Last night, while taking a break from design work, I turned on the TV to watch the news. Japan’s prime minister Koizumi had just stepped into a press conference to make a statement about the recently returned hostages. In essence this is what he said:
“Well, it’s good to know that they have returned home safely. Now I think they should take the time to reflect on the great effort that went into [saving] them.”
It is a seemingly innocent statement, but according to the mores of Japanese understatement Koizumi was actually publicly reprimanding the hostages for causing both “meiwaku” (being inconsiderate of others… something that carries great weight in Japan) and “haji” (shame, loss of face) to the world. That he took the time to actually say this on TV means great humiliation for the hostages, both publicly and privately. For three individuals to have caused an entire nation unused to public displays of emotion to stumble into a heated debate about the legitimacy of the present government’s policies and actions, nearly toppling Koizumi from power, leaves a bitter aftertaste for many people here, and the consequences for the hostages has been harsh. According to the therapist who examined them upon return, their stress levels now are higher than when they were being threatened with death in Iraq. In addition, each hostage must pay ¥600,000 (nearly $6,000) in reparations to the government.
Koizumi wasn’t going to let go of this opportunity to punish those who nearly cost him his leadership of the country.
I’ve been fuming about the backlash against the hostages since I first started hearing the news bash them. (I first got wind of this news through Setsunai’s post at On Gaien Higashi Dori) But since it was only on the news that I heard all this, I decided to wait and talk to some people. In my English class this evening I asked my group of four students what they thought. I was shocked that basically they all agreed with Koizumi and the press, saying that all the hostages had been warned before they left for Iraq that Iraq was dangerous. The students felt that the hostages had only thought about themselves and had disregarded the feelings of their families, the awkward positions that they had put Japanese diplomats and politicians in, and the reasons why the Self Defense Force had been sent to Iraq in the first place. Most of them agreed that the intentions of the hostages were in themselves good, but misguided.
I pointed out to them that Koizumi was the one who had put Japanese people in Iraq in danger by presuming to send the Self Defense Force in the first place (against the wishes of nearly 90% of the populace) and thus angering the Iraqi people. I reasoned that the one who had been inconsiderate and caused loss of face for the Japanese people was therefore Koizumi, not the hostages.
My students met me halfway and I tried to meet them halfway, too, but I still cannot quite fathom the reasoning. I feel it reflects much of the Japanese reluctance to truly take responsibility for anything or any one other than themselves, often in public here, and more than often on the international stage. To me the shame they profess reflects a kind of selfishness stoked by a constant desire to always look good in the eyes of others, lashing out when their image is distorted. It is the same thing that caused the Japanese government to refuse the entry of the Doctors Without Frontiers rescue organization during the Kobe earthquake and the help of the American air force when a commercial jet crashed in a remote area of the mountains about ten years ago.
Susan of A Line Cast, A Hope Followed wrote me this e-mail:
I wanted to ask you to help me understand and be more compassionate about something going on in Japan right now. I don’t see how it really is, I just read a news story here and there, and have no perspective, but it really disturbs me.
It sounds like the Japanese captives in Iraq who were released and returned home are the victims of terrible scorn there. To an American pacifist, it appears that their very compassionate and courageous actions are viewed as a huge disgrace to Japanese people and that they’ve been accused of being selfish and disrespectful. I guess that to me, the basic human desire to help those in need seems totally the opposite. On the other hand, I was the first to condemn the young Seattle father who died some years back on Everest, putting his own needs over those of his family. I guess in general, I’m perplexed and worried, that those four people have been through hell, and yet seem to be returning to a hell worse than the one they left.
Do you have any thoughts you can share that would put this into a different light for me? Am I on the right track with the climber analogy? What will happen over time with these folks? Will they be ostracized? Eventually reintegrated? Or is this another media exaggeration?
Thanks so much.
Your fellow former Eugenian, Susan-san
It seems the news of the treatment of the hostages has gone worldwide. And without understanding how Japanese society works their treatment must seem bizarre and cruel. I’m not sure it is out of cruelty that the Japanese are reacting this way… in great part it is a reaction to having been exposed so starkly in the international media (Japanese are a people who in general shun the limelight) and to the sense of anger that people anywhere often feel after having been greatly frightened. If the hostages had actually been killed, I don’t know what would have happened in Japan. Something unspoken would have snapped.
I’m sure the hostages will be fine, especially after the ravenous Japanese media settles down.
There have been other reactions to the wars right now that have bothered me, too. Denny, from Book of Life and Beth at Cassandra Pages, both of whom I respect deeply and whose blogs I read religiously every day, recently wrote about the death of the American soldier Pat Tilman. I very much sympathize with and understand the sorrow and pain people feel over his death. Like Beth I protest against war not because of the ridiculous politics involved but because people are killed. Whether those people are soldiers or little children or arrogant leaders, every death that war brings is a sorrow that cannot be unmade. And Pat Tilman’s death is an utter tragedy.
But so many of the stories from the news are cloaked, as always, in the myths of “heroism” and “doing great deeds for country” and the “selflessness of the young men and women who serve our country”. I’ve read and reread the words over and over again, trying to find in myself the empathy for such abstract and fervent emotions, but, perhaps because I am not American, I just can’t look at the photo of Pat Tilman and feel that he is anything other than a young man whose death will cause suffering for those who knew him and further paints the picture of the war in Afghanistan as nothing more than an arrogant and empty fiasco that the American government has all but forgotten. I cannot find it in myself to see him as a hero. I cannot see it in myself to see anyone as a “hero”.
Why do we never see photos of the selfless deeds of volunteers who risk their lives to save victims in wars, without weapons? Why do we not see photos and hear grief and praise for Palestinians who blow themselves up in the name of saving their land from invaders? After all, their slogans and songs of patriotism sound exactly like the support for Pat Tilman from above. Both are a little blind, both see violence and revenge and bloodshed as legitimate means to righting a wrong. And neither is aware of how one-sided their dogma appears to those who stand outside their sphere of dialogue.
This Iraq war is going to get worse, much worse, though I wish to mercy that I am wrong. If we don’t all start to introspect and rearrange our views of both ourselves and those with whom we share this one little world, learn to stop going blind at our borders, one day the whole stack of blocks will lose equilibrium. There are those who would say I am an alarmist, that the world is still going in spite of doom sayers, but already we have had two world wars. I listened to the stories my German grandfather and grandmother told me of what happened. Who’s to say it couldn’t happen again? The resemblance to the rising of the Nazis is chilling. But no, WE aren’t like that. WE would never do anything so evil. NEVER.
Update: The Independant: Japan’s hostages tell how they came home to scorn and shame. It’s a well-written article, though, with its comparison to American nationalism, I think it doesn’t portray the general atmosphere here. Few Japanese are speaking in terms of “support our boys”. They want the troops to come home.