Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Tapping Into Japan

June 23rd, 2009 · 7 Comments

Last night we started reading Harp of Burma, a book often touted as Japan’s post-World War II version of All Quiet on the Western Front. It provides a soldier’s eye view of Lieut. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi‘s ill-fated campaign in Burma, which ended up turning into one giant suicide mission as the war turned against the Imperial Japanese Army. We’re only a few pages in, but already we’re hooked—surprised it took us this long to discover such an obvious classic.

Delving into the psyche of WWII-era Japanese foot soldiers got us thinking about how difficult it is to understand the mindset of humans raised in sharply different circumstances than our own. In many ways, this is the great challenge of our times—in a world made small by cheap travel and information technology, how do we reconcile the sharp differences between products of disparate cultures, even when our fundamental similarities far outnumber the schisms? That question’s certainly been on a lot of minds in light of Iran’s post-election tumult—the protests’ endgame is tough for us Westerners to forecast in part because we can’t quite process how theocracy and democracy can ever co-exist. But in a society that simultaneously embraces individual freedom and abhors Western decadence, those two strains of government needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Fortunately, the best writers tackle the cultural-empathy problem via the art of observation. Though we’ve traveled extensively in Japan, for example, we probably learned more about the nation’s core values by reading Haruki Murakami’s Underground than we ever gleaned riding the bullet train. Unlike Murakami’s typically labyrinthine novels, Underground is a straightforward affair—a collection of interviews with people who survived the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. One passage, in particular, has haunted us for years, chiefly because it so neatly encapsulates something very profound about Japanese society. The snippet comes from an interview with a subway station attendant named Toshiaki Toyoda, who encountered the poison gas with several co-workers. Before escaping to the surface, though, he stopped by the bathroom:

I went to wash my face. Nose running, eyes watering, not a pretty sight. Have to make myself a bit more presentable, I thought. I stripped off my jacket and washed my face in the sink. I always take off my uniform when I was so as not to get it wet. Sheer habit. Only later did I find out that taking my uniform off was a good thing, because it was soaked with sarin. Same goes for washing my face.

(Our bolding.) Think about this moment for a second—having been gassed, and having seen two of his co-workers taken away on stretchers, Toyoda’s first impulse is not to flee the subway system, but rather to make sure that he doesn’t look like a slob. And in doing his duty, he inadvertently saves his own life.

We find the intrinsic Japanese-ness of this tale difficult to put into words, since it involves such contradictory feelings. While we admire Toyoda’s dedication, we can’t help but be puzzled by his priorities in the midst of an obviously lethal crisis. Yet for Toyoda, of course, his actions could not have been more natural. Understanding that mindset—if not necessarily agreeing with it—has changed the way we look at Japan. And it will certainly change the way we process Harp of Burma in the coming days.


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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Ian

    This is the kind of thing that makes Japanese “doramas” so fascinating to me, even though nothing really happens. Ostensibly minor differences in the way people behave and interact with each other which nevertheless get you thinking, “that would never happen that way here.”

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Ian: Semi-embarrassed to admit that I had to Google “doramas” upon reading your comment. (I accidentally, yet fortuitiously, learned about a 15th-century Canary Islands warrior along the way: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doramas)

    I’d be interested in checking some of these out, if subtitled options exist. When in Japanese hotel rooms, my TV viewing is usually limited to game shows and baseball–two forms of entertainment that work despite the language barrier. I have particularly vivid memories of once catching a game show in which a contestant was placed in a glass tank along with a live alligator. Then they tipped the tank so the contestant slid forward toward the hungry beast. The host laughed his ass off despite the contestant’s obvious terror. Have yet to figure out the dynamic there.

  • Jordan

    Personally, my favorite peeks into Japanese culture that have been created for American audiences are the novel “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson and the film “Ghost Dog”. The first presents a few key nuggets from both Japanese and American perspectives such as the differences in adaptability between their respective militaries (e.g. continuing to use fixed bayonet charges long after it became apparent that they were a useless and suicidal tactic) which was also tied to the almost superhuman tenacity of many Japanese units. The second does the best job I’ve seen of translating the samurai ethos into something comprehensible to American cultural sensibilities.

    By the same token, a both of those works are at least in essence focusing on Japanese culture from the pre-occupation period. MacArthur had innumerable effects on the country that are still playing out. By the same token, it’s hard to say how permanent those changes will be. It’s been sixty years of history out of several thousand. Some cracks are already showing up, such as the LDP potentially losing its stranglehold on government and the debates about the role of the SDF.

    It’s going to be an interesting couple of decades to see where Japan goes.

  • Ian

    There are a lot of shows available on MySoju–they’re all subtitled, but hosted on other video sites so you may want to check that all the episodes work before you get sucked into one. I haven’t seen too many of the shows on there–most of the ones I watch are on a local station here in the Bay Area–other than Long Vacation, which was a good one. I would recommend picking one of the more ordinary life-type shows about career and family to get the best sense of what I’m talking about (that is, avoid the cop or samurai-type shows).

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Heh…Ghost Dog, first movie I ever saw with my now-wife.

    Japanese politics are so hard to understand, and are only bound to get more tangled now that there’s a genuine opposition party. Crazy how politics over there is such a family affair–sons following fathers.

    @Ian: Thanks for the recs. I know what I’ll be watching while I cook dinner and have a Ballantine tonight.

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