In the ever-expanding world today, consumers are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the ploys of mass media advertising and pharmaceutical companies alike. Ethan Watters in “The Mega-Marketing of Depression in Japan” delves into the dangers of the globalization of a mentality for depression that seeks to transcend cultural values and traditions completely. Every culture is unique in its explanatory reasoning for various circumstances and events that occur in the population, ranging from mental health to a general outlook on life.
This globalization by pharmaceutical companies seeks to eliminate the social and natural confines of a disease like depression and instead establish a medical model that is rigidly enforced through marketing and challenging existing cultural norms. Mega corporations continually bombard the general public with drugs that can cure ailments that supposedly afflict them, even if they are not indeed suffering from them. Therefore, a question arises, how much of what we perceive of the world around us is truly accurate and untainted by external influences?
On the surface, corporations present themselves as benefactors of society working for the grace of the people; in reality, they are after the mighty dollar and strive to exploit new markets for product distribution. It is a travesty that cultures undergo unnecessary changes that can alter their very nature for the sake of monetary gain. Since cultural background shapes the conception of the self and the collective identity of a people, it is the responsibility of the individual to look deeper into the messages propagated by corporations and not be manipulated by societal norms.
Generally, viewpoints and interpretations regarding the self vary from culture to culture throughout the world. As cultural psychiatrist Dr. Laurence Kirmayer states, “…every culture has a type of experience that is in some ways parallel to the Western conception of depression…But he had also found that cultures have unique expressions, descriptions, and understandings for these states of being” (517); this exemplifies the importance of cultural values that shape the explanations of a disease like depression. In the United States, depression is viewed on a completely different scale than in other countries.
Even the symptoms related to depression vary greatly in each culture. For instance, an Indian man can be experiencing “semen loss and feeling hot” while a person from Iran can be experiencing “tightness in the chest” (517). These unique definitions for what constitutes feelings or symptoms of depression across many cultures are important in defining the inner workings of the minds of individuals. For this reason, a major problem arises with the Western notion of depression, which seeks to lump together general symptoms.
This results in creating confusion because it ignores various cultural attitudes toward depression. Western society is driven more by individualistic pursuit while in other cultures, a more collectivist mentality is prevalent. Although this difference may seem miniscule, it plays a major role in shaping how an individual perceives themselves and the world around them. A person from an individualistic society may be more open and expressive in communicating their feelings with those around them.
Conversely, a person from a collectivist society like Japan may be less emotionally expressive and tend to conceal their feelings from others due to more importance being placed upon the group instead of the self. However, cultural values can be exploited and morphed as evident in what took place with the pharmaceutical advances in Japan. This changed the outlook of the Japanese public on depression, which they had previously seen as an obscure disease affecting only a handful of people.
All human beings are different in the manner in which they approach life’s challenges and circumstances, ranging from work, to familial obligations, and personal well-being. Belief systems, upbringing, and societal mores all influence one’s perception of the self and place in the world. While some look to religion or cultural heritage to offer insight on the human condition; others look to science for a definitive answer. It is human nature to crave an explanation for why we are the way we are.
In Japan, the two main concepts explaining depression were the endogenous depression model and the melancholic personality model. The endogenous model held a very negative view in Japan because it didn’t apply to all people; instead, it was seen more as affecting only a few people who suffered from psychotic episodes. The melancholic personality, however, fit right into the Japanese perception of a respected individual, because it drew upon favorable qualities such as being serious, hard-working, and selfless.
It was seen as something one should aim to reach, “Feelings of overwhelming sadness were often venerated in television shows, movies, and popular songs…Feelings that we may pathologize as depressive were often thought of in Japan as a source of moral meaning and self-understanding” (522). The melancholic personality was emulated by the Japanese instead of being feared or perceived as a mental illness. This created a great conundrum for the pharmaceutical giants looking to tighten the noose around the Japanese market and change the prevailing notion of depression.
The Japanese perception of depression was completely different from its Western counterpart. This difference in perception can be attributed to cultural differences regarding mental health. However, it encompasses a far greater issue, the importance of cultural diversity and sensitivity. Corporations often “seem” to forget that they are dealing with human beings, who have a certain way of life and traditions. The pharmaceutical corporations infiltrating Japan truly had no right to claim what was “junk science” and what was “first world medicine” (522).
Unfortunately, they still managed to mislead the masses into becoming users of their drugs. The harrowing lesson for all consumers is to be aware of the ruthlessness and trickery of corporations in shaping our views on all aspects of life including our health. The decisions people make in their daily lives are influenced by both external and internal forces. Behavior is essentially determined by what is deemed socially and culturally acceptable. These patterns of behavior and decisions, in turn, shape the image of the self.
In Kirmayer’s address to the drug company representatives, he states, “The clinical presentation of depression and anxiety is a function not only of patients’ ethnocultural backgrounds, but of the structure of the health care system they find themselves in and the diagnostic categories and concepts they encounter in mass media and in dialogue with family, friends and clinicians” (519); this reinforces the idea that the belief systems of people are a culmination of a number of factors ranging from socioeconomic conditions/interactions, mass media, and cultural roots.
In the case of SSRI’s being marketed in Japan for depression, mass media was an extremely important tool in swaying the minds of the Japanese public. A prime example was the usage of the Web to disseminate information to the masses in Japan. GlaxoSmithKline went as far as to creating and funding a website that hosted the stories of patients that were supposedly depressed. Consequently, the percentage of Japanese suffering from depression seemingly increased every month. Language serves as a medium to convey all sorts of messages and can either lead or mislead the masses. It also poses a huge barrier that can separate one culture from another.
The pharmaceutical industry sought to transcend this barrier in Japan by using linguistic manipulation to their own advantage: “Depression, they repeated in advertising and promotional material, was kokoro no kaze, like “a cold of the soul” (524). This was just one of many attempts by GlaxoSmithKline to market depression in a “new” way, ensnaring more Japanese consumers in their web of lies. Pharmaceutical companies even utilized the Japanese population’s unease with the alarmingly high suicide rates to their own advantage, intermingling depression with a completely different issue.
This raises a major concern in terms of morality because it breeds false reliance on certain drugs. Furthermore, in order to gain a more complete understanding of the situation in Japan, the perspective of the pharmaceutical corporations must be revealed and analyzed. Kalman Applbaum, a corporate anthropologist, states, “Rather these men and women saw themselves as acting with the best intentions, motivated by the belief that their drugs represented the proud march of scientific progress across the world…These executives seemed to believe that they are straightforwardly trying to heal the world” (527-528).
It is shocking to think that these men and women believed they were working for the greater good, but in actuality millions were being misdiagnosed and the cultural landscape of Japan was being tarnished. Their definition of scientific progress is completely subjective and does not apply to the Japanese people who may have viewed it as aggression. The disillusioned vision of these corporate executives in trying to “cure” and “heal” the Japanese people of depression is scary to think of. The very mentality of these corporations is Machiavellian in nature, where the end only justifies the means.
As long as they line their own pockets through widespread circulation and usage of their drug, they could care less for the suffering of millions of people. For this reason, individuals should be proactive in their approach of counteracting the detrimental influences of big business by conducting research and not taking everything for face value. As nations reach a level of industrialization, consumers in well-developed countries often depend on different sources of media and corporate products to ease their lifestyles.
Japan is a major example of this “big business” manipulation. Pharmaceutical companies, especially look towards increasing their revenue through false advertising of manufactured drugs. Since the average consumer cannot truly hope to understand the intricacies of drug-making and research, it is the general consensus of the population to believe that what is advertised has been proven to be effective in relieving and curing illness (mental).
Thus, the cultural values of the Japanese people become blurred and in a way, rewritten according to the advances in modern medicine and technology. The reflection of the “self” of the Japanese has been essentially distorted by dependence on the greediness of others trying to make a quick buck. On a universal scale, the “self” bends to the will of others through doubt and naivete. Ultimately, it is the individual who can break through the false realities of the money-hungry conglomerates.