A penny for your feelings?: The rise of unique cafes in Japan to cry, cuddle & more

Yoshida instructing a crying tour, Source: Frommer’s.com

We shape our reality by either changing our perspective or the dynamics of our immediate surroundings. Often, life experiences reveal that structural changes in the outside world are far easier to deal with and show immediate visible results than attempting to change oneself from within. Japan has shown us exactly that by creating path-breaking ideas to help people navigate through their emotional needs. While Japan has always been globally popular for its funky themed restaurants and cafes, like robot restaurants, maid cafes, animal cafes and more, their focus has recently shifted towards establishing services that support people’s psychological well-being. 

What is the latest trend?

Visionary investors have tapped into monetizing people’s vehement desire for an emotional catharsis and have strategically applied it to their business model. We are talking of a world today that now capitalises in helping people utilise a free space that is secure for people to express their feelings regardless of their intensity and demeanour, but for a service fee. 

Japan in 2020 was the initial trendsetter in launching cafes catering to people’s mental health, by establishing two unique joints in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa area, named Negative Cafe and Bar Mori Ouchi, wherein people are hosted in to release emotions like crankiness, anxiety and melancholy. In fact, Negative Cafe is known to be strictly open to only those feeling blue. “People always say that being positive is good and being negative is bad, but I don’t think being negative-minded is such a bad thing,” as revealed by the owner of Negative Cafe in an interview with SoraNews24. “I think a lot of negative people tend to be reserved in their attitude, which is a form of kindness, and I thought it would be nice for there to be a relaxing place for them.” Japan’s Manuscript Writing Cafe has also gone viral for offering services as an anti-procrastination cafe for the emotionally distracted and avoidant customers. This cafe offers unlimited refills of beverages like tea and coffee, high speed internet and other productivity inducing amenities for an hourly fee. Customers sign a contract that permits the cafe to check on their goal or tasks at hand, without completing which the customer is not permitted to vacate the cafe premises. Furthermore, to fight through loneliness, especially during the sweater weathers, Soineya Cafe in Japan offers services of co-sleeping, cuddles and warm hugs by pretty girls for a rather hefty fee. This cafe is frequented by workaholic men of diverse ages who are desperate for love and care.  

Manuscript Writing Cafe a.k.a “Anti Procrastination Cafe”, Japan. Source: Japan Inside. 

Not just cafes, but even creative and innovative recreational activities like “crying tours” have been organised by the famous “tear teacher” Hidefumi Yoshida in Kamakura, Japan. These sessions equip those struggling to expose their feelings by offering encouraging avenues for people to display sadness publicly in an otherwise shy and reluctant Japanese population. “My job is to make people feel refreshed through crying,” said Yoshida. He estimated that he has made over 50,000 people cry in his seven and a half years tenure as a tear teacher, as reported by the BBC. In the interview he also proclaimed that the Japanese concept of “rui-katsu (ルイカツ)”, or “tear seeking” is the crux that influences these crying tours to allow people to seek stress relief and the expression of raw emotion through crying. 

While Japan has been the maiden country to experiment with such businesses catering to the depressed, the concept of helping people unleash their emotions has not been completely alien. A popular example is the global popularity of “rage rooms” for those who constantly feel stressed or burnt out. Interestingly, the first set of rage rooms were also introduced in Japan in 2008 during the peak of their economic recession. While the main purpose was to create themed arenas to relieve one’s frustration or repressed anger by letting customers smash down amenities like chairs or glass tables, it is also utilised as a source of entertainment and fun nowadays. 

Why do we need avenues to emote?

Renowned psychologists Sigmund Freud spoke of how the human personality comprising the Id, Ego and Superego are in a constant tussle amongst themselves. Id symbolising one’s childlike urges and whimsical desires that are often impatiently waiting to be satiated, are conflicted by the guarded Superego which directs the personality to be dictated as per societal norms and cultural orientation. Subconsciously this internal Id and Superego conflict takes a huge toll on a person when left unaddressed for long. Freud also mentioned that people with an extremely strict and suppressed childhood end up with unfulfilled needs and desires often later in their life, leading them to eventually develop tendencies to act-out childishly despite their adult age. Services like rage rooms or crying tours, provide the necessary socially acceptable outlet to permit oneself this indulgence of expressing emotions directed by one’s Id – be it anger or sadness. These services are so structured that clientele privacy is well protected, thereby safeguarding a person’s reputation. This reduces the friction betweens one’s Superego and Id temporarily, which attracts people to keep coming back to seek these services as recurrent customers. 

From a sociological perspective, culture plays a pivotal role in directing how people can emote and express themselves. Collectivist cultures like that of the East Asians believe in ‘self-restraint for the common benefit of the greater public’, as opposed to individualistic cultures like that of the West which encourages personal liberation even if it is at the cost of discomfort for the rest. Thus, people raised with the cultural values of a collectivist nation often find themselves suffocated by coerced suppression of their inevitable emotions as they are deprived of any healthy ways of releasing them. It is no surprise that the world witnesses the highest suicide rates and psychological poor health like chronic depression, anxiety and more in East Asian countries. South Korea for example, despite being one of the most developed East Asian countries still grapples with the highest suicide rate among OECD countries. As per a report published by Bloomberg, at least 13,000 people in South Korea ended their life in 2022, which was quantified to a rate of 26 per 100,000. This was higher than the 25.57 record in 2020. Japan has a suicide rate of 15.9% which is equally alarming. 

Source: Morning Sentinel.

Japan especially, bears the root of loneliness from its cultural norms.  “Hikikomori (引きこも) is a terminology that labels the class of individuals, especially men who self-inflict a situation of being social outcasts, by confining themselves to their homes for long periods of time (beyond six months as defined by the ministry of health, labour and welfare in Japan). The term was derived from the verb “hiki” which meant “to withdraw” and “komori” which implies “to be inside” and was coined in 1998 by Japanese psychiatrist Professor Tamaki Saito. This tendency of extreme isolation and social withdrawal was first noticed in the 1900s, a period also referred to as the “economic ice age” of Japan. The underlying emotion that drove people to take such a drastic step stemmed from the emotion of deep shame, guilt and resentment in failure to meet the expectations of society at large. This also resonates with the Freudian theories of id-superego conflicts. Not just culture, Japan attributes the causes of loneliness (which could rise to 40 percent of the population by 2040) to numerous factors like long average working hours, and a heavy reliance on technology to compensate for social voids. Japanese businesses like Soineya today are therefore making an attempt to bring forth infrastructural changes through innovative cafes, bars and entertainment amenities to help its people cope with their emotional turmoil.     

Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow who propagated the humanistic school of psychology also asserted in prioritising our emotional needs. In Maslow’s well known “Hierarchy of Human Needs”, after realising one’s basic needs of food shelter, clothing and safety, one yearns for love, respect and emotional validation without which one cannot actualize their true potential. Rogers, who did eminent work in establishing the therapy setting, coined the three core conditions of displaying empathy, authenticity or genuineness and unconditional positive regard as crucial  prerequisites for any healthy relationship and life itself. 

Yoshida’s crying tours or joints like Negative Cafe provide people with a safe space ensuring all these three core conditions are met. This could be estimated as one of the primary reasons for several people to avail these services. 

Dangers or loopholes in capitalising people’s emotions

The flip side of the coin raises concerns whether these innovative ideas are in fact just a quick-fix or temporary hack that numbs our pain in the guise of a true solution. While flooding customers to crying cafes, workshops and rage rooms could be construed as an implicit indicator that people might be recipients of empathy, safety and in having their emotional needs met, the fact that they cyclically come back for more could be indicative of the fact that nothing concrete is really being fixed. Repetitive customers could simply mean that these joints act as a ‘first aid’ to the emotional emergencies of the person, but unless followed up with therapy to equip a person to be self reliant in setting the right boundaries, managing or validating one’s emotions and communicating it across in a healthy way, the chances are that people would still continue to feel hollow and broken inside. Monetization of people’s dire situation through such sadness cafes and crying tours could in fact even aggravate the tendencies of learned helplessness and victimisation amongst people. When a person dealing with internal trauma is subjected to an environment with several others suffering from the same condition, the tendency to treat this as collective victimhood and ill-fate is far higher than influencing them to step out of their comfort zone and make efforts to fight through to solve the issue at hand. 

Eminent critics have also expressed grave concern over the normalisation of violence portrayed by the marketing of some of the anger rooms. “My concern is they are advertising it as an effective form of anger management,” registered psychotherapist Dawn Binkowski told the CBC. “I think there’s some danger in that. Rage is terrifying because it’s uncontrolled. There’s no opportunity to engage in conflict resolution. It’s like saying it’s okay to go whack the hell out of something.”

On a final note

These creative start-up ideas have indeed raised awareness in sensitising the world towards the importance of mental health, however the underlying effort involving the basics of human dynamics and therapy cannot be substituted for. While we welcome the world to unfold new-age methods in simplifying the journey of life, particularly for those who hurt or are in pain, we must do so with a self-reminder that this isn’t the destination for respite, and the journey of self-work continues. 

Shweta Ravi
About Shweta Ravi 12 Articles
Shweta hails from Mumbai, India and is pursuing her Masters in International Trade Finance and Management at Yonsei GSIS. Her prior background in Psychology coupled with vast travel experiences and interest in languages, intrigue her to explore the dynamics of human interaction in diverse socio-economic canvas. Shweta has also worked as a professional Language Interpreter in Mandarin (Chinese) & Korean for both the Indian-Korean Government and for several Global Corporates. She is also a Latin dance aficionado with specialized training in various styles of Salsa, Bachata and Afro-Cuban dance forms.