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.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers