What happened to Japan in World War II? Part I

16 Oct

In my writing group, we just finished a book called Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a slight but pleasant volume about a Japanese girl taken away to an internment camp and a Chinese-American boy. It was hard for one highly intelligent but extremely busy member of the group to understand why the Chinese-American father was so angry at the Japanese and were glad that they were taken in to internment camp. I made a comment about how utterly horrible the Japanese were in World War II, especially to their fellow Asians, and that they were vicious to the Chinese. And this was odd, almost ahistorical behavior for a nation whose chief Buddhist goddess is Kannon, the goddess of compassion (I know I’m not putting this right, but Kannon is very important), a country where no one pours for him or herself, a country of incredible civility and cooperation and orderliness.

There are many reasons why the Japanese got involved in World War II. Fear of embargo of certain essential supplies such as oil. Modern life. A re-mythologizing of their ancient native faith, Shinto, which is so mysterious and earthy that it could only be codified by someone with an agenda. A sense of pride in their past as Samurai. Certain codes about manhood. Actual insulting and inappropriate behavior by the west. Colonialism in Asia (The Dutch were no angels in Indonesia, for instance, nor were the British in India). The list goes on and on, but none of it seems to add up to the value of a single life. It doesn’t seem to answer any clearcut question—at least not to my admittedly limited understanding.

I myself am not a pacifist—I do not believe the division between slave states and free states would EVER have been resolved without the Civil War, for instance, and that deep scar, even though it unleashed a thousand poisons that still last today, stopped and partially paid the blood price of the deepest sin our nation has ever officially sanctioned. Because I love to be American (thank you, 18th century Colonists for fighting the Revolutionary War, BTW), and because of the resetting of the earliest mistakes of our union were made through the bloody process of war, I can’t say war is never justified.

However, I can say that a certain madness can overtake the most civilized peoples in the world, and things that are nonsense can be converted into brilliant justifications. Both individuals and whole nations can fall prey to the power of story—about how they are oppressed. As C., the woman in my reading group said, “The people I know who are the most prejudiced are the ones who can give you the best reasons why.” The power of the human mind, and especially for highly intelligent minds, to fall prey to “logical” reasoning that is pure madness is one that I want to cover in a future discussion about neurology/psychology. In the meantime, let me just say that, having thought about the ideas of Carl Jung a lot lately, my belief about Japanese behavior during world war II is that a madness overcame them. Their shadow came out. Here was this modest, sharing, deeply artistic people whose idea of art came from an exquisite patience with seeing the natural world (including, for example, wistfulness at the change of time (mono no aware), who became warmongering, mass murdering, torturing, killers, primarily of other Asians. Are there parallels to the brilliant, civilized Germans? Of course. And have members of other nations shamed themselves in their treatments of other people? Oh, hi there, Europe! And yes, you, too, America! And  on and on.

BUT. Back to the Japanese. I want to be concrete here because I think the subject warrants it. And so I will save that for another post.

Writing Prompt: What makes some nations lose their souls in wartime?

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