Japanese News in Translation

Blog for news stories from Japan that might or might not gain coverage in English-language sources. If you're examining social trends in Japan and don't have the primary language skills, let me know. Maybe I can help.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

An East AsianTwist on the Repatriation of Artworks

Repatriating Art for Profit and National Honor

The following piece of news appeared on 16 November in the Asahi Shimbun. A shorter version was reported earlier (1 November) by Kyodo News. The account given here provides the main points of the Asahi version.

According to prosecutors in Seoul, in July 2002 a pair of Korean brothers and their friend visited Kakurin Temple in Kakogawa, Hyogo Prefecture. They left with eight works designated by the Japanese government as important cultural properties, including a Koguryo era Buddhist scroll believed to have been brought to Japan as booty by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s military expedition to the Korean Peninsula in 1592. The group is also charged with stealing works from other temples in Osaka and Aichi Prefectures, totaling 47 works in all.

Hyogo Prefectural police arrested the younger brother in April 2003, and police in Seoul cooperated with a request from Hyogo to arrest the other two group members, who had returned to Korea. With the exception of the scroll in question, the artworks taken from Kakurin Temple were returned. The older brother told police that he had sold the scroll to an antiques dealer for 110 million won (about 10 million yen, or about 100 thousand U.S. dollars).

Subsequently, the scroll was resold to a Korean entrepreneur for nearly quadruple the price and, after passing through the hands of another individual, was donated to a priest at a small temple in Taegu. Investigators from Seoul visited the temple in February 2004, but were told the scroll had been stolen. The whereabouts of the scroll remain uncertain.

In a November 10th, 2004 editorial, the Chosunilbo charged that the passive attitude taken by the Korean government toward the repatriation of artworks plundered from the country was responsible for pushing citizens into illegal measures to accomplish this aim.

Temple officials in Japan are calling for the return of the stolen works, and say they are prepared to take legal action if necessary.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Reactions to the Reelection of George W. Bush

In the days since the reelection of George W. Bush, Japanese newspapers have been filled with articles examining the reasons for his victory and the potential consequences for Japan and the world at large.

On the first point, the consensus in Japan has been that U.S. voters followed historical trends by concerning themselves more with domestic matters such as the economy and “moral issues” (abortion; same-sex marriages) than with foreign policy. Here, Bush was seen as taking clearer positions than his opponent, John Kerry. Preoccupation of the American electorate with these issues allowed Bush to withstand the fallout of the invasion of Iraq.

On the second point, most Japanese sources expect U.S.-Japan relations to remain on the course charted by the Bush administration and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi has been a staunch supporter of Bush, even to the point of sending Self-Defense forces to Iraq, the first foreign venture for Japanese troops since World War II. Journalists expect Koizumi to continue toeing whatever line the Bush administration asks him to.

Pundits are more interested to see how relations between the U.S. and Europe play out in the coming years. Pointing to the rift caused by the war in Iraq, with England and Italy coming out strongly in support of the U.S., Spain changing course midway, and France and Germany remaining on the sidelines from the outset, many observers say they expect a deepening of inter-European tensions, both with respect to U.S. foreign policy and points of contention arising from the expansion of the E.U.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Reaction to the Execution of Shosei Koda

As everyone knows, Shosei Koda, a 24 year-old traveler, was beheaded in Iraq the other day. Media reports in Japan contained a wide range of reactions from pundits and ordinary citizens.

The majority of respondents began with expressions of sympathy for Koda and his family, but concluded he was irresponsible in failing to heed repeated warnings not to travel from Jordan to Iraq. Those who place Koda’s actions in a more favorable light said they admired his courage, or that he should be respected for wanting to confirm the suffering of Iraqis at first hand, for later reference. One journalist recalled how, as a young man, he had ventured into a North Vietnamese war zone for no better reason than youthful curiosity. This experience, he said, made him reluctant to condemn Koda for having done much the same thing. Another commentator, noting that Koda had been out of Japan for two months prior to his ill-fated journey, suggested the young man may not have had access to Japanese-language news sources, and thus may have been ignorant of the degree of danger his crossing involved.

Meanwhile, those critical of Koda tended to opine that he had endangered himself without justifiable reason. Some went further and claimed his “foolish” act had undermined Japan’s national interests. Koda’s parents received a number of phone calls in which they were chastised for not raising their son to think properly. In Japan, it is by no means unusual for relatives of those who stir things up one way or another to be subject to such kinds of phone calls.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Update on Group Suicides in Japan

An earlier post discussed the phenomenon of young people meeting up over the Internet for the purpose of committing suicide together. Well, last week, nine young people, including a thirty-three year old mother, killed themselves in this manner.

There were actually two incidents, in separate locations, with seven dying together in one car and two in another. However, two of the dead, one in each group, had previously attempted suicide together, and it's likely that the incidents are connected. This piece of news was widely reported in English-language sources. Those who wish to know more can check the following CBS report, just one among many.


Monday, October 18, 2004

Suicides Prompted by Work-Related Bullying

Bullying at work is hardly a phenomenon peculiar to Japan. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work states flatly: “Bullying at work constitutes a significant problem in the European work force.” See the agency’s factsheet on this topic at


Those interested in learning what a depressingly universal phenomenon bullying in the workplace is need do no more than Google “bullying.” Here, in line with the topic of news from Japan, I’ll give a few recent examples of suicides prompted by workplace bullying.

In a case brought by the parents of a 21 year-old male assistant nurse who hung himself at home in January 2002, and who charged the death was caused by bullying on the part of a male co-worker (30) at a hospital in Saitama Prefecture, a judge ordered the co-worker and the hospital to pay damages of 10 million yen.

The defendants denied bullying the victim, but the judge ruled that 3 years of forced errand running, being called back to work after returning home, and other incidents were responsible for the man’s death. The judge ordered the hospital to pay half the damages for having failed to assure the worker’s safety.

A Kumamoto Prefectural Police investigation into the suicide of a 22 year-old patrolman concluded that no concrete evidence of bullying could be confirmed. An citizen ombudsman group called the investigation “insufficient,” and plans to demand that the report be made public.

Prior to killing himself in his dormitory, the patrolman had confided to close associates that he could not endure the bullying he took in the police kendo club, and wanted to quit the force.

In a case brought by the parents of a 29 year-old employee of the Kawasaki City Waterworks Department who killed himself in March 1997, a court ruled that the death was caused by departmental bullying, and ordered the city to pay the parents 23 million yen in damages.

The employee’s father had once refused the city access rights to land he owned, and the victim’s boss complained about the increased constructions costs that ensued. The employee was told it would have been better if he hadn’t joined the department, and on one occasion had a knife thrust at him while on a group holiday.

The city denies that any bullying took place, and is considering appealing the verdict to a higher court.

Cases of disgruntled workers going on killing sprees at their once or former places of employment are uncommon in Japan. Gun control may have something to do with this.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Suicides Prompted by Nursing-Related Stress

Japanese women and men are the longest-lived in the world (according to the most recent statistics, over 85 and 78 years on average, respectively). Enabling its citizens to live long, healthy lives is a mark of a successful nation, and Japan deserves credit for this achievement. The flip side of this success is the graying of Japanese society, a situation which is creating a number of serious challenges, both economic and societal.

One such challenge is the strain on medical services. As noted in an earlier blog, the leading cause of suicide in Japan is ill health. In most instances, these kinds of suicides involve the individual concerned taking his or her own life. However, a number of news reports involve cases wherein a parent, spouse or child, fatigued by years of caring for the sick person and despondent about the future, kills the invalid then attempts or commits suicide.

In Japanese, this is known as “kaigo shinju.” The first term means “nursing” or “caring”; the second is usually translated as “double suicide.” Sometimes the invalid asks to be euthanized, but in most instances the caregiver makes a unilateral decision to end the patient’s life.

Here are some incidents reported over the past half-dozen years, in brief.

Nagano Prefecture: A 76 year-old man killed his bed-ridden 84 year-old wife, then himself. He left a note saying that after 5 years of caring for his wife he was worn out, and decided they should die together.

Aichi Prefecture: A 38 year-old disabled man confessed to police he had strangled his bedridden parents and attempted suicide.

Aichi Prefecture: A 17 year-old youth killed his bedridden twin brother, then attempted suicide. (The dead twin had been bedridden on account of an earlier, failed suicide attempt.)

Saitama Prefecture: A 59 year-old man killed his mentally handicapped son, then attempted suicide.

Saitama Prefecture: A 76 year-old man who strangled his bedridden wife at her request in 1999 was handed a suspended sentence of 3 years imprisonment

Saga Prefecture: An 80 year-old disabled woman died after being pushed by her 84 year-old husband into a river, wheelchair and all. Restrained before he could kill himself, and subsequently arrested, the man told police he was worried about his own declining health, and decided he and his wife should die together.

Mie Prefecture: A 53 year-old man was found dead in a cemetery, his ankles bound with adhesive tape and his face covered with plastic wrap. The man’s mother (92) and younger brother (50) had been found dead a few days earlier. Police say that in a note discovered in a pocket of his trousers, the older son admitted responsibility for his mother’s death, but denied involvement in that of his younger brother. Police also say that care fatigue apparently was a factor in the mother’s killing.

Niigata Prefecture: A 79 year-old woman transported her 81 year-old bedridden husband to a cemetery and strangled him. She then took poison, but survived.

Nagano Prefecture: A 59 year-old man strangled his 85 year-old mother, then hung himself. A scribbled note found in their house said he was “tired.”

No suicide involved in the following case, but it’s one tragic example of the law of unintended consequences.

Osaka Prefecture: A 53 year-old man, incapacitated by brain damage, died after his wife chained him to a streetlight with a dog leash. The man suffocated after winding the leash around his neck, apparently by accident. His wife, whom neighbors claim is an upstanding member of the community, was arrested on charges of “constraint resulting in death.”

The next post will offer some examples of suicides prompted by bullying, and that will be all I’ll have to say on the subject of suicide in Japan for the time being.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

From Karoshi to Karojisatsu

The Japanese “karoshi” (death from overwork) entered English as a loan word approximately 10 years ago. A more recent term is “karojisatsu” (suicide prompted by overwork). “Karo” = “overwork” while “jisatsu” = “suicide.” The following landmark case was reported at length in English-language media, so only the bare details are given here. Links to fuller accounts of the story may be found at the end of this post.

Ichiro Oshima, a 24 year-old employee of advertising powerhouse Dentsu, hung himself on August 27, 1991. According to court records, Oshima was responsible for overseeing 40 accounts. His activities involved creating commercials and radio promotion events, as well as chauffering clients to concerts and running errands for them. Over the last 17 months of his life, he worked every day of the week, taking a half day off on just a single occasion. He frequently worked until past 4 A.M., and usually got no more than 2 hours sleep per night before going back to work.

Before his death, Oshima reported to his superior that he was experiencing insomnia, and that he had doubts about his worth as a human.

The company initially asserted that Oshima’s suicide was due to personal problems, but the parents of the deceased filed suit against Dentsu in 1993. Their claim was upheld by the Tokyo District Court in 1996, but the company appealed. In May 2000, the Tokyo High Court proposed that Dentsu pay a 168 million yen settlement, to which the company agreed the following month.

The Dentsu case and those that follow only became public because the employers refused to recognize the deaths as work-related. This forced surviving family members to sue to obtain death benefits and in some cases apologies.

Typically, a story gets reported when the case is filed with the court (lawyers for the plaintiffs make sure the newspapers hear about it). Then, little or nothing will be heard about the case until years later when the court hands down a verdict, whereupon a follow-up article or two will be printed.

To give one more detailed example of karojisatsu, here is a case from a couple of years back.

The wife of Katsuhide Onuki, a 37 year-old college baseball coach who hung himself at home on June 20, 2002, petitioned to have his death recognized as caused by overwork.

At a press conference, lawyers contended that when Onuki was hired as manager of the baseball team at Nippon Sport Science University Women’s Junior College, superiors gave him a quota, as it were, telling Onuki he was expected to capture the league championship once every 3 years. In the 3 months prior to his death, Onuki took no days off. Including time spent in the classroom, on scouting activities, at games and at training sessions, he worked over 300 hours a month, lawyers calculate.

Other karojisatsu stories read the same: conscientious employees going far beyond the call of duty to carry out the responsibilities assigned them, working 16 to 20 hours a day, taking few days off or none at all, doing irreparable damage to their bodies and psyches.

The list below represents a small sample of karojisatsu cases that have made their way into the public eye. We find that defendants in karojisatsu cases include both private and public entities. Note also the ages at which the employees (all males) killed themselves. The list includes several young workers as well as one near retirement, but those in their 40s appear to bear a particularly heavy load.

Location//Date of suicide//Employer//Age at time of death

Aichi Prefecture, August 1988; Toyota Motor Corporation; 35
Oita Prefecture, September 1990; Hita Municipal Government; 41
Okayama Prefecture, June 1991; Kawasaki Steel; 41
Kyoto Prefecture, 1993; Hitachi Zosen Corporation; 46
Hiroshima Prefecture, September 1995; Otafuku Sauce Co., Ltd.; 24
Nagasaki Prefecture, July 1997; Nagasaki Shimbunsha (newspaper); 54
Saitama Prefecture, March 1999; Nikon Corporation; 23 (Temp. worker)
Wakayama Prefecture, March 2000; Wakayama Municipal Government; 46
Shizuoka Prefecture, April 2002; Suzuki Motors; 41
Kumamoto Prefecture, May 2002; Yamada Manufacturing Co. Ltd.; 24

The list could be extended to much greater length, but this suffices to give a sense of the geographic and professional breadth of the karojisatsu problem in Japan.

For further details in English on the Dentsu case and a few other suicides prompted by overwork: