“I used to be a captive of my symptoms. Now I investigate them.” So spoke a man suffering for decades from schizophrenia to a roomful of people, some also former mental patients and some not. He was sharing with them where he’d gotten to with his self-directed research and was clearly eager for their questions and comments. As the man spoke of what he was learning about his symptoms, including the voices he heard, another man was at a blackboard drawing illustrations of what was being said. At one point, another came forward to act out with the speaker what it had felt like to be “captured.” A few other presenters followed him with their reports and the audience once again provided plenty of questions and comments that could expand their research.
This unusual meeting took place at Bethel House, an extraordinary community for people with schizophrenia (and other diagnoses) in a remote fishing village on Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan. While Bethel House has been virtually unknown to those outside of Japan, this could all be changing, thanks to Yale University anthropologist Karen Nakamura. Her book, A Disability of the Soul: An Ethnography of Schizophrenia and Mental Illness in Contemporary Japan, and film, Bethel: Community and Schizophrenia in Northern Japan,provide an inside view of life in Bethel, its history, philosophy, members’ triumphs and struggles, and their continuous work to create community.
Bethel House began in 1984 to help people discharged from psychiatric wards live in the community. This meant providing work for members. An early business was the packaging and selling of seaweed and noodles, which continues to benefit Bethel House and Urakawa, the village in which Bethel House is located. Members also work in the Bethel House café, lecture around the country, and sell books and videos about their lives, T-shirts, calendars, and similar gifts.
I recently had the good fortune to visit Bethel House. I was impressed by the ways members use all of who they are to create productive, social, and responsible ways of living together. Even though they accept their diagnoses and symptoms (they believe they are ill), they are in no way defined by them. Instead, they use their “craziness” (their voices, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, etc.) to help each other. I witnessed a caring of each other and a giving of themselves—whatever they have to give—often with great humor. And I experienced a playfulness, a performativity and a theatricality at Bethel House, which I believe contributes to the emotional, social and economic development of its members and staff.
In fact, theatricality is one of the ways Bethel House got well known in Japan. Each year, it hosts a festival, which includes the Hallucinations and Delusions Grand Prix—a competition that recognizes the hallucination or delusion that 's socialized the most and brings the most members together. The festival has become a destination for thousands of Japanese annually.
I learned of Bethel House in 2012 when I was invited to Japan as a guest faculty to give some lectures and workshops. My hosts from the Japanese Society of Developmental Psychology and various universities weren’t able to fit a visit to Bethel House into my itinerary. But we vowed that the next time I was in Japan, we’d schedule a visit. And we did—earlier this month.
After flying from Kobe to Sapporo, my host, Professor Takashi Ito from Hokkaido University, five young women students, and I drove 3+ hours along the Pacific Ocean coast to Urawaka. After checking in to our rooms at a village inn, we met people from Bethel House for a traditional Japanese meal at a local restaurant. We began to learn about the life of Bethel House as we each shared our keen interest in their community. It was my involvement with social therapy, a community-based therapeutic approach focused on people’s development—no matter their material and psychological limitations—that drew me to Bethel House. From what I had read, we seemed to have something in common.
We observed and participated in Bethel meetings, including the self-directed research meeting, met formally and informally with different members and staff, had lunch in the Bethel House café in the village, and were interviewed for their magazine. After bidding farewell to our new friends, we drove back to Sapporo.
If you’re interested in non-medicalized approaches to mental illness or just want to learn more about this unique community, check out Karen Nakamura’s work for yourself.