Seduced By Death In Japan

March 20, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- The stories are familiar to the Japanese, although each story is morbidly unique:

A week ago, a young boy and his father had a brief discussion with the police about an incident of vandalism that may have been unintentional. Then they drove off to drown in a nearby river.

A few days before, there was the restaurant manager who torched himself after being stuck with unpayable loans from a failed get-rich scheme.

Throughout the fall and winter, one suicide victim after another has been recovered from Aokigahara Forest, at the foot of Mount Fuji, causing vexed municipal officials to complain about national rules requiring them to pay for burials.

It goes on and on. Last October, a right-wing zealot, Shusake Nomura, complained to editors at the Asahi newspaper that he had been demeaned in a cartoon. Then he drew two pistols and killed himself. Others took their lives because of the political scandal, inheritance taxes, or because they were bullied in school. A bus driver committed suicide after inadvertently running over a 2-year-old.

The disclosures of suicide constitute a somber undertow for the weekly news here. They tend to obscure the fact that Japan's suicide rate is not unusually high compared with other countries. Yet the act of suicide, the historic hara-kiri or seppuku, has maintained an extraordinarily strong hold on the nation's consciousness long after many other vestiges of the past have been abandoned.

The fascination has been kept alive in almost mythic form, most poignantly by authors who often instilled in it a complex beauty. In 1970, Yukio Mishima ritually disemboweled himself after urging a nationalistic uprising. Two years later, Yasunari Kawabata, Nobel laureate for literature in 1968, gassed himself to death.

Among the most important literary prizes in Japan is one named after Akutagawa Ryunosuke, author of Rashomon. He took his own life in 1927 at age 35. Dazai Osamu, a handsome bard of self-destructive prose, attempted suicide with a number of mistresses, who tended to have greater success than he. He PTC finally succeeded in 1948, on his 39th birthday, an event that for many Japanese was said to symbolize the post-war depression.

The relevance of those events would be left to history books were it not for clear signs that the fascination endures. In the middle of last year, the small Ohta Publishing Co. issued a book with little expectation of large sales, called "The Complete Manual of Suicide."

In dry, chilling, perversely humorous detail, it provides step-by-step methods for death. For example, to die by fire, use at least five liters of gas. The pain is awful. Offsetting benefit: It's a shocking way to die.

A joke? Yes and no. Several of Japan's more recent suicides have been found holding the book, and that seems to have stoked even more interest. Misa Ochiai, who published the book after several others rejected it, said she had only modest expectations. Initial printings were small.

Now 500,000 copies have been printed. It has been on the best-seller list for eight months. Numerous copies, no doubt, were gag gifts. Others were taken deadly seriously.

The author, Wataru Tsurumi, is now completing a sequel containing some of the more than 1,000 letters he has received. Some arebitter: "You are a devil." Some are pragmatic: "I had tried twice before to kill myself and failed, and therefore thought it was too difficult to do. Your book is a messiah for people who want to kill themselves." Some are curious reaffirmations of life: "This book taught me that to maintain health is the most important goal."

"People in Japan live repetitive lives," explains Mr. Tsurumi, a thoughtful, unassuming 29-year-old who says he has never had any desire to take his own life. "As long as you are alive, suicide is next to you. As long as you think about this seriously, you can think about the meaning of being alive. If it is meaningless to be alive, this can be a release."

Perhaps that is the attraction. Or perhaps it is because of the difficult times Japan is facing; or perhaps it is because of deep-rooted feelings about responsibility and shame; or perhaps it is a consequence of this society's lack of more temperate approaches to depression, alienation and other difficult mental problems.

On a pragmatic, rather than poetic level, Japan has been curiously slow to take steps that could ameliorate some of these issues, but that may be because it is so difficult to understand what the real issue is.

A telephone help line that often handles suicide cases, Inochi no Denwa ("life phone"), in an analysis of respondents, said there was concern that little is done for those suffering from deep depression, other than the prescription of medication.

Young people are the most likely to call the help line and are also thought to be the largest buyers of Mr. Tsurumi's manual.

Yet the elderly are the most likely to take their own lives -- at least when the figures are analyzed as a percentage of the population.

Certainly the changing economy has placed stress on older workers. Those ages 45 to 55 who should be coming into greater responsibility and income are being pushed to the side. Their suicide rate has risen slightly recently, but the long-term trend is down.

Macoto Tezka recently completed a short film segment on death for a weekly show called "My Funeral March" shown on Fuji Television, a major broadcaster. His explanation for the interest in suicide: "Death is not the end; suicide is not the end; it's an access point for change."

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