Japan has been a subject of awe and fascination for people all over the world, owing to it’s the lively, vibrant and quirky culture that has been welcomed and in fact celebrated by the entire world. Known as ‘The Land of the rising sun’ the island country of Japan is famous worldwide for the pink sakura trees that blossom every spring, sushi and miso soup, cultural festivals, anime and manga and numerous other things. But perhaps what escapes the short-sighted gaze and interest of many is the certain dark elements that exist within Japan, and how all these aspects trace back to hundreds of years of Japanese culture and history.
SUICIDE PREVALENCE IN JAPAN
Sign board at the entrance of Aokigahara Forest (Suicide Forest) that beg suicidal visitors to think about their loved ones and to seek help if they’re considering taking their life in the forest
For years, the Japanese had failed to identify depression and problems of the mind as legitimate problems and ignored them persistently. It is only in recent times, perhaps owing to a wider worldview provided by the 21st-century global world, that these problems which are as common in Japan as any other part of the world have come to light.
Japan ranks among the top countries in terms of a number of deaths by suicide. In 2019, the death of approximately 20.1 thousand people was recorded by suicide, and although the figure has significantly reduced from the previous years, it’s still quite high. In fact, suicides have been such an accepted fact in Japanese history that a forest called the Aokigahara Forest is deemed as a ‘suicide forest’ where people go to kill themselves, mostly by hanging themselves to the trees of the forest.
The large scale of suicides that Japan witnesses every year, can perhaps be attributed to some distinct factors, although there is bound to be exceptions, given the very personal nature of such tragedies.
❖ Cultural and Historical practices: For the longest time, Japanese culture has identified suicide as not a sin (unlike Christianity) but rather as a way of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Far from being deemed as tragic or feeling the need to reduce its rates, the Japanese often interpreted suicide as honourable. This notion was perhaps the by-product of the ‘seppuku’ practices followed in the Samurai tradition, according to which the Samurai’s ritual suicides were honourable. In recent times, these ideas that romanticize suicide has been discarded to an extent, and a greater emphasis on mental health has acquired more importance.
❖ Financial Reasons: Statistics suggest that young men between the age of 22-40 are most commonly the victims of suicide and this is attributed to the financial problems brought about by unemployment and employment on the basis of short term contracts.
❖ Isolating technology: Japan’s culture of not complaining further increases the troubles for individuals. Not being able to express one’s feelings adequately, and further, the introduction of newer technologies, isolate people to an extent that they might become helpless.
❖ Karoshi which means ‘death from overwork’ is one of the most prominent causes of suicide in Japan. The term was invented in the 1970s as a result of a number of deaths that had been brought about by work-related stresses and pressures. However, it still remains quite persistent in contemporary times. Numerous studies on work culture have brought into light the collectivist and hierarchical nature of Japanese society, unlike the western societies which are individualistic and non-hierarchical. What this means for Japanese society is that in order to move up the hierarchy in their work status Japanese people often tend to overwork themselves so as to please their bosses and maintain group harmony.
THE ROLE OF YAKUZA IN JAPAN
Men donning Yakuza style tattoos | Credit: Jorge/Wikimedia Commons
The avenue of organized crime in Japan has been dominated by the Yakuza, known as bōryokudan or gokudō, for years. These Yakuza groups are primarily mafia-like criminal organizations whose existence is deeply entrenched in Japanese history. These groups were at their glory in the 1960s with gang membership of about 184, 000 but in the 21st century, it has been reduced to about 80,000 members. The Yakuza comprises of several gangs which are affiliated to about 20 conglomerate gangs, of which the Yamaguchi-Gumi is the largest.
Living up to its name of a criminal organisation, the Yakuza engage in a number of shady activities including extortion, blackmail, smuggling, prostitution, drug trafficking, gambling, loan sharking, day- labour contracting, and other rackets. But the control of the Yakuza over Japan stretches across different fields, even unlikely ones such as entertainment industries, restaurants and bars and taxi companies, and other major factories and businesses. Unsurprisingly, the Yakuza are also involved in international crimes.
One of the major activities that the Yakuza are known to engage in is Drug trafficking especially of methamphetamine, although such activities are only condoned by some gangs and others such as the Yamaguchi-Gumi strictly disapprove of such actions. Perhaps even further down the moral scale than drug trafficking, the Yakuza are infamous for engaging in human trafficking in extensive scales. Often young girls from small villages are persuaded to come to big cities by the Yakuza, who promise them good jobs and respectable positions in the society, but in reality, forcing them to become sex workers after they arrive. They also follow a practice of extortion specific to Japan, known as ‘sōkaiya’ which basically means a protection racket.
However, the Yakuza’s relationship with Japanese society is more complex than it might seem to appear in the first glance. While some natives are completely repulsed by the idea of the Yakuzas, others perceive it as a form of a necessary evil. The possible reason for this may be the Yakuza’a existence in Japanese society for hundreds of years and also some philanthropic deeds that the Yakuza has undertaken for the people of their nation. For instance, during the Kobe Earthquake of 1955 and the Tsunami in 2011, the gangs took up the task of delivering and distributing essential supplies to victims. While the Yakuza has certainly evolved into a relatively more crime-free group compared to it’s earlier manifestations, the nature of the group and its relationship with Japanese society still remains complicated, especially the one between the police and the Yakuza, both of which, much suspect work hand in hand.
THE NIGHTLIFE IN JAPAN – PROSTITUTION RINGS
Prostitution (baishun, i.e, selling spring) declared illegal by the Japanese government is present in Japan, on an extensive scale. Their existence which is in direct contradiction to the law, is perhaps possible by their affiliation and control by the Yakuza and also perhaps due to their covert means of operating. The Japanese government in the second half of the 20th century had banned prostitution, but this ban catered to only a narrow definition, i.e, intercourse in exchange of payment, therefore living ample space for functioning of oral copulation, erotic massages, etc, which are therefore entirely legal. This, these activities along and even intercourse, is a largely occurring event in the nightlife of Japan. Tokyo, for example, is believed to have one of the largest red-light districts in the world. Pink salons that specialize in oral pleasure are common and so are some shady ‘spa’ businesses which carry out such activities, under an innocent pretext.
Photograph of girls working in pleasure house “Sakuraya” in port town of Yokohama
Most of the prostitutes are trafficked slaves, and what’s even more sickening is the child prostitution prevalent in Japan. The legal age of consent for a girl in Japan is 13, so most underage sex is protected by law, and often conveniently blame the girls, as inviting it upon themselves. The child prostitution racket in Japan, often called the JK Trade is perhaps embedded in the Japanese culture of sexualizing young girls, which is evident in the craze over maid cafes, and the way young girl’s bodies are represented in anime and manga, all of which are a very prominent part of Japanese Culture.
Therefore, it may well be understood that Japanese culture, is not as bright and cheery as it may seem at first glance. It is an undeniable fact that therefore, that there is another side to the coin, i.e, while Japanese culture is rightful to boast about its many vibrant festivals and whatnot, the dark side of Japan primarily represented by the existence of Yakuza and its role in Japanese society, Suicide prevalence in Japan and prostitution rings along with other issues such as poor economy, sub-standard educational and bureaucratic system and high rising prices, are ever-present.