In his feature article "Let's Die Together" in the May Atlantic, David Samuels does a heroic task of explaining why anonymous group suicide is becoming popular in Japan. The opening image Samuels uses, of a car in a Tokyo suburb in which five young men and one young woman died together, reminded me of a scene in P.D. James' novel The Children of Men, in which a group of elderly people on a bus cruise hold hands and jump to their deaths from a cliff. My only criticism of Samuels' report is his assertion that suicide "is known in Christian teaching as 'the sin against the Holy Ghost.' " Historic Christian teaching certainly condemns suicide, but the church also has been very cautious about identifying any one thing as the sin against the Holy Ghost (presumably because of Jesus' sobering warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). That said, Samuels' larger point stands: Suicide "occupies a very different place in the imagination of the West than it does in Japan, where self-disembowelment with a specialized blade has long been considered a proper response to shame or dishonor."
Whereas in the West, suicide is generally seen as the needless act of desperate souls, or of the terminally ill, in Japan it is understood as a more or less rational decision that can be taken by perfectly sane individuals as well as by groups. Japan has a long history of families committing suicide together, as well as suicides by cults and militaristic groups, including kamikaze pilots, or samurai warriors who suffered dishonor and hoped to wipe the slate clean. What is shocking about the new suicide epidemic is not so much that it is a group activity as that people are choosing to kill themselves together with total strangers. The Perfect Suicide Manual has become the essential text of a decentralized death cult that takes orders from no one, and whose members meet on Web sites designed solely to support and strengthen their common intention to die.
Samuels does not attribute the phenomenon to any one social factor. He discusses the roles of Japan's collapsed "bubble economy," publication of The Perfect Suicide Manual by Wataru Tsurumi, the ease of connecting with like-minded people through the Internet and the popularity of the animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Tsurumi offers this: "There's nothing bad about suicide. We have no religion or laws here in Japan telling us otherwise. As for group suicides, before the Internet, people would write letters, or make phone calls ... it's always been part of our culture."
Samuels interviews animator Hideaki Anno about his series and its heroine:
I am particularly interested in talking to Anno about the character of Rei, a depressive, suicidal girl whose big eyes, girlish body, and blank expression have been the model for the central female characters in Japanese anime for the past decade.
"Rei is someone who is aware of the fact that even if she dies, there'll be another to replace her, so she doesn't value her life very highly," Anno explains, slouching ever-deeper into the couch. "Her presence, her existence -- ostensible existence -- is ephemeral. She's a very sad girl. She only has the barest minimum of what she needs to have. She's damaged in some way; she hurts herself. She doesn't need friends."
More troubling still is how Anno describes his neighbors:
Anno pauses for a moment, and gives a dark-browed stare out the window. "I don't see any adults here in Japan," he says, with a shrug. "The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn't have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that's what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children."
The next time I'm tempted to think that euthanasia clinics will be widespread in the United States, I think Samuels' essay will help me regain perspective.