Monday, December 08, 2008

Well I'll be...

The big test I've been studying for over the past month is finally over. The relief is beginning to set in, but I'm already missing studying kanji. No problem - I can keep that up on the side, probably, just with a reduced number of new characters every day. Back on the subject of the test itself, it was rough, and I'm not sure if I passed, but all there is to do is wait until February. Look for a post then.

What I really want to talk about is what happened in class today. We were beginning with the usual greetings, ie "how are you? What day is it today? What's the date today?", and after I turned it over to the teacher she further quizzed the kids. "Why is today an important day in Japanese history? This is a date you should remember, but not a lot of kids these days do. What happened?" The first guess was that it was the teacher's birthday, earning a few laughs. About a minute of speculation later, somebody nailed it - the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Any Americans out there who have committed this date to memory will be a little confused, as today - for me, anyway - was technically December 8th. But with the miracle of the Prime Meridian, while December 7th was "the day that shall live in infamy" for America, December 8th was the day the Japanese "awaken[ed] a sleeping giant" on this side of the Pacific.

Quibbles about dates aside, this was a shocking way for me to start the day. Although America has arguably become so embroiled in constant wartime politics that past wars are but the playthings of cinema and video games, Japan has scarcely seen a bullet fired compared to sixty-some years ago. Guns? Illegal. War? Hard to wage with the "Japanese Self Defense Force," an army in almost everything but name that until recently was limited to conflicts on their own shores. While it's true that, according to Wikipedia, they have the 5th highest military budget in the world, their troops are distributed sparingly compared to other countries and only to regions in need of peacekeeping. Any American can list three or four wars in which America has been deeply involved since World War 2. It is an impossible question for Japanese citizens.

The relevance the second World War holds in Japan is still visible today. All of my schools have posters giving technical details on the two atomic bombs - name, blast radius, effects of radiation, etc. Our English textbook, New Horizon, contains a six-page long story about the atomic bombs that greeted me shortly after I arrived here. A girl is hiding in the shade of a tree shortly after the bombs have dropped, craddling a crying boy who is desperate to see his mother. The girl makes the best of the situation, singing to the boy, telling him "mommy is here." Soon, the boy grows quiet, and dies; but the girl continues to sing until she, too, grows still.

All of the students also typically make school trips to either Nagasaki or Hiroshima as least once in their lives, and visit one of the peace museums. The end of the war is the main subject, and it is this date that most Japanese people remember. Newscasters will remind their viewers, and radio hosts their listeners. It is not forgotten, though at least it is remembered in the name of peace.

This being said, today was the first time I've personally heard a Japanese person go out of their way to mention Pearl Harbor. She went on: "This is a date you should all remember, and one that will be important for you to become an adult. We all remember when the war ended, but what we don't think about is Japan started that war. You hear all the time, 'oh, this was done to Japan, that happened to Japan,' but you cannot forget - we started that war."

It must also be mentioned that she said, at one point, "Japan did not have a lot of other options at the time," but I will leave that for you to decide. I imagine that statement is as charged as the debate on whether or not America should have dropped the bombs. Neither, however, is the subject of this post.

War is one of the things that retrospect will never grant perfect clarity. Propaganda echoes well past its expiration date, and progress demands that countries - like people - move beyond the atrocities of their past to show dignity in the present. If even when all is said and done, the perspective on a conflict of such terrible scale shifts in continuous - albeit subtle - degrees, how can we hope to make all the right decisions now?

I'm not trying to excuse American involvement in the middle east. I'm not trying to condemn it. I'm hesitant to even bring the subject up as my knowledge is limited to the stuff of headliners and Comedy Central talkshows. But I felt like something important was said today, though perhaps more important was the venue in which it said.

67 years ago, America was unexpectedly and brutally attacked. Four years of fighting later, the strike was reciprocated and then some. And then A LOT. Now, I laugh and joke with the children of that same country. Our homelands are allies, friends, and stand together on diverse platforms...outside of whaling. And what qualifies as "quality television."

Six years a ago, America was unexpectedly and brutally attacked. Six years of fighting later, the strike was reciprocated and then some. And then A LOT. The fighting hasn't ended, and nobody knows when it will. But if we're able to remember the ills of the past, admit errors, and move ahead... Maybe I'll grow old enough to tell a new generation I was there when a barrier slammed between us, but at least I'm there for when it crumbles away.

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