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Suicide: still an honorable end?

By: Michael March

Date Posted: 1999-05-14

Suicide in Japan has almost always been met with compassion. Since the first recorded suicide of a bushi, or warrior, in 1156, suicide has been viewed as an honorable act in which past indiscretions or failures have been met with sympathy, and viewed as a selfless sign of fearlessness. The latest spate of suicides, however, surely must raise questions about the ‘nobility’ of modern-day sacrifices.

The suicide last Thursday of a former vice president of the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan, is but one instance and follows a long procession of suicides by top business executives over several years who have failed to adequately deal with an ever-worsening economic climate. When the economy continued to dive headlong into deeper recession in 1996, more than 470 Japanese business executives chose suicide, a disturbing trend amid a stagnant economy.

Having been questioned by Tokyo prosecutors about allegations that he had worked the books, Takashi Uehara, the former head of accounting at LTCB, checked into a Tokyo hotel room then hanged himself., according to a report in the Yomiuri Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest daily newspapers.

A day after the death of the LTCB executive in Mie, Fujiwara Prefecture, a 47-year-old member of the Mie municipal assembly, depressed over dropping 10 places from his 3rd place ranking in the previous election, strangled himself with a seatbelt in his car. Despondent over what he considered a disappointing result, reports said, the assemblyman ended his life.

But as the assemblyman’s case shows, and how it has been for many years now, it is not only a faltering economy that causes people to end their own life. Problems in one’s personal life, personal setbacks and an inability to deal with disappointment in many areas seems sufficient to end life voluntarily.

Last week also saw the suicide of Tatsuyuki Aoki, 32, a drummer with Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, one of the country’s most popular alternative bands. The drummer threw himself in front of a train, according to the Yomiuri. Apparently, Aoki had personal problems.

As unemployment levels increase, surpassing almost monthly previous records thought unimaginable only a decade ago, and as the economic downturn sheds more workers, the situation may take an even more dramatic turn.

Latest figures show, since 1996, the number of Japanese committing suicide has risen from 23,104 to 27,102 in less than two years, an astonishing rise of more than 15 percent. Japan now has one of the highest suicide rates in the world at 17.2 per 100,000 people, while the United States, with more than twice the population, has a rate of 12 per 100,000.

Yet, a report by the Yomiuri last week is also shows a new and more disturbing trend. It showed child suicides in 1998 nearly doubled figures from the year before. In total, 74 suicides were committed by people under the age of 18, up 34 from the previous year. Of the 74, 29 were female while 45 were male. Thirty-seven were not enrolled in school. Clearly, pressures felt by high-school students and school leavers are reaching critical levels.

With latest Labor Ministry figures showing less than 50 percent of colleges graduates are finding employment, young Japanese will face even more demanding times.

Samurai once believed ‘Better death than life without honor,’ without loyalty. Japan faces an uncertain future, and with it major concerns. But with so many other Japanese facing the same hurdles, is suicide still the ‘honorable’ option?

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