Kayoko Ueno has a Ph. D. in Sociology, and currently is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Tokushima, Japan


Suicide as Japan’s major export?

A note on Japanese Suicide Culture


Melancolia (1891) - De Edvard MunchHardly any week passed in the year 2004without news on Muslim suicide bombings in Iraq and Palestine, or Chechnia. We, Japanese, are living in an affluent society geographically far away from the Middle East and Russian turmoil, and many of us view the suicide bombing news as an alien event, or something out of a computer game VR (virtual reality). On the other hand, there are some Japanese, especially from the wartime generation, who see the news differently, tracing the suicide bombers’ prototype to Japan’s “Kamikaze”, the suicide air attack squad at the end of World War II.  In fact, one of my senior colleagues the other day came to me, pointed at one more such item in the news, and whispered melancholically, “that’s Japan’s invention.”

Japanese society has long been providing unique materials for social studies on suicide. First, this may be traditionally because of our purportedly peculiar forms of committing suicide to the eyes of western observers, such as hara-kiri and shinjyuu. Hara-kiri was a social class bound privilege given only to samurai (warriors) in order to protect them from being killed by executioners. Shinjyuu, the form of suicide committed among intimate persons, was more usual for commoners. The latter ranges from lovers’ suicide, from which we developed the genre of suicide literature, as described by kabuki plays by Monzaemon Chikamatsu, the most famous kabuki’s script writer, to other familial suicides such as boshi-shinjyu (mother-child suicide) and ikka-shinnjyu (the suicide of an entire family) across social classes. Concomitantly, before the modern emergence of child abuse and elder abuse problems in Japan around the early 1990's, we have been narrating the familial type of suicide in a decriminalized way with a scarcity of social sanction on the ringleader whose own suicide includes the murders the rest of family members, such as powerless children, elderly parent, and sick family members.

Second, it has been largely pointed out that a Japanese suicidal act is unique because it has often been accompanied by meanings of valiance and vindication. Suicide has a longstanding cultural association with saving one's and/or the family's fame.  Analyzing suicide was regarded as tantamount to decoding Japanese culture, society, and its people.  Among those who were strongly led by this type of motivation were, for example, an American cultural anthropologist, Ruth Benedict.  In her classic wartime Japanese study, The Chrysanthemun and The Sword, she illuminated the Japanese behavioral characteristics.  According to Benedict, the Japanese, neither with a strong inner gyroscope nor with Christian guilt feelings, are heavily inclined to save their fame, and even the nation’s fame, by killing themselves (Benedict, 1954).  Similarly, Emile Durkheim, a French founder of modern professional sociology, also known for the study on suicide, illustrated an altruistic type of suicide in contrast with other modern types of suicide, partly referring to the ritual self-disembowelment observed in Japan. According to him, Japan is a type of society where there is social prestige attached to suicide, and the refusal of this reward had effects similar to actual punishment (Durkheim, 1952).

On the other hand, what should be equally or perhaps more emphasized in this context is that it was the Japanese rather than western observers who had acknowledged and most effectively utilized this association: suicide and Japanese ethos.  Maurice Pinquet, the author of “La mort volontaire au Japon” exemplified Japanese cultural identity through the analysis of  “voluntary death,” but never failed to overlook the fact that the even the catchphrase of "Nation of Suicide" was first and foremost Japan’s invention in late 1950’s (Pinquet, 1984 ).

Japan advertised suicide, inwardly urging its members to commit suicidal acts, by implanting the vocabulary associated with saving face in order to prevent a possible rebellion against the government.  The figure of the Kamikaze was idealized to glorify the war.  It is important to remember that, outwardly, before Toyota, Mitsubishi, and other Japanese owned MNCs came along as representative of Japan's economic might, among those phenomena which had made Japan awe-inspiring to other countries was our "man-liness" in committing suicide. Thus, the suicide functioned as a human bullet to outside enemies not only metaphorically but also in actuality.  Just as what the counterforce of Iraq and Israel are doing nowadays. Wherever there exists a scarcity of weapons, or other manufactures to export, the human resources become available.

Statistical outlook: suicide as a gender issue

Since suicide is well incorporated into Japanese behavioral patterns, the prevalence of suicide is hardly negligible.  The latest statistics of Japanese National Police Agency says the number in 2003 has reached 34,427 (27.0 per 100 thousand population).  Per 100 thousand population in the year 2000, the rate in Japan was 24.1, compared to 10.4 in U.S.(2000), and 4.1 in Brazil.  According to the Japanese Ministry of Health and Labor, after World War II, Japan has experienced three statistical waves of suicide.  The first wave had its peak in 1958 with 23,641, the second in 1986 with 25,667.  Currently we are in the middle of third wave that started in 1998.  These waves are observable not only in terms of number but also ratio per 100 thousand population.

The high suicide rate in Japan itself has been the subject of much discussion.  Many things have been pointed out regarding suicide statistics, but particularly worth mentioning is their gender characteristics.  Japan’s suicide statistics clearly show that men outnumber women, and more so lately.  In fact, the last two waves were almost solely produced by the increase in the number of suicides among men.  In 1980, the suicide rate (the number of suicide per 100 thousand) was 22.9 for men and 13.3 for women.  It became 40.1 and 14.5 respectively in 2003.

Why do men commit suicide more than women? Is it because, as Durkehim outlined, men are more excessively self-reflexive, more anguished from unlimited needs with less external regulatory force, or  else merely less embedded in society (Durkheim, 1952)? His hypotheses might still be relevant in contemporary Japan.  However, to some extent, the higher suicide rate among men is due to the different types of role expectations assigned to men and women.

The age breakdown of suicide rates between men and women shows how the gender role plays a crucial part.  Men 50-64, especially 55-59, have the highest suicide rate. But this is a rather recent trend, and it is not observable among women. The fact that the number of suicides has been increasing among the middle-aged men with financial difficulties highlights men’s financial responsibility towards supporting their family, and sometimes their employees. It is more so in the days of prolonged economic slump.  Some suicides are attempted, in a bid to get life insurance for the family. It has been reported that one of the typical patterns of committing suicide among men is that it takes place just after lapse of immunity period of their insurance policies. On the other hand, women in same age bracket more or less perceive their role as being just responsible for the care of the family members. The suicide rate of housekeepers in particular has been low and remains so.  However, the women's suicide rate increases gradually as women get older.

The gender gap in suicide rate has been used to document an unjust treatment more against men than women in order to make light of feminists' claims of women’s oppression. But it can be used to substantiate an extant patriarchal gender role. The fact that men commit more suicide than women reveals a paternalistic type of family, in which one breadwinner is more at risk, particularly with the collapse of the life-long employment system.

New phenotype

Because we are in a "nation of suicide", the issue of suicide has been periodically brought out to our attention by the mass media in the periods without other newsworthy topics. In the middle of 1980's, we had a vast coverage of Ijime (being bullied) suicide among school age children. Other times, we observed young suicide followers after the massive media coverage on particular suicidal death of charismatic figures. Every time the media reports the novel incident with detailed follow-up information, some people imitate it. It is as if the reasons and methods of suicide were given by the media discourse of the times.

And the same thing can be said about the recent media reports on internet linked suicide pacts.  Browsing the database of Asahi Shinbun, a major Japanese newspaper, with key words of the "inter-net" and "suicide", one finds that a specific incident of suicide pact first appeared in October 2000 but it's reported under usual Shinjyuu headline. Although the victims hardly knew each other, their stories didn't entail a follow-up story. In February 2003, another suicide pact was reported, and it became a landmark incident of inter-net suicide pacts in Japan due to heavy media coverage. The article was about one young man and two young women who met by internet, and gassed themselves to death, using "briquettes.” Asashi Shinbun and other media kept reporting the story with a series of follow-up stories. A  few more suicide pacts with briquettes occurred in March, and have been followed by occasional incidents of the same kind until now.

There always have been a certain number of people wishing they were dead or giving thought to voluntary death. But, previously, no one had directly encouraged them to die. In conventional means of communication, if someone says or writes to others that "I want to die", the most likely response one can get is "wait a minute, don't die". Contrarily, the internet allows anyone to feel free to write about anything under  an assumed name. The moment one spells the intention of committing suicide, inventive words come along with it and reach the suicide candidate on the spot. Loathful words such as “you are shit”, "you are dead", "you are not worth living", “the world would be better without you”, scatter about.  These short phrases pop up out of nowhere and even creep into the genuine consultation talk sites. In the post-modern internet world, words miss a link to the responsible subject. Therefore inter-net suicide sites have readily become a breeding ground for all kinds of negative communication.  One of the most popular suicide prevention homepages had to set a half hour at maximum rule in order to prevent the negative emotions from growing further.

Also, before the age of internet, there hardly existed a chance of meeting other suicide candidates, whereas now, finding companions has readily become available. Within a minute, we Japanese can find "I want to die too, let's do it together" in suicide sites. It's a new phenotype of our “group suicide culture” with a new emphasis on the least suffering, fear, and isolation. It is as if it were okay as long as people do it together and painlessly. Also in media discourse, those who recruited companions hardly got social sanction. Probably because once it was considered as suicide, it is by definition a voluntary act among participants. Even if not, they are dead, so whom to blame? 

Suicide or social murder?

Why commit suicide? French sociologist Emile Durkheim, asked this same question at the end of the 19th century, and stated that even in suicide, believed to be the most spontaneous act, society has the answer.  Not the minds of the individuals concerned but the type of society they belong to and their positions within the society are decisive (Durkheim, 1960). The current phenomenon of suicide in Japan is very social in the following more definite sense of meanings than Durkehim's hypotheses. First, sociologically speaking, vocabularies, motives and methods of suicide, are largely outlined by society. As American sociologist, C. Wright Mills' "vocabulary of motives" proposition stipulates, the reasons for an action are employed in the process of justifying it to others and to the individuals themselves (Mills, 1940). And a set of vocabulary of motives comes from society. Japan is developing a vocabulary of motives associated with suicide, permitting us to believe that we have no other choice but to die. Suicide is clearly available for us as a last resort to solve problems or get rid of troubles. But Japan, on the other hand, failed to develop the motives of living that the members can utilize to justify their beings.  It is needed particularly in the age of globalization when economic value is overstated and everyone can be classified as either a winner or a loser.

Second, it is apparent that the increase of suicide is inseparable from  the economic recession and deficits of the social welfare system. Japan's Vital Statistics reveal that for last decade, the number of suicides has been directly related to the number of unemployment; the higher the number of unemployment in the year, the more the suicide incidents have occurred, and vice versa. The restructuring of companies, and the downsizing of businesses have brought massive unemployment for those who are no longer hirable in the "new economy". Since Japanese banks have always been careful about lending money, the self-employed have no other place to obtain a loan other than from the consumer loan business.  Those who fall into the "loan-shark hell" are then forced to believe that leaving a good sum of life insurance for their bereaved family or employees is the only way.

So several studies estimate the number of future suicides depending on the unemployment rate, but they hardly attend to the deficit of our public assistance system in relation to suicide. Among economically advanced nations, a percentage of those receiving public assistance in Japan has been remarkably low (1.5% in 2003), due to a stingy public assistance policy. A municipal office asks the would-be applicant to make all possible effort to stay afloat before he applies for help. How much more effort would satisfy the municipal office is the question. Those below 65 years old are in reality hardly qualified to receive asssitance, despite of the fact that the Public Assistance Law doesn't stipulate the specific age regulation. Those on welfare are ripped off by their status, which makes public assistance demeaning. Public assistance is supposed to be one of fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution, which states the following: "all people shall have the right to maintain the minimum standards of wholesome and cultured living. In all spheres of life, the State shall use its endeavors for the promotion and extension of social welfare and security, and of public health." Has this become a dead letter? If not, perhaps it was so from the beginning.  

In light of an ongoing increase of suicide rate, although many things have been proposed regarding prevention, they are more or less fall under a mental health type of prevention policies. Launching a counseling system with hotline may work well for some people, but not those with serious financial problems. Mental health is not about policy but more about how the unemployment rate is to be curved and the social net to be placed rightly, so that a just society can be achieved. Preventing economically induced suicides with a tightening of the welfare budget is quite impossible. Jobs with livable wages for men and women with more generous public assistance might seem an indirect route, but is in fact the most secular way to prevent suicide.

It's always been arguable whether the actions of the Kamikaze and the act of Harakiri should be regarded as suicide, since they were more obligatory deaths. The same is perhaps true about the current suicide situation in Japan. Economic problems, disease, and pessimism, have played a part, for which a society is first and foremost responsible. There is an ever-widening gap separating those individuals who have hope and perspectives for the future from those who, simply, fall between the cracks.


versão em português:


O suicídio é o maior produto de exportação do Japão? Notas sobre a cultura de suicídio no Japão


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Benedict, Ruth. 1946. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword : Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston : Houghton Mifflin.

Durkheim, Émile, 1960(7 ed.), De la division du travail social: étude sur l'organisation des sociétés supérieures, Paris: P.U.F.

Maurice, Pinguet 1984.  La mort volontaire au Japon . Paris: Gallimard.

Mills, C. Wright 1940. "Situated Action and the Vocabulary of Motives," American Sociological Review. 5:904-913.

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