Somewhere in the far reaches of my mind, I have a faint memory, or think I have a faint memory, of my grandfather using the word “Japs”.
My great uncle, my grandfather’s baby brother, used the word recently when I asked him to tell me about my grandfather’s service in WWII. It was a nickname, a contextual shortcut if you will, to describe a group of people who attacked a major military base and slaughtered 2,400 Americans. If my grandfather had also used the word, and let’s be specific, if he had used the word in a derogatory way, I would have cut him some slack. A German-American who risks his life in Germany while fellow soldiers die all around him, and lives to come back to this country to meet his own son for the first time after his son’s second birthday, is allowed this kind of slack.
Likewise, a country that was once our enemy, a country whose nuclear bombing by my country I condone, is honored and respected for its achievements and its ability to turn itself around. Tragedies come and go, and for many who have suffered I feel empathy. A feeling like: “If I knew you, I would feel bad for you, I would do something for you.” In the case of the aftermath of Japan’s worst earthquake, I feel sad, truly sad. And I am looking to help, with the perspective that a few bucks to the Red Cross just doesn’t seem to cut it.
I remember one moment during my short trip to Tokyo a few years ago. My wife and I stood along a street in the Shibuya district, while a National Foundation Day parade made its way loudly down the street. A teenage marching band played a Beatles song, and behind it, a group of men carried a huge, not-quite-to-scale model of their religion’s particular shrine. The men wore traditional garb, which included a brightly colored shirt layered over another shirt (for warmth; it was a sunny but cold February day). A different group of men each manned a wooden support beam to carry the heavy structure. This was no balloon floating by itself with hydrogen, yet the men were, dare I say, bogeying? They sure as hell were enjoying themselves. Hell, yeah. They were dancing.
And then, after seeing the lone white guy enjoying the parade from the side, one of these men took off his shirt, and offered it to him. And the white guy did the only thing possible to him in that moment: I put on the shirt. I let the man take me to his place under the wooden beam. And I carried. And I danced. And for that moment, I was, as sappy and hyperbolic as it would sound in any other context, 100% Japanese. Even more amazing, I can think of three other occasions, right off the top of my head, in which the Japanese people showed such warmth and kindness, all on the same, short trip.
For now, the Japanese have been hit with such terrible misfortune that it is beyond the mind’s ability to categorize or even fully identify. And it is not over. But each of us, whether in their homeland or in ours, has seen what comprises the Japanese soul. There is warmth, kindness, ingenuity, diligence, and strength. They are not damned. They can overcome this.