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.”

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.

Japan: Society Journal Musings Society

Chivalry On Cherry Blossoms

Odell Lake
Morning after a blizzard, Odell Lake, Oregon, 1984.

Spent the afternoon watching The Last Samurai yesterday. When I first saw the preview for it last summer, I groaned, “Oh God, no, not another epic movie about some white guy becoming a downtrodden and less enlightened people’s icon, who saves them for their own good!” After hearing good reviews about it from the Japanese press, though, and getting some thumbs up from a few of my students, I decided to give it a try.

I stumbled back to the train station afterwards, roiling with conflicting feelings and with a lot of questions and reactions.

It is a beautiful movie, that much must be said. The grand vistas of the mountains, the rural scenes, the replica of the port town, even the fencing sequences and moments in the temples were exquisitely and accurately done. The movie gave quite a sense of what life must have been like right at the beginning of the Meiji Era, the last days of the samurai.

And some of the acting was unforgettable. Ken Watanabe, I think, stole the show with his powerful portrayal of a warrior lord, and Koyuki (which means “Little Snow”) left the whole theater of Japanese moviegoers weeping behind their handkerchiefs with her dignified and subtle portrayal of a woman whose husband is killed by Tom Cruise’s character. Even Tom Cruise does a good job both in portraying the true awkwardness of a foreigner attempting to speak Japanese and in learning the moves of Japanese society. I liked some of the contrasts that were sensitively incorporated, showing how differently Japanese and Americans think.

Perhaps because I’ve lived here in Japan all my life and traveled throughout the country, including more walks in the mountains than I can remember, I also noticed a lot of glaring problems. First, the landscape. One quick glance at the mountains and I knew immediately that it wasn’t Japan )most of the film was filmed in New Zealand). Japan’s slopes are steeper and come together, usually, with more angles. The flat bottomed valley of the rural village was too flatly abrupt, with few of the village houses nested on the steep hillsides, as would be characteristic of Japanese mountain villages. The vegetation on the mountainsides was all wrong… a pallor of green that doesn’t exist in Japan, where it tends to be much more emerald in quality, due to the warmer climate here. The way the soil clodded up wasn’t characteristic of Japan. The presence of palm trees and giant ferns, on both the slopes and in the forests, gave away New Zealand’s identity… in the area where this story takes place there wouldn’t have been any palm trees or giant ferns lurking in the backgrounds of the battle scenes. And worst of all was the supposed form of Mt. Fuji, which has a huge crater in the side facing the ocean approach to the port town and which would not have appeared so large in the sky from what I suppose was supposed to be Edo (the old name of Tokyo). Mt. Fuji is 150 kilometers away from Tokyo. For me, but probably not for most people, the whole movie environment felt wrong, not Japanese.

Because a lot of the behavior of the Japanese characters was closely discussed with the Japanese actors, the feel of their gestures, voices, pronunciation, and dialogue, felt very natural. The interaction between the Japanese characters worked, too, unlike in such movies as “The Bridge Over the River Kwai” (a Japanese general in real life would never have given in the way the general did in the movie) or “Black Rain”. However, there were moments when things just didn’t come across as authentic. When Tom Cruise’s character leans over to hug Koyuki’s character’s boy, there is no surprise on the part of any of the Japanese. But this would have been scandalous behavior, especially for a man to show to a samurai boy… the boy would have been shocked, as would the onlooking man in the garden, and certainly Koyuki’s character would have stopped dead in her tracks. Such behavior between men and their children is still not often practiced even today, let alone back in the period of this movie. And I had trouble with Ken Watanabe’s last scene when he ends by speaking to Tom Cruise in English. For someone trying to hold on with his last breath to all aspects of his culture, it seemed peculiarly uncharacteristic of him to resort to English.

In spite of these faults, the story was well-written and the transformation of Tom Cruise’s character quite believable. The gentleness and devotion of the movie to the human heart left me quite deeply moved by end of the show.

What disturbed me in profound ways, however, were the images and emotional reactions I had to the battle scenes: I couldn’t stop thinking about Bush and America’s Year of War last year. The more I watched those hundreds of soldiers falling in the movie, the more angry I became and the more uncontrollably grief stricken at the thought of all that has been forced on all of us over the last two and a half years. War, war, war, war, war! I was just totally exhausted with thinking about it and at times in the movie I could barely keep my eyes upon the scenes so close to weeping I was. It finally all came cascading out in that one, brief view of the entire battlefield with all those thousands of dead. One more crack of a gun. One more horse gutted. One more young man shot to pieces… I wanted to stand up in the theater, raise my fists, and shout my fury at Bush.

Instead I just sat and watched, looking for the entertainment value.

Fine movie that it was, it ignores the truth of the samurai: that they were very often brutal oppressors and caused untold hardship for the majority of the Japanese people who mostly lived on farms and were not allowed to carry weapons. All the glory of samurai chivalry is all very nice, but what was depicted is not an accurate picture of Japan’s history… which has always been fraught with bloody wars. The Meiji Restoration did a lot more good than bad for Japanese culture and people live a lot more at peace these days than back then. I can’t imagine very many Japanese would want to go back to those “good ole days”.

But still, the movie’s call for people of different cultures to hold on to who they are is an important one. It can certainly provide reflection to people around the world today who are beleaguered by American’s push to render all lands and people in their image. Fingerprints be damned! Brazil has the right attitude. Let Americans be fingerprinted all around the world in retaliation. They deserve just as much humiliation as anyone else, no?

I’m not sure The Last Samurai taught me anything at all about Japan. It just seemed a reiteration of what I already knew and a refute of what the West thinks it knows about Asia. But worth a looksee.