Japan’s suicide rate continues to be one of the highest among industrialized nations (a 1993 manual describing suicide methods sold more than one million copies), and this trend is manifest in both the works and lives of modern writers. During the Tokugawa period, suicide played several literary roles. Suicide was sometimes the only option for star-crossed lovers whose social disparity precluded their earthly union, a popular theme in the theater. Suicide was the only path to preserve warrior and family honor, another popular literary context. Suicide was also the last resort for desperate or depressed literary characters. Modern literature inherited all three of these aspects of suicide, and they can be found in a wide range of texts, from Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro (1914; tr. Kokoro: A Novel, 1957) to the contemporary novels of Murakami Haruki and Oe Kenzaburo. (See KUROTOKAGE; MIYAMOTO MUSASHI; SHAYO.)
   Many notable Japanese authors have also taken their own lives, including Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Kawakami Bizan, Tamiya Torahiko, Kitamura Tokoku, Dazai Osamu, Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio, and Arishima Takeo. Some scholars speculate that the pressures of Japan’s conformist society, combined with the peripheral status of writers, may contribute to this phenomenon. Mishima’s ritual self-disembowelment following a failed coup attempt in 1970 shocked the nation and is perhaps the most dramatic of author suicides. The motives for suicide among writers range from “a vague sense of anxiety” (Akutagawa) to fear of being discovered in an extramarital affair (Arishima), and many authors who commit suicide give their reasons in a suicide note, which itself constitutes a literary subgenre in Japan. Not all writers, however, provide their motives; Kawabata took his own life just four years after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and experiencing supreme success as an author, yet left no note.

Historical dictionary of modern Japanese literature and theater. . 2009.


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