I grew up in China with a narrative that Japanese people are bad and evil. I remember my grandfather’ fist-clenching teeth-grinding accusation of their wrong-doings. My grandfather served in the marine; he’s an honorable and patriotic man, and I remember him telling me stories about his youth that sounded like a tale coming from somewhere far away.
Almost everyone in my generation grew up with Japanese culture; we loved Nintendo and anime, and secretly we all wish we knew the language, so we could consume their culture without relying on subtitles. This, however, was a forbidden pleasure for a lot of us. It was an unwritten rule that we shall not consume Japanese culture in front of the older generation. It’s as if hatred towards Japan has been inscribed in the unwritten portion of our civic duty.
Fortunately, I was given a lot of freedom as an only child growing up with working parents. The only thing I was told to do was to practice the piano, to finish my homework, and to not make a mess. I indulged hours watching anime and reading Japanese literature. To me, Japan has always represented a kind of utopian immaculacy, an attentiveness to the beauty of subtleness and impermanence, and a state of mind that captures minute, fleeting slices of life that would otherwise dissolve in oblivion. It’s almost impossible for me to despise the nation when its culture has so significantly shaped my taste.
When I saw Chinese films in cinema portraying the cruelty of the Nanking Massacre, I felt this unsettling disconnection between Japan the aesthetic and Japan as a warrior nation, and I have to treat them as two distinct entities. In 2005, prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, made a trip down to the Yasukuni shrine, where he gave a sentimental discourse of patriotism and reverence for fallen soldiers, without any repentance for the overseas wars. His visit was symbolic, delineating the revanchism, denial, and xenophobic nationalism that sits uncomfortably well with the culture’s relentless pursuit for beauty and honor. The speech captures the intrinsic paradox with Japanese culture, that the pride that they share comes at the cost of painstaking amnesia.
Li Jing, the Chinese film director who lived in Japan for 20 years produced a film on the Yasukuni incident. The film was accused of “shaming” Japan and was under public’s scrutiny when it premiered in Tokyo. Despite the film’s positive box office performance, Li ended up in Tokyo District Court for a civil suit, and the film was taken down. Although protestors stood up to condemn such political censorship, the incidence symbolized the paradox that will not be easily resolved. Because it’s the same pride that is creating a fragile narrative and inspiring irrational behaviors that holds the people together as a nation.
Culture is a narrative crafted and curated by shared beliefs to create a sense of belonging. Our time has enabled us to choose what we believe in and to craft the culture we identify with. Our accessibility to information has made crafted culture amnesia almost impossible, but it hasn’t made us more rational nor objective. Japan’s inner identity conflict and its collective amnesia serve as a good reminder for someone at the intersection of many identities. The almost too beautiful and perfect stories we tell ourselves always come at a cost, and it’s a good idea to start tracing back to the forgotten ones first.
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