Sunday, September 9, 2012
Last week I found myself explaining American freedom (among other things) to thirty Japanese college students who were on a 3-week study tour of the Los Angeles area. This morning, while getting a haircut, I tried to explain to my barber what I said to them and why.
Last week’s challenge was part of a day-long cross-cultural seminar the students had with me (and Carol my wife) on the LA campus of Bukkyo University. We decided to focus on the different reactions of Japanese and Americans to two types of violence: that brought on by nature (specifically the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami on March 10, 2011) and the kind that is man-made (case in point, our “Dark Knight” massacre in July of this year.)
We pretty much knew how the discussions on these topics were going to go. Once they realized they could speak freely to us in Japanese, the students answered our questions about where they each were on the afternoon of this natural disaster. They knew all the shocking statistics about the event: 16,000 dead – mostly old people and children – whose bodies were recovered or swept out to sea, and about the international relief effort that is still going on. And they had heard of the estimated multi-billion dollar cost to the Japanese public in terms of what was lost and must be rebuilt.
The students heard us say how profoundly moved we were by the orderly and compassionate manner the Japanese went about helping each other. The students took our compliments in stride. Such thoughtful behavior is merely the way things should be (atari-mae), they said. Carol and I continue to be amazed because it appears the Japanese are a people who stoically accept the inevitable or unavoidable and seem to be born with a put-others-first (omoi-yari) gene.
For our students, last year’s earthquake and tsunami were unavoidable natural disasters. They noted that earthquakes were almost a daily event in their island nation, and agreed that the tsunami did the most damage, giving personal testimonials about how this one affected their lives. They laughed at the idea that the destruction and violence was due to nuclear warming or an angry God in heaven. For them the choice to grieve silently and rebuild carefully was a no-brainer.
The question of man-made violence caused more excitement and concern, even outrage. They know about America’s love affair with weapons of all kinds, and quickly concluded that the American student who murdered innocent theatergoers in July was insane. But they blame the American legal system more than they blame him. We really couldn’t push the conversation much further than “what do Americans expect?” The students nevertheless attempted to translate my paper on the subject (“Movie Theater Massacre”) as part of their language assignment.
One of the students timidly pointed out that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only cities in history to be destroyed by atomic bombs, and that Japan’s population had decreased by about half after all Japanese cities except Nara and Kyoto had been flattened by American bombs by 1945. While noting that that was surely a case of man-made violence, he and the other students quickly admitted that Japan had provoked the war. They kept looking our way to assure us that the cause and effect nature of that ugly part of our shared history was almost like a natural disaster.
By that time the question of cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. far outweighed the need to continue to look at my rather academic focus on natural and man-made violence. The students wanted to move on to weightier problems, like why do Americans not take off their shoes indoors, or take such short baths, or not care for homeless people, or argue about abortion and healthcare, etc., etc. But the ones that hit home were the questions about racism and religious intolerance. “Why do Americans hate black people, even their own president?” “Why do Americans hate Muslims?” “Why do Americans hate so much?”
I’m not sure my answers were adequate. These young Japanese college students’ curiosity was genuine, and I felt deeply challenged. I began by trying to bolster their shaky but well-informed knowledge of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They couldn’t take any of these doctrines seriously, but Carol and I tried to assure them that many Americans do, and that we argue over which one is right. At the same time we tried to imagine how our expressions of faith would sound to 19-year-old Japanese students.
Like all Japanese, these students are nominal Buddhists. Which is to say their families observe all special days and rituals in the Buddhist calendar of their particular denomination. But they are vague on the particulars of the Buddhist denomination their individual families have been affiliated with for centuries. They cannot even give a clear account of basic Buddhist history and teachings. (As it turns out, all but two of the students are from Jodo-shu Pure Land Buddhist families.)
Which brings me to my experience in the barbershop this morning. As I climbed into the chair, I noticed a sad little sticky-note on the mirror with the following pencil-written message (but without the correct spelling and grammatical markings): “Defend Freedom, Defeat Obama, Vote on Nov. 6.” Suddenly the whole experience last week with the Japanese students in Los Angeles came back in a rush. My barber Dave is a good man. He was in the Korean War, and remembers vividly how cold it was in winter. He took breaks in Japan, loved “Geeshas” and said he was puzzled and embarrassed when Japanese passing him on the sidewalk would bow.
But my barber and lots of his customers hate President Obama, mostly because he is black and therefore shouldn’t be in the office of the President of the United States. He is not an American. He is a Muslim. His Obama-care is socialized medicine (“just like my VA medical care, says Dave, but communist.”) I asked Dave how defeating Obama would help him defend freedom. What was the connection? What kind of freedom are we talking about? Freedom from Obama? (Yes) Freedom from a black man? (Yes) Is that all? (No) “I’ll have the freedom to make all the money I want and be myself!” Really?
And so went the conversation. Freedom was the key, American freedom, that is, to make money and do what I want with as few restrictions from the government as possible. Greed is good. Never mind that Obama and the Democratic platform is bound to put more money in my barber’s pockets than Romney and Ryan. It makes no sense. (Did I mention that my barber is a Catholic boy who thinks Mormonism is a cult?) Anyway, I decided that to talk about American freedom is one way to explain to Japanese friends many things they may find mysterious about my country. Our Bukkyo University students are back in Japan now, but another group will be visiting next year.
So here’s the way I would shape a discussion around freedom for them, and for all Japanese acquaintances who want to understand American culture a bit better. Americans may be shocked that Japanese people have always considered words like “independence”, “ individuality” and “freedom” to have a negative ring. They were the words used for centuries to criticize selfish behavior. Self concerns had to be kept in check in a society composed of interdependent groups. Putting your own needs ahead of others was for citizens of Japan a kind of mortal sin.
The Japanese must have been shocked, first when Americans forced Japan with war ships to open her ports to trade in 1853, and then when the American invaders declared freedom to be the goal of human life. The two Chinese characters for the word “freedom” (pronounced jiyu in Japanese) mean something like “self-assertion” or “self-insistence”. That would seem to be the opposite of what the word means in Western languages.
Instead of describing how it feels to be liberated from oppression, which is what “freedom” means in the history of Europe and the Americas, the word in old Japan described someone who was intent on being a threat to the welfare of others. Even now the Japanese word for “selfish” is almost a synonym for “free”, so to be free is almost by definition to be inconsiderate. That is why, when the Japanese understood what the Westerners were saying, that freedom seemed to them a strange goal for humans to aspire to.
But if you want to be free not to pay taxes to an oppressive government, and be free of a man in the presidency who is not even an American, and a black Muslim to boot, then you will want to “defend freedom” by voting against President Barak Obama. And I suppose knowing this will help Japanese people understand American freedom better. But I will tell them that such a sad little sticky-note on my beloved country’s historical record needs to be torn off and burned.
Glenn Webb, 9/7/2012