Suicide hotlines in Japan are so overloaded that getting through to a live operator can take thirty or more calls. Many don’t have that patience. And there's a new documentary released in Japan this week examines why the Japanese government is unable to significantly reduce Japan’s high suicide rates. Suicide in Japan does not have the same nuance it does in the West. It’s not a religious taboo. The Japanese have a curious history of finding beauty in the act of suicide. Taking one’s life is sometimes considered more heroic than defeat.
The Japanese word for the act is remarkably straight-forward: 自殺 (ji-satsu). It literally means “kill” (殺) “oneself“(自)”. Suicide in Japan has a long tradition of being a means of apology, protest, means of taking revenge, and dealing with illness.
Rene Duignan, director of the documentary Saving 10,000: Winning a War on Suicide in Japan which was released in Tokyo just prior to Suicide Prevention Day in Tokyo, says: “Nobody tries to highlight the real problems and most importantly what to do about them. I planned to interview 10 people but it turned out to be 100.”
The documentary poses a very good question: “Why is it that life insurance companies pay out on suicide? Stop paying people to kill themselves. Stop incentivizing people to die and leave their families alone.” Etsuji Okamoto, a researcher at the Japanese Institute of Health, makes the same arguments convincingly in his 2010 essay "Suicide and Life Insurance." [An English translation is at the bottom]
In post-war Japan, people would sign a life insurance contract. And go straight out, and kill themselves under the nearest train. Eventually, the life insurance companies started putting in one-year exemption clauses in their policies, so people would sign a contract and they must wait one year before killing themselves to get the money. It was still a very good deal for desperate people, so the suicide rate spiked on the thirteenth month. The insurance companies extended the exemption period to two years. The result was that suicides spiked on the twenty-fifth month of the contract.
Insurance agencies and the police say some men laid off from jobs have killed themselves to enable their families to live in comfort. “Japan has no law mandating how insurance companies deal with policy holders' suicides,” said Masaru Tanabe, spokesman for the Life Insurance Association of Japan famously told the Associated Press in 1999. In March 2004, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that insurers “must pay for suicides” if the death occurs within the terms of the insurance agreement.
Novels, movies and the spread of the Internet suicide chat rooms have contributed to the suicide boom in Japan. They have also popularized some areas as suicide landmarks. A forest near the Mount Fuji became the ideal site for committing suicide when a 1960s novel by Seichō Matsumoto was published. The novel tells a story of a couple who meets their end in Aokigahara forest. Others attribute an increase in the number of suicides to Wataru Tsurumi’s description of Jukai (the ocean of trees) as “the perfect place to die” in his 1993 perennial best-selling book The Complete Manual of Suicide. Both books are reportedly often found along with human remains in the forest.