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Harakiri: How an Old Samurai Movie Shines A Light on Our Student Loan Discourse
Last Monday and Tuesday I spent my remaining two days of freedom before the start of the school year having a mini-film festival (yes I am a huge dork.) I ended up leaning hard on Japanese film from the 1960s, an unbelievably rich time and place for cinema.
Lucky for me, I have a friend and loyal reader who is a historian of Japan, and he recommended that I watch 1962’s Harakiri. I initially wasn’t sure I wanted to watch it, since I felt like I had burned out on samurai films. For example, I watched Kurosawa’s High and Low the day before because I wanted to see more of the master’s films set in modern times.
But hey, when an expert gives you a tip you’ve gotta follow through.
Harakiri takes place in the 1600s, right after the Tokugawa shogunate consolidated power. The film begins with one of the many now unemployed samurai -called ronin- left destitute by the lack of wars and the consolidation of noble estates. The poor ronin comes to a wealthy estate aligned with the Shogun and asks for permission to commit ritual suicide on the premises with the assistance of the noble house. After all, the self-disemboweling ends with a beheading.
Without spoiling too much, there’s a plot thread I want to highlight. The noble house is contemptuous of ronin, assuming that they are demanding ritual suicide as a ruse to get a generous handout and be sent on their way. This has supposedly happened at other houses, leading to the decision to essentially force a penniless ronin who had to pawn his metal swords for bamboo ones to disembowel himself in an incredibly painful fashion with those (literally) blunt instruments. He had pawned his swords in part because he could not get a job as a common laborer while wearing his samurai gear.
Of course, the ronin have done nothing to deserve this. They did their jobs, fought in wars, and served their lords, only to be left without work through no fault of their own. The well-to-do in the film, however, treat them with contempt, derision, and cruelty. I found the film to be a searing critique of privilege and the “just world” fallacy that holds that everyone’s place in society is down to their own individual decisions. It’s the worldview that says if you are poor, you must have done something to make it so, and that if you are affluent, that was purely the result of your own virtue.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Harakiri in the context of the recent student loan forgiveness. A lot of people online and IRL have been rending their garments and screaming that it’s all so unfair. I will put aside the facts of the matter, such as how many of those same people got PPP loans and have their mortgages subsidized by renters via the mortgage interest deduction. Instead, I want to dig into the mentality behind the hue and cry. When I hear Ted Cruz denigrate baristas, I can only think of the nobles in Harakiri.
Those angry at forgiveness fall back on claims that those with student debt brought it upon themselves. This is a classic manifestatio of the “just world” fallacy. Like the ronin in Harakiri, student borrowers did what their society told them to do, and are now getting punished for it.
A lot of the Boomers complaining about the forgiveness got to go to college practically for free. That changed in the Reagan Era. At that same time, deindustrialization and the crushing of unions meant that most people who wanted a middle-class income HAD to go to college at a time when it was more expensive. They were told to take out loans to make it possible. Jobs were not so abundant in the wake of the Great Recession, which came after a massive spike in borrowing. Those lucky enough to get a decent job had their incomes eaten up by debt payments. I managed to run the gauntlet of having student debt and low pay, but I would not wish that upon anyone.
The student debt crisis is the result of factors well beyond the control of individuals. This also goes for the housing crisis, another place where the well-to-do look at those struggling for survival with contempt. The ideology of individualism saturates this nation’s culture and is one of the biggest factors impeding social progress. Our problems are systemic in nature, but this way of thinking automatically rules out any kind of systemic analysis. It’s what allows even many supposed “progressives” to block affordable housing in their communities while rents skyrocket along with their property values.
Beyond being wrong, Harakiri illustrates the profound cruelty of the “just world” fallacy. It allows people to watch others suffer while maintaining a stance of moral superiority about that cruelty. While Masaki Kobayashi targeted aspects of power and culture in Japan through his film, the core message about power’s lack of compassion translates pretty well to the current American context. Hopefully, debt relief will be a small step toward a society with a deeper and more humane understanding.