The danger of social isolation

The terrible results of social isolation were evident in a new study by the Justice Ministry of 52 of the most violent attacks in Japan between 2000 and 2009. By examining the indiscriminate attacks, the study found that 33 of 52 perpetrators of random attacks had poor or nonexistent social relationships and that more than 40 percent had attempted suicide before their attacks.

This study was the first to examine the living conditions of such perpetrators and the first to suggest realistic measures to help prevent random attacks. While the reasons behind the horrifying attacks that have occurred in Japan’s primary schools, train stations and public streets can perhaps never be fully known, the study did help fill in the picture concerning at-risk individuals that can lead to prevention in the future.

The percentage of perpetrators who attempted suicide before carrying out an attack was 44.2 percent. Other problematic pre-offense behaviors of those convicted included drug abuse, other violent acts, self-isolation and gambling. While those behaviors are difficult to eliminate, and do not in themselves always lead to serious crimes later, they are often the harbinger of crises for which individuals should seek help at hospitals or on hotlines.

As for motives, 42.3 percent of perpetrators who committed random attacks cited dissatisfaction over personal circumstances, with another 19.2 percent saying they re-targeted their anger at specific people or unrelated victims. The desire to be sent to prison and the desire to die were also cited by many perpetrators.

The circumstances of the attackers’ lives were also revealing. Eighty-one percent did not have a job at the time of their crime, and 60 percent had no income at all.

Stopping future attacks depends not so much on simply removing those conditions and motivations as on recognizing that such behavior often leads individuals to seek help at some point. A better system for suicide prevention is an important first step. Suicide hotlines and counseling centers are important front-line resources for identifying individuals who need help. Increased funding for such programs is urgently needed.

The study also proposed greater cooperation among agencies, consultation services, doctors and hospitals. One of the clear conclusions of the study was that these individuals perhaps could have received assistance before the attacks if they had been referred to appropriate doctors or treatment centers.

Greater cooperation among these diverse centers, services and facilities is essential if such individuals are going to be identified and given the help they need at an early stage.

Japan is often viewed as a cohesive society with strong social bonds. However, these social bonds often break down for certain individuals, leading to tragic consequences. Communities should take concrete steps to identify any residents who have become isolated and reach out to them in a timely manner.

  • phu

    This is an important issue, and the goal of addressing the problem at its source is definitely a great one.

    However, the results as presented here are meaningless. Numbers like 44% sound big and significant; however, without knowing whether and by how much this number is greater than it would be in the perpetrators’ peer groups — or at least in Japan as a whole — they simply don’t say anything.

    They also don’t define some of the terms used. If drug use includes alcohol, that dramatically changes the meaning of the statistic, as does the threshold where use becomes abuse.

    It’s impossible to say whether this is the case, because the report on which this entire article is based isn’t even cited for review, but either this article simply ignored the control groups or the study was not intended to draw conclusions, but rather to provide statistics for comparison. That comparison is where we’d get actual information that could be acted on, but it is not present here.

  • Rastaman

    The survey results do not indicate a “danger of social isolation”. They are merely suggestive and in no way should be a guide to any kind of policies whatsoever because the sample is quite clearly biased – it only includes people who have committed the isolated, violent crimes. You cannot determine causality from a sample such as this.

    The conclusion is not the fault of the researchers, it is the Japan Times editorial board. A proper research design would be necessary to test the following hypothesis suggested by the editorial board.

    H1: Socially isolated individuals are more likely to commit random and violent attacks than non-socially isolated individuals.

    To do this, you would need a random sample of people throughout Japan which would include both socially isolated and non-socially isolated individuals. You would have to control statistically for other possible variables such as age, income-level, history of mental health problems, criminal history, marital status, and alcohol consumption. A proper study would attempt to find a statistically significant difference between those individuals who are socially isolated and those who are not using, most likely, Ordinary Least Squared (OLS) regression analysis. Given the small number of people who commit such violent attacks throughout Japan, and the likelihood that any random sample would be unlikely to include such individuals, I suspect (though, of course, cannot be sure) that there would be no statistically significant relationship between so-called “social isolation” (a woolly and unhelpful term if I ever heard one) and acts of violence. The vast majority of people who have no friends, no family and who stay at home as shut-ins or whatever commit absolutely no violent attacks in their entire lives – certainly not against complete strangers.

    The editorial here perpetuates a myth that such individuals are violent without any non-biased evidence whatsoever. You might think that Japan would be a better society if there were fewer recluses but that is different from saying that social isolation is a causal variable in violent behavior.

    How about this for a possible explanation? Violent attacks are due to chance. In a population as large as Japan, over time, some people are going to have the intentions and the capabilities to commit such attacks. Some people will have “reasons” while others will be responding to voices in their heads due to a history of mental health problems. The majority of people who intend to commit such acts will be stopped from doing so but, over time, a small sample of them will slip through and commit the attacks. Some of them will be “socially isolated” but this may be a result of an underlying problem (the most obvious is mental health issues) while others may have friends and family.

    The title of the editorial is highly misleading and, I would go so far as to say, biased towards those people who, either due to lifestyle choice or due to other factors, are not intertwined in social networks. How about this for an awkward but more accurate title – “the danger of those people who commit violent attacks against others for no apparent reason”. That is all that can be concluded from the cited study.

  • Oosawamun

    What a ridiculous article. It shouldn’t need to be said but the two highest statistics are the most relevant: 81% were unemployed and 60% had no income. Money, in other words, was far away the main cause of these crimes. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that money problems will affect your relationships and make you isolated. Calling on communities to “reach out” will achieve nothing.