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You're Wrong Because I'm Right
When we observe a culture different from ours, many aspects of that culture appear to be undeniably wrong. The reaction generated in western readers by Yukio Mishima's Patriotism illustrates this point. The main characters of the story, Lieutenant Takeyama Shinji and his wife Reiko, commit ritual suicide in order to preserve their honor. In the Japanese culture, their actions probably appear to be very honorable. I am not exactly sure about this since I do not know too much about Japanese culture. However, in the eyes of the western world, this suicide is a mortal sin. Nevertheless, I do not think that the actions of the lieutenant and his wife can be judged by standards not a part of their culture and that, within the expectations of Japanese culture, not only did they take the correct course of action, but the only one that was available to them.
Whenever two cultures meet, there are always problems. Some customs and traditions of one will be seen negatively by the other. At times, members of one culture might judge the other society by their own standards. For example, people in the United States, which, for the most part, are Christian, might feel inclined to judge Lieutenant Shinji and his wife as having committed mortal sin. However, in Japan, it might be quite an acceptable, and even an honorable, act. In yet another country, suicide might not be a sin, but it may be viewed as an act of the most cowardly nature. Thus, every culture will look upon this suicide in a different light. Is any perspective a true perspective? I do not think so. If there is an ultimate truth above and beyond those established by each culture, the suicide could be judged in those terms. It might seem that such truths exist. After all, Christians believe in their values and those values were handed down by God. God is a universal Being, having created the entire universe, and thus His truths must be universal and applicable to all peoples. However, Moslems feel the same about their religion. So do the Hindus, the Buddhists, and probably all religions in the world. A kind of paradox is discovered here. We think we know what the ultimate truth is, but we cannot use it to judge people from another culture. We believe our values are true and universal. We try to impose these beliefs on others who have "wrong" values. At the same time, they feel the same about us. As a result, we end up with many sets of "universal" truths, and, since we do not know which set is the true set (of course, we always believe ours to be the one true set, but then so does the next guy), we cannot use any of these to judge a culture different from ours. In the eyes of the Japanese culture, the double suicide of the couple is not a sinful act. It is an action filled with honor and dignity. Since the suicide occurred within the confines of Japanese culture, I believe it can only be judged in light of the values of the Japanese culture. It would be wrong to condemn the couple because suicide is wrong in the western mind. The couple was raised with the Japanese culture and it is from that culture that they took their values. It must be from within that value system that they are judged.
As I have said, I do not believe that the suicide was wrong in the eyes of Japanese culture. In addition, I do not think that there was any alternative for the lieutenant and his wife. It is evident from the story that both were very loyal to the emperor. Everyday, they bowed to the picture of the emperor that was on their god-shelf and, presumedly, prayed to or for him. The lieutenant was in the imperial army which served the emperor and had strong ties of loyalty to him. The most disgraceful act the lieutenant could commit would be to betray the emperor.
As I see it, the lieutenant has two major options. He could obey the orders that he expects the emperor to give him or he could join the rebellion. The lieutenant expects the emperor to order him to lead forces against the rebellion. If he obeyed the emperor, he would be betraying him. The lieutenant believes in the rebellion. The rebels felt that the emperor's power was being usurped by government ministers and they tried to eradicated those ministers in order to restore the emperor's power. They had the best of intentions for the emperor in mind. They were helping him fix a problem he was blind to. If the lieutenant attacked the rebels, he would be thwarting their attempt to help the emperor and would instead be jeopardizing the emperor's position in the power structure of the government. In a way, he would be betraying the best interests of the emperor.
If the lieutenant disobeyed the emperor and joined the rebellion, he would be directly betraying the emperor. In most military organizations, the failure to carry out orders is the worst form of treason. Thus, a failure to obey orders would be seen as treacherous and would bring nothing but public humiliation and disgrace. If he attacked the rebels, he would not experience this public disgrace, but I am sure he would feel personal dishonor and, to him, that is just as bad. The lieutenant is in a catch twenty-two situation with only one way out. The only option that preserves his honor is seppuku. In this way, he is not forced to betray the emperor and he can have a clear conscience.
Patriotism, when read by a non-Japanese audience, illustrates the problems encountered when two cultures with different value systems meet. A western reader is filled with outrage at the thought that a society could exist in which ritual suicide is acceptable and even honorable. The western reader tries to place his or her value system on the Japanese society and condemn it by those values. However, such action is wrong. If we ever want to understand another culture, we must look at things through their values, even if we do not agree with them. We cannot use our standards to condemn another society. Every culture has a different set of values and each one believes that their's is the correct one, or at least one of several correct ones if they allow for other "true ways". No culture has the right to say that their's is the one true way and try to impose that way on others. For all we know, we could be wrong and they could be right. Of course, we believe we are right, but then so do they. Judging other cultures by our values has caused many problems throughout history and the world. It is about time that we realized other people have a right to believe what they want to believe and stop trying to impose our values on them.