How to Get a Good Cry In When In Japan

Crying, many people believe, can be cathartic — a good way to relieve stress and let other emotions out. But in many cultures, crying — especially in public — is socially frowned upon. And in Japan, it’s probably worse than in most other places, as the culture demands keeping one’s sadness bottled up.

Unless, perhaps, you pay someone to make you — and your friends — tear up.

In 2009, a former salesman named Hiroki Terai came up with an idea — wedding-style divorce ceremonies. The concept was quirky but had a certain logic to it — just as a wedding marks a new marriage, why not have an event (outside of a courtroom or lawyer’s office) which marks that marriage’s end? Ex-husband and ex-wife would meet one last time as a couple (unofficially; these ceremonies had no legal effect), perform some ritual of separation, and walk away with a little less hatred of one another. Terai realized that many of the ex-couples broke down crying during the ceremony — and seemed better off for it. And he also concluded that bringing people together for a good cry was, itself, interesting.

But crying isn’t something that’s accepted in Japan — especially not crying in public. As Yuhei Kayukawa, a psychiatrist and professor emeritus at Nagoya Institute of Technology, told the Japan Times, “hiding one’s anger and sadness is considered a virtue in Japanese culture.” As a result, continued Kayukawa, “as a whole, Japanese are terrible at dealing with stress” — breaking down and crying just isn’t something you can do.

Terai, however, found an exception; for some reason, the crying spells of his ceremonial divorces were tolerated if not welcomed. So, in 2013, he focused on everything but the divorce and turned “making people cry” into a new business. Terai started something called rui-katsu — literally, “tear-seeking.” As he told a Japanese newspaper (via the Atlantic), he “realized that people [in Japan, at least] cannot cry unless they make a conscious effort.” Terai invited patrons to a screening of videos designed to evoke strong feelings of sadness and, ultimately, get those tears flowing — anything from documentaries of natural disasters to, as the Atlantic notes, “YouTube funerals for pet cats.” It really doesn’t matter so long as the end result is a lot of wet eyes.

It worked. As one of his early rui-katsu customers attested (again, via the Atlantic), sad videos — combined with the fact that the viewers were in this together — made all the difference: “Rui-katsu isn’t like crying alone in my room. I don’t feel depressed after crying here.”

Today, rui-katsu has turned into part social phenomenon, part cottage industry. Terai himself (as of September 2013) hosted sessions monthly, but the idea spread to others. Some organizations hold free screenings while others charge a very reasonable ¥1,000 or so — that’s about eight dollars — for a similar experience. Many of the participants in any given session are repeat customers, too; for them, at least, happiness is best achieved by spending some time sad, but with friends.

Bonus Fact: Not all tears are created equal. In fact, we have three types. Basal tears are the ones which we have around the clock, keeping our eyes lubricated, which are different than reflex tears, which are spurred into action when we do things like cut onions or yawn. And then there are crying tears, the ones which come from an emotional trigger — happy or sad. As Wikipedia notes, crying tears are chemically different than the other two types — they “contain more of the protein-based hormones prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, and leucine enkephalin (a natural painkiller) than basal or reflex tears.”

Double bonus!: Is crying actually cathartic? Yes — but not as cathartic as we tend to think it is. A recent New York Times article notes that “just as researchers have found that people tend, with time, to selectively remember the best parts of their vacations and forget the headaches, so crying may also appear [more] cathartic in retrospect.”

From the Archives: White Day, Black Market: Japan’s take on Valentine’s Day.

Take the Quiz:  Okay, this one’s only related if you’re very charitable: List the words of Captain Kirk’s eulogy for Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Related: Tear Jerkers.