Thursday, March 12, 2009

Japan Suicide Rate at Crisis Levels

The world has a basket full of problems right now; yet when 30,000 people take their own lives each year - as they do in Japan - you have to wonder what's going on in Japanese culture. The Japanese suicide rate now has seen 10 straight years (97-2007) of 30,000 suicides a year. So what's up with this tragic reality?

You want to be sensitive with a subject like this, but there are times when silence is itself a form of malice...Is anyone in Japan paying attention to Japanese suicide! Your neighbors, co-workers, grandfathers and nieces are killing themselves, do you wonder why?

And part of the problem in Japanese culture is a kind of overly-bureaucratic, sociological view of Japanese suicide. I cite a recent editorial in the Japan Times Online as a perfect example a certain view of suicide in Japan:

"It is likely that poor business conditions, overwork, unemployment, debts and depression lead people to contemplate suicide. Government and non-government organizations should work together to establish an efficient network in which unemployed workers can easily obtain counseling and advice."

Oh, gee thanks for this sensitive, empathetic analysis! Are we talking about municipal budget shortfalls here, or are we talking about human beings deciding it's better to be dead than alive? It's precisely this kind of dull, press-release sounding response which typifies the Japanese approach to Japan suicides.

And then, of course, the solution is that more "government and non-government organizations" should help out. What does that mean? How can a government give people hope? Is the UN supposed to come in and distribute self-help books and schedule counseling visits? I don't want to be glib, but the point must be made that we're not talking about tax issues here, but real spiritual and moral problems in Japanese culture.

I'm not a mental health professional, but I suspect that a bad economy, unemployment and debts don't generally cause people to kill themselves - these are 'final straw' issues if you will - but it is a long embedded despair which is the real culprit. A bad economy and severe unemployment describes the daily life of millions of people in Africa, Latin America and India, but we don't see the despair that we do in Japan.

Despair is the absence of hope. And hope is something that buffers people during hard times. When you have hope, you naturally look toward the future. One byproduct of hope is choosing to have children. Is it any surprise that the population in Japan is plunging, because Japanese people have stopped having babies?

I believe that this Japanese despair has much to do with its profoundly material and secular view of life. All of this makes sense coming out of the wreckage of WW II, but once people achieved great materiel wealth by the '70s and '80s, it was like, now what? Then came the bursting of the Japanese financial bubble in the '90s, and now the global recession that is starting to hit Japan. Money comes and goes, but hope, virtue and faith is something no economy can steal from you.

Though personally not a huge proponent of psychology as it's practiced these days, there certainly needs to be more acceptance of this tool in Japanese society. People should be able to say, "You know, I need some help here," and be able to get counseling without all the cultural taboos. But the larger survival of Japanese civilization involves having faith in something beyond themselves and material prosperity.

Let's hope and pray that the Japanese suicide rate starts plunging downward faster than the Japanese birth rate. And who knows, perhaps tough economic times may bring back an appreciation of family life, children and more simple pleasures; for only with family changes, can you expect significant changes to the society as a whole.


Anonymous said...

Wow I have been feeling the same way lately, thank you for posting. I just came to Japan two months ago and have felt a distinct atmosphere of heaviness... something hard to describe but so thick and somber that sometimes I feel uncomfortable walking around outside! It's noticable the seriousness of Japanese in public; I admit I've not been here long but I am astonished at how controlled people are, how unexpressive around others, how reserved and held inside themselves. This can't be healthy; I teach English and some of my students are so hard on themselves they clam up whenever they think they MIGHT make a mistake sometime during the class. Frustrating.

It seems ripe for a "suicide culture." I am surprised that more people aren't discussing openly the Epidemic of suicide in this country! People jump in front of trains to kill themselves every single day in Tokyo; I hadn't realized that "Accident" is a nice name for Suicide, written this way in English so that tourists probably won't freak the hell out. Too late! Accidents nearly happen every single time I ride a train and nobody seems to be bothered by them.

Everything seems so structured and organized, from the distinct separation between public and domestic life to the separated food in bento boxes. 30,000 a year since the late nineties? Oye.

Mr. Kato said...

Thanks for the comment...I'm sure you'll adjust and began to see the many things that are grand about Japan and Japanese culture, but you shouldn't expect the Japanese to talk about uncomfortable things - that won't happen. They deal with bad news by burying it. As far as the "heaviness" in the air, that's there for certain. I pray and hope that some real hope comes to the Japanese people so that there is a general lifting of this burden.