Journey through Dukkha (Part 6: Rev. Shunei Hakamata)

From the Roots of Suicide and Community Collapse to Building a Post-Suicidal Society[1]

Rev. Shunei Hakamata
Rev. Shunei Hakamata

In this final profile, we will be introduced to a priest who has delved deeply into the structural and cultural roots of the disease of dukkha that has hit his community as well as the entire nation. Rev. Shunei Hakamata is the abbot of Gessho-ji, a Soto Zen temple in Fujisato-cho, Akita prefecture, one of the most rugged northern regions of Japan. In 2000, he founded the Association for Thinking about Mind and Life, a suicide prevention group, in his town of Fujisato-cho. In 2010, he became the Chairman of the Board of the Akita Prefecture Flower Bud Movement, which was the first prefectural level suicide prevention movement in Japan. He also serves on the Tohoku regional board of directors of the Japan Association of Euthanasia, as the Vice President of the non-profit suicide prevention network Kaze (wind), and as a part time lecturer at the Japan Red Cross’ Akita Nursing University.

Rev. Hakamata became concerned with the suicide issue and a host of other related problems as he watched his community gradually decline in parallel to Japan’s rapid economic development after World War II. He points out that Akita—with a total population of 100,000—had until recently the highest suicide rate in Japan for 15 years running. The suicide rate in Fujisato-cho is twice that of the rest of Akita, which he says “indicates that our people are holding a deep sorrow within themselves.” The average annual income in Fujisato-cho is 1,462,000 ($15,000), the lowest in the prefecture and what is considered “working poor”. He believes that the problems of suicide, depopulation, the aging of the community, social withdrawal (hikikomori)[2], and people dying alone at home are all due to the increasing isolation of people. He notes, “I also believe that isolation is an illness of modern society.”

According to Rev. Hakamata’s study, 1965 marks the turning point in his and other rural communities around the nation with the advent of modern agriculture and mechanized farming. When Japan was awarded the Olympic Games in 1964, then Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda began a national drive to double personal incomes, which Rev. Hakamata feels started to create the economic gaps between the urban areas and the farming towns. His successor, Eisaku Sato, attempted to lessen this over emphasis on pure economic growth by pushing through policies for “social development”. These policies ended up making a basis for the modernization of agriculture and mechanization of farming. Through investment in mechanization, money poured into the farming communities and people began to buy equipment, build new homes, and invest in other new material comforts. However, debts also accrued, and the increasing need for cash income. In this way, people used machinery to work in the peak farming seasons of spring and autumn, and during other times migrate to the cities to find work. Rev. Hakamata notes that Japan could not fully modernize if its human resources were not collectivized and concentrated for industrial production. Thus, under the guise of “social development”, rural communities were transformed and their inhabitants structurally driven into the cities.

However, Rev. Hakamata points out that behind the pleasant new material lifestyles and the new ways of farming, something dark started to happen that no one wanted to speak about. From 1930 to 1965, the suicide rate in Akita was below the national average, and in 1955 it was well below the growing national rate of 25.2/100,000 at 20.2. However, in 1965 it began to exceed the national average. By 1970 it was 4.5 suicides/100,000 more, and from 1983 begins a period that has not abated in which it is over 10 more suicides/100,000 than the national average, peaking in 2003 at 44.6 to the national average of 25.5/100,000. So what was really going on here in this society? At a time when Japan entered perhaps the greatest period of economic prosperity in its long history, why did the despair of the people of Akita go skyrocketing up? To understand, Rev. Hakamata has delved more deeply into the shift in values and culture going on at this time.

the rough winter landscape of Fujisato-cho
the rough winter landscape of Fujisato-cho

Rev. Hakamata explains that traditionally, the one central rule of the community was that everyone participated in collective labor, especially in planting and harvesting rice. This rule was also applied to organizing and conducting funerals, helping out families in crisis, and building important village infrastructure like dams and bridges. Such work was called shigoto, which has become the common term today for “work” as in one’s job or employment. In the early days of the market economy, Rev. Hakamata explains that the term used for employment or the work one did to earn cash income was kasegi. It was understood in the community that shigoto always took priority over kasegi. Shigoto was “community work”, and it was a duty. The corporate culture as it developed in Japan after World War II smartly co-opted the concept of shigoto, emphasizing the community nature of the company. Now, Japanese typically have a hard time getting a break from work for family or community matters, because the shigoto of their employment has become the primary obligation in their lives.

In the terms of rural village life today, Rev. Hakamata notes that people are actively pursing kasegi rather than the mutually agreed upon conventions of collective labor that connected people with each other. Rev. Hakamata cites various academics that have called this process “the atomization of Japanese society”. They explain that when people develop individual desires, seek for comforts, and gradually become “obese”, then isolation occurs. For example, in Fujisato-cho, they have day care centers for infants starting from the age of two months who are still breast-feeding. For the elderly, people usually use day care services to look after them, or if they are ill, leave them with specialists at nursing facilities. Rev. Hakamata remarks that it seems that families have basically stopped taking care of their elderly members and now completely depend on experts. The most important thing for families now is their economic means of living.

In this way, Rev. Hakamata’s analysis of the fairly well recognized structural aspects of modernism and change in rural communities begins to delve deeper into the shift in value systems that has been occurring with this structural change. In looking at this shift in values from collective shigoto to individual kasegi, Rev. Hakamata highlights how the traditional religious values of Japan, especially Buddhist ones, have been abandoned. He examines the value system lying beneath this modern ethic of kasegi, in which it is better for people’s wants and desires to develop freely as they are. This has led him into the well-known work of German socialist Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he claims that Protestant Christian thinkers, especially John Calvin, gave birth to the basic values of capitalism and market economics. Rev. Hakamata highlights the unique nature of Calvin’s doctrine of pre-destination, which led to an understanding that the profits or money gained from the “holy work” of applying oneself diligently to one’s own vocation is a reward that comes from God and even evidence or proof of one’s truth faith and guaranteed salvation. In the particular form of this concept that took root in the United States, the original emphasis on a life of self-denial and of delaying satisfaction or enjoyment in the fruits of one’s work became replaced with the use of these rewards and profits freely without worrying what other people think and, indeed, as a now largely unconscious affirmation of one’s sanctified spiritual status.[3]

Rev. Hakamata notes the feeling that profit is the reward given by God is something that Japanese cannot understand. Still, to this day, people in his village community tend to be private about the way they use their money, and this increasing mentality of privacy developed from the personal pursuit of material well being has been an important part in the shift to the isolated culture of the community. This cultural shift has caused as much of a disruption to his community and Japanese society in general as the structural changes. Rev. Hakamata notes that there had always been a sense of the control of desire in village society in the past. It was felt that in order for the bonds within the family and the community to remain strong, it was necessary to control desire. Religion was also part of the value system that was used to restrain human desire. He notes that in the market economy, however, the optimization of desire is the greatest thing. The free development of desire is the engine for turning the economy, and this has made humans become more immature. “We have been infantilized,” he insists, “in that we have been encouraged to quickly raise our hands if we want something. It is very common now to see children throw tantrums at department stores if they are not bought what they want; and adults are not much different.” He concludes by noting that, “I have come to notice that in the end, people become atomized within the mechanisms of economics.”

The Yottetamore Cafe
The Yottetamore Cafe

In this way, Rev. Hakamata is not solely focused on suicide prevention, but rather the overall rebuilding of communal bonds and community culture as a way to both structurally and culturally provide an alternative direction for his community. Thus, in 2003, Rev. Hakamata and the members of the Association for Thinking about Mind and Life established a café called Yottetamore in the back of the city hall in the lobby of the Three Generations Exchange Center. It is open every Tuesday afternoon from 1:30 to 4:00. While he recognizes that this is really very little time, one needs to reflect that in this age where Starbucks and other such high-end cafés can be found in practically every rail station and on every corner in the cities, there is not even a single such café in Fujisato-cho. The Yottetamore café with its modern, yet warm and very inviting ambience, thus provides not only a place to talk about problems but simply to get a good cup of coffee. Rev. Hakamata comments that, “Whoever comes here will find someone who will listen to them carefully. People know that once a week at this place there will be someone that will surely give them some mental support”.[4] In response to the needs of working men, who are only free at night and prefer the atmosphere of a bar to a café, Rev. Hakamata created a Yottetamore akachochin bar to extend and compliment the café. Rev. Hakamata notes that, “In our town, casual conversation has gone out of fashion, and superficial ways of speaking have become predominant. But at our café, conversation is reborn and so are new connections amongst the people of our community. The meaning of yottetamore is to welcome others to drop by anytime, just to casually drop by and simply chat. So what is the mystery in that?”

He further reflects that thinking in terms of efficiency or in terms of economic prioritization, it would be better for people to be at work at this time in the middle of the day. “People who work in the rice paddies should be in their paddies; people who work in the fields should be in their fields; and people who run their own businesses should be selling things. Yet for other people, or perhaps for oneself, we take a little break from kasegi time. I think this is the kind of thing that’s needed.” It is this kind of shift in awareness, and ultimately in culture, that is important for caring for the elderly, who are especially prone to suicide due to isolation. Rev. Hakamata emphasizes that the shift is one from seeing the elderly as a “burden” (mewaku) to those who are “cared for” (osewa). In this way, the critical shift occurs not in the suicidal themselves but in the people and the society that surrounds them. This is truly getting at the root of the suicide issue as a social problem and not an individual one. The suicidal are a symptom of a larger disease. To focus on them as the problem is like treating a symptom rather than the cause of the disease. By looking deeply into the structural and cultural causes of this problem, Rev. Hakamata has developed a vision and consequent activities to achieve a “post suicidal” society that goes far beyond decreasing the statistical occurrence of suicide.

Go to: Part 7: Conclusion: The Future Arc of the Movement


[1] The majority of quotes and perspectives expressed in this section come from Rev. Hakamata’s Japanese language talk, “From a Disconnected Society to an Interconnected Society” (Muen shakai-kara yuen shakai-he 「無縁社会」から「有縁」社会へ), given to the Rinsho Buddhism Chaplain Training Program on June 19, 2013 at the Tokyo University Young Buddhist Association Hall and subsequently published in An Introduction to Rinsho Buddhism (Rinsho Bukkyo nyumon 「臨床仏教」入門 Kyoto: Hakubasha, 2013). A full translation has been recently published as “From a Disconnected Society to an Interconnected Society”, Trans. Jonathan S. Watts. The Eastern Buddhist. Vol. 44, no. 2, (New Series) 2013 and can be read here.

[2] The Japan National Council of Social Welfare performed a study and found that within a population of 3,900, Fujisato-cho has 113 hikikomori, those “found to have cut off social and cooperative exchanges” within the working ages of 18 to 55 years old.

[3] For an excellent analysis of these points and the nature of western modernity, capitalism, and Christianity from a Buddhist standpoint, see Loy, David R. A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

[4] Watts and Okano. “Reconstructing Priestly Identity”. p. 89.

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