Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Suicide in Japan

Suicide in Japan has risen sharply since 1998 and now the government wants to conduct a five-year study costing 1 billion yen to see what can be done to treat depression. "The studies will focus on treatment for compulsive neurosis, as previous studies have revealed that most people who attempt suicide suffer from the disease."

As an outsider who has talked to hundreds of people, including business executives and high school and college students, I see a certain perspective that always makes me wonder how people cope in such an overcrowded, controlled society. I'm not a sociologist or a psychiatrist. or pretending to know to any depth what makes the Japanese tick, but I do wonder how people manage to live under such tight restrictions.

For example, I've had an opportunity to talk to a number of people about their workplaces, and have actually seen firsthand how they're set up. In most cases, the employees sit at desks without any cubicles, while their bosses sit at desks facing them, all in one big room. I've asked if this made them feel uncomfortable--to be watched every minute by their bosses. Usually they say "no" and wonder how it would be possible to "communicate freely" with their bosses if they weren't sitting so close. Some, however, say they feel tense and nervous all the time.

I've also talked to people about their level of satisfaction with their jobs, and get a shrug with a look of "what else can I expect?" Many of them talk about looking forward to the day they retire so they can "begin their lives."

In all sorts of advertising--from train posters to magazines to TV commercials to T-shirts--there seems to be a dominant theme of having a "happy life." There's so much focus on finding or experiencing a happy life that I'm left to wonder if Japanese lives are so entirely unhappy that they can only think about the day something happens to transform it into a happy life. Consumerism offers an immediate "fix" for millions, but it seems to leave people feeling even unhappier as they discover they can't buy whatever it is that will make them truly happy.

There's also the sense of isolation that Japanese feel, despite living with 120,000 million other people. Cell phones and text messaging seem to replace the intimacy of real conversation.

These are just my observations, and I suppose similar observations could be made in America, but for a nation that's so absorbed in putting a best face forward, it seems sad that so many of those faces belong to people who will kill themselves. Recently, quite a number of people have met in suicide chat rooms on the Internet. It seems strangely ironic that, while they had no friends they could talk to when they felt depressed, they were able to find other depressed people to meet up with for group suicides. Maybe in their last efforts to feel a part of something, they finally found companionship in the suicide pact to die together.

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