Japan’s Political Suicides

WASHINGTON — Two recent suicides have shaken the political landscape of Japan in the weeks approaching the first legislative election during the tenure of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The elections for Japan’s upper legislative house are set for July 22, and the suicides, apparently related to an investigation into a bid-rigging scandal, reflect Japanese culture’s emphasis on avoiding shame and dishonor.

Toshikatsu Matsuoka, Japan’s Minister of Agriculture, Forestryand Fisheries reportedly hung himself on May 28, and Shinichi Yamazaki,a former business executive, is said to have leapt to his death fromhis apartment a day later. Both men are believed to have killed themselves in anticipation of their testimony in front of a legislative hearing with regards to their business practices.

The two may have been involved in kickbacks, which, as a Forbes report put it last week, “have long provided the grease in Japan’s free-wheeling political machine.”

Matsuoka, 62, faced allegations of bribery within his ministry, about which he was to testify before the Diet — Japan’s Parliament — on May 29. Yamazaki, 76, was also set to testify.

The resulting scandal, according to a report by The New York Times, could hurt Prime Minister Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in the upper legislative house elections. Abe’s approval rating is already at a low of 36 percent.

Suicide and Cultural Values in Japan

Suicide as a means of escaping dishonor is hardly a new concept in Japan. The practice dates back centuries, at least as far as the Samurai practice of Seppuku (also called hari-kiri), in which warriors on the losing side of battle disemboweled themselves to escape the shame of defeat.

A more recent example of shame-related suicide saw dozens kill themselves in the wake of the Japanese economy’s collapse in the late 1990s.

While the Associated Press reports that the number of suicides in Japan dropped to 29,887 last year — the first time the figure has come below the 30,000 mark in four years — suicide is considered by many to be a major problem facing the country.

Japan has the 10th highest suicide rate in the world, behind only eight former Soviet republics and Slovenia, according a report on Wikipedia, which cites World Health Organization statistics on suicide.

Throughout history, suicide has infiltrated Japanese culture in a myriad of ways, from military tactics (kamikaze missions in World War II) to Internet chat rooms, where in 2004, according to a report by the BBC, a spate of group suicides were arranged.

Ben Rothenberg is an undergraduate senior at the University of Michigan. He is as a summer 2007 international news intern for WPR and his dispatches will occasionally be featured on this blog.