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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Forget the suicide stereotype


Special to The Japan Times

Now that spring has dissolved into the sticky humidity of rainy season, now that go gatsu byo — "May sickness" — has melted away along with the memory of the cherry blossoms, perhaps it is time to wash away one of the most pervasive stereotypes of Japan, its dubious status as a "suicide nation."

Western media endlessly speculates and blames: Last year The Economist cited Japan's unforgiving society and "samurai traditions," while The Observer detailed Japan's "grim reputation" as a suicide nation while highlighting the trend of online suicide pacts. True, Japan's rates remain among the highest in the world for industrialized countries, yet, depression, ennui, hopelessness — all are universal emotions every human faces at one point or another. To assume Japanese people have a pronounced proclivity toward "jisatsu" neatly plays into several untrue stereotypes of Japanese culture.

One stereotype concerns samurai and seppuku. In recent history, the use of kamikaze pilots or nikudan (human bullets) cemented Japan's reputation for condoning suicide. Personal letters and testimonies left behind, however, prove that the pilots' sacrifice was not always voluntary and that they were certainly not the willing martyrs widely assumed.

Both legendary and modern figures of Japanese history have committed suicide, but not significantly more than in other countries. Contrary to popular belief, Japanese executives do not sacrifice it all to take responsibility for a company's problems. Yet stereotype once again appeared in the international news recently when U.S. Senator Charles Grassley suggested AIG executives follow "the Japanese example" and take a bow of apology and then resign or commit suicide. (Grassley later amended his statement, saying he "obviously" didn't mean they should really kill themselves.)

While every summer in Japan brings ghost stories, every spring — as it conjures mortality with the ephemeral cherry blossoms — invariably calls forth stories of self-slaughter. News reports feature the suicide rate (this year, with the financial crisis, they required a monthly breakdown). Famous suicide sites throughout Japan become newsworthy again, and articles appear discussing "suicide culture."

In this way, suicide pervades Japanese society more openly than in other cultures, where it is considered a mortal sin and discussion of the subject is generally avoided. The myth of Japan as a suicide nation is surely fed by the Japanese media and many people on the streets. If a train delays, it's not unusual for my Japanese friends to jest that it must be the season: not winter, spring, summer or autumn, but the season of platform suicides. As much as Western media broadcasts this social problem, nothing beats the coverage here in Japan.

Another, more practical reason for the high suicide rate is the graying of Japan. Worldwide, suicides occur more often in the elderly, and Japan has more elderly than most countries.

A final, pervasive stereotype is found in the media: the cold, unforgiving Japanese society. This stereotype particularly insults the Japanese. Each society, by its very definition, contains a straitjacket of norms and unspoken rules for behavior. Most of us traverse an entire existence unaware of these invisible binds surrounding us, especially if residing in our native culture throughout our lives.

To imply that Japanese individuals are abnormally vicious or unforgiving implies they are less than human. Certainly, Japanese society is not perfect, but no society is without flaws and strictures. A necessary part of any human's growth is learning to balance society's demands and individual's needs.

Knowing the reality of the Japanese mentality and societal workings, government and media should work together on the reasons leading to suicide, not help sensationalize the aftermath. Life is sacred and precious; life is pain and suffering. If one lives long enough, one will experience both ends of the spectrum. For anyone, suicide lurks under the rising sun each morning, and to assume Japanese are particularly susceptible refutes the many with a ganbatte — "never-say-die" — spirit.

If only the media, both inside and out of the country, would stop promoting the stereotype of Japan, perhaps the underlying issues could be addressed: financial distress; depression in the elderly or ill; copycat or trend suicides; bullying or apathy among the young.

If spring is a season of contradictions in Japan, one of both rebirth and transience, the persistent "plum rains" (tsuyu) of June call to mind the stubborn tang of life amid the gloom. Enough pointing fingers at Japan for its darkness alone: Across the world, we are all humans, with vulnerabilities, flaws and redeeming strengths.



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