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Justine Underhill

A native of D.C. Justine Underhill graduated from Georgetown in 2011 with a double-major in Economics and Theater and Performance Studies and a minor in Mathematics. She participated in the Berkley Center's Junior Year Abroad Network from Tokyo, Japan in the spring of 2010.

Justine Underhill on Suicide in Tokyo: a nuisance, a right, or a crisis?

May 5, 2010 | 1 COMMENT

The Japanese take great pride in having the most punctual train system in the world. If there is a delay on the Tokyo metro, more often than not it means that a suicide has just occurred. I can vouch for this first hand: As I walked into the Tokyo metro last week an announcement warned that the trains were delayed- I was facing a wait of perhaps an hour or more for a train that normally runs at 2 min intervals. My companion, who has been living in Japan for a year, told me quite matter-of-factly that someone had committed suicide by jumping in front of a train, "it happens at least twice a week." It therefore comes as no surprise that the JR Yamanote metro line in Tokyo plans to install anti-suicide barriers on platforms at all 29 stations by 2017 in an attempt to prevent this nuisance. Meanwhile, the train companies have instituted a "dely fee" of approximately 100 million yen (1 million dollars) that must be paid by the families of those who chose to use the trains as their means of suicide. This fine was introduced in the hope that it would serve as a deterrent. After all, there are several less expensive and disruptive ways to commit suicide.

As it turns out, train suicides in Japan account for less than 2% of the total suicides in this country, which have exceeded the 30,000 mark each year for the past 10 years. This places Japan amongst the top 3 industrialized countries in terms of suicide rate. The most frequent means of suicide in Japan is hanging, in contrast to the use of guns for suicide in the U.S. (guns are banned in Japan). ''The Perfect Suicide Manual'', a brief treatise with instructions on how to commit suicide by hanging and 10 other equally gruesome methods (and compares them in terms of pain, speed and disfigurement), sold over two million copies in Japan, with over two thirds of the sales just within Tokyo. The author of this bestseller, Wataru Tsurumi, a sociology graduate of Tokyo University, commented:

"It is important that people realise that suicide is not wrong. It is the right of every individual to kill themselves and, no matter what laws you enact, you cannot stop it."

Is this the same world of Pikachu-bliss, shrine-serenity, arcade-heaven, and udon-ecstasy that drew me to Japan? Suicide doesn't seem to fit with my expectations.

Who is committing suicide?

The largest demographic of those committing suicide in Japan are 51-60 year old males, oftentimes high ranking government officials and corporate executives. Men and women over 50 account for the majority of all suicides.

According to a report in the newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, on the evening of December 9, 2009 four people committed suicide within a two hour period in the Tokyo area by jumping in front of trains:

"At 5:15 p.m. that day, a 51-year-old man from Ibaraki Prefecture died after being hit by a train at a JR station in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward.

A JR employee and several passengers saw the man jump on the track from the platform. Although no suicide note was found, the man had a history of suicide attempts.

At 5:55 p.m., a 65-year-old man was killed by a train after entering a Keisei Line railway crossing in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward. The man had no job, was on welfare and lived in a cheap lodging house in Tokyo's Sanya district. According to his friends, the man's health had been deteriorating.

At 6:09 p.m., a woman believed to be a foreign national was run over by a JR train in Saitama. She had been staying in Japan for the birth of her grandchild. "I had lots of stress because of the difference in the language and lifestyle (in Japan)," she said in a suicide note.

At 7:25 p.m., a pharmacist jumped toward an oncoming train from a station platform on the Tokyu Line in Yamato, Kanagawa Prefecture. The contents of the shoulder bag he had with him were scattered around the site, including a memo that said, "I'm sorry."

Why is suicide so prevalent here?

There is no single answer to this question. Economic woes, highly stressful jobs, loss of honor or compromised integrity, stigmas surrounding mental illness, and deteriorating health, are all considered major precipitating factors. The fact that suicide has a history of being an honorable practice, coupled with the fact that there are neither legal or religious prohibitions, contributes to a cultural acceptance of suicide amongst the Japanese.

Honorable suicides started in Japan in the form of seppuku (stomach cutting): a ritual suicide originally used by samurai warriors as a part of an honor code. The ritual was used for a warrior to die with respect, rather than be captured or killed by the enemy. Japanese suicide was brought to America’s attention in World War II by the kamikaze fighters: these fighters would rig their planes with bombs and explosives and dive into enemy ships.

Following the surrender of Japan in 1945, dozens of Japanese committed seppuku on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. In 1970, author, poet and playright Yukio Mishima committed seppuku following a failed attempt at a right-wing coup d'etat aimed at restoring the powers of the emperor. He had reportedly meticulously planned the ritualized suicide over a period of a year.

Japan does not criminalize suicide, unlike many US states where attempting suicide is an offense that could lead to arrest or seizure of property. In so far as legal codes are are reflection of society's values, this reinforces the notion that suicide is tolerated amongst the Japanese. Furthermore Japan's most popular religions, Shinto and Buddhism, have no proscription against suicide- in contrast to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all of which proscribe suicide.

In an article released by the World Health Organization titled 'Suicide and Suicide Prevention in Asia' there is mention of the possible effect religion plays in suicide:

Buddhism extols the value of human life, for birth as a human being is the culmination of the individual’s efforts through many previous cycles of birth, and a step on the way to ultimate enlightenment. Suicide is therefore seen as an empty act, which will lead to unpleasant consequences such as the loss of a child in the next rebirth. Predominantly Buddhist countries, however, have relatively high suicide rates. For example, the rates in Japan, the Republic of Korea and Sri Lanka are 25.3, 26.1 and 23.9 per 100,000, respectively (see Chapter 1). The exception is Thailand, where the rate is 6.3 per 100,000, and where taking one’s own life is believed to lead to condemnation to hell for 500 lifetimes.

In response to criticism blaming his suicide manual for contributing to the rising suicide rate in Japan, author Tsurami cautions "No one ever killed themselves just because of my book. The authorities are blaming me because they are unwilling to take responsibility for the economic, political and social problems that are the real cause of suicides."

As I wait patiently in the underground train station for an hour with visions of a body being removed from the tracks, I am left with a sobering view of Japanese culture beneath the surface.


Your discourse on suicide in Japan struck both a moral and religious chord for me, particularly since China was similarly embroiled this past spring in a wide-scale debate over an epidemic of suicides at an electronics factory. Foxconn, a large and highly successful entity located in the southern province of Guangdong, was suddenly in the news after a series of unexplained suicides. Unlike Japan, where suicide is culturally acceptable, the Chinese take a dim view of this practice.

The debate entered our classroom after the company’s spokesperson announced that they would be setting up anti-suicide nets around the entire dormitory building of the factory! NETS? I was offended by this feeble attempt to solve what I believed to be a far greater problem. This “band-aid” solution, however well-intentioned, was not a solution but a temporary mask for the real issues at hand. What really needed to happen was a thorough investigation of the situation from the inside out, from the bottom up. What was the root of the problem? Each day we watched in horror as the death toll rose from eight to thirteen in a period of days. Furthermore, many of these workers were in their early 20s. How could this be? Could there really be something so wrong that all of these young adults were driven to suicide?

More unsettling than the number of self-deaths was the explanation being offered by some journalists. Apparently, the working conditions, coupled with the meager hourly wages, were so abysmal that the workers soon calculated that they were worth more to their families dead than alive. Company policy offered the surviving family members monetary compensation that exceeded a lifetime of employment. Young workers, faced with the choice of a lifetime ahead filled with long working hours, social isolation, dismal working conditions, and little chance of reuniting with their families, felt that the best choice for them and their families was suicide.

Personally, I found this logic demoralizing. Still, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the workers, who at the young age of 18 or 19, indenture themselves to a lifetime of dormitory life, harsh rules, and limited opportunities for job mobility. I also understand their intense desire to pull their families out of economic poverty and the overwhelming loss and depression that they must feel upon leaving their families. Yet, how could they not realize the greater implications of their actions? Is this what industrialization has done to China? When a company as large as Foxconn dominates the local economy, does the potential conflict of interest prevent them from assuming their moral obligation of providing a safe working environment? Where is the accountability?

Justine Underhill on the Most Controversial War Memorial in the World?

July 18, 2010

On a rainy afternoon after my Japanese history class, I decided to explore a jinja (shrine) in the neighborhood of the university campus--one known for its imperial grandeur. In fact, it was by order of the emperor that this Shinto shrine was established in the late 19th century, during the Meiji Restoration, a period that we had just started to discuss in class. As I wandered around the spacious grounds and towering structures decorated with 16-petal chrysanthemums (an imperial symbol) I was duly impressed as the imposing main sanctuary came into view at the top of Kudan Hill. I was even more impressed once I discovered that residing within this sanctuary (Honden) are the kami (spirit gods) derived from over two million deceased men and women. This jinja known as ‘Yasukuni’-- ‘peaceful country’, gives honor, peace, and rest to all who are enshrined within it. I had yet to discover that this majestic oasis is the most controversial war memorial in the world.

Although first built in 1870 as a festival ground for soldiers, when Emperor Meiji first visited in January of 1874, he wrote "I assure those of you who fought and died for your country that your names will live forever at this shrine." He was referring to those who died in the Boshin Civil War that brought him to power. Fourteen years later, it became the official purpose of the shrine to honor those soldiers, and by extension, all those who would give their lives in the future while defending the emperor of Japan. Thus, the shrine became the central symbol of State Shinto, a state-sponsored religion developed specifically to unify the country around the emperor and foster the belief in the Emperor-as-God, as a channel to militaristic nationalism. As a descendant of the gods, the emperor is treated as an incarnate divinity, making the defense of the emperor, and the country, a divine undertaking. Significantly, Yasukuni is the only place that the emperor has ever bowed, reflecting and reinforcing the symbiotic relationship between the imperial and the spiritual.

Since no human remains are on the site, Yasukuni is not a cemetery. The enshrinement process is a purely religious ritual to protect and honor the spirits, or “kami”, of the dead; it is up to the priesthood at the shrine to decide how and for whom enshrinement occurs. This process requires no consent and is without regard to the individual’s beliefs. To date, close to 2.5 million have their names recorded in the shrine's Book of Souls, never to be removed--not even when descendants protest the enshrinement of a family member, which has occurred on occasion. All have died in the context of battle in support of the emperor of Japan, not just as soldiers, but also as civilian war personnel; women and students serving in relief operations on battlefields or on production lines in factories are included. On the other hand, those who died fighting for the “wrong” side--i.e. as enemies of the emperor in the Boshin War or the Satsuma Rebellion--will never be listed in the Book of Souls.

War in the service of peace?

The official Yasukuni brochure states "The name 'Yasukuni' given by the Emperor Meiji represents wishes for preserving the peace of the nation." However, many things at Yasakuni tell anything but a tale of peace.

With the loss of World War II in 1945, the kami population commemorated at Yasakuni increased by two million, reaching 2,446,000. Enshrined were those who fought and died on behalf of Axis aggression in World War II, including those responsible for the Nanjing Massacre, and close to 6,000 special attack corps members responsible for suicide attacks on Allied ships. In fact, a special plaque honors the memory of the latter forces, stating “In the last stage of the Greater East Asia War when the war situation increasingly worsened, a total of 5,843 men in the Army and Navy gave their lives by bravely plunging into enemy warships and making other types of attacks. These men who became the cornerstone of today's prosperity ...” Although General MacArthur initially gave orders to destroy the Yasukuni Shrine, he revised his position upon the assurance that it would become independent of the postwar government, ensuring separation of church and state and eliminating all traces of State Shintoism. Today, Yasukuni is privately run but maintains its imperial ties.

In 1957, eleven years after the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (Tokyo Trials), a secret meeting between Yasukuni representatives and Health and Welfare officials was held. At this fateful meeting, it was decided that the 14 senior military leaders who were convicted as Class A war criminals were eligible to be honored at Yasukuni. It was also decided that this agreement would not be made public. It took another ten years before these convicted war criminals were officially commemorated; their enshrinement was revealed to the media in April of the next year, 1979.

By far the most inflammatory feature of Yasakuni, especially to its North Asian neighbors, is the intimately connected Yushukan War Museum, which takes honor and glorification of the Japanese military to a remarkable extreme, as exemplified in this stark misrepresentation of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Chinese: “General Matsui Iwane issued orders to observe military rules to the letter. The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”…

This portrayal, where Japan is recast as a protector and liberator instead of an intruder and aggressor, is not inconsistent with the Yasukuni rites that promote the memory of a war in which all deaths were noble, selfless acts of bravery, on behalf of the imperial institution. It is difficult for a foreigner to view such exhibits and believe that Japan has any remorse for the part it played in the horrors of World War II. But maybe this is just the product of an ultra-nationalistic fringe element with little influence or importance--after all, Yasukuni is no longer run by the government. So why take it seriously? Shouldn’t we just ignore it, as most Japanese do?

If VIPs in the Japanese government don’t ignore Yakusuni--why should Korea and China?

Yasakuni has been in the international spotlight ever since the Prime Minister of Japan started making regular visits to the shrine. Shortly after the enshrinement of the convicted war criminals became public, the visits to the shrine by Prime Ministers were suspended, with Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro's final official visit in 1985. When Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro, who was elected in 2001, started visiting the shrine annually despite harsh criticism both domestically and abroad, it stirred great controversy, provoked protests, and damaged diplomatic relations with Korea and China. It even provoked law suits in 2001: “private citizens at home and abroad, families of war dead, religious leaders, war victims and others filed suit against Koizumi and the state in five district courts across the nation, including various demands: that such visits be declared unconstitutional, that they be stopped, and that reparations be paid.”

One of those who joined a lawsuit against Koizumi, Anda Hideo, comes from a military family, where he grew up believing it was natural to fight and die for the emperor. In the postwar period, his views have come full circle, as he gradually realized how State Shinto encouraged the military invasion of Asia. The enshrinement of his father and uncle in Yasukuni became painful; he testified: "No matter how you define Yasukuni, which stands in an indissoluble relation to prewar State Shinto, it serves to glorify war and the war dead." Because the prime ministerial visits to the shrine again create a coupling of the state with Yasukuni, he laments, "You're killing my father and uncle once more." Another plaintiff complains, "Brother and Father were enshrined in Yasukuni without the approval of their survivors. And the Class A war criminals blamed for the last war are enshrined there, too. For the survivors that is excruciating."

When Prime Minister Koizumi was asked, during a House of Representatives committee meeting, about the problem of Yasukuni placing the blame for the outbreak of the Pacific War on the United States, he clearly expressed his disagreement, saying, "In terms of responsibility for the war, Japan started the war, so the war responsibility rests with Japan." He also did not endorse the Yasukuni view that justifies Japan's past war: "I know that Yasukuni Shrine has and expresses that view. Yasukuni has its own way of thinking, but it is not the same as the government's." Moreover, Koizumi asked that his visit not be taken "as an expression of support for Yasukuni's view." Given this position, it makes it all the more puzzling why he would not maintain his predecessors’ suspension on shrine visits. To make matters worse, he had paid a visit to Yasukuni a few days before the Japanese Foreign Prime Minister was scheduled to meet with Chinese officials; China canceled the meeting in response.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing compared the impact of Koizumi's visits to what would happen if "German leaders [visited] (memorials) related to Hitler and Nazis.” Visits to the shrine by Japanese Prime Ministers come across as attempts to legitimize Japan’s militarism and appeal to ultra-nationalistic factions. Moreover such visits are in direct violation of article 20 in the Japanese constitution, which prohibits any representative of the state to pay tribute at a religious institution (this is considered a violation of the policy of separation of church and state).

It is ironic that Hirohito, who was Emperor during World War II, refused to visit the shrine after 1978, explicitly stating that he would no longer attend the shrine because of the decision to commemorate Class A war criminals. No emperor has worshiped at the shrine since 1978. Some of my Japanese acquaintances explained that the Emperors have the freedom to act according to their conscience while the politicians, who need to cultivate alliances with certain political factions, do not have this luxury.

Is forgiveness a license to forget?

When a soul is commemorated at Yasukuni all previous earthly sins are forgiven. This forgiveness extends to the class A war criminals, which is disturbing to many--especially to those who suffered as their victims. While forgiveness after death can come with the recognition of, and repentance for the sins committed during life, this is not the approach taken at Yasukuni. Here, the ‘enemy’ is completely ignored. In fact, the notable absence of any mechanism for mourning those who suffered and died as victims of Japanese aggression in WWII, or for remembering the atrocities of war in a way that demonstrates remorse, is troubling. This fuels the sentiment that Japan has not sufficiently accepted its responsibility for its deeds and has instead recast history in a manner that allows the sins of the past to be forgotten.

However, the world of official politics is not indicative of the sentiment of the ordinary citizen. As I learned from speaking with Japanese people, especially those in the university community, the rituals at Yasukuni carry little relevance for most of the population. Despite decades of State Shinto, this “national” religion was never fully embraced by the Japanese people. In fact, the Japanese are not particularly observant, and the religious activities they do engage in are often drawn from a fairly eclectic array of options: In Japan today, it is no apostasy for people to be blessed by Shinto priests as children, to be wedded by Christian ministers, and finally to be buried by Buddhist monks -as many do. Yasukuni represents bereaved families and those with political nationalistic and militaristic interests more than that of religion; it does not represent the beliefs of the majority of Japanese.

Curiously, within the Yasukuni complex a place exists for paying homage to those who died at the hands of the Japanese military. A small and lesser-known shrine called the Chinreisha Shrine is where one can go to pacify and appease the spirits of the dead who fought against Japan in a war, as well as all of the war victims, regardless of nationality. Unfortunately, the Chinreisha is surrounded by a steel fence and had been closed off for many years. While it remains largely unknown to the public who come to visit Yasukuni, it could easily become a featured centerpiece for public remembrance and remorse. This would be a significant step to address the serious concerns of Japan’s neighbors in North Asia.

Dear Masanori and Kiyoko,
Even though you can't see me, I'll always be watching you. When you grow up, follow the path you like and become a fine Japanese man and woman. Do not envy the fathers of others. Your father will become a god and watch you two closely. Both of you, study hard and help out your mother with work. I can't be your horse to ride, but you two be good friends. I am a cheerful person who flew a large bomber and finished off all the enemy. Please be an unbeatable person like your father and avenge my death.
From Father
Captain Masanobu Kuno

…I want to make sure you are happy when you grow up and become a splendid bride, and even though I die without you knowing me, you must never feel sad.

When you grow up and want to meet me, please come to Kudan*. And if you pray deeply, surely your father's face will show itself within your heart. I believe you are happy. Since your birth you started to show a close resemblance to me, and other people would often say that when they saw little Motoko they felt like they were meeting me. …I am always protecting you. Please be a person who takes loving care of others. When you grow up and begin to think about me, please read this letter.

P.S. In my airplane, I keep as a charm a doll you had as a toy when you were born. So it means Motoko was together with Father. I tell you this because my being here without your knowing makes my heart ache. Lieutenant Sanehisa Uemura

*Kudan Hill is the location in Tokyo of the Yasukuni Jinja These are the last letters of two young kamakazi fighters to their children. Both Kuno and Uemura are commemorated at Yasukuni, the most controversial shrine in Japan.