Suicide has long been a way to preserve one's family honor in Asia. Unlike the West, where religions like Christianity view suicide as a sin carrying a negative connotation, suicide among Asian countries is seen as a means of atoning for disgrace, defeat, or any other dishonorable action or event.
This tradition of suicide instead of defeat, capture, or perceived shame was deeply entrenched in the Japanese military culture and dates back hundreds of years when the Japanese samurai reigned. The samurai lived by the Bushido code of loyalty and honor until death.
In feudal Japan, much like other Asian cultures, the family was central and paramount to existence thus shame and dishonor affected the whole family. Families share genes. If one noble samurai lord became widely known to have done something shameful, this would have affected the prospects of his whole family. His daughters would not marry well, and his brothers would have to work much harder to achieve any position of influence and power.
The reason a samurai accepted suicide so readily was that their families instilled in them a strong sense of duty. Families, not wishing to be harmed by the actions of one rogue family member, would for the sake of their place in society demand that the one erring member should kill himself rather than damage the whole family’s reputation. Unlike Christianity where suicide is sin, the sins from the family of the dead Japanese individual bring restitution and restoration to the family tainted by the original blemish.
Not surprisingly, this view of suicide as a means to preserve your family and culture’s honor still permeates among the Japanese. According to the World Health Organization, Japan has the highest suicide rate among Asian countries with more than 30,000 Japanese killing themselves each year. Taking your life is seen as an honorable way of atoning for public disgrace and expression of one’s deep sense of shame.
“Suicide in Japan, often misunderstood in America, is the ultimate means of taking responsibility for having brought shame to one’s group. This most personal act is, in Japan, still an act that expresses a supreme concern for what others think," writes John Condon in his book, With Respect to the Japanese.
Because of the high emphasis on in-group belonging and affiliation with family and other social networks, dishonoring yourself places Japanese individuals at risk of losing their place in society.
"In this country, it is difficult to live without belonging to a group, and once you fall out there is hardly a chance to go back in," says Yasuyuki Shimizu, who represents a non-profit organization for suicide prevention.
Another reason for the high rate of Japanese suicide is embedded in the Japanese religious beliefs that suicide not only erases one’s misdeeds in life but elevates the individual to one of spiritual enlightenment. Yukiko Nishihara, the founder of the Tokyo branch of Befrienders Worldwide, a volunteer-based network that provides emotional support for suicidal clients, offers this cultural explanation to Japanese suicide: “Death puts an end to everything, and the victim becomes a god, and becoming free of criticism."
This cultural belief, or baggage, exists today among many Asian-American families and is a main factor why suicide is the second leading cause of death for Asian-Americans aged 15-34, according to the American Psychological Association.
Asian parents hold dearly to the centuries-old culture of shame and honor so that when they arrive to the U.S., it often gets passed down to the next generation. So much so that if their children need help for issues related to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, or any personal struggles, they can be seen as tarnishing the family’s prestige.
“They fear that any mental problems will reflect badly on their son or daughter, as well as tarnish their entire lineage,” notes Katherine Kam, a journalist who focuses on Asian-American mental health.
I don’t offer any solutions per se, but we as an Asian-American culture need to start talking about our struggles. It doesn’t have to be in therapy, but we do need to acknowledge that a paradigm shift in how Asian parents raise children and communicate love and acceptance should be reevaluated, lest this code of honor, shame, and escape via suicide continue to impact untold thousands of Asian families each year.
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Condon, J. With Respect to the Japanese, 1984, Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc., p.30.
Japan Targets High Suicide Rate. USA Today, 5/29/2007.
Suicide Among Asian-Americans. American Psychological Association.
A Hidden Tragedy: Mental Illness and Suicide Among Asian-Americans. New America Media.