This Monday a group of school children in the town of Altınova , Turkey discovered the corpse of 51-year-old Japanese engineer Kishi Ryoichi at the entrance of a local cemetery. Ryoichi had slashed both of his wrists and cut his throat, leaving a suicide note that the Turkish press has used to label his death a harakiri-style suicide, committed as punishment for his self-proclaimed role in the collapse of an unfinished bridge.
To anyone familiar with historical Japanese harakiri (better known to some as seppuku), classifying Ryoichi's death as such might seem odd. A ritualized form of suicide that took root in 12th century Japan amongst the samurai warrior class, harakiri evolved over the ages—sometimes it was an impromptu affair on the battlefield, sometimes a judicial sentence, and sometimes a voluntary act planned out over months and accompanied by a great public ceremony. But no matter the variations, the basic actions were the same: a samurai or daimyo warlord would cure the shame caused by his defeat, cowardice, wrongdoing, or some other social failure by plunging a ritual knife into his abdomen (the number and direction of cuts varied). Sometimes he would then stab his own throat as well, bleeding to death painfully to show resolve. Sometimes someone else would chop off his head as soon as he'd completed the incision.
At the height of the samurai period, about 1,500 people voluntarily practiced harakiri every year in what they considered an attempt to free their souls, as well as restore their honor and the honor of their families. Although the practice was outlawed as a legal punishment in the late 19th century, a few people continued to practice harakiri. But many saw them as anachronistic and even shameful in their turn away from modernization. Harakiri saw a brief revival during the intense nationalistic era of WWII , with a line of soldiers committing suicide outside the Imperial palace upon Japan's surrender to the US in 1945, but thereafter was largely phased out.
Mishima was a popular writer who ran a paramilitary organization dedicated to protecting the Japanese Emperor and opposing Western influences and the modern Japanese constitution. On November 25, 1970, after dropping his last novel at his publisher's offices, he and four associates worked their way into the office of Lieutenant General Kanetoshi Mashida in the Tokyo headquarters of the nation's constitutionally restricted Self-Defense Forces. They tied the general up and Mishima plunged a knife into his own guts. At that point, his disciple Masakatsu Morita was supposed to behead him, but after three chops, Morita still couldn't get Mishima's head off. So Hiroyasu Koga, another one of his disciple, stepped in to finish the job. Koga then decapitated Morita after he in turn decided to commit (another botched) harakiri for his failure to behead Mishima. Koga served four years in prison.
At least three cases of full-on harakiri have occurred since: One in 1989 when a cook was found dead in a cemetery, leaving a note commemorating the death of Emperor Hirohito that year. One in 1999 when a 58-year-old employee of Bridgestone Sports, Masaharu Nonaka (described as a generally sane guy), got into an argument over corporate restructuring with the then-Bridgestone CEO before disrobing, pulling out a 14-inch fish flaying knife, and stabbing himself (after a few minutes' delay) in front of several employees in the CEO's office (the latter man fled before the cut was made). And one in 2001 when judo star turned construction company CEO Isao Inokuma gutted himself for his failure to keep the company out of debt.
Japan doesn't have the largest suicide rate in the world (at 21.4 suicides per 100,000 people, it's the seventh most self-destructive nation). But the fact that suicide happens up to 70 times a day and has become a leading cause of death in many demographics in Japan is still shocking.
"The most common factor behind suicide in Japan is depression caused by a failure to cope with [social pressure]," Yuzo Kato, Director of the Tokyo Suicide Prevention Center, told The Guardian in 2010, "either because of poverty or the demands of work."
These pressures get a boost thanks to the fact that there are fewer social stigmas against suicide in Japan than in the West. The nation's two most common and influential faiths, Buddhism and Shinto , for instance, do not consider suicide a sin like Judeo-Christian religions. The state's refusal to engage with or even acknowledge suicide as a social problem until very recently ( Tokyo only got funding for prevention programs and started using the term actively in public documents at the end of the last decade) also removes friction from the decision to end one's life.
But some of Japan's suicides are likely tied to romantic ideas of suicide-as-atonement influenced by the harakiri tradition and linked to public displays of regret for failures . Some commentators observing these non-gut-stabbing but still honor-bout deaths even explicitly link them in their memorials to samurai honor and to the old, anachronistic self-disembowelment.
"The idea [in Japan] is that one can take responsibility for the situation of your life by committing suicide," Larissa MacFarquhar, the New Yorker author of a 2013 profile on the Japanese Buddhist monk Ittetsu Nemoto's suicide prevention campaign, told WBUR's Here and Now that year, referring to the persistence of harakiri sentiment in many suicides.
"Death puts an end to everything," Yukiko Nishihara, the founder of the Tokyo branch of emotional support service group Befrienders Worldwide, told Psychology Today of this old-school romanticism and absolution in 2014. "And the victim becomes a god, and becoming free of criticisms [sic]."
This accounts for the skewed demographics of Japanese suicides , which are most common amongst 51- to 61-year-old men, often with high-ranking government or corporate jobs. Famous cases include a top secretary of Prime Minsiter Noboru Takeshita, Ihei Aoki, who slashed his wrists and legs and hung himself in 1989 to atone for a public bribery scandal; right-wing nationalist Shusuke Nomura, who shot himself with a pistol in a meeting with the editors of the Asahi Shimbun in 1993 in protest at the dishonor done to his cohorts by a mocking political cartoon the paper had run; and Agriculture Minsiter Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who hung himself in a Tokyo government building in atonement for an embezzlement scandal in 2007. In the case of Matsuoka, the nationalistic governor of Tokyo at the time, Shintaro Ishihara , talked at length about the samurai spirit and the minister's dedication to the restoration of honor through suicide.
Romantic, dramatic, and somehow both private and public suicides amongst officials seeking redemption for dishonoring (but not in many parts of the world life-shattering) transgressions became so common that in 1989 they inspired the Pixies' " Wave of Mutilation ." In Japan, there are even national Meccas for such suicides, like the Aokigahara forest on the slopes of Mt. Fuji.
It's unclear what Ryoichi's state of mind was when he killed himself in Turkey. Perhaps he was just suicidally depressed by his failure rather than stoically seeking atonement and honor. But the strategic and public placement of his body, the slashing of his own throat as well as his wrists, and the explicit mentions of grief and responsibility in his suicide note do make it sound like part of a wider and endemic pattern in Japanese culture. To call it harakiri may be a bit facetious, but it may well have been one of the many modern suicides inspired by similar values and impulses.
If you are struggling with depression or having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.