Friday, December 08, 2006

Why I Never Discuss WWII With Students

This evening, I did the final part of what ended up being a 3-part lesson on holidays with one of my students. The end of the lesson took an unexpected and somewhat unpleasant turn when the student misunderstood the meaning of the word "sentimental".

The lesson is one that I made myself and is meant to give students practice in explaining their own culture. We go through the entire year and the student tells me the holidays and what they're meant to celebrate and how they are celebrated. I also use this as an opportunity to discuss how "holiday" is used to mean "day-off" by the Japanese and those who use British English whereas it means a special day of celebration to most Americans. Additionally, I introduce what a "national holiday" is and have the students tell me which of their holidays are national ones.

At the end of the lesson, I asked my student which holiday she felt the most sentimental about. I figured that she'd choose New Year's Eve or day but she said August 15th because it was the "end of World War II." Since she wasn't even alive during the war (she's in her early 40's), I asked her why it affected her so deeply. She said that, for Japanese people, this was the most deeply affecting date in their history and went on to say the atomic bomb was the worst thing ever in the history of man.

She also said that there are still many people in Japan who suffer physical defects or problems because of the bomb. I expressed some doubt that, after 63 years, this could actually be the case but I can't say I know the long-term genetic effects from exposure to fall-out so long ago. However, I can say that I wouldn't trust Japanese scientists not to exaggerate such claims. Japanese doctors lie all the time and the Japanese government covers up, ignores and misinforms about illnesses as well (as is evidenced by Chisso corporation's feet-dragging on Minamata disease and the government taking 12 years to reach a conclusion about it).

I never raise the topic of World War II with students because the Japanese are taught only about the part which portrays them as victims. They aren't taught about allying themselves with Hitler, the occupation of China, or Pearl Harbor. Essentially, they are taught only to view it from the viewpoint of the harm they suffered and not Japan's instigation of the harm done to them. While my student gave a cursory acknowledgement of this, I could tell that she was only doing so in a pre-emptory attempt at waylaying any arguments she felt I might make.

I don't want to argue this with students because I'm pretty sure that few people from any culture are capable of objectively discussing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In general, you have the revisionists who factor in their current dislike of America when assessing the situation, the Japanese who only see their own suffering, and Americans who give a pat justification. Few people even attempt to put themselves inside the World War II era zeitgeist. This is essential when viewing any event in history and is responsible for some of the most short-sighted conclusions in the study of history. Few consider the political and economic context of the events. Even fewer consider the respective cultures that were involved.

In general, everyone is interested in asserting a personal agenda and a Japanese person and an American are absolutely the worst two people to be talking about World War II. That's the reason I never bring it up and I wished the student hadn't brought it up because, despite the fact that I refrained greatly from arguing, she was visibly upset by the end of the lesson. The only thing I did point out to her was that the Japanese education system didn't teach a complete history (which is true and she said so) and that I felt the main reason the Japanese focused on the bombs as the most integral part of the war was that it signalled their loss whereas the allied powers tend to focus on the events that sparked the war as the integral moments (because this is what dragged them into a horrible war that they didn't want to be a part of).

In the end, I learned that she thought "sentimental" meant something she felt deeply sad about and that was why she gave that answer. She also said she had a former American teacher who seemed to really like to talk about World War II. I assured her that I never discuss it with students because it's too likely to be upsetting. I didn't say that I also feel that one needs to discuss such a topic in one's native language because there is a lot of subtle talk if you want to really have an intelligent discussion and that I think no two people who are together because money is a part of their relationship should discuss such a volatile topic. But, I thought it.


Roy said...

Oh I have lots of stories about discussing WW2 with Japanese people but like you I think it's best not to even go there.

After so many years, I believe that most Japanese are aware to some degree of stuff that happened in the war but prefer not to dwell on the details and use the "they didn't teach that in school" excuse as a way to avoid the subject. Personally, I think this is a copout as they never taught WW2 to me in school either but I know most of the facts.

There was once a student I had who was involved in creating a memorial to Aucshwitz in Saitama. I thought this was interesting and ask how he got involved. He said that he has visited Germany and was so moved by the Holocaust that he wanted to raise awareness for it in Japan. Then I started to asked why he didn't create a memorial to Nanking instead. Yes, this was a cruel and rude question I admit. But anyway, I realized that while his intentions were noble he really didn't have much knowledge of the greater context of the WW2.

Ian Buruma's book "Wages of Guilt" is probably the best explanation of why Japanese are reluctant to talk about the war. In it he compares Germany and Japan, he points out that Germany being based mostly on christian beliefs is a "guilt" culture while Japan is a "shame" culture. The difference being that with a "guilt" culture one feels they did something bad while in a "shame" culture the feeling is that one is inherently bad. The path toward healing in a guilt culture is to forgive your sins but in a shame culture there is no healing if one is inherently bad. The only way out is to kill oneself, as there is nothing worse than living with the shame, or block it out forever and pretend it never happened. I'm simplifying what he says in the book of course but it's worth a read if you are interested in the topic.

Shari said...

Your comment was very interesting, Roy, particularly the final part. I'm going to look up that book. It's an explanation which makes sense yet I'd never heard it before. Thanks for bringing it up.

I would be far more likely to discuss the War with students (though only if they brought it up) if I were in a language school. With private teaching, the situation is much more intensely personal and the loss if I alienate a student quite a bit bigger. While I won't coddle them, I won't go out of my way to alienate them either.

It's not that I want them to admit Japan was "bad" and the allies were "good" or anything but rather that I think their self-perception as victims needs to be balanced with other viewpoints. The way the Japanese regard World War II, you'd think they were unaware that their government had allied itself with a man who will probably remain synonymous with evil for the remainder of known human history or that they brutally occupied other countries and their soldiers tortured their captives horribly (including forcing them to eat feces).

Roy said...

As for Ian Buruma, I believe he is half german/japanese and grew up in both countries after the war. His writing style can be a bit disjointed and hard to follow but his insight is very compelling.

Luis said...

My own experiences are a bit better in this regard as my students tend to be younger, are more open to criticism of Japan, are more oriented towards the west and slightly alienated of their home country, and usually write/talk about what they believe will please their teachers.

My general experience in understanding the problem has to do with history education, and I think is best exemplified by the story I have heard from many Japanese from different parts of the country: that in school, they are taught Japanese history up until the end of the Meiji Period when Japan is a rising power, and then the techer says there is "not enough time to cover everything"--and then jumps to Japan being carpet-bombed by Americans and then atom-bombed. That followed by Japan's resurgence, the "economic miracle" recovery, without any mention of the American aid and shelter that made it possible.

Essentially, many Japanese are treated to a view of history that has Japan rising on its own, then being beaten to a bloody pulp by America for no reason, then rising from the ashes on its own.

I remember one small example of how this manifested in popular culture, when, a few years ago, a Japanese scientist stole some biological materials he had been working on at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and brought them to Japan where he would work at the Riken labs. A Japanese editorial writer was critical of the American lab's accusation, claiming they were just trying to take Japan down, and used Riken's history to illustrate his point. One of Japan's premier experimental laboratory institutions, it was shut down by Americans after WWII--the author said this was because America wanted to stunt Japan's ability to compete.

Actually, it was shut down in part because it was mostly bombed out in the last year of the war, and in part because Riken was the site of Japan's own atom-bomb program.

But few if any Japanese are aware of the fact that Japan had not just one, but two nuclear weapon programs going during the war; this would blunt Japan's ability to claim the moral high ground as the world's only nuclear victim.

This is not to say that Japan has a monopoly on this. America does this almost as much. Japan even scored points when China criticized Japan fotr whitewashing their history and a Japanese diplomat pointed out that China does it just as much. Every country does it to a certain degree.

But Japan is really good at it.

Anonymous said...

An interesting post.
Yes, I also think that WW2 is an sensitive issue
between Americans and Japanese.
How much someone knows about WW2 really depends on how much he/she studied it.
In Japan at school, I agree that students have not learned history sufficient enough, not because the
teachers want to cover up the wrongs Japan did, but because schools do not want to spend the time on anything irrelevant to the entrance exam.

I haven't read Buruma's book but the concept sounds familiar to those who have read "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword".a culture of
guilt and a culture of shame.
I don't think the guilt
is the them unique to christian. and I don't think people who didn't commit a sin have to feel guilty. Japanese and Americans alike do not have to feel guilty about what some of their ancestor has done. And this is important because only then we can talk about WW2 without the ulterior motive to blame others.
It is true to some extent that Japanese are victim-oriented about WW2, and it might be also true that Americans are hero-oriented about history.

Japanese should know more about Nanjing massacre, 731 troop, Japanese mistreatment of POW, And American should know more about American mistreatment of POW, indiscriminate air raids, and atomic bomb. We should also know why the tension arose between US and Japan before WW2 and what Asia was like before and after WW2.
(BTW Japan didn't support Hitler's holocaust, Japan was on
good terms with Jews,
it was an miscalculation about geopolitical situation at the time to be allied with German in my opinion)

I am not sure if there is a complete story about history. Take Nanjing massacre for example, I am not a denier, but note that there are hundreds of books about it published in Japan
But after reading several books about WW2, I am sure there are many perspectives on it, and it is as interesting as intellectually satisfying to study them.
But it also takes intellectual honesty and maturity on both sides to freely talk about it.
Anyway I hope history should not be politicized between two countries.

Anonymous said...

i think a problem with discussing atomic bombs is that there is so much anti-nuke propoganda that is now engrained in our cultures(shown by people even protesting nuclear reactors without a clue as to why), due to the cold war when the destruction of civilisation was an actual possibility. with mutually assurd destruction, yes everyone should have been working to get rid of nukes and scared to death of them. but in 1944, it was just a new weapon, no MAD with russia to think about, no fear of the destruction of the world 20 times over. it had cost billions of dollars and so many man hours to create, the secrecy involved was insane, the pressure to finish before another county did, etc. so it made sense to use, given that the alternative is to lose a couple thousand american lives(and japanese were going to die either way) and completely waste the program's effort.

val said...

Most countries, and especally the major powers, have comitted horrible, inhumane offenses. The particular case of the atomic bombs is insignificant in the overall context of WW2. The McNamara documentary "Fog of War" describes the effects of the fire bombings which killed far more Japanese. McNamara quotes LeMay (American Airforce General) regarding this conventional bombing: "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals".

Most people, including myself, lack the full understanding of history needed to make judgements of WW2. Several times I've thought I understood the events of the atomic bombings, only to later learn additional key facts. My discussions from this perspective have been valuable.

Shari said...

Val: You're not the Val who works at Luis's college, are you?

My husband said exactly the same thing you did about the losers being brought up on war crimes. I realize there are no saints in war but I also know that the Japanese view themselves primarily as victims. In many cases, their self-perception is so far away from a balanced viewpoint that it's utterly useless to attempt a conversation on this topic. My student, who brought this up herself, got so agitated at even the very idea that I might mention Japan did some bad things too that she was nearly in tears (and the extent of my mentioning this was to say "Japanese schools don't teach everything about the war." I didn't go into any details yet she got really worked up at even the remote possibility that I might). There are many Japanese people who aren't ready emotionally to leap from complete victimhood to equal responsibility.

While I may want to have a discussion with Japanese people about it, I just think it's something they don't want and, with my students, it has the potential to upset them enough to decide to take lessons elsewhere.

Luis has a certain luxury I don't because he teaches at a college and the situation is different for teachers in schools. Students need you more than you need them. In private lessons, it's at least to some extent the opposite.

gaijinalways said...

Exactly what I was talking about in the commnents to your blog 'Few are the choices we make part 1' posted on Feb 9th 2008. On this other website, whose main purpose is generally talking about finding and sleeping with Japanese women (that might make it easy to find without naming it) a resident Japanese doctor believes the Nanjing incident happened but is exaggerated by the Chinese(the closest we come to agreeing), 731 and 751 were only executing convicted criminals who were destined for capital punishment only and the comfort women were all paid prostitutes (based on his conversations with prostitutes and one individual from the 731). No middle ground with this guy, yet he proclaims himself a liberal?! Okay....strangely enough, his fellow friends on that website agree, which led me to abandoning 'so called discussions' as their was no pretense of having discussions (that and some selcted deletions and banishments of some threads to a part of the forum where only senior members could access them).

The Japanese do have a very strong victim mentality in regards of talking about the war, but it is always true that in war, there is no happy ending generally.