Unteachable truths

This is not about baseball, but about culture and history, so if that ain’t your gig, please skip this. I won’t be offended.

Every country has a problem with history, and I thought it might be instructive to see how Japan and the United States deal with the skeletons that remain in their closets.

Governments and movements can do incredible shitty things to achieve their ends, and always attempt to put an apologist spin on whatever might seem unpalatable to others.

Because of this, historians must a) discover facts, b) evaluate their meaning, and c) make sense of them. But they must also negotiate a social and political gauntlet to argue their findings in order to spark open-ended debate and discussion and achieve wider understanding in the public.

The truth is out there, but the task of getting to it is only the start of the battle. It’s often said winners write history, and there is truth in that. The ongoing battle about studying and researching truths about racism in America, lend support to the argument that the United States lost the American Civil War, despite the South’s military surrender.

There appear to be many Americans who feel it is unacceptable to acknowledge in schools that racism either existed in the United States or that it is a bad thing. I am not that well versed in their excuses, but I gather that one argument is that it is improper to teach children that Americans did some really shitty stuff in the past.

But the value of good history is that can help us understand how and why really shitty things are part of our collective past as human beings so that we can learn from our mistakes, rather than cover them up.

So in the United States, it seems, the battle is over what can be taught, and whether we can jail or fire or abuse those who attempt to say the simple truth: that human beings can be real assholes to each other.

In Japan the same battle has been brewing for decades. Unlike the United States, where the states are empowered to legalize or prohibit everything the federal government does not see fit to regulate, all but the most mundane local policies are organized at the national level.

Local police, although organized by prefectural police departments, are in fact under the control of the National Police Agency, and so on so forth. Japan’s national educational standards even determine what school sports are mandatory or acceptable.

So, it’s no surprise then that Japans central government decides how schools must display and pay respect to Japan’s de facto national flag, and which textbooks are approved. These two points have been a huge long-running political battle over how Japan’s modern aggression in Asia and the Pacific is portrayed.

But rather than shouting down or physically threatening those with opposing views in school board meetings, Japan’s “solution” to its political powder keg is to create a demilitarized zone around it.

Japan’s ruling right-wing “Liberal Democratic Party” refuses to allow textbooks that broach uncomfortable truths such as the 1937-1938 Nanjing Massacre, but accepts the fact that teachers and schools refuse to teach any history after the 1868 overthrow of Japan’s feudal government in a coup d’etat.

I came to Japan in 1984 in the hopes of mastering Japanese and furthering my study of the country’s history, and was hoping to learn how Japan’s education system taught these difficult subjects, only to find out that they are not taught at all, ever. When asked why, my English students who taught public school said, “The school year is not long enough to get to those topics. We always run out of time.”

As far as I know, that is still the pat answer to the question and one that perfectly jibes with Japan’s cultural “hone-tatemae” paradigm where one tells a patently transparent lie in order to avoid expressing an opinion that might cause friction.

The explanation, “the school year is not long enough” has a baseball equivalent in “I was only trying to prolong the rally with (the culturally mandated) small-ball approach (when I uppercut that ball into the third deck for the game-winning home run).”

Now it makes sense, but until I heard the same lame excuse repeated a few times by different people, I wondered how incompetent the education system had to be to have never solved the dilemma of how to plan nine months of material into nine months of lessons.

Although Japan’s “solution” tends to incite less public outrage and violence, the teachers’ unions are still targeted by ultra-right-wing paramilitary groups, but that mostly consists of trucks waving imperial ensigns and blasting unfortunate onlookers with abusive noise, and is like Japanese society, a relatively peaceful conflict.

Yet, it remains an unresolved conflict, and will likely never be resolved, like Japan’s ongoing conflict with Russia. The two nations have yet to resolve territorial claims resulting from the Soviet Union’s occupation of a handful of northern islands, although they ended their state of war in 1956.

That was 11 years after the Showa emperor told the nation in an August 1945 radio address after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Japan must endure the unendurable.

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