Israel Shamir

The Fighting Optimist

Obama in Japan


I came to Japan for the preview of Obama’s visit, when the G7 foreign ministers assembled at Hiroshima, led by the US State Secretary John Kerry. He should apologise, people said. You do not think Kerry apologised for nuking the city, did you? Neither did Obama. The Americans never apologise, banish the thought. Love means never having to say you’re sorry, and they are in love with the rest of the world. Otherwise, why would they screw it so violently and wish to possess so intensely?

Mind you, I am not in favour of apologies. The Jews did not ask the Germans to apologise, they asked for cash. The Germans anyway were sorry for paying so much. The Armenians tried to trick the Turks into apologies hoping to add the demand for payment as a rider. The Turks preferred to be rather safe than sorry. The Americans famously did not apologise to the Vietnamese for invasion and ruination of their country.

Only once the US apologised, and I actually saw the apology document in Pyongyang. LBJ had apologised for sending a spy boat Pueblo to North Korean waters, and he surely was sorry as hell.

Instead of apologies, Obama could remove the US occupation troops from Japanese soil, but for sure he did not. Seventy years after the war, the American troops are everywhere – in Germany, in Japan, in Iraq and in Guantanamo. Donald Trump would not apologise either, but there is a reason to hope he will call his dogs of war back home, and this is more important than a thousand apologies.

Obama, and before him Kerry spoke of Hiroshima “being bombed” in passive tense, as if this was done by nature, and described North Korea as the threat to world peace. (One could imagine that Koreans bombed Hiroshima!) He droned  one hundred thousand Japanese men, women and children and a dozen American prisoners,  as if these numbers were comparable. He called for elimination of nuclear weapons while creating the whole new generation of nuclear weapons. He condemned Japanese drive for dominance while enforcing the US hegemony all over the world, from Syria to Venezuela to South China Sea.

No apologies, but a lot of self-righteousness – I’d love to see Obama playing Tartuffe, he is a natural one.

For many Japanese his visit added insult after injury, as these islanders abhor the blacks more than any KKK Wizard ever could. I was kicked out of my rented apartment in Tokyo for merely inviting a black student home, and my landlady could not stop screaming that I insulted her and her ancestors.

Hiroshima is unlovely. It is so 1960s, a great time for human spirit but an awful one for architecture. Chances are, you visited or even lived in such towns, for they were built all over the globe, in England and Russia, in the US and Israel, in Sweden and France, gray, concrete houses of no soul. In Japan, such places are not frequent, for despite terrible devastation of the war, the country preserved its beauty and its unique character. Hiroshima was a beautiful city, but that was before the A-bomb. However, I do not want to add to macabre dread of this superweapon, as the Americans had burned more people alive in their houses in Tokyo or Dresden than in Hiroshima.

This huge human flesh burnt offering has been the real true holocaust of 1940s, while the Jewish one was introduced in the late 1960s to undermine the real thing. A baby-boomer, I grew up in the world that bewept Hiroshima, the subject of many films and events, and did not know of Auschwitz. This was a better world; not only was I younger, but there was more hope for improvement of our lot, for better life. When Auschwitz obscured Hiroshima, hope was surpassed by indifference, and then by despair. Now you do not hear much of Hiroshima anywhere, not even in Japan, where allegedly a quarter of youth think the A-bomb was dropped by the Russians.

Allegedly, for I never met such an ignorant youth, but I understand that a Japanese person who refers to Americans bombing Hiroshima more than once will find his career nipped in the bud; he will be consigned to nationalist-militarist category of Yukio Mishima followers, or worse. The Japanese are very cautious people; they do not speak out of their turn, they do not say what is not approved by their seniors. In the samurai days, incautious Japanese met their Creator very fast; nowadays it is career rather than neck.

Hiroshima, and MacArthur’s occupation was a midway-marking stone of American colonisation of Japan. Its beginning was signalled by the black ships of Commodore Perry entering Edo Bay on July 8, 1853. Before that, Japan was a lovely secluded sleeping beauty, immersed in her own world, performing music imported from Tang China in the 7 th  century (forgotten in its native China ages ago), acting its ancient temple Noh plays and composing haiku poems at the sakura viewing.

Americans rudely woke her up, and she arose in a very bad mood, quickly modernising and imitating her Western tutors by grasping colonies and seizing Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Formosa, trashing the US fleet and sending its settlers all over.

After the defeat in 1945, the undoing of Japan speeded up. No nation can survive unscathed an extensive aerial bombardment: for a few generations, people will remain a shadow of themselves. That’s why they bomb before they occupy, be it in Japan or Iraq, Korea or Vietnam. Then they go after national spirit. The occupiers banned the first film of Kurosawa,  The Tiger’s Tail , still beautiful to watch. But Japanese, incredible people, rebuilt their country from ruins and made it great again.

The occupation is still there: beautiful Okinawa islands are turned into the US military bases. Japanese girls are being casually raped by the US soldiers; the  most recent rape and murder occurred just before Obama’s visit. There is a financial rape, too: yen carry trade is the US device to weaken the Japanese economy and enrich the Wall Street speculators, and it is very efficient. There is a political rape: independence-seeking politicians are being killed, arrested for graft, or marginalised.

There is a cultural rape: the US forces Japan to accept migrants, to buy cheap rice from abroad undermining Japanese peasants. Hamburgers and pizzas displace Japanese food. More people live in modern Western-style dwellings, sleep in beds, eat meat, watch Hollywood movies. Foreigners seep in, though not as many as Washington would like to see. They come mainly from nearby countries, from Taiwan, Philippines, Korea and Malaysia. They marry Japanese or stay illegally, for it is quite impossible to move to this country legally. Europeans are rare: Japan is not fashionable anymore.

This is a loss: Japan is unique and wonderful. This is the only full-blown great alternative civilisation on our planet still extant. I lived in Japan for three delightful years in mid 1970s, when its culture was less diluted than it is now. I enjoyed sleeping on a  tatami  floor in a soft quilt-covered  futon , I had its perfect rice-and-raw-egg breakfast; in the cold nights, I warmed my body in the near-boiling waters of  furoo ; I watched flowers and wrote poems.

I came to admire and adore the Japanese, for their supreme honesty and politeness, for their refined culture, for their women – this most excellent product of their civilisation, for their well-behaving children, for their peculiar customs.

They have fewer children now. One can walk from morning to evening in a biggish Japanese city without ever sighting a child. Some threescore years ago, when I lived in Japan, a Japanese woman carrying her child on her back was an ubiquitous vision. Not any more: if you see a person carrying a child, it is likely to be a foreign man carrying his child on his breast and walking behind his wife. It is being said (I have no first-hand knowledge) that many young Japanese give up marriage and sex life completely, preferring to stay with their digital devices.

I came to Japan with Kerry rather than with Obama because of the sakura, as these flowers would not wait till the end of May. They blossomed in beginning of April, well after the Western Easter, but a whole month before the lazy Russian Easter was about to come. I flew in from Moscow, my heart was numbed by infernal greyness of Russian March, and Lent went relentlessly on. This is a dreadful season of no white snow, no green leaf, no pink flower; the sun fails to break through the heavy clouds, bare tree branches stick out like rat tails.

Japan was different. At the first sight of sakura, the Japanese cherry blossom, my hand involuntarily has made the sign of the cross, the way Russians do when they see a church or witness a miracle. These pinkish white flowers were a miracle, not just an aesthetic delight, but sheer rapture, a religious exaltation that promised and satisfied.

Alas, instead of serenely sitting on the grass and observing the flowers, the modern Japanese click their cameras and smartphones at the blossom. I would ban photography completely, as Baudelaire suggested; instead of trying to store the image we should live and experience the event.

Sakura time is akin to Easter Sunday, when the crowds bellow  Christ is Risen , when Lent is over, the altar doors are wide open, the priests wear red, and the best week of the ecclesiastical year begins, the Easter week. Easter week is the honeymoon after the anxiety-ridden wedding night of Easter, after long travail of Lent.

For the blessed Japanese, this honeymoon comes without anxiety, unless you count the rains. Frequent at this time of year, they can ruin the blossom, but this year, the Japanese gods,  Kami, were good to us and sakura was allowed to come to its mind-boggling perfection on the Mount Yoshino.

A day’s ride from the imperial capital of Kyoto, this mountain is the quintessence of Japanese culture, history, tradition and faith. I saw there at the Sakuramoto shrine by Chikurin-in gate, modern-looking Japanese serenely firewalking on embers to the sounds of wild native bagpipes.

Nearby, I watched the flowers from the open-air stone bath of the hot spring, as the courtiers of the exiled emperor Go-Daigo did. Japan is still a great reservoir of spiritual energy, despite a considerable softening they went through in recent years. Not far from there, a memory of Prince Yoshitsune Minamoto still lingers at the refuge he hid with his beloved Shizuka.

The story of the defeated Prince Yoshitsune is the most un-American part of the Japanese tradition, even more than raw fish, for the Japanese love losers, while the Americans are scared to become one. Ivan Morris, a British-American writer, wrote about it a bewitching book, one of the best about Japanese culture, called  The Nobility of Failure . Ivan Morris was among the first foreigners to visit Hiroshima; he was a close friend of Yukio Mishima, the Japanese nationalist writer who wanted to die for his Emperor.

Such Westerners as Ivan Morris, Arthur Waley, Lafcadio Hearn, Reginald Horace Blyth opened Japan for us in a much better way than Commodore Perry’s black ships. This is the way countries and cultures should be opened to each other: by cautiously looking into and preserving their uniqueness, not by moulding them all into a single consumer society.

Not much of primary variety remained on earth. I still witnessed France being distinct from Britain, as you may see in the films of 1960s. I still walked primeval Palestine. I experienced Swedish Sweden. I lived in Japan like a Japanese. Nowadays the differences being erased, and this is a great loss for mankind. Actually, the main objection one has to the US, that it works as the great unifier and homogeniser of world culture creating one colour instead of the whole polychrome. Needless to say, its own fragile culture suffers first.

It is not impossible to reverse the trend, to regain variety, and to a great extent this depends on you, the Americans, whether you will stem the wave, for it seems nobody else can.

Israel Shamir can be reached at

This essay has been published first at  The Unz Review

A few responses

Che Guava  says:

May 30, 2016 at 12:33 pm GMT  • 600 Words

Thank you for another interesting article, Mr. Shamir.

I have a few points of disagreement and amplification. Never knew you’d lived here before.

these islanders abhor the blacks more than any KKK Wizard

Two decades of bombardment by both US black pop culture and our imitations of it mean that this is no longer true as a generalisation, particularly in Tokyo, but also to a lesser extent, in Osaka and some regional cities.

Hiroshima is unlovely.

I agree, but the people are pleasant, and beautiful Miyajima is just a short ferry ride away. Many of the many other cities subjected to intense bombardment by the USAAF have a similarly dull urban plan, nothing much to see around the main railway station unless one is quite devoted to finding places.

Lack of control over development also doesn’t help, Kyoto was never bombed, but if one arrives there by train, it looks just like any other city of comparable size that *was*  bombed.

a Japanese person who refers to Americans bombing Hiroshima more than once will find his career nipped in the bud; he will be consigned to nationalist-militarist category of Yukio Mishima followers, or worse.

If by ‘or worse’ you mean assumed to be a communist or, if older, a former ultra-leftist, that is true in some contexts.

Mishima’s speech before he and his boyfriend commited ritual suicide was derided by the soldiers he demanded make an audience, but it was a pivot point in turning the nation from pluralistic politics to the current near-monolithic model.

At that time, complaints about the A-bombs were seem as ‘left’. After that, those of the extreme-right groups that are or were not specifically pro-American co-opted the cause.

performing music imported from Tang China in the 7 century (forgotten in its native China ages ago)

The revival of  kogaku  (ancient music) was largely a result of the annexation of Korea, based on manuscripts and instruments stolen from there. This is one of the many Korean genuine grudges never heard of in the world press. Last time I checked, admittedly years ago, nothing of it had been returned.

Seoul still places far more importance on the form, with pretty much weekly performances.

first film of Kurosawa, The Tiger’s Tail

Kurosawa’s first feature film was  Ichiban Utukusiku  (The Most Beautiful), a late-wartime propaganda film. I have the film on DVD, and suspect I may have worked, much later, at the location.

Alas, instead of serenely sitting on the grass and observing the flowers, the modern Japanese click their cameras and smartphones at the blossom.

You are very right about the camera idiocy, although I think I have some good ones, through appreciation and concentration. The closest popular site to my home is so full of extremely noisy and drunk students from sports teams at the nearby ‘elite’ university, it is excruciating.

The falling petals are also strongly identified in pop culture with the special attack forces, or kamikaze , a word that is relatively seldom used in Japanese.

Thankfully, the ‘G7 ‘ is over, I would have loved to write a sarcastic article about the semi-official visit to Ise with Abe as the tour guide (sure, it is a beautiful place, or rather, two places, but you will also find large groups of ultra-rightists marching in on weekends or holiday periods).

The other ‘leaders’ showed poor judgement in taking part, instead of visiting privately if they felt like it.

A minor point, I think you mean two-score, not three.

Again, thank you Mr. Shamir for much great writing, including this article.

From Geoffrey Bamford

Dear Israel Adam,

Thanks for this. Yes: makoto .

It’s intensely Japanese — and it opens widows onto a far Confucian universe. There’s li and there’sren : you observe the forms, sure, but the point is to put your heart into it.

I’ve never lived there. Used to train Europeans who dealt with Japanese and Japanese who dealt with Europeans.

Thanks, too, for the Ivan Morris reference. From a different angle, I have found wisdom in The Japanese Negotiator by Robert March.

In the 1970s, (when you were around here, as I recall), Monkey was a long-running UK TV series, dubbed from the Japanese. This was East Asian folk-Buddhism. The message had been filtered through many cultures and ages, and then repackaged for the modern era — so, it was a shock to see with what a pure light this consumer product could often shine.

So, friend, may the road rise to your feet!

Warmly, Geoff

From Robert D Hickson

Dear Israel Adam,

It was especially touching to this former paratrooper-commando to read your UNZ Review article this morning on 30 May, the one entitled “Obama in Japan.”

What a feast in your words and from your heart.

At the Joint Military Intelligence College (Graduate School), especially in my classes on East Asian Cultures (and religion and philosophies), I used to have the students read Ivan Morris’ THE NOBILITY OF FAILURE–a profoundly moving book and “report from reality.” The Japanese sens of “MAKOTO”–that specially purity and innocence is such a special part of their Sense of Tragedy..

Although I last left Japan in 1969, I knew Yukio Mishima a little. His own ceremonial act of suicide and protest in 1970 (at 45 years of age) was almost an enactment of one of his own short stories set in Korea, “Death in the Afternoon,” as I recall the English Title–a haunting story still. Do you know It?

Did you know that Yukio Mishima had a fear of heights? (I saw his unexpected fear manifested even when he made a training-jump from a Mock-Up Parachute Training Tower. As an old Paratrooper yourself, I thought you would want to know and consider this detail! I had always wanted to go SAILING with Yukio Michima, fro he loved the Sea, as you know; but it never came to pass.) It would also have been good to speak of the Contrast of Western Christian Chivalry and BUSHIDO and the Ethos of the Samurai and the Ronin–since Bushido do not have the Blessed Virgin Mary–nor any special care and graciousness with women (or children). Ahira Kurosawa is a powerful art form himself, as a cinematographer, no?

I hope you son, “Joachim” (I am again forgetting his full double name ) is doing well, and is flourishing like his own vivid-souled father!

Our little son, Robert Richard Hickson (“Robby”) is now 5 years of age, and his older sister, Isabella Maria is now 8!

In Christo Rege, per Matrem Gratiae,

Robert David

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