“Gogatsubyō”: Japan’s May Blues


The stress of starting at a new school or beginning a new job can lead to a condition known colloquially as gogatsubyō, or “May blues.”

Spring is an especially hectic season in Japan. March is the end of the academic year and also when businesses close out their books. Then in April, entrance ceremonies mark a fresh beginning as many students start classes at new schools and newly minted college graduates begin working for a living. It is also a time when firms rotate staff to new posts, often requiring employees to uproot and move to whole different parts of the country. By May, the strain of settling into new routines takes a toll on many, triggering a seasonal melancholy known in Japan as gogatsubyō, or literally “May illness.”

A Cruel Month

The condition is often referred to in English as “May blues” and can present itself in a number of ways, including general lethargy or serious bouts of depression and anxiety. Gogatsubyō was initially coined to describe seasonal dips in the mental state of university students, but is now used to describe a general moroseness that affects people across society.

It is unclear what exactly triggers May blues, but it is commonly believed that the sudden change in schedules and the stress of learning the ropes at a new office or school are involved. Faced with navigating new surroundings, some people feel their motivation drop or they become withdrawn.   

Symptoms tend to appear after Golden Week, a stretch of public holidays from Shōwa Day on April 29 to Children’s Day on May 5 that provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the new academic and business year. However, back on the job or in the classroom, many people find it hard to regain their stride after the weeklong break. Parents might hear children complain of not wanting to go to school and company employees may find it hard to focus on assigned tasks.

Although often just a passing phase, the condition is considered an adjustment disorder and in serious cases can lead to long lasting mental health issues, chronic absenteeism, and even social withdrawal, such as with hikikomori.

A History of the Blues

The term gogatsubyō is said to have first emerged in the late 1960s on the campus of the University of Tokyo. At the time Japan was enjoying an unprecedented period of high-speed economic growth, and there was ever-fiercer competition for limited slots at the nation’s top universities that would subsequently guarantee lucrative careers upon graduation. Freshmen at the prestigious institute had endured months of nearly nonstop cramming for entrance exams, and upon reaching their goal, some succumbed to burnout as May rolled around.

While May blues is not an official disorder, schools and companies are increasingly addressing mental health issues, including by providing counselors to help people deal with stress on the job and in the classroom.

(Banner photo © Pixta.)

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