The Oldest Historiography in Japan

Have you ever had a Japanese person come up to you on the street and tell you about the oldest XYZ in Japan which you can find in this particular area? This happened to me for the second time today. My friends and I were looking vaguely out at the harbor in Dejima, and a complete stranger–naturally, an ojisan–approached us and talked about the oldest Protestant seminary in alllll of Japan which used to be on Dejima but was moved somewhere else. The first time was on my study abroad, when a stranger, also an ojisan, sat next to me on the train holding a binder full of laminated newspaper clippings, ascertained that I didn’t know enough Japanese to comprehend his vital message, and went to tell my program director about how this particular area of Kyoto was in fact the oldest human settlement in Japan, but had been covered up by an official conspiracy.

I reflected on these unusual events after hearing my professor friend say this evening, “It’s not that Japanese people don’t have an opinion about history, but we don’t speak about our opinions.” This is both true and false in extremely important ways. As I understand it so far, not quite knowing enough Japanese to read Beat Takeshi’s History of 20th Century Japan, there are five ways in which Japanese people are interested in history. The first is the usual, bookish memorization of names and dates as taught in middle schools, and keeping any underlying narrative to oneself. The rekijo seem to be mostly of this first category. Indeed, this normal mode of history is purely about facts and has nothing to do with opinions other than those of the “rules-sucks” type.

The second is the myopic obsession with blaming people from history for the problems of today, which has caused endless Japan-bashing. The third is the equally myopic defense of every Japanese person in all of history against the attacks of the critics, which is just as lame. These two types of interpreting history are based on very deeply held opinions, but the one thing people hate to do in these discussions is admit they have an opinion; thus they will present their opinion as an unbiased exposition of the facts, even when this strains credulity, which only adds rancor to the discussion.

The fourth type, just to acknowledge its existence, is the actual opinionated narrative that directly contradicts my professor friend’s statement. I am guessing Beat Takeshi’s book is one such example, based on the Amazon reviews. It is nice to know what Japanese people think about their own history, and even nicer to read it in a book instead of painstakingly exacting it during a conversation. These books are still rare, though.

But the fifth type most interests me, because it is absent from Western historiography. There are a large number of middle-aged men in Japan (and perhaps a rekijo or two) who have scientifically and accurately determined that some whatsit in their hometown is the OLDEST WHATSIT IN ALL JAPAN, and must get the word out about this old whatsit to the entire world, especially notifying any foreigners that happen to come pass through the area. Of course, every country in some way has a mania for the ancient. The only country that has not traditionally obsessed over its own age is India, and even that is now changing. But in Japan this manifests in a unique way. Perhaps these ojisans are continuing that great kokugaku quest to find the purity of ancient times. (Speaking of which, doesn’t that make this historiography predate the other four kinds of historiographies? You know, I think it does!) Perhaps they just have too much free time on their hands, and spend every Sunday patrolling for possible recruits to their cult of the old thingamabob. Who knows? It is something to explore if you ever encounter it in Japan. Just learn Japanese first, because they often don’t know English.

Posted: September 26th, 2010 | Kokoro

Wellesley Middle School Students Act Like Middle Schoolers

I was surprised to see my town in the national news today. Even though I’m in Japan and don’t read the Globe, while I was looking through my Twitter updates I learned that Wellesley Middle School students participated in a visit to a mosque as part of a social studies program, and some of them engaged in “prayer” during the visit. This sparked tired, fake outrage from an anti-Muslim rightist group absurdly named “Americans for Peace and Tolerance”, which claimed that their “Inside Video Captures Kids Bowing to Allah“. Of course, there was no cover-up performed, and the video of five unnamed children was released without permission from any of the families involved, solely to stir up controversy. The insinuation the group was making was that naive liberal Wellesleyites allowed their children to be converted to a pagan cult of genocide during a 30 minute visit to a mosque, which makes sense only in the alternate universe that the right wing lives in.

No, I’m not interested in the fear-mongering, nor do I think anyone is at fault for allowing kids to imitate a religious service during a field trip. What interests me is why these students decided to “pray” and what background they might be coming from. See, reading this report takes me back to my days at Wellesley Middle School. I was pretty much an outcast then, but I loved learning about other cultures, and a trip to a mosque would have been the ultimate cool thing. If I had gone, would I have imitated the prayer?

Consider the mental life of an average American middle schooler. Middle school is social hell in every country on Earth– I’m typing this from a Japanese middle school and you can feel the social pressure in the classrooms. Kids are much more likely to make decisions based on their status as an insider or outsider than what their parents or teachers are telling them. Furthermore, if there is such a thing as an ideal Democrat or Republican, middle school is where you will find such a person. Just think back to how you thought about politics in middle school– America is all about civil rights and liberal ideals! No liberal project could go wrong! Actually, I’m finding it hard to distinguish between middle school and what passes for political commentary in America. Anyway, this could be a dangerous naivete outside of Wellesley, but in that town it’s just kind of cute, and in this case inspiring.

There were five boys praying in the anti-Muslim group’s video; all of them had voluntarily left the rows of students and joined the rows of the congregation. To cover all the possible bases, let’s say that one of the kids was Muslim, two of them were his friends, and two more simply joined in because they wanted to. (I’m not claiming this is actually the case.) It is bizarre to claim that a devout Muslim cannot pray at noon, as he would probably do anyway every day at school, just because he is on a field trip; I will ignore that altogether. If that Muslim had two close friends, under the power laws of middle school they would be strongly compelled to join in just so that he wouldn’t be alone in his choice to pray. This choice would have nothing to do with their understanding of Islam.  Can you really claim that supporting a friend by imitating religious ritual violates the separation of church and state? What if the imitation was meant to mock a religion– does that violate that separation? Really, this would be a strange area for the face of secularism to intervene.

The final case, and most likely, is that the kids were imitating without much of a thought whatsoever. This reminds me of a story told by a professor named Tomoko Masuzawa about her study abroad program in America. Her host family was Catholic, and took her to Mass, the meaning of which she did not understand; comparing it to activities in Japan, she might have thought it was a festival or something like that. At Mass she received the Eucharist. She barely gave it a second thought. But later, she went on to study religion, and only then learned that receiving the Eucharist is not something that everyone in America does, but rather signifies that one is a member of the Catholic Church in good standing, and opposes Protestants and so forth. Isn’t what she did an honest mistake, not knowing symbolism? Regardless of whether she accidentally engaged in something “religious”, did she actually become a Catholic by following the patterns of her host family? I don’t think so.

I think it’s just as likely that, having just heard a lecture about Islam, the boys understood that their actions were part of a larger fabric called Islam, but simply didn’t care. They’re only kids, and if there’s any time to blamelessly try out the activities of foreign cultures it would be on a middle school field trip (which makes the covert recording of the video just that more cruel). It could have all sorts of unrelated, secular meanings for them: maybe it made them feel sort of rebellious, or separated them from their hated peers, or made them feel in touch with this cool thing called “Islam” that all the evil Republicans hate. If four people around me had been doing that on my field trip, I wouldn’t have felt any qualms with joining in. After all, it’s not something you get to do every day.

All I’m trying to say is the least likely thing for a middle schooler to do is to spontaneously convert to a new religion on a field trip; I have not read any reports of such a thing happening in Wellesley. It is, however, incredibly likely that kids were imitating prayer for the same damn reasons that kids do anything in middle school, and that their action sparked a rabid right-wing video and an apology from the principal is a clear symptom of a poisonous political climate.

(P.S. In the antiquated cosmology of Christianism, of course, a whole different thing is going on: Christian children are being tempted to worship at idols, which, regardless of their own understanding of their actions, will deliver them to Hell. Let us hope that nobody outside the walls of “Americans for Peace and Tolerance” actually propagates such a medieval belief. Here in real life, participating in a culture without knowing what it means does not change your attitude whatsoever; being told that you are a bad person for doing so just might.)

Posted: September 24th, 2010 | Secular-Religious 3 Comments »