Iraq War Japan: Society Journal Society

Remorse, Heroism, and Shame

Last night, while taking a break from design work, I turned on the TV to watch the news. Japan’s prime minister Koizumi had just stepped into a press conference to make a statement about the recently returned hostages. In essence this is what he said:

“Well, it’s good to know that they have returned home safely. Now I think they should take the time to reflect on the great effort that went into [saving] them.”

Last night, while taking a break from design work, I turned on the TV to watch the news. Japan’s prime minister Koizumi had just stepped into a press conference to make a statement about the recently returned hostages. In essence this is what he said:

“Well, it’s good to know that they have returned home safely. Now I think they should take the time to reflect on the great effort that went into [saving] them.”

It is a seemingly innocent statement, but according to the mores of Japanese understatement Koizumi was actually publicly reprimanding the hostages for causing both “meiwaku” (being inconsiderate of others… something that carries great weight in Japan) and “haji” (shame, loss of face) to the world. That he took the time to actually say this on TV means great humiliation for the hostages, both publicly and privately. For three individuals to have caused an entire nation unused to public displays of emotion to stumble into a heated debate about the legitimacy of the present government’s policies and actions, nearly toppling Koizumi from power, leaves a bitter aftertaste for many people here, and the consequences for the hostages has been harsh. According to the therapist who examined them upon return, their stress levels now are higher than when they were being threatened with death in Iraq. In addition, each hostage must pay ¥600,000 (nearly $6,000) in reparations to the government.

Koizumi wasn’t going to let go of this opportunity to punish those who nearly cost him his leadership of the country.

I’ve been fuming about the backlash against the hostages since I first started hearing the news bash them. (I first got wind of this news through Setsunai’s post at On Gaien Higashi Dori) But since it was only on the news that I heard all this, I decided to wait and talk to some people. In my English class this evening I asked my group of four students what they thought. I was shocked that basically they all agreed with Koizumi and the press, saying that all the hostages had been warned before they left for Iraq that Iraq was dangerous. The students felt that the hostages had only thought about themselves and had disregarded the feelings of their families, the awkward positions that they had put Japanese diplomats and politicians in, and the reasons why the Self Defense Force had been sent to Iraq in the first place. Most of them agreed that the intentions of the hostages were in themselves good, but misguided.

I pointed out to them that Koizumi was the one who had put Japanese people in Iraq in danger by presuming to send the Self Defense Force in the first place (against the wishes of nearly 90% of the populace) and thus angering the Iraqi people. I reasoned that the one who had been inconsiderate and caused loss of face for the Japanese people was therefore Koizumi, not the hostages.

My students met me halfway and I tried to meet them halfway, too, but I still cannot quite fathom the reasoning. I feel it reflects much of the Japanese reluctance to truly take responsibility for anything or any one other than themselves, often in public here, and more than often on the international stage. To me the shame they profess reflects a kind of selfishness stoked by a constant desire to always look good in the eyes of others, lashing out when their image is distorted. It is the same thing that caused the Japanese government to refuse the entry of the Doctors Without Frontiers rescue organization during the Kobe earthquake and the help of the American air force when a commercial jet crashed in a remote area of the mountains about ten years ago.

Susan of A Line Cast, A Hope Followed wrote me this e-mail:

I wanted to ask you to help me understand and be more compassionate about something going on in Japan right now.  I don’t see how it really is, I just read a news story here and there, and have no perspective, but it really disturbs me.
It sounds like the Japanese captives in Iraq who were released and returned home are the victims of terrible scorn there.  To an American pacifist, it appears that their very compassionate and courageous actions are viewed as a huge disgrace to Japanese people and that they’ve been accused of being selfish and disrespectful.  I guess that to me, the basic human desire to help those in need seems totally the opposite.  On the other hand, I was the first to condemn the young Seattle father who died some years back on Everest, putting his own needs over those of his family.  I guess in general, I’m perplexed and worried, that those four people have been through hell, and yet seem to be returning to a hell worse than the one they left. 
Do you have any thoughts you can share that would put this into a different light for me?  Am I on the right track with the climber analogy?  What will happen over time with these folks?  Will they be ostracized?  Eventually reintegrated?  Or is this another media exaggeration?
Thanks so much. 
Your fellow former Eugenian, Susan-san

It seems the news of the treatment of the hostages has gone worldwide. And without understanding how Japanese society works their treatment must seem bizarre and cruel. I’m not sure it is out of cruelty that the Japanese are reacting this way… in great part it is a reaction to having been exposed so starkly in the international media (Japanese are a people who in general shun the limelight) and to the sense of anger that people anywhere often feel after having been greatly frightened. If the hostages had actually been killed, I don’t know what would have happened in Japan. Something unspoken would have snapped.

I’m sure the hostages will be fine, especially after the ravenous Japanese media settles down.

There have been other reactions to the wars right now that have bothered me, too. Denny, from Book of Life and Beth at Cassandra Pages, both of whom I respect deeply and whose blogs I read religiously every day, recently wrote about the death of the American soldier Pat Tilman. I very much sympathize with and understand the sorrow and pain people feel over his death. Like Beth I protest against war not because of the ridiculous politics involved but because people are killed. Whether those people are soldiers or little children or arrogant leaders, every death that war brings is a sorrow that cannot be unmade. And Pat Tilman’s death is an utter tragedy.

But so many of the stories from the news are cloaked, as always, in the myths of “heroism” and “doing great deeds for country” and the “selflessness of the young men and women who serve our country”. I’ve read and reread the words over and over again, trying to find in myself the empathy for such abstract and fervent emotions, but, perhaps because I am not an American citizen (though culturally, family-wise, and in spirit I am in great part American), I just can’t look at the photo of Pat Tilman and feel that he is anything other than a young man whose death will cause suffering for those who knew him and further paints the picture of the war in Afghanistan as nothing more than an arrogant and empty fiasco that the American government has all but forgotten. I cannot find it in myself to see him as a hero. I cannot see it in myself to see anyone as a “hero”.

Why do we never see photos of the selfless deeds of volunteers who risk their lives to save victims in wars, without weapons? Why do we not see photos and hear grief and praise for Palestinians who blow themselves up in the name of saving their land from invaders? After all, their slogans and songs of patriotism sound exactly like the support for Pat Tilman from above. Both are a little blind, both see violence and revenge and bloodshed as legitimate means to righting a wrong. And neither is aware of how one-sided their dogma appears to those who stand outside their sphere of dialogue.

This Iraq war is going to get worse, much worse, though I wish to mercy that I am wrong. If we don’t all start to introspect and rearrange our views of both ourselves and those with whom we share this one little world, learn to stop going blind at our borders, one day the whole stack of blocks will lose equilibrium. There are those who would say I am an alarmist, that the world is still going in spite of doom sayers, but already we have had two world wars. I listened to the stories my German grandfather and grandmother told me of what happened. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen again? The resemblance to the rising of the Nazis is chilling. But no, WE aren’t like that. WE would never do anything so evil. NEVER.

Update: The Independant: Japan’s hostages tell how they came home to scorn and shame. It’s a well-written article, though, with its comparison to American nationalism, I think it doesn’t portray the general atmosphere here. Few Japanese are speaking in terms of “support our boys”. They want the troops to come home.

7 replies on “Remorse, Heroism, and Shame”

I’d like to publicly affirm your perspective on the Iraq war and related issues. Everything you say seems to me understandable and legitimate. The truth is, there are so many different kinds of people in this world, all with different perspectives, understandings and feelings about things like this war. I’m glad for all this diversity. We have common ground on many things, and differ about other things. This doesn’t trouble me. I’d be troubled if we all agreed. It’s wonderful to hear you speak out in this way.


I think the constant mention of “hero” whenever a soldier is mentioned is a reaction against the way Vietnam vets were treated when they came home – perhaps analogous to those Japanese hostages. People are so afraid now of being accused of “not supporting our troops” and being called anti-patriotic or worse – “pro-terrorist” if you so much as criticize the government. But I won’t fault young people who are now serving and dying, often after being misled by our government (e.g., those who joined up because the Bush administration linked Iraq with 9/11), feeling that they’re protecting us Americans and doing their patriotic duty in doing so. It’s just a sad and shameful waste of young life.


To me, yes, Tilman’s story is quite close to the story of suicide bombers, who move me in exactly the same way. I am moved by heroism — dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori, has never stuck in my craw. The havoc wreaked by heroism is immense, but that doesn’t turn it, for me, into something other than heroism. Turning away from the comfortable easy out, and taking on burdens and the risk of death on behalf of others, is a beautiful thing.

I am by no means sure that my own “good deeds” are any less blind, any less destructive, than these people’s. I hope not. But there is so much I don’t know. In any case, I’m not going to let the fact that people who are utterly incapable of heroism will use examples of moral beauty to their own filthy ends blind me to it.


Thank you, Miguel, for yet another searching post. I was careful not to refer to Pat Tilman as a hero, because I can’t call him that. I am deeply sorry for his death, and I grieve it just as I do the lives of Iraqis or Palestinians or Israelis or…the list is endless. What has happened to me over my lifetime so far is a movement away from blaming the soldiers as much as the governments, and learning to see the machinery of war-making as much more complex. Laying down one’s life in order to rescue the innocent is heroic; firemen, for example, are heroic. Laying down one’s life in the service of one’s country may or may not be heroic, depending on what cause the fighting is for. It may also be a terrible waste of a promising young life. I don’t think dying for U.S. interests in Iraq is heroic, I think it is tragedy.


There have always been wars, and there will always be wars.
Because we are in this time frame, we know of the ones in our time frame. It is not new, it has always been. It will not change.

The hostages who went to Iraq put peoples lives at risk, not just their own. People who are not trained to fight or help wounded do not belong in a war zone. That is common sense 101. To say Koizumi put lives at risk is ridiculous. The SDF are excepting in the risks, and trained to prepare and take care of them.
A group of non govern”mental” “volunteers” looking to be made important by a stint in a war zone is not exactly unselfish.
If negotiations broke down in freeing them, who do you think would be next in line to do something? The soldiers. They would have to risk their lives for
dumbasses looking for a thrill.

When I saw the mother of that 18 year old boy screeching to pull the troops out, it made me mad. If she had been a responsible parent in the first place, this kid would have been forbidden to go. You want freedom, and then you want the government to take responsibility when you make a bad judgement. I totally disagree with most everything said today. Are you actually saying a suicide bomber is a hero? That parents who raise children to attach bombs to them are heroes?
Do you actually believe a soldier killed in action is the same thing? I don’t want to debate, because with such differences of opinion it will get nowhere, but your list of comments rarely dissagrees with anything written, and in this case, it’s upsetting.


First off, let me just say that I do not think I have all the answers on what is going on and I am always open to new opinions and to possibly changing how I see things when someone points out views that I had never considered. The issues are huge and one little post from me is not going to address everything that I have pondered and agonized over for the past three years.

That being said, the responses so far have gotten me looking inward again to see what I may have missed or gotten wrong.

Denny, I was very reluctant to start writing this post in great part because I did not want to offend you. Your generousness of spirit in letting me have my say without lashing back at me is more appreciated than I can say. Last year, when I wrote another similar post against the start of the Iraq war, someone who had been a friend of mine (and whose wife was one of my closest friends in college) and who had been a paratrooper in the air force sent me such an insulting and foul mouthed private letter that I never wrote back to either one of them. So far I have lost four close friends because of the war. It leaves me very bitter. I do not want to lose more friends.

Leslee, yes. When I criticise the war it does not mean that I have something against the soldiers there as people. They are people like any of us. And their dying is simply, utterly sad, especially because they didn’t have to to die. I wonder what it does to these young men and women who see a whole nation up in arms against them, a rage that they cannot help but probably recognize. I wonder if part of the growing brutality of the American troops, their overly heavy-handed backlash against the Iraqis (according to British troops) stems in part out of this.

Dale, hmm. I have think more on that. I find it very curious why Americans have such a strong need to talk about and see heroism every day. American movies are rife with it. The chatter around the New York tragedy spoke almost of nothing else. Whenever there is a disaster in America the news spatters the word heroism all over the front pages. There was nothing like that here in Japan during the Kobe earthquake. Japanese and European and other Asian movies actually play down the idea of heroes; certainly here in Japan to call attention to yourself like that is considered crude and childish. But there is something in someone overcoming great odds. that’s true. But I’m not sure if it should be called “heroism”. “Hero” connotes a person who is above and beyond the average person, as if they are somehow superhuman. I just do not believe in superhuman people.. brave and courageous people, yes, superhuman, no. I believe when you start putting people into the category of being superhuman, then you risk not allowing them to be human and to make human mistakes. I believe the soldiers in Iraq are making a very big mistake… a very human mistake, but a mistake none-the-less.

Beth, as always you put my jumbled thoughts together with so much more eloquence and clarity. My emotions on the issues of the past few days and in reading comments sometimes get the better of me and clouds my mind. It is very hard to write about these issues and present clear, balanced views, without getting off track or letting my anger or sadness seep into my words. I know what it is that I cradle in my head, but the written words often don’t quite follow. I have been thinking deeply and constantly about all the issues of the war for three years straight now (of course with a lifetime of building up to it before)and still it confuses me.

Pamela, I’m truly sorry that I upset you. It pains me a lot to read such bitter and angry words from you. We have corresponded quite a lot over the last year and I know that both of us respect and agree with each other on these issues. Please don’t take my words so literally. As I stated in the first half of my post I grieve over any life taken, no matter how small. I grieve over the lives of ants I step on (I’m serious… I really do) and condemn anyone who would take the life of another when it is not in self-defense.

I do not support suicide bombers. I meant those words figuratively, in an effort to point out the way the rhetoric surrounding such people sounds, in comparison to the rhetoric surrounding the American soldiers. The way both groups of people speak sounds exactly the same if you step back and don’t allow yourself to identify with the recipients. I don’t agree with the results of the suicide bombers’ actions, but then I don’t agree with the purpose and tactics of the American (or Israeli) soldiers either. How is bombing innocent civilians in an effort to eradicate “the enemy” any different from what the suicide bombers are doing? The only difference is that one is sponsored by a very organized and wealthy government, the other is an improvisational attempt to fight against an aggressor that they have no hope to combat in conventional ways. Both kill people. Innocent people (though I have never been comfortable in calling soldiers somehow “not innocent” They are people, too. Their lives matter just as much as anyone else’s). And it is wrong.

I have been against the actions of the American government from the first statement coming out of Bush’s mouth after the New York tragedy. I was protesting the Afghan war on the streets of Shibuya when there were only 25 people in the march. I was against the war in Iraq and still am. The Americans should not be there. They should never have been there. And they should have been out by now. That Koizumi sent troops to Iraq, against the will of the Japanese people is a crime in itself. By doing so, knowing the danger that he was getting Japan into, Koizumi is guilty of endangering the lives of Japanese in Iraq and here in Japan. The Iraqi people have a justified right to defend themselves and their country against invasion. They fight the most powerful miliarty force in history. Desperately poor, they have no choice but to use desparate methods to fight back. You would, too, if you were in their position. Koizumi didn’t care that Japan was getting itself into an illegal and unjust war (whatever the hell a “legal” war is).

I think it is unfair to characterize aid workers with “People who are not trained to fight or help wounded do not belong in a war zone.” If you know anything about disaster zones in the world and who does all the dirty work in saving the dying, the sick, and the dispossessed, then you know that it is the aid workers who do this work. Not the soldiers. 1000 self defense force soldiers does absolutely nothing for Iraq. It is but a token gesture by Koizumi to seem to America to be helping in the “coalition”. Aid workers like Nahoko Tokato were actually doing something for the children of Iraq… going out there and risking their lives to save helpless people with next to no help from the rest of the world. She was trained in what she was doing. The relief organizations that she worked with, like the Red Cross, are much more appropriate and trained for relief work than the self defense force can ever be. It is their very reason for existance.

Japan is on red alert at the moment. The train stations are crawling with police officers on watch. If there is a terrorist bombing here because of the Japanese presence in Iraq and people die, who will be responsible? Not the hostages, that’s for sure. Koizumi will be responsible. I agree with the Spanish government. Get out of Iraq and force the Americans to take full responsibility for the mess they have created around the world. As long as people like Koizumi kowtow to the wishes of the American government, instead of standing up for what the country believes… namely peaceful negotiations (the self defense force, with their arms and uniforms, can only symbolize further occupation to the Iraqi people)… then America can continue to get away with murder.


Miguel, I am so sad that you have lost friends in your honest expression of your beliefs. There is nothing you’ve said that I would not have said also, and have been saying in my own conversations. In fact I probably say things more inflammatory, like that people who joined the military should have been aware they were endorsing the use of weapons to resolve conflicts. That in doing so, they collude in the outcomes even if they couldn’t foresee the reasons we’d end up in a war and now disagree. But in saying this, I’m sure I’m making a wall between myself and many others. I say this, but I haven’t given any explanation of the underlying fears and hopes that I bring to this debate, in which others might find some commonality rather than getting stuck on the harsh difference of my stated opinion. Pamela and you and I probably all wish for peace and for people to live free of fear. The means to achieve that in each of our eyes is different. But how can we get to a place where we can accept that the intentions are good on either side of the discussion? Only by asking why the opponent feels the way they do. Only by trying to see it through their eyes. Only by sharing the place in our heart which leads us to the thinking of our head. Only by discovering the common goals, and then working together to find yet another path we can both buy into. It feels that as the stakes become higher in Iraq and the middle east, and the price higher, that we retreat more and more into our camps of agreement. Entrenchment won’t get us out of this mess. Somehow, we have to have conversations which lead us closer together rather than further apart.


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