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Perspectives

Publication Date

7-1-2018

Abstract

Japan has seen extreme changes in its social structures since the end of the 1800s. Before 1868, Japan practiced an exclusionary foreign policy known as sakoku (Japanese for “seclusion”), keeping Western influence out of the country for hundreds of years (Perez 1998:62). The end of this period, however, came with an intense modernization of Japan known as the Meiji Restoration (Stanlaw 2017). From this point to the present day, Japan has seen an increase in Western social structures and values, all while trying to retain aspects of its collectivist society. The economic growth of Japan was halted with the 1990 Asian financial crisis, an event that set off high rates of suicide for the country. While the initial increase of suicides from 1997 to 1998 in Japan has been attributed to middle-aged males ages 40-59, the subsequent years saw a shift in high suicide rates amongst youths aged 20-39 years old. These rates would remain high until the 2010s, where rates began declining in 2012 (Chen et al. 2015).

One of the explanations for these high suicide rates often cited by researchers is the cultural history of suicide in Japan. Suicide has been seen in Japan since its use by samurai (Japanese warrior class prominent in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867)) in their commitment of seppuku, a ritualistic act of committing suicide. Others point to the neutral attitudes of death held by both Buddhism and Shinto, two prominent types of religion in Japanese society, to explain these high rates (Kingston 2011). However, this explanation is still criticized by many, as, despite Japan’s history with suicide, the act itself remains stigmatized (Chen et al. 2015).

The explanation for these suicides can be seen when analyzing the effects of individualism on Japanese society. With the use of Durkheim’s theory of suicide and social integration, as well as the theory of social support, I argue that both the initial increase in suicide rates amongst middle- aged men and the high rates amongst youth are caused by changes in perceived and received social support. These changes are attributed both to anomie (in the case of suicides for middle-aged males), as well as shifts in individualism (suicides amongst youths). The tension between individualistic ideas held by many youths and the collectivist nature of many aspects of Japanese society has caused for a decrease in perceived social support, which has attributed to high rates of suicide amongst youths. With nationwide programs for comprehensive suicide prevention, Japan has seen decreases in these rates.

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