Archive for May, 2008

oh, those japanese… they just love killing themselves

Forgive me for being fantastically un-PC, but this Japan Times article on how suicides in Japan topped 30,000 for the tenth straight year (about 32,000 this year) made me do a double-take.

Do the math: The U.S. has roughly the same annual number of suicides, but has a population of about 304 million. Japan has a population of about 127 million. Japan’s suicide rate per 100,000 people is 25% (America’s is about 10.5%). What the hell is going on?

Fortunately, people have already examined this question for me. In Kayoko Ueno’s 2005 article Suicide as Japan’s major export? A note on Japanese Suicide Culture, a J@pan Inc article from last year, and a recent Economist article called Death Be Not Proud, a couple of things are pointed out about Japanese society that probably make a big difference:

  1. Suicide has been historically used as the samurai’s way to avoid dishonor. Hence the Japanese businessmen and politicians who’d rather die than go bankrupt or go to jail. (Note that I said “men”: the male rate is more than two times higher than the female rate [40% versus 15%].).
  2. Suicide was also glorified in the recent past. Remember World War II? Kamikaze pilots were the original suicide bombers.
  3. Suicide is neither accepted nor rejected in Buddhism and Shintoism. It’s a sin in Christianity, so families in the West probably suffer more from the stigma of a family member who committed suicide than families in the East.
  4. However, in Japan there are tons more things with social stigmas attached to them. For example, failure, colorblindness (or any kind of physical disability for that matter), or mental illness of one family member can put a big, indelible black mark on the entire family. And the shame makes it hard for people to seek help because they don’t know what’s wrong with them and they don’t want anyone to find out about it.
  5. Japanese kids have some serious shit to deal with. For one, there’s BULLYING. American kids can sue; Japanese kids are just told to suck it up and deal with it, because “it’s a part of life“. My own bullying experience in Gunma was uncommon in that I had teachers who had been educated in the United States, so I was able to complain and get a homeroom change. This doesn’t happen too often, especially with the natives.
    For further reading, a manga called Vitamin (the scanslation is by Storm in Heaven) recounts a girl’s history of severe bullying when she’s caught doing the nasty with her guy. It’s got a happy ending, but a lot of these real-life stories do not.
  6. And, of course, some people kill themselves for the insurance money. But I feel like that happens in a lot of places.

And you thought Americans had problems.

The Japanese government is finally giving suicide prevention programs more funding because they no longer want to be known as “The Country Where Killing Yourself Is Totally Okay”. But as many an article has pointed out, that’s too late in the game to be intervening. Japanese society needs to undergo an overhaul so people stop considering suicide in the first place.


baby’s first powwow

This weekend, I went to the Stanford Powwow for the first time. It was about time, since I’m a senior and a couple of my closest friends here are native. I asked Ricky (who’s part Mexican, part Pasqua Yaqui and part… I forget) to show me around. It was kinda like being at one of those house parties and barbecues my parents always brought me to in Jersey City when I was little, except that this time I was the token non-Filipino friend that someone brought along– the one on the outside looking in.

Trying not to offend people
I was initially really self-conscious about how I was carrying myself, etc (I normally feel like this when I’m immersed in another culture for the first time). But it took me three hours to realize that I was walking around wearing a black t-shirt with the word “SAVAGE” printed on it in bold white letters. That’s because I’m a fucking idiot.

Omnipresent things that outsiders are hyperaware of and insiders do not notice
Until this weekend, I’d never in person seen full Native American traditional costumes, or seen the dances, or heard the singing. I had also never really noticed the little things about being native: the way dancers rotated clockwise, the crocheting on the footbag we kicked around with some of the volunteers, the feather charm hanging on Ricky’s rearview mirror, girls’ ornate earrings, silver bracelets adorned with smooth blue turquoise, how you can usually tell that a white person is native by the way their skin tans in the sun.

But talking to anyone native about all this shit would be like wandering onto the Stanford campus and talking to a student about how bikes are just so Stanford. “Well, obviously,” the student would say. “This campus is really big.”

Wandering into the realm of “incredibly ignorant”
While I was standing in the forty-minute-long Sno Cone line, a white kid perched atop her dad’s shoulders asked, “Are Indians different from us?”

American Indians,” her father began in his didactic drawl, “may be different, but they are kind of like you and me. Some of them use the same toasters as we do, and the same cell phones, and the same t.v.s and radios. They go shopping just like us, and…”

I honestly had to tune out at this point because it was starting to make my brain bleed. Seriously? Seriously?

Things that remind me of my parents
The Stanford Powwow is basically a huge fair, and since it’s a native event it obviously had a couple of frybread stands with really long lines and really high prices. I wanted to try one, but Ricky turned up his nose in their direction. “I could make frybread at home for free,” he scoffed. “Besides, my grandma’s recipe is probably way better than whatever secret recipe they use.”

Being comfortable with the big “Where are you from?” question
That night I ended up in a bar with a bunch of natives from all over. Many of the introductions involved asking where we were from. When people asked Ricky, he explained what part of Arizona he was from and stated his tribe automatically. As I understand it, he probably would’ve gone into his family in greater detail if the other person had been Pasqua Yaqui. The Native American community is already pretty small, so in a lot of tribes, most people in the tribe are connected to everyone else in the tribe by one or two degrees.

When they asked me, I said, “New Jersey butmyfamilymovedtoCalifornia… and I go to school here”.

Drinking with the natives
I didn’t have much to add to conversations (most of the people I talked to were alums of Stanford’s Native American Association and had stories to swap), but one of the more entertaining things I’d heard all night was a story about two drunk people arguing about whose people was better.

“Back in the day, my people woulda kicked the crap outta yours! My people were making pyramids when yours was still doin’ all that hunter-gatherer shit!”

“Man, shut the fuck up,” interrupted another guy. “My tribe would’ve owned his. We hunted whales. My tribe hunted fifty-foot whales in twenty-foot-long canoes. So shut the fuck up.”

This day and age
I still remember walking out of the bar and onto the patio to a chorus of drunken singing. It was traditional native singing, probably by one of the musical groups that participated in the Powwow, and it was so beautiful. But then I noticed that they were singing in English, and they were singing something that went like:

She’s wearing too much makeup and looks like a ho

But you’re too drunk to notice and will go home with her anyway…


The Powwow was pretty awesome. Too bad I had absolutely no cash on me to buy any of the stuff that was being sold in the booths (Ricky even had to spot me for food). Maybe next year.

(I bought a round at the bar, though. Did I mention I turned 21 in April? That’s another story, and a story I can only tell you in person.)


This is a blog of things place-related, by a cash-strapped Stanford grad who's lived in various places and writes about life. She's currently looking for a job in Manhattan or the Bay Area.

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