A recent New Yorker Magazine featured an article called “Last Call: A Buddhist Monk Confronts Japanese Suicide Culture“. It’s a fascinating story of a young Monk’s struggle to prevent suicides there, not an easy task for anybody including a trained Zen monk. I was reminded of several things, first my reading of Goethe’s epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, where (if I recall correctly, it’s been a while) the young lovers plan and carry out a double suicide. This was in the early 19th century, and when the novel got to Japan there were many copy cat suicides by young people smitten by the romantic ending.
But I was also reminded of another incident that happened closer to home. In the mid-1980s a young Japanese mother took public transportation to Santa Monica Beach north of the Santa Monica Pier, walked into the water and drowned her children, then attempted but failed to take her own life, mainly because a beach goer ran into the water and rescued her. It was in early spring and not every lifeguard tower was open like in the Summer months. I know this because I was an LA County Beach Lifeguard for many years, and worked that beach.
In the article we read that in traditional Japanese thinking the mother is bonded with her children and if she commits suicide it is immoral to leave her children motherless. In the New Yorker piece, we read that “suicidal parents have killed their children, so as to not to abandon them to an orphan’s life; by tradition, a mother who killed herself but not her children was thought to be truly wicked (p.58). The case of Fumiko Kimura was tried in Santa Monica Municipal Court and I followed it in the LA Times articles that tracked it. Ultimately the woman was not charged with infanticide but rather freed, the presiding judge taking in cultural context into the decision. There was also the interesting fact that the woman’s husband was having an extramarital affair, and his lover came to the couple’s apartment offering to take her own life as a gesture of ultimate shame.
I also remember the little fact that after the spurned mother heard this confession, she made her husband dinner, drew a bath and washed his feet and served dinner. It was the next day that she took her children on the MTA bus to Santa Monica Beach.
She returned to Japan to undergo therapy and I have no idea what happened to her after that.
Below is a link to the fascinating New Yorker article by Jarissa MacFarquhar:
Here is a link to the 1985 Los Angeles Times article about the incident: