Christmas morning, 1998

Dear Friends,

Karen and I just returned from our trip to southern Japan.  We "flew" south on the shin-kansen (bullet train), then found our way via local trains, subways, trolleys and taxis.  We even successfully navigated some of Kyushu in our rental car.  She managed to avoid Japanese food and I managed to avoid Japanese toilets!

At the Hiroshima Peace Park, I was profoundly moved by the awareness that once again, U.S. planes were dropping bombs half a world away.  In addition to memorializing the devastation caused by the first atomic bomb, the museum houses copies of letters protesting nuclear tests sent by the Mayor of Hiroshima.  The most recent, dated the second week of December, 1998, were addressed to Russia and the U.S.!  I was (naively?) stunned to realize that such tests were continuing despite the highly publicized arms reduction agreements.

The Children's Memorial was draped with thousands of colorful paper cranes in a powerful reminder that children often suffer the most when adults compete for power on the world stage.  Instead of a T-shirt, I bought a copy of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes to donate to our library.  Our students recently made a thousand paper cranes to send to the family of one of their former classmates, who was abducted shortly after her return to California.  The student council's contribution to the base "Festival of Trees" was also  decorated with origami cranes, and resided in the library after the festival concluded.

Living overseas, I continue to be struck by the way the U.S. dominates the news, and American products pervade the marketplace.  In Fukuoka, we visited Canal City, a brightly colored shopping mall touted as a grand example of Japanese modernization.  It is anchored by the Grand Hyatt Hotel and features . . . L.L. Bean, J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, Levi's, Warner Brothers, Sesame Street, etc.  Not exactly what Karen and I were seeking.

At the other end of the spectrum, we visited Itsukushima Shrine, first built in the sixth century and "remodelled" in 1168.  The grand torii gate which guards its entrance from the sea is often featured in  pictures of Japan.  The island of Miyajima is populated by tame deer and designated one of Japan's  "three most beautiful spots" - although the effect was somewhat diminished by the fact that the tide was out.

We also visited Mikawachi, a village of potters with a 400-year-old tradition of producing Japan's distinctive blue and white porcelain.  On the island of Hirado, we finally found the "real" rural Japan - rice paddies on terraces and fishermen and divers off the coastal rocks.  Hirado Castle features an incredible collection of historic documents and maps, but of course, we couldn't read them.  We did climb to the top of the castle where the view reminded me of the Astor Column in Astoria - a panorama of fishing boats returning from the sea and the steep and thickly wooded hills surrounding the bay.

Japan is known for absorbing the cultures of other places and subtly changing them - the potters came from Korea and Zen came from China.  Hirado Island was an early gateway to Japan for both Asian and European traders.  The Europeans were forcefully moved to an island off Nagasaki during the Edo period, when Japan was closed to foreigners.

America is often described as a great "melting pot" - but we have tended to enforce acculturation to our Northern European ethos rather than embrace what is distinctive from other cultures, and we have also experienced periods of "closed doors" to immigrants.  The contrast is stark when we examine the international community's reaction to the impeachment of President Clinton.

Karen and I have both been struck by the commercialism and materialism in the U.S. when compared to our experiences overseas.  The signs reading "joyful Christmas" draping every shopping mall and the garish neon identifying Pachinko parlors reflect the Japanese perception of what is most distinctive about America.  The Japanese don't "observe"  Christmas; they sell it.  Well, don't we also?

It is hard to find the peace and serenity I associate with Japanese gardens; the shrines and temples we have visited are thronged with tourists. On our trip, I read Lost Japan, a "Lonely Planet Journey" by Alex Kerr.  His reflections on the postwar changes in Japan are fascinating, and helped me interpret what I saw.

Who elected "US" as the world's policemen?  Why do we consider our culture and our way of life "superior"?  The Japanese are also noted for their ethnocentrism as are many other nations, religions and ethnic groups.  What are the possibilities for world peace in the face of such determination to preserve one's distinctive way of life?  We can neither be proud of our forebears' attempt to proselytize the rest of the world nor expect Christianity to serve as the unifying theme in Arab and other Muslim countries.  Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, and Confucius all advocated peace among men; why can't their followers achieve it?

Wishing you peace in the new year.