Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Obama in Japan: How About a Pivot Toward Peacemaking?

Hito ni au: zeitaku
- Japanese liquor ad

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
- Matthew 5:9

(William James Hall is the white tower visible in the mid-distance at the right.)

Over the summer of 1982, I studied Introductory Japanese at Harvard.

It was my great good fortune to make the acquaintance of another student there, a man from Japan who was a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, and who was working on his French over the summer.  Kazashi's special interest was William James, and so Cambridge, MA, was full of attractions for him.

Kazashi was very generous in listening to me talk about my progress with Japanese -- and he was tireless in explaining facets of Japanese culture and language to me.  And I would try to reciprocate by drawing his attention to aspects of American culture he might not be aware of.

We had many conversations over dinner at the old Student Union on those summer evenings.  I remember Kazashi pointing out an ad in a Japanese newspaper. "This is a really Japanese kind of sentiment, exactly what we would think of as a sophisticated advertisement," he said. There was a picture of the product -- a bottle of some kind of liquor, I think -- and a handful of words, Hito ni au: zeitaku. "You know this part, right?" he said. "Hito ni au - 'to meet or be together with people.' Followed by this one character -zeitaku - it means 'luxury.' So simple, but it sums up the feeling . . . "

I remember another evening when we were departing the Union, and I said, "Hey, I seem to remember there's a concert tonight -- this cellist I've heard about -- he's supposed to be quite good." So we walked down to Memorial Hall, only to encounter a line snaking up around the law school, perhaps about a quarter of a mile. Apparently some other people had also heard that Yo-yo Ma was supposed to be "quite good."

*   *   *   *   *

After that summer, Kazashi and I stayed in touch as much as we could. But I was in the U.S., and he was in Japan, and before I knew it many years had gone by without either of us hearing from the other.

It wasn't until about 2005 or so, when I was fooling around with Google one day, that I said, "Gee, I bet you could even track down someone like Kazashi with this thing!"

Kazashi and colleague on site in Iraq,
investigating depleted uranium contamination.
What I discovered was that Kazashi was now a philosphy professor -- specializing in William James, naturally -- and that he was also involved in the work of organizations in Japan and elsewhere to stop the spread of weapons made with uranium.

Soon, Kazashi was able to visit the U.S. again, and we had the opportunity to renew our friendship. He told me about his work: "When I obtained a position at a university, it turned out to be in Hiroshima," I remember Kazashi telling me. "So it was very natural that I became connected with the peace movement.  I became a peace worker."

Those words -- "I became a peace worker" -- stuck with me. What might it mean for someone to become "a peace worker"? At the time I was not involved in activism at all. Could it really be that people were called to this work the way Kazashi described? It was quite clear to me that he had devoted himself -- heart, mind, body, and soul -- to this work.

Kazashi and I have done some things together since then -- I've taken him for meetings here in the U.S. and helped with proofreading English; he's helped share information from me in Japan -- but the biggest impact of our renewed friendship has certainly been those five words: "I became a peace worker"

*   *   *   *   *

I often wonder about the words of the Sermon on the Mount -- such as "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" -- and I wonder how one could be expected to have taken them when they were first uttered. Is it possible for me to hear those words with fresh ears?

Sadao Watanabe, Sermon on the Mount

Do we need to hear those words in a somewhat more idiomatic or contextual way? Is it possible that "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" sounded to those listeners back then something like ". . . it turns out . . .  very natural . . . one becomes . . . a peace worker" ?

*   *   *   *   *

As Barack Obama meets with Japanese leaders today on the first stop of his Asia tour, and works to advance the American strategic "pivot" to Asia, I wonder if there is a way to turn from what sometimes feels like an irresistible American attraction to military power.

Will the story of the decades ahead be told in terms of the U.S. Pacific fleet and command of the seas?

Will it be all about lining up allies and facing down China?

I am thinking of Kazashi and asking, "How about a pivot toward peacemaking?"

Related posts

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of "depleted uranium" (DU) have been aerosolized and dispersed by being used in armor piercing munitions by U.S. forces in Iraq. DU emits alpha radiation and does not decay for hundreds of thousands of years, and in its aerosolized form is subject to uptake by many parts of the human body. It will be years, decades, or more, before the health consequences can be fully understood.)

(See DU: Will we ever be able to say "We're done here" ? )

We have had a window of opportunity -- nearly 70 years in which the constitution of Japan has explicitly renounced war, pointing the way for the rest of us. What have we imagined we were supposed to do?

(See Renouncing War: An Opportunity Not To Be Missed )

Sixty-seven years ago tonight, morning in Japan, a single B-29 dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima. This incredible blast destroyed most of the city and killed over 60,000 people almost immediately. Another 80,000 more died in subsequent months and years from the deadly radiation.

(See Our Dark Beacon: Prayer Vigil for Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 5, 2012)


When Kazashi invited me to attend the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima in November, 2015, it helped take my advocacy and activism to a whole new level.

(See Nov 21-23, 2015 in Hiroshima: World Nuclear Victims Forum -- I'll Be There )