Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Turning Japanese

When I was a recent college grad, a friend of mine, who was going through an MA in education to become a high school English teacher, told me the following anecdote. He had been paired up with a woman to work on a teaching assignment. This woman, lets call her "Lily" (not her real name at all--I have no recollection what her real name is) and my friend, lets call him "Pat" (again, not his real name at all) were discussing the best way to conceive this particular teaching assignment, when Lily said, apropos of nothing "Well, we can't make this too difficult, otherwise the Asian students will commit suicide." Pat (who is white) looked at Lily (also white) oddly and asked her to explain. Elaborating on her first comment, Lily explained that because Asian students feel SO MUCH PRESSURE to succeed, they will commit suicide if they believe that they will not receive an "A"--in fact, what she said was "Yes, Japanese students commit suicide when they don't get good grades."

Fast forward to March 2009. Republican Senator Charles Grassley (Iowa), in reaction to bonuses for AIG executives had this to say about the action that AIG execs should be taking, noting that they should

"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."

Elaborating on these comments he noted:

"Japanese CEOs either go out and commit suicide, and probably in most cases they don't, and when they don't they come before the public and bow very, very deeply, and express regret, and may resign or may stay on, but the point is they accept full responsibility."


Is there a rash of suicides among Japanese students and executives that has somehow escaped me or is this just a stereotype that has persisted from the days of WWII of kamikaze pilots and Samurai films depicting warriors committing seppuku (ritual Samurai suicide).

So, does Grassley really want AIG execs turning Japanese and why is it that everyone is expressing outrage that he would dare suggest that AIG execs commit suicide AND YET no one has questioned the outrageousness of this stereotype of Japanese as prone to committing suicide at the slightest mention of shame--as if Japanese culture was so honor bound that the thought of censure is enough to drive people, from students to businesspeople, to take that sword to the belly.


Cipher said...

i noticed that japanese suicide comment immediately too and the only small comfort for me was that the guy who said it was republican

Lesboprof said...

I am not an expert, nor do I think these stories justify Grassley's comment or the woman's comment about the students. Yet, it actually references a real issue about how Japanese cultures think about suicide. These news reports raise this as a question in Japan.

Greg said...

Hmm. Suicide in Japan. I hesitate in writing a comment on this post, as I was recently attacked for a comment I made about Japanese conformity over at Racialicious. I'll try to make my comment here less flippant-sounding, however dissenting it may be.

First off, 100% agreed that Grassley's comment was highly insensitive, largely uninformed, and perpetuates false stereotypes. And if that's really how the conversation went between your friend and "Lily", maybe she just wasn't too bright or something.

However, just the other night on NHK News, there was a short piece on jisatsu mondai, or "the suicide problem." I don't recall what the exact story was (I think it may have been something about the national "suicide hotline" being overwhelmed), but the 3 years I lived in Japan, I'd say there were more news stories on the suicide rate (and individual suicides) than I see in the States. Actually, I even recall a couple news stories about execs who'd admitted wrong-doing and committed suicide.

That said, I don't think a couple incidents every few years qualifies anything as the norm. Especially when there are tons of evil execs up to their ears in corruption who neither resign nor off themselves if and when they're called out.

Still, according to the WHO, Japan's suicide rate is nearly double the global average. And from an ABC article in January: "The high rate in Japan is often attributed to the absence of religious taboos about suicide, society's strong pressure to conform and the lack of psychological care for depressed people." Admittedly, the passive voice leaves the originators of these potential explanations unaccounted for.

And Wikipedia says Japan is the country with the 11th highest suicide rate. Looks like Russia and a few countries in eastern Europe beat them out. Hmm, I guess this comment didn't turn out as dissenting as I thought it might. Also, sorry for all the meandering.

Todd said...

Whether they were references to actual suicide rates, or just stupid racism, in either case they seem damn inappropriate, no?

Genepool said...

I saw an article on TV the other day, I forget which station, (CNN maybe) that said Japanese officials were in the process of installing video cameras at a certain national park to document who was going into the park in case they killed themselves. It aided in identifying those who went in and didn't come out and a starting point to find the remains.

Apparently the recent global financial crisis has gotten so bad in Japan that people are going to serene forest settings to kill themselves rather than live with a huge debt they don't feel they can ever pay off. It was also mentioned that this is considered an honorable alternative in Japanese culture to living in poverty or being a burden to society or their families.

I wish I could remember details, but I was half asleep changing a moody baby's diaper at the time.

I'm not sure how killing themselves makes Japanese businessmen more responsible than if they had simply made responsible choices to begin with, but what do I know, I'm not a republican senator. Or a democratic one for that matter. Don't see much difference any more myself.

Now, the article that ran may have been making more of the situation than actually exists. I expect this from modern journalism, it brings ratings and makes Americans feel better about themselves in a queer way. Again, the cynic in me talking.

As for AIG execs... Well, that's another blog isn't it?

gazebo said...

Hey there - So glad to find your blog! It's me, Chris Chia. Thanks so much for the talk tonight! One day you need to tell me about what you do with Asian American writers who don't write about Asian Americans... :-)

CVT said...

Definitely a whole lot of ridiculous.

I don't know much about Japanese suicide, but I do remember hearing (a while back, so it might have changed) how CHINESE students had an abnormally high suicide rate because of the extreme academic pressures from family. It wouldn't surprise me if "Lily's" dumb-ass got it twisted.

That said, most of the suicides I've ever heard of were white people, so - if anything - we should be assuming that the AIG execs are MORE LIKELY to off themselves than other folks, right?

Riiiiight . . . .

Jennifer said...

Thanks everyone for chiming in--sorry I've been so silent on my own comment to your comments, but please do know that I really appreciate the time/thought that you take when replying to my posts.

To those who have cited stats about suicide rates that are higher among Japanese than other nationalities, I think it's interesting to think about--and this could lead to a whole post on the issue of dying and the right to die and our attitude about suicide and life and abortion. But I think that as true and/or interesting as those stats are, the main point I was trying to make about Grassley and "Lily" (and btw, the anecdote with "Lily" happened in 1994--so before these stats came out) was that there seems to be a way in which Japanese culture gets evoked in some quarters that exoticizes it--in this case along the stereotypical lines of "honor" and "sepukku" or "kami-kazae pilots."

I mean, it's all "true"--but I think the fact that we are more quick to think of these tidbits when thinking of Japanese culture and not others is part of I wanted to get at.

Anyway, it's not so cut and dry sometimes--when does something become a stereotype and when are you simply reciting a fact? Sounds like a great post for me to make (sigh)--I'm SO BEHIND on interesting posts.

And Chris, glad you found your way to my blog! I'm so sorry I forgot to answer the second part of your question--I was feeling kinda braindead by the end of the night but I may just end up answering your question through a future blog post--if I do, I'll drop you an email line!

Dick Richards said...

The ESL teacher's soft glove approach to teaching Japanese students is a kind of soft bigotry that is common with new teachers. It is hard to knock someone because they care. I just hope as teachers mature they start to see humans and not nationalities.


Jennifer said...

Dick Richards,
Thanks for leaving a comment. I just wanted to clarify--my friend and "Lily" were both training to be English High School teachers not ESL teachers. Her comments were directed towards Asian American students.

Either way, I'd say definitely inappropriate.

dkh said...


I live right by the train tracks - a couple dozen passenger and freight trains go by a day, and last month, seven white guys committed or attempted to commit suicide by putting themselves in front of a train. Weird, the local news never ran a story about how white American cultures think about suicide. I can't help but immediately take these stories with a grain of salt, because it often seems like people are capitalizing on the "japan is so weird" school of thought.

Jennifer said...

dkh--thanks for leaving a comment. I do think that we tend to exoticize the "East/Orient" so it begins a "story" to talk about Japanese and suicide.

I also now worry about this latest news that the shooter in Binghamton, NY is an immigrant from Viet Nam--in the NY Times story I read this morning, they gave this guy's name, Jiverly Wong, and then in the next sentence stated that the next worst mass shooting in recent history was the Virginia Tech, and the shooter in that case was a Korean American kid.


I hope that people aren't going to now equate mass shooting sprees with Asian men.

SF said...

I hate to say this, but from my time in Japan, I definitely felt that suicide was part of the national consciousness. I would commute on the train paranoid that I'd be late for school due to someone jumping off the tracks. I remember hearing about train stations wanting to install giant mirrors in front of platforms, to give people second thoughts before jumping off. My grandfather would normally find himself collecting disembodied people off train tracks when he was with the police. These sorts of stories were part of the everyday dinnertime news.