Public attitudes in Japan toward death and dying have undergone considerable changes in the past 20 years, according to Alfons Deeken, founder and president of the Japanese Association for Death Education and Grief Counseling.
Traditionally, talking about death has been taboo, Deeken said. But today, Japanese are more open to considering their ultimate fate and doing something to make the most of their lives.
An increasing number of people are beginning to realize the importance of death education, which, paradoxically, addresses some of the most basic and essential elements of living, said Deeken, who is a professor of philosophy at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“Visible changes have taken place in Japanese attitudes toward death education,” Deeken said. “Now more and more school teachers are prepared to engage in death education. I think teachers who have seen a crisis in the current school education system want to take up the issue so they can better teach students the preciousness of life and time.”
A special two-day intensive course on death education for junior high and high school teachers is being planned in July at the university, the first of its kind, said the 69-year-old thanatologist from Germany. Deeken expects more than 100 people to sign up.
At a time when materialism is the key doctrine in many people’s lives, the irreplaceable nature of life can be well demonstrated through death education, he said.
Death education helps people live better lives by thinking about death and dying, he said. It also teaches people how to provide spiritual support to those who have lost family members or friends, as well as ways to grow personally through experiences of loss.
“Life is a series of loss experiences,” Deeken said. “But the current school education does not teach how to live after loss experiences.”
Deeken emphasized that teachers and parents should not miss a “teachable moment,” that is, when children ask questions about death and dying head on.
“Adults should not avoid talking about the issue,” he said. “If they do so, children think talking about death is a taboo just like talking about sex, and they will never speak about it.”
“Death education is life education. Avoiding talking about death and dying is equal to avoiding talking about life and living.”
Deeken has spent many weekends traveling across the nation to give lectures.
The lecturer, who grew up in a devout Catholic family with eight children in a village near Bremen, said two incidents made him aware of the importance of the philosophy of death.
The first was his 4-year-old sister’s death, to lung disease, about 60 years ago. His whole family took care of the dying girl at home during the final stage of her illness.
The second incident was the death of a male patient at a hospital where he was working as a student volunteer. Deeken said he could do nothing but stay with the patient, who was in his 30s, a lonely exile from an Eastern European country, remaining silently at his beside.
“I stayed with the patient for his last three hours, which made me think deeply about what death and dying mean,” he said.
Deeken came to Japan as a Jesuit priest in 1959. He began lecturing about the philosophy of death at Sophia University in 1975 after earning a doctorate in philosophy at Fordham University in New York.
In 1982, he founded his group, which is open to the public. It now has 46 chapters with about 6,000 members from Okinawa to Hokkaido.
The association has three goals: to promote death education, to establish mutual support groups for people grieving over a loss, and to improve terminal care in hospitals and develop more hospice programs.
“How to provide care for terminally ill patients is another major issue of thanatology,” he said. “We can measure the maturity of a society by seeing how the society treats those with terminal illnesses.”
With the evolution of Japanese attitudes toward death and dying has come a period of growth in the hospice movement, some experts say, partly attributing the movement to Deeken’s activities, including the publication of 25 books on death, dying and grief over a loss.
In 1995, Deeken experienced something that made him feel closer to those with fatal diseases and their families — he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Deeken recovered after having a 10-cm section of his large intestine removed, although he still has to undergo regular checkups.
“The diagnosis shocked me, but at the same time I felt a stronger sense of solidarity” with such people, he said. Deeken’s mission has expanded to other countries. His latest book has been translated into Chinese and he has traveled to Taiwan to give lectures. Next year, he will give lectures in mainland China.
Like Japan, people in Taiwan and China are becoming increasingly open to discussing death and dying, he said.
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