Resolve to Cry More in 2021

With crying therapy, the Japanese are unlocking the healing power of tears.

crying woman
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

The Japanese excel at—and often get very excited about—a great many things: amazing convenience stores, cutting-edge fashion, technological dominance, this giant robot. But when emotions swing to the other end of the spectrum, things become much more complicated. And bottled up.

In Japan, negative emotion and vulnerability are often couched in shame. A 2011 study on culture and crying found the Japanese had some of the driest eyes in the world. Much of Japan is so averse to publicly showing sadness that the appearance of happiness is commodified: consider the rise of the rent-a-friend, services designed to help combat crippling loneliness while also giving off the illusion of a fuller and more social lifestyle.

Collectively, Japan could use a good cry. That’s where Hidefumi Yoshida, self-proclaimed “namida-sensei,” or “tears teacher,” comes in.

Since 2013, Yoshida has led more than 50,000 Japanese in the lacrimal way with his basically made-up practice of rui-katsu, or tears therapy, espousing its immune-boosting, detoxing, and stress-relieving benefits. And as it stands, it’s all very accurate.

“When you cry you release stress hormones from the body, it creates endorphins, which are the feel-good hormones, the natural painkillers in the body,” explains Judith Orloff MD, author of Emotional Freedom and clinical psychiatry faculty member at UCLA, who has been asked about this topic a lot in recent years.

Withholding tears can have detrimental physical effects like stress and anxiety buildup, which can cause increased blood pressure, muscle tightening, stress, and discomfort. In one case Dr. Orloff recalls a patient’s refusal to cry after a breakup rendering her much worse off.

“Crying is an expression of grief but if you don’t let it flow then it can turn into depression,” she explains.

Collaborating with Hideho Arita, professor emeritus of neurophysiology at Toho University School of Medicine and author of Techniques for Freeing Your Mind of Stress, Yoshida began hosting crying therapy sessions encouraging adults to embrace the health benefits of a good sob.

Rejuvenation through weeping isn’t exclusive to therapy sessions, though. In ever-entrepreneurial Tokyo, one company offers the services of ikemeso danshi, or “handsome weeping boys,” who visit your office and use videos to induce tears before wiping them away. Attractive men in categories like “singing cool beauty boys,” “swordsman,” and “dentist” are used to combat the stereotype that crying is the domain of women, but the benefits are… plentiful.

So many crying clubs —where participants gather to collectively blubber to YouTube videos, film clips, and even insurance commercials—popped up in recent years that it was dubbed a social phenomenon. In one rollercoaster of a session, images on screen ranged from the human aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 to a family interacting with their cat. Viewers didn’t stand a chance.

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What could easily be dismissed as a quirky wellness fad in the land of the rabbit cafe and used-underwear vending machines became a movement to save lives. Things picked up for Yoshida when in 2015 a rise in worker compensation claims for burnout prompted Japan to encourage stress-checks in mid-to-large companies. Overwork is such a problem in the country that they’ve invented a word for literally working yourself to death: karoshi.

Armed with his bummer arsenal, former high school teacher and school counselor Yoshida has squeezed the saltwater everywhere from corporate offices to hospitals to elementary schools. He’s hosted free crying sessions in mental-health facilities and set up shop in a local planetarium with a tear-jerking soundtrack played under 38,000 fake, beautiful stars.

He’s even opened the Tears and Travel Cafe Akane where you’re able to make an appointment for up to five people, the website welcoming “Those who want to cry, those who are in trouble because they cannot cry, those who are stressed, and those who are tired of life.” Tea is served, alongside manipulative images, evocative songs, and children’s books. The curious price is for “only the amount you’ve cried,” but multitasking is more concrete: a manicure with a side of cry is 17300 yen, or approximately $166. 

Recently Yoshida’s work captured the attention of filmmaker Noémie Nakai, whose documentary short about him, Tears Teacher, is featured in this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

“It’s fun and wacky, but in Japan where many people feel they can’t be vulnerable, I believe he’s spreading an important message about mental health,” Nakai told the Japan Times. The film begins with the question Yoshida poses in every session: When was the last time you cried?

His latest endeavor sees him Pied-Pipering weepers on a crying tour across Kamakura, a seaside city scattered with breathtaking landscapes (sob at the beauty) and tragic history (weep for the fallen). Stops include the Miharashidai viewpoint overlooking the ocean, and the Buddhist Hokai Temple, which dates back to 1333 and enshrines the 870 members of the once-ruling Hōjō clan who in accordance with samurai code committed mass suicide to escape defeat. They probably... did not cry.

In fact it’s this bushido, or samurai code, that’s probably the easiest thing to point to when it comes to Japan’s crying problem. It’s a country so known for its stoicism there’s a word for the suck-it-up ethos informing aspects from burnout to refusing pain pills: gaman, generally translated as perseverance, more fine-tuned as “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” Holding in tears is seen as a virtue. Yoshida’s crying therapy offers a safe space for people to let it all out, without the fear of cultural stigma.

And though we crybabies in the West don’t need to be told twice how cathartic it feels to wallow—just ask Aerosmith—we also may not be fully aware just how good it is for us. Sadly, there’s no equivalent of rui-katsu in the US: our group wailing sessions, at least in the Beforetimes, generally involve prestige Oscar bait in big movie theaters.

Maybe Japan is onto something in this time of elevated grief. They were, after all, pretty on point when it came to the healing effects of hanging out with trees.

“It sounds wonderful,” says Orloff of the practice. “A way to process grief and get some endorphins. We need to cry at everything that’s happened to our country. It would be good for us as well.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She never needs a reason to cry.