Monday, June 20, 2005

three currents of suicide: crusades, war in pacific, and "war on terror"

Japan ranks the 10th in the world when it comes to the suicide rate among the popuation, according to a recent WHO report. When we exclude Russia and other East European countries from the list, in fact, Japan has the highest suicide rate among the developed nations. (35 out of 100,000 men and 13.4 out of 100,000 women committed suicide last year in Japan.) Many Japanese people are weary of explanations offered by the Westerners (cf. Christians) on this high rate of suicides. Either it highlights the samurai tradition which supposedly prefers graceful death to life in shame, or it seeks the answer in the absence of suicide-prohibiting religion in Japan, the culture-based explanation serves to underline the presumed difference between the Western thinking and its Japanese counterpart.

To some extent, the two cultures are probably different. What is troubling, however, is the romanticization of the Japanese culture, which could enhance the sense that the mutual understanding is impossible--just as it happened during the WWII. With abundant examples (from both the Allied countries and the Japanese propaganda), John Dower demonstrates in his "War without Mercy" that the suicidal attacks on the part of the Japanese force were used as the obvious evidence of their savage, subhuman quality, which eventually led to the notion that a total annihilation was essential. Some of the U.S. forces were told not to take hostages but to kill them all. A similar notion of the enemy as incommunicable savages was prevalent in Japanese military as well, making it difficult for the soldiers of both sides to surrender: many Japanese soldiers chose death over surrendering to the enemy who (they believed) would torture them to death anyway. Then in turn, these suicidal attacks and pure suicides were used to underline the subhuman quality of the Japanese enemy, who were impossible to understand with any human reasoning.

When we look at the Western history, however, it becomes clear that the suicidal tendency in the time of war, especially during wars fought for ideology or religion, is far from rare in the Western history as well. Georges Minois' study "History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture" clearly illustrates the point. During the Crusades, there were numerous instances of suicides in the battle field, committed by Christian commanders and soldiers. Some jumped into the ocean to evade capture, others chose to continue fighting rather than surrender, when there was no practical possibility of victory (or even survival). These suicides were, of course, praised as heroic acts (just as the dead Japanese soldiers were praised in their home country during WWII).

It is hard not to see a similarity between the Crusades and the WWII. It is not the peculiar culture of Japan nor Medieval Europe that drove the noble crusaders and savage yellow monkies to suicides. It is the perceived nature of the war and the enemy that tempted them to choose suicide over surrender. In both cases, it was imagined that reconciliation with the enemy was impossible, on the ground that the moral/religious values of the two sides were different beyond any possibility of mutual understanding. Indeed, the imagined "other side" was not even a human quality, thus the total annihilation was a logical consequence. In case of defeat, it was better to be dead than caught. It is the imagined and propagandized "irreconcilable difference," and often "inferior nature" of the enemy that led to the suicide en masse in these circumstances.

Yet, the myth of suicidal tradition of exotic Japan still persists. Along the same avenue, what appears to be an incredulous fanaticism of the Islamist suicide-bombers is probably tainted by our (both intentional and unintentional) oversight of the situational context and the politics of cultural imagination. I have to admit that I'm having hard time understanding the psyche of the bombers, but reflecting on the contemporary interpretations of the two suicide currents in Western and Japanese history makes me, at least, to pause before I draw any shallow, cultural-savvy conclusion on the matter.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

if I could bitch about this guy...

There's only one adjective to describe my lab partner: scary. I just hope that I'll survive (literaly, that is) the eight-week chemistry course over the summer.

On our first lab day, he spilled "unknown liquid" on the desk (thankfully not on my hands) and knocked over several flasks when he pushed his lab manual with a jerk of his elbow. His bodily movement is more toward choppy than suave, which makes me nervous every time he moves. He has some serious issue with accuracy as well: when our powdered "unknow solid" wouldn't sink in water, he took out his pencil and pushed it down in the water, ending up picking up most of the powdery substance with his pencil and smearing the rest onto the inner wall of the graduated cylinder we were using. What we were doing? We were measuring the volume of the "unknow solid." I would be surprised if our measurement had been anywhere near the correct answer. Well, at least an inaccurate measurement won't kill anyone.

As if they hadn't been enough to impress me, he even tried to inflate a rubber ball for our pipet BY BLOWING IT WITH HIS MOUTH, while it was still dripping with our "unknow liquid". I admit that it was an obstinate rubber ball--it had two bulbs, which were probably supposed to help us inflate and deflate the ball, but they absolutely refused to work (as many other lab equipments do at our budget-strained community college). I also admit that the "unknow liquid" was most likely something harmless (it turned out that it was isopropyl alcohol). But even so, YOU DON'T PUT YOUR LAB EQUIPMENT IN YOUR MOUTH! I was surprised my eyes didn't fall off the sockets. The last blow was just enough to let my tongue loose, which had been held silent with my enormous will power, to (almost) yell "don't do that!"

He is probably in his forties, at least fifteen years my senior. Hence I don't want to humiliate him if I could help it. At the same time, though, I have a low torelance for sloppiness, as a (proud) member of the meticulous crowd of Far East. In the near future, I probably need to come up with a better way to communicate with him... Who would think that a chemistry lab could serve dual purposes--teaching chemistry and teaching interpersonal skills. Or is it already a well-know fact?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

people watching at a bakery

I'm having an early dinner (cheddar broccoli soup) before the chemistry class starts. In front of me there's a guy with thinning hair, probably in his early forties, with a hand-free cell phone kit dangling form his left ear. He's having a heated conversation about some floor. "If you can't get the floor any cleaner, then it's not gonna work. The floor tile won't stick. Do you understand that? No, it doesn't have nothing to do with that." Apparently the person on the other side of the line is quite slow-witted. "Give it a thought over tonight, and call me tomorrow, okay?" He hangs up.

He takes a big bite into his oatmeal raisin cookie, opens up a Dell from Hell laptop, and stands up. He walks past me with long confident strides, to the soda fountain. (I take a sneak peek.) He chooses Diet Pepsi. Putting back the lid to the paper cup, he walks back to his table. The cell phone rings again, well, not rings, but blinks, and he takes it. "Did you go to the tassel place on route 20? No, not that one, the one next to Walgreen or something. Yeah. Okay." His large brown eyes bulge behind his black-rimmed glasses. He is dressed clean, with style, but not in excess--navy blue polo shirt on beige chino pants, black plaine loafers, no sox.

He scrathes his head. "I guess she emailed me a wrong one. It should be 30 inches wide and 16 inches tall. Yeah, that's too wide." His conversation drags on, with several others. He adjusts the yellow rubber band on his left wrist, probably exressing his support for troops, Christ, or some other cause. "Okay. I love you,too. Bye."

It's time to go to class. I was just killing time.

Monday, June 13, 2005

two photos

I forgot to mention that two of my photos were included as winners of the Ariel poetry and graphic art contest held by my college. I was probably too excited about the poetry and oblivious of the pictures... Since the competition rules required black and white images, I converted these two photos into black and white.

午後の柱廊 in the corridor of light
As for this one, I prefer it in color, especially the subtle shades of brown of the clothes and the floor. It was taken in Paris, at the entrance of the Pantheon (where some of the big-name French deads are buried, including that disastrous short guy from Corcica.)

But as for the next one, the conversion doesn't make much of a difference, since the image is almost black and white to begin with.


It is a part of the Arc de Defense, a super-modern cousin of Arc de Triumph erected in a futuristic business/residential development outside of Paris. In its entirety, it's a giant square building with a large square hollow in the center (the photo is taken in the hollow, surrounded by cubic offices), where the elevators to the viewing deck and some cloud/sail-shaped tarps are placed.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

in the back alley

Young squirrel's precarious jump
Ignites a shower of cream acacia petals.
Furrowed trunk stands firm, oblivious.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

"wildfire" by Shohei Ooka--3. fire in the field

(This is my translation of "Wildfire" by Shohei Ooka, a survivor of the WWII battles in Philippines. For more information, read this post. The first and second chapters are in the archives.)

3. Fire in the field

I had started walking without knowing it. Walking, I was ruminating the strange notion that had just caught me. I was convinced of its absurdity, but there was something in me that clung to it as a sort of secret pleasure.

The path traced the natural line of a foot of a hill in the woods. The green surface of the hill glittered among the trees. At the edge of the woods, the grass that formed a dreamy curve of the hill descended to the side of the path. On the flat ridgeline, I saw a solitary dwarf tree like a human being.

The woods ended and I was in a field of dry gravel and sand with sparse growth of grass. It was a river bed. Here and there, at elevated areas scattered around like islands, silver ears of pampas grasses shined in the late afternoon light. The river lied beyond, forming a single steel line, and hurriedly slid away, slicing the scenery. Across the river, hills about the height of the Yoko mountains in Tama region also displayed the similar pale green of grasses, and went upstream retreating to the right, to the left. And from below the final precipitous drop of the hills, a single stream of black smoke ascended.

The smoke, in this season on the Philippines Islands, should be one from the corn husks being burned after the harvest. Since the landing, it had always decorated our horizon, indicating the existence of the invisible Filipinos surrounding us.

All the guards had to pay attention to the condition of the smoke rising in the horizon. It could be a primitive guerilla signal. It was the difficult task assigned to the guards to determine whether it was indeed a smoke rising from the necessity to burn unwanted materials or a smoke to communicate with a distant accomplice.

The smoke across the river that I saw was broad and abundant, making me imagine the large amount of what was being burnt below it. At its black bottom, I recognized occasional invasions of the tip of orange flame.

But given the guard habit I had acquired, the smoke was enough to make me hesitate to expose myself in the open river bed. Whether or not it was a mere wild fire, it was obvious that there were Filipinos with the burning material under the smoke. And as a matter of fact, Filipinos were all enemies for us.

Now I regretted that I chose the unfamiliar route. Having started for the death already, however, I didn't want to go back. I decided to take a circuitous route in the pathless woods with hills along its rim on the right, to reach the point ahead where the path in the river bed went into another woods.

I cut my way through hanging branches and vines that clung to my legs. Stepping on damp undergrowth, the combat boots were slippery. Lest I lose sense of direction, I maintained the distance between the ferns illuminated emerald by the bright reflection of the river bed and the edge of the woods. There was a path as well. Following it into the depth of the woods, I found a hut and there was a man. A Filipino stood there, with his eyes wide open.

I stopped, had my rifle at the ready, and glanced around quickly.

"Good day, master," he said in a flattering voice. About thirty, a pale-faced Filipino. From the faded blue half pants showed his skinny, dirty legs. His sheer existence here, where all the residents had supposedly fled, was already suspicious.

"Hello," I automatically replied in faltering Visayan, still examining the surrounding. It was quiet. The hut was elevated only by a foot, and the front and the rear was open, allowing the view of the back. Pungent odor floated in the air.

"You are welcom." Looking at the rifle in my hand, the Filipino smiled an obsequious smile. What jumped out of my mouth at the time was something I had never thought of. It was the following.

"Are there any corn?"

The man's face clouded, but he went round to the back of the hut, as if to lead me, still repeating his "you are welcome." There, in a hole dug in the ground, a large iron pot was on the fire. In it, thick yellow liquid was bubbling. Judging from yellow yams scattered on the soil nearby, he must be simmering those yams. The odor rose from the liquid.

In a separate, smaller pot, kernels of corn were being boiled. He scooped it onto a filthy enameled plate and offered it to me with large grains of black salt. Then I realized that I didn't have appetite at all.

"Is this your house?"

"No, my house is across the river," he said, and pointed to the river through the trees. It is unclear what he boils the stinking mountain yams for, but he seemed to come here primarily for this task. The yams must be found around here. I asked him what the use of the yams was, but his answer in Visayan was beyond my comprehension.

With the plate in front of me, I absentmindedly sat on the floor. The man watched my face intently, with an unchanging smile as if plastered to his face.

"You don't eat it?"

I shook my head. As I poured the corn into the haversack on my waist, I hated myself for demanding food when I didn't have any appetite.

By then, I had loosened my guard against the man. Though in general we didn't have the experience of observation nor the patience for it to distinguish the characters of Filipinos, it seemed that the man's face, which continuously intended to welcome my gaze and smile, expressed nothing but a simple impulse of the people to earn favor of their oppressors. Furthermore, this would be one of the few human beings that I would encounter at the end of my life.

"Do you want some yams?" He asked, as if it suddenly occurred to him.

"These aren't edible, are they?"

"No, I have others. Wait for me," he stood up and walked into the woods. I vacantly watched him go. He walked quickly away, without looking back even once, descended to a basin to the side, then disappeared.

I looked afresh around the ruinous inside of the hut. Dirty floor boards had came off here and there, bamboo columns were askew. On an exposed wall board crawled a gecko. The empty interior of the hut showed the slovenly life of the Filipino farmers who didn't care to ornate their lives more than necessary.

"I might be able to live on among these men," I thought.

The man was yet to come back. I grew anxious. His swift movement when he stood up came back to my mind. I went into the woods around where he disappeared. Only the trees stood silently. Fury rose inside of me at the thought of his flight. I hurried to the edge of the woods and no doubt I could see his back running toward the distant river, almost falling over.

When he looked back to recognize my figure, he waved his fists above his head as a gesture of threat and resumed running. The distance was far more than the reach of the bullets, and even if he had been within the bullets' reach, there would have been no way they would hit him. Before long his figure was obliterated by shining pampas grasses.

A wry smile came to me. Since I saw the eyes of impotent hatred of Filipinos in Manila, I should have known very well how futile it was to look for friendship from them. I went back to the hut, kicked over the pot of the simmered mountain yams, and left the spot. With the man fled, it was dangerous to stay there.

In an open river bed, I exposed myself boldly. Given his flight to the other side of the river, this position was safe for now. It meant that there was nobody he could go for help nearby. At the latest, I could leave here by the time he came back with his gang across the river.

I walked on the gravel hastily to cross the river bed and went back on the previous path at the beginning of the woods ahead. The trees in the woods were small and their trunks thin. Anthills piled up high beside the path from which ants flooded out like a fountain. I proceeded with caution, staying on the watch for the front. Even though I was certain of the security from my deduction, the fleeing man was, for my fear, a possibility of the existence of Filipinos on this path. Caution robbed me of meditation.

The woods came to an end. Across the river the fire was still visible in the field. There were two without my knowledge. Further, on the top of a lone hill shaped like a squatting man facing the other direction, another line of smoke was rising.

The fire at the foot of the hill rose thick and straight, but the one on the hill bent after reaching a certain height, indicating the wind that only blows high in the sky, and its tip became faint like a bloom. In contrast to the smoke at the bottom, which rose quickly with momentum as if to fight the weight of the air, the one on the hill rose high, thin, and proud, then swayed, trailed, and floated as if playing with the wind in the sky. This coexistence of two different shapes of smoke in one scenery, contrary to the meteorological rules, gave me a strange sensation.

The smoke on the hill was probably from a fire burning pasture, but it was fairly similar to what we call a beacon. But what signal did it send?

I grew impatient. The hill on the right went further away. Before I knew it, its graceful side like a back of a woman had changed to an unexpected, steep, and narrow facade, which threw two smaller ridges to the right and left from the triangular top, as if to stand firm with both feet. A basalt rock in the shape of an armchair was suspended in a small hollow between the two ridges. If I went round the ridge ahead, it might lead to the valley where the hospital was. I hastened my steps.

I was among the woods again. In the woods, the path branched into two. The left seemed to go upstream along the river, the right seemed to go along the hill. Shortly after I chose the right, the woods came to an end in a vast grass field. And there, I saw another fire.

The woods continued and diverged to the left along the river. In the front, beyond the dune-like undulations of the grass field, another hill of exposed rocks blocked the way like a folding screen. And halfway between me and the hill, the grass was burning about ten yards in width. There was no one.

I kept standing for a long time, looking at the smoke.

It was impossible that a fire occurred wherever I went, just because I went there. It was obvious if I compared my position as a mere soldier and the sociality of the task of building a fire. I was seeing them in sequence only because of the fortuity of the course I chose as a solitary walker.

My anxiety also belonged to the strange confusion of the senses ever since I had left the mainland. The only actual basis of the anxiety was the speculation that there were people where there was a fire, but this general causal relationship was not enough to justify the anxiety that I felt at the time. In actuality there was nobody at the fire in the grass field. The source of the anxiety lied in the sequence of the incidents that had occurred to me as an individual. It lied in the XXXnumberXXX of the fire I had seen.

These personal sensations bothered me probably because I was absorbed in myself too much.

Seeking a releaser from the magic, I looked in the horizon for the village where the hospital should be located. For, judging from the size of the grass field, it could be assumed that the field was more ore less a part of the valley of my destination. And I was able to find the few familiar houses that congregated as if to snuggle up to each other, at the foot of a rocky mountain to the far right.

There, at all events, there are my countrymen. At this time I didn't have no other idea than that.

The path cut through the fire still ablaze, but I couldn't go beyond it. Off the path, I proceeded straight to the village, shoving various gramineous grasses that reached up to my shoulder.

But my eyes didn't wander off the smoke. The sun was sinking low and it had started to be windy. The smoke crept on the ground to envelope the grasses, at times flying toward the woods along the river, cut off in the sky like a cotton ball.

There was not a shadow of human being in the grassy field as far as eye could see. Who set this fire, it was a question that I still couldn't solve from the facts in front of my eyes.

Friday, June 03, 2005

"Hi, nice to meet you. I want to kill myself, too." a thought on internet-based group suicides in Japan

Lately in Japan, the internet is attracting some negative attention: there is a ostensibly widespread fear that the internet is becoming a convenient place for the suicidals. But "convenient" might not mean what might come to the mind of an American. Japanese suicidals aren't obtaining guns to blow their brains out through the internet, nor are they buying a lethal dose of strong medicine without prescription. Nor they aren't contacting a merciful Dr. Kevorkian with Asian complexion. Then what are they doing on the internet?

"As the number of suicides stays high around 32,000 in 2004, group suicides of people who acquainted with each other through the internet are on a sharp rise," an article (Japanese link) on Yomiuri Newspaper states. It seems that the suicidals who can't summon enough courage to actually commit suicide by themselves go to "suicide-inclined" chat rooms, find fellow hesitant suicidals, get together in some isolated places, and commit suicides together, with the help of the (distorted form of) group support. Despite their seeming contradiction, assumed annonymity of the internet in fact encourages instant intimacy between people who share the same interest (in this case the same inclination to suicide). These suicidals must have found the last "push in the back" in the mortal comradery which they couldn't find in their "real" relationship, in which they can't just say "I want to commit suicide" to someone whom they just met.

According to the article, the phenomenon first caught attention in 2003. The number has steadily increased since then: 34 people committed group suicides with people whom they got to know through the internet in 2003, 55 people in 2004, and 54 by the end of April in 2005. The demogrtaphic is heavily slanted toward the people in their 20s, but some are in their teens, 30s, 40s, and 50s.

The police of Yamanashi prefecture, where four people successfully committed a internet-initiated group suicide late last year, decided to prosecute all four for aiding and abetting suicides of the other three. All four were already dead at the point of the police's action, so its purpose was to clarify their stance on group suicide as illegal. In April this year, another police force also arrested two men who survived an attempted group suicide for the same ground. A committee of the Metropolitan Police Department released a report in which they proposed mandatory disclosures of personal information of people who posted announcement of their suicide attempts on the internet in advance, to make it easier to prevent these attempts.

What is odd is that, even though there are so many chat-and-bulletin-board-based web sites which are enormously helpful to the depressed/suicidal people, they are never talked about in the mainstream media. On these web sites, people do talk about their wishes of suicide, and some of them do post announcement of the actual attempts. I don't know what percentage of the users ends up committing suicide and what percentage finds relief in talking about it and doesn't actually kill themselves, but the number of posts and that of actual suicides suggest that a majority finds comfort and in some cases even healing in the annonymous yet intimate community of the internet.

Accusing these web sites for encouraging suicides is, therefore, quite off-the-point. Similarly, the ever-growing parental concern over their kids visiting these suicide-inclined chat rooms and having the evil idea of suicide planted in their innocent heads is absurd. There is, for sure, an element of fantasy in imagining one's own suicide, and some of the grop suicide bulleting boards can ferment the fantasy, but even in such cases, blaming the web sites doesn't solve any problem. When it comes to the police prosecuting the dead for aiding and abetting the other participants of group suicide, it is nothing but outrageous. If they thought that it would be a good deterrent, I wouldn't know what to say. What might or might not happen to themselves after their death is the last concern the people comtemplating suicide could have.

At any event, the article awakened my long-lasting curiosity of suicide in the context of culture. That'll be the theme of my reading for a while--hopefully it won't further delay the translation of "Wildfire." (The third chapter is almost done.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

educating the ignorant adults on autism: review of "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" by Mark Haddon

I just finished ploughing through "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time," a fad book of a few months ago, which my boyfriend had picked up. Written by a British author Mark Haddon, who worked with autistic people in his younger days and has written numerous children's books, the book is narrated from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old autistic boy. I wasn't aware of any of this background information, however, when I started reading it. Despite my ignorance, within the first page, I couldn't help noticing a strange feel of the sentences. The sentences sounded oddly redundant and fixated, almost obsessive to precise details, even though the subject of each sentences are slightly different from the one before. The lack of narrator's emotional response to the subject or descriptions to evoke readers' emotional attachment to the subject also added to the strange feel.
It was seven minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears's house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

I must have made some noise, like "hmm" or "hah" at this, for my boyfriend asked me from across the room (where he was watching a show on his laptop) what was wrong. I told him that the sentences were strange, that the narrator seemed to be overly meticulous about the tiniese precision. Then he gave me the above mentioned information, which was readily available in one of the first pages of the book.

The author keeps the tone throughout the novel. The boy's obsession with precision and the emotional barrenness remains constant, letting the readers (at least partially) experience the psyche of an autistic. The rational explanations the narrator gives for his "socially unacceptable" behaviors, such as groaning loudly when a subway's roar fills the station (he groans so as not to hear anything else that feels threatening to him) and fighting ferociously against any attempt of bodily contact (he really hates to be touched, even by his parents), provides clues to the readers to understand other autistics.

As the story unfolds, the detective work of the boy to find out who killed the dog with the garden fork slips into the painful disclosure about his own family. It is very much like a novel an author of children's books might write: it's informative (about autism and the autistics), its main subject is the issue of a family with an autistic, its climax is his conventional kids-lit journey to London, which is a huge adventure for him as an autistic boy who hates anything new, and it ends in a quite hackneyed yet annoyingly moving way, suggesting a bit of realistic hope of reconciliation. In that sense, it is very formulaic.

Indeed, one can probably say that it IS a children's literature. Only that in this case, children refer to adults, who, like children, are quite ignorant of autism. The author skillfully and observantly recreate the psyche of the autistic narrator, and presernt it in a readable, even enjoyable manner. There's the mystery of the dog-murderer, which first drives the story and then it serves as an introduction to the difficulty of being an autistic and being with an autistic. What happenes in the story is only secondary to the author's intention to spread the correct understanding of autism, just like an adventure of an orphaned child, however exciting it might be, might be intended to serve the purpose of advocating the importance of friendship and trust, in any other chldren's literature.

To his credit, it works quite beautifully. The read is compelling, and is full of practical knowledge about autism. (For instance, after reading the book, I'll probably give it a hair more thought before I give hairy eyeballs to a parent of a screaming child in a department store.) It is also thought-provoking, as to how hard it must be to be and to be with an autistic all the time. I, as a reader, have a priviledge to skip all the draining details the narrator gives in the book, which a family of an autistic doesn't have. Similarly, when the narrator says "then I screamed for about half an hour," I don't hear him scream for about half an hour. I just read that sentence in about two seconds. And it still is tiresome in accumulation. "Just imagine if it is real," I thought to myself more than once.

It's not a great literature or anything, and it probably doesn't intend to be one. It is a clever endeavor to benefit the autistics and their family. And in the light of its commercial success, which means a large readership, it is a triumph. All I hope is that the information provided in the book is correct, and that it will cultivate some understanding and acceptance in our society.