Americans and Japanese really do not always understand or appreciate each other’s culture or history For Americans, attitudes are still colored by the brutality of the Japanese army in China, Korea, and throughout the Pacific before and during World War II . For the Japanese, European and American imperialism and long-standing officially sanctioned discrimination against Asians is still clearly remembered and resented by many. A new generation is far enough removed from these things to find common ground in cooperative military ventures, music, fashion, and manga.
A brief history lesson: After Japan surrendered at the end of the war, its cities were in ruins (U.S firebombing killed many more and destroyed much more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and its people were literally starving. A Japanese friend of mine was a small child at the time, and remembers being taken by train from Tokyo to dig root vegetables on a relative’s farm, because there was literally no food within the city limits. The US provided food for several years, and GIs famously fed Hershey bars to children (although many aspects of the US occupation were not so kindly, to say the least.)
In one of the most humanitarian moves of its occupation, the United States developed the Fulbright Scholarship program, inspired by Senator Fulbright, which brought young Japanese to this country to study. The first night we arrived in Japan, we were “hosted” by a group of Fulbright scholars: mine was a tiny woman well into her 80’s, who had gone, immediately after the war, from starving in the tropical heat of Okinawa to learning English in the below 0° snows of the University of Michigan. Another host had studied medicine, and had become an exceedingly wealthy cardiologist who takes his Fulbright teachers to see Geisha and bunraku puppet shows – rare treats for any westerner. I often think of the courage it must have taken for these young people to leave their families, travel half-way around the world, and face their fear of a culture many regarded as evil, in order to make new lives for themselves and improve their own country's contemporary life.
Japanese gratitude and Japanese resentment were both shown to us during the trip. Our Fulbright scholar “hosts” and our host families were generous with us and very friendly. However, in Hokkiado, the Northern island that had the earthquake (and was once coveted - and narrowly missed being invaded - by Russia) people tended to stare, and a few restaurant owners told us we could not be seated. Several teachers in the schools we visited were markedly unwelcoming.
The level of misperception between us and the Japanese was instructive as well. We tended to ask questions about bullying and hazing in their schools; they often asked us how we managed to do our jobs and teach with all those guns cluttering up our schools. Interestingly, while we were there, a high school student brutally murdered his own mother after being equally brutally hazed by his schoolmates, and then led authorities on a two-week chase that ended up in Hokkaido (!) where he was finally caught.
Japan is an amazing place, with a gorgeous, exotic culture and a long and fascinating history. Its long history as a volcanic island explains a great deal about how the Japanese live their lives, and its experience in the world since the West bullied its way in helps explain Japanese attitudes towards Americans today. The Japanese provide a mirror for us, as Americans, presenting an instructive – though not always flattering – picture of ourselves, as a culture and as a political world force. In this global era, with the US involved in so many other parts of the globe, the international spotlight is often on us, and we could only benefit from looking at the lessons to be learned from our association with Japan.
If this post has succeeded in making you even one tiny particle as interested in knowing more about it as I was, back in June of 2000, here are some links for following up: