Culturalism and Korea's Suicide Rate

Here is a leftover thought from the series on suicides in Korea, which just concluded. 

In the last post, the Korean noted that a frequent objection to his overall thesis of the series--i.e., that Korea's high suicide rate is the result of a violent social change since the 1997 financial crisis--is that there has to be something "cultural" about the reason why Korea has such high suicide rate. In the last post, several commenters raised this same objection, that there just gotta be something cultural about Korea's suicide rate. One commenter suggested that it may be Korea's relatively strict gender roles, occasioned by Korea's adherence to Confucianism. Another commenter suggested that it may be Korea's emphasis on "saving face."

Those explanations cannot be correct, and throughout the series, the Korean explained why they cannot be correct.  First, Korea had one of the lowest suicide rates in the industrial world in the 1980s. If Korean culture is to blame for Korea's high suicide rate, why would Korea's suicide rate change at all? Or to the extent it changes, why would the rate ever fall below the international average? Second, every single industrialized country in the history of the world experienced a huge spike in suicide rate in the process of industrializing, and later the country industrialized, the higher the spike. Korea is following this exact same trend--it industrialized very late, and therefore the spike in suicide rate is the highest in the world. If Korea is merely following this global, historical trend, why would Korean culture play any role?

At best, the only way the Korean could see how Korea's suicide rate is "cultural" is in a temporally restrained sense of the word "cultural":  that is, in the 15 years since the 1997 financial crisis, Korean people so repeatedly responded to the difficult conditions caused by the financial crisis that the repeated response (in this case suicide) attained a certain status of normalcy, such that one can fairly say that "suicide became a part of the culture in Korea in the last 15 years or so." But other than in that sense, I think the "cultural" explanation for Korea's suicide rate is rubbish. Any theory that resorts to any particular features of Korean culture--Confucianism, face-saving, respect for hierarchy, han, whatever--to explain Korea's high suicide rate cannot be taken seriously, because such theory cannot answer the two critical questions posed above.

Then why do so many people continue to resort to the "cultural" explanation? The Korean thinks this is another demonstration of the strong pull of culturalism. The Korean previously explained culturalism in this post:  essentially, it is the impulse to explain away the behavior of foreign people with "cultural difference," even when there is no reason to import culture into the discussion. It is the same force that blames the Chinese culture for being bad at soccer (although China is actually just fine at soccer) and the Japanese culture for being prone to nuclear power plant meltdowns (although one never hears about the American or British culture that led to the BP oil rig disaster in Louisiana.) No matter how smart one may be, and no matter how many counter-arguments there may be, the impulse to resort to "culture" as the magical agent that explains all just never goes away.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

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