Saturday, April 24, 2004

Any takers?

Imagine your family sitting around the dinner table every night talking of world events. The topics run from corruption in government and the nation’s leading corporations, to SARS and AIDS, to the war in Iraq. Now suppose one of the children at this table says to you, "You old people, all you do is complain about how messed up the world is; none of you does anything about it!" And then suppose a few days later this child comes to you and announces, "I can’t stand just watching this misery. I’m going to Iraq to
try to do some good."

What is your response? "Go with my blessing!"? "Over my dead body!"? "Let George do it!"?

If you are Japanese, this is not an idle question these days.

When the first three hostages returned to Tokyo on Sunday, they faced signs saying, "You got what you deserved!" "You have disgraced the nation!" "Japan’s shame!"

The other day I took this debate into one of my classrooms and asked for written comments. Let me share a couple of them with you.

– they ignored the worries of the government and their family members. Life
does not belong (only) to the person who has it, but (to others as well).

– they should give some thought to what they have done.

– they went there (for their own reasons), not to benefit the country.

– they should have been more prepared, should have thought of the impact

– they were careless and gave the Japanese government trouble.

– Did Imai (the 18-year-old who went to protest the use of depleted uranium weapons) honestly believe he could do a scientific investigation on this issue without knowledge of science? He doesn’t even speak English!

– I think when a person takes a risk, and especially when the problem could involve the nation, they must think about the effects or impact they have.

I have selected only the criticism here and I need to point out that there was also some support for the efforts of the hostages, and distinctions drawn between the the initial three and the two journalists who were captured later. But in almost every case even those who were slow to blame suggested the five ought to be made to foot the bill for their rescue.

Norimitsu Onishi, the New York Times writer, put the story in a Japanese cultural context. "To the angry Japanese," he writes, "the three had acted selfishly." He was referring to Nahoko Takato, who started her own organization at age 34 to work with street children, Soichiro Koriyama, a 32-year-old freelance photographer, and Noriaki Imai, the 18-year-old kid upset over the use of depleted uranium munitions. But the two journalists, both in their 30s, have been caught up in similar criticism.

Onishi hints at the ancient Confucist sense of order where everyone knows his place, and the Japanese adaptation of that notion of virtue which emphasizes blind loyalty and a desire to view authority with a sense of gratitude for favors received. I’ve pushed this analysis a bit; Onishi simply refers to a "sin" of defying "okami" – "that which is higher."

One has to be careful not to fall into the trap of reducing an entire complex modern civilization to the values of only a segment of their numbers. I haven’t forgotten the diversity of responses from my students. And while it is still true that the "deru kugi" (the "nail that sticks up) gets hammered down perhaps more readily here than in a lot of places, the Japanese are not likely to go marching off to Manchuria simply because their
government tells them to, or line up to fly planes into battleships anymore. True, the Aum cult managed to get well-educated men and women to do unspeakable things because of this kind of loyalty but so did Jim Jones in Guyana. Mostly, Japanese are still reeling from this evidence of blind loyalty to a leader. Nobody believes Japanese are a nation of lemmings.

Still, this condemnation of the young idealists who ventured beyond the pale is troubling. This time it’s not a wacko cult leader demanding loyalty; it’s government.

Maybe they were careless. Do their families really deserve hate mail?
Maybe their timing was lousy. Should they really be forced to come up with $6000 for airfare home?

The Asahi Shimbun, perhaps Japan’s best government watchdog, had ten reporters in Iraq. It sent them all to Kuwait just as things got tough. That left nobody to report on the activities of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, currently defending themselves (if you can get your mind around that one) in Iraq. No accountability whatsoever for taxpayer money. Condemnation flows because three individuals cost some money for their
rescue. Yet troops hiding behind fortress walls (so I’m told AD how would I know for sure?) get a blank check for the duration. This is somebody’s idea of a democracy?

As I see it, the chill effect is going to be devastating to Japanese democracy in the long run. What are the chances now that a new generation of kids will go off to troubled areas of the world when the going gets rough? Having a knife at their throats was apparently the most stressful moment the hostages had ever experienced, says the Times writer. Until they got home, that is, turned on the television and saw the condemnation of their countrymen. They and their families are now afraid to show their faces.

"Reckless!" says the Environment Minister of Japan. Quite a different response from Colin Powell’s. This man, who one assumes fell on the sword of his principles and best judgment to remain influential in the Bush war machine, called the shots differently. "If nobody was willing to take a risk," he observed, "We would never move forward."

If this is what a nation does to its young idealists, makes them afraid to show their faces, maybe they ought to emigrate.

WANTED. Country interested in receiving young idealists with energy and enthusiasm, a willingness to take risks, a desire to help children, to gather accurate information, to resist war and to protect the environment. Must be willing to allow for the possibility of mistakes.

Any takers?

April 24, 2004