Death and dying in japan

Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 6 (4):374-378 (1996)
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Abstract

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Death and Dying in JapanRihito Kimura (bio)A majority of Japanese, at present, feel that the modern biomedical and technological innovations pertaining to human life and death have been forcing a change in our common understanding of what, historically, was simply the natural event and process of death and dying. The meaning of death and the dying process in our lives is changing as have the traditional criteria for determining death, namely, cessation of heartbeat and respiration.An individual’s death should be a personal and private matter as well as a familial, communal, and social matter. It has been regarded as such for many thousands of years in our Japanese society and culture. It is well understood that our traditional socio-cultural understanding of human life positively admits the natural process of death as the final event of life. The ideas expressed in Zen-Buddhist phrases such as “accept death as it is” and “life-death as one phenomenon” have been key motifs totally integrated into our traditional understanding of life (Tomomatsu 1939).However, the traditional perception of death as an acceptable process has [End Page 374] been vanishing as the Japanese have applied modern biomedical technologies more frequently in well-equipped hospital settings. Although the involvement of family members in the process of dying and particularly in the death event continues in a variety of ways, the care of dying patients in Japan is becoming much more similar to that delivered in advanced hospital settings in many countries of the world, than it is different. Now, in Japan, a majority of people end their lives in the hospital, surrounded by high-technology machines. Yet, in a survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun of 15 June 1991, half of the respondents said they would prefer to die at home.In addition, there has been a tradition of not explaining to terminally ill people the true nature of their condition, on the ground that this is most appropriate way to proceed (Kashiwagi 1994, pp. 78–85). However, views on this matter are changing. There is a gradual move toward telling patients the truth, and the notion of informed consent has been widely publicized in the clinical setting (Leflar 1996, pp. 96–107). In the 1991 nationwide opinion poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 65 percent of the participants said that they would like to be given full diagnostic information about themselves even if they were terminally ill. Nevertheless, only 22 percent of the people questioned said they themselves would definitely be prepared to disclose such information to a family member.The same survey indicated that 78 percent of people considered palliative care desirable, even though it might shorten life, while 16 percent thought life should be sustained as long as possible, irrespective of the pain that patients might be suffering.Challenges of Care for the DyingA special task force on terminal care, set up by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, issued a report in 1989 that encouraged the disclosure of diagnostic information to patients, provided that consideration was given to patients’ life histories, personalities, relationships with family members, and other factors. The report favored the use of drugs for pain control; it also dealt with matters such as spiritual requirements and the care of the family members.Traditionally, the physician-patient relationship in Japan is based on a complete and unquestioning trust of the physician by the patient, such that the physician acts to make health care decisions on behalf of the patient (Kimura 1991). However, increasingly it is believed that people should not have to accept without question the authority of doctors in the treatment of disease. Responsibility for the care of the dying should be shared between family members and all health professionals, not only physicians. Changes are needed in the mentalities of health care providers, patients, and family members, and it must be recognized that the medical system and institutions are not immutable (Annas and Miller 1994, pp. 374–76). [End Page 375]To complicate matters even further, although a patient’s family is informed of the incurable nature of the disease affecting their family member, the patient, as noted above, usually is not told of...

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