Sunday, March 20, 2011

They say there is a time for everything, but now is just not the time.

Words cannot express my feelings about the 9.0 Tohoku earthquake last Friday. I myself have been obsessively following the news since, but still I can't even begin to imagine what it is like to be there, living the horror. Everything is so surreal when change hits you at such a speed that you have no idea how to react. The many lives lost, the many lives left, the many lives yet to come--how all of these will differ from one another in experience and perception of the world. We are, once again, at a loss in the face of nature and what it can bring upon us, and no doubt, we were fools to think that we had conquered it and its power over human society.

But no one needs me to tell them these things, and already, a week has passed. The ongoing struggle continues as many people affected by the disaster wrestle with the numerous consequences. What I do want to mention briefly, though, is what has been apparent since the disaster as a means to cope with it: nationalism.

Of course, there are good and bad things that have been said both to and by the people living in Japan. There are many people living in Japan that I follow on Twitter (which has been playing an amazing role in this ordeal) and common phrases that have come up are「頑張って日本」(Keep going, Japan), 「日本人だから」(Because we're Japanese), 「日本人のみんな」(Everyone Japanese). I have no problem with referring to Japan as a nation, but as author Hoshino Tomoyuki mentioned on his Twitter recently, 「日本人」 or "Japanese" has become a sensitive term to use simply because it's come to have an implication of exclusivity, forgetting about the many people who are not necessarily Japanese by blood, but live in and love the country and are part of it all the same. Getting off track from what is really important, the earthquake disaster has been used as a means to promote Japan and the Japanese people, that because they are and only because they are "Japanese" that they can pull through this. Simple encouragement has become a nationalistic pride.

There are instances like the article written by author Murakami Ryu, and has even been translated into English for the New York Times; if you haven't read it, you can access it here. Praising the concept of the "Japanese group" and promoting loyalty within. Then of course, there are other instances on the opposite end like Ishihara Shintaro, governor of Tokyo, who talks about "the Japanese people" as if they were all complicit in some kind of national thought crime. In an interview a few days ago, he said:

"It's shown in politics bound by selfishness and populism. Those are washed away all at once effectively using the tsunami; there is the need to wash off the selfishness in one go, the dirt collected in the hearts of Japanese people for years. This, I think, must really be divine punishment. Those who are victims of the disaster, poor them."

Needless to say, it was a horrible statement but not surprising for Ishihara, infamous for his heartless comments; the man doesn't even identify with humanity. In any case, the "Japanese" have been grouped together for both good and bad accusations and though it may not be the most obvious thing, I believe that it can potentially create additional, unwanted havoc over time. Nationalism is not important at a time like this; what is important is what anybody--not even limited to Japanese people--can do with what they have at hand to help those in need now.

Two days ago, there was a teach-in hosted by a professor at my university in response to the earthquake and its effects. A friend of mine and another instructor were having a conversation on the 日の丸 (hinomaru), now used as the flag of Japan, and how many people have been putting it on places like their Facebook profile pictures or their avatars and creating this wave of the hinomaru symbol. I have no doubt that this is done obviously to show support for Japan and all those living there or are affected by it in some way. However, it's unfortunate that most people are putting these up without a second thought on what the hinomaru actually is and the role it has played in history; that it could, on the contrary, hurt people.

I would think that most people think of the flag only as a picture of "the rising sun", which is fair enough. But this flag has so much history behind it, and the contexts that it was used in before has turned the image of the hinomaru into something that is controversial, as subtle as this controversy may be. The hinomaru was mostly for militaristic use in the past, and was frequently used as propaganda for imperialism and nationalism in and around Japan. Despite it being a symbol of pride for the Japanese at the time (or for some in the present day), it has been used in many cases as a form of oppression in schools, in cities, in colonies in Korea and other places.

Nowadays, there are many Koreans living in Japan (many of which are second, third generation) who may embrace the country as a huge part of themselves, yet the hinomaru seems to represent only those who are purely Japanese. And so, when the hinomaru is used to show support for Japan, I personally feel like people are forgetting the many other residents in Japan who are not of Japanese descent, whose heritage might be of a people that were oppressed by symbols like the hinomaru. Not only can the hinomaru be a sensitive matter for people who are not Japanese by blood, but even Japanese people may find it difficult to look upon the hinomaru, something that reminds them so much of World War II, the bombings and the occupation of the United States that followed. I cannot even imagine how it must feel to be reminded of such, many years later, in yet another time of disaster for the country.

My point is, throw that nationalistic pride out the window and just help those in need. Be a support for anyone and everyone affected by the disaster, be them Japanese or not, living in Japan or not. Discern what is really important from what is only a cover-up for egotistic, ethnocentric pride. Disaster, sadness, loss, love, support--there are no boundaries for these. They are shared feelings. There are many people who love Japan very, very much, and I think that anybody who truly cares should look deeper and come to a fuller understanding, so that they can effectively support everyone in a time of need such as this.

P.S. If anyone is wondering, the picture is of a tag they gave me to put on my shirt when I visited the Consulate General of Japan (
I went there very early that day, thus Visitor No.1.)--but I forgot to give it back on my way out, so now it's become part of the decor on my desk.

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