electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 7 in 2008
First published in ejcjs on 20 July 2008

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Suicide and the Japanese Media

On the Hunt for Blame


Joel Matthews

PhD Candidate
Kobe University

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Why do the young kill themselves? The question has been posed over and over and over and over again… But no one has ever addressed this: why must we not kill ourselves, why must we continue living?
(Tsurumi, Japan Times 2006)

The power to signify is not a neutral force in society
(Hall 1982: 70)



Suicide has become, of late, an extremely newsworthy subject in Japan due in part to its shock value, and media attention has been especially focused on two specific types of suicide, Internet-based group suicides and those caused by bullying. Although both types may appear to be different in character, as will be discussed later, social commentators such as Tetsuya Shibui have sought to draw correlations between the two. Moreover, since the dawn of the Internet-age in Japan, there have been many cases of people meeting online, only to then organize a time and a place to die together.

This paper aims to activate a discussion about not only the manner in which the Japanese domestic press have reported on and represented Internet suicide in Japan, but also the influence the media itself wields with regard to public opinion, governmental policy and so-called copycat behavior. With the arrival of the Internet, the pervasiveness of the print, visual and digital media has arguably brought about an even greater degree of leverage on both the state and the individuals that reside within it. The reporting of suicide in the Japanese domestic print media will be analyzed here in order to draw out some of the possible effects that journalistic or reporting practices may have on the reality they profess to represent.

Angela McRobbie and Sarah L. Thornton (1995: 273) contend that in our current 'mediated social worlds' it is impossible to think about a reality that has not been 'impregnated with the mark of media imagery'. They maintain that media representations do not exist in a vacuum. The power to signify and define events in the mediated realm has flow-on effects in the real world. Thereby, and adopting McRobbie's and Thornton's arguments as this paper's starting point, the essentially hegemonic standpoint that interaction between youth, suicide and the Internet are socially unacceptable comes to fruition by means of sensationalist news items.

In this paper I will argue that the combination of youth suicide and the Internet spawned a sensationalistic semantic nexus in which government legislation and media reporting acted not only to trigger further similar suicides, but also reproduce and reinforce the commonly held perception that suicide is a personal and individual decision, as opposed to being considered a consequence of problems within society at large. Firstly, this paper traces the Internet suicide problem to its origin in deai-kei (encounter sites) and formulates a psychological framework from which to comprehend Internet suicide. Secondly, I propose that as a sensationalistic news item, news reports concerned with Internet suicide have the potential to trigger further suicides. In a newspaper media analysis, I demonstrate how the process of suicide imitation or 'suggestion on suicide' (Phillips 1974) is facilitated by detailed and repetitious media reporting styles. This process, Stuart Hall reminds us, illustrates that the media does not merely reproduce reality through representations, but defines it. Furthermore, government action to combat this social phenomenon illustrates the success of the media’s sensationalistic representations in spite of the comparatively small number of people committing suicide in this manner. I will finally substantiate that government agencies have come to interpret Internet suicide as socially undesirable as a result of a long cultural, semiotic and linguistic battle over meaning production. Hall (1982) describes the politicized process of meaning production as a site of 'social struggle' for control over discourse. I will show that control over the discourse of suicide, in particular Internet suicide, has come about as a result of the semantic potentiality of the media. Whilst the media and government make concessions as to where blame for this suicide phenomenon lies, both ultimately stigmatize either the individual or the Internet as being the main cause thereby stifling debate on the possible link between suicide and the social conditions these individuals find themselves within.

A Societal Problem? Suicide and the Internet in Japan

In 2003 an average of 24 people per 100,000 committed suicide in Japan (Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare 2007). These figures place Japan in the number one position among developed nations and number nine overall in suicide statistics (WHO 2003). According to the World Health Organization, only former Soviet bloc countries such as Russia, Lithuania, and Belarus exceed the overall suicide rate in Japan. However, it is important to note here that not only may the classification procedures differ from country to country, but also figures from different years were used when calculating the ranking indicated above.

Japanese suicide statistics can be analyzed according to a number of different contributing factors. As with most countries, males commit suicide overwhelmingly more than females. In Japan, males make up 72 percent of all suicides, representing 38 per 100,000 as opposed to females at 13.5 (Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare 2007). Changing discourses surrounding masculinity and the responsibilities placed on Japanese men in both the public and private spheres is believed to have caused a dramatic increase in the number of men taking their own lives as a result of seemingly unbearable pressures experienced in daily life. Death by overwork (karōshi) and fatigue-induced suicide (karō-jisatsu) have also been on the rise since the burst of the Japanese economic bubble in the early 1990s. As Takashi Nakamura (2003: 166) confirms, 'such suicide rates reflect the stress experienced by men under the now decade-long post-bubble recession.' The reality is that economic factors probably account for a significant proportion of suicides in Japan, yet a significant proportion of reporting tends to focus on more obscure forms, where issues of loneliness and social isolation play a greater role. Internet-based group suicides and children committing suicide due to intense bullying at school appear more socially alarming and this might explain why they receive a sizable amount of media coverage, despite the relatively small number of incidents. Itsuko Horiguchi, in her research on newspaper reportage of Internet-based suicide in the major national newspapers, found that from the 11th of February 2003 until the 31st of December 2004 there were 599 articles that contained the words 'group suicide' (shūdan jisatsu), 'internet suicide' (netto jisatsu) or 'internet double-suicide' (netto shinjū)[1] (Horiguchi 2005a). In another study on television reportage, Horiguchi also found that from the period starting the 1st of July 2004 until the 31st of December 2004, 156 different television programs featured the Internet-based suicide phenomenon (Horiguchi 2005b).

The ever-increasing prevalence of the Internet and the number of cyber communities it spawns, has provided a site for people to interact around a common topic or theme. An increasingly popular method of socialization in Japan is being mediated by what is referred to as deai-kei (encounter sites). It has become a form of social engagement where an individual places a personal advertisement onto an electronic message board (or BBS). Visitors to the message board can then read through a number of advertisements and decide whether to respond to these. Individuals will generally seek partners for either real-world face-to-face encounters or for mēru-tomo, literally an 'e-mail-friend.' Moreover, deai-kei sites have become increasingly popular in part because of the integration of Internet technologies into the 3G mobile phone platform available in Japan. This has mobilized the Internet to a greater extent and enjoyed a higher penetration rate than the desktop personal computer. Holden and Tsuruki (2003: 34) discuss deai-kei as being sociologically significant for three reasons.

First, as a form of sociation, formal Internet-based encounter sites have only been in Japan since the millennium. Second, as an Internet subculture, deai is commonly considered to be among the murkiest…A third, related point…is that, although deai is a tool for sociation, it is also an important instrument for the mediation of identity, the exploration of the self, the management of emotions, the arbitration between the individual and the larger social world.

The perception that the Internet, especially deai-kei, is suspect, dubious and mysterious is one that is, we will discover, reproduced and reinforced through media representations and government legislation. Deai-kei could be considered similar in functionality to IRC (Internet Relay Chat)[2], the socialization process involved in deai-kei can be also be seen as a negotiation between the self and society at large. One reason for this transgression could lie in the simple portability and the ease with which deai-kei can be accessed. It has become a 'staple of the faddish, mobile, mediated, gadget-centered, youth-orientated, licentious lifestyle of contemporary urbanized Japan.' (ibid.) To this end, deai-kei facilitates a virtual space with two important cyber-cultural characteristics: trust and self-defense. Anthony Giddens (2006: 154) describes the advantages of social interaction in cyberspace as being capable of masking all the 'identifying markers and ensures that attention focuses on the content of the message'. So for people, such as those contemplating suicide, whose opinions and thoughts may be shunned or perceived as being socially unacceptable in everyday face-to-face conversations, the Internet can be: 'liberating and empowering, since people can create their own identities and speak more freely than they would elsewhere' (Giddens 2006: 154). The user has the ability to log-on and log-off at any time, but also has the option to carry his or her suicidal desire to its tragic endpoint. Whenever there is a glimpse of doubt or apparent breach of trust, either party can escape without the real-world fear of losing face or ensuing embarrassment. Suicide deai-kei sites and bulletin boards (BBS) are the sites where the majority of the suicidal individuals seeking someone to die with place messages and comments (Horiguchi 2005b).

According to one website that discusses the psychology behind Internet-based group suicides, contemporary Japanese youth has a weakness when it comes to forming human relationships. The Internet, they explain, 'has the ability to be anonymous and intimate at the same time' (Niigata Seiryo University 2005) and the shame of a normal face-to-face encounter is not felt. Internet users can delve directly into a discussion about the contemplations of suicide without many real world hesitations. As a consequence, Japanese Internet message boards are littered with discussions on topics related to suicide. Thus, the debate about whether to regulate the Japanese-language Internet more thoroughly has also come under the media spotlight (Niigata University 2005). Whether to stop this form of communication taking place is yet another perceived solution to the phenomenon of group suicides. However, whether the problem lies with Japanese society, the Internet as a communicative tool or with the individuals themselves, also remains a hotly contested topic in Japan.

Media Induced Domino Effects: Newspaper Reportage

Sensationalistic newspaper reportage of Internet suicide in Japan has, I propose, unwittingly acted to trigger a spate of further Internet suicides through repetitive and elaborate reporting practices. Horiguchi's aforementioned research found that during the 14-month period she studied there were 599 articles related to Internet-based suicide. In this study, analysis was also conducted on the language, style used and how many times the same incident was reported. This analysis reported that all those articles within the study made specific reference to the fact the Internet was the sociation tool that facilitated these suicides. It found the Asahi Shinbun and Sankei Shinbun were exceptionally detailed in their description of the Internet sites and the information found on them. It was discovered that not only was the word 'Net' (Netto) used in all article headlines, but also that because the individuals involved met online, it was regarded as an extremely newsworthy topic. The study concludes that Internet suicide was being treated as a sensational news piece, and that the articles themselves did not consider the possibility that the news media itself could influence suicidal individuals to seek out others to imitate the trend. The study inferred that media reports concerning suicide themselves have a large influence over the suicide statistics. However, what remains unclear from this government study is the sociological and semantic systems at work in producing this influence. This therefore not only speaks of the impact suicide media representations have over suicidal individuals, but also the general public and various government departments as will be discussed later.

The freelance journalist and social critic Tetsuya Shibui has covered the Internet suicide phenomenon in depth and published numerous books on the topic such as Internet Suicide (Netto Shinjū) and Seven Men and Women: Internet Suicide (Danjo Nananin Netto Shinjū). As a journalist himself, he saw firsthand the effect the printed word had on the frequency of suicide. In his book Seven Men and Women, Shibui explains in detail the circumstances behind an extremely sensationalistic group suicide that occurred on the 12th of October 2004. This case was extraordinarily sensationalist due to the fact that there were seven people, the first time this many people had committed suicide together after meeting online, and that those seven people had come from as far away as Kyūshu and Tōhoku to meet in Saitama. Shibui, at that time, feared that this would become a sensationalist news item and, in turn, cause more people to consider and then carry out group suicides. And as predicted, from October 12 until the end of the year there were another eleven Internet group suicides reported, with a total of 31 deaths. In Internet Suicide, Shibui introduces the professor of medicine currently at the Tokyo Institute of Psychiatry, Dr. Yoshitomo Takahashi's theory on serial-suicides, in which he explains that people with residual suicidal tendencies are easily influenced by another's suicide, especially when they discover the means and method that were used (117). The aforementioned Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare study carried out by Horiguchi (2005a) found that the Asahi Shinbun, Mainichi Shinbun and Sankei Shinbun all detailed the method used, outlining the number of coal-briquettes used and the fact that doors and windows were taped.

Durkheim, in his study on suicide, flatly denies the possibility of 'imitation' in the social construction of suicide (1951: 140-142). However, in response to this, sociologist David P. Philips (1974) builds a case that newspaper reportage has a strong influence over the number of suicides committed in a certain society. Philips argues that the 'influence of suggestion on suicide' by way of the theory known as the Werther Effect, contends that people suffering from anomie and its associated problems 'seem to be susceptible both to suicide and to certain social movements that relieve anomie' and, furthermore, the more a suicide is publicized 'the more it should be imitated' (Philips 1974: 352). This parallels Horiguchi's report to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare concerning, what she referred to as the sensationalist newspaper reporting of Internet suicide in Japan (Horiguchi 2005a 1). She showed that through the repetition of certain keywords and the emphasis of certain aspects of the suicide practice, namely the fact that the participants met online, tended to be beneficial financially for the newspapers examined as they could create hype surrounding this issue and sell more papers by reporting the same incident over consecutive days. However, what these collective studies fail to answer is that if the media's influence over suicide is as great as they make out, then the most reported type of suicide should be the one occurring most in reality. This is, however, not the case. According to the Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare's suicide statistics, middle-age men and the elderly commit suicide in much higher numbers than those by Internet suicide.

Newspaper Analysis

Below I will present four Japanese newspaper articles concerned with this suicide phenomenon. The first was published in the Sankei Shinbun dated 19th of July, 2006, which was part of a larger series of articles titled 'Thinking about death' (Shi wo kangaeru). All articles in the series were of approximately 1,500 characters in length and tended therefore to be more exhaustive than regular newspaper reportage.[3] They discussed not only the number of suicides as being a societal problem, but also explored some of the perceived causes of the alarming statistics. The article opens with a description of an actual Internet group suicide case, and the type of communication made between the three individuals who eventually committed suicide together. It starts with a 33 year-old Kyoto woman typing: 'Is there anyone serious about doing it? I don't want to fail.' This is followed by a description of the two respondents; a man from Kanto and a woman from Kyushu. According to the informant, it was determined that they needed a coal briquette (rentan), a portable clay stove (shichirin) and some masking tape to seal the doors of the car. Asphyxiation by coal briquette, we will learn, is common for this type of suicide practice. The article states that in 2005 there were 34 cases of group suicide, with 91 fatalities. This represents a mere 0.3 percent of the 30,000-plus suicides for that year. The article also traces the life of Ms. Matsuura (pseudonym) from Kyoto, whose relationship with her mother deteriorated because of her job, and on top of that her disastrous break-up with her boyfriend caused her to lose sight of any reason for living. She used the Internet to find others contemplating suicide but realized she could not take her own life. When asked by the reporter why she used the Internet she replied: 'Posting on the Internet was probably like releasing the valve on all my pent up emotions. It's just, as I wrote that one time, I didn't feel like I should continue withdrawing from society anymore, I think there are many people like that.' She later found out that one month later the woman from Kyushu who was supposed to commit suicide with her did so alone, hence the article's title: 'Female friend dies alone'. The final section of the newspaper article refers to Niigata Seiryo University Professor Usui's suicide support website that counsels people who write on the website's BBS about their hardship, suffering and wish to die.

The second article is also from a Japanese national newspaper, the Asahi Shinbun January 18, 2007, and titled 'Media needs to heed caution at over-reporting and sensationalism (Hōdō wa kanetsu sezu koshi suete)'. This is an article written by the aforementioned professor of medicine Yoshitomo Takahashi, and argues for greater caution when reporting incidents of suicide and perceived sociological causes of suicide. Takahashi mentions the recent over-reporting of children committing suicide from bullying. He claims that schoolyard bullying related suicides, much like group-suicides, have dominated domestic press reporting and discussion due to its sensationalist character. He furthermore advises caution about making the generalization that all child suicide statistics are attributable to schoolyard bullying, while also questioning the influence the media itself and media reporting styles have on an issue such as suicide. This article is reflexive in that it too is a discussion of media representation, calling into question the role and influence of print and visual media. It suggests that sensationalist over-reporting of certain types of social phenomena such as suicides may have an adverse affect on their frequency and cause them to escalate. Takahashi mentions the psychological term 'serial suicide' (gunhatsu jisatsu) as being significant because he claims that young people are especially susceptible. He calls for the mass media to examine and control the amount of information given in media reports.

The third article is from the English language newspaper, the Japan Times (July 15, 2006). Titled 'Author of suicide manual has no regrets; From taboo subject to state intervention, killing oneself still common,' this article is relevant for its rather contentious position within the Japanese domestic press. This English language newspaper article takes into consideration the views of Wataru Tsurumi (1993), author of the infamous The Complete Manual of Suicide, a publication documenting the various methods of committing suicide. Social commentator, and self-proclaimed suicide liberalist, Tsurumi's comments make this article unusual in terms of its focus and angle, posing the issue of suicide and death as less problematic than the societal and economic circumstances that young people find themselves trapped within in contemporary Japanese society. Tsurumi argues that his book may have sparked outrage for outlining in detail the numerous ways individuals can commit suicide when it was published in 1993, yet it also opened up the channels of communication and 'exposed a taboo in Japanese society' (Japan Times 2006). He claims:

Killing oneself is not a crime [in Japan]. It's not right to criticize those who killed themselves, because we all have the freedom. When the authorities are tightening the control and surveillance of individuals, I have to say even more loudly that we can choose whatever way we want to live our lives.

The tighter state control concerning suicide is discussed in further detail in the following section of this paper, yet Tsurumi's comments illustrate the unusual positioning this print article takes with regard to taking one's own life in Japan. Tsurumi comments that he doesn't like group suicides, as 'you should make your own decision about your life,' however the reason many people feel the need to kill themselves results from the daily monotonous grind and struggle to 'make it day to day without being trapped by the feeling of emptiness'. According to this particular article, Tsurumi's scathing attack on Japanese society's attitudes towards people of lower socio-economic status and the restrictiveness of socially enforced codes of conduct suggests he blames Japanese society itself and not the individuals who take their own lives.

The fourth and final article is the most poignant example of the Japanese domestic press' tendency to, as Horiguchi has claimed, include detailed descriptions of the method and circumstances surrounding the incident. The article chosen for analysis is from the Asahi Shinbun and dated the 24th of October 2004. This particular article was chosen for two reasons; the first being that it was published at a time when the Internet suicide group phenomenon was receiving a lot of media attention; and second, because after surveying the articles related to this type of suicide phenomenon in the Asahi Shinbun, Mainichi Shinbun, Sankei Shinbun and Nikkei Shinbun I deemed it to be typical of the reporting style newspapers use to describe group suicides coordinated on the Internet. The article begins with the headline 'Internet Suicide: Inability to Cope'. From the outset the idea that these suicides are integrally connected with the Internet becomes apparent, the first word in the opening paragraph is also 'Internet' and then proceeds to describe how two complete strangers from the Yokohama region met online, exchanged emails via mobile phone, hired a car together, burnt two coal briquettes and died from carbon monoxide poisoning together. However, this article, as do many others similar to it, explains in detail the circumstances that lead to this event. We learn the exact wording of the emails between the two, that they rented the car together and split the payment for the coal briquettes fifty-fifty. Furthermore, this article links one of these two Yokohama women to another well-known Internet suicide incident (mentioned previously) involving seven young people that had occurred twelve days earlier in Saitama prefecture on the 12th of October 2004. The article explains that one of the Yokohama women had made plans to commit suicide with someone who was involved in the Saitama-incident. While this article attempts to link the two events together, alluding to the fact that individuals from both groups may have made contact with each other, it neglects to consider the possibility that the newspaper articles reporting the Internet suicide themselves may be influential in the circumstances of the two suicide events. This article is very typical of the reporting style that came to characterize this particular phenomenon, with explicit detail and emphasis on the role of the Internet in bringing the individuals together. While there is certainly a case for the reporting of suicide incidents where seven young people commit suicide, the tendency to focus on certain aspects of incidents of suicide, as will be discussed later, may not be in the best interests of suicidal individuals.

These articles were all published in the mid-2000s and highlight certain tendencies in style of the Japanese domestic press. It is important to draw attention to the role of the media as not merely reproducing reality through representations, but defining it. It is also critical to emphasize the fluidity and open-ended nature of media representations. To quote Stuart Hall (1982: 67):

Language and symbolization is the means by which meaning is produced…it [therefore] followed that different kinds of meaning could be ascribed to the same events. Thus, in order for one meaning to be regularly produced, it had to win a kind of credibility, legitimacy or taken-for-grantedness for itself. That involved marginalizing, down-grading or de-legitimatizing alternative constructions.

Each of the aforementioned articles, in their own stylistic manner, attempt to win their own particular message's 'credibility, legitimacy or taken-for-grantedness' in order to attain their own brand of plausibility and authority over the process of meaning production. The process of meaning production is by no means a natural process of simply reflecting a given event through the neutral signification mechanisms inherent in language. It is an inadvertently biased undertaking that had serious and real-world ramifications. Print media representations, such as those analyzed here are good examples of a media construction that ascribes certain societal and cultural positions with regard to discourses of suicide in Japan. Some of these could be seen as highlighting the dangers of Internet use on young people or the growing need to combat the underlying social factors contributing to Japan's high suicide rate.

Governmental Control

Suicide is, at the point of legislation, an issue of social control. Conceptualizations of Foucauldian biopower, defined as 'diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations,' (Foucault 1978: 140) may be considered a suitable theoretical framework for legal codes that operate to restrict or control the number of suicides within a certain population. This in turn points to a control mechanism within these pieces of legislation that acts to bring the practice of suicide under the jurisdiction of the state. As Foucault noted, suicide 'became, in the course of the nineteenth century, one of the first conducts to enter the sphere of sociological analysis; [as] it testified to the individual and private right to die, at the borders and in the interstices of power that was exercised over life.' (Foucault 1978: 138-9) Changes in governmental control over the life of the people is thus indicative of moves not to help those in need, but create a greater sphere of domination over life. Foucault was, of course, discussing the criminalization of suicide in European countries. In predominantly Christian countries there exists a tendency to explain legal codes that criminalize the act of killing oneself within religious discourses. Nonetheless, government efforts to curb Internet suicide over other methods of suicide suggests that the media attention has also acted to divert public opinion in the direction of this particular suicide practice. Whilst not denying that youth suicide requires some form of redress, the government's targeting of Internet suicide has led to a tendency to interpret the phenomenon as an issue of the Internet, and the questionable and suspect activity it may facilitate.

The most significant recent legislative development has been in the form of the 'Basic Law to Deal with Suicide' (Jisatsu taisaku kihon hou) which was enacted in June 2006. This legislation basically spells out the nature of suicide in Japan and expresses the desire to lower the current suicide rate. The law calls for research into the causes of suicides, efforts to ensure mental stability among workers and support for those who have attempted suicide. The legislation states that suicides should not be dealt with exclusively as an individual's problem because it accounts for the fact that such deaths have been partly brought on by social factors. 'Suicides have various and complicated causes and backgrounds. Measures should be taken not only from the viewpoint of mental health but also based on the actual conditions of each case' (Japanese Diet Bill Discussion Information 2006: 2). The law states that it is the government's duty to work out and implement comprehensive measures to deal with suicide while also stressing that employers are to implement measures to maintain the mental health of their employees. This further reinforces the patholigization of suicide, as it is now the employer’s responsibility to diagnose and treat the 'sick' individual whilst the government offers to support those who have attempted suicide and the families of those who have committed suicide (Japanese Diet Bill Discussion Information 2006: 1). Whilst this legislation appears to set a framework of preventative measures and takes into consideration society's role in suicide prevention, it actually lacks any concrete measures to combat suicide and fails to penalize those employers who do not provide mental health assistance to their employees.

Another significant piece of legislation that needs to be considered is the 'Internet-based Suicide Notification Guideline' (Intānetto-jō no jisatsu yokoku jian heno taiō ni kansuru gaidorain). This is a new set of guidelines drafted to combat the growing number of people meeting online with the intention of committing suicide together (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication Press Release 2006). This legislation specifically states that if postings are deemed to be serious attempts to form groups with the intention of committing suicide, Internet Service Providers have an obligation to inform police about the posting's content, author's name and address. The police, it states, would act to stop these people from forming a group and attempting to commit suicide. These pieces of legislation are designed to curb the number of Internet suicides occurring, but also illustrate the lengths the government is prepared to go to in an attempt to prevent this type of suicide. While I do not propose this in itself is something to be critical of, Takahashi in his book on middle-aged male suicide (Takahashi 2003: 97-99) points out that the Japanese domestic press has a tendency to; 'sensationally report scandalous political suicides and group suicides'; oversimplify often complex psychological conditions; and report issues of suicide in periodically spaced bursts which 'restricts the potential for a long-term solution to the problem.' So, while media reportage is not only a simplification of complex social and psychological issues, the legislation attempting to resolve it could also be seen as reducing the issue to one of Internet supervision and/or restriction.

Reflection on consensus

In light of the two pieces of aforementioned legislation, the government has viewed suicide, in particular Internet-based group suicides, as a problem that needs attention and has thus put in place laws and guidelines in an attempt to deal with it. A hegemonic interpretation of news media operates in the consciousness of society and remakes the ideology of the dominant into accepted commonsense. Gramsci (1971), in his conceptualization of hegemony, has carefully explained commonsense as not a fixed cultural inventory, but a fluid set of cultural parameters in a constant state of flux throughout history. Gramsci (1971: 326) argues that:

Common sense is not something rigid and immobile, but is continually transforming itself, enriching itself with scientific ideas and with philosophical opinions which have entered ordinary life

A media representation, as a symbolic sign mechanism or structured discourse, utilizes these set meaning systems within language and culture to formulate, through the processes of encoding and decoding, a socially and ideologically reasonable parameter of meaning (Hall 1980). The question remains as to how, in the case of suicide reporting, the print media sign becomes firstly commonsensical, and ultimately hegemonic. Stuart Hall (1982), in his analysis of meaning systems, problematizes the notion that a certain reality can exist outside of semantics, as it has 'come to be understood…as the result or effect of how things [have] been signified' (1982: 74). The politicized process of meaning production, in particular within contemporary media institutions, has become a site of 'social struggle – a struggle for mastery in discourse – over which kind of social accenting is to prevail and to win credibility' (Hall 1982: 77). The reinforcement of what we commonly refer to as common sense has therefore not come about from some naturalized sense of how the world really is, but is the endpoint of a long cultural, semiotic, and linguistic tug-of-war over meaning production. Common sense is, as we have seen in Gramscian terms, not a natural state of cultural perception, rather a constantly constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed set of values and knowledge that have been genealogically constructed according to the political and cultural environment of the day. Sensationalistic print media articles concerning suicide work in a similar fashion. Interpretations of suicide, especially youth suicide, as being worthy of reportage is part of the hegemonic standpoint that youth, the Internet and suicide is socially undesirable and needs to be stopped with greater vigor than other forms of suicide. Japanese society, in particular, with its shrinking population concerns, could be seen as fixated on group-suicides as a cultural signifier of all things wrong with contemporary manifestations of society.

Hegemony At Work

Although a Foucauldian theorization of biopower may assist in formulating a framework for understanding the criminalization and/or legalization of suicide, it remains specific to the analysis of the legality of suicide. In contrast, considerations of public support, common sense and consensus require a theoretical framework that caters for the type of social dynamics involved in consensus-building. In general terms, governmental legislation cannot exist without a certain degree of public support, and that public support is grounded upon a commonsensical understanding of how the world is ordered. Commonsensical understandings of suicide in Japanese society went from that of 'maintaining honor' to 'requiring the government and employers to report annually on their suicide prevention policies' (Japan Times, 15/7/2006). Contemporary perceptions surrounding the so-called reality of suicide have, it could be argued, emerged from the semantic potentiality of the media, and the representations it supplies. Commonsensical understandings, through ambiguous presumptions of public support, remain themselves fluid and offer validity to hegemonic dominance over widespread practices of how we come to understand and/or perceive the world. Haralambos and Holborn (1991: 155) argue that Gramscian hegemony functions in a way that is 'largely achieved not through the use of force, but by persuading the population to accept the political and moral values of the ruling class.' Certain concessions are made on the part of the Japanese government by conceding that society is somewhat at fault, but eventually stigmatizes the individual and/or the Internet as the core problem through its processes of pathologisation. This is largely achieved through the close attention paid to the individual's psychological condition and the Internet as a sociation tool. In addition, with specific reference to the Sankei Shinbun article titled 'Thinking about death: Suicide Websites,' concessions were given to the Internet as a communicative tool and its ability to provide some sort of relief to those suffering. However, as mentioned previously, it ultimately reiterates the dangers of being sucked into the Internet's dark, murky depths, and therefore deemed it the root cause of this societal problem. Conflicting opinions with regard to the Internet in this representational framework become superfluous as those who see and appreciate the benefits of the Internet as an anonymous and open communicative space eventually fall back in line with those calling for tighter restrictions on the freedom and anonymity of the Internet.


In this paper I have tried to demonstrate that the semantic combination of the Internet and youth suicide has been represented in the media by being both elaborate in detail and repetitively reproduced, thereby possibly triggering further similar suicides and restricting debate on this issue to the level of the individual. From its reported origins in deai-kei, Internet suicide can been seen as opening an avenue to people who would normally not be able to discuss suicide in a face-to-face situation. However, media representations and the style of reportage ascribe certain societal and cultural positions with regard to the discourse of suicide and therefore restrict the breadth of the discussion to simply an issue of Internet regulation or personal struggle. Furthermore, government efforts to address this social problem reflect the media’s hegemonic representation, thereby restricting debate to the level of the individual.

What becomes apparent is that specific reporting styles and methods have knock-on effects in the real world. The manner in which real-world situations/events/phenomenon are defined tends to wield ideological power in that the power to signify events in a certain way becomes political when it becomes 'the process by means of which certain events get recurrently signified' (Hall 1982: 69 and 88). Hall argues that in media institutions, despite the existence of journalistic freedom, 'ideology has "worked" in such a case because the discourse has spoken itself through him/her'. The journalist, editors, production managers and media institution as a whole have unwittingly served to support the 'reproduction of a dominant ideological discursive field.' (ibid) In this case, Internet and suicide discourses intersect to create a sensationalistic news item. Notions of the Internet as being a dark and murky underworld where undesirable people meet and interact aligns perfectly with the image of the suicidal individual being introverted and secretive. The real-world fulfilment of this online interaction is met with intrigue and suspicion, hence the media hype and sensationalism. Other less-confronting forms of suicide such as that among the elderly population receive far less public outcry and attention despite the fact that the elderly commit suicide at rates far beyond that seen in this youth group suicide phenomenon.


[1] The Japanese word shinjū has, historically, signified a number of different types of suicide. It can mean 'lover's suicide' (where two lovers, for societal reasons cannot be together commit suicide), 'family suicide' (where an entire family commits suicide together), or the more recent interpretation, 'group suicide', where complete strangers commit suicide together. This final interpretation was used by Shibui for the title for his book, Netto-Shinjū.

[2] IRC is a form of real-time Internet chat where users can form real time group discussion forums called channels. This platform also allows for one-on-one chatting and data transfer. However, deai is usually a web-based bulletin board where users post messages in succession and readers, having read the message, can respond to that message at a later time or email the author directly. Deai is also not real-time.

[3] The Internet suicide articles analysed by Horiguchi (2005a) state that the average article length is as follows: Asahi-shimbun 507.3 characters, Nikkei-shimbun 372.7 characters, Mainichi-shimbun 484.4 characters, Sankei-shimbun 548.3 characters, and Yomiuri-shimbun 530.8 characters.

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About the author

Joel Matthews is currently pursuing a doctorate in cultural studies at Kobe University on the Japanese media and its treatment of crime committed by foreigners in Japan. His interests lie in the hegemonic functioning of both media institutions and government agencies, and their effect on the formation of consensus, social control and common sense.

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Copyright: Joel Matthews
This page was first created on
20 July 2008.

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