Sunday, November 20, 2005

Japan Bashing's Mirror, II

[This is the second part of a two-part post, following on yesterday's.]

Japan-bashing has a long history here, but it is part of a larger tradition of foreigner-bashing, one of those great paradoxes of a nation founded and built by immigrants, who, pigment for pigment, keep it more vibrant than its “natives” to this day (and I don’t mean Indians). The Japanese just get their periodic share at more telling moments. As I noted yesterday: When the United States’ economic fortunes seem threatened by another nation’s (or group of nations), the bashing begins. Japan has been, and will continue to be, a favored target until the European Union, China and India eke out a place at the basher’s banquet. That, I think, is the more accurate meaning of the “Clash of Civilizations” Samuel Huntington feared in 1993, and sold, on the wrong assumptions, to a grasping Bush administration in 2001.

But, again, Japan: What wasn’t noted yesterday, in the context of the James MacGregor story about TR working out a compromise to keep Japanese students in California de-segregated from the rest by reducing overall Japanese immigration, was what happened eighteen years later: The Immigration Act of 1924, sponsored by the unfailingly revolting Henry Cabot Lodge. So TR’s compromise turned into a door-opening to a slam in the face of a certain type of immigration. The act closed the doors to immigration from Japan, East Asia and Asian-Indians. (Latin American immigration was not restricted. These days the likes of Bill Owens, the Colorado governor, and his anti-immigration hordes are looking to apply the 1924 Act in Spanish.) A generation later, there was the obvious, which has become something of a cliché of repression: The mass relocation and imprisoning in concentration camps of 120,000 Japanese, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, mostly on Indian reservations to boot (without compensation to Indians, of course), and with the Supreme Court’s euphemism-ridden little blessing: “Regardless of the true nature of the assembly and relocation centers—and we deem it unjustifiable to call them concentration camps with all the ugly connotations that term implies—we are dealing specifically with nothing but an exclusion order.” Far be it for ugly reality to offend the sensibilities of our judges, in this case the often estimable Justice Black, writing in the inestimable style of a Sam Alito (about whose style I’ll be writing later this week. Hint: Alito would have written a perfect concurrence to Black’s opinion).

But that was then, as those who love to “move on” like to say. The now is more polite, if less honest, as Saturday’s Times story about Japan’s best-selling xenophobia-ridden comics showed. The high-society Japan-bashing is at any rate, part of a tradition of its own. (Again, I should note that what’s being bashed isn’t in and of itself defensible; it isn’t. But my focus is on the messenger, whose walls are made of a particularly brittle sort of glass.)

Capping off four years as The Atlantic’s Asia correspondent in September 1986, James Fallows wrote a piece in the magazine called “The Japanese Are Different from You and Me.” (I could not find a Web version.) It was engrossing, and puzzling: for such a seemingly progressive nation as Japan, Fallows was portraying it as enthusiastically racist, misogynist, xenophobic, even pedophilic: “Women,” Fallows wrote of those phonebook-thick comics men like to read in the subways, “are being accosted, surprised, tied up, beaten, knifed, tortured, and in general given a hard time. Many who are so treated are meant to be very young—the overall impression is as if the Brooke Shields of five years ago had been America’s exclusive female sexual icon, with no interference from Bo Derek or other full-grown specimens. One advertising man, who has been here for ten years and makes his living by understanding the Japanese psyche, says that everything suddenly fell into place for him when he thought of a half-conscious, low-grade pedophilia as the underlying social motif.”

Any look at television programming during “sweeps” months in the United States, in November, February and May, would yield the same conclusion: low-grade pedophilia is the underlying motif of every other news-magazine story, Lifetime special and drama plotline. Any look at television any time of year, virtually any time of day or night, suggests that violence, veiled porn, sadism and their prime-time family-filtered innuendoes are standard fare on dramas, sitcoms, talk shows and what’s left of television news.

Racism was the other underlying motif in Japan, “the ethnic—well, racial—exclusion on which the society is built. I hesitated to say ‘racial’ or ‘racist,’ because the terms are so loaded and irritating to the Japanese. I can understand why they are annoyed. In their dealings with the West the Japanese have traditionally seen themselves as the objects of racial discrimination—the little yellow men looked down on by the great white fathers. A new book by the historian John W. Downer called, War Without Mercy, provides hair-raising illustrations of the racism with which both Japanese and Japanese-Americans were viewed during the war. For instance, Ernie Pyle explained to the readers of his famous battlefront column that the difference between the Germans and the Japanese was that Germans ‘were still people.’”

Or, for instance, what J. Saunders Redding, writing in the November 1942 American Mercury, in an article called “A Negro Looks at this War,” had noted: “I did not like the constant reference to the Japs as ‘yellow bastards,’ ‘yellow bellies,’ and ‘yellow monkeys,’ as if color had something to do with treachery, as if color were the issue and the thing we are fighting rather than oppression, slavery, and a way of life hateful and nauseating. These and other things I do not like, yet I believe in war.”

Or, for further and most updated instance, what recent veterans of the war in Iraq are reporting of their interaction with local “ragheads,” as The Times’ Bob Herbert related in a May 2 column this year: What Ernie Pyle said of Germans, American soldiers are not quite saying of Iraqi Arabs, whose image is closer to the way the Japanese looked to Redding’s comrades half a century ago: Referring to a soldier called Aidan Delgado, “a 23-year-old religion major at New College of Florida” who spoke Arabic (he’d spent eight years in Egypt, where his father had been posted), who fought in Iraq and got a conscientious objector honorable discharge in January, Herbert wrote: “[Delgado] wasn't happy when, even before his unit left the states, a top officer made wisecracks about the soldiers heading off to Iraq to kill some ragheads and burn some turbans. ‘He laughed,’ Mr. Delgado said, ‘and everybody in the unit laughed with him.’ The officer's comment was a harbinger of the gratuitous violence that, according to Mr. Delgado, is routinely inflicted by American soldiers on ordinary Iraqis. He said: ‘Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They’d keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people’s heads.’ He said he had confronted guys who were his friends about this practice. ‘I said to them: ‘What the hell are you doing? Like, what does this accomplish?’ And they responded just completely openly. They said: ‘Look, I hate being in Iraq. I hate being stuck here. And I hate being surrounded by hajis.’’ ‘Haji’ is the troops’ term of choice for an Iraqi. It’s used the way ‘gook’ or ‘Charlie’ was used in Vietnam. Mr. Delgado said he had witnessed incidents in which an Army sergeant lashed a group of children with a steel Humvee antenna, and a Marine corporal planted a vicious kick in the chest of a kid about 6 years old. There were many occasions, he said, when soldiers or marines would yell and curse and point their guns at Iraqis who had done nothing wrong.”

Those are the men, those are the attitudes, those are the presumptions projecting and (allegedly protecting) American freedom. Arabs, of course, are not like you and me. Then again, you never know how these guys will insinuate themselves in your life, in your subdivisions, in (is nowhere safe?) your blogosphere. Altogether now: let’s go back and read that Times story, and see if it holds up as a front-page surprise—as opposed to, say, the continuing anthology of a mirror we choose to look at so rarely.