Deadly social networking in Japan

ReiPortraitIn his feature article “Let’s Die Together” in the May Atlantic, David Samuels does a heroic task of explaining why anonymous group suicide is becoming popular in Japan. The opening image Samuels uses, of a car in a Tokyo suburb in which five young men and one young woman died together, reminded me of a scene in P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men, in which a group of elderly people on a bus cruise hold hands and jump to their deaths from a cliff.

My only criticism of Samuels’ report is his assertion that suicide “is known in Christian teaching as ‘the sin against the Holy Ghost.’ ” Historic Christian teaching certainly condemns suicide, but the church also has been very cautious about identifying any one thing as the sin against the Holy Ghost (presumably because of Jesus’ sobering warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). That said, Samuels’ larger point stands: Suicide “occupies a very different place in the imagination of the West than it does in Japan, where self-disembowelment with a specialized blade has long been considered a proper response to shame or dishonor.”

Samuels writes:

Whereas in the West, suicide is generally seen as the needless act of desperate souls, or of the terminally ill, in Japan it is understood as a more or less rational decision that can be taken by perfectly sane individuals as well as by groups. Japan has a long history of families committing suicide together, as well as suicides by cults and militaristic groups, including kamikaze pilots, or samurai warriors who suffered dishonor and hoped to wipe the slate clean. What is shocking about the new suicide epidemic is not so much that it is a group activity as that people are choosing to kill themselves together with total strangers. The Perfect Suicide Manual has become the essential text of a decentralized death cult that takes orders from no one, and whose members meet on Web sites designed solely to support and strengthen their common intention to die.

Samuels does not attribute the phenomenon to any one social factor. He discusses the roles of Japan’s collapsed “bubble economy,” publication of The Perfect Suicide Manual by Wataru Tsurumi, the ease of connecting with like-minded people through the Internet and the popularity of the animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Tsurumi offers this: “There’s nothing bad about suicide. We have no religion or laws here in Japan telling us otherwise. As for group suicides, before the Internet, people would write letters, or make phone calls … it’s always been part of our culture.”

Samuels interviews animator Hideaki Anno about his series and its heroine:

I am particularly interested in talking to Anno about the character of Rei, a depressive, suicidal girl whose big eyes, girlish body, and blank expression have been the model for the central female characters in Japanese anime for the past decade.

“Rei is someone who is aware of the fact that even if she dies, there’ll be another to replace her, so she doesn’t value her life very highly,” Anno explains, slouching ever-deeper into the couch. “Her presence, her existence — ostensible existence — is ephemeral. She’s a very sad girl. She only has the barest minimum of what she needs to have. She’s damaged in some way; she hurts herself. She doesn’t need friends.”

More troubling still is how Anno describes his neighbors:

Anno pauses for a moment, and gives a dark-browed stare out the window. “I don’t see any adults here in Japan,” he says, with a shrug. “The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children.”

The next time I’m tempted to think that euthanasia clinics will be widespread in the United States, I think Samuels’ essay will help me regain perspective.

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  • Carl

    In fairness to Rei, she never killed herself. She was killed fighting an angel and replaced by a clone. Also, she may or may not have had a human soul. Which would also be pretty depressing.

    …So, she deserves some slack, right?…

  • Ed

    The first thing that came to my mind wasn’t Evangelion. It was Jisatsu Saakuru (Suicide Circle).

    The first scene features a group of schoolgirls all meeting up, joining hands, and leaping off a subway platform to their deaths.

  • BL

    Mr. Leblanc – A quick question on style – In the second paragraph here you use both Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit seemingly interchangeably but I’m not sure.
    I assume that the Holy Ghost is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Ghost, but I wanted to clarify.

  • Meghan

    To clarify, not all “manga” are pornographic.

    Secondly, citing the interview with Hideaki Anno without mention of exactly what Neon Genesis Evangelion is about can be misleading. Her situation and reasons for being so inclusive are a product of a bizarre science fiction story, not the Japanese view of suicide.

  • cyndie

    What Anno is quoted as saying, that 30 years ago Japanese salarymen and people on trains would not be seen reading comics or porno is not true. I have lived in Japan and taken the trains for the past 35 years. Japanese men have always been reading magna and porno…maybe more so before than now.

  • Douglas LeBlanc


    Yes, I’m using Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit interchangeably.

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  • Brian L

    When i first read this i thought of an episode of Paranoia Agent thats running on adult swim. Where a young girl and middle aged man, and an older man all try to commit suicide together. But also Suicide circle, and neon genesis go along with this. I wonder what all this is about and why its happening. Copy cats? Perhaps in finding someone to die with, lonely people are seeing it as going out with friends for once, and always having that.

  • Alex

    Something worth noting is that the stigma on suicide is a distinctively Christian addition to Western civilization. The ancient Greeks and Romans actually considered suicide an honorable escape in certain circumstances. (I particularly have the Stoics in mind, like Seneca the Younger.)

  • Justin

    Huh, I didn’t really see Rei as suicidal. Depressed and resigned, yes and mostly at the end, but not suicidal.

    Still, Anno seemed to use this series as a way to work out of his own depression – and Rei as a way to give a backhanded slap to the otaku culture that worshipped sumbissive, waif-like characters. But like most of Eva, that’s probably just my Rorschach test theory.

    The first series I thought of wasn’t Evangelion but rather “Welcome to NHK,” where the main character (a paranoid, shut-in, jobless 22 year old) gets caught up in an online suicide pact. It sounds a lot like what is described here.

    We do a lot of things anonymously online we’d rarely do elsewhere. I’m writing a comment to people I’ve never met right now. Others write out long, self-therapeutic essays on their blogs directed at no one particular. I meet people at music venues who I knew only as a username online, and then don’t see them again until years later. The ease of the Internet and the anonymity allows us to at least not be alone — even when we want to be. A culture that doesn’t view suicide as a stigma, and sometimes a noble thing, is going to connect the two.

  • Marinda R

    I thought of that Paranoia Agent episode as well; I’d assumed that to be an invention, not a cultural phenomenon. I, too, was puzzled by Rei somehow exemplifying typical Japanese suicides; she’s a clone, literally replaceable, there are several of “her” shown in typically scifi bubbling “suspended animation” tanks (or whatever) in a couple of episodes.

  • Brian L

    Still along with all of this talk. I want to know peoples ideas on WHY this is happening? Is it over population and people just cant find friends? Lack of jobs therefore lack of self worth? There are endless amounts of reasons but im wondering what people think.

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