Coming from an American background gives a person a very narrow idea of what death means. To Americans, most if not all deaths are treated the same based on the individual’s cultural background, which in the United States is overwhelmingly white, middle class, and Christian or some variation thereof. Death is a harrowing part of life, something to be avoided at all costs, while simultaneously it is known that death is unavoidable. In other societies around the world, the idea of death is vastly different from that in the United States. Beliefs around death are influenced by a range of variables such as religions, cultures, and outside factors. In Japan, the core beliefs around death have hardly changed in hundreds of years. Like the vast majority of non-westernized societies, Japan is less clinical in regards to death than the United States is. The body is often kept in the home and cleaned just before or after death by members of the family. Funeral homes are unheard of, and proceedings are organized and carried out by the deceased’s temple. One of the few similarities between the two cultures is the living’s undying honor of the dead. The exception in their customs regarding mortality is death by suicide.
In the United States, death by suicide is condemned by many religions and due to stigma around mental health is often not talked about at any length by family or friends of the deceased. If the cause of death is by suicide, occasionally the death is not listed in obituaries. Individuals in the states usually cite personal dissatisfaction or depression as the reason for their suicide and have throughout history. In Japan it is socially considered so condemning to the family image to have a loved one commit suicide that many people simply go missing to die on their own. This complicates the typical funeral rituals significantly. In Japan, suicide has changed in its reasons throughout history, slowly becoming more westernized, and fewer people cite honor specifically, turning more often towards the western explanation of seeing no point in existence. While suicide in the United States has had a stagnant history, with shame being a consistent factor in all of it, its history in Japan is much more complicated, deeply tangled in sociocultural norms, and confused religious ties.
Suicide in Japan has been a culturally prominent issue since the feudal era, primarily in the samurai class as it is irreparably entwined with the bushido code. The samurai class was a lower middle class of soldiers for hire, the majority of whom followed the bushido code. The core of this code was honor, and paying for any infraction on that value with a cost up to the individual’s own life. In the past, suicide was used to atone for mistakes or infractions on the honor of the lord under which the individual worked. This ritual, called seppuku, involved disembowelment of oneself with a short blade called a tanto. Often, seppuku was conducted publicly with multiple spectators in attendance to watch and aid other ritual rites of the ceremony. While this ritual suicide was less common than many Western societies present it to be in pop culture and film, the practice has continued to be in practice for longer than many realize, even into Word War II as a derivative of the original ritual. Under the feudal era’s rituals and traditions, suicide was typically ordered by the lord under which the samurai worked. As time went on and the samurai class dissipated, seppuku became a self imposed atonement for a perceived crime against morality that would bring shame to either an individual, their family, or Japan as a country. One instance of seppuku during World War II was after the battle for Okinawa – once it became clear that the Japanese forces had been defeated, General Mitsuru Ushijima performed seppuku to compensate for his failure (BBC, 2014).
Although an occasional amount of ritual seppuku continued into World War II, the use of kamikaze pilots replaced the past century’s trends. Kamikaze, translating as “divine wind,” were aviation attacks by planes filled with explosives. The pilot would purposefully crash into Allied vessels or targets, killing himself, but intending to cause greater destruction and disabling effects than a conventional attack could to the other side. The call for kamikaze pilots received a staggering response, as the Japanese Imperial Army received three times as many applicants as they had available planes. The majority of the pilots were university students in their twenties, motivated by obligation to serve their nation and the Emperor. Survivor Tadamatsu Itatsu claimed that he and the other young people who volunteered were not insane and enjoyed the idea of dying, but rather believed that their actions were necessary to protect mainland Japan from an Allied invasion, and dying for that cause would be the most honorable sacrifice. On the eve of the Japanese surrender on August 16, 1945, Admiral Takijiro Onishi, known as “the father of the kamikaze,” committed suicide, leaving a note apologizing to his dead pilots, as their sacrifice had been in vain. Kamikaze volunteers who had survived the war, such as Itatsu, struggled with thoughts of suicide by other methods, overcome with survivor’s guilt and desire to die with their fellow fallen pilots (BBC, 2014). Today, kamikaze pilots remain one of the most iconic and notorious symbols of Axis Japan, representing the fierce obedience to their Emperor, and their unfaltering will to defend their homeland.
Another trend of suicide in Japan circa World War II is the mass suicides by both civilians and soldiers in response to threat. In the battle of Saipan, a small island under Japanese rule, a warning that was given by the Japanese government caused the mass suicides of many civilians on the island. Although there is some dispute, the general consensus seems to be that the warning that was given by the government to the citizens promised them equal spiritual status in the afterlife to those who died in battle should they commit suicide prior to being killed or captured by American troops. The underlying psychology here is still suicide for honor of the country, like how seppuku was suicide for honor of the individual’s ruler. Reports say that grenades were distributed to assist civilians in mass suicide, and those who survived the grenades usually found another method or means of dying so as to achieve the same honor status as their peers.
Moving forward to look at the following fifty years, trends of suicide in Japan have not changed in number, but rather in method and style. In the early 2000’s, rumors in the United States began to circulate about “Japanese Suicide Cults,” as an explanation for several suicides that appeared to happen in groups or due to pacts. These typically were groups of two to six young people, between their teens and their 30’s, found dead by carbon dioxide poisoning, overdose, or of a similar method. Many of these groups are formed through online meetups or chat rooms, which allowed people to pool their resources and/or ideas. These suicides often have a strong thematic consistency to them, as they often rely on a non-violent method, involve meeting up for the act, and relocating to a secluded location to perform the act. This presents a huge jump from the mass ritual suicides of the past, which were public and gruesome. Suicides of the past were propelled by cultural traditions, whereas now where they are influenced by Western individualistic ideals of personal dissatisfaction rather than family dishonor.
One increasingly common location for suicide of individuals since the 2008 financial crisis in Japan is the Aokigahara forest at the foot of Mount Fuji. The forest lends itself to this phenomena for several reasons: its central location to Japan, it provides similar pilgrimage for all locations, its density which creates a fairytale labyrinth in which it is easy to find solitude and silence in which to perform the act, and its historic significance in folklore and religion, which believed that the forest houses many spirits and demons. Statistically, this forest is Japan’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge found in San Francisco, California in the United States. It sees the highest number of suicides per year compared to any other single location in Japan. Despite its popularity as a dying location for much of Japan, the locals in the area rarely visit the forest with any intent other than hiking. Many in the Mount Fuji area choose instead to commit suicide by jumping in front of trains instead. One train line in particular sees more suicides than any other in Japan due to its express trains and low maintenance cost. This is because if an individual dies by being hit by a train in Japan, the surviving family must pay for the maintenance needed to return the line to its normal schedule.
Another scenic location in Japan, known for both sight-seeing and suicide attempts, are the Tojinbo cliffs in the Fukui prefecture. The cliffs remained to be a popular spot for suicide attempts until local fisherman began to complain about having to fish the bodies out of the sea, and in response the government organized a group of volunteers who patrol the cliffs every day, on the lookout for those intending to jump. The story of a retired police officer, Yukio Shige, who acts as a volunteer for this mission became sensationalized globally in news stories and became a local hero. Shige is estimated to have saved 500 lives in the past from roaming the cliffs with a pair of binoculars, talking to desperate people and offering resources to improve their lives (Calderwood, 2015). Though the Tojinbo cliffside is still famous as a suicide destination, the local government has made provisions and a watch force to dwindle down the rates of successful deaths.
In modern day, suicide statistics are often explained by demographics. The most suicides per location in Japan are collective around rural and elderly areas. These are the places where people can not support themselves through the available means. This trend is more recent though as following the 2008 financial crisis and the earthquake in 2011. The highest number of suicides were in working class adults in their middle age. Unlike current demographics, this trend can be linked to the more traditional ideology of suicide to uphold honor. Businessmen who have faced failure in economic crisis often cited honor for their name and their family name in their reasons for suicide, along with the lowered long term cost to their family. This trend was compounded by the majority of the adults belong to Japan’s “Lost Generation,” a generation not unlike the United States’s Generation X, who had been born to those who had grown up with war damaged or absent parents, creating what is known in Japan as a generation of children.
Many cite this as a reason for the rise in suicide after World War II. Because of the economic struggle and social tension after World War II, many in this generation have few life skills if they have any employable skills at all. This results in many people living as drifters, who do not really cook for themselves and may not have a stable job, but rather make money instead working in a day-to-day job. While many of these people have attended good schools or colleges, the work culture in Japan does not allow for much in terms of retirement and almost every person in the country old enough to work does. For those who can not find work, there is immense social stigma from family and friends, which can exacerbate existing mental health issues.
Other cultural factors which play into Japan’s staggering suicide rate is the influence of religion. While major world religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have passages which proscribe suicide, Shinto and Buddhism, the leading two religions of Japan, do not. In the Shinto belief, their depiction of the afterlife is once someone has died, their spirit, or kami, will go on to another world where spirits reside. It isn’t a good place or a bad place so it’s almost like limbo, however their spirits can return to those who perform rituals properly. Unlike the aforementioned major religions which forbid suicide and claim the action will deny entry into the afterlife, Shintoism does not constitute suicide as an exception. Some view Shintoism as being rather ambivalent towards suicide, as even ritual suicides are condoned. However, others argue that Shintoism discourages suicide, even if it is not a condemning action, as life is given by ancestors and nature, and therefore should not be wasted or ended unnaturally (Kaneko, 2014). In Buddhism, suicide is not a topic which is widely discussed or debated. In one story of the Buddha before he reached enlightenment, he had practiced extreme suffering with the five ascetics after discovering the existence of old age, illness, and death after sneaking out of his palace as a young teenage prince. However, he broke free of his negative contemplations and proceeded to seek enlightenment after he realized that he didn’t have to starve himself of life to find bliss. This tale is one of the only references to suicide in Buddhism theology. As for how suicide affects the Buddhist afterlife, Buddhists believe in reincarnation and many believe that suicide could lead to an unfavorable rebirth (Jan, 2017) because of the way they treated their lives in the previous lifetime. Ultimately, the lack of religious prohibition towards suicide is thought to lead to the nation’s ambivalence towards the act.
One positive side to this mental health crisis is that it has forced Japan to ease some stigma around mental health, allowing more people to feel comfortable about getting help from doctors and trained professionals. However, this is a recent change. Many people of the older generations currently affected by mental health issues still believe that seeking help is a sign of weakness or that it could damage their family name . Although this stigma is not often passed down generationally, it does contribute to the higher suicide rates in rural and older populations. These newly available resources and doctors have lowered Japan’s suicide rate out of the top five countries globally into the lower range in the top ten countries. With ongoing improvements being made, the rate continues to drop each year at a rather steady rate.
In an effort to counteract the culture of suicide, the Japan Medical Association (JMA) convened eight times during the 2010 and 2011 fiscal year to discuss methods of handling the nation’s suicide epidemic. As a result, the committee decided to focus on four main points: educating physicians, looking at root causes, educating the youth, and improving the medical system. The committee claimed that physicians must have improved knowledge of depression and mental disorders, as well as work cooperatively with psychiatric clinics in the community. As for root causes, the committee deemed that alcoholism and other substance abuse issues are linked with suicide in the nation. The committee suggests implementing better resources for those struggling with abuse problems to help in tandem with mental health sources. Continuing with education, the JMA suggests better education for undergraduate and postgraduate students studying to enter the medical field. And finally, the committee adds that there needs to be a smoother transition between primary family practitioners to psychiatrists (Japan Medical Association, 2013). The JMA ultimately seeks to solve the issue of suicide in Japan by establishing preventative methods through fixing the infrastructure of the medicinal system in the nation.
The ideas that surround suicide in Japan while started out as being different from that of Western societies in the sense that suicide was honor bound, evolved as the world and the country evolved. The suicides that we see today have started to seem more globalized than before even if some suicides still hold some of the honor meaning to some individuals such as businessmen who see failure in a financial crisis. Even the ways that people commit suicide have evolved. From what was once a very public and gruesome event has now become something more personal while trying to be painless and bloodless. Suicide in Japan has always been a concerning matter but now more people are opening their eyes to it. Mental illnesses are starting to be treated with the proper care and the stigma surrounding mental illnesses are starting to wane in the younger generations. People are realizing that they can get help without damaging the family name and that helps a lot of people who are going through some tough times. While the easy route to gain honor in a troubling time for them was once suicide, people are now seeing that working their way through their problems is much more rewarding than ending their lives only to have their spirit either reside in a world of stagnant spirits or for their spirits to come back in a lesser body through reincarnation, a lesser body being potentially not human but an animal.
Through the help of the Japan Medical Association, people are gaining more of an understanding about why they feel the way they do and can do something about it. With more education and knowledge comes better decision making in the long term and the Japanese are starting to see some of the consequences if they were to commit suicide in today’s world. We no longer live in the feudal era of the samurai where seppuku is common. We no longer live in the time of World War II where kamikaze pilots were all the rage so that people could protect their country in war by sacrificing their lives. Suicide in Japan is dropping and hopefully it just continues that way in the future.