Thursday, December 07, 2006

Pearl Harbor Day

This time of year, people around the country are commemorating the bombing of Pearl Harbor, either in their hearts or by attending ceremonies, watching stories on the news, reading historical accounts, or just taking a moment to remember. I’m doing that as well, honoring our slain military personnel by thinking about them and appreciating what they sacrificed for us as a nation.

At this time, I also find it appropriate to share some of my thoughts and feelings concerning Pearl Harbor and some of the other historical events that surrounded it. These thoughts, in part, were shared with the League of Utah Writers last month, but time did not permit me to share everything I would have liked and so I’ll take the opportunity to do so here.

My first novel, “Nothing to Regret,” is the story of the Japanese Americans who were interned after Pearl Harbor. Because I chose to write a book that tells the story from the Japanese American angle, I have been labeled as unpatriotic and some have felt that I’m anti-American. I can assure you, there is nothing further from the truth. I love my country with all my heart. I am proud to live here, to wave the flag, and to say the Pledge of Allegiance with my hand over my heart. And every single time I say it, you'd better believe I say, “Under God.”

It is not anti-American to tell a story from a different viewpoint, and that is what I did with my novel. There are scads of books out there which tell the story of Pearl Harbor, but relatively few that tell the story of the internees, and I found none in LDS fiction which did more than mention the camps. I wanted to tell the story because it needed to be told. There is nothing anti-American about telling about what happened to Americans. That is what the Japanese Americans were and are –Americans.

It frustrates me to no end to discuss my novel with someone and to have them say to me, “You know the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor,” as though they were speaking to a very young child. Someday I just may look at them in shock and say, “Really? I missed that!!” Of course I know the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I’m a historical fiction author, heavy on the historical. I research countless hours. I ask questions. I learn about my subject matter. And if I get something wrong, I go back and fix it until it’s right. Somewhere along the way, I did pick up on the fact that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But their doing that does not make it wrong for me to write the book I did.

It wasn’t the JA’s who did the bombing. Many of them had never even set foot in Japan, having been born here after their parents immigrated. Of all the JA’s who were interned, not one of them was ever found to have links to the bombing. Every single person in those camps was an innocent bystander, just as outraged as we were about the attack. They were not a danger to the country.

At the time, with the wartime hysteria passing from one person to the next like a wildfire, the government felt it was the most logical thing to do. There are many people still living who remember when it happened, and some of them have expressed to me that it was the only way to handle it. With the 20/20 vision that hindsight gives us, we can now see that there were other ways to deal with the situation, but those who were there are firm in their stand that the camps were the answer. I disagree, but then, I wasn’t there.

The thing we must keep in mind at all times is that each and every person living on this planet is a child of God, just as we are. They have thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams and aspirations, just as we do. I remember the first time I ever realized that I wasn’t the only one who had thoughts and internal dialogue. I was about eight, and I said to my mom, “Does everyone in the world look out through their own eyes and see things like I do? Do they think inside their heads?” When I got the answer that yes, everyone has their own thoughts and their own feelings, I was floored. It had never occurred to me that the man across the street was living inside his own skin, looking out from it, just as I looked out from mine. It was a changing day for me because I realized that the feelings of others are just as important as mine.

So imagine that you are accused of something you didn’t do, rounded up and thrown into a camp. Imagine that you lose nearly every possession you have, are treated like a criminal, and given a stigma that will last until the end of time. You’d be a little mad, wouldn’t you? You’d want to fight the system, wouldn’t you? Well, guess what – that’s just what happened to the JA’s and they did not fight. They handled it with grace and dignity. They never once rose up against their captors; they simply took everything that was dished out to them because they understood why America was so angry with the Japanese. They took it all on the faith that someday, it would be made right. I am not that tolerant. I am not that patient, that kind, that forebearing.

Okay, so I’ve just indicated that we shouldn’t be mad at the JA’s for what happened at Pearl Harbor. Now I’m going to talk to you about not being mad at the Japanese.


Yeah, you heard me.

There is only a small group of people you really should be mad at for the bombing, and that is the Japanese government of the time. The bulk of the Japanese citizenry did not know anything about the bombing, and when they did hear about it, they were told that it was an absolute necessity.

From the time a Japanese child of that era was born, they were taught that the Emperor was literally a god through the lineage of the sun goddess Amateratsu. They were taught to believe in the Emperor without question, to obey without any hesitation. In every home, in every school, in every workplace, this was repeated. It was a literal brainwashing, with severe consequences for failure to comply. It never occurred to the Japanese people that their Emperor could do anything evil. And so, when they heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and that it was for their best good, they believed it.

At the close of the war in the Pacific, when Japan surrendered, the Emperor was made to read a statement on the radio telling the people that he was not divine. It crushed everyone. They had loved and trusted and believed in him for years, and now to be told that he was not who they thought? And then when they began to realize that the things he did were not always for the best good of Japan, they felt lied to and betrayed. They had to rebuild their entire belief systems from scratch. No, do not be angry with the Japanese. They are good and loyal people who were fed a bucket of lies by their leaders and because of their trusting natures, they ate it all up. When they began to hear what really happened at Pearl Harbor, they were devastated.

There are also those who feel I should not have written about the atomic bomb from the Japanese perspective. I have had people say to me, “Do you know what would have happened if we hadn’t dropped the bomb?” Hello – yes, I know. The Japanese were determined to fight until the very end and dropping the bomb brought the war to a swift close, the treaty being signed within weeks. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write about what happened.

The effect of the bomb on the land of Japan was far-reaching, devastating, and horrific. Radiation seeped into the ground and caused mutations long afterwards. People had their clothing burned into their skin. It was more than just a bomb – it was like being stuck in a microwave and zapped. Why is it wrong for me to say so? I'm glad we won the war, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't feel sorry for how it came about. It doesn’t make me less of an American to feel compassion for those who suffered.

I tell the story of the bomb in “Nothing to Regret” for the purpose of showing what my character had been through, but also so that my readers can understand that it was a terrible thing and we need to recognize that. It’s one thing to win the war and feel glad that we did so, but quite another to feel smug about the suffering inflicted upon another human being, and I have found far many comments made to the latter.

I saw a bumper sticker about two years ago that incensed me. It read: “Without Pearl Harbor, there would have been no Hiroshima.” Let me explain why this bothered me so much.

1. Hiroshima was not in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. In March of 1942, Colonel Dolittle led an air attack over Tokyo in what would be called “The Dolittle Raid.” That attack was in retaliation for Pearl Harbor.

2. The atomic bomb was dropped in August of 1945, after over three years of brutal fighting with Japan in the Pacific. It was that brutal fighting that prompted the American government to use the bomb against the Japanese. From what I understand, it had originally been created to use against the Nazis, but they surrendered before the bomb was ready to use. When the American government saw the zeal with which Japan was pushing forward with the war, they decided to use the bomb in Japan instead. The bomb never was created with the intent of “getting Japan back” for Pearl Harbor.

3. Third, and this may not win me a whole lot of friends. Think about it for a minute – who died at Pearl Harbor? Over a thousand military personnel. When you go into the military, you have come to terms with the fact that you may give your life for your country, and you accept it. Who died at Hiroshima? Children, grandparents, and young women. The Japanese military personnel were not in Hiroshima; they were out fighting. The atomic bomb killed people we weren’t even fighting with. They’d had no chance to work out their willingness to die beforehand, and over one hundred thousand people were killed in the blast and many more died from the aftereffects.

You can’t possibly draw a comparison between one attack and the other and say that one is just recompense for the other. Attack A: killed military personnel who had already devoted their lives to the cause. Attack B: killed women, children, and elderly. Attack A: killed over 1,000. Attack B: killed over 100,000, caused birth defects, irradiated the soil, and many more died in the years following. To say that A justifies B is completely ludicrous. To say that because of Pearl Harbor, anything we want to do is right, is very, very wrong. You must look at the two incidents separately and understand that it was not just Pearl Harbor that led to the bomb.

Does this make me anti-American? Certainly not. This makes me willing to look at the situation from more than just one angle. Our veterans went out there and gave their all so we might have the freedom to explore the other angles. It is because of the freedom they fought for that I am able to share these thoughts in this blog. I honor our veterans. I wear my red plastic poppy proudly.

What I challenge is the tendency I see toward looking at the war in only one way. The more I read and study and listen, the more I have come to the conclusion that in order for us to truly understand, we have to be willing to let go of our rigidity. We have to be willing to listen to what others say. In order to understand why the Nazis did what they did, we must understand how they were trained and raised up. In order to understand the attack on Pearl Harbor, we must understand the way the Japanese were trained and raised up. We can’t simply slap a label, “Oh, they attacked us because they’re evil,” and think we are justified in that. Their leaders were evil and they mounted an evil campaign. That does not make the entire nation evil or make everyone of that heritage evil.

I grew up in the era of “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!” Russia was a bad, bad place full of evil people. A bomb was going to drop on us any minute and we must be on our guard. Imagine my parents’ horror when I decided that I was fascinated with Russia and wanted to learn to speak the language. Imagine their further horror when I decided I wanted to go there on a mission. What really horrified them was when I won an essay contest and was awarded a trip there when I was fifteen. I begged them to pray about it. I knew I would be fine, and after they spent some time thinking it over, they knew I would be too, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. And do you know what I found? Russians aren’t evil. (Shocker!) They have had evil systems of government that have forced them into the conditions they were in, but the Russian people are good, loving, honest people. So are the Germans, and so are the Japanese. We cannot and must not judge an entire race of people based on their government.

I hate the idea that we as Americans are judged based on the actions of our leaders, but it happens – part of the beef that the terrorists have with us is the fact that Bill Clinton is such an immoral man. He may have thought his actions wouldn't hurt anyone, but they have had longlasting repercussions that will be felt for generations.

Steering back from that departure, may I bring this long ramble to a close by saying this. I will continue to seek out these unusual angles, these hidden events, and bring them to the surface. These are stories of good people and they deserve to be told. America is a proud and strong country. America will not be hurt by my telling the stories I tell. I am not disloyal to America for wanting to share my love for all people and to hopefully help voices long silenced to speak again. Part of what makes America great is freedom of speech, and I will use my freedom of speech to speak the truth as I know it and find it. That is why I write.

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