oh, those japanese… they just love killing themselves

Forgive me for being fantastically un-PC, but this Japan Times article on how suicides in Japan topped 30,000 for the tenth straight year (about 32,000 this year) made me do a double-take.

Do the math: The U.S. has roughly the same annual number of suicides, but has a population of about 304 million. Japan has a population of about 127 million. Japan’s suicide rate per 100,000 people is 25% (America’s is about 10.5%). What the hell is going on?

Fortunately, people have already examined this question for me. In Kayoko Ueno’s 2005 article Suicide as Japan’s major export? A note on Japanese Suicide Culture, a J@pan Inc article from last year, and a recent Economist article called Death Be Not Proud, a couple of things are pointed out about Japanese society that probably make a big difference:

  1. Suicide has been historically used as the samurai’s way to avoid dishonor. Hence the Japanese businessmen and politicians who’d rather die than go bankrupt or go to jail. (Note that I said “men”: the male rate is more than two times higher than the female rate [40% versus 15%].).
  2. Suicide was also glorified in the recent past. Remember World War II? Kamikaze pilots were the original suicide bombers.
  3. Suicide is neither accepted nor rejected in Buddhism and Shintoism. It’s a sin in Christianity, so families in the West probably suffer more from the stigma of a family member who committed suicide than families in the East.
  4. However, in Japan there are tons more things with social stigmas attached to them. For example, failure, colorblindness (or any kind of physical disability for that matter), or mental illness of one family member can put a big, indelible black mark on the entire family. And the shame makes it hard for people to seek help because they don’t know what’s wrong with them and they don’t want anyone to find out about it.
  5. Japanese kids have some serious shit to deal with. For one, there’s BULLYING. American kids can sue; Japanese kids are just told to suck it up and deal with it, because “it’s a part of life“. My own bullying experience in Gunma was uncommon in that I had teachers who had been educated in the United States, so I was able to complain and get a homeroom change. This doesn’t happen too often, especially with the natives.
    For further reading, a manga called Vitamin (the scanslation is by Storm in Heaven) recounts a girl’s history of severe bullying when she’s caught doing the nasty with her guy. It’s got a happy ending, but a lot of these real-life stories do not.
  6. And, of course, some people kill themselves for the insurance money. But I feel like that happens in a lot of places.

And you thought Americans had problems.

The Japanese government is finally giving suicide prevention programs more funding because they no longer want to be known as “The Country Where Killing Yourself Is Totally Okay”. But as many an article has pointed out, that’s too late in the game to be intervening. Japanese society needs to undergo an overhaul so people stop considering suicide in the first place.


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This is a blog of things place-related, by a cash-strapped Stanford grad who's lived in various places and writes about life. She's currently looking for a job in Manhattan or the Bay Area.

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