Thursday, February 5, 2015

Reclaiming the Cherry: Questioning what it means to be from "Japan"

Note: I was moved to share this piece as a way to convey my deeply personal motivation for supporting the global petition campaign currently under way to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan to stop the whitewashing of Japan's wartime history in history textbooks in Japan. In order to contribute to peace in the region, and peaceful Japan that reflects our values, I believe we must reclaim what it means to be from Japan on our own terms, rather than assume what it has come to represent in the minds of the far-right revisionists in power in Japan today. Only then, there is a potential for a perspective that is wholly Nikkei and also sides with the victims and not the aggressors, shielded from the characterization of the historical revisionist issue as a matter of geopolitical maneuvering by China and Korea vying to squeeze Japan out of the evolving sphere of influence in the region.

Join our social media photo campaign and use‪#‎TruthTodayPeaceTomorrow‬ and sign the online petition at today!

I've had the privilege of getting to know the members of a small Native American Tribe up in Shasta the last decade. Despite unimaginable violations and assault by settler government(s) and corporations that seeks to obliterate them "from the map," they continue to carry out their traditional ways of life and fight for their right to exist as a unique nation of peoples. It was at one of their ceremonies, an elder said to me, "we always say 'you must know where you come from in order to know who you are, and also, where you're going, and supposed to go.'"

This elder, actually is by blood, a Nikkei, Japanese American. And she's also a proud Tribal elder and fierce advocate for social justice and human rights. She sighed upon learning about Japanese government's attempt to deny its own history of aggression and wartime atrocities. She later posted on Facebook:

From Meiji times, Japan has deliberately embraced American white supremacy attitudes, making white supremacy policies and stand in the world in order to build an empire. White supremacy, violence, hate go hand in hand with what destroyed Japan from the inside out.

She also said to me: "When Japan lost their clan ways, they lost their path." This surprised me.  The reason for the surprise, is that from my experience, very few people know of any Japan other than one that these revisionists refer to, such as the Japan that actually was full of hundreds of 'clans,' such as Emishi, Satsuma, Kumaso and Izumo, and oh so many more, that flourished with their respective distinct cultures and ways, even languages. One needed an interpreter travelling from Kyushu to Honshu. I doubt she knew, but after I thought about it, I came to a realization, that she spoke universal truth not just about Japan but human souls, as well as nations. She didn't need to know that Japan actually really had 'clans' prior to 'Contact.'

Nikkeis must reclaim our indigenous roots in the land that Abe now calls "Japan" on our own terms in order to transcend the failed historic legacy of White Supremacist ideology-influenced Imperial ideology and the worldview Abe is trying so hard to revive with his administration as a vessel to resurrect the Empire to its past glory.

Our ancestors in Japan less than two centuries ago may not have identified as "Japanese" the way Abe defines "Japan" today. In fact, they may not have identified as Japanese over Korean. For example, Izumo had long historic relationship with the Shilla Dynasty, and their religious worldviews are more similar than that of Izumo and Yamato to the north, both part of what is now "Japan." Asuka era left us with many historic shrines still frequented by the faithfuls in Kyoto and beyond -- and it's recognized as fact, that Asuka began when fallen princes from warring states in what is now the Korean peninsula fled and settled there. When you see a map of the Far Eastern Archipelago (I just made this up but it suits the worldview I choose to have for that region much better than Japan/Korea binaries) as a mediterranean without any regard to today's modern nation-state boundaries, you might be surprised how we've managed to come so far with this unquestioned, deeply imbedded assumption, that the Far East is divided into territories neatly divided into three: China, Korea, and Japan. There are literally thousands of islands splattered all over the fringe of the continent. Of course cultures and civilizations mixed every which way for tens of centuries.

In that context, in retracing our 'roots,' how helpful is it, if at all, to use today's definition of "Japan" as unit of analysis and reflection? Really, is "Japan" even relevant to our hidden story of where we REALLY come from?

What if, by accepting "Japan" to be however it is defined by the Abe regime, we are inadvertently internalizing the impact of an explicit strategy of conquest Meiji leaders exercised for the sake of national cohesion? Local 'kami' worshipping practices and rites were made illegal (while only State Shintoism was recognized 'Japan's official' religion); language was homogenized ; US creators of public education system (designed to support settler expansion) were recruited to Japan to appropriate indigenous controlled territories (Hence, first university is Hokkaido, Ainu territory)... and the list goes on.

And so, I feel quite easefully, the elder made a very astute -- observation. Indeed, "Japan" had implemented a line of strategies designed for conquest of what was truly a diverse, multiethnic, multicultural archipelago, as gleamed from the US vis-a-vis mostly Native Americans. The clan roots would give this truth away. God forbid that we relcaim any roots other than one Abe would like us to believe is ours.

Therefore, I'm willing to bet, the "Japan" that is a victim of racist bullying by the international community, is not referring to the Japan that most of our ancestors would have identified with. Abe's grandfather (first post-war Prime Minister Kishi) was in a leadership position for the Imperial Japanese government, which unleashed unspeakable tyrannic rule over the Japanese people -- our ancestors -- and fiercely repressed and exploited farmers and rural peasants throughout Japan to fuel its empire-building effort. Japan's war capacity was built on the backs of our farmer and merchant ancestors, women, elders and children. Life was so incredibly difficult, so many chose to jump on a boat destined for some faraway distant land (like the United States) they knew nothing about. Nikkeis around the world share this history. Massive emigration from Japan in early 20th century is interestingly timed with the succession of popular riots and rebellion throughout the country for excessive taxation and other exploitative government practices. many of our ancestors stood up to protest the Japanese government - run by people Abe strongly identifies with, ideologically, and politically.  He fashions himself a self-appointed 'heir' to THIS throne.

Only in the "clan ways" we can trace the courageous legacy of our great-grandparents standing up to power, scaling the walls of the kura to liberate rice for the children, organizing and founding Japan's first national farmers cooperative, or the socialist party, or the Suiheisha, organization led by the bold and brave Burakumin which published modern Japan's first human rights declaration in history....

When we lose our "clan ways" we simply are left with "Japan" and it is unidimensional. We are simply consuming the Japan that is served up by the Abe regime and are fine with that because in absence of it, there is only emptiness. But if we choose to heed the message of the elder, then we just may come to discover, that our roots and the roots of Abe's are not only quite distinct, but at odds....

When Imperial Japanese Army occupied new territory, they planted cherry trees on the school grounds as they did so throughout schools in Japan. Public education was a means through which to instill imperial ideology and cultivate absolute, unconditional loyalty and surrender to the Emperor. As the cherry flower petals fluttered away with the slightest of a breeze at the height of its blooming beauty, as the Emperor once stated, "see, that, is the most virtuous way of life..." to give up one's life at the height of his youth. This, is how Kamikaze fighter spirit was born. Becuase the value of one's life is "lighter than goose feather." Yes, he was speaking about your life, and those of our ancestors. But probably not Abe and his ancestors.

In the course of its Empire-building effort, the Imperial Japanese Army appropriated cherries for its symbol precisely due to its sacred standing among the Japanese. The planting and harvesting of rice, our lifeblood, was informed by the timing of wild cherry blossoms in the mountains. Without cherry flowers, our ancestors would not have existed at least in the way we understand today. We can either reclaim our cherry flowers as source of life as our ancestors surely did, or as signifying the disposable nature of human life in absolute, unconditional service to the holy Emperor and his country, as the fascist leaders of WWII Japan (and Abe now carrying their torch) would have liked us to embrace with joy and gratitude.

Looking inward and backward is like looking into a hologram. It's never what it seems, and it's all of what it seems, all at the same time. It's hard to see past the distorted images or collages of pieces of images... but the important thing to note, is that you take that first step, acknowledging, but not engaging, all that illusion. All the path lead to the same place at the end of the day, as the elder would say. As long as you continue to seek the truth. When you do, you will know, to distinguish illusion from what is real.

1 comment:

Yurika from ER said...

Thank you for the posting, mihola. As a descendant of both Zanichi Korean and Ainu heritage, and as an indigenous studies scholar, I found some parts of your post problematic. But I hope this would be a positive stirring for more dialogues for us to have in future.