‘The last war was the worst.”
She’s 15 and has already been through four wars: 2006, 2008-09, 2012, 2014. She’s qualified to make comparisons — this war worse than that one, the latest one worst of all.
She’s a Palestinian growing up in the Gaza Strip, one of Earth’s more hellish places. Her interlocutor is Akihiro Seita, a Japanese doctor working there with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Seita wrote a book, which Shukan Josei magazine discusses, called “Gaza: Senso Shika Shiranai Kodomotachi” (“Gaza: Children Who Know Nothing But War”). The contrast with Japan could not be starker. The only Japanese who can claim the knowledge every Gaza child takes in with his or her mother’s milk are those over 70.
You’d think war’s ghastliness would be as self-evident as that of, say, bubonic plague, and that civilizations would long ago have mustered their vast resources to stamp it out once and for all. It hasn’t happened. To go back no further than the ancient Romans, for every Cicero (106-43 BC) insisting “I prefer the most unjust peace to the justest war that was ever waged,” there’s a Horace (65-8 BC) declaring “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.”
“Sweet and glorious” — ask the kids of Gaza how sweet and glorious it is. “As I was fleeing” — from his house demolished in an air raid — “I saw,” a 12-year-old boy told Seita, “many corpses.” Of course he did. Gazans who don’t become corpses have ample opportunity to see them. They draw them — at refugee centers where therapists have them relieve their stress by expressing it. Seita quotes the mother of a child of 10 or so who has seen things no one that age — any age, arguably — should see: “He’s not like he was. He cries violently at night. When I hold him, he clings to me and won’t let me go. He wets his bed. He eats almost nothing.”
The grueling month of August is characterized in Japan by heat prostration and war memories. Seventy years ago Japan had been turned into a vast Gaza, and worse. The Asahi Shimbun last week profiled a journalist named Yasuji Hanamori, who on Aug. 15, 1945, aged 33, realized for the first time what an utter ruin Japan had become as he made his way on foot from his home in Kawasaki to central Tokyo, having just heard the Imperial surrender broadcast. If war does this, he thought, how can it be good or noble? But it’s not enough, he mused, to be anti-war; you must be pro-something. Pro-what?
The word that came to him was kurashi — “life” in the sense of “daily life”; that which, in the ancient samurai and modern militarist moral code, you were to hold “lighter than a feather.” No, he thought, life is not trivial; life is everything — and the magazine he went on to found, Kurashi no Techo (Daily Life Notebook), he dedicated to the testing and rating of consumer products: Are they what their manufacturers say they are? Are they worth your money? Homely stuff, but in the context of a war just ended — ghastliest of all the ghastly wars that human beings had ever inflicted on themselves — it amounted to a celebration of life and all its joyous possibilities.
Western Europe, scarcely less prostrate than Japan, learned the lesson of World War II, having failed to learn that of World War I. War between France and Germany, or France and Britain, is consequently as unthinkable today as peace between them formerly was. In 1972, when Japan and China “normalized” relations, Japan and South Korea having done so in 1965, an observer might have said the same of northeast Asia — wrongly, as we now know. Shukan Gendai magazine sums up the situation there in blunt headlines: “Idiot China,” “Stupid South Korea,” “Japan that Can’t Grow Up.”
The crude language seems excusable. It expresses frustration. The issues dividing Japan from its nearest neighbors, both important trading partners, are serious but anachronistic and should, with a very modest measure of that ancient virtue known as statesmanship, be solvable, given what’s at stake in failing to solve them — namely a potential descent into the environment of which August stirs such powerful recollections, or if it doesn’t after 70 years, there’s always Gaza and similar places to remind us that the danger has not evaporated.
Shukan Gendai doesn’t say it in so many words, but its underlying message seems to be that leaders of a certain not-very-elevated stamp need enemies — China’s to deflect popular anger against an unelected and unaccountable government, South Korea’s to rally the popular support its governance is failing to earn, Japan’s, perhaps, in a chimeric quest for the national greatness it briefly tasted following its stunning victory over Russia in 1905.
Times change. In September 1905, a furious mob, 30,000 strong, gathered in Tokyo’s Hibiya Park to protest how lightly the Japanese government was letting Russia off. No indemnity? No territorial gains? What’s the point of war, then? What’s the point of victory? Seventeen people were killed in the rioting, hundreds were injured, buildings were torched, the government collapsed.
A century and more later, people are again taking to the streets — young people mainly, students predominantly, emerging from generations of political apathy in defense not of swollen national pride but of peace.
For decades peace has been taken for granted. Now it seems it no longer can be.
The demonstrations, coordinated by a group of activists calling themselves SEALDs (Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy), have been peaceful and orderly, as befits their cause. In July, a Liberal-Democratic Party Diet member named Takaya Muto (he has since left the party over a financial scandal) tweeted his outrage at the protesters’ “extreme selfishness”: “All they’re saying is, ‘I don’t want to go to war.'” To which SEALDs retorted, “Is it selfish to refuse to kill?”
Is it? Let’s ask the children of Gaza what they think.
Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.