Suicide In Japan

While scrutenized in the U.S., suicides are generally accepted in China. Barry Petersen explains in this Letter from Asia.
I'm Barry Petersen and this Letter from Asia comes from Tokyo. Japan's ancient Samurai culture and its Buddhist religions make suicide acceptable here. Americans may find suicide shameful. In Japan, suicide is an honorable way to alleviate shame. But things are changing.

Japan's mental health experts were shocked when a cabinet minister hanged himself hours before facing a bribery probe. The shock was over praise from Tokyo's governor, calling the dead man a real samurai.

A little history here; Samurai warriors would often kill themselves to avoid shame. Japan's suicide mindset came to America's attention with the World War II kamikaze - young men who deliberately flew bomb-laden planes into Allied ships.

Japanese people have an interesting mentality, explains Yoshinori Cho, director of the psychiatry department at a leading Tokyo hospital. He told us the Japanese glorify suicide. Yet when it's a family member they try and hide it, asking themselves if they could have prevented it.

Religion, says the doctor, also plays a part. Buddhism doesn't encourage suicide, but it also does not specifically prohibit it. Doctor Cho told us that Japan has never made suicide illegal either.

In 1997, a chief executive sobbed out his apology when his leading securities firm went bankrupt. As economic times and layoffs worsened, suicides shot up.

One famous incident, three men who partied and then killed themselves at this hotel so their failing company would collect the insurance money and keep its doors open.

By 1998, suicides topped 30-thousand a year, a 45-percent one year increase. That is still the number of Japanese taking their own lives today. Meanwhile, Japan's suicide hot lines are running out of money, forcing staff cuts. But that may change; Japan's government has just approved funding for suicide prevention.

There is another positive change; While men in their 50s are embarrassed about needing therapy, Japan's younger generation is more open to seeking help. Also, there is finally official recognition that mental illness can lead to suicide.

Dr. Cho says the Government is trying hard to educate companies about depression and stress. They're sending doctors out into the field to explain to employers that people do, in fact, suffer from mental problems.

For the for the first time ever, Japan is looking at suicide as something perhaps caused by mental illness. Suicide is finally being viewed, not an act of glory, but the last act of despair.

By Barry Petersen