“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.

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11 Responses to “The Japanese example” is not suicide

  1. The following comment is also posted at:

    There are two things that I find especially disturbing about Senator Grassley’s comments.

    First, Senator Grassley has been in the back pocket of the banking industry for years. He was the chief author and sponsor of the bankruptcy reform which favored banks and credit card companies at the expense of the average American consumer. For him to suddenly jump on the anti-banking industry bandwagon now is the epitome of hypocrisy.

    Secondly, Senator Grassley has perpetuated a Japanese stereotype for which he needs to apologize to both Japan, an American ally, and to Japanese-Americans everywhere. While “hara kiri” or “seppuku” has roots in Japanese history, it is not a component of modern Japanese society. Even when Grassley spokesman Casey Mills attempts to temper the harshness of Senator Grassley comments, he continues and adds to the racism of the original comment.

    Not for the first time, Senator Grassley has brought disgrace upon the state of Iowa. I would never, however, suggest that he commit suicide. Perhaps retirement might be a better choice.

  2. Brian Hayashi says:

    You are much more knowledgeable about Japanese culture than I, but I think there are a number of post-WWII accounts of Japanese businessmen who would kill themselves for exactly the reasons you described: “…when their business fail, or they blow piles of money, or they find themselves in a shameful situation.” I don’t think Sen Grassley suggested that they specifically disembowel themselves, but I know there were an awful lot of hotels that worked overtime when executives would check in and hang themselves in the bathroom.

    The Japanese language has dozens of words that convey different subtleties of the concept of “honor”, which has become a quixotic notion in America. Today, executives have fiduciary responsibilities to their company, with significant penalties for nonperformance. It is telling that our culture has no equivalent mechanism for governing the responsibilities AIG executives had towards the country or its taxpayers who bailed them out.

    Here’s an example. After the whole mess started, AIG executives agreed to forego their 2009 salaries in exchange for maintaining their bonuses this year. This is significant. This means that AIG will pay the bonuses *again* next year. It also means that if there are complaints now or in the future that cause bonuses to go away, this provides cause for executives to sue for the compensation they should have had plus punitive damages plus legal costs.

    In fact, as the New York Times reported yesterday, Sen Christopher Dodd (D-CT) actually inserted a clause in the stimulus bill which eliminated any doubt whether AIG could continue to award these multi-million dollar bonuses. This shows AIG senior management knew about the possibility of American outrage well before President Obama signed the stimulus bill and it demonstrates how the parties took active steps to protect AIG interests.

    This is not a left or right issue, although in this witch hunt environment there is a tendency to try to spin it as such. Instead, I would rather hope that Americans *would* try to understand the Japanese example of death before dishonor; the notion that you couldn’t show your face in public if you did something that was clearly abominable.

    I think all cultures have a thing or two they could learn from other cultures. If Sen Grassley’s comments cause Americans to think about the Japanese system of honor a little bit more deeply, I think that’s a good thing.


  3. Gil Asakawa says:

    Good points, Brian. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    Yeah, I know corporate suicide happens in Japan, which is why I mentioned the country’s high suicide rate overall. But my point, and what griped me about Grassley’s reference, is that it’s a kneejerk pop-culture image of Japanese that has persisted for a long time in the US, and it’s sad to hear a politician perpetuate it.

  4. Tim says:

    Hey Gil,

    Sure glad someone else is providing some perspective on this. I lived, worked and studied in Japan for over ten years, and have many Japanese-American friends here in Hawaii. One thing I’ve learned over the years is the high level of sensitivity my Japanese-American friends have when it comes to racism (more so than even native Japanese friends). Of course, I can never understand how it feels to a kid in school to be called “slant-eyed” by white classmates, but ironically, most Japanese nationals will also live their entire lives in Japan never hearing it either–certainly not by their fellow Japanese compatriots.

    That said I feel that I do have somewhat of a historical and cultural perspective on what “death” means in Japan, as my senior thesis at ICU was “Black Humor in Rakugo”. Needless to say, I did a lot of research on Japanese attitudes toward death.

    My take on the Senator’s remarks is closer to Brian’s. I have tremendous respect for the Confucian aspect of Japanese culture that says (I paraphrase) “The sh*t rolls uphill”. Of course it doesn’t always work that way, but it’s a noble ideal to aspire to. American executives could learn a thing or two from Confucius.

    Of course I could never condone suicide for any reason (except perhaps to escape extreme suffering). But I understand the dimension behind the act: it the buck-stops-at-the-top mentality. (A great book on this is Japan’s Longest Day, which documents the 24 hours before Japan’s surrender. Fascinating reading.)

    If the spirit moves you, check out a recent post on my blog: “Samurai Justice for AIG Executives?”



  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ll check out your post about AIG. I also added you to my blogroll.


  6. Tim says:

    Thanks, Gil,

    I like your site/subject matter. Yeah, you’re going on my blogroll too 🙂

    Yoroshiku onegai shimasu!


  7. C says:

    I think what’s fascinating about Senator Grassley’s comments is the sheer irony of it.

    Most people focus on the post-Edo jidai aspects of seppuku/harakiri/kappuku/tofuku by relating this ritual murder to honor. I think this is a revisionist view of Japanese history.

    Pre-1600, seppuku had no significant cultural meaning attached to it other than to avoid beheading by the enemy. It was only after Japan took significant paths to become a nation state that the Japanese adopted this view of harakiri. I would submit to everyone that seppuku was a device introduced for the purpose of legitimizing the murder of potentially harmful elements to the infant governments of medieval Japan.

    Don’t like someone? But can’t kill them for fear of an uprising? Order a public seppuku. After the ritual, the body is immediately covered and disposed of in an honorable and respectful fashion. Good government.

    Want to reduce potential retaliatory externalities in a war? Have the enemy commit seppuku. Your enemy is a victim of a system of Bushido honor–not the enemy (government) soldiers.

    Seppuku was also the ultimate display of authority in some cases and served as a powerful political tool for the Tokugawa shogunate, who once ordered the seppuku for an entire family. They weren’t just murdering people, they were able to get people to murder themselves.

    I should note that seppuku wasn’t always committed or ordered in the same way. There was a period of time where only the nobles could commit seppuku, while anyone below that class would be beheaded and their heads displayed as a warning. At one point, seppuku didn’t even require that someone slash their stomach. The second the condemned touched the knife designated for this task, a “kaishakunin” figure would slash their head off in order to minimize the pain and agony.

    With time, seppuku begins to cease being a political weapon and people really start subscribing to the “seppuku” that we have come to know today. The belief was that the human stomach area contained the human soul (“reikon”) and aijyou (“love”). The act of slashing through (or sometimes split open in a cross motion) these was a pinnacle example of following the path of Bushido.

    Anyways, the irony is that Grassley was never informed that the Japanese government ordered seppuku to kill political dissidents. To have a conservative who bemoans the evils of big government recommend seppuku is pure gold to me.

    Lastly (this has nothing to do with this post), Gil, I’d like to hear your opinion maybe on this new Bill being introduced that would allow newspapers to become non-profits. I couldn’t stop thinking about Rocky Mountain News reading it. http://tinyurl.com/deubhy

    Please keep up the good work!

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks much, C, for your knowledgeable explanation of seppuku and hara kiri. After learning about its cultural evolution, I can see the irony in Grassley using this imagery to make his point. Big government, indeed.

    As for the newspaper-as-non-profit idea (thanks for the link to the Reuters story, btw), I think it’s intriguing but doubt it’ll fly.

    For one thing, it can’t be applied to companies which are huge corporate conglomerates, which are the main ones suffering right now. It’ll most likely help smaller, community-based (and privately-owned) newspapers, which are doing much better than all the major metro dailies in general anyway.

    It also doesn’t address TV (and radio) news operations, which conduct somewhat the same work of newsgathering and reporting, but include those operations as part of larger media programming.

    And, what about “legitinate” news bloggers? Will the law allow bloggers — Huffington Post as a collection of bloggers is the most obvious example — to apply for 501(c)3 status? That would be interesting (actually HuffPost probably can’t because they’re so obviously slanted towards the Dems).

    That also raises the issue of commentary and opinion in the media. I assume that Rush Limbaugh and the zillions of conservative talk-radio hacks as well as bloggers won’t be able to apply for non-profit status either. I hope not, anyway!

    After all of that, even if the law passes, I have to wonder if making advertising and donating to a newspaper a tax-deductible donation will actually get people to pay to advertise, or to subscribe, if they haven’t or have done less and less of it in the past several decades.

    Will people pay for news content that they’ve already decided isn’t worth paying for, just because the newspaper is now a non-profit?

    Finally, there’s already a non-profit newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, which is operated by the non-profit Poynter Institute, a much-respected school and think-tank for journalism (http://poynter.org). I think the Times is struggling like other newspapers, but perhaps not as badly as other papers across the country. The paper and its website has always been an innovator, partly because it could afford to take some chances and help the industry evolve.

    We’ll have to see if the idea of non-profit newspapers has any traction.

    Thanks for getting my brain cranking early in the morning! 🙂

  9. cognitis says:

    All Japanese governments and courts subsequent to the Meiji Restoration sanctioned the Japanese institution of seppuku, so no Japanese politician or magistrate ordered anyone to commit seppuku; indeed the few who did commit seppuku often did so as protest against Meiji’s sanctions of traditional Japanese institutions such as seppuku.

    No Japanese speaking gravely of seppuku would pronounce it consonant with the kun-yomi reading “hara kiri”, but instead would only pronounce it using the on-yomi “setsu” and “fuku” or “seppuku”; Japanese would only pronounce it “hara kiri” if using it with levity in parody of Americans.

    Grassley used “hara kiri”, ignorant of it’s correct pronunciation rather than intending insult, in culpating AIG officers and in weirdly exhorting mob violence against all financial institutions’ officers in general; every day subsequent to Grassley’s speech, Media have depicted pervasively institutions’ officers’ fear of retaliation, citizens’ rage against officers, vandalism of officers’ property, death threats to officers’ persons and families. Since Congress, President, regulators have all always supported financial institutions often to the detriment of citizens, by definition something has permutated; something would necessarily possess the force to compel this permutation and also have an interest in the pertinent events. China recently announced several times it’s interest in US’ fiscal discipline and also competes with fraudsters for citizens’ taxes as the largest alien creditor; tax funds donated to a bank Ponzi scheme by which officers’ accomplices get “bonuses” are also used to of course pay interest on US sovereign debt. Grassley’s use of a term universally known to US populace as a uniquely violent “asian” institution would be apt in conveying to the populace an “asian” force compelling him and his fellows to conserve funds for “asians”.

  10. C says:

    Gil, thanks for your insightful comments. I appreciate it.

  11. Ian says:

    I think the US (especially republicans) should be the last ones to comment on irresponsibility when it comes to greenbacks.

    Grassley’s out of all people should start practicing what he preaches. I swear politicians are worse than the mob in a lot of aspects.

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