Journey through Dukkha (Part 1: Introduction)

The Suicide Prevention Priests of Japan Enter into Structural Violence and Connect to Social Change 

Jonathan S. Watts
International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC), Yokohama, Japan
April 15, 2014

Skip to:
Part 2: A Priestess’ Role in Civil Society (Rev. Eka Shimada)
Part 3: From Wall St. to the Community Health Center (Rev. Soin Fujio)
Part 4: Going Deeper into the Causes of Suffering and Developing Broader Responses
Part 5: The Enlightenment of the Suicidal and a Network for Wellbeing (Rev. Jotetsu Nemoto)
Part 6: From the Roots of Suicide and Community Collapse to Building a Post-Suicidal Society (Rev. Shunei Hakamata)
Part 7: Conclusion: The Future Arc of the Movement

Introduction: Updating the Movement Since 2010

In 2006, the International Buddhist Exchange Center (IBEC) began research into the suicide problem in Japan, which at that point was in its 8th consecutive year of being over 30,000 annual suicides, prohibitively highest in the G7 at a rate of 25/100,000 people. At this time, we discovered Buddhist priests from a variety of regions and backgrounds taking on the problem from their own individual standpoints. In part through IBEC’s efforts[1], these priests came to learn of each other’s work and began networking, eventually forming a cooperative body called the Association of Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem (jisatsu taisaku-ni torikumu soryo-no-kai 自殺対策に取り組む僧侶の会). And so a movement began to form in the critical shift of individual activists working in isolation to a coordinated effort in group form to confront this issue.[2]

While the suicide rate in Japan continued to hover over 30,000 per year through to 2011, the movement grew. It not only captured the attention of the mainstream of Buddhist denominations but also the public eye and national media, in which these priests were often portrayed in sympathetic and heroic terms. The Association of Buddhist Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem began in May 2007 with 8 priests engaging in a cooperative letter writing system for those seeking counsel. On December 1st of the same year, they held their first proto-type memorial service (tsuito hoyo 追悼法要) for the departed souls of the suicidal and their bereaved loved ones at Eiju-in, a Nichiren denomination temple in Tokyo, at which 8 people attended. Since then, on this same day, the nationally designated “Life Day” (inochi-no-hi 命の日), the group has held such services at large and prestigious temples in the Tokyo area: 2008 Tsukiji Hongan-ji temple (Jodo Shin Pure Land) with 120 participants; 2009 Seisho-ji temple (Soto Zen) with 107 participants and 50 priests; 2010 Gokoku-ji temple (Shingon Vajrayana) 153 participants and 75 priests; 2011 Zojo-ji (Jodo Pure Land) 171 participants and 68 priests; 2012 Seisho-ji Temple 145 participants and 64 priests; and 2013 Tsukiji Hongan-ji with 155 participants and 51 priests. A third major activity of the group has been their “sharing” or group counseling sessions (wakachi-ai 分かち合い) held on the last Thursday of every month at Tsukiji Hongan-ji. This consists of individual counseling sessions with priests and the bereaved starting at 10:30 in the morning and followed by meetings of the whole group in the afternoon.

Preparations for the December 2013 memorial service (tsuito hoyo) at Shitenno-ji Temple in Osaka
Preparations for the December 2013 memorial service (tsuito hoyo) at Shitenno-ji Temple in Osaka

By April 2010, the Association had grown to 25 members, including 5 nuns, and had responded to a total of 1,733 letters by 447 people from all over Japan. By March 2014, there were 42 members with around 15 nuns, and they had responded to 5,609 letters from 991 people. The group has also renamed itself the Association of Buddhist Priests Confronting Self-death and Suicide (jishi jisatsu-ni mukiau soryo-no-kai自死・自殺に向き合う僧侶の会—the use of the term “self-death” (jishi自死) reflecting a greater awareness and sensitivity to the complexities of suicide and the problems of social taboos surrounding it. Another indicator of the growth of this work as a movement is the development of such associations in other major cities of the country, such as Nagoya, Osaka, and Hiroshima since 2009. These groups are affiliated yet independent of the association in Tokyo, further reflecting the horizontal and cooperative nature of the movement as well as its ecumenical, trans-sectarian makeup. For example, on December 12, 2013, the group based in Osaka, called the Association of Kansai Buddhist Priests Confronting Suicide (jisatsu-ni mukiau Kansai soryo-no-kai自死に向き合う関西僧侶の会), held their 5th memorial service at the prestigious and ancient Shitenno-ji Temple in Osaka. Around 100 bereaved participants attended, served by 49 priests and nuns, including 21 from the Association proper; 4 from the Association of Religious Professionals Confronting Life (inochi-ni mukiau shukyosha-no-kaiいのちに向き合う宗教者の会), and 3 from the Tokyo association including its director Rev. Yusen Maeda.

The priests and nuns in this movement have not only caught the sympathetic attention of domestic press but are now drawing interest from those overseas. In November 2012, a two-day workshop on suicide prevention was hosted by IBEC in association with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB). Revs. Soin Fujio and Jotetsu Nemoto of the Tokyo and Nagoya priests’ associations respectively led the workshop for ten Buddhists concerned with the issue from different parts of Asia and the West. In June 2013, Rev. Nemoto was featured in an in-depth article on suicide in Japan by The New Yorker[3], the top literary and cultural magazine in the United States, and this article has led to the present filming of a full-length documentary on the movement by an American filmmaker.[4]

In looking more deeply at the work of these priests, it is easy to see the profound impact they have had on the large numbers of suicidal (at least 3 times the number who actually do kill themselves) and the bereaved (another 4-5 times that of those who kill themselves). Yet has there been an overall impact on what is now recognized in mainstream society as a “social problem”? When the official numbers for suicides for the year 2012 came out in the winter of 2013, the number 27,766 marked the first time since 1997 that the suicide rate had been under 30,000. Again in the winter of 2014, the 2013 official rate was disclosed as 27,276. It is hard to assess a qualitative change in the lives of the depressed and suicidal from such numbers. Indeed, 27,276 is still very high, and its rate of 21.7/100,000 citizens keeps Japan in the top ten globally, well above the rates in other G7 nations yet on par with the high rates in other East Asian countries like South Korea (28.1), China (22.2), and Taiwan (15.1). However, it cannot be mistaken that significant progress has been made in raising awareness in mainstream society of the problem of suicide and breaking down the social taboos on discussing and confronting it. Much of this progress has been spearheaded by Japanese civil society groups, such as the Center to Support Measures Against Suicide (jisatsu taisaku shien senta自殺対策支援センター), more commonly known as Life Link. However, the role of these “suicide prevention priests” has not been insignificant. Their active role in the wider social movement also marks an extremely important shift for Buddhist priests and organizations in developing meaningful social roles in contemporary Japanese society, in which they have become deeply marginalized since then end of World War II. The focus of this report and update on the movement is the significant deepening of understanding of the issue and significant shift in activism that reflects this emerging role in civil society. At the beginning of our research in 2006 and onwards for the next few years, we found that while most priests acknowledged suicide as a “social problem”, their activism did not necessarily take place on a social level, that is confronting the structural and cultural aspects of suicide which form the root of the problem. Rightly so, many of these priests sought to address the issue at its crisis point, the suicidal themselves, by engaging in emergency counseling over the telephone, internet, and at their temples. The movement to create cooperative networks for also supporting the bereaved at memorial survives and at group counseling sessions marked an extension of this emergency work. Yet this still did not mark any shift towards either getting at the root causes of suicide or developing a more pro-active vision of a society without suicide. In Buddhist terms, this is the necessary shift from engaging in the 1st Noble Truth of suffering (dukkha), the suffering of depression and suicide, towards the 2nd Noble Truth, the cause of depression and suicide, and onto the 3rd and 4th Noble Truths, which develop a vision and action plan for a “post-suicidal” society.

As these priests continued to log endless hours of emergency counseling, they came to understand the issue much more deeply, yet also suffer from the secondary trauma and burnout of such emergency work. The deep understanding and experience they have gained has provided them with an expertise that is attracting the attention of civic and governmental groups, who are now requesting their help in public campaigns and activities. This deeper understanding, along with the struggle to engage with the endless stream of disturbed individuals, has also pushed some of these priests into a more nuanced and deeper analysis of the problem. Consequently, some are developing wider ranging activities to root out the problem and reach towards such a “post-suicidal” society—hence a fuller expression of the practice of the Four Noble Truths. In the following four profiles, we will look into the particulars of this shift and the ongoing development of the “suicide prevention priest” movement.

Go to: Part 2: A Priestess’ Role in Civil Society (Rev. Eka Shimada)

[1] IBEC’s October 2007 public symposium on the issue was one of the first times prominent priests in this field came together in a public forum. Shortly after, two of IBEC’s research fellows became active and ongoing participants in the group.

[2] For a detailed presentation on the beginning of this movement and of its prominent members, see “Reconstructing Priestly Identity and Roles and the Development of Socially Engaged Buddhism in Contemporary Japan.” Jonathan S. Watts and Rev. Masazumi Shojun Okano in The Handbook for Contemporary Japanese Religions, Ed. Inken Prohl & John Nelson (Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2012).

[3] Larissa MacFarquhar “Last Call: A Buddhist monk confronts Japan’s suicide culture.The New Yorker, June 24, 2013.

[4] For both of these ventures, IBEC has acted as the main liaison and access point to interviews with the priests.

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