Blossom The Project starts a much-needed bilingual discussion on mental health in Japan

Posting from her @blossomtheproject Instagram account last week, Meg Hoffmann Nakagawa put out a simple yet empowering statement: “Your voice is your superpower.”

It came in the form of a simple, pastel-colored drawing that included the Japanese translation, “Anata no koe wa anata no sūpāpawā.”

With a follower count approaching 45,000 and more than 230 posts on topics including mental health, Black Lives Matter and Japanese politics, the 21-year-old Nakagawa is definitely taking advantage of this superpower.

“I wanted to have a platform where people could openly talk about mental health, start conversations and talk more about it with their family and friends,” she tells The Japan Times when describing how Blossom The Project began.

As life shut down amid the pandemic last year, Nakagawa, a student at New York University, received an iPad from her father to help with school. She discovered a few drawing apps, started experimenting and posted her first illustration on April 6.

As for the content of her posts, however, Nakagawa’s interest in mental health issues has been years in the making. Born in Japan to a South African father and a Japanese mother, she moved to California when she was just 6 months old. The family returned to Japan when Nakagawa was 10. Life as a so-called kikokushijo, the term used in Japanese for children who leave and then return to Japan after an extended period, can be challenging.

“When I was growing up in Japan, I always felt so suffocated by the environment because, everywhere I went, I was never welcomed as a Japanese person,” Nakagawa recalls, adding that people in Japan always considered her a “gaijin” (foreigner) or “hāfu,” a term that literally means “half” and is considered offensive by many biracial Japanese. “Rarely did people consider me mixed race. I started having anxiety and panic attacks by the time I was 15.”

Her anxiety worsened and, at 17, her depression got so bad she was no longer able to attend school. It was around this time that Nakagawa sought the help of a psychiatrist, but it wasn’t until she lost a family member to suicide that she realized the magnitude of mental illness and depression.

“That was a very big turning point in my life,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why is no one in Japan doing anything about this?’”

Nakagawa enrolled at school in the United States and says attitudes toward mental health there are much different than they are in Japan.

“Everyone was just casually talking about mental health. It wasn’t as stigmatized as in Japan,” she says. “It was an eye-opening experience for me.”

With this issue in mind, time on her hands and a new iPad, Nakagawa set out to try and start a conversation in Japan. Blossom The Project engages its followers with content in both Japanese and English, and though her earlier posts focused more narrowly on mental health, since last summer she has broadened the discussion to illustrate how everyday acts of racism, sexism and homophobia can affect mental well-being, too. It’s a one-woman team, with Nakagawa doing the research, translation and artwork for her posts by herself.

“People assume that Blossom The Project is an organization, but I remind them that I’m just one university student,” she says.

Nakagawa credits Instagram’s accessibility and her bilingual posts for the account’s rapid growth. And while cherry blossoms are an iconic image in Japan, she sees the logo as something that’s much more universal.

“The blossom is the symbol for my account, and it’s about us all coming together and blossoming,” she says. “I think that resonated with a lot of people. I touch on a lot of heavy topics that I’m truly passionate about and I think my supporters see that.”

Despite her success on Instagram, Nakagawa is currently aiming to go to grad school in the hopes she can study law and someday work for an international organization that deals with political and societal issues.

“I want to be able to utilize what I’ve learned these years and make changes on a systemic level,” she says.

For now, her interest in Blossom The Project shows no signs of wilting, and she recently launched Blossom The Media with a team of writers to cater to more in-depth coverage of the topics she picks up on Instagram.

“I’m just really happy that Blossom The Project resonates with so many people,” Nakagawa says.” I really hope that it continues to do so in the future.”

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