Death Note Japanese Popular Culture THINK IAFOR 1

July 7, 2016

In Part 17 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s “Death in the Japanese Tradition” monograph, he looks at the ways in which Japanese popular culture reflects the nation’s traditional values, and influences those of today.

I have already referred to the modern version of the love suicide play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon and its popular reception by contemporary Japanese audiences. In his great work on Climate (Fudoron) 1 Watsuji Tetsuro, (1889-1960) the distinguished and insightful philosopher of culture, and professor at the University of Tokyo, argues that love suicide is the affirmation of love through the denial of life. (Watsuiji Tetsuro Fudo p.139. An English version exists entitled Climate tr. by Geoffrey Bownas Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1971. It was originally published by Iwanami Shoten in 1935). He states that the Japanese are a race of people whose cultural characteristics derive from living in a monsoon climate where emotions, like the typhoon, can flare up with devastating unexpectedness and die down as quickly. Indeed he makes the point that the Japanese are “typhoon-like”, oscillating in behavior between extreme states and never resting in stable equilibrium. It is a culture of vital nervous energy with the tendency to tire quickly, to have perseverance plus enthusiasm but little stamina. Resistance and struggle are thus prized virtues whereas obstinacy is not. In the midst of clinging to life, there may be the sudden desire to die. Death and love are closely linked in the Japanese mind. Unlike in the Western Love Story, here is to be found the heart of every love story in Japan, a gentle love that conceals within itself a violent passion, a love that is resigned but militant. Hence the love suicide becomes the ideal where, in answer to the deep desire for an eternity of love, in one moment of spiritual sublimation, the lovers die. The implied explosive characteristic of love is certainly reminder of the unpredictable suddenness of the typhoon. That motif was well displayed in Chikamatsu’s drama and may be found in many more if one searches in the right places.

Contemporary Novels

In the novels of contemporary popular writers such as Morimura Seiichiro, for example, in Ningen no Shomei and Yasei no Shomei (Evidence of Being Human and The Proof of Wildness), suicide continues to be a convenient way of ending the story or of removing a couple from the action once their situation has become impossible. These stories make good films and good TV viewing material. I remember doing a survey over a three-month period, of popular soap opera dramas and shows. I found that for the last week of each series, suicide was a standard denouement to a complicated plot. One popular television drama, a Japanese style love story, was screened during the early part of 1984 and provides an excellent example of the theme. An aging man goes to stay in a rural Japanese inn, a ryoken. He is an artist who is now blind and whose family is either dead or gone. He intends, quite simply, to kill himself. The Inn is, however, owned by a woman whom he had loved and whom he had rejected when he was young. She recognizes him and lavishes upon him all the love and care that she had contained within herself over the years. Finally, he realizes who she is but his grief becomes only the more intense and he remains intent on dying. In fidelity to the love she has never abandoned, she joins him in leaping from a cliff top into the sea and thus is the story brought to an end.

Here the ingredients can be seen as follows. The life of the artist has been tragic, as too has been that of the innkeeper. The Western mind might think that in such a situation, both should be glad to have found each other again; that there was someone to look after the blind artist, and that the woman had the object of her longing restored. Alas no. His grief becomes worse and he actually becomes more resolute in his wish to die. Her final proof of the love, which had been smoldering over the years, is demonstrated in the all-consummating act of death.


However, a more reliable parameter of research exists. There is a popular type of publication in Japan called manga, which I mentioned briefly earlier, consists of illustrated comic books written to appeal to those from six to sixty-five years who like visual presentation. Manga have now become global and published in many languages. The most famous recent ones, Naruto and One Piece have grossed millions of US Dollars worldwide, and have reach the staggering figure of over 250 million copies. But even in the 1980s, when the variety was more limited, Japanese sociologists spent a lot of time analyzing them. (For an early contemporary study in English see: Schodt, Fred Manga! Manga! Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983).

The field is enormous and ranges from books for tiny children to pornographic publications. There is also a type of manga story that is popular among school children between the ages of twelve and eighteen. With a group of interested students I conducted a survey of over a hundred typical manga from different publishers, by different writers, and of different genre, that were popular and frequently republished frequently. Some were purely romantic, like the Rose of Versailles, which actually became a film with Western actors. However, the vast majority reflected the link, between love and death that Watsuji Tetsuro indicated as typifying the Japanese attitude. Detailed recitation is impossible, but some examples of plots and solutions underline the point that the older, and romanticized, view of death (and love) that enabled the Japanese to abandon life so readily, still remains a best-selling theme, even among those born after the World War II.

While it would be overstating the case to say that these manga either form or determine children’s values, it would not be wrong to say that they are part of their cultural environment and that the themes they deal with must, to some extent, reflect popular tastes, otherwise they would not sell. I think it would also be fair to say that these publications help to reinforce traditional values and traditional attitudes, suggesting appropriate conduct should such situations arise in real life. The stories they offer are marked by psychological complexity of great depth, often unintelligible in their development to the non-Japanese mind. They portray types of anxiety that a Westerner would resolve by uprooting and going away. That is never considered a practicable course of action, and the non-Japanese reader has often to exercise great patience while the victims hurl themselves agonizingly towards their doom, which is then in the final stages, applauded as a beautiful action. My own favorite example concerns an incestuous love between a brother and sister. The sister plots to kill the boy’s girlfriend and she puts a real bullet into an ornamental rifle. The brother, while playing with the rifle, accidentally shoots his girlfriend. The sister goes out of her mind and finally, the couple go through great mental agonies before finally deciding to drown together. The closing lines of the manga are poetic and even semi- religious, echoing the theme of love fulfilled in the next world. They are shown walking hand in hand on the beach. Finally, only footprints remain, leading to the water’s edge.

Aoi taiyo The blue sun…
Futari de aruku together they walk
Umi no ue on top of the waves…

This has been a popular best-seller since it was first published in 1976 under the title Ototo (My young brother), and has been reprinted many times. (Shuheisha Manga Bunko, Tokyo 1976)

The scene for these manga is not always set in Japan. There are locations in Europe, in romantic cities such as Venice. There are war stories and historical dramas going back to the time of the French Revolution. Most significant however, is the fact that while the characters are often foreign, their behavior is characteristically Japanese. If it were otherwise they would have little appeal to their readership.

To the foreign reader these themes and outcomes may seem bizarre, but they do provide an insight into the degree to which older ideas have survived today and linger in Japanese popular culture. Among the frequently (at least ten times) reprinted manga, typical situations can be identified. One deals with the simple situation of a German boy in a German school who commits suicide because of pressure from his peers. The story must have touched a chord in schools throughout Japan. It was reprinted nineteen times between 1974 and 1980. (Hagio Moto Toma no Shinju Vol. 1)

“This must mean that the manga, while reflecting traditional values, simultaneously helps to perpetuate them, what might be termed a vicious values circle.”

Another deals with the problems of a girl who resembles another who attempted to commit double suicide with her lover but who accidentally survived. She kills herself with sleeping pills. The fate of someone in such a situation must seem romantic. This story was reprinted eighteen times between 1975 and 1979.

In general, the causes of suicide, or rather, the situations leading to suicide that were featured in that sample of one hundred cases, paralleled quite closely the cases I encountered in my own researches over ten years. In that sense, the manga could be said to reflect fairly clearly the social situations, which in real life incidents produce similar results. This must mean that the manga, while reflecting traditional values, simultaneously helps to perpetuate them, what might be termed a vicious values circle.

The situation producing suicide as described in those one hundred manga broke down rather interestingly, showing the preference of the readership for themes that have been traditional motifs in Japan. Just over 10 percent were modern versions of the traditional shinju, or double love suicide, of the Romeo and Juliet type. Unfulfilled love accounted for about eight percent and social pressure for eight percent also. Military and martyrdom themes took up a further eight percent and incestuous relationships (particularly brother-sister) represented the same amount, again eight percent. A total of 14 percent concerned mother related problems ranging from interfering mothers to unkind stepmothers. Disease and illness, including mental illness, totalled about 10 percent and various forms of sibling strife added up to nine percent. Six percent touched on homosexual love relationships. The remaining suicide themes included a wide variety of situations including lack of parental love, unfulfilled revenge, jealousy, loneliness, adultery and a scandal involving bribery.

Methods of committing suicide also reflected traditional preferences. Oceans and rivers accounted for 30 percent while a further 32 percent were accomplished by jumping from high buildings or cliffs. Eighteen per cent involved stabbing or the cutting of the throat or wrists. The remainder was divided between shooting, hanging, sleeping pills and fire. The data speaks eloquently for itself when compared with the methods of suicide described in earlier chapters.

The Cultural Role of Manga

It is not my argument that by reading these comics children are encouraged to kill themselves. That would be to use a causal hypothesis without any proof of how the causality works and without any definition of the type of causality involved. Nevertheless, we can with justification make certain general statements about certain aspects of the comic-book world and modern Japanese society.

Manga as Reflecting Past Social Reality

First of all it seems to reflect faithfully the type of real-life situations that currently exist or have existed in the past. Suicides in real life are numerous and arise from a variety of causes, including lack of sexual confidence and strained personal relations. Incestuous love, jealousy and interfering mothers account for almost one-third of the suicides that take place. Illness, both physical and mental, accounts for about one-tenth. Eight percent concern unfulfilled love and a further six percent arise from homosexual love relationships. Only one-tenth represent the double suicide theme of the Chikamatsu type, although when it does occur, it often reflects a love relationship between brother and sister.

One of Okinawa’s oldest tragic folk tales goes back to the era when the Lord of Shimazu levied a heavy poll tax on the people as a result of which women had to be sent in forced emigration to work on his lands in Kyushu. A pair of lovers were to be separated, and on the night before the departure of the man, they climbed a high hill, there to bemoan their separation. The legend says that they cried and beat their fists on the rock and, in the morning, two indents were found on the rock. The girl’s was even larger than the boy’s. Such a situation has its parallel in a number of double suicides. On the other hand, themes of love between brother and sister may reflect the fact that incest among younger family members, a fact of the past, may still survive in Japan more than is generally supposed. That theme must still appeal at least to the imagination or it would not appear so widely. (Okamoto Taro Wasurareta Nihon, The Forgotten Japan, Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha, 1961)

Manga as an Informal Influence within Moral Education

A second point is that such comic books constitute part, albeit an informal part, of the moral education of the younger generation. In the absence of direct moral instruction at home and a clear moral education curriculum at school, young Japanese acquire their values from a variety of sources. Peer groups contribute much, as do examples of parental response to standard situations. The young, however, require other sources to cope with situations outside the range of experience of their parents, teachers or friends, situations that emphasize the value-gap between the generations. Manga probably serve as additional sources for ideas or hints on the right responses to situations about which no-one would speak to them directly or openly. In this at least, they probably have an ancillary role in moral education.

Manga as Indirectly Reinforcing Traditional Ideals

A third point is serve to keep older ideas and traditions alive in the imagination of the young and so reinforce or preserve these older ways of thinking. In this sense they contrast very sharply with the comic books of the United Kingdom and the United States that frequently follow flights of fancy into a science fiction future or a world beyond present-day imagination. Science fiction comic books of high caliber are available in Japan of course, but the psychological dramas have a clear lead in popularity. In some ways, American comic book heroes have played a similar role in moral education. The Lone Ranger used silver bullets and did not shoot to kill. He always told the truth and kept promises. Superman never killed either, but stood for truth and justice and, like Batman and Captain America, fought against evil. They were bastions of support for Christian based social values of truth, justice, law and order. With the exception of the Incredible Hulk however (who also had deep moral values) these heroes were both stylized and much less morbid and introspective that Japanese comic book heroes, who are also decidedly more violent.

Nanpa (Soft) versus Koha (Hard) Attitudes

Two further items of discussion are necessary to complete this survey. Both are conveniently summarized in Ian Buruma’s A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture, which is a useful compendium of the way traditional traits can be seen in contemporary popular Japanese culture. (Buruma, Ian A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture, London: Penguin, 1985 pp.143-146, 172-174)

The first concerns the difference between the softer or nanpa school of thinking and the koha or hard school represented in it. He aptly quotes the story of Yamato Shinko (whose name symbolizes the cult of old Japan), a small boy who battles against the odds and overcomes a powerful adversary. He ties this in with the annual Japanese High School baseball tournament which he calls a festival to the purity of Japanese youth and which has little to do with baseball, although Americans might find this difficult to understand. The ideals of the koha style of life are still being upheld to the young as the best and purest of the Japanese tradition, something we shall see reflected in school life itself.

The Death Cult in Yakuza Movies

The second area concerns the death cult as it is exhibited in popular culture at its most sublime in the gangster movie where heroes fight with their backs to the wall of history, the progressive mind being always the villain, lacking in that vital virtue, purity. It is usually idealized in the old oyabun, or head of the gumi or group, who usually has to die to provoke the final cataclysm where the purists die for their cause and the villains go on. The stylization of appearance, dress and manner is so well tuned that a translation of the Japanese is hardly required once the basic principles have been grasped.

“The death cult is at its height in the modern gangster film.”

Buruma also makes one further interesting observation that the “indulgence demanded of Japanese leaders in return for loyalty from the children perhaps also helps to explain the frequent lack of control of Japanese generals over their officers during the Second World War.” (Buruma, op. cit. p.160). I think personally that this is an oversimplification of the problem which also has to do with the distribution of power in the decision making process as well as the true nature of authority in the Japanese social system. But that it was a contributory factor is very possible. As he puts it “The death cult is at its height in the modern gangster film.”

Age and Death, Motifs Ancient and Modern

Other points that could be made are part of a wider discussion and go beyond the scope of our present theme. However, sufficient has been said, I think, to provide further concrete evidence that powerful and pervasive images of death and suicide linger still in the popular culture of contemporary, industrialized Japan.

A final further example from popular culture that combines many aspects of the complex Japanese view of death showing both traditional and modern touches is found in the story written by Ariyoshi Sawako that was made into a film in 1973 entitled Kokotsu no Hito (literally, “The Inflexible or Loyal Person”) but titled in English, The Twilight Years. It includes themes of dependency, the crisis of age and the naturalness of death in a simple plot centering around quite mundane scenes of domestic life.

“With a clear Japanese touch, beauty in nature is shown not only to have a value but to have the power to move even an autistic being. Love for beauty remains in him.”

The story deals with the reaction of Tachibana Shigezo, the family head, to the death of his wife. He is shocked into senility and fails to recognize any of his family except his son’s wife, Akiko, upon whom he becomes totally dependent. Akiko works as a typist in a lawyer’s office and quite soon, the pressures involved in his being there begin to take their toll. He has to be fed and he becomes confused at night. She asks her husband to co-operate in some ways. She complains that he has never been kind to her. Now he is simply a burden. Old peoples’ homes in Japan are only now beginning to comprehend and cope with senile dementia.

Sleeping pills calm him at night for a time, but he then becomes incontinent and has to be diapered. He occasionally leaves the house and wanders, and Akiko is left to roam the streets in search of him. He reaches the point where only an asylum for the insane would take him. He tries to eat his wife’s cremated bones and ashes and smears himself with excrement. He almost drowns one day in the bath and he is diagnosed as having pneumonia. Akiko feels sorry for him and she prays for his life. He survives but loses his speech. He behaves almost entirely like a baby but when Akiko takes him out for a walk, he pauses to appreciate some white magnolia. With a clear Japanese touch, beauty in nature is shown not only to have a value but to have the power to move even an autistic being. Love for beauty remains in him.

For several months, the old man continues to decline until finally he leaves home one rainy day. Akiko searches for him and finds him lying down in a graveyard. He seems to be aware of his own impending death. When Akiko finds him, he begins crawling towards her like a child and he cries “Mother!” A few days later he dies and to her own surprise, Akiko finds deep sorrow and genuine emptiness even after the ordeal she went through in the latter stages of his life.

While the movie has a message about caring for the aged in modern Japanese society, which is an escalating problem, it might for contrast be set beside the Western movie about a retired college professor, On Golden Pond, to observe some of the contrasts in approaches to the crisis of age and aging. The Japanese story is extremely basic, very human and natural in an undisguised way and forms a fitting conclusion to this part of the discussion.

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This is Part 17 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, Terrorism, Violence and Tomorrow’s Citizens, will be published next Thursday on July 14, 2016.

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About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Featured, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Media, Film & Journalism, Subject Area, World


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