Me, Japan and Suicide

Suicide is a hard subject to talk about. Especially when your Western culture has very little idea on how to talk about it, or anything else related to death. The English stiff upper lip has lead to many subjects being deemed as taboo. However, when you find yourself in a situation where you have to speak of it, about it and to it, you have to get into the mucky, emotional areas and, for me, knowledge and understanding is power.

My husband died by suicide nearly four years ago. I, myself, had an attempt 18 years before. Although we were very good friends at the time, our experiences were totally unrelated. I was 23, unhappy, heart broken and feeling trapped. He had a badly managed chronic disease. Of course, this is over simplifying a very complex situation. I feel I have come to know suicide on a pretty personal level.

So, I write about Japan, so where is this blog going? Well, the Japanese also have an intimate relationship with suicide. I truly believe that my love affair with the culture of Japan is, in part, that through trying to understand a different culture, I have developed a greater understanding of myself. You find suicide interlaced through Japanese literature, anime and movies and, of course, through history.

Ritual suicide, or seppuku, was a way for samurai to retain their honour in death. If a samurai were to be executed or captured in battle, a highly ritualised suicide, which included following a number of actions, including bathing, the wearing of white kimono and the writing of a death poem, would allow the family and the samurai to maintain their dignity and status. Seppuku was not seen as a dishonourable act, but as part of  bushido, the code and way of life followed by samurai. Japanese society, as a result, is probably more tolerant of suicide and it is an intrinsic element of their historical culture.

During World War II, the Japanese kamikaze pilots, famous for their pilot guided missile suicidal attacks, were enshrined in Yasukuni Shrine, in Tokyo. This was considered a great honour, as the Emperor visits twice a year. These men wrote death poems, before their missions, just like the samurai before them.

Nowadays, the suicide rate in Japan is reasonably high, 70 people per day, around about, take their own lives. You may have heard about Aokigahara, suicide park, or of the internet assisted group suicides. Although the rate climbed steadily until 2009, in the last 8 years it has begun to decline again. I believe that many Japanese see suicide as a way of taking morally responsible action. Whether it is failed business and financial pressure, bullying, educational pressure or karo jisatsu, suicide from overwork, it follows the cultural “tradition of death instead of defeat… or perceived shame”. (Wikipedia)

Considering my own experience, I would have to agree that this was the way I felt, although I could not have articulated it at the time, and in fact, it has taken me 22 years to come to the realisation, I thought I was broken beyond repair, and that I was a burden. It was all about personal responsibility, but, for some reason, our culture looks to find blame and guilt for others. In cases of bullying, I believe it is the result of actions of others, but in many other cases, it is a last ditch effort to restore honour to those you love. Seems really warped now, and I am an optimistic and happy person, who enjoys life and tries to squeeze as much out if as I can. But, the road to get to this place was paved with much experience.

So, I will continue my study of understanding, by reading Japanese history, by reading my beloved Murakami, by watching heart-wrenching, but relateable, Japanese anime. And, I will continue reflecting on how wonderful my life is, and what an amazing opportunity I have been given for self growth and empathy and understanding.

Feel free to comment. I am open to conversation, and think it is something we do not speak of enough.

Featured Image attributed to: By Illustrated by Native Drawings.Reproduced in Fac-simile by Means of Chromo-lithography. – Project GutenbergProject Gutenberg: Sketches of Japanese Manners and CustomsProject Gutenberg: THE SACRIFICE (picture), Public Domain,

18 thoughts on “Me, Japan and Suicide

  1. You are so brave to talk about this in such a public way, but at the same time i believe it’s so necessary that we do talk about it. Thank-you πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks, Shelley, it was a cathartic process, and was prompted by your questions…I am grateful and I feel somewhat unburdened 😊

  2. Thank you for sharing your deeply personal stories with your readers. I know it must have taken courage but hopefully the more people open up, the easier it will become for all those who still struggle to talk about such thoughts and feelings.

    1. I just wanted to add that until now it has felt like a pretty personal journey, but now I am feeling that somehow my experience may be helpful to others. Not sure where it will lead me 😊

  3. Actually our son just research about human rights in Japan and he wrote about suicide in Japan. Working condition is REALLY terrible in Japan and nobody can say NO for overworking. I am very happy to live in Australia now.

    1. Many of my Japanese friends say the same thing, Saori. There are lots of things they miss about Japan, but the work ethic is not one of them!!

  4. Good on you for posting about this! Yep, in full agreement with the other comments.
    I didn’t know about the park or the internet-assisted suicides. How horrible. But I do agree about the work ethic!
    Also it’s definitely a taboo topic in Japan, maybe a bit more than in Australia. That is, people talk about suicide rates all the time but nobody talks about their own personal mental health – I think it would be seen as exposing weakness and probably not considerate to your interlocutors. I think that’s still true in Australia too. I hope it changes in both places soon, but I think it will take some time, especially in Japan.

    1. I love getting your Aussie in Japan opinion… it’s not always as it seems to outsiders. I was prompted to write this blog because I watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Do you get American Netflix there??

      1. It’s available! One of my coworkers has recommended the show to me, but I’ve also read some pretty critical reviews of the ways it presents the issues. Either way, I haven’t watched it yet. Should I?

      2. It made me really angry. There is a lot of blame. There’s heaps of controversy here about. The Ed. Dept. is sending out heaps of warnings and resources. It’s beautifully filmed and the actors are great (lead actress is Australian) but I think the message misses the mark? It’s pretty graphic, the death and a couple of rape scenes…. it’s pretty full on 😳

  5. You have a great writing style Kylie. It was very interesting to learn about the Japanese history of suicide. As I’ve already said to you, it makes me sad that you’ve had to live such painful times, but I am amazed by your general positive attitude and uplifting spirit. I do think writing your personal experiences will help others. xx

  6. Thank you for relaying your very personal story. Suicide has been close to me and my family but not within it.

    Can I ask you about when and how your interest in Japan evolved, and then suicide within Japan society?

    And jumping to our friend Murakami – Norwegian Wood tells a few stories but the suicide of Naoko, while somewhat expected, is a gut wrenching journey. I also see bits of myself – unrequited love, passion from afar.

    1. Yes, Norwegian Wood was beautifully tragic…. I have always been interested in Japan, Tony. My dad loved Samurai movies and we watched Astro boy and Kimba. I was a comic reader in the late 70’s…. and love Japanese food. After my first trip I began reading a lot of books and watching movies, and suicide seems such an undercurrent in so many of them. It was so relatable, and helpful in my ongoing process of trying to understand things. I love the Japanese word 梌現 (yugen) a profound sense of the beauty of the universe and the sad beauty of human suffering. Miyazaki, Murakami, Ozu, they all do it so well!!!

  7. I haven’t read a lot of your blog … I read snippets …. you are a beautiful and insightful women. I think I’m gonna keep reading. You are teacher xx

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