EACH DAY SOME day two and a half million commuters pass through the turnstiles at Tokyo’s Ikebukuro metro station. For the uninitiated the experience can be so exhilarating it is overwhelming. Thousands of passengers crowd its platforms with little clemency or room to spare. Pushing and shoving these passengers into carriages is all that the attendants, oshiya, can do to maintain order. Which, surprisingly, they do. In this, the world’s second-busiest train station, chaos has never seemed so orderly. Of course, a lot of it rides literally on the trains, which seem to come frequently and on time – every time. No visitor to the city leaves this or any of its other metro stations thinking any different.
Still, delays occur; though when they do it’s often not for reasons one expects. Having ridden the trains from Ikebukuro station on enough occasions, I know how ordered, efficient and punctual the metro is. Trains that come after their allotted slot risk being passed by the next train, and then the one after that.
In early 2004, having not long arrived in the city, I experienced one of these rare delays. The scheduled train, clearly late, was a source of visible consternation for the morning passengers. Five, then ten minutes passed. Still no train. After several more tense and impatient moments, the frustrated and confused crowd was hoarded onto another platform and into a different train. Before boarding I asked a station attendant what had happened. Though his English was sparse, the meaning of his words was not. He paused, longer than was necessary, as if grappling with meaning if not with language, and replied: ‘Just another suicide.’
I hadn’t seen a thing in the throng of waiting passengers. You’re hard pressed to see much when the crush inundates the platforms during peak hour. I couldn’t be sure that the suicide had taken place at the station. For all I knew it could have happened further down the track. I had no solid facts. I had no corporeal connection to this individual who, I presumed, had lived in a country that was only beginning to open to me. From that January morning, I remember scattered rays from the winter sun locked in elusive embrace with those eager passengers who, following the day’s mishap, seemed all too ready to resume their lives, go about their business as usual.
Which is what I did, only fully realising afterwards how much the attendant’s revelation had affected me. What unsettled me, most deeply I think, had something to do with his choice of words, his locution and tone. Communicated by three words, completely unremarkable in and of themselves, was an equivoque – an undertone or subtext that resisted easy interpretation. Perhaps it was just the language barrier or a cultural misunderstanding, at the very least the deafening hum of an agitated crowd left me with this impression. I can’t say for sure. Whatever it was, though, it left its mark – which has echoed since in a question I sometimes find myself asking: was this just another suicide?
YES. ‘DESPITE ITS astoning punctuality,’ says one Japan Times editorial, ‘Tokyo’s railway web has been chronically plagued by suicides that occur on a daily basis.’ Thirty-year-old Yukari Omoto, a resident of Kunitachi City, on Tokyo’s outskirts, corroborates this claim. ‘There seem to be suicides,’ at the railroad crossing, ‘all the time,’ she says. Living right beside the tracks she has almost become accustomed to the dreaded sound of halting locomotives, followed swiftly by the cold thud of human flesh making its fatal impact, followed by the commotion and distress of onlookers and officials in the aftermath. Once, she saw an entire incident take place from her apartment window.
Because the problem is so serious and occurs so frequently, many now see suicide as an almost conventional norm in Japanese society. When it occurs, it’s as if people expect it. They understand, even if they don’t always condone it. But suicide in Japan goes much deeper. Leaping in front of trains has received so much publicity only because it inconveniences the public so greatly.
Each year a large number of Japanese end their lives by jumping in front of trains or off tall buildings, overdosing on drugs or hanging. Some even commit suicide in pacts or with the help of suicide websites. In 2003, for example, there were 34,427 suicides in Japan, an average of ninety-four suicides a day – twenty-seven suicides per hundred thousand Japanese: the ninth-highest rate in the world and the highest among developed countries.
Men are particularly at risk, especially men over sixty. With the onset of the global financial crisis, the problem will worsen. In an ‘uncomfortable and restrictive society where’, as the Japanese social commentator Professor Kiyohiko Ikeda says, even ‘trivial matters are important’, suicide has developed into an epidemic. Standing from the outside looking in, it’s easy to see why Japan is commonly dubbed the ‘suicide nation’. And it’s easy to see why a suicide that caused momentary havoc at Ikebukuro station might be seen as just another suicide.
But even from the outside, it’s clear that there’s something about suicide in Japan, beyond official statistics, that makes it uniquely Japanese. And it’s these factors, very possibly buried within the attendant’s words that day, which left me raw. Unsatisfied with the numbers I kept on looking, hoping that by doing so I’d find a fuller answer to my question: was this just another suicide?
NO. ESPECIALLY, AS it quickly turned out, not in Japan. Statistics aside, the more I looked the more haunted I was by the intrigue – bordering on the romantic – that marks suicide in Japan. No less than a ‘Japanese national allegory’, suicide evokes a quintessential purity that speaks of valour and vindication, qualities long cherished in the Land of the Rising Sun. Driven by the desire for honour, the demands of obligation or the call for justice, suicide in Japan has typically been coupled with a quest for exoneration or empowerment. Where absolution is denied, the taking of one’s life comes to symbolise the ultimate embodiment of justice.
For centuries the Japanese people have shared a personal, cultural and spiritual connection with voluntary death. For instance, Bushido (the Way of the Warrior), seppuku (ceremonial self-disembowelment) andgyokusai (beautifully crushed to pieces like a jewel) are all ritualised practices of death. But they are all popularised, too. Bushido is the samurai’s way, seppuku the soldier’s duty and gyokusai the resilience of everyday folk. By their deaths they are immortalised as heroes who, when forced to accept humiliation, defeat or death at the hands of an adversary, said no by taking their own lives. Their sacrifice, in service of a proud nation or to uphold the family name, is not easily forgotten by the generations that follow. And their transgressions, whatever they may have been, are rarely remembered.
Just think of Yukio Mishima, the renowned Japanese writer-activist, whose botched suicide in 1970 is now folklore. On 25 November, having seized the headquarters of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, Mishima hoped to inspire a coup d’état that would eventually revive the ‘Way of the Warrior’ and return to the Emperor his powers. His appeal, however, was met with sardonic disdain. In the immediate aftermath, Mishima began the ritual that finished with the ending of his life. Having performed the act of harakiri (a distinct form ofseppuku), he awaited kaishakunin – the swift beheading, the fatal cut that follows, freeing him from his mortal agony. It took several ineffectual attempts, by all accounts, before the lethal blow was struck.
Shinju, or lover’s suicide, is equally powerful. Death impelled by love stands as the ultimate metaphor for love reconciled. And its power is no respecter of motives. For true love and true lovers denied, death reconnects their souls and impugns the living. For unrequited love or those obsessed by love, taking one’s own life is the fundamental cultural statement of love, perhaps in its purest form. Junshi and jisatsu, in a similar way, are symbolic suicides committed for reasons of loyalty, obligation and isolation. A culture as fixated on loyalty, obligation and status as Japan’s corners many in desperate situations that they have no way of escaping. The only means of escape that does not imperil their loyalty, obligation and status – and, in fact, even enshrines them – is suicide.
Unlike the West, where suicide is often legally proscribed, morally stigmatised or deemed sacrilegious, the idea of killing oneself in Japan remains deified, if somewhat deviant. Such a stance is profoundly fused with conceptions that link death to beauty, creativity, the universe’s incessant flux, and the soul’s ethical return to the earth and its ancestors when it has done its best and given its all. The influence of Buddhism is fundamental here, particularly its celebration of life, death, reincarnation and coming full circle. Seen this way, self-inflicted death is both culturally and spiritually virtuous, a path of personal empowerment and exoneration. In this one compellingly resolute act, one’s earthly legacy and eternal surety become forever associated with valour and honour, clemency and purity.
For these reasons suicide in Japan transcends, perhaps more completely than in any other culture, notions of escapism, fanaticism, nihilistic fantasy or inability to cope (which is not to say that notions like these aren’t often important motivating factors in acts of suicide, too). Rather, it is its profound cultural connection with justice, reconciliation and coming full circle that sets it apart. But that these are attainable only through death and the taking of one’s life implies, at least in part, that suicide in Japan is indirectly related to some of the most serious systemic failures that deny the realisation of justice and reconciliation in life.
Committing suicide, therefore, becomes one’s final decree and resolution. For those seeking to rectify insuperable personal, psychological and social ills, against societal constructs that fuel and institutionalise these ills, suicide is their only resolution. Death brings redemption where only suspicion and guilt prevailed in life. It brings justice most pure.
BUT WHY DOES justice have to come at a cost that’s so impossible to pay? That was something I just couldn’t accept. And even though I now see my reasons then as the wrong ones, I would have done almost anything to change the fact that this was so, that this is how one gets justice in these situations in Japan. It goes without saying that I still wish there had been another way to get justice, if justice was what he had been looking for.
She came to Australia about the same time I left Japan. It was her first time here and my first time back in months. Autumn was giving way to another Canberra winter when we met. When the news came, she had been in Australia barely six months. But she could stay no longer. He’d left a note, she said, but didn’t say much more. Within days she was gone, back to her home in Osaka. Though we stayed in touch for some months, with the pull of daily affairs and the distance we were losing touch. I don’t know where she is now, or how I’d reach her. I’m not even sure if that’s something I’d want to do. But I still have the emails we sent to each another in the months that followed her father’s suicide.
‘Since the death,’ she once wrote, ‘my mother has been very busy all the time. She will not stop doing things. There is nothing to do now, but every day she talks to family, to friends. But she does not talk with us. She reassures everything is okay. She cleans and cooks and makes sure we are eating well. I don’t know what it is she does any more, though. I think she can’t let go or can’t give in. The funeral preparation took time. It was a big funeral. A lot of the family and friends came to pay their respects. There was a lot of shock. No one could believe my father would do this. My father’s parents are no longer alive but seeing this would really kill them. Maybe it was respect to my father or just shame, but my mother isn’t emotional in the public. She had no feeling in front of people. She never cried or seemed lost or overwhelmed in front of people. She was always calm, just like always, like she accepted it or something. But I think she doesn’t accept it. I think she is so angry at him, she doesn’t know how much. After thirty years of marriage. It’s over just like that. There is no sadness like this.’
I had no good response to her email. She wrote only about her mother’s unfeeling and not a word about her own, when I think that was all she was doing: projecting her own sense of disbelief and acceptance, anger and sadness onto her mother. But I didn’t say this to her. I couldn’t. That kind of unease is not something that needs reminding. At a personal level, I found myself increasingly convinced by her sense of disbelief and acceptance, her anger and sadness. It just seemed easier that way.
What’s more, nothing that I had learned about suicide in Japan since that incident at Ikebukuro station seemed to correlate. My final response came as a default: ‘I understand.’ It was meaningless.
‘We all knew, but we didn’t talk about it, that his business was not doing well,’ she wrote back, as if to say, No, you don’t understand, not yet. ‘He had lots of debt before he died, a lot. He couldn’t have repaid them, this is what my brother told me after the funeral. We are okay now. But it wasn’t just us. He had employees too and they had families. He must have thought about them a lot. Our family name, his reputation. That was always very important to him. I don’t think I can understand everything now, but at least I understand. Our anger and sadness we don’t talk about much. I think maybe in future, but not now. We’re okay now. Thanks for everything.’
THAT WASN’T THE last time I heard from her; it just felt like it. Two years passed. At the time, I was researching for a project on Japanese law when some data I came across abruptly reopened a chapter I thought had shut two years back. Ever since that day at Ikebukuro station, the issue of suicide in Japan had etched itself onto my mind. And later it etched deeper still. There would be no resolution on that front, I already knew that. didn’t realise just how much I needed an opportunity that would let me say to her – as much as to myself – ‘I understand’, and mean it.
While I was trawling through Japanese legal texts in a Canberra library one day, a random passage in book by Mark D West caught my eye. The excerpt was from a note left by a president of an unnamed Japanese company: ‘My financial debts are simply more than I can bear…I wish I could pay it back but I cannot, and I do not want to shame my family…a man does not live in shame…I will end my life with dignity.’
The following chapters of that book, Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes, put this statement into perspective. In Japan, it said, the financial trauma of debt, the shame associated with bankruptcy and the inadequate legal resources available have been an immediate cause of thousands of suicides each year. Participants of a bankruptcy survey corroborated this, indicating in the majority of instances that suicide is an acceptable resolution to debt and bankruptcy. And the numbers confirm this, with 3,654 suicides in 2003 committed solely for economic reasons. Economic downturns, recessions and now the global financial crisis: the severity of this trend may yet worsen.
At issue, the book seemed to suggest, was Japan’s complicated, lengthy and stigmatised bankruptcy system. Such sentiments were, and still are, evident at all levels – from the Japanese Minister of Economy, who blamed ‘the system for the high number of debt-caused suicides in Japan’, to the daughter of a random suicide victim, who felt that ‘better law would have kept Father from losing his life.’ How is it that these laws failed to keep this woman’s father, among so many others, alive?
West proffers six main reasons. The first relates to the delays associated with bankruptcy proceedings. In Japan, these proceedings typically do not commence upon the matter being filed. They are contingent on a number of factors being fulfilled first, a process which may take anywhere from two weeks to six months in court. Second, the assets of debtors are only protected once a ‘preservation measure’ is granted, and even this is only specific, not blanket, protection. The third reason is that discharge under Article 366 of Japan’s Bankruptcy Act is not automatic. Fourth, strict limitations are applied to how the bankrupt conducts his or her life once discharged. For example, a discharged bankrupt cannot subsequently pursue employment as a lawyer, guardian, executor of wills, certified public accountant, corporate director, and so on. Fifth are the high legal fees involved and the systemic complexities of the bankruptcy proceedings itself. The final reason, then, can seem like a good one if you want to avoid all of this: the prospect of a life-insurance payout upon the death of the bankrupted individual. While Article 680 of Japan’s Commercial Code exempts insurance payouts for suicides, most life-insurance contracts now maintain a no-exclusion-of-benefits clause for suicides if policies have been held for the minimum period of time. In other words, voluntary death can seem like the easiest and most honourable way out of a situation in which little, if anything, is easy or honourable.
These legal dead-ends were recognised and partially rectified by the Japanese legislature in 2000. Coming into effect in April 2001, the law of Civil Rehabilitation was created to give debtors another option to the two they already have: filing proceedings under the bankruptcy system or committing suicide. The net effect of the law has been to broaden the avenues for negotiation about the debtor’s options in an informal, non-judicial setting. Doing so also reduces the stigma associated with being bankrupt. Because the law of Civil Rehabilitation is, according to one Japanese bankruptcy lawyer, ‘much cheaper [and] easier’ than bankruptcy proceedings, the choice between life and death has been made ‘easier as well’.
Civil Rehabilitation has given many individuals another chance to make another choice. Obviously, that’s not always enough. It wasn’t enough on that day in 2004. And it probably hasn’t been enough too many times since. But sometimes, when another chance and another choice are all one wants, enough can mean a lot. In a country where ‘the stigma of suicide is low and the stigma of insolvency is high’, one prominent commentator says, ‘for some people, some of the time, and for reasons that are often varied and ambiguous, law appears to make a difference in the ultimate decision.’
IF JAPANESE SUICIDES are an indictment of justice denied, in this life, then lawmakers and reformers have not only a lot to answer for but a lot to do. Their collective failure to take suicide seriously in legislating the laws of their nation is a compounding factor that leads to the avoidable deaths of many. As such, their collective effort to analyse suicide data and rationales, in conjunction with personal, social and legal contexts, may provide a unique opening to pinpoint the deficiencies and injustices of existing norms and institutions, and to determine how and where they can be rectified.
A government 2007 White Paper on suicide prevention was a step in this direction. Outlined in a nine-step plan was an initiative that seeks to better understand the phenomenon of suicide in the first instance. In the second instance its aims are to drastically alter the way suicide is esteemed and treated in Japanese society. Attitudes must change. And they are, slowly. Indeed, more and more people are beginning to realise that if they don’t – that if they continue to turn a blind eye to suicide and continue to see it as ‘the honourable way out’ – then this tradition will continue to make tomorrow’s history.
Governmental programs like these are needed to buck this pernicious trend. And while such a suggestion may seem unremarkable, I would put it another way. I’d suggest that an approach like this actually deviates from the majority of current suicide-related laws and legal approaches. This is because, at present, most legal approaches and solutions are only band-aid solutions, ones which treat, punish and control suicide. However, by merely criminalising and stigmatising suicide, only its symptoms are addressed. In this respect a methodology which uses suicide as a means to, not the end of, law reform is very different: it favours laws and methods that tackle the deep-seated causes of voluntary death in Japan.
I say this as much for her as for me, though I hope that what I’ve said has also spoken to others. By seeing voluntary deaths in Japan as just another suicide we fail to see things deeply enough. We miss the allegory it leaves behind and the cry for help which goes unheard. In doing so we also miss possible instances where vindication, empowerment and justice were denied in life, instances where vindication, empowerment and justice was all that separated life from death. For law reformers in Japan then, no suicide should ever be taken lightly, for they may provide that all-important peek into crevices of society where law reform is not only necessary but can make that ultimate difference.
Of course, what I’ve said here has not been about the construction of definitive understandings and answers to the phenomenon of suicide in Japan, that much stands reiterating. Neither is it a proclamation of the law’s ability to genuinely engage, critique and transform entrenched social and personal conditions. But for those nearing or at the end of their life’s wick perhaps all this, bar that momentary reprieve and some tangible incentive to live, is superfluous.
What I don’t understand still far outweighs what I do. But that part of me – still searching for answers; still grappling with what these answers might mean – knows this at least: I am not alone. Like her, ‘I don’t think I can understand everything now, but at least I understand.’ That was what she said then. Now, maybe, I can say that too.
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