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Bunraku and Suicide

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a bunraku performance. Bunraku is traditional Japanese puppetry. The puppets are about three feet tall, and three people orchestrate the movements of each. Two are covered head to toe in black garments. One of these moves the feet and the other moves one of the arms. The third person wears black but makes no attempt to cover his or her head. This person controls the head and the other arm. With a lot of practice, the three of them working together are able to make movements that are and reminiscent of an actual person and in their skillful hands, the puppet comes to life. Off to the side a woman might play the koto, a Japanese instrument rather like a lute, and someone else might read from a book, providing both narrative and a voice for the characters. 

The date of the performance came around and I opted to go. I had heard about this Japanese art when I was studying scrabble words and thought it worth while to watch once, it pleases the locals when the ex-pats engage in their culture, the performance was being sponsored by a friend of mine, and there was a chance I would get to see some of my students. Besides, it was free and close to my house!

Unfortunately none of my students were there. I later learned that the Japanese used in bunraku performances is old and difficult for kids to understand, on par with a performance of Shakespeare in the States, and most of the people in the building sported white hair. Nonetheless, it was interesting enough. I appreciate all of the work that goes in to synchronizing movements when three people have to work as one, and this truly can be considered an art form. 

Having only a rough knowledge of Japanese, much less the Shakespearan-era Japanese, most of the time I was left to guess what the plot was. For the first scene this was quite easy, as it was an intricate dance that two puppets performed. The second performance was done by a solo artist and the puppet mostly complained about how cold he was. The fourth performance attempted to incorporate some of the local cultural landmarks and the items Fukushima prefecture is known for, a move which endeared the company to the crowd. The third performance… the third performance bothered me. The post-performance discussion with other ex-pats led to a consensus that the two characters had committed suicide. After all, there are only so many reasons to jump off of a cliff. One coworker stated that the river god forgave them and they came back to life. Overall, it was supposed to be a happy piece. I think.

Here is the problem: I am never going to be okay with suicide. An ex-pat learns to fight battles, to stop viewing some issues as being a big deal when they really aren’t. There are plenty of things that aren’t right or wrong, just different. However, I am also a Christian and I do believe there is right and wrong in this world. And suicide is something I consider to be wrong. 

Understand this: I don’t cast this judgement lightly. I say this as someone who has been there and has felt the temptation to give up and end it all. What changed for me was when three separate alumni from my college committed suicide in the course of nine months. All three were two years younger than me. One was a friend, one was an acquaintance, and one was a friend of a friend. As news came in over the course of months I didn’t mourn for these men so much as I mourned the senselessness of their deaths. The friend, Stephen, was someone who had been there for me on some bad days. The acquaintance, Luke, had given me a ride to the summer camp where we both worked. For him that might not have been a big deal, but it was one of those circumstances where I didn’t find a ride until a few days before I left, and he was literally an answer to prayer, and I have never ever forgotten that. And the friend of the friend, Gabe, had been there for my friends on their bad days. I looked at all three of these men and realized they would never again get to impact someone’s life. I’m not belittling the pain they experienced that caused them to make their decisions to end it all. I understand that pain. But I also see the other side. 

In Japan suicide is often considered a thing of honor. The shame is too great, and to end the shame – to preserve honor – people commit suicide. But who is this really honoring? I was taught that honor, true honor, means to elevate others, to consider them better than yourself, to go out of your way to serve them. I came to Japan excited to learn how to honor others. And in some ways the Japanese excel at this. They are the first to jump in and lend a hand, whether that is shoveling snow after a snow storm or washing dishes after a party or tearing down the decorations after graduation. But in other ways, their sense of honor makes my stomach turn. A person who commits suicide does not honor others; he only honors himself. When he removes himself from this earth he ends the chances to honor others or to honor those who raised him by doing something great. And no matter how long I live in Japan, you will never be able to convince me that suicide is honorable.

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