Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who's is the Emperor of Japan?

All who read will know the answer to a simple question that concerns Japan's cultural heritage. In this respect, I want to make known a striking reality -- many young people in Japan don't know who their emperor is.

I will set the scene that brought me to this, well, appalling realization. I recently asked a group of middle school students (all of them were of Japanese ethnic background, born and raised in a very conservative country town in Kyushu) a simple question in English that goes something like this: "Who is your emperor?"

I was subsequently confronted by a sea of blank faces.

"All right, I'll rephrase that: Who is the emperor of Japan?"

Through the translation of my question to the students by an embarrassed Japanese teacher, it dawned on me (and her) that they perfectly understood what I was saying but just didn't know the answer.

I have, since my initial shock, asked this same question to high school seniors, some university students, and even some office workers; my hope being that a simple knowledge of one's own country and cultural assets might become apparent further down the line. A majority had no idea who the emperor was.

It is with some dismay that I now build a picture of an education system, older generation, "mono-cultural" society (call it what you may) that is producing a generation of young people ignorant of a few basic facts, their cultural heritage. I fear it is the latter in both cases; the fact that these young people don't know who the emperor is conceals an ignorance far more shameful -- they don't know what it is.

These young people know of David and Victoria Beckham, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Hamasaki Ayumi, Utada Hikaru, Bae Yong Jun, and even Elvis Presley who died long ago (but, who is still living in the spirit of Premier Koizumi and many other fans here in Japan and around the world.) Of course, nothing wrong about that! But…

Ironically, all the "foreigners" that I have asked the same question knew exactly who the Japanese emperor was.

Am I merely interacting with a set of unusually uneducated young people, or have I just missed another lesson in Japanese etiquette: that it's somehow disrespectful to announce the emperor's name in public and better to feign ignorance?

Contemporary Japan: Westernized?

In any fast changing society there are curious and sometimes uncomfortable contrast between traditions inherited from the past and new characteristics produced by new technologies and institutions. Japan having moved faster and farther than any other nation during the past century may be subject to particularly severe strains of this sort, but they are not different in kind--only in degree--from what the West itself experiences.

I believe Japan has not been Westernized, as is commonly asserted. Nothing is more central to traditional Western culture than Christianity, but less than 1 percent of the Japanese population has embraced this religion. What Japanese have taken over are the modern aspects of Western culture, which for the most part the West too has only recently developed in response to modern technology--things like railroads, factories, mass education, great newspapers, television, and mass democracy. In this sense Japan has more significantly become modernized, not Westernized, and the process of modernization has taken place on the basis of Japan's own traditional culture, just as happened in the West, with same sort of resulting contrasts and strains.

A head start in the West of four decades in railroading and a few years in television did not make these features of modern life distinctively Western as opposed to Japanese. Japanese are every bit much at home with them as are North Americans, Europeans and others. Tea which is an East Asian drink, coffee from the Middle East and Africa, kimono-like dressing gowns, martial arts, sushi, Chinese foods, African rhythms in music... have not produced traumas or schizophrenia in West. Why should multicultural values, foods, arts, music... have this effect on Japanese? Mozart and Beethoven now belongs as much to Japanese as to other Asians, Australians, Africans, Americans or even Germans. "Happy Birthday," sung always in English, and "Auld Lang Syne," sung always in Japanese, are as solid natural parts of Japanese folk today as of North American.

Only old ladies and some very wealthy women commonly wear Japanese kimonos, while most other women reserve them only for very festive occasions, such as Coming-of-age and university graduation ceremonies, if they can afford them at all. The Japanese find nothing incongruous in the contrast between the traditional Japanese garb of brides at Shinto wedding ceremonies and the traditional Western white they usually wear at civil ceremonies or Christian weddings, which are popular even for nonbelievers. Grooms are almost always dressed in Western style, specifically in cutaways in more affluent circles, a costume that is much used for formal occasions in Japan and is called "moningu" from "morning coat." Hardly any men ever wear traditional garb of any sort. Neither did their fathers or many of their grandfathers, and they would feel almost as self-conscious in a traditional Japanese costume as a North American native in Indian dress.

We all naturally live in multicultural societies, and nobody can deny it (at least people who are well-educated.)

Reflecting on the History of WWII in Asia

While exchanging ideas about wars with a group of Japanese high school students the other day, I asked who started the Pacific branch of World War II. I got answers ranging from Korea to China to America, but not Japan.
-"Have you ever heard of Pearl Harbor?" I asked.
- "Yes!" a boy replied while giggling, "It is an upscale jewelry shop in Hawaii."(How could he joke about an atrocious event like that?)

These students all knew well about the misery and suffering caused by the U.S. army's atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but they ignored the atrocities Japan committed on innocent people in Asia.

It would be ridiculous to address the problem by defending atomic weapons. They certainly are the most abhorrent weapons ever devised, mainly for the particularly cruel long-term effects of radiation poisoning.

Likewise, I will leave it to others (who are no doubt chomping at the bit) to differentiate between the folly of using nukes now, when their power to savage living organisms in thoroughly understood, as opposed to their use mere months after their creation by an exhausted, war-weary nation faced with a recalcitrant, zealous, indeed suicidal (the infamous kamikaze) enemy leadership that couldn't seem to realize the war was lost and wouldn't capitulate.

But who's surprised that a tremendous number of Americans didn't know the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima? All countries have a good chunk of citizens either uneducated or unable to recall their education.

Anyway, I was very upset--but not surprised--by the fact these high school kids did not know much about Japan's history of invasions and colonial rule. Their ignorance sharply and exactly mirrors the content of their history textbooks, which condone atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Military. Take for instance, the Ministry of Education's approval of a certain junior high school history textbook that --from the points of view of China and Korea -- was painting a much rosier picture of Japan's role in World War II than was historically accurate. Atrocities were downplayed and Japan's role in using sex slaves from Korea and China were excluded.

I think the Japanese need to reflect on the history of World War II from an impartial standpoint. It is beyond my imagination how much the victims of the atomic bombs suffered. Because of their suffering, Japanese people can sympathize all the more with the Asians who suffered as a result of Japan's military invasions.

For better or worse, it is indeed history from which we learn the exact facts and lessons to improve human dignity, peace, freedom, happiness and justice. But it does not just happen by waiting, erasing the painful parts of history, playing political games and ignoring responsibilities.

The war, massacres and inhumane crimes that were done in the name of Japan mean every Japanese has moral responsibility toward the suffering victims. But, by not letting children know about these unpleasant historical facts, they will grow up believing their nation has never done anything wrong.

If Japanese schools continue teaching students an obviously biased version of the truth, what is it that they are actually teaching them? They will come to believe that certain actions and events can be covered up, that responsibility does not have to be assumed.

It saddens me that Japanese schools teach students about the horrors of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet hide Japan's shameful history. I believe that presenting such an unbalanced view of history is a crime against humanity.

Every country has things to be ashamed about. Canada has the atrocious treatment of the native people, the United States the Indians and the African slaves, Germany THE HOLOCAUST, and Japan has the Asian war victims ("comfort women," the victims of Nanjing massacre ...) etc.The only way we can stop such terrible things from recurring is to teach our children about them, and hope they learn the valuable lessons offered by history. Otherwise, how can we ever hope to stop history from repeating itself?

First Step for Better Relationships With Asian Nations

Before and during the Pacific War, many Asians died in their pains and cries. Some of them were tortured and murdered by the Japanese imperial military.The grandfather of a Chinese-Canadian friend of mine once burst into tears while touching the scars on his face, talking to me about the Pacific War: "These are the scars from slashes made by Japanese soldiers, and I will never forget the bloody history of the war." A Korean-Canadian acquaintance told me that even though he wishes to make peace with Japanese people, it is still hard for him to forget the past because of the awful stories he heard from his grandmother: "Japanese soldiers raped women and girls. They beheaded anyone that offered any resistance."

Many Japanese veterans who moved to Canada after the war, and became Canadian citizens told me awful stories on how they were cruel to innocent people during the Pacific War. Most of them also said that they hated the Japanese system because they were brainwashed and betrayed by narrow-minded educators (parents, teacher, politicians, Shinto priests ...)

In 1995 then-Premier Murayama Tomiichi apologized to Asian nations for Japan's military aggression during the Pacific War. It was a good initiative to help alleviate the victim's sorrow and anger. But contrary to his words, some Japanese politicians continue to minimize atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in the past, or they simply act as if their nation has never done anything wrong.

On August 15 2006, Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro visited Yasukuni Shrine, his fifth annual visit to the shrine since he took office in April 2001. This shrine honors war dead, including Tojo Hideki, a class-A war criminal, who instructed his family to make no excuses before he was executed after the war.

The war happened decades ago, but I think it is our generation's duty to deal with the truth of history. If the Japanese government really wants to forge good genuine relations with its Asian neighbors, it must view history correctly and show sincerity in handling the sentiment of people that have suffered under Japan's militaristic aggression.

I think the prime minister's visit to Yasukuni Shrine again this year deeply hurt the feelings of most Asian people, and severely damaged Japan's image as a "peaceful nation" in the international community. At the same time, it is no doubt a real challenge to all peace-loving people in Japan and other Asian countries who seek friendly relationships with each other. His visit to Yasukuni Shrine has aroused deeper apprehension among Asians because it was not long since Japan had enacted emergency laws to deal with threats to national security.

I deeply believe the Japanese government must review its nation's past, reflect on it, vow not to repeat the same faults, and cooperate with other Asian nations. This will never be attained unless Japanese politicians, the media and the majority of Japanese citizens make serious efforts to make their own viewpoint on other Asian nations which were victimized by the Japanese imperial military in the past.

Inspiring Quote:
"People who have closed their eyes to the past, are blind in the present." (Richard Von Weizsacker / Former President of West Germany)