Japan has undoubtedly produced one of the most distinctive cultures on Earth. To a European like me, it has always been more than just distinctive. With cuisine, attire, architecture and art that seem to surpass the limits of anyone’s imagination, Japan has always felt to me other-worldly, almost alien. But even by today’s globalised standards, it continues to be a place where a westerner will often feel out of place. Because they in fact, are out of place. It is a society with its own norms and “quirks”, which go beyond simply how people sit on the toilet or what utensils they may choose to use with their meal.
There is a fundamental aspect of Japanese society which makes it particularly interesting, but is difficult for westerners to comprehend: the concept of collective responsibility, which is still evident in some ways and goes a lot deeper than it may look like on the “westernised” surface. There is an unspoken understanding that everyone within a society is accountable to that society for all of their actions, to such an extent that they are actually not seen entirely as individuals, but as the direct reflection of that society, an actual extension of it. And while in logical and even moral terms this does not seem like an earth-shattering observation or unreasonable principle at all, its significance, and departure from western cultural norms only becomes apparent when one sees how it plays out in practice. For all purposes, the group is much more important than the individual. For example, if a person does something wrong then this does not just reflect badly on them, but on the whole society as well. They have disgraced society first and foremost, and on a secondary level themselves. This immediately explains many of the “social pressures”, that we, in the west, feel that the Japanese are subjected to as individuals as a direct consequence, or compromise, of being part of a society.
But of course this is our own, culturally biased stereotype. Where we, in the west, may see what looks like an oppressive society, the Japanese see a cohesive, self-preserving and efficient system that as a consequence e.g. has an unbelievably low crime rate. Whereas we may see these social pressures as “the system” suppressing the freedom of the individual, the Japanese may from their angle see us, in the west, as societies of anarchists and rebels, not to mention selfish people who act without thinking of the consequences of their actions on the wider group that they are part of. There are pros and cons to each end of the spectrum, which are too many to analyse and which I’m sure many others have done before me. I think attempting to produce some kind of a verdict would probably be a futile and pointless exercise: both of these versions of society have been both incredibly successful and incredibly problematic when judged over a host of different criteria.
But the boundaries between the two societies become very blurry, almost reversed, when we look at how they have stereotypically perceived death and suicide. In the west, the culture where the determination of the individual is revered and put on a pedestal, suicide is the one thing that is looked down upon by both the church as well as society. It is seen as “selfish”. We told you to be free. But you’ve gone a step too far. You are not allowed to have that level of control. We just wanted you to think that you were free, but not to actually exercise your full right to own your body. The system needs your business, the Church needs your donations, and capitalism cannot afford to lose another customer. A dead consumer is useless to us.
There is of course a hidden jealousy for “the one that got away”. You thought you could check out of Capitalism? Well! Of course I will hate you. I’m jealous of you. Don’t expect me to congratulate you for your escape.
In Japan meanwhile, there are conditions under which suicide is not only understood and accepted, but demanded. In old Japanese society if someone had disgraced a group they would sometimes commit Harakiri, a public suicide with an audience, which serves as a redemption. It was the “honourable” thing to do, as “I’m really, really, really sorry” just didn’t cut it. Whether this in fact is the equivalent of a heroic act, a public execution or a “witch bonfire” is an interesting debate. In Harakiri the “pressure” from the group is such that the executee is also the executer. But at least on the surface, it all has to look like the victim took their own life. They are the “dirty” ones after all. For once in their life, the individual is actually revered, applauded for having “taken initiative”.
And as if this couldn’t possibly get even more bizarre, even more confusing, over in the west when it comes to sacrificing yourself for the group we have an almost Japanese mentality. The hero or martyr is nothing less than a saint, whether they died in battle or stepped in front of a car to save a blind person. The western twist here is that the individual made the decision to die, not the group.
But did they really? I do exclude all the true altruists from this, but it looks to me that from Japanese Kamikaze to Iranian Suicide Bombers, what all of these cultures and traditions have in common is a deep, deep disrespect not only for the individual, but for life itself, dressed up and covered up in heroic rhetoric and decorated in war monuments. Humanity’s fear of death and The System’s desperate search for suicide volunteers and martyrs, from Jesus to the Gaza Strip, is all out there in the open for everyone to see.
We are all being asked to become Heroes For Nothing. The System is asking you to keep consuming, keep polluting, keep having children, keep emitting, so that it can save itself and the hungry CO2 Machine until it eventually goes down. It is asking you to take your own life, and in the end it will blame you and only you for climate change and the collapse that is already under way. This is not a mass Harakiri. It is a mass assassination, and a lose-lose war on life.
We are barely human. We are gears in a System that asks us to sacrifice ourselves, just so that the System can continue.
to be continued…(or not)