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Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010

BIG IN JAPAN

Does cost of peace consign the Japanese to frailty or strength?


A series of articles in the Aug. 1 edition of The Big Issue Japan, a biweekly magazine sold by homeless people, is addressed "to adults who have never known war." Few major powers, past or present, can equal Japan in that regard. Sixty-five years of peace in a bellicose world have turned war in this country into a fading memory, fading all the faster due to the education system's tendency to avoid the issues raised by the last war. No Japanese under 65 has "known war"; none under 80 is likely to have fought in one. Few under 50 can even imagine such a thing.

It is unimaginable enough. The name Norman Angell resonates feebly today, but exactly 100 years ago he wrote a best-seller called "The Great Illusion." The illusion was victory. It was no longer possible, he argued. The cost and destruction of war had risen to such a pitch that even the winner lost. War, he wrote, had become mass suicide — hence, an anachronism.

Four years later World War I broke out, proving him right as to suicide, wrong as to anachronism. World War I was dubbed "the war to end all wars." World War II happened anyway, and the fact that war as an institution survived the disgust and horror of that mass bloodletting might lead a pessimist to conclude that war is immortal.

Is the innocence of "adults who have never known war" a good thing or a bad thing, a solution or a problem? Taking the positive view is Ichiro Yuasa, head of the nongovernmental organization Peace Depot. "The fact that most adults have no experience of war may be a phenomenon peculiar to Japan," he tells The Big Issue. He deplores the narrow, either-or nature of the defense debate: Either Japan remains under the U.S. "nuclear umbrella," to the detriment of its advocacy of a nonnuclear world, or it forgoes such advocacy altogether and builds its own nuclear arsenal. He proposes a third way — a "nonnuclear umbrella" instead of a nuclear one: Japan, South Korea and North Korea bonding together to turn Northeast Asia into the world's sixth nuclear-free zone. If innocence can save, that proposal merits serious consideration. If not, we'd better have a Plan B.

Three years ago, the right-leaning magazine Sapio discussed what it saw as the corrosive effects of prolonged pacifism. Its article appeared in the wake of a shocking incident. A young woman had been raped on a train while her fellow passengers, many of them men in the prime of life, simply pretended not to notice. "The thought of (all those men) helpless with terror in the face of one man with a knife leaves me dumbfounded," wrote political commentator Taro Okuyama. "The human male has a duty that must never be neglected. That duty is to protect his family and women in general — even if it costs him his life. . . . To me, the most important thing is for us to reconsider our rejection of Bushido" — the way of the warrior.

No doubt the Japanese spirit has sagged without the buttress of that premodern martial and moral code, but time passes, history turns a page, swords grow irrelevant — there's no help for it. War today is of such a nature that Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, at a ceremony earlier this month marking the 65th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of his city, could quite reasonably observe that "only through luck, not wisdom, have we avoided human extinction."

Luck does not hold forever; before it runs out we'd better learn wisdom. Where is it to be found? More to the point, who is "we?" An individual might be wise, an individual nation might be wisely led, but there's a limit to the universality of wisdom, and nothing less than universal wisdom would seem to do.

Japan is history's first major power forbidden by its constitution to wage war. Does that consign it to impotence, or to world leadership in civilization's march to peace? Songwriter Koichi Sugiyama, 79, writing in last week's Shukan Post, deplores the self-hatred he sees infecting postwar Japan. Its symbol, to him, is the near invisibility of the Japanese flag. Even electioneering politicians refrain from flying it at their campaign offices. During last month's Upper House campaign, "No candidate spoke of the country, only of the economy," he writes. "To me, there is nothing sadder than the fact that the Japanese people cannot openly love their country."

Maybe that's bad, or maybe, slowly, we're rising above love of country to a more universal love. Rumiko Seya, 33-year-old director general of the Japan Center for Conflict Prevention, has spent most of her adult life in war zones. She was in Rwanda as a U.N. staffer at age 20, subsequently in Sierra Leone, Kenya and Afghanistan.

Seya tells The Big Issue of an Afghan ex-fighter she met during a voluntary disarmament campaign: "I asked him what occupation he wanted to engage in. He said he wasn't sure — no one had ever asked him that question before.

"Finally," she says, "he trained as a carpenter, but later, I'm not sure how, he also became a film actor."

Maybe his kids, too, will "not know war."



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