Media myths about suicide in Japan

By William Wetherall

Drafted August 1988
Posted October 2002

Three part feature written for The Japan Times but not published.


Japan's suicide rates falling, not jumping
  Hook, line, sinker
  The whole truth
  Cribbed impressions

Elderly suicides and family ideology
  Apples and oranges
  Same old game
  Numerical will

Murder-suicide and "cultural defense"
  Bankrupt stereotypes
  Shinju universal
  Cultural offense
  Natural defense
  Japanese courts
  British laws
  Myth mongering
  Reasonable appeals

Japan's suicide rates falling, not jumping

Suicide in Japan has been unsteadily decreasing since World War II (see the table). However, many bureaucrats, journalists, and academics do not seem to know this, judging from the way that they abuse suicide statistics.

Some people involved in the spread of misinformation about suicide in Japan are just victims of the "numbers disease" which leads them to think that a rise in the body count means a higher death rate. Others seem blind to the truth behind the numbers because they believe that Japanese society is a victim of "modernization"-their euphemism for "westernization" or "Americanization".

Hook, line, sinker

The June 1987 issue of the women's monthly Fujin koron solicited reader opinions to the question: "What is behind the increase in suicides? Last year [1986] there were 25,524 suiciders. This works out to one person ending their life every 20 minutes. And it includes many elderly people. Where is the problem?"

One of the two published repliers, both women, lamented in the July issue how some elderly people are warehoused in the geriatric wards of mental hospitals by offspring who treat them as nuisances. The other suggested factors like the suicide of idol singer Okada Yukiko, anxiety about the future, spiritual impoverishment, environmental destruction, AIDS in the United States resulting from unbridled sexual freedom, and more egoism and less compassion among Japanese women since passing the Equal Opportunity Employment Law.

Neither replier doubted the implication of the question, that a greater number of suicides means a more serious suicide problem. Both took the body count bait and ran with their prophecies of doom.

Such ideological discontent is nourished by the ways that numbers are reported-first by the government, then by the press, and finally by influential scholars who trade on imaginary trends.


Both the National Police Agency and the Ministry of Health and Welfare release their slightly different suicide statistics in printed reports distributed through their respective press clubs, each spring and summer. The reports usually include a one-page summary of the major results and trends, in the opinion of the compiling agency.

The reports and summaries dwell on total body counts, not rates. They stress the percent of increase or decrease in the total number of people who committed suicide in one year compared with another. Population changes between the years are rarely taken into account.

The NPA benchmark for "record" years is 1945. Hence NPA called the 25,524 suicides it reported in 1986 "the highest since the war"-which was changed to "the worst since the war" by a number of major dailies including Asahi Shimbun.

The Japan Times follows the standard formula in its articles on government reports about suicide, as it does on official reports about marriage, divorce, vehicle accidents, and delinquency and crime.

"Record rise in suicides linked to yen rise, failing businesses" read a Japan Times headline last year. The article began: "The number of Japanese who committed suicide in 1986 reached a record high of 25,659, the Health and Welfare Ministry announced in a report . . . ."

The whole truth

The headline was wrong: the nearly 2,300 "rise" in 1986 over 1985, in the number of deaths classified as suicide in MWF statistics, was only half the over 4,300 "increase" in 1983 over 1982.

The "record high" assessment was correct as a body count, but body counts are misleading as measures of the epidemiological incidence of suicide in a changing population. In fact, the crude suicide rate in 1986 was 21.2 suicides per 100,000 living people-less than the 25.7 crude rate for 1958, Japan's historical peak.

Though the MHW report included some crude suicide rates, the Japan Times article did not cite any-most likely because none appeared on the one-page summary, and because no newspaper is prepared to conduct its own analysis of the more detailed statistics in the report.

Nor did the article try to correct the wrong implications of the "record high" number of suicides by pointing out that the 30 percent rise in population from 1958 to 1986 diminished by over threefold the less than 9 percent increase in the annual body count over the same 28 years.

Much less did the article disclose that when the crude rates are corrected for the aging of the population since 1935, the 1958 and 1986 rates fall to 23.3 and 19.6.

Cribbed impressions

Some of the scholars who have been the most responsible for how suicide in Japan is understood around the world have been propagating the same fallacies that are spread by government agencies and the media. The most notable example is Mamoru Iga, especially his widely reviewed book, The Thorn in the Chrysanthemum: Suicide and Economic Success in Modern Japan (University of California Press, 1986).

"After low suicide rates during World War II, the Japanese suicide rate hit a peak (25.2 per 100,000) in 1955 and declined until 1967, when the rate was 14.2. After that the rate rose again, to 15.3 in 1970 and 17.5 in 1974. The rate seems to be still rising."

What gave Iga the impression that the rate is "still" rising?

"The Japan Times (May 6, 1984)," he continued, "reported that 'suicide both in Tokyo and the nation hit a record high' in 1983."

Iga, a certified American sociologist who has published dozens of articles on suicide in Japan in journals and books in the past thirty years, failed to note that the "record high" was only a body count.

Tellingly, Iga did not do his homework. Nowhere in his book, nor in his many articles, is there evidence that he himself has analyzed Japan's suicide statistics, copiously available since about 1900.

Like the government agencies and the media, scholars like Iga have taken the war's end as their datum for social pathology. Preconvinced that Japan's suicide rates have been rising with postwar economic success, they often overlook the higher prewar rates and totally ignore the lower corrected postwar rates-though sets of both rates, which disprove their thesis, can be found in some government reports.

Elderly suicides and family ideology

In the past few years, numerous editorials have argued that, since more elderly people in Japan are taking their own lives, suicide among the elderly is increasing.

That "more" could mean "decreasing" never occurred to the Yomiuri Shimbun columnist who wrote that, "In 1978, 4,891 people aged 65 years or over killed themselves, while in 1983, the count was 5,572."

Apples and oranges

The columnist ambiguously interpreted these figures as meaning that, "As usual, suiciders among the elderly are numerous"; surmised that the figures had become the "postwar worst" in the course of not saving people who would have preferred to live; and concluded that "the lesion of a 'human compassion paper balloon' is spreading both in families and in society" (Henshu techo, 5 April 1984).

This "cry for help" would have lost its credibility had the column pointed out that, from 1978 to 1983, the 65-and-older population had grown from 9.9 to 11.7 million, and that the suicide rate for this age group in 1983 (47.7) was therefore lower than the 1978 rate (49.5).

The Economic Planning Agency said in its 1986 white paper on national life: "Suicides are few compared with other causes of death, but when comparing the suicide rate with other countries it is relatively high, following West Germany and France [and the same as Sweden, among eight countries in 1982], and that [the suicide rate] is high particularly for female elderly is a trait of our country."

An Asahi Shimbun columnist wrote in 1987 that, "In our country, among old people aged 75 years or more, people who commit suicide are abnormally numerous [ijo ni ooi]" (Tensei jingo, 27 January 1987).

This negative assessment was based on a comparison of Japan's suicide rates with those for Britain, the United States, Sweden, Denmark, and Austria. The comparisons were made by an Institute of Public Health official, who is quoted to have said: "Is Japan not becoming a country in which it is difficult for old people to live?"


Some critics believe that Japan is showing symptoms of the social diseases they think are plaguing countries like the United States-not AIDS but equally contagious viruses which destroy the family system as a product of Japan's politically managed culture. The "victims" of the trend toward two-generation families are said to include the elderly, and public schools have become the battle grounds for inoculating future generations against the "progress" of family nuclearization.

In a 1981 study called Gimon darake no chugaku kyokasho (Problem-filled middle-school textbooks), a group of scholars criticized two textbooks for emphasizing two-generation families "built on affection between man and wife and between parents and children" while showing elderly people only in photos of geriatric homes.

According to (then) Japan Times editor Kiyoaki Murata, the group linked the postwar trend toward nuclearization of the family with "the fact that Japan has the highest suicide rate in the world among those over 75 years of age" (The Japan Times, 10 April 1981).

Same old game

Media responses to the April 1988 National Police Agency report on suicides in 1987 were predictable. Most papers reported that, while the total number of suicides had dropped, there had been more suicides among older people, and the percent of illness-related suicides among the elderly had risen.

Yomiuri Shimbun observed that, "Compared to last year, suiciders increased only among the generation which has completed one sexagenary cycle." The column then referred to the rapid increase in deaths among isolated elderly, and sounded its usual editorial alarm: "In human life, there is no difference in [relative] weight. But the greatness of the number of suicides of people who have assiduously contributed to society is too cruel" (Henshu techo, 15 April 1988).

Mainichi Daily News reported that about one-third of all suicides in 1987 were committed by people over 60 years of age. It then said, in an opinion that it attributed to the NPA report but which seems to be its own, that this reflected "the increasing difficulty the aged have living in a society of abundance" (13 April 1988).

Only The Japan Times introduced the population factor, in an "Update on suicide" editorial, which appeared nine days after it had merely summarized the NPA report on its domestic news page. Observing that the number of old folks who killed themselves in 1987 accounted for nearly a third of the total, the editorial said (22 April 1988):

"Now, the fact that the elderly constitute a growing segment of the population is one thing, but not enough to explain this. Together with it is the fact that the elderly are more worried about illness-which actually is the prime cause of self-destruction."

"Japan's great progress in increasing longevity must be weighed with the things to go into the quality of life for those last years. If that life is so bad as to lead to increasing suicides, certainly there is no ground for congratulatory salutes"

Numerical will

In fact, the growing elderly population more than explains the alleged increase in suicide body count: division by the age-group populations would have shown that the number of suicides per 100,000 people dropped for both the 60-64 and 65-and-older age groups.

So why all the fuss about "increasing suicides"? Why worry that older people are worse off today than they were in the good old days of shorter life spans but supposedly closer and happier communities?

The increase in elderly suicides imputable to sickness is natural and expected. As the average age of the older population climbs, more people are afflicted by illnesses that become more prevalent with age.

Much more might be done to further reduce elderly suicide rates. But the figures show that the will of Japan's old folks to live has been getting stronger (see the table). What happens as aging further tests Japan's family traditions and welfare system is anyone's guess.

Murder-suicide and "cultural defense"

Mass media and academia are full of cultural myths about the human nature of behavior that falls under the rubric of shinju in Japanese. These myths find a ready market among journalists and scholars who believe that acts of shinju are culturally (if not racially) determined.

Bankrupt stereotypes

"Japanese, when bankrupt, seriously think of night escape or ikka shinju, but the schmucks [renju] over there [in the United States] where credit cards abound, there are lots of blacks, [and they think] 'We're bankrupt already. Tomorrow we don't have to pay a thing back.' [There're] indifferent, unconcerned, [as though nothing were wrong]."

These were the words of Watanabe Michio on 23 July this year at a Liberal-Democratic Party confab in Karuizawa where just two years ago former prime minister Nakasone Yasuhiro said that the United States had a low level of social intelligence, compared with Japan, because it had many blacks and Puerto Ricans.

Watanabe would be surprised to learn that in the United States not a few parents-who knows their color-flee into the night or commit murder-suicide rather than face personal bankruptcy.

Though Watanabe spoke in general, and not about a specific case, The Japan Times translated ikka shinju as "family suicide" (26 July 1988). In most acts of shinju involving families, however, one parent commits suicide in conjunction with murdering the other members of the family, or both parents commit suicide in a murder-suicide pact.

Only when all members of a family agree to kill themselves without assistance, or agree to be killed by others in an assisted suicide, is it be possible to translate ikka shinju as "family suicide".

Shinju universal

The term shinju applies both to cases of single and multiple suicide committed in conjunction with single or multiple murder, and to cases of double, other multiple, and even mass suicide. The single term is convenient because both kinds of shinju are partly motivated by depressive and hostile wishes not to die alone.

The distinction between homicidal and non-homicidal shinju is made by prefixes like muri (forced) and goi (consensual). Other prefixes specify the relationships of the people involved, hence ikka (family), oyako (parent-child), boshi (mother-child), fushi (father-child), fufu (married couple), isei (couple of opposite sex), dosei (couple of same sex), among many others.

When reported in the Japanese press, the nature of a shinju case is generally clear. Even when there are no prefixes, case details reveal whether homicidal elements are present. And usually they are.

What happens between the English and the Japanese is the fault of the "culture translator" who is handicapped by inadequate knowledge of shinju behavior in Japan and other countries.

That shinju behavior is both universal and ancient is apparent to anyone who has studied homicide and suicide globally and historically. Shinju statistics are anything but clear, even in Japan where the National Police Agency has been keeping tallies for decades. But other countries also produce their share of murder-suicides and suicide pacts involving families, relatives, couples, friends, even strangers.

As with any human behavior, culture may affect the ways that shinju acts are perceived by individuals and institutions in a given society. And such perceptions may influence the rates that various kinds of murder-suicide and multiple suicide occur in the society.

But no kind of shinju is unique to Japan. And all acts of shinju in Japan are human before they are cultural-notwithstanding the proliferation of the myth that shinju is a Japanese "custom" or "tradition" that deserves a "cultural defense" in non-Japanese courts.

Cultural offense

Cultural relativists went on the offense in California in 1985, when their views dominated news coverage of the case of Fumiko Kimura, who was tried and convicted in a Santa Monica court for causing the deaths of her two children as the result of an attempt to drown them with herself off a local beach.

Some Japanese residents of California, ignorant about how homicide cases are tried in the state (much less in Japan), apprehensive about "racial" discrimination, and full of culturalist misconceptions about the human (psychiatric) nature of such acts, sought to have Kimura's case defended on ethnic grounds.

Said one member of the Fumiko Kimura Fair Trial Committee, as quoted in a newspaper article by free lance journalist Katie Hayashi, another member: "I don't want Kimura's act to be judged by American standards. I want Americans to understand cultural differences and respect other cultures." (Pacific Citizen, 7 June 1985)

Hayashi herself expressed her surprise that "Americans didn't understand the Japanese custom of shinju" (PC, 26 April 1985). She also argued that "most coerced parent-child [murder] suicides occur in Japan and a few other Asian countries; for that reason, it is a cultural act" (PC, 20 September 1985).

Natural defense

Such ethnocentric incantations failed when even Kimura's attorney, Gerald Klausner, said that it was "absurd" to argue that she had drowned her children for cultural reasons.

"If we use or attempt to use cultural thinking as a defense or an explanation for an act," Klausner explained in a television interview, "What you're saying is that a person is totally normal, his thinking is very clear, and that he did what he feels is right and what he believes in."

Despite its hard-nosed posturing in the pretrial hearings, the prosecution showed a deep understanding of Kimura's problems and needs as a distressed human being, and it was willing to accept a psychiatric defense. Indeed, no one articulated the hazards of a cultural defense better than deputy district attorney Lauren Weis, who said in the same TV interview:

"If the cultural aspect was brought into it, the elements of murder might have been able to have been proven by the prosecution. Because if Mrs. Kimura did in fact kill her children because of her cultural background, it would seem to show that she intended to kill them, and that she was competent, and that she was thinking of doing that, that she was deliberately doing that."

Kimura pled no contest (equivalent to a guilty plea) to reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter, which recognizes an intent to kill but not with malice. She was sentenced to one year in prison with credit for the months she had been in custody while under prosecution, placed on five years probation, ordered to undergo further psychiatric treatment, and released early on a recommendation for clemency.

In ruling (as it did, in effect) that Kimura's cultural background had nothing to do with the human essentials of her act, the California court saw a Japanese woman as just another person-a priceless sign of acceptance in a country that, during World War II, had failed to treat its citizens of Japanese descent like other Americans.

Japanese courts

But even a Japanese court would have seen Kimura as a human being. Had she been tried in Japan, no defense attorney would have thought it necessary, if even possible or admissible, to try to defend her act of child murder and attempted suicide as a customary practice based on a cultural tradition.

Trial transcripts show that Japanese courts consider each homicide case on its own criminological and psychosocial merits. Even when the defendant is a mother who killed her children before or while (or even without) attempting to take her own life, the prosecution will weigh the forensic evidence and examine the woman's motives, and the defense will argue the psychiatric and familial factors that warrant leniency.

Japanese courts recognize that killing another person, willfully or through negligence, is an offense against society. But they stress the rehabilitation of defendants who appear to have acted in a state of mental confusion or duress rather than from criminal design.

A defendant who admits guilt must first acknowledge the gravity of the charges without making excuses. Any effort to vindicate a criminal act to which one has confessed would be seen as a sign of insincerity.

Only when a defendant has shown a genuine capacity to repent can mitigation be considered.

British laws

Criminal justice may not be the same in all countries or states, or even in all courts in Japan or in California. But most penal codes allow for the fact that not all murders are motivated by evil.

Great Britain has had a very tolerant Infanticide Act since 1938. And British forensic pathologist Keith Simpson once wrote of the faith that society places in the ability of individuals to overcome personal tragedies like Kimura's.

An English woman drowned her three-month-old son after hearing news that her husband's ship had been sunk and assumed (wrongly, as it turned out) that he had died. She had already been depressed and so decided to do away with the child and herself.

"She pleaded guilty to infanticide and was bound over for two years," Simpson wrote. "This offense is always regarded by the law with great sympathy for the mother: a binding over (i.e., not to repeat the offense or commit any other within a prescribed period) is usual, and this lenience is rarely misplaced."

Myth mongering

Meanwhile, mass media continues to culturally garble the nature of shinju acts, especially when committed by Japanese.

In April this year [1988], an Associated Press article about a recent California case, of a Japanese woman and two small children found dead from smoke inhalation in a fire that the woman is thought to have set herself, reported:

"Some friends of the family speculated that the apparent murder-suicide may be a case of 'oyako shinju,' a Japanese tradition in which parents planning suicide believe they must kill their children so they will not be orphans."

In December last year [1987], a UPI-Kyodo article repeated an even more notorious myth about why suicidal Japanese mothers are supposed to want to take their children with them:

"Committing suicide is not considered sinful in Japan, but leaving one's children behind is looked upon as cruel."

Neither is true, but here I will deal with only the second canard, which seems to have started from remarks made many years ago by Ohara Kenshiro, a psychiatrist and expert on suicide.

In a Time magazine interview, Ohara recalled the case of a female patient who had twice attempted to commit suicide (11 June 1984):

"Housewives in the neighborhood, when they learned of the incident, accused her of being a cold-blooded 'devil' for trying to kill herself alone. She became a social pariah. So the second time she tried suicide-and succeeded-she took along the children."

One gets an entirely different impression of the case when reading Ohara's books on shinju (Taiyo Shuppan, 1973), in which he says:

"[The woman] was mortified because housewives in the neighborhood, with whom she had previously [before her first suicide attempt] been on bad terms, had gossiped 'Kodomo o nokoshite jisatsu o suru nante, oni no yo na hahaoya da.'"

In English this means: "Leaving her children and committing suicide-what a fiendish [devil-like] mother!" Which could mean, "If you're going to kill yourself, then you ought to kill your kids too!" But, more likely, "It's cruel to abandon your kids, so you shouldn't commit suicide!"

Reasonable appeals

Ohara did not argue why what some disgruntled people are rumored to have said about an emotionally disturbed neighbor, with whom they did not get along, should be taken to mean that the neighbor should kill her children the next time she tried to kill herself.

Nor did he establish grounds for concluding that most Japanese would condemn a suicidal mother for not killing her children too.

In fact, studies of classical literature suggest that Japan can boast an anti-suicidal tradition. In the 13-century Heike monogatari, for example, a mother talks her two daughters out of suicide, by appealing to their Buddhistic sense of sin: their suicides would cause her to kill herself, which would make them guilty of matricide.

Anthropology teaches that, while different cultures may permit different acts, some acts violate human nature in all societies.

I have never met a Japanese who believes, in their sober heart, uninebriated by culturalist suggestions of uniqueness, that a distraught mother should kill her children, much less herself.