Friday, April 1, 2011

China’s Take on Japan’s Tragedy

As I wrote in It Is Raining, I have been remiss in writing about the tragedy in Japan. Now is the time to do so.

First, my personal feelings: I cannot imagine how the Japanese must have felt to first feel the Earth shake beneath their feet and then to see that tidal wave crash into their wrecked land. The horror and devastation they must have felt! So many dead! My heart reaches to them. And now, the ongoing struggle to contain and control nuclear fallout of the reactor affected by the earthquake. In a race against time, their best engineers struggle to avert yet another catastrophe. The world holds its collective breath, all while countries send rescue units and material aid.

The Japanese are fatalists. They are deeply philosophical. And, for being such a modern, progressive society, they are a deeply religious people – unlike the most advanced societies in the West who, statistically, are turning their back on their religious roots.

The Japanese remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki very well. Not from the point of view of destruction but from having to rebuild their country. From being hungry and dirty and sick and cold and tired, with no safe place to lay their head. And they educate their young so that that dark time in their history is not forgotten. They accept responsibility for their part in bringing about the destruction of their country. That is another amazing facet of the Japanese culture: being objective, even when it does not serve their interests.

I have been keeping a close eye on the news broadcasts here in China. Many Chinese are worried about radiation fallout and are sweeping the grocery store shelves clean of salt, thinking that it will prevent or counter radiation poisoning. There is some truth to that, considering processed salt is enriched with iodine, but the iodine content of salt is too low to do any real good where radiation poisoning is concerned. Besides, ingesting massive amounts of salt is more dangerous to the cardiovascular system than the benefits it could give with regard to radiation poisoning.

The news here is necessarily neutral. In China, the newscasters do not report tragedies with a gleam in their eye and a bloodlust in their voice. They tend to be stoic in their composure and their tone of voice is even and well modulated, no matter what they are reporting on. To get the real news, I hit the streets. So, I asked the students and my Chinese friends what the general sentiment is with regard to Japan.

To say I was surprised by the answer is to understate my reaction. In truth, I never expected the Chinese sentiment about Japan’s triple tragedy to be so vengeful.

Although overall, the Chinese are sympathetic, and the Chinese government has sent their rescue team to Japan, the general sentiment is: “Serves them right. Divine retribution for what they’ve done to us.”

There is a long-standing rivalry between China and Japan. And when I say ‘long-standing’, I mean millennia-long. Although China was the first established society in this part of the world, and the first people with a formed language, it was only an oral language – not a written one. When Japanese soldiers came over some 4,000+ years ago, they took China’s language back to Japan with them and assigned ideograms to each sound. Thus Japan was the first to have a written language, and it came from China’s culture.

It goes on: the tea ceremony, now so famous in Japan, came from China. The royal hierarchy, originally Chinese, was copied in Japan. Agricultural methods, upon which the Chinese relied on for centuries before Japan paid their visit, were emulated by the Japanese and made Japan a successful agricultural society.

All of this is small potatoes. The one incident that makes the Chinese so bitter and vengeful against Japan happened last century: the rape of Nanking. In 1937, Japan cut a bloody path through China during the Sino-Japanese war. On the way through and up North, they stopped long enough to devastate the then-capital city, now known as Nanjing. It was a six-week ordeal: women raped and killed, babies murdered, men made to witness the humiliation before they met with their death. If you are unfamiliar with this event in history, an excellent biopic of it is called Don’t Cry, Nanking.

Is the Chinese mindset fair, or even reasonable? Objectively, I would say ‘No’. But there is no quelling a passion that runs that deep. I suppose, as long as the Chinese have sent their rescue team over and are doing what they can to help, it doesn’t matter what the sentiment is. What do you think?

I reflect on why I write about this, weeks after the actual events in Japan. Something stayed my hand even though this topic has been on my mind to write about since news of Japan’s tragedy first hit the airwaves. Today, I learned why I waited so long.

I read an article on Yahoo news about a British former POW who, while a prisoner, snuck into Auschwitz twice to personally witness the conditions there. He had heard tales of the atrocities and wanted to see for himself, so that he could accurately report them upon his release. You can read this article here: I was shocked to read many of the reader comments that said the Holocaust never happened. Several made ethnic slurs against the Jews. Anyone who made positive comments about this Vet’s courage, and about how this story is as relevant today as it was sixty years ago were slammed and demeaned, myself included.

If the Japanese make it a point to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and have built a successful, progressive society since then all while accepting culpability for their past actions, and the Chinese can send aid to their arch-rival while their grief over Japan’s doings is still so raw, how is it that Americans responding to that news article deny that the Holocaust ever happened and they are still as racist and narrow-minded as they are? What does that mean for the future of America, and for the world?

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