Secular suicides on rise in Japan

tumblr_ksihtqLuEt1qaoefdo1_500I have a friend who grew up in Japan and, a decade of so ago, he took me over for a week to speak to several gatherings of Christian missionaries with years of experience in that unique cultural environment.

The key, of course, is that life in Japan is “secular,” except when it is not. You see, woven through this secularism are powerful threads of ancestor worship, pop religion from America, superstitions and, of course, multiple approaches to Buddhism. I did some writing while I was there focusing on the national, media-based trend toward “white weddings.” Young Japanese women do not want to become Christians. But they want “Christian” weddings.

Meanwhile, there are researchers who would insist that the ultimate religion of Japan is workaholism, success and careerism — with a fear of shame and failure looming in the background.

This brings us to the cliffs of Tojimbo, the subject of a powerful story in the New York Times:

The towering cliffs of Tojimbo, with their sheer drops into the raging, green Sea of Japan, are a top tourist destination, but Yukio Shige had no interest in the rugged scenery. Instead, he walked along the rocky crags searching for something else: a lone human figure, usually sitting hunched at the edge of the precipice.

That is one of the telltale signs in people drawn here by Tojimbo’s other, less glorious, distinction as one of the best known places to kill oneself in Japan, one of the world’s most suicide-prone nations. Mr. Shige, a 65-year-old former policeman, has spent his five years since retirement on a mission to stop those who come here from jumping.

His efforts have helped draw attention to the grim fact that Japan’s suicide rate is again on the rise. Police figures show that the number of suicides this year could approach the country’s record high of 34,427, reached in 2003, almost 95 suicides a day. The World Health Organization says that people in Japan are now almost three times as likely to kill themselves as are Americans.

OK, with that set-up, you know that the story has to address a basic issue: Why is Japan so suicide prone? The answer is, of course, cultural. The question is whether the nation’s unique blend of religion and secularism plays any role in this cultural story.

As you would expect, secular people primarily think that the root causes are secular. Well, duh. If you have a hammer in your hand the world looks like a nail. Here is what that looks like in print:

In part, public health experts blame Japan’s romanticized image of suicide as an honorable escape, going back to ritual self-disembowelment by medieval samurai, for the high suicide rate. But the main cause, they say, is the nation’s long economic decline. Suicides first surged to their recent high levels in 1998, when traditional lifetime employment guarantees began to vanish, and they have remained high as salaries and job security continued to erode.

For me, the key words in this are “honorable” and “recent.”

In other words, suicides have always been a major part of Japan’s culture. Is this an honorable way of dealing with problems in this life and the next? What is the Japanese view of the afterlife, in this culture that has no set approach to these issues?

The bottom line: It’s hard to talk about issues of life and death, despair and depression, hope and redemption without venturing into religious territory. For me, this has nothing to do with America and material from other cultures — unless this has become an issue in the
evolution of Japan’s views on this kind of issue.

In Japan, is suicide truly a morally neutral act? That’s the hole in this story that fascinates me. There is this one fascinating glimpse — through the eyes of Shige — of some larger context:

As an officer stationed at Tojimbo at the end of his 42-year career, he said he was appalled by all the bodies he had to pluck out of the sea. He said he once stopped an elderly couple from Tokyo from jumping and turned them over to city officials who he said gave them money and told them to buy a ticket to the next town. Days later he received a letter from the couple, mailed just before they committed suicide in a neighboring prefecture.

“The authorities’ coldness outraged me,” said Mr. Shige, whose cellphone rings to the tune of “Amazing Grace,” though he is not religious.

Say what? If this man is not religious, then I want to know more about the non-religious content of his motivations and why he is controversial in Japan. There is a story there, perhaps even a ghost — with the ghost taking the shape of Japan’s unique approach to faith and the lack of a particular faith.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MDSF

    I’m sorry Matt, but the only religious ghost I see in this story is the reference to the fact that the cliffs are named for an “evil Buddhist monk,” a line from the story you did not quote.

    Japan’s national pastime is being Japanese, and part of being Japanese is putting up with the way the country is run by and for various cartels, which are effectively the successors and maybe heirs of the warlords who ran the country in the past. What doesn’t benefit the cartels doesn’t matter; that’s why suicide is for the most part invisible in Japan.

    The author of the original piece ignored that fact: it’s not that suicide is honorable in Japan, it’s more that things that are unacceptable are generally intentionally not noticed.

  • Jerry

    Japan’s unique approach to faith

    How culture interacts with religion is a very interesting topic to me. Japan’s Shinto and Zen history is certainly complex. At least for me and I suspect others, the influence of drama to paint a picture should not be underestimated. For better and worse, I look on Japan through the lens of someone who watched the mini-series Shogun many years ago (1980) as well as reading the book and even doing a bit of historical reading about that period.

    After reading your post, I started looking around on the internet and could not really find anything outside of cultural references.

    So I really also would like to know more in this area as well.

  • tmatt


    Do you think I’m off base? At the very least, don’t we need to know more about the roots — religious and secular — of Japan’s attitudes about suicide?

    That seems to be essential. I also think, for this story, it would help to know what people there believe about the afterlife.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I thought I was agreeing with you, albeit not explicitly :-)

  • tmatt

    I’m just struggling, as I did in the post, to make sure that I want to know more about how Japan’s on unique blend of religions and secularism is affecting this story. That’s the ghost. That’s the hole in the story.

  • antropovni

    With the customary anthropological caution about the explanatory limits of a term drawn from one cultural context to explain another cultural context (“suicide” or, frankly, “religion”), here a couple of pieces of the puzzle:

    chapter 10 of Hendry “An Anthropologist in Japan” on Google Books;
    chapter 8 in West “Law in Everyday Japan” on Google Books;
    as far as it goes, a Gallup poll on the inverse correlation between religiosity and suicidal behavior, with Japan mentioned prominently.

  • Andrew Grimes JFP, JSCCP

    Over the past decade western media reports on suicide and mental health care in Japan rarely got it right. I am a JSCCP clinical psychologist and JFP psychotherapist working in Japan for over 20 years. I would like to put forward a perspective on some of the main reasons behind the unacceptably high suicide numbers Japan and so will limit my comments to what I know about here in Japan but would first like to suggest that western media reports on suicide rates in Japan should try harder to get away from the tendency to ‘orientalize’ the serious and preventable problem of increased suicide rates here over the last 12 years by reverting to stereotypical ideas of Japanese people in general.

    Mental health professionals in Japan have long known that the reason for the unnecessarily high suicide rate in Japan is due to unemployment, bankruptcies, and the increasing levels of stress on businessmen and other salaried workers who have suffered enormous hardship in Japan since the bursting of the stock market bubble here that peaked around 1997. Until that year Japan had annual suicide of rate figures between 22,000 and 24,000 each year. Following the bursting of the stock market and the long term economic downturn that has followed here since the suicide rate in 1998 increased by around 35% and since 1998 the number of people killing themselves each year in Japan has consistently remained well over 30,000 each and every year to the present day.

    The current worldwide recession is of course impacting Japan too, so unless the new administration initiates very proactive and well funded local and nationwide suicide prevention programs and other mental health care initiatives, including tackling the widespread problem of clinical depression suffered by so many of the general population, it is very difficult to foresee the previous government’s stated target to reduce the suicide rate to around 23,000 by the year 2016 as being achievable. On the contrary the numbers, and the human suffering and the depression and misery that the people who become part of these numbers, have to endure may well stay at the current levels that have persistently been the case here for the last ten years. It could even get worse unless even more is done to prevent this terrible loss of life.

    I would also like to suggest that as many Japanese people have very high reading skills in English that any articles dealing with mental health issues in Japan could usefully provide contact details for hotlines and support services for people who are depressed and feeling suicidal.

    Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline Telephone Service):
    Japan: 0120-738-556
    Tokyo: 3264 4343

    AMDA International Medical Information Center:

    Andrew Grimes, JSCCP, JCP
    Tokyo Counseling Services:

  • Paul Kotta

    On the other hand, religiously motivated murders are essentially unheard of in Japan.

  • dalea

    For a map of suicide rates see here:

    Japan, Russia, Australia and China all score high on rate per 100,000. Which is distinct from actual numbers as has been posted here. Here is a link to actual rates of suicide by US state:

    It is interesting that the lowest rate, DC, is one fourth that of the highest, Wyoming. Blue states tend to have lower rates than red ones.

    Here are some rates, a bit dated, for the world:

    Interesting that in Japan the suicide rate is 25 times the homicide rate while in the US it a little over 2 times. The Japanese rate is not the highest in the world, several European countries have higher rates.

  • Andrew Grimes JFP, JSCCP

    An excellent article and one which is refreshing in that writer, Ms Tomoko A Hosaka from The Associated Press, points to the need for both political will and public education to help bring about practical and proactive well funded support schemes and programs to help those who are under experiencing extreme financial difficulties and unemployment. It is refreshing to see an article on suicide in Japan focus on the fact that it takes political will for any nation to bring about any significant lowering of its suicide rate.

    To my knowledge this is the first media article in English that has ever focused on the need for effective well funded and proactive suicide prevention policy and programs at both local and governmental levels, as well as clearly debunking the myths that a lot of western reporters have propagated that stereotype both Japanese people and groundless assertions that the reasons behind the unnecessarily high and tragic numbers of people who have committed suicide in Japan, particularly over the last 12 years since the bursting of the economic bubble, are in some way related to historical practices such as seppuku, bushido spirit or the kamikaze pilots, as quotes from the article clearly emphasises:

    “The reason is simple — a recognition that Japan’s famously high suicide rate is not so much a feature of Japanese culture, drawing from samurai or kamikaze traditions, but is uniquely woven into the health of the economy.”

    “Japan’s economy has languished since its economic heyday in the 1980s, but the high suicide rate tended to be associated, particularly by foreigners, with the samurai ritual of hara-kiri (self-disembowelment) or with the kamikaze pilots of World War II.

    “There’s a notion in the West that Japanese people commit suicide because of some noble ideal depicted in literature or art,” said Kurihara’s mayor, Isamu Sato.

    “But it’s not true. People are driven to suicide because they are struggling in their daily lives.”

  • MDSF

    On the other hand, religiously motivated murders are essentially unheard of in Japan.

    Murder rates in Japan are low generally: about 1.1 per 100 000, compared to about 9 per 100 000 for the UK or the US.

    I guess in that regard the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin gas attack really stands out.

  • Maureen

    Japan is a very tough society to live in, if you cross certain lines into “becoming a failure” or “becoming an embarrassment”. Expectations and peer pressure are high, and there aren’t a lot of siblings and relatives per family now to throw off the pressure. There are certain societally acceptable ways to blow off steam, but they don’t work for everyone. It’s a fairly far Northern country, in terms of low sunlight levels in winter. Their economy stinks, and middle-aged businessmen are living in cardboard villages in parks. Add in the old-fashioned cultural notions about suicide as honorable or romantic? You’ve got trouble.