The mercilessly hot Japanese summer is mercifully short. It is also silly and serious in equal measure. There is the mundane business of summer vacations, parents keeping kids occupied with things to do, visiting family, Obon and Bon Odori. There is also the higher order level serious and silly connected with the end of the Pacific War. Part of my job includes helping out with an annual ceremony honoring all victims of the war and praying for World Peace at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery. It’s a quiet dignified ceremony, but the number of participants has dwindled since the time the ceremony was started in the early 1960s and continues to shrink every year.
The number of family members honoring their war dead at nearby Yasukuni Shine continues to shrink too, but I am always surprised by the growing number of silly noisy activists, from Japan and abroad, lining the sidewalks leading up to Yasukuni and Chidorigafuchi. They are far too young to have any direct connection with the war, yet their numbers swell each year. I don’t know who funds those groups but it’s a demented kind of matsuri festival vibe of people not connected with the war that’s not only in Japan but also Korea. That’s why I call the first half of August the silly season.
The recent Aichi prefecture art exhibit After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ tempest in a teacup is a perfect example of silly season nonsense. When perennial troublemaker Daisuke Tsuda first hinted that his latest effort might be controversial, I checked and saw all the classic signs of silly season: early August, check, burning pictures of Showa Emperor, check, Comfort Woman statue, check.
I knew the resulting brouhaha would turn out to be the perfect summer gift to Motoko Rich of the New York Times who loves to write articles that illustrate what a bad society Japan is, I was right. There are lots of western journalists who make good money in Japan by bashing it. It’s a kind of fun sport for them, but it’s not good journalism or reportage of what’s really going on in Japan.
The fuzzy origins of comfort woman statue used in the After ‘Freedom of Expression?’ exhibit are interesting. The statue was originally designed to commemorate the tragedy of two junior high school students killed by an American army truck in 2002. I had always wondered about the empty chair. As the Japanese tweet points out, the other statue was removed because the image didn’t translate well to the appearance of the Pacific War era, but the chair remained. The comfort woman statue is repurposed history that has grown into a cottage industry. It is said a comfort woman statue costs about 3 thousand dollars to make and is sold for installations 100 times that, often more. Nobody asks where or whom the money goes to.
There was a lot more silly season nonsense this week from the Washington Post too: How Japan’s failure to atone for past sins threatens the global economy. In it, Gregg A. Brazinsky makes his case that Japan removing South Korea from the A group of preferred nations for the export of semiconductor materials, and returning it to the B group where it had been up until 2004, is ‘economic war’ saying “Japan’s moves have already caused a spike in the price of memory chips and are having a chilling effect on the global tech market.”
Actually, there’s a glut of memory chips in the highly cyclical industry. Korean manufacturers are still experiencing an inventory glut that is expected to last until at least January 2020. It’s a sly deception that Brazinsky does later on in the piece by mixing comfort women and war labor issues, finally arriving at his punchline: “Japanese society has failed to acknowledge and show remorse for what its armies did during World War II.”
I seriously question the morality of forcing a highly flawed history narrative, or any historical narrative for that matter, on younger generations that have no connection with said history, and demand that they must atone for it. Even from the tiny vantage point of Chidorigafuchi, I guess all that money and effort spent on all those memorial ceremonies 60 years running to honor all victims of the Pacific War and pray for world peace doesn’t mean anything to Gregg A. Brazinsky.
One of the interesting things about living in Japan is that there are lots of Koreans living here who don’t agree with the history narratives reported in the media like the New York Time and Washington Post. Particularly for the generation who lived during those times. One elderly Korean woman who’s family moved to Japan in the 1930s lectured me for over an hour once saying, “the Japanese were stern but fair.” Her family had done well, with her brothers and sons getting a good education, becoming lawyers and successful businessmen. Her story of those times is remarkably similar to others I have heard over the years and the one that Seoul University emeritus professor Lee Young-hoon discusses in a Japan Forward piece from 2017.
One of the hardest lessons I have learned from living in Japan a long time, is that things are never what they seem, and that history is just like any human creation. Like any human creation, like religion or philosophy, history can be used for good purposes or bad. History comes with a point of view, an ego, and the agenda of the person telling the narrative. It’s one small piece of a larger story that we, as outsiders, can never truly know.
To me, if history is not living in the history book, it’s being used as a tool to get something in the here and now, be it money or power politics. That’s not history, it’s something else. Two history wrongs don’t make a history right. Nothing can. That’s the reason I don’t listen to media reports about the Japanese, Korean or Chinese ‘history problems’ anymore. I listen to people, one on one, but not the media.
Tomorrow, August 16, is Okuribi, the small flames set outside a house at the end of Obon, sending the family ancestors back to heaven after honoring them. It marks the end of summer and the silly season, a slow return to regular life.
As we move farther away from the events and the people who lived in past times, it’s less about history, more about us. There’s a Buddhist saying that forgetting about ancestors is just as important as remembering them, it’s all part of respecting them. At some point we must let go and move forward to better things that I truly believe the people of those time wished us to do.