Why Is Suicide a Recurring Theme in Japanese Culture?

A former police officer stands on patrol on the sheer cliff of Tojinbo, one of the most known suicide spots in Japan, in 2008.

Photo by Harumi Ozawa/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Jill Uchiyama:

First, let’s establish this point: Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. It is the leading cause of death for men between 20 and 44. On average, 70 suicides happen every day in Japan; most of them are men. Suicide is definitely a prominent theme in Japan; it is a go-to solution when all else seems to fail. It includes the value of self-sacrifice, which is a highly Japanese value in a society that emphasizes group harmony and cooperation over individuality.

The main reasons in recent years for suicide have to do with younger men not being able to find work, layoffs or firings, and general economic issues. This is quite curious in a country that is considered the one of the wealthiest in the world. While businessmen have routinely thrown themselves under trains or gone off to the forest to die, they have also been found dead in twos or threes hanging in hotel rooms.

Figuring that they are worth more dead than alive, salarymen cut the cord of their own lives and simultaneously throw a rope out to their families who will prosper from insurance money once they are gone. It is seen in Japanese culture as the responsible thing to do.

The culture of self-sacrifice runs deep. There is professional suicide as well: CEOs who step down because of the failing or mishandling of the company. Soccer coaches who lose an important game fire themselves and end their own careers. This form of “person removal” is found all over the culture and a consistent story on national TV. Again, in Japanese culture, it is the honorable thing to do when mistakes are made.

This value of self-sacrifice was best exemplified during World War II. And while this is such a strange and chilling action for the Westerner to understand, it certainly is not for the fundamentalist who will literally die for their cause, religion, or family.

For those of us in the West, we may ask ourselves whether there is anything so extreme worth dying for, outside of a war. It is a theme that is so engrossing because our take on “failure” is just not that important. Failure is a form of success, or at least, can lead up to it. In fact, we barely believe in it. All of our heroes and heroines have failed. They got up and tried again. This is completely opposite of the Japanese.

However, there is a new worry in recent decades in Japan. Suicide among depressed and socially isolated people has been changing the intention behind suicide in Japan. These are different reasons for suicide that have more to do with the psychological welfare of the individual, not the group.

This is the suicide that, perhaps, will begin to change the mind of Japanese culture: The young person who refuses to become part of society, the young person who is under too much pressure to perform at school, the one who does not feel loved by his or her parents. This form is newer. It is not self-sacrifice but giving up, being fed up, and feeling so hopeless about the future.

As one of my young female ESL students wrote me in a letter:

By the way, I sometimes feel I am pretty unimportant and my life isn’t worth living. I’m not getting along well with my family. I didn’t think I loved my family. But it’s not right. I may not be loved by anyone in my family. Because they aren’t interested in what I do. … Could you tell me how to deal with this problem?

We had established that I was a counselor in the United States, and she and many others immediately latched on to me. They lined up to learn English and buddied closer as they longed to tell me their troubles. Certainly it is no secret that the lack of counseling and psychiatric help in Japan is widely problematic. 

So, I do believe that although the standard reasons for self-sacrifice will continue to be part of Japanese culture, keeping it an acceptable form of death to them, the culture may not be as condoning of suicide in the form of personal and societal unhappiness, despair, and depression in such young people. What it will do about it remains to be seen.

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