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Dismembering Pearl Harbor



AS GEORGE BUSH outlines his "Remember Pearl Harbor" speech upstairs at the White House, as every local TV affiliate combs lists of World War II veterans to find those who can testify to having been there 50 years ago (however accurate their memories are), as other, more equivocal, stories of the war struggle to be heard, one joke echoes on: "The Cold War is over, and the Japanese won."

The anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, everyone seems to agree, is the time to assess and reassess the state of U.S.-Japanese relations today. But every attempt to formulate ethical positions is overshadowed by the images of smoke billowing from the sinking Arizona, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report have devoted an astounding 72 pages to their commemorations. (Time, perhaps in honor of its Luce back ground, outdid itself with 32 pages, 24 by its "master historian" Otto Friedrich.) But in each case, the "good points, bad points" history in the articles becomes a sideshow to the hellish navy-yard photos, leaving readers with only one conclusion: They did this.

Of course, news weeklies are not the sole source of American public opinions, but it is worth investigating what, exactly, they are saying, how they are saying it.

THE DISMEMBERING of Pearl Harbor depends on two arguments about Japan: First, the establishment of difference (the bigger the better) between Japan and the U.S. in 1941. Second, the assertion of a timeless continuity in Japanese history, from before the Meiji reforms, through the war and into the next century.

The first part of this project is an easy exercise in McDonald's history: food, folks and fun. U.S. News: "The pilots had break-fasted on plums and rice and wore white cloths marked 'Sure Victory' under their helmets." Newsweek: "There were toasts in sake. Three times the pilots shouted 'Banzai' for the emperor. That night the weather was rough. Many of the pilots stayed aboard for a last round of drinking."

Finally, Time: "Genda, Fuchida and other officers joined [Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the raid] in eating surume (dried cuttlefish) for happiness and kachiguri (walnuts) for victory."

In the guise of narrative history, each magazine has made it clear that the Japanese pilots are not like American pilots: They eat strange foods (italicize 'em!), have strange customs, use strange words. They are Them, and They are not like Us.

The second historical fact unearthed in these rigorous searches--"they never change"--takes a little more work. U.S. News is the most blatantly stupid: "There have been countless...dramatic changes in 50 years. [Here the changes are listed in three lines.] But the changes can only be understood when set alongside continuities that date not only from the martial Japan of a half-century ago but also from the shogunate of a century before that. America... tends to downplay such continuities. But they provide the theme for the rise of modern Japan."

The next five pages account for those continuities--how Japan has responded to each external shock, rallied its traditions and emerged stronger. The "dramatic changes"--the emergence of the most dynamic industrial economy in the world, the deep seating of pacifism in Japanese foreign policy, the collapse of feudal institutions and the rise of electoral democracy--disappear into the recesses of the reader's mind.

Newsweek brings this "lessons of the past" pap to its logical conclusion: "each country's national character is almost a mirror of the other's." National character, you know, the thing that makes everybody in a country alike. Remember, this is why Germans are so nasty, Poles so hapless, and Chinese so shifty.

"The Japanese are rigid conformists; Americans practice individualism up to--and sometimes over--the brink of selfishness. Americans believe that if they make a better or cheaper product, other people will always buy it, because fairness equates with economic self-interest. The Japanese believe it is almost unpatriotic to buy a foreign product when that might hurt their own farms or factories."

NATIONAL CHARACTER is not what you would call a good analytic tool. The nation hidden inside "national character" is the same top to bottom, generally in agreement, and generally going to stay that way. But such stasis is not a feature of either Japanese or American society today.

Like all capitalist post-feudalist societies, Japan is riven with conflicts. The conflicts may be handled differently, perhaps with what seems to be more adeptness, but they are conflicts.

The news weeklies want to make sure that we know we are dealing with "a Japan that has yet to come to terms with its history," as Time puts it. The Japanese Education Ministry censors texts, keeps them from including any details about the massacres perpetrated by the Japanese army in Nanking, Singapore or Bataan, or the horrific bacteriological warfare experiments conducted on civilians as well.

The problem with this story is not only that it happens in the U.S. as well--such willful distortions are not confined, as we like to believe, to textbooks in rural Mississippi--but also that it has become apparent only because the Japanese government has been suing textbook writers to keep this "subversive" material out.

Japanese conservatives who don't want to face the past are squaring off with progressives who do. So the only reason that we know that many Japanese have not confronted their history is that They are on the verge of doing it.

It is also simply not the case that Japan "is a democracy in which one party--the Liberal Democrats, who are actually the conservatives [those wacky Japanese, can't even name their party right]--always wins, and the real opposition party is the U.S. government, with its strategic 'advice' and ceaseless economic complaints," as U.S. News claims.

Instead, there is a crucial flux in Japanese politics where the progressive agenda--equal rights and opportunities for women, an open reassessment of World War II, acknowledgement of a generation gap--has a home: the Social Democratic Party, a party headed by a woman and one that continually threatens the LDP's control.

By seeing Japan simply as a monolith, the news weeklies overlook fundamental issues within Japanese society, issues they prefer to cover with images of millions of like-looking, like-thinking Japanese trotting off to the factory and the driving range.

NOT ONE TO BE DAUNTED by the problems of comparative history, Bill Powell, in Newsweek's "Sweeping history under the carpet," executes an incredible sleight of hand. "Are the fears that Japan is still fighting wholly misplaced?" he asks. Sure, they are exaggerated, he says, but "Japan's big, internationally competitive companies are, to be sure, very disciplined, even regimented organizations. And they do, on occasion, go overboard with martial metaphors."

It is more than a sick joke that Japan is decried as "martial" to the core when it was the American armed forces who returned to heroes' welcome last summer, having polished off their second third world country in little more than a year--decried as too "martial" in the same magazine which suggests that Japan will only become a "whole" nation when it increases the size of its armed forces.

These willful misperceptions of Japan's belligerence fit all too well with the relish with which news casters and reporters convey the latest depressing statistics coming out of Japan. They have higher suicide rates; They smoke too much; They can't loosen up and have fun; They can't build houses because land is so expensive.

At times, this reveling in their misfortune turns nasty: They sell us down the river to the Commies; They dump goods on our markets; They won't pay up when we go kick Iraqi ass for them.

In general, the availability of national character as an excuse, the assumption that societies are monolithic and monomaniacal, allows us to make quick and easy connections between Japan in the '30s and '40s and Japan, Inc. today. Whenever They buy another building or another company, the "Japanese" have done it--not a firm like Komatsu or Mitsushita or Sony, and not a particular capitalist. No, the Japanese--as a nation--did it.

The image of Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa going door-to-door asking everyone to kick in their 10 yen for Rockefeller Center is unshakeable, but has nothing to do with the realities of world-wide state-capitalism.

ADMITTEDLY, Japanese textbooks are censored, but distortion is endemic in American news weeklies, too. The greatest neglect is the shunning of American responsibility for the use of the atomic bomb.

This is also the problem with American efforts to "forget" Pearl Harbor altogether. Frank Deford, sports writer-cum-national conscience, says that since we don't really "remember" Pearl Harbor (we only "remember that we remember" it), then it should be forgotten.

But national forgetting, at times, plays into conservative hands. President Bush shrugged off apologizing for the the atomic attacks, claiming that Americans and Japanese are "saying 'Hey, let's forget that, let's go forward now together.' And if you see some ugliness in our country about the Japanese, I'll be out front saying, 'Hey, knock that off.'" His message, which implies a forgetting of the most decisive event in 20th century history, seems to be catching on.

The word "Hiroshima" does not appear in Time's history of the Pacific war and is only mentioned in the article on the war in Europe, where its 100,000 dead are compared favorably to the 600,000 who starved to death in Leningrad. Time's "master historian" seems to have forgotten that the Pacific war ended the way it started: in fire and blood, the air filled with the debris of lives, blasted apart from above. America "proved invincible," he says: its methods are left to the readers to puzzle out, if we can remember them.

Eventually, everyone does get around to saying that the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Japan "perhaps the most pacifist society on earth," but no one wants to know what that might mean. They want to believe that Japan has all but rearmed, is perfectly willing to do so when the time comes, and has just been playing 'possum for the last 45 years.

In fact, it might mean that Japan could become the first international power that does not couple its dominance of the means of production with an equal willingness to deploy the means of destruction. This is what the end of the Cold War could hold for the world.

THE WAR IN THE PACIFIC ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in that flash, the Cold War began: The death and destruction in Japan and the American nuclear monopoly kept the Soviets on their guard. The U.S.-Japanese security agreement established the entire Pacific rim as a sphere of American control that the Soviet military machine could contest at its own peril.

So the Cold War ended and the Japanese won? Fine by us. The ascendance of Japan as a non-military superpower is not unwelcome. Accompanied by a permanent seat on the UN security council and a new self-written constitution, as Karel van Wolferen proposed in The New York Times this week, Japan and its politicians would have arenas for representation outside economic expansion.

The chance for pacifism in the Pacific century is too important to let slip by through ignorance and insensitivity. As for Pearl Harbor, we need only remember that in the economy of violence, our world runs a perpetual trade surplus.

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