Yesterday afternoon, I walked into a Sunkus (a convenience store affiliated with Circle K) to pay some bills. Yes, in Japan, we pay bills of all stripes in convenience stores when we're too suspicious to allow automatic withdrawals directly from our bank accounts. Anyway, when I walked in, a woman was standing next to the check-out area having a loud and animated conversation with the very nice older lady who runs the place. We have known this lady since the days when Sunkus was an L & W liquor shop in the same location quite some years ago.
As I approached, I noticed the jabbering woman wasn't engaged in any sort of transaction but just standing there talking a mile a minute. I figure that this is going to be very annoying because the kind and friendly older lady isn't going to want to brush off the chatty woman to deal with me. As it turned out, I got immediate and very focused attention and I guessed the woman, who was growing more animated and incorporated gestures into her conversation, was directing her talk at a man who was down the aisle from her, particularly since she was looking in that direction at that point in time.
I noticed that the check-out lady had her eyes locked in front at the task at hand. She didn't even make a nod in the direction of the woman who was having a conversation. I also noticed the man was locking his eyes in front of him, seemingly totally absorbed in the drinks in the case in front of him. It was then that I realized this woman was having a conversation with an invisible person and the other two people in the shop were pretending she didn't exist.
This sort of situation wasn't my first experience of this sort in Japan or even in the U.S. Since I worked at a halfway house for mentally ill people straight out of college, I've heard my fair share of one-way conversations with non-existent listeners. In my experience, it's usually not like what you see on television though where a nutty person talks loudly enough so that the sane person who is overhearing the talk can hear it through a door. Most of the people at the halfway house tended to talk in whispers when they carried on with hallucinated voices. I'm not certain why this was but since many of the hallucinations were grandiose in nature (conversations with god or government agencies), perhaps they felt it was best to be secretive. Since mentally ill people are often unaware that their hallucinations aren't real, I doubt they were concerned about tipping their hands to errant listeners.
That's not to say that all of them are like that. I did experience one mentally ill person who had loud conversations with imaginary people which many people overheard. The strange thing about this person was that he was also in Japan and working as an English teacher. During the latter part of my time with Nova in Ikebukuro, a large, middle-aged American man was hired to work at our branch. At first, he seemed to be generally okay but rapidly something appeared to be very wrong.
The first indication that there might be a problem was that his hygiene lapsed quite badly. One point about people who are seriously mentally ill, particularly schizophrenics (who, incidentally are not people with multiple personalities...I want that inaccuracy laid to rest), is that a good many of them will cease bathing and brushing their teeth when they are deteriorating to a psychotic state as well as when they are actively psychotic. This teacher was growing ripe and his poor students were trapped with him in a closet-size cubicle.
If that weren't unpleasant enough, he soon started to actively hallucinate in his classes. He told his students (and teachers in the next cubicle who overheard) that his dead father was standing in the room with them and talking to him. He would carry on conversations with his father in the presence of students.
There are two more parts to this story which are testimonials to a couple of omnipresent Japanese tendencies. It so happened that a fellow teacher and I had encountered this fellow on the street in Ikebukuro about 3-4 months before he turned up as a new co-worker. We were standing on a corner waiting for a light to change and he walked up to us and started making racist comments about the Japanese. He said things about how they thought they were superior to us and that you could tell this by "the way they walked". My friend said something to him about how it was their country so they were free to do and think as they pleased and we moved on.
When this man was hired, I knew immediately that he was the fellow on the street so I went to the manager and told her about this encounter. I told her that I felt there was something wrong with him and he may not necessarily treat the students well given his attitude toward Japanese people during this random encounter. The manager nodded at me as if she were carefully considering what I said and gave me a patronizing smile and proceeded to do nothing. This is a good example of the Japanese tendency not to be proactive even when any other businessperson in any other service-related industry would be taking steps to monitor this man as well as perhaps interview him again to turn up any evidence that he might be dangerous. This was a typical case of what I have said before is "we'll cross that bridge after it collapses" thinking.
The second point was that the students, despite being shut away in a small room with a smelly, crazy man, didn't complain much at all. In fact, it took nearly 3 weeks before they had had enough and said something to the managemen. They finally fired him. Sometimes the Japanese just do not complain, even when they have every reason to do so and I guess especially when they may not be understanding what is happening because it's a foreign language situation. Of course, I'm guessing their noses could have crossed the cultural barrier in this case. The teachers certainly found his odor unbearable and we were all in an open area with him.
When I remember this experience, I wonder if this man came to Japan mentally ill or if something about the stress of being here drove him that way. I also wonder what became of him after he left Nova. While I felt sorry for him, particularly since I'm guessing he wasn't going to easily find care or help in Japan, I also did feel he never should have been hired by Nova and to this day am shocked that their interviewers didn't catch that something was amiss with him. I guess it's possible that he was lucid when he was interviewed and went off his medication or had a psychotic episode later but the encounter my friend and I had with him on the street months before hinted that this was less likely than him having had issues all along. I guess it either goes to show that Nova either had an awful interview process at that time or that sanity isn't something the Japanese expect when they encounter foreigners.