A Japanese Suicide

A Japanese Suicide

They say that no one goes through life unscathed.  But you know Ken Seeroi ain’t trying to hear that.  I figured hey, move to a nice safe country with pretty girls and amazing food and just avoid that whole scathing thing altogether.

Well, you can’t say I didn’t try.  But instead, I found myself smack in the middle of something I was totally unprepared to deal with.

I met Shun and Makiko one morning as I was standing in front of my apartment drinking coffee and wondering what the hell I was doing with my life, teaching English in Japan.  I do that a lot.  I mean, drink coffee and teach English, that is.  It’s a really bad habit.  But somebody’s got to educate all those kids.  Anyway, when they came out of the apartment two doors down from me, they introduced themselves and we small-talked for a bit.  Then they went off to go clam digging, but not before inviting me to dinner that Friday night.

If you live in Japan, you know just how rare this is.  I was like, holy shit, actual Japanese friends.  People go decades without ever speaking to their neighbors, and to be invited into someone’s home is nothing short of miraculous.  I should also mention that it’s a lot more miraculous if you’re speaking Japanese.  People are way more willing to invite you over if you represent a free English lesson.  That’s a thirty-dollar value.  But Shun and Makiko spoke zero English.  God, I loved them.

Good Friends Make Good Neighbors

Soon we were hanging out a couple times a week.  I’d go over to their apartment for curry and beer, they’d come to mine for shochu and this dried octopus I buy at the convenience store.  Hey, it tastes better than it sounds, really.  Once in a while Shun and I would go out together and hit a cheap izakaya and talk about the kind of things Japanese guys talk about when women aren’t around, like where you can buy Louis Vuitton bags that look just like the real thing for a fraction of the price.  Girls can’t tell the difference, probably, and it’s such a deal.  Shun and Makiko also had a two year-old daughter named Ai-chan, who used to scramble to high-five me every time we met.  Unfortunately, Ai-chan also had a terminal case of snot emanating from her nostrils that seemed to coat her entire being, such that I was terrified of making any sort of physical contact with her.

Shun:  “Ai-chan!  It’s Ken!  Say hi!”

Ai Chan:  Not a word, but massive amounts of nose snot.

Shun:  “Ai-chan!  Give Ken a high five!”

Ken:  “Eeeeuuw, yeaaaah.  Small . . . touch.  Okay, good job, Ai-chan.  And look, Uncle Ken’s brought you a present!  Your very own box of tissues!  Here, give us a nice blow.  Aw, Jesus, what’re they feeding you?”

This went on for a few months, to until I decided I ought to actually attempt cooking something in return for all the delicious food Makiko’d been making.  I figured I’d invite them over the next time I ran into them.  Only problem was, I didn’t see them for a good three weeks.  It was a bit concerning.  We’d been planning to go to karaoke together.  I even had a new song I was planning to bust out.

The Bachelor Pad

The crazy thing about my last apartment is that I had no furniture.  None.  Like, once I had a small table, but it self-exploded one night.  So I just sat on the floor with tall cans of beer and watched TV on the floor.  It was okay.  I have really low standards.  And around midnight on a Saturday, just as I was wondering if it was worth crawling all the way to the fridge for another beer, the doorbell rang.  I got up, put on pants, and there was Shun.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I said.  “Haven’t seen you in a while!”

“Yeah,” he said as he stepped in and took off his shoes.  I could see that something was was wrong.

“I’ll get you a beer,” I said.  “What’s up?

“You got the landlord’s phone number?

“Yeah, somewhere in this pile of papers.  Grab a seat.”

He sat on the floor with his beer.  “Where’d your little table go?” he asked.  Then, “You seen Makiko lately?”

“No, why?” I said.  “I haven’t seen either of you in forever.  The table, uh, had to take a little trip.  To heaven.

“I hope she’s not dead,” he said.  He dialed the landlord.  “He’s not answering,” he said.

“Well it’s after midnight.  Dead?  Why?  Dude, Makiko’s not dead.”

So it turned out they’d had a fight a week ago, and Shun had packed his bags and left for his mother’s house.  I was like, “Don’t you have a key?” and he looked thoughtful and said, “I was pissed so I gave it back to her.”  Then apparently, little Ai-chan had been dropped off at her grandmother’s house three days ago and no one had heard from Makiko since.

We went outside and looked at the door.  “Maybe we could go in through the mailbox,” I said.  I’m real MacGyver like that.  “Only all my coat hangers are plastic.”  “Doesn’t it smell kind of funny?” Shun asked.  We sniffed at the exhaust fan.  “I dunno,” I said, “maybe it’s garbage or something.”  We went back into my place, then out to the balcony.  He only lived two doors away.  I stood up on my air-conditioning unit and looked around the partition.  If you stepped onto the railing, you could hold onto the partition and swing around to the next apartment.  Do that twice and you’d be there.  I looked down four floors to the ground, and reflected on the small pile of beer cans I’d just drunk.  It was really high.  “Maybe we should call the cops,” I said and stepped down.  Shun got onto the air conditioner and stood there for a moment.  There was a soft, warm breeze.  Then without a word, he stepped onto the railing and balanced there.  I thought it’d looked dicey before, but when I saw him up there it was way worse.  If he fell, he’d be dead for sure.  “Freaking be careful,” I said.  I say a lot of dumb stuff like that.

He twisted his body around the partition and dropped onto the next door neighbor’s porch, then began working his way onto his own balcony.  It occurred to me that maybe the sliding glass door wouldn’t even be open.

“Can you get in?”  I yelled.

“Hang on,” he said.  “It’s dark.  I think I see her.”

“Open the front door,” I said.  “When you get in, open the front door!”

I went inside, then out my own front door.  In about one second, the door to Shun’s place flew open and he fell out, screaming “She’s dead!  She’s dead!” He dropped to the concrete as I caught him, saying “no, she can’t be.  How’s that possible?”  He was crying and shaking.  “I thought she was asleep!  She’s cold, she’s cold!”  Holy shit, I thought.  I held him in my arms and he wouldn’t stop crying, just wailing.  I was like, what do I say in Japanese?  What would I even say in English?  I know Japanese stuff like “well, that’s too bad,” for when your bike gets a flat tire, or “I’m sorry to hear about your loss” for when your granny dies, but what do you say to a guy when his wife’s just committed suicide?  I said nothing.

Shun was babbling and almost incoherent, and suddenly seemed to be all wet, and I wondered if it was tears, sweat, or he’d peed himself.  “Call the police,” he said.  I was shaking so badly I could hardly hold my phone.

“What’s the number?” I stammered.  “The number, what’s the number?”

“119,” he said, which in Japanese sounds like ten-one-nine.  I knew that.  I started to dial.

“Where the hell’s the ten button?” I cried.  “I can’t find the ten button!”  I was shaking like mad.  Then I thought maybe I’d made a mistake in my Japanese, so I tried to calm down and check my numbers.  Shun and I are laying on the concrete, and he’s pale and wet and crying, and I’ve got my left arm tightly around him and a phone in my right hand and I’m counting, One, two, three, four, five . . . until I get to ten and I still can’t figure out where the hell the ten button is, so I start over again, One, two three . . .

“I don’t know how to dial the phone,” I said.  I pressed it into his hand, and he managed to get it dialed and passed it back.  A police dispatcher answered.  Suddenly, I didn’t know what to say again.

“Hello,” I said.  Then, “There’s a dead person!”

“What’s the person’s name?” she asked.  I couldn’t remember, so I told her who I was.  “What’s your location?” she said.  I couldn’t remember.

“Japan,” I said.

Japanese Emergency Response

Shun and I were still laying there when the paramedics ran up the stairs, followed shortly by the police.  Soon there was a swarm of stretchers, oxygen masks, medical bags and police of every sort.

You know, unless you live near a row of bars, which I didn’t, Japan’s really quiet at night.  I could only imagine what the neighbors were thinking, with all the sirens and police and ambulance crews.  A policeman squatted down beside us and started asking questions.  This went on for about ten minutes, and I knew a solid hundred people in the neighboring apartments could hear every word.  A lot of the questions were personal, and for the first time it occurred to me that this was a criminal investigation.  I thought, shouldn’t this be happening at the police station?  Instead, we were just collapsed in a heap on the concrete.  I was a mess.  Shun was a disaster.

Finally I said, let’s at least take this into my apartment.  The policeman said nothing, but kept asking questions for another twenty minutes.  Other cops came by and asked things.  She’d been holding her phone and texting someone when she died.  Who was that person?  Where’d she gotten the pills she took?  The ambulance crew went in and out and the medical examiner arrived to take away the body.  I suggested moving into my apartment again and finally the suggestion took.  We’d been outside for nearly an hour, in a crumpled pile on the concrete.

When we got inside, it occurred to me I had a different problem.  My place was a holy mess.  There were dishes in the sink and little stacks of garbage and empty beer cans, and everywhere were enormous piles of laundry.  Hey, I was planning to do everything on Sunday.  Soon a dozen police were cycling in and out asking every possible question of Shun and me.  What time did Shun arrive?  Why didn’t he have a key?  How long had she been depressed?  Was there infidelity?  How had he broken in to the apartment?  How many beers had we had?  This went on for hours, sitting on my floor.

Somewhere around four a.m. things got a bit stranger.  Makiko’s parents showed up.  Shun broke down when he saw them and with tears streaming down his face got on his hands and knees and bent his head to the ground, apologizing over and over.  Her parents were crying.  I was crying.  The policeman was sitting there with his notebook and he was crying.  I started madly stuffing laundry into the closet and put on some tea.  I looked in my cabinet and all I could find was one tea cup, a plastic McDonald’s glass, three wine glasses, and a Rirakuma coffee mug, so that’s how everyone got their tea.  Hey, I live by myself, what can I say?

Then Makiko’s other children showed up.  Other children?  Apparently she’d been married before and had two children, aged seven and twelve.  They were bawling, having been woken in the middle of the night to the news that their mother had killed herself.  I gave them wineglasses full of tea.  Shun’s mother showed up.  I gave her a beer mug full of tea.

Sometime after dawn, everyone left, except Shun, who asked if he could stay.  We unfolded the futon and passed out.  When I woke up a couple hours later, he was gone.

The Morning After

I stepped out on the porch.  Christ, it was a beautiful day.  This is where I’d met them a few months ago, and now Makiko was dead.  I felt like hell.  I decided to go for a run to clear my head.  I went in and changed into a t-shirt and these short red running shorts, then went outside and laced up my shoes.  The night before there’d been an emergency room’s worth of medical devices on the porch, along with every type of police and medical personnel you’d ever imagined.  Now it was all gone, except for a small flyer for a pizza place laying in front of the apartment where they used to live.

It was so strange.  They’d cleaned everything up, except for this one ad for a pizza joint.    I picked it up.  I couldn’t believe they’d never live there again.  My friends were gone.  For some strange reason, I tried the door handle and it turned.  I opened the door.

Surprise party!  Everyone was in the apartment!  Hello! they all happily shouted at once, and Shun jumped up and ran to me.  Come in, come in, he said.  Holy Christ.  I closed the door.  Shun opened the door and grabbed me by the arm.  Everyone’s waiting for you, he said.  Everyone was in black suits.  I looked down and all I could see were my bare legs and these tiny running shorts.  I went in and everyone was smiling–have some food!  Want something to drink?  I was still holding the flyer for the pizza place, since I didn’t have any pockets in my shorts.  I looked down again and to my shock, there was Makiko, laying dead on a futon in the middle of the room.  Shouldn’t the coroner have taken her away?  Why the hell was she still there?  She did not look very good.

“We’re putting make-up on her now,” said Makiko’s mother.  I’d never noticed how many earrings Makiko had before.

“That’s, uh, good,” I said.  Again, I had no idea what to say.

Somehow, they’d run out in the early hours of the morning and already gotten a glossy 8×12 framed portrait of Makiko and laid it by her head, then whipped up a bowl of her favorite meat stew and placed it beside here, along with a bowl of rice.  It wasn’t even ten a.m. yet.  A pair of chopsticks were sticking straight up from the rice.

“Come and sit beside her,” said Shun.  That was about the last thing I wanted to do, but as I had no choice, I knelt beside her dead body with my running shorts and pizza flyer and looked at her and her family, and wanted to cry.  But since no one else was, I didn’t.  The whole thing was already weird enough.  Everyone thanked me incessantly for the use of my apartment the previous night.  After half an hour I made my goodbyes.  I couldn’t figure what else to do, so I went for a run by the river.  Such a beautiful, sunny day.

Makiko’s body lay there for another two days until they finally carried her away surrounded by flowers.  Shun said he didn’t sleep the entire time.  He was wracked with guilt.  He started cutting his arms with razor blades.  He must have had a hundred cuts all up and down them.

Then on the third day they started cleaning the place out.  They threw away everything, and I mean everything.  Makiko’s parents came by and gave me a case of beer.  Shun gave me their microwave and a bunch of dishes, including some tea cups.  I figured those would come in handy.  It took them exactly two days to throw out all the furniture, appliances, and traces of their life, and then clean the place.  After it was done, I went into the apartment and it looked like nothing had ever happened.  All that was left was an enormous pile of trash in front of the building.  No sentimentality, no mementos.  They bagged up all of Makiko’s clothes and possessions and laid them among the trash.  And then it was like she’d never existed.

 



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47 Comments

  1. Writing a proper response to this story has me looking for the “ten” button on my keyboard… Sorry for everyone’s loss, especially the three children.

    • Thanks. Yeah, it’s heavy. I thought Japan would be all fun and games, but it turns out real life actually happens here too. There really are no words for situations like this.

      • Dude… Of all the stories I thought this blog could go into… I wish I could wrote something smart or funny, but that’s some sad shit all over.

        Separately, and I don’t know anything about this topic for any place besides Russia and Sweden, but death and how people react and treat it is so otherworldly different between cultures…

      • Somehow, even your black humor excursions are tinged with genuine empathy. The important human story always seems more important than showing off how clever you can be, and you are indeed, very clever. Thank you dear Ken, this was an amazing sad story, beautifully told.

  2. OMG! What an experience. So sorry for the loss of your friend. And thank you for being a good ambassador for the rest of us.

  3. I agree that it’s hard to find “real” friends in Japan.
    I’m glad to hear that you could, but of course I’m sad to read what happened after that.

    Was that something recent or did that happen quite a while ago?
    Do you still live in the same apartment?

    Thanks for sharing this with us, although I suppose it wasn’t easy for you.

    • That happened about a year ago. I wanted to give it some time before I wrote about it, to let some of the shock dissipate. It was hard to deal with, partly because I had to process everything in Japanese, which has a different way of dealing with emotions. You know what I mean? Everything is far more muted.

      I moved to a new apartment afterward. Not necessarily because of that, although the loss of my friends certainly changed how I felt about the place.

  4. I feel like I can’t leave without saying something, but on the other hand I’m not really sure what to say. I hope everyone is okay, especially Shun. It feels weird to read that they got rid of everything in such a short amount of time. Maybe it’s better that way, to get over it faster, but don’t they need to sort out their feelings a bit? It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be sad and miss someone, and to show your feelings. But I guess you don’t really have time for that in Japan. Or at least that’s the impression I’ve got from everything.

    • I know, I don’t really know what to say about the whole situation, other than it’s terribly sad.

      Japan is certainly a busy place, yet more than that, it’s a country where emotions aren’t often openly displayed. You don’t often see people having heated arguments or crying or talking animatedly. I also feel there’s a real lack of sentimentality. People part from their friends and family and don’t contact them for months or years. Buildings are hastily constructed and torn down. There’s a sense of impermanence and a kind of grim acceptance that nothing can be done to change most situations, so people abandon trying. They just bow their heads and accept what they perceive as fate. It can be disturbing.

  5. That is a super sad story. I guess sometimes it’s better to remember than to forget. I feel bad for the kids, too.

    • I suppose it’s true that the only ones who suffer are the ones left behind. It’s such a shame to see someone young and healthy disappear so suddenly from the lives of those around her.

  6. No words for this. I felt so sad while reading the whole story.
    Little Ai-chan…
    Makiko-san…

    I can’t understand this Japanese way of thinking about death. Somebody explain me this. Just can’t. All I can say is that you were very strong in a situation like that. Strong in the western way of course.
    As they said before, sorry for the loss, and for the little kids.

    (sorry for my Eng, I’m Spanish native).

    • It’s certainly a tragedy. I’m still struggling with how to make sense of the whole thing.

      I’m hesitate to overgeneralize in regards to how all Japanese people think about death, but I will say that, by and large, the nation is quite sparse in its sentiment. Japan is far too quick to accept things as inevitable and consign them to the past. They received quite a lot of international praise for doing that in the wake of the tsunami, but I felt that stoic response failed to address a lot of very deep wounds.

  7. I just started reading your blog and wanted to say: what a beautiful piece. You’re an amazing writer who knows how to balance emotion with humour and detail.

    Thanks for this piece, Ken. I’ll definitely stick around and continue reading your blog. And I’m sorry for your loss.

    • Thank you for saying that. I try hard to find a balance that is appropriate for each subject, and occasionally I miss altogether. Even when I feel I get it right, sometimes readers don’t get what I’d hoped to say, or hear the voice that I’d hoped to project. So I’m extremely glad this article worked for at least one person. Six billion more to go.

      And certainly, thank you for the condolences. Makiko is, and always will be, missed.

  8. Ken,

    a very sad story. I am sorry for your loss…

    Do you still talk to Shun? Is he (and the children) doing well?

    Simon

    • After he moved out, Shun moved in briefly with his mother, then got his own apartment. He lives a bit away from me now. And like many Japanese people, he works six days a week, which makes getting together a bit challenging.

      We have gotten together a few times, however, for drinks and dinner. Once we went to an izakaya in our old neighborhood that he and Makiko used to frequent. They still have a half-full bottle of shochu that he and Makiko decorated with a white marker. (It’s common in Japan to buy a bottle of shochu and write your name on it and otherwise decorate it. The restaurant then keeps it for when you arrive.) Shun told me they would keep the bottle forever as it was, and he would never drink from it again.

      As for the kids, two of them weren’t his, so I don’t know who’s raising them. Shun told me he was going to court to determine if he could get custody of Ai-chan. I didn’t pry into the matter, as it seemed touchy. (A lot of stuff in Japan goes unasked.)

      The last I talked to Shun was about two months ago. He told me his mother had passed away from cancer. It’s been a hell of a year for him.

  9. Are you still in touch with Shun?

  10. I’m so sorry to hear that, what a horrible thing to happen. My condolences for your loss, and I hope everyone is okay.

  11. Yet another insightful piece Ken, thank you. Your work brilliantly explains what lies just below the surface in this country.

    This essay resonated with me since I have known several Japanese people over the last decade or so who have taken their own lives.

    To me, the most distressing of these were instances that happened during my years teaching at a Japanese high school when a number of students at different times committed suicide — and I was full-time, so was directly involved in the faculty response that followed. In each of the cases the full-timers were told the gruesome details of the actual incident at an all-full-time teachers’ meeting. We were then told not to tell the student body, the part-time faculty or anyone else not on the career-track payroll that the deaths had been suicides, but instead were given details of entirely fictitious accident scenarios that we were required to relay. The shocker to me was that every one of the Japanese students and part-time teachers took the make-believe story at face value. No one questioned it, except of course for those pesky foreign part-timers who seemed to sense that the sketchy details of the fabricated version of events didn’t quite add up. Meanwhile, the Japanese people all seemed to be in “hear-see-speak no evil, head in the sand” mode.

    From what I saw and heard, I got the feeling that oppression in the form of perfectionist mothers, verbal abuse and intense pressure not to fail were behind each of those suicides. But, that’s beyond the scope of this reply.

    Anyway, I very rarely cry, I can go years on end without shedding a tear, but at each of those funerals I wailed publicly and inconsolably. Those experiences still haunt me and I certainly see Japan now in a much more skeptical light than when I was fresh off the boat. Still, being able to write about this here has been very therapeutic.

    • That’s really heavy. Suicide is a particularly hard thing to come to terms with, especially when young people are involved. It seems so senseless; such a waste of a life.

      I agree that the family, education system, and social values of Japan create a situation where people are under intense pressure not to fail. Life being what it is, people are bound to fail on occasion. Young people, in particular, may not be ready to perform the tasks asked of them. That’s where support comes in. Having a supportive family, friends, and teachers can guide a person through those times. Without that, they’re in a very difficult place. Suicide, from what I’ve seen of it, is rarely just about one person.

  12. Dear Ken,
    I really enjoyed this story, but as a professional editor and former commissioning editor, I have to say that your story simply doesn’t ring true. For one thing, if you really were a professional journalist, you’d know that you can’t use direct quotations unless they really are word-for-word, and definitely not in cited translations from Japanese that sound suspiciously American — such as “Give Ken a high five”. Please let me know what the exact Japanese for that is. Furthermore, as a long-time resident of Japan, I check all of the national and many of the local newspapers, but couldn’t find any reference to a similar suicide.
    As I said to Japan Today (a message that they removed), I simply don’t believe your story. It was enjoyable and creative, so please keep trying, but please don’t try to pass fiction off as fact.

    • Hi Phil,

      Thanks for your comment. People want to see proof of the deceased Bin Laden too, so I guess I should expect this.

      Let me clarify that the pieces I post on my site, which are republished on Japan Today and occasionally other outlets, are not intended to be pure journalism. However, neither are they fiction. Now, I’m not trying to use my site as a news outlet because, frankly, there’s enough “news” on Japan, and most of it gives a mistaken impression. Plus, I think enough of those articles already exist, to the point that they’re cloying. To me, actual life in Japan is at once more, and less, interesting than what’s relayed via major media outlets.

      That being said, the events I relay are always actual events, although told with some humor. When I do fabricate something, (“I can eat fifty eggs”), I try to make it so obvious that hopefully anyone would appreciate it as an exaggeration.

      This story about my friend’s suicide is actually something of an exception, in that none of it is exaggerated or invented. (The same is true of my article about the fight the Yakuza.) However, if you’re expecting an exact literal translation of the conversations that occurred, that’s another matter. Again, I’m trying to convey the feeling of what happened, rather than a dry, purely factual account. But if you must know, the phrase that I always heard upon meeting their daughter was “Ai-chan! High-touch! High-touch!” 日本語で「愛ちゃん、ハイタッチ! ハイタッチ!」But then I’d need to explain that “high touch” is 和製英語 for “high five,” and actually katakana would be more appropriate anyway. And how would such a literal translation be an improvement for a general audience?

      As for not finding this suicide in the papers: tell me about it. I’ve seen a lot of stuff here that never made the papers. Probably the same is true in any country though. There’s something like thirty thousand suicides in this country every year. Since you checked the papers, you tell me, how many did you find reported every day?

      You know, honestly, I could make up a lot of stuff about Japan that would be way more interesting than somebody quietly offing themselves in the apartment two doors down from me. Sex, drugs, corruption . . . freaking anything. There’s a lot of material here. I chose to relay something that was deeply personal and terribly real. If you don’t want to believe it, well, okay. But, sadly enough, it was.

      • Ken,
        Thanks for answering. I’m more convinced by your response than I was by the original story, but could you please tell your publishers at Japan Today that they should not take such completely childish umbrage to a negative comment and remove it from their website without allowing any comeback.It would be much more reasonable to allow a negative post and then post a rebuttal from the author — as you have so politely done.
        Regards,
        Phil

        • Hi Phil,

          Yes, I will pass that on to the editors. And thank you for reconsidering the veracity of my article. I can see how, if one views my writings from a journalistic perspective, they wouldn’t ring true. I think of my works more as stylized paintings of life, rather than as photographs, if that analogy makes any sense.

          Best,

          Ken

  13. Just checked again and I saw the message “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” May I ask by whom? If the comment is simply removed by anonymous “moderators”, I will pass all of my comments regarding the suicide story and the yakuza tale to other mainstream press outlets.

  14. Hi Ken

    I found this a great but sad piece of writing that is one from the heart!!

    I am new here and I don’t know who you are Phil Sandoz, but you comes across as an insensitive and demanding prick!!

    No offence meant.

    Ken I don’t know why you didn’t respond with that famous quote “fuck off”.

    Cheers

    • Ah, you know, people have a right to express their opinion, and so long as it’s not too far out of bounds, I’m cool with it.

      It also makes sense to doubt much of what you read regarding Japan. I actually wish people would do more of that, albeit politely. People seem quite happy to buy into the common myths, especially when it’s something they want to hear, like that Japan is a polite, friendly place that likes foreigners. Seriously, what country likes foreigners?

      Sorry, I got sidetracked. Anyway, about the story, yeah, it’s heartbreaking. This is the third person I’ve known to commit suicide; the other two, in the U.S., were the closest of friends. Anytime someone dies, especially someone young, it leaves a hole, like a book with the ending ripped out. You always wonder how things would have turned out.

  15. Thank you for sharing Ken.

  16. I read your entry today, and then the comments, and the got to the point where poor Shun then had to go to court for custody of Ai-chan. It’s like tragedy icing on a tragic cake for poor Shun (to me anyway, where I live it’d just be the cake).

    It’s been a while since all of this happened and I was interested to know, do you know if Shun get custody of Ai-chan? I hope so.

    • Sadly, I’ve lost touch with Shun. He moved away, and then I moved away. I saw him once a few months after the incident, and although he said Ai-chan was fine, I don’t believe they are living together.

      It’s amazing how quickly things can change.

      • Thanks for the update, Ken. It’s sad Ai-chan lost both her parents (in a way). Although having thought about it, without support of a mum/sister/trusted non working relative it would be nigh on impossible for a salaryman (assuming that’s what Shun was) to look after a kid, given the hours.

        And while I’m hear, thanks for your blog. I’ve really enjoyed reading your site. It’s not common to find entertainment and cultural insights in the one package.

  17. In the Japanese legal system, do relatives have equal standing with parents for custodial consideration of children? In the US they don’t, BTW. Feel free to ignore this if you don’t know (can’t expect you to be a legal expert too), but I was also wondering how this would play out if Shun wasn’t Japanese or possibly left the country with Ai-chan and came to the US?

    I guess these questions might be more pertinent to those married to a Japanese citizen, but I was really interested in the differences in law enforcement practices between the two countries since I see many curious examples when I watch Nippon Dramas/detective shows. This article is the first thing that I read of yours Ken and whenever I am reminded of senseless death (like the shoot-down yesterday of the civilian airlines jet over the Ukraine) I think of Makiko and Shun. I really identified with this story as I divorced my (now ex) wife when my son was two years old. Is it odd that I wonder what they both looked like… do you have a happy picture of them from when you were neighbors that could be posted?

  18. Holy fucking shit!
    Um…that’s about the only response I can muster at this point. This whole story sounds like it’s been ripped from a TV drama or something, but instead, it’s life. I wanted to comment something halfway through reading that, but by now all coherent thought left my head and been replaced by banal platitudes like “reality is stranger than fiction”, “fate is cruel son of a b!tch” and as you said, life happens to everyone at some point. I mean, finding real Japanese friends is akin to suddenly finding a unicorn in your backyard. Simply losing them would’ve been really bad, but it all happening like this is just beyond horrible. I’m so sorry, man.
    The thing that half baffles me and half pisses me the fuck off is this whole Japanese しょうがない mentality. It’s a real double-edged sword if I ever seen one. Bouncing back quickly after a disaster and not getting bogged down by things you have no control over is a tremendously useful ability. But not giving yourself the opportunity to grieve and give respect to the things and people you lost, and time to process, this is just horrible. Not to mention it has far-reaching consequences. I know the Japanese have this tendency to try and solve problems by either cutting the Gordian Knot or simply sweeping them under the rug and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. But when it comes to horrible things like this, those unprocessed emotions are like untreated wounds, they fester and will kill you from the inside. And trying to not think about it won’t make it go away. Not this. By simply getting rid of everything that person ever had and pretend she never existed is just a horrible thing to do in every way. I know I still try to filter this through my “western” values, and that dead people don’t give a shit what happens to their bodies or belongings after they are gone, but I think it’s the job of the still living to keep the memories of those who are gone. Because if no one does, it’s as if they never existed, and that’s the biggest crime anyone can commit to another being in this world, to take away their existence.

    At this point, I don’t know what to say. Sorry for the incoherent rambling, and the comment necromancy. I know this is an old article, but I just had to type this out.

    • Those three words pretty much sum up my feelings on the matter as well.

      I like your term “unprocessed emotions,” since it describes a very “Japanese” way of approaching life. You’re expected to just bury any feelings you have, suffer silently, and soldier on. Ganbatte. There’s a lot of unresolved issues, both in individuals and the nation as a whole.

      • Indeed, the other half-baffling half-infuriating thing is the 頑張って mentality. That’s also connected to some of your other articles featuring the お疲れ phenomenon (especially the ones about office work). しょうがない, 頑張って and お疲れ on their own doesn’t sound that bad, but having them all together in a society just leads to a downwards spiral since these all amplify each other. It kinda spells out “Give up your own hopes and dreams, do your very best for the team, work until you are practically dead, and don’t you dare complain, because that’s a sign of weakness”. That’s practically the definition of a self-imposed indentured slavery and kind of what Japanese society is today. There is also the notion of “the nail that stands out gets hammered down”. You were joking when you wrote in another article, that “Japan is not free, like the US”, it was something about guns and public safety or whatever, anyway, that is actually the truth. Japan is a society that lives in it’s own self-imposed prison built by their own ideals. In most western countries people are kept in line by the authority, the government, the police, etc. But in Japan, there is no need for that. In a perfect society there is no need for an outside force to regulate a community, because the community will regulate itself. This must be a remnant from the feudal era, call it tradition or whatever, but they have this deep seated need to obey authority and all work for this now absent higher power. It was the emperor back in the day, and now it’s the “common good” or simply the community. If you don’t do your job or step out of line, there is no need for a policeman or a boss to step in, since your own coworkers or people in your own community will put you back in your place. As you said in your office article, even your own coworkers told you off for not screaming the “おはようございます!” and “お疲れ様でした!”, there was no need for the boss to step in.
        But even if I admire this community spirit, the Japanese are suffering and their carefully built dreamworld is slowly cracking under it’s own weight. People are miserable and cursed to suffer in silence. And for what? There is no end goal here. Working until you drop dead is not honorable or admirable, it’s stupid. A goal of a community should be to make the life of it’s members a happy and fulfilling one. But the Japanese Ganbatte so hard for the community they forgot they are part of it. They seemingly lost sight of this and now they fly on autopilot to nowhere. Ask any Japanese person why are they working 18 hours a day and they either don’t have an answer or they’ll say “because everyone is doing it”. They are shackled by semantics while the actual meaning of Ganbatte and community spirit is lost on them.

        These are just my observations, I don’t know what’s your take on this, but I would like to hear if I’m in the ballpark of the truth or not. Sorry for rambling….

        • It’s also connected to the politics. Worker’s rights, like women’s rights, were suppressed by the corporate/political alliance with the support of the U.S. in the cold war period. It’s not that Japan is a brilliant representative democracy, and that the people, of their own volition, chose to be slaves to the corporate system. There was an opportunity to go in a different direction directly after the war, but that was crushed.

          • I share your insight, but crushed by who and for what, Im left with the next question. At this point, I blame the hijackers, (right wing facist) who saw the oppportunity to bring it all back. Wow, what a crushing disappointment it must of been for those who got to breathe that fresh air, if only for a few years.

        • Absolutely, you’re right on point. I don’t think there’s anybody who’s lived in Japan for a while who doesn’t share some of this frustration.

          But ironically, this is what newcomers to Japan love about the country. The reason this place is so clean, safe, and the service is so good is precisely because people will admit no other behavior, in themselves or others.

          So to me, it’s a double-edged sword. All the stuff everybody loves about Japan is due to the fact that folks are busting ass all day long for no material reward. It does result in a lot of suffering in silence.

          When I read tourists’ descriptions of Japan, it seems like this country is populated by smiling, polite people who are eager to serve and please, as though the Japanese were a race specially built to be happy serving others. They don’t seem to make the connection with the commuters on the trains, sadly going to their jobs, or passed out on the way home.

          Maybe just two more things I’ll add. The first is I don’t think this is a new thing, some recently-constructed ideal that’s cracking and that’ll eventually shatter. This mentality of let’s all work all day, then come home and work some more—has been for going on in Japan for centuries. That is Japan. People say it’s a rice farming thing, and I believe them.

          The second thing is that, regardless of how things got to this point, if Japan were to change, sure, it might make individual lives better, but society worse. You get people thinking about themselves, going home at five, playing outside with their kids or going off to yoga class or something—then who’s gonna carefully balance the tiny fish eggs on top of the sushi? Who’s gonna pick up the cigarette butts with the tongs in front of the station? This country benefits greatly from the fact that everyone puts in thousands of hours of unpaid labor every year.

          So my point is that this work ethic can be viewed as a life-sapping negative, or a society-enriching positive. And were it to change, it would bring about good, as well as some bad.

          And that’s why everybody wants to live in Japan, but nobody wants to be Japanese.

          • Dude, very real truths. What you describe however is what sucks bad about Japan, and if it changed, they would have to change. That carries over into work. Allot of useless “skills” that really dont equate to nothing in a large economy like the U.S. Can they live without this extra? Could they just import that over engineered tool or appliance? The imported tool has the same function, to cook drill vaccum etc.

            It almost seems like a cult somedays

  19. Wow, just wow. I’ve been stalking, um I mean reading your articles every since I came across your website yesterday and I must say this story is definitely the most impactful one that I’ve read thus far. I love how you still manage to incorporate some humour (whether intentional or not) into the story – especially the bit about serving tea and the messy apartment.

    I just really hope things turn out well for Shun 🙁

  20. Ive seen several suicides in Japan, most on the tracks, some jumpers. I understand allot about Japan but never processed this one. I think its a shame thing, not something I can understand well. The depression in Japan can be severe, but I dont think they are jumping for these reason. Maybe its more like an honorable death? Japanese seemed trapped in their own world they have created.

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