Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 1999 /30 Kislev, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- CUTENESS – Japan's top cultural export – is all the rage this holiday season.
Its embodiment is Pokemon, the cloying parade of cartoon "pocket monsters" created by gamemaker Nintendo. The conglomerate has already sold more than $1 billion worth of Pokemon trading cards, videos, movie tickets, and trinkets in the U.S.
Child experts cheer Pokemon's promotion of "distinctly Japanese" traits such as responsibility, empathy, cooperation, and humility. In an article titled "Latest Export Fad Celebrates Japan's Traditional Values," Stephanie Strom of the New York Times News Service notes "there is something notably Japanese in the emphasis on team-building and lending a helping hand." Psychologists speculate that the guileless Pokemon creatures "appeal to young children's sense of benevolent aggression."
Empathy? Humility? Benevolent aggression? Pardon my Scrooge-fulness, but now is the time for wise grandparents to poke a hole in the Pokemon curtain. There is a darker side to Japanese culture that both American and Japanese schoolchildren are miserably ignorant of at the close of the 20th century.
It's not all fun and games.
Start with Pearl Harbor. Surely, the kids who have memorized 150 Pokemon characters from "Charizard" to "Pikachu" can learn and remember the names of all eight U.S. battleships sunk during the Japanese air raid 58 years ago this week: Arizona, California, Maryland, Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
There was nothing benevolent about the unprovoked aggression at Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,300 Americans. The World War II seamen who drowned in the waters off Oahu will never get a chance to watch Pokemon cartoons with their grandchildren.
Nor will the 2,500 Americans and 25,000 Filipinos who died during the Bataan Death March in the Philippines. Just 10 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded the Pacific island nation. Four months later, the invaders forced some 70,000 American and Filipino troops to march 65 miles on a trail of torture, starvation, and brutality.
Japanese officers burned prisoners with cigarettes, decapitated them with bayonets, and forced many of the dying captives to dig their own graves. There were no helping hands for the suffering.
Nor were Japan's traditional values of empathy, humility, or responsibility apparent in Nanking, China -- where Japanese soldiers systematically raped, beat, burned, mutilated, and murdered an estimated 300,000 Chinese civilians 62 years ago this month.
A brave but small number of Japanese and non-Japanese scholars have documented the massacre, but Japanese and American schoolchildren remain largely uninformed of the history. Japanese political leaders continue to censor and intimidate historical truth-tellers such as Chinese-American author Iris Chang, whose best-selling book, "The Rape of Nanking," was denied publication in Japan.
Japan, of course, is not alone in its commission of wartime atrocities through the ages. Barbarism knows no cultural bounds. But as Japanese author Katsuichi Honda pointed out in a book condemning the Nanking Massacre, his homeland, "unlike Germany and Italy, has not followed up on the war crimes committed by its own people. By not acknowledging these crimes, we fail to grasp the complete picture of our own national character…We, therefore, gain a reputation for emphasizing our role as a victim without ever reflecting upon our own violent aspect."
When it was disclosed this spring by the U.S. Justice Department that Japan refused to cooperate with American efforts to track suspected war criminals, the Los Angeles Times provided another trenchant diagnosis of the country's lingering ills: "Japan's problem isn't so much that it can't remember its past but that successive postwar generations have largely been denied the chance even to learn that past. Japan's reluctance to honestly confront its recent history continues to be an insult to its victims and a grievous disservice to its own people."
Over the last year, several scholars and journalists have noted an alarming resurgence of historical revisionism among younger Japanese. Despite widespread testimony from Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, Japanese students are taught that there is no evidence of the country's cruel wartime practice of enslaving Asian women for sex (euphemized as "comfort women"). The candy-coating of Japan's role in World War II is further achieved through popular "manga" cartoons now making their way into the hands of American youth.
Kids around the globe will outgrow Pokemon soon enough. Ignorance, denial,
and stubborn historical amnesia are not so easily
12/06/99: Amateur hour in Seattle