So Many Words

Today was my last day in Japan. Yu and I wrapped up one last interview of a scientist this morning in Tōkyo and that, as they say, was it. With a few hours to kill, I went to Ueno to check out the National Museum. And as usual, I found inspiration in yet another unexpected place.

This is a photo of a Buddhist text written a godawful long time ago. It’s long, as you can see, but what you don’t know is that the scroll still has several yards way down there at the end. Look at that text. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? It looks like it was shot off a laser printer, the lines are so crisp, the black so deep. The crazy thing is, we’re looking at the end of the text right here. The beginning is rolled up and tucked away. Couldn’t see it if you wanted to.

Last count, I’ve got 100 pages of fairly small print of my own scrawl in a black Moleskine. It’s solely from the last two weeks. Sitting in my backpack, just begging to be put to use. And so the work begins, I suppose. Of finding beginnings and endings and middles and all the parts that belong, and the so many that do not.

Thank you to everyone who followed along over the past fourteen days. To the folks who left comments on Facebook, retweeted me on Twitter, or had just enough time to thumbs-up an Instagram photo: thank you, and I hope you stay tuned for the stories as they publish. It’s been a hell of a trip. Thanks for joining.

All My Best,

Matt

Uncertainty: Visiting Yasukuni and Yūshūkan

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So close, yet so far away: Standing the closest I’ve ever been to my grandfather’s service as an Imperial Japanese Army aviator in WWII.

 

This weekend, my dad and I visited Yasukuni and Yūshūkan, the Tokyo war shrine and accompanying museum that honors two-plus million Japanese war dead. You may recognize the place due to the controversy surrounding Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 visit to a place that honors, amongst others, 1,068 war criminals — including fourteen Class A war criminals. Not ambiguously bad, either. But death-by-hanging for seven, 20-to-life for five, died-before-conviction x 2 level of bad.

I was conflicted about going to Yasukuni at all. But if intent is a measure of human action, then know I went only to understand. We only recently learned that my dad’s father was a Japanese Imperial Army enlisted aviator. Which means that not only do I have a great-uncle who died as a U.S. Marine on Tarawa; I also have a grandfather who fought on the other side of WWII. While I’m pretty damn familiar with U.S. military history and how we think about service in this country, I have no clue about Japan other than it seems a taboo subject. Yasukuni seemed an essential place to visit if one wants to get a feel for the complex relationship Japan has with its military history.

Lacking the context of its history, Yasukuni might just seem like an oversized Shintō shrine. I suppose maybe that’s how a global pop star ends up posting what he thinks is a nice pic on Instagram like it’s no big deal. This is gong to come off as maybe odd or self-exonerating, but I purposefully avoided the main shrine, which is where the Japanese go to offer their prayers. The idea of doing so made me feel even more complicit than I already felt with pen and notebook in hand.

I entered the accompanying Yūshūkan museum thinking maybe I’d find some nugget of information regarding my grandfather. Standing in front of the Zero pictured above seemed like a promising start. But I left off-balance, having spent two-plus hours immersed in a version of Japanese military history I struggled to rectify with what I know to be true. In this version, Nanking did not happen, comfort women didn’t exist, and Hirōshima was barely worth mention save its relationship to the end of the war. Several rooms were dedicated to the heroism of the Special Attack Units, or tokkō-tai. You might know them by the aviation-specific tokkō-tai: kamikaze. Suicide attackers. In the final rooms, beneath ten thousand portraits of war dead, I read death letters. At least one of whom was written by a man slated to be executed for war crimes the following morning. It was like walking through a museum I thought only possible in the pages of Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle: unsettling.

I’m still trying to come to grips with that I learned at Yasukuni and Yūshūkan. What I know is that my grandfather was somehow a part of it, in whatever role he served. And he lived to consider that role as the controversies surrounding Yasukuni evolved in the decades until his death in 1987. What he thought, though, is more than likely the answer I’ll never find.

 

 

 

 

 

A Tsunami’s Stone

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Hanōkizawa-san (left) and myself at the Yoshihama Tsunami-ishi

It seems remarkably privileged to say, but it can be a bit much to immerse yourself in tragedy. Even Japanese tsunami survivors are shrouded in it, because everyone on the Sanriku coast of Tōhoku lost something, someone, or both. I don’t know how real journalists do it. I suppose it helps to have some distance — a lack of a personal connection surely helps. But if I’ve learned anything on this trip, it’s a healthy appreciation for people who spend weeks face-to-face with horrible things. After only a few days in Kesennuma, I’d reached a bit of a saturation point. But it just so happened that on Tuesday, we had an appointment in Yoshihama, about an hour north of Kesennuma.

In the years since the tsunami, I have looked for stories that connected me to the landscape from across the Pacific. Stories of loss and recovery abounded. But for the most part, they were all so temporal, so pegged with the timeliness we have come to expect from journalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it is what it is. Turns out, we want to read things laden with meaning in the here and now, and that’s what journalism provides. There’s a reason most articles are just a few hundred words: and it has to do with the desire to consume one moment before moving on to the next.

I discovered a handful of stories about “tsunami stones,” some of which date back millennia, and for the most part, served as warnings regarding past Sanriku tsunamis. The meaning within the frame of a news article is obvious; here’s this old thing that everyone forgot about that warned of exactly the type of event that necessitated the article in the first place. Timely, meaningful: exactly the type of thing we like to read about.

But I began to wonder if the stories written were only telling one side of the narrative, whether there wasn’t something deeper that would require a more in-depth telling, unconstrained by the moment itself.

Enter the Yoshihama tsunami stone.

I can’t give too much of the story I plan to write away just yet, but on 3.11.11, Yoshihama suffered only one fatality while its neighbors to the north and south were hit much harder. In other words, Tuesday was good.

This is Hanōkizawa-san, one of the discoverers of the Yoshihama stone, and myself at the the locals call tsunami-ishi. I’m looking forward to telling its story.