Friday, October 26, 2007

History, in reverse

History in Japan and the United States is taught in the same order - from the beginning to the present day. Obviously, "the beginning" is different in each of the two places. For the U.S., the beginning is found in Jamestown, VA or Plymouth, MA. We must stretch to imagine that for some of us, there was actually another beginning in Nova Scotia (the early viking explorers) or in the Bahamas (Columbus' first landing). It takes an even further stretch to also recognize that the Bering Sea is yet another beginning. However, for most "U.S. History" classes, it started when the white guys got here.

For Japan, the origins are seemingly clear - all desendants of Amaterasu? Well, perhaps this is no longer acceptable. Finding Japanese roots is much harder. As author and philosopher Jared Diamond said, "Just who are the Japanese? Where did they come from and when? The answers are difficult to come by, though not impossible ― the real problem is that the Japanese themselves may not want to know."[1] Despite this, as someone one once pointed out to me, history seems to be taught through a progression of eras, culminating with the Edo period, followed by the Meiji "Restoration," and then the war post-war era. Like American history, it is taught from a beginning, and time runs out before more recent history can be considered.

I have heard it said that Koreans and Chinese, instead, teach their history "in reverse." They start with the the war (and how bad Japan was), then progress backwards, leaving the question of origin open ended in some early mist of the past.

Is this why, then, that Japan and its neighbors have such a hard time reconciling their histories? Perhaps it is true. However, another vein within these descriptions is the reality that no one likes to talk about their own skeletons, and everyone always talks about others skeletons.

How do we get out of this rut? How can the forward-looking Japanese look over their shoulders a bit more, and how can over-the-shoulder-gazing Koreans and Chinese look a bit more towards the horizon? And more importantly, how can Americans look more at any history - be it their own or someone else's? History matters, but what matters more is an understanding that there is not one history, but many histories. Understanding how others view their own history is important to being able to deal with them. Likewise, understanding that history and the truth are not the same is also important. Keeping these things in mind, the importance of history remains the same.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Capital Hill Education

Today I visited two elementary schools on Capital Hill. As part of a wider project, another Rotarian and I delivered dictionaries to each third grade student at the two schools.

The first school was simply depressing. No one was excited to see us, and few people really seemed to know what was going on. We had a hard time finding who to speak to. While the buildings are old, they were clean and freshly painted. However, it was still a tired, depressing place. Old tattered textbooks were stacked in the halls. It was unclear if any student would use them, or if there were enough of them. (DC Public Schools have a terrible history of having textbooks available when classes start.)

We had each of the students come up to get their dictionary. While most mumbled thanks, they seemed about as excited as if we were handing out pencils before a No Child Left Behind mandated test. Sadly, it was obvious that these children were likely to be left behind - by a number of factors.

At the second school, we went to the classroom to deliver our dictionaries. The second teacher was much more engaged, and excited that we were there. She got it - she knew we were there to ultimately play a part in the success of these children, however small providing a dictionary may be. However, there was something about her - some spark that gave the room an energy that is hard to describe - that made me smile. She cared. And the children knew it. Perhaps the only shame is that this petite gray haired teacher had obviously been around the block a few times, and seemed to me that she had considered quitting at many points along the way. However, she was there, doing her best to lead these young children, and despite the many difficulties that face these children, was still trying.

The problems in DC's schools are notorious, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity simply to enter the schools and read the air myself. I felt despair and exhaustion, but I also sensed a spark of hope. Now, the question is, how can we keep that ember alive, foster it, and allow it to spread like wildfire? What, besides providing dictionaries, can we do to help these children who live in the shadow of the Capital Dome of the most powerful country in the world?

Monday, October 22, 2007

A New Perspective

After a self imposed hiatus, I am back - this time from Washington, DC. In August, I moved to Annapolis, Maryland, just an hour outside of the Capital (and thankfully, outside of the Beltway too).

From November, I'll be working in DC as a staff reporter for a Japanese newspaper. I look forward to following the presidential elections, US-Japan relations, and other topics of interest. It should be a great deal of fun, and offers a very different perspective from the last year in Tokyo. It will be fascinating to see and analyze events from this side of the Pacific.

As for life here in the State Capital - it has been magnificent since my arrival at the beginning of August - Crab Cakes, sail boats, and cooler temperatures are all to be appreciated. No, I don't see too many Midshipmen from the Academy. The superintendent has cracked down on sports and off-campus activity, requiring these federally funded students to study. "We're at war."

You'd never know it walking down "Ego Alley" near city dock, where you regularly see very expensive yachts tied to the dock from around the east coast. Weekenders from DC and Baltimore keep the restaurants busy, and all-in-all, it is a world away from reality. I nice place to come home at night to rest.

Annapolis, Maryland