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.