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Japan Trivia 8: Harakiri Ritual

腹切り, or harakiri, literally meaning belly cutting, must be familiar to you if you have seen 歌舞伎, or kabuki, Japan's overly stylized, intolerably boring dramatic show from the early 17th century. Sometimes Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly can be substituted if you think you can claim to be an expert in the Japanese "culture." only by scratching its surface.

In fact, though, Westerners, especially Americans, have never really understood that harakiri is not just suicide by disembowelment. Actually it's more of a ritual - one very unique to Japan. You can see nothing like this anywhere else in the world.


In the 1960s in Vietnam, not a few Buddhist monks set themselves on fire. A couple of years ago some Tibetan monks did the same thing. Even to shallow-minded Americans, these "barbecue shows" were not really unfathomable because these monks immolated themselves in protest against the brutal aggressors from America and China. The same can be said, perhaps to a lesser degree, of suicide bombers from Islamic countries.

On the other hand Japanese people never kill themselves to protest against anything. Neither do they cut their bellies in the depths of despair. Maybe Yukio Mishima, the rightwing nut still touted as the most important literary figure in postwar Japan, is a rare exception in that respect.

In November 1970, the homosexual writer stormed the Tokyo headquarters of the Eastern Command of Japan's Self-Defense Forces accompanied by four members of his private army named Tate-no Kai. They barricaded the office of the commandant and tied the officer to his chair.

Then Mishima, together with his catamites, stepped onto the balcony to address the real soldiers gathered below. After his attempt to incite a coup d'etat failed, he returned to the commander's office to perform a harakiri ritual. There he eviscerated himself and ultimately died when one of his men did the preplanned task of 介錯, kaishaku or suicide assistance, by beheading the commander of Tate-no Kai with a samurai sword.

It's unlikely that a similar thing happens again in part because the Japanese people have no guts to remove anymore. But more important, the idea of protesting against something by committing suicide is quite foreign to the Japanese tradition.

Time and again I have called Japan a culture of apology. Not just that these people are excessively apologetic. More often than not their apology is worded like this: "I'm awfully sorry for everything I did. But actually I didn't do anything wrong. Just the same I apologize because that's what I'm supposed to do."

By the same token the Japanese commit suicide, if only symbolically, to punish themselves. It doesn't matter whether or not they are actually at fault when something goes wrong. The only thing they have in mind when performing the ritual is to save the defective organizations they belong in by putting all the blame on themselves.

Just remember that in 1945 it never occurred to them to punish the Emperor. They punished themselves, instead, as if 3 million lives sacrificed for Hirohito had not been enough.

That is exactly what Yukio Hatoyama intended to do on Wednesday. In his supposedly touching farewell address, the outgoing prime minister effectively said that he was willing to take responsibility for what he had not done wrong, or not at all.

It's for this very reason that Japan has had six prime ministers since the turn of the century. By the end of their terms, they almost invariably developed a sense of guilt over something that anyone else couldn't have handled in the right way, either.

Needless to say, Hatotama's guilty conscience stemmed from the fact that he had casually opened Pandora's Box from which cropped up the gut issue with the U.S.-Japanese security treaty. He was just too careless, or too bold.

As recently as nine months ago, the media hailed him as a change agent citing his approval rating that topped 70% at that time. But now they have started calling him a loopy policymaker, just as he actually is from the beginning, quickly lowering the approval rating below 20%. As usual, they don't feel obliged to apologize for misleading their audiences once again.

If Douglas MacArthur and Harry S. Truman had brought in here a presidential system in which the leader is elected directly by voters, that wouldn't have made any difference to this climate.

U.S. president and his counterparts in the G8 nations other than Japan are now complaining they have difficulty memorizing the name of the incumbent prime minister of Japan.


But they should have learned a long time ago that the revolving-door situation is something inherent to Japan's political system. All these guys are supposed to perform a symbolic harakiri ritual, before their terms expire so that their parties, or the national polity as a whole, can be kept intact. As a matter of fact, though, the entire edifice has long proved inviable and irreformable.

As usual the Japanese people, except the Okinawans, have already started to hail Hatoyama's successor as a savior. In fact, though, it's unrealistic to expect the seventh prime minister they have had in ten years to pursue his policy line without interference from the most powerful intraparty faction headed by Ichiro Ozawa. Incidentally, The new prime minister's name will be Naoto Kan - if it still means anything.

On the eve of the election for the party presidency, Kan had to field the most touchy question about whether or not he will award Ozawa a key position. He reportedly worded his exquisite answer like this: "I am aware that Mr. Ozawa, along with Mr. Hatoyama, deserves all the credit for this administration. And yet I am going to ask him to sit out for a while until the dust settles."

If there is something for which the outgoing prime minister can be lauded, it is the fact that when Hatoyama committed a symbolic suicide, he chose to die with Ozawa on each other's swords.

Ozawa complied with Hatoyama's last plea that the two should stab each other to death simply because just being stripped of his party secretaryship wouldn't make any difference to his business of political racketeering. He will remain the "Shadow Shogun" of the Democratic Party of Japan until their party dissolves or splits up.

It's about time that Western leaders should learn to be patient with the Japanese - if they still want to deal with them until the final curtain falls on the terminally-ill nation.
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Japan Trivia 8: Harakiri Ritual
Authored by: samwidge on Thursday, June 03 2010 @ 05:43 PM JST


I am pleased that you covered this issue. In America we are taught that anyone can be president. We are not taught that only a few of us have the talent and, of those, fewer have the integrity.

We figure that out for ourselves. Most of us now would like to be rid of Barack Obama. Nonetheless, we know we have a large reserve of people who would be far worse.

That is why we wonder just how soon Japan will run out of talent.

I know that you figure that Japan ran out of talent long ago. Or perhaps, the best people have been shunted off to sell miso soup from bicycles instead of to steer the country through conflict.

I remember a popular TV cartoon character whose theme was always, "We're all doomed." Perhaps he was right. If he was, then there is no hope today. If he was, there is today somebody out there who is far happier selling miso soup than in saving thankless nations.

I think that any man on a bicycle would be blissfully unaware of what is happening. For instance, you said in this article, "... monks immolated themselves in protest against the brutal aggressors from America and China." That suggests another dismal failure by American news media, the very people watching our failing leaders closest: We were never told that our people might have been brutal aggressors. For that matter, we were told that Chinese involvement was a popular thing among many Vietnamese. I think your readers would be well served to learn what was held from them those years ago. Did we do everything wrong?

I am especially interested in this as I am a hobby journalist and would like to know how news gathering should be done better. We had two mindsets at the time. One was supportive of the president and the Army. The other was in opposition (and seemed to be using drugs). We had no other sources.

There was supposed to have been a third mindset, one of searingly honest reporting entirely without bias... but that was long gone by then.

From what I know of it, both sides taken by our reporters were wrong. Worse yet, even today there is no way to encourage cold, honest, clear-headed reporting.

This is your field. I would like to know what you think.