The Triumphant Tragedy of Marathoner Kokichi Tsuburaya Part 4: A Suicide Note that Captures an Essence of the Japanese, and Endures as Literature

Kokichi Tsuburayas suicide note
Kokichi Tsuburaya’s suicide note

My dear Father, my dear Mother: I thank you for the three-day pickled yam. It was delicious. Thank you for the dried persimmons. And the rice cakes. They were delicious, too.

My dear Brother Toshio, and my dear Sister: I thank you for the sushi. It was delicious.

My dear Brother Katsumi, and my dear Sister: The wine and apples were delicious. I thank you.

My dear Brother Iwao, and my dear Sister: I thank you. The basil-flavored rice, and the Nanban pickles were delicious.

My dear Brother Kikuzo, and my dear Sister: The grape juice and Yomeishu were delicious. I thank you. And thank you, my dear Sister, for the laundry you always did for me.

My dear Brother Kozo and my dear Sister: I thank you for the rides you gave me in your car, to and fro. The mongo-cuttlefish was delicious. I thank you.

My dear Brother Masao, and my dear sister: I am very sorry for all the worries I caused you.

Yukio-kun, Hideo-kun, Mikio-kun, Toshiko-chan, Hideko-chan, Ryosuke-kun, Takahisa-kun, Miyoko-chan, Yukie-chan, Mitsue-chan, Akira-kun, Yoshiyukikun, Keiko-chan, Koei-kun, Yu-chan, Kii-chan, Shoji-kun: May you grow up to be fine people.

My dear Father and my dear Mother, Kokichi is too tired to run anymore. I beg you to forgive me. Your hearts must never have rested worrying and caring for me.

My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.

These were the handwritten words of Kokichi Tsubaraya, one of two notes he left as explanation for why he took his life in his dormitory room of the Ground Self Defense Forces. Tsuburaya was a soldier, but he was also a Japanese icon, winning the bronze medal in the marathon at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As he wrote, he was simply “too tired to run anymore”. As described in a previous post, injuries and heartbreak may have led to Tsuburaya’s demise.

Kokichi Tsuburaya surrounded by family
Kokichi Tsuburaya, center, surrounded by his family.

Suicide rates, while decreasing in recent years, thankfully, have been traditionally high in Japan compared to other countries. Perhaps there is a romanticism connected with suicide in the deep recesses of Japanese culture. So when some of Japan’s most celebrated writers, Nobel Prize winners Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata, read the suicide note of Kokichi Tsuburaya, they swooned at the simple yet striking words of the athlete. Mishima viewed Tsuburaya’s notes as “beautiful, honest and sad.” And as Makoto Ueda explained in his book, Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, Kawabata was even jealous of the quality of Tsuburaya’s poetry.

Kawabata was deeply moved upon reading this suicide note. After citing it in its entirety, he offered to explain why: “in the simple, plain style and in the context of the emotion-ridden note, the stereotyped phase “I enjoyed” is breathing with truly pure life. It creates a rhythm pervading the entire suicide note. I tis beautiful, sincere, and sad.” Kawabata then observed that this suicide note was not inferior to similar notes written by reputable writers, despite the fact that Tsuburaya was an athlete who boasted no special talent in composition. Kawabata even felt ashamed of his own writings, he said, when he compared them with this note.

Another giant of Japanese literature, Kenzaburo Oe, was also impressed by the suicide note of Tsuburaya. At a series of talks Oe gave at the University of California, Berkeley in April 1999, he talked about how Tsuburaya’s suicide note was a wonderful cultural marker of the 1960s, a reflection of Japan in a state of transition during a period of intense social, economic and political change. Let me quote Oe at length here:

We know from this note that Kokichi Tsuburaya was from a big family. The many names he mentions probably do not evoke any particular feeling in a non- Japanese, but to a person like myself—especially to one who belongs to an older generation of Japanese—these names reveal a naming ideology of a family in which authority centers around the paternal head-of-household. This family-ism extends to the relatives. There is probably no large family in Japan today where children are named so thoroughly in line with traditional ethical sentiments. Tsuburaya’s suicide note immediately shows the changes in the “feelings” of the families of Japanese these past thirty years.

The many foods and drinks he refers to also tell of the times. Twenty years had passed since Japan’s defeat, and it was not a society of food shortages. But neither was it the age of satiation and Epicurean feasting that began ten years later. The year Tsuburaya died was the year that Nikkeiren, the Japan Federation of Employers’ Association, tried to counter the spring offensives—the annual demand by labor unions for wage hikes and improved working conditions—by arguing that the sharp increase in prawn imports was evidence of a sufficient rise in the standard of living. More consumers were eating imported frozen prawns. Business administrators keep an eye on such trends. And I think that honestly expresses the eating habits of Japanese people at this time.

Domestically, 1968 saw the rage of student rebellions, most noted among which were the struggles at Tokyo University and Nihon University. Outside of Japan, there was the May Revolution in Paris, and the invasion of Soviet troops into Prague. In retrospect, we clearly see that the world was full of premonitions of great change.

Against this backdrop, a long distance runner of the Self-Defense Forces— itself a typical phenomenon of the state of postwar Japan’s twisted polysemous society—turned his back on the currents of such a society, alone prepared to die, and wrote this suicide note. In the note, the young man refers to specific foods and drinks, he encourages his nephews and nieces to grow up to be fine people; he is overwhelmed by the thought of his parents’ loving concern for him and writes that he knows their hearts must never have rested in their worry and care for him. He apologizes to them because, having kept running even after the Olympics with the aim of shouldering national prestige, he became totally exhausted and could no longer run. He closed his note with the words: “My dear Father and Mother, Kokichi would have liked to live by your side.”

Tsuburaya was a man of his times, celebrated in 1964 for his accomplishments as an athlete. Today he is also remembered for his eloquence in representing the Every Man in Japan, a poet who is said to have captured the essence and the angst of those times.