It is the land of the rising sun. It is a terrain of hot water springs. It is blessed with colourful foliage in autumn and cherry blossoms in spring. Highly susceptible to earthquakes, yet, Japan is one of nature’s most admired beauties. A country that has, over time, come to be every tourist’s delight, has struggled with calamities throughout its existence. Whether it is Japan’s notorious volcano on Mount Fuji that killed thousands up until the 18th century, or the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that destroyed nearly the entire land, Japan has mastered the art of coexisting with and winning over catastrophe. The world might have presumed the country would remain buried under the rubble. Instead, it rose like a phoenix from the ashes. Literally.
Neither natural nor man-made disasters have deterred Japan’s grit and determination. Today, it is a first-world nation with a high literacy rate and a stable economy. The Japanese society owes its prosperity to its people’s willpower. Sadly, this willpower is put to test time and again. Mount Fuji may no longer flame the country up, but the Aokigahara Forest at its base continues to brew a sad practice. It has been a sought-after destination for committing suicide, earning the name ‘Suicide Forest’. Some parts of the woods barely get any sunlight or breeze. The stillness of this forest is more eerie than peaceful.
Just like the dense nature of this forest, the darkness of the Japanese suicidal tendency runs deep. A study published in Vanderbilt Undergraduate Research Journal states, “Suicide is a dark thread that weaves through centuries of Japanese history, as an integral part of culture and society, manifesting itself in various forms over the years.” For instance, feudal Japan believed in atoning through sacrifices. The Samurai warriors believed that suicide was a noble way to die, that the human soul resided in the stomach and the noblest way to die was to slit the stomach open and set the soul free. Instead of being captured, a defeated Samurai would perform seppuku, a ritual of self-disembowelment. It was his noble path to atonement.
What might be seen as corporal sacrifice for redemption is really just suicide resulting from fear of dealing with life’s problems.
In those days, a Samurai who performed seppuku was revered by society. Unfortunately, this mindset has remained through centuries. The Japanese still believe in corporal sacrifice to set things right. Studies reveal that suicide is inextricably tied to historical, traditional and cultural aspects of the Japanese society. Even globalisation has failed to change the Japanese beliefs about this practice. In fact, Japanese literature and cinema stress on the virtue of self-sacrifice for “a greater cause”, religion or family.
Valuing family is a virtue, but to the Japanese, it is a double-edged sword. Japan is mainly familial and patriarchal. The father is the head and the breadwinner of the family, while the mother is the homemaker. Naturally, the onus on the men is huge, and so, many resort to suicide when all else fails in the face of financial hardships. These men’s families receive compensation from insurance companies, making suicide a harbinger of, at least, financial solace.
That is not all. The Japanese value obligations to others more than responsibility towards self. The society overemphasises collective cooperation. Hence, it is not surprising that depression is widespread in the country. Adding fuel to the fire, the Japanese shame culture makes matters worse. People are afraid to speak their mind for the fear of being judged, and so, most cases of depression go undiagnosed. When a person is shunned by a group for his/her individualistic streak, s/he feels compelled to give up on life. No wonder, bullied Japanese children resort to suicide.
Even faith has its fair share of influence on the Japanese beliefs regarding suicide. Shintoism conveys that humans return to nature after death, and suicide is no exception. It holds that suicide erases one’s misdeeds in life and elevates them to spiritual enlightenment. It is not very surprising then, that the Japanese culture romanticises suicide. What might be seen as corporal sacrifice for redemption is really just suicide resulting from fear of dealing with life’s problems.
But as the world knows, Japan is an optimistic nation, notwithstanding cultural problems. Thankfully, the society is rethinking some of its traditional ways of life. The Japanese are slowly opening up to their peers. They are learning to confide in their family and friends about their problems. People are also joining hands with the administration in creating awareness about suicide prevention. They are creating more helplines that can assist in curtailing suicides. These efforts reflect in the fact that Japan is no longer number one on the list of countries with high suicide rates. The Japanese are now nudging themselves to view life as a journey to be lived rather than as a problem to be cut out. As the French philosopher Albert Camus once put it: “But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.”