(from Tokyo Time Out)

by Blake More

"Death is a very serious matter which ends all. However powerful the state may be, I believe that it cannot act against my will"
                                                                       ~ Writer/Director Mori Ogai, 1922

With its national lore of wayward ghosts, celebrations for the dead, and perennial ancestor worship, Japan is certainly a death-haunted culture. But nowhere is this death rattle more pronounced than in Japan's ever-enduring dance with suicide. History is crowded with cavalier samurai and star-crossed couples who "died well" by taking their own lives rather than risking the interests of the community or violating its rules. Proving that it was they---not fate---who determined the outcome of their lives, these "courageous" role models lent a feeling of control to a time when individual desires mattered little.

Although this savor faire attitude has been outwardly submerged by time, flashes of it can still be garnered when looking at Japan's attitude toward suicide today. Japan is a modern paradox wherein self-destruction curls up comfortably beside self-preservation, with neither actualized without the pretense of the other. Although revamped and freshly stigmatized by a changing social structure (one helped along by attitudes borrowed from abroad), the ideology of suicide---i.e., the beauty of voluntary death---still retains an air of romanticism, despite the fact that suicide is rarely enacted with its former elan and is now evaluated---both from within and without---as an indicator of a malfunctioning society.

According to World Health Organization statistics, Japan's suicide rate of 17.8 per 100,000 persons places it a little above America but below most European countries. When broken down by sex, however, the figures paint a clearer version of suicide in Japan: of the 22,104 Japanese who committed suicide in 1992, an overwhelming 14,296 of them were men, propelling the suicide rate to a startling 23.5 per 100,000 men compared to a mere 12.4 for women. Furthermore, people like Reverend Yukio Saito say that even these numbers tend to be inaccurate, since relatives often prefer to blame a loved-one's untimely death on an "accident" rather than label him or her with the stigma of suicide.

And, as the Executive Director of Inochi No Denwa (IND), Japan's first crisis hotline and suicide prevention service since 1974, Reverend Saito should know. 34 years after plugging in their initial phoneline, this non-sectarian NGO has grown into a national organization with 41 locations serving every square inch of Japan, and, except for the Suicide Prevention Center in Osaka, provide the only ear for Japan's mentally or emotionally troubled population. Tokyo alone supports two IND offices, a volunteer staff of 400, and six 24-hour telephone lines that are engaged more often than not. Both offices provide a mix of free services, including children's day care, educational seminars, and face-to-face counselling.

Saito admits that although only 2.5 percent of the approximately 28,000 calls per year received in their Tokyo offices are actual suicide cases, IND is still primarily considered a suicide prevention service. "This is because most suicides are carried out by mentally disturbed, desperate people---and these are the people who call us." He says 60 percent of IND's calls come from women, and, as "the telephone is kind of a media for the younger generation," the majority of their callers are those in their teens or twenties.

Regardless of their alignment with suicide prevention, however, IND's caller profiles noticeably stray from National Police Agency figures. According to 1992 figures, the highest incidence of suicide was among men aged 40-59---mostly motivated by financial or job-related stress, alcoholism, and physical illness---while for women, those 65 and older committed suicide more often, reportedly as a result of the suffering caused by physical illness or alcoholism. Out of the 2,837 suicides committed by those 29 and below, the primary contributors are listed as school stress, family and relationship problems, and mental illness. Over 50 percent of the suicides in 1992 took place in the family home, with seas, lakes, and rivers (8.3%), mountains (6.5%), skyscrapers (5.4%), hospitals (4.7%), cars (4.2%), and train tracks (3.9%) rounding out the locations. Hanging is by far the leading method of suicide for both adults and adolescents (12,438), although adolescents also frequently jump from buildings or throw themselves into trains. Surprisingly, 45 men, a woman, and one teenage boy even managed to get a hold of a gun long enough to shoot themselves with it.

Saito, however, thinks that such numbers do little to enlighten people to the fact that politicians and other influential leaders don't pay enough attention to the causes of suicide in Japan. "I believe more people must see that society is responsible for many of the pathological and social problems that are manifesting themselves as suicide. Unfortunately, our nationality doesn't allow us to talk about these difficulties; instead we are just supposed to put them behind us. Despite the increase of counselling services, people still are still ashamed to talk about their problems, so naturally, they become worse. People need to see that sharing our agony and grief has a very therapeutic effect."

He believes the younger generation has the most to lose. Born to parents who don't know any better, many of today's children are forced into an insanely competitive scholastic environment that evaluates their worth according to their test-taking prowess. From elementary school onwards, these children are banished to an afterschool world of homework and cram school, one that leaves little time for such precious things as playing and developing the social skills necessary to live a healthy, balanced life.

Even childhood friendships don't provide the sanctuary one would expect, as a recent survey of high school students revealed that only 30 percent of the respondents felt that they had at least one close friend. Making matters worse, this 30 percent defined their close friend merely as someone they enjoyed talking to rather than as an intimate to whom they could reveal their innermost secrets. Psychiatrist Kazuo Yamada, the Director of the counselling service of Tokyo University, sums it up perfectly, "Teenagers used to agonize for days before writing a farewell note and then making a half-hearted attempt that would end in failure. Nowadays, they go straight ahead as though there is some kind of short circuit inside their brains. They lack the emotional element that makes the rest of us value human life above everything else."

Stories that substantiate such sweeping statements are surprisingly easy to come by, as almost everyone interviewed for this article was touched by suicide in one way or another. Yoshihiro Kimura, the 29-year-old driver for a grindstone manufacturer recounts his experience: "I had a very good friend in elementary school who was very clever and intelligent. He passed the entrance exam for a famous prep school---one for future Tokyo University students. I didn't see him again until I was 18 when I met him by chance on the bus. I felt sad because I hardly recognized his personality. One week later, he hung himself in the high school bathroom. I read it in the newspaper---they said he had failed the Tozai entrance exam and that he obviously had a weak mind. This was not the same person I knew in elementary school."

Kazuko Endoh, a thirtish OL speaks of a former boss who committed suicide. "He was a Tokyo University graduate who was a very clever and famous within the company, He was also manic/depressant, but everyone pretended not to notice and just covered up for him. He couldn't seek counselling because of his reputation. I think the pressure to pretend is what made him jump off our office building." A twenty-three year old art history student tells the story of a 19-year-old girl she once knew who slit her wrists because of her broken heart. "She didn't die, but afterwards, everyone just acted like it never happened." A government official remembers six friends who took their own life, "although, except for one, we were officially told that their deaths were from natural causes."


How To Win Friends And Influence The Mortality Rate

According to 29-year-old author of Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru (The Complete Manual of Suicide) Wataru Tsurumi, such tales are a mere inkling of the psychological nightmare that lurks below this tightly covered society. "In my book, I told the story of two sisters, 23 and 25-years-old, in Adachi ward [Eastern Tokyo] who literally starved themselves after a life of misery that included their father's bankruptcy, losing both their parents to cancer, school bullying, and constant hassling from bill collectors. They were found locked up in their house next to a note that read 'Society did this.'

Too bad his book wasn't written in a style akin to his oratorical conviction, as it is hard to tell whether the flat, matter-a-fact tone he adopts in the book is the result of his Tokyo University education or if it's merely a weak attempt at black humor. Its 11 chapters and 192 pages turn like an elementary reader, covering the do's and don'ts of leading methods---pills, poisoning, wrist and carotid cutting, hanging, freezing, leaping, electrocuting, drowning, self-burning, and jumping---plus a final chapter on more obscure methods such as dying by quicksand and exposing one's self to the jaws of a hungry bear cub. He grafts a rating system for each method, evaluating things like pain involved, shock level, gore factor, and amount of disturbance caused to arrive at an overall rank of effectiveness---with five skulls awarded to the most efficacious. Unsuccessful case studies are added at the end of each section in order to point out the pitfalls by showing readers exactly what they shouldn't do.

True to genre, this how-to covers everything from ideal rope length (20meters), clean-up costs, and the best body angle for leapers (head first if you want to die, back first if you want an open casket) to obvious basics such as "be sure the engine is full of gas" for would-be asphyxiators, "never stand on the back of the train platform" and "watch out for innocent bystanders" for prospective jumpers. He even provides detailed transportation information, maps, and hotel lists for those wishing to travel to a spectacular jump site or "die discretely" in Jukai, the "the Sea of Trees" suicide forest at the base of Mount Fuji. Crude stick figure drawings and black and white photographs---such as one of a sign in Jukai that reads "You get your precious life from your parents, so calmly think once more of your mother, father, brother, sister, and relatives. Don't be alone in your depression, come talk to us---The Police"---spice up the text.

Although a far cry from Sogyal Rinpoche's---a.k.a the "Laughing Lama"---1993 best-seller, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Tsurumi says his aim is also to show readers how facing up to death actually enhances life. "I had a friend who always wore a locket of angel dust around his neck. He said it made him strong and powerful, so he's never afraid to die. I want my book to be like his locket. Mishima wrote that daily life is more horrific than war, and today we see that this is true. Enen (over and over) and kurikaeshi (again and again), these words make people want to commit suicide. We are all just bricks in the wall---the wall being a crowd of dull, numbed out people. If one brick falls, the wall will still stand because another brick will fill the hole and all will continue like nothing happened. At least with suicide, we can end our life when we feel like rather than always waiting for something to come along and do it for us."

Four people have purportedly taken him up on his tutelage---for his book was found near the bodies of a junior high school boy in Fukuoka City, a resident of Nagoya, and two others found among the 30 bodies cleared out last October in Jukai. Tsurumi, however, scorns such suggestive hysteria, claiming that he doesn't harbor any guilt nor does he hold himself responsible for the choices people make. "For one thing, the paper didn't give any details about the person from Nagoya, saying only that it was a result of my book because it was found in the person's apartment. Also, in the case of the junior high school boy's suicide, his father initially said his son was the victim of school bullying, but then, when the principal denied the existence of any bully in his school, the father went along with him and blamed me instead. If anyone is going to kill themselves, they are going to do it because it was their intention all along."

Considering that his book has sold well over 500,000 copies so far---over 22 times Japan's annual suicide rate---he seems justified in his opinion. When asked whether he personally has ever dabbled in suicide, he responds, "I haven't been driven into a corner with a rope tied around my neck, if that's what you mean. But, just like almost everyone else in Japan---say when I was in examination hell or a troubled relationship---I have thought 'I want to die.' I know that when the day comes and I think 'I don't want to live anymore,' I will probably hang myself, since it is the best and most effective way to die."

Full of similar sentiment, its no wonder that his book is such a hot topic for debate. Crossing gender lines and generation gaps, it has created a wake of opinions that range from grateful praise to blasts of condemnation that are sometimes even more virulent than the book itself. But Tsurumi isn't deterred by suggestions that his manual is a predatory swindle that actually encourages suicide, because, in his mind, he is offering a answer where others are not. "I don't think the book is popular only because it is sensational. The reason I went into such detail about each method was to help motivate those people in pain to seek other solutions or at least to remove the suffering involved if they choose suicide. People need to read between the lines."

This, however, isn't always as easy as it sounds, particularly to an undiscriminating 18-year-old who's preparing to spend 1994 studying for the entrance exam that he failed to pass last year. "Before, I was going to rent a Mercedez---I believe in luxury---and pull the pipe in, because I had heard gas poisoning was the best way to die. After reading the book, I know that if I ever decide to really do it, I should also take sleeping pills with alcohol, eat very little, and park in a place where no one goes. Now, I know I can be successful if I want to."

Reverend Saito believes that comments like these render Tsurumi's argument criminally illogical, and Dr. Yoshiko Matsuoka, speaks like the mother of five that she is when she says, "I haven't read the book, but I'm afraid that young people can't see beyond the actual words. They are very used to how-to manuals, so I think in immature hands, this book is very dangerous. I would prefer him to write how to book for parents about recognizing the signs of suicide."

One suicide survivor, 25-year-old self-described "corporate salaryman, blood type O" Toru Nozaki is glad Tsurumi's book wasn't around when he took a bottle full of pills to silence his broken heart. "Maybe instead of spending a month in the hospital, I would have ended up dead, which considering my life now, probably wouldn't have been such as good thing." Tsurumi, however, claims that people like Nozaki are not as common as most people think. He says that 84 percent of the letters he's received since his book hit the market have been favorable, so much so, that he was able to release a follow-up book, Bokutashino Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru (Our Opinions about the Complete Manual of Suicide) in mid-February. Also published by Ota Shuppan, this book is a compilation of reader responses and opinions clarifying and endorsing his first attempt, most of which claim that, in one way or another, Tsurumi's book has saved their life.


Zen And The Art Of Dying

Feudal Japan certainly didn't need book's one and two of The Complete Suicide Manual as an excuse to turn its hand against man's basic instinct, for in those days suicide was much more than a way out. For example, as the only way a samurai in question could end his life honorably, seppuku was a venerated act of feudal masculinity in which the warrior plunged a sword into his lower abdomen, while his closest friend immediately beheaded him in order to hasten the process of dying. Similarly, shinju, or double suicide, was another glorified show of responsibility; written in characters that mean "the inside of the heart," shinju served as a completion of love for those lovers kept apart by unyielding social obligations, since only by joint suicide could they evoke an eternity of ecstatic union. Both of these forms of death called for the ultimate in sacrifice, and symbolized the utmost in self-control rather than the breakdown of the individual. Only by taking hold of death through ritual suicide could both the samurai and the lovers regain their hold on life.

Virtuous suicide, however, isn't historically limited to the feudal period, since the final phase of World War II saw the transformation of the samurai ethic into a patriotic duty. Guised as both the kamakazi units that dove nose first into American battleships and as the uncountable number of foot soldiers who committed collective gyokusai---a form of suicide which translates as "to scatter like a crystal ball"---these contemporary warriors proved death was better than brooking the shame of kneeling before the enemy.

Then of course, there are stories of people like General Maresuke Nogi, a popular hero of the Russo-Japanese War who committed seppuku on the day of the imperial funeral ceremony for Emperor Meiji and won praise from the majority of the people and the press for his act of "absolute loyalty to the emperor." But perhaps the most dramatic example of glorified suicide is that of celebrated novelist Yukio Mishima. On November 25, 1970, after high-jacking a general at the Tokyo base of Japan's Self-Defense Forces and forcing an assembly of the entire eastern division of the army, Mishima, dressed in a specially tailored Meiji-style uniform, delivered an emotional, jeering speech, denouncing the constitution for prohibiting a Japanese military force and calling on Japan's troops to rise up and restore the righteousness of the Japanese honor. Failing to make an impact, he then went inside the office and committed seppuku with his assistant and rumored lover Masakatsu Morita.

Perhaps there is an unspoken rule that Japan's revered novelists are expected to behave this way, because Japan's bibliographies are full of authors who preferred to write their own endings---men like Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, now the namesake to a respected prize for new novelists, and writer Dazai Osamu, who's string of unsuccessful suicide leaps---which incidentally proved disastrous for a a wife and two subsequent girlfriends----before he finally hit the big time gave him more fame than his novels ever could have. And although they didn't personally kill themselves, novelists like Saseki Natsume, whose prize winning Kokoro devotes an entire plot to the impending forces of suicide, and Matsumoto Seicho, the man who brought Jukai into the public spotlight in 1957, further flamed the public's affair with suicide.

Exalted as a triumph of culture over nature, stories like these are further reinforced by suicide's compelling appearances in Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet) theater, as well as its staring role in films and television. According to Saito, all of this has made an indelible impact on the consciousness of modern Japan---and possibly is accountable for the fact that suicide has only earned its social stigma in the last few decades. "Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, suicide was an acceptable way to take social responsibility for one's acts."

By providing a resolution to an otherwise insoluble situation, suicide could redeem a failure or allow a person to apologize by dying (shinde owabi o suru). So, by killing himself, an employee was able to express his company's regret over a gross error, as was the case for the director of a food supply section of Japan Airlines in the late 70s who held himself indirectly responsible for a severe outbreak of food poising among a planeload of passengers. Even the fact that mother /child suicide---or boshushinju---occurs more in Japan than in elsewhere in Asia or in the West reveals how closely the Japanese once related suicide to the image responsibility and martyrdom.

"Even to this day, the courts in Japan often won't punish the mother who kills her child but fails to die herself, but instead view her action as temporary insanity caused by her concern for the future welfare of her child. This shows how ingrained suicide, particularly in response to shame or heavy responsibility, is in our social system. We still have the suggestion that suicide is an acceptable way out of a difficult situation," says Saito with a deliberate shrug that revealed his frustration over the quandary history has put him in.




HANGING 12,438














TOTAL 22,104

Japan National Police Agency, 1992




Philosophy of life 2,632 3,637 6,269(22.6%)

Family difficulties 348 2,115 2,463(8.87%)

Marital problems 337 2,259 2,596(9.3%)

Male/female Rel. 1,143 1,722 2,865(10.3%)

Human relationships 684 1,955 2,639 (9.7%)

Health/medical problems 1,940 2,437 4,377(15.8%)

Education concerns 325 432 757(2.63%)

Sexual problems 1,566 162 1,728(6.2%)

Legal/financial problems 119 260 379(1.4%)

General information 213 311 524(2.0%)

Others (cranks, banter,etc.) 2,840 276 3,116(11.2%)

TOTAL 12,147 15,566 27,713

Source: Inochi No Denwa, 1992



Hanging 173 58 231

Drugs 2 --- 2

Poisoning 4 3 7

Gassing 6 4 10

Electrocution 2 --- 2

Immolation 11 2 13

Gunshot 1 --- 1

Edged tool 7 1 8

Drowning 8 8 16

Leaping* 80 92 172

Throwing** 27 28 55

Other 4 3 7

TOTAL 325 199 524

Source: Japanese National Police Agency, 1992

Suicide Prevention and Criminal Defense Info:
Crime Prevention: How To Help a Troubled Friend
Criminal Justice: Guns and Suicide in 21 Countries
Attorney-Client: Criminal Defense Advocacy
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NCCU Student Criminal Defense Clinic

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