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.'

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