What passes on the Left for intelligent argument about the Atomic Bomb (UPDATED)

Japanese execution0001

Japanese beheading an Australian POW

I was feeling a little puckish, so I posted on my “real me” Facebook the same video about the atom bomb that I posted at Bookworm Room yesterday. In brief, it argues that, contrary to Leftist propaganda after WWII, Truman did not drop the bomb, killing tens of thousands of Japanese just to impress Stalin. Instead, as contemporary documents prove, he dropped it to save lives: The Japanese were refusing to surrender even though they’d manifestly lost the war, and all credible estimates (as it turned out, estimates from the Japanese side too) were that millions of Japanese would die if the war came to the home island. Additionally, and of much greater importance to Truman in a war that the Japanese had foisted on America, up to a hundred thousand or more American troops would die too.

With those predictions facing him, Truman made the logical, and surprisingly humane, decision to end the war quickly with the bomb. No matter how deadly it was, it wasn’t as bad as the alternative. War is like that: you have to choose between bad and worse. You can’t vote “present,” since a failure to decide and act is often the worst course of all.

One of my Facebook friends couldn’t have disagreed more strongly with this historically accurate premise. You can only fully appreciate her comments if you know that (a) she was one of the smartest kids in my high school and junior high school; and (b) she is first-generation Chinese-American, so you’d think that she’d have the memory of the Rape of Nanking living somewhere in her brain. Instead, in the 40 years since I first met her, she’s become a victim of Leftist thinking. (Note: I’ve slightly altered some wording in this woman’s comments so as to protect her privacy. The fact that she’s become a Leftist mush-brain doesn’t mean that she gave permission to have herself publicly humiliated. All commenter’s names have been changed.)

Sally Fu: I found a poem “Museum of Doubt : Nagasaki photos” (graphic images not suitable for children), by Kathleen Flenniken, a civil engineer turned poet, who spoke at Seattle’s Hiroshima to Hope festival.

Sally Fu: Japan was about to surrender. Truman only bombed Japan to impress the Soviets. While the results were good for America, Taiwan became a police state under an American-supported dictator who killed of Taiwan’s intellectuals. The US also turned Asia into a source of cheap labor. [Bookworm here: Who knew in 1945 that Truman was prescient enough to envision Mao's successful Communist takeover of China four years later, which saw the Nationalist Chinese government retreat to Taiwan?]

Danny Lemieux (yes, our own Danny: Sally, where did you read that Japan was about to surrender? I’ve looked at myriad sources about WWII, including Japanese sources. Everything I read said that the Japanese government had ordered every man, woman and child to defend “every blade of grass” to the last person. Indeed, Emperor Hirohito opposed the military junta’s demands when he finally agreed to surrender . . . and that was only after the Nagasaki bombing.

Sally Fu: Danny, it’s okay if you to want to believe in the moral high ground. The fact is, though, that America’s militarism (in fact, all militarism) serves all sorts of goals, including security and economic goals. Whatever journalists say, Asia, and especially Japan, has a long history of resisting colonial rule/interference, while the US and other Western nations have a long history of using the military towards global economic dominance.

Danny Lemieux: But Sally, I was looking for an answer to a specific question: You stated that “Japan was about to surrender.” What support do you have for that statement? Japan attacked America, America fought a war, and America won that war. It’s really not that complicated.

Sally Fu: Simple is good, and a simple story is necessary to defend not one but two actions of horrendous inhumanity in the eyes of the world public and to teach as history.

Another Conservative Voice: There is no evidence whatsoever that Japan was about to surrender. To the contrary: it was defiant even after the US dropped the first atomic bomb. As to “using the military towards global economic dominance,” it seems, Sally, that you’re very disconnected from Asian history. The only reason Asia hadn’t attempted to become an imperial power was because the Asians had fought amongst themselves for centuries, both between countries and within their own countries. Europe was able to engage in imperial growth, not only because the rule of law and relatively orderly governments were the norm, but also because Europe had, by historic standards, exceptionally long periods of peace and prosperity. It was these stretches of time that enabled the economic luxury of exploration and discovery, not to mention economic, military, and/or cultural imperialism. Although it was a painful process for Asia, Asia was ultimately fortunate that the West did influence it, since the alternative would have been continued inter-Asian warfare. India is the world’s largest democracy because of – not despite – western influence.

I haven’t yet weighed in. The short statements “Sally Fu” made are so rich in errors that I haven’t yet decided how to go about introducing new ideas in her mind. Her soil may have been killed off by years of Leftist influence, but that once incredibly bright brain may just be lying fallow, and new ideas, introduced correctly, may eventually take root.

UPDATE:  Tom Elia has also been struggling through conversations with liberals.  He has a wonderful line of thinking that sustains him during those moments.

People are violent even without guns

(I find that I’m too thrifty not to get the most mileage out of my writing.  People who get my newsletter — and if you don’t, you can fill out the subscription form to the right — will have seen this post already, but I couldn’t resist a slightly wider audience for it.)

I wrote the other day about the extraordinary violence in England, a level of violence that increased dramatically after the Labour Party outlawed almost all guns.  After reading that post, a friend send me a link to an article by Tom Gresham, writing at the Tactical Wire.  Gresham’s article bounces off of Bob Costas’ inane little homily asserting that Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, would be alive if guns were outlawed.  After pointing out the most obvious fact, which is that Belcher could easily have killed Perkins with his bare hands, Gresham gets to the heart of the matter, which is the way the anti-gun Left abuses data.

Arthur Fellig photo of suicide 1936Gresham first tackles Costa’s claim that, even if guns aren’t used to kill innocent bystanders, they drive suicide rates.  Gresham has one word to demolish that argument:  Japan.  Japan’s laws almost completely prohibit guns.  Nevertheless, says Gresham, “the suicide rate in Japan approaches (sometimes exceeds) twice that of the U.S. No guns in Japan, but twice the rate of suicides of the U.S., which has perhaps 300 million guns.”

Gresham also points to a stunning statistic about America, one I hadn’t known.  In the 20 years since most states passed laws mandating issuance of concealed carry permits to qualified applicants,”the murder rate in the United States has fallen dramatically.”

We now have three interesting facts:  (1) Mostly gun-less Japan has twice the suicide rate of America; (2) mostly gun-less Britain has almost five times as much violent crime as armed America, a rate that increased dramatically when Britain banned most weapons; and (3) when American states enabled law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons, gun crime decreased, rather than increased.

Lion lying down with lambWe’ve talked before at the Bookworm Room about the fact that correlation is not the same as causation.  Those three facts taken together, though, indicate that it’s reasonable to assume a connection between guns and violent crime.  The connection, though, isn’t the one the Left wants us to draw, which is that guns increase the violent crime and suicide rate.  Rather, the connection is that an armed society is one that sees fewer violent crimes and fewer suicides.

Lingering fall-out from our trip to Japan

Our family has traveled a great deal, but I think few trips have affected us as much as the Japan trip we took this summer.  Two things account for that:  First, we took a comprehensive tour, so we saw more than we usually see on a trip.  Second, Japan is so very different from America.  Our European and even our Mexican trip have been to familiar cultures.  Japan, however, even though it has a Western gloss, was a radically different culture from any we’d previously experienced.  It’s therefore not surprising that the trip lingers on in our memories.

One of the downsides of the trip is that the kids are currently refusing to eat any Japanese food.  They’ve always been fairly adventurous eaters, and they liked a lot of the food we had in Japan, but it got to be too much for them.  In the months since our return, every suggestion that we enjoy some Japanese food for dinner (sushi, for example, as I have a gift card to this nice place) has been met with a resounding “No.”  I got one of those loud “Nos” just yesterday, when I was trying to avoid cooking dinner, so the subject is on my mind right now.  I assume that one of these days the children’s overloaded circuits will reset, but until then, it seems that Japanese restaurants are no longer part of our dining-out repertoire.

Another thing the has stuck with all of us is how immaculately clean Japan was.  Just yesterday, my son kept asking me to explain again why the Japanese have no garbage cans in public places (answer:  to limit the risk of hidden bombs or toxins) and why, if they have no garbage cans, Japanese streets, train stations and subway stations are entirely free of litter (answer:  the Japanese responded to the absent litter bins by carrying their own trash away).  Both kids came way with a heightened sense of social responsibility after having seen Japanese civic honesty and cleanliness in action.

We are also contemplating bringing a little bit of Japan home.  Our Japanese trip offered us some of the worst and some of the best toilet experiences we’ve ever had when traveling.  The worst were the squat toilets in public places outside of Tokyo.  We mastered them, but not happily.  Moreover, I kept wondering how in the world arthritic people manage to deal with them.  The best toilets, though, were the ones with the bidet seats (like these, at Bidetsplus.com).  They’re such a marvelous hybrid of cleanliness and efficiency.  Instead of trying to squeeze a stand-alone bidet into a small bathroom (and Lord knows, all the bathrooms were small), the Japanese turned every toilet into a bidet.  I won’t gross you out with details of their wonder (but you can see product videos here, which are cool), but suffice to say that they are wonderful — and affordable, and easy to install.  We’re thinking of giving these bidets as a gift to ourselves this holiday season.  They’re affordable decadence.

 

Lemmings and herded cats — musings on Japan and America

Spending two weeks in a country does not make one an expert on that country.  Indeed, I’m sure the opposite is true, which is that one learns just enough to be dangerous.  One sees the country without understanding it.  Nevertheless, both from looking at the Japanese in action and from speaking to myriad people, both Japanese and Western, I’m prepared to make the dangerous leap to conclusions.

I can’t speak for other people, but what struck me most strongly about Japan was the homogeneity — not just racially, although it is bizarre in today’s world to be in a country where everyone, with the exception of tourists and the American military, is racially Japanese — but also behaviorally.  No matter where we traveled in Honshu, the behaviors were identical.  Everyone said “Arigatou gozaimasu” (0r “thank you very much”) constantly.  And I do mean constantly.  Whether listening to shop keepers, desk clerks, train announcements, bus drivers, subway passengers, or anyone else in any other walk of life, that phrase must have popped up every third or fourth sentence.  So much so that one began to doubt that it had any real meaning.  It began to feel like a verbal twitch, akin to an American “um” or “like.”  Nevertheless, the Japanese fully understand its polite import, and someone who deletes that phrase from his or her vocabulary is definitely rude.

The bowing is akin to the thank yous — all the Japanese do that, to the point at which it feels leached of meaning.  However, had anyone failed to do it, it would have been quite obviously rude.  I found myself bowing reflexively and then, being American, felt guilty for doing so.  Americans shouldn’t be bowing.  I consoled myself, though, by telling myself it’s a meaningless, mannered act, rather than a showing of fealty to a sovereign power.  Given the reflexive bowing, I was almost inclined to forgive Obama for bowing to the Emperor — but not quite.  He’s the American president and it was just wrong to bow to the Emperor, no matter how nice a man the Emperor is and no matter the ritual nature of the bow.

Wherever we traveled, the bus drivers spoke in sibilant whispers.  As best as we could tell, they were constantly muttering under their breath such things as “Everyone sit down, thank you very much,” “we’re all on the bus, thank you very much,” “move to the back, thank you very much,” “the next stop is _______________, thank you very much,” or various other mindless nothings, many of which had already been announced on the overhead recording (complete with multiple pre-recorded “thank you very muches”).  Please note that it wasn’t just the repetitive phrases that were homogenous — it was that identical whisper that the drivers all over Honshu murmured into the microphones.  The first time it was funny, the second intriguing, the third, fourth and etc., it was kind of weird.

My overall sense was that the Japanese are obsessively attached to behaviors.  I liked their obsessive cleanliness, since it meant that travel was less onerous to me.  Since I was raised by a (Japanese) concentration camp survivor with a fetish for cleanliness (cleanliness in a tropical camp could mean the difference between life and death), I have a few obsessive behaviors myself.  Traveling always squeezes me emotionally, as I deal with musty beds and less-than-clean bathrooms.  In Japan, especially because we stayed in tour-group vetted hotels, I didn’t see anything that was less-than-clean.

Nevertheless, even with my appreciation for all things clean, it was strange that, everywhere we went, barring public venues such as train stations or stadiums, the bathrooms were equipped with virtually identical bathroom slippers.  They might be a plain tan color or, more commonly, a snazzy his-and-her toilet design (see below), but they were all styled the same.

The deal with these slippers is that, when you enter a bathroom barefoot or in socks (as is the case in all homes, hotels or nice restaurants), you immediately put on the toilet slippers.  If you forget to take them off when you leave the bathroom, it’s akin to walking out with toilet paper attached to your derriere. Being a fastidious type, I liked the fact that I didn’t have to walk barefoot onto a potentially urine-spattered floor.  Nevertheless, the ubiquity of identical slippers no matter where we traveled was peculiar.

The most fascinating example of the Japanese ability to function in unison was the baseball game we attended.  Although I’m no baseball fan, it was a very enjoyable experience.  The stadium was, of course, immaculate (including the bathrooms).  The fans were happy and friendly, making it a vastly different experience from attending, say, an Oakland Raiders game, which can be rather frightening.  The fans never booed the opposing team or a bad player on their own team.  Instead, they cheered for their own team.  We Americans cheer too, but in a chaotic, unstructured fashion.  The Japanese have cheerleaders in every section and the fans follow along with chants and rhythmic beats on their noisemakers (which look a bit like small bowling pins).  I’m not unique in observing this.  Others, too, have drawn the same conclusions about Japanese group think as played out in the baseball stadium:

The difference is in the atmosphere of the stadium as the game is being played. Both teams had huge bleacher-seating fan sections all of whom cheered for every batter during every inning. This is not just random cheering, it’s highly organized. Think college football games, except pull people from all ages and demographics. Everyone had noise makers and shirts. Businessmen in suits pulled a jersey over their shirt and tie. Old women screamed their hearts out.

The collective nature of the cheering reflects Japanese culture of groupthink, not standing out, etc. I’ve never seen such a highly organized cheering machine in any other sports venue or game I’ve attended. Such a collective fan spirit means many people show up by themselves but instantly join in. The fans cheer while their players are batting. Then they sit down and are quiet the other half of the inning, again reflecting the Japanese value of respect and dignity for opponents.

The whole baseball game experience was charming, but the groupthink bothered me.  You see, as far as I’m concerned, groupthink goes a long way to explaining how a polite, thoughtful, kind, decent group of people can suddenly morph into a monomaniacal killing machine.  The Japanese did it.  The Germans did it.  The Chinese did it.  If the lemming group moves in a nice direction, all is good.  However, if the lemmings get steered towards the cliff, nothing will stop them.  Since morality is defined by manners, when the manners dictate death, off they all go, engaging in mass suicide or homicide.

Americans, traditionally, have appeared more like surly herded cats than enthusiastic lemmings.  For every stain on American history (slavery, the treatment of the Indians, the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, Jim Crow), there have been countervailing forces, vigorously protesting these injustices.  Yes, the injustices happened, but they were never the product of a unanimous society mindlessly going along.  Instead, they were the result of societal tension and were destroyed by that same societal tension.

Many years ago, I read Pierre Berton’s Klondike : The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899. I enjoyed reading the book, but with time’s passage, only two things remain in my memory. The first is Berton’s description of the Klondike mosquitoes, which were so big and aggressive that they could quickly kill a horse. The second is his description of a town that was split evenly down the middle between Canada and the United States. On the Canadian side, the townspeople instantly formed a provisional government, and quickly had an orderly, top-down society. The American side, however, was a Wild West town, with a pure democracy, in which every townsman had a voice. The streets were muddy, crime was rife, and little got done.

At the time I read the book, I was actually embarrassed by the American Klondike town — “What violent, disorganized losers Americans are!”  Since then, though, I’ve come to appreciate the American unwillingness to bow down to leaders.  We don’t — and shouldn’t — look to a strong leader for help.  We look to ourselves.  It may slow us down, but it also allows us to innovate and, most importantly, helps us put the brakes on bad ideas.  We herd as badly as cats do, and we should be grateful for that fact.

Yes, it was reasonable to drop the atomic bomb

Almost since Truman drooped the bomb, historians have been claiming that he did so, not to end World War II but, instead, to fire the opening salvo in the Cold War. In other words, the post war academics claimed that Truman sacrificed hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives just to prove a point to Stalin.

For decades, the only writer to buck this trend was Paul Fussell in Thank God for the Atom Bomb, a book that I don’t believe ever got much traction. Fussell argued that Truman and his advisors, looking at the staggering US losses in Okinawa, and projecting ahead to a mainland invasion, predicted another 70,000 or more American dead, and 100,000 to 200,000 Japanese dead. Under these calculations, the bomb was a reasonable, even humane option.

It turns out Fussell was wrong. His numbers were too low. War historian Dennis Giangreco has examined many more documents that were released since Fussell’s book, and concluded that the best belief in 1945 was that a mainland assault would have been a bloodbath:

American planners for the invasion of Japan as far back as the summer of 1944 produced a worst-case scenario of “half a million American lives and many times that number wounded.” The Japanese Imperial Army’s increased efficiency at killing Americans, particularly on Okinawa, demonstrated to US Secretary of War Henry Stimson and many Pentagon planners that the worst case was a real possibility. This begged a question. The invasion of Japan was scheduled for fall 1945. If the situation on Okinawa — fully half a year before the invasion — was movng toward the original worse case scenario, was there an even worse case, unanticipated death toll? This notion alarmed Stimson. He ordered a multifaceted examination of the US Army’s manpower and training requirements. Shortly before the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, this resulted in an ominous warning: “We shall probably have to kill at least 5 to 10 million Japanese [and] this might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including 400,000 and 800,000 killed.”

You can read the rest of a fascinating and information interview with Mr. Giangreco here.

Communicado — for about five minutes

I’ve been completely without Internet for the last four days. Some might find it relaxing; I found it stressful. I had this sense that the world was passing me by, without stopping for me to make comments about events. Such is the mindset of the compulsive blogger.

I have Internet now, for about five minutes, so I’ll try to be both quick and interesting — or, at least, quick.

We spent a couple of days up in Kamakochi, a mountainous area that manages to look alpine, if one ignores the smoke rising up from the barely dormant high peak towering over the lovely valley. This volcano let loose almost 100 years ago, sluicing down the mountain, thereby creating bare patches that exist to this day, as well as a lovely, still lake.

We stayed in a cabin that seemed to have been built entirely without nails. Everything was . . . hmmm, what’s the name? Ah! Tongue and groove . . . that sounds right. Everything was precisely fitted, obviating the need for nails or screws. It was quite impressive. Also impressive was the complete absence of any decoration or furniture, save for a single coffee table. It was austere, to say the least. Bed was a rock-hard futon, with a pillow filled with — I kid you not — plastic pellets. I didn’t sleep well, but I did lie awake in peaceful beauty.

We went from the mountains to Tokyo, where we scoped out what must surely be the world’s biggest department stores. The food courts were wonderful. They had dazzling displays for the most beautiful, and often the most exotic, food you can imagine. We managed to get out there minus only $100 — and that was after exercising extreme self-control.

The real catnip for our family, though, was a visit to the Sony showroom, where we got to see the latest in cameras and 3D television. I don’t like taking pictures or having my picture taken, but these cameras were so magnificent that even I looked good in the resulting photos. Everyone was surprised, as I am notoriously un-photogenic. The 3D TVs were fascinating, although I think I would get a headache from watching them too long.

From Sony we headed to the Ghibli Museum — and then, when we got there, wondered why we spent the money and time to do so. We had envisioned something rather big and splashy, but we got what amounted to a small shrine to the art of the Ghibli studio. What was there was truly beautiful, but the place was so small, it simply didn’t justify the $100 it cost us for tickets and travel. If you’re a die-hard fan, you should visit the museum; otherwise, save your money to watch the movies.

Out of time. I don’t know if I’ll have time or Internet access anytime soon, but I should be up and running again by the 7th.

More random observations from Japan

We’ve all said it at one time or another — “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” In Kyoto, though, it’s very much both the heat and the humidity. When temperatures are around 100 and humidity is around 85 or 90%, it feels as if one is moving through a giant, heated sponge. One perspires, but doesn’t cool, because the humidity, combined with the fact that not a breath of wind stirs the air, means that one simply gets wet.

Kyoto is lovely, but the heat is off-putting. I know many consider it the most beautiful and interesting city in Japan, but I won’t be sorry to leave it tomorrow for cooler, mountainous climes.

We’ve been watching the Olympics on Japanese television. Or perhaps I should say, we’ve been watching the Japanese Olympics on television. As far as we can tell, Japanese TV shows only those events in which the Japanese are competing — never mind that it’s the fourth heat in a swimming race, without any possibity of a winning swimmer appearing on the television screen. Medal ceremonies, too, show only the Japanese competitor. If the Japanese competitor won only a bronze, you’ll never find out who won gold or silver. It’s a very narrow, parochial approach to a world-wide athletic event.

Japanese trains and subways are lovely. Because we’re not in Tokyo now, and because we’re not traveling at peak commuter times, we’ve seldom encountered oppressive crowds. Mostly, we’ve experienced insanely punctual, obsessively clean trains.

Speaking of obsessive, when it comes to respecting possessions, the Japanese put everyone to shame. On a crowded train, someone discovered a wallet. A general outcry went up, as everyone sought to find the owner. Opening the wallet revealed that it held no identification, but only about 500 yen (less than ten dollars). In America, someone might have pocketed it, or maybe just left it on the seat. In Japan, several teenagers had a quick discussion, and then opened a window to summon an employee who spirited the treasure away to Lost and Found. I think those kids would have had some sort of emotional breakdown if they hadn’t been able to turn it in.

We read about it before we left for Japan, of course, but nothing prepared us for the microscopically small hotel rooms. They’re immaculately clean, of course, but so tiny one person feels quite crowded in the bathroom. Thankfully, all of our hotels have offered “Western” toilets, rather than the “squatting” toilets popular outside of Tokyo:

One of the great pleasures we’ve had in Japan is reading t-shirts. The Japanese love having English words and sentences on their shirts. They don’t care that they make no sense; they just like having them. We’ve tried stealthily taking photos of a few, but it’s very hard to get the words to come out clearly when you’re sneaking up on someone. Today’s silly shirt boasted about the wonders of “State of California, City of Sacrament [sic].”

Department stores here are HUGE. They’re several stories tall and, as with every other place we’ve seen in Japan, they have about twice as many employees as a similarly situated American business would. It’s quite intimidating, really. What’s also different is the floor plans. In America, department stores tend to have open floor plans, with one department flowing into another. In Japan, the stores are broken down into myriad cubby holes, each dedicated, not just to a single type of merchandise, but to a single brand of that specific merchandise. I don’t like shopping at the best of times, and I was not enticed by the busy, claustrophic approach.

By the way, everything you’ve heard about Japanese packaging, wrapping, and presentation is true. Every product is exquisitely displayed, with a symphony of colors and textures. Part of me is gratified by the beauty and part of me is shocked by the waste. This is a culture that places a high premium on appearances. It’s not a shallow or superficial culture, although one could be forgiven for thinking that given the focus on the superficial, both in terms of how things look and how people behave.

On the subject of behavior, I commented on how polite the Japanese have been to us. I know some readers wrote back about the horrible behavior the Japanese have shown foreigners. I can see that we’ve been lucky. Also, there’s a difference between manners, on the one hand, which are formulaic and kindness, on the other hand, which comes from the heart. Not that long ago, someone told me that Americans are the most polite people of all, because they cut through meaningless gesture and go right to true kindness. (Having said that, we have been on the receiving end of genuine kindness while in Japan, as well as ritual politeness.)

I’m pooping out here, so I’ll wrap this up. My Internet access is random, at best, so no promises as to when I’ll next post. I can see, though that DQ is keeping things lively, so I can sign off with a clear conscience.

Another day in Japan, and thoughts about shovels and spoons

We spent today touring Hakone National Park, the park in which Mt. Fuji sits.  As with so many things we’ve seen in Japan, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words to describe it. The itinerary was straightforward. From our “onsen,” which is a semi-traditional hotel with a hot spring, we caught a bus to a funicular.  That took us up a hillside, through a beautiful rhododendron grove, to a gondola station.

We boarded the gondola and soared above a semi-tropical forest, filled with lacy cedars; delicate Japanese maples; upright, feathering bamboo; and a whole lot of other foliage I didn’t recognize. Behind us was a beautiful valley. And then, over a ridge, we suddenly found ourselves staring down into the caldera of a semi-dormant volcano, complete with puffs of sulfurous erupting from fissures in the barren rock. 

The gondola ride ended immediately above caldera and, from there, we headed up to the hot springs. And was it hot. Between the blazing sun and the bubbling sulphur pools, it was easily 100 degrees up there. For those of us with wussy Bay Area blood in our veins, that was tough.

The sun had one good effect, though. It momentarily burned away the clouds shrouding Mt. Fuji, and we were lucky enough to see the very top of that perfect volcanic cone rising above the clouds. Then it vanished again. Apparently a lot of people leave Japan without ever having seen the mountain, so we were very fortunate.  

After our little Mt. Fuji moment, we hopped onto the gondola again, headed down the other side of the mountain and headed to Lake Aish . On the lake were two European-style pirate ships. Why European-style pirate ships?  I have no idea. It’s a Japanese thing. 

We caught a pirate ship, which ferried us across the lake.  On the other side, we wandered about the town a little, and then hiked toward a second town from which we’d catch the bus back to our hotel. The hike took us along the most humid lake walk I’ve ever experienced. Add to that about 700 stairs, both up and down, and you can imagine how wilted we were, with our fog-bred Bay Area blood. 

That’s the itinerary. The shorter version is that Hakone National Park is really lovely. There weren’t actually any stand-outs as compared to other parks which I’ve seen, although I did love that delicate forest.

What’s truly noteworthy, to my mind, isn’t the geography, but is, instead, the culture. To begin within, the Japanese people are so polite and kind. It’s really impossible to imagine the national convulsion that resulted in the Bushido culture and all its attendant cruelties during the 1930s and 1940s. The people we’ve met are so gentle. They truly embraced defeat, and turned it into a kind of cultural victory.

The other thing that so fascinates me is the inefficiency of Japanese culture. On the one hand, the Japanese are highly technical, with computerized train stations, buses, street corners, etc. On the other hand, it seems as if they always have six maniacally polite Japanese people doing the work of one rude Westerner, whether it’s manning the desk at a hot springs resort, directing people onto a bus, checking tickets for an attraction, etc.

I don’t know what Japanese unemployment is, but I’m guessing it’s pretty low, given the sheer numbers of people they assign to every task. Watching them at work, with their exquisite politeness (and their obsession about wrapping and packaging), I kept thinking of that Milton Friedman story about shovels and spoons. You know the one — someone mentioned a government job digging holes with shovels and boasted that it increased employment. Friedman said, if the only thing you want is to increase employment, why not use spoons?

The Japanese use lots of spoons. The thing is, though, that this excessive employment seems to be a product of culture, rather than government policy. Politeness demands that the public and consumers get the kind of attention that only too many employees (by Western standards) can provide.

Some very superficial impressions of Japan

For me, Japan was something of a tabula rasa, as I knew little about it and had very limited expectations when I boarded the plane. So far, I’ve been charmed by what I’ve seen.

I won’t make this post a travelogue, in part because it’s very hard to approach Japan that way. I already discovered that fact when I was trying to plan this trip. Unlike many places that have target destinations (e.g., the Tower of London, Versailles, the Vatican), Japan has cities that are must-sees, such as Tokyo (of course), Kyoto, Kamakura, etc. Within each city there are beautiful gardens or temples, but they’re a subset of the whole.

The real target site in Japan, or so it seems to me after a few days here, is the Japanese culture. Everything that we’ve seen so far is, for want of a better word, “precious.” I adore the obsession with cleanliness, which makes me feel very comfortable. There is no litter, which is a bit peculiar, because there are few garbage cans. Unless you’re unlucky enough to find yourself on a “squat toilet,” every toilet in every airport, train station, hotel, or restaurant has sprays and seat warmers and all manner of wonderful stuff.

The people are lovely to look at: they are immaculately groomed and, if young, often eccentrically dressed. They are all, without exception so far, almost painfully polite. One of the things I like best about them is that they make my petite height seem normal. Everything is sized to me, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

I’d love to write more, but bed is calling. We’ve had long days of sight-seeing and travel, and I’m still a little jet lagged. I’ll leave you with this link, to Yunessun. We spent the afternoon here, and a more peculiar and delightful place it’s hard to imagine.

Does a slight level of societal chaos drive creativity?

I was discussing James Clavell’s Shogun with a friend. I have to confess here that I’ve never managed to read the book. I think the world of James Clavell, who was a Changi Prison survivor and a confirmed individualist who believed in Ayn Rand style independence.  His books are wonderfully well-informed and have fascinating plots.  And yet . . . .  His writing style just doesn’t work for me.  Much as I want to enjoy his books, I don’t.  Every time I try, I end up abandoning the effort after a few chapters.

Nevertheless, since my friend was reading Shogun, I looked it up on Wikipedia and learned that it’s based on the life of a real Englishman, William Adams, who found himself shipwrecked in Japan at the very beginning of the 17th century, at a tumultuous time in Japan’s political history.  One of the interesting things about William Adams is how completely he embraced Japan.  He came to have the greatest respect for the culture, one based upon rigid social etiquette and one that was much cleaner than the Western world he’d left behind.

When I told my friend about this fact, my friend commented that Japan had a really great culture.  I agreed, but I pointed out that, as a general rule, while rigid cultures ensure internal harmony, they tend to stultify creativity.  The raucous, roiling, boiling, filthy, pushy Western world, while much less pleasant than the clean, organized Japanese world, was the one that drove exploration and innovation across the globe.

Am I on to something, or am I just letting my cultural chauvinism affect my thinking?  And is it even fair to compare one little country (Japan) to the whole of Judeo-Christian European/American civilization?

Paul Fussell, RIP

Paul Fussell, happy to have survived WWII

One of the best history books ever written, bar none, is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, a book that elegantly and seamlessly manages to be a comprehensive overview of WWI from the English point of view and of British literature during WWI.  My copy of the book, which I got during college, still occupies a prominent place on my bookshelf.  I’ve read it so often that the cheap paperback binding has disintegrated and, when I open the book, the drift gently down around my feet.  Anyone who is interested in England’s transition from pre-War romanticism to post-War cynicism, or interested in rock-solid history, or is interested in early 20th century British literature and poetry, or is simply interested in beautiful writing, should read this book.

Paul Fussell also wrote one of my favorite essays ever:  Thank God for the Atom Bomb. In that essay, Fussell, an infantryman in Europe the Pacific during WWII, makes a very simple argument: the atomic bomb was a good thing, in that it saved both Japanese and American lives.  Had the bomb not dropped, the war would have continued onto the Japanese mainland, with substantially greater American deaths (up to 100,000 more) as well as Japanese deaths equal to or greater than those resulting from the bomb.  This was a total war, one that the Japanese started.  It was not America’s responsibility to kill its own exhausted Marines in order to keep the Japanese alive, especially because the Japanese Bushido ethos demanded war without surrender.

Aside from embracing Fussell’s logic, I have always heartily and personally agreed with his sentiment.  When the bomb dropped, my mother, who had spent the previous 3.9 years in various Japanese concentration camps in Java, was 21, weighed 60 or so pounds, had the edema of profound starvation, was suffering from two different types of malaria (so she had constant fevers), had beriberi, and was no longer interested in eating.  Had the war lasted even a few more weeks, it’s doubtful she would have survived.  No Mom, of course, equals no me.  Thank God for the Atom Bomb!

Fussell, incidentally, wrote his atomic bomb essay while revisionist scholars were mounting their decades-long, atomic-sized attack on the bomb drop.  Their contention — and the story I learned in school — was that Fat Man and Little Boy had nothing to do with the War in the Pacific, and everything to do with Truman posturing before Stalin.  Recently released documents, however, show that Fussell was correct.  While impressing Stalin might have been a by-product of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman’s primary and reasonable goal was to speed up Japan’s inevitable defeat, while saving the lives of tens of thousands of Americans.  (For more on this, check out this Dennis Giangreco bibliography.)

As you’ve already figured out from the heading to this post, Paul Fussell has died, aged 88.  He was a true scholar who wrote brilliantly and who possessed a rare intellectual honesty and curmudgeonliness that overrode his generic East Coast, Ivy League liberalism.

(A random aside:  Fussell’s son, Samuel, is a pretty darn good writer too.  He wrote the delightful Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, which chronicled his journey from weedy Ivy League scholar, to polished, Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque body building.)