What did the Yale professor mean who suggested suicide for elderly people in Japan

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The lines could hardly be more dramatic. In interviews and public appearances, Yusuke Narita, an assistant professor of economics at Yale University in the US, has spoken about coping with the burdens of Japan’s rapidly aging society.

“I feel the only solution is pretty clear,” he said in 2021. “Isn’t it mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ of the elderly?” Seppuku is a ritual act of disembowelment that was practiced by disgraced samurai in the 19th century.

Last year, when asked by a school-age boy to explain his theories of mass seppuku, he vividly described a scene from “Midsommar,” the 2019 Swedish horror film in which a cult sends one of its older members to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff.

“Whether that’s a good thing or not is a harder question to answer,” said Narita, 37, as he scribbled notes. “If you think that’s a good thing, maybe you could strive to create such a society.”

On other occasions, he has broached the subject of euthanasia. “The possibility of making it mandatory in the future will be discussed,” he said in an interview.

Narita said his remarks were “taken out of context” and that he was primarily addressing a growing effort to push older people out of leadership positions in business and politics to make room for younger generations. However, with his comments on euthanasia and Social Security, he touched on the most discussed subject in Japan.

While Narita is unknown even in US academic circles, his extreme stances have helped him gain hundreds of thousands of followers on social media among frustrated young people who believe their economic progress has been impeded by a gerontocratic society — dominated by the elderly.

Frequently appearing on Japanese programs wearing a T-shirt, sweatshirt or sports jacket and original glasses with one round and one square lens, Narita draws on his education at the famous American university while projecting an image of a radical communicator. He is among the few Japanese provocateurs who have found a loyal audience for their spirited breaking of social taboos. His Twitter Bio: “The things they say you can’t say are usually true.”

In response to emailed questions, Narita said he was “mainly concerned about the phenomenon in Japan, where the same tycoons continue to dominate the world of politics, traditional industries, and media, entertainment and journalism for many years now.”

The expressions “mass suicide” and “mass seppuku”, he wrote, were “an abstract metaphor”. “I should have been more careful about its potential negative connotations,” he added. “After some reflection, I stopped using the words last year.”

His detractors say his repeated comments on the subject have already spread dangerous ideas. “It’s irresponsible,” said Masaki Kubota, a journalist who wrote about Narita. “People panicking about the economic burden of an aging society might think, ‘Oh, my grandparents are the ones living the longest,'” Kubota said, “‘and we should just get rid of them.’

In his day job, Narita directs technical research into computer algorithms used in education and health policy. But as a fixture on various internet platforms and television in Japan, he has become increasingly popular, appearing on magazine covers, comedy shows and in an advertisement for energy drinks. He even spawned a copycat on TikTok.

He often hangs out with Gen Xers like Hiroyuki Nishimura, a famous businessman and owner of 4chan, the online messaging program where some of the internet’s most toxic ideas are spawned, and Takafumi Horie, a controversial businessman who was once arrested for securities fraud.

Sometimes he goes beyond the limits of good taste. At a panel hosted by the Japanese business school Globis, Narita said that “if this can become a society where people like you commit seppuku one after another, it would not just be a social security policy, but the best policy of ‘Cool Japan ‘”. “Cool Japan” is a government program that promotes cultural products.

Some lawmakers say the ideas, shocking or not, are opening the door to much-needed conversations about pension reform and changes to welfare. “There are criticisms that old people are getting too much pension money and young people are supporting all old people, even the rich ones,” says Shun Otokita, 39, a member of the upper house of parliament for the right-wing Nippon Ishin no Kai.

But critics say Narita highlights the problems of an aging population without suggesting realistic policies that could alleviate some of the pressures.

“He’s not focusing on useful strategies like better access to child care or greater inclusion of women in the workforce, or broader inclusion of immigrants,” says Alexis Dudden, a historian at the University of Connecticut who studies modern Japan. “Things that could really reinvigorate Japanese society.”

When addressing euthanasia, Narita spoke publicly about his mother, who suffered an aneurysm when he was 19. Narita described how, even with insurance and government funding, his mother’s treatment cost him 100,000 yen ($3,900) a month.

Some polls in Japan have indicated that most of the public supports the legalization of voluntary euthanasia. But Narita’s reference to a mandatory practice scares ethicists. Currently, all countries that have legalized the practice only “allow it if the person wants it,” says Fumika Yamamoto, professor of philosophy at Tokyo City University.

Questioned, Narita said that “voluntary or involuntary euthanasia is a complex and nuanced issue”. “I’m not advocating its adoption. I anticipate it will be discussed more widely.”

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