Wednesday, December 15, 2004

December the 7th

A few years ago I worked in a manufacturing facility owned by a large Japanese company, the name you would recognize. It was staffed primarily by North Carolinians with an ever-changing handful of Japanese executives, engineers, and technicians. During the six years I was there we worked hard, made a world-class product, and were successful in the marketplace. I enjoyed the experience, especially the opportunity to work with, learn from, and get to know my Japanese coworkers.

For a time our company president was a Japanese manufacturing engineer. Let's call him Sam. He was about my age, very smart, and came to the job with a reputation on both sides of the Pacific as a hard-ass. He did not suffer fools gladly and was respected more out of fear than love by Japanese and American staff alike. As I occupied a white-collar position about as low on the org chart as I could get, Sam and I had very few opportunities to work together. It took a while before I came to know and admire him. So I was surprised the day he called me into his office and then asked me to shut the door.

Modern Japanese offices are open. In our facility only the company president had a door and it was seldom closed. So when I was asked to pull the door to I did not think it a good sign.

After he asked me a couple of rather insignificant questions about the work I had been doing he asked if I knew what day it was.

"Yes," I replied, "December 7th." I did not repeat Roosevelt's words that so often follow, "a date that will live in infamy." He now had my complete attention.

He then asked if the date was still important to Americans.

I replied that it was, especially to older Americans who were alive then.

He said we were both much too young to remember it personally. We both smiled. Now I knew why he had invited me into his office; he wanted to talk about Pearl Harbor.

It then occurred to me that the Japanese must remember December 7th very differently. For them it was not the beginning of the war, but the beginning of the end. It was a tactical military victory but also a strategic blunder that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, total surrender, and the complete reordering of Japanese society. For us it was the sneak attack we paid back with interest. Where was this conversation headed?

"We are not sneaky," he said. He had a pained look on his face. "We are honorable people," he continued earnestly.

I could tell he was struggling. Like many Japanese his ability to speak English was far less developed than his other English language skills. I started nodding my head up and down to let him know that I understood. I was also thinking that the less said by me the better.

He further said that the U.S. government should have anticipated the attack, that our nations were at war in all-but-fact. He then said that Japanese citizens were surprised too and that the decision to attack Pearl Harbor was made by a small group of men in secret. He repeated that the Japanese were honorable people, not sneaky. Then he said - almost as an aside - that maybe it is impossible to be honorable in wartime.

I began to gather that - rationalizations aside - December 7th and Pearl Harbor were as painful for him as for most Americans, except in a very different way. To him it was a stain on the honorable character of his people. I could tell he personally hated the stereotype of the sneaky Japanese. He then asked if I knew anything about the war between Japan and China.

I must have stopped breathing. Of course. I grew up with the stories and photographs of the Japanese invasion of China and the brutal aftermath of atrocities on civilians. The German SS troops were Boy Scouts by comparison. These images were part what Americans used to justify their post WW2 moral superiority over just about everybody. I just nodded a bit more deeply.

He continued that what the Japanese soldiers did in China was not honorable and that even today the Japanese history books did not tell the truth to young people. He was beginning to look grief stricken. Suddenly this was not my boss, the Japanese hard-ass I thought I knew, but a guy my age taking very personally the shortcomings of his people's history.

Then it hit me. Sam spend many years in Malaysia at our sister factory. Malaysia also felt the brutal hand of Japanese occupiers. He had married a Malaysian woman of Chinese descent. This was very personal indeed.

He paused. It was my turn. He clearly expected my reaction.

I told Sam that dishonorable behavior was in all of our hearts. I reminded him of concentration camps and gulags, apartheid, slavery in the United States, the recent African tribal wars, Muslim/Hindu atrocities in India, and the destruction of Native Americans and their culture. I told him dishonor to our ideals is a human trait, not reserved for any one country or people.

With that he seemed to relax. He returned the conversation to work, and then escorted me to the door. Before he was posted back to Japan every December 7th thereafter he found a reason to call me into his office. Gradually we talked less of WW2 and more of current events. He thought the Clinton/Whitewater "scandal" very amusing. He told me if you want to see a real scandal, go to Japan. Now when December 7th comes around I always think of Sam.

Since our recent invasion of Iraq this memory has returned even more frequently.


debbienotdeborah said...

I love this story. You're a very good writer. Thank you for sharing. Sorry about the election. :-(

Bibb said...

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the piece. I have been wanting to write something about this conversation since it happened about 10 years ago. This blog has just given me the excuse.

I am new to blogging also and am still trying to develop my "voice." Probably like you I have been reading random blogs getting a feel for what I want to say and how. I want to take some care with what I write, after all children (mine especially) are paying attention. At the same time I want to be true to myself. Reminds me of a Bob Dylan lyric from All Along the Watchtower, "Let's not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

Thanks for your comment, my first from outside my family and circle of old friends. I'll check back on your blog from time to time to see how it is coming. I am sure it will be fine.