Some people’s lives are like horror movies. It’s strange that, in an age that can create virtual reality, self-driving cars and intelligent machines, the world’s third-largest economy can’t solve the problem of human misery. Maybe it’s insoluble.
More and more Japanese women seem to feel it is. Female suicide is sharply rising. July was a watershed. National Police Agency statistics tell the tale, as far as numbers can tell it — 651 women are known to have taken their own lives that month, up from 400-500 a month typically. The increase continued into August and September. Male suicide figures are higher but not rising. What is evoking this new despair in women?
COVID-19, one immediately thinks, and undeniably the economic brunt of the pandemic falls more heavily on women. Their jobs, often part time and ill-paid, are most vulnerable when the economy flounders. Single motherhood is hard at the best of times. These are not the best of times.
The economic surface conceals — or reflects — ominous depths. Among 485 female suicides in August whose cause is known, the National Police Agency finds only 29 directly linked to poverty — as against 380 rooted in depression and other health issues, and 84 in domestic disputes.
The monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, in its December issue, profiles cases: survivors who faced death very close up, only to turn back, or be turned back — by one pill too few, one vacillation too many, one hope left intact.
So it was with “Eiko Tashita” (all names in quotation marks are pseudonyms). Her parents found her unconscious one day in May, and called an ambulance. She’s 30. Divorced from an abusive husband, she and her elementary school son sought refuge with her parents. It was an uneasy arrangement. She was emotionally battered. Her elderly parents could cope with only so much.
Her husband’s abusive behavior had turned physical as the coronavirus pinch tightened. He worked for a major company, but his investments went sour and so did he. She’d had a part-time job in a fūzoku establishment offering erotic entertainment — another sector hit hard by the pandemic. Single and unemployed, a tolerated but less than welcome presence in her parents’ house. “All I could think was, ‘I want to die,’” she says.
Worse was to come. Household tensions multiplied. Her son was growing wayward. Scolded by his grandfather, he became violent. There was no controlling him. “Out!” cried the grandfather at last. Eiko swallowed tranquilizers and sleeping pills. She survived, but mere survival is no solution.
The sex industry, single motherhood and economic anxiety, not to say terror, are common themes in Bungei Shunju’s coverage. “Hana Koga,” 35, worked in a sex trade sector known as deriheru (“delivery health”). “Health” in this case means “sex,” and “delivery” means you go to the client instead of the client coming to you.
She married young. Her husband was unemployed. She became the breadwinner. Her in-laws disapproved and blamed her. She gave birth to a daughter. Her husband disappeared. A father can do that. A mother can’t. Debts mounted. COVID-19 hit. Her earnings shrank. She too attempted suicide.
Why didn’t she apply for welfare? She mentioned it to her parents. They objected. The family would be shamed, they said. It seems an odd moral squeamishness that shrinks from applying for social assistance but not from the sex industry. But she never told her parents what she does for a living. What they don’t know won’t hurt them — “but I think they suspect,” she says.
How long can she go on like this? Alcohol helps — not by answering the question but by dulling its force. She drinks all night and is sick all morning. She has a boyfriend who works in a restaurant and is lately back on the job — though at reduced hours — after a temporary layoff. She is lucid enough to diagnose her situation: “There’s no future.” The coronavirus crisis will end sooner or later, but what will its ending solve for her? Little, she fears.
“No future,” in two words, may explain better than any single direct cause the female suicide surge, psychiatrist Toshiko Kamo tells Bungei Shunju. A global pandemic, she says, breeds fears beyond those of a local natural disaster. From a stricken locality you can escape, at least in theory, at least in thought. Failing that, you can hope for help from outside — supplies, volunteers and so on. COVID-19, by contrast, is not only deadly, it’s everywhere. What escape is there? Home, maybe — but a home locked in against the outside world becomes a kind of prison, seeding and intensifying domestic tensions that, says Kamo, weigh on women in particular as traditional homemakers and caregivers. In Japan, that tradition remains very much alive.
Many women involved in the sex industry have an alternate window on the world. They see things others don’t see. They fuse many roles into one. They are entertainers, sex objects, objects of love, mothers, older sisters, even quasi-psychiatrists. That’s true always; more so in times of crisis. “Since this year began, I’ve heard of 15 fūzoku women in this neighborhood committing suicide,” Bungei Shunju hears from “Momoka Matsumoto,” a 29-year-old delivery health worker in Sendai.
She speaks of heightened anxiety. Sadomasochist sex play lately “feels like it could go all the way” — beyond play to violence, even murder. Tweeted warnings abound on Twitter: “Don’t do that sort of stuff.”
“Clients who can’t vent their stress at home bring it to us,” she says. Some seek comfort, and get it. Some seek comfort and don’t get it. Some seek outlets for bottled-up rage. The paid companion walks a fine line. She must be subtle. She can’t let her guard down.
Matsumoto has been there before. She debuted in Sendai in March 2011. The Great East Japan Earthquake was still rumbling. Business was good. Construction workers and volunteers poured in, eager to help but traumatized by the death and destruction.
“More than sex,” she says, “they wanted comfort.”
She learned much then that stands her in good stead now. She consoles men whose home life is strained, whose wives are irritable, whose kids are stressed with anxieties they can’t express or understand. Nobody knows what lies ahead. Almost as anguishing as having no future is having an unknown one. We’re all in this together.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency in Japan, please call 119 for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. For those in other countries, visit https://bit.ly/Suicide-Hotlines for a detailed list of resources and assistance.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”
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