The Pragmatics of Suicide

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.



Filed under Culture

4 responses to “The Pragmatics of Suicide

  1. crispus

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  2. Great post on a sad topic. Thanks.

    I’m also amazed and puzzled by Korea today, as a country that’s gone through half a dozen complete cultural upheavals within living memory, and I agree that the young generation is a very exciting one to watch as they grow up more cosmopolitan and flexible than the generation before, but also much more unsure about what to do next — the older generation had their work cut out for them and could achieve it through grim determination, diligence, and tenacity, but these young ones aren’t as clear about what comes next.

    It’s going to be an interesting couple decades as the young ones who are learning English at age six grow up, and eventually head into the workforce, and as the kids in college now, the first generation to really have a chance to travel overseas before they graduated university, become leaders.

  3. organist says : I absolutely agree with this !

  4. Over the past decade western media reports on suicide and mental health care in Japan rarely got it right. I am a JSCCP clinical psychologist and JFP psychotherapist working in Japan for over 20 years. I would like to put forward a perspective on some of the main reasons behind the unacceptably high suicide numbers Japan and so will limit my comments to what I know about here in Japan but would first like to suggest that western media reports on suicide rates in Japan should try harder to get away from the tendency to ‘orientalize’ the serious and preventable problem of increased suicide rates here over the last 12 years by reverting to stereotypical ideas of Japanese people in general.

    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.

    I would also like to suggest that as many Japanese people have very high reading skills in English that any articles dealing with mental health issues in Japan could usefully provide contact details for hotlines and support services for people who are depressed and feeling suicidal.

    Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline Telephone Service):
    Japan: 0120-738-556
    Tokyo: 3264 4343

    Tokyo Counseling Services:

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