About three years ago when we lived in Okinawa, we went to the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum in southern Okinawa, surrounded by dark, stone monuments inscribed in the Japanese characters that spelled out the names of all the men and women who died in the difficult battles of Okinawa. The monument, with all its names, was much like the grey Vietnam Memorial in DC.
Set on the edge of a cliff we looked out over the blue ocean, where the US lay, 6000 miles behind us. Much closer in the other direction, the bulk of Asia rises out of the ocean. And like any other memorial, there were flowers, both dead and alive, and people, mostly Japanese, some who still remembered and were alive during the war.
The war is not yet a distant memory there.
The museum itself is a high, white building at the edge of a cliff, with tall windows and some ocean lookouts. But its outward focus on peace and remembrance contrasts the inside, a place where I have never felt so uncomfortable in my life.
I have been to the Holocaust Museum in DC, with its piles of shoes of the victims, reaching almost to the ceiling. The old, falling apart shoes that were the least value to the Nazis and the one part of the victims that were the hardest of which to dispose. I have read the cards with the individual stories, and the plaques detailing all the injustices and crimes against the Jews. So when I say that I routinely get the Holocaust Museum and the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum confused in my head, that should describe something of its content.
It is a reminder that all people can fall to the level of barbarianism, even your own people, and back in Okinawa, as we walked among the giggling high schoolers who were there for their class trip, I was ashamed to even look them in the eye, even though most of them seemed too worried about immediate concerns to interact with the material they were walking past.
Stories of vicious attacks, civilian targeting, and maiming filled the last room, most of them eye witness accounts, written in books in both English and Japanese. Most US soldiers were described as ‘vicious and brutal’. The Okinawan people hid in family tombs only to be killed with grenades that soldiers tossed in; they threw themselves off cliffs because of a shattering fear of what the soldiers would do if they were captured.
There are many stories in the world of a quiet people who were caught up in something they were so unprepared for that they died for it, but this is a hard one to hear. It is a terrible story, and to be a part of the people that took advantage of that is humbling.
Then a few months ago I went with my sister-in-law to Pearl Harbor, the place where the US part in World War II started. As would be expected, the language and rhetoric were completely opposite. The Japanese were sly, sneaky, and deceptive. They launched surprising and deadly attacks that were unnecessary.
I was reminded during that visit, as we walked around and read the colorful museum plaques, that it’s always important to look at the adjectives. In museums or articles or in personal arguments, watch the adjectives, because they tell you everything you need to know about the bias. In the Okinawa museum, the Americans were ‘vicious, mean, and aggressive’ and at Pearl Harbor the Japanese were ‘sneaky, sly, and full of betrayal’. Just from that set of three adjectives, I can see general themes of how we view each other. Even today, Americans are not known abroad for their gentleness, and the Japanese are not known for their forthrightness and directness.
As for articles, the slant of the article is typically found in the adjectives. In general, the more innocent the adjectives, the more objective the article and the more inflammatory the adjectives, the more the story or person is trying to push their own agenda. All adjectives do, after all, is mirror our own lives. If we can be wise enough to be aware of each side of the story, we will be less likely to use words like, ‘completely’, ‘unquestionably’ and ‘obviously’.
However, being aware that there are two sides to the story is not far enough, because that has been said enough to become simple and cliché. Most people that I know are willing to consider both sides of the story; and I neither want to end on that simple fact nor focus on the fruitless question of which country did the most damage.
More importantly, while it’s easy to say that we need to see the other side, knowing that there is another side is not the same as sitting in it, facing all its dark corners, and breathing in its uncomfortable air. It is not the same as resting in the criticism, having it surround you, or walking through its rooms. Defensiveness is much easier than curiosity or stillness.
There were many Japanese people at the Pearl Harbor monument, and I looked at them and remembered my walk through their museum, and hoped that we both can learn to sit in the criticisms of our own people; that we can visit these rooms and touch these walls and look at these difficult images without defensiveness and without self-protecting adjectives.