On Being Japanese


One of the most surprising things I learned about the Japanese culture was this: Like the Greeks and the Elizabethan English, the Japanese have a true tragedy in their literature.


When one’s honor boundary was violated, when one was shamed, the Japanese cultural hero must act to restore that honor even if it means her or his own death. Great shame falls upon one’s self, one’s family, and one’s country if one fails to do the honorable thing.


I remember talking to a 2nd generation Japanese American during the Vietnam War. He had fought in World War II, in the Pacific, and he was furious at the 3rd generation Japanese Americans who were protesting our involvement in Vietnam. For this 2nd generation Japanese American it was “my country, right or wrong.” He said, during the course of our conversation, “There is no more honorable way to die than to die for one’s country.”


In Japanese tragedy, I learned, when one is dishonored, right action or proof of one’s honor might consist of sepuku, or suicide. Such an action brings honor back to oneself, albeit in death, and dishonor to one’s opponent. In order to bring honor back to her or himself, one’s opponent would have to commit sepuku in turn. You see what happens in tragedy? Soon the entire stage is strewn with dead bodies.


Let me say that this is not a familiar way of being for most of us in the United States: We would exterminate the other person rather than commit suicide, honor or dishonor not-with-standing..