05 February 2009

The Japanese culture of shame and suicide

Japan is a country of extremes! One can experience here an amazing juxtaposition of the ancient traditions with ultra-modern technologies. Japanese technology needs neither any introduction nor an endorsement as 'Brand Japan' is often associated to 'quality goods' in the world. But, how about the life of the Japanese people? This question requires a thorough look on several aspects of the Japanese culture. In fact, the blend of old traditions and modern technological innovations has touched the life of every Japanese a great deal. The benchmarks set by Japanese society are very high however, at the same time, there are no concessions for failures. Japan holds a prominent position in the world on several fronts. But, there are few aspects of the Japanese society which makes mockery of most of its techno-cultural advancements! One of them being the fact that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among rich countries. Japan, as a country, has everything, more than many unfortunate countries in this world, yet so many of its citizen decide to die every year.

Japanese people can be very friendly and super helpful, but on the other hand, extremely reserved who refrain from expressing their opinions.

During the first six months of my stay in Japan, after I arrived here in early April 2006, I underwent the 'Japanese language intensive course', which is a course designed to provide the foreigners with a prelim exposure to the Japanese language and culture. And as a matter of fact, we had already started experiencing the 'good' facets of the Japanese society well before the course kicked off! Japanese people can be very friendly and super helpful, but on the other hand, extremely reserved who refrain from expressing their opinions. I will talk about some other characteristics of Japanese society someday. Today, I intend to talk a bit on the 'culture of shame and suicide' existing in Japan.

One Japanese commits suicide in every 15 minutes. The worst part is that most of these suicides are committed by the teens and people under 30-years of age. Most of the Japanese commit suicide using easily accessible household items.

Japan's dismal reputation of being one of the world's suicide nations can be confirmed by the stunning statistics which reveals that one Japanese commits suicide in every 15 minutes. The worst part is that most of these suicides are committed by the teens and people under 30-years of age. Most of the Japanese commit suicide using easily accessible household items. People use common items to create the poisonous gas, hydrogen sulfide, which is produced by mixing toilet-bowl cleaner with bath salts. The methods for creating the said gas have been spreading wide across the Internet. And Japan, being a high-tech society, the use of internet even by the adolescents is quite common. I did a simple googling on "hydrogen sulfide" and not to my surprise, over 1,190,000 results were generated in fraction of a second! However, it would be silly to entirely blame on the methodological aspect of creating the poisonous gas as well as the role of media, particularly the internet, for the increased suicide rates. Even though, the Japanese media have been regularly focusing on the ways to stop these suicides, perhaps the main emphasis should be on why so many young people are trying to take their lives?

In broader sense, there are two reasons that has been cited for the growing cases of suicides in Japan: cultural and economical. Japanese society rarely lets people overcome from the perceived shame of failure or bankruptcy.

Researchers have been busy in solving this mystery for years. In broader sense, there are two reasons that has been cited for the growing cases of suicides in Japan: cultural and economical. Japanese society rarely lets people overcome from the perceived shame of failure or bankruptcy (spiritual, moral as well as intellectual bankruptcy). Suicide is more or less silently approved by the Japanese society—as facing one's fate, not shirking it. The samurai (Samurai, the upper ranks of society, is the term for the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan: Wikipedia) tradition views suicide as noble. In addition to this, bullying at schools has encouraged many teens to take their lives indicates towards zero tolerance characteristics of the Japanese younger generation. The fundamental purpose of Japanese education system is to cultivate 'characters' through ‘equality’: which means, every children can and should be developed in the same manner. This policy attests itself as uniformity within orthodoxy in thoughts and belief. The system has succeeded in developing a cohesive and isolated Japanese society. However, the financial crisis during '90s resulted in under-employment that posed a significant problem and had a far-reaching influence on the Japanese psychology. Suicide rates increased sharply in the mid-1990s showing the people's inadequacy to face the 21st century both psychologically and economically. A glance at the graph below depicts that an increasing number of lives are clearly at risk.

The fact that almost 50% of the suicides are committed by unemployed Japanese indicates the economic aspect of the problem. The rate jumped during mid '90s when Japan was facing an economic crisis. There are people who even commit suicide so that the survived family may claim the insurance amount. However, I must mention here that a high percentage of people committing suicide are the adolescents and hence, the figure of 50% unemployed people committing suicide might not reflect the actual situation.

Why poorer countries have a lower level of suicide is that, perhaps, people are more communicative. They share the burdens of life with friends and family, which makes life much more bearable. People in Japan seems to be much more repressed with their feelings and reserved about their problems.

There can't be any ready-made remedy to the problem of the ever-growing suicides in Japan. The problem seems to have a multidimensional shape that includes social acceptance of suicides, economic woes, culture of shame with zero tolerance, lack of religious prohibition etc. One thing that surprises me is the lower suicide rates found in most of the poorer countries. If economic sufferings only had to do with increased number of suicides, then Japan would not have occupied one of the top ranks among the countries with high suicide rates. Why poorer countries have a lower level of suicide is that, perhaps, people are more communicative. They share the burdens of life with friends and family, which makes life much more bearable. People in Japan seems to be much more repressed with their feelings and reserved about their problems. Hence, I believe that people need more counseling on the psychological front than anything else. After all, life is precious and definitely deserves a second chance!

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Anonymous said...

My fellow Japanese friends! I am a foreigner and may not know everything but you were born here and should know better than us. right? Please, tell me why more than 35,000 of you decide to die every year? It may sound like exaggerated opinion but how can you expect a foreigner to be happy here if you are not happy? I have heard that even your beloved princess suffered lack of admiration regarding her personality? In brief, what we can conclude is that something is wrong with the values of this land and it should be found out at any cost.

The author has raised some genuine concerns regarding the problem. but I think he should have discussed some of the following illustrative stats like:
a) A national suicide hot-line service run by the Telephone Lifeline association is struggling to meet demand, with 7,000 volunteers handling some 700,000 calls a year.
b) The high suicide rate in Japan is often attributed to the absence of religious taboos about suicide.
c) The current economic crisis threatens to worsen the problem as more more people are loosing their jobs.

Dilip Acharya on February 6, 2009 at 6:11 PM said...

Well I've heard about one Japanese term Harakiri, which is a traditional way of suicide. Don't know much about it, but after reading your article I felt that somehow 'suicide' is still being a part of their culture.

In my view, lower suicide rates found in most of the poorer countries, as you have mentioned in this post, are not a matter of surprise. I think if a man is 'born poor', then the chance of committing suicide for the reason almost vanishes. But if a rich man suddenly becomes poor, then the chance rises high.

Life is certainly very precious, so in this regards I'd like to know more, if the concerned authorities are doing any thing to reduce this 15 minutes/ a suicide rate.

सिकारु on February 6, 2009 at 10:24 PM said...

dependra jee thnx for informative article..

Sameer on February 7, 2009 at 7:32 AM said...

thanks for sharing informative article about Japaneses people and culture.

badri on February 7, 2009 at 9:15 AM said...

very informative article about japanese and their suicide

Sumiran on February 7, 2009 at 9:50 AM said...

What a interesting post on frustrating topic!
There may many reasons behind the suicide. I am going to put one.
If we look back the origin of Japanese history, the rise of ZEN culture and the influence of the priest on samurai and governance is the underscoring part. The true essence of ZEN is NOT to REACT the emotions. It is not surprising that there were few genuine Samurais who practiced the art. Later on, the heart of the ZEN essence is lost somewhere and only ritual left (It always happen in each religion), which become NOT to SHOW your emotions. If not show then lets suppress.
As a effect, in Japanese culture, to show your emotion is a WEAK character still now. The strong person do not show their emotion.
If there is collective suppression of emotion in common mass, what happens? Same as with the outburst of compressed spring.

Alok said...

A very well written article! What made me stunned is "suicide is more or less silently approved by the Japanese society—as facing one's fate, not shirking it". I agree with you that people in Japan seems to be much more repressed with their feelings and reserved about their problems. Hope that Japanese people someday realize that Life is indeed very precious and deserves a second go as you have mentioned in the article. Hats-off to you for this excellent post!

Anonymous said...

I believe that the suicide in itself is extremely frustrating thing especially for them who cherish life as a precious blessing. There are several good aspects of Japan and the Japanese people but, the culture of shame and suicide and the belief 'death is better than dishonor' is something that I found a bit disturbing (though, many, I guess, may disagree with me!).

Regarding the comment by 'Anonymous', I too believe that there is 'something' wrong with the values of this land; however, there is no question about the quality of life that most of the foreigners enjoy here is Japan. Japanese may not be very happy and satisfied in themselves, but, they try their best to facilitate a nice & happy environment to the 'others'. Hence, 'most' of the foreigners find Japan as one of the best place to live! By the way, I must thank 'Anonymous' for providing some additional facts & arguments.

As Dilipjee has pointed out, Seppuku, (the formal term) or Hara-kiri (the common term) of ritual suicide was an integral aspect of feudal Japan (1192-1868) and result of the discipline imposed by the samurai warrior class. Hara-kiri or Seppuku literally means "stomach cutting" and is a particularly painful method of self-destruction. To the samurai, seppuku--whether ordered as punishment or chosen in preference to a dishonorable death at the hands of an enemy--was unquestionable demonstration of their honor, courage, loyalty, and moral character. The ritual for disembowelment was to be performed calmly and without flinching. If condemned to death, it was held to be a privilege to execute the sentence on one's own body rather than to be a disgrace and die at the hands of the public headsman. The location of an officially ordered seppuku ceremony was very important. Often the ritual was performed at temple (but not Shinto shrines), in the garden or villas, and inside homes. The size of the area available was also important, as it was prescribed precisely for samurai of high rank. All the matters relating to the act was carefully prescribed and carried out in the most meticulous manner. Please click here to read in detail.

A survey conducted by the Japanese government suggested that one in five citizen (men & women) in the country had seriously thought of taking their own life and half of them said movies and television were to blame for the high suicide rate because they either glossed over the subject or showed too many suicides. Over three quarters of the respondents also said they thought the Internet should be regulated to stop suicide sites from describing ways to commit suicide.

A multi-million dollar campaign was launched by the Japanese government in 2007 as a desperate attempt to reduce the suicide rate by the year 2016. A national suicide hot-line service is in operation run by the Telephone Lifeline Association which tries its best to prevent any suicide case once brought under notice. Several TV programme and internet sites are devised in a way to discourage the potential suicide cases. Many social volunteer too try to counsel the people who are going through stress.

Finally, I would like to thank everyone for putting their thoughts on the issue. I appreciate Netrajee for mentioning one of the valid reasons behind the suicide cases in Japan. Probably, the best way to discourage people from committing suicide is to convince them that hard times can be overcome!

Anonymous said...

A new suicide method has been developed as an alternative to hanging suicide and briquette suicide (carbon monoxide poisoning).
You don't have to provide rope for suicide by hanging or make a fire for suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
It is easier than suicide by hanging or by briquette (carbon monoxide poisoning).

Only mix 2 kinds of liquids those you can buy at drugstore or at gardening corner of homecenter.
[Hydrogen sulfide],a potent poison than carbon monoxide,occur quickly.
* It is sometimes misunderstanded with "chlorine gas",but it is [Hydrogen sulfide],more potently. *
You can lose your senses in a second(knock down:painless!!) if you breath [high concentration hydrogen sulfide] over 1000ppm!!!!
You can't "knock down" with "chlorine gas"!

Strong Acid + Calcium Polysulfides = Hydrogen sulfide (H2S)

* If in a bathroom or a car,enough with each 2 litters (about half gallon).
* You can use sulfuric acid of a car battery as strong acid, and you can use a pesticide lime sulfur as calcium polysulfides.

It reachs a fatal concentration over 1000ppm quickly.
(Please mix in a vessel, such as buckets)

Acid Sources
Lysol(R) Ready to Use Disinfectant (4-8 percent citric and hydroxyacetic acid)
Lysol(R) Toilet Bowl Cleaner (9.5 percent HCl)
Sno Bol(R) Toilet Cleaner (15 percent HCl)
**The Works(R) Toilet Bowl Cleaner (15-25 percent HCl)** coooooooooool!!!!!!!!
Blu-Lite(R) Germicidal Acid Bowl Cleaner (20.5 percent phosphoric acid)
Kaboom(R) Shower, Tub, and Tile Cleaner (5-7 percent urea-monohydrochloric acid)
Tile, stone cleaners (1-30 percent HCl)

Sulfur Sources
Artist oil paints (0-15 percent zinc sulfide)
Dandruff shampoos (1.0 percent selenium sulfide)
**Pesticides (5-30 percent calcium polysulfides)** coooooooooool!!!!!!!!
Spackling paste (1-2 percent zinc sulfide)
Some latex paints (6.6 percent zinc sulfide)
Garden fungicides (5-90 percent sulfur)

Hydrogen Sulfide: A Potential First Responder Hazard
Advisory New York State Office of Homeland Security September 26, 2008
Emergency Managers Advisory

Dangerous Japanese 'Detergent Suicide' Technique Creeps Into U.S.

Chemical TerrorismFact Sheet
Blood Gas Agents - Hydrogen Sulfide

Mujahideen Poisons Handbook

Rakesh Vazirani on July 20, 2009 at 9:54 AM said...

Thanks for sharing your comments.
Power,Sex Harassment, abuse of human rights and widespread distress are part and parcel of daily life in Japan. Its about time that this comes out in the open and the government,society take up the responsibility of empowering its people and renewing the social rules

Andrew Grimes on October 17, 2009 at 7:41 PM said...

I am a JSCCP clinical psychologist and JFP psychotherapist working in Japan for over 20 years. I would like to put forward a perspective as a mental health practitioner for some of the reasons behind the unacceptably high suicide in Japan.

Mental health professionals in Japan have long known that the reason for the unnecessarily high suicide rate in Japan is due to unemployment, bankruptcies, and the increasing levels of stress on businessmen and other salaried workers who have suffered enormous hardship in Japan since the bursting of the stock market bubble here that peaked around 1997. Until that year Japan had annual suicide of rate figures between 22,000 and 24,000 each year. Following the bursting of the stock market and the long term economic downturn that has followed here since the suicide rate in 1998 increased by around 35% and since 1998 the number of people killing themselves each year in Japan has consistently remained well over 30,000 each and every year to the present day.

The current worldwide recession is of course impacting Japan too, so unless the new administration initiates very proactive and well funded local and nationwide suicide prevention programs and other mental health care initiatives, including tackling the widespread problem of clinical depression suffered by so many of the general population, it is very difficult to foresee the previous government's stated target to reduce the suicide rate to around 23,000 by the year 2016 as being achievable. On the contrary the numbers, and the human suffering and the depression and misery that the people who become part of these numbers, have to endure may well stay at the current levels that have persistently been the case here for the last ten years. It could even get worse unless even more is done to prevent this terrible loss of life.

During these last ten years of these relentlessly high annual suicide rate numbers the English media seems in the main to have done little more than have someone goes through the files and do a story on the so-called suicide forest or internet suicide clubs and copycat suicides (whether cheap heating fuel like charcoal briquettes or even cheaper household cleaning chemicals) without focusing on the bigger picture and need for effective action and solutions.
Economic hardship, bankruptcies and unemployment have been the main cause of suicide in Japan over the last 10 years, as the well detailed reports behind the suicide rate numbers that have been issued every year until now by the National Police Agency in Japan show only to clearly if any journalist is prepared to learn Japanese or get a bilingual researcher to do the research to get to the real heart of the tragic story of the long term and unnecessarily high suicide rate problem in Japan.

I would also like to suggest that as many Japanese people have very high reading skills in English that any articles (or works of fiction which I appreciate this is) dealing with suicide in Japan could usefully provide contact details for hotlines and support services for people who are depressed and feeling suicidal.

Useful telephone number for Japanese residents of Japan who speak Japanese and are feeling depressed or suicidal:
Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline Telephone Service):
Japan: 0120-738-556
Tokyo: 3264 4343

Andrew Grimes JSCCP, JCP
Tokyo Counseling Services



Anonymous said...

Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, and Hungary still have very high rates of suicide also.

Somehow, Japan is more notorious for suicide. Japan is far more glamorous than Eastern Europe, it seems.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the insite of the moderen Japan, I think you are very right in your assumptions. It seems that the affluent have more then the poor, including self inflect sorrow.

Anonymous said...

I find the readers comments most helpful, pitcularly Andrew Grimes comments, thank you.

SherwinJTB on March 22, 2010 at 7:19 PM said...

They need to relax more. People who take life too seriously are bound to think irrationally. Busy people live fast lives and make faster decisions. Slow down.

Anonymous said...

A well written article but incorrect. Most suicides in Japan are among those aged over 40. Often business owners rather than unemployed young men as this article suggests. Please look at: http://www.who.int/mental_health/media/japa.pdf

eco on July 14, 2010 at 2:51 PM said...

thanks for information..

mikean on October 14, 2010 at 4:12 PM said...

Excellent information about The Japanese culture of shame and suicide.

Adam said...

I have read this piece and also seen tv docs on suicide in Japan. But did not know that there was one every 15 minutes. My gosh, that's 96 every day of the year. Some small towns and villages around the planet don't have that many residents. How terrible and worse still that most are young and disenchanted. But do we ever really know why a person commits suicide unless they leave a note or letter detailing their reasons for exiting this world?
I wonder if much of it is due to lack of real motivation, goals in life and also perhaps no spiritual focus, centre at all. We all need a compass for life and many get that guide from friends, relatives, religion, a job, a career, education, money. So many ways.
But there are obviously many empty people and people who have no one, no friend/s to turn to.
Sad but japan seems especially sad in this respect.
They are also one, if perhaps the only one, that seems to have a culture of suicide, with a ritual for doing it, such as slitting yourself and disembowelling if I am correct.
Fascinating subject even though so tragic for many many young people.

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