An assistant professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. has said that the “clear solution” to Japan’s aging society is for “mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ (ritual disembowelment) of the elderly”.
His comments were slammed as “hatred towards the vulnerable” – and critics pointed to Japan’s already alarming rate of suicide amongst older people.
Japan’s rapidly greying population is projected to shrink by more than 50% before 2100, and Japan’s Prime Minister has recently warned that his country will fall over an economic and social cliff unless it reverses its population decline.
Yusuke Narita, an assistant professor of economics at Yale, shared his views in an online news program in late 2021 saying: “In the end, isn’t it mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ of the elderly?”
Seppuku is the practice of ritual suicide that was practised by Japan’s ancient samurai warrior class – an act that involved stabbing oneself in the stomach with a short sword before turning the blade upwards.
Footage has also emerged of Dr Narita describing a scene from “Midsommar” – a horror film depicting pressurised suicide on an older member of a cult – to a group of school boys.
Asked about his mass suicide theories, Dr. Narita graphically the film scene and then said: “Whether that’s a good thing or not, that’s a more difficult question to answer.”
He also told the student: “So if you think that’s good, then maybe you can work hard toward creating a society like that.”
He has also spoken about the possibility of making euthanasia “mandatory in the future”, something he said will “come up in discussion.”
Dr Narita has now told The New York Times his comments were “taken out of context”, and the paper reported that he added “they related to demands for older people in leadership positions to make way for the younger generation”.
The Yale professor is thought by some commentators to be deliberately courting controversy to grow his profile. However, his remarks have been sharply criticised with one leading Japanese sociologist, Yuki Honda, describing his comments as “hatred toward the vulnerable.”
However, the exceptionally low birth rate – and increasing proportion of older people in the country’s demographic make-up – is not an issue confined to Japan. Most of the developing world, including most European countries are facing a fertility crisis, with shrinking numbers of young people to provide for aging populations and exploding pension obligations.
In Canada, assisted suicide rates have soared – with a shocking 10-fold increase since being legalised in 2016. Many critics believe that the measure is increasingly been seen as an option instead of providing care to those with disability or with mental health difficulties.
BBC reports that the Japanese suicide rate is three times that of Britain. Disturbing stories have emerged of elderly people setting themselves on fire or jumping in front of trains to end their lives.
“Isolation is the number one precursor for depression and suicide,” says Wataru Nishida, a psychologist at Tokyo’s Temple University.
“Now it’s more and more common to read stories about old people dying alone in their apartments,” he says. “They are being neglected. Kids used to take care of their parents in old age in Japan, but not any more.”
People often cite Japan’s long tradition of “honourable suicide” as a reason for the high rate here.
They point to the Samurai practice of committing “seppuku” or to the young “kamikaze” pilots of 1945, to show there are distinct cultural reasons why Japanese are more likely to take their own lives.
To an extent Mr Nishida agrees.
“Japan has no history of Christianity,” he says “so here suicide is not a sin. In fact, some look at it as a way of taking responsibility.”Ken Joseph from the Japan Helpline agrees. “There is sometimes an intolerable pressure on the elderly that the most loving thing they can do is take their lives and thereby provide for their family.”
Dr. Narita told the New York Times that he was “primarily concerned with the phenomenon in Japan, where the same tycoons continue to dominate the worlds of politics, traditional industries, and media/entertainment/journalism for many years.”
The phrases “mass suicide” and “mass seppuku,” he wrote, were “an abstract metaphor.”
“I should have been more careful about their potential negative connotations,” he added. “After some self-reflection, I stopped using the words last year.
However, his critics say that his remarks feed into a dangerous narrative where older people are seen as a burden and are made to feel that they should end their lives.
Some refer to a disturbing 2016 incident where a man broke into a a care home in Japan for people with disabilities and stabbed 19 people to death – telling police after his arrest that society would be better off if disabled people “disappeared”.