. For some reason, however, those who become afflicted with Paris Syndrome are unable to come to terms with the cultural ambiguities. To be honest, I wonder how many of these same afflicted would have had some sort of mental collapse even if they didn't visit Paris.
  4. Exhaustion: We've all come across exhaustion while we were out on vacation. Okay, not me. But you have to go there, you have to be here, you must see this, try that… and then you have to cram it all in to a tiny specific time frame… just like what goes on at work. Vacation it is not. Toss in jet lag.
It's not just one thing that sets a person down Paris Syndrome, but some combination of all the above contributory factors.

Again… how many Paris Syndrome suffers would have had a mental issue at some point in time even if they never left the comforts of home? None? Some? All of them? No way of knowing.

The Paris Syndrome was first rationalized in 1986 by a Professor Ota Hiroaki (surname first) a Japanese psychiatrist working in France.

Is this a real thing? Apparently…  so if you are Japanese and are thinking of visiting Paris, just be open to the experience.

Going into a situation with hard and fast ideas and ideals will play hot and heavy with anyone's psyche.

It's why my advice to anyone traveling to Japan is to do as little reference searching as possible. Open mind.

Andrew Joseph


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks! Just remember that when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie - that's a moray. You need not have deleted the grammar check, by the way. It's the only way I'll learn.

  2. A side note on Anne Shirley. A close reading shows that contrary to popular perception of Anne as a independent free thinker, her story is one of her intentional integration into acceptable society. She seeks to pound her own nail down to the same level as all the others. She is also consciously aware of shame and strives to not embarrass Marilla or Mathew - her adoptive family. I could go on at length (I wrote a paper on it) but Anne of Green Gables would seem to me to be an excellent reflection of Japanese society.

    1. That. Is. Very. Interesting. Anne of Green Gables is a reflection of Japanese society. So why does Japan like looking at itself in a good light?

    2. Not just Japan. We all tend to seek out those stories that reinforce what we want to believe.

    3. Because I have no other way of contacting you - Happy Thanksgiving, Pat, to you and your family! You have been a breath of calming inspiration to me, and are much appreciated by my self.