I was born on Pearl Harbor Day, though not in Pearl Harbor Year, which meant only that I went through childhood known as the other great disaster in American history. My brother, a vice president of a containerized-freight outfit, is in Japan at this moment, courting exporters; he was born in Pearl Harbor Year, though two months before the bombing of Hawaii. Nearly 10 years ago, my mother took a tumble on the monument to the USS Arizona that sits over the ship's wreckage in Pearl Harbor and had to be patched up by medics at the nearby U.S. Navy base. (She was released, in good condition, to the custody of my father.) My sister's son, my nephew, is flipping hamburgers in Arlington, waiting for the last papers to come through so that he can begin teaching English at a private school near a remote fishing village on Japan's main island. (He has been aided in this effort by his Japanese stepmother.)
Downstairs, Christmas music is coming from the Sony amplifier attached to my Panasonic turntable. Beside me sits a miniature Sony tape recorder. Across the street and down half a block is the garage where the alternator is being repaired on my Toyota station wagon. Indeed, my street is adrift in Toyotas and Datsuns and Subarus. A fellow three blocks away sells Japanese motorcycles, and the fellow who used to live next door rides one.
Only two weeks ago, I shared Thanksgiving dinner with, among others, my father-in-law, who spent the better part of the early 1940s slogging through one pock-marked Pacific island or another as a Marine Corps officer. Actually, it was a dual celebration: my wife's parents had been married 40 years earlier. We gave them a photocopy of a newspaper front page from the day of their wedding. Hitler's troops had bogged down in Libya; negotiations on a U.S.-Japanese non-aggression pact had been delayed by technicalities. The lens of the microfilm reader on which we made the copy had been made in Japan. I took the usual holiday shots with my Olympus camera.
Last April, I tried sake for the first time--to my deep regret; I have no doubt that there is some sake still on the liquor shelf in the pantry. I have thrown back more than a few Japanese beers, eaten at more than a few Japanese restaurants, have seen at least a few Japanese movies and am determined still to understand one. I am determined as well to someday understand a No drama--to get all the wakis and shites straight once and for all, and though the compulsion has since passed, I was once determined to read "Shogun," as my wife had done. My son's bike, a good bike, was made in Japan and so I assume were half of my children's toys and half the parts of the other toys.
On the whole, I'm inclined to think that all this makes me something of a visceral expert on Japanese-American relations, but so are very nearly all of us in this country. We know Japan through our cars and turntables, our video games and cameras, through the gaggles of tourists that water our service industries, through chance associations and raw fish dipped in mouth-wrenching sauces. We know Japan not on paper, where the real experts can hold forth, but in our living rooms, on the interstates, on our liquor shelves and in the belly, even in our aesthetic confusions, where our knowledge can be felt.
It's been a remarkable accommodation, on both sides, of course, for I can only assume that the Japanese--who suffered at our hands as we suffered at theirs--are as randy for Pepsi-Cola as we are for Toyotas. And perhaps Pearl Harbor Day can do nothing more fruitful than remind us of that, of the healing power of time rather than of the horrible events of Dec. 7, 1941. Yet today might remind us as well of what underlies our willingness to accommodate--that we are a nation largely without memory, certainly a nation unable to sustain the kind of grudge that depends on collective memory. We think here far more clearly, and far more often, through our pocketbooks than through the filter of history. It's why the first step to redemption in the eyes of the American God is a willingness to trade and why Pepsi-Cola executives, not Methodists, are the new American missionaries.
We have been at war for a startling portion of these past 40 years against one Asian people or another; yet I have no doubt that all could now be forgiven if the central-committee members of Pyongyang, the collectives of Hanoi, the mullahs of the Islamic Revolutionary Council suddenly were to develop an irresistible hankering for Bass Weejuns and Chrysler Imperials. Forgetfulness is the greatest weapon of capitalism, and whether it's being filled with exports or emptied more slowly by cheap imports, a pocketbook is always more open to accommodation than is history.
Quite possibly it is the major sickness of our country--this absence of memory, this lobotomized world view; quite possibly it will condemn us to repeat history. But the Bible tells us only to turn the other cheek. It doesn't tell us why to turn it.