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Japan’s Suicide Epidemic: A Perfect Example of Ignorance

By Angelina Burkhardt

From Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

All cultures, religions, ethnicities, and beyond have distinctive characteristics that allow for diverging beliefs and understandings of the world. However, no matter our differences and our similarities, we all have a refused topic: suicide. We’ve never been taught that this word isn’t allowed, we’ve never been restricted from discussing its importance, but we continuously avoid it, trying to make it seem like a mere figment of our imagination. Throughout history, we’ve seen the act of killing yourself as a brave sacrifice towards your country and people. Take ancient Japan as an example: once a Samurai was captured by an opposing enemy, he would draw out a tanto and slice into his stomach, pushing the blade from side to side. In ancient Japanese culture, the tradition of Seppuku was performed as an act of fortitude in the eye of the oppressor. This custom was rightfully banned. So why are more Japanese citizens performing this practice today, than in the ancient era?

As people, we always link suicide rates to social struggles. Bullying, harassment, loss of friends, and other civil problems are the main causes of suicide in places such as North America, as well as most of Europe. However, Japan is a unique case where most suicides are motivated by the person’s economic struggles. During the 20th-century, Japan’s suicide rates have always been proclaimed as the highest in the world, rising each year by an astounding 10%. It’s important to note that many researchers believe this number to be higher in actuality, due to the fact that elderly deaths are never fully investigated. Nonetheless, a contrasting aspect of Japan’s suicide epidemic compared to other countries is the age demographic. Most recorded suicides in Japan are in men aged between 30-50, while in countries such as the United States, the average person that carries out this act is a teenager. All this information brings more questions to the surface. Why? Why does Japan stick out as such a special case when it comes to this topic? The simple, black-and-white answer is financial pressure. Many experts believe that most economic problems stem from Japan’s continuous pursuit of precarious workers. Low paid salaries for physically draining labor, which usually has a contract of less than a year, puts many Japanese men in a very difficult monetary situation. The irony of this all is that Japan was once seen as the land of lifetime employment, while now middle-aged men get physically and mentally crushed in the goal of feeding their families. The social burden on the “worker” in the family in Japan is also continuously presented in modern-day propaganda. Media, as well as physical posters, always depict a successful man that with ease takes care of his family’s fiscal needs. With suicide quickly climbing the ladder of becoming one of the leading causes of death among men in Japan, people have no choice but to finally look this taboo right in the eyes. 

Thankfully, the increasing number of people dying each year due to suicides in Japan didn’t go completely unnoticed by the government. Japan’s suicide prevention campaign was technically started in 2004, however, it only began leading to a real change a few years ago. The program followed four simple action plans, which go as follows: raising awareness about the reality of suicide, increasing opportunities for mental health consultation, promoting prevention of primary and secondary depression, and creating a supportive, non-judgmental environment for mental health discussion. Some parts of this particular action plan were funded by the Akita Prefectural government, which was founded through a local university in the town of Akita. Their involvement advocated for a more community-based approach, that allowed for a bigger conversation to be had in each and every Japanese household. Even though this program has significantly decreased the number of suicides per year, specifically by 30% in 15 years, new problems are arising. While in the past most people taking their own lives were working-age men, nowadays the number of minors committing suicides is starting to reach concerning heights. Researchers have found that as time passes, academic standards grow, and with that teenagers steadily get more and more depressed. Top Japanese universities are now rejecting more than three-fourths of their applicants, due to the high demand. With every minute that passes, the so-called “normal” level of intelligence skyrockets to almost unreachable heights. Most teens describe feeling drained and emotionally incapable of continuing their studies as early as in the 9th grade. While in the past kids were motivated to learn new things, due to self-interest, nowadays the only driving force for their studies is the growing pressure put onto them by their parents, as well as society as a whole. 

The population of Japan is steadily being drowned by the economic and social pressures that come with growing up in the 21st century. We no longer have the option to live in blissful ignorance, in a reality that is free of pain and suffering. We have forgotten the worries of people dying due to cancer, and old age, it has now been replaced by the worry of someone we love taking their own life. Not because they’re courageous, not in service of their country. Because although the problem is right in front of us, we choose to ignore it until we can’t anymore. And by then it’s too late. Japan is the perfect example of the fact that: we as human beings, need millions of people to die before we bring ourselves to do a seemingly normal task: talk about the problem. 

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