Filipino school children are taught and tested on the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. After the surrender of the Filipino forces in April 9, 1942, thousands of prisoners of war marched for more than a hundred kilometres to the point exhaustion, many to the point of death, in what would be eventually known as the Bataan Death March. From 1942 to 1945, Japanese soldiers were said to have starved, killed, tortured, and raped Filipino men and women. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bataan_Death_March)
When Filipino women go to Japan, there is often, more than our politically correct selves would like to admit, a reflexive negative connotation. Even my dear seventy-four year old grandmother, whenever someone asks her where I work or what I am doing, glibly says that I have become a Japayuki, the stereotypical Filipino woman who has chosen to work in the land of the rising sun, her ability to put food on the table directly proportional to her ability to initiate the rising of certain appendages. However, she is quick to inform people, lest there be a remote possibility that her audience imagines her unica hija is a flesh trader, of what it is that I actually do.
There is no shortage of negativity, no lack of bad blood, and if we insisted on dwelling on the past, then that past will consume us. The mistakes that we made once should be warnings and not models. I am in no way belittling the horror that people went through during those times. What I am saying is that those were war crimes, that war in itself is a crime, and that no nationality was exempt from blame. No one person should be judged for the actions of another.
World Without Strangers
The Japan that I discovered is radically different.
The people I spent time with the most were my students. Since many of them were about our age, it was more of a horizontal relational structure rather than the traditional vertical one. Like many Filipino university students, they were consumed by great life plans, the routine of school and the academic validation of grades, the possibles versus the probables of adolescent love, the discovery and death of friendships, and all the other things that comprise the wallpaper of growth.I suppose the most distinct difference is that Japanese students are incredibly shy, regardless of age or social status. Most people are hesitant when you first meet them, but the Japanese have a decidedly higher social activation energy. Many students also have an arubaito, or a part-time job. While this is common in many countries, most Filipino students who come from middle class families are not expected to have a part-time job. Their primary responsibility is to go to school and get good grades, end of discussion. Perhaps this is because even for the diploma-waving educated, employment is a challenge. But I think learning to balance the demands of a job and an education is an important skill, and in the long-term, Filipino students would benefit from the discipline this will develop.
The Japanese family is also quite similar to the Filipino family, in that it is more patriarchal, and that women and men have defined social responsibilities. However, essentially, parents are partners and children continue to run around in circles, as they do in any country. Once, when we were having dinner with our foster family, a documentary about orphaned, indigent Filipino children was aired on television. Though the show was mostly in Japanese, I was really surprised to discover that a Japanese national migrated to a rather dangerous area in Mindanao to establish a home for these children, and that he had been doing so for so many years. I learned that okasan, who was crying for most of the hour, regularly donated money to this foundation. This man and this mother were so concerned for children who were, for the longest time, forgotten by their own government. It made me feel good knowing people like them were real. It made me feel guilty because I know I should be doing more.
Love, Not War
There is no definite black and white in a culture. People and cultures are in constantly changing gradients, and we have to approach each one with understanding, not judgment. I have always believed that generalizations should always be taken with a grain of salt. For example, I think that the Japanese are very private, disciplined, dignified, and professional as a people. The apparent limitation of this is that social supports are also restrained. I was surprised to learn that even among friends, they don’t really talk about their love lives or dreams or other adolescent conversation mainstays, at least not with the depth that most Filipinos do. But there are a few people who, once they become comfortable enough, do open up and talk about what weighs on them. When you think about it, this is actually were most of us start from.
Because while there are cultural differences, and losses in translation do occur, at the core of it, people ought to be judged for what they do and not for what happened beyond their control. For the four months we were in Japan, we were treated with genuine kindness, respect, and love.
The founder of the Japanese university had a very simple – but not simplistic – vision for his students. He wanted them to form as many relationships, friendships, with people from other countries. The more we know people, the less we believe and propagate stereotypes. The more people you genuinely care for in another country, the more that country becomes real to you. It becomes more than a statistic, more than another entry in an oft-neglected bucket list. If these students grow up to be leaders in education, health, and government, and the idea of a world without strangers is inculcated in them, that will make a difference.