Tag Archives: War

Truth and Lies and Consequences

I’ve been chronicling my month in Japan for months.  Part of me just wants to be done with it so I can move on to other topics, like living in the UK next year.

But after reading the article I referenced in my last post, about how many Japanese leaders spin the country’s involvement in WWII as passive or reactive or even as “Japan as victim,” I realize it took this much time of reflection and research to figure out what was going on and to know I wasn’t crazy.

It’s not like I expect to single handedly prevent WWIII, but if I can do even a tiny bit toward  encouraging people to be on the alert for and question nationalist narratives, well that’ll take as long as it takes.

Four years ago, I stood in a busy street in East Jerusalem with a Palestinian colleague.  He was giving me a walking tour during our time off.  I watched as flocks of school children streamed by and asked, “Do they learn about the Holocaust?”

“No,” he said bluntly.

So generations of Palestinian children are growing up thinking that Israelis—and Jews by extension—are occupying their land and coming down hard on them for no reason.  That’s a gross over simplification.  The Holocaust factored into the establishment of the State of Israel but it was only one factor.  Still.

Omar has a master’s in Conflict Studies from Coventry University in the UK.  So he got out of his local bubble for a few years.  While he is no fan of Israel, he has the background and context to critically analyze the very complicated situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which I am confident will soon become a nation state.

The Japan Times article describes the weird shrine I visited in Koyasan with all the military photos and paraphernalia.  I assumed it was the work of one eccentric.  But no, denial of Japanese fault during WWII is pervasive.

The shrine aims to influence Japanese visitors, in particular school children, with a narrative in which Japan is the heroic liberator of Burma and other countries.

“This version of Japanese wartime history is now shown to legions of Japanese schoolchildren visiting Mount Koya, proving Japan’s intent to liberate Asia. From [the shrine], school children proceed to the huge cemetery, where they receive a second introduction to the parallel universe. Here they encounter the “Hall for Heroic Spirits” fronted by a sign identifying more than 1,000 martyrs, better known to the ordinary world as convicted A-, B- and C-class war criminals.”

I really liked this paragraph:  “Why can’t Japan do what Germany did, i.e., admit it was wrong and that it did some horrible things, and make a sincere apology that isn’t almost immediately contradicted by other Japanese leaders?”

On Halloween I dressed up and went to an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art about art and the Vietnam War. Or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it.  It included pieces by American and Vietnamese and Hmong artists …

… and one Japanese artist—Yoko Ono.  This was a performance piece where members of the audience were invited to come up and cut off her clothes.

Here’s me in my Halloween threads.

Yoko Ono survived the WWII fire bombing of Tokyo, in a bunker, when she was 12 years old.  Her father spent time in a prison camp.  She and her family almost starved after the war.

Back in Okunoin cemetery, I arrived at the shrine where I had cried over my aunt the night before.  It was open now, and the thousands of lanterns created an eerie feel like being inside a holy computer or nuclear reactor.  I’ve never dropped acid, but I imagine this place would give you a good feel for what it was like.

I slept 1.5 hours that night.  Thought flashes marched through my mind: the underground tunnel in the shrine, the military photos, images from Birdsong of men being crushed underground, the Japan self-defense forces becoming an unfettered military again, Australians sent on forced marches by the Japanese in the south Pacific, the shrine with thousands of lanterns ….

So much for monasteries being peaceful.

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

We would make a detour to Wagga Wagga, where Heidi had attended Charles Sturt University.

“Wagga Wagga,” she said, “So nice they named it twice.”

We mosied around a riverside park.  Of course it had public barbeque stations, and the landscaping was lovely, with the wisteria and forsythia and other trellises in full spring bloom.  It was lovely until I got to the Sandakan Prisoner of War Memorial.

In 1942, 1,800 Australian soldiers were defending Malaya and Singapore from the Japanese.  When the Japanese took Singapore, they transported the Aussies to Sandakan, an island which is part of what is now Borneo. Borneo, a place I would love to go on vacation.

Half of Aussies died of “ill treatment” in the first year.  But wait, it gets worse! As the allies closed in, the Japanese marched the prisoners through the jungle toward the center, executing anyone who fell, then massacred all that survived except for six men who escaped.

There was a second memorial, this one for the Wagga Wagga Kangaroo March during World War I.  It details the way recruits were rounded up and marched from town to town, with stirring speeches and music—as if they were going off to a festival, not a war.  The plaque didn’t mention how many of the recruits survived.

We drove on, subdued, and Heidi and Danielle played a mix of patriotic Australian music.  There was the beloved “I am Australian,” written and popularized by The Seekers.  Here’s one version, and here are the lyrics.

It acknowledges everyone who has contributed to making Australia Australia, including Aboriginals, convicts, and farmer’s wives.  The refrain is:

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian

Even the lyrics to the official anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” are quite mild, extolling the beauty and bounty of the land—sort of like “America the Beautiful.”

Why does our American anthem have to be the very-difficult-to-sing, self-congratulatory ode to war, the “Star Spangled Banner” (rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air)?

“This one is about the kangaroo marches,” Heidi DJ’d as the next tune began.  “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” by The Pogues, has to be the most depressing song of all time.  These are the first two verses; there are three more that get progressively darker.

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli

How well I remember that terrible day
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again

“Whoa!” cried Heidi, “Let’s switch gears!” and she popped on the actual old folksong, “Waltzing Matilda,” followed by “Down Under” by Men at Work, then a really stupid rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Australian style.

It was dark now.  We stopped in central Wagga, got a pizza, and were eating it off the trunk of the car when all the power went out.

On the way to Albury, Heidi managed to find and book a motel on her phone, and at 10pm we pulled up in front of the Paddlesteamer Motel for the night.

History, Great and Grim

I hope I don’t sound critical of Alice.  The place reminded me of another country town where I have spent a lot of time—Lanesboro, Minnesota—where my son Vince lived for years.  It had the same combo of hardy blue-collar local folk, a sizable airy-fairy artist contingency, and a population that lived among but apart at the same time; in Lanesboro it was the Amish and in Alice it was the Aboriginals.  I never spoke to an Aboriginal in my month in Australia.  I never had an opportunity.  I would have loved to hear their perspective on their place in Australian society.  But I’m sure they’re beyond tired of being interviewed and researched by curious white people.  I’ll make a New Year’s resolution here to read two books written by Aboriginal authors in 2019.

We walked along a deserted road under a fierce sun in intense heat.  We had seen a sign that said, “Alice Springs Telegraph Office” but it hadn’t indicated how far.  We’d been walking for 15 minutes and there were no further signs.

“It’s a car culture out here,” I observed.

“But why is there a sidewalk?” Heidi pondered.  “I looked into renting a car but it would have been stupidly expensive.”

Thankfully we had slathered and sprayed on sunscreen and donned our hats and sunnies, or we would have been baked red in minutes.  I was happy to strike this obligatory pose since it was in a bit of shade.

We weren’t so far away from civilization that Heidi couldn’t get a signal and Google the number for the telegraph station.  She called and they assured her we would reach them in a matter of minutes.  And we did

The Alice Springs Telegraph Station is a historic trust site.  We paid a small admission fee and joined the tail end of a walking tour.  This is the eponymous (underground) spring.

The guide explained the difference between Ghost and River Red gums.  I immediately forgot.  There are hundreds of different gum species.  All I know is that they’re all glorious.

One of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th Century, the overland telegraph line ran from Darwin to Adelaide. That’s a long way.  The Alice Springs station was the halfway point and was completed in 1872.

There was a heartbreaking exhibit about a 1930s campaign that forcibly removed children born of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers from their homes and institutionalized them in Alice Springs.  The idea was to expose them to European customs and give them a “proper” education.  Which meant they lost out on education about their maternal culture.

This was a replica of the home for “half caste” children. It would have been freezing at night and scorching during the day.

Some of the children were traumatized for life, while others said being given an English education was the greatest opportunity they could have been given.

We walked around and peered into a  ye olde timey blacksmith’s shop, post office, and stables, which had a plaque telling the story of the camel’s arrival on the continent.  Camels carried a year’s worth of supplies to Alice Springs.  Their arrival must have been an annual highlight in an otherwise solitary and harsh existence.

We had paninis and cappuccinos in the office/gift shop/café, where I bought some wombat hats and a CD with Australian folk music that I have thoroughly enjoyed since, in place of listening to the news in my car.

We asked about walking back, and to our surprise learned there was a straight path into town that would take us no more than 15 minutes.  Hurrah!

“The bus takes a very circular route, so walking is faster,” explained the guy at the desk, who was Canadian.

A few minutes out, some Italian guys yelled “kangaroos!” at us and pointed to nearby rocky hills.

“They’re actually Rock Wallabies,” Heidi said helpfully, but the Italians mansplained no, they were kangaroos.  The critters were so well camouflaged that my photos couldn’t capture them.

There were also plaques inlaid in the walkway that chronicled other sad episodes in Australian history.  This is only about half of them.  I thought “confrontation” and “emergency” were great euphemisms.