Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 391–408 | Cite as

Suicide and the Afterlife: Popular Religion and the Standardisation of ‘Culture’ in Japan

  • Mary PiconeEmail author
Original Paper


For an overwhelming majority of commentators, including many anthropologists, ‘Japanese culture’ is still associated with a positive view of suicide. Western-language writings have contributed by feedback loop to perpetuate this stereotype. Besides the local ‘samurai ethic’, Japanese Buddhism is also said not to prohibit taking one’s life. However, the most popular examples of heroic self-sacrifice, from the Edo period to WWII, are fraught with covert contradictions. From ancient times to the present religious practitioners of all sorts have maintained that suicide creates unhappy, resentful spirits who harm the living. This article discusses many examples of a diverse series of narratives, from spirit medium’s séances to drama to contemporary films, in which the anguished spirits of suicides are allowed to express themselves directly. After the figures rose alarmingly in the late 1990s various religious organisations have attempted to fight the stigma suffered by bereaved family members and have introduced new interpretations and new rituals.


Suicide Japan Religion Popular religion Ghosts Media 



I would like to thank Elizabeth Kenney (Kansai Gaidai, Osaka) for her great help with this and other projects, and the Rev. Henry Adams (Pure Land) for some of the material cited in the last section; any mistakes are my own.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)ParisFrance

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