A Japan changed yet unchanged

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - December 9, 2012 - 12:00am

Last Dec. 4, Japan celebrated the Japanese Emperor’s birthday, and on Dec. 8, we marked the 71st anniversary of Pearl Harbor’s destruction. It was for us Filipinos unthinkable — a tiny nation taking on a giant like the United States and almost succeeding.

Let me also point out: early in 2011, the northern portion of Japan was struck by a massive earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands. Compounding the tragedy was the damage done to the nuclear plant in Fukushima.

With their usual nobility, the Japanese faced their tragedy with fortitude and equanimity. It was so inspiring, so edifying to see the survivors line up for food and water. Thousands of volunteers converged on the stricken area, recovered valuables, mementos, pictures, money and jewelry for the survivors. In the damaged nuclear plant, volunteers worked to contain the radioactive spread. Even with their protective clothing, many of them will surely die soon. How did the Japanese develop such heroism?

I first visited the country in the early Fifties. The land was scarred by war but its mountains were caparisoned with trees. Logs from the Philippines floated in the Sumida river, attesting to the wantonness of our businessmen: even then, why did we export logs, not lumber or wood products?

Japan was still poor and the Filipino visitor was rich. Two pesos were one dollar; that translated into 340 yen. It is now 75 yen to the dollar; how did Japan recover so quickly to become until recently the second richest country next to the United States?

Perhaps history may answer such questions. It is all there — the honor code of the Samurai, nationalism, a rigid morality, loyalty.

I met Ooka Shohei — a small man with watery eyes, more fluent in French than English. He wrote Fires on the Plain, that powerful novel of his chilling experience in the Philippines as a soldier. The first thing he told me was that he did not kill a single Filipino.

Be that as it may, like most of us who survived three years of Japanese brutality, I thought I would never have any social relationship with them. It is absolutely correct for us never to forget what they did, but as it sometimes happens, time has a way of mellowing or even glossing over a marrow-deep hatred and replacing this not so much with understanding but with introspection which, as it deepens, becomes a quest for insights, for meaning. Through the years, this personal animosity thawed as I made friends and learned a lot about this great nation.

There are no “ifs” in history. But what would have happened if it was they who colonized us and not the Spaniards or Americans? Except for Formosa (Taiwan) where they were kind, they would have brutalized us like they did with their other colonies. They had fawning allies everywhere but their collaborators elsewhere did not become as powerful as did those who helped them in the Philippines.

One thing is sure: we would not be crippled by a hangover with them like we are with the Americans who colonized us with “benevolent neglect.” We would most probably be disciplined, hardworking, and eager to industrialize like Korea. This would be readily possible because we would also have an educational system similar to theirs, with its emphasis on science. Above all, we would be driven like the Koreans whose rallying cry is, “We will beat Japan!”

Japan had a violent past like us before the Spaniards came. The Japanese were divided into warring clans. The leaders kidnapped the children of their enemies as hostages. The sternest loyalty was demanded of their allies and followers.

Tokogawa Ieyasu, who eventually defeated all the clans and unified Japan in 1603, was once ordered by his lord, Oda Nobunaga to kill his wife and son to prove his loyalty. He did. He and his descendants ruled Japan for two centuries and a half — the peaceful Edo period named after Tokyo which was then called Edo.

Such loyalty is taught in the schools, embedded in the psyche, and celebrated in history, literature.

It explains the kamikaze pilots in World War II who crashed their planes loaded with bombs on American ships.

It persists in contemporary politics — for politicians to switch parties or factions in one party is rare because it means betrayal. The “nobility of failure” expressed as hara-kiri or suicide is carried over to this very day in the cutting of a finger by the Yakuza (gangster) when he fails at a given job, although this is no longer widely practiced — the custom has been replaced by cash payment. Capping it all is this poignant story of Hachiko, the dog whose statue in the Shibuya station has become the most popular meeting place in all Japan. Hachiko always went to the station in the afternoon to meet its master after work. Its master died. Hachiko continued to stay in the station waiting until it, too, died.

Aesthetics and craftsmanship

One of the first impressions I got in Tokyo was the aesthetic finesse of the people, art objects, flower arrangements even in the public toilets, the excellence of their folk crafts.

Japanese aesthetics is highly refined and is most visible in the way the Japanese use space — perhaps conditioned as they are to the fact that the country is mountainous and space is very valuable.

An expression of this unique aesthetic sense characterizes their folk crafts. Visitors, particularly humanists should visit the folk arts (mengei) museums. The origins of Japanese design, their superb craftsmanship are there.

Most Filipinos were not aware of these qualities before World War II when we bought pencils, folk products that were easily broken.

It was only when they finally occupied the Philippines that we saw their huge tanks, giant artillery pieces and superb planes that we no longer wondered why they were self-confident enough to wage war on the United States.

It was not just self-confidence — it was also an overriding spirit of nationalism, of duty to the national symbol, the Emperor, and the belief that they were the chosen people whose ancestor was the Sun God, as signified by their flag.

Nationalism can mesmerize a people into blind obedience, bloat its leaders with arrogance. The same nationalism, however, can also propel the same people to be like ants, purposeful and single-minded in building a throbbing, prosperous country.

In the early Fifties, the sullen vestiges of war were pervasive. The elderly woman who cleaned my hotel room carefully gathered all the paper wrappings of what I bought and reused them. I saw a man pick up a cigarette stub on the sidewalk. In spite of the poverty, there was little crime; the Japanese were not only disciplined, they were honest. They still are.

I never count my change when shopping in Japan — I know it is all there.

Once, I left my shoulder bag in the subway; it contained a journal, traveler’s checks and a camera, I was absolutely sure I would not get it back, but my guide said we should go to the “lost and found” section of the subway in the afternoon — and there it was.

The Japanese are courteous; there never was a time that my wife and I — now in our 70s — were not offered seats in the subway, crowded though they are.

I admired a lustrous pearl ring at Mitsuokoshi. The salesman asked to whom I would give the ring and I said, my wife. He then showed me a smaller pearl, less expensive, which he said was more fitting and beautiful because it was rose colored and rare. How could I have refused him?

At Isetan, I wanted a Burberry topcoat. I put it on, and was ready to pay when the salesgirl looked me over then shook her head. She said, it didn’t look good on me — it was too tight. She did not make a sale, but she gained an admirer.

During the massive Kobe earthquake a few years ago, the government was very slow to act. But not the youth who volunteered immediately to go help that devastated city. The youth — so many of the elderly Japanese have become skeptical about their earnestness, their civic spirit. Yet the young Japanese proved them wrong.

How did the Japanese become so correct? So honest?

(To be continued)

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