March 11: Coping with death and life in Japan

Sakura (cherry blossoms), Japan’s favourite symbol of the fleetingness of life. They grace us with their presence for a brief period of time each year, and before we know it, they’ve already fallen, carried away on the wind. 

March 11. A date that has joined September 11 in the annals of history, both dates I can never forget. A year ago this day brought death and tragedy to scores of fellow Japan-dwellers, swept many lives out to sea. A year later Japan reflects, remembers, and prays for the lives lost, the people still without homes, jobs, and loved ones. Many are still coping with death, still figuring out how to live in the aftermath.

A year later, March 11 unfortunately brought more news of death. On March 11, one of my co-workers and fellow teachers was found dead in his car, somewhere out in the mountains. In his car, alone with a small bucket of coal, that as it burned had stifled his life with its fumes.

Mr. T, as I’ll call him here, had been missing for a week, and we had all been very worried about him, worried he had gone hiking as he often did, and gotten lost in the wilderness, or worse. Turns out it was worse. His family apparently denies it was suicide, arguing that it was cold, and so he must have burned the coals to keep warm. I wish it wasn’t suicide, too, but nobody drives around with a bucket of coal, just in case they get cold. Today was a very sad day at my school as the teachers and students were informed about Mr. T’s fate.

It is a harsh irony that, on the anniversary of the biggest disaster in Japanese history since World War II, Mr. T was found dead, most probably due to an inability to cope with life any longer. He chose to exit, leaving many people to cope with his death, just as we are coping with the deaths of so many others who probably would have wanted to live another day had they been given a choice.

Over 13,000 people died in the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami tragedy of March 11, 2011. If you have seen the videos of the tsunami I don’t need to tell you how horrible it was. So many people’s lives washed away, just like that. However, also in 2011, over 30,000 people in Japan committed suicide. According to wikipedia, the leading cause of death for men aged 20-44, and women aged 15-34, is suicide. This amounts to one suicide every 15 minutes.

So I suppose, given those statistics, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve now known someone  in Japan who has become one of them. Somehow, that knowledge doesn’t help at all. In fact, it’s absurd that, for people in what many may consider the “prime of life,” they are their own worst enemy. Literally.

I’m not trying to compare the deaths of the Tohoku disaster with suicides, or say one is any worse than the other. I’m also not trying to start an intellectual deconstruction of Japan’s suicide issue.* I’m simply trying to think my way through this a bit, in order to find my own way to cope with the death around me.

In Japan, life is seen as a fleeting thing. Sakura (cherry blossoms) are ever the symbol of life’s evanescence. In the West, I find that the perspective on life and death is often very self-focused. Live your life to the fullest; live like you have no tomorrow. To quote from John Keating in The Dead Poet’s Society, “We are all food for worms… Carpe diem, sieze the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”

I think these are all good thoughts, but incomplete ones. Even if I live my life to the fullest, what of the person next to me who decided to check out early? What makes another’s suicide so hard to cope with is the heartbreaking thought that we should have done something more to make that person want to stick around a little longer.

In Japan there is not one cherry blossom, but many, and all fall in their time. If I am going to take anything from all of this today, it is that not only could I have no tomorrow, but the person to my right and to my left may not live to see another day, for whatever reason – natural disaster, or traffic accident or suicide, it’s really all the same in the end. Today may be the only day I have to love the people around me. To end with another quote, this time from Francis Schaeffer, (although he may have plagiarized it from Ezekiel), “How should we then live?”

*If you are interested in reading more about the issue of suicide in Japan, this article in The Atlantic was brought to my attention recently. It’s an interesting – and depressing – look at the recent phenomenon of group suicide in Japan, although many of the observations can likely be applied to suicide in general.  


8 thoughts on “March 11: Coping with death and life in Japan

  1. Thanks for sharing… I’m so sorry for your pain and shock… these statistics are difficult enough but when they stop being statistics and become real… How then should we live indeed?

  2. Reading this post makes me think of the movie After Life by Hirokazu Koreeda. It’s got the cherry blossom motif throughout, and is an entire treatment on the fleetingness of life.

    I’m so sorry about your co-worker. As if March 11 wasn’t hard enough.

  3. Both hard and lovely thoughts. Completeness never comes in this life (1 Cor. 13:12) but we make meaning of events in order to have a degree of control and understanding about life. Perhaps that is enough.

  4. Genkiduck. So touched by your thoughts and words. Reading your post has given me goosebumps. My heart is with you in Japan and my prayers are spoken not only over the people of Japan but over you who spends your days with them. Shalom over you, JWs.

  5. Love your neighbor as yourself…Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life…no one comes to the Father except thru me…just saying…

  6. Well done.

    One way to open your eyes
    to unnoticed beauty
    is to ask yourself…
    what if I had never
    seen this before?
    what if I knew
    I would never see it again?

    Rachel Carson

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