by Nakagawa Keiichi / Asahi Publishing Company / 2010 / 1,500 Yen + Tax
[SOCIAL AND PASTORAL BULLETIN No. 155 / June. 15, 2010]

(Shi wo wasureta Nihonjin)
by Nakagawa Keiichi / Asahi Publishing Company / 2010 / 1,500 Yen + Tax
There are over 30,000 suicides yearly in Japan. Additionally, during the last ten years the number of death sentences has more than doubled. Moreover, last year the law regarding organ transplants was amended to make transplants possible for patients with brain death, a type of death that the Japanese continue to debate without reaching any agreement.
These are all issues that concern my work at the Social Center and my own personal convictions. The common problem underlying all of these issues is the Japanese "view of death" or rather their "lack of vision regarding death." Since many people have an ambiguous image concerning their own death, they easily tend to commit suicide. Others have such a vague view of death that they do not hesitate to impose death sentences. This lack of vision regarding death is also one reason why people continue their inconclusive discussions of cerebral death.
So what is human death? What is the difference between biological and sociological or cultural death? What do religions think about death? Why is death not accepted by modern man? The book under review, "Japanese Have Forgotten Death," looks at human death from these various angles.
The author is a medical doctor, a radiotherapist specializing in the mitigation of pain, and has treated over 20,000 cancer patients over the years at Tokyo University Hospital. He is my own age, 50, and does not seem to have any religious belief. Thus, his opinions do not stem from any philosophical or mystical source, but are quite frank and easy to understand. As a medical doctor, he uses logical scientific language.

The author deals with his topic as follows:
1)  The fact is that humans die. The same is true of the cosmos.
2) Absolute time and biological time differ, and the flow of time differs for each person.
3) Living organisms evolved from non-sexual organisms into sexually reproductive ones and, in exchange for having become differentiated as individuals, the death of each individual came about.
4)   Along with the development of their brains, humans became aware of their own death, and in order to escape from the fear of death, they developed religious beliefs.
5) Death is fearsome because we do not understand it. This fear diminishes once we come to know more about death, funerals, and graveyards.
6) Ideas about the beginnings of life and the definition of death do not descend to us from above but are decided by our own free will, our religious beliefs, and community understanding.
7) Death from cancer is something "foreseeable." To prepare oneself for that moment shows consideration for the dear ones we leave behind.
8) As we grow older, we accept death more easily. To confront death naturally and without fearing it is very important.

Everything is treated very objectively. The author is a medical doctor and does not attempt to set up any theory by collecting difficult data.
Since ancient times it has been a matter of common sense that even the cosmos will eventually collapse. Theories about "biological time" have been presented again in a well-known publication, "Elephant Time and Mouse Time - The Biology of Size." This book points out that the life span of mice is from 2 to 3 years while that of elephants is about 70 years, but if one counts their number of heartbeats, both have the same number throughout their life?about 1,500 million. As we learned at school, living creatures which reproduce by cell division do not have an individual existence and consequently we cannot talk of their death as individuals. It is quite traditional for religions of both East and West to talk of death and an afterlife, thus providing us with abundant background information about death.
According to the author, the excessive fear of death among Japanese people today is due to loss of religion and weak communitarian links. There are very few opportunities to reflect on the realities of death and most people cling frantically to life, but the truth is that by "reflecting on death one gets to know more about life." We cannot live well simply by turning away from the reality of death.
My parents are approaching eighty years of age and are preparing to leave this world. This is distressing for us, their offspring, but we must accept it. I do not find this very satisfying, but as a human person with my own beliefs I want to think about it more deeply.

(Shibata Yukinori, Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)
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