Friday, August 7, 2009

Japanese community festivals, national reconciliation, and Iraq

There are two people whose writing ability I would trade body parts for: Christopher Hitchens and David Foster Wallace. Two completely different styles, obviously, and it's hard to imagine content more varied. But both guys are just such an absolute pleasure to read that I really don't care much what the subject is. I've read everything DFW ever wrote (from tennis to cruise ships to lobster festivals and more), and I try to keep up with Hitchens as best I can (though he's so prolific that it's difficult).

In this week's Fighting Words -- Hitchens' weekly column for Slate -- we're met with a sort of sappy sentimentalism you don't normally see from the world's crankiest public intellectual. The spark for all this: a festival in California. Hitchens elaborates:

This time every summer I begin to suspect myself of going soft and becoming optimistic and sentimental. The mood passes, I need hardly add, but while it is upon me, it amounts to a real thing. On the first weekend of every August, in Palo Alto, Calif., the Japanese community opens the doors of its temple and school in order to invite guests and outsiders to celebrate the Obon Festival.

Ancestor-oriented celebrations are not exactly my thing, but there is a very calm and charming way in which the Japanese use this particular moment in the lunar calendar to remember those who have preceded them and to make the occasion a general fiesta. (I suppose the nearest regional equivalent would be the Mexican Day of the Dead.) The clement weather allows the wearing of the lighter yukata, or summer kimono, and the staging of the Bon Odori dance, in which all can join, to the soft rhythm of taiko drums. For the rest of the time, the yagura, or wooden scaffold, is the center of a sort of fairground, in which stalls and raffles compete for custom with the sellers of sake and Japanese beer and with an amazing teriyaki buffet.

There's a large turnout of non-Japanese for these attractions, getting larger every year it seems to me, but it doesn't succeed in swamping the main event or in making it into a mere tourist attraction. You come across a group of grave and serious Japanese gardeners, engaged in the judging of a bonsai competition, and you suddenly appreciate that nothing can turn this consideration into a hucksterish sideshow. (One day, perhaps, someone will write something serious about the Japanese genius for small things and for miniaturization, which extends from carvings to plants to the idea of painting on grains of rice and which seemed at one point to lead the world in the concept of the microchip.)

If you've read his stuff before, you'll be a little surprised to see Christopher Hitchens singing the praises of a pseudo-religious, ethnic-identity based celebration -- this is, after all, the author of God is Not Great, among other forceful explications of secular humanism. So why all the gushing? Well, perhaps because it's easy to see how it all could have gone so much differently.

In the United States, and especially in California, the war against Japanese imperialism was also accompanied by collective punishment of Japanese-Americans and the sequestration of their persons and property. When I first came to the Bay Area in 1970, I was introduced by Carey MacWilliams, a great historian of the state, to Lou Goldblatt of the longshoremen's union, one of the very few public figures to have opposed the indiscriminate internment. It was a crime committed largely by liberals like Earl Warren, as many people prefer to forget, and was even supported at the time by the Communist Party. (Actually, why do I say even? Communists by then were getting pretty used to supporting mass roundups and deportations.)

Hatred and fear and bigotry were probably never more general or more strongly felt than against Japanese people in America in the period between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima/Nagasaki, and Hollywood and the comic book industry kept the feeling alive for some years afterward. Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas drew howls of laughter when he said a kind word to young Rep. Daniel Inouye, who had lost a limb fighting for America in Europe, and—thanked for taking the trouble to notice the newcomer—roared: "Ain't no trick to it! How many one-armed Japs we got around here?"* (Actually, I think that was pretty funny.)

It may be that this narrative resonates more with me than most: my twin brother's wife is a fourth-generation Japanese-American from California. Her grandparents met and married behind a fence at the Manzanar internment camp. Lest we forget, this was a mere six decades ago, and in perhaps the freest and most open society man has ever known.

And so, the point?

Well, my point is that under the azure blue skies that prevailed all of last weekend, you would not have known that any of the bitterness and misery had ever taken place. There were old people present, Japanese and non-Japanese, who had a real memory of it. And there were young people to whom, if it occurs at all, it must seem prehistoric. But there was no awkwardness; no "making nice," no pretense of a false coexistence. All could meet under the great roof of a secular multiethnic democracy, and all did, sharing the food and the music and admiring one another's children. And if this of all reconciliations can occur, without it even having to call itself a reconciliation, then perhaps we are not all heading for hell on a sled as fast as we sometimes think. Ernest Renan said that to form a common nation, people had to agree to remember a few things but also to forget a few things. Without undue amnesia, and without being mandated or enforced or policed, this maxim seems to have been followed naturally in this case.

So why is this meaningful? Well, if for nothing else, then simply because it reminds us how recently our world was riven with violence on a scale nearly unimaginable to those of us born in the latter part of the 20th century. In living memory, as they say. No matter what you think about the necessity or morality of the whole deal, it's a matter of record that hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were immolated by American bombs. Those people were the mothers and fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and so on of people who lived and live in this country. And yet by and large their descendants don't rage against this historic iniquity, don't seek reparations, don't consider blowing themselves up in shopping malls or airplanes to right the wrongs visited on their ancestors.

And so what? Well, it sort of gives you hope for a place like Iraq, doesn't it? Ok, if not hope, then at least some vague precedent. I know there are a host of differences in these scenarios. I know that there are massive, meaningful dissimilarities in culture, religion, economics, government, level of development, national character, and so on that inform and control the ways that different populations respond to conflict and injustice. Japan wasn't gripped with insurgency or civil war after the 1945 surrender. The two scenarios have almost nothing in common, except for this: in both places, awful things happened to people, many of whom were innocent.

Somehow Japan has emerged from that experience as a strong and vibrant democracy, the Japanese people are free of anti-American grudge, and our country hosts a large and incredibly well-integrated ethnically Japanese population. How did all this happen? Why did it happen to the Japanese, and how do we help other populations recover from conflict with similar resiliency? I can't answer those questions and I'm not sure anyone can nail it down, though I'm sure there are people who can speak to them in some kind of meaningful way.

So when I see people saying that there's no chance that Iraq will become an integrated, peaceful, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional modern state, I consider what our grandfathers must've thought in 1945: did the Germans -- hell, Nazis! -- seem amenable to reconciliation, to integration into the European political and economic framework? Did the Japanese -- those very same Japanese who showed such wanton disregard for their own lives as to fly suicide missions in airplanes or run as waves into enemy guns?

Maybe I, like Hitchens, am feeling a little loopy, intoxicated with optimism. (Just not about Afghanistan, I guess.) But it's worth keeping in mind sometimes that there was a time when the world was more hateful, more dangerous, more fractured, more violent, and all around shittier than it is today, and some of those things in some of those places have changed for the better. So don't cross your fingers or anything, but maybe consider the fact that a century and a half ago, Americans were shooting one another up, too.

14 comments:

  1. "perhaps the freest and most open society man has ever known"

    You're kidding, right?

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  2. You're kidding, right?

    I mostly included that just to tweak you frog-eaters, what with your laicite and "Reign of Terror."

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  3. Yeah, and as long as you don't say the original comment to certain ethnicities from our more southern states. They might disagree a bit.

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  4. Yeah, and as long as you don't say the original comment to certain ethnicities from our more southern states. They might disagree a bit.

    Seriously though, there have been moments of un-freedom, just as there have been in other states. But for tolerance and freedom of expression in a major global power, who's the competition? We had the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the McCarthyite period, but isn't it fair to say that the U.S. is the country you'd least expect to imprison its own citizens for the misfortune of sharing ancestors with America's contemporary enemy?

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  5. I think Gunslinger was dead serious, and I second his comment.

    And no, the US is not the country I would least expect to imprison its own citizens for the misfortune of sharing ancestors with America's contemporary enemy. That could be true of any European democracy.

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  6. I think Gunslinger was dead serious, and I second his comment.

    I think he was serious, too. I don't think that the way ethnic minorities are treated in Europe gives you a tremendous amount of high ground here, though.

    That could be true of any European democracy.

    Sure, it could. But it's funny you should say that, considering the distinguished history of European democracies locking up their enemy ethnics during WWII, too.

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  7. "And no, the US is not the country I would least expect to imprison its own citizens for the misfortune of sharing ancestors with America's contemporary enemy?"

    Err... Do you honestly think the UK is less or equally likely to imprison its own citizens who share ancestry with America's contemporary enemy? Also, Gulliver's point is that no MAJOR global power can be viewed like the US in this regard.

    I do agree with Gunslinger about how blacks would view the earlier statement.

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  8. Are you seriously comparing the situation of African-Americans in the US in the 1950s with the situation of ethnic minorities in Western Europe today? Gulliver, this is ludicrous, and beneath you.

    And your second point is not a response to mine. Sure European democracies are not exempt of criticism for how they treated their enemy ethnics in WWII, far from that. Just like the US was. I do contend, however, that it was somehow expected from them to behave so, while with the US it really came as surprise since the US is "LEAST likely to imprison its citizens, etc."

    This whole discourse about "We are the most tolerant and freedom-loving people in the world, and everything wrong we did was an accident, while for other nations it is in their wicked and imperfect nature" is just naive beyond words and intellectually consternating.

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  9. Are you seriously comparing the situation of African-Americans in the US in the 1950s with the situation of ethnic minorities in Western Europe today?

    No, I'm not. I'm also not sure why you would imagine that I was doing so.

    And your second point is not a response to mine. Sure European democracies are not exempt of criticism for how they treated their enemy ethnics in WWII, far from that. Just like the US was. I do contend, however, that it was somehow expected from them to behave so, while with the US it really came as surprise since the US is "LEAST likely to imprison its citizens, etc."

    I think you're reading your own frustrations into this. For one thing, I wrote "perhaps the freest and most open society man has ever known." I thought it was pretty clear that I was saying that that U.S. is at least in the conversation, not that it's the clear leader. It seems obvious to me that the UK, Australia, and many of our other "Western" brethren are comparably free and open.

    This whole discourse about "We are the most tolerant and freedom-loving people in the world, and everything wrong we did was an accident, while for other nations it is in their wicked and imperfect nature" is just naive beyond words and intellectually consternating.

    "This whole discourse" isn't coming from me. Who said it was an accident? Do I think the internment of the Japanese was out of character? Sure. Surprising? Probably not. Disappointing? Of course.

    But have you ever seen me suggest that the settlement of the West and the attendant atrocities committed against native Americans were "an accident"? Or the use of the atomic bomb? Or American behavior in Iran, El Salvador, Chile, Congo, etc? There may be other people who are trumpeting American exceptionalism and talking about how all of this just wasn't that bad, but it's not me.

    America is a country just like every other, and she often acts brutally and unfairly and short-sightedly and without justice in her foreign policy just as every other country has, and ever will.

    Now having said all that, I'm not going to be lectured about tolerance, justice, and evils of segregation by citizens of "European democracies" that have engaged in genocide, colonial war, and the ghettoization of immigrant communities. I need not remind you that while the U.S. government was interning Japanese-Americans, other countries that we now call "European democracies" were rounding up and gassing Jews, and/or shipping them to their neighbors to take care of the dirty work.

    But then we seem to have lost the bubble here. Can't we all just get along?

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  10. "America is a country just like every other, and she often acts brutally and unfairly and short-sightedly and without justice in her foreign policy just as every other country has, and ever will."

    Now we are on the same page.

    "I'm not going to be lectured about tolerance, justice, and evils of segregation by citizens of "European democracies" that have engaged in genocide, colonial war, and the ghettoization of immigrant communities."

    Nor do I intend to do so. (although why you would put European democracies into quotation signs is another question, which I will refrain from rising to get to my last point--and I will also try not to get into the US-side of the "ghettoization of immigrant communities")

    "Can't we all just get along?"

    Sounds like the right conclusion, and I sure agree.

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  11. although why you would put European democracies into quotation signs is another question

    To briefly explain myself here (and my lack of clarity means explanation is probably necessary): I was using quotation marks in order to signify my understanding that we were talking about countries that are democracies today, but some of which were not during the historical era we're harkening back to. I wasn't meaning to disparage the legitimacy of modern European democracies, of course. It was a pretty idiotic way to try to signify that, but that's what I was going for: a reminder that many of the democracies quite recently were not.

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  12. "And so what? Well, it sort of gives you hope for a place like Iraq, doesn't it? Ok, if not hope, then at least some vague precedent."

    Oh, that's just silly. A key lesson from the war in Japan and Germany was that total war had to leave an enemy's military, economy and "population" nearly completely supine in order to defeat them.

    Such a population makes for easier stewardship, made easier still when it's largely homogeneous.

    The many peoples of Iraq won't have it this way. Rather than look to post-war Japan or Germany as a model, why wouldn't anyone look to, uhhhh, IRAQ?

    It's not as if this is the first war that's decimated the "nation," the first time that it's emerged from a civil war or even the first time that it's left a colonial arrangement.

    What did those versions of Iraq resemble? The Japan of, say, 2009? Or something quite different?

    'For one thing, I wrote "perhaps the freest and most open society man has ever known." '

    OK. That was PERHAPS one of the most asinine things I've ever read.

    Makes you feel better now, right?


    SNLII

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  13. "It may be that this narrative resonates more with me than most: my twin brother's wife is a fourth-generation Japanese-American from California. Her grandparents met and married behind a fence at the Manzanar internment camp. Lest we forget, this was a mere six decades ago, and in perhaps the freest and most open society man has ever known."

    *One of* the freest and most open societies man has ever known, surely, and a truly unique experiment! A lovely and heartbreaking and cruel and wonderful experiment! I sort of love this place. Not even sort of, really. Which is not to excuse the ugliness of internment camps. How vile human beings are to one another.

    Anyway, Gulliver, I love to hear how people came to this country. I always want to know the stories. As a child I was obsessed with immigrant and pioneer stories: Oh Pioneers!, Willa Cather, Little House on the Prairie, Anzia Yezierska (okay, that was college). It's pretty easy to see what I was doing: writing myself into the American story. I came up before Slumdog Millionaire and Sanjay Gupta, you know? And only one of a handful of browns growing up in a college town in the middle of a square Midwestern state. A Bharati Mukherjee short story realized. She was at the Iowa Writer's Workshop for many years so it makes sense. In winter, the wind blows through snowy and frozen cornfields and every kid wonders just when the heck they can escape the dreariness! Funny to be so provincial and worldly at the same time. And, yet, I have memories - okay they are my parents' recollections - that are so sweet, so in keeping with the piece linked above, that I'm not sure you will believe me if I told you. How gentle and kind people were to a young Indian couple, excited to be in America and finding the whole thing an adventure, a father eager to study and a mother glad she had brought her baby to a new life.

    I don't know where I am going with all of this, except, I think Hitchens is describing a moment of beauty and beauty should be noted. The world is such an utter POS that family and beauty are about the only things that make any sense.

    *Despite all the sentiment and nostalgia above, I don't think our experiment is being recreated in Iraq, but I sure hope I am wrong.

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  14. Gully (and Co.),

    Totally unrelated.

    But have you read the piece "The Interrelationship of Culture, Economics..." over at SWJ yet? I think this piece hits on an issue not discussed much on COIN blogs: Culture. I have said numerous times that COIN theory is derived from social-constuctivism and a belief that outside forces can in a sense "change" cultures. I agree that cutlures change, but I believe it must happen organically, and there are limits to how an outside party can affect a state/nation's culture.

    Let us know what you think.

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