Japan's Suicide Problem: Searching for Answers  (Page 2 of 2)

Clearly the problem doesn’t boil down entirely to economics. This is evident from the fact that the unemployment rate in Japan last year hovered around 4.4% while in the U.S. it stubbornly stood above 8% for most of 2012.  The economic aspects of the problem may lie less in the fact of unemployment than in the types of jobs people are able to obtain and the fact that a large percentage of workers are irregular or temporarily employed, making security a major concern. 

Anthropologist Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, writing about the problem of internet suicide pacts in Japan (where an individual puts up a web site asking others to meet him/her to commit suicide as a group), has raised an important point in relation to understanding what certainly must be one of the more profound causes of Japan’s high suicide rate—alienation.  She argues that this form of suicide, at least, may be related to a cultural concept in Japanese society known as ikigai, which translates as one’s purpose in life.  Japanese often place a great deal of value in having an ikigai in the form of a hobby, career, or family—the specific activity is less important than the act of doing something—and the absence of a purpose in life can be psychologically debilitating.   Group suicides, according to Dr. Ozawa de-Silva, may stem from feelings of existential alienation and suffering that are somehow alleviated in the context of killing oneself with others.  Dr. Ozawa de-Silva in no way condones these suicide pacts but rather helps us understand how, in a society that places great importance of belonging, collective acts of suicide may be seen by those involved as a way to overcome the kind of alienation that comes with self-identifying as a social outcast. 

When thinking about problems like this, it is important to understand that suicide is not an individual construct but, like many things, is a socialized concept. People in all societies view the acceptability of suicide through their society’s perspective on how stress is experienced, how one responds to stressful situations, and the moral values associated with both life and death.  Like any country, in Japan there are different attitudes about whether or not it is right to take one’s own life. 

Foreigners often believe Japan’s high suicide rates are indicative of a cultural that tolerates suicide and/or devalues human life. These non-Japanese undoubtedly affirm their beliefs through referencing historical phenomena in Japan like seppuku during samurai times and the kamikaze in World War II.  What they fail to appreciate is that these phenomena were almost certainly not perceived as suicide by Japanese at the time and in some cases today. Indeed, Japanese society during WWII viewed the kamikaze not unlike how some people in places like Sri Lanka during the civil war and parts of the Islamic world view suicide bombers from their imagined communities who took their lives to attack a communally defined external threat. That is, individuals who carry out suicide bombers are seen by some members of their in-group as having selflessly sacrificed themselves in defense of the community and its way of life—not unlike soldiers who die in battle— even as those outside this in-group view their actions as simply taking one’s own life and those of others.

The fact is that Japanese society neither condones suicide nor devalues life. To the contrary human life is deeply appreciated and suicidal behavior is seen as a tragic event that raises many questions about the suffering the individual who kills him or herself was facing.  And in the case of the student mentioned above, the suicide itself has been interpreted as a sign that something is deeply wrong when an institution that should be trusted like a school employs a coach who abuses students to the point that they kill themselves to escape it.

That being said, it’s important to underscore that in Japan, as in every society, cultural factors like the importance of belonging and having a purpose in life intersect in complex ways with more universal factors like material well-being in pushing someone to go over the edge.

John W. Traphagan, Ph.D., Department of Religious Studies and Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Comments
47
Manila Boy
February 21, 2014 at 14:45

I once lived in an urban slum with no electricity and water; where people lived 10 to a room. And let me tell you that despite the poverty and hunger, people smiled sincerely and still had fun. Everybody knew everybody living nearby. People took care of neighbors’ children when they went to work and people spared whatever little food they can to feed friends. And when there’s a fire people pitched in to put it out or help evacuate. Not to say there is no criminality. Far from it! I would like to believe, though, that people can actually care for strangers in the modern world. And that poverty need not be feared.

I think this is one aspect missing in modern societies: a real sense of community.

matt
February 21, 2014 at 19:47

I so agree with you. Modern Japan especially is a very distant related culture. All people do is work, eat and sleep. Everyone is dependent on technology than people. That alone is not good enough for a fulfilled life. Theres a huge inner void in the Japanese people.

Arun s
September 20, 2013 at 23:31

It is a tragic pattern and almost a subculture in Japan. Ever since I can recall the trend has been to take " the easy way out" as some call it. To put it in perspective, given that everything is relative, it probably is easier to take one's own life when inexplicably faced with overwhelming frustration with life's challenges.

The need to be listened to and void all of ones feelings to another in itself can be immensely rewarding. It could be the very point of a turnaround when the realization that they are not alone in this desperation actually sinks in. Taking comfort in each other is people's only solace sometimes and we don't know where else to look. Happily some groups are connecting with these disparate souls lately and can and will make the difference in saving them from the horrible act of resorting to suicide.

The best and most fitting definition for suicide is 'a permanent solution for a temporary problem'. Period!

July 23, 2013 at 00:05

Suicide is caused by sensitivity.if we can chanallize our sensations through bvarious methods suicidal rate can be allivated.
Chanells are.
Religious teachings
Children in life.
Some new aims in life.
Decideing to take revenge rather die.
And changing ur residencies home towns.

Peter Williams
May 21, 2013 at 16:43

1) Oriental simply means from the East. Some people, in some places, now, find this term offensive, and prefer the term “Asian.” Nevermind that “Asian” is less specific (e.g. Siberia is in Asia, but is not considered Oriental). But yes, especially in places like the West coast if the US, using the term “oriental” marks you as being unsophisticated.

2) Therefore, by singling out somebody for using the therm “oriental,” you are guilty of the same thing you accuse the other person of: cultural insensitivity. In your case, elitism. You look down your nose at people who do not know the currently acceptable terms (perhaps they were not as well educated as you – shame on them!).

3) Who cares if the professor has a PhD? Hey, I’ve got one too. Irrelevant.

4) Also rather culturally insensitive of you to bash on Christians who might mention Jesus and pray for the Japanese. What’s wrong with that? Personally I think it’s a kind gesture to pray for your fellow human beings. And no, I’m not a Christian, but I don’t like people who bash on Christians any more than I like people who bash on Japanese or any other group. Except for elitists. :)

Koji Akamine
May 7, 2013 at 03:13

Even U.S. have large amount of suicide. Which the news caster don't publish their stories. Have you know how many taking their lives in U.S.? check it out the numbers are amazing and it is more then Japan. Even China has doubled the numbers in Last year.

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