Sunday, October 18, 2009

Japanese Literature and Suicide: Is There a Correlation?

Mel, of The Reading Life, has read fourteen books for the JLC3 already. We're barely half way through, and I think he's devoured more than anyone so far.

He asked a question today, though, for which I have no answer. I'm posing it here in case someone else does:

I have read works by 14 Japanese writers for the challenge-it seems about 1/3 of
them have died by suicide-any thoughts on this?

If you know the answer, or think you have an idea, please leave your thoughts in the comments. It's an intriguing question, and one suitable for this time of year when ghosts and ghouls and ideas about death seem to abound.


  1. In the Christian West, suicide is seen as a sin. Perhaps in non-christian countries, suicide is not such a stigma...

  2. Let me know quote Takeshi Kitano, a famous Japanese director:
    “Westerners loathe the notion of death. There is no reason. Life is considered to be something meaningful. There is no religion which justifies the notion of death. In Japan, there’s no philosophy. So death seems something sublime, once it’s decorated with an ornament like love. You’ll find something creeping towards you and that is a seducing demon called death.” ~ Takeshi Kitano, Director of Dolls (link to my review of the movie)

    I found this to explain the suicide culture somewhat.

  3. I've just finished Sputnik Sweetheart for the Challenge, and although suicide is not exactly a theme, alienation and lonliness is. Having visited Japan earlier this year I did feel that it is quite a reserved society with strong personal pressures, but then perhaps that is just because I'm a foreigner looking in.

  4. I don't think suicide is considered a sin in Japan. It always felt to me as though it was seen as something that one commits for honour, love or atonement. During the summer when there is a tradition of sharing ghost stories (to lower the temperature and cool everyone in the heat) you often hear stories of ghosts coming back to haunt their surviving lovers who failed to go through with their suicide pacts (shinju).

  5. I remember stories of ghosts coming back to haunt surviving lovers especially in Tales of Moonlight and Rain.

    Interestingly enough, I'm reading Oh! A Mystery of Mono Aware which seems to have suicide as it's central theme. As I finish more of the novel, perhaps I'll have an insight or two to leave in a comment here.

    But, for now, my interest is piqued as to why it seems such a recurring theme in Japanese literature.

  6. Suicide isn't uncommon in many Asian countries. You can see a correlation with the rates to many different aspects of the culture. Education being one of the main ones, that I know of.

    It's stress. Watch a Japanese drama, and chances are the topic of suicide just might come up. If the drama is done in a education environment, that chance heightens. But, this is entertainment.

    The closes thing that I can see that could be a honorable suicide in Japan would be seppuku. Traditional seppuku doesn't make much sense in modern Japan.

  7. Funny, I just finished reading a Yukio Mishima book, and discovered he also committed suicide by seppuku, which I even mentioned in my post.

  8. I think the prevalence of suicide comes from a strong desire for perfection, which cannot be reached but only strived for in the human realm.

  9. I am currently reading Kenzaburo Oe's Notes on Hiroshima and he in fact states he is glad for the survivors of Hiroshima that have no hope of recovery that Japan not a Christian country and thus they have no sense that suicide is a sin.

  10. I like the more contemporary Japanese writers like Murakami, who wouldn't commit suicide I don't think and who has been criticized as being too Western by Oe, I understand.

  11. There is little stigma on suicide in Japan. Considering the stress of the supposed "bushido way", many Japanese adopt what they believe represents a social consiousness of their samurai past.

    This does not mean that suicide is an easy decision but it is more commonly done. Stress is a factor but it does not explain WHY. If you are interested in this, I think you should read Runaway Horses by Mishima which provides some intimate insight on the psyche. Mishima commited seppuku because his political beliefs were not congruent to the times. After giving a speech at a university, Mishima and some of his followers completed the ceremony before witnesses.
    In short - it is something really complex. An example of a misinterpretation of their feudal past manifested in the present.

  12. I can share what I've learned from a National Geographic documentary about the Samurai. Apparently, the custom of Samurai warriors choosing to commit suicide at the face of defeat originated from the fact that they were feudal soldiers who hold rank by virtue of their brave and loyal service to their lord. When a samurai loses in battle and thereby fails to protect his lord and his people, it seems to bring shame not only to him but also to his family. Committing ritual suicide, apparently, frees them from this dishonor and somehow (although I myself don't understand) serves as a confirmation of their loyalty. It seems it's also evolved as an honorable act to accept defeat in this manner (for instance, consider the movie The Last Samurai). So in the case of some Japanese writers, perhaps they thought of it as a way to escape the debilitating grip of old age, take control of their fate, and leave a lasting legacy.

    In my own personal view, suicide is a sin. But I do not believe the traditional Western thinking that it's an unforgivable one, nor that it condemns the person for all eternity.

  13. There's a fascinating movie about Mishima by Paul Schrader that may interest you.
    I think that the historical acceptance of suicide as a honour-saving method contributes to the fact that so many authors commited suicide, but it would be interesting to know if they are above average for the national quota.

  14. Hello, my twitter handle is Owl 59.

    For most Japanese, "suicide is NOT sin". Actually it never has.
    Murder is, of course, sin for even Japanese because it is depriving
    somebody else's belonging.
    However, suicide is you finish what you have.
    I, as a Japanese, think that is generally how Japanese
    feel about suicide.

    Why there are so many writers/novelists committed suicide in Japan?
    I think usually writers/novelists are more
    sensitive about things in life than "common people" and easily hurt.
    When hurt, they tend to blame themselves than
    blaming others. And they feel not worth while living.

    Mishima's case is something different.
    Seppuku by Samurai is also quite a different matter
    and hard to tell in short comment.