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Japan: The Matsuoka Suicide

The story is now over a week old, and yet the sensational suicide of Agriculture Minister Matsuoka Toshikatsu, who hung himself in his apartment on May 28th and later died in hospital, is continuing to ripple through Japanese society. As others have noted elsewhere, while the rate of suicide within Japan is high, this is the first serving cabinet member in Japan's postwar government to commit suicide, and is one of the most high-profile cases in Japan's history. Adding to the sensationalism of this case is the series of scandals tied to Matsuoka himself (notably related to a project by the so-called Japan Green Resources Agency, or J-Green), which almost certainly played a key role in driving him to take his own life. Also notable is the subsequent suicide of the former executive director of a predecessor of J-Green, Yamazaki Shinichi, as well as the (less widely reported) suicide of Matsuoka's former classmate Uchino Yukihiro, also possibly related.

The news of Matsuoka's suicide was covered extensively by mainstream news and also picked up and discussed in numerous blogs within the English-language blog scene in Japan (see for example the roundup posted at Liberal Japan). Blogger Adamu at Mutant Frog Travelogue quotes from portions of two of the eight suicide notes discovered thus far:

“People of Japan and everyone in my support club… I am very sorry and take the blame for everything. I apologize for causing so much trouble. Please take care of things after I’m gone.” And another note states: “My wife knows the circumstances behind this. Please don’t look for the whys and wherefores. Please be gentle.”

Matsuoka Toshikatsu

Commentary on the suicide by Japanese bloggers was diverse and, given the sensationalism and heavy coverage of the story, very extensive. It is fair to say that many Japanese bloggers, while certainly shocked by the news, were none too sympathetic with the beleaguered Minister of Agriculture. Blogger nike_mild expresses the frustration of many in this passage:

今回自殺した松岡農水相は我ら国民の税金を懐に入れて私腹を肥やした犯罪者だ。本来なら司直の手にかかって法の裁きを受けなければならない。
本人のみが知る様々な悪事を自分の口から漏れないように「自らが口封じ」した事件なのだ。(自殺だとしてだが・・)
国民には知る権利がある。その私たちの権利を行使させないために「自殺」した。これが卑劣な行為だとはいえないのかね?

Matsuoka, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who killed himself, enriched himself by pocketing the tax money paid by the citizens of this country. By all rights, he should have been brought to justice and tried.
This incident in which, to prevent himself from leaking information about various crimes that he knew about, he “silenced himself”. (Silenced himself by committing suicide.)
The people have a right to know. He committed suicide in order to prevent us from exercising this right. Is it not fair to call this a mean and cowardly act?

Blogger kazu discusses reactions to the suicide, highlighting certain strengths of the former agriculture minister while also condemning the many scandals in which he was involved:

個人的には「開いた口がふさがらない、情けない」といった感想しか出てこない。同情すべき点が全くないわけではない。彼の場合は農政族の中でもかなりのやり手だったらしい。今進めている農業の自由化に関する案件でも世界と対等に交渉できるの力を持っているのは彼くらいだという声すら挙がっている。それだけに、本業以外で負の脚光を浴びたことは非常に残念だ。

Personally, [I found that] there were nothing but impressions like “I was astounded, it is so shameful”. That is not to say that there is absolutely no sense in feeling compassion [for him]. Within the agriculture administration, he was apparently a real clever operator. In matters regarding the deregulation of the agriculture industry which is currently being advanced, there are people who say that he might have been the only one with the strength to negotiate on an equal footing with the rest of the world. For that reason alone, it is extremely unfortunate that a negative spotlight is being put on areas outside of his main business.

だからといって、一連の「政治とカネ」の問題がなくなるわけではない。彼は死を以ってこの問題をチャラにしてしまった。ほんとに政治家として最悪の幕引きをしてしまった。多くの人が考えているように最初から本当のことを言ってしまえばこんなことにはならなかったはずだ。

But just because this is so does not mean that the battery of questions about “politics and money” should stop. People have gotten caught up in his death, calling it even on these questions. This is really a terrible ending for a politician. It's clear to see that if, as many people are thinking, he had told the truth from the very beginning, this kind of thing would never have happened.

しかし、今回の死がもつ意味というのは非常に大きなものがあるような気がする。というのも、今回の彼の死でもって一連の疑惑を自ら認めることになったからである。本当に彼の一連の疑惑に対して自らの身の潔白を主張し、野党からの証拠提出要求に応じ、国民にわかりやすく説明したなら彼はこのような決断をする必要はなかった。しかし、彼は一貫して「法律」を盾に言い訳を続け、自分で自分の首を締めていったのである。

However, I have the feeling that there is something of great significance in Matsuoka's death. Because, with his death, the series of suspicions has essentially been admitted to. If, when confronted with the barrage of questions, he had insisted that he was not to blame, and had produced an explanation — according to demands by the opposition to produce evidence, and in a way that is easy for the Japanese people to understand — then there would have been no need for this kind of decision. However, he consistently shielded himself with “laws” as excuses, until he eventually strangled himself.

Blogger kikkuri, in a post which garnered a large number of comments and trackbacks, concludes by pointing to the opposition parties and the media in finding an explanation for what happened:

確かに松岡さんが追及されるのは当然だったし、安倍さんの任命責任も免れないのでしょうが、野党もメディアも人の死を(しかも亡くなった当日に)ここぞとばかりに安倍批判に利用してるような印象が否めず、何だかなぁと思います。

Of course, it is natural that Matsuoka was being chased down, and [Prime Minister] Abe can't get away from his responsibility in appointing him. But I have to admit that I have the impression that the opposition parties, as well as the media, took advantage of a person's death (on the very day it happened) in order to use it to try to level criticisms at Abe.

Some bloggers were sympathetic, and many even paid their respects to Matsuoka. Blogger banmakoto writes:

松岡利勝農林水産相(62)が自殺した。
古いタイプの自民党を代表するような政治家だった。
その政治スタイルは「利益誘導型」。

Matsuoka Toshikatsu (age 62), Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, killed himself.
He was a politician who represented the old-style Liberal Democratic Party.
This style of politics is [referred to as] “patronage-driven [politics]”.

[…]

松岡氏の自殺は「喪失感」が原因だと思う。
懸命に人生を生きてきた人間が、すべてを失くしてしまいそうな状況に直面した時、乗り越えようのない「喪失感」に襲われる。

I think that the cause of Mr. Matsuoka's suicide was his “sense of emptiness”.
When a person who has lived their life to the best of their ability suddenly comes up against a situation in which they lose everything, they become seized by an overwhelming “sense of emptiness”.

[…]

松岡氏は、すべてを背負ってあの世に旅立った。
そして今日、談合の指南役とも言われていた山崎進一・元緑資源機構理事(76)が自殺した。

松岡氏は、過疎地の企業を支援しようとしたのか、それとも税金を食い物にしようとしたのか・・・
何とも後味の悪い自殺だった。

松岡利勝氏と山崎進一氏のご冥福を祈る。

Mr. Matsuoka left this world with everything on his back.

And then today, Yamazaki Shinichi (Japan Green Resources Agency), who, it is said, was the brains behind the bid-rigging scheme, also committed suicide.

Was Mr. Matsuoka trying to support companies in underpopulated areas, or was he trying to steal our tax money…
His suicide ended things on a sour note.

I am praying for the souls of Mr. Matsuoka Toshikatsu and Mr. Yamazaki Shinichi.

And yet, other bloggers were not quite so sure that Matsuoka's soul deserved to be prayed for. At Tomorrow is Another Happy, one blogger reflects on the question of “praying for the soul” of politicians like Matsuoka:

「松岡大臣のご冥福をお祈りします、って書いてる人多いけど、ホントに祈ってるのかなぁ」と夫がつぶやいた。

私はなんだか、痛いところを突かれた気分になった。

私の尊敬するブロガーさんたちの中にも記事の冒頭に「松岡大臣のご冥福をお祈りします」って書いている人は多い。夫の問いかけは、そうした記述に行き当たるたび、私が感じていた劣等感に触れた。

My husband mumbled to me: “A lot of people write that they are praying for [Agriculture] Minister Matsuoka, but are they really praying for him?”

For me, this kind of hit a nerve.

Among the group of bloggers who I have respect for, many began [their blog entries] with the sentence: “I am praying for [Agriculture] Minister Matsuoka to rest in peace.” My husband's question, while confronting these types of comments, also touched on feelings of inferiority that I had.

Later in the same post, the blogger reproduces a conversation between herself and her husband about the idea of praying for the soul of Matsuoka:

私「祈ってるんじゃないかな。ひとつの命が失われたことに対して、自殺まで追い込まれたのだということに対して、ひとりの人間として同情を禁じ得ない、って感じなんじゃないのかなぁ」

夫「そんなもんかなぁ。自殺した人のご冥福って祈れる?」

私「祈れるよ。いじめで自殺した子どもたちとか」

夫「それはそうだよね。じゃあ、みーちゃん、ぼくが自殺したらどう思う?」

Me: “Not praying for him, are they? In terms of the loss of one life, of someone being driven to commit suicide, as another human being, it's hard not to feel compassion for him, isn't it?”

My husband: “Is it really? Can you really pray for the souls of people who commit suicide?”

Me: “Yes I pray. Children who commit suicide because they are bullied, for example.”

My husband: “That's true. So, Mii-chan [the author of the blog], if I committed suicide, what would you think?”

私「なに考えてんねん!って怒る!!」

夫「そうだろう?まず怒るよね。自分に関わってる人間が理由がわからず自殺したら」

私「うん、でも、松岡大臣に対しても、私は怒ってる」

夫「彼は大臣だからね。ぼくたちの生活に関わってる人だから」

Me: “I would get angry and be like: What were you thinking!!”

My husband: “Oh really? So you would get angry — if someone that you knew committed suicide, with no clear reason.”

Me: “Yes. But about Minister Matsuoka, I am angry with him.”

My husband: “Because he's a Cabinet Minister, right? Because he's involved in all of our lives.”

私「あ、そうか。でもね、怒っててもね、松岡大臣の家族には、ご冥福をお祈りします、って言うと思うよ」

夫「それはそうだよね。人として。でも、彼個人から遠い、ひとりの国民としては、怒りが先だよ」

私「でも、松岡大臣は犠牲者かもしれないよ。本当は辞めたかったのに内閣支持率のために辞めさせてもらえなかったのかもしれない。そんな中、自殺まで追い込まれたのだとしたら、お気の毒だと私も思う」

夫「それが事実ならね。でも、今は何もわかってないんだよ。結局は彼の自殺によって、うやむやになることは多いよね。彼が追いつめられていたのなら、その事実がわかってはじめて、ご冥福をお祈りする気持ちになれるんじゃないのかな」

Me: “Ah right, I guess so. But you know, even though I am angry at him, I think I can say that I am praying for his family.”

My husband: “That's a good point. [Pray for them] as people. But he himself is far from individual people — as a Japanese citizen, the anger comes first.”

Me: “But perhaps Minister Matsuoka was a just a victim. Maybe he really wanted to quit, but was not allowed to do so, because the government wanted to maintain its approval rating. In that context, as someone who was driven to commit suicide, I have to feel sorry for him.”

My husband: “If that was the truth of the matter, then yes. But right now, we really don't know anything. In the end, as a result of his suicide, many things are being hushed up. He was being chased down, but maybe if we had, for the first time, actually learned something, then we would feel like praying for him, no?”

私「そうかもしれない。でも、松岡大臣に同情的な姿勢を取ることで、安倍総理への糾弾に持っていけるんじゃないのかなぁ」

夫「だから、戦略的に、ご冥福をお祈りします、って言うの? それもぼくはできないなぁ。日本国万歳なんて遺書じゃなく、全てを明るみに出してほしかったよ、ぼくは!」

Me: “Yes, maybe so. But if you take a sympathetic position with respect to Cabinet Minister Matsuoka, then it is possible to take a position condemning Prime Minister Abe, I think.”

My husband: “So are you saying that you should strategically pray for him? That is something that I can't do. I didn't want some “Japan Banzai!” farewell note, I wanted him to uncover the whole truth!”

She then concludes the post with the following note:

その後、鈴木宗男氏の話や石原慎太郎の話などを色々して、なんとか話を一段落させて寝たのだけれど、どうもこの「ご冥福」が私の頭にこびりついてしまって、夢の中でまであれこれ考えている始末。あきらめて起き出して、とりあえず文章にしてみた。

「ご冥福をお祈りします」という一文がどうしても書けなかった自分のことを、私はそんなに嫌いではない。でも「ご冥福をお祈りします」と書ける人間になりたいと、やはりどこかで思う。

もし、私が「ご冥福をお祈りします」と、書き加えることができていたなら、私は何を手に入れて、何を手放すことになったのだろう。

After this, the conversation turned to various topics such as Suzuki Muneo [Liberal Democratic Party MP who talked to Matsuoka a few nights before he died] and Ishihara Shintarou [Mayor of Tokyo], then the talk somehow quieted down and we went to bed. But for some reason, this [talk of] “happiness in the next world” stuck in my head, and I even had dreams about it. I finally gave in, got out of bed, and wrote this text.

But even I, who could not bring myself to write the sentence: “I am praying for him to rest in peace” — I don't really hate myself that much for [not being able to do] that. However, I still want to be someone who can write: “I am praying for him to rest in peace.”

If I became someone who was able to insert the line “I am praying for him to rest in peace”, then what would I get for it, and what would I lose?

3 comments

  • That’s a great post, and very insightful.

    The blogger’s conversation with her husband about praying for Minister Matsuoka’s soul is very rich and insightful not only in japanese political matters, but also about the japanese way of thinking.

    I am very glad to have read this. Helps me understand certain points in the Matsuoka’s affair and japanese people response to it.

  • Thanks! I also liked the last post in particular.

  • […] in the Abe government to have to be replaced (after the resignation of Sata Genichiro and the suicide of Matsuoka Toshikatsu). On top of which, as if that were not enough, there appear to be more […]

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