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Sunday, May 11, 2003

MEDIA MIX

Bailing the banks while letting the debtors die


Reportedly, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has decided to address suicide, which has becomes something of an epidemic over the past decade as the economy continues its skid into the void.

At present, there is no specific government policy regarding suicides. The National Police Agency is in charge of investigating them and compiling statistics, but there's nothing in the agency's job description about preventing them.

Taking one's own life has always been considered a personal matter, and therefore something the authorities feel they can't do anything about. For years, psychologists and social activists have urged the government to become involved in suicide prevention measures. The fact that suicides have numbered more than 30,000 a year for five years straight has obviously convinced the health ministry that it is now a social problem.

Some people are unwilling to blame the rise simply on the bad economy, but since relevant statistics are not being kept, everything is open to speculation. What we do know is that 75 percent of the people who kill themselves are over 40. It is assumed many of these people had "economic life difficulties (keizai seikatsuku)," which encompasses debt, layoffs, failed businesses and the like. Acute physical and mental problems -- chronic illness, depression -- either alone or in combination with economic problems, can easily drive people to despair.

In an essay published in the Asahi Shimbun last summer, psychologist-writer Inada Nada (the perfect pen name for someone with an academic interest in suicide) reiterated the common assertion that the Japanese are bad at keeping statistics. The main reason the health ministry hasn't thought about suicide is that it doesn't even list it as an official cause of death. Before the government can do anything meaningful, it has to understand the problem in detail. As for the media, Nada suggested it work with organizations that have a financial stake in the matter, such as life insurance companies, to gain a better understanding of the problem.

Without a government policy to deal with suicide as a social problem, the public may misinterpret what it receives through the media, since news organizations that get their information from the police tend to focus on individual suicides of a more spectacular nature. Major suicide-related stories are always about young people, celebrities and political and business leaders involved in scandals, none of which are particularly representative of the trend, which is supported by older people who have reached the end of their financial rope. Youth suicides, in fact, seem to be on the decline.

Recently, the media has latched onto the Internet as a place that encourages self-extinction through Web sites where potential suicides communicate with one another. So far, there have been at least seven reported instances of people getting together to commit "group suicide."

Consequently, the Internet has been blamed for making suicide easier. Charcoal stoves are now understood to be the least painful way of doing away with yourself, and the prospect of dying with others seems to add a layer of comfort -- not to mention romance -- to one's self-appointed end. There's a debate, however, as to whether seven incidents make a trend. In a series of interviews two weeks ago in the Asahi, Hiroyuki Nishimura, Webmaster of the popular 2 Channel BBS Web site, said that, on the balance, the Internet has probably helped prevent more suicides because of the role it plays in facilitating discussion that can help alleviate despair.

What's chilling about the coverage of group suicides is the lack of background. As with the lack of detailed statistics, there were no reasons given: no spurned lover, no loss of employment, no death of a loved one. It was as if they had gotten together for a round of bridge.

There's as much danger in trivializing suicide as there is in sensationalizing it. Many people suffer from clinical depression and for these people everyday life can be hell. But the main image one gets through the media of the suicide "trend" is that people who kill themselves seem to feel life is cheap.

It's a belief that pervades society as a whole. The most extreme manifestation can be observed in the sanitized coverage of the invasion of Iraq. It also compounds itself in an increasing number of young people who choose to drop out of society. These young people are not being antisocial, a term which implies caring enough about something to rebel against it. They are asocial. "Hikikomori (shut-ins)" are people who say they feel "empty," that they don't need to be alive.

Such a problem may, in fact, lie beyond the power of the government to solve it, but the government aggravates this social malaise with fiscal policies that further cheapen individual lives. Inada asks: When a lawmaker gives a speech calling for increased public spending on construction projects to spur the economy while at the same time demanding budget cuts in, say, welfare to poor single mothers and dependent children, what kind of message is he sending? The government bails out large, failing banks which then take that money and invest it in consumer loan companies, which in turn lend it at exorbitant interest rates to individuals in financial straits, thus worsening those individuals' situations.

So while a policy to support suicide hotlines and greater access to professional counseling is welcome, a more direct countermeasure for the suicide epidemic would be to help people who are in desperate financial need because of the recession. A person who contemplates killing themselves because of huge debt or the prospect of growing old in abject poverty probably needs sympathy and advice. But he most certainly needs money.



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