Tomorrow is August 15th - the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. It is still a massively significant day here (the photo to the right is of some of the chaos I witnessed on the anniversary in 2008), and I had a really powerful conversation today that illuminates why that is. I met the mother of the man who owns the hostel I’ve been staying at, a very outgoing and incredibly warm 73 year old Japanese woman. Her son, who I’d say is in his fifties, is an amazing guy – an ambitious but principled businessman who runs several really fantastic traveler’s hotels and short-term residences in Tokyo and beyond (you can read about his Indonesian vacation spot here). Of course, he’s an individual first and foremost, but I can’t help thinking of him as an ethical model for the path Japanese society can and should take in its social attitudes towards difference. This is a guy who has built his livelihood on the ideal that people from different parts of the world can get to know one another, and grow from that. Part of what has made my friend so interesting, without a doubt, was his upbringing, which involved about ten years living in Saudi Arabia because of his father’s work – predictably, Japanese who grow up in international or unusual contexts tend to have more cosmopolitan perspectives.
Talking to his mother, though, really highlighted some of the potential difficulties of Japan as a society traveling a like path.
In the course of our chat, she made the inevitable observation about how small and cramped Tokyo was and how small Japanese people are, etc etc . . . anyway, it’s trope that apparently even interesting and broad-minded Japanese people can’t resist. I mentioned that Japanese kids are much taller these days, and the conversation suddenly took a very serious turn, as she cited the change in Japanese diet in the past few decades, and went on to recount her own experience of near-starvation in the years following World War II.
The widespread hunger and grinding poverty that were caused by the war and its aftermath are largely unknown to Americans, but this woman’s story was characteristic of others I’ve read. She described subsisting on edible plants growing in Tokyo, never enough to abate the agony of hunger. These are things I literally cannot imagine. My grandmother has told me a bit about the Depression, but her family’s woes seemed mainly to include putting the car up on blocks and doing more hunting. What happened in Japan, and I would imagine the cities in particular, was mass starvation, homelessness, and destitution of a sort that modern America has never seen (at least in concentration).
John Dower’s Embracing Defeat richly describes the difficulties faced by American occupation authorities in trying to repair the massive economic damage wrought by Japan’s generals on its populace. But understandably, the postwar is equally open to interpretation as something attributable to the Americans – during this time, they were certainly more visible and available targets of anger than the generals, as G.I.s gallivanted around the country, living a lifestyle that must have been almost unbearable for starving Japanese to witness. It’s either in Dower’s book or Miriam Silverberg’s Erotic Grotesque Nonsense that you can find jarring photos of American military families sitting down to swollen feasts in their sprawling Western-style houses, served by Japanese who no doubt went home to some degree of privation and squalor.
My friends’ mother, though, projected no resentment or sense of victimization as she recounted her memories of hunger. It was clear it has been an awful time for her and her family, but she was telling me about it to explain her motivation for raising money for Unicef – because of what she had experienced, she found it impossible to ignore the suffering of children in places like Chile and Haiti, whose natural disasters may be the closest possible analogue to the devastation she lived through. And she was thrilled to see Japan becoming more open to foreigners, describing with great animation the friendliness she’d seen between young Japanese and travelers in the Koenji neighborhood where the hostel is located.
This is maybe one of the most amazing displays of magnanimity I’ve ever seen. I’d speculate this is in part thanks to this woman holding a subtle view of the war and its aftermath, one that lays responsibility not just at the feet of the American occupiers but also the Japanese authorities’ manipulation and disregard for the peoples’ welfare. This sort of view is not rare in Japan, but it’s easy to see just how much of a challenge it must be to translate such political consciousness into a really tolerant way of being in the world, and in turn how difficult it will be to erode Japan’s entrenched resistance to multiculturalism and internationalism. (These are trite ideals that in an American context I think we're ready to move beyond. But as a friend of mine recently remarked after her first three months in the country, "I didn't know what conservative meant until I came to Japan." The road here is longer.) This woman was not superannuated, and she was not the youngest person to experience postwar poverty. I’m sure (because I’ve met some of them) that there are many in her age group who nurse a profound and understandable resentment towards America and Americans, and moreover, that many if not most of these have, in ways subtle and direct, passed that along to their children, the Japanese Baby Boomers who now set the national agenda. These are the men and women arrayed against the likes of my friend the hostel owner, those who are working to free Japan from this resentment.
After talking to my friends’ mother, though she represents the forces of openness and even love, I waver in my feelings about which side of this struggle is right. My mind is clear – economically and politically, openness and tolerance are Japan’s only hope. But in my heart, there are other forces at work than pragmatism. The Japanese people have experienced profound suffering, even if it’s not as much as has been inflicted on others in their name. And while those memories are now relentlessly exploited by politicians in various ways, it would be at least as venal to say that either they or their darkness should be expunged. There’s a part of me, however, shadowy and illogical, that thinks these people deserve their paranoia and resentment. Such sentiments will never move Japan forward as a society, but if I had to live every day of my life with the memory of nearly starving to death, I’m sure their gloomy companionship would be a nearly irresistible comfort.