I have a friend who grew up in Japan and, a decade of so ago, he took me over for a week to speak to several gatherings of Christian missionaries with years of experience in that unique cultural environment. The key, of course, is that life in Japan is "secular," except when it is not. You see, woven through this secularism are powerful threads of ancestor worship, pop religion from America, superstitions and, of course, multiple approaches to Buddhism. I did some writing while I was there focusing on the national, media-based trend toward "white weddings." Young Japanese women do not want to become Christians. But they want "Christian" weddings.
Meanwhile, there are researchers who would insist that the ultimate religion of Japan is workaholism, success and careerism -- with a fear of shame and failure looming in the background.
This brings us to the cliffs of Tojimbo, the subject of a powerful story in the New York Times:
The towering cliffs of Tojimbo, with their sheer drops into the raging, green Sea of Japan, are a top tourist destination, but Yukio Shige had no interest in the rugged scenery. Instead, he walked along the rocky crags searching for something else: a lone human figure, usually sitting hunched at the edge of the precipice.
That is one of the telltale signs in people drawn here by Tojimbo's other, less glorious, distinction as one of the best known places to kill oneself in Japan, one of the world's most suicide-prone nations. Mr. Shige, a 65-year-old former policeman, has spent his five years since retirement on a mission to stop those who come here from jumping.
His efforts have helped draw attention to the grim fact that Japan's suicide rate is again on the rise. Police figures show that the number of suicides this year could approach the country's record high of 34,427, reached in 2003, almost 95 suicides a day. The World Health Organization says that people in Japan are now almost three times as likely to kill themselves as are Americans.
OK, with that set-up, you know that the story has to address a basic issue: Why is Japan so suicide prone? The answer is, of course, cultural. The question is whether the nation's unique blend of religion and secularism plays any role in this cultural story.
As you would expect, secular people primarily think that the root causes are secular. Well, duh. If you have a hammer in your hand the world looks like a nail. Here is what that looks like in print:
In part, public health experts blame Japan's romanticized image of suicide as an honorable escape, going back to ritual self-disembowelment by medieval samurai, for the high suicide rate. But the main cause, they say, is the nation's long economic decline. Suicides first surged to their recent high levels in 1998, when traditional lifetime employment guarantees began to vanish, and they have remained high as salaries and job security continued to erode.
For me, the key words in this are "honorable" and "recent."
In other words, suicides have always been a major part of Japan's culture. Is this an honorable way of dealing with problems in this life and the next? What is the Japanese view of the afterlife, in this culture that has no set approach to these issues?
The bottom line: It's hard to talk about issues of life and death, despair and depression, hope and redemption without venturing into religious territory. For me, this has nothing to do with America and material from other cultures -- unless this has become an issue in the evolution of Japan's views on this kind of issue.
In Japan, is suicide truly a morally neutral act? That's the hole in this story that fascinates me. There is this one fascinating glimpse -- through the eyes of Shige -- of some larger context:
As an officer stationed at Tojimbo at the end of his 42-year career, he said he was appalled by all the bodies he had to pluck out of the sea. He said he once stopped an elderly couple from Tokyo from jumping and turned them over to city officials who he said gave them money and told them to buy a ticket to the next town. Days later he received a letter from the couple, mailed just before they committed suicide in a neighboring prefecture.
"The authorities' coldness outraged me," said Mr. Shige, whose cellphone rings to the tune of "Amazing Grace," though he is not religious.
Say what? If this man is not religious, then I want to know more about the non-religious content of his motivations and why he is controversial in Japan. There is a story there, perhaps even a ghost -- with the ghost taking the shape of Japan's unique approach to faith and the lack of a particular faith.