In Japan, many reasons to die; Suicide: Ritual disembowelment is rare, but the practice of killing oneself is on the rise again and tacitly approved by society.


YOKOHAMA, Japan - Taking the blame for the boss is only a small part of the growing phenomenon of suicide in Japan. White-collar workers, schoolchildren, housewives and scores of desperate heads of households are caught up in the epidemic.

Federal police documented 32,862 suicides last year, up 35 percent from the previous 12 months. The Health Ministry recorded 2,065 juvenile suicides, a 45 percent increase.

Yasuhara Abe, 63, was the vice president of Sogo Co., one of Japan's largest department store chains, and a corporate executive with an old-school code of honor. As No. 2 in the pecking order, his honorable duty, as he saw it, was to bite the bullet for the boss.

No one accused him of wrongdoing; nevertheless, he felt someone had to pay when the chain apologized last month to its shareholders for posting a deficit $50 million larger than previously announced.

A quiet, diligent man who, like most Japanese executives, worked late hours, Abe went home one night and hanged himself.

The note he left for his wife said: "Forgive my selfish conduct."

"The company president or the prime minister is considered too valuable," explains Dr. Kenshiro Ohara, a psychiatrist and Japan's leading authority on suicides.

"It is the next man down the line who must shoulder the blame. His suicide will protect the top guy and purify the organization. He knows his family will be looked after financially while he himself attains an almost semidivine status."

Ohara recalls that when former Prime Minister Kukuei Tanaka was embroiled in the Lockheed kickback scandal in the mid-1970s, Tanaka's driver committed suicide because he had carried the briefcase containing the money, though he probably was unaware of the contents.

Child psychologist Junko Nakajima attributes the high suicide rate among youths to the high expectations that Japanese society places on its young people.

"The higher the expectations, the greater the disappointment," she says. "When young people cannot find jobs, they lose hope in the future. There is also the copycat phenomenon: One does it, others do it."

Years ago, a man like Abe would have disemboweled himself ritually. A loyal friend would have beheaded him with a family sword, as was done since the days of the samurai warriors in the 15th century.

Today, few Japanese commit hara-kiri (belly-cutting), choosing instead suicide by hanging, poisoning, jumping off skyscrapers or jumping into the path of a subway train as it pulls into the station.

For many Japanese, death by one's own hand is an act of atonement and beauty. Suicide purges one of guilt, redeems sinners, avoids social embarrassment and, most of all, leaves the perpetrator beyond reproach.

"The Japanese people will never criticize a suicide," Ohara says. "Our perception of beauty is different. To us, death in the samurai spirit is pure, and one's self-sacrifice is the ultimate beautiful act."

Abe's death coincided with the suicides of six other senior executives. Their companies failed or hit a slump at a time when recession and unemployment are adversely affecting the Japanese economy.

The recession has profoundly shaken Japan's workaholic people, who once considered company jobs a lifelong guarantee and the company a safe cocoon from an alien world.

"We are again the world's leading suicide nation," says Ohara, "especially in male suicides."

But it is an unacknowledged distinction. Ohara says it took him years of persuasion and pressure to kindle interest in the country's first suicide-prevention organization and a hot line.

Last month, however, the East Japan Railway Co. - which carries 16 million passengers a day - installed large mirrors at the end of train platforms to give people a last look at themselves before they commit the ultimate act of desperation.

"When they see their own reflection in the mirror, they come to their senses, and this may help us deter more suicides," says Masahiko Horiuchi, the spokesman for the railways.

To discourage suicides on its tracks, the company also is installing brighter lights. Sensors along the platform beep if someone crosses the yellow line in front of the rails.

In a country that prides itself on efficiency and punctuality, the anti-suicide measures were designed in large part to prevent crippling delays in subway commuter traffic.

During the past 12 months, 212 people jumped under trains plying the East Japan Railway routes. The company has virtually told potential suicides to find other "do-away" spots.

Its lawyers successfully sued the relatives of one suicide victim for $100,000 in damages.

"A suicide delays train schedules by about 50 minutes, and we receive hundreds of furious phone calls," says Horiuchi. "After one incident, it took three hours to restore traffic.

Now and then, someone's suicide helps to focus attention on Japan's unfair labor practices.

Last month, the Supreme Court found advertising giant Dentsu Ltd. responsible for the death of a 24-year-old employee who had worked around the clock, sleeping only two hours a day. He had become so fatigued and depressed that he killed himself.

The ruling prompted the usually meek Japanese trade union federation to embark on an unusual survey of workers - in a country where people rarely complain or express dissent.

To no one's surprise, the survey revealed that 60 percent of corporate employees were working overtime without extra pay, many until midnight.

The trade union federation argued that if overtime were to be abolished, the additional work available would provide 1.7 million jobs, halving the country's unemployment rate and reducing a major cause for suicides.

In his office at Yokohama's Aihara Hospital for Mental Disorders, Ohara, 70, has been pondering for 50 years why many Japanese are so prone to take their own lives. He says he has written 350 books on the subject and penned 2,500 reports.

As a medical intern in an emergency ward, he was fascinated when the first words of suicide survivors were, "Help me." Only later, after they were fully conscious, did they lambaste the staff with the usual: "Why didn't you let me die?"

"Basically all suicides want to be saved, even in Japan," he says. "You have to remember that for every successful suicide in Japan, there are 10 failed ones and 100 cases of depression."

Ohara has yet to find a valid explanation for fathers who, having lost their jobs or fallen into bankruptcy, pile their loved ones into the family car and drive them off a bridge or pier, killing everyone.

No one blinks when deserted mothers gas themselves and their children rather than face an uncertain economic future.

Ohara argues that Japanese commit suicide as a matter of honor, to save society and to avoid becoming a burden.

"Suicides were down after World War II because people were too busy to survive," he says. "Ten to 15 years later, the rate went up when people found they could survive but had no purpose in life. Today the rapid changes of society are conducive to suicide."

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