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Grassley puts foot in mouth over Japanese suicide comment

March 17, 2009

by keito

Senator Charles Grassley (R., Iowa) said on March 16th that AIG higher-ups should take a cue from Japan and “resign or commit suicide.” Grassley was speaking, albeit misguidedly, of the principal of “gyokusai,” or honorable death.

“Suicides have a long and often romanticized history in Japan, where they have been seen as a face-saving escape from public humiliation,” The New York Times’ Martin Fackler wrote on May 28th, 2007 — the day Japan’s Agriculture Minister, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, committed suicide.

I was living in Japan at the time this happened, studying at an international university.  The Minister had been under investigation, but many considered it to be unlikely that he would be convicted of any wrongdoing.  I was taking Politics in Japan that semester, and my professor told us that the governor of Tokyo, an older and very conservative man, remarked amidst all the shock that Matsuoka had acted like a true samurai.

“There haven’t been samurai in over a hundred years!” the political scientist exclaimed, outraged.

The “honorable death” concept that Senator Grassley evoked is a horrible and base stereotype of Japan.  Samurai — the warrior class that faded out in the late 1800s, following the Meiji Revolution — were often given the right to commit suicide for their disgraces as an honorable alternative to execution.  Samurai suicide was seen as a means to restore honor to an already doomed man, whether he was facing execution or severe ostracism.  It could be seen as on par with how we speak of criminals “paying their debts to society” through jail time (or, yes, capital punishment) in America today.

“Honorable death” has haunted Japan for years since then.  During World War II, Japanese citizens were allegedly instructed to commit suicide if the Allied forces came upon them.  There have been many accounts of these orders from the military, given to villagers in Okinawa, and books released on the topic.  Many say able-bodied men were told by military messengers to take up arms, while the women and elderly were ordered to kill themselves and assist children in “dying honorably”; many dispute these claims and say the orders never existed.  It’s still a hot-pot of controversy, and probably will never be resolved.

What I do know about “honorable death” in the Japanese islands is that a gentleman used to come speak at my high school, one of the few from his original unit that survived the Pacific Theater in World War II.  He told us a story of a woman and her two children, whom he still remembered from the island-hopping campaigns all those years ago.  While securing the area, they came across the family, standing near a precipice on the edge of the island, and tried to signal to them that it was okay and they wouldn’t be hurt.  The woman looked them in the eye, took a hand from each of her children, one on each side, and jumped off a cliff.

“They thought we’d do to them what the Japanese military were doing to others,” he said, still choked up at the memory of it.  I saw a documentary in one of my classes in Japan that hinted at the same thing — anti-American propaganda left some Okinawan villagers terrified to come out of caves, until they saw American soldiers caring for children and handing out chocolates.

True, wartime atrocities were likely committed by individuals on the American side.  But what about the majority?  People died for that propaganda.

This is one of the many terrible legacies the term “honorable death” has left in Japan.  It is, at the very least, inaccurate to say that suicide is still an honorable alternative in Japan.  I remember my dorm mother speaking to me about the death of the Agriculture Minister after it happened.

“People have this strange idea about suicide,” she told me, shaking her head (roughly translated here from Japanese).  “How can it fix anything?  A person is dead!  How horrible for his wife!”

“Of course I don’t want people to commit suicide,” Senator Grassley later backtracked, and made some statements about the proper, contrite attitude of mistaken Japanese businessmen that he wanted to see from AIG.  But it would have been far, far better, had he not evoked such a terrible stereotype, or said something so insensitive to families of those who have committed suicide and the families of the executives, in the first place.

  1. RaiulBaztepo permalink
    March 28, 2009 4:00 pm

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language 😉
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  2. April 7, 2009 5:32 pm

    Hello ! 🙂
    My name is Piter Kokoniz. oOnly want to tell, that your blog is really cool
    And want to ask you: is this blog your hobby?
    Sorry for my bad english:)
    Thank you:)
    Piter Kokoniz, from Latvia

  3. keito permalink*
    April 8, 2009 3:52 pm

    Yes, this is my hobby! But it also means a lot to me, and I hope it will mean a lot to others. Thank you for reading and for your comment!

  4. keito permalink*
    April 8, 2009 3:54 pm

    Thanks for your comment! Best of luck learning English. You sound like you’re off to a very good start!

  5. May 6, 2009 6:14 am

    Hi, interesting post. I have been pondering this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll certainly be subscribing to your site. Keep up the good posts

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