August 29, 2003 -- The tragic results of collectivism in a culture are seen in a recent wave of suicides in Japan, especially among young people. A Washington Post article recently highlighted 32 youths in Japan who, over the past six months, have used the Internet to find each other as suicide partners. These individuals did not seem to be clinically depressed. They were prosperous enough to have computers, which allowed them to visit suicide instruction websites and chatrooms, the existence of which is disturbing to say the least.
These young people just did not see the point of continuing to live. Japan has a tradition of hara kiri and kamikazes; but even by its own standards, the rise in suicides is startling. In 1990, 21,346 Japanese killed themselves. Last year, the number was 32,143—twice the rate in the United States.
Some blame the problem on Japan’s 13 years of economic travails. But while the economic situation is bad by Japanese standards and indicates a need for serious free-market reforms, the economy is not as bad as in many European countries and all less-developed countries.
The economic situation has lit a fuse on a deeper, more explosive problem. Japanese culture stifles individualism. For example, Japanese society places a high value on consensus. Before making major policy changes, politicians prefer to secure agreement from a wide range of interest groups rather than a mere majority vote in the legislature. In parts of the country, individuals cannot simply purchase land and build a store. They are required to secure permission from their competitors for the terms on which their business will operate. The premium is placed on approval from others, and shame is experienced if others are displeased.
These cultural values make for a relatively peaceful and hard-working society. But they also mean that individuals worry first about whether others will approve of their lives and actions. This attitude can kill imagination and initiative. Thus, when young Japanese face economic uncertainty—when they are no longer guaranteed a job for life, when their economic and cultural institutions do not supply them with a purpose in life and lead them to it by the hand—they are at a loss to know what to do. Of course, morally healthy individuals put their own self-interest first. They create their own purpose and goals in life, devise the means to achieve them, and celebrate those achievements.
Individuals young and old who see their lives as empty and meaningless are not confined to Japan; the results of such alienation are merely manifest most tragically there at this time. The lesson is that, in all countries, a culture based on individualist values is literally a matter of life and death.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.