/ 13 July 2006

Author of Japanese suicide manual has no regrets

Wataru Tsurumi sparked outrage more than a decade ago with his handbook on how to commit suicide. Now, he says, Japan is finally addressing an issue it long turned a blind eye to.

Despite Japan’s unenviable record of having one of the highest suicide rates in the world, Tsurumi says he has no regrets about writing the guide to killing oneself — an act he sees as an individual right.

”My book exposed a taboo in Japanese society,” said the 42-year-old.

The Complete Manual of Suicide, which was published in 1993 and has sold more than one million copies, has created the momentum for the start of public discussions on the issue, he said.

”Killing oneself is not a crime. It’s not right to criticise those who killed themselves because we all have the freedom,” he said.

”When the authorities are tightening the control and surveillance of individuals, I have to speak out even more loudly that we can choose whatever way we want to live our lives.”

In Japanese society suicide has traditionally been seen as a way of maintaining honour, as with the Samurai way of ritual self-disemboweling known as seppuku or harakiri.

The number of suicides in Japan, one of the world’s three most-suicidal nations along with Russia and Hungary, exceeded 30 000 for the eighth straight year in 2005.

Recently a spate of collective suicides by strangers who met on the internet and arranged to end their lives together has stirred public debate and spurred the government to act.

Last month Parliament enacted a law requiring the government and employers to report annually on its suicide prevention policies and asking employers to work with authorities to take better care of workers’ mental health.

Tsurumi, a former magazine editor, was vilified by the media after his suicide manual was published in 1993, when taking one’s own life was already the second-highest cause of death among young Japanese.

”I’m fed up with the tedious talk,” he wrote in the prologue to the book.

”Why do the young kill themselves? The question was posed over and over and over and over again … But no one has ever answered these questions: Why we must not kill ourselves, why we must continue living.

”What we need to know now simply is how to kill oneself.”

Tsurumi’s answer was a compendium of tips on drugging, leaping from tall buildings, hanging, the slashing of wrists, drowning and gassing.

In each chapter, a chart illustrates the pain involved, effort needed, ugliness of the suicide scene, nuisance to others and fatality.

In the chapter of gassing, he wrote: ”It’s a lot of work as you have to bring in the exhaust hose opening and seal up the room, but it also is a painless suicide scheme and the body stays visually clean afterwards.”

But the nature of suicides in Japan took a turn that even Tsurumi did not foresee — the rise in group suicides, a method that was not mentioned in his manual.

”I don’t like group suicides,” he said. ”You should make your own decision about your life.”

Lost decade

More than 32 500 Japanese killed themselves in 2005, over 4,7 times more than the year’s death toll in traffic accidents.

Some blame the higher suicide rate on the ”lost decade” of economic stagnation and widening social inequalities between the rich and poor.

Charity workers have urged the government to implement more social welfare measures to support small businesses and the elderly.

Puffing on a cigarette and flashing a cynical grin, Tsurumi said that the monotony of the never-ending daily grind was to blame for most suicides.

”The biggest challenge in life actually is how to make it day by day without being trapped by the empty feeling,” he said, adding that most Japanese feel compelled by society to work hard and fear slacking off.

”The people of this country still think negatively about belonging to a lower social class or not working hard enough,” he said.

While men in their 50s and above were the most suicidal in 2003, killing oneself became the highest cause of death among young people in their 20s and 30s, according to the health ministry.

Yasuyuki Shimizu, a representative of a non-profit organisation that supports bereaved relatives of suicide victims, believes a social security mechanism is needed to combat the problem.

”Even if the economic divide gets bigger, if the government’s safety net ensures protection for the financially disadvantaged, suicides would not rise,” he said.

”One of the trends seen in this country is that as soon as the jobless rate goes up the number of suicides also increases,” Shimizu said.

”The lives of Japanese people are so vulnerable to economic and social factors. That’s the problem.”

Thirteen years after his book first hit the shelves, Tsurumi says he is still often asked for advice by readers.

”But I only say to them, ‘Think for yourself.’ It is good advice because I respect their freedom,” he said.

He wrote in the book’s prologue: ”One of my friends carries a capsule of a powerful drug called Angel Dust that would kill him in the midst of madness. He is jobless but lives lightheartedly, saying he could take the drug when push comes to shove.”

Tsurumi says he hoped his book would serve like the capsule and relieve a bit of anxiety from the hearts of people who compulsively try so hard in life.

”The truth is, I’ve wanted my readers to live,” he said. – AFP