Death in the Japanese tradition Stuart Picken Seppuku IAFOR THINK 2

March 17, 2016

The first instalment of Professor Stuart Picken’s serialised monograph “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday, explains where his study of the subject began, and outlines where he intends to take it. Check back next week for Part 2.

Where it all Started

I was on a research trip to Japan from October to November, 1970, under the kind auspices of Rotary International, when an event took place that stunned the nation. It left me with the feeling that in some sense it was a pivotal event that marked both an end and a beginning. I am referring to the dramatic suicide of Mishima Yukio (1925-1970), the world famous writer, on November 25. I was staying for a week in the New Otani Hotel in central Tokyo, that was not far from the scene of Mishima’s last drama in which he was himself the principal actor.

The mental history of Mishima was complex, therefore I shall confine myself to his death, the circumstances surrounding it, and the impact it had on the nation. He lived a western style life on the one hand, but was extremely critical of Japan’s import of western culture. He was drawn by a romantic fascination to the twin values of patriotism and martial discipline. He founded a private army of around 80 disciples known as the Tate no Kai (The Society of the Shield) whose purpose was to protect the values vested in the Emperor System, the Tennosei from any threats, domestic or foreign. He appeared to believe that the prewar order could be reestablished.

After handing over the remaining part of his Sea of Fertility to his publisher, in the company of four members of his Society, he took control of the office of General Mashita of the ground Self-Defense Forces in Ichigaya, and gave a 10-minute address to the 1,000 SDF personnel who gathered on the parade ground. Having failed to draw any reaction to his appeal to abandon the postwar constitution, he returned to the General’s office, and committed seppuku in the traditional manner along with two of his colleagues. After cutting open his stomach, he was beheaded and in a bizarre ending, had his head and those of the two who died with him placed on the General’s desk.

“The suicide of Mishima inspired a train of thought that led from Mishima to the idea of suicide in Japanese culture and to the wider issue of death itself.”

By the time he had started his speech, the story was out in the public domain. Helicopters began whizzing around and police cars were appearing. Photographs of the three heads appeared in the newspapers as the shocked nation puzzled about his action. He had failed to persuade the SDF forces, and quickly appeared as an anachronism in a changing Japan. While his death was not the last extremist perpetrated in Japan, it was the last of the prewar variety. The suicide of Mishima inspired a train of thought that led from Mishima to the idea of suicide in Japanese culture and to the wider issue of death itself. Since language is the blueprint of thought, the study led into the language and the culture that makes Japan unique in this regard. Terms like seppuku and kaishaku to name but two, belonged to an unfamiliar world that I felt needed explanation and elucidation. Therefore, I would like now to look briefly at the relationship of language and culture in general and how this applies in the case of Japan. (For a general study of the life of Mishima, see: Henry Scott Stokes The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, London: Owen, 1977)

Philosophically stated, this series, in its essence is a study in aspects of the complex interaction of language and culture, and it focuses specifically upon how cultural concepts, values and trends can be mirrored in the evolution and development of linguistic forms designed to express them. The research parameter is the history of these developments in Japan and the large terminology that surrounded images of death and suicide within the evolution of its civilization. Before commencing on the study, it might be useful to reflect further on some of the ways in which the world of a culture can be unselfconsciously set forth in its language.

Language and Culture

There are many ways in which the relationship between language and culture can be characterized. It has been argued by some scholars that culture is responsible for the shape and formation of language. Different schools of thought favor the reverse, namely that language in some sense “creates” culture. While this is a linguistic, cultural, anthropological and philosophical problem in its own right, this study was inspired by one intriguing aspect of the relationship between language and culture This relationship is suggested in the creation of vocabulary to express distinctive or even definitive concepts with a culture. The physical environment may be an important causal factor. For example, a mountainous terrain with windswept hills may evolve a wide vocabulary that describes different types of rain and showers. A sea-going culture may of necessity develop a range of terms to describe the different moods of the sea. Scotland has traditionally over 80 ways to describe how snow falls. Classical Chinese has over 100 terms for family relations.

Anxiety in the Modern Western World

The inverse of this view may be formulated in the seemingly simple question: what does vocabulary expansion and development tell us about the evolution of a culture? Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist, in Anxious: The Modern Mind in the Age of Anxiety (London: Oneworld Publications, 2015), deals with the human problem of anxiety. I was interested in his observation that the English language has no fewer than 37 synonyms or other terms that describe fear or anxiety. These exist without reference to the older discussion of anxiety in the work of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) the 19th-century Danish philosopher/theologian whose suggestive and related titles include Fear and Trembling (1843), The Concept of Anxiety (1844) and the Sickness Unto Death (1849). The fact that 37 terms related to anxiety exist does suggest something of the nature of modern western culture as preoccupied with anxiety in one form or another. Whatever else the relationship may be between language and culture, it seems at least clear that the evolution of a culture and its behavioral forms brings with it relevant terms and forms of language with which to express its social experience.

The western world produced the study of psychiatry, particularly after the end of World War I in 1918 when the many types of trauma returning from the battlefronts came to be recognized, studied, and analyzed by thinkers such as Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Carl Jung (1875-1961). While the links may not always be apparent, Jaspers, for example, was profoundly influenced by Kierkegaard, a fact that indicates that the awareness and study of the inner self long precedes the epic drama of World War I. The concept of anxiety in western civilization has older roots, which within the last two centuries have come to be a defining mark of the evolution of cultural life. The extensive use of practicing psychiatrists in the United States alone is witness to the fact.

The Terminology of Death and Suicide in Japan

If anxiety is a key term in the self-awareness of modern western civilization, it occurred to me that similar phenomena might exist in Japan with terminology gathered around different themes. Far from the European experience and over many years, my study of Japanese culture led me to be struck by how many synonyms Japanese had for the term “suicide.” Many of these are no longer in use and can be considered obsolete because of cultural transformation. However, a culture that evolved such a unique vocabulary must also have developed unique perceptions of death and the values surrounding it. While modern Japan cannot be called a “suicide” culture in the same way it might be over the preceding thousand years, it is arguable that the concept or ideal lingers in some aspects of the world of the present.

Death may seem a morbid topic for reflection in relation to what appears to be a highly life-oriented and dynamic civilization. However, in the case of Japan, the changes in popular perspectives on death can provide uniquely interesting insights into the evolution of Japanese civilization itself. From the earliest stages in the awareness of death, in the minds of the ancient Japanese, it is quite fascinating to observe how its image at different periods has exerted a continuing influence on social development, even to the present. It could also be argued that these changes marked cultural paradigm shifts from one era to another. The religious tradition of Japan has exerted enormous influence on the development of the culture but in a manner radically different from the way which religion has and still exerts a highly personal influence in the west. Japanese religions relate less to personal beliefs than they represent features of social identity. This characteristic goes back to the roots of the agrarian society that emerged around the cultivation and subsequently the entire culture of rice that came to be definitive of Japanese civilization. The emergence of what is now identified as the Shinto tradition has its roots here. While it has been argued by some scholars that Shinto and its traditions have some mainland East Asia origins, the phylogenetic analysis of its genealogical development should be distinguished from the ontogenetic study of its evolutionary development as it grew from and became a major influence on the Japanese view of the world, including the meaning of life and death.

At various stages in Japanese history, waves of imported culture have in turn contributed to the development of the civilization and its cultural forms. Buddhism, as we shall see, introduced an aesthetic dimension through ritual, art, music and language from China. However, while the colorful splendor of Buddhist culture dazzled the vision of the Heian period Japanese (794-1185), rather than them absorbing Chinese culture, they were judiciously integrated into the Japanese tradition. Buddhism thus became Japanese first and Buddhism second. Throughout Japanese history, two constants should be kept mind. One is the ongoing influence of the cults and rituals surrounding agriculture that eventually became the Shinto tradition. The other is reverence for the historical continuity of the imperial tradition. Whatever entered and became part of the cultural complex of the Japanese tradition inevitably found it necessary to come to terms with the one and to exhibit reverence towards the other. The Shinto tradition and the Imperial House remain the true marks of continuity within Japan’s historical evolutionary processes of change.

For analytic convenience, the structure of text is to be divided into four major sections. The opening section on the Ancient Realization of Death, while in a manner touching upon features of Shinto, is also an attempt to look from a comparative philosophical and anthropological perspective on how the awareness of death emerged and grew in some of the world’s definitive historical cultures. The Japanese poetic writings stand in stark contrast to the images of death that developed in the Hebrew tradition that exerted enormous influence in the entire Judea-Christian doctrine of death. The spirit of Shinto and its sense of life underlies the early literature that evolved, that was highly visible, and suggestive of a powerful, although as yet minimally verbalized, way of thinking.

The second section focusing on the Buddhist Socialization of Death looks at the impact on Japanese images of death and the evolution of death rituals after the sixth century introduction of Buddhism in its many forms. It was Japan’s first encounter with a culture that called for rituals and ceremonies to express beliefs and rituals to add these to heighten the significance to the activities surrounding funeral rites.

The subject of Buddhism in Japan is massive and not without controversy. There are scholars who argue that Japan became a Buddhist civilization. The problem for me lies in the question “In what sense Buddhist?” A visit to Thailand, for example, or to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos and Burma (Myanmar), countries influenced by Theravada Buddhism, the way of the elder monks, would suggest that there was one unitary form of Buddhism. However it is also referred to as Hinayana Buddhism, the narrow path as compared to the Mahayana, or great way to enlightenment. While Japan encountered the older form of Buddhism in the Nara period (710-794) the encounter with China introduced some of the many strands of the Mahayana tradition. The Chinese had modified many aspects of the Mahayana, as a result of which the Buddhism that arrived in Japan had already been modified to become acceptable to Chinese culture, and begun developing its own forms that in turn were further transformed by Japanese culture. In what sense then Japan became a Buddhist culture, if indeed it ever did, is open to argument and remains a subject of controversy.

The third part entitled the Feudal Militarization of Death examines the second great wave of imported culture, namely in impact of neo-Confucian culture imported from China. Zhu Xi or Chu Hsi (1130-1200) the famous Song dynasty Confucian scholar was the leading figure of the School of Principle and the most influential rationalist Neo-Confucian in China. It was his system that entered Japan. The closing period of the civil war era (the Sengoku Jidai, c.1470-1603) saw the introduction of his variety of neo-Confucian thought in the interests of creating a disciplined hierarchical society. The goal of the Tokugawa bakufu (幕府) the military government under the Shogunate, was the implementation of the “great peace under heaven”(the Tenka Taihei 天下太平), which was achieved by a rigid, feudal, hierarchical society. While the Tokugawa period from around 1600 to the Meiji Restoration (明治一新) of 1868 had many features in common with western feudalism, much of the Japanese version continued longer, and even into the military mentality of the 20th century.

The fourth section on the Modern Militarization of Death becomes an extension of the earlier section on feudalism. While Japan began the process of modernization in 1868, much of the older social tradition remained. The political modernization of the United Kingdom, for example, started earlier and the economic and industrial modernization was well advanced in the 19th century. Japan’s equivalent development came later, and while the nation very quickly became an industrial power, lingering influences of feudalism were used to support social development well into the 20th century, and perhaps as some would argue, has never really been totally abandoned. This period, of course, encompasses the period before the Pacific War (1941-1945), as well as the war itself, during which many manifestations of both feudal discipline and romanticized behavior were displayed. The last dramatic demonstration of these culminated in the cruel waste of the lives of young men, some barely 17 years old, sent on suicide missions under the title Kamikaze, reflecting the Divine Winds that saved Japan from the Mongols.

The final section entitled Lingering Images and Shadows in Modern Japan, again shows how lingering images of death and suicide have continued to be a part of Japanese culture even into modern times. The death of Emperor Showa in 1989, and the accession of Emperor Akihito (Heisei 平成) appear to have marked a major stage of social, political and cultural transformation or transition in Japanese culture. That seemed a good point at which to close out the discussion, recognizing that other forms of social change have come about, induced by the massive surge in technology since the late 1980s with the development of the internet and the challenges it has introduced. While Japan will in all probability never lose some of its historical defining characteristics, there is no doubt that it has undergone great changes. These and their influence belong to a separate study.

Changes in views of death and attitudes to death often mark changes in social development as has been said. Japanese society seems to be going through one such era of change. In common with industrial societies around the world, Japan is beginning to experience changes that might be called a shift from suicide as a prime mode of public awareness of death, to homicide which appears to suggest that much of the inbuilt aggression that has been introverted and channeled into suicide is now becoming extroverted and directed towards others, minus the death of the frustrated agent, that could mean suicide to homicide. Perhaps one question this study will raise is whether or not a major paradigm shift has happened in Japan, or, as is more likely, if a new dimension to the cultural image of death has been added.

Image | Tekniska Museet


This is the first instalment of Professor Stuart Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, “Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan” will be published next week, on Thursday March, 24, 2016.

Forthcoming articles:

Part 1: Death in the Japanese Tradition: An Introduction
Part 2: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
Part 3: Death and the Dead in the Japanese Classics
Part 4: Folk Religion and Death
Part 5: Kami and Ancestors
Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society
Part 7: Buddha and Kami
Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults
Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism
Part 10: Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss
Part 11: Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrasts
Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death
Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai
Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa
Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi
Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan
Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violent and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System

Stuart D. B. Picken

About Stuart D. B. Picken

Stuart D. B. Picken is the founding Chairman of the IAFOR International Advisory Board. The author of a dozen books and over 130 articles and papers, he is considered one of the foremost scholars on Japan, China, and Globalisation in East Asia. As an academic, Professor Picken has devoted more than 30 years to scholarship in Japan, notably as a professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, where he specialised in ethics and Japanese thought, and as International Adviser to the High Priest of Tsubaki Grand Shrine (Mie prefecture). He has also served as a consultant to various businesses, including Jun Ashida Ltd., Mitsui Mining & Smelting Corp., Kobe Steel, and Japan Airlines. In November 2008, the Government of Japan awarded Professor Picken the Order of the Sacred Treasure for his pioneering research, and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the UK. The honour is normally reserved for Japanese citizens and is a mark of the utmost respect in which Professor Picken is held by the Japanese Government. Although now resident in Scotland, Professor Picken maintains his interests in Japan, as Chair of the Japan Society of Scotland, and through his work with IAFOR. A fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, he lives near Glasgow with his wife and two children.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Ethics, Religion & Philosophy, Featured, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences, Subject Area, World


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