I drive a Japanese car, a Honda Fit. Unlike some Japanese cars that are built by Japanese companies on American soil, my Fit was actually made in Japan and shipped over. One of my favorite foods is sushi. Another is anything prepared hibachi-style. My family plays video games on a Wii U, a Japanese system, with audio run through a receiver made by Sony, another Japanese company. I love the spare, haunting simplicity of Japanese music and art and the minimalist beauty of its architecture and furniture design. One of my favorite spas is a Japanese gem outside Santa Fe called Ten Thousand Waves. In my lifetime, Japan has always been a country full of innovation, great culture, and solid values that offer an interesting alternative to our Western individualism.
Obviously, had I been born half a century earlier, my perspective on Japan would have been radically different.
A Tale Worth Reading
This realization hit home for me while reading Laura Hillenbrand’s outstanding World War II biography called Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater. After his plane crashed, he crawled into a life raft with two men from his crew and began drifting west toward Japanese-occupied territory. His story was one of the most extraordinary journeys I have ever encountered. The book taught me much about the Pacific side of World War II, a subject I sadly haven’t studied in depth even though both my grandfathers served in the Navy during the war. It also gave me a portrait of a will to live that is strong enough to endure unfathomable suffering, despite circumstances that would have made me want to give up many times over. Hillenbrand, also the author of Seabiscuit, spent seven years interviewing POWs, historians, and Zamperini himself, poring over scrapbooks and photographs and military records, and weaving together this mountain of information into one of the most compelling nonfiction books I have ever read.
Japan as a Hostile Nation
The disconnect between the 2013 Japan I know and the 1940s Japan in the book jarred me a bit. Without spoiling the book for you, I will say that Zamperini does eventually encounter some Japanese soldiers, and the results will make you squirm.
How can two countries go from being mortal enemies in the 1940s to being begrudging allies against the Communists the next decade, to say nothing of our strong relationship today and our affinity for Japanese culture and products? Political necessity certainly played a role initially, as the United States wanted all the allies it could get against the Soviet Union and China. Economic considerations also helped, as helping Japan to rebuild presented a large trade opportunity. The passage of time faded painful and fearful memories, and the millions of babies born in the post-war Baby Boom were already separated by time from the horrors of the war. For me, a child of two of those Baby Boomers, the idea of Japan as a hostile nation feels strange and out of place. And finally, as many of the World War II veterans learned after returning home, hatred and bitterness make a terrible burden to carry for the rest of one’s life.
Closing Your Eyes Is Easier, but Opening Them Is Worth It
Studying the horrors of World War II filled me with a variety of emotions: sorrow at the suffering and death of so many people on both sides of the conflict, anger at the people who started it, confusion at how so many people on the Axis side could believe in ideas like racial superiority, wonder at the amazing resilience and bravery of the soldiers and the civilians, and a wave of many types of gratitude.
I am thankful this brutal war ended as soon as it did. I am grateful that my grandfathers and so many others returned safely despite the enormous risks they faced. I am grateful that people, and nations, can change over time, that former enemies can shake hands and sometimes even form friendships, and that forgiveness is possible even in some of the worst situations imaginable.