Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Nuclear Ambivalence

Here's an article from the Onion - the satirical newspaper - that prompted me to write this in the first place:

Many people have asked me recently about what the mood is like in Japan now that North Korea is, apparently, a nuclear power. After all, it's the Japanese who have the most to fear from N. Korea; with the North Korean missile tests, the Japan has already had two shots fired across its bow. I read in the NY Times online or the BBC News that there's a great fear of nuclear proliferation, of what a maniac like Kim Jong Il might do. The Koreans - even the South - still carry a great deal of resentment, to say the least, against the Japanese over what happened during WWII, and the consistent refusal of the Japanese government to accept responsibility for its wartime actions.

Considering the amount of basic hysteria across much of the US about terrorist attacks - even in places (the entire Midwest?) no terrorist could possibly have heard of, let alone care to target - I thought there would be some level of popular discourse about this situation. I came to work the day after the announcement of the testing of a nuclear weapon. I waited to hear teachers commiserate over their anxiety, or students to ask questions about what would happen, or the principal to make some sort of statement. I waited entirely in vain. The only announcement at the morning meeting was to report on a bicycle accident and remind students to be careful on their way to school. Talk between teachers was as rare as always and as always centered around classes and the monotony of grading papers. Everyone acted like they hadn't heard anything at all, to the extent that I wondered if in fact they hadn't heard anything at all.

Finally, sitting at the computers and reading the newspaper, I brought it up with the Beach Boys Sensei and another teacher. I asked them if they were aware of what was going on, and how they felt. They said of course they knew about it, but responded, "what are we going to do about it?"

And that sort of shrugging off really typified for me the attitude of most everyone here regarding politics. If people are aware of politics at all, they seem aware of it in a totally peripheral way. Politics seems to be to most Japanese, something that happens off in Tokyo. Politics is the business of politicians, and these decisions are to be made by the people off in those governmental buildings. They'll take care of it, so it isn't necessary for people to have opinions either way on issues; they just need to do their jobs.

And know I'm coming from a country where the majority of people don't even vote, and even if they do, it's often based on party lines or without a clear understanding of the issues. Still, I have a hard time imagining Bush getting angry at representatives from his party that don't fully support him and fielding new candidates in an election for their districts that don't even live in the areas. But that's what Koizumi did in the last election; he blacklisted several representatives and sent actresses and businesspeople to run in areas of Japan they might not even have visited before. And they won. People voted for candidates that don't even live in their areas or know anything about them to represent their hometowns and their interests in parliament. That seemed to me to be a pretty clear indictment of how seriously people take the idea of representative government here.

The LDP, roughly equivalent to the Republican party in the US, has been the ruling party here for almost 50 years, with only one brief interruption. We complain about our two party system being inadequate for a real democracy; the system here is a joke. The same giant conglomerates that ran Japan before and during WWII - the equivalents of the huge German companies basically - were never dismantled or run through any sort of process comparable to the de-Nazification in Germany. The current top politicians are either holdovers or descendants of the same people who drove the country right into war before and never recanted afterward. The Emperor has never been held responsible for anything he did, so how can anyone else be, really?

These things shock me, but leave no impression on most people it seems. There was no political discussion going on at Waseda when I was studying there; no protests, no activism, no general awareness of issues at all, really. The complete disassociation with what's going on in their country by people here leaves them dangerously open to being led into another bout with disastrous nationalism. With the same sort of people in power as before WWII, it's just fortunate that the current goals of the government seem merely economic.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Christmas with the heathens

Next week is final exams so I've been taking it easy on the kids and teaching classes about Christmas. I play Christmas songs (Nat King Cole - The Christmas Song mostly, since that's the only xmas song I can stand to listen to the requisite 40 times or so I will in the course of teaching all the first year students) and the kids try to fill in missing words on lyric sheets; I pass out candy canes and have them write letters to Santa. One day, a teacher asked me to talk a little more about the origin of Christmas - assuming, I guess, like all Japanese do about all Americans, that I am a Christian of deep faith. I had toyed with the idea in the beginning, but thought it might come off as proselytizing, but on further reflecting, realized clearly there no harm in merely talking about religion.

So after listening to Nat King Cole for the umpteenth time, I write the word "Christmas" on the board and ask the kids what they know about the holiday. They volunteer and I list words like toys, Santa, reindeer, Christmas tree, etc. "Okay," I say, "so maybe when you think of Christmas, these things come to mind."

"But, does anyone know why Christmas is a holiday?"

Blank stares.

I think that maybe they just didn't understand the question, so I rephrase it: "Does anyone know what happened on Christmas?"

Blanker stares.

I pause and, stifling a laugh, take a deep breath. Then I turn to where I've written "Christmas" on the board and underline "Christ" several times. I turn back to the class and ask, cautiously this time, "Do you know who this is?" I wince a little for a few seconds as if anticipating a blow, but fortunately one of the kids says the Japanese name for Christ (kirisuto), and I don't have to freak out completely.

"Okay great, Christ, yes. Jesus Christ. (in a fashion taking His name in vain) Jesus Christ, yes. Now, what happened to Jesus Christ on this day?"

A student raises a hand tentatively and says in Japanese, "That's when he died, right?"

I run my fingers through my hair quite hard. "No." I smile. "In fact, the opposite thing happened. And speak in English."

Another says, "Ah, it's his birthday."

"Yeah, more or less. So, let me tell you the story of his birth."

It turns out that they don't really study world religions, at least not until their junior or senior year of high school. I have a hard time comprehending that these sophomore kids at a high-level high school don't know basic facts about the largest religion in the world, since I learned about Shinto in my 7th grade history class. This is kind of insane. So I decide to right this wrong. I am here to bring them the good news, as it were.

I whip out some Christmas picture books and proceed to tell the story of the Nativity. In the course of trying to explain to the kids why it was such a big deal that a baby was born in a manger in some far-off place thousands of years ago, I come to appreciate to an extent how ridiculous missionaries must feel on their first day off in some African village. Trying to explain a religion to someone completely unfamiliar with the stories just reveals how ridiculous they can sound. I see a new expression of bafflement cross the faces of the students for each phrase like "son of God" or "angels" or "three kings" that comes out of my mouth. By the end of the story, I am rather baffled at what's coming out of my mouth as well. You'd have to be a person of unshakeable faith to speak in any way convincingly about these things without feeling a bit silly or embarrassed. I am not that person.

This reaches a sort of crescendo while I'm using the tiny statuettes of the Nativity scene to act out the different character's parts. After a long explanation of the relationship between Mary and Joseph where I've been holding up their two figures, I actually look down at what I'm holding and see that in fact what I'm holding is not Joseph but some random shepherd. Upon closer inspection, I realize that on top of the general discernible differences between the two figures, the shepherd actually has a damn sheep hung around his neck. So, not only have I been telling a rather sacrilegious story about the unconsummated love of Mary and one shepherd from Bethelehem, but I've convinced all the kids that Jesus' father walked around with a sheep strung around his neck at all times. I break and just laugh really hard.

I give up in the end and just have them write their letters to Santa. I tell them about Santa's list; presents for the good children and coal for the bad. This is much easier to talk to the kids about. It doesn't make me embarrassed as an American or feel ridiculous at all. As silly as Santa's story is, at least we all agree none of it is true.