Abe Latest Victim in Stressed-Out Japan

The Associated Press
Friday, September 14, 2007; 3:27 AM

TOKYO -- Japan's outgoing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whisked to a hospital a day after he resigned for exhaustion and psychological anguish, is the latest high-profile figure to seek treatment over work-related duress in a nation known for its stressed-out laborers.

Crown Princess Masako has long suffered a stress-induced ailment that keeps her from most official duties. Last month, sumo champion Asashoryu suffered a breakdown and flew back to his native Mongolia for treatment after elders berated him for skipping an official appearance.

These famous patients are not alone. The number of Japanese seeking help for mental illnesses topped 3 million for the first time in 2005, up sharply from just over 2 million in 2002, according to the Health Ministry.

"I'm just so tired every day. I'm constantly at everyone's beck-and-call," said Hiroyuki Okuda, an administrative worker at a steel maker in Tokyo who said he had worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to finish a pressing account.

"That's my life _ fatigue and stress. All I have to look forward to is a beer at the end of the day," Okuda said, downing a glass at a late-night bar in Tokyo.

Abe's troubles at work have been national news.

Since taking office a year ago, his approval ratings plunged and four of his Cabinet ministers resigned in disgrace. His agriculture minister committed suicide just before facing questioning in a money scandal.

Abe finally called it quits on Wednesday, and checked into a Tokyo hospital on Thursday, when doctors said he suffered from psychological exhaustion and had been taking sleeping pills to get rest. He will stay in office until a successor can be found.

Other Japanese suffering from emotional troubles face less high-profile problems than Abe, but the effects are just as severe.

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world, with more than 32,000 Japanese taking their own lives in 2006, many of them older Japanese suffering financial woes as the country struggled through economic stagnation.

"Japanese are increasingly burnt out," said Naoki Otaka of the Academy of Counselors of Japan. "Part of that is because hard work has long been seen as a virtue here, as has suffering in silence, and people often let the stress just build up."

Some analysts expressed skepticism about the severity of Abe's psychological stress, suggesting the premier could be dodging responsibility over his perceived lack of leadership.

"Since the feudal era, generals have feigned sickness when in fact they just lost it," said Koichi Nakano, political scientist at Sophia University.

Modern-era Japanese politicians have also been known to take refuge in hospitals with mystery ailments just as they faced tough questioning in parliament.

"It looks very theatrical to me," Nakano said.


Associated Press writer Chisaki Watanabe contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Associated Press