Remember Pearl Harbor How?

Neither Japanese nor Americans know quite how to commemorate the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the Japanese spend much more time worrying about it
More

It was almost three years ago, near the beginning of 1989, when I was living in Japan, that friends started to mention the "upcoming anniversary." I didn't know what they were talking about, but since I often didn't know what was happening around me in Japan, I decided to wait for enlightenment. I began to get the point when someone mentioned "the upcoming fiftieth anniversary," which he then nailed down with a date: December 8, 1991. By Japanese reckoning that is the fiftieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. As Americans will be reminded this month, the Japanese planes came in on a Sunday morning, when U.S. sailors could be expected to be hung over and sleeping in. By that time it was already Monday, December 8, in Japan.

Americans old enough to remember that day certainly remember it vividly, but there are fewer and fewer of them around. For most of the American public this month's TV documentaries and commemorative ceremonies will be very much like the other documentaries and ceremonies we periodically see. Within the past two years the news media, ever alert to anniversaries, have invited the United States to take a look at Vietnam fifteen years after the fall of Saigon, at the space program twenty years after men first walked on the moon, and at Germany fifty years after Hitler rolled into Poland. This month we'll look back at Japan—with magazine features, a speech by President George Bush at Pearl Harbor, and a commemorative postage stamp—and then we'll move on to something else.

However the United States responds to the Pearl Harbor observances, it cannot possibly meet the expectations that have been building up in Japan. Indeed, by far the most interesting part of the fiftieth anniversary is the way Japan's opinion-making class—its popular press and foreign-policy specialists—has prepared the public to cringe in dread of U.S. outbursts this month.

Not every recent Japanese article about U.S.-Japanese relations has begun with a phrase like "As the clock ticks toward the anniversary of Pearl Harbor... " But a lot of them seem to start that way. Last summer a magazine called Foresight told readers about an ominous statistical indicator. In the previous forty-nine years a total of eighty-six books about Pearl Harbor had been published in the United States, but fifteen were scheduled for publication in 1991 alone. "A bipartisan bill has been submitted to Congress to set Dec. 7 aside as a national memorial day," Foresight said. "There is no doubt that the 50-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor is the big event for both Japanese and Americans." Shukan Gendai, a very popular weekly magazine, reminded readers that Bush was going to Pearl Harbor, and said,

The United States is a most barbarous country. In Western movies, people always say, "If you have a complaint, come and fight me!" ... Anti-Japanese feelings have reached the point that Americans are saying, "Now it's time for you to pay us what you owe us! If you don't surrender, the only solution is a war."

Shukan Themis, another weekly (shukan means "weekly"), carried an article saying that "fearful White Anglo Saxon Protestants, led by President Bush, have launched a retaliation against Japan.... The WASP is a white supremacist. He cannot tolerate non-whites taking the initiative in a single area." Shukan Shincho reported on the success of a recent American book called The Coming War With Japan, which, like most books on U.S.-Japanese relations, is vastly more interesting to Japanese readers than to Americans. The magazine said that sales of the translated version of the book should reach 350,000 copies by Pearl Harbor Day.

It is a little misleading to quote at length from these magazines, collectively called shukanshi, because they occupy a peculiar niche in the Japanese press. Their look, heft, and nationwide following make them seem similar to People and Sports Illustrated, but they are known to be cavalier with the facts in a way much closer to the Weekly World News—"Latest Photos of Bigfoot" tradition. The same Shukan Shincho report on sales of The Coming War said that the book was also hugely popular in America, where in fact it has never appeared on any best-seller list. A somewhat higher toned magazine called Sapio, whose name is apparently derived from "sapience," said in all seriousness that with U.S.-Japanese tensions on the rise, a certain anti-Japanese joke was being "widely circulated" in the United States. Here is the joke, in its entirety as reported by Sapio: "Officers of the Ministry of Finance, Japan's elite, piss cold as ice. And an abacus is implanted in their brains." Forgive me if you've heard this one before.

For all their excesses, the magazines do shape public opinion, leaving the Japanese reader with the impression that Americans are waiting to run amok in December and meanwhile telling incomprehensible jokes. The Pearl Harbor mania in the weeklies seems to parallel more-respectable views. Every time I have interviewed a Japanese official in the past year, he has asked me how I thought Americans would react to the upcoming anniversary. A year ago in Tokyo a Japanese politician summoned me to his office. After we'd sipped tea for forty minutes, he said, "By the way"—the phrase that in practice means "Now let's get to the point." "What do you think about the reaction ...?" I've enjoyed looking for stories in the U.S. press about the countdown. They are almost always by correspondents in Tokyo who get the "by the way" treatment from nervous Japanese contacts every day.

he obvious question is why? Why should so many Japanese be counting the days until the anniversary, while so few Americans seem to have given it a thought?

There are a few time-honored and partly satisfactory explanations. The United States as a rule pays less attention to any given country than that country pays back. This is a source of strain in U.S. relations with Mexico, Canada, the Philippines, and many other countries, including Japan. In a way it would be more flattering to the Japanese if Americans really were telling "piss cold as ice" jokes: at least they'd be thinking about Japan. Also, Japan is famous for its edginess on the whole subject of the Second World War. Its experience with China and Korea, whose governments are always complaining about Japanese history textbooks and signs of nascent militarism in Japan, seems to have left it with the belief that old resentments can bubble up at any time.

Presented by

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.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In