The heartbreaking tragedy in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan continues, but those looking for green chutes emerging from a new Japan are already noticing what could be new trends. Volunteerism seems to be on the upswing and at least some among the large population of severely depressed youth are coming out of their shells to pitch in. And, not insignificantly, so far no major officials either in government or business have tried to commit suicide, the most common way that such officials have traditionally taken responsibility for their mistakes.
The concept of mass volunteerism, especially in times of great tragedy has not traditionally been what Japanese have been known for and yet in this tragedy young Japanese have been reportedly volunteering in large numbers, with one report noting that a shelter needing 500 volunteers had to turn away an additional 1,500 who hoped to help.
There have also been reports that Japanese victims of hikikomori (a phenomenon that causes those in their 20’s and 30’s to stay indoors, eschew meaningful work and relationships and rarely leave home) have begun to venture out after the tragedy, perhaps finding meaning by helping others less fortunate.
But it's the nation's sky-high suicide rate which may provide the most interesting indices of whether this act of nature will have long-lasting effects on the nation's psyche.
Contrary to popular opinion, Japan doesn’t have the highest suicide rate in the world, a dubious distinction which belongs to Lithuania, but it isn’t far behind, coming in at #5 with a whopping total of over 30,000 per year. As anybody who’s spent time there knows, however, suicides in Japan often involve public spectacle, as many choose very public methods of killing themselves, most notably jumping in front of trains.
Of course none of this is terribly surprising considering that it's a culture which has at various times seemed to honor ritual suicides as acts of valor both during and outside of times of war. Seppuku, or hara-kiri, was an honorable exit to this life and many of the best and brightest of Japanese fighters were chosen to be Kamikaze pilots, embarking on one-way missions for the glory and honor of their nation.
Some historians trace the prevalence of suicide in Japan to 1192 around the time of the introduction of the Bushido Code, a code of conduct for Samurai heavily influenced by Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism which seemed to encourage suicide:
"It was a process by which warriors could expiate their crimes, apologize for errors, escape from disgrace, redeem their friends, or prove their sincerity," noted one historian. "When enforced as a legal punishment, it was practiced with due ceremony."
The New Yorker has weighed in with a report that these types of tragedies are often followed by reduced suicide rates which makes some sense, since presumably those who have gone to great lengths to stay alive in a time when their lives were in peril may think twice about then killing themselves, but the emotional toll on those whose lives have been turned upside down can’t be known conclusively.
In any event, a new generation of Japanese has for the first time in half a century come face to face with widespread death and destruction and it will be left to be seen if the equally widespread needs around them will cause them to realize the value of life in new ways. Perhaps new paths will emerge and that whatever honor Japanese have traditionally seen in suicide will be outweighed by officials who consider a value higher than death at their own hands: living in order to help others.
Mark Joseph is a producer/writer/editor in California.