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    Suicide law

    The Asahi‘s editors approve of the new government anti-suicide laws (English version here):

    Until now, it was common to dismiss suicide as a “problem for the individual.” By contrast, the new basic law clearly designates suicide having “varying social factors” in its background. The policies this time around also situate suicide [in the context of being] a “death to which people are driven” and “a major loss for society as a whole.”

    Fine so far. Given that suicide really is a national problem, a federal program to provide hotlines and crisis centers doesn’t seem like a bad use of money, at least in theory.

    Unfortunately, if hardly atypically, the Asahi wiffs when it comes to confronting the “social factors” that need to be addressed. It goes by age group.

    The guidelines stress the importance of helping young people with their personal development and mental-health management. But in addition, it is vital that they are taught more firmly from an early age to respect life.

    Middle-aged and older men continue to be high suicide risks. This applies not only to men in their 60s with growing health concerns, but also to men in their 40s and 50s who are still in their prime.

    Long working hours should be shortened to relieve stress. There should be help for people who have lost their jobs or filed for bankruptcy. Immediate treatment should be available at the earliest detection of depression. These measures are all in the guidelines, and they certainly are of help to prevent suicides.

    The last sentence of the first paragraph cited above is a model of obtuseness. Rearing children in an environment with firm, reassuringly clear rules that still make room for their personalities to develop is not something you can do by just barking cheerily at them to respect life. Many, if not most, suicides among children in Japan are related to school pressure and bullying. Things are improving somewhat, but it’s still common for teachers and school administrators to condone bullying; the response to complaints by the parents of victims tends to be, in effect, that it’s their kid’s problem for being so weird.

    Once children grow into adults and take their place in the workforce, the pressures simply change form. Long work days in Japan are not associated with high output. (If offices simply learned to use their time more productively–rather than having workers spend their days generating redundant documents, attending meetings that proceed with all the celerity of a glacier gouging out a valley, and chasing down stamps of approval–working hours would shorten themselves.) Most people who commit suicide over work-related stress are probably tired from being at the office too much, yes; but I imagine that for most of them, the the constant feeling of being under observation and attendant pressure to stay in line are probably far greater factors.

    I don’t think Judeo-Christian theology accurately represents where we came from and where we go after death, but it must be said that it does offer individuals meaning and purpose outside themselves and beyond the reach of job and family stresses. That’s not to say that Japan doesn’t have a rich spiritual tradition of its own; it does. But in the post-war effort to regain a sense of national dignity by building up the economy, study and work became ends that seem, for many people, to have eclipsed other concerns. And now that economic growth is no longer a year-by-year given, it’s no surprise that a lot of people are having trouble figuring out how to center themselves psychologically.

    The West has its own problems with conformism, certainly; and plenty of Jewish and nominally Christian people commit suicide. Nevertheless, Japanese children do not really learn that it’s okay to trust their own judgment when it differs from that of the collective, as long as they’re following a reliable set of generally applicable moral principles. I’m not sure whether the mental health system, even with the cooperation of both public and private sectors, is going to be capable of helping individuals invest their lives with meaning.

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