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Aspiring to achieve forgiveness in the most difficult times

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

“To be wronged is nothing,” said Confucius — “unless you continue to remember it.”

Forgetting is not forgiving. Forgiveness is Christianity’s noblest quality. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Not everyone is Christian. Revenge, too, has its appeal. It defeats death itself, says Japan’s 18th-century samurai classic “Hagakure”: “With martial valor, if one becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination, though his head is cut off, he should not die.”

These are not forgiving times. The man who wrote, in a 2009 book titled “Think Big,” “I love getting even when I get screwed by someone,” is now president of the United States. Back then, Donald Trump was a real estate developer and reality TV star. “When you are in business,” he wrote, “you need to get even with people who screw you. You need to screw them back 15 times harder.”

Japan and South Korea may be thinking of each other in those terms. Festering war wounds infect simmering trade disputes. Japanese kids love K-pop and South Korean kids love J-pop — to no political avail. Postwar bilateral relations, says Spa magazine, “are the worst ever.”

A Spa reporter in Seoul last month witnessed massive anti-Japan demonstrations. “Exasperating,” said a senior high school girl of Japan’s tightening of procedures for exports to South Korea in July. “Japan hasn’t apologized properly for its (wartime) history — and it’s taking economic revenge on us! Shameless!”

Some are boycotting Japanese products. A Seoul restaurant specializing in Hakata ramen sports a sign on the wall notifying diners it is no longer serving Japanese beer — hoping perhaps the anomaly will go unnoticed. Can a democratic government democratically ignore a surging wave of populist nationalism? Seoul felt it couldn’t, and announced a downgrade in bilateral military cooperation. Revenge fuels revenge, until … what? Nobody knows.

Revenge is righteous indignation in action. It feels wonderful — as a famous Swiss study confirmed back in 2004, citing a rush of neural activity in a part of the brain associated with pleasure. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last, the study found. The subsequent let-down drives a need for more revenge, and still more, until … what? Nobody knows.

Forgiveness is sublime but elusive. There are those to whom it comes naturally — but its religious aura suggests, if not a supernatural source, a discipline one must struggle against the natural grain to acquire. Extreme events inspire it sometimes. One stares into the abyss and draws back in horror. Crime and vengeance come to seem equally appalling. Forgiveness is the last refuge, if there is any refuge at all.

“Rwanda” is the name of one such abyss. The African nation has come a long way since its 100-day spasm of tribal genocide killed an estimated million people in 1994. How could life go on there, without forgiveness? And yet, how can such things be forgiven?

Africa rarely intrudes on Japan’s consciousness. Last week’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama makes it seem, if only briefly, a little closer. The Asahi Shimbun’s multipart series on Africa ahead of the conference spanned the continent and the variety of conditions prevailing on it, from Kenya’s technology boom to Niger’s seemingly bottomless poverty — an abyss of a different kind.

Starving, a mother sends her 15-year-old son 2,500 kilometers across the Sahara Desert to beg in Algeria. Months later he’s back, a survivor, if barely, of hunger, thirst, 40-degree heat by day, sub-zero freezing by night, rip-offs and abandonment by brokers and harassment by the Algerian police, who finally deport him. His mother is not glad to see him. He’s penniless, and the family has no food. “Go again!” she orders him. Timidly, he resists. Coverage ends with the outcome unsettled.

Will he forgive his mother when he grows up? Maybe he’s forgiven her already. He’s hungry; she’s hungry; the hungry understand one another — or can, perhaps, learn to.

In Rwanda, a much more improbable learning unfolds. Having shocked humanity with violence, it now astonishes humanity with forgiveness. In six “reconciliation villages” set up across the country by a Christian NGO, people who once went at each other with machetes now live side by side — as friends. An Associated Press photo of two smiling people embracing went round the world last April, the caption reading, “Genocide survivor Laurencia Mukalemere, a Tutsi, greets Tasian Nkundiye, a Hutu who murdered her husband and spent eight years in prison for the killing and other crimes, at Nkundiye’s home in the reconciliation village of Mbyo.”

Our admiration for them — for Mukalemere and others like her — may not be unmixed. Some crimes seem unforgivable. Is forgiving them a virtue? If so, is everyone capable of it?

In December 2016, a woman in her 50s was struck by a car while walking in a supermarket parking lot in Saitama Prefecture. The driver was an 80-year-old man who, intending to stop to let her pass, hit the accelerator instead of the brake.

Shukan Gendai magazine mentioned the accident in a report in June on elderly drivers. The man was horrified by what he’d done. How could it have happened? He was in excellent health, had a perfect lifelong driving record, had just passed a test designed to detect dementia symptoms in people renewing their licenses — and, suddenly, on a routine Saturday morning trip to the local supermarket, he had perhaps killed someone!

He hadn’t, as it happened. The woman survived, but to this day is unable to walk properly. The man was arrested but released. He is eaten up with remorse. He would do anything to make amends. What amends can he make? He wants above all to meet her, to apologize, to be forgiven by her if possible; to humbly accept her rage if that’s how she’s disposed.

She refuses to meet him. Reconciliation villages are only in Rwanda. The panhuman brotherhood and sisterhood is not yet.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”