From the Archive: Revisiting Neurasthenia in Japan

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In 1989, our June special issue centered on the theme of neurasthenia: an illness category made most recognizable in current medical anthropology by Arthur Kleinman in his book Social Origins of Stress and Disease: Depression, Neurasthenia, and Pain in Modern China (1988.) Neurasthenia is a flexible diagnosis that encompasses a set of broad psychosomatic symptoms: fatigue, emotional unease, irritability, and bodily pains. It has fallen in and out of favor throughout history, yet in China and other Asian countries, it continues to be used to describe psychiatric distress. The special issue was published during the final year of Kleinman’s tenure as the editor-in-chief of Culture, Medicine & Psychiatry, and represents the culmination of research carried out throughout Asia on the diagnosis and treatment of the illness. You can access the full issue here.


 

The focus of this From the Archive feature is Tomonori Suzuki’s article on the diagnosis and treatment of neurasthenia in Japan. Unlike China, where neurasthenia continued to be clinically relevant through Kleinman’s research in the 1980s-1990s, the disease category fell out of its original use in Japan following World War II. Suzuki writes that this shift was not directly due to changes in Western psychiatry, in which European and American physicians replaced ‘neurasthenia’ with new categories under the umbrellas of neuroses, depression, or anxiety. These shifts may have influenced psychiatric disease models elsewhere, but in Japan, neurasthenia was instead rebranded and treated via a different historical pathway.

Morita, a renowned Japanese psychiatrist who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the first to suggest that neurasthenia was not exogenous: in other words, it did not stem from social disorder on the outside, but from psychological unrest within the mind. His therapeutic regimen for this newly-conceived “neurasthenia” became widely adopted, even into the contemporary age. Thus neurasthenia– while formally removed from the diagnostic lexicon– took a new form with an accompanying treatment as proposed by Morita.

Following WWII, when Japanese medical practitioners did begin to employ American principles of psychiatry, clinicians began to replace “neurasthenia” with the new category “neurosis.” Although this aligned with shifts in the nature of treatment that occurred in other places where biomedicine was practiced, Japan was unique in that many patients labeled as neurotic nevertheless sought out Morita therapy: a treatment initially designed to ameliorate an illness closer to the original form of neurasthenia. Some patients also opted for Naikan therapy, another indigenous psychotherapy based on Buddhist principles similar to those woven into the practice of Morita therapies. While the importation of “Western” diagnoses of neurosis brought with it accompanying forms of therapy native to Europe and North American, Morita and Naikan proved to be durable therapies equipped to treat Japanese patients with illnesses somewhere within the neuroses-neurasthenia spectrum.

Although the author notes that the use of these therapies (in the 1980s) could decline as Western models of psychotherapy continue to spread, Suzuki’s research into Japanese psychiatry practice revealed that many patients continued to seek out indigenous Morita and Naikan therapies. The two treatments’ focus on inner self-mastery, connectedness to the social and physical worlds, and the minimization rather than elimination of symptoms echo native Japanese spiritual beliefs, making these therapies legitimate alternatives to imported models of treatment. In sum, though the category for neurasthenia changed across time, foreign models for the conceptualization of mental illness did not always neatly correspond to foreign models for treatment. For the Japanese, local therapies such as Morita and Naikan proved to be quite resilient, as the therapies adapted to address psychiatric disorders despite the repackaging of mental illness into new forms.

 

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