I have been thinking about my teenage years. Specifically, I’ve been trying to recollect the most horrible scene on TV when I was young, the most shockingly graphic footage available in pre-Internet days. All I came up with was a videotaped copy of “The Evil Dead” — a zombie gore-fest now considered quaint — watched with a band of homeboys amid uneasy giggles.
I was a so-called apathetic youth, a term I’ve never found useful. Much like adults, young people care about their sphere of concern and pursue with passion whatever matters. Back in high school, my sphere of concern covered playing the drums, my girlfriend and looking up punk-rock lyrics in the dictionary.
In each generation, the young are called apathetic when they’re not curious about what adults think is important. But even inside my little shelter, I knew somewhere beyond was the vastness of the world, and at times I felt vaguely inadequate about being so disengaged. There seemed to be no intersection. I couldn’t locate Syria on a map: I’d never been there and didn’t know any Syrians.
The Tokyo cram-school students I teach English to probably feel the same. Unlike the disaffected dimwits portrayed in the media, they have questions and notions of right and wrong — at times struggling, much like adults, to comprehend what seems incomprehensible.
But there is a difference from my generation: The most shockingly graphic thing that some of these youths have seen — following online searches driven by morbid curiosity — is now the journalist Kenji Goto having his head cut off by a lunatic announcing that “a nightmare is beginning” for Japan. A horrid initiation, it’s one of those times when you hate the Internet.
‘We betray our youth if we politicize them, but also if we keep everything away from them,” wrote the Syrian Rafik Shami, long before the outbreak of the current hostilities ripping apart his country. “Both approaches, as varied as they are, have one thing in common: The fear of youthful sensibility, which is incorruptible.”
While today’s Japanese youth are sensitive, no one has accused them of being politicized. But the frenzy of the hostage crisis and the visceral terror of the Islamic State group’s executions have for a moment ushered Syria into their sphere of concern.
English language class can be the only time students get to offer their opinions about the news. Without using terms such as “isolationism” or “interventionism,” they are talking about exactly these things, voicing fears of Japan getting pulled into conflicts and of future attacks at home. Like most Japanese, young people value the pacifist Constitution, and they understand their country is at a crossroads.
“We are not America,” says Naomi, a third-year high school student. “American soldiers are killed in the Middle East, and then the government has to explain what they are fighting for. Japan doesn’t know that part of the world, and we shouldn’t join that war. I don’t think we can really help there.”
Others feel that the time has come to rethink Japan’s neutrality — that the third-largest economy in the world should stop claiming it isn’t involved.
“I often hear that Japan is weak,” says Kentaro, 17, who has spent time overseas. “I don’t like when people say we are passive, just giving money to others and letting them do the dirty work. I think we should take on more responsibility.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is sure to catch flak either way. Pledging $200 million for “those countries contending with” the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), he was mocked for bumbling into the world like a man who brings cash to a gunfight. Likewise, suggesting changes to the Constitution to allow the defense of allies, he has raised fears of a rearmed Japan.
In the discussion, my students agree to disagree. I have no closing statement or recommendation, no solutions to navigate the vastness of the world.
Watching the students file out of the room, I think of Goto, who used to speak about distant conflicts to high school teens just like these. In his journalism and speeches, Goto was trying to connect Japan with the suffering of people in Syria, advocating a global solidarity. He said it was hard for the young generation to find meaning in a society that can seem complacent and sheltered.
Japan and the world — an unending dance of pursuit and retreat.
‘Something is missing. The young generation is not satisfied with their life,” says Musa Omar, the executive director of the Islamic Center Japan. “There is all this freedom, but young people aren’t satisfied.”
He is talking about young Europeans, and how the Syria jihad has turned into a twisted sort of pilgrimage: a promise in the search for meaning — a search perhaps similar to what drove Goto and Haruna Yukawa, the other Japanese hostage, to Syria.
Musa, a former diplomat and teacher of Islam who came to Japan from Sudan 45 years ago, has spoken to NHK and TBS news, denouncing the murder of the hostages.
“This is hurting Muslims so much,” Musa allows grimly. “ISIS is a defamation of Islam. I do not consider them Muslims. How can you expect a reward from God if you are hurting others?”
There has been no domestic backlash, no discrimination or threats, against Japan’s Muslim community in the wake of the hostage crisis. But Musa’s public stand on behalf of the slain Japanese was controversial among many Muslims.
“We received many emails complaining it’s only now we are taking a stand — when two Japanese were killed. In fact, every day hundreds of Muslims have been killed, both by ISIS and in American airstrikes.”
Overwhelmed by the multitude of grievances, I recall Goto’s 4-year-old tweet from Syria, which went viral after his execution: “Hate is not for humans. Judgment lies with God. That’s what I learned from my Arabic brothers and sisters.”
As we gear up for the next round of war — the revenge for the retaliation for the counterattack — I take small consolation from this idea: that some of us journey with curiosity and compassion into the vastness of the world, to land in a far-away place and there learn from people they call brothers and sisters.
Nicolas Gattig is a teacher and writer from San Francisco. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to Japan. Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org