J@pan Inc magazine presents:
The 'JIN' Japan Inc Newsletter
A weekly opinion piece on social, economic and political trends
Issue No. 418 Wednesday June 13, 2007 TOKYO
Suicide in Japan
As he climbed the step ladder and put his head through the noose
that he had made himself, it is hard to imagine Farm Minister
Toshikatsu Matsuoka's state of mind at the start of this month
when he hung himself from a door in his own living room.
Apparently, Matsuoka saw suicide as the only way of escaping the
impending storm of investigations into his financial dealings.
Reports say that he left 8 suicide notes full of apologies and
The suicide of Matsuoka has in turn triggered a renewed focus on
the phenomenon of suicide in Japan more generally. Almost every
newspaper in Japan has in the last week rolled out alarming
statistics on the suicide rate, the second highest in the
developed world with over 30,000 Japanese taking their own lives
every year. (For example click here)
So what is behind this high suicide rate and can the
government do anything about it?
There are essentially three main factors affecting Japan's
suicide rates, which I want to discuss below.
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1. The 'Japanese Culture' Factor
Japan is actually famous for suicide: seppuku, kamikaze,
hara-kiri are all words familiar to Western readers on Japan.
There are indeed ritual methods of suicide in Japan and often,
Japanese who take their own lives are doing so essentially on a
point of honor—Minister Matsuoka included. With a Confucian
heritage that stresses the group over the individual, there is a
case to be made that this bias makes Japanese more predisposed
towards suicide i.e. people are more likely to see 'beneficial'
aspects for other people in their own exit from life.
Other commentators point to a lack of religious taboos
concerning suicide in Japan while some have claimed that
Japanese may even see suicide as a 'respectable' death;
nationalist writer Yukio Mishima probably saw his own
suicidal end as a noble 'Japanese' act.
Elsewhere Japanese suicides have been linked to its
alcohol-drinking culture. For example, a study published in the
British Journal of Psychiatry (no.188, 2006) found that 'heavy
drinkers among middle-aged Japanese men....constitute the
majority of Japanese suicide victims.'
All the above may well help to explain the high suicide rate here
but it would be unwise to single out one and some of the
arguments get carried away with Japanese 'difference'. After all,
both Islam and Christianity have had their martyrs and putting
others before oneself is not confined entirely to East Asia.
Perhaps however, it is fair to say that Japanese culture, because
of the importance of reputation and peer perception, likes to
keep its skeletons in the closet. Therefore, rather than suicide
being a heroic way out, it is a convenient way of avoiding
spilling the beans. In an old J@pan Inc (no. 67, 2006) Shinichi
Ishizaki who runs NPOSSC, a helpline for distressed Japanese
students, affirmed, 'Fear of revealing one's inner feelings is a
major problem in Japan that causes children to either become
violent or irrationally angry.'
2. Globalisation: Socio-economic Change
The French sociologist Emile Durkheim who wrote an entire book
on the subject of suicide argued, 'It is too great comfort that
turns a man against himself. Life is most readily renounced at
the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.' For
Durkheim it was much more the lack of social regulation and
social integration that caused people to take their own lives
than any physical hardship endured as a result of economic
poverty. Thus the breakdown in social networks produced by the
forces of industrialization, in tandem with its Protestant
ideology and emphasis on the individual, were behind the rise of
suicide figures in the West.
It is such thinking that actually seems to lie behind most of
the Japanese media's explanations of the issue. While the Asian
Financial Crisis of 1997-8 saw a growth in suicides, the
consequences of economic prosperity are often perceived as the
root causes of social ills i.e. the growth of urbanization, more
mobility in social organization, freedom to divorce or not get
married, materialism, consumer culture and so on.
These have broken down traditional community structures globally
and are routinely blamed for higher rates not only of suicide
but also of delinquency, violence, crime and bullying. (The
latter in particular is also seen as a growing problem in
Japan.) But can the government really do anything?
Durkheim was most interested in 'anomic suicide' - suicide caused
by a breakdown of traditional social norms. If this is the cause
of most suicides then more suicide may just be something we have
to add to the list of necessary evils for rapid socio-economic
While much is made of individuals feeling alienated from society,
states and governments intervene more regularly with the
everyday lives of their citizens more than ever before. In this
sense government intervention and social disconnect are two sides
of the same coin. Indeed, Durkheim agreed that too much
integration and regulation, as well as too little, can also
drive people to suicide.
The Japanese government aims to cut suicides by 20% by 2016.
It plans to do this by providing extra counselling services for
depressives, 'preventive education', stress reduction for the
overworked and unemployed, and a crackdown on Internet suicide
notices. While hopefully some of these measures will help cut the
current rates it is hard to be optimistic - social problems tend
to require organic social responses and solutions more than
government targets and regulation. And Japan is probably not so
different from anywhere else in the developed world where Prozac
is a household name.
3. New Social Networks
The World Health Organization confirms that a rise in suicide
deaths is a global trend. In part this may be put down to new
social networks that use suicide as a weapon of protest. Most
obviously there are 'suicide bombers' who are so weak in terms
of political power that they are forced to create an ideology
that allows them to justify giving their own lives for the sake
of their cause.
In Japan suicide has also become a popular act of resistance.
While an increase in bullying has led to an increase in teen
suicide with victims driven to despair by their tormentors, there
have also been a number of coordinated pacts formed via Internet
communities and blogs. As young people search for ways to escape
a system that they find it impossible to identify with, in an age
where the stakes in identity are at unprecedented levels, suicide
has started to become a more popular option and, ironically, a
way of finding solidarity.
Some hope that online communities may also act as a
break on suicides as those who fail to find solace in their
immediate social surroundings find friends, networks and outlets
on the Internet. It is my personal opinion however, that although
online media may help potential suicides find a limited degree of
support, there is no substitution for physical human interaction
that people can only find in the immediate world they inhabit:
their family, school, workplace, clubs, or neighbourhood.
Thus it is these everyday immediate social structures that
potential suicides and those attempting to support them should
focus on. The Internet may be full of people but is arguably a
very lonely place too. The Japanese government would therefore
be advised to 'crackdown' on a corporate culture that forces
employees to work into the small hours and at weekends rather
than Internet suicide blogs.
Ultimately, what went through Minister Matsuoka's mind as he
prepared to hang himself will remain a mystery. Suicide remains
a difficult phenomenon to understand as even Durkheim recognised
himself. And so I leave you with his words to close:
'Each victim of suicide gives his act a personal stamp which
expresses his temperament, the special conditions in which he is
involved, and which, consequently, cannot be explained by the
social and general causes of the phenomenon.'
By Peter Harris
Chief Editor, J@pan Inc magazine
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