Seven Wonders of Japan

Suicide Wonders

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 24 February 1991, page 9

Other "Wonders" articles:
Japan Wonders 1
Japan Wonders 2
Minority Wonders


1. Suicide increasing? No way.
2. Youth suicides up? Hardly.
3. Elderly Japanese rushing to death? Not on your life.
4. Female rates high? Only in the past.
5. The deaths of those 47 loyal retainers of yore? Not a suicide drama, by any means.
6. Family suicides? They rarely occur in Japan.
7. Ritual suicide? It depends.

Between 2 and 4 percent of all people in the world open life's escape hatch with their own keys. That's one or two in every classroom, bus, neighborhood, or extended family of 50.

Most of us have known someone who has sought, or bought, an early release. We have lost sleep wondering why. Or perhaps we've pulled at the lock ourselves, dug in our pockets, fingered the keys.

As I live in Japan, most of the suicides I reflect upon are local. My morning commuter stands still for 20 minutes on account of an "accident" involving a train a few stations down the line. Later, I read as much as journalistic convention and space allow in the evening paper about the mother and daughter who had to be cleaned off the tracks.

Or I receive a neighborhood association circular inviting all residents to pay their last respects to the bereaved family of a high school b4 on the next block. By word of mouth I hear that he had hung himself in his room. A few months later, I am tempted to retrieve his mint-condition 10-speed bike from the bulk-garbage pile.

As a suicidologist, I take a special interest in such tragedies. What I find morbidly most fascinating about self-destruction, though, is not why some people kill themselves and maybe a few others in the process, but rather how the living press the subject of death and suicide into the service of cultural myth and political ideology.

Here, I will describe seven myths of suicide that provoke wonder and illustrate how poorly understood suicide is in this country--and for that matter, throughout the world.

1. Suicide increasing? No way.

The body counts are climbing--but not as fast as the counts of people who are likely to do themselves in.

Between 1920 and 1970, Japan's population doubled while the number of people dying each year fell by half. Against this fourfold reduction in general mortality, suicide and other non-medical causes of death have become more conspicuous.

When you take into consideration the aging of the population, the 1970 suicide rate was nearly 50 percent lower than the 1920 rate. On the face of it, the percentage of suicides was double in 1970 what it had been in 1920. This rise in the percentage of people who are dying by their own hand is a misleading statistic. The suicide rate is actually falling, but much more slowly than the death rates by diseases that arc now less dangerous thanks to improvements in hygiene and medicine.

2. Youth suicides up? Hardly.

Over the past four decades, the suicide rates for young people in the 15-19, 20-24, and 25-29 age groups have fallen by factors as large as one-half--and all this while competition to get into the right schools and the right companies has allegedly doubled.

There is, however, a trend toward more suicides among children in the 5-9 age group. And for children, especially boys, in the 10-14 age group, the rate has not fallen as conspicuously as for other groups of young people.

3. Elderly Japanese rushing to death? Not on your life.

Over the past 40 years, the suicide rates have fallen for all older groups of both sexes - except for males in the 60-64 age group during the early 1980s. The 60-64 male rate, however, has resumed its fall again after momentarily and very slightly rising.

While suicide rates have not fallen as much for older people as for younger people, they have fallen despite rapid changes in family structure--including nuclearization, which good-old day ideologues have wrongly accused of driving more elderly people to an early grave.

4. Female rates high? Only in the past.

It can be argued that women are better prepared for survival--psychologically, socially and technologically, if not physiologically. Suicide risks in practically all social categories disfavor men by often huge factors. The quality of postwar life, as quantified by suicide rates, has improved for both sexes in Japan, but especially for younger women.

5. The deaths of those 47 loyal retainers of yore?
Not a suicide drama, by any means.

All that belly slicing was done in the name of "self-execution"--a privilege of warriors, akin to the "gift of death" allowed aristocrats who broke laws or committed social indiscretions. True suicide is a drama of a different despair.

6. Family suicides? They rarely occur in Japan.

Where they do occur is in mistranslations into English and other languages of ikka shinju and related terms. Most such acts occur under conditions described by the word muri, which makes the act one of murder-suicide, or murder followed by suicide. Nor are suicide pacts among family members or others treated in a manner unique to Japan. Surviving instigators are charged with homicide. And there is no "cultural defense."

7. Ritual suicide? It depends.

The word "ritual" is not entirely meaningless when used to describe the seppuku style of suicide committed by Mishima Yukio and Morita Masukatsu on Nov. 25, 1970. But there is nothing "ritualistic" in the act, say, of a mother plunging into the sea with an infant child in each arm--even when the act is by a Japanese immigrant in California. Such acts are not cultural, much less traditional; they are utterly human, and they are found throughout the human world.