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Social Anxiety in the US and Japan

Social anxiety, in many ways, is a global problem. Sure, different cultures approach people with this sort of problem in different ways, but people who dislike social contact can be found in any society. However, in recent times, two particular societies have produced interesting environments for those dealing with social anxiety.

First is the US, which has a cultural preference for the loud, the boisterous, and the extroverted traits which almost never manifests in people who have social anxiety. On the other hand, we have Japan, where social interaction and duty are too often one and the same. Social anxiety is a pervasive thing in Japan, which has an entire vocabulary dedicated to describing various “manifestations” of social anxiety. Both societies involved are competitive, capitalist models, but there are differences in the components of the culture that make the reactions of people to the pressures of societal duties drastically different.

American culture and society has always been biased towards those who show outward signs of skill and talent, even though there are several who have talent but are not so open about it. The people that get ahead in life are the ones that are open, extroverted, and socially adept. In contrast, the talented people that have social anxiety are left behind in the dust, often stuck in the same position for years on end, ignored and denied a promotion simply because of lack of social skills.

Americans equate social standing and success on the same level, such that those who are skilled and can socialize well are more likely to succeed. People with social anxiety, introverted and quiet by nature, tend to be ignored because they fail to advertise their talents and achievements as much as their extroverted, socially adapted counterparts do. In some cases, this has caused a degree of resentment in people and has resulted in some negative consequences. This is particularly true at the high school and collegiate levels, where student cliques tend to be vicious in persecuting those who do not fit the “norm.” In a worst-case scenario, these might lead those with social anxiety to commit acts similar to the Columbine school shooting incident.

In Japan, however, things are a little more complicated. Japanese culture is as different from American culture as apples are to broadswords. The Japanese language has a variety of words describing different types of personalities that, arguably, can be classified under the term “social anxiety.”

Perhaps the most popular is the term “otaku,” which is a negative term describing someone who has become obsessed with a specific hobby. While not necessarily socially inept, people who are labeled as “otaku” do tend to have trouble in social situations and a large percentage of them are found to have social anxiety in the Western sense. In theory, the obsession is their way of compensating for their inability to deal with the paradoxes and difficulties of Japanese society. The most common obsessions are on anime and manga, which are treated with more respect and seriousness compared to Western cartoons and comics.

Another term is “hikikomori,” which is sometimes considered to be similar to otaku, but denotes a different way of dealing with social anxiety. Whereas otaku compensate for their social anxiety by obsessing over a hobby, hikikomori would rather become isolated and totally avoid any social interaction. Hikikomori withdraw from all social interaction, including that which involves one’s house mates or family members. Extended periods of isolation, in some cases, reaching as long as six months, have caused serious concerns among families of the hikikomori as well health authorities.

The problem of social anxiety may yet become another malaise that would cost millions in terms of spending for psychiatric care and therapy. Even worse, this social problem may actually take a deadly toll on more people who struggle with something as normal as relating to a fellow human being.

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