Sunday, July 22, 2007

Inner-Directed and Outer-Directed Pain

It could be my imagination and statistics may not back me up but there seem to be more suicides in Japan recently. Some of the suicides have been gruesome and particularly sad. In today's news, there was a story about a man who likely murdered his pregnant wife and children then killed himself. The motive in this case was very likely despair over his debt. Another man decapitated himself by tying one end of a rope around his neck and the other around a tree then driving off at high speed.

As most people know, Japan is well-known for having a high suicide rate among developed countries. This is generally believed to be the result of a lack of mental health services to help people deal with their problems in conjunction with a shame-based culture that views "falling on one's sword" as an "honorable" means of escaping one's problems. While I don't disagree with these explanations, I think it goes further than that.

One screamingly obvious thing you notice as a major difference between Japan and the U.S. is that there are far more murders in the States and more suicides in Japan. You also can't help but notice that many Americans have no shame when it comes to airing their dirty laundry. People make a living out of T.V. shows that show people modeling the ugliest aspects of human nature. It's one thing to succumb to your weaknesses but quite another to display the consequences of having done so for all to see. What is worse are the people who entertain themselves by watching the base behavior of others.

In the U.S., you see that people direct their anger and pain externally. If life lets you down in America, you blame others and curse the unfairness of existence. If you don't get what you believe you deserve, you go and take it from someone else. If you hurt, you hurt someone else to counterbalance your pain. American culture sees loud and incessant catharsis as an indication of mental toughness. It also glorifies vengeance in the popular media and sees revenge as a form of justice.

In Japan, the culture values controlling one's feelings and sees the inability to control your emotions as immature. While Americans view speaking your mind as an indication of confidence and indifference to the opposing opinions of others (which shows how intact one's ego is), Japanese sees this as showing the same level of emotional control as a child and being insensitive to the feelings of those around you. You also don't see reality shows in Japan where real people parade their shameful behavior.

The Japanese are particularly more likely to decide to end it all over money problems since they take debt far more seriously than Americans do. While people in the U.S. weigh the effects of declaring bankruptcy on their credit rating and future borrowing and spending patterns, few of them seem to think too long or hard about the fact that they have failed at being fiscally responsible and are cheating their creditors out of money they owe them.

The Japanese culture deals with problems in an inner-directed fashion. It's no surprise that, while an American in great debt who just lost his job will go off and shoot his coworkers, a Japanese person will kill himself. Since the roots of this inner-directness appear to be deeply-embedded in the core values of Japanese culture, I'm not sure how effective counseling would be, particularly conventional talk therapy. I'm equally sure that the Japanese would not quickly embrace pharmacological therapeutic methods as they are much more hesitant to take strong medications or new drugs than those in western cultures.

If counseling is to be an answer in Japan, it will need to be coupled with real answers to problems. I doubt that allowing people to talk about their problems and attempting to guide them away from killing themselves when they are in a situation which seems to have no solution will provide much of a deterrent and would be more likely to result in a delay. The entire culture has been encouraging them all their lives to be responsible and stoic. Effective counseling will need to go hand in hand with social programs that allow people to dig themselves out of the hole they see themselves in and come out of the situation with their self-respect intact.

Note: I see the U.S. as one extreme and Japan as the other but don't believe either is "better" than the other. I think there's a happy medium somewhere between the two.

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