Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel (pt.2)

This was actually written a while back, but I finally finished the last part so I could post it already.

Previously I wrote about the Japanese national anthem "Kimi ga yo" and how its adoption as an anthem seems to stand at odds with the goal of a modern and democratic Japan.

I was thinking about the song myself after one of the many school assemblies at which one is required to sing the song - where I typically moan along to the melody more than mouth the lyrics of the song itself (actually this is what I do with the school song too, since I don't know the words except for the last line where you say the name of the school, so it's just like "aaahhhhhh owwwwwaaaa ohhhhhhh ohhhhhaaaaaa ahhhhhhh...Hamamatsu Minami Koukou~"). I had English club later that day, so I asked a couple kids what they think about when they sing the anthem.

Student A: "What do you mean?"
Me: "Well, considering what the song is about, how do you feel when you sing it?"
Student A: "What do you mean, 'what the song is about'?"
Me: "You know, since it's all about the Emperor."
(Turns to another student next to him)
Student A: "Wait, it's about the Emperor?!"
Student B: "Yeah...something like that."
Me: (Incredulously) "Are you seriously telling me you don't know what the song is about? You've been singing the song at every school event for the last 10 years!"
Student A: (Whining) "But I learned it when I was like in first grade, so I didn't know what it was about!"
Me: "Are you arguing you still have the mind of a first grader?"
Student A: "No, but..."
Me: "...you just have no concern for the words coming out of your mouth? Clearly."

After this conversation - and telling the kid to go home and read a damn book - I decided I had to create a lesson about this topic for the next club meeting. At first I was simply going to talk about problems with the Japanese anthem, but I realized that direct censure of another person's culture typically does nothing but solidify opposition, even from those who might otherwise agree. People become defensive at the very idea of an American giving them a lecture, the boundaries between us harden, and the possibility for change or reconciliation approaches zero. Japanese people don't want to hear a lecture from an American any more than I want to hear one from some German on a train.

So I thought of a more roundabout way of addressing the topic: I began club that day by playing "Kimi ga yo" on a stereo, then wrote up on the board and explained the definition of national anthem: "a patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity." Each student received a copy of both the Japanese lyrics for the Japanese anthem and their English translation. I adopted a Socratic method, asking students what the anthem was about, what sort of tone it has, what sort of feeling it invoked in them, and why this particular song might have been chosen as the national anthem to begin with. Then, I split students into pairs and distributed to each group two of the English translations of the lyrics of the national anthems of some 15 or so countries - Canada, China, England, France, Germany, India, Israel, Libya, Mexico, Norway, Palestine, The Philippines, South Africa, South Korea - without any country named affixed. I wrote the list of countries on the board and asked students to read the lyrics and try to guess which country their anthems came from.

This proved to be far, far more difficult for them to figure out than I would have ever imagined. Of course, I thought some countries may have proved difficult - Norway or Switzerland, for example - but though I had removed the names of the countries themselves from both the title and anywhere it might have appeared in the song itself, some lyrics contained hints so glaring I worried some students might find the thing easy to the point of boredom.

But my students really have a way of surprising you with their ignorance.

One girl calls me over and laments that no matter how many times she reads her set of lyrics, she just cannot figure out what country it is. I myself don't have all the songs and countries memorized, of course, but I take one look at the page and point out the second line: "Let our flesh and blood become our new Great Wall!" I point at it and give her a significant look. She frowns and looks down - in embarrassment, I think, which fills me with a blend of satisfaction and relief - but then turns her head back to me again and says, "e? wakaranai!" (Wha? I don't get it!) I take a pen out of my pocket and underline the words "Great Wall" and raise my eyebrows at her. She stares at me blankly. It takes a few minutes more - during which I am reduced to pantomiming arriving at and climbing a large wall - for her to figure it out.

Another student raises his hand and flags me down. He and his partner are completely baffled by one of their songs. I see which one it is and have to collect myself for a second because it is by far the easiest one. Here is the anthem that left these two kids stumped (where * is the name of the country appearing in the song):

"O! Dispenser of *****'s destiny, thou art the ruler of the minds of all people
Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, the Maratha country,
in the Dravida country, Utkala and Bengal;
It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,
it mingles in the rhapsodies of the pure waters of Jamuna and the Ganges.
They chant only thy name.
They seek only thy auspicious blessings.
They sing only the glory of thy victory.
The salvation of all people waits in thy hands,
O! Dispenser of *****'s destiny, thou art the ruler of the minds of all people
Victory to thee, Victory to thee,
Victory, Victory, Victory, Victory to thee."

Can you guess the country? I've bolded the key words above, to help you out. If you were this particular boy, you would guess, "America?" And you would then be ruthlessly castigated by me regarding your disconcertingly imprecise knowledge of world geography ("The Himalayas are in America, huh? The Himalayas stretch across seven countries, but America is most certainly not one of them. Are you even familiar with the continents of the world?"). Incidentally, this is the same boy - Student A above - that didn't know the Japanese anthem was about the emperor. He's a straight-A student, as far as that goes.

In the end, however painful the process proved to be, all the students were able to guess the anthems (many were aided greatly through the process of elimination). I then asked them to read over their anthems again and, as they did initially with the Japanese anthem, consider the tone of the songs, how they felt reading each, and think a bit about why these might have been chosen as a national anthem, in light of what they might know about the country in question.

Each group then shared their opinions and thoughts about their assigned anthems. It became an interesting way to explore and fill gaps in their knowledge about the outside world (rather than simply ridicule or lament them, as I am wont to do). One group read the Palestinian anthem (an angry refusal to surrender a homeland) while another read the Israeli anthem (a paean of joy and relief at homecoming), which segued easily into a discussion of the seemingly intractable nature of the conflict. Several students remarked on the violence of some anthems, while others noticed the absence of such in others; typically this aligned quite well with the policy of the country in question. The last pair brought up the parts of the Filipino anthem - which took its current form after WWII - about resisting invaders, at which point I couldn't help but ask the students who that line might refer to. Many were shocked to consider that most Filipinos singing the anthem would be thinking about Japan when they come to that line.

This last bit lead nicely back to my final point. I directed their attention once more to the definition of anthem written on the board: "a patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity." As I explained, the lyrics of national anthems are often inspired by specific points in a country's history - take the US anthem, which Francis Scott Key wrote after watching the bombardment of Ft. Henry by the British during the War of 1812. Sometimes, like in the case of the Japanese anthem, they are adopted from poetry or existing folk-songs. In that sense, anthems arise somewhat spontaneously as expressions of national feeling. However, they do not become the official national anthem spontaneously; it is a deliberate decision by the country's government. As the definition says, they are adopted as an "expression of national identity," and so their adoption can be viewed as one way of establishing or even creating an identity.

That day I left the students with two questions: "Does "Kimi ga yo" express your national identity?" and " What does it mean that it was chosen to do so?"

(Later, many replied on the English club blog with their reactions to that day's lesson. Some can be seen here, here, and here.)

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