Summary: Discussing WWII Japanese American internment with an all-Japanese audience sparks lively discussion and fosters new friendship.
Before our trip, one of our good friends who lives between Osaka and Kyoto asked us if Mom would be interested and willing to speak to a book club about her family’s wartime experience. Mom has given talks about World War II, the Japanese-American internment, anti-Japanese racism, etc., for decades, and I have assisted her with several recent talks. (A YouTube video of a talk she gave in February 2016 can be found here). But she’s never spoken publicly in Japanese, or to a strictly Japanese audience. Mom and I were both very interested and readily agreed.
After spending some time sightseeing, shopping, and navigating the crowds in Osaka, we took a train to our friend’s apartment in Minase, which is partway between Kyoto and Osaka. The bookstore is literally under the Minase train station of the Hankyu Railway.
In fact, as you exit the station turnstiles, if you were to walk straight forward, you’d bump into the business next door to the bookseller, which is an Indian curry restaurant. Every time a train passed overhead, the floors and walls would shake, which reminded me of scenes from the Woody Allen movie “Play It Again, Sam,” where the main character’s childhood home is located under a roller coaster that shakes every time the ride passes over.
Upon meeting the soft-spoken bookstore manager, I automatically bowed low, and said “Konnichiwa. Ogenki desuka?” (“Hello. how are you?”) He bowed in return, and said something quietly to my friend. She said to me, “He asked me how friend greet in the US, and I told him they usually hug … I think he would like to hug!”
This request caught me off guard, but delighted me. Physical touch is rare in Japan. You might see schoolchildren holding hands, or parent and child holding hands, but you don’t see couples — even young couples — hug or hold hands in public, and certainly not kiss.
One evening in busy Tokyo I saw a young couple meet and the woman barely touched the elbow of her partner. That was it. Our friends who have been to the US will welcome a hug, sometimes even initiate one. Most of the time, if I hug a man, he will stiffly and awkwardly receive it, but that’s about it.
As a person who likes to hug, I certainly missed regular embraces during my time in Japan. So being asked, even indirectly, to hug, was all the invitation I needed. I hugged the store manager and he hugged back. It was an unexpected and touching moment, and boded well for the upcoming talk.
We entered the tiny little bookstore and the manager moved some smaller shelves around. A skilled friend had constructed small shelves that could be disassembled and converted into small stools, and after a while, a space appeared for a dozen or more people to sit. A piano tucked into a corner beckoned, and I was invited to play. I played a few songs from memory, struggling to remember and concentrate while people gathered.
Our friend introduced my Mom and me to a long-time friend of hers who is an English teacher. The new friend offered to help translate for me, for which I was grateful. After a brief introduction, Mom stood up and began to speak. Our friend had printed out a dozen or more slides which I held high as Mom spoke. Although I couldn’t understand most of the Japanese she was saying, I knew her presentation well enough that a single recognizable word or name helped me to follow along, as well as the “next slide” command.
In the audience of about 15 to 20, maybe three older gentlemen had any idea of the Japanese-American internment in the U.S. during the war. One had lived in Paris for some time, and I gathered another had resided in the U.S. The others who had never left Japan, I believe, were learning about this history for the first time.
After speaking about an hour, Mom stopped and invited questions. I had previously told our friend to encourage people to ask any question; no question was off limits or taboo. My concern was that etiquette and respect might inhibit the curious and/or difficult questions. She assured us that this book club was full of inquisitive people, but she repeated our invitation for any question after Mom had completed her talk.
And the questions did come. People asked about how the announcement to leave home for “camp” was made, where my uncles served, how my grandparents felt about the persecution, and if anti-Japanese racism still exists. Discussion turned to the present day. The gentleman who had lived in Paris many years talked about nationalism there and policies developed out of fear of terrorism.
Then came the inevitable question about the current U.S. presidential campaign and the recent election. Were we not shocked by the outcome, and what about some of the rhetoric during the campaign which seemed to justify some of the fears of immigrants and posited solutions not unlike the registration and rounding up of Japanese-Americans 70 years ago?
After hearing the translation of the question, I looked at Mom and asked if she wanted to answer or allow me to respond. She gave me the go-ahead. I took a deep breath and answered that yes, we were both shocked by the election results and shared many of the concerns our Japanese hosts and guests were expressing.
But, I offered, there were several points I wanted to make to quell at least some concerns:
- In American elections, it is common for rhetoric during campaigns to veer to the extreme. Promises are made that are not kept, fiery rhetoric dies down after one is elected, and policies generally shift more to the center.
- If one looks at the past history for the president-elect, it is much more corporate-centrist than what he campaigned on. I suggested that past action is a better predictor of future action than words.
- From what I had read, only 53% of eligible voters voted. So just 26% of the voters actively supported the president-elect. The nearly half of eligible voters who stayed home do not, I believe, actively support the president-elect or they would have voted. And more people voted for the losing candidate than the winner. So it is not correct, in my opinion, to say that half of Americans support the president-elect and half do not.
- Of those who did vote, more voted for the losing candidate than the president-elect. (I explained that this is a product of our confusing electoral college and that this has happened before, most recently when George W. Bush was elected). This shows that less than half of the voters support the president-elect.
- In this election, both leading candidates had higher negative scores than any previous front-runners in my memory. I think it is safe to say that many more votes were cast against the other candidate rather than in support of one’s chosen candidate. This suggests weakness in the support of the president-elect.
None of these reasons mean we should not scrutinize the president-elect’s statements or actions moving forward. But I wanted to limit unnecessary fear with some realism and facts. Our Japanese guests seemed at least partially relieved by my lengthy response.
After the talk, the bookstore closed and several of the attendees and bookstore employees joined us for a late post-talk dinner next door at the Indian curry restaurant. The restaurant owner spoke English, German, and a little Japanese, so I enjoyed speaking a little with him, and his food was delicious.
A couple women asked Mom if they could buy copies of her book. She had brought a few of her last copies, which she signed and gave them at no charge. They were surprised by the gift, and one of them came by my friend’s apartment with handwritten notes in English and gifts for both Mom and me to express gratitude and friendship.
When it was time to say goodbye, we exchanged bows and thanks, and took pictures. My friend quietly told me, “I think he wants another hug,” and I enthusiastically gave the bookstore manager a goodbye embrace.
I was very moved by the experience, grateful for the people’s interest and compassion, and left the experience with ample new evidence to support my firm belief that there is more that we humans share, more that we humans have in common, than what separates us.