Why do Japanese tourists become sick when visiting Paris?

Japanese tourists becoming sick after visiting Paris. Sounds bizarre but it’s a real phenomenon. There is a special hospital for Japanese who feel homesick and depressed, sometimes because of the rude French behaviour.  

Story by Nicky Mai

Paris is known for its culture, cuisines and literature. It’s one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations and many people see Paris as a glamorous and trendy place. Almost if the place comes straight from a movie. But these expectations of the city are often not met. Some people find Paris a tourist ghetto, which can be a let down.

The disappointment for some tourists visiting the City of Lights is so intense that they experience nausea, hallucinations, and increased heart rate – a condition known as Paris Syndrome. But the oddest thing about it is that the Paris syndrome mostly happens to Japanese people.

About one million Japanese travel to France every year – following a long history. From 1860 to 1930, Japanese travellers were mostly students traveling to Europe to assimilate European culture, the trip to Paris being a symbol of wealth. After World War II, with Japan under American occupation, travel symbolized the assimilation of Westernization, with the idea that Europe was the origin of American culture. In the 1970s, the economic situation allowed more travel, first reserved for businessmen, then extending to couples and families, often in the form of trips organized by companies, then individually. In recent years, due to the economic recession, this type of travel has decreased but the number of Japanese travellers continues to grow, including people seeking work or social integration.

Ren (21), a male tourist from Sendai, Japan who is currently visiting Paris for the first time, says that Paris is portrayed as one the most prestigious European cities that you can visit: “Japanese people have idealized France and especially Paris as a cultural symbol.”

Paris is well prepared when Japanese people need medical assistance. France has the highest rate of patients suffering from psychopathological disorders in Europe, but it is also the only European country that offers specialized assistance to Japanese in their own language: this care is based on the cooperation between the Sainte-Anne Hospital and the Japanese Embassy in Paris. It is reported that the embassy takes in about 20 people each year.

Possible causes of Paris Syndrome can be diverse. Hikaru (21), a male tourist from Kyoto, Japan who is travelling together with Ren says that the language barrier is probably a big reason that Japanese people want to go home: “Few Japanese speak French and almost no French speak Japanese. And English is still difficult for both parties. I can imagine that if a Japanese tourists gets pickpocketed in Paris for example, they will be unable to communicate for help and wants to go back home.”

According to a study Maladies mentales chez les japonais en région parisienne by M. Uemoto , a language barrier can quickly lead to an inability to communicate resulting in feelings of akwardness, anxiety and isolation.

When asked about the cultural differences between Japan and France, Ren mentions that the hospitality is not that consistent in Paris. “In Japan, hospitality is very important. We call it omotenashi which means to wholeheartedly look after your guests”, Ren points out. “Most of the time people here in Paris are very polite but sometimes they can also be very cold. Japanese people might not be used to that.” Hikaru adds that Japanese people can misinterpret French behaviour for rudeness which can lead to misunderstandings.

Paris had and still has an almost magical attraction because the city is considered a symbol of European culture: this phenomenon is largely reinforced by the multiple media and made possible by what some call the phenomenon of acculturation. The definition of the phenomenon is not a simple transfer, but a real assimilation of one culture by another cultural group as described by P. Ribeyre in the study Voyages pathologiques des japonais à Paris . The main sources of attraction are culture, language, literature, history, visits to famous sites, but also music, classical dance, cuisine, fine arts and fashion.

Ren also mentions that the reason for visiting Paris might affect whether you are going to have your high expectations met or not. “The reason I came here is for the beautiful architecture and to appreciate the art. Those expectations are easily met, but if someone got their expectations from watching Emily in Paris, they are most likely to be disappointed.”