Out of Japan: Where death is a way of life kept at a distance

TOKYO - For a nation that has come to be associated with the cult of seppuku - 'honourable' suicide by cutting open one's stomach with a sword - and where death seems to have been almost glorified by the stereotype of the fearless samurai, it is perhaps a little surprising that in everyday life in Japan, it is such an enormous taboo.

After going to a funeral, Japanese throw salt on their doorstep before re-entering their houses to purify themselves and take away the taint of death. Talking about death is thought to bring bad luck. Doctors rarely tell terminally ill patients the truth about their condition.

The flip side is an inordinately macabre interest in death from a distance. Japanese television cannot get enough footage of dead bodies in Rwanda. A recent documentary showed a live execution by machete in Burma. A video company last year compiled a collection of the worst atrocities from Bosnia for general distribution through video shops in Japan. Issei Sagawa, who killed and ate a Dutch student in Paris in 1981, has become a media celebrity and best-selling author.

Against this troubled background of death that dare not speak its name and death splashed in red across the centrefold comes the gentle, unassuming figure of Rokusuke Ei, an author and broadcaster, who has written a book entitled Daiojo, or Peaceful Death. The book - a collection of his own thoughts as well as comments by people he has met during the course of his 'wanderings' - has surprised him and his publisher by soaring to the top of bestselling lists. In the four months, 750,000 copies have been sold.

Ei began writing the book after the deaths of a close friend and his father, who was a Buddhist priest, in 1992. But it is not an austere religious tract - more a kitchen garden, topsy-turvy with human experiences, full of all the fear, pain, hope and hopelessness, and dry humour that the approach of death elicits.

'If I vanish, I would like to vanish beautifully at least,' one poetically-minded person told him. 'My husband is thinking about the time when he is retired. I am thinking about being a widow,' a less sentimental lady pronounced.

'The loneliness of farewells, and the emptiness of life - if you can come to terms with both of these things, you will be able to stand death,' another of his anonymous contributors said. 'You shouldn't get depressed about baldness or grey hair,' said another. 'You can live until you get bald or your hair turns grey.'

But not a few old people in hospital complained about the indignity of waiting in an institution for a lonely, friendless death. 'They wake you up when you are sleeping, and give you sleeping pills when you are awake and they decide it is time for you to sleep.'

Ei is critical of the trend in Japan of leaving people to die in hospitals. Some 85 per cent of deaths in Japan are in hospital. 'Death has been isolated from real life,' said Ei. 'Religion and medicine have become totally split, unlike before when young people growing up would see older people dying in the house.' Buddhism used to be a help: Ei pointed out that in representations of the death of Buddha, he is surrounded by animals and disciples who are all smiling, without sadness. 'Very different to the death of Jesus Christ. That looks quite painful.'

The taboo on telling patients they have cancer, Ei says, is largely due to the inability of the doctor to confront his patient. But he says that none the less doctors are not afraid to put an end to unnecessary suffering. 'In Japan you do not express exactly how you feel, but often terminally ill patients will expect doctors to perform mercy killings. No one says it openly, but the message gets across - often eye communication is better than using your mouth.'

How to find the 'peaceful death' of his book's title? Ei smiled. 'Everyone dies, that's certain,' reads a poem at the end of his book. 'When death comes, if you can look back and say you are glad to have been born, glad to have lived - that is a peaceful death.'

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform