Sunday, March 06, 2005
Japanese Responses In The Age Of Terrorism
It’s been over two years now since the terrorist attacks on America occurred. The events of that time, their aftermath, and consequences, have elicited a variety of reactions from individuals around the world.
It's, no doubt, difficult to accurately gauge how an entire country may feel about significant historical events and conditions, yet one can probably discern some general impressions over time.
Those of us who live abroad form different impressions of the people we now live among. Some disdain their new homes. Some idealize and adore them. I’ve lived in Japan for four years now. There is little bad that I can say about the country or its people and I generally don’t hear much criticism from them toward my country.
Regarding the circumstances surrounding 9/11 and its aftermath, I’d have to say that most Japanese have generally been rather passive in their appraisals. The far away events in the war on terrorism, though significant, have just basically been TV news items until recently. The issue has taken on greater significance now as the Japanese Self- Defense Forces (their military) have begun their assistance effort in Iraq, helping to rebuild from the damage and deterioration that had taken place over decades of Baathist rule.
The decision to send Japanese troops to Iraq was a highly controversial one, with Japan’s Prime Minister Koizumi being in full support of the American President and his goals throughout the conflict. Opposition parties in Japan have been thoroughly against any involvement, often citing the usual cliché diatribes about American “hegemony.” Koizumi’s opposition has framed the issue as one of supporting America in “it’s war.” The truth is, self-defense forces will be acting as providers of humanitarian assistance. When the red cross goes to a country to assist, even if it’s a dangerous environment with an insurgency, no one suggest that they are going there to help “fight a war.” But still, to the Jacobin rabble, it sounds better to continue the stale anti-war whine. In opinion polls the population is relatively split on the issue.
The Japanese like what is “trendy.” I don’t mean that to be a critical appraisal. It’s probably a common trait around the world to wish to be in synch with current fashions, technical advancements, and social/political ideals. Here, it appears to be more so, and enough international media bias can certainly sway many. After all, “the world was against the war” (if one credits a few vocal countries as being “the world”).
Japan, at this point in its history is very much a middle class culture. I think that’s a good thing, but it does carry with it a somewhat superficial quality.
During the war in Afghanistan, it was the rage among teenagers here to use a portrait of Bin Laden on their cell-phone screens. This bizarre and rather kitsch manifestation wasn’t the result of a philosophical stand (as it no doubt would have been if it occurred in France or Germany). It was just something that caught on like a hairstyle, so “everyone did it.”
Being anti-war can be trendy too. It doesn’t have to be the result of passionate conviction. It just sounds good. “Are you opposed to dropping bombs on babies?”… “Well, …yeah.” “Congratulations, your wearing the right clothes and your views on life are okay too.”
Most Japanese that I encountered weren’t outspoken against America’s recent war efforts. It was hard to really tell what they thought. Immediately after 9/11 many students at the English school I teach at expressed sympathy, but it was more an act of decorum than a concern regarding an unprecedented historical event.
Aside from the “average” citizen in Japan, one also finds a rabble of Jacobin protestors, small but loud demagogues organized by radical Leftist groups and political partisans. Occasionally - as during the attack on Baghdad - small groups of Socialist or Communists (is there really a difference?) blared their rants from loudspeakers and handed out leaflets portraying cartoon caricatures of cruel American soldiers stomping on cowering Iraqi families and their children. In 2003 they had managed to replicate the artistic style of 1930’s posters from Stalinist Russia (the Socialist aesthetic sense never changes). The cartoons certainly didn’t capture the reality of 19year old kids risking their lives to thwart the new face of Fascism in the world.
Businessmen and old ladies took the leaflets the way they would a page of coupons for the local supermarket. No doubt, the picture convinced them that “war is bad.”
To some, the mere fact that America was dropping bombs anywhere (regardless of the reason) was “wrong.”
It so happens that the town I live in, Nagaoka, was bombed heavily in the Second World War (being the boyhood home of General Yamamoto who directed the raid on Pearl Harbor). Every year at the beginning of August the town has a massive fireworks display to remember the incident but, to most it’s just a firework display. Older people I’ve talked to here are certainly aware of the larger context of events at that time. In Hiroshima, that is not the case. The Mayor of that famous city yearly memorializes the dropping of the atomic bomb with an aggressive Left-wing rant. This last year, President Bush and the war in Iraq was part of his sermon. In such lectures, it is often stated that the US was the “only country to have used nuclear weapons,” implying that America, at present, is a greater threat than North Korea. Context is never an issue and such diatribes certainly wouldn’t include reference to the first massive aerial bombardment of civilians by the Imperial Army in China.
Hiroshima’s Mayor and some Leftists political parties are, by far, the exceptions in anti-war expression here. I only experienced two incidents were a Japanese person speaking directly to me, took the typical line one would expect to hear in Europe.
One student (a rather unusual guy overall) commented on events in Iraq with a cliché whine that “American’s are in Iraq because of oil…everyone knows about American’s love for oil….” I didn’t point out the obvious to him, that Japan is well stocked with cars and all the other oil eating machinery of modern life. I asked him if he had a car. Of course, he did, to which I could - honestly - respond that I hadn’t had one in the last twenty years, meaning his “lust for oil” likely exceeded his American teacher’s.
Another -- again, very rare -- example of anti-US sentiments came from a local Bar owner who had just seen “Bowling for Columbine,” Michael Moore’s latest dishonest screed on why he hates his country. This woman is not a “typical” Japanese, having once been in a religious cult, and making known on other occasions, that her sympathies are with Leftist politics. (Although I don’t think she would favor nationalizing her own profit making enterprise).
Her response to Moore’s film was that she’s “very afraid [of America]” She later added, “American’s are stupid.” I had to remind her that I was from America, “Do you think I’m stupid?” She hastily came back with, “No, Bush! Bush is stupid!” Miraculously, her response of fear to Michael Moore’s phony film polemic had now transformed into the mantra of Leftists worldwide - “Bush is stupid.” Lacking a basic understanding of capitalism, she failed to notice that Michael Moore wasn’t the one sitting in her bar as a frequent paying customer.
In both of these instances, I realized that I was not countering the arguments of a Japanese person per se, but I was responding to the idealized slogans of the Left-Wing international worldview. In that regard, I might as well have been in a coffee shop in a college town in the US.
These rare personal encounters aside, the present leadership of Japan is rather sympathetic to the US position. The present Japanese government does not see itself as being immune to the dangers of far-off religious and political fanaticism. Japan has some related immediate problems with its crude and bizarre neighbor, North Korea. Prime Minister Koizumi made the very accurate observation that, if attacked, the US was the only country that would come to Japan’s defense. (I’m sure France, Germany, and Russia would express their concern and maybe establish a committee to consider a public outcry).
Where Japan does get a more “cosmopolitan” and very biased view of America’s war situation is in the international media.
During the war and its immediate aftermath it was quite common to view the “perspectives” of the BBC and Al Jezeera on local state sponsored television. This of course meant nightly footage of screaming babies in hospitals. Like what is reported in most of the international media, the present “news” from Iraq is rather top-heavy on “resistance [by former Baathist insurgents and foreign Islamo-fascists]” and chaos. The fact that much of Iraq is actually stable, free, and recovering from the ravages of a ruthless dictatorship, is not news in New York, London, or Tokyo.
Even in bookstores, this kind of info-spin is quite prevalent. In the nearby city of Niigata, there’s a bookstore with a good-sized section of English books. Amongst the non-fiction, there is a virtual shrine, prominently pushing the rants of Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and a host of other writers with the common theme of critiquing America’s “imperial” evil. Best selling books by conservative authors are not to be found. Perhaps my criticisms in this regard are unjustified, for there appears to be little market among English readers here for sober thoughts on America or political matters in general.
The Gaijiin (non-Japanese) population is a true enclave of Anti-Americanism in Japan. From Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as America itself, the pampered children of the modern Liberal arts education come to play in Japan for a few years. If one believes their typical discourse, they stand for “justice,” “equality,” and non-stop backpacking trips in far away places. These are the pampered middle and upper middle class bourgeoisie bohemians that William grim describes so well in "The Ugly American Expatriate." One hears their views weekly at local bars. With drunken insight, they itemize the horrors of “American Imperial Hegemony,” the “dangers of George Bush,” and an ideal world of centralized Socialist political authority (love for authority is now seen as a stance of “rebels.”) When you’re on a Boing 747 four times a year, you’ve got to hate capitalism. I’ve found, on more than one occasion, that one dare not challenge the radical orthodoxy. In many ways they’ve brought the politically correct constraints of their universities with them to Japan. I’ve learned that reasoned disagreement is futile. To this crowd, one can only be Left wing and “anti-war” or greedy, selfish, mean-spirited, ignorant, and just plain unable to “see the truth.”
Fortunately, I’m in Japan and at other tables there are Japanese people talking about snowboarding and romantic intrigue. My choice is to sit with the Gaijiins and be asked if I think “holding prisoners at Guantonamo Bay is a criminal act,” or talk with the Japanese and be asked if I “like sushi.”
I like sushi.