Ever since its crushing defeat in World War 2 Japan has grown in the world’s conscience. It was and to a certain extent still is a closed and exotic place. Yet, it is a place that wants to be loved and feels a divine right to a seat at the top tables. As with the other big economy in the world it buys into itself to a huge extent. As an effect of this its fashions, technologies and trends spurt out. The appetite for all things Japanese grows ever greater even as the government there slowly slides towards its more xenophobic side.
The biggest export of all is technology with a large number of computers, games consoles and DVD players hailing from technological giants such as Sony, Nintendo, Sharp, Panasonic and Toshiba. Japanese cartoons have long had a following outside of Japan but in recent years this has grown exponentially. Anime has become perhaps the first word borrowed from English twisted in Japanese and then exported back into English. More recently Japanese food has begun to pop up all over the place.
But has a social trend been exported? A most unwelcome social trend.Since July 2004, when I came to Japan, I have read occasional and disturbing news articles in the local papers about mass suicides. Japan has already one of the world’s highest rates of suicides. On average between 30,000 and 35,000 people take their own lives each year. The majority seem to be jobless Salarymen who have lost their Life-jobs and felt shamed. Another big group of suicides are bullied school children. It is telling that Japan’s romantic tradition is one of suicide pacts born out of doomed love.
Yet, with the rise of internet social sites so has there been a rise in suicidal people banding together to take their lives en mass. Towards the end of 2004 26 people died in two months in this manner. Suicide clubs and social sites have sprung up so that the suicidal may meet one another and arrange their deaths. Such suicides are meticulously planned using sleeping pills, sealed vans and charcoal burners. The biggest single event was seven people just outside of Tokyo. The people who took their own lives came from all over Japan.
Then today I learned that 7 people in Brigend, Wales, have taken their own lives in recent months. Within hours of each person’s death a memorial website has been erected online. As well as the 7 successful suicides there have been many failed attempts. The common factor, apart from being in the same social group, is the social website Bebo. This and the memorial sites bring an extra level of disturbance to an already appalling series of events.
The Japanese suicides were by relative strangers who were already suicidal and who used the internet to find similar people. Each had their own reasons for suicide be it financial ruin, ill-health or other emotional problems. Often it is said that people were egged on by other suicidal people or fell into a group mentality with the momentum that goes with it. These suicides can be linked to a rare mental disorder known as folie a deux.
Yet, in England, which has no such tradition of suicide as there is in Japan, it is all the more disturbing because it is affecting previously unsuicidal people. These people also seem to be sociable unlike sufferers of folie a deux. This is not the most disturbing aspect either. It would appear that the people are aiming for immortality via these memorial websites. Has the desire for our 15 minutes of fame come to this?
If the answer is yes then we know our youth is in serious trouble. Do we really wish to see our youth seek fame at any cost? There can be no prize worthy of such a cost. The immortality brings with it the end of life, not immortality, just death and the void. It brings ruin on relatives and friends, true friends who would never wish someone’s death. It cuts short all of someone’s potential to live life, love and create.
As with many such fads and group trends, those who originate it, spread the ideas on the internet and create the sites, those who do that are still here in this world. They do not believe in any moral reason for suicide just the fame it accords them in having set the ball rolling. I wonder how they square such a burden knowing they encouraged someone, maybe a true friend, to kill themselves for fame. Let’s hope that in such a world this act still generates guilt. For if it didn’t we would truly be in trouble.
How do we stop these things? We could get draconian and shut down the likes of Bebo, or force them to remove the Memorial Pages. We could force only over 18s to be able to join such sites. But, would it help? We need to find a way to stop such things seeming like a good idea, to stop people feeling that it’s acceptable to do it and we need to be able to know these things are about to happen so we may engage with those kids. I will not pretend to know what to do only to state that we have to think of something.