Ode to Nihon, Past and Future

Trip Start Sep 14, 2006
Trip End Dec 05, 2006

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Flag of Japan  ,
Sunday, October 1, 2006

*** Things I Love About Japan ***

-Nice nice people.

-Happy music playing here, there & everywhere.

-Envy of the World Internet Cafes with comfy slippers & free drink.

-Leaving my bags & palm pilot unattended in trains & restaurants.

-Men in a multitude of private uniforms - directing traffic exiting a parking garage, guiding you around sidewalk work projects, etc.

-Frequent english (romaji) writing.

-Melon soda, cheap sushi, & beer from vending machines.

-Photos & prices of food before you enter a restaurant.

-Nice NICE people.


Oh Japan, so glad i came to see what you're all about. It's very hilly here, and I've come to like being called Blian.

I do struggle with complex slipper protocols in some places. Removing shoes at entrance, this I can understand. Ok - but then one pair of slippers for most rooms, but remove them for tatami (straw mat areas like for sleeping), and another pair to change into for bathroom visits (make sure to leave prior slippers in right place, and don't forget to leave bathroom slippers behind where they belong), and occasionally a still different pair for odd-numbered Thursday afternoons between 5 and 5:30...

So in Nagasaki for final day or so. Nagasaki has amazing history - 'twas Japan's only trickle of a link with the western world for 150ish years of intense self-imposed seclusion. After initial Portugese & Dutch traders arrived in 1500s there was much interest in western technologies, but foreign-ness & Christianity were viewed as threats and, coupled with good ol' fashioned xenophobia, Japan fearfully slammed its doors. In 1597, 6 Spanish friars and 20 Japanese (some were teenage boys) were crucified here if you doubt the power of fear-of-other... Penalty of death for any Japanese who traveled abroad, and the Dutch (who were viewed as being more motivated by trade, versus Catholic Portugese & Spanish), were confined to a small island in Nagasaki harbor where only a few local merchants & prostitutes were allowed.
In mid 1800s, the Meiji Restoration removed power from military shoguns, restored the emperor, and opened the doors again to a hunger for western ideas, from cannons to baseball.

Visiting Hiroshima & Nagasaki, it's of course their nuclear histories (sorry George, nook-yoo-luhr) that come to mind. Each city has a monument marking the hypocenter of the ww2 bomb and a museum nearby. Multiple schoolgroups were present at each place, and I wonder about what these young Japanese think when they visit. They seem like kids on any field trip, a little fidgety bored, a little interested.

As a lover & student of history, I do not feel guilt when I visit these places. I believe we cannot judge the past according to subsequent knowledge - living the bloody horrors of war in the 1940s, the Allies' decision to use a new technology was made without a crystal ball into the future. Einstein & Szilard wrote to Roosevelt urging Manhattan project for fear of Germany developing it first.
I think the key question for us now, living in our now, is how do we proceed? These museums do an only ok job of mentioning Japanese aggression in the 30s & 40s. To its credit, Hiroshima museum mentions Nanking massacre and invasions of Manchuria, Malaysia, Philippines, as well as Pearl Harbor. They could learn however, from modern Germany, which is to be immensely honored for its more unblinking efforts to confront its evil and to enshrine places like Dachau, rather than bulldozing them away.

Ego is usually the key culprit.

These Japanese museums both say "the war was viewed by Japanese people as a crusade - their natural right to control other places", and it is this ego, this blindness to the reality of the other, that troubles us. A small Nagasaki museum named 'Nyokodo' commemorates Dr. Nagai, a Japanese Christian who treated hundreds of radiation victims before himself dying of leukemia. The museum's name translates as the core Christian mantra of "love thy neighbor as thyself". Buddhism shares this core, and the very word Islam means submission of self. The absence of ego seems to be an oft-stressed theme.
I do see these two cities as a lesson for current nuclear nuttiness, but they are to me primarily about all war, and the now-more-than-ever need to understand the shrinking world in which we live, and the realities of the other.
I've asked myself 'how could these wonderful, polite people act as they did 70 years ago?', and of course it wasn't these folks, but their mostly now dead grandparents and great grandparents. I think it wasn't really them either, but the colorblind and universal need of the ego to feel good by feeling someone else under the thumb, whether in the fifth grade or the Philippines. This is what we struggle with - our tribal instincts served us well for hundreds of thousands of years to advance the species, but now our claws have receded into fingernails, and so too must our thinking change to recognize the other if we are all to advance. Primate brains are also exceptionally devoted to social structures, and this can be our saving grace.

Travel is only one mechanism to realize this, though 'tis a shame only 20-25% of Americans own passports and that our protestant, manifest destiny work ethic requires so much time at the office and so little time off. Every country, every culture has strengths and weaknesses - one of America's best strengths is E Pluribus Unum. We can indeed be proud of this, and many things we've taught the world, but we must examine the plank in our own eye every day - these days in particular. I highly recommend renting 2003's The Fog of War documentary of arch-hawk Robert McNamara's thoughts about conflict and what we're not learning from history.

Thanks for indulging me, visiting these cities as an end to my gorgeous Japan visit has prompted all this. I'm jetting to Taiwan soon, and looking forward to change of climate, of language, of faces and food.
As Barry White says, "my unlimited love to you all".
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