"Cries for help" in Japan,
past and present

By William Wetherall

This article is an unpublished English version of a paper read and published in Japanese.

The Japanese version was read by the author at the International Symposium on Suicide Prevention on May 1978 in Tokyo and was published in the symposium proceedings as:

"Nihon no 'sukui o motomeru sakebi', ima to mukashi"
Nihon Jisatsu Yobo Kenkyukai (ed)
Jisatsu yobo to shiseikan
Tokyo: Seiwa Shoten, 1979, pages 165-170

While the topic of this symposium is "Suicide and views of life-and-death in Asia", my own research interests incline me to focus my contribution on suicide in Japan, a subject that I have been studying intensely for the past five years. I would like, moreover, to talk about suicide prevention problems in early Japan, although with the aim of relating them to similar problems in present-day Japan.

The fact that the living can discuss death, and talk of those who have died, makes the scientific study of dying a subject of life and the living. The English term thanatology, which literally means "the study of death", does not explicitly express its ultimate concern with life, but thanatologists, including suicidologists, intuitively feel this concern. In contrast with the understatement of the English term thanatology, recently coined from Greek elements, the older Sino-Japanese expression shiseikan is almost too clear. Literally meaning "life-death views", it very directly reminds us that we are dealing with both life and death. And yet, it too is ultimately vague, for it leaves it to us to define where one ends and the other begins, perhaps the most central concern of all religions.

We encounter similarly difficult boundary problems in the study of suicide, an uncertain mode of behavior that involves walking along the two-in-one sides of a Mobius strip, or straddling a fence between life and death, compelling those of us who endeavor to comprehend such behavior to consider the ambivalent attractions of life and death not only from the view of the individual who would live or die, but from the views of those who, often unwittingly, participate in the individual's decision. The boundaries between the individual who would ideate, contemplate, gesture, attempt, or perhaps complete suicide-and his or her relatives, friends, associates, and other significant persons, but also significant things in a surrounding world that includes more than people-are also likely to be interpenetrating in ways that seldom find the suicidal person truly isolated. Indeed, one of the universals of suicidal behavior-that seems to underlie superficial differences in religious and other cultural values between different individuals in an ethnic group, between different generations of the ethnic group, and between different ethnic groups around the world-is that most suicide, past and present, has been very interpersonal or social in nature, while also being highly intrapersonal.

The historical psychosocial complexity of suicide in Japan, for example, is perhaps no better portrayed than in the "Ukifune" and "Kagero" chapters of Murasaki Shikibu's singularly unique Genji monogatari, known in English as The Tale of Genji, an early 11th-century Japanese novel sufficiently well-known even outside Japan that its title, at least, should sound familiar. The mention of Ukifune will recall, to those familiar with the long history of Japanese literature, a series of thematically related literary episodes that involve the suicide of a woman who has two or more suitors: the several poems in the 8th-century Man'yoshu; a story in the 10th-century Yamato monogatari; the 12th-century legend of Kesa and Morito, dramatized in many modern works of art, including Kinugasa Teinosuke's brilliant 1953 film Jikokumon, which won worldwide acclaim as Gate of Hell; the 17th-century Ada monogatari; and the early 19th-century Tamagawa nikki, in which the sexual roles of the traditional pattern are reversed, a man suiciding ostensibly because of complications in love with two women; to mention only the most salient episodes.

While all these episodes deal with the same general suicide theme, they elaborate the theme very differently. It is not the object here to discuss the many interesting and significant variations, but it needs to be stressed that most of the episodes are recorded in forms that give us little insight into the psychosocial dynamics of the suicides they portray. Indeed, the literary conventions that restricted the descriptions and analyses of those who first recorded these episodes, and of those who probably embellished them when they produced the later editions that survive today, obscure our view of the behavioral realities that we have good reason to believe must have lain beneath the surface of culturally standardized literary portrayals. The single episode that represents, if you will, a significant clearing in the cultural mists that tend to obscure from our sight the complex motives involved in the suicidal dramas below is, not surprisingly, the story of Ukifune and her suicidal flight from the psychosocial realities imposed by her affairs with Niou and Kaoru.

Space does not permit a summary of the episode, which I will leave to the reader who may not know it to pursue in a convenient facsimile of the classical Japanese original, or a competent translation into modern Japanese, English, or French. Suffice it to say that, in the Ukifune episode, we have evidence of the same early warnings of suicidal propensity that we often if not usually have today, in the form of the seemingly casual, sometimes tearful "I want to die" gestures. Some of these gestures are embedded in poetic allusions, while others are more explicitly expressed by Ukifune in face-to-face encounters with those nearest her, including her lovers, mother, and attendants, or are shown to be part of her inner thoughts by the psychosocially omniscient narrator, Murasaki Shikibu. Many of those nearest Ukifune, in particular those most involved in her drama, detect her depression and are momentarily concerned about it. But again, as is often the case today, they find reasons to disconcern themselves. Only after Ukifune's disappearance do they recall, with renewed concern and guilt that includes considerable self-reproach, her unheeded cries for help.

Kara o dani If I leave not
ukiyo no naka ni even my body
todomezu ba in this miserable world,
izuko o haka to what as a target
kimi mo uramin will you reproach?

The autoplastic aggression (aggression directed against another by expressing it against oneself) that characterizes so much suicidal behavior, and is reflected in the spirit if not the letter of most modern suicide notes, is clearly evident in this poem. But let me attempt to clarify other sentiments that Murasaki Shikibu has expressed through Ukifune. Ukifune imagines that she is a source of Niou's dissatisfaction, but rather than blame herself, she wonders what he will have to begrudge should she deprive him not only of the spiritually vital Ukifune, but her spiritless cadaver as well. As we shall soon see, it is clear from the context in which this poem appears that Ukifune has already contemplated throwing herself into the Uji river, and she expects to be washed out to sea where her body would never be recovered by those who know her.

Ukifune is drawn between many conflicting values. She seriously considers the Buddhistic proscription against dying before one's parents, and is particularly concerned about leaving her mother behind in this world. But in the end, this proscription fails to deter her suicide attempt. She weighs the burden of the social censure she anticipates would follow a public exposure of her affairs, with the burden of the rumors she knows would spread even after her departure from this world. She expressed her concern for the latter in the following poem.

Nagekiwabi Even though in distress
mi o ba sutsu tomo I discard my body,
nakikage ni I know but how
ukina nagasamu in the wake of death
koto o koso omeo my despicable name
will be made to flow.

Ukifune wrote this poem shortly before she wrote the one we quoted earlier. But she addressed this poem to no one. She simply placed it under her inkstone, where it was found by an attendant who, upon reading it, stared in the direction of the Uji river, knowing at last the missing Ukifune's whereabouts. It is tempting to regard this poem as the world's first literary suicide note.

In leaping nearing a millennium to the present, we find ourselves in a world that, for all its ostensibly different cultural values to confuse our search for solutions to our behavioral problems, it is not in its behavioral nature essentially different from worlds past, in which people like Ukifune enacted their tragic dramas. Moreover, our ability to take suicidal forewarnings seriously, much less recognize such forewarnings, does not in hindsight seem to have greatly, if at all, improved over those of forebears.

Distressed young people today are also writing suicide notes and figuratively leaving them under their inkstones to be discovered only when they are found missing or dead. Some of the most poignant of these suicide notes have been written over long periods of time, often years, preceding their author's suicide. In Japan, many such notes come to our attention in the form of posthumously published collections of poems, essays, and diary entries. Among the prominent examples are those of ethnic majority Japanese youth like Takano Etsuko, Okazaki Rimi, Okajima Shigetoshi, Kishigami Daisaku, Haraguchi Tozo, and Oku Kohei; burakumin like Fukumoto Mariko, an ethnic majority Japanese born a former outcaste community; Korean Japanese youth like Yamamura Masaaki; and youth as young as 12-year old Oka Masafumi, son of a Japanese mother and a Japan-resident Korean father.

It is clear when reading such posthumous works that many people are living close together but failing to communicate with one another. Indeed, how many of us communicate well with our own children? How many of us take the apparently offhand "death wishes" of friends and relatives seriously? How many youth at this very moment, while their parents believe them to be in their exquisitely provided but hermetically sealed rooms, cramming for the entrance exams that society has convinced them will determine their entire future, are spilling their confusion and anxiety in notebooks and diaries kept locked in desks from parental eyes? Are the limited alternatives envisioned by present-day suicidal youth really different from those available to Ukifune? Or our these youth, like Ukifune, utterly alone in a crowd of family, friends, and acquaintances, but unable in their psychosocial prisons to imagine escape routes other than death?

What were Niou and Kaoru, and Ukifune's mother and closest attendants, and others aware of her depression, doing while she walked to the banks of the Uji river? Unique among other heroines that figure in the many versions of this tragic theme, Ukifune was rescued. When we think of the lethal geography of her attempt, her chances of being rescued were not good, but neither were they bad. Murasaki Shikibu must have had in mind real precedents of rescued suicide attempters, with full knowledge and a perceptive understanding of the scenes that precede and follow a suicide attempt, to give us the utterly believable, complex scenario she did. It may seem, when viewed through some of the cultural mist that does in the end distinguish Murasaki's novel from one she might have written as a sensitive writer in modern Japan, that Ukifune's rescue was merely the luck of having been favored, or perhaps unfavored, by the gods that be. And yet, as we have reason to imagine from the cries of Ukifune's lonely soul, her thinly veiled passions for life may well have filled her mind with fantasies of being rescued, if not also fantasies of being allowed to live in a world less circumscribed by immobilizing traditions.

But is this not also the case with our youth today? Indeed, not only with our youth, but with adults who are suicidal? Are not the most expressive among them, and the less expressive in quieter ways, not begging us to help them live in a more meaningful , more humane world? And as they vacillate between their desire to cope with life and possibly enjoy it, and their sense of hopelessness in being able to do neither, where are we, and what are we doing?