Tokyo vs Beijing, Tokyo vs Seoul Tensions. Any Effect on Our Everyday Relations with Chinese & Korean Acquaintances?
“The Japanese and Chinese – A Confrontation of Destination” reads the title of a special feature the authoritative literary monthly Bungei Shunju ran recently. As we all know, the relationship between Japan and China, or more precisely Tokyo and Beijing has become unusually tense over recent years over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyudao) issue among others, to the point that bilateral trade and production operations of Japanese companies have been affected. As for Japan and Korea, sovereignty over Takeshima (Dokto) and the wartime Korean “comfort women” are among issues that continue to strain bilateral relations. But should such disputes and conflicts between distant governments across the Pacific affect the relations between us Japanese Canadians and Japanese immigrants and Chinese and Korean people in our day-to-day lives?
The infamous “Nanking Massacre” committed by Japanese Imperial Army troops during World War II is bound to come up in the media again and again, as it involved the killing of civilians, reported at the time to number hundreds of thousands, by an invading army. I recall reading a letter of complaint in this magazine from a parent of a Nikkei elementary school student hurt by anti-Japanese comments made by Chinese classmates. Even for us adults, what can we say if the subject comes up, say, during a lunch with Chinese colleagues? We might keep quiet, or we might go as far as to say “it does not concern me personally.” It would be difficult to discuss dispassionately the thorny Takeshima issue. In my own experience, I recently happened to watch on TV, together with a home stay student who is from China, violent scenes of Chinese demonstrators destroying stores handling Japanese merchandise. We were both obviously concerned about the news, so I could not just say nothing.
In such situations, what should we say? How should we act? I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and have personally come up with one conclusion. Simplistic as it may be, it is: “I have nothing to do with it.” Let me emphasize, this is different from “I’m not concerned” or “I’m not interested in the subject,” or “I feel no sympathy.” If you feel you should study up on the subject, do so by all means. It is only that when it comes to whom we choose for friends and whom we associate with socially that I believe that conflicts between national governments should have no place.
Should disputes between the governments of far-off Tokyo and Beijing, or Tokyo and Seoul, affect the way we interact with our Chinese or Korean friends, neighbors and acquaintances in our daily lives? This question is of particular relevance to Japanese Canadians and Americans. When a conflict of the most serious kind, war between Japan and Western allies broke out 70 years ago (the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942), the governments of their adopted homeland took extreme measures—forced relocation and internment—against immigrants of an enemy nation’s ancestry.
How did this affect personal lives? What was it really like 70 years ago? It defies my imagination. Having lived here all of 15 years and being of the “boomer” age bracket, my knowledge is only second hand, from historical materials I have translated and stories I’ve heard from a few Nisei-generation friends. One interesting thing is that some people both Nikkei and white did not feel that their personal friendships should be affected by what happened between their governments, even war, and acted accordingly.
I am still learning bit by bit about individual reactions to one critical question the Japanese Canadian families and individuals must have faced at some point back then. Should we do as the government ordered and go along, or is there another way out? Judging from the scarcity of published materials, it apparently remains a sensitive issue to this day as after all, personal decisions made by the Issei and Nisei folks subsequently shaped the values and lifestyles of their children, grandchildren and beyond. It’s something you might talk about at home, but not necessarily to write an essay about for publication.
I was recently translating a Meiji-era promotional article exhorting ambitious young men to go overseas to places like North and South America to make something of themselves and advance their careers, because opportunities for success were severely limited for ordinary people in then already “overcrowded Japan.” If you want to be one of the “successful people,” go overseas “where work opportunities abound for ambitious young people,” it said.
While growing up in Tokyo in the post-war years. I sensed a kind of “winner and loser” mentality in some shops, schools, churches and wherever else Westerners and Japanese intermingled. The mentality may have persisted even through Japan’s high-growth era of the 1960s. Japanese Americans and Canadians, whom we used to collectively refer to as the “Nisei,” were much better off economically than us in Japan, so were clearly the kachigumi (winners) and we, who were pining for all things American from cars to Coca-Cola were the makegumi (losers) as, after all, we had lost the war.
In recent times in economically-depressed Japan, we’ve been hearing people in the media talk increasingly about “winners and losers.” If you’re rich and leading a celebrity-like lifestyle, or at least give that impression to your peers, you’re one of the kachigumi. If you have a low paying job and have no prospects of a pay raise, or if you are one of the increasing number of companies’ temporary staff (no benefits) and have no prospect of being able to support a wife and children, you’re one of the makegumi. I’ve seen something similar in hard-working Chinese and Korean people, but we Japanese too seem just as concerned about being able to identify ourselves as “being among the winners.”
Since the late 19th century all the way up to now, we at certain points in time for whatever reason left behind Japan’s densely-populated, highly competitive society, either in groups or as individuals, and came to wide-open, resource-rich Canada where many different races try to get along and prosper together. One popular expression heard back during the heyday of the hippie cultural revolution was I’m OK, You’re OK?. Among the Nikkei and the ijusha folk, too, if someone should succeed doing something somewhere for whatever reason, that does not mean that anyone else has “lost out” in comparison.
One business expression I picked up while working for a government agency promoting multinationals’ capital investment in Singapore 20-odd years ago is still in use today – win-win situation. In business dealings, the objective is not about winning and losing, but for both sides to benefit. The destructive actions of Chinese demonstrators mentioned earlier seem to have petered out pretty soon once heads cooled down and began to calculate businesses losses. Can it not be a win-win situation for everyone in real life too? It may be a naïve and far-too-optimistic a view, but it helps me not to be too envious of other people.
Coming back to the aforementioned home stay student, Mr T from Liaoning Province, I did remark to him: “This kind of thing is not good for anybody.” He replied: “I’m not at all interested in politics, because I want to go into business.” A somewhat banal conclusion, but if we could all be friends, there would be nothing better.