Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Guest Blog: The Sociality of Suicide: Shared Life and Shared Death in a “Virtual” World

You may have noticed the Anthsisters have been very quiet lately.. spending all our time writing and finishing our Master's thesis' hasn't left much time for blogging! However, we have not forgotten about our readers so we asked our friend Tom, an honours student in Cultural Anthropology to guest blog for us.

Every year at Victoria University, the Cultural Anthropology Department runs an essay writing competition for third-year students who are majoring in Cultural Anthropology - the best essays from third-year students are judged by the Cultural Anthropology lecturers. Tom won the 2014 essay competition with his essay that explores the role of online forums and suicide in Japan, so we asked him to turn his winning essay into a blog post for us. Enjoy the read and post your thoughts and comments below!

~ Tayla and Hollie

Tom Loffhagen is currently an Honours student in Cultural Anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington. With a background in the study of both Anthropology and Japan, his focus is cultural narratives of depression and suicide in Japan, politics and power in diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and ethnopsychiatry. His other interests include good food to cook and a good book to read. 

As a student of both Anthropology and Japanese I have acquired an acute interest in what many have called an over-aestheticisation of suicide in Japanese culture - from heroic tales of seppuku by Edo Period Samurai to the poetic death of acclaimed author Yukio Mishima – the events of his life and his dramatic death by his own sword could well be mistaken for the plot of one of his own novels. Since the late 1990’s Japan has seen a remarkable increase in its rate of suicide, with it currently being the leading cause of death among people under the age of 30. Many have cited this so-called “positive cultural valence” given to suicide as cause of Japan’s high suicide rate, an argument that reduces transmission of cultural knowledge to causation. Naturally, this argument has shifted to fit the 21st Century.

With the ever-growing influence of the Internet, online forums relating to suicide and self-harm have become extremely prevalent, with tens of thousands of Japanese language sites offering methods and advice for those with suicidal intentions. However, not only are these forums being used for the sharing of methods and advice, suicide forums such as “Ghetto” and “Suicide Site: A Relaxing Place for Suicidal People” are allowing those with suicidal intentions to seek out strangers with whom to die. Unsurprisingly, this grave trend has garnered significant media and academic attention; the first case of what has been named netto shinju, or Internet group suicide, was reported in 2003 when a man and two women were found dead in an apartment - the man had reportedly invited others to join him in death over one such forum. They had burned charcoal briquettes in a shichirin stove with the windows and doors of the apartment sealed with tape, and subsequently succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. Historically, group suicide or suicide pacts are not a new phenomenon – practices such as shinju, or lover’s suicide find their etiology in the Edo Period – however, what is novel about Internet group suicide is that strangers, rather than family or lovers are sought out to share in self-destruction, implying a degree of sociality.

The rise of suicide forums, and in turn online group suicide, has placed a renewed spotlight on the issue of suicide in Japan. In a country with a rising pathology of social withdrawal called hikikomori, almost one million adolescents and adults are said to be recluse in their homes. An increase in online connectivity and saturation of other digital media such as television, films, and computer games, has often been cited as a significant factor in such social isolation and disconnectedness. However, this creates an implicit dichotomy of “real” and “virtual” sociality as it not only denies online interaction to hold any meaning, but also glosses over the technologies themselves as being shaped by cultural and social practices and meanings.

Ethnographies of suicide forums by Chikako Ozawa-de Silva (2008; 2010) and Ai Ikunaga, et al. (2013) have shown that users largely present complaints of existential suffering and social isolation. According to Ozawa-de Silva (2008; 2010) and Ikunaga, et al. (2013), this social isolation and disconnectedness has played a key role in their suicidal ideation and also their want to die alongside another. Although the Western notion of suicide is often portrayed as an act of individualism and autonomy, a Japanese conception of selfhood can create a seemingly paradoxical fear to die alone, or a desire to relinquish autonomy and thus responsibility - thus while one shares life, one also shares death. This notion that Japanese selfhood is created with an emphasis on sociality, or the social self, is important when confronting the paradox of group suicide; on the one hand there is the desire to end one’s life because of social isolation, what Emile Durkheim has termed ‘Epicurean’ suicide, and on the other there is the wish to die with an other, a connection through self-destruction. There are two arguments that polarise the possible outcomes of this kind of online sociality. Many advocacy forums are moderated to the degree that views that do not align with the advocacy of suicide are not tolerated and deleted, and that these “communities of affirmation create a culture through identification of core beliefs” (Neizan 2013). Lawrence Kirymayer also argues “isolated individuals may understand themselves differently when they communicate with people experiencing similar conditions, but that certain experiences, affective states, and beliefs may be reinforced or amplified”. In this way there are processes that are much stronger than the simple access to information, one can find an outlet for the legitimisation, affirmation, and normalisation of suicide. However, in contrast to this Chiyako Ozawa-de Silva argues that advocacy sites could create the same social support that many preventative sites serve to. The utility of preventative sites has been evident and utilised in many areas of health, from depression to sexual health, and it has been shown that the greatest utility of these sites has been in stigmatised health conditions. In a similar vein advocacy sites can have the ability to mitigate the feelings of social isolation and disconnectedness through interaction that creates meaningful bonds and a sense of community. Perhaps rather than the two arguments contradicting one another, it is more productive to understand the two concurrently, both mediated by the user of the forums. What must be said however, is that although suicide should be understood within the wider social, cultural, and historical context of any given society, the role of the internet does play an important role within that context, it is a medium that enables unfettered access to a vast array of information on suicide; it has the potential to legitimise or affirm a culture of suicide; and it has the potential also to aid in social support, to be a channel where socially isolated individuals can reconnect.


Berger, M.
2005 Internet Use and Stigmatised Illness. Social Science & Medicine 61: 1821–1827.
Borovoy, A.
2008 Japan’s Hidden Youths: Mainstreaming the Emotional Distressed in Japan. Cult Med Psychiatry 32: 552–576.
Burrows, R.
2010 Virtual Community Care? Social Policy and the Emergence of Computer Mediated Social Support. Information, Communication & Society, 3(1): 95-121.
Cartarescu, I.
2010 Utility of Online Communities – Ways one can benefit form one’s online life. Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology 1(2): 79-91.
Ikunaga, A.
2013 Internet Suicide in Japan: A Qualitative Content Analysis of a Suicide Bulletin Board. Transcultural Psychiatry 50(2): 280-302.
Kirmayer, L.
2013 Cultures of the Internet: Identity, Community and Mental Health. Transcultural Psychiatry 50(2): 165-191.
Kitanaka, J.
2008 Diagnosing Suicides of Resolve: Psychiatric Practice in Contemporary Japan. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 32: 152-176.
Niezan, R.
2013 Internet Suicide: Communities of Affirmation and Lethality of Communication. Transcultural Psychiatry 50(2): 303-322.

Ozawa-de Silva, C.
2008 Too Lonely to Die: Internet Suicide Pacts and Existential Suffering in Japan. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 32: 516-551.
2010 Shared Death: Self, Sociality and Internet Group Suicide in Japan. Transcultural Psychiatry 47(3): 392-418.

Wilson, S.
2002 The Anthropology of Online Communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 449-467.


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