Wednesday 20 December 2017

Osamu Dazai and Suicide in Japan

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) is one of Japan's most revered writers with the semi-autobiographical Ningen Shikkaku (人間失格)- No Longer Human - a modern-day classic that remains one of the all-time best-selling works of fiction in Japan (see here for a short review). The story is about a young man's isolation and alienation from society - his failure to identify with or understand other human beings - and describes a spiral of self-destruction that results in a failed suicide attempt. The author too made a number of suicide attempts, beginning at age twenty and ending just before his 39th birthday when he drowned himself together with his lover in the rain-swollen Tamagawa River. He is buried at Zenrin Temple (禅林寺) in Mitaka, Tokyo; when I visited there was still incense burning in front of the grave (pictured), no doubt one of his many fans paying their respects. Note also the fresh flowers, including some white chrysanthemum (shiragiku =白菊)a flower of condolence in Japan.

Japan has the reputation of having a high suicide rate, thanks to famous figures like Dazai and also Yukio Mishima, and this image is reinforced by films such as "The Sea of Trees" (追憶の森), starring Ken Watanabe, about Japan's infamous "suicide forest" (Aokigahara=青木ヶ原) at the base of Mount Fuji. Certainly, in every day life, it is not uncommon for a train to be delayed due to a "human accident" or jinshin-jiko (人身事故) which is often a euphemism for someone jumping in front of a train (tobikomi). However, in recent years the number of suicides have actually fallen quite significantly, with 19,959 deaths in 2019, a drop of more than 14,000 compared to the 2003 peak and an all-time low (MHLW White Papers here). And against expectations, COVID-19 has actually pushed the most recent suicide numbers even further down compared to the previous year. WHO data for 2016 year ranks Japan at 15th in the world with 18.5 suicides per 100,000 (14.3 or 29th when adjusted for differences in age distribution). Nevertheless, suicide rates in Japan are high compared to other industrialised countries (more than double that of the UK for example) and youth suicides have been on the rise; Japan is the only G7 country in which suicide is the leading cause of death for 15-34 year-olds. In 2019, suicide became the leading cause of death for children aged 10-14 for the first time in the postwar period.
Lifeline Poster at a train station

The seriousness of the situation was brought home when nine dismembered bodies were found at an apartment in Zama City last month, all young people (including three high-school girls) who had expressed suicidal thoughts on social media and had subsequently been lured to the killer's apartment. The incident underlined the inadequacy of support and prevention programmes for suicide in Japan despite a 2016 revision of the Basic Law on Suicide Prevention. Telephone lifelines (inochi no denwa =命の電話) in particular are woefully under-funded and under-staffed; it can take up to 20 attempts to get through to a Japanese lifeline (which is then usually limited to 20 minutes). Moreover, COVID-19 has seen support groups having to cut back support raising fears of a spike in deaths during the period of isolation. For the English speaker (of whatever nationality) in Japan, there is an alternative that is still active during the pandemic: TELL (Tokyo English Lifeline) is Japan's only English-speaking lifeline and also offers a online chat at weekends. For more on suicide in Japan and what can be done, see the remarkable documentary "Saving 10,000" available here. "Sometimes all you need to save somebody’s life," concludes the film-maker, "is to take the time to listen."

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