Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Imperial Japan and a Tragic Sense of History

I follow Michael Yon on Facebook, he's a freelance photographer who I discovered back during the Iraq War, when he wrote a number of interesting dispatches and took some amazing photographs while embedded with coalition troops in Iraq. He continues to write from various places around the world, but often he posts short pieces just on Facebook, not his blog. One of these the other day was about visiting the museum at the Yasukini Shrine in Tokyo:
Inside the museum at the Yasukini Shrine in Tokyo are letters to home from Soldiers, Sailors and Aviators. The letters are heartfelt and many are painful to read.

Often they knew they were going to die, and would end letters with words such as meet me under the cherry blossoms at Yasukini.

Many Japanese who come to read the letters break down in tears. This sight was saddening for me to witness. Japanese feel love as deeply as anyone, and they feel the loss in their own souls when a loved one goes away so young.

A section of the museum contains dolls. The dolls of young women represent wives brought by families for young troops who died without the opportunity to marry.

Perhaps the saddest part of the museum is that which remembers the widows. A Shinto Priest told me today, he seemed hurt in his heart as he said these things, that one widow came to the shrine for seventy years until she died.
At a basic human level, this is affecting stuff. While there's stuff here that's uniquely Japanese, there's also much that is universal.

I wrote a little while back about having a tragic sense of history. One of the problems people often run into, due to lacking such a sense, is that it becomes impossible for people to both recognize the evils of a particular side in a war, and also recognize their human suffering. Because we like to pick sides, we tend to either empathize or condemn, but seldom both. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan both, famously, singled out certain groups as sub-human and treated them with almost unimaginable savagery. Certainly, not every Japanese or German soldier supported or participated in such acts, but many did. And what's more important to understand is: It's not only the "good Germans" and "good Japanese" who were mourned by their families.

This struck me in an American context recently when I was reading a comments by an African-American writer about how he loathed songs, stories, etc. that dealt with the suffering of Southerners during and after the Civil War. That misses a basic human truth: However much one thinks that it was a good thing that the South lost the Civil War (and I do), and however much slavery and its evils were deeply entwined with some of what is thought about nostalgically as Southern Culture with its belles and courtly gentlemen and gracious plantations, it is absolutely true and unquestionable that people in the Confederacy suffered deeply during the war. People suffer when their sons and fathers and husbands go off to war. People suffer when they go hungry. People suffer when enemy armies maraud across their land, taking food and burning buildings. People suffer at the feeling of humiliation that goes with defeat. At a basic human level, this suffering does not differ based on whether the people we're talking about are on the right or wrong side of the war.

Yon doesn't seem to fully get this. In discussion down the thread he's at pains to suggest that perhaps Japanese atrocities during World War II were exaggerated and their fault for the war is overplayed. I don't know whether his sympathy for their human experience of the war or his idea that Imperial Japan is presented unfairly came first, but what is important to understand is that these two things need not be connected. We can understand at a human level the suffering of a defeated people, indeed of any people engaged in a war, and at the same time be clear eyed about the wrongs they commit. Indeed, if we are to maintain a human vision of history and how people experience it, we must.


Marie said...

“There are two ways of renouncing the devil,” said Father Brown; “and the difference is perhaps the deepest chasm in modern religion. One is to have a horror of him because he is so far off; and the other to have it because he is so near. And no virtue and vice are so much divided as those two virtues.” – The Secret of Flambeau

Lincoln said...

Since moving to Austria from the U.S. a few years ago, I have been struck on several occasions by the need to accept a tragic sense of history as you describe. None moved me more than seeing an exhibition of Ernst Haas photographs of prisoners of war returning to Vienna after World War II, part of which can be seen here:

For me it was impossible to see the faces of those mothers waiting for their sons to return without recognizing the depth of their suffering as well. It cannot be diminished by a reminder of which side their sons were fighting on during the war.

Not a wine critic said...

An important correction:

It's only the "good Germans" and "good Japanese" who were mourned by their families.

should be

It's not only the "good Germans" and "good Japanese" who were mourned by their families.

Darwin said...

Not a wine critic,

Thank you! I can't believe I made a typo that was so directly contrary to the meaning of the piece. Fixed now.