Imagine that you are a 25-year old Japanese person that spends 9am-10pm at work every day. That’s not uncommon in Japan — actually that’s pretty good since you don’t have to spend the night at the office. You eat noodles for lunch and dinner. You have no friends, live with your parents, and don’t enjoy your job.
Getting a promotion in your job is unlikely for another five years because the system is totally seniority-based. “Meritocracy” is a foreign concept to your boss. Your salary will most likely stay the same.
You spend two hours every day commuting back and forth to work. The length of your commute and your rate of depression are directly correlated, but you don’t know that. The train ride is gloomy. Your neck hurts from constantly looking down at your phone to play games, or maybe it’s from the stress from work.
Every Friday you go to Karaoke — by yourself. Fortunately there is an industry around one-person karaoke stands. It’s not surprising this blew up in Japan. You scream your lungs out. There’s an all-you-can drink menu for only $15 for two hours. It’s kind of therapeutic.
You spend most of the weekend sleeping, and are back at it Monday morning. You’re craving a vacation. Hopefully you can get some time off soon…
This could be the typical story of a 20 something in Japan working for a traditional Japanese company, of which there are still many.
The issue is complex. Suicide is still the leading cause of death for women age 15–34 in Japan. That is crazy considering Japanese women also live the longest in the world.
In Tokyo there is a greater support network and bubbling activity everywhere you turn. Many people will find solace in alcohol or will make friends and are more likely to get help.
It makes sense that the suicide rate is relatively low in Tokyo. It’s actually one of the lowest in Japan. But if you go way north towards cities by the seaside, where it’s cold, dark and gloomy, with no big industries and few hospitals, the picture is totally different.
There’s not much going on in Iwate. It’s cold, cloudy and kind of depressing. The areas major industries are declining.
This reminds me of Russia where it might “make sense” that the suicide rates are high. It’s cold, alcoholism is rampant, and it overall kind of sucks compared to the US. The drinking part is said to play a big factor in Russia’s case. And LGBT discrimination. Lithuania is in a similar situation.
In the US it’s normal to see a shrink. We see it in movies all the time and it’s a reflection of whats normal in our society. People go talk about their issues and someone listens. Often times just getting something off your chest is all you need.
You don’t have that culture in Japan. Nobody sees shrinks. There is a strong stigma to even talk about psychological issues, and there aren’t many psych doctors. It creates a recipe for disaster.
Social stigmas play a very, very strong part in every part of Japanese life. I think this pushes people over the edge.
- The divorce rates are low in Japan. But men that do get divorced are twice as likely to commit suicide.
- Shame is prevalent in Japanese culture. It’s a method of social control and it’s not healthy. When something bad happens to a company, sometimes the CEO or board member resigns… other times they commit suicide. A manager in charge at Japan Airlines (JAL) committed suicide after the crash of a JAL flight that killed 500+ people. He couldn’t deal with the shame.
- Students are shamed when they make mistakes in school. This causes trauma at a young age and can’t be healthy.
But it goes back further than that… The acceptance of shame stems from a common philosophy in Confucianism. Samurais committed seppuku by gutting themselves and WW2 kamikaze pilots followed suit. It doesn’t help that in movies, Japanese history, and the basis for some of their culture stems from accepting shame as a tool and suicide as a viable method to deal with the shame.
Is Japan a depressed nation? I don’t know. I think that there are certain cultural and structural factors that probably influence people that are already overworked and stressed from their bad jobs and family duties. In a country like the US maybe they’d be able to more easily talk to a psychiatrist or open up to a friend.
Companies are starting to create programs internally to deal with the issue and support networks are growing in Japan. But there’s a long way to go.
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