Buddhist Monk Confronts Japan's Suicide Culture

Jul 8, 2013
Originally published on July 8, 2013 2:27 pm

Japan’s suicide rate is twice that of the United States. More than 30,000 people a year kill themselves in Japan.

So many people jump in front of subway trains that when a train stops between stations, people just assume it’s a suicide.

A Buddhist monk, Ittetsu Nemoto, decided he wanted to do something about that. He now works with depressed Japanese people who make the journey to his temple.

Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer for The New Yorker, wrote about Nemoto in a recent issue.

“There’s a sense that he and a few other priests are trying to help people rethink this choice, to think that suicide is not a good choice,” MacFarquhar said. “Even though suffering may be ennobling, suicide is not.”


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It's HERE AND NOW. And a gentle warning, we're going to spend a few minutes now pondering on uncomfortable question: Why does Japan have a suicide culture? There were the kamikaze pilots of World War II, of course, but more recently when a Cabinet minister killed himself while under investigation, the governor of Tokyo praised him for preserving his honor. Japan's suicide rate is twice that of the U.S., more than 30,000 every year. So many people jump in front of trains that when one stops between stations, passengers assume just another suicide.

Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a fascinating story in The New Yorker about one man, a Buddhist monk, who trying to change Japan's suicide culture. She joins us from the NPR studios in New York. And, Larissa, you say one reason there is this culture is there's no religious prohibition against suicide in Japan as there is in the West. In fact, you quote from a study entitled "Voluntary Death in Japan" that says in Japan you can hide in death. What does that mean?

LARISSA MACFARQUHAR: The idea there is that one can take responsibility for the situation of your life by committing suicide. If, say, you are the wage earner of a family and you are in unrecoverable debt, you can commit suicide, and the thought is that that is an honorable way out, that rather than evading your responsibility, you've taken responsibility. You've admitted it is my fault, and I'm going to punish myself for it.

YOUNG: Well, and we should say because it's fascinating that while there is this high rate and, as you say, more of a culture around suicide, they don't have the highest suicide rate in the world, that would go to Greenland, which is so odd. We want to find out more about that in another time. But into this culture in Japan comes this Buddhist priest, Ittetsu Nemoto. Who is he, and what does he start doing?

MACFARQUHAR: Well, he was just some regular guy. I mean he graduated from high school. He took a few correspondence courses in philosophy in university, but he didn't really go to college. He was partying. He just was a regular guy. And then he had a terrible motorcycle accident, and he almost died, and he decided to change his life. And his mother saw an advertisement in the newspaper for monks, and she thought it was hilarious to advertise for monks in the newspaper, as do I.

And she told him this thinking how ridiculous, and he had a reaction she did not anticipate. He thought, hmm, entry-level monk. I can do that. And he went to work as a sort of entry-level monk doing pet funerals in Tokyo, which is where he was living. And he was just interested enough to then enroll, if that's the correct verb, in a monastery. And he chose an extraordinarily strict and brutal regime in this monastery. He was singing up for a regime in which he slept very little, ate very little, was essentially treated like a slave, which I found very interesting to learn about because I think of a Zen Buddhist monastery and I think of a tranquil place.

YOUNG: Sure.

MACFARQUHAR: I think of a place in which one pursues serenity, experiencing a general sense of calm. It's more like basic training in the military than anything else.

YOUNG: It was quite something to read that. I, too, was surprised by that. But Reverend Nemoto eventually leaves the monastery and begins interacting with the suicidal in Japan. He starts a website. He starts workshops.


YOUNG: Was there something in his faith that drove him? Does Buddhism say something about suicide?


YOUNG: Yeah.

MACFARQUHAR: Buddhism, at least the - in the monastery he studied in did not prescribe working in the world helping people. If things are going as they're supposed to in the monastery, you're supposed to stay there and work on yourself. But he decided to leave, and he went to a fast food joint in Tokyo and started flipping burgers. And he met a lot of very miserable people, and he was always cheerful because it was so much easier than the monastery. And he started informally counseling people who were depressed or suicidal. And he found he was good at it, and so he decided to make helping the suicidal his mission.

People would contact him by email through the website, and he would respond to them. And people would call him on the phone, and he would talk to them. And he had a more or less unlimited sense of responsibility towards these people. He felt because someone would call him often at the brink of committing suicide, he felt that he could not stop emailing with that person.

He could not stop talking to that person on the phone until he had gotten them to step back. This happened day after day. Often, he would spend all night on the phone with someone, trying to talk them off the ledge.

YOUNG: Well, you have some of the emails in your article. They're quite something. Here's someone writing: my fear of death is so strong, I don't have enough courage to actually commit suicide, but I feel scared that I might lose control and actually kill myself. That's confusing, you know, someone who thinks it would be courageous to kill themselves, but they're afraid they might. And Nemoto has these conversations with them, and with the subset of the Japanese you introduced us to, the hikikomori. These are young men. You described them as virtual shut-ins. They stay in their rooms all day. They play video games. Their parents serve them meals on trays. Oddly, theirs is also a sort of monk-like existence. How many hikikomori are there in Japan?

MACFARQUHAR: No one knows the exact number because they are not really participating members of society, but it's in the hundreds of thousands. Some people think there could be a million or two million of them. I saw such disparate figures. I don't really know.

YOUNG: That was an amazing insight. But meanwhile, this one man is dealing with all of this and he can't handle it. Eventually he gets depressed himself. What's happening now?

MACFARQUHAR: What he decided to do was impose a rule that if anyone wanted to seek his counsel, they had to come to his temple. In this way, he limited the people who are coming to him to people who really were motivated to change the way they thought about suicide. And so that's why he made the changes he did because he knew he would die if he didn't.

YOUNG: Well, they seemed to work on some level. You write about one man who makes a pilgrimage to get to the temple. And just having done that, just getting there was all he needed. And he turned around and left. And I realized that, perhaps, he had made a shift in his life. But I just want to ask, has Nemoto made a shift in the suicide culture in Japan? Has he had an impact?

We spoke of the Kamikazes - those were decades ago. But even in the '70s, you had the writer Mishima who performed seppuku. This is slicing open your stomach. It's a form of suicide you write that Japan is known for. We spoke of people jumping in front of trains. Has Nemoto - are people in Japan recognizing him the way you did in your article for us? Has he made a change there?

MACFARQUHAR: He has. There's a sense that he and a few other priests are trying to help people rethink this choice, to think that suicide is not a good choice, that even though suffering may be ennobling, suicide is not. Suicide is just an end.

YOUNG: Yeah. That's Larissa MacFarquhar. Her article in The New Yorker is "Last Call: A Buddhist Monk Confronts Japan's Suicide Culture." It is fascinating. Larissa, thanks for speaking with us about it.

MACFARQUHAR: Thanks so much, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.