suicide in japan THINK IAFOR

June 30, 2016

In Part 16 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s monograph “Death in the Japanese Tradition”, he examines case studies of the different types of suicide present in modern-day Japan, from group and pact suicide, to forced suicide.

Group Suicides: Feudalism Past and Present

The neo-samurai, pure ‘philosophical’ death of the fanatical nationalist is virtually unknown in contemporary Japan. Such deaths may not even be useful as examples anymore. However, traditional values cannot so easily be eliminated from any society. Values evolve gradually and transform themselves slowly. And while the image of death in modern Japan may be undergoing change and transformation, there is adequate evidence in many of the suicides that take place to support the view that many traditional motifs have survived the postwar changes, that is to say that aspects of older Japanese social structures remain unaltered.

Unless otherwise noted, the data for all the cases of suicide described in this section were taken from the Japanese version of the Asahi Shimbun. Details of the reports appeared in the edition of the day following the date of the incident over a period of almost twenty years (1970-1990), along with official reports and the growing literature in Japan, both academic and popular, which discuss the topic. The terminological classifications, therefore, are those of the press and not mine.

The subject of suicide was, until the early 1990s, widely reported, particularly those cases which had a touch of the bizarre or sensational about them. A feature of the reporting that often surprised the western reader was photographs in magazines and newspapers. These may be just of the family, if it is a case of group suicide. But they may also be of the act of suicide itself, as in the case of a schoolgirl who was photographed by a bystander, midway between the roof of the building from which she had jumped, and the ground.

Typology of Group Suicides

The most direct way in which to explain this is to offer a typology of suicides using case studies which may be read alongside the glossary of suicide terms. Two preliminary points should be noted. Firstly, the typology is the construction of a western mind. (Picken Nihonjin no Jisatsu: Seiyo to no Hikaku: Suicide, in papan: A Comparison with the West Tokyo: Simul International, 1973.) It will not be found in any Japanese publications. Secondly, it is designed primarily to show the sheer variety of situations and styles that exist. Within the general heading of group suicides, two broad types may be distinguished.

The first is the sort of suicide that involves a suicide pact, i.e. in which both participants are willing and have chosen to die. The second is the kind in which not all of the members are willing, in which case suicide is preceded or accompanied by murder. This kind requires special examination. There are also various combinations of family relationships that may be involved in these so-called ‘forced’ suicides. Before looking at these however, I shall deal with the voluntary cases.

Pact Suicides

All kinds of group suicides in Japan go by the name shinju. In the same way that the traditional act of seppuku was popularized in the tradition of the modern military suicide, the distinctive type of non-military suicide, the group suicide, has taken the name of its medieval equivalent. However, as in the case of seppuku, modern shinju represents a debasement of the earlier romantic ideal. To be sure, romantic motives do lead to shinju. For example, a few years after World War II, Okubo, a Gakashuin university student, and Eisai, a member of the Aishinkakura family of Manchurian royal blood, shot themselves on the slopes of Mt. Amagi, on Izu Peninsula, because their marriage was impossible. This was a classic lovers’ suicide, which might have come from the dramas of Chikamatsu. It was a self-determined act on the part of the lovers, a pact made between the two of them and requiring that they die together.

Muri Shinju

Romance, however, may be far removed from modern motives. Indeed, with the Japanese Constitution guaranteeing the rights of the Japanese people to marry and divorce freely, the romantic double suicide is a rarity. More typical would be the following cases:

On May 4, 1975, two young women, both aged twenty-three, leapt from a mansion roof in Atami City, Shizuoka Prefecture, with the left wrist of one tied to the right wrist of the other. The fall of over ninety feet killed them. One was a company employee and the other was unemployed. They left a suicide note for their parents written on the back of a receipt from a ryokan (a Japanese-style inn), stating that they could not endure life any longer since their confidence in living had failed them.

On May 25, 1976, the bodies of three girls were found in a thicket near Zao Ski-Centre in Miyagi Prefecture. The girls were only seventeen years old. They were trainee nurses who had come into conflict with the management of the hospital for infringing dormitory rules, returning after the curfew hour of 9.00 pm. As a result, they had made a suicide pact and drank poison. They felt unhappy because they had to work all day and also attend classes. They left behind in their hostel room five suicide notes, for parents and employer, stating that they were tired of their unhappy lives and had chosen to sleep eternally

Group Dynamics and Suicide

These cases of suicide illustrate the importance of group dynamics in Japanese society. Some of the manifestations of this are well known to non-Japanese. Japanese people like to travel in groups, led by a group leader or courier who waves the flag behind which they follow. This reflects the order and discipline that remains within Japanese society as a whole. However, even small groups, consisting perhaps of only two or three people, demonstrate tendencies to identical behavior. Young women will take each other’s hands or link arms, and generally exchange intimacies that would be regarded as eccentric or even odd in the West. This is part of the relationship of amae, or dependence. It may function as part of the cause of suicide in the case of those excluded from a structure of human relationships to which the suicide has felt he or she properly belongs. It may lead to two or more people dying together. The cases of shinju described here are almost unique to Japanese society. They are seldom found elsewhere, and when they do occur, it is usually under external pressure. It was reported that when Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide, even their dog was killed. In Japan, the internal pressure of group relationships can lead to multiple suicides. There are no limits of age, sex or reason, although in fact, suicide pacts among women are more common than among men.

To conclude this section, the following case should suffice to bring together some of the themes touched upon under the heading of voluntary group suicide. The Asahi Shimbun of 2 November 1986, reported a group suicide which showed a number of traditional characteristics combined with pronounced religious overtones. Seven women members of a religious group immolated themselves on a beach at Kemi, Wakayama Prefecture, in reaction to the death of their leader. The women had died by dousing themselves with kerosene and setting themselves on fire. A local resident out for his morning walk found the charred remains at around 6.00 in the morning.

The women had been members of a religious group called the Michinotomo Kyokai (Church of the Friends of Truth). The founder of the church, and their leader, Miyamoto Seiji had died the previous night after hospitalization for a liver problem. The women, who called themselves ‘brides of God’ ranged from 27 to over 70 years of age and they lived in the church taking care of the founder when he became ill. The church had about 120 members and the others were not surprised at what had happened. They explained that some had been members for perhaps thirty years, since its founding in 1950, and that they were intensely united under Miyamoto’s spiritual leadership. Unlike Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple mass suicide of 900 in Guyana in 1978 there was no coercion and the actions of the suicides were quite intelligible to other members. The denomination was ostensibly a kind of ‘Christianity-based’ one, but traditional Japanese values not only gave it a structure but finally triumphed in the dramatic demise of the seven closest women followers in a mass act of atoi shinju. Their suicide note declared that they were intending to die to keep their promise that if Miyamoto died, they would return to the Kingdom of God. They stated emphatically – “This is not forced upon us,” a sad, but appropriate, epitaph.

Forced Suicides

Distinct from the kind of shinju described above are those cases where some of the participants were not of an age at which they could responsibly have decided to take part in a suicide pact, or where force was exerted upon them. Under this general heading, several kinds may be identified.

Ikka Shinju

First, there are those cases referred to in the press as ikka shinju. This term ikka means ‘one house’ normally denoting that a whole family has died in one place and at the same time. For example, a family called Furuta, who lived in Ueda City in Nagano Prefecture, was found dead at 10.30 am on 9 June 1974. They were inside their automobile, which was parked on a former national highway at Mitsuida in Gumma Prefecture. Using a vinyl tube, they had channeled the exhaust fumes into the vehicle’s interior. Death had occurred from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The father, Yoshihito, aged thirty-six, had recently married his second wife Norika, who was twenty-two years of age. His first wife had died in the April of the previous year. There were two children of the first marriage, Yoshiaki aged nine, and Aki, aged three. It appeared that the relatives had opposed the marriage on grounds that the second wife was too young, and that there were children. A case such as this draws attention to the precariousness of individual rights and to the unusual pressures exerted upon individuals in Japanese society. Driven to despair by the ill-feeling within the family circle, the Furuta family chose to wipe itself out.

This case brings out two important points. The first of these is the helpless plight of the children involved. The second is the issue that society itself should bear the guilt for its rigidity, its self-righteousness, and its hostility to all or any overt signs of individualism. It was the inhumanity and prejudice of the friends and relatives of the Furuta family that led to the deaths of both parents and children.

Muri Shinju

Similar to ikka shinju, but differently termed, are instances of what the press designate as muri shinju. The term muri implies force, and an example of this was the suicide of a Yokohama family called Taniguchi, who committed muri shinju on 4 May 1975. The root cause was the behavior of the 15-year-old daughter of the house, Nitomi, whose love affair with a university student greatly distressed her father. He had remonstrated with her, but finally, despite his protests, she declared that she wished to go and live with the student. The father cut the girl’s throat and stabbed her, and then did the same to his wife. Thereupon he severed the arteries of his own neck and all three thus died, a grim example of forced suicide. In truth, of course, it was two acts of murder followed by the suicide of the murderer. The same is true of the following case:

On the morning of 27 September 1974, the family of Sasaki Takeo committed muri shinju. They lived in Hokkaido in Hokadate, where Sasaki worked as a dock laborer. They lived in an apartment consisting of two six-mat tatami floored rooms (roughly four by three yards), one of which was occupied by the parents, and the other by the children, Chie, a girl of ten and Takashi, a boy of eight.

It appears that Sasaki, aged forty-two, was an alcoholic with another health problem in addition and he was in danger of losing his job. The economic difficulties that would result from this were more than he could face. Waking early, he murdered his wife and children, stabbing them to death. Thereafter he gave himself a ghastly exit from life by scattering straw on the tatami floor, soaking it with oil and setting fire to it. The house was not completely destroyed and newspapers were able to show the extent of the damage. The miserable state in which the Sasaki family died reflects the depths of despair to which people can fall when they see no sign of hope whatsoever.

Forced Suicides and the Rights of the Individual

A case which brings the moral issues involved in muri shinju into clear focus is that of assistant professor Oba of the department of English Literature at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. He had been involved in an illicit sexual relationship with one of his women students, as a result of which the girl became pregnant. In order to avoid the shame of exposure, under circumstances never discovered, he killed the student. Perhaps they had planned a double suicide and he lost his nerve. No one will ever know. At any rate, he must have informed his wife for, no doubt in compliance with his suicide plan, the couple, tied to their two children, leapt from a high cliff into the sea. The sad end of the Oba family was the final act in a tragic drama that made headline news in the Japanese for several days during October 1973.

The chief moral issue in this case that begs discussion is, why did the entire family have to die? Oba himself might have faced the death penalty for his crime, but why did his wife and children have to die also? The following considerations probably played a large part in determining their fate. The shame to which Mrs. Oba would have been exposed may have weighed heavily in her mind. There can be no doubt that she would have found great difficulty in living down her husband’s notoriety. She may have felt that life was, in effect, over for her, and not wishing to face the prospect of becoming an outcast, decided to die with her husband. However, what of the children? Why was it considered necessary that they should also die? No possible blame could be attached to them. Yet, in terms of the group way of thinking already mentioned, individuals in Japan frequently share the contamination of the group. This might be extended to adults who are self-chosen members of a group, but it is difficult to see how moral blame might be attached to children simply by virtue of their being members of a particular family.

Leaving to one side the claims of the argument about shared responsibility, unconvincing as it is, there are two further lines of argument frequently advanced in apparent justification of the practice. First, it is often claimed that the death of the children is desirable since there is no one to take care of them. This contention may be rejected as merely an abdication of social responsibility, a feature of Japanese society too often in evidence in a social milieu that has the power to exert tremendous pressure on its members.

Secondly, it is sometimes claimed that parents kill their children out of love for them. They do not wish them left alone, nor do they wish them to face shame. They thus preserve the unity of the family by dying together. This is even spoken of as a religious act on the part of the parents. The only comment to be made here is that in such a context, the meaning of the word ‘love’ becomes a little strained.

Another case that drew much public attention and raised again the same issues was the Oigawa Shinju, which took place in Oigawa in Shizuoka Prefecture on 18 November 1978. The Ogiwara family faced an unexpected bankruptcy and, in despair, nine persons, including one pregnant woman, died, together with the paternal grandfather who was the head of the family. The dead were the father, wife, elder son, his wife and daughter, the oldest married daughter and her nine-months-old baby, the second daughter and the youngest daughter who was a medical student.

It seems to me that one basic underlying reason for the practice of infanticide in such a situation lies in the ingrained belief that children are the property of their parents. Their right to life as individuals may be recognized by the Constitution, but it is not as yet an accepted norm in society. The murder of children is a crime. However, the Japanese press, by using terms such as ‘forced suicide’, evades the moral issues involved, and in effect, disguises as suicide what is in fact murder. The violation of human rights, of the rights of individual children not of an age to represent their own views, is a result of values that permit such misrepresentation of the facts, and which allows difficult situations to take care of themselves by the time honored method, namely the voluntary disappearance (by suicide) of those who constitute the problem. Believing as I do, that the Japanese people wish to live up to the spirit of their Constitution, I suggest that there is a great deal of moral reflection to be done in connection with this particular practice.

Forced Suicide or Murder Suicide?

In addition to ikka shinju and muri shinju, two other forms of suicide that are commonly identified in the newspapers should be mentioned. These are boshi shinju (mother and child) and fushi shinju (father and child). A distinguishing feature of these two types is the way in which they suggest that in certain respects, modern Japanese society is geared towards almost a Darwinian view of survival.

Boshi Shinju

On 20 January 1975, a Nishinomiya housewife, aged thirty-six, Mrs. Yumiko Umezawa, gassed herself along with her children, Tatako aged thirteen, and Masaaki, aged ten. Takako was handicapped and the mother was quite despondent over her future. A second case is that of Mrs. Toshiko Tshushima, aged twenty-five, who set fire to herself and her two-month old baby, in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture, on 26 January 1976, because the baby had a serious mouth defect. Handicapped children frequently die in this way, with their mother, if there seems no hope of cure. Bar hostesses who are often unmarried mothers or divorcees with children, commit boshi shinju, and there were many instances of this during the time of the oil shortage in 1973, when Japanese companies were unable to spend the accustomed lavish amounts on night entertainment of staff and guests. Many of the bars and supper clubs, whose only source of income was from company entertainment, discharged large numbers of their hostesses through lack of trade. Thus many suicides resulted among those whose incomes were severed and who, no longer as young and attractive as they had been, had little hope of re-employment. A slightly similar, but less dramatic situation arose after the bursting of the “bubble economy” in 1991 and the subsequent recession of 1992 as corporations pared back entertainment budgets.

Fushi Shinju

The corresponding type of father-child suicide often occurs when the death or desertion of a wife leaves no one to care for the child or children. Generally, it is easier in Japan for a man with children to remarry than a woman. This is one reason for the higher rate of suicide among women. On the matter of female suicides, I shall have cause to return later. The English language press has come to speak of murder/suicide in the case of muri shinju, a step towards a more accurate description of the phenomenon.

Image | Jerich Abon


This is Part 16 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, Lingering Images in Popular Culture, will be published next Thursday on July 7, 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, Psychology & the Behavioral Sciences, Subject Area, World


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