The point of this paper is to explore the meanings behind suicide and what it means as a response to social conditions. This is a complicated subject that deals with language, history, tradition, the arts and caste/class paradigms to begin with. It challenges our western view of love, because the
suicide love drama immortalized the plight of those who are torn between giri and ninjo. Giri, is one's social duty to his family and class. Ninjo is the need to preserve one's happiness. These ideas were laid down by Confucious. They have shaped thought in both China and Japan in such a multitude of ways, they should be considered the most common denominator to everything that is to be discussed. The idea of nationalism is important to define here, because it is a term that is easily reducibly when discussed in general philosophical terms. Such a reducibility easily lends itself to ethnocentric interpretations, simply based on other cultures the reader may be more familiar with. Harootunian points out “…the necessity to see nationalism as essentially a false metaphor and to dissolve it into more basic elements of conscious experience…”. This allows us to understand what is known as mondai ishiki, the “problem orientation”. This problem orientation refers to how people understand their environment as well as how they seek to validate this vision. From his traditional idea of how to regard one’s self and society, we see this idea of mondai ishiki transformed and redefined during the Meiji period that dates between 1862 and 1912. This period is compared to the rennaisance because it was an attempt by a new government to re-organize Japanese thought to be more congruent with western ideas. This period was birthed when small nobles and former samurai’s (with the support of the symbolic emperor) took control of power and moved the capital to Tokyo from Kyoto. Feudal lords were forced to return their land to the emperor, this effectively redistributed wealth and allowed for a middle class to develop (http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2130.htm
Going back to the idea of mondai ishiki, the ideas espoused during the Meiji period seem to be a response to how Japan perceived itself within a global context. It appears that the best way to understand this extremely broad social transformation, is by analyzing popular literature. One reason is that the western terms for individual, Kojin (individual) and society, shakai (society), did not exist as we know it in Japan. To the western academic studying Buddhist traditions, one assumes that there is a sense of individuality as we define it. Western values promote the ascetic pursuit of wealth and dedication to goals. Korjin and shakai became defined by academics of the Meiji period. This occurred along with a dismissal of the long-held Japanese idea that the group, not the individual, is the smallest unit of analysis of the social structure (Nae 1). Niculina Nae analyzes a one of the most popular fictional novels of all time by Soseki, called Kokoro. It shows a troubled man, named Sensei, forced to deal with a world after the death of his parents. At this point, he believes that the world is driven by materialism and that the spirituality he grew up with is gone (Nae 2). Ultimately, Sensei falls in love with the same woman as a friend of his referred to simply as K. When forced to choose, she decides on Sensei. Agonized with grief and rage, K commits suicide. The rest of Sensei’s life is filled with guilt. He ends up committing suicide as well. This story is supposed to be an allegory of life at the time of Meiji restructuring. Again, when it comes to the individual within the traditional Japanese value system, he is seen as “unconditionally dependent upon and subordinate to the collective”.
Something I found enlightening is that it was during this time that a new kind of hero was to appeal to the masses, “the private individual, whose inner uniqueness and quality of everyday existence were more interesting than his heroic exploits” (Walker as quoted by Nae, 2). This seems like an introduction to capitalist thinking, where social hierarchies are based on one’s public sense of duty rather than kinship. Intellectuals had the duty to create equivalent terms for the western notions of “self” to understand the political concepts of “liberty”, “freedom”, and “rights”, which are founded upon it” (Pollack as quoated by Nae 3). Europeans such as Spencer, Kant, Darwin and Mill were translated and helped to express these elements of western-defined individualism. However, the terms used by the authors did not translate properly and left the meanings of shakai (society), kojin (individual) and jiyu (freedom) open to interpretation. The sense of destitution felt in trying to live up to these new roles now favored, is the crux of the despair and anguish felt by Sensei.
Compare the second definition of “society” from the Oxford English dictionary with the pre-existing terms used that came to be used: The state or condition of living in association, company, or intercourse with others of the same species; the system or mode of life adopted by a body of individuals for the purpose of harmonious co-existence or for mutual benefit, defense, etc.”. Now look at the Japanese attempts of translation: nakama (meeting, assembly, party, association, club), kumiai (association, guild, union), renshu (companion, party), kosai (intercourse, association, society, company), icchi (union, combination, fusion, congruence), shachu (colleague) (Nae, 4).
and the idea of being better off than other third world countries. Either as a result or cause, the strong sense of ethics in Japan is a dominant motif that is rigorously taught in both schools and at home. In combination with geographic isolation serving as a cultural buffer, these ideas of superiority manifest themselves into absolute truths. Perhaps by creating syllogisms to translate western ideas, Japan confronted concerns from other countries that it was too ethnocentric to be a global player.