An interfaith symposium here on Oct. 29 explored the attitudes of Japanese religious communities to suicide, including whether the term should be changed to “voluntary death.”

Sponsored by the Catholic Bishops’ Conferences in Japan, the conference ― entitled “The Mission of Religionists on Voluntary Death” ― considered a trend toward using the Japanese term “jishi,” meaning “voluntary death” instead of “jisatsu,” or “killing oneself.”

Many people, including bereaved family members, now prefer using “jishi.” 

One of four panelists, Wataru Kaya, a Japanese Shinto priest and psychiatrist, emphasized the importance of prayers and compassion for those who die voluntarily, based on Japanese traditional cultures. He reiterated that Shintoism “does not see voluntary death as an absolute evil.”

But Hiroshi Saito, who heads the study office of the Institute of the Doctrine of Oomoto, a Sectarian Shinto sect since 1892, noted that Oomoto’s canon says, “Suicide is a sin among sins.” He warned, “By using the term ‘voluntary death,’ I am afraid that a sense of sin for committing suicide can be unconsciously weakened.”

Saito criticized views by Jose M. Bertolote, from the Department of Mental Health of the World Health Organization, and in a 2008 article in The Economist magazine, that suicide in Japan is part of a culture that includes an “ethical standard to preserve one’s honor and to take responsibility by suicide.” Saito said, “These are rather biased views ... few people in Japan today see suicide as a virtue.”

Japan has one of the highest suicide rates among developed countries, according to the World Health Organization: about 26 per 100,000 people compared to nine per 100,000 for the United Kingdom or 11 per 100,000 in the United States. Causes include depression, health problems and economic pressures, according to Japan’s National Police Agency.

Daiki Nakashita, a Japanese priest of Otani sect of the True Pure Land School Buddhism, said that the role of religious communities should include “turning pains and wounds into connections” by “sharing the pains and wounds within groups of the bereaved” and “holding Buddhist memorial services for those who died voluntarily.”

Roman Catholic Archbishop Peter Takeo Okada of Tokyo, saying he approved of the term “voluntary death,” noted that “since the church had taught for a long time that suicide is a sin, we had not held funerals for suicides.”

It was not until last November that the St. Ignatius Church, the venue of the symposium, started the “St. Ignatius Project to Protect Life” and held the first Mass in Japan to remember those who “died voluntarily” and care for bereaved family members and friends.

In Japan, “motives to live seem to be getting weaker,” said Okada, vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Japan. “The mission of religionists is to give [people] the reason, motive, and purpose of living.”