In May, 24-year-old TV personality Miyu Uehara was pronounced dead shortly after a friend found her hanging from a door in her Tokyo apartment. Uehara’s death was called an “apparent suicide” by the media, and while the terminology was cautious the reporting itself took for granted the belief that Uehara led a troubled life and was probably driven to her end by boyfriend troubles. The youngest of ten children and reportedly born in the parking lot of a pachinko parlor, Uehara was dubbed the “poverty idol” because she turned an impoverished upbringing into talk fodder for variety shows. Whether or not “poverty” defined Uehara, who started out as a “gravure idol,” meaning a model who posed nude or nearly nude for photo books, it was what she represented on television, which insists on identities that can be easily marketed and quickly digested.
It’s irresponsible to attribute Uehara’s suicide to any feelings she might have had about her public image, but the media did exactly that. Despite the sympathetic tone of the coverage, the gist of it was that she remained a tragic figure who couldn’t transcend her background. The morning after her death, the Fuji TV news show “Toku Da Ne” described her situation in sobering detail. They even brought in a fellow idol who weeped during the entire segment. Paradoxical is hardly the word to describe how this all came across. The report strongly implied that Uehara was the victim of her own binbō (poor) image without admitting that it was the media that created this image in the first place.
Predictably, the incidence of suicide spiked briefly following Uehara’s death. According to Life Link, a nonprofit organization involved in suicide prevention and counseling, the suicide rate rose to 50 percent higher than normal afterwards, with almost all the victims being young women. Life Link saw a direct connection between this increase and the coverage of Uehara. Regardless of the tenor of that coverage, the very fact that someone’s suicide is talked about in the media acts as a trigger for individuals whose hold on life is tenuous. Life Link has asked the government to devise guidelines for the media when covering suicide.
Japan’s suicide rate is considered high, officially more than 30,000 a year. In many Western countries, deaths in which the cause is not apparent are often judged to be suicides, whereas in Japan only those deaths that are obviously suicides are judged to be so, and since the causes of some 140,000 deaths a year in Japan are categorized as “unknown” the number of suicides could be appreciably higher. (The reason so many causes of death are classified as “unknown” is that there are only 137 physicians in Japan authorized to conduct autopsies.)
In 2000, the World Health Organization published its own guidelines for media coverage of suicide, advising news organizations worldwide to avoid sensationalism and not publish or air photos of death scenes or suicide notes. Japanese reporters and editors have always countered these admonitions, which have been voiced for decades and receive added currency whenever the suicide of a celebrity sparks a “copycat” wave, by invoking the “public’s right to know” (kokumin no shiru kenri). As inalienable rights go, this one seems restricted to Japan. In the United States, for instance, the term “right to know” applies to situations where workers may not be informed of all the conditions of their employment. To the media, the right to know is a corollary of the “right to free speech.” But does that mean the public has a right to know all the details of a person’s life just because that person happens to be famous? In the end, it’s totally self-serving. People don’t have a right to know those details, but given the opportunity many will gladly receive them, which means the suppliers can gain something in the bargain.
The media’s restraint was tested again several weeks ago with the suicide of former Major League pitcher Hideki Irabu, whose “rollercoaster” career, as the magazine Shukan Bunshun called it, was widely viewed as reflecting an unstable personality. Bunshun clearly ignored any guidelines in their article. They hit the sensationalist note right away by describing the death scene, complete with odors and flies.
The problem in this case is that much of the information that fed into Irabu’s image was already out there. As sportswriter Manabu Matsuse wrote in a “tribute” published in Tokyo Shimbun, after Irabu moved to the U.S. big leagues in 1997 and his troubles with the New York Yankees escalated, the standard explanation was that he was physically impressive as a pitcher but mentally unfit for the demands of a Major League career, especially with the Yankees, perhaps the most competitive team in all of organized sports. Moreover, he couldn’t stand the media scrutiny, and at one point banned all Japanese reporters from his press briefings. Though for the most part the coverage was always sympathetic — Irabu’s difficult past as a mixed-heritage child was widely reported — the attention itself made him resentful and paranoid.
In a companion essay in the Tokyo Shimbun, a nurse wrote that she supports the media guidelines and hopes that in covering Irabu’s death reporters mention nothing more than that he died. “The distance between wanting to die and actually killing oneself,” she wrote, “is great, and tends to be shortened by an accumulation of unfortunate factors.” The Bunshun article clearly qualifies as something that might provide “the last push,” as this woman’s defines it. She’s thinking of all the desperate people out there who might be affected by the deaths of Hideki Irabu or, for that matter, Miyu Uehara. But at the same time one can’t help wondering what the “last push” was for them.