Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Ain’t Goin’ Out Like That

November 17th, 2011 · 2 Comments

It’s been far too long since I posted about suicide, a Microkhan staple since this project’s earliest days. Let me rectify that oversight by quoting from this 1971 study of mortality among Hiroshima survivors. One might expect such unfortunate souls to be so psychologically traumatized by their experiences that they would be unusually prone to taking their own lives—as is traditionally the case with combat veterans. But the evidence tells a very different story:

In addition to the analysis of all 853 deaths as a single class, separate analyses were performed for the 162 accidental deaths in motor vehicle accidents, the 363 deaths from other accidents, and the 299 deaths from suicide. The first two supplementary analyses contained no suggestion of a relation between mortality and distance or dose, but the third revealed variation that merits further study, namely, a real deficit of suicides among those who received 10-39 rads, and among those in the highest dose (and more proximal distance) groups. The deficit among those exposed to 10-39 rads derives almost entirely from Hiroshima males(5 observed vs. 19 expected). There were no suicides in the group exposed to 180+ rads until the one observed in 1962-1966, and both sexes in both cities contribute to the discrepancy. This is not just a reflection of the retrospective assignment of dose estimates, for the distance analysis gives a comparable picture: among distance group A subjects, there were 21 suicides observed vs. 28 expected, over the 16-year interval. In the parallel analyses of those who were not in the city ATB vs. the A-bomb survivors, the risk of suicide, relative to that for subjects not in the city ATB, is 0.93 among Nagasaki survivors, but 1.43 among Hiroshima survivors (P < 0.05). Whatever the causes, therefore, the nature of the discrepancy is such that the highest relative risk is seen among the A-bomb survivors exposed to the least radiation.

In other words, the more traumatic one’s radiation-related injuries, the less likely one was to commit suicide. This doesn’t square at all with my expectations, especially given that many of those high-dose victims must have lived with constant physical pain. So what was it about the survival experience that turned them off the idea of taking their own lives when things looked grim?

I can only harken back to my August 2009 post about Jaswant Basuta, the man who was five minutes too late to board Pan Am Flight 103. There is obviously something deeply transformative about a brush with death, and I can only imagine that the effect increases in direct proportion to the spectacularity of the near miss—and, perhaps, its unexpectedness. Soldiers live each day with the specter of death, so surviving a battle is almost routine. But civilians are more blindsided to be reminded of life’s exceedingly fragile nature. And when the event that brings them to the precipice is something truly historic, they must surely come away feeling that they have received a very precious gift.

Or maybe I’m just totally off, and there is a cultural explanation for the reluctance of Hiroshima survivors to commit suicide. Would love to hear alternate theories from more learned Nipponophiles.


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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Given how many of the survivors were disabled, it’s actually surprising that the suicide rate wasn’t above average. If I understand things correctly, there’s a strain in Japanese culture of not being a burden on family, e.g. elderly relatives exposing themselves when food is scarce.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Agreed, this data point really surprised, given what I know about Japanese attitudes toward suicide. I spent part of the weekend sniffing around to see if anyone has studied this issue, but came up with zip. In general, of course, there isn’t nearly enough research about suicide–not quite sure why that is.