Weird History From Seppuku To Planned Online Death Pacts: The Bizarre History Of Suicide In Japan  

Melissa Sartore
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Suicide in Japan has always been notoriously prevalent: according to government statistics, in 2017 the country claimed the sixth highest rate of suicides in the world. From ritual suicide (known as seppuku) to WWII's kamikaze pilots to the Aokigahara forest, the relationship between suicide and honor in Japan may be a cultural phenomenon that outsiders will never understand. The pain involved in seppuku indicates a strength as well as a personal brutality that appears to have appeal as a final moral act of control. Some of Japan's finest warriors and public figures have committed seppuku after defeat or humiliation and it is still one of several common practices carried out today.

The suicide rate in Japan has declined in recent years but given its history with various kinds of suicide, one has to wonder how the country's high estimation of suicide began and why it carries on to such great and sobering extent even in modern times.

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Suicide Among Medieval Japanese Warriors Was Often The Only Way To Preserve Honor And Show Courage

Seppuku, also known as hara-kari (or "lacerating the belly"), was a ritual used by medieval Japanese fighters to take their own lives: a type of suicide reserved for them alone. A warrior kneeled down on a cushion where the table in front of him contained sake (rice wine), writing materials, and his sword. The samurai drank some sake, wrote a death poem, and then stabbed himself in the abdomen, carefully drawing the sword from left to right and then up toward his throat. In the early days of seppuku, the samurai would fall on his sword after cutting himself open. During the later period, a samurai would have a fellow fighter with him, his kaishakuin - the man who would ultimately strike the fatal blow - as he kneeled down. When the samurai showed himself to be unable to finish the cut, his kaishakuin then struck him from behind, cutting off his head. 

Preventing prolonged suffering was a way of preserving an honorable death, but the wound the samurai inflicted upon himself, the disembowelment, was a fatal injury. By taking part in the whole of seppuku, the samurai was, in the end, taking his own life. This ritual could be used by a warrior that had been disgraced, who had been proven to be a traitor or who had shown weakness, or by a fighter who had failed to protect his lord.  

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In Japanese Culture, Failure And Dishonor Are The Same As Death

Historically, if a Japanese man was dishonored in any way - humiliation on the battlefield, failure in business, a sin against his father, etc. - that dishonor was transferred to his entire family. The dishonor itself was akin to death and the only way to atone for it was to take one's own life. This was the way a man could protect his kin and his legacy from poor fortune, bad marriages, and the continued shadow of shame. 

This mentality carries into modern Japanese culture, where shame and loyalty both run deep. Relentlessly long and extremely dedicated work/study hours and any deviation from the collective perception of success or honor have caused the suicide rates to maintain all-time highs in the country and have caused an ongoing national crisis.

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Most Of The People Who Commit Suicide Are Men

Suicide rates in Japan are high, but there is a disproportionate number of men taking their own lives. Out of the more than 30,000 suicides in 2009, over 72% of the individuals that killed themselves were male. In 2014, which saw a large decrease in overall suicides at about 25,000, 68% of suicides were committed by men.  It's possible that the expectations placed upon men to work and support their families is what causes them to take their own lives more often. 

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Photo:  Utagawa Toyokuni (1769-1825)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Japanese Literature And Theater Has Praised Suicide

From seppuku to traditional kabuki theater to modern Japanese literature, suicide has remained a consistent, honored theme. Stories about famous samurai warriors recount the honor and courage that went along with the ritual suicide of seppuku.

Kabuki theater also portrayed seppuku as well as "love suicides" where ill-fated lovers have no other choice but to kill themselves. Modern literature as well as manga and anime continue to portray suicide, and while they often comment upon the current suicide epidemic, they present suicide to increasingly young audiences. Japanese novelists themselves are particularly prone to suicide. Famed novelist Yukio Mishima committed seppuku in 1970 in an act of anger and extreme patriotism.