- Suicide in Twentieth-Century Japan by Francesca Di Marco
The years 2016 and 2017 saw renewed media coverage, both in Japan and internationally, of karōshi (death from overwork) and karō jisatsu (suicide relating to overwork). Alongside the Japanese advertising agency Dentsu, once again taken to task for its harsh treatment of new employees, Japan's national broadcaster NHK and a construction company working on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic stadium found themselves the focus of public scrutiny following the deaths of employees: the NHK employee from heart failure (2013), the construction worker by taking his own life (2017). Two enduring images of modern Japan, inside and outside the country, were reinforced: an intense work culture, capable of becoming toxic; and high rates of suicide, an act regarded in some circumstances as acceptable, even laudable.
Francesca Di Marco's study is thus timely and offers a much-needed contribution to an emerging English-language literature on mental health and illness in modern Japan. Where previously the story of psychiatry and psychology tended largely to be told by professionals from within those disciplines, in recent years historians and anthropologists have begun to work increasingly in this area, according to the methodologies of their own disciplines and weaving their analyses into a wide range of related cultural and political concerns. Groundbreaking work has been done by the historian of psychiatry Akihito Suzuki and the anthropologist Junko Kitanaka, the latter looking at the implications of depression—as a concept and a diagnosis entering the public sphere from the 1990s onward—for society, businesses, medicine, the law, and the state.1 [End Page 477]
Di Marco's aim in this book is to understand the shaping and interpretation of "suicide" in Japan from the 1900s to the mid-1980s (1985's Plaza Accord is taken as a cut-off point for Japan's postwar boom). Di Marco sets out to do this by "examining the ways in which beliefs about the nation's character, historical views of suicide, and the cultural legitimation of voluntary death acted to influence even the scientific conceptualization of suicide in Japan" (p. 2). Extensive and revealing use is made of primary source material generated by, among others, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, government officials, and newspaper reporters and commentators.
The phrase "even the scientific" is telling. It hints at a central contention in this book: across the twentieth century, many of Japan's psychiatrists, alongside professionals in cognate disciplines, sought to gain traction for biologically oriented understandings of suicide but faced frustration at the hands of powerful cultural and political narratives whose purveyors insisted on the exceptional nature of Japanese suicide—as part of an insistence on Japanese exceptionalism more broadly. The book explores this history in chronological phases: "Biologizing the Meaning of Suicide (1880s–1930s)"; "Culturalizing the Meaning of Suicide (1930s–1945)"; "Humanizing the Meaning of Suicide (1945–1960)"; and "The Triumph of the 'Suicide Nation' (1960–1985)." Broadly speaking, the first and third phases represent movements toward a biological, universalist understanding of suicide, where phases two and four witness the return of culture—paralleling, first, prewar and wartime nationalism, and then the postwar Nihonjinron boom.
The reality was not, of course, so neat and tidy, and Di Marco's analysis within each chapter is richer and more nuanced than her chosen titles might suggest. The period covered by "Biologizing," for example, is remarkable less for a steady victory of a biological over a cultural narrative of suicide—for which it is difficult to find reliable evidence—and more for the ways in which distress in general and suicide in particular were taken up by intellectuals offering a wide range of conflicting contentions about Japanese modernity. From the suicides of young students to those of General Nogi Maresuke and novelists such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, manifold meanings were claimed: the crushing impact of modern spaces and lifestyles; the special sensitivity of Japanese people (and artists in particular); a longstanding tradition of the honorable suicide; and a medical pathology requiring understanding and intervention by those...