James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
  • Why Do Tech Companies End Up Where They Are?

    "You get some clusters, and some stand-alone firms far from anyone else.  But rarely anything in-between."

    Two days ago I mentioned that Redlands, California, posed a question similar to one we'd encountered in Burlington, Vermont. Namely: what were sizable but standalone Internet-based tech companies doing in these smallish towns? In Redlands's case, this meant Esri -- a leader in the mapping-software industry, and a partner in our "American Futures" project. In Burlington's, it was Dealer.com.

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    In the Seattle area or San Francisco or a dozen other big tech-cluster cities, it would seem commonplace to find such firms. But how had they gotten going far from a surrounding tech ecology that would naturally supply all of the supporting elements of a start-up culture, from potential employees to financial or marketing know-how to design studios?

    Several readers who themselves work in the tech industry write in with explanations. First, from someone who moved from another part of the world to work in one of today's dominant tech clusters, the SF Bay area:

    Yes, silicon Valley (SV) and its environs (SF) are a tech hub. So if you're dreaming up a new communication protocol (Twitter), you need to be surrounded by people who can share in your vision of the future -- and that means (for the most part) that you have a shared 'now', and that's why Twitter was only going to be built in a tech hub. If you're building a better search engine (Google) and Yahoo! is just dont the road, then you can strike up a deal to power their search (which funds you) and if you're surrounded by techies then you have your early adopter users on your doorstep. 

    Now, if you're building software for car dealerships then the #1 thing you need to grow is access to car dealerships. Lots of tech folks I know in SF dont even own cars -- cars are not top of mind. You'd have the same problem in NYC. On top of that, because a lot of city techies dont care about cars, they're blind to the opportunity for selling software to car dealerships. On top of all that, as good a business dealer.com is, I suspect the hardest part of building that business is selling to the dealers, not writing the software (that's still easy to mess up, of course, as proven elsewhere). And I doubt SF car dealers a significantly earlier adopters of tech than anywhere else in the country (I have tried selling tech to them, so I speak from experience :)

    Good software can be written anywhere that there are smart people. So my mental model is not to ask, "The puzzle, again, is why -- and why here?" it's to ask "Why couldn't it be built here?". High-tech spinouts from universities is one possible answer. A need for a cluster of early-tech-adopters (mainly B2C) provides another. 

    Inside Dealer.com, in Burlington; company photo.

    From another person in the California tech industry:

    Some thoughts on why you get some clusters and some stand-alone firms far from anyone else.  But rarely anything in-between.

    As you note, it is now possible to run a high tech company from anywhere, and have employees scattered all over the landscape.  For example, the small company I work for [which produces network analysis software] is "headquartered" (i.e the founder and CEO lives) an hour-plus south of Silicon Valley. I am a couple hours northeast of there. I get down there maybe once a year.  Our third employee is on the East Coast.  The company is over a decade old; later this month we will have our first-ever all hands face-to-face staff meeting. 

    A company can spring up anywhere, as your examples also prove.  But how do you get a cluster?  

    New start-ups/spin-offs frequently happen because someone wants to do something new and different, and can't persuade his management to go for it.  But for that to happen, he has to have been where he can talk casually with others in the same field.  And growing will generally require recruiting from what is essentially a single local pool of talent: the base company.  (Recruiting can also be done via networks built at professional conferences.  But it's harder than recruiting over lunch or at the park.)  That makes getting a second company going very difficult.

    As a result, you can get a stand-alone company anywhere.  It's unlikely, but it can happen.  However to get a cluster, you have to somehow get a second (and preferably a third) company in the same area, before additional companies can be started (relatively!) easily.  Essentially, that means repeating the original process for starting a stand-alone company.  Obviously that's do-able; stand-alones do get started.  But new stand-lones don't happen often -- which means the odds of it chancing to happen multiple times in the same area are really, really low.  And only when you get lucky 2-3 times in one area do you have the conditions which will allow a cluster to blossom.

    Esri cafeteria, in Redlands, via Armantrout Architects.

    And one more explanation:

    I have to assume your question "Why here?" regarding ESRI was rhetorical. It was pretty obvious to me why - because they could. They loved the town, figured others would too, and they succeeded there.

    This is really an interesting connundrum. You (and others) have accurately written about the importance of a support system (probably more properly "supply chain") as being essential to a region's large scale success, esp in modern manufacturing. It would be incredibly difficult (though not impossible) to open an electronics assembly plant in some random town in America, because it's so much easier, cheaper, and faster (by most measures) to do so in China.

    But as ESRI has shown, and Dealer.com as well, if the founder is dedicated to a place, is willing to forgo some, or even most of the easy money, and the location has an appeal that is understood by people other than the founder, then success can happen. It won't be as fast, or as profitable, but those aren't everybody's measure.

  • Three Crashes: Aspen CO, Buckhannon WV, Melbourne FL

    What we know, and don't, about today's fatality in Colorado.

    1) Colorado. This afternoon a private jet crashed, with at least one fatality, at the Aspen airport. Here is one of several online reports from people at the airport or in other planes:

    What is knowable, in the short run, about this sad event is that apparently there were strong and gusty tail winds in Aspen while the plane was trying to land. One of many factors that make the Aspen airport, like many other mountain airports, very demanding is that for all practical purposes you can only land in one direction. There are mountains close to the southeastern side of the airport, so virtually all flights land from the north, in the direction shown by the red arrow. (The arrow is something I've photo-shopped onto a FAA Sectional chart.)

    In aviation terms, any given runway has two different names, depending on which direction the planes are going. In Aspen, planes virtually always take off using "Runway 33" -- starting at the southeastern end and going toward the northwest, over the valley, in the direction of compass heading 330 degrees. And they virtually always land on "Runway 15," coming in from the northwest over the valley, in the direction of the red arrow, and landing toward the southeast with heading 150 degrees. (I have flown a propeller plane into and out of Aspen several times. But it is so demanding and weather-dependent, and I am so aware of not being experienced enough in mountain flying, that I choose not to do it any more.)

    The problem with today's weather is that the wind was blowing strongly from the northwest, in exactly the same direction as the final landing path. When you land into the wind, as pilots always prefer to do, your ground speed relative to the runway is your airspeed minus the windspeed. Thus a plane with approach speed of, say, 100 knots, and a 20 knot headwind, would touch down at 80 knots relative to the runway.

    In this case, the plane had a 15 to 20 knot tailwind, which meant that its speed when meeting the runway would be airspeed plus windspeed -- 120 knots, rather than 80, in the hypothetical example. The problem with going so fast is that you can use up all the runway in a big hurry. You can't compare professional jet operations with amateur piston-plane flying, but just as a benchmark: the greatest tailwind I've ever had to land with was 5 knots, and I was impressed at how quickly the runway went by. Again, at non-mountain airports, you almost always have the choice of landing in the direction that gives you a head-rather-than-tail wind.

    An archived version of today's Air Traffic Control broadcasts from the Aspen tower is available here. The accident plane's call sign is 115WF, said "one one five whiskey foxtrot." On my first-pass listening, it appears that this happened:

    • The plane "went around" -- that is, aborted its first attempted landing -- because the tailwind was more than 30 knots.
    • The pilot set up for another approach, and was informed that the tailwinds over the preceding minute had averaged 16 knots gusting to 25.
    • The last transmission with this plane is at time 20:25, when it is cleared for landing and told of the tail winds.
    • The last ten minutes or so of this archive show the tower and ground controllers deploying all the other aircraft waiting to take off and land on what has become a closed runway, after the crash.

    First reports about crashes are often misleading. We know that it was a very high tailwind; what else might have been involved, we'll learn. For now, condolences to all affected. UPDATE Please see this informative item from Minnesota Public Radio, emphasizing the problem of strong, gusty tail winds.

    2) West Virginia. A happier outcome from a difficult situation: A Cirrus SR-22, the same kind of airplane my wife and I have been flying around the country, had engine trouble yesterday afternoon near Buckhannon, West Virginia. The pilot pulled the handle to deploy the "ballistic parachute" that is a feature of Cirrus airplanes. It came safely to the ground, on top of a truck, and the occupants walked away. Details here; West Virginia news shot below.

    3) Florida. For completeness, here is an animation, from the Air Safety Institute of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, of a Cirrus crash in Melbourne, Florida, that had a more tragic ending. 

    Safe travels to all.
  • Luck? Planning? Karma? The Elements of a Small Town's High-Tech Success

    A software company grows in an unlikely setting. "Why here?" we ask the founders.

    Here is the "reinvention and resilience" theme I will try to deal with in this post and in coming days: What is the combination of planning, public choice, private character, historic legacy and "path dependence," plus accident and sheer blind chance, that can put a community on an improving course -- more jobs, more opportunity, more satisfying life choices for more people -- rather than the reverse?

    One man who tried to answer The Big Questions!

    Yes, I know: thousands of scholars have written millions of words on just this question. The image at right is about one famous early attempt, which I described long ago in our pages. The chance that my wife and I will discover "the" key to community success or failure as we go from place to place is exactly zero. But -- as has been the case over the years as we have lived and traveled in Asia, Africa, and Europe -- we keep coming across interesting examples with provocative implications, and I'll introduce another of them here.

    When we were in Burlington, Vermont, I mentioned the puzzle of the local Internet company Dealer.com. Inside its headquarters, you would have thought you were in Mountain View. When you stepped outside, you were looking not at Highway 101 but at Lake Champlain, now perhaps with ice floes. How did a company like this end up so far from the tech-world ecology that spawns startups in the familiar SF-Seattle-Boston-London-Shanghai centers? We know that it's a virtual world, and in theory you can do high-value work anywhere. But in practice most of today's highest-value collaborative work takes place in clusters, where people are drawn to be with others of similar training and interests, where one successful firm gives rise to spinoffs, where communities evolve to provide the services, comforts, and daily experiences each group values.

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    In Burlington's case, we heard about all the efforts to help a tech cluster emerge -- and about the enduring importance of IBM's having established a major research center in nearby Essex Junction more than 50 years ago. IBM itself employs only half as many people locally as it did at its peak, but as I described last fall it seems to have made a lasting change in the economic and educational life of the area. Tech-trained families came north for IBM. Many of their children stayed in Vermont, or came back after traveling; some started tech companies of their own. Dealer.com employed some of them -- and, we were told, its recruiting had a specific emphasis. It looked for people with the same tech or business skills that would count in the Bay Area or in Boston -- but who also had some family-tie, recreational, temperamental, or other reason to be interested in the outdoorsy Vermont life. (Since then, by the way, Dealer.com has been acquired for $1 billion. When the Northeast thaws out, we'll go back to ask them about how this affects their sense of Vermont-based localism.)


    A similar puzzle arises from the tech company, Esri, that has transformed the economy of Redlands, California -- and that is our partner, providing mapping software*, in this American Futures project.  The puzzle, again, is why -- and why here?

    Redlands had traditionally been an orange-growing town, and a university town, and a medical center for adjoining mountain and desert communities, and for a while the preferred bedroom community for officers from nearby Norton Air Force Base. But none of these prefigured the emergence of an engineer-heavy "Geographic Information Systems" company, which is the niche Esri occupies and leads worldwide. 

    Esri was founded more than 40 years ago, by a husband-and-wife team, Jack and Laura Dangermond, who had grown up in Redlands and decided to come back after graduate school at the University of Minnesota and Harvard. It started to emerge as a major economic force by the early 1990s. This was fortunate timing for Redlands, to say the least. At just that time Norton Air Force Base, which during its Cold War heyday had been a very sizable bomber, missile, and defense-research center, was being shuttered as part of the Bush I/Clinton-era rationalization of surplus bases. The Norton population had by definition been transient. But many of its officers and their families chose to stay or to return when they left the Air Force, and even during their active-duty years in the town they often played a big role in civic projects. The removal of Norton could have been a serious problem for the regional economy.

    The main Esri cafeteria.

    Apart from helping the area through the base-closing bump, the continued growth of Esri has meant thousands of new tech-industry jobs in a city where that represents a large share of the professional work force. Plus new demand for restaurants, entertainment, local retail, and other attributes of cities that seem economically alive -- and museums, concerts, and other markers of healthy civic culture.   

    Much more than the now-absent Norton, Esri has also changed the human look of the town. Through much of the 20th century, Redlands's ethnic makeup had been an Anglo/Latino balance. Among the whites, there were large groups of Dutch immigrants and their descendants (as in Holland, Michigan); Mormons (whose forebears settled the area in the 1840s and 1850s before being recalled to Utah by Brigham Young); and Dust Bowl-era emigres from the Plains and South. Among the Latinos, nearly all were Mexican and many of those were from families that had been in the area for several generations, having first come north after the Mexican Revolution of the early 1900s.

    Those were the blocs that mattered, Mexican and mixed-Anglo, when I was growing up. Now, a big tech company means that the faces on the street and at the parks and in the schools include far more people from China, India, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Russia, Israel, Belarus, Ethiopia, New Zealand, and most other countries you might name. This change de-parochializes a community in countless ways.

    The company has made another mark on Redlands, as some of the pictures here may suggest. Jack Dangermond's parents immigrated from Holland (the one in Europe) and ran a popular plant nursery in town. Jack Dangermond's first degree was in landscape architecture, and he and Laura have planted and landscaped so extensively for so many years that they have made Esri's campus and some other public areas in town a kind of arboretum / jungle retreat. 

    Like any big economic force in a small place, Esri engenders some complaints -- like Microsoft (or now Amazon) during its boom times in Seattle, like various tech companies in SF these days. But in frequent return visits to Redlands over the years, and in asking again in recent weeks, we've heard many fewer cavils about Esri's influence than recognitions that the town would be profoundly poorer and worse off if the company had not been started there, or if it had left for a more mainstream headquarters with a larger natural pool of potential tech recruits.

    Customer delegation on the Esri campus. The founders had a family background in landscape architecture and the nursery business and have filled the site with boulders and countless thousands of trees.

    Which leads us back to why the company began here, and why it hasn't left. Esri is still privately held by the Dangermonds, and run by them. While they are major public figures within their tech community -- for instance, Jack is the on-stage impresario of the vast annual User Conference, which draws tens of thousands from around the world --  they otherwise lead a press-avoiding life. The few times I have tried to ask them the "Why here?" question, their answers have boiled down to "Where else?" 

    Their reaction has been a version of the answer from Captain Bob Peacock, with which I end my article, in the current issue, about his very different hometown of Eastport, Maine. Bob Peacock had lived all around the world, so my wife and I asked him why he had come back to a hard-pressed, microscopic settlement on the farthest eastern extremity of America. He tossed off the answer as if it were self-evident: This is where he was from, it was where he knew people, it was where he wanted to be.

    Something similar seems to be the case with the founders of this company in Redlands. This is where they were from and where they wanted to be, so they felt lucky to be able to make it all work here. And on the practicalities of recruitment: as with Dealer.com in Vermont, they could conduct a certain kind of targeted search. Their ideal candidate would have the right sales, tech, or design skills -- but would also be looking for the virtues of smaller-town rather than hip-big-city life: bigger houses with broader lawns, 5-minute commutes, good public schools, lower costs.

    Esri's new "Building Q" on its Redlands campus, site of executive offices and auditorium for community forums.

    What does this mean, as prescription, for anyplace else? I don't know. I realize that you can't make a formula out of hoping that a locally raised couple goes off for schooling and then decides that the right place for a tech start-up is back home -- and decades later becomes a big international success. But an increasingly powerful impression in our travels is how much these local loyalties -- plus local ownership, and the sense of "local patriotism" we have felt in places otherwise as dissimilar as Sioux Falls or Burlington or Redlands or Holland -- really matter in the fate of a town.

    Jack Dangermond, in Esri photo.

    Next up, some illustrations of how, exactly, the software produced in Building Q and its environs has made its mark around the world, plus helped us in this project. Then more about the future of the endangered citrus industry, and the next themes beyond that.

    Meta-point for weekend reflection: When we were doing similar prowling through small-town China, the prevailing world view was, "Hey, China is really happening!" So the creativity we saw even in remote Gansu or Ningxia could seem to fit a larger pattern.

    The prevailing world view about America in recent years has been, "Hey, we're screwed." We are intentionally looking for successful smaller cities. But if you thought things were going well in America, the kinds of things we're seeing would back up your point.


    *To clarify: Esri, like Marketplace, is a "partner" in, but not a "sponsor" of, this project. For Marketplace, this means that we're covering some of the same places together. For Esri, it means that the company is providing software and long hours of guidance on using it, but not any direct financial support. 

    Also: I did not know Jack or Laura Dangermond while growing up, but our families were friendly, as part of small-town life. My siblings and I spent countless weekends being deployed to Dangermond's nursery to buy bushes, trees, ivy, sod, fertilizer, vegetable seeds, or other items for use in our yard.

  • Because We Haven't Heard About My Favorite Coventry-Based Band in a While ...

    I could have written this item decades ago if my last name were Smith.

    I give you, yes, The Fallows, a rising indie-acoustic band from the English Midlands who for understandable reasons have commanded attention in our household since their debut in 2012.

    Tragically none of the band members has the actual last name I am looking for. Their real last names turn out to be Darby, Rutherford, Stokes, Pointon, and Corkerry. May these some day be numbered with Lennon-McCartney or at least the revered Clapton-Bruce-Baker! On the other hand, their base is very near the ancestral homeland of the few Fallowses in the world, so we will overlook such technicalities (plus plural-spelling fine points) and proudly claim them. Here is a sample of their music:

    With more here. And hey, guys, when your tours take you to the New World, let us know. 

    I think henceforth I will introduce myself as "footstompin indie/folk." It's in the blood.

  • Yasukuni, Yūshūkan: Yes, There Is More

    "Love the sinner, hate the sin," as rendered into Japanese.

    Detail from the memorial to Confederate heroes Davis, Lee, and Jackson at Stone Mountain, Ga.

    The story goes on. For background see previous installments one, two, three, four, five, and six. But we may now be nearing the end.

    A Japanese view. I have received a lot of contumely from readers in Japan, without much explanation. Here is one from a reader in Japan making a point about its view of the past.

    Before turning it over to him, a linguistic note: it's always tricky to decide how much to alter quotes from non-native speakers. I have cleaned this up only where I thought it necessary to clarify the meaning. For another time, a discussion of the fairness and unfairness of English's emergence as a global language of discourse, with related benefits to native speakers. See Ta-Nehisi Coates on this theme from France. For now, my Japanese correspondent writes:

    I want to explain the Japanese Culture's views about  crime, punishment, and death.

    There is a saying that " hate the crime, forgive the offender". [JF Note: In English, this is of course "Love the sinner, hate the sin." Somehow I find myself thinking of the Japanese person who once asked if there was an English counterpart for the Japanese concept of ニュアンス, or nyuansu. This was of course the Japanese transliteration of the French->English word nuance.]

    Japanese people make an effort to forgive an offender  after his death or after he receives punishment. 

    It is the wisdom which  developed in long history in order to cut off the chain of hate.

    This is not only for Yasukuni but is generally true.
     
    Japan's prime minister sent funeral condolences on the occasion of the death of Roosevelt who was an enemy's president.

    Japanese people have not been blaming Americans about an atomic bomb in the past and the future...  

    Even with Osama bin Laden's dead body, probably it is treated carefully and desires a quiet mental rest...  

    From the world's perspective, it may seem weak not to retaliate.

    It may be difficult to be understood. There may be some persons who get angry. However, if seen from the Japanese people's perspective, the world is bound by the chain of hate and can be considered to be sad.

    Which may provide one answer to the question a reader in the U.S. raises:

    Here's something I've never understood about Japan and its continuing propaganda, as per Yūshūkan: why, if Japanese citizens are taught that the US forced Japan into WWII and then brutally attacked and humiliated her, are relations so good between our countries? Shouldn't there be enormous amounts of teeming resentment on their part? That would seem the natural reaction. And yet it doesn't seem to be the case. Why not?  

    On the different Japanese and Chinese uses of the past, from an American academic:

    You posted some interesting comments from readers about the appalling War Museum at the shrine site.  At least a couple of them suggested there was nothing equivalent in American life. 

    Well, there is.  Its the pernicious myth of the Lost Cause and the nobility of the Confederacy.  Go visit something like Stone Mountain in Georgia.  How do a group of people who attempted to destroy the United States in the cause of preserving slavery get to be lionized?  It can be objected that this is a primarily regional, Southern, phenomenon but that would be a significant underestimate of the historic pervasiveness of this myth.  This myth, with the accompanying myth of the horrors of Reconstruction, dominated American thinking about the Civil War era for decades.  Prominent academic historians propagated these myths, and there is an immense popular literature supporting these ideas. 

    While this aspect of Japanese life is deplorable, its also worth asking why the Chinese government makes such a big deal out of these episodes?  Its certainly not because Japan is any real sense a threat to China.  The Chinese leadership is propagating their own version of victimization, which is certainly much better justified by historical events, to boost domestic solidarity and their legitimacy. 

    This is a rather cynical use of the past.  It could even be argued that the Chinese misuse of the past is even worse than the abuse of the past by Japanese politicians.  The latter are functioning within the confines of a democratic political system and a constitution that forbids aggression.  The Chinese leadership, on the other hand, is attempting to use the past to perpetuate an authoritarian regime. 

    As I wrote repeatedly while living in China (and in my books), I basically agree with the reader's concluding point about the deliberate -- and dangerous -- way in which the Chinese government has ramped up anti-Japanese feelings. Often, as recently with Yasukuni, the Japanese government makes that job even easier.

    From another American:

    I’ve been following the Yasukuni thread from the beginning.

    As minimal background, I am now 75, have been married to a Japanese woman for 43 years, and have both lived in Japan several times and visited many times since 1960.

    My personal experience leads me to believe that in these times, the vast majority of Japanese do not think about, or care to think about WWII, per se. To most it is an embarrassment, not to be discussed, and best forgotten. I don’t know if there are studies which provide evidence of this, but I would bet on it.

    I think there was a time when the post-war pacifism, anti-war sentiment of many Japanese was more evident. One of the greatest anti-war films I have ever seen was a Japanese production released in 1959 - The Human Condition (Ningen no jôken). [Above] It is in three parts with a total running time of something like ten hours! (No doubt it is way too long and melodramatic for most of today’s audiences.) If I recall correctly, this was very popular in Japan at the time.

    Finally -- for this post, and I believe for this topic  -- a reader's note on one other historical angle:

    I've just got one significant gripe with the last excerpt you posted in this article: it calls Midway "the end of Japanese aspirations in the Pacific," but the real end of Japanese naval aspirations was the Battle of the Philippine Sea two years later, which was only made possible by an extremely dangerous top-secret intel delivery mission that was completed by the submarine on which my grandfather served as an officer, the USS Crevalle.

    The Crevalle was dispatched to the Philippines in order to secure documents containing the “Z Plan” which had been recovered from a crashed Japanese plane. The documents were in plain Japanese language without any code, resulting in a quick (although initially difficult due to the frequency of unknown naval terms) translation. This intel allowed the Americans to inflict a devastating blow on the Japanese fleet in June 1944, in which 3 Japanese carriers and somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 Japanese aircraft were destroyed while the Americans lost just over 100 aircraft.

    Crevalle crew snapshot, from the Navy site.

    The battle was so one-sided that it became known as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” It effectively eliminated Japan’s ability to wage carrier-based warfare for good.

    Even better, the same mission by the Crevalle also secured the safe rescue of 40 American refugees from [the Philippine island of] Negros. I will always be proud of that.

  • An American Dream: A YMCA With a Circus

    By Deborah Fallows

    Performer at the Great Y Circus in Redlands, California.

    For those of you who have always dreamed of running off to join the circus, here is a close second: move to Redlands, California, and join the YMCA.  Not only will you get the chance to be a circus star but you’ll also find yourself living in a friendly town with wide palm-lined streets, orange groves, and century-old architecture, not to mention the locally-owned-and-made big four: craft beer, ice cream, chocolate, and coffee. What more could you want?

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    I went to see Darwin Barnett, the CEO of the Redlands Community YMCA, to find out about the circus, among other things. Barnett has been a lifer in the world of the YMCA, getting his first job there during his college years in Plainview, Texas. He moved up the ranks, and about a year and a half ago, he was looking to find a smallish city where his family could settle in and be part of a strong community.

    Redlands came onto Barnett’s radar for those reasons, but also because in the YMCA world, Redlands is unique and famous for its circus.

    The Redlands Y circus is not just a tumbler’s wanna-be circus. It is The Great Y Circus, as it is fondly called, a serious circus with high-flying acts, trapeze, rings, unicycles, acrobatics, and teeterboard, where one person jumps onto one end of the teetertotter, launching the partner into the air. The Circus was founded Roy Coble, a former performer with the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, shortly after he moved to Redlands in 1927. Once smitten with the circus; always smitten with the circus.

    After modest beginnings, the circus has now grown to 350 kids, from toddlers on up who compete for the spots, and dozens of volunteers, many former circus members themselves, who train the performers for several months each year. The Circus plays to sell-out crowds inside the YMCA gym, which was built with extra-high ceilings designed to accommodate the show, for 3 weekends each spring. For instance:

    One of our longtime friends in Redlands, a Great Y Circus star in her youth, says that more than 50 years later, she can still hop back on her unicycle. My exuberant sister-in-law, who grew up in Redlands with my husband and their other siblings and is now a serious energy and environment policy consultant, emotes on the formative experience of several years in the circus.  There, she recounts, she learned trampoline flips, marched as part of the troupe in town parades, and really felt part of the gang and the community -- all because of the circus. Others have moved on to professional lives in the circus or as stunt performers.

    Unicycles at the Great Y Circus. Photo from Examiner.com, Rockwell Anderson Media

    The Past: The YMCA as a town institution.  There’s much more to the Y than the circus. Founded in 1887, it is one of the oldest Ys in the country, and the first in southern California to own its own building, which housed storefronts on the street level and the Y upstairs. They grew quickly through a series of bigger buildings, sharing with some of the many religious groups in town, the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians; adding a public reading room, which foreshadowed another great Redlands institution, the A. K. Smiley Public Library; offering a full-service Y with swimming pool, tennis courts, a gym, kitchen, dining room, and offices. They also added camping programs, first at Catalina Island and then at Big Bear in the San Bernardino Mountains, just above Redlands. By the 1920s, the Y had bought 3 acres of citrus groves and expanded to the site of today’s Y complex. Enter about then Roy Coble, who offered a “family night”, which grew into the Redlands Great Y Family Circus.

    An early YMCA building in Redlands, 
    via Smiley Library

    Throughout the 20th century, The Y modernized with additional facilities including racquetball, the gym, outdoor roller hockey, and outdoor pool, a teen/senior center, locker rooms, exercise room, preschool, and nursery. During WWII, they housed a USO and offered sleeping quarters for military on leave. There was nothing, it seems, that the Y couldn’t do.

    So, when the Y aimed its sights on a new pool, Barnett recounted to me, even the cavernous gap between the builder’s bid (12 million dollars) and the fundraisers’ prediction for what they could raise (2 millions dollars) didn’t kill the project. In fact, the town rejected the idea of a lesser option to raze and rebuild from new, saying they didn’t want a “shiny new thing” but instead would press on for funds to save and restore the old buildings instead. And you guessed it, they town did raise the entire amount. Darwin Barnett took me on a tour of the newly redone building, with its preserved portions and its new pool.

    New YMCA pool.

    The Y in Redlands is an example of “We can do this” answers to “It can’t be done” declarations that we have seen in other small towns as we’ve flown around America. Holland, Michigan, dug up its downtown commercial street to install underground hot water piping to provide a winterlong snowmelt. Burlington, Vermont, turned around a failing school in the down-and-out part of town to a model magnet school with a waiting list.  Eastport, Maine, unboarded its main street buildings in order to open museums, a theater, galleries, and buy-local boutiques.  These are examples of the local civic willpower that we are seeing prevail in the small thriving towns around the US.

    Pool in construction period, via Press-Enterprise.

    The Present: a bulwark of the community. Nationwide, the number of YMCAs has been going down. Some simply shuttered, like the Y just west of Redlands in Riverside, CA. It was founded in 1884 and closed abruptly, bankrupt, in January, 2013.  Others consolidated. The Y in the bankrupt city of San Bernardino, right next door to Redlands, has been absorbed, along with the Y in neighboring, rural Highland, into the Y structure of Redlands. In these communities adjacent to Redlands, the Y employees about 400 employees in over 50 before and after-school programs for 11,000 kids.  In Redlands proper, I saw several of the big signs on some of its additional 13 school sites.  

    In Redlands, the Y has its own preschool and the  typical sports and fitness programs. I swam in the new pool (Teaser: when we began the project, I was determined to swim for exercise and adventure along our routes, just as I had swum around Sydney, recorded here, when we were temporarily in Australia. More stories of my adventures swimming at Ys across America coming soon!)

    The new YMCA in Redlands

    The five days I swam at the Redlands Y, I saw lots of activity: the gym was full of people exercising; the nursery was filled with little kids and their caretakers; the pool was filled with lifeguards-in-training and older citizens, who seemed to be playacting the role of those who needed to be saved. A few high school girls were getting in extra workouts (Redlands High School has its own pool, but it was winter vacation.); people like me were doing laps; kids were taking swimming lessons with their parents watching from the bleachers. The outdoor pool was closed for the season, which always strikes my upper-midwest temperature sensibility as an oddity of California life, since the “winter” season is regularly sunny and in the 70s.


    The Future: Networking in a small town. I asked Barnett about the plans for the Y.  He said that strategically, they would like to reach deeper into the community, and he described two efforts in that direction.

    The first is the youth wellness program. Targeting diabetes and obesity, the Y will partner in 2014 with town’s highly-respected Beaver Medical Clinic (where my husband's father was a beloved doctor for many years) to add physical activity and sports component to the counseling programs the children and their families already receive. By moving the locale from the hospital to the Y, they give the kids a chance change their language as well. Instead of complaining, “I have to go to the hospital,” they can announce, “I get to go to the Y.” Brilliant.

    The second is a new program directed at “summer learning loss”, or what traditionally happens during the slow summer vacation, when kids lose academic momentum and even content, forcing them to spend a few months in the fall repeating what they learned the previous year. The summer online learning program can focus on kids’ individual weak academic points and home in on them for practice and drilling. Last year, 65 kids attended this trial program funded by the LA Times. They worked 1 ½ hours a day on laptops. Success. Not only did they not lose pace, but they gained a half-grade’s achievement in their targeted subjects.

    Oh, and about the four other big reasons to move to Redlands,  stay tuned for more coming soon on the Hangar 24 brewery, A La Minute ice cream, Parliament craft chocolate, and Augie’s coffeehouse. 


    You can contact me at DebFallows at gmail dot com.

  • 'Stop Talking About Yasukuni; the Real Problem Is Yūshūkan'

    Why a museum matters more than a shrine.

    Yushukan, the Japanese military-history museum in Tokyo near Yasukuni Shrine. 

    The story goes on. For background see previous installments one, two, three, four, and five. Now, another angle: that the real object of attention should not be the famous Yasukuni Shrine, where millions of Japanese war dead and a handful of "Class A" war criminals, are honored. Instead, by this logic, it should be the nearby Yūshūkan, 遊就館, or war-history museum, that presents an incredibly tendentious "Japan as victim" interpretation of 20th century events. I mentioned my visit there in the first installment of the series. But let me now turn it over to the readers.  

    First, from an American who lives in Japan, is fluent in and works in Japanese language, and has a Japanese spouse: 

    Now that everyone is eating their osechi [holiday treats] and I am not getting any more emails on my blackberry, I would like to emphasize again something you pointed out in your original post:

        "As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement."

    I think that the discussion of Yasukuni by foreign media outlets presents the shrine itself in a far more anodyne way by just referring to it as a place housing the souls of Japanese war dead that also (almost incidentally) includes Class A war criminals. Thinking about Yasukuni this way makes comparisons to Arlington sound far more reasonable, particularly if one is sympathetic to the sort of "victor's justice" criticisms about the general legitimacy of some of the post-war trials for the crimes of starting the war (ignoring for the moment the crimes of how the war was subsequently fought or those crimes carried out against civilians, which were less the focus of the trials led by the US).

    I wish instead that every article about this issue would mention, as you did, the "historical" museum at the shrine, which I visited for the first time when I was studying abroad at [a leading] university here in Tokyo as an undergraduate. Aside from various military memorabilia (e.g., a Zero fighter plane), it portrays on exhibits along the walls of the museum a timeline of the entire war period (which for Japan includes, of course, the fighting in Manchuria and China before the US was involved).

    This amounts to a retelling of the war from the perspective of the ultra-right wing. The vast majority of the wall space is taken up with detailing Japan's military victories, with only the last few panels tying up how the US dropped the atomic bombs (causing the Emperor to make the judicious decision to end the war in the interest of the people). As I remember it, not only is there no mention at all of the atrocities committed in China and Korea by Japanese forces, but forces arriving in China are described as being welcomed by the people with open arms. [JF note: that is my recollection as well.]

    The museum is shocking in its mendacity (in its willingness to change or omit events entirely) and audacity (in that it is in both Japanese and English, and thus not just for Japanese consumption). It is entirely different to create a memorial to pay somber respect to those who died in a war -- irrespective of the justice of the particular cause the soldiers died for -- than it is to create a memorial that recasts an entire war in a glorified light, including over the widely recognized atrocities committed in that war.

    I struggle to think of a comparable hypothetical for US history - if the Vietnam memorial in Washington also had an exhibit attached that lauded the use of napalm and the actions at My Lai? Or maybe if there was a museum at Arlington that talked about how the slaves were better off under the Confederacy? I think it would be easy to see how the existence itself of any such museum would leave lots of people justifiably furious, let alone patronage of the museum or any associated place by a sitting head of state.

    I think any reasonably objective person who visited the museum would realize that, whatever it was intended to be or was in the past, Yasukuni itself has since deliberately and absolutely been made a political symbol of a very specific view of history by certain people in Japan, and is not at all a neutral place that incidentally is shouldering the blame for some past crimes of those interned therein. There is no way that any Japanese politician could visit the shrine without endorsing this same view of history, and be doing so deliberately. I don't think that this is clearly explained in most articles about this topic for international audiences, which I think muddles the issue and allows sympathy for the actions of Abe which is not at all merited.

    Similarly, from another Westerner with experience in Japan:

    I visited Yasukuni about 1998 I think. It was Golden Week and there were the usual ceremonial displays of old war vets in uniform. The Emperor's Nephew was visiting, I have a photo of the Imperial Police shoving me out of his path while I was trying to take his picture.

    I went into the Yuushuukan, the war museum, and was horrified at some of the things I saw. There were displays mapping out Japan's foreign military campaigns, but no mention of the hundreds of years of civil war inside Japan. Japan's naval battles in the Sino-Japanese wars were emphasized as the beginning of Japanese modern military power in Asia. This is a fact, but the display's assertion that this was right and proper, seemed propagandistic.

    So I went into the theater that shows a film on 20th Century Japanese military history. The film is pure propaganda dating back to before WWII. It clearly explains the "ABCD Theory," that the Americans, British, Dutch, and Chinese forced Japan into a war it didn't want, by colonizing Asia and monopolizing all the oil, rubber, and other products Japan needed. Japan is clearly laid out as the victim here, they would starve if they didn't fight for "what was rightfully theirs.".

    Oh but the war itself is portrayed as liberating the oppressed people from the ABCDs, there is actually a scene in the film of Japanese soldiers advancing into China, handing out rice balls to starving orphan children. What a civilized war! This propaganda absolutely enraged me, particularly when I realized this was exactly the same propaganda forced on the Japanese civilians during the war.

    When the film ended, I felt like I was an intruder, witnessing a conspiracy that everyone thought was dead. And the Japanese people who exited the theater were surprised to see a gaijin [literally "outside person," foreigner] had watched the film, some of them seemed embarrassed. One of them saw my angry scowl and asked me what I thought about the film. He talked to me about it at length, saying it was the crazy uyoku [right-wingers] that still promote these ideas, but that the mainstream of society has rejects them. But the uyoku still have influence.

    My experience of the presentations in the yuushuukan was entirely negative, even for a Japanese history student like me, although there was a single solitary moment I will never forget. In the display of military gear, there was a tarnished old clip of ammunition. It was a row of about 8 cartridges about 5 inches long, clipped together at the base, ready for insertion into a gun. But these bullets were hit by another bullet. The bullet penetrated through the middle of the first cartridge, then through the second with less power, going right finally coming to a stop at the very last cartridge. One bullet shot perfectly down the length of the clip, taking out the entire clip. I thought that was the perfect symbol for war, bullets being destroyed by a bullet.
     

    Similarly, from yet another Japan-observing gaijin:

    I've seen a couple of your commenters saying we should just let Japan mourn like any other country, and the world should not interpret Yasukuni as anything more provocative than shrines to war dead everywhere else.

    What they're missing is something that is obvious to anyone who visits the place: it is the Japanese who continue to make Yasukuni an offensive symbol. The approach to the shrine is thronged with militaristic right-wing groups and their banners and loudspeakers that glorify Japan's militaristic past. The shrine itself is beautiful and dignified, but next to it sits a well-funded war museum that's run by those right-wing groups. And that museum is as slanted as anything I've seen in a totalitarian country. The "US forced Japan into war" part is quite something -- but I actually found the stuff about the Japanese efforts to bring stability and development to Manchuria and Nanking (!) much worse.

    And, just to establish the point, from another outside observer of Japan:

    Hirohito, the Showa Emperor, on a horse in wartime.

    Japanese (right-wing) politicians often compare Yasukuni to Arlington National Cemetery, since they insist they are simply honoring Japan’s war dead, something that all nations do. I think they have a valid point. The vast majority of Japanese killed in WWII were unfortunate draftees and it is proper to honor and memorialize them, even if the war they fought in was wrong. (Iraq II and Vietnam are widely considered bad wars in the US, but no one would ever consider not honoring the soldiers who died fighting them.)

    The fact that war criminals are enshrined in Yasukuni is often cited as the reason why Japanese leaders shouldn’t visit it. I disagree with this. The Tokyo trials that convicted these “war criminals” are widely considered a joke (unlike Nuremberg) and while the people who were convicted were certainly bad, the trials were extremely arbitrary in who was targeted and many people who had been arrested were quickly given amnesty by the US when the Cold War heated up... 

    The main problem with Yasukuni as I see it is the fact that on the grounds of the shrine is a museum that offers an extremely revisionist view of WWII. The museum’s perspective would be extremely offensive to almost anyone, not just Chinese or Koreans, and does not represent the commonly held view of the war among Japanese. In this sense, the shrine is indeed a place that glorifies Japan’s actions in WWII.

    Yasukuni, therefore, is not an appropriate site for a national leader to visit. However, there is probably a catch-22, in that any Japanese leader who proposed building a memorial for war dead that could actually be compared to Arlington would at once be denounced by China and Korea (and probably the Japanese public) as promoting militarism.

    To end this on a more  constructive direction, consider this note from a well-known  pilot and writer, about one of the under-appreciated aspects of Jimmy Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942, mentioned here.

    I too for decades and decades thought that the main benefit of the Doolittle Raid was the morale boost that it gave the U. S. public, but Winston Groom's new book "The Aviators" gives a fascinating new insight into the most important fallout from that mission.

    Yes, America was thrilled to read that we'd bombed "the Japs," and yes, it did cause the Japanese high command to shuffle troop and naval units around to protect against the eventuality of future raids, but the game-changer was that the Doolittle mission unleashed an absolute torrent of semi-hysterical Japanese radio comm while it was underway, some of it in the clear and some coded, and that all of this was read by the cipher geeks in Hawaii and Washington who were soon to break the Japanese Imperial Navy code.  And because of that trove of radio messages to work with, they broke the code in time for the Battle of Midway, when as a result we knew in advance what the Imperial Fleet's movement would be.

    As I'm sure you know, the critical 10 minutes of that battle, when the unexpected SBDs sank three Japanese carriers and crippled a fourth (later to be sunk) were the end of Japanese aspirations in the Pacific.  We can thank Doolittle for that, it seems.
     

  • A New Year Starts, an Era Ends

    "So long, old friend."

    Happy New Year! And one reading tip for starting off the year is the latest issue of The Washington Monthly, which is shown at right and has a lot of great stories.

    I could go on about them in detail. For instance, a very good report, from an understandably pseudonymous author, about the "Disneyfication" of Tibet. Another very good report by Tim Murphy, which the cover appropriately bills as "Another Reason to Hate Dan Snyder," on the entirely non-football-related way in which the owner of the Redskins has earned his place as the most widely reviled person in the capital. Other great reports about the medical system, various higher-ed rackets, surprising changes in the West, and so on.

    But I mention the issue principally because of the last paragraph in one of its best-known features, the "Tilting at Windmills" column by my friend and first magazine-world employer, Charles Peters. He talks in the column about his work for Sargent Shriver in the original Peace Corps, before Charlie started the Monthly in 1969. (I began working there three years later.) Then he ends the column this way:

    Until we meet again

    As you gathered from the previous item, I’m an old guy. In fact, I just turned eighty-seven, and there’s not as much gas left in the tank as there used to be, so this is going to have to be my last regular Tilting at Windmills column.

    When I’ve written it, I’ve always felt like I was talking to an old friend who I haven’t seen for a while, and after the column is published, I always think of what I wish I’d said, or had said better, or of a funny story I forgot to mention. And then, as time goes by, I see new things in the news that fire me up, amuse me, and make me want to grab my old friend by the lapels. So you can be sure that if I’m able, I’ll be back here from time to time. But for now, so long, old friend, and thanks.

    I've written about Charlie and his journalistic influence over the years -- most recently here, on the premiere of Norman Kelley's movie about him. For now I'll just say that I hope you read his column and the rest of this issue. If you're thinking of a way to express appreciation for the mark he has made, you could consider subscribing to the magazine he started (The Washington Monthly) and others he has influenced (ahem, this one); or contributing to the foundation he established (Understanding Government). Or writing him care of the Monthly to say thanks. 

    Charlie Peters and his wife Beth, near their house in DC, earlier in their careers. Photo from Norman Kelley's The Charlie Project.

     

  • On the Character of a Community: What Local Narratives Emphasize, and Leave Out

    The role of universities, and our un-loved public efforts.

    Cover image from Faithfully and Liberally Sustained, an entire book, by local historians Larry Burgess
    and Nathan Gonzales, about the philanthropic tradition in a small Southern California town.

    Yesterday I argued that the narrative of turning points -- the big choices that built an individual, a family, a community, a nation -- plays a big part in our sense of future possibilities. If you think that you and your people are better off for the hardships you've seen, you face new hard times one way. If you think you're on the wrong side of a long, Buddenbrooks/Downton Abbey-style slide from past glory, you view them differently.

    Inside Marriage Special Report bug
    Reinvention and resilience across the nation
    Read more

    For our latest American Futures town of Redlands, California, a very important part of the local narrative was awareness of the Founding Fathers and Mothers who had set up the small-town counterparts to the National Mall or Central Park. How many small Sunbelt towns have whole histories written about their philanthropic heritage, like the one above? (Which I have with me at home, and will quote from further soon.) Or a promotional documentary like the one Redlands produced for its 125th anniversary last year, which was as earnest as anything from the Frank Capra era in drawing connections between the wisdom of our forebears and real-world choices today? 

    Two reader reactions on the larger implications of this local story. First, from a resident of Claremont, California, which is only half as far from Los Angeles as Redlands is, and is at least twice as well known:

    I think more than just "forefather foresight," generally, must be acknowledged as a reason why Redlands does not resemble most of the south-of-San Gabriel-Mountains sprawl: the presence of the University of Redlands, and the consequent effect on income, education, citizen participation, desire for amenities, willingness to spend public funds on unselfish things like preserve orange groves, or buy up hillsides, or build more high schools, etc.

    The other city in this range that uniquely does not resemble the others is Claremont. I don't think it's coincidental to this uniqueness that the Claremont Colleges are located there.

    Yes, I agree. Claremont is a "university town" in a way few other places in the West can match, because not one but eight colleges and graduate institutes are based within its small borders. These include Pomona (where I almost went to college), Scripps (where my sister did), Harvey Mudd, and on through the list. Redlands has never been university-centric in the way Claremont is, but it has always been university-influenced, by its small, liberal-arts-oriented University of Redlands.  

    Promotional photo from University of Redlands.

    There is no surprise in saying this, but the more we've traveled the more we've been reminded of the economic and cultural throw-weight of local colleges and universities. (As John Tierney has often discussed in this space, for instance about communities in Vermont and Maine.) Their short-run effect, in bringing in students to boost local demand, matters much less than the long-term changes they can work in the character of a community. That is, attracting a different kind of person to live there and change the kind of place it is. 

    That effect is obvious when we're talking about big, famous university centers -- Cambridge, the Bay Area sweep of Berkeley through Palo Alto, Pasadena with Caltech. It has made a crucial difference even in little Redlands. Half a century ago, in the 25,000-population town I remember from school days, Redlands tried to be more than just a sunbelt boom town by bolstering its still-strong orange-growing industry with a mix of higher-end industries and jobs:

    • It had the university, which because it was especially strong in music, drama, speech, and performing arts, bolstered the local cultural community;
    • It was the nicest nearby bedroom community for giant Norton Air Force Base, and many of the colonels' (etc) families who lived for a few years in Redlands had broader international experience;
    • In much the way Sioux Falls is increasingly the retail and medical center for the rest of South Dakota, Redlands, on the edge of the Mojave, was a medical center for vast desert communities. This was what drew my parents to the city when my dad finished his time as a Navy doctor; some of his patients came from 100 miles away.
    • It had a high-tech defense-contractor community, in the form of Grand Central Rocket which later became part Lockheed Propulsion. Thus some of my school teachers had come to the area as Okies during the Dust Bowl and Depression. And some were scientists, or their spouses, who had come from the East Coast or Europe to work at Grand Central.
    The History of Redlands documentary.

    These days Norton is closed and long gone; neighboring Loma Linda has an enormous Veterans' hospital and university medical system to compete with Redlands doctors (though many of those families live in Redlands); Grand Central Rocket is no more, and the Lockheed site has been the subject of a drawn out toxic-waste lawsuit; and the University has faced the challenges of other small non-famous liberal-arts colleges. 

    Now what helps the city retain its character -- and live out what it considers its local narrative -- is the software company Esri, which is our partner in this project. Even 20 years ago, few people would have imagined that a locally owned, privately held, globally dominant software company could bring thousands of engineers and designers from around the world and work in this small city, but that is what has occurred. We asked about the causes and ramifications, and will go into them soon.

    The only indication of multi-thousand-employee tech company, Esri, on the road into town.

    But the look-and-feel implications are already obvious. About a week ago my wife stepped into a Redlands coffee shop that would have fit in perfectly in Brooklyn, Berkeley, or West LA. "Those people over there are from the university," another local shop owner told her, pointing to one group of customers. "And the ones over here are from Esri."


    Now, on the policy implications, from our old friend Mike Lofgren. As a reminder, he is a long time Republican Congressional aide, and author of The Party is Over. He says this about the turning-points narrative:

    On the development, infrastructure, and the process of community growth and decay: It has something to do, as you say, with “stories we tell ourselves,” but I think in a more direct and ideological fashion than that phrase implies.

    It is remarkable that much of our present infrastructure – or perhaps it is better to describe it as the mental image of what we think a city should be – dates back well over a century. Some of it, like streetcars and interurbans, is no longer with us precisely because of business decisions that were partly ideological. But think of all that remains – urban parks like Central Park or Boston Common, the stately campuses of long-established public universities, public buildings like those surrounding the Mall in Washington, the Brooklyn Bridge, the New York subway – all were constructed long ago as collective enterprises that transcended the now-sacrosanct goal of immediate private profit.

    The free-market fundamentalist ideology that has dominated public debate for the last 35 years has attempted to obscure all of this by projecting onto the past a fantasy vision of the United States as a sort of Ayn Rand utopia before it was spoiled (depending on the point the ideologue is making) by the New Deal, the Great Society, or the 2009 Stimulus. Much of this is historical distortion owing to ignorance compounded by partisan bias, but public purpose in development goes all the way back to George Washington and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the National Road.

    We actually fought the battle over the Stimulus before, on a tragic scale: politicians in what eventually became the Confederacy were  opposed to “internal improvements,” because they intuitively understood it would hasten the end of their system of feudal slavery.

    I suspect, however, that some of this false projection is not just ignorance, but rather a mendacious attempt at dominating the present by changing our collective perception of the past, in the manner of Stalin airbrushing Trotsky from photographs.

    A particularly egregious example is Amity Schlaes’ The Forgotten Man, a cherry-picking polemic which “proves” the New Deal was a failure that prolonged the Great Depression. Quite apart from the overriding fact that the United States survived the depression with its institutions intact while many  democracies did not, it is hard to think of America as a better place if it were to lack projects like TVA or the Grand Coulee Dam, not to mention the hundreds of post offices and other public buildings such as the National Gallery, as well as jewels like Shenandoah National Park. 

    To tie this all together -- the WPA, historical architecture, local consciousness, purposeful narratives -- here is a snapshot of a watercolor on our dining-room wall by the Redlands artists Janet Edwards. It shows the WPA-built local post office, now of course up for impending sale

    The inscription inside (where I once worked as a mail sorter and letter carrier) said that the building was dedicated only a few months after FDR took office. Things moved quickly in those days. More on the power of personal, local, and national narrative soon -- in fact, next year. New Year's greetings to all. 

  • But Wait, There's More: Yasukuni, Arlington, Doolittle, and LeMay

    More on "victors' justice" and the standards by which we judge the brutality of war.

    It turns out that there is more to say on the Yasukuni Shrine/ 靖国神社 / history's-burden theme. For background see previous installments onetwo, three, and four.

    Jimmy Doolittle, via Wikipedia.

    "I knew Jimmy Doolittle. Jimmy Doolittle was a friend of mine..." A very large proportion of the reading public wrote in to question or complain about this sentence in a previous reader's message:

    Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.

    Here is a sample of the many WTF?? responses I received, this one from a Westerner who has lived and worked in both Japan and China:

    The person who wrote the above [about Doolittle] gained far more space in your column than he deserved. Curtis LeMay yes (by his own admission), Paul Tibbets [pilot of the Enola Gay, which dropped the world's first atomic bomb] maybe . . . but Doolittle?

    I should have flagged this to begin with. This reader is exactly right that the original sentence would have made sense with Curtis LeMay's name, but not so much with Jimmy Doolittle's. 

    Curtis LeMay, also Wikipedia pic.

    Sez who, about Curtis LeMay? Sez LeMay himself, along with Robert McNamara. As McNamara put it to Errol Morris in the wonderful film The Fog of War:

    I don't fault Truman for dropping the nuclear bomb. [This is McNamara speaking, but my emphasis added below.] The U.S.—Japanese War was one of the most brutal wars in all of human history ? kamikaze pilots, suicide, unbelievable. What one can criticize is that the human race prior to that time ? and today ? has not really grappled with what are, I'll call it, "the rules of war." Was there a rule then that said you shouldn't bomb, shouldn't kill, shouldn't burn to death 100,000 civilians in one night?

    LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?

    The background here is that McNamara was part of the wartime civilian planning team, and LeMay was the bomber commander, for the horrific Allied fire-bombing campaign against Tokyo and other cities in the final year of the war.  More people are thought to have been burned to death during one of these raids on Tokyo in 1945 than were killed by either of the atomic bombs, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More details here.

    Jimmy Doolittle's famous raid against Tokyo in 1942, for which he won the Medal of Honor, was of strategic and symbolic importance as the first retaliatory strike against the Japanese home islands, just four months after World War II. But it did relatively little collateral (or direct) damage and in no way marked Doolittle for opprobrium. He was an impressive and accomplished figure in many other ways, including as a pioneer in the science, technology, and practice of instrument-guided flight. Sorry not to have caught this earlier. [Update: After his famous 1942 raid on Japan, Doolittle was commander for the much more morally questionable Dresden firebombing in 1945, as here.]


    Let's dig once more into the mail bag. Another reader writes in response to the original passage about Arlington and Doolittle, above:

    First, U.S. Presidents must walk on eggshells around the memory of the Civil War. We all know who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, but Grant’s Tomb is not in Arlington. Sherman is buried in St. Louis. You won't find Forrest, or Longstreet, or Hooker, or McClellan in Arlington. Nor Robert E. Lee, whose home it was, Kit Carson isn’t there, nor his superior James Carleton who ordered the Navajo internment.

    Why Jimmy Doolittle? He is remembered chiefly for his 1942 raid on Tokyo. This was, to be sure, a largely indiscriminate attack on a civilian target. It may have been ineffectual and unfortunate. But if this is a war crime, what of Curtis LeMay, or Arthur Harris, or Capt. Yossarian? (Yossarian comes to reject the war, you may recall, after Snowden spills his guts.)  

    The odd thing is that, for this rhetorical purpose, any arguable US War Crime — preferably WW2 and ideally against Japan — would serve. The assassination of Isoroku Yamamoto  in 1943 seems far more appropriate. This was authorized in a meeting between FDR and Frank Knox, and was recognized at the time as an act whose dubious morality could only be excused as an absolute necessity of war. I am surprised that this decision has not been more widely discussed in recent years, as it is the evident precedent for our current drone policy.

    But the point [this reader] misses, or deliberately ignores, is that postwar Japan is not a nation like any other. It is, or was, raised up as a city on a hill, a nation that was sovereign but that had, now and forever, abjured war.  This may have been imposed by the victors, just as abolition (and, a hundred years later, integration) was imposed upon the South. It was an acceptable solution. Others had been envisioned: a few years earlier, William Halsey has looked across Pearl Harbor and predicted that, by the war’s end, "the Japanese language will be spoken only in hell."

    Another view of Arlington:

    You can see the Japanese perspective that we are being a little selective.

    Arlington holds 482 confederates and has a big monument build by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Let’s be clear: these people actively engaged in war against the United States, for the cause of slavery.  The number of war criminals at Yasukuni is less than 1/10 the number of Confederates in Arlington, and Yasukuni also holds many millions of regular soldiers, far more than Arlington.  Yet Presidents manage to visit Arlington to honor all the dead of all the wars without it being seen as a justifying slavery and its many horrors.

     If some African Americans made a visit to Arlington about slavery, you could see that some politicians would use visits to Arlington as a way to rile up white support.  Yet we all chose to make Arlington just about war dead.  I think this is good: it allows the fight to be over clearer symbols like the confederate flag and schools named after Klan leaders.   And, over the past few years, I think we have seen some notable successes against Southern revisionism. 

    Now, if we can stop making Yasukuni about war criminals, we can perhaps focus on issues that are much clearer, like the rape of Nanjing, the modern treatment of Koreans in Japan, and the like.

    Similarly:

    I cannot escape the feeling that atrocity is frankly a function of the State. The US and other liberal (in the proper sense, not the colloquial American sense) nations are no different. 

    Natives are still on the reservation. Blacks are still in the ghetto. Millions of families across mid Asia are mourning sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers devoured for the sin of geo proximity to "terror." Et cetera. 

    Finding an accurate analogy to Mr. Abe seems almost pointless. He is a smart, competent leader surrounded by smart, competent advisors and likely knew what China would think of his visit during a time of regional stress.

    And yet the sins of Japan are, tragically, par for the course.

    Finally, from another American living in China:

    I often wonder why comparisons are even needed for events that can be read as offensive, including Prime Minister Abe's visit to Yasukuni.

    Writers should reject the carelessness inherent in "as bad as Hitler in a KKK robe" sentiments. Hiding behind "not quite as bad as" probably rings hollow to some and not quite distancing enough for others.

    Crimes committed during war are horrific -- without comparison. Writers should name these horrors rather than rely on false comparisons that muddy truth.

    Slavery is as bad as the peculiar institution. The Holocaust is as bad as the Shoah.

    My original purpose in introducing these comparisons was simply explanatory. For the majority of Western readers who might never have heard of Yasukuni, analogies were a way to suggest what the visit meant within the Japanese domestic context, and how they might be read in other parts of Asia. For the underlying crimes, tragedies, and destruction, no comparison is possible, or needed -- as this reader says. 

  • A City's Turning Points

    The steps toward success, or failure, and why our understanding of them matters.

    Orange packing-house label from early 20th century, with then-realistic view, via Boston Public Library.

    In this month’s magazine and in some previous posts plus a Marketplace segment with Kai Ryssdal, I’ve emphasized the importance of civic “stories.” These are the shared public understandings, some closer to historical accuracy than others, that convey a community’s sense of what makes it unusual, what successes and struggles have brought it to today, and what options are best for tomorrow.

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    To call these understandings stories, or even myths, doesn’t mean that they are fictitious by either accident or design. Instead it emphasizes the importance of their narrative shape: past, present, future; cause and character leading to effect.

    At every level of human existence — individual, family, community, nation — the idea of causation and sequence matters. Every American knows examples that deal with our national ideals, myth, or American dream. Since Japan has been in the news recently, I'll mention two academic studies of its national self-concept: Carol Gluck’s Japan’s Modern Myths and the similar-sounding but quite different Japan’s Modern Myth by Roy Andrew Miller, both worth reading.

    An important aspect of any such narrative is the turning point. This is the moment of decision when things go right or wrong. To use the Eastport example: the handful of people who have stuck it out there believe that they are in the middle of such a turning point: either they will invent new businesses for the town or they will see it wither away.

    In upcoming items I’ll have more to say about the how and why of turning points for Burlington, Vermont (when battling young mayor Bernie Sanders took charge) and Sioux Falls, South Dakota (when the state decided to turn itself into a financial processing center. And for a 2013 update on some of its financial strategies, see this.) But for now let’s go back to Redlands, California, and the importance of how it understands its past.


    Chapel of the University of Redlands, founded as the
    city was getting started, in 1907.

    Like many other Sunbelt areas, this part of California grew during several nationwide migration surges: the late 1800s, when people came from the East and the Midwest for warmer climates, cheaper land, and better growing conditions (Redlands was incorporated in 1888); the teens and 1920s, when the citrus-growing industry dominated this part of inland Southern California and Redlands was connected to Los Angeles, 70 miles away, by the “Red Car” electric railroad; the Dust Bowl and Depression era; and of course the post-WWII California Dream era, when millions of people (including my parents, from Pennsylvania) came for the fresh start in the sun. 

    Pacific Electric "Red Car" map from the 1920s, pre-freeway. Redlands helpfully noted with blue arrow.

    That’s the common Sunbelt/California story. "In the 1880s cities were growing everywhere around here," Nathan Gonzales, the city's archivist, told us. "The railroads had rate wars, and land was going on the cheap." He said it was a remarkable confluence of technologies that came together to produce this Southern California boom. "Think of what had to happen at the same time: railroads all the way to the west coast, and ice-making equipment to preserve fruit for cross-country shipment, and grading and packing equipment to handle large volumes of fruit."

    The different version understood in Redlands is that it looks, feels, and acts different from a lot of other LA Basin sprawl-suburbs because:

    • It is still physically separate — the last city in the LA/San Bernardino basin before sizable mountains on the east, a usually dry river bed (“the wash”) and more mountains on the north, canyon land on the south, and a not-yet-entirely sprawl-developed buffer to the west. The map above  aerial view below give the main idea. (The red lines are not the actual city limits but for practical purposes are its extent.)
    • It remembers its founders who made long-term investments in the city’s physical and natural heritage. The easiest way to explain this is by analogy with Central Park in New York. If Central Park didn't exist, you couldn't create it now -- and all sane people give thanks to their 19th century New York forebears who had the vision to make it happen. Redlands is by comparison a tiny place, but people there have a similar view of the forebears who created: Prospect Park, a substantial undeveloped area in the middle of a residential zone; or the Redlands Bowl, set up in the 1920s as a free outdoor concert amphitheater for a town that was just getting going; or the Smiley Library, created by twin-brother Quakers from New York, Alfred and Albert Smiley; or the University chapel; or many others other aspects of the city beautiful.
    Free concert at the Redlands Bowl, where all concerts have been free since the 1920s, (and
    where my high school graduation took place), via this site.
    • Its economy was originally based on oranges, and as the groves have given way to development it has responded in two ways: by preserving as many as it can, as a public good, and by pushing the heritage in every other way.
    Downtown murals, with remember-our-history theme.

    I said that this civic story involved turning points, so what were they? In the prevailing public narrative they included both good examples to learn from, and bad ones to be avoided.

    Positive: The foresight of the 19th century founders, who provided the fledgling city with water (in a way I'll describe another day), parks, a library, schools, broad avenues, big trees. Moral: Infrastructure and "civic culture" are part of each generation's duty to uphold.

    Smiley Library, one of the earliest in the West.

     Positive: free public concert and lecture series over the past century, at the university and the Redlands Bowl. Moral: A town needs to be more than shopping malls.

    Positive: "Measure O," the first tax-raising initiative passed in California after Prop 13, in which the city voted an extra levy upon itself to buy and preserve open spaces, including parks, wildland, and -- significantly -- orange groves. It now owns some 16 groves totaling more than 200 acres through the city, including some in the visible center of town. About 2,500 acres of citrus groves remain in production locally.

    City-run orange groves, shown conveniently in orange.

    Moral: Public steps in the public interest.

    Positive: Slower-growth housing initiatives over the past generation, which spared Redlands much of the sub-prime devastation that affected many nearby cities. "We had only about 500 permits per year," the young mayor of Redlands, Pete Aguilar, told us. "That meant that the huge 2003-2008 boom in housing, which led to disasters in so many other places, didn’t happen here. We're not like these other cities that had such a large stock of new housing, which turned into the problem."  Moral: let's take the long view.

    Groves on the east side of town, solar array in the background.

    And there were some negative lessons too, which we'll go into further another time. But in summary:

    Negative: The tragedy of the railroads. A century ago, they connected Southern California; then they gave way to cars. This is a drama on a bigger scale than Redlands alone, but the city is playing its part by investing in a new rail connection to Los Angeles and the rest of the area. Moral: Bring mass transit back.

    SoCal rail plans, from here.

    Negative: The disaster of the mall. A city trying to redevelop its downtown has a huge 70s-brutalist abandoned structure right in the middle of the shopping area. Moral: Don't do this again. (Plus, it's owned by out-of-town interests.)

    Negative: the tragedy of Smiley Heights. The one "public" area of the city that was not preserved was a hillside area once owned by the Smiley brothers and now called Smiley Heights. It looked this way a century ago, and now is covered by McMansions. Moral: You have only one chance to keep scenic areas from being subdivided.

    Negative: the "doughnut hole." This is too complicated to explain but involves the anomalous growth of a huge big-box mall area, which drains money from local merchants but from which the city derives no tax revenue. Moral: You can't be simply "anti-growth" but need to think carefully about phased development. 

    And the overall moral for now: it's a big, complicated country, and the stories we tell ourselves matter more than we think. More to come.

  • Why Yasukuni Matters: The Snarls of Asian History

    The many layers of past, present, and future exposed by one minor-seeming episode.

    Million Vet March this year, via Yahoo.

    I hadn't expected to devote so much space to the ramifications of Shinzo Abe's recent visit to the Yasukuni shrine. For a catchup on previous discussion, see installments one, two, and three. But messages keep pouring in, and before turning back to American Futures and Redlands, Calif. this afternoon, here is one presumably final installment.

    Ambiguous -- like the Confederate flag. From a friend who is a professor of Chinese history:

    In terms of analogies, what’s struck me as the best one to convey the response that visits to the shrine elicits in East Asia isn’t a visit to a site located elsewhere, but rather displays of Confederate flags...

    An effort is made then, by those who use it that way, to assert that it is a complex symbol that can mean many things, including a form of local pride, and that those aspects of it should be separable from slavery and from racism. Yet there is no way for many of us in America to see it as separable from precisely those detestable things.

    From another student of Asian history, "a symbol of the modern Japanese nation-state":

    I don’t think that there is an analogue [to Yasukuni] in the United States, or perhaps even in Europe.

    Yasukuni, beyond enshrining those Japanese who fell during World War II, enshrines all of those who fell in the Emperor’s service. So all of those soldiers who died in the first Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I are there as well.

    Beyond the issue of the war criminals there, the shrine is a symbol of the modern Japanese nation-state. When the large metal, rather than typical wood, torii gate was erected, it was the largest free-standing structure in Tokyo and towered over everything else in the city. It was a profound embodiment of the nation.

    It’s also worth noting that the modern Japanese nation-state largely defined itself in terms of “not China.” The Japanese modernization project was prompted by the desire to avoid being carved up into European cantonments like China. [JF note: Yes, and this was one of the big themes of my book Looking at the Sun.] And quite early the Japanese began playing the imperial game in Korean, Taiwan, and China proper. These led to the above-mentioned conflicts.

    Thus, Yasukuni is inextricably intertwined with Japanese modernity and cannot be separated from the often-brutal colonization efforts abroad. Of course, the scale of Japanese atrocities during World War II, and the war criminals, makes things a bit different, but in a sense, the shrine is a representation of what any modern nation-state does.

    Japanese conduct in the Pacific War was indeed particularly barbaric, but the overall gist of things wasn’t that far different from their earlier imperialism, for which they were often praised by European nations (during the Russo-Japanese War, for instance). And insofar as the Japanese nation-state colonized its neighbors, and thus was antithetical to their existence as independent states, Yasukuni can never be acceptable to them as it is a symbol of their oppression. The war criminals are just an intensifier.

    I think that the modern outcry against Columbus Day in the United States might be approaching a good analogy. For many Native Americans and American Indians, Columbus stands as the progenitor of European colonization; for this reason, any celebration of him would be offensive. There cannot be a “clean” celebration of Columbus.

    On the matter of the Japanese not being repentant enough for their actions during World War II, I think it is worth contextualizing that within US actions. The US desire to see a self-sustaining Japan that could serve as bulwark against Communism led to the US overseeing the completion of the Japanese economic expansion that had been aimed at during World War II by the Japanese, often using the same personnel and experts who had been movers and shakers during the Pacific War.

    As Andrew Gordon has argued in The Modern History of Japan, it makes sense to think of a “transwar” period. The end of World War II, rather than marking a radical divergence, instead marked a continuation, albeit by different means. The retention of personnel, and the Emperor himself, by MacArthur created a sense of continuity. The end goal of the Pacific War (ie, a robust, industrialized Japanese nation-state within a quasi-autarkic economic sphere) had not been wrong, only the means that the Japanese went about achieving it. It is somewhat startling how much US policy documents, such as NSC 48-2, echo the goals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

    I think there are some parallels with this in Germany, too. But in the German case the Holocaust, card-carrying members of the Nazi Party and the SS in particular could serve as finite and concrete examples of bad acts to be repented. I don’t think the Japanese can separate their atrocities in the same way. 

    As noted above, I agree about the messy legacy of the Occupation years -- messy within Asia, messy between the U.S. and Japan, and messy most of all within Japan itself. In contrast to the situation in Germany, the wartime symbol of the state -- the Emperor -- remained in place; for this and other reasons, the contrast between pre- and post-war regimes was not as clear-cut as in Germany. Because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan's dominant imagery of the war emphasized its own status as wartime victim. And much more, about which there is a vast literature led in my view by John Dower's Embracing Defeat

    The point is: as with anything involving race in America, the layers of history, symbolism, emotion, and paradox here go very deep.

    Next, from a Westerner with experience in Asia, an argument that few outsiders really fear militarism from Japan, but they think differently about China:

    A quick note on my background.  I was an exchange student in Japan for a semester in college, spent two years in South Korea in the U.S. military, and have studied both the Japanese and Korean languages, as well as East Asian history and culture.

    My overall take is that this situation is being exacerbated on all sides, in part because it serves the interests of the leadership in each of the respective countries for various reasons.

    China’s leadership, for instance, has been quite active in trying to cultivate anti-Japanese resentment among China’s populace well before any of the present series of confrontations. [JF note: Yes, as I've noted repeatedly in my own reports from China.] Abe has clearly been interested in reversing or at least easing the restrictions imposed by the postwar constitution on Japanese military power, and I suspect that absent the current atmosphere of confrontation, he would have much less of an excuse for this or other steps... 

    One thing that stands out to me in all this, though, is that (at least as far as I’ve been able to tell) only China and South Korea have made any particular response. The lack of response from other countries that Japan conquered and occupied during World War II, who suffered as well from Japanese war crimes, is somewhat telling to me. These are predominantly Southeast Asian countries that border the South China Sea, and are involved in a dispute there with China — Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Indonesia. I suspect it may indicate that they are much more concerned about China than they are a potentially re-militarized or active Japan.

    I find myself in much the same situation. My grandfather fought on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, my great-uncle died on Iwo Jima, and my great-grandmother (as an U.S. military nurse) witnessed firsthand the results of the horrific treatment of POWs by the Imperial Japanese military — and yet, the prospect of a rearmed Japan, even one with unrepentant conservatives like Abe in power, does not worry me to the same degree that the actions of China’s leaders, particularly its military leaders, do.

    I find it difficult to believe that modern Japan, and its culture, lend itself easily to open political acceptance of the use of military force to impose its will on other nations as it did during and before World War II.* I do not see significant support for it in the popular culture and attitudes. I cannot say the same for China, at least not with the same degree of certainty. (And in fairness, I’d say the same of the U.S. as I do China — our track record isn’t exactly great even as recently as Iraq.)

    *I was going to say that the U.S. Japan alliance acts as a check here as well, but then I thought better of it — if anything, our track record indicates we would probably press a remilitarized Japan to participate more in future actions such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
     

    Victors' justice. From another reader with a Western name:

    You stress the timing issue with the Yasukuni visit. I’m not sure why you think that now is such a critical time in its relations with China. It’s not like the countries are on the cusp of some sort of reconciliation.

    The Yasukuni visit is something that should happen every year, or rather three times a year, according to Japanese custom, near New Year, in the spring, and around the summer Obon period. Yasukuni is like Arlington: it honors war dead, and U.S. presidents don’t avoid Arlington visits simply because characters like Jimmy Doolittle, a war criminal if ever there was one, is buried there.

    Abe is just asserting Japan’s right to be a normal country, with the chief executive honoring the nation’s war dead, just like any other country. Japan has been infantilized since the end of the war, but those days are over....

    I don’t think it’s clear that forcing generations unborn during the war into guilt trips is effective, however morally necessary one might think it is. Japan has a remarkably non-nationalistic, peaceful population, who on the whole are more puzzled by Chinese and Korean hissy fits than angered by them. Perhaps if China’s geriatric leaders would end the country’s hate-inducing educational curriculum, and let its children grow up in the present day, without wallowing in the past, Chinese might be as mellow as most Japanese are, and everyone would get along.

    Let me also point out a particular bias on your part. The scare quotes and the use of the word “nationalist” here: “the power of the ‘victors’ justice’ concept among some Japanese nationalists.” Do you seriously think that any post-war war crimes trial could result in real justice? And in practice in the U.S. the word “nationalistic” implies hard right-wing, even fascistic politics.

    Any time you feel tempted to use it in reference to Japan, ask yourself, “How does this compare to the U.S? Is ‘uppity’ the word I’m really looking for?” For instance, is changing the Japanese constitution to be more similar to the U.S. constitution nationalistic? For the most part, politics in Japan that are labeled right-wing or nationalistic by U.S. commentators are closer to centrist politics in the U.S. There are no real right-wing political parties represented in the Diet, while there are many Diet members from socialist and communist parties. The entire Gaussian curve of Japanese politics is considerably more left-wing than the U.S.

    I agree that Japanese politics (like those in most democratic countries) are to the left of America's. I disagree that this invalidates terms like "nationalist," as useful distinguishers within the Japanese spectrum.

    What about American war crimes? Another reader:

    The only difference between this and Presidents visiting Arlington or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is that the Japanese not only lost the war, but were occupied and had their leaders tried for war crimes rather than hide behind victory or at least not total defeat.

    You could argue that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and certainly the military command under those Presidents, would likely have faced some sort of war crimes trials had Vietnam invaded and overtaken the US. Frankly, those responsible for the dropping of nuclear weapons on Japanese civilian targets, or drone strikes against civilians in another context, should have been prosecuted as well.

    "Don't give a damn about the outside world." From a foreigner living in Japan:

    One of the main issues I see with it all is that the Japanese do as they wish and don’t give a damn about the outside world and what they think. It seems that slowly they are trying to close their doors on the outside world but yet, want the benefits of trade. Abe is nothing but a sick right wing nut and many foreigners are packing up and going “home” because of his activities and our freedom slowly being threatened. 

    I am a [North American] female married to a Japanese man and we can’t discuss Abe,Yasukuni nor Abe’s government without it turning into an argument. And he’s one of the more open-minded and enlightened, needless to say. The Japanese see themselves as the victim of the Second World War and the rest of the world allows them to get away with it. Every year American politicians attend Nagasaki and Hiroshima memorial ceremonies. The same can’t be the same for the Japanese with regards to places like Nanking, Pearl Harbor and many other places Japan destroyed during the war. They don’t send anyone anywhere to try and atone for their past behaviour. 

    The public, and government, is very well aware of how visits to Yasukuni upsets China and Korea but they don’t care. They bleat on about Japanese victims but fail to understand that THEY caused the deaths of millions in Japan and abroad. They go on and on about how Japanese has apologized but fail to understand that apologies (and money) mean nothing if the current government makes inflammatory statements about the war, ‘comfort women’ and try to white wash history but changing their textbooks.

    I am a university professor here; my current students do not have a clue what Japan did during the war. They think they were solely the victims of the Americans and have no idea why China and Korea hate them. They do not understand why Yasukuni is an issue. They do however, know that China and Korea get upset but they don’t care. My students, at a very well known university, openly bash Chinese, Koreans and anyone who dares voice an opinion about how Japan was an aggressor. They simply do not know their history. It isn’t covered on entrance tests to high schools and universities here. 

    Actually, people in Japan are grappling with their history. From another Westerner:

    Your depiction of Japan’s attempt to grapple with its past elides a great deal of necessary detail. In defending the US and UK from charges that they have also attempted to whitewash their own histories, one of your readers seemed to imply that controversies like the one surrounding the statue of Arthur Harris don’t exist in Japan. 

    In fact, nothing is farther from the truth. Japan is deeply divided over the issue of apologies and reparations for misdeeds during the Second World War. Several well known Japanese historians, including Hirofumi Hayashi, have spent their lives exhaustively documenting Japanese atrocities during the war and many Japanese politicians, such as Yohei Kono, have lobbied for greater public demonstrations of contrition and regret.

    While I agree with many commentators that Japan has not done enough to come to terms with the crimes it committed, it also seems clear to me that Japan is being held to a double standard. After all, Japan’s failure to adequately apologize for its aggressive colonial past is hardly unique. The British have certainly never delivered an adequate apology to their former subjects in the Middle East or India. In fact, in Britain, the old British Empire still evokes a great deal of pride. The French, Dutch, Spanish, and Belgians are just as guilty of colonial abuses and have failed just as badly to come to terms with them. 

    As an American, I have first hand knowledge of the fact that the United States has never quite reconciled its “Manifest Destiny” with the near genocide of the continent’s Native American inhabitants. My middle school and high school history books very effectively championed the American “frontier spirit” while largely ignoring the impact our westward march had on the native peoples already living on the so called “frontier”.

    Despite this, none of these controversies have resulted in the type of geopoltical problems like those between Japan and China. I can’t help but conclude that the current diplomatic problems have less to do with a lack of Japanese contrition and more to do with nationalist manipulation. Japan is a convenient target of Chinese hatred for a regime in need of one.

    As an illustration of the kind of within-Japan debate this reader is referring to, consider this editorial, "Abe's Yasukuni Visit Isolates Japan," by the well-known diplomat and scholar Kazuhiko Togo, whose grandfather was the wartime foreign minister. It begins:

    To those who are general supporters of Abe’s economic, political and foreign policy initiatives, including myself, his visit to Yasukuni on 26 December was a bombshell of disappointment and helplessness.

    On the other hand, from a reader in Japan:

    You, Mr. Fallows, have made a lot of enemies here.

    OK. Thanks to all for views and for reminders of the complexities of this important topic, and that is enough for now. Next up, more on the pluses and minuses of our own country. 

  • Next in our Special Series: Gas-Price Rise Means Drivers Pay More

    Good thing we have experts to explain these things to us!

    Front page headline in the WSJ today.

    Headlines are harder to write than you would think, especially for a one-column story like this. And the article itself is very interesting, so no offense to anyone at the WSJ. But I did find this delightful. 

  • Crowdsourcing the Yasukuni Question: From Tokyo to Philadelphia

    One American president, two possible analogies.

    Ronald Reagan kicks off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Photo found here.

    For those joining us late: two days ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a well-publicized visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Yasukuni is where more than two million of Japan's war dead, including a number of "Class A War Criminals" from World War II, are honored. To many people in China and South Korea, Yasukuni is a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggression and of pacifist post-war Japan's relative lack of interest its wartime record. ("Relative," compared with post-war Germany.) To some right-wing and nationalist groups within Japan, it is a symbol of national dignity and strength.

    The Yasukuni story is surprisingly tangled. For more on why Hirohito -- the wartime and post-war leader known in Japan as the Showa Emperor -- initially paid visits but stopped after war criminals were added to the list of enshrinees in 1978, you can start here or here. For the power of the "victors' justice" concept among some Japanese nationalists -- the argument that the main mistake Imperial Japan made was to lose the war -- see books like this and this, or academic articles like this and this or this. It is a deep and controversial theme.

    P.M. Shinzo Abe (center, in tailcoat) at Yasukuni this week, via CNN.

    But for practical purposes, the point right now is that visits to Yasukuni always fray tempers between Japan and (especially) China, and relations between Japan and China are already as dangerously frayed as they have been in decades.

    What's the right non-Asian analogy for the impact of such a visit at such a time? I offered a quick, flawed suggestion; readers pointed out why it was wrong. Herewith one final installment.

     Reagan in Mississippi. A reader writes in with the same suggestion that the Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates came up with at just the same time:

    Wouldn't Ronald Reagan opening his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been slain sixteen years earlier, be a closer analogy?

    Yes, it would be. That's the moment shown above.

    Reagan in Germany. Many readers also wrote in with another Reagan suggestion:

    An American president at a Germany military cemetery, 1985.

    I am not sure why you are struggling so much for an analogy.  It seems that Bitburg (where Reagan had a shameful moment) is the best analogy – a cemetery which includes World War II war criminals visited controversially by heads of state.

    Another reader offered a refinement on Bitburg:

    Not so much Reagan visiting it, but any German chancellor visiting it, and honoring the Nazi dead. No?

    Reagan’s visiting it was insensitive enough, but a different kind of insensitive.

    What about Gitmo? We get more into thought-experiment territory here. But an expat living and working in Japan writes:

    How about this: an American president visiting Gitmo on 9/11 anniversary (maybe with special section still active ... in perpetuity)... 

    To give a slightly more nuanced response to the problem of Japan and its responsibility / lack of acknowledgement for the barbaric acts committed by the imperial army, I see Yasukuni as a symptom to a very messy cultural conundrum ... to be honest, let`s get some of the other, easier problems of the world taken care of first: such as the middle east and gun control in the US.

    Luckily, no sacred cows there. 

    I guess I should not revert to sarcasm but I really do not see any way to solve this problem that reoccurs like clockwork. The above started out as a sincere attempt to further the discussion in a positive manner but I have been down this road countless times ... our voices [those of outsiders] do not count. 

    That reader went on to say that he agreed with someone I had quoted previously, who argued "Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on."

    Another reader writes to disagree specifically with the idea of "moving on" and offers a less sympathetic view:

    I'd like to provide a little push-back to your last quoted emailer:
    "Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.” ... 

    This sounds suspiciously to me like false equivalence. 

    Japan has had 70 years to "ask hard questions".  The result is that, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, Yasukuni has enshrined Class A, B, and C War Criminals (those guilty of starting the war, as well as those who committed atrocities), and members of the Japanese government regularly visit the shrine.

    Shinzo Abe, the current PM, rather than "asking hard questions" and "moving on" has actually *backtracked* by renouncing claims that Japan had done anything wrong to "comfort women," saying that Japan's Class A war criminals weren't really criminals, and questioning just how aggressive Japan's role in World War II was. Many ministers in his cabinet are just as bad, or worse. This is actively making things worse, not moving on.

    Yes, other nations have honor countrymen who are guilty of crimes. But in the case of the US and UK, two of the countries your emailer refers to (the People's Republic of China and Mao is a whole different ballgame), there are many public efforts to discuss and analyze the crimes of such people. The Arthur Harris Memorial *is* controversial [see this], for example, and has had to be under guard for periods of time. Let me know when Nathan Bedford Forrest is re-buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and when US presidents routinely visit his grave.

    The problem that your emailer fails to see is that Japan is quite happy to remember Japanese victims of World War II, but actively denies the existence of victims of Japanese forces in that war (and waffles over the role that Japanese authorities played in causing that war in the first place).

    Admittedly, this seems to be a very human trait (it's reminiscent of the Turkish government's prickliness over talk about the Armenian genocide), but just because other peoples and countries are guilty of this and have their own obstacles to overcome in facing their history does not mean that Japan is doing exceptionally poorly at the task. And the fact that Japanese inability to deal with its own recent history is aggravating tensions between it, South Korea and China (these three countries being some of the world's biggest economies and militaries) makes it worrisome for everyone.

    For the record, I also got several messages from people in Canada, Europe, and Japan saying it was pretty insensitive / offensive for any American, like me, to complain about militarism from any other source, given the modern U.S.'s record for sending troops everywhere and thinking about the consequences later. American hyper-militarism and related security-state mentality is indeed a problem, but it's a different one from what we're discussing here.  

  • Why Yasukuni Is Different From Auschwitz

    In symbolism, it's worse.

    Prison photos of Nobusuke Kishi, one-time
    Japanese prime minister and grandfather
    of current prime minister Abe, via Wikipedia.

    Last night I was so amazed/regusted by news that Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, had visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that I batted out a quick item that used the wrong analogy. In the item I said:

    For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

    As many people have written in to report, Auschwitz and Buchenwald aren't the right comparisons. Those and other former Nazi concentration camps have become memorials to the suffering and sacrifice of their victims and, as anyone familiar with Germany knows, symbols of the country's introspection through 60+ postwar years. For some other time, more on the difference between Germany's (comparatively) unflinching awareness of the history of the 1930s and 1940s, and Japan's averted gaze from that era. For now, a sample message from a reader with a Chinese name:

    The "but it's close" implies that the Yasukuni visit is not as inflammatory as a Auschwitz or Buchenwald visit by a German chancellor.

    Arguably, it is more so. Auschwitz and Buchenwald are widely understood
    to be sites dedicated to the victims of Nazi Germany; when German chancellors visit Nazi concentration camps, as they often have, they are sending a message of contrition. Yasukuni, on the other hand, is dedicated to the memory of those who fought for Imperial Japan, and a visits by Japanese politicians send the opposite message....

    The rest of your blog post is, alas, all too accurate.

    And from a reader with a non-Asian name:

    I suspect many readers are writing to protest your attempt to create an analogy to Abe's visit to the shrine of war criminals.

    A German chancellor visiting Auschwitz is not glorifying Nazi atrocities, but more likely acknowledging the historical reality in the face of increasing denial.

    Likewise, an American politician visiting a lynching site (though this has room for more ambiguity, depending on the politics of the individual and other factors).

    But this rather than just bitch about this, it raises a more interesting question as to what a really good analogy would be. There are no doubt plenty of places in the American south that are unambiguously tied to Confederate  and Jim Crow history, making a visit there a clear statement about the Civil War  or civil rights. Maybe Jefferson Davis' tomb? Perhaps in Germany a visit to someplace significant in the life of Adolph Hitler?

    The difficulty of finding a good analogy points out the relative uniqueness of the Japan enshrining an event or people that is offensive to so much of the rest of the world.

    Similarly:

    I would take issue with your comparison to "a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald" in any context. The central difference is that Auschwitz and Buchenwald are recognition of the wrongs committed by German troops, not a recognition of imagined heroism. It's difficult to imagine any German political figure visiting those places with an intention of honoring the perpetrators, which is what Mr. Abe seems to have done at Yasukuni. 

    It's difficult to construct a plausible analogy in Western Europe. Perhaps a French president visiting Napoleon's tomb before visiting Russia, but even that lacks the historic immediacy of Yasukuni. Perhaps if the Stalin museum were in Russia, rather than Georgia, there could be a comparison with Putin visiting there before going to Ukraine. 

    And, for a little twist: 

    Both of my grandparents fought against the Japanese during WWII and many of my mother’s relatives were imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese.  I used to agree that Japanese leaders should not visit Yasukuni.  

    Over time, however, I have grown to think that the rest of the world also needs to ask hard questions about itself, to give the Japanese the space to “move on.”  

    First, while Yasukuni holds war criminals alongside many regular service men and women, it is not some outlier.  Many war memorials not only include the names and graves that others regard as war criminals, but directly honor these figures.   The UK has a memorial to the man who ordered the fire-bombing of Dresden.  The Chinese still have a cult around Mao, who oversaw terrible slaughters.  In the USA, we still have high schools and monuments to Confederate generals 150 years later.  Entire cities and states are named after slave owners, more so than the early abolitionists.  (How many Washingtons and Jeffersons vs Adams and Hamiltons?)  

    Second, while the Japanese acted barbarously in the 1930s to 1945, they were also terrible victims at the end of the war, and they have been the model of peaceful world citizens for the past 70 years, even in the face of serious provocations, including from those who criticize Japan now.

    Finally, the East Asians of all people should be most sensitive to the issue of “face.”  The main East Asian nations still gripe loudly about each other’s sins and defects, but reserve special criticism about the Imperial Army.   The louder the Chinese and everyone else shout about the sins of the Imperial Army, the more that a Japanese leader has to do something to save face.  A visit to Yasukuni is less belligerent than many alternatives, like lobbing missiles or sinking boats.

    All in all we, the rest of the world, are the ones making a visit to Yasukuni about war crimes.   Perhaps if we joined the Japanese in peacefully honoring their war dead, and just make Yasukuni just about a tragic loss, we can all move on.  Better yet, we take the issue away from the neofascists and warmongers on all sides, just as East Asia heats up.

    Heating up indeed. I'm watching CCTV [China Central TV] right now, which is wall to wall about Yasukuni -- and P.M. Abe's comment that he is "sorry" he didn't make the visit earlier. Thanks to readers for the corrections. [Update: Please see additional item, with comparisons to similar gestures in U.S. history, here.] 

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