Japan detergent suicide sparks panic
By Shino Yuasa
Some 350 people evacuated their homes in northern Japan to escape poisonous fumes released Thursday by a neighbor who killed himself by mixing detergent and other chemicals — the latest in a series of such suicides. The panic in Otaru came just hours after national police urged Internet providers to crack down on Web sites spurring a wave of detergent-related suicides that have reported killed 50 people in the past month.
The rash of such suicides in Japan — which already has one of the world's highest suicide rates — has triggered widespread concern because the powerful fumes can seriously harm bystanders and rescuers.
In Otaru, on the northern island of Hokkaido, a 24-year-old man mixed the chemicals in his house after midnight. He died, and the gas — hydrogen sulfide — escaped his home, and neighbors were alerted by the smell, a Hokkaido police official said. The man's 58-year-old mother, who was apparently overcome by the fumes, was found unconscious nearby and was taken to hospital. Police said she was recovering. A total of about 350 neighbors fled to a nearby school playground for about two hours, until the fumes dispersed, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department protocol. Just last week, at least 90 people were sickened by fumes in southwestern Japan after a teenage girl killed herself by mixing laundry detergent with cleanser in her apartment house.
On Wednesday, Japan's National Police Agency urged Internet providers to delete language from Web sites showing readers how to mix the chemicals, officials said Thursday. Some sites reportedly provide "poison gas" warnings that viewers can print out and hang on the outside of the door when they kill themselves. The police request marked the first action against detergent suicides by the Japanese government, which has announced the goal of cutting the suicide rate by 20 percent in 10 years by reducing unemployment, boosting workplace counseling and filtering Web sites that promote suicide.
Reports said more than 50 people killed themselves by inhaling hydrogen sulfide gas in the past month. The police said they had yet to compile data on such deaths. Seiji Yoshikawa, deputy head of the Internet Hot Line, which operates under the guideline of police, said the number of sites promoting detergent suicides "soared" in April with details showing how to make and use the deadly gas. "They are rife on the Internet. Writing examples include 'you can die easily and beautifully' and 'this is much easier than charcoal-burning suicide," Yoshikawa said, referring to a once popular suicide method.
Hydrogen sulfide gas is colorless and characterized by an odor similar to that of rotten eggs. When inhaled, it can lead to suffocation or brain damage. Suicides in Japan passed the 30,000 mark in 1998, near the height of an economic slump that left many bankrupt, jobless and desperate. A total of 32,155 people killed themselves in 2006, giving the country the ninth highest suicide rate in the world, according to the government. The government has earmarked $220 million for anti-suicide programs to help those with depression and other mental conditions.
Rips in Fabric of Japanese Society
By Gary Feuerberg
WASHINGTON—Often the media report that Japan since the 1990s has been going through its deepest economic recession in half a century, but little is said of the nation's inward distress and violence as outcomes of Japan relinquishing its dominant economic position in the world. And with the collapse in the belief of Japan as an economic miracle, scholars say young people feel the country has lost its way.
This picture of the "darker" side of Japanese society was the topic of discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Feb. 20 when several Japan scholars described various aspects of a troubled and violent society. The themes ranged from the link between organized crime and violence in the political order to the social deviancy of youth, low birth rate, high suicide rate, and "permanent" part-time employment. An example of extreme distress peculiar to Japanese society is the "hikikomori" phenomenon, whereby youth withdraw in their rooms, unwilling to venture out and hold a job or go to school or speak to friends and lead a normal life.
Yakuza: Japan's Organized Crime
Eiko Maruko Siniawer, assistant professor of history at Williams College, described the origins of the Yakuza, the name of Japan's organized crime, and how it became a violent arm of political parties with nationalistic sentiments. Ms. Siniawer said that in the late 17th and 18th centuries, men running gambling dens formed mafia-style "families," and powerful gang bosses emerged. Some dubious merchants, selling shoddy goods, had a similar need for protection in controlling areas. These two "criminal"-type businesses attracted violent men for protection and they evolved into "political ruffians." In Japan these men became an integral part of the political scene, bringing violence onto their political opponents.
In pre-World War II Japan, the Yakuza would break up strikes and oppose Leftist parties and thought. Siniawer said the Yakuza's violence contributed to the decline of political parties in the 1930s. The Yakuza were reborn after the war and, until lately, retained their violent nature. This violent tendency began to recede in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s when the public became more intolerant of the violence of the past. Despite being engaged in illegal activities, the Yakuza have become institutionalized in the practice of politics. Siniawer argues that for much of Japan's modern history, political violence is so institutionalized and accepted that Japan can be characterized as a "violent democracy."
Anthony Bruno says in Gangsters & Outlaws that the Yakuza are much more embedded and accepted in Japanese life than organized crime is in America. Their 110,000 active members exceeds organized crime in the United States (20,000) many-fold in a county with about half the population of the U.S. They are politically allied with right-wing nationalists.
A Lost Generation
When Japan's economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, Japanese youth, especially those who had only a high school education or less, could no longer assume they were going to be fully employed. "Employers had to fundamentally re-evaluate the terms under which they would hire entry-level workers," said Mary C. Brinton, professor of sociology at Harvard University. In 1990, there were 3.3 job openings for every high school graduate. In the past few years, the number has been less than half of that. College graduates were also hit by diminishing job opportunities, but Professor Brinton concentrated more on the high school graduates and dropouts who are impacted more. These young people suffered from non-normative employment, moving in and out of the labor force.
The rate of part-time employment from 1990–2003 went up to nearly 30 percent for young men. In 2003, for the first time, there were more Japanese high school graduates in part-time jobs than full-time jobs. The consequences for these young men have been devastating. They feel they can't marry and start a family on temporary or part-time employment, and many companies are reluctant to move a current part-time worker into full-time employment status. So, a 32-year-old man who has maybe never held a full-time job will be passed over in favor of a 20-year-old that the company employer feels it can mold. A whole generation has been lost as Japan transitioned to a different labor market, said Dr. Brinton.
Hikikomori: A Modern Pathology Unique to Japan
The collapse of the economic bubble led to a new form of antisocial behavior in Japan: young men withdrawing from society, and physically locking themselves in their bedrooms for months or even years. Only after Japan's booming economy and the social network began to breakdown did the hikikomori emerge, exposing its "rigidities and social dysfunction," said Michael Zielenziger, in Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation (2006).
"Hikikomori" translated roughly means someone who shuts himself off and becomes socially withdrawn. They will not or cannot reach out to anyone, not even to their friends. There are approximately one million young persons—80 percent male—who are hikikomori, said Zielenziger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and currently at the University of California, Berkeley. The hikikomori Zielenziger met were unable or unwilling to go out and depended on their parents to leave the next meal at the bedroom door. He said they were distrustful of people and possessed an inability to form an intimate relationship. Zielenziger said he believes after investigating that they are neither schizophrenic nor psychotic nor agoraphobic. Zielenziger says the hikikomori are not simply "spoiled brats," rather that these recluses are rebelling against Japan's rigid system of going to school from an early age, the rigorous examination system, and then entering the workplace in an orderly fashion.
Whereas American and European youth can express their individuality outwardly, Japanese society doesn't foster independence, says Zielenziger. The only safe place for rebellion is to direct it inwardly. This may also explain why, with only two exceptions, the nation of Japan has the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world. Of the young men that he spoke to, Zielenziger wrote in Shutting Out the Sun that he found them to be "often intelligent, stimulating, highly open and responsive adults, full of cogent ideas and fascinating insights into society and themselves." Their bedroom may be the only safe place where they can rebel.
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