Clearly the problem doesn’t boil down entirely to economics. This is evident from the fact that the unemployment rate in Japan last year hovered around 4.4% while in the U.S. it stubbornly stood above 8% for most of 2012. The economic aspects of the problem may lie less in the fact of unemployment than in the types of jobs people are able to obtain and the fact that a large percentage of workers are irregular or temporarily employed, making security a major concern.
Anthropologist Chikako Ozawa-de Silva, writing about the problem of internet suicide pacts in Japan (where an individual puts up a web site asking others to meet him/her to commit suicide as a group), has raised an important point in relation to understanding what certainly must be one of the more profound causes of Japan’s high suicide rate—alienation. She argues that this form of suicide, at least, may be related to a cultural concept in Japanese society known as ikigai, which translates as one’s purpose in life. Japanese often place a great deal of value in having an ikigai in the form of a hobby, career, or family—the specific activity is less important than the act of doing something—and the absence of a purpose in life can be psychologically debilitating. Group suicides, according to Dr. Ozawa de-Silva, may stem from feelings of existential alienation and suffering that are somehow alleviated in the context of killing oneself with others. Dr. Ozawa de-Silva in no way condones these suicide pacts but rather helps us understand how, in a society that places great importance of belonging, collective acts of suicide may be seen by those involved as a way to overcome the kind of alienation that comes with self-identifying as a social outcast.