The second in a series of selections of unpublished letters about Community stories from the previous year.
Enjoy it while it lasts
Re: “Guesthouses are proliferating in Japan’s countryside, but at what cost?” by Amy Chavez (Japan Lite, April 24):
Change is unavoidable and contains both positive and negative aspects — and this evaluation can be subjective. Email is replacing handwritten letters and nengajō [New Year’s cards]. In addition, the handwriting ability of younger Japanese is said to be deteriorating because of keyboards. Should they give up their computers and cellphones?
Similarly, homemakers used to make their own miso. This has been declining. As has rice consumption, etc. More Japanese play the piano than the koto. These are choices: It has not been forced upon them.
I live in Tokyo. In my neighbourhood there is constant destruction/reconstruction. Homes in the traditional style (tiled roofs, tatami rooms, gardens with stone lanterns, etc.) are replaced with shoeboxes — usually two of these where one older house stood, and the gardens have disappeared. Why can’t they build a new house with a traditional exterior (i.e., something that is not an eyesore)?
I have no idea why so many young Japanese are leaving the countryside to live and work in an urban sprawl. But it is a fact. The government has known this trend for more than 20 years and has done very little to solve the problem. (Nor has it done anything to solve the declining birthrate or the increasing suicide rate.)
So, if older Japanese open guesthouses for foreigners because they are easier to run than a minshuku [inn], is there really a problem? The younger people have chosen to leave. The Japanese government has twiddled its thumbs, and yet foreigners have chosen to visit.
Do they experience the “real” rural Japan? Well, that depends on one’s definition of “real.” I mean, do you really prefer the squat toilet? And you [the writer, Amy Chavez] were enjoying “a morning cup of joe and a gluten-free muffin” — not exactly a traditional Japanese breakfast. The foreign travelers bring needed income and take away an impression of rural Japan. Is it the same as when you first arrived? No. But, your impressions would not be the same as those you would have had if you’d arrived 50 years earlier.
So, some really nice things will be lost, but it mostly cannot be helped. Enjoy the moment. Ichi go, ichi e (One time, one meeting).
Many moons ago, I lived near Uno [a port in Okayama Prefecture]. I met a man who raised honeybees. He had a nice house and a good-sized piece of rural property. When he wasn’t taking care of the bees, he did traditional carpentry. I truly hoped he had a daughter my age. It turned out that he had two adult sons and both were salarymen in Osaka. They had no interest in this lifestyle. I found it puzzling. Still do.
The next time you are in Uno, see if you can get a boat to Ushigakubi-jima. It is (or was) a privately owned island. One of my friends knew a fisherman who had access. There is (was) the large summer home of [Imperial Japanese Navy] Adm. Togo [Heihachiro]. It was gorgeous. Well worth trying to follow-up for a possible story.
Quite right on minority rights
Re: “Does the Japanese Constitution mean anything?” By Colin P.A. Jones (Law of the Land, May 8):
I appreciated Professor Jones’s analysis of the constitutional revision issue, but after reading the actual warning against graffiti he saw in the restroom in Kyoto, I wondered why he found this sign inappropriate. In the article he simply refers to the message as warning against offensive graffiti, but the Japanese say “discriminatory graffiti,” which it seems to me can be a clear violation of basic human rights. From all my reading, I know, for example, that discriminatory graffiti is especially a problem in the Kansai area, and in particular against so-called buraku Japanese [those with ancestral ties to Japan’s lowest caste].
If this is indeed the case, it seems perfectly understandable that the Kyoto Human Rights Organization would produce such a warning. This doesn’t appear to be the best example of a misunderstanding of basic human rights but, on the contrary, an example of a clear understanding of a fundamental Japanese human rights issue.
Otherwise, I found the article insightful and well worth reading. I look forward to the next installment.
Scam alert for academe
Re: “‘Predatory conferences’ stalk Japan’s groves of academia” (Learning Curve, May 11):
Great article by James McCrostie. I thought something was fishy about some of those conferences. The article will be a scam alert for academe and help raise its standards. Valuable contribution.
Tokyo, Portland and Anderson Island, Washington
Vigorous debate over A-bombs
I confess to a certain sense of bewilderment after reading Dustin Wright’s piece, “Let Obama’s Hiroshima visit open up debate in the U.S. about the nuclear attacks” (Foreign Agenda, May 25). Wright claims that he is not calling for an apology, but merely wants the debate on the atomic bombs “to begin.”
Having spent a fair amount of time studying the subject, I find Wright’s assertion extraordinary. The atomic bombs have been a subject of fierce debate from almost the moment they were used. As early as 1945, [U.S. theologian] Reinhold Niebuhr denounced them as “morally indefensible.” The New Yorker devoted an entire issue in August 1946 to [journalist] John Hersey’s depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima through the eyes of six of its victims. Criticism of the bombings became serious enough that former U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson felt compelled to respond to it with “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” in a February 1947 edition of Harper’s. From that time to this there has been a nearly constant stream of work on the bombings coming from critics, defenders and those that sit somewhere in between. It is one of the most intensely debated subjects in American history.
Indeed, teachinghistory.org includes guidelines for a lesson plan on how to teach the subject to high school students. Nor is the suggested lesson a one-sided exercise in flag-waving. It includes links to the English-language site of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the last word is given to Ronald Takaki, a prominent critic of the bombings. The notion that debate in the United States about the atomic bombings has not yet begun is simply incorrect.
BRIAN WALSH, Ph.D. (Japanese History)
Princeton University, New Jersey
Hiroshima: the right decision
Interesting article about Obama’s visit and the ongoing hoopla over the bombs dropped on Japan.
I’m not quite sure I understand what “debate” is needed. They were dropped for all the reasons the writer cited, and a bunch more he didn’t. Some were legit, some were exaggerated, some were even delusional. But as a student of history, I would argue there was an inevitability to it and we should focus more on the lessons learned, horrible as they are. The nuclear race was and is a terrifying chapter in the human race: How can we prevent this lunacy from ever happening again?
I say that as someone who has examined this over the years from a variety of perspectives. My late uncle Stan Goldberg was one of the Smithsonian curators of the Enola Gay exhibit who resigned during the controversy. I read much of his research and talked with him at length about it, including his extensive research on Leslie Groves [who directed the Manhattan Project]. I’ve also written about the war from my great uncle John Stava’s perspective — my book “Combat Recon” on his experiences as a 5th Air Force combat photographer in the Pacific was published in 2007. I interviewed many of his fellow combat veterans and got their perspectives. (Not surprisingly, the ones who saw the worst were the most outspoken against war, period.)
I’ve discussed the atomic bombs over the years with my wife — who is native Japanese — and at her suggestion read the entire multi-volume “official” history of the war as written by the Japanese themselves, to get their perspective and to understand the military psychosis that seized the country from the turn of the century onward. Her family lost everything during the war, but it’s her own opinion that if the bombs hadn’t been dropped, the slaughter would have been unimaginable, with the majority of citizens prepared to fight to the death. She maintained that even after visiting Hiroshima with her family.
I had another uncle who was at Pearl Harbor [during the Japanese attack] on Dec. 7, 1941, and later was at Saipan, and a third one who fought in China and Burma. When my wife and I were getting married, there was some concern about our families coming together (her father was a young teenager when the war ended and had vivid memories of it). In the end, that too became a moot point. We pulled it all together — corny as it sounds — out of love.
We can’t change the past, but we can accept it and move forward, hopefully to a better future. Preferably one without nuclear weapons.
Ossining, New York
Is this ‘gaijin power’?
Re: “U.S. Marines briefing links crimes to ‘gaijin power’; for Okinawans, ‘it pays to complain’” by Jon Mitchell (The Foreign Element, May 25):
It might be different for U.S. military personnel stationed in Okinawa, where even the native Yamato look down on Okinawans as second-class citizens, but this gaijin [foreigner] has never really felt empowered by being a foreign resident in Japan. I learned about my special status when a Japanese real estate agent told me that his company didn’t rent to lowly gaijin. I learned all about my “gaijin power” when various schools and universities told me and other gaijin employees, “So sorry, your contract will not be renewed, you must leave.” This gaijin learned all about his power when he was stalked late one night in Roppongi by a midget kōban [police box] Keystone Kop simply for “walking while gaijin.”
What’s all this nonsense about “gaijin power”? I suppose if I was a U.S. Marine or a U.S. Air Force fighter jet pilot, I might feel a bit empowered. U.S. military personnel are working for Uncle Sam and the Pentagon, they have no worries about getting their contract renewed. And as for housing, it too is provided by the base housing authorities at rental rates far cheaper than anything available off base.
But it’s true, some American military personnel stationed in places like Okinawa do feel somewhat superior to the local natives — and act at times like the “lord of the manor.” However, most Americans serving the U.S. military in Japan would probably prefer to stay on base and have as little interaction with the local community as possible. Why? Not because they’re unfriendly. Most simply wish to avoid any problems, like being falsely accused of bad behavior.
Let’s be honest, all gaijin are guilty of something until proven innocent. Japanese don’t have a good record of trusting the foreign devil. Sakoku [the “closed country” period] comes to mind.
Japan’s problem with English
Re: “Is the Eiken doing Japan’s English learners more harm than good?” by Hans Karlsson (Learning Curve, June 8):
My name is Martins Wagner, 41, born in Brazil but worked abroad for about 20 years. Now living in Japan, I came to realize that English is far from being an alternative for those who can’t use the Japanese language (e.g., as in my case). I cannot communicate even with my daughter’s Kumon English teachers. Just for the record, Kumon is a very traditional [chain of cram schools] in Japan.
Japanese people have developed a very particular and alternative English vocabulary that makes communication something “unnatural.” Your story fit like a glove in terms of clarifying the problems with learning other languages in Japan.
Izumo, Shimane Pref.
JLPT test is as bad as Eiken
The same criticisms can be leveled at the Nihongo Noryoku Shiken or JLPT [Japanese Language Proficiency Test] exam. It really doesn’t take into account or help in gaining fluency of Japanese. Much more learning should be focused on conversational Japanese and fluency.
The ability to converse and understand the culture of the language being learned is the most important part of learning a foreign language.
Koreans also have the koseki
Re: “Japan’s koseki system: dull, uncaring but terribly efficient” by Colin P.A Jones (Law of the Land, June 22):
Last sentence in the article: “However, the koseki system may suffer from one very basic limitation, although some might call it a feature: It is only for Japanese people.”
Not actually the case. The Japanese probably introduced the koseki [family registry system] to Koreans but they in fact use the same system. I married a Korean resident of Japan half a century ago and was forced to travel to her “home village of record” to acquire her koseki in order to obtain a Korean passport needed so we could travel to my home country, the USA.
Wheeling, West Virginia
A place for English surnames
Re: “How to address the foreign elephant in the room — in Japanese?” by Louise George Kittaka (The Foreign Element, June 29):
An interesting article up for conversation within the English-speaking community. I, too, am trying to get the world to revolve the other way.
Being as diplomatic as possible, I try to tell my adult students that we do have some propriety in our language. It isn’t quite as strict as Japanese keigo [honorific speech], but the intonation helps the listener to “read the air.” Using only the first name for all occasions is like junior high school first-year English, when the teachers are trying to get students to talk using the least amount of words. Also, the foreign teachers are usually fresh out of college and therefore open to being called by their first names only.
When the students are adults, they should be using first and last names. I try to ask Japanese “What is your last name?” if they introduce themselves with first names only.
Twenty years ago there were so few foreigners and they usually returned to their country after a couple of years. Now there are many foreigners who have lived here for many years; therefore they should be addressed properly.
I am trying to think of a diplomatic way of explaining that there are now different kinds of foreigners with different lengths of stay, and therefore they should not all be addressed in the same way.
Shinshiro, Aichi Pref.
Wrong on IBM and the SS
I find Robert McKinney’s remarks on “Snowden and the ‘sheeple’” (Community Chest, June 29) to be somewhat inflammatory given the friction between the U.S. military and Japan.
“IBM, the U.S. computer company, famously assisted Hitler’s SS goons in their efforts to track down the addresses of every Jewish family in Europe, just for the record, back in the late 1930s. The rest, as they say, is history.”
The technology used was the Hollerith card. It was a very old technology developed by a U.S.-born German and used in the U.S. 1890 Census.
Quit blaming the world’s sad shape on the U.S.
Kelowna, British Columbia
Your comments and story ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org