Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Suicide in Japan and Samurai Shortstop

Last week, I wrote about a fine novel called Samurai Shortstop, by first time YA novelist Alan Gratz. Coincidentally, the day before I posted my review, a Japanese government official committed suicide. The same day that I got my review of Samurai Shortstop up on this blog, another Japanese executive did the same.

Samurai Shortstop begins with a shocking scene where a young boy named Toyo watches and assists his uncle, Uncle Koji, as he commits seppuku, a form of ritualized suicide. Toyo's family is a part of the samurai warrior tradition, and Uncle Koji enacts his seppuku as a way of obtaining honor for himself and his family after having opposed the authority of the emperor of Japan.

Although Uncle Koji's seppuku is represented within the historical context of late 19th century Japan, the scene has a lot of resonance today. On the one hand, the samurai tradition, upon being repressed by the Japanese monarchy, slowly evolved into a business and professional class that continues to produce many business and political leaders, like the ones discussed above (in fact, Toyo, in Samurai Shortstop, is very aware that a business or political career is in his future). On the other hand, the positive spin on suicide facilitated by the samurai warrior tradition continues to exert an influence on contemporary Japanese thinking and behavior. Many commentators suggest that the high rate of suicide among Japanese today is an outgrowth of the samurai tradition and other cultural influences.

As much as I was shocked by the seppuku depicted in Samurai Shortstop, I was even more surprised to discover that suicide is higher in Japan than in other developed countries throughout the world. In fact, Japan's suicide rate was at an all time high about four years ago, rising significantly from lower levels in the 1970's and 80's.

Though set over 100 years ago, Samurai Shortstop speaks clearly to the current age. It poses relevant questions such as: What complex cultural factors and forces produce suicide? What is the relationship between suicide and gender? Why is suicide rising suddenly in various parts of the world and among certain sub-groups? More importantly, what can we do to diminish the occurence of suicide, both in Japan and elsewhere in the world, including the United States? By no means will reading Samurai Shortstop end the suicide phenomenon; however, it might help both teens and adults to understand the complicated roots of and motivations for suicide, as well as the interventions necessary to help people contemplating suicide to move in new directions.


Jay said...

not to be nit-picky or anything, but samurai has only 1 "m."

Tom Philion said...

Thanks Jay--I made the correction!

Back to spelling school for me.

Thanks for your other comment, too. I do think the book is worth reading, no matter the age.



Alan said...

Hi Tom -

Thanks so much for the thoughtful and enthusiastic review of Samurai Shortstop. It was a real breakthrough book for me as a writer and an author. (If that separation makes any sense to you.)

I love your project, and I'm going to keep checking back to see what other books you've reviewed. I hope you'll also keep an eye out for my next book - a contemporary YA mystery based on "Hamlet" called Something Rotten, which is due this October from Dial.

Thanks again!

Alan Gratz

Tom Philion said...

Thanks for your comment, Alan! I'll definitely keep an eye out for Something Rotten--sounds like another terrific title.

And thanks especially for your kind comment about the blog. It is very much evolving (as readers of earlier posts and digital booktalks can see), but I'm having fun, and learning a lot about a genre of writing (blogging) that I really didn't know that much about when I got started. Hopefully, the experience will continue to prove useful, for me and others, in the future.

Take care,


PS: I'm intrigued by your distinction above between writer and author. I'm guessing that SS was a breakthrough because it took you more deeply into the realm of fiction, and especially writing fiction for young adults. Perhaps SS was a breakthrough for you as an author, too, in terms of creating a new identity or "hat" for you to wear as a writer?