Japan has recently undergone a suicide wave of sorts. In the past few weeks I have seen a scattering of news stories about Japanese suicide. The new way is a concoction with liquid detergent or something. Mixed properly the method emits a poisonous gas that kills those close to it and can be dangerous for those near.
This way of suicide has caught my attention because it’s more than just suicide, it’s a trend. It’s the new hip way to end your life. All the cool kids are doing it.
I’m reminded of an eerily relevant passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point,” where he discusses the boom in suicides in Micronesia. He says,
“Virtually all suicides on the islands, in fact, are identical variations on [basic format]…In all but a few cases, the victim observes the same procedure, as if there were a strict, unwritten protocol about the correct way to take one’s own life.”
The suicides in Japan remind me of this because they are more than just one taking ones own life. By bowing to this trend the person committing suicide is making a statement, they are no longer themselves, but rather a social idea.
Gladwell goes on to write that
“Immediately after stories about suicides appeared, suicides in the area served by the newspaper jumped. In the case of national stories, the rate jumped nationally. (Marilyn Monroes death was followed by a temporary 12 percent increase in the national suicide rate.)”
It seems coincidental then, that after the initial story about Japanese Detergent suicide (which was prominent because investigators had to clear out an entire apartment complex for safety reasons) a week or so later 3 others committed suicide in the same way in a suicide pact.
What does this have to do with Korea?
Along with Japan, Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Additionally, the suicide rate in Korea is climbing at a much faster rate than Japan. It’s almost like they want to catch up.
If you look at Korean society it’s not hard to guess why the rate is becoming so high. From the time a Korean student is old enough to go to school they began a lifetime of rigorous study. It’s not just public education, but private tutors. Korea seems to be caught up in one big case of “Keeping up with the Joneses.” If one family sends their child to three private lessons a day their neighbor must match it, or go higher. If they don’t their child might get left behind.
One might say, then, that it is the burden of constant work that gets to people, but I would argue it’s not the case. Korea also has one of the highest rates of unemployment among college graduates in the world. It’s the consequence of a society where education is seen as the key to salvation. Everybody is educated and smart, but there are still only a certain amount of high quality jobs to go around.
Suicide then isn’t the result of too much work. It’s the result of working your entire life for the singular goal of succeeding in the economic world and then realizing you still might not get a good job because there are millions of others out there just as qualified, if not more qualified, than you. Hard work doesn’t cause suicide as much as not living up to familial, societal and personal expectations.
In his book “A Whole New Mind” Daniel Pink discusses how societies that are advancing are facing a dilemma of adapting its goals and purpose. Once a certain economic freedom is reached by a society it will inevitably change its goals to achieve more spiritual ends.
The principal is simple; those struggling to eat don’t spend their days contemplating existence. Those who are provided for, do.
Korea is an interesting example because it has developed so rapidly. The parents of the current generation lived with a singular goal: to raise Korea from one of the poorest countries in the world to its 11th strongest economy. Mission accomplished my friends.
What are the goals of this next generation then? Are they supposed to beat the fastest GDP growth rate over a 30 year period that the world has ever seen?
Korea is what America would be if it jumped from the Revolutionary War to 2008 in the span of 50 years. That’s a lot of history they’ve missed out on. Granted, they’ve had thousands of years of culture to fall back on, but the change is so rapid that it is fast losing it’s stranglehold on Korean culture. They are replacing their cultural safety net with an economic one. Is it that surprising then that the nation is still very much trying to find itself?
Is it that surprising that in a culture that stresses education as the key to success that when failure does happen people act out with extreme measures?
History is a force that is happening at this very instant. The social trends that occur today are products of the past and indications of the future. Korea will change, and if recent history is any indication it will change very rapidly. I see it already, in the younger generations; they look at me differently than the older ones. They will talk to me on the street, approach me and say hello. Korea will get through this and history will go on to a new stage of growth. It’s just sad to see so many people get caught between the generational stages with no place to go and only a bottle of laundry detergent to fall back on.