by Kanika Sud*
“He was exceptionally quiet after he got pink slipped” says the crest fallen mother of a 27 year old Japanese youth. “He refused to eat a morsel of food, and talk to anyone at all. One fine morning he left the house. Little did I know that he left, only to never return…” It was later found that the young bloke had committed suicide by boarding a tube to (insert some Japanese place) and jumped out of the moving tube.
In another instance, a teenager was found dead in his room. “I opened the door of my child’s room after a few attempts at knocking. The sight that followed was abysmal and I wish no parent witnesses what I did” says the teary eyed father of the teenager. He witnessed a rope tied around his son’s neck and found a suicide note alongside a table. The note mentioned his inability to cope with his academic failure in college and the constant bullying by his peers.
Sadly enough, the instances mentioned above are few of the several that have occurred in Japan since the past few decades. Japan has the highest cases of suicides, so much so that it is a major social issue. If the Japanese are faced with the choice to endure bully, persecution or high stress encounters, a momentous number would decide to end their lives. Japanese history and literature is abounding with incidents of suicide, since it is used as a coping mechanism during testing times, which are (literally) worth dying for.
Notorious as the ‘Shame Society’, the people in Japan who are unable to acknowledge being fired, business losses, or other forms of failure, turn their anger inward. Notions like ‘Honour’ and ‘Dignity’ are way more worthy than lives to the Japanese Populace. Suicide is perceived as a way of tackling problems and taking responsibility. Japan is also recognized as the ‘Sacrifice Society’, where people would rather choose to sacrifice themselves, than being burdens on others.
Contrary to how suicide is viewed with stigma in many societies, the Japanese society views notion of suicide as an act of honour and bravery. Therefore, the concept of suicide is a socially legitimized concept, and not an individualized one. The individual acceptability of suicide is determined by how the society perceives the notion of suicide to be.
Suicide is akin to the dark ghost of the past that refuses to let go of Japan since a very long time. The present cases of suicide that occur are intricately linked to the historical traditions of this phenomenon. Therefore, understanding the history of suicide in Japan is important in proffering us essential insights about the Japanese perspective on Suicide. The justification of Suicide as a virtue and not sin is explained in the religious and historical texts of Japan. Understanding the historical perspective is therefore necessary therefore to relinquish Suicide pandemic.
Many historians have examined Seppuku, literally known as ‘stomach cutting’ to be one of the prime expressions of suicide in Japanese culture, which was a ‘ritualized form of suicide by disembowelment.’ This earliest type of Suicide materialized at around 700 AD in religious texts and literature, where in a young Goddess incised her stomach after a fight with her God. Subsequent to such legitimization of disembowelment by the mythological texts, acts of Seppuku dispersed to Samurai military. Such gruesome act of Seppuku started expanding to the Samurai military nobility in the 12th and 13th Century, in order to safeguard their honour from the humiliation of imprisonment by the enemy. Military conflicts paved way for numerous instances where Samurai military officials would use Seppuku in order to demonstrate their valour. In the 17th century, Seppuku emerged as an alternative to death penalty in the 17th century. For the next 200 years, Sepuku remained fundamental to the Japanese society in its myriad forms, till the 1800s and 1900s. A ban was imposed on this practice, in an endeavour to assume a Western perspective on Suicide. Despite the ban in the political and legal framework, it was still undertaken as a voluntary practice in the 1900’s. One such instance which exemplifies this claim is the suicide of the many military officers subsequent to the announcement of surrender during the World War II. Although instances like these might befall infrequently, the vestiges of this are still very deep rooted in the Japanese psyche.
The western world has a vivid memory of the very famous and the most recent manifestation of suicide in the Japanese history where in the Kamikaze pilots were used in the World War II. While the Americans were horror stricken by mass suicide committed by the Kamikaze pilots, they were perceived in a very different way by the Japanese. These pilots were viewed as ‘guiding spirits’ of a country, which was an honourable post to occupy. Due to the association of the notion of honour, it was easier to recruit the Japanese youth. Consequently there was a mass production of human bombs human torpedoes. Thus the usage of suicide weapons was seen as calculated move to combat the enemy and the dead soldiers are highly cherished and etched to memory.
Religion and culture
In the Contemporary Japanese society, the Japanese do not take their lives by Hara Kiri or Seppuku anymore, but by inseki- jisatsu. It is a form of suicide which every so often is considered as a way of accepting responsibility. Inseki means responsibility and Jisatsu means Japan. Toyomasa Fuso a sociologist has been carrying out suicide researches from a cross cultural perspective, and recommended that suicide frequently takes place when political or social scandals occur in Japan.
As can be noted, the historical and militaristic traditions of suicide in Japan played a pivotal role in setting a context for the suicide culture in Japan. However, there exist various cultural factors which are causal to the perpetuation of the current psyche regarding suicide, religion being one of them. Japan is a mix of few religions and majority of the population follow Shinto, which condones departure from life for a variety of reasons. Thus religion too plays an important role in the perpetuation of suicide culture in Japan.
The historical traditions of religious and militaristic perspectives towards suicides are excruciatingly important to explore the analysis of suicide in Japan, as they give us an insight about the Japanese perspective. Suicide is perceived as the morally responsible act in Japan, in response to an untoward event in their lives, to spare themselves from ‘dishonour’ and ‘shame’.
Media and economy
Various Studies have reported that media coverage of suicides results in higher percentage of Suicides, popularly known as the imitation effect. . The topic of suicide is pervasive and is used for entertainment purposes in movies, music, books and even video games. However, the underlying issues about the phenomenon are not spoken about. Although some studies mention that imitation effect was not greater in Japan than it is greater America, greater receptivity to suicide was found in the Japanese society. While some research studies claim a correlation between abysmal economic conditions and higher suicide rates, i.e. more Japanese people have committed suicide when faced with unemployment or failure in businesses. However, this is only a fraction of the elucidation, not the sole root cause.
While all factors must be taken into consideration while looking at this phenomenon, it is very difficult to quantify their relative importance separately. It is noted that compared to other countries, Japan scores the highest. This can be attributed to the cultural legitimization of the notion that suicide is the most honorable act when faced with situations that give rise to disgrace and shame. They view suicide more tolerantly than other people belonging to the Christian culture.
Various ways of committing suicide.
Contemporary ways of ending one’s lives include jumping off the train, hurl off high places, overdose of medication, etc. Some have used household chemicals to terminate their lives. One man consumed pesticides and was later hospitalized. However, a newer method is gaining popularity these days, due to the publicity from the internet websites.
Internet suicide packs.
With the advent of the ICT (Information communication technology) era, and an already ubiquitous cultural legitimization of suicide in the Japanese society, a murky new trend has surfaced which involved – group suicides of persons who have congregated over the internet. The experts too are appalled by the group suicide agreements. In a particular case in May 2003, the victims were a man and two women, who met online and started planning their suicide. They committed suicide by emission of carbon monoxide from a coal burning stove, after fastening themselves in a room with plastic sheeting and duct tape. There have been others too, who have attempted suicide using the same techniques as publicized by the websites as swift and effortless. However, there have been suicide pacts that have been forestalled, or ended up injury of some sort, as in the case of two Japanese girls, who jumped off a five storey building. While there are online websites which advocate suicide pacts, there are web spaces, Wiredsafety, which has numerous volunteers around the world. They report these suicide websites to the local law enforcement to have them taken down, but they pop up someplace else. Some sites encourage the most favourable ways in which one can commit suicide, while others provide those who want to commit suicide a platform to conglomerate. They render themselves as humanitarians and philanthropists. Mental health experts do not however, hold the internet responsible for the current huddle of suicides and attribute this grave social issue to mounting mental health predicament. Yukio Saito, a Methodist minister who established the country’s first suicide prevention hotline says “Generally they have a serious emotional problem, which is that they have difficulty dealing with other face-to-face, kind of phobia, or a fear of talking about their feelings in front of others. Maybe this is quite a Japanese type of Emotion. They have difficulty having personal relationships, so they tend to use internet to communicate how they feel.” He hypothesizes that people in search of suicide partners are looking for companionship even during the time of their demise. “One single suicide seems quite wrong and awful. But a double suicide has in a sense peace, affection, and solace.”
Retreating from the world
The Japanese culture is collectivist in nature, and the pressures to perform in the job arena and school are immense. Children are pressurized by the parents to keep up with the appearances, lest they bring shame and dishonor to the family. Failure to thrive on the mammoth pressure to perform, many withdraw themselves from the society for months and in a lot of cases, years at a time. Saito notes this syndrome as “hikikomori”. Often “hikikomori” sufferers detain themselves to a bedroom in their parent’s rooms. Even if they are home bound, internet is the only way to be in touch.
Government and individual interventions
Notwithstanding the economic revival in the year 2007, suicide rates have persistently been soaring. This has left the government insipid with apprehension. During the same year, the government introduced a nine year plan, a “counter suicide white paper” with the intention of diminishing suicide rates by the year 2017. The root causes of suicide would encouraged to be scrutinized in order to thwart them, transform cultural stance towards suicide and improvement of the treatment of failed suicide cases would be focused upon. Naoto Kan, the earlier prime minister, asserted his willingness to curtail ‘unhappiness’ in the country and reduce Japan’s high suicide rate. 15.8 Billion yen was spent in the year 2009, towards suicide deterrence approaches. In 2009, amidst by and large increase in suicides, the governments proclaims there have been heartening signs since September. Monthly suicides had reportedly reduced between September 2009 and 2010. In fact, in gruesome precursor of times, a task force re-evaluated ways to blueprint and design of buildings to avert them from jumping off the building. Train stations initiated the installation of “Suicide mirrors” in order to prohibit people from diving onto the tracks. The Japanese government started providing finances for the suicide awareness programs, and issued pamphlets to companies, requesting them to watch out the danger signs among employees and instructed to offer them counseling.
While it is noteworthy that the government is taking initiatives to put an end to this grim social issue enveloping Japan, there have been a few individuals as well who have taken a stand against it. As Rene Duignan has made a documentary film to raise awareness about the ever growing issue of suicide, a Buddhist priest Itettsu Nemoto has introduced a website and a number of workshops, to provide counseling and help to those inflicted with the desire to commit suicides.
The notion of Suicide is a complex phenomenon, which comprises of multiple factors and processes. It is to be construed from a multidimensional perspective. Suicide ought not to be viewed as an individual phenomenon only, using solely a psychological perspective. Rather it should be looked at from a historical, cultural, sociological, human rights framework. Ideas of ‘honour’ ‘disgrace’ and ‘shame’ which are placed on a pedestal over the well being of a human being, must be looked at critically. Since these notions are extremely deep rooted in Japan, it would understandably buy immense amount of time, patience and determination to ameliorate the status quo in Japan, and do away with such exorbitant suicide rates.
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Kanika Sud is an MPhil Sociology student in Mumbai University, India, and the author of an interesting Facebook page, The Feminist Goddess. She is interested in Sociology, Gender Studies, Social Psychology, Diaspora Studies, Qualitative Research methodology, Feminism, Feminist Science Studies and Media and Culture. We republish this article with her permission from her blog, kanikasud21.wordpress.com.