Gogatsu Byou: The Sickness that Strike Japan Each May

May Sickness?

If you find yourself feeling down after the Golden Week holidays, take comfort in the fact that you are far from alone. In fact, there’s a Japanese word for the phenomenon: gogatsu byou (5月病, May sickness). 

While not an actual medical condition, gogatsu byou refers to a collection of symptoms – fatigue, insomnia, mood swings, irritability, lack of appetite, feelings of depression – that strike many people in Japan each May. The excitement of the new school and business year that began in April has faded. Students who studied for months to get into the school of their dreams, and adults who pushed themselves to work long hours at new jobs, are burned out. The next national holiday – Marine Day –  isn’t for months, at the end of July. 

A man in a suit experiencing gogatsu byou stares into space.

If you’re feeling low, you might just have gogatsu byou (5月病, May sickness).

“Your environment changes in April, and you’re working so hard. You usually have a lot of motivation and energy,” a colleague, Kiyoshi-san, explains when I ask what exactly gogatsu byou is. “But when you work like that for a month, you get depleted – and that’s just when the big holiday of Golden Week comes. When you try to go back to work after that holiday, you just can’t find the motivation. You have no energy.” 

My friend Naomi agrees. “I think most of us don’t even realize how stressed we are in April,” she says. “With all the new staff and new situations, so much unconscious stress builds up. And all of a sudden in May, it catches up with us, in our bodies.”

Isolation & Regret

Spring can also be a lonely time of year in Japan. High school and university students are suddenly far from home, surrounded by new faces. Graduates are left to navigate the unfamiliar dynamics of their new workplaces; other employees have been transferred to branches in far-away cities (or countries). If you’re an ALT working at a public school, your coworkers have been shuffled around and connections you worked hard to create might suddenly be gone. 

For many, an existential question looms – I worked so hard to get here. Is this…. it?

Gogatsu byou is like homesickness, not being able to stop the feelings of loneliness at the start of the new year,” Mori-san, a neighborhood grandmother, tells me. She says she had it bad years ago when she was a university student, surrounded by all new people and separated from home. “You’re finally able to relax and rest during Golden Week, and then when it ends and you try to go back to your new life, you miss your family, you don’t want to go to work, you’re lonely. And you’re thinking – is this really what I want in life?”

May-Sick During a Global Pandemic

Everyone I spoke to feared that gogatsu byou would hit especially hard this year because of COVID-19. With the usual family vacations, international travel, and even dinners out to eat curbed by the pandemic, most people spent Golden Week at home; the Japan Times reported that only 15% of all available seats on bullet trains departing Tokyo the first Saturday of Golden Week had been reserved.

People line up outside Asakusa Temple in Tokyo.

This year Tokyo and other tourist destinations are without the usual Golden Week crowds.

“Corona is getting worse now, and cases are on the rise more than ever before,” Naomi, a public-school teacher who has seen friends and coworkers forced into quarantine, tells me. “We’re all feeling extra stressed. Especially people waiting on PCR test results.” 

With many urban areas under states of emergency, families and friends around the country remain unable to reunite. Mori-san, hasn’t seen her children and grandchildren – who live in Tokyo – for more than a year. “They would normally be back home for Golden Week, visiting,” she says. “Now, all we have is video chat.”

Remedies

If you’re feeling down this May, go easy on yourself and remember – your Japanese colleagues are likely feeling it too. They also likely have some good advice. 

Kiyoshi-san says there’s no way out but through. “Don’t do anything. Until you get some motivation back, just stare at the clouds,” he advises. “Your motivation will eventually return. Gogatsu byou can affect anyone – there’s nothing to do but accept it.” 

Naomi suggests taking more time for yourself. “Laugh a lot. Be with the people you love in the places you love,” she says.

A woman poses on the top of  a mountain, arms outstretched.

May comes each year, but you only live once!

Finally, Mori-san recommends making a conscious effort to adjust to changes at work and school, emphasizing that the only way to feel better is to get used to your new life. “There are undoubtedly amazing things waiting for you in the future,” she says. “When you embrace life, you’ll start to feel better.”

While gogatsu byou may not be an actual medical disorder, conditions like insomnia and depression are. If your symptoms continue longer than a few week, or you’re struggling to adjust to life changes, contact TELL or make an appointment with a local doctor.