The suicide of Okada Yukiko

Japanese youth and the Yukko syndrome

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 133(29), 17 July 1986, pages 45-47

Around 10 o'clock on the morning of 8 April, the 18-year-old Japanese singer Yukiko Okada was found with a slashed wrist in her gas-filled Tokyo apartment, crouching in a closet and sobbing. She had written a note which implied that things had not gone her way in a real or imagined romance with an actor old enough to be her father. Two hours later, still despondent and even more disoriented, Okada jumped to her death from a seven-storey building. In the following weeks, some other young people were dead in her wake--one from the same roof--in a minor suicide epidemic.

Okada was born into this impure world just plain Kayo Sato, but by now she is known among the Buddhas that be as Yugyoin Shakunikaho. She was innocent youth itself in the eyes of the millions who loved her face and figure, though neither was really remarkable.

Her voice, too, seemed ordinary, at least to those who have not learned to appreciate its technically good electronic-mix of the bouncy, dreamy, nasal, pouty whimpers, whines and sighs that have long endeared young female idols to the adolescent boys and girls--and middle-aged men with a rorikon (Lolita complex) who commensally feed their fantasies at the breasts of such media icons.

As news of Okada's suicide spread, hundreds of fans converged on the Tokyo building which houses the offices of Sun Music, the talent agency that managed her career. Local crowds already pressed against a rope that police had placed around the chalked outlines of where Okada's brains had splattered on the pavement. In one corner of the cordoned area was a makeshift altar with an incense burner, a candle, and a few bouquets.

Photos of the gore were taken only seconds after Okada hit the ground by a newspaper reporter who had come to inquire about rumours of her earlier suicide attempt. Black-and-white prints were carried in some of the local (but none of the national) dailies, and in many weekly (but few monthly) magazines. TV cameras captured most of the on-site investigation, the body removal, the pavement scrubbing, and the mass hysteria that began when the rope was taken down.

Some of Okada's fans fell in tears on the traces of blood, hands and faces rubbing the stains that seemed to remain despite the scouring. Others kept an all-night vigil at the altar that grew as mourner after mourner heaped flowers, plants, softdrinks, sweets, fruit, cosmetics, posters, records, letters, and other mementoes on the now sacred ground that had claimed their goddess' life.

By the 14th, the pile had grown as high as the head of the Shinto priest who, on this seventh day of grieving, purified the offerings before they were placed in 60 cardboard boxes and taken to a nearby shrine to be burned. Dozens of fans continued to come each day to pay their respects at a Buddhist altar in the building vestibule.

Other fans went to the Nagoya home of Okada's parents, who allowed them to bid farewells before the urn which holds her cremated remains. The relics will be placed in the family vault at a Buddhist temple after the first anniversary of her death.

Known to her fans as Yukko, Okada won a nationwide TV audition in 1983 when only 15. She made her debut in 1984 and received two of that year's most coveted new talent awards. In just two years she had made eight singles and six albums and was well on her way to becoming one of the most popular idols ever. But Canyon Records postponed the release of a ninth single that was scheduled to come out on 14 April, in deference to popular sentiments that its sale now could induce more suicides.

Why Okada tried to kill herself in her apartment is anything but clear. For over a month after her death, the women's and entertainment weeklies left no bush unbeaten in their effort to flush out every fact and rumour that might explain her desperate "cry for help." But the distinction between facts and rumour was usually lost in sensational speculation.

More important questions, such is why Okada was able to make the second, fatal attempt, and why a few impressionable fans followed her in death, received much less attention. Most efforts to explain the rash of suicides merely repeated the old but still widely accepted cultural stereotypes and myths about suicide in Japan.

Some of the teenage suicides committed in Japan during the first month after Okada's death have been attributed to something the mass media have called the "Yukko syndrome."' According to one unconfirmed report, l7 of the 31 juvenile suicides that were known to the police in the first two weeks or so after Okada's death were by girls, and 19 of the suicides were by jumping from a building. Usually more boys commit suicide, and the most common methods are ordinarily hanging and gassing.

Spring is the suicide season in Japan as it is in many other countries, and April is often the worst month. The National Police Agency reported 93 suicides among minors (younger than 20) in both 1978 and 1979, and 59 and 50 juvenile suicides respectively in April 1984 and 1985. Over the years that these monthly tallies got progressively smaller, the teenage population-swelled from the children of the post-war baby boom. So Japan s juvenile suicide rate per 100,000 teenagers has recently decreased even faster than the total numbers suggest.

Only a few of the "epidemic" suicides were clearly associated with Okada's death through specific mention of her name in a suicide note or possession of her pictures or other memorabilia. And even these cases were characterised by an accumulation of predisposing factors, on top of which Okada's death was at most the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

The first suicide to be nominally connected with Okada's death was that of a 16-year-old Korean girl shortly after midnight on the morning of the 15th. Pak Migi leapt to her death from the 13th floor of an apartment building in Kobe after telling her younger sister "I want to become like Yukiko Okada." Pak's mother reportedly had no idea why her daughter had killed herself, but circumstances suggest several motives.

Born and raised in Japan, Pak had been using the Japanese surname Matsubara (Migi already passes as Japanese "Miki") to hide her Korean identity at private high school she had entered in April 1985. Since many Koreans lived in her neighbourhood, where about 10 percent of the students in the schools are Korean, her teachers did not think that worry about her foreign nationality was a factor in her despair. Yet even assimilated Koreans expect to face discrimination in schools, the job, market, and marriage.

Pak quit school in March this year (compulsory education ends with middle school), and she did not have a full-time job in April, the start of the new fiscal year when most girls her age would be going back to school or work. She also seems to have had few friends.

Twenty-one-year-old Masahiro Majima, the last of the fewer than 10 clearly "related" suicides, had pictures of Okada in his pocket when shortly before 6 on the evening of 2 May he jumped from the same roof as she had and landed where her makeshift altar had been. Majima was still alive but died within an hour. He was seen in front of the building on previous days, and had loitered there with some other youths since mid-afternoon. His parents ran a hospital in another prefecture, and he wanted to go to medial school but had failed the entrance exams. He was unemployed, lived alone, and had moved just two weeks before his death.

Okada, too, had moved into her apartment only four days before her suicide and had not yet fully unpacked. She had graduated from high school in March and wanted to live by herself. Unlike most teen idols, she was a diligent straight-A student. She seems to have been spoiled and capricious. Yet apparently she went through the kinds of mood swings which characterise manic-depressive reaction: cheerful, outgoing and confident when high; silent, withdrawn and apprehensive when low.

Okada's self-destructive impulses may have been stimulated by her knowledge of the suicide of 17-year-old Yasuko Endo shortly after 7:30 on the evening of 30 March just 10 days earlier. Scheduled to start as a singer in May, Endo had jumped from the roof of a seven-storey Tokyo building only minutes after a long discussion with her manager and mother about boy friends. She had lost her father when she was only four.

Okada made her first attempt after dwelling on her problems all night in the clothes she had worn the evening before. In contrast, Endo's act appears to have been impulsive. But Endo is said to have been unusually curious about death and suicide since elementary school, and she had read and emulated the poems of 12-year-old Masafumi Oka, a son of Korean and Japanese parents, who plunged to his death from an apartment building in 1975. Endo was being prepared to play a sexier role than Okada, but the rules of the virgin image game were the same: neither girl was permitted to have sexual relationships with men.

What does all this tell us? Many commentators have concluded that "traditions of Japan's cultural climate" such as "tolerant Buddhist attitudes toward death" encourage Japanese people to take their own lives more frequently and for different reasons than Euro-American Christians, who allegedly refrain from suicide because they view it as a sin. According to one of Japan's most influential national dailies, "The attention that Japan's mass media gives to children's suicides is a practically unseen phenomenon in the Western world."

None of this makes much sense to anyone who has studied suicide as a universal human phenomenon. There have been many suicide outbreaks among adolescents and college-age people in other countries, past and present.

Moreover, suicide experts in both Europe and the US have been concerned for a long time about the role of mass media in triggering or sustaining such contagions. Some studies associate media publicity of the deaths (especially the suicides) of famous people with transient increases in suicide and even accident rates.

Not all researchers have found a correlation between local increases in such death rates and the way that suicide is reported in the media. But all have concluded that any (even oral) transmission of news about someone's suicide can suggest the act to susceptible people, especially impulsive adolescents with depressive tendencies.

The "Yukko syndrome" as a national phenomenon was possibly precipitated by the immediate, intense, and uniform manner in which Okada's death was sensationally reported throughout Japan. Shocking primetime hold-the-press postmortems, reports of the morbid thoughts behind the bright eyes and smile of such a highly visible vendor of adolescent dreams, could not help but infect other people, even those who were not her fans, with a sense of hopelessness about their own frustrations.

Such as it was, the Okada epidemic was minuscule compared with the "cluster suicides" which have plagued teenagers in several small towns in the US in recent years. In one case, a single high school in Plano, Texas, with roughly 100,000 people, was struck by six suicides in just seven months in 1983.

This is the annual equivalent of 12,000 teenage suicides in Japan with a population of 120 million--or 20 times the 600 juvenile suicides which Japan has averaged in the past five years. The number of juveniles who kill themselves each year in the US, with only twice Japan's population, runs into the thousands.

Pursuit or reunion suicides are a common response to the grief of separation from a parent, child, spouse, or lover, but they can also occur on death anniversaries. The deaths of cult heroes like James Dean (accident), Marilyn Monroe (suicide), and John Lennon (murder) are thought to have inspired several suicides. The suicide of Sylvia Plath probably figured in the suicide of fellow poet and friend Anne Sexton, if not in the deaths of other artistic women. The list of examples is long.

But even fictional suicides are reputed to have stimulated "imitative" or "identity" self-murders. The classic example is the death of the hero of Goethe's 18th-century novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Journalists and even scholars are inclined to describe the history of suicide epidemics and landmarks in Japan as though plagues of Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death" are not also found in other countries. The "Yukko syndrome" shares too many aspects of suicide contagions elsewhere to be regarded as peculiar to Japan. Rather than prove that Japan's deified entertainers and their worshippers are somehow different, such "vogues" and "chain reactions" (the favourite misnomers of reporters and academics) really show how much the Japanese have in Common with the rest of humanity.