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Who can we trust during these new wars of the world?

by Michael Hoffman

Swords into ploughshares. Spears into pruning hooks. Three thousand-odd years ago, when civilization was rough and passions raw, an extraordinary visionary saw peace dawning. His words, recorded in the Biblical book of Isaiah, transcend religious denomination and national affiliation. They belong to all mankind: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift sword against nation. … The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”

If prophecy implies prediction, Isaiah’s has fared badly. The swords are sharper than ever. In March, as nations struggled to negotiate a global treaty to ban the deadliest of them, Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, snapped, “Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”

Probably there is no one who thinks that. Still, the treaty was negotiated, and adopted in July. In October, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts on behalf of nuclear disarmament.

Beatrice Fihn, ICAN’s executive director, is a realistic idealist. Accepting the prize at a December ceremony in Oslo, she said, “The deaths of millions may be one tiny tantrum away.”

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the key actors in the current nuclear drama, are not known for tactful, or even tactical, restraint. Their behavior fans Fihn’s fears. “The risk for nuclear weapons use,” she said, “is even greater today than at the end of the Cold War.”

Few disagree. Disagreement arises over what to do about it — abolish nuclear weapons, or augment them for “deterrence”?

The mere existence of the treaty makes history, though its entry into force is at best a distant prospect. The world’s nine nuclear-armed countries are having no part of it. Nor is Japan, too staunch a U.S. ally, too dependent on the U.S. “nuclear umbrella” to distance itself from American thinking. Quite the contrary; the bilateral thinking has never been closer.

Visiting Tokyo in November, Trump said, “So one of the things, I think, that’s very important is that the prime minister of Japan is going to be purchasing massive amounts of (American) military equipment, as he should,” making for “a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan.” Later he tweeted triumphantly: “Massive military & energy orders happening+++!”

Is this peace? The trouble is that two prerequisites for peace — trust and sanity — may be mutually exclusive. Haley’s question echoes. You’d have to be somewhat insane to trust North Korea. Take a homelier example: Do you trust your doctor?

Probably you do. You’re ill, you know nothing about what ails you, nothing about the inner workings of the body. What alternative is there to putting yourself in the hands of someone who (presumably) does know?

None. But reports swirl (how trustworthy are they?) of medical incompetence, medical venality. This month, Shukan Post magazine published a report on high blood pressure. The “high blood pressure mafia” in the West — doctors favoring expensive anti-hypertension medication over a simple, cost-free, allegedly more effective admonition to exercise, lose weight and avoid fatty foods — has its equivalent in Japan, the magazine charges, citing doctors who claim to be bucking the trend.

The point here is not to cast aspersions on the medical establishment but simply to pose the question: Who is the poor bewildered patient to believe? Who is he or she to trust — the expert doctors or the journalists whose professional incredulity could be dismissed as cynicism were it not for the fact that it is so often borne out? A year as rife as this one has been in corporate malfeasance and sexual scandal forces the question on all of us: Who can we trust? Business leaders? Entertainers? Artists? Politicians? Priests?

Life itself depends on trust. Shukan Shincho magazine offers an interesting illustration of that. Shimane Prefecture has a remarkably high concentration of centenarians — the highest in the nation, proportional to population. Several factors are involved — sound diet, pure air, active outdoor living and so on — but the one that concerns us is a mutual trust among neighbors so deeply rooted that doors are not locked. One goes out leaving the house unlocked — often to find on returning that someone has dropped in and left some homegrown vegetables on the table. What a weight off your mind, and how rare a blessing, to live among people you can trust absolutely without being someone’s dupe!

The fly in the ointment — there is one, of course — is the condition the blessing may depend on. There’s more to it than native good nature. Shimane is rural and remote. Everyone knows everyone. Strangers are rare. How welcome they’d be is not mentioned, probably not very. Must trust be fenced in? The suspicion is that it must.

The era in which Japan lives, soon to end as the Emperor prepares for abdication, is called Heisei, derived from classical Chinese sources and meaning “peace everywhere.” Since it doesn’t express reality, it must express an ideal, which is something, at least. Since 1995, an organization called The Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation has chosen, based on popular vote, a kanji of the year. In 2011, the choice was an idealistic one: kizuna, the ties that bind one human being to another and make us all, despite our differences, one. It was a tragic year, a year of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Tragedy breeds hope, when it doesn’t breed despair. Here it was, breeding hope.

This year’s character is kita (north) — suggesting not, unfortunately, the pure white snows of the northern winter but North Korea and nuclear brinkmanship.

Onstage in Oslo with Beatrice Fihn was ICAN activist and Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow. She shared harrowing memories: “Processions of ghostly figures shuffled by. Grotesquely wounded people, they were bleeding, burned, blackened and swollen. … Some with their eyeballs hanging in their hands. Some with their bellies burst open, their intestines hanging out.”

Of nuclear weapons she said, “These weapons are not a necessary evil; they are the ultimate evil.” Of the adoption of the treaty banning them, she said, “Having witnessed humanity at its worst, I witnessed, that day (on which the treaty was adopted) humanity at its best.”

Swords into ploughshares. Would a nuclear-free world be a peaceful world? One would have to ignore a vast, deadly, global, non-nuclear arsenal to presume it would.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

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