Here’s an article my son sent me yesterday, and I believe it was in the local paper today as well:
“Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley suggested that AIG executives should take a Japanese approach toward accepting responsibility for the collapse of the insurance giant by resigning or killing themselves…” (read more…)
To give some background to the folks who haven’t read my bio, in college I majored in cross-cultural communication/cultural anthropology. My senior thesis was on “black humor in rakugo” (that’s “Japanese classical comic storytelling”). Needless to say I did a lot of research on cultural attitudes toward death with a focus on comparing Japan and the West.
What I discovered blew my mind. I never imagined that the gap between Japanese and Westerners’ views of death could be so wide. Today’s post will attempt to illuminate some key gaps that surprised me the most.
But first let’s get the morally outraged elephant out of the room. This is where we all step back, take a deep breath and–before getting caught in the monkey trap set by the media–consider the possibility that maybe the remark was taken out of context? Imagine, the media doing something like that.
So let’s suspend judgment and cut the Senator some slack. We’ll assume the remark was made tongue-in-cheek with the suicide quip just an over-the-top card he played to maximize emotional impact–or perhaps he was simply angling for a laugh? Not having heard the remarks firsthand it’s impossible to make the call.
But what we can say is that his remarks reflect what lots of folks are thinking these days, if not literally then certainly figuratively. For what its worth here’s what I’m thinking: Those dirty rats running AIG need to show us some humility and remorse then give all the money back. All of it–including every penny in their fat personal bank accounts… then maybe, just maybe, we’ll forgive them.
If you’ve read my posts Can American Executives Manage Without Their Corporate Jets?, or Japanese Automakers More Patriotic than the Big Three? then you know I’m critical of the fat-cat elitist “leaders” who are running our country off the cliff. But since I’m not a political writer you won’t see me taking shots at Senator Grassley, although I do question the wisdom of feeding political rivals ammunition so they can claim the moral high ground (whether it’s true or not). Time will tell whether Grassley becomes a punching bag or a hero for his “insensitive” remarks. Likely he’ll be both.
But since this is the Intercultural Twilight Zone (not the Political Twilight Zone), let’s forget about the Senator for now and refocus the discussion on what death and suicide actually mean in Japan. But…before we let the good Senator off the hook I’d like to point out one subtle but important boo-boo he made in his remarks. To wit:
“I suggest, you know, obviously, maybe they ought to be removed,” Grassley said. “But I would suggest the first thing that would make me feel a little bit better toward them if they’d follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, I’m sorry, and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide…And in the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide before they make any apology.”
Wrong Senator. In this case, the suicide you’re suggesting they commit IS the apology, the ultimate unspoken apology. (Words just don’t carry the same weight in Japan that they do in the West.) But other than this minor error, Grassley’s on to something.
What’s the Point of Suicide in Japan?
For those of you who saw The Last Samurai you might recall the scene where the Tom-Cruise character is helping his samurai friend disembowel himself in the middle of a battlefield. (Because that’s what real Samurai friends do, you know.) And as the old samurai is dying he sees the cherry blossoms blowing off the sakura trees and utters his last words, “perfect, perfect”.
Want to take a guess as to what he meant?
This is where I turn to my thesis advisor in college, Stuart Picken, because this guy literally wrote the book on Japanese and suicide. (His book, published in Japanese, is indeed titled “The Japanese and Suicide’) His conclusions about Japanese social attitudes toward death and suicide are fascinating. Here’s the gist:
Japanese culture romanticizes suicide: it helps to understand that the samurai were not only a class of professional warriors, they also studied the arts, including painting and poetry. Aestheticism is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche, so much so that my old thesis advisor used to refer to Japanese society as “the cult of the aesthetic”. Indeed, in Japan everything has to be beautiful: the food, the packaging, money in decorative envelops, and yes, dying a “beautiful” death in the middle of a bloody battlefield. The cherry blossoms added the perfect poetic touch to the gritty old samurai warrior’s last stand. That’s why he said “perfect, perfect”.
On a similar note, Shinju or “double-suicide” dramas were popularized by Kabuki Theater in the Edo period (1603-1868). The storylines were pretty much boilerplate: two forbidden lovers living in an unforgiving world that won’t allow them to be together, take the ultimate escape through double-suicide shinju. These kinds of tragic stories illustrate how ingrained the idea of a “romantic death” is in Japan, and it helps to explain why you don’t see a lot of happy endings in Japanese literature.
Suicide is a form of communication: how do you non-verbally say you’re sorry in Japan? You kill yourself, of course. How do you exact the ultimate revenge? Same way. Compared to the West, the Japanese don’t put a lot of stock into words anyway. Action–or at least the perception of action–is what they want. Since faking your suicide is tough to do, the offending party is logically left with only two choices: live with shame or die forgiven. Suicide is a time-honored, perfectly acceptable, non-verbal way to say you’re sorry in Japan.
Death has no moral significance: in Japan, when you’re dead you’re dead. No one judges you anymore because, well, it really sucks being dead, especially because there’s no place to go–that’s right: no heaven, no hell.
This means the moment the doctor pronounces you dead you immediately become a hotoke-san, a kind of “Buddhist saint”. What this means in concrete terms, is that when Charles Manson dies Japanese Buddhism will wipe his evil slate clean and canonize him. Imagine that. This also explains why every year Japanese politicians pay their respects to Yasukuni Shrine–the place where Japanese war criminals are buried–knowing the pilgrimage is going to once again tick off the Chinese government. The Chinese have long memories, of course, and still are bitter about Japan’s aggressive role in World War II. What the Chinese probably don’t grasp is that in the Japanese mind–right or wrong–everyone is forgiven once they’re dead, even those dastardly war criminals.
But there is one important caveat worth mentioning about the afterlife in Japan: while Japan’s indigenous religion Shinto is considered a “this-worldly” religion totally devoid of afterlife concepts, Buddhism came along in the 6th Century and brought with it concepts of heaven and hell. The afterlife enjoyed great popularity with the elite rulers in ancient Japan, but over the long haul, the afterlife–especially the unsavory idea of going to hell–couldn’t be reconciled with traditional Japanese optimism and a strong “this-worldly” take on reality. By the end of the Edo period the Japanese had pretty much phased out the afterlife, even while they continued to practice Buddhism. And they’ve been keeping their focus on this world ever since.
Today Japan is a secular society. Most Japanese will tell you they’re atheists, although just as many will say they believe in ghosts. (One man’s ghost is another man’s god?) But while most Japanese don’t practice or belong to an organized religion, they continue to keep alive their religious traditions of Shinto and Buddhism.
As a final note on explaining suicide in Japan, I left out one important point: Japan is considered a “shame” culture by most anthropologists. Japanese society is perhaps best described as a “pressure cooker” that leverages the cultural value on harmony to regulate social and morale behavior. Shame is a powerful motivator for people who value harmony and belonging. Once you’re “caught” doing something wrong in Japan, society gives you the two options I mentioned earlier: apologize and live the rest of your life in shame, or redeem yourself with the ultimate apology. Too many Japanese take that second option as it’s the easiest way out.
How does a “Shame Culture” differ from the West?
“God can’t see inside my van!” –Kelso, That Seventies Show
Let’s first consider morality through Judeo-Christian filters, and start with the underlying belief that each person is constantly under the moral scrutiny of God. Based on this kind of thinking, it means that no matter where you go–even in Kelso’s van–God sees what you’re doing. To simplify the concept somewhat, one might say that Western morality is concerned with pleasing a God who is watching you 24/7.
Not so in Japan. Japanese morality is anchored to society, a reality that tolerates “situational morality”, a big no-no in the West where morality is framed in universal statements like “Thou shalt not do this or that”.
Naturally breaking any kind of rule is considered shameful behavior for the individual in Japan. But there’s a bigger cross to bear than just personal shame: since Western individualism never took root in Japan, the shameful actions of any individual also brings shame upon that person’s family and affiliations. So the Japanese kid will think twice about stealing an unlocked bike at the train station, not because he thinks God is watching him, but because of the sheer burden of guilt and shame it would bring upon his family. Even today, it’s hard to get your bicycle stolen in Japan.
You have to wonder though…did the AIG executives believe that God was watching them when they destroyed the company and so many people’s lives? Or is it simply that they have no shame? Clearly someone should have been watching them. And clearly, they should all be ashamed of themselves.
No, I don’t want to see AIG executives commit suicide. And I’m pretty sure Senator Grassley doesn’t want that to happen either–just imagine how he’d feel if one of the AIG executives actually took him up on it. But we all know what the Senator meant: that the shit needs to start rolling uphill; someone has to take responsibility for the AIG mess.
I have a much more attractive option for the AIG executives than suicide: Find your moral backbone, apologize and give the money back.
I won’t hold my breath.
Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009