Remembering Pearl Harbor

On August 1st this year, my father’s ashes were interred at Punchbowl cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, and spent the first two years of the war on a destroyer in the Western Pacific before the Navy sent him to college in their V-12 officer training program. After a 25 year career he retired as a Commander, then worked several decades more before a long and active retirement. He served as president of his local retired officers association as well as in several leadership roles in many other civic groups. He passed away in January 2015 at the age of 92.

The Navy gave us a ceremony that was especially moving, complete with military honor guard, a ritual folding of the flag and presentation to my eldest sister, and three volleys of a 5-gun salute. A Punchbowl volunteer, a retired navy chief petty officer, recounted for us my father’s experience on the day, about how at the very beginning of the attack, before anyone knew what was happening, he watched one of the first Japanese planes fly over his ship on its way to drop a torpedo on the battleship Oklahoma, and how in the resulting rush to battle stations he jumped into the water to cut loose the captain’s gig so it wouldn’t jam the ship’s propellers as it got underway. At this point in the chief’s recounting, a lone plane flew across the patchy blue sky above the Punchbowl, an apparition that suggested some cosmic resonance connecting past and present. Later, as we placed my father’s urn into the crypt, a gentle rain began to fall.  In Hawaii they say this constitutes a blessing from the gods, and I tried to take comfort in that.

The chief petty officer called my father a hero, but he was never especially comfortable with being called that simply for happening to be in a certain place at an epochal moment in history. And serving in the wartime Navy wasn’t so much heroism as civic duty to him, something every one ought to do as a matter of course. To me though he was heroic in another way, in a way we all could strive to emulate. More than once he told me that he would find himself in the middle of battle, even in the middle of exchanging fire, thinking “that poor guy on the other side is just like me.”  He wasn’t denying difference, rather he was asserting an essential core truth.  I always admired his capacity and grace at such a young age to comprehend the fundamental humanity of his ostensible enemy during the great conflict of WWII. His admission of caritas for the Other, even in the midst of fulfilling duty to his own community, strikes me as especially admirable, and worthy of remembrance.

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Shinkai Makoto

I had occasion recently to view Shinkai Makoto’s 5 Centimeters per Second, an animated film put out by the man widely lauded as the next Miyazaki Hayao.  In my history of contemporary Japan course we discuss Hayazaki’s films as representative texts from the 1980s and 1990s in their nostalgic visions of a cleaner, simpler past. Shinkai’s animated films are clearly inspired by Hayazaki’s work.

I first saw a Shinkai film a few years ago when I noticed his The Place Promised in Our Early Days in our library DVD collection.  I found that film a bit hard to parse. It seemed to reflect a Cold War science fiction sensibility about a future Japan divided by competing Soviet and U.S. interests, and yet it was produced in 2004 after the Cold War had “ended.”  Then I came across Shinkai’s magnificent 2-minute long advertisement for a Japanese distance-learning juku corporation-Z-Kai “Cross Road Special”. It focused a boy and girl from different parts of Japan who shared remarkably similar aptitudes and perspectives, used the same juku to prepare for the university exam, and then meet by chance outside the results board.

5 Centimenters also focuses on the almost mystical affinity that a boy and girl have for one another. In the film they end up drifting apart, but in the commercial the two end up at the same university. The ad ends with the note, “I’m not alone anymore.”  Haven’t seen any of his other films yet, but they seem to follow similar story lines.

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Press Conference in Tokyo, 13 May 2015

I was having lunch in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan today and my host thought I might be interested in a press conference held there later that afternoon by the City of Minamikyushu about their application for the inclusion of the Chiran archive in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” Registry. The Chiran Repository of War Memories began as a memorial site for documents related to the many tokko or kamikaze pilots who flew out of an airfield there late in the Asia-Pacific War. In the last few years they have tried to create a museum that avoided beautifying suicidal war sacrifice, that served to convey the horror of total war conducted by industrialized societies. They have “contextual” material such as diary entries by local schoolgirl volunteers, letters to the pilots and their bereaved families written by community children, and artifacts such as a “mascot doll” given to a tokko pilot by a schoolgirl, intended to encourage him in his mission. They also have letters and poems written by the pilots themselves before they flew off on what was intended to be their last mission.  I was particularly interested in this event because the Repository’s historical consultant was M.G. “Bucky” Sheftall, a professor of Japanese History at Shizuoka University who has worked with discipline and compassion on war memories of Japanese veterans for the past 15 years or so.

There was quite a buzz in the room that was packed with about 80 journalists and a dozen or so television cameras.  Afterwards, as I was waiting to introduce myself to Bucky, a camera crew approached me and asked what I thought of the whole project. As I was asked in Japanese, I responded in Japanese, though I discovered after the fact that the crew was from SBS, a South Korean outfit. Here is what I wished I had the presence of mind to say.

All the correspondents in the Q & A session were right in their concerns about how the project is a difficult one. However earnest and successful the current curators are, and however independent of state interference they might currently be, there is no guarantee that future Japanese administrations might bring pressure to bear on the museum to change the exhibits to be more in line with statist presumptions of patriotic sacrifice in support of war efforts. Furthermore, any one artifact is subject to different interpretations depending on the disposition and assumptions of the viewer. And there is no getting around the bad timing that this local community effort at UNESCO recognition comes at the same time as the national government’s controversial application for a number of Meiji industrial sites for World Heritage designation.

I wasn’t really able to speak to Bucky, but I wanted to tell him his was a noble effort, and that such a repository is suitable for inclusion in an international repository such as the UNESCO registry. Yet one shouldn’t imagine that establishing the proper context is a one-off operation; it will require continuing effort and no illusion otherwise.

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Turning Points

It struck me this morning that my first year students were probably in first grade at the time of the 9/11 attacks. 50 years ago today I was in first grade when Kennedy was shot.

I don’t remember when I learned of his being shot, or of his death. What I do recall is standing in line on the streets of D.C., late into the night, waiting to view Kennedy’s body in state. My father told us that he knew some one who had seen Lincoln’s body in state and he wanted to give us the same kind of historical memory. It was a bitterly cold night, and the new overcoats my mother had gotten us did not match the cold late November chill. I suppose I must have whined about wanting to go home because I remember my mother eventually convincing my father it was just too cold and too late for the children to stay out. I do remember understanding my father’s desire to give us a special memory, and the wonder of having participated in an event of national historical significance.

A few days later, my father took my older siblings to the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. I wanted to go, but either there was not enough room in the car or my Dad didn’t feel he could look after a small child on top of his other children–I was the youngest. I remember watching the service on tv, and saw a girl on a man’s shoulders in the broadcast, and was certain my father and sister had been captured by the tv coverage. I also remember John-John and Caroline, who were more or less my age, and I felt sorry for them.

Kennedy was, of course, the first president I remember. We had made fun of his accent, mimicking it to hilarious laughter. We enjoyed Vaughn Meader’s album having fun caricaturing the family. Those are joyful memories. The Kennedy family was remote from us, with the aristocratic wife/mother and the funny talking husband/father. But in our imaginations they played touch football on the White House lawn, and they were in many ways “our” first family.

Kennedy, supported by speech-writer Ted Sorensen, was inspirational. A generation asked themselves what they could do for their country. And his was the public voice for the 1960s effort to put a man on the moon within the decade “and other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  When I think of Kennedy’s death, I also want to remember the moon landing, an achievement and turning point of far greater import to humanity.  After Kennedy’s death, those left behind picked up the torch of his inaugural, lighting the way toward civil rights at home, the moon and beyond in space.

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Better “than” than “then”

Every now and then I come across writing that really hits a nerve. One particular mistake is the misleading use of “then” instead of “than.”  For example, in this week’s Bucknellian the editorial is particularly poorly written.  Here is the incorrect use of “then.”

“Most students do not drink by themselves, and more often then not they are encouraged by their peers to engage in heavy drinking.”  The Bucknellian 152.1 Sept. 6, 2013.

As I tell my students, the effective writer understands that attentive readers will, at least early on, trust the writer not to mislead them.  They will pick up on clues the writer gives, anticipating where the writer is going.  In the case of the editorial quoted above, the “more often then not” is ambiguous. I read “more often then not” and I trust the writer to mean “then,” in which case the logical meaning would be something along the lines of “more often, then not [so often].” Of course, from the larger context it is obvious that the writer intended “more often than not.”

I don’t look at this as being picky.  After all, at first I’m assuming the writer intends to use the words he uses, and intends to say something a little more nuanced than the obvious. Else why bother writing it, why bother reading it?

By the time I got to the sentence where the editorialist uses the word “fair” to mean “fare,” he’s lost me.  A colleague of mine puts it this way: Don’t piss off your reader。

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