Mental illness common in Japanese visiting Paris: symptoms include physical malaise, paranoia, feelings of persecution, sometimes megalomania and hallucinations.

Why Paris? Why Japan?  The answer lies in the special emphasis on Paris as the ideal foreign city in Japanese media.

Japanese are sold on an idealized version of the city: Parisians, they are told, are elegant and refined-- the air is always balmy, lovers walk hand in hand by the Seine on quaint, well-kept streets, artists and mimes ply their trade in every park, if not every street corner, French men, whether in an opulent salon or as waitstaff are invariably charming, French women are stick-thin, always dressed in high-end fashion (and always available), and, most of all, they're just like the Japanese, deep down.

    If this seems incredibly oversensitive and naive, just know that to Americans, London underwent the same kind of Disneyfication fifty years ago: we were pretty much sold on the idea that English people were much like they were in musicals and classic movies -- the men, impeccably well-dressed and mannered, children completely well-behaved and better-educated (they knew Latin! imagine!),  and the women, horsey and tweedy. If they were, just maybe, a little sexless and overly proper, it was our horrible American manners and vulgar habits of speaking showing through. (Of course, there was something called the working class, but they discreetly kept out of the way, unless they were someone picturesque, like a chimney sweep or a maid.)
    Nowadays, we have a somewhat more enlightened view of things: fifty years of rock and roll, British TV, and the fall of the house of Windsor to the status of a soap opera has somewhat demystified ordinary British life. We know that British children don't always act like Wednesday and Puggsley Addams, British women are capable of designing, sewing and wearing clothing that makes them drop dead gorgeous (and not a few of them can cook, too!), British men come in all shapes, sizes and accents, and that the upper class, the educated class and professional actors are far from congruent. Also, we've kind of figured out that London is just another modern city, and people are likely to be doing other things than entertain the tourists.

    Not so the Japanese. For them "Paris" is not only the City of Lights, but a kind of hyper-Kyoto of utmost beauty, elegance and comfort everywhere. Finding out, however, that a) most French people don't know any Japanese, b) Paris is noisy, dirty and sometimes just plain ordinary, c) shopkeepers and waiters can and do ignore people who don't explicitly ask for attention and often give snappy backtalk as a way to show their equality with the patron and d) no, you can't pretend you're back in Japan, physically, mentally or spiritually, causes at least twenty visitors a year to completely go around the bend. One fellow took to standing nude in his hotel room, announcing to the help that he was "the Sun King" and demanded that they dress and feed him, others simply feel invisible, depressed and/or slightly nauseous. French humor,  and peoples' casual attitude in general towards each other makes many Japanese feel as if they're being singled out for punishment. Jet lag, unfamiliar food and the compulsion to pack each precious moment ("you're in Paris!") with activity also is a factor.

Treatment is given according to case, but most sufferers get better after getting to talk to other Japanese, a few days rest, and, in the worst cases, a supervised trip home. Few, if any, show lasting symptoms.

Paris Syndrome, first published by the 2004 French psychiatric journal Nervure, is a condition in which affected Japanese tourists suffer psychological breakdowns and possible psychosis due to the extreme culture shock between their expectations of Paris and the city's reality. As one Japanese woman explained to a Parisian newpaper, "For us, Paris is a dream city. All the French are beautiful and elegant . . . And then, when they arrive, the Japanese find the French character is the complete opposite of their own"(2). While over a million Japanese citizens visit France annually, approximately a dozen of those travelers (primarily young women) are forced to return to Japan because of the condition.

Professor Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist living in France, first identified Paris Syndrome some twenty years ago. As he explains, Parisian attitudes are often at odds with those of polite, Japanese society; and when compounded over time (typically within three months) with a difficult language barrier and other sources of disappointment,—when Japanese tourists discover, for example, that the French show little interest in Japan, a sharp contrast to the near obsession the Japanese seem to have with France—some tourists find themselves developing symptoms, such as "irritability, a feeling of fear, obsession, depressed mood, insomnia, and an impression of persecution by the French"(3). In 2006, two Japanese women reported that their hotel room was being bugged as part of a malicious plot against them. Stranger yet are past reports filed by the Japanese embassy, describing incidents including a man who began believing he was King Louis XIV, and a woman who thought she was being attacked by microwaves. While the embassy keeps a 24-hour hotline for those feeling the stress of culture shock, the treatment for Paris Syndrome is always the same, regardless of the details: a return flight back home to Japan.


Sources

  1. "'Paris Syndrome' strikes Japanese" by Caroline Wyatt, BBC News (December 20th, 2006)
  2. "'Paris Syndrome' leaves tourists in shock" Reuters (October 23rd, 2006)
  3. "Say Cheese!" by Lauren Collins, the New Yorker (January 22nd, 2007)
  4. "The culture shock that puts victims in hospital" by Charles Bremner, The Times (December 15th, 2004)

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