Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Japan week

Without any particular planning, this has turned into something of a Japan week for me. On Monday I attended a new film “Tokyo Sonata,” directed by Kiroshi Kurosawa (no relation to the other Kurosawa). The plot is set in motion by the dismissal of a mid-level office executive, whose job has been outsourced to China. A quirky mix of realism and fantasy, this movie gives a good picture of one of the little neighborhoods that make up most of the Japanese capital today. Forget about Ginza and the other flashy downtown sections; most of Tokyo consists of hundreds of microneighborhoods with narrow winding lanes crossed by abundant electrical wires and bordered (in this case at least) by a commuter rail line.

Then on Wednesday i attended a lecture at Columbia University by Donald Keene, the dean of American Japanologists, who has published a massive four-volume history of Japanese literature. The subject of the presentation was the history of the diary, that particularly Japanese form. Keene said that his interest in this subject began in World War II when he was assigned the task of reading the captured diaries of deceased Japanese soldiers. For the Japanese combatants keeping a diary was virtually mandatory. For US service personel diaries were forbidden, as they might contain militarily useful information if found.

And now I am looking forward to digging into some new books on Japanese architecture. Rarely represented on this blog, architecture is one of my passions.

As a college student my interest in Japan was first piqued by the then-startling wave of innovative Japanese films. In particular I remember “Rashomon” and “Gate of Hell.” At UCLA I took a course on Japanese literature.

I confess that I have always tended to see Japan through the eyes of China, my first love in Asia. I was never particularly a fan of Japanese prints (though I can see now that they have their points). I am drawn to the seemingly irregular forms of Japanese ceramics made for the tea ceremony--especially the one’s exhibiting the quirky aesthetics known as wabi-sabi. Still, it is the Buddhist art that most holds my attention. And Buddhism came to Japan through China. The Chinese even created Zen (they term it Chan). And of course Confucianism and Daoism are purely Chinese in origin.

Apart from my Sinocentrism, I have always felt somewhat uneasy about Japan, an uneasiness that was not dispelled by my visit there in the year 2002. The reason is the peculiar Japanese ethnocentrism. Many ordinary Japanese, even taxi drivers and waiters, live in an ethnocentric bubble, and experience something akin to panic on encountering a gaijin--an “outside person.” Today this aversion manifests itself mostly as a mild phobia, but it has had more sinister manifestations

For the most part Japan discourages immigration, even though the aging population needs the reinforcement of youthful, energetic workers. The descendants of Koreans, imported generations ago as virtual slave labor, are still treated as aliens, being required to register once a year. even though the are fully assimilated.

And there are internal exclusions. There is some attempt nowadays to make amends to the Ainu, the indigenous people living in northern Japan, even though their culture has practically disappeared. A little-known secret is the existence of the Eta, Japanese untouchables. Although the classification was officially abolished a century ago, there are clandestine handbooks listing the names of Eta families. You wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one, would you?

During the thirties and forties, the record of the Japanese occupiers in Asia was particularly appalling. Unlike the Germans, who have fully owned up to their war crimes, most Japanese remain in denial, even today.

The Nanking Massacre, commonly known as the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing) refers to a six-week period following the capture of Nanking, then capital of the Republic of China, on December 9, 1937. International military tribunals convened at the end of World War II determined that, during this period, the Imperial Japanese Army committed atrocities such as rape, looting, arson and the execution of prisoners of war and civilians rising to the level of war crimes.

The International Military Tribunal of the Far East estimated 260,000 casualties; China's official estimate is 300,000 casualties, based on the evaluation of the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal, while some historians believe upwards of 340,000. To their enduring shame, some Japanese right-wing nationalists even deny that a widespread, systematic massacre occurred at all, claiming that the incident was fabricated for the purpose of political propaganda. These and other recurring attempts to write a revisionist history of the incident have created controversy that has reverberated in the international media, particularly in China and other East Asian nations.

In 1937 many westerners were living in the city, conducting trade or on missionary assignments. With the approach of the Japanese troops most of these individuals fled. Yet a German businessman John Rabe stayed behind and formed a committee, called the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone.

This committee established the Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city. The Japanese government had agreed not to attack parts of the city that did not contain Chinese military forces, and the members of the International Committee managed to persuade the Chinese government to remove all their troops from the area. It is said that Rabe’s courageous actions rescued between 200,000 and 250,000 Chinese people.

Most of the city remained without this protection. Eyewitness accounts from the period state that over the course of six weeks following the fall of Nanking, Japanese troops engaged in rape, murder, theft, and arson. Some accounts came from foreigners who opted to stay behind in order to protect Chinese civilians from certain harm. Others include first-person testimonies of the Nanking Massacre survivors themeselves.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East concluded that 80,000 women were raped, including infants and the elderly. A large portion of these rapes occurred in a systematic process whereby soldiers would search door-to-door for young girls, with many women taken captive and gang raped. The women were often then killed immediately after the rape, often through mutilation, including breasts being cut off; or stabbing by bamboo (usually very long sticks), bayonet, butcher's knife, and other objects inserted into the vagina. Japanese troops forced families to commit acts of incest; sons were forced to rape their mothers, fathers were forced to rape daughters. Monks who had declared a life of celibacy were, according to some reports, forced to rape women. Not all of the victims of rape were female. "Chinese men were often sodomized or forced to perform a variety of repulsive sexual acts in front of laughing Japanese soldiers," writes Iris Chang.

On August 6, 1937, Hirohito had personally ratified his army's plan to remove the constraints of international law with regard to the treatment of Chinese prisoners. This directive advised staff officers to stop using the term "prisoner of war."

Immediately after the fall of the city, Japanese troops embarked on a determined search for former soldiers, in which thousands of young men were captured. Many were taken to the Yangtze River, where they were machine-gunned so their bodies would be carried down to Shanghai. The Japanese troops gathered 1,300 Chinese soldiers and civilians at Taiping Gate and killed them. The victims were blown up with land mines, then doused with gasoline before being set on fire. Those left alive afterwards were killed with bayonets.

Japanese officers turned the act of murder into sport. One officer would vow to kill a certain number of Chinese before another could do so. Moreover, young men would be used as human subjects for bayonet training. Their limbs would be restrained or they would be tied to a post while the Japanese soldiers took turns plunging their bayonets into the victims' bodies.

The sheer volume of murdered civilians posed a formidable logistical challenge when it came to disposing of the bodies. Many Chinese were conscripted into "burial teams," an experience they would later recall as horrifically traumatic.

One-third of Nanking was destroyed as a result of arson. According to reports, Japanese troops torched newly-built government buildings as well as the homes of many civilians. Soldiers pillaged from the poor and the wealthy alike. The lack of resistance from Chinese troops and civilians in Nanking meant that the Japanese soldiers were free to divide up the city's valuables as they saw fit.

The overall casualty count of 300,000 was first promulgated in 1938 by the journalist Harold Timperley, based on reports from contemporary eyewitnesses. Other sources, including Iris Chang's fundamental monograph “The Rape of Nanking,” also conclude that the death toll reached 300,000. In December 2007 newly declassified U.S. government documents revealed an enormous additional toll in the area surrounding Nanking before it was occupied.

Readers who have gotten this far may be asking: why is Dynes going into all this stuff now? The reason is this. The nature and extent of the Japanese atrocities in Nanking is horrifying enough. Even worse, though, is the sense that clearly transpires from the reports that the Japanese authorities and the personnel of the Imperial Japanese Army considered the Chinese to be an inferior race, to be abused and exterminated at will.

Moreover, the horrendous massacre of civilians in Nanking in 1937-38 is only the most salient Japanese crime during this period. In Manchuria Japanese scientists subjected subjects of other nationalities to atrocious medical experiments. These unfortunates were kept in freezing chambers and referred to as “logs.”

There is a great deal more that could be said. All this information points to a conclusion that is deeply taboo, but must be stated with as much clarity as one can muster. Many Japanese regard other peoples as inherently inferior--as in fact not fully human. This is particularly true of other Asian nations. Whenever I seek to discuss this matter--for which there is much evidence--my interlocutors protest. How can I be so racist? Not to put too fine a point on it, it is the Japanese who, by and large, are racist. Some truths must be spoken.

Lamentably, Westerners are ignorant of or unwilling to confront Japanese ethnocentrism. Asians know better. These lamentable xenophobic attitudes have long prevailed and persist today, despite undoubted Japanese cultural achievements.

What price culture?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting post. Coincidentally, today was Iris Chang's birthday. She would have been 41.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Rowe said...

The late Allan Bloom wrote about something similar in Giants & Dwarfs. He noted the Japanese for all their present civility were racist and perhaps that's not something we should be "open" to in a cultural relativist sense.

He said this at an address at Harvard and noted the liberal egalitarian elites didn't know how to respond.

This was back when multicultural relativism was big and Bloom aimed to demolish it.

11:52 AM  

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