Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Review: The Samurai

We were packing our bags to leave my family's house in the U.S. and go back to Japan. I had enough room in my purse for one more small book. I took a long look at my old bookshelf and pulled out this volume. It would be my third time reading it but I chose it for the trip for several reasons 1) airplanes are uncomfortable places to read (or do anything really) so rather than an unread book (I might miss something important) I wanted one I knew I'd like 2) why not read about a journey across two oceans while I traced part of the route at 40,000 feet. 

I was riveted and had nearly finished the book by time we arrived back in Japan. The first two times I had read it were in 2007 and 2010, before I'd come to Japan. Now five years in, it hit home. Hard. 

At first blush, The Samurai by Shusaku Endo reads like a historical travel novel. It starts off a bit wordy and plodding in explaining to the reader the political situation at the time in 17th century Japan, and then launches the title character Hasekura Rokuemon, a low-ranking member of the warrior class and a real historical figure, on an incredible journey. The book is propelled by vivid contrasts: the passive Hasekura and the passionate, power-hungry Spanish missionary Velasco, things Japanese and things foreign, intrigues and truth, absolute trust and devastating betrayals, peasants and kings, imperialism and isolationism, the wide world to see and the small local corner one always longs to return to, materialism and spirituality, faith and unbelief. 

The year is 1613, and after thousands of years of feudal isolation, Japan is beginning to face the outside world--though it is far from the politically stable and unified country we know today. In this sea of political and cultural turmoil, tenacious Fanciscan missionary Father Velasco and four Japanese envoys including the main character are sent by the daring chieftain of a Sendai fief to visit the West. The Japanese go to represent a friendly Japanese port to Christendom with the hopes of securing lucrative trade agreements. Velasco goes to allay papal fears of Christian persecution and bring to Japan more missionaries of his Order. But the journey is beset with many more hidden purposes unknown to the central characters, and within themselves personal missions each cannot at first admit. The separate missions intertwined lead them across the sea to the Viceroy of Mexico and eventually to Pope Paul V himself in Rome. Hasekura travels the world and sees its great sights, meeting its great people, but there is one that seems to follow him always, staring down at him in every ornate cathedral and squalid monk's cell: the strange figure of a man, naked and emaciated, hung on a cross. How strange and unfathomable that such a man is worshiped by so much of the world, Hasekura thinks, some wretched ridiculous fellow who died long ago and has nothing to do with me. And yet, the man is always there. When Hasekura returns at last to Japan and the man's image is nowhere to be found, He is still there, in Hasekura's mind, the friend who never betrays. 

Yes, more than a historical travelogue the book is a semi-autobiographical conversion story and in that sense it is an intensely spiritual and personal book. However, it is not a simple happy story as is common with conversion testimonies popular in Christian bookstores. I don't know if this book is sold in Christian bookstores. It ought to be. 

This book will not make anyone comfortable. Non-Christian non-Japanese readers will be uncomfortable because it is a conversion story and puts Christianity in a positive light. Christian non-Japanese readers will be uncomfortable with the subtle criticisms of Christian missions and a gradual, nonlinear, passive approach to faith and conversion. Non-Christian Japanese readers will be uncomfortable with the main character's disappointing betrayal in the end of the book, as well as perhaps the book's slight anti-establishment leanings. The only demographic that may find some comfort in this book is Japanese Christians, who will see in the main character many of their own raw feelings and struggles. Life with my husband in a Japanese church, both of us working Japanese companies in Japan has confirmed many things portrayed in the novel are as real now as they were 400 years ago, such as the immutable hierarchies in human relationships, and the "remorse" many Japanese feel when they become Christian. 

However, one doesn't have to be both Japanese and Christian to get something out of this book. If anyone wants to understand Japan and its society better, to see mission work "from the other side" , to learn why Christianity has yet to be "successful" in Japan and the things Japanese go through when they do become Christian, to read a story that is thought-provoking and good but never fluff, I heartily recommend them this book. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hang on to Your History: Visiting WWII Museums in Japan

One of the most thought-provoking and interesting things I've found to do here is visit historical museums, specifically, museums dedicated to World War Two. My grandfather and his brother both served in the U.S. military in WWII, my great-uncle in France and my grandpa in the Pacific theater. Only my grandpa came back. He didn't come back "to tell the tale" though--the memories proved too painful to share completely. Since I've been aware of my family history, I've been interested in things WWII--I've read a lot of books, journals, first-hand accounts, and novels from both the Allied and Axis sides. And I've visited a handful of museums here in Japan. It's harrowing and humbling to visit these sites where history actually happened. I'll introduce three of the most notable museums I've been to.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum 広島平和記念資料館

The Peace Arch with the A-Bomb Dome just visible through it
This is by far the most famous memorial museum in Japan, built in 1955 right on the site of ground zero, where the nuclear bomb that leveled the city detonated. It was interesting to learn of the park and museum's construction: when the city was being rebuilt, it was decided early on to build a memorial park and museum on the site--the idea was opposed  "it's too soon" but construction went forward, and now the far-seeing wisdom of that decision is apparent I think.

The architecturally appealing museum is divided into two wings; one details the history of Hiroshima and WWII in general, and the other is devoted to artifacts of the damage caused by the atomic bomb and accounts of the suffering of the victims. The surrounding park is home to various peace memorial events and monuments such as the A-bomb Dome (a domed building left as-is after the bombing), the Children's Memorial (a statue of Sadako, the girl who died of radiation poisoning before she could fold 1000 paper cranes) and the Peace Flame, which has been lit continually since 1964 and will stay lit until all nuclear bombs in the world are destroyed. The exact hypocenter, where the bomb detonated as it fell several meters from the ground, is nearby in a little narrow side-street it shares with a clinic, a parking lot and an apartment building, marked only with a small plaque.

The black rectangular object on the right is the little plaque that marks the hypocenter
I found the museum completely sobering, and it offers a unflinchingly thorough look at the destruction and suffering caused by the atomic bomb. Many of the exhibits have English translations and it's an easy museum for foreign visitors to get around and learn from. The day I visited the museum with a friend, soon after the Tohoku earthquake and as the drama of the nuclear power plants was unfolding, it was raining and grey, creating a solemn mood. An elderly survivor was there folding paper cranes, and gave one to me. It's one of my greatest treasures of my travels in Japan, because it struck me as such a great gesture of hope and forgiveness. The elderly lady sits there in the museum, daily surrounded by memories of the horrors she witnessed, and slowly and carefully makes symbols of peace she gives to visitors, demanding nothing in return. She is there because the museum is dedicated not only to the preservation of artifacts from the time, but to peace now and for the future, and actively supports the end of nuclear weapons. It is hard to come away from the museum with a different view. However, I found the explanations of the history of the War and WHY the bomb fell out of the bright blue sky that day in August 1945 a bit lacking in depth--but exploring that topic is not really the primary purpose of the museum anyway. "This is how we suffered, please never let it happen again" is the main message.

Former Navy Underground Headquarters 旧海軍司令部壕

During fun travel to tropical Okinawa with a friend, I went to a very eerie and dark place: the Former Navy Underground Headquarters in Naha—the place where the last resistance of the Japanese military holed up at the end of the Battle of Okinawa. I had had to decide given our limited time between there and the Peace Memorial Museum located nearby, but thought rather than nice plaques in green lawns I wanted to see something a little more real. The tunnels were bare and dimly lit, with very little to no furniture or any original structures left inside, though I loved the pen-and-ink artists’ sketches of what life must have been like in the tunnels. The little above-ground museum emphasizes the sufferings of the Okinawan civilians, who between the Japanese mainland and American forces, got the short end of the stick throughout the War (and arguably even to this day). The Battle of Okinawa is depicted as a living hell, with the Okinawa people the worst off: starved, enslaved, and sometimes forced to commit mass suicides, with at least one Admiral (pictured in this sketch) portrayed as sympathetic to their plight, as per a final telegram he wrote to Tokyo. The destruction was worst in the southern part of the main island of Okinawa, and ghosts of it are everywhere--when we visited reconstructed Shuri Castle, there was a little exhibit of dusty piles of rock lit under glass, the only remnants the Battle left of the original structure of the castle.

"This is how the Okinawans have fought the war..."
But the Imperial Japanese sailors suffered too. In one room I put my fingers into pock-marks on the plaster wall before reading the sign “Damage to walls from hand grenade of suicides.” The Japanese military had been indoctrinated to fight to the last man and when defeat was imminent to end their own lives rather than surrender, and the officers in the tunnels had done just that, right where I was standing, a lifetime ago. I the felt hairs all over my body stand up!

I remember that the narrow hole of the steep staircase to access the tunnels was lined with something I would see a few weeks later at the museum at Hiroshima, and the only bright, colorful thing in the whole place: paper cranes tied in bundles of thousands, symbols of prayers for peace.

Osaka International Peace Center 大阪国際平和センター

Unfortunately I couldn't find any photos I took of this place! I went to this museum, located near the Osaka Castle park, in 2010 with some German and English friends. We all agreed it presented a balanced (i.e., liberal) view of the history and the whys of WWII, in that it fully included exhibits of Japanese aggression and warfare in Korea and China and the suffering that ensued. The fire-bombing of Tokyo and Osaka (extremely devastating, but often overshadowed by the atom bombs) were also well-represented, heartrendingly so. Living in Kyoto, which remained largely untouched during the War, it's easy to forget such large parts of other major cities like Kobe, Osaka, and Tokyo were destroyed so cruelly. The museum is not large, and easy to get through in an afternoon, though I remember it being visually impressive (old bombshells poking out of the ceiling as if falling onto your head) and highly interactive, with plenty to see, touch, and listen to, in Japanese and English, sometimes of scenes too grisly to linger over for long.

However, in researching this museum to write this blog post, I came across this piece of news: the exhibits of "Japanese aggression" have been removed. I haven't visited since this new development, so I don't know what the mood and information presented is like now, and personally I find this change extremely unfortunate, but at the time I visited it was a great museum. It is fascinating to me to see the presentation of WWII from Japanese points of view, through the lens of a different culture. It raises questions about my education of WWII and other historical events--naturally I learned most everything from an American point of view, out of American textbooks. It is sobering to see current political issues influence the way people want to remember what happened in the past, and how they want to display history for the education of younger generations.

I must add that the topic of WWII is sensitive in Japan, especially as it relates to issues like what goes into textbooks and how fair/truthful neighboring countries (Korea and China) think the material is. I don't often bring my interest in WWII history into everyday Japanese conversations. I will bet you most museums dedicated to the subject in Japan purposefully just try to present this is what happened, leaving more provoking conclusions about why or who's to blame? to the viewer. But I personally think that the more voices and experiences you listen to, the clearer picture you can get of what really happened. The more voices and experiences you include in your study, the closer we can get to the truth of the time.

If visitors to Japan can take time out of their schedule of temples and tourist sites, I highly recommend adding a peace museum to the list of stops to make, and take a moment to see our shared history from a different point of view.

My Guide to Surviving Long International Flights with Minimal Jetlag

Ready to go!
I've done the Japan-Seattle flight a total of nine times. 8-10 hours in the airplane across the Pacific, with about 16 hours difference between the two areas depending on where Seattle's at with Daylight Saving Time (Japan doesn't do that).

Travel between continents is a big deal and there are a million things to decide and prepare, and "how I'll spend time on the flight" seems like a minor detail that will work itself out, but that kind of thinking is a recipe for bad, bad jetlag. The first couple of times, I didn't prepare well and both the long flight and the jetlag were horrible. Recently, I've been able to reduce the symptoms a lot with a few little tricks, but before I get into those, the very first thing I do before I even start packing is figure out if I should sleep or not on the flight. The best way to reduce jetlag is to adjust your body to the new schedule as soon as possible. No cheating! Otherwise my suffering is just prolonged. If it's evening when I arrive, I should stay awake the whole plane ride so I can sleep that night at my destination. If it will be morning when I arrive, I should sleep as much as possible on the plane so I can stay awake that whole first day. After the plane takes off, I set my watch/phone to the local time of my destination. I think, "what would I be doing at this time? Sleeping? Awake?" and I try to behave accordingly in the plane.

If I have to sleep on the plane:
-before boarding I brush my teeth, brush my hair, wash my face and apply tons of moisturizer (here's TSA's rules for liquids/cosmetics in carry-ons. If you don't follow the rules you will have to chuck your stuff!), then put on a surgical mask. Japanese people love them for travel and I do too. No one gets to see my makeup-less face, no worries about falling asleep with my mouth open, and at least psychologically I feel more protected from the person hacking and coughing in the seat next to me.
-I ignore the in-flight entertainment. No movies, no food. My job is sleeping right now. I try get down to sleeping business as soon as possible. I try to be asleep/dozing/still with my eyes shut for at least the first 4 hours of the trip. If I wake up and can't go back to sleep after that, then I watch movies or read my book. I'm not a good sleeper on any mode of transportation but I do my best.

If I have to stay awake on the plane:
-I think of the flight in two 4-hour-ish halves. The first half, I have enough excitement and patience to get through it easily. I look out the window. I check out the digital map of our route, watch the altitude climb and temperature drop. I observe people around me. I read all the magazines provided, discussing them with Yuya if we're traveling together. I eat all the snacks and food offered slowly. I read the book I brought. I listen to music. I plan blog posts. I do little muscle stretches in all my leg muscles.
-I only start watching movies by the second half. Halfway is the toughest point. Your body aches, you're just ready to be DONE. But you still have FOUR AND A HALF HOURS TO GO. The book makes me motion sick now. Yuya fell asleep. I read all the magazines twice. The music is getting repetitive. Time for movies to do their thing!
-Bringing little throat drops/hard candies is also great. Sucking on those keeps me from getting drowsy.

Things I do in both cases:
-I shower and wash my hair right before leaving for the airport.
-I bring one of those little U-shaped travel pillows. The stuffed ones are more comfortable in my opinion than the inflatable ones; they take up more space in a carry-on but I don't travel without one anymore. I put it under my knees, under my butt, in the small of my back, on my tray, wherever I need extra padding.
-I wear comfy clothes. Maxi dresses are the best for me: they look cute but feel like pajamas, with not even any waistbands to worry about! Some packing guides say to layer up and wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane to save packing space/weight, but especially if I need to be asleep, I always opt for comfort.
-I bring a pair of soft fuzzy socks in my carry-on. As soon as the plane gets to cruising altitude, off come my shoes and on go those delicious socks.
-I bring my own waterbottle. I keep it empty until we get through security and then make sure it's filled before we board. It's nice to have since the cabin air is so dry usually, and dehydration doesn't help anyone feel better.
-I bring BB cream, blush, mascara, and deodorant in my carry-on. Just before landing I head to the restroom, brush teeth, wipe my face with a dampened tissue, and put those things on to help me feel fresh and awake.

So that's my routine! Traveling through so much space in such a short time is tough on the body, I find it helps to pamper myself a bit and be well-prepared. Do you have any tips for traveling long distances more comfortably?