Emile Durkheim: Japanese Ethnography on Suicide

Emile Durkheim’s 1897 theory on suicide provides a comprehensive sociological explanation on a society’s suicide rate. Durkheim’s arguments can help to make sense of the different forms of suicide in Japan, however there are also some weaknesses to his work. His holistic approach uniquely suggests that the suicide rate of a society has a social nature. The rate can be accounted for through the quality of social relationships people have with one another and society at large. Durkheim proposes four main types of suicide, residing on a spectrum of both social integration and social regulation. These categories can explain forms of suicide in Japan such as those regarding kamikaze pilots or internet group suicide. The unique Japanese culture surrounding suicide is researched by Ozawa-de Silva, and from her writings we see that Durkheim’s work cannot be used to explain the entire phenomenon of suicide in Japan.

The Social Nature of Suicide

Durkheim’s theory suggests that suicide is a normal and recurrent component of society. Consequently, he argues that the suicide rate reveals an inherently social nature to suicide. This theory operates in comparison to the established biological and psychological explanations of suicide (Thompson 1985). Whilst they can explain individual cases, they cannot explain the suicide rate as a wider societal phenomenon. Durkheim’s beliefs are predicated by the assumption that society has a reality of its own which is larger than the sum of individuals (Thompson 1985). Therefore, the suicide rate has a social, not individualistic, causation. Social relationships between people create ‘shared worlds of meaning’ in society, and these transcend individual lifetimes (Lattas 2018). However, biological and psychological trends upon society as a whole (not individually) and their impact on suicide rates are probably more important than what Durkheim acknowledges. For example, other than social relationships, factors such as societal levels of mental illness can be influential.

Durkheim’s primary argument is that the suicide rate “varies inversely with the degree of integration of the social groups to which the individual belongs.” (Thompson 1985: 76) Immersion in social relationships creates identity, and societal values and experiences breeds solidarity which integrates some and separates others. It means that individual meaning is shared beyond themselves, as others participate in their reality. Durkheim relates this concept of a ‘shared nature of social reality’ or the ‘collective consciousness’ to explain the suicide rate (Lattas 2018).  To structure his argument, Durkheim proposes four different categories of suicide.

Social Integration

For Durkheim, different suicide rates can express different levels of social integration and social regulation. Firstly, egoistic suicide is caused by a lack of integration into society (Thompson 1985). This lack of integration leads the individual to feel isolated and alienated from society. Durkheim attributes suicide caused by this to the concept of individuality, where the individual’s personality predominates over the collective personality (Thompson 1985: 76). To prove this, Durkheim uses the example of Catholics and Protestants in European countries. For example, within German states/provinces, the suicide rate increased “in direct proportion to the number of Protestants and in inverse proportion to that of Catholics.” (Thompson 1985: 72) Durkheim associates the individualism inherent in Protestantism to explain his findings. He notes that the unlike Catholicism, Protestantism allows for far more free enquiry into meaning and thought, has less strict social obligations, and their church is less strongly integrated than the former (Thompson 1985: 73). The reduced intensity of collective community life and excessive individualism is therefore the reason for higher rates of ‘egoistic’ suicide among Protestants. However, the source of the statistics he uses here is unclear and therefore to an extent challenges the reliability of his claims.

In contrast to egoistic suicide is altruistic suicide. This is characterised by being too strongly integrated into society, where you commit suicide to fulfil your social obligation or duty. Here, suicide carries a social prestige. The individual is so absorbed into the collective social values and meanings in his/her society that their individual life is insignificant compared to the group (Thompson 1985). Such insufficient individualism is seen in the Papua New Guinean practise of widow killings, where the ego of the widow belongs external to the self (Lattas 2018).       

Social Regulation

On the other hand, Durkheim also uses the degree of ‘social regulation’ to classify explanations of the suicide rate. Not enough societal regulation is termed ‘anomic’ suicide (Thompson 1985). Here, the rules governing an individual’s life as part of a community and on how to behave are changed (Lattas 2018). For example, this may happen when moving social class (such as lower class to middle class). When this occurs, the rules that both organised one’s life and integrated them to society are partially (or wholly) lost. This lack of regulation eliminates one’s shared meaning with their society, and thrusts previously constrained and defined desires into upheaval. In contrast, too much regulation in society can lead to fatalistic suicide. In this situation, too many strict societal rules make life unbearable. For example, in prison societies, almost all aspects of individual freedoms are regulated. As a result, inmates have a higher suicide rate by about three to five times than those of the general community (in Australia) (Willis, Baker, Cussen, and Patterson 2016).

Japan: Internet Group Suicide

Durkheim’s argument can help make sense of the modern phenomenon of internet group suicide in Japan. It involves people going on suicide website forums to find others willing to die with them. Integral to this is the unique aspect of Japanese culture that emphasises the need for affiliation with others and the fear of social rejection (Ozawa-de Silva 2010). Durkheim’s 19th century ideas can still be utilised to investigate this topic because it relates to one’s degree of social integration in society. Primarily, a lack of social integration manifests in ‘egoistic’ internet group suicide in Japan. This is particularly potent in Japanese society where the “self that is seen” is extremely important because meaning in life is discovered through others and through social participation (Ozawa-de Silva 2010). Since the self is not separated from society, a lack of integration would equate to a lack of meaning in one’s life. Thus, Durkheim’s argument shows that the social nature of identity partly explains internet suicide. Apathetic suicidal reasons such as being “bored” or “tired” prove this lack of integration, and of a life that is not immersed in meaningful projects of existence (Lattas 2018; Ozawa-de Silva 2010: 397). Generally, Durkheim would categorise Japanese group suicide as ‘epicurean’ rather than ‘intellectual’ suicides (Ozawa-de Silva 2010: 404-405). These are rationally planned, passionless and tranquil suicides. For them, it is a beautiful, quiet and shared way of dying (Lattas 2018).

However, Ozawa-de Silva (2010) notes that Durkheim’s theory does not address the “wish to die with others” (p.406). Additionally, she notes that in Japan the concept of ‘self’ is more sociocentric and irremovable from others, compared to the western ‘individual’ self. Therefore, studies by Durkheim on ‘western’ societies may not apply to Japan, due to a lack of understanding about differences between societies. Nevertheless, these criticisms of Durkheim are not completely fair. Durkheim admits that “different countries do not have identical social environments.” (Thompson 1985: 72) Although this refers to European countries, it easily extends (even stronger) to Asia. Furthermore, Durkheim’s theory in a way does address the “wish to die with others.” Those which have lost (or never had) an integrated position within society may want to re-integrate into society. In the case of Japanese internet group suicide, it is the suicidal group to which they are integrating into. This gives the previously isolated individual a collective project that binds them to others (Lattas 2018). Therefore, it is not individualism that caused suicide but the longing to become reintegrated that can explain this phenomenon.

Japan: Kamikaze Suicide

In a broad sense, Durkheim can be used to make sense of kamikaze pilot suicide. His theory would categorise suicide by kamikaze pilots into ‘altruistic’ suicide. The young men performing these acts were so integrated into their society and nation, that they felt it was their ‘duty’ to sacrifice themselves for their community (Thompson 1985). But he largely does not cover the importance of symbolism and how the self is constructed within it. The young men would immerse themselves in symbolic structures and traditional narratives so deeply that it would become a lived reality (Lattas 2018). With kamikaze pilots this was epitomised in the symbolism of the cherry blossom (Ohnuki-Tierney 2004). Pilots would be decorated in it, and girls would wave them off the runway waving cherry blossoms. This symbol would construct meaning for their life and death. And this meaning would be shared with others, making them morally integrated to the society around them. By immersing the act of dying into this symbol, it romanticised death as beautiful – because the cherry blossom symbolises “life, death and rebirth.” (Ohnuki-Tierney 2004: 18) At the same time, such an immersion into stories indirectly links to Durkheim’s concept of altruistic suicide. Embodying the symbolism of the cherry blossom proves that the pilots were extremely integrated into society. Therefore, Durkheim again can be used to make sense of this type of Japanese suicide. However, Durkheim problematically uses the term “primitive peoples” when discussing altruistic suicide (Thompson 1985: 77). Again, this demonstrates a lack of understanding for those cultures outside of Europe and the west.

Conclusion

Durkheim’s argument on the social nature of suicide is convincing. Different levels of social integration and social regulation can flexibly explain the suicide rate in different societies across time. Because of this flexibility, it is quite useful to use to make sense of different forms of suicide in Japan ranging from group internet suicide to kamikaze pilot suicides. Although Durkheim’s arguments have some shortcomings and mainly focus on western societies, these limitations are trumped by its usefulness when adapted and interpreted to different contexts.

References

Lattas, Andrew. 2014. Lecture 1: Suicide and the collective conscience. Lecture in Culture, Meaning and Communication – SANT104, at the University of Bergen, 20th of August 2018.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. 2004. Betrayal by Idealism and Aesthetics: Special Attack Force

(Kamikaze) Pilots and Their Intellectual Trajectories, Anthropology Today 20(2): 15-21.

Ozawa-de Silva, Chikako. 2010. Shared Death: Self, Sociality and Internet Group Suicide in Japan. Transcultural Psychiatry 47(3): 392-418.

Thompson, Margaret. 1985. Readings from Emile Durkheim, London: Routledge, pp. 65-85.

Willis, Matthew, Ashleigh Baker, Tracy Cussen and Eileen Patterson. August 2016. Australian Institute of Criminology: Self-inflicted deaths in Australian prisons. Trends and Issues in crime and criminal justice 513(1): 1-17.