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.