Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Clenched Fists

I happened upon a YouTube video the other day of Japanese military forces marching in parade.  I felt a physical reaction like my body was pulled in two directions.  In the first nanosecond I felt my feet move in rhythm and my back begin to stiffen.  In the second, I felt the urge to cry.  Japan, you’re breaking my heart.

I went to Japan for the first time in 1970 because of a job offer and not because I had any particular fascination with Japan.  I struggled with the place for most of the first two years I was there.  We just didn’t seem to be on the same wave length.  The “culture freaks” as we called them, the people who came to study Zen or martial arts or textile making or flower arranging or some other aspect of the kimono/sumo/archery/tea ceremony aspects of the culture, were all in one camp.  Business people and diplomats in another.  And English teachers, like me, were in yet another.  We seldom mixed and I think my fish-out-of-water loneliness in that alien land actually made me foster a lack of interest in shakuhachi/samisen/koto music and yearn for Italian food, the Grand Canyon and Brahms.  I used to say Japan made me proud to be of European origin.

But over time Japan got to me.  It began one quiet night as I was walking home in the dark from the train station.  I had already begun to take note of the sounds of the place, the chant of the sweet potato vendor, the sounds of water splashing as people bathed before the evening meal, the clack-clack of the geta on the pavement.  I had a sudden realization that I had come around. I wasn't missing the bold brash features of Western culture and dramatic scenery so much, or feeling the absence of the Grand Canyon and the trombones and kettle drums and the sweep of violins in a Western orchestra.  I was learning to appreciate the quiet sounds and the very private moments.  The snap of a fusuma, the thin moveable wall-like doors, when inadvertently shut too fast.  The wind chimes and the cicada and the clack of a bamboo water pipe in a Japanese garden snapping back into place.  

I began, in other words, to cultivate a private Japan all of my own.  Not the kind of excitement you get when coming across a good book or new piece of music you immediately want to share with others, but a set of experiences you want to know in solitude.  A sense you have crossed into another dimension, a time in your life for meditation and not analysis.

Japan in 1970 was not yet the powerhouse it would soon become.  There were still pockets of poverty.  The buildings looked makeshift – they were makeshift – and there were large empty fields of weeds.  One could find beauty if one knew where to look, but much of the place was unrelentingly ugly.  At the end of two years, I was ready to leave.  It took me another year and a half, but I did leave, thinking I’d gotten everything out of the place I was going to get.  I was happy to get home to San Francisco.

Only then did I realize how much Japan had changed me.  How many Japanese ways I had made my own, how much I had internalized the aesthetics, how much I was on the same wave length.  I continued to sleep on a futon, I hated it when kids on the bus got up on the seats with their shoes on, I warmed my hands on cups of green tea when it got cold. 

I will always remember watching Vietnamese struggling to get on a helicopter as the last one left from the American Embassy in Saigon.  I remember the aching feeling in my gut as I watched the ones who were left behind, realizing what misery was coming down on those who failed to make the cut.  The horror of war, and America’s part in it, was at the top of everybody’s consciousness in those days.

And I thought of Japan, and their peace constitution and their lack of a standing army, and I wanted to go back and be Japanese once more.

“And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”  I had heard that in church as a kid and I still loved both the poetry of the Elizabethan English and the thought itself.  We were the Christian nation, but Japan was way ahead of us, I thought, in institutionalizing the shalom of the Old Testament and the compassion of the New.  I was no longer a believer, but the intertwining of religion and culture I was raised in made me cynical about America and its warlike ways.  And it drew me back to Japan.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution reads:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 
In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized. 
It’s this last sentence that I resonate with the most.  Peace treaties and armistices and weapons reduction are easy.  It’s the human propensity to bully that’s hard to get rid of.  The right of belligerency will not be recognized.  If Japan had absolutely nothing else going for it, that sentence would make me a lover of all things Japanese.   Declaration is one thing and implementation is another, but at least they are bringing the problem into sharp relief and shaming it.

If all you knew about Japan was that they have a peace constitution, you might love it unabashedly.  Unfortunately, the real story is a much more complex one.  For one thing, the humiliation of Japan in the Second World War left many nationalists seething.  Like the folks in South Carolina flying the Dixie flag over their state capitol, there is no shortage of folk in Japan with their own notion of “save your Confederate money.”  These folk have never come to terms with the notion of “Self-Defense Forces.”  They insist enough time has gone by and it’s time for Japan to build its own army back up and be unapologetic about it.

The debate over military readiness is a complex one, and from where I sit there are good arguments to be made on both sides.  It’s an ugly world and advertising one’s vulnerability doesn’t strike me as the best way to go.  I’ve always thought it made sense for Japan to have some degree of military readiness.  But I’ve also liked the fact that you don’t see soldiers in uniform walking the streets, you don’t see military bands and the flag waving you see is usually at sports events where competitions are friendly and cooperative.  Japan, after centuries of imperialist abuse of Korea, agreed to host the 2002 World Cup in Soccer jointly with Korea, the first time any two countries had done such a thing, and peaceniks the world over celebrated.   If France and Germany could do it, why not Japan and Korea, they asked, and it was not an unreasonable question.

Unfortunately, this is not the whole story of Japan/Korea relations.  A poll taken recently in Korea showed 62% still believed that  Japan is a military threat.

Those thoughts came to mind when I came across that YouTube video of Japanese marching in tight formation.  Hands curled into fists raised high as they parade in stunning disciplined uniformity, not a hair out of line.  I realize I’m looking at it through American eyes.  We don’t goose-step, like the Germans did and the Russians and the North Koreans still do.  And we don’t lift our arms so high, like the Brits and their Commonwealth disciples do.  Possibly it’s just the cultural outsider lens I’m looking through, but it strikes me as terribly belligerent.

What is it in human nature that makes us such suckers for uniforms?  What is it about men standing tall and looking powerful?   It’s clearly a primal instinct.  Most people stop and watch a military band marching by and smile.  Kids will march alongside and adults will remark how cute it is to see them salute.  It’s the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and the images of little John-John saluting his father’s casket are everywhere.  We don’t even see it as a military gesture.

I’ve given up hoping America will come away from its love of its military.  Not as long, I imagine, as we remain a world imperial power.  It amazes me how effectively our media and our cultural belief in American exceptionalism have been keeping the population in line for decades now.  Richard Gere becomes An Officer and a Gentleman, and marches into the factory where Debra Winger works, sweeps her off her feet as her friends watch with tears in their eyes and the country celebrates this Cinderella experience as among the noblest of human aspirations.  It’s not just America.  Love of the military is primal and just as organized religion manipulates the fears of the ignorant and the powerless, the state manipulates the admiration of power.  When our feet move automatically to the sounds of John Philip Sousa, the state is ready to harness the force. 

Reasonable people will argue that the military is like fire, and they are right.  Misused, they can be the worst of killers and destroyers, but used for peace-keeping or in defense against chaos or aggression, a fighting force is not a bad thing.  The problem is that the line between defense and aggression blurs regularly and when we march in the band we are not calling the shots.   We take advantage of young people with limited opportunities and put them into uniform and boast we are “making a man out of them.”  And by man, we mean machine.  These days we do this to women, as well.

I’ve been caught up in this military mania for years now, against what I believe are my own best instincts.  When women fought to enter the military, I lent my voice to the cause.  There is no good reason on earth, I believe, why women should be held back from having anything men have or doing anything men do.  I considered it progress when the barriers fell to having women in the military.  I felt even more involved when the barriers were dismantled that had kept gays and lesbians from participating fully, and actually felt pride when I read the news of two men marrying at West Point.  In these cases, the importance of dignity and equality outweighed my desire to disassociate myself from the chief mechanism keeping imperialism afloat.  Now, some time after the fact, I sit and wonder what I let myself be a part of.

I can’t carry this any further than this.  Perhaps the dismantling of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution is inevitable.  Perhaps the celebration of force in Japan is benign and I’m falling prey to fear and pessimism.  But I couldn’t let it pass without commenting.

Japan isn’t what it was in the 1970s.  You don’t hear the sweet potato vendors much anymore, nor the sounds of samisen mixing with the clacking of geta as men and women make their way home from the public baths.  Where once I missed Italian food in Japan, these days my Japanese husband and I talk frequently of the Italian restaurants in the Tokyo area we miss so terribly.  Beethoven’s 9th is now a Japanese institution.  They call it, simply, the “Daiku” (Japanese for 9th) and do it up each year in the kind of mass celebrations of uniformity one finds only in Asia.  Japan is all caught up with the West, and in many ways out ahead.

And Japanese, when they march, look less and less like Americans and more and more like other military forces in their robotic movements and their no-nonsense demeanors.  It was the Americans who wrote Article 9, by the way, and pushed the Constitution through, and that’s part of the problem.  They had not yet developed the instinct for democracy – or so the line went – and we had to do it for them.  Today there is no justification, if there ever was, to taking the big brother role, and we can’t be surprised to take note they believe the time has come for them to slough off the influences of their American mentors.  That may include sloughing off Article 9, and eliminating the euphemism of “Self-Defense Forces.”  After all, they have the fifth largest military budget in the world, virtually on a par with Britain and France.

I wish I knew whether this is just paranoia speaking in my head.  Or whether the military bands of Japan, a pale comparison to the jingoism that passes for patriotism in the U.S., are simply harmless toys that adults like to play with.  Dress-up.  Like priests in silks and satin, simply ways of stroking the ego.  I remind myself regularly the “soldiers” in the Self-Defense forces are treated as if they were civilians; if they commit a crime they are tried in a regular court.  They have a lower military-to-civilian ratio than any country in NATO, and so far they, like the U.S., have trouble getting recruits.  There is reason to think things are pretty much kept in check.

But then there’s this damned YouTube of Japanese marching in lock-step and the music is unmistakably in the tradition of the Japanese military music of yesteryear, and the doubts creep in. I remember visiting the Yasukuni Shrine with my seminar students in Tokyo, where the exhibit begins with an explanation of how Japan had to go to war to free Asia from Western imperialism, to see with our own eyes how the English put out for foreign visitors tones down the jingoism of the original Japanese captions.   I've always thought these guys, even when supported by stupid politicians, were harmless kooks, not unlike the nazi thugs that show up in German cities from time to time and the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists in this country.

Go ahead and march if you must, I say to myself.  But can you not raise those clenched fists quite so high?

Maybe the answer to my fears of what’s becoming of Japan is never to play the military marches without playing the Daiku,  immediately thereafter.   And to look closer and see those white gloves raised high are on open hands and not actually on clenched fists.   Sometimes.

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