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Malaise in the Japanese society

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Malaise in the Japanese society

The main cause of this malaise is that in an extremely homogeneous society, with a deeply fixed mindset of conformity, people with different opinions are often singled out and attacked, often leading to suicides, writes Rajaram Panda

Is Japan a happy country? The image that Japan evokes to an outsider is that it is an affluent country, modernised, flush with wealth and people blessed with all possible modern gadgets for material comforts. In my over four decades of reading and trying to understand this country, I have tried to test and verify during my various visits, including the present, by close observations and interactions with people of varying ages — men, women, young and old — if it is a country of sweet and honey as the image radiates to the outside world. I have struggled to find the right answer whether the Japanese people are really happy. The answers are indicative of invariably negative. Why is that so? There are several indicators.

The definition of happiness in Japan is a mystery. The definition differs from country to country. For example, Bhutan has the concept of Gross National Happiness. India tends to draws solace from sermons of spiritual gurus and sages and eternally tries to locate the right relevance to mitigate stress in modern times. Religion could be problematic in a multicultural, multilingual, and a complex society such as India, but it allows space for each of them to thrive with values and shows the right path that could help people stay happy. That gives the nectar of life which makes India unique and a land of mystic, something bewildering to a foreigner. Though there are many fake Godmen and Godwomen claiming divinity indulging in nefarious activities, there are a few others who talk sense, reminding people the meaning of right living. Such valuable wealth helps keep people happy, at least spiritually.  

Japan too has rich historical values and its culture is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Confucian values and practices. But the question is: Are the Japanese people happy by following the principles of such sages that set the right path for human behaviour? If one dissects the malaise that afflicts the Japanese society today, it makes one believe that much of these are self-inflicted and the stress level is self-induced. The tragic aspect of such phenomena is that even teens are not spared of such negative influences. This brief essay shall try to examine the disturbing trend of rising rate of suicides among school-going teens.

Who is responsible for such a disturbing trend? At a time when Japan is struggling to cope with demographic challenges with rising elderly population and declining birth rates, the rising number of teenagers ending their lives is indeed a matter of worry and painful to hear. The factors contributing to this malaise are many — cultural, parental neglect because of work pressure, pressure of teachers in schools, bullying and others. Has the state abdicated its responsibility to address this problem? Certainly, the state has not, but the remedy has to start at home where the right environment has to be created first. At an age when a child must enjoy playing while studying at the same time, the pressure to study more and face competition leads to increase in stress level and childhood is lost before they become adults and many end their lives.

The issue is how to destress or create conditions that do not lead to stress? It is a condition of mind and devolves on the self. Happiness needs to be felt and the Japanese children definitely do not feel that. It is a universal phenomenon that human beings of all ages tend to be apprehensive about anxiety rather than happiness. It is where Indian yoga can find resonance and help maintain balance of mind. The power to concentrate and meditate is a gift given by our sages, and if practiced, can help alleviate human suffering partly, if not fully. Japan needs to promote yoga learning with state support at every school so that children can see the beautiful dimension of life and could be deterred from falling prey to negative thoughts of ending a life before it is fully blossomed. The declaration by the United Nations of June 21 as the International Yoga Day is based on this premise.

What are the facts on the ground regarding teens? Suicide in Japan is a significant national issue. Japan has a relatively high suicide rate compared to other countries in all age groups. Causes of suicides among the salaried men and elderly include unemployment at periods of economic stagnation or recession, social pressure, fear of losing job, depression, stress and, many more. 

Strangely, Japan has a long history of suicide, certain types of which are considered honourable, especially during military service. We are familiar with words such as Seppuku (self-disembowelment practiced by samurai [warriors] to avoid dishonour), Kamikaze (method of flying a plane into the enemy used during World War II), or Banzai (human wave attacks used during the Pacific War). But the modern day suicides are not of these types. While some are linked with pressure of retaining jobs following the bursting of the bubble, others are related to putting in more hours of overtime and taking fewer holidays and sick leaves. Fatigue from work, health problems, work-related depression, putting more hours of overtime for fear of losing jobs, etc, leading to suicide, a death known as karoshi, were the prime reasons of suicides for salaried men. The recent case of a young woman employee at Dentsu ending her life because of forced overtime at work made national headlines.    

What is disturbing in recent times is that an increasing number of school students kill themselves around the end of the summer holidays. According to figures collated by Japan’s suicide prevention office over a period of more than 40 years, the number peaks around September 1 when the new semester starts at schools in many parts of Japan. One can see the same trend also around the end of spring and the Golden Week holidays in April and May, which suggests that students find it difficult to cope with the fear of being bullied after long vacations, especially if they have not completed holiday homework.

Japan has one of the highest rates of suicides in the world, and is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-39. According to Government figures, 18,048 people under the age of 18 took their lives between 1972 and 2013, with rising trend till 2017. Fear of bullying after vacation break is a major cause. Japanese education system’s focus on collective thinking is at the root cause of the problem. One has to fall in line with other people and if you do not, the result would be either getting ignored or bullied. Rejecting the option to subscribe to hold a unified opinion means it crushes the uniqueness of every individual and the route to suicide means to destroy that uniqueness. Therefore, schools that prioritise collective action and freeze individual thinking ought to change their approach and provide the right environment for individual opinion/thinking for kids to have their own space.  

One could see collective thinking concept even among university students. Japanese students do not express an opinion or raise a question in the class even if encouraged to do so. In my own class I, being a friendly teacher, could not succeed despite urging the students to make the class interactive as no one would open their mouth. In Japan, expressing an opinion or raising a question is viewed as disobedience. For me, trained in a liberal academic environment in Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, where dialogue, debate and dissent were the norm, it was difficult to understand why my students were so docile. Upon probing further, I was surprised to hear that if a particular student responds to the call of the teacher and starts speaking, he will be subject to bullying by his own classmates after the class. The root of such thinking is the Confucian influence, which still sways the school and university students’ lives.

Bullying, or ijime in Japanese, starts first in schools and sometimes carries to the university level. The harassment could be in the form of direct personal attack or online through e-mails, text messages and blogs, and those unable to take the insult punish themselves by taking their lives. The first case of bullying leading to suicide surfaced in 1986 when a 13-year-old boy hanged himself in a shopping centre toilet after suffering repeated bullying at school. There was another case of a girl of the same age, who killed herself by jumping in front of a train when she could not endure a year-long bullying by classmates who labelled her as a “pest” and repeatedly told her to die. The malaise has spread so much that Japan ranks fourth among OECD countries for rates of suicides, after Lithuania, South Korea, and Hungary. Though according to the National Police Agency, suicides fell in 2016 after peaking in 2003, they have remained steady among youth since 2007, ranging from 300 to 350 a year. In 2016, 320 youths below 18 took their lives. The anti-bullying legislation passed in 2013 has not helped.

The main cause is that in an extremely homogeneous society, with a deeply fixed mindset of conformity, differences are often singled out for attack. Teachers sometimes overlook as they tend to view bullying as part of normal quarrels among children. Teachers, parents and society in general need to be sensitised to address this disturbing situation.

Many NGOs and NPOs have stepped in, offering telephone counselling services, called Childlines, from late August to early September to help children in distress. The idea of these voluntary organisations is to convince the disturbed kids that there are options outside schools where they can live through this. The problem is exacerbated by a culture that dictates that going to school is the only option. For the children, it is a situation of living hell; they know that they will be bullied if they go to school but find no other choice. At this distressed time, adults/parents must step in and support the kids with suicidal tendencies with proper counselling. The influence of cartoon characters in TV dramas where the hero dies only to be reborn in another TV drama is another contributory factor.

A survey conducted by Ryo Uchida of Nagoya University’s educational development department reveals that suicide rates are constantly increasing since 2011 and the rate peaked in 2015. The issue is worrying because less numbers of children are being born, owing to declining fertility rate, and this makes the problem more glaring. For example, in 2015, there were 40,000 less Japanese students than the previous year. The same year, on an average every week, two students took their lives. The Government White Paper of 2015 finds that the main reason is school environment related to what is called a “moral panic” syndrome.

Therefore, protecting children’s lives and ensuring the quality of their growth is the concern of school administrations, parents, and society as a whole. Understanding the children’s psychology is crucial to addressing this disturbing trend. In order to ensure a better future for the young generations, parents, teachers, counsellors, police, NGOs/NPOs, and the state, all have a collective responsibility to arrest this disturbing trend in the Japanese society.

Dr Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those either of the ICCR or the Government of India.

E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com

 
 
 
 
 

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