Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | “The Japanese example” is not suicide
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“The Japanese example” is not suicide

Woodblock illustration of hara kiri, or the ritual suicide practiced in feudal Japan.The furor over bonuses given by AIG to employees after taking more than $170 billion in bailout money from the U.S. government is made all the more furious because of the sheer breathtaking scale of the cash flow. AIG paid 73 staffers more than $1 million, with one getting $6.4 and seven more getting $4.

Those amounts seem so out of kilter with the state of the economy, and the fact that just months ago, the giant company was about to crash without a hand up from the government — from us — that it’s not surprising that citizens as well as lawmakers are screaming bloody murder.

But one lawmaker is screaming bloody suicide.

The Washington Post (among other media) reported that Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wanted AIG execs to commit hara kiri, or seppuku — the traditional Japanese ritual suicide often depicted as an honorable course of action from samurai times.

Sen. Charles Grassley suggested in an Iowa City radio interview on Monday that AIG executives should take a Japanese approach toward accepting responsibility by resigning or killing themselves.

“Obviously, maybe they ought to be removed,” the Iowa Republican 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.”

Grassley spokesman Casey Mills said the senator wasn’t calling for AIG executives to kill themselves, but said those who accept tax dollars and spend them on travel and bonuses do so irresponsibly.

When I first heard about this, my jaw clenched but I let it pass. Seppuku was a historical reality for centuries, after all, and it’s depicted in lots of Japanese pop culture, including movies and books. It’s been documented as a reflection of one of Japan’s driving cultural values, shame.

Even as recently as the end of World War II, generals committed ritual suicide when Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan had lost. In 1970, Nobel Prize-nominated author Yukio Mishima committed hara kiri (the most well-known form of seppuku, it literally means “to cut the stomach”).

Japan has one of the highest rates of suicide in the industrialized world. Partly, that’s because suicide isn’t considered a sin in Buddhism or Shintoism like it is in other religions. Partly, it’s because of the samurai tradition of death before dishonor.

But that doesn’t mean that modern Japanese businessmen “take that deep bow” and “go commit suicide” when their business fail, or they blow piles of money, or they find themselves in a shameful situation.

Sen. Grassley spouted the first image that popped into his head: a stereotype of bowing Japanese who are happy to kill themselves rather than stain the honor of their country. Maybe it can be excused because Grassley was born in 1933, so he lived through WWII and all those images of the slanty-eyed, buck-toothed “Jap” bad guys depicted in American pop culture during that era, and for decades afterwards.

Maybe he’s seen some Japanese chambara, or samurai, movies, which romanticize the warrior ways the same way “Remember the Alamo” touches up the “death before dishonor” nerve in red-blooded Americans.

Maybe he laughed at John Belushi’s crazed samurai spoof on “Saturday Night Live” in the ’70s, which typically ended with Belushi offering to commit seppuku over some perceived slight.

Maybe it’s understandable.

But it’s galling to me, to have to explain to my co-workers in 2009 that people in Japan don’t regularly pull out their swords and disembowel themselves every time they get a bad performance review, or miss a quarterly goal.

It’s irritating that a U.S. Senator would pull out such a shallow image that feeds the persistent stereotype that Japanese are single-minded, determined people who could be made to do crazy things, say, in the name of the Emperor. I wish the whole kamizae thing during WWII had never happened, but it did.

So Japanese are an easy source for images that ingrained like the one Grassley pulled out. That doesn’t mean it’s cool for our lawmakers to be using such images as if they’re current. Of course he didn’t mean literally that AIG execs should off themselves after presumably giving back their loot.

But the image was so vivid because it lives just under America’s (mostly) calm racial surface. It doesn’t take much to cough it up. And after that comes the slanty eyes (see Miley Cyrus) and buck teeth, the “ah-so” comments and assorted late-night jokes.

When someone — especially someone in a position of responsibility with a public profile — says something offhand like this without a moment’s thought, I tense up.

Call me paranoid and over-reacting. But I grew up with all of the above thrown at me, and I don’t like it.

Oh, and one more thing: It’s not “hari kari,” pronounced “hairy cary.” That’s something dreamed up for a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and generations of Americans have mispronounced it. It’s “hara kiri,” “hah-rah (with rolled ‘r’) kee-ree (with rolled ‘r’).”

Thank you.