Yearning for death – the state of suicides in Japan

By Daniele Pestilli on January 6, 2011
Thumb seppuku
Ukiyo-e woodblock of a Japanese warrior performing seppuku (ritual suicide). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Japan – the land of the rising sun, an ancient country foiled by a thin stratum of modernity. Though the neon lights of the Shinjuku district and the rapid trains that slither to and fro create an ostensible futuristic atmosphere, Japan has maintained much of its century-old culture of sacrifice and honor: on June 2nd, 2010, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned his post before members of the Japanese Democratic Party, citing broken promises as the primary reason for his decision. Soon after, Ichirō Ozawa also resigned upon allegations of a fund scandal. Needless to say, this chivalrous code of conduct is the envy of many countries.

However, it appears as though this spectacular sense of duty, of obligation and sacrifice is a double-edged sword: in the attempt to show respect for others, or to save face, by not permitting self-forgiveness, such an auto destructive and castigating mentality results in an enormous human and psychological cost.

Suicides in Japan have breached the 30,000 people-per-year mark for 13 consecutive years. Ever since the end of World War II, the archipelago has consistently ranked as one of the top OECD countries as well as one of the top countries worldwide for suicides. There have been three noticeable peaks in suicide rates: one was from 1953 to 1959, when for every 10,000 people, about 31.5 committed the act. Though the figures went down, the second peak was from 1983 to 1986, when on average 28.9 people chose to end their lives. Now, the number has incremented: from 1998 to 2010, for every 10,000 people, approximately 38 yearn for death.

The statistics provided by the World Health Organization are 36.5 males and 14.1 females for every 10,000 in Japan (1999), compared to 18.8 males and 8.3 females in South Korea (2000) and 13.0 males and 14.8 females (1999) in China. However, even in the latter two countries, suicides are on the rise.

The highest number of suicides recorded was in 2003, when the National Police Agency calculated a whopping total of 34,427 deaths. In 2009, Japan saw 32,845 suicides, and whereas 2010 was initially looking slightly better, the 30,000 mark was once again surpassed with a total of 31,560 deaths.

The impact of mass media

In her 1946 ethnography, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote,

[The Japanese] play up suicide as Americans play up crime and they have the same vicarious enjoyment of it. They choose to dwell on events of self-destruction instead of on the destruction of others … [Suicide] meets some need that cannot be filled by dwelling on other acts.

Indeed, suicide has been much played up in the Japanese culture: from the romanticized story of the 47 masterless samurai, Chūshingura, who all commit seppuku (ritual suicide), to the final deeds of some of Japan’s finest writers.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke
Akutagawa Ryunosuke

In 1837, Ōshio Heihachirō, a Neo-Confucian scholar and low-ranking samurai committed suicide after inciting vehement opposition to the Tokugawa shogunate. In 1912, Count Nogi Maresuke, a prominent figure during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War committed suicide upon the death of the Meiji Emperor. Soon after, his wife followed suit. Profoundly moved by these incidents, novelist and poet Mori Ōgai turned to historical fiction to depict this samurai code of conduct. In 1927, one of Japan’s most prominent writers, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke took his life by overdosing on sleeping pills.  In 1948, the stately author Osamu Dazai committed suicide, which, as the erudite Hisaaki Yamanouchi wrote, “[trailed] behind him a cloud of immorality and disgrace.” Profoundly influenced by the works of Ōshio Heihachirō, at the age of forty-five, Mishima Yukio also killed himself in the traditional Japanese manner on 25 November 1970, after unsuccessfully trying to incite a unit of the Self-Defence Forces to a coup d’état.

Mishima Yukio
Mishima Yukio

A question arises: what role do the media play in incentivizing suicides in Japan? The brief answer is: a lot. As David Chan observed in Hong Kong, even small increases in suicide attempts can raise “widespread public concern” if reported by the media.

The literary allure of a slew of suicidal authors and their fictitious heroes is also a factor. Dr. Yamanouchi observed that in Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask (1949), “the charm of the soldiers derives from the fact that they are destined to die.“ He remarks:

the hero’s obsession with death, furthermore, is placed in a historical setting. He feels his future to be a burden. Accordingly the prospect of death on the battlefield and even in an air-raid is attractive to him.

These themes of nihilism, of alienation from society, and the general sense of the futility of life are also evident in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, where the handicapped protagonist who cannot master his own life wishes for an apocalyptic end to all that is beautiful. This morbid attitude is therefore dually present in the mind of Japanese readers: both the fictitious characters in the novels as well as their authors engender this final, powerful statement, which is both an admonition of society and of life itself.

Books are not the only form of media hype. As Prof. Jennifer Robertson points out, by the 1930s, Japan’s population of 64 million had purchased 10 million copies of daily newspapers and more than 11,000 magazines and journals, wherein the heroics of love-suicide were romanticized. In 1932, the suicide of a Keio University couple was sensationalized as the media immortalized the exquisiteness of their candid love. On February 17, 1935, the daily Asashi Shinbun published the story of an attempted lesbian double suicide between Saijō Eriko and Masuda Yasumare in the humor column of the paper.

The Japanese distinguish between seppuku (also known as hara-kiri), the ritual disembowelment used by the samurai class, and other types of suicide: shinjū denotes a double suicide by lovers or any suicide involving the death of more than one person, such as oyako shinjū (parent-child suicide), fufu shinjū (married couple suicide), shimai jōshi (sisters suicide), muri shinjū (coerced suicide), dōseiai shinjū and dōseiai jōshi (homosexual suicide).

The array of nomenclature that is used to distinguish “suicides” may cause problems when releasing information regarding the actual numbers of suicides in Japan. In the 1964 edition of “Revue française de sociologie”, René Duchac stated that it would be “reasonable to admit” that the National Police Agency often categorized a number of incidents as mere cases of dementia, whereas on a closer look, they were obvious cases of suicide. In other words, given the complex taxonomy that exists in Japan, the actual numbers of suicides may effectively be underestimated. Duchac remarked, “a certain margin of uncertainty is inevitable in calculating suicides.” As Prof. John W. Traphagan, former Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin writes, some suicides may also not be calculated “in order to prevent embarrassment to the family.”

Causes of suicide – debunked

It is virtually impossible to point out the exact reason for suicides in any country. The argument has been made that the lack of sunshine in a country negatively impacts an individual’s mood. In 2002, a study came out called “The Role of Sunshine in the Triggering of Suicide” that disproves this claim. The conclusion was that in countries in the northern hemisphere, the months of peak suicide are from April to June, whereas in the southern hemisphere, they are from October to January. Some researchers have posited that high frequency of suicides during the summer in Japan may be attributed to the fiscal year ending in March, thus relating it to a family’s socioeconomic fortunes.

Others have argued that the isolation caused by technology and the anxiety resulting from a fast-paced society is a major cause of suicide. A 2004 study by John W. Traphagan debunks this myth: he points out that Japan is “one of the few industrialized areas (others are Greece and California) in which suicide rates tend to be lower in urban than in rural areas.”

Probably one of the most debated points is whether academic competition in Japan is a primary cause of suicides. The research conducted by scholars Kangmin Zeng and Gerald Le Tendre in 1998 explicated the lack of relation between adolescent suicides and Japan’s educational system. They argue,

if there were a link between increased educational participation and lower suicide rates, then young adolescent suicide rates should have dropped after the war. … In short, suicide rates for this group do not seem to be affected even by dramatic changes in the overall educational system.

Their conclusion is that there is little evidence to support a direct link between academic competition in Japan and adolescent suicide.

Shrinking from annihilation

The suicide rate as well as the rate of attempted suicides in Japan is staggeringly high. The country has only very recently recognized suicides as a social problem rather than an individual’s mere mental weakness. It is hard to pinpoint specific causes for this alarming social dilemma, and the techniques used by social science to decipher this cultural attitude are often too trivial in providing a solution.

The Japanese government has already implemented several countermeasures and suicide prevention initiatives such as conducting more research in the field, helping suicidal patients get through their depressions and installing lights and barriers at train stations. There are also advertisements within Japanese trains that prompt viewers to call a number if they feel suicidal symptoms such as depression.

A website called Ikiru was launched in June 2006 specifically to address this problem and to seek a solution. Their mission is to “prevent suicide and provide support for the survivors, thus helping to create a stable society where people can lead healthy, meaningful lives.” Nevertheless, as the results of the National Police Agency show, the number of suicides in the land of the rising sun remains alarming and does not yet seem to be dwindling.

At the time of this article’s writing, a series of featured stories have been released on the online Asahi Shinbun called “The Country of Lone Families” (Kozoku no kuni) that grapples with Japan’s many dilemmas: solitary life, an aging society and numerous suicides. The Twitter page has already attracted hundreds of viewer responses. Perhaps involving the public to discuss these problems openly will shatter the extremely complex interpersonal barriers that exist in Japan and someday evolve into a solution for the current dire social atmosphere. One thing is certain. In the Myth of Sysyphus, Albert Camus wrote

in a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world. The body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s, and the body shrinks from annihilation.

Society at large cannot afford to ignore even a single individual's yearning for death.