In Japan, there are approximately 21,000 people who die by suicide every year (as of 2020). The suicide rate among the younger generation is particularly high compared to other countries.
This time, YOMOYAMA members (international students studying in Japan and YOMOYAMA editorial staff members who were born and raised in Japan) talked about “suicide”.
When we hear the word “suicide”, we may feel like avoiding the topic. However, I think it is important to face this issue again and discuss the essence of the problem together.
When discussing this topic, I thought we could gain a lot of insights by mixing various viewpoints, so I asked international students who are studying in Japan to gather here.
I would like to ask you all to talk about your own episodes, to the extent that you don’t mind.
It is disheartening to see that the Japanese youth suffer from poor mental health.
Below chart is from the White Paper on Suicide Prevention (2020 edition) published by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan, and shows that suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged 15-39. What do you think about this situation?
It is disheartening to see that the Japanese youth suffer from poor mental health. The current state of affairs is a result of the poor mental health of Japan’s youth.
That’s right. It is a shame to think that so many people were forced to take their own lives because of their physical and mental condition. When I think about it, as a member of the same generation, I feel very sorry.
Are there people around you who are also suffering from mental disorders?
Yes, I do. Usually depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and stress.
I’m worried about Japanese university students, because I’m sure they experience a lot of stress in their university life.
By the way, how is the situation of suicide in your home country, India?
In India as well suicide is the number one cause of death among young people. However, I feel mental health is less of a stigma in India as compared to Japan, although there is a big room for improvement.
I read somewhere that forced marriages and the gap between aspirations and expectations are two main causes of suicide among youngsters.
I had never heard that suicide is the leading cause of death among young people in India. And the fact that marriage and family problems are the top reasons for suicide seems to be due to a lifestyle culture that is different from that of Japan.
there are many societal pressure for Japanese pressure such as long work hours, people need to be able to do what their parents, society and workplace expect.
I would like to broaden perspective and talk about comparisons with other countries.
First of all, I would like you to take a look at this document, which shows that only in Japan and South Korea, the leading cause of death for people aged 15-34 is suicide. The percentage is very high, and the situation is unfortunate.
On the other side of the numbers, there are individual lives and various circumstances.
It is not a story that can be simply compared in terms of percentage or number of people.
Nevertheless, what do you think when you see this current situation?
I believe in Japan people are asked to think about society before their own.
Thus, in effects, there are many societal pressure for Japanese pressure such as long work hours, people need to be able to do what their parents, society and workplace expect.
We can easily see that japan has a severe alcoholism issues, this could be caused by those pent up stress by all these expectations.
What are the working hours and work environment like in your country of origin, Indonesia?
Yes, in Indonesia, people are only working 7 hours a day. Also, Indonesian and South East Asian office culture are a bit more flexible. People tend to joke all the time and know each other well. Of course, some office issues do exist, such as office politics.
I feel it is very sad that people in Japan believe that work is work and unrelated to their personal lives.
This, however is untrue. If you spent your 5 days out of 7 days in the office, you need to have a certain emotional connections to some of them at the least.
I also work as a company employee, and I think the work environment is just as you described.
Each of us is so busy with the work at hand that we don’t have time to care for each other.
Also, because we are only connected to each other through work, there are many things we don’t know about each other’s personal life.
We have a strong separation between work and private life now, but I think it’s a good way of life to feel a sense of fulfillment and happiness by working without barriers, as you said.
I agree with the horrible working conditions. There needs to be some adjustment on work life balance, ability to know what they want and hope for.
A good example of this is Hisato san, who is chasing his dream and clearly know what he wants to do.
Yet, most Japanese people I met, when asked what is there dream or hobby, they tend to answer that they do not know.
Having a purpose and a dream for your life and building up your daily life towards it may lead to a fulfilling life.
In my case, it is somewhat embarrassing to talk about our dreams with each other, so it is not easy to bring up.
However, no matter how old we are, we should always have dreams, and it is cool to see people making efforts towards their dreams.
When you understand yourself and realize your purpose in life and your dreams, you will be able to see all encounters and events (including failures) as invaluable experiences.
I’ll tell you what I feel, too.
It is indeed unfortunate that despite being a highly developed nation, Japan finds itself lagging behind as far as its citizens mental wellbeing is concerned. The high “standards of living” with which we classify countries seem to lose their meaning in face of facts like these.
It is also a shame that Japan, despite being a developed country, is still lagging behind in mental health care for its citizens.
I believe that the lack of awareness that mental health is an important factor when considering one’s own health and well-being is the reason for the lack of information and support regarding mental health.
According to the list published by the OECD, Japan is classified as a developed country.
However, given the fact that the leading cause of death among young people is suicide, it makes me wonder if the high standard of living in developed countries contributes to happiness and fulfillment in life.
What is the state of mental health care in India?
Are the mechanisms in place and functioning?
No, there is no clear system as far as I’m aware. Although most academic institutions have at least one counselor, there is a stigma attached to a teacher sending a student to the counselor-it is kind of seen as a punishment or a bad thing.
Psychology is not yet a popular choice of major among students either. However, there are NGOs who work for improving mental health and awareness and a lot of youth does try to seek medical help (again this is what I know from my circles and is not a general statement).
At any rate, though, there is a still a long way to go before mental health is given its due by the society.
I also believe that this situation is caused by several factors.
・The economic downturn has made it impossible for young people to earn a living equal to that of their parents.
・The harsh working conditions in Japan, the expectations from society, and the need to adapt to society and surroundings.
Because of the ongoing deflation of the Japanese economy, disposable income is decreasing compared to that of our parents’ generation.
Although various technological innovations have improved convenience in our lives, the fact is that there are many cases where life is difficult in light of the increasingly polarized economic situation.
There have been many news articles about the poor working conditions in Japan. However, when you live only in Japan for a long time, it is difficult to realize how bad the working conditions are.
In what ways do you feel that working conditions in Japan are poor?
I have not experienced anything negative in particular while working in Japan/with Japanese people.
The following is from what I have read or heard or seen in media: Japan seems to have a culture of working overtime and not taking leaves, even when needed. I was a bit taken aback when I heard about companies requesting employees to take holiday/not work for long hours.
Recently, there has been a movement to correct long working hours, so companies have been actively encouraging their employees to take vacations and set limits on overtime work.
At my workplace, the entire company is required to take at least five days of vacation per year.
The situation may be different from 10 or 20 years ago.
While the system of promotion which is based on seniority has its merits, it might also hinder incentives to work harder or be creative. The hierarchy needs to be flatter-it should be okay to point out (politely of course) if your superior is wrong and bosses should not misuse their power or exploit their subordinates.
If the working atmosphere is made more open, less focussed on seniority/age and more inclined towards talent, it will be a win-win for both the employees and the companies.
From what I know, Japanese play by the book. While following rules is very important, being too rigid in my opinion hampers creativity and prevents quick action, which might be important in certain scenarios.
(While this is not strictly related to working conditions, I have a story to share. I was part of a food kiosk during a university’s festival. We were supposed to make a traditional Indian dessert. However, the dessert did not turn out properly – it was not sweet nor tasted anything like the original – which was due to the recipe our team was following. Despite asking the Japanese team members to make little and 100% possible changes in the recipe – like increasing the amount of sugar or increasing water in the sugar syrup – they did not agree because they had to follow the recipe no matter what. I found it very weird but did not push because I understood that that was the way things work there. Nevetheless, I did feel that fervently sticking to the rulebook is not such a good thing after all.)
The example of the dessert is an interesting one.
I didn’t know what the finished dessert tasted like, so I had to make it according to the recipe. I guess that could happen.
I myself follow recipes to the letter. I’m the type of person who feels good when I can follow a recipe to the letter.
However, there is a possibility that I unconsciously fall into a frame of mind and feel constrained, so I have to be careful.
The original goal is to make desserts that bring a smile to the faces of the people who eat them, so I don’t think we need to stick to that means.
I also have read about strict and pointless dress norms at workplace, especially for female workers. Very importantly, one major problem according to me is the stark wage gap between male and female workers in Japan, as well as the trend of female labor force participation.
It is high but then dips sharply because of marriage and consequent developments. And the women who do work after marriage only find part-time jobs etc and are robbed of the chance to build a decent career for themselves.
I am not sure if the situation is still the same but I do feel Japan needs to make workplaces gender-neutral.
It seems that the wage gap between men and women is narrowing in more and more cases depending on the type of industry or business, but the gap still exists in Japan as a whole.
I myself rely heavily on my wife for childcare, which may have deprived her of opportunities to build her career.
Each family may have their own reasons and circumstances. However, if we want to close the wage gap between men and women, we need to change the mindset and behavior of men.
To overcome that situation, I just make friends outside the office and focus on my end goal instead.
So far we have talked about objective data, but may I ask you about yourselves as well?
This is a private matter, so please keep it to what you feel comfortable with.
In your daily life, have you ever thought about suicide or been troubled by mental or physical problems?
I would like to discuss with you how you faced or overcame it.
I never think about suicide, as I think life is a precious little thing where we learn and grow each passing day.
I do have some mental problems since I started working full time as I felt a lot of pressure without the ability of making a lot of friends.
To overcome that situation, I just make friends outside the office and focus on my end goal instead.
It’s important to belong to a variety of environments and communities.
If you think that the environment in front of you is all there is, it can be hard to do anything.
However, if you have a few options, you can look at things from a bird’s eye view and escape from them even if you have a hard time.
I am also actively trying to find various places to stay.
I occasionally suffer from panic and anxiety when something triggers my long-standing fear of losing my loved ones (this began as an aftermath of a tragic incident in my childhood).
I’m much better at dealing with it now but in the early days, I suffered from chronic insomnia and had difficulties going about a normal life
That was a tough one.
But my family has always been there to reassure me and help me calm down.
For you, your family is invaluable.
If you don’t mind me asking, do you have any methods or approaches to relieve your anxiety?
I found voicing out my fears and talking with people I trust helps. Sometimes, doing things I enjoy or talking with new people also helps to distract my mind from worries.
Also, having some goals or plan or dreams you want to fulfil can also help take my mind off baseless fears.
It’s true that if you have a dream or a purpose in life that you want to fulfill, it may help you to clear your worries in front of you.
By the way, what are your dreams and things you want to achieve now?
To be frank, I do not have a big dream at the moment. I just want to live in the present and work on becoming better every day.
Although I do wish to have a big ambition, I have been unable to find my passion so far (I’m not even sure if it exists). So currently, I am just trying to dabble in different things to see if I can find my calling.
It’s very good that you are always looking for something to do.
I have only a vague picture of my future, but I would like to take various actions so that we can both find something to be passionate about and a career change.
Please let me know if you have any questions about this.
Awareness drives, recognising mental health problems as a legitimate reason to take leaves, get treatment, incorporating meditation and/or therapy sessions in school curriculum as well as at companies.
This will be the last theme for today.
If society as a whole wanted to reduce the number of people suffering from suicide or mental and physical illness, what do you think would be the best way to do this?
I believe that if the working conditions in Japan are improved, we can improve the situation where young people are forced to stand for their lives.
And, as I mentioned earlier, I think that more workers need to have the ability to know what they want.
However, there is no country or government agency that can successfully deal with this problem, so it will be difficult to change it easily.On the other hand, if you look at the personal happiness index, Scandinavian and Western European countries tend to be high.
I have heard that they try to give their children a chance to face themselves and think about what they can do to be happy as they go out to various places with them.
In Japan, it might be a good idea to imitate this kind of thinking and action.
Awareness drives, recognising mental health problems as a legitimate reason to take leaves, get treatment, incorporating meditation and/or therapy sessions in school curriculum as well as at companies, making the presence of a psychologist mandatory in all institutions, promoting the study of human behaviour and psychology, and many other means can be adopted to reduce the number of mental health casualties.
Can also take a look at what other countries are adopting.
Surely, we can create something new. Rather than creating something new, it would be better to take examples from other countries and make them better, which would certainly help those who are suffering.
In addition, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and NPOs are already working on several initiatives, so it would be great if they could become widely recognized and utilized.
By the way, is there anything that you yourself are working on or could do?
Be kind to everyone around you. You can never know what problems another person might be facing so it’s a good idea to be considerate and tolerant. Reach out regularly to your loved ones and make sure they’re doing well. If you feel someone is having troubles, do not hesitate to give a helping hand in whichever way you can.
It’s a wonderful way to think and act.
First of all, it is important to keep doing what we can do steadily.
And if we all start thinking and acting in the same way, it will become a powerful safety net.
There are things that I myself have not been able to do, so I would like to build up small efforts every day based on Kriti’s comments.
You may never know how a mere cheerful “hi” can give someone the will to live for another day.
I had never really thought about how a casual greeting can be a support to someone who is having a hard time.
However, I have experienced that when I am depressed and people around me call out to me, I feel a little better, so I am going to consciously try to greet people with a cheerful smile.
When I was a child, I used to greet my neighbors with a loud voice, but I think I do it less frequently now that I am an adult.
When I heard about suicide, I used to think that it was someone else’s problem and a distant event, but I realized once again that it is an extension of our daily lives and everyone has something to do with it.
I also realized that if we treat our close friends, colleagues, and family members with compassion in our daily lives, and reach out to them when they are in trouble, society as a whole may be able to reduce the number of people who are forced to choose suicide. That’s what I thought.
Thank you all very much for your time today.