From Episode I

In the context of broader history

A difficult childhood

My father, once again, was drunk from sake. Violent sounds of him thrusting my mother against the living room wall and mother trying to escape to the hallway shuddered through the house. By the time I came out of my room, mother had been struck to the floor at the end of the hallway. Her neat sewing kit was scattered all over the floor around her. Sewing needles were everywhere. She made a desperate plea, begging my father to please kill her.

Oh, no, no, no, no. This cannot be happening. Eiichi, my brother, pleaded at the top of his lungs with our father, “Stop, stop!” He was at most two-thirds the size of my father. He must have been around 8 years of age, which would have made me around 6. My brother tried with all his might to pull father away from mother but to no avail. He was simply too small. My father raged at my brother and me, “Go back in your rooms.” Horrified by what I had just seen, I ran to my room. I sobbed uncontrollably but quietly into a pillow, holding my hands over my mouth because I knew that sobbing would make my father angrier and worsen the situation for my mother. I could not bear the thought of losing her. I don’t remember what happened next. Perhaps nature blanks out one’s memory when traumatic events occur. It is highly likely that my brother was also struck and injured by my father’s violence. My brother and I never talked about it.

The next morning, I was relieved to wake up to the sounds of mother cooking in the kitchen. Still sleepy, I got up and, as usual, opened ever so quietly the distorted-surface-glass sliding door of my room, walked along the hallway and into the kitchen. In Japan, doing everything quietly, so as not to disturb others, is considered good manners. Getting along with others requires respect for others’ need for peace and quiet. Of course, my father’s drunken tirades in late evenings must have disturbed our neighbors. In densely populated Tokyo, houses are built very close together. Unlike in the United States, however, there was no social worker knocking on our door to rescue mother and us children.

Mother and I exchanged our morning greetings. The Japanese expression, “ohayō gozai masu,” is close to “top of the morning,” but it does not sound casual in Japanese at all. As inconceivable as it may seem to Westerners, hugging was not part of the greetings, not even in a family environment. Rather, a junior person would bow to the older person while greeting him or her. In turn, the older person would give a response, “ohayō,” without the honorific part, “gozai masu,” that a junior person must say. The older person’s response is sometimes accompanied by a nod but not always. This custom, by the way, was common across Japan. Proper greeting was always accompanied by a bow, never by a hug. After this brief exchange, mother and I kept quiet, so as not to wake my father. As far as we were concerned, the longer he slept the better so that we could have our peaceful moment together.

As if nothing had ever happened, mother prepared our usual breakfast of rice, miso soup, pickles, and a fresh raw egg with soy sauce (to be poured over piping-hot, steamed rice) for everyone. I wondered if the night before had just been a bad dream. But, no, it wasn’t. The yellowish bruises on mother’s face and arms reminded me that it was real. The bruises from a few days earlier were now a dark purple. My heart sank. I felt helpless. I wanted to protect her from father but didn’t know how. As I became more awake, I was overcome with grief, rage, and despair and I could do nothing. The only thing I could do was to dream that, someday, I would go to a faraway place and invite her to live with me so that she could enjoy her life in peace.

I must have been about 10 years old when the next traumatic episode that I can recall happened. My maternal grandmother was living with us for a while in one of the rooms upstairs. This arrangement might have created an economic burden on my father. I’m only speculating but he may have been wondering why his mother-in-law was with us, her youngest daughter’s family, instead of one of her two older daughters’ families, as tradition would dictate. Even if money was not an issue, it can sometimes be difficult dealing with in-laws, particularly when living in the same household. One evening, my father once again took out his frustration on my mother in a drunken rage. My mother screamed in pain and sobbed. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, stayed put in her room, just as I did in mine on the first floor. Regardless of the true cause of my father’s rage, I cannot fathom what my grandmother must have felt, hearing her youngest daughter – her baby – being brutalized by her son-in-law. This was an unforgiveable crime of violence. When drunk, my father was pure evil.

Feeling trapped, I desperately wanted to get away from that house. But I was too little to figure out how. I dreamed of a distant place, covered in glistening snow, where I could be alone, where I did not have to listen to anyone scream at another human being, where I could live in peace and quiet.

My father’s violence against my mother came frequently. When I was a teenager and a similar event took place, I crawled into bed, hid under the futon covers and blanket from head to toe, covering my ears tight with my hands, screaming in my head at my father, “Shut up! Stop beating mother!” I shocked myself. Did I really say, “Shut up?” Who said that? Only grown men were allowed to use those words and in that tone of voice in Japan. That couldn’t have been me. I didn’t know what was going on. I was confused. Emotionally drained, I exhausted myself to sleep.

Marriage to my father was hell on Earth for my mother. From her accounts, she had a happy childhood. Her family was quite wealthy. No amount of family wealth, which apparently was lost during World War II, could protect my mother from the kind of life she was to endure, however. My home environment created discord in my young mind. I knew almost instinctively that there was something terribly wrong but I didn’t know what. I was certain that I was the cause of my parents’ conflicts. The frequent violence was too much for me to bear. I grew up with an acute sense of anger toward my father and empathy for my mother. I became easily provoked in my youth. By the time I was 15, with my father’s violence against my mother continuing, I had serious and frequent thoughts of suicide. I often wished that I would not wake up again.

One day, in the midst of those suicidal thoughts, something clicked inside me. It became crystal clear what I needed to do to survive. Learning English was going to lead me to a better future. It was as if a spirit was inside me, ensuring that I would find the strength to choose life over death. Perhaps the spirit – which some might call a guardian angel – was always there, staying dormant until she needed to rescue me. My teenage soul knew that, upon reaching adulthood, it was going to be up to me to choose the kind of environment in which I would live. I expected no one to abuse me. I expected no one to brutalize me. I expected no one to make me happy, either. I would do that for myself. I expected to be free. I expected to be independent. I expected to be at peace. I knew that such goals would be nearly impossible to achieve in Japan, particularly as a female. All I had to see was how my own mother was forced to live. I eventually decided that my only choice was to get to America. I had no clue how I was going to get there. I did not even know English. I just knew that I had to get there somehow, whatever it took. This is how my journey to America, a journey to freedom and independence, began.

Growing up in such a dysfunctional family, I did not know what love was. I remember asking my mother once what it was. She said, “You will find out when you are older.” Based on this answer, I don’t think she knew how to explain what it was, either. My mother was perhaps referring to attraction between two people who fall in love. In my family, there was no expression that was equivalent to “I love you” uttered to my brother or me or, for that matter, between my parents. The absence of such expression does not, in and of itself, mean that there was no love, I suppose. My mother showed she cared for my brother and me through what she did.

To this day, I dislike evil and violent movies because they trigger memories that I do not wish to recall. Writing about it has been almost unbearable because it takes me back to some of the darkest days of my youth. I forced myself to write despite feeling sick to my stomach. Why? It is a painful truth that my family made me who I am today. I could not choose my parents. I could not choose my national origin. I could not choose my race. No baby born into this world can choose any of these elements. Most of us are here on Earth because of the natural forces of life.

Although Japan today is a democratic society, it is still very much a male-dominated culture. In most societies, there are time-honored traditions that establish what is right and wrong. This happens in many countries with long histories and traditions, including Japan. For the most part, these traditions, or rules, act as glue that holds the society together. For instance, in Japan, members of a family are expected to never bring shame to the family. This is a strong incentive for people to behave themselves. For the most part, it serves society very well. By the same token, what is clearly “wrong” from a humanitarian standpoint to anyone else in the rest of the world may actually be considered “right” within a particular culture. For example, when there are medical issues such as mental-health problems or alcohol-related conditions, tradition that associates these conditions with shame can devastate the rest of the family. This is especially true where these conditions are considered character flaws rather than medical ailments. Alcohol abuse brings misery to the family. Ultimately, it is also likely to harm society. Yet in a tradition-bound society such as Japan, discussing it publicly would be to reveal a family secret and bring shame to its members. Therefore, rather than finding solutions to serious issues with social consequences, family members suffer in silence. As a result, devastating family secrets can be perpetuated into the next generation.

As an adult, I see my deceased father not so much as the often evil and violent figure that he was back then but as a deeply troubled man. When he was sober, I remember him as a good father. Sometimes, when he scolded me, he would say, “Compared to my childhood, you have it so much easier. You have no idea how it was when I did something wrong. My father was far harsher to me than I could ever be to you.” Those words never left my consciousness. I can only imagine how violent my grandfather must have been to his son. I did not know my grandfather, which was just as well. My father never used violence against me – except once when I was an adult. I will write about that later. I see clearly that the potential to be both good and evil resides within each of us. Most of us would like to think that we are moral, just, and kind at all times. Depending upon our circumstances, however, we may not like our true colors.

Each of us has only one set of biological parents. The type of family environment in which children find themselves is not up to them. Most children grow up to be a lot like their parents or those who raise them. When the parents create a nurturing environment, most children naturally become nurturing. In violent environments, on the other hand, the propensity to grow up to be violent is greater. Until and unless children have a chance to discover otherwise, they might think that such often criminal behavior is normal, perpetuating the cycle of violence into subsequent generations. The “demons inside” that are cultivated inside a child in a violent home environment can be powerfully destructive. I have those demons inside me. For those of us who strive to be good, yet with the baggage of demons inside, anger management becomes a major part of maturing into a decent human being.

How do people become abusive, violent, and get away with it? To further understand, I had to take a look at the social environment in Japan leading up to my father’s birth in 1915 and thereafter. This meant going back in history to get a sense of where Japan had been and where it was headed. Both sets of my grandparents lived between the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s. That was one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of Japan.

In addition to understanding the social environment into which my father was born, I wanted to know more about how the relationship between the United States and Japan, my two countries, started out. Culturally and socially, Japan and the United States are as different as night and day. Yet, in researching the history, it dawned on me that when it comes to human behaviors, these two completely different cultures have a remarkable similarity. The only difference is that, in Japan, the element of race or religion was not always a factor. What we think in the United States are conflicts caused by racial or religious differences can still happen among people even in the absence of these diverse elements. For example, in both countries, aggressors took land from the indigenous people. Both had situations where people were bought and sold as slaves. History shows that this is what had happened to some of the girls in Japan. Their own parents sold them as slaves when faced with severe food shortages.


The beginning of the U.S.-Japan relationship

In 1853, only 77 years after the Declaration of Independence in America, a fleet of four huge, black ships sailed into the port of Yokosuka and on to Uraga in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. Prior to that year, for more than 200 years, Japan was closed to the outside world. A singular exception was made for Dutch traders. Even for them, however, the trading took place only at Dejima, which translates to mean a protruding island. Dejima is a man-made, fan-shaped island in Nagasaki harbor. In other words, no gai-jin (a Japanese word that literally means “outside people” or “outsiders”) was allowed into Japan proper, which was considered a sacred land reserved for Japanese. Few were allowed to have contact with foreigners or leave the country. Such restrictions were made by those who governed the country, the Tokugawa Shogunate, rather than by Japanese citizens.

News of the black ships raced through Japan. The sheer size of these military steamships was enough to make ordinary Japanese who saw them very fearful. They were afraid that a war might break out. Japanese intellectuals who were privy to intelligence through the Dutch traders were aware of the moves being made by Western nations. Ordinary Japanese, however, were unaware of the outside world. The gai-jin from those ships looked different. They were bigger than the Japanese. Their attire was different from kimono. They spoke a different language. Their mannerisms were different. Everything about them was different. They seemed so foreign to the ordinary Japanese that they might as well have been space aliens. Because they were so foreign, some Japanese called them yaban-jin, or barbarians. Racism, accompanied by derogatory name-calling, is what often happens when people feel threatened by the unknown. Ignorance and insecurity can create a deadly environment for those involved. For years prior to the arrival of the black ships, gai-jin approaching shores of Japan had been met with brutalities and even death. By the mid-1800s, many countries in the West were anxious for Japan to open its doors, at least to provide safe harbor for their shipwrecked mariners. In 1844, King William III of the Netherlands sent a letter to the bakufu, warning that if Japan were to remain closed, it would likely meet the same fate as the Qing Dynasty in China.  The king’s letter emphasized that opening its doors would be to Japan’s benefit.

Fifteen years after the arrival of the first black ships, 1868 marks a major turning point in Japan’s history. That year, Japan instituted what is known as the Meiji Restoration. After years of domestic unrest, coupled with the pressure from the West to open its doors to commerce or face potential invasion, Japan became fertile grounds for political upheaval. Fed up with what, by then, had become an inept and corrupt government, the new leaders acted in the name of restoring imperial rule, replacing the Tokugawa Shogunate, who had been the de facto rulers of the country since 1603, with the emperor. To focus the new Japan, the new government declared Shintoism as the country’s sole religion. Prior to this new law, Shintoism had co-existed peacefully with Buddhism for eons. The emperor was designated Shinto’s highest priest. At first, this provided a sharp focus to the nation which went from a tightly closed society to becoming “civilized” like Western nations. This coupling of the government with a singular religion was to become a dangerous cocktail of evil and destruction to humanity.  No one saw it coming.

The Meiji Restoration marks a period during which the entire Japanese society went through enormous changes. One such change was industrialization, which strengthened Japan’s military power. Another change was modernization. Western culture began to be incorporated into daily lives. One of the most visible changes came in fashion. In place of kimono, men began to wear military suits; and women, long dresses that were popular at that time in Western countries. To put the timing of the Meiji Restoration into perspective, 1868 was just three years after the end of the Civil War in the United States. This is the period during which my great-grandparents lived. Imagine your familiar world being thrown into tumult. Exciting for some, it had to have been very difficult for most.

Until I began writing this book, I never connected the dots among some key events in Japan’s past or their effects on my family. I needed to understand the history of Japan much more in depth. I needed to understand why my father was the way he was and if there were any historical or cultural influences that might explain his development. Although troubled individuals can exist in any society at any time, I wanted to know if the environment into which he was born was a fertile ground for a child to grow up to be violent.

Three years into the Meiji Restoration, in 1871, the Imperial Japanese Army came into existence. For 44 years before my father was born, Japan was going through enormous changes from a feudal society that was almost completely isolated from the rest of the world to one that was determined to catch up to and surpass the West. My father was born in 1915. During his growing years, the Imperial Japanese Army was becoming an evil force. By the time he was 22, the army was committing crimes against humanity in Southeast Asia. One was the 1937 Nanking massacre in China. A nation led by military leaders with evil intent could not have been an easy place for any child to grow up. It must have affected his entire growing years into maturity. In 1945, when my father was 30 years old, World War II ended. The Imperial Japanese Army was finally humbled to its knees.

My father had to know that alcohol caused him to become violent. Yet, to my knowledge, he never attempted to stop drinking. It is bad for the family members when someone is alcoholic. The anguish it caused the rest of us was worse than he could have ever imagined. To this day, I consider anyone who drinks excessively (or does any sort of drugs) and allows himself or herself to cause violence to others to be a criminal.

For better or worse, my father’s behavior shaped my character. As an adult, I can see that my father’s deep-rooted anger must have had a lot to do with his own upbringing. From what little I know, it has been clear that there was no love between his parents. As a consequence, he grew up not knowing love at all. He grew up in an environment without the sustenance needed to lead a normal life as an adult. I do not condone my father’s violence. Yet I feel a deep sympathy for the terrible childhood he must have had. He was an intelligent man. He held a well-paying job at a very large company most of his adult life. He displayed a sense of normalcy to the outside world. Yet, on the inside, he was a tormented soul filled with unresolved issues and rage. Behind closed doors, he became a monster when under the influence of alcohol. He became a tyrant out of control. And he drank just about every night. Since he was the sole breadwinner, no one was going to stop his behavior.

Until recently, almost all marriages in Japan were arranged. Even after the end of World War II, marrying someone for love was rare. Marrying someone due to social obligations was much more common. Even l was expected to go through an arranged marriage in the early 1970s. So it is not surprising that my paternal grandparents’ as well as my parents’ marriages, too, were arranged. Although not confirmed, it should be safe to assume that the same was true for my maternal grandparents.

During the 23 years that I had lived at home with my parents, I don’t remember them ever celebrating their wedding anniversary. I don’t even know the anniversary date; nor does my brother. All I know is that my mother was 19 when they got married. She turned 19 in August of 1944. I deduce that they were married sometime in late 1944 or in early 1945 – likely before they knew the war was about to end. I do remember my mother telling me that she got married in her pair of monpe, which is what most people wore during the war when everything was in short supply. In other words, there was no bright wedding kimono or white wedding gown. I have never seen a wedding picture, either. Theirs was a semi-arranged marriage in that, according to my mother, my father had spotted her and liked her a lot. He asked through a family he knew for their help in arranging to meet her formally. With my father’s good looks, mature age of 29, and a well-paying job at a respectable company, I imagine that this must have been a very flattering and exciting occasion for my mother. I don’t know how my mother kept her sanity for 48 years with my father. When my father was not under the influence of alcohol, they agreed with each other about one thing: the positive impact the Allied Powers, led by the United States of America, had on Japan after the end of World War II.

Into this post-World War II environment of 1947, my only brother Eiichi Tanikawa was born. Then in 1949, I was born as a second child, an only daughter, into the Tanikawa family in Tokyo, Japan. I inherited my parents’ sense of gratitude for America, which has stayed with me all my life. Peace is the absence of hostilities. On a macro scale, it is the absence of war. On a micro scale, it is a state of mind. In either case, peace is a condition created by humans.


The shame of a soldier

During World War II, my father was of the age to be in the Japanese military. In Japan, every young man was expected to serve the country in the war. Sacrificing their own lives would bring honor to their families. I’m not sure how mothers of the soldiers could have agreed with that but they had no choice. The flip side is that if, for whatever reason, you could not serve the country in the military, it would bring shame to your family. That’s what happened to my father.

One day, all my father’s friends and family members gathered for his imminent departure for the war. When he was ready to leave, everyone went outside the house to see him off cheering, “banzai, banzai.” The literal translation is “10,000 years, 10,000 years.” A more appropriate interpretation would be “long live the Emperor; long live the Emperor.” The next day, however, after a thorough medical examination, the military rejected him. I never learned of the specific reason for his rejection. He then had to make a shameful return trip home. My father must have lived with the shame of being unable to serve his country for quite some time until after the war was over. Knowing how harsh Japanese society – in this case, including those who sent him off with cheers of “banzai” – can be to those who do not meet their expectations, he must have lived through hell. I cannot begin to fathom what life must have been like for him knowing that he was not only unable to fight for his country but had to worry about his medical condition and the shame that he had brought to his family. The moral of the story is that shame under one circumstance can be a blessing in disguise under another. I’m glad that my father had nothing to do with directly causing grief and sorrow to the Americans. I speculate that it must have been around this time that alcohol became his escape. This must have created a trap during that difficult wartime environment for him and for his own family, which was yet to be formed.

There are theories as to who knew what and when on both sides of the Pacific Ocean regarding Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. On the Japanese side, it is said that some of those who held key positions, including military leaders, such as Harvard-educated Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto who planned and led the attack, knew that attacking the United States would be a big mistake because it was highly likely to be the beginning of the demise of Japan as a nation. The total American casualties as a result of the surprise attacks were nearly 3,700 people. I’m not sure how old I was when I first became aware of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech to Congress on December 8, 1941. However old I might have been when I first heard about it, I have lived with a sense of shame and wrongdoing ever since. I have also grown up with a similar feeling of wrongdoing and guilt about Japanese atrocities in China and the rest of Southeast Asia. Perhaps such a sense of guilt came from the history classes taught in schools in post-WWII Japan. It does not matter that I was not even conceived when Pearl Harbor was attacked. The fact is, I was born into a Japanese family and, therefore, felt guilty by association. I have and will continue to bear these burdens of history until the day I die. In particular, because I reside in the United States, each December 7th is a painful day for me.  Naturally, the United States retaliated for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese casualties from conventional attacks between December 1941 and August 1945 are said to be in the millions. I remember my parents talking about that period. First, it was about the Great Tokyo Air Raid by U.S. B-29 bombers, which took place March 9-10, 1945.

Areas of Tokyo that housed manufacturing plants for war weapons were leveled. During the raid, it is estimated that 100,000 civilians burned to death. My parents said that the sounds of low-flying B-29 bombers were some of the scariest experiences of their lives. Sixty-six years and one day later, after the March 11, 2011, magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan, many compared the devastation in the Sendai region to the Great Tokyo Air Raid. Then, on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs killed instantly or within the first four months as many as 250,000 people. The horror of these events, particularly the nuclear attacks, was taught in school. As a student, I read several books on the subject. The descriptions of the casualties were gruesome, to put it mildly. One horrifying picture that stuck in my young mind was that of a person who had instantly melted from the intense heat. His remains became an imprint, like a shadow, on the steps of a bank. During the 1950s, I remember my parents making sure that I had my umbrella with me at all times so as not to ever get wet from the rain. The reason for their concern was because of the radiation being brought down with the rain from atomic-weapons testing at Bikini Island in the Pacific. In fact, because everyone in Japan was so accustomed to using an umbrella every time it rained, it struck me as odd when people in other countries never seemed to bother using one when it rained. What is not discussed often is the effect of radiation which causes, among other symptoms, cancer and deformities in unborn children. As a result of the two atomic bombs, those who were of marrying age had to forgo such basic human desires and needs because those who were not affected by the bombs shunned them. In environments where love and compassion are foreign concepts, war and its aftermath bring out the worst in people.

Amazingly, most victims of the atomic bombs and their families are not angry at the Americans. It may be that, with all of the atrocities Japan had inflicted upon other nations, they felt it was karma – even if they were not responsible for the Japanese military actions. Or it may have been a desire to have the war end because they were weary of living conditions. Or they might have recognized what Japan’s military had done to Pearl Harbor and the consequent, horrifying reality of the potential annihilation of the Japanese race due to the possibility of more nuclear attacks – unless Japan surrendered immediately. Even if such reality of the war was not clear to the general public, it was made abundantly clear to the emperor, known in the West as Emperor Hirohito.

Japan surrendered unconditionally within days after the atomic bombs were dropped and World War II ended for Japan in August 1945. That same year, only four years before I was born, the Japanese people were made aware, for the first time, that their emperor was not divine but a human being, just like everyone else. This revelation was as shocking to the ordinary Japanese as when Copernicus pointed out that the Earth was round and that it was not the center of the universe. The recorded announcement of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender was aired over the radio on August 15. The Japanese consider this to be the surrender date, although the official document signing took place on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

This was the first time the Japanese people had ever heard the voice of the emperor. As you can imagine, this announcement was a monumental event in the modern history of Japan. In the past, no one was allowed to make eye contact with the emperor. When his presence was imminent, commoners were expected to kneel and bow with their heads down, even on dirt streets. In that same tradition and form, everyone listened intently to the words of the emperor while kneeling and bowing toward the loud speakers. A picture of that image in Japan is in stark contrast with the joyous picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York City’s Times Square. Both pictures were taken on the same day and for the same occasion, marking the end of World War II. Yet they tell stories that are worlds apart.

After the surrender, the Japanese public became privy to a picture of the emperor alongside General Douglas MacArthur. General MacArthur was about a foot taller than the emperor. In the minds of the Japanese public, the surrender made General MacArthur someone who was positioned above the emperor. This translated to General MacArthur being more powerful than the Japanese divinity.

Contrary to what I learned years later about how he was perceived politically in the United States, General MacArthur was revered by the Japanese people not only because of his position relative to the emperor but because of what he did to ensure the safety of the Japanese public. You see, the Japanese people were used to the hardship and brutality of war and the atrocities inflicted upon other countries by their own military. They were being told to expect the same if Japan were to be occupied. In fact, as the day of surrender approached, many still in the battlefield chose to commit suicide and die in honor rather than subjecting themselves to the brutality that they were being told to expect. In some communities, women and children were sent into hiding to protect them from the approaching occupiers. After the unconditional surrender, such brutality did not happen.

It is said that General MacArthur issued an edict that any soldier of the Allied Powers found to be brutalizing the Japanese would be swiftly and severely punished. According to my parents, after the end of World War II, they never heard of any American soldier under the leadership of General MacArthur ever committing atrocities against the Japanese.

The general was held in the highest regard in Japan as the person, representing America, who brought not only food for survival but peace, democracy, and a foundation for prosperity. Thus began my parents’ sense of gratitude toward the United States of America.

The significance of this history for me is that my father and his generation must have endured a very difficult environment as they came into this world, with World War II following on the heels of the social upheaval that started with the Meiji Restoration. I cannot grasp what it must have been like growing up in an era when Japan was causing intentional misery to humanity. Those intent on using religion to take over the world are likely to cause severe and long-lasting pain and suffering to humanity. Shintoism was a peaceful religion for thousands of years in Japan – until it was essentially hijacked by new leaders who decided to use it to advance their territorial ambitions. It is my contention that religions are not evil but it is those who manipulate them for sinister intentions that are evil. Those who manipulated the masses in Japan did so under the guise of aikoku-shugi, which literally translates to mean love of the country. Therefore, the term aikoku-shugi, or nationalism, has nothing but a negative connotation in Japan since the end of the war.

Today, with the backdrop of the war and its aftermath, the Japanese constitution is committed to the separation of religion and state. Shintoism once again co-exists harmoniously with Buddhism and other religions. Buddhism, which began in India, is a moral philosophy, an ethical way of life. Its focus is on the self. The literal translation of Shinto is the way of the divinity. When someone dies in Japan, funeral services are handled by a Buddhist priest. Happy occasions, such as weddings or celebrations of births, on the other hand, are often handled by a Shinto priest. Most people in Japan accept both religions simultaneously. That’s how intertwined these religions are in the Japanese way of life, yet most Japanese do not consider themselves religious in a sense that devout Catholics, for instance, consider themselves to be.

Today, although Buddhism and Shintoism dominate, people are free to choose their own religion. Because I was fascinated by Western culture, I was also very interested in Christianity. So, when missionaries from an American Christian church came, I willingly joined it. I was baptized there. I was about 15. The missionaries, whose job was to convert as many people as possible, were wonderful. To my dismay, however, I later learned from its members’ whispers that this church was actually racist and used the Bible to justify its viewpoint. Upon learning this, I wondered why they bothered to come to Japan to “save” the Japanese. What was the point of spreading the gospel if one of its core beliefs was that white people were superior? Did they think that non-whites were inferior and stupid? That showed me that interpretation of the Bible and other holy books is people-dependent. In other words, people interpret the scriptures based on their own, often narrow and prejudiced views of the world and their needs. Based on this experience, I decided that I did not wish to belong to any organized religious group. I mean no disrespect by this remark, however. Nor does it make me an atheist. Some religions have lasted for thousands of years. Most religions teach their members moral codes, or standards of behavior. In fact, many of those for whom I have the highest regard have a strong religious background.

In contrast to the multi-racial society that is the United States, for the most part, targets of discrimination in Japan look just like the rest of the Japanese.  When I was growing up in Japan, I remember hearing derogatory comments being made about the Ainu, Buraku-min, and those of Korean descent. Due to some level of assimilation, they speak the same language and behave just like anyone else. Race or color of skin had little to do with the discrimination. Rather, it had everything to do with historical shame that the rest of society had perpetuated against certain groups of people. It was almost like bullying on a national scale.

By birth, I was not part of a class of people discriminated against in Japan. I was brought up being told never to associate with “those people” so as not to bring shame to our family. I did not know to question what I was being told. If everyone else that surrounds me says, “Those people need to be discriminated against,” and if there are no strong protests by the targets of discrimination or any legal consequences, how would I have been able to see how wrong it was? While Japan is widely thought to be a homogeneous country where everyone lives in harmony, it is a myth. A deep-rooted sense of discrimination against certain groups of people still exists. Most Japanese people live their lives either fully committed to avoiding contacts with “those people” or keeping their eyes closed to discrimination. Had I not left Japan, enabling me to see the world from a completely different perspective, my attitude would likely have fallen into one of these two categories as well, never questioning the moral injustice of discrimination. This is disturbing.