Dear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura and Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Norihisa Tamura,
I am a clinical psychologist studying in Japan, with a particular interest in suicide prevention. In this regard, since last year I have been monitoring the suicide rate among Nepalese in Japan. The results have been highly alarming and came as a complete shock to me.
Between 2011 and the first three months of 2012, seven Nepalese nationals committed suicide in Japan. Among these cases, six were in Japan with working visas (specifically, cook visas) and one was a student.
Living in a foreign country obviously can magnify the normal stresses of life at home and the workplace. Japan has one of the busiest and most expensive lifestyles on Earth.
Most workers who come here from abroad are unable to adapt easily to the fast pace of Japanese cities. Many of them also have their own private issues to deal with, such as separation from family, language and economic problems and so on. Lack of information about working visas — and especially the cook visa — is also a major problem.
Many restaurants demand cooks from Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Attracted by advertisements for these jobs, many people from the aforementioned countries spend a huge amount of money to get to Japan. But when they get there, they get very low pay at these restaurants.
Many of the workers take out high-interest loans to make it to Japan. This imbalance between investment and earnings, exacerbated by the economic burden of trying to pay off these loans, is the most common reason for committing suicide.
Mental health consultations are not an option for many overseas workers in Japan. There are few centers offering mental health services and they are not affordable for lower-paid workers. In most places in Japan, counseling is not included as part of medical insurance. Such workers also potentially have language problems even if they wish to consult a specialist. Lack of knowledge about mental health is another prominent problem that helps account for the suicide rate among overseas workers.
Let me talk briefly about the issues that affect students. Actually, international students face not only the same life events and stressors as other students, which can have an impact upon their mental health, but also additional pressures, and all without the usual support structure of family, friends and home.
They may experience a sense of loss, in the wider sense, of their native language, customs and security — even the sense of self — due to being in a foreign culture. Students may respond to the difficulties of transition in a variety of ways: some, for example, may manifest their distress physically (through sleep disorders, headaches, stomach problems, etc.); others may become depressed and/or anxious, or develop panic or eating disorders.
Students who are less resilient to adversity, change and loss prior to leaving their home countries are likely to have greater difficulty adjusting to life and study abroad.
Many Japanese language institutes and technical schools here are just about making money. For example, when I was in language school in Kyushu, I paid ¥60,000 plus utility fees for one room. Now that I have moved to Tokyo, I am paying the same price for a bigger room than the one in Kyushu. In fact, I have since learned that I paid double the room rate to the institute before coming to Japan through a consultancy in Nepal.
Problems such as these are commonly faced by overseas students. They might seem minor, but sometimes these additional burdens can push individuals over the edge.
To reduce mental health problems among overseas workers and students in Japan, the following steps urgently need to be taken:
1. There should be mental health consultation services at universities for students and mental health support from national organizations such as Hello Work (the government’s job service) for foreign employees, in their own language.
2. There should be free mental health services nationwide at city halls and other municipal offices, for example.
3. There should be sufficient information made available about possible mental health issues associated with living overseas and hotline services available to foreign residents in their own language.
4. There should be regular monitoring of and sufficient research carried out into the problems faced by workers and students from overseas who are living in Japan.
5. There is a need to clarify the basic salaries of cooks in restaurants. Fraud by restaurant owners should be reduced in collaboration with the Nepalese Embassy and government.
6. There should be regular monitoring of language institutes and technical schools regarding students’ problems.
Bijay Gyawali is a clinical psychologist and acupuncturist from Nepal. Having completed his studies at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo, he is now doing research for his doctorate in Japan on “Post-conflict Mental Health Impacts of Civil War.” He is actively involved in suicide prevention issues. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.