Lost in Translation

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, September 25, 2005

TOKYO -- I'm terrified I will offend the Japanese, that I'll do something considered unspeakably gross in Japan even though it's normal in America, like adjusting one's underwear to solve a pinching problem. You know what I'm talking about: Too tight in the hindquarters, need to take direct action. Usually you can adjust from outside the pants, but sometimes you have to send in a commando hand. But what if doing this in public in Japan is a faux pas?

I'm here to do research, but my reporting is hampered by a lack of language skills (the only Japanese word I know is "aloha") and by the indirect manner of Japanese discourse. They see Westerners as too loud and overbearing. Folks here like to circle a topic for a few days. I keep wanting to say things like, "Let's cut to the chase. Pearl Harbor. Explain."

It's never good to generalize about another society (or is that too sweeping a statement?), but it's fair to say that the Japanese are exquisitely polite and orderly, always following protocol. Let's say you go to a hot spring. You must fold your washcloth neatly and place it on top of your head as though it were a beanie. Very silly! But correct. And the Japanese remove their shoes when entering a home or restaurant, the whole thing happening with no hands, at full stride. It's as though a sudden wind has blown off their loafers. (Meanwhile, I'm on the floor, wrestling with my Rockports.)

The Japanese make allowances for dumb Westerners, and if converted to currency these allowances would total in the trillions of yen. My interpreter became alarmed when I said I didn't have business cards (don't these people know who I am?). When you meet someone, you exchange cards ceremoniously. I finally dug up some business cards at the very bottom of my toiletry kit, but they had a slight milky-blue stain. I think it was Scope.

Gradually, I am getting past my self-consciousness and opening my eyes to an amazing place. Tokyo has risen from the ashes of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the American firebombing of 1945. Japan as a whole has rebuilt itself into the second-largest economy in the world, and the most technological. The streets are empty at 6 in the morning, and I feel like I have the city to myself, but at 7 sharp the escalators start running and the subway starts pumping thick streams of human beings onto the sidewalks. It's like someone has turned on a spigot.

This is the biggest, densest metropolis in the world, almost all of it newly built, the skyscrapers gleaming above ancient shrines. Japan is simultaneously an ancient culture and the future of humanity. The electronic gadgetry is amazing, from the toilets with the control panels to the scanning device waved over your computerized dinner plates to calculate how much your meal costs.

One day I stopped at Yasukuni, the shrine to 2.5 million Japanese who have died in military action. It's a controversial place, in part because among those enshrined are a number of war criminals from World War II. Japan is a pacifist nation, but a new nationalism is in the air, and there's even a movement, so far not very successful, to revise textbooks to be less apologetic about pre-1945 Japanese military aggression.

You see this attitude next door, in the sparkling new war museum. Near the entrance there's a heavy cannon, pocked with bullet marks, honoring those "who died in the honorable defeat in the defense of Okinawa." The main exhibit rooms celebrate Japan's warrior past, the era of the samurai, the defense of Japan against European colonialism. The shrine makes no apologies for World War II. We learn that, before the war, the United States had pacts with European corporations and shut off exports to Japan. "The U.S. plan to force Japan into war is then set in motion," a sign reads. A letter from the U.S. ambassador "is so antagonistic that the Japanese see little point in continuing with the negotiations."

We've always been told that history is written by the victors. But history is always up for grabs. I'd never heard anyone suggest that the United States forced Japan into war, that it was our fault. I'll whisper something: I'm a little bit offended.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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