Jukai – the suicide stigma

Earlier this year I spent a week in Japan visiting a friend. To say my holiday was too short is an understatement – immersing myself in cultures I have little to no experience in is addictive. There’s something about struggling with a language, eating completely novel foods and encountering situations which are contextually odd or confronting that helps you see the mundane in a new light.

The friend I stayed with insisted on visiting a forest at the base of Mount Fuji called Aokigahara, or as it is more commonly referred to as, Kuroi Jukai. It has numerous reputations for its beauty, history and remarkable geology. The vast stretch of woodland grows on a lava field, making its uneven ground peppered with sink holes both eerie and majestic. The silence is disquieting, but it’s as a favoured spot for suicides that most know of it. Each year scores of people enter its shadows, never to leave.

Suicide is the last great taboo. I was surprised to learn of how common it is in Japan, where shame and loss of face is cause enough to drive people to take their own lives. Yet it is a difficult topic to approach in terms of medical anthropology, to explore on objective grounds free of stigma and assumption. Suicide is so readily labeled as a symptom of a fractured mind that it is difficult to avoid circular reasoning, where a person is labeled mentally ill because they attempt to take their own life, because to attempt suicide, you’d have to have psychological problems. Teasing out the issues significant to  euthanasia or even identifying cultural influences beyond broken psychology is thus made all the more difficult as we assume only a diseased mind can even begin to consider no longer living.

This VBS documentary is as fascinating as it is dark (warning: contains scenes some people might find disturbing). Two thirds of the way in, the subject makes a guess as to why so many Japanese people take their own lives, connecting it with changes in the complexities of society. I couldn’t agree more. Viewing suicide as a consequence of depression or psychological illness focuses narrowly on an individual brain being somehow badly wired. Yet disease is defined not against a Platonic archetype, but by feature of a relationship between biological functioning and the environment. Our social landscape has changed in a very short period of time, where it is possible to be surrounded by people and yet cut off from the emotional connections weaving through the community.The same brain in another environment might flourish, yet deprived of interactions that encourage a sense of security, self worth and a value in future endeavours, mental well-being can quickly crumble at the edges.

Matters of suicide and depression most certainly present challenges that need to be met, and individual psychological health is not something to be dismissed. It is not an issue to be taken lightly or dismissed out of hand. However it is a problem that reaches beyond each of us as solitary members of our community, representing an illness of the collective as much as an abnormality of any isolated brain.

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Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fantastic post – do you know if anyone in the anthropological community has addressed this in more depth?

    Japan itself is also a very rich culture to delve into anthropologically. If we’re talking about illnesses of the collective, where would hikikomori fit in? Is this sort of chosen social isolation only a symptom of modern culture, or can, as you say, it merely be associated with a brain that has been “badly wired” and therefore occur at any point in human history, in any sociocultural setting? (If you know more about this also, I’d love to be pointed in the right direction.)

    Looking forward to reading more of your work.

  2. That’s an interesting question. From my perspective, it’s a question of how variation relates to the environment. We can only call a difference in neurology ‘bad’ in relation to the environment it’s in.

    Hikikomori is fascinating not so much from a neurological perspective, but from a sociocultural one. In the west we might just say a person suffers form agoraphobia, but the relationship between that label and the cultural context of it is (as you probably know) subtly different to hikikomori within Japanese culture. The question of whether a person with the neurological variation that gives rise to hikikomori would be described as agoraphobic in a western social setting is an interesting one, however. I’d suspect so, but again, the subtle interplay of biophysical variation and cultural qualities makes it a complex (if no less amazing) field to study.

  3. Hi Michael. I was a researcher on a book about the sociological definitions of murder (killing is not always labeled as murder, and the book looks at why that is). In part of my research, I focused on post-war homicide rates, and found interesting correlations with suicide. I fact, some researchers classify homicide and suicide together as lethal violence, and there are measurable connections between the two.

    Here’s one of the best books on the subject (Currents of Lethal Violence), which questions the “mentally ill individual” model of suicide. Nicely done. Social science rocks: http://bit.ly/at3Mxk

  4. One day I’m going to take a year off from everything and just read every book I have on my list of ‘must reads’. 🙂 But I’ll definitely add this one to it. Thanks Karla.


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