Sunday, April 26, 2015

War and memory

War and memory: reflections on a week

I teach about war and memory. I work in the area of International Security, Japanese politics and history and Australian politics and history. There is an intersection, the place where all the venn diagram circles meet and that tends to happen around Anzac Day. 

When I started my studies about Japan, I really didn't imagine I would end up doing so much work on the topics of war and memory. But it is important.
Our lecture images

Last week's lecture in my course about Japan was just about this topic. It coincided with the week when one large supermarket chain, --OK, Woolworths-- was pilloried for launching a marketing campaign which many considered crossed a line in exploiting images of Gallipoli and its marketing slogan. 

I put it next to a Gold Coast landmark covered in poppies made by local schoolchildren. The poppies were recycled and reshaped bottles. The response to the poppies was positive; the ad campaign...negative. 

When I asked students to articulate the differences, it would be fair to say that beyond the idea of 'it's just wrong' (the ad), the class found it challenging. 

Coincidentally, I saw a play today, called Brisbane, about Brisbane in 1942, perhaps the closest this city came to war. Plenty of talk about 'yanks' and 'japs' and Curtin sending prostitutes to Brisbane to save the good girls of the town. It was mightily uncomfortable in places.

The same thing arises when we talk about Japan. The soldiers who perpetrated horrendous acts of torture versus the victims of Tokyo firebombing and Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Japan as aggressor versus Japan as victim. It is a dichotomy that underpins much of contemporary Japan: those who oppose changes to the constitution to permit forces, versus the present prime minister and his supporters who would seek to re-arm Japan. 

The issue came to a bit of a head today, albeit on twitter. A sports journalist on SBS was sacked today, publicly, on twitter for making comments contrary to the Anzac story, our Anzac 'memory'. His comments referred to the bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and included a picture from the Hiroshima blast, one of a person's shadow on the stairs of a bank. 

I've been troubled by the twitter incident for a few reasons. The journalist's twitter bio indicated he had some connection with Japan. I can kind of understand where he was coming from then. Visiting Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum two decades ago, and speaking with Aust POWs since, was formative in my career as an academic and finding ways to ensure this kind of thing should never happen again. In introducing related topics to my students, I speak to them of the impact visiting this city has had on my work and career. 

It doesn't mean I ignore the atrocities that happened in the name of the Japanese state (and the Emperor). War is atrocious. I've listened to former soldiers and POWs speak of it this way. I've heard them say it should never happen again. I heed their experience. I've also spoken over the years with victims of the atomic bombings--those who lived for years with the injuries and sickness, those who nursed those who were sick, those who lost family. I've also spoken with people who survived the Tokyo bombings. These experiences have taught me much and compelled me to understand human nature, the human condition that seems to sometimes struggle with what is right and what is wrong; what is history and what is memory? It is why I read Kant and Arendt. I'm still trying to understand. 

One of the places where some serious scholarship goes on is at Japan Focus. Some years ago, they published an article on Hiroshima, especially its images by elin o'Hara slavic. I was reminded of it today when the image of the Hiroshima stairs was tweeted by the now former-SBS journalist. I saw the stairs at the museum, I recalled it being the shadow of a man sitting on the stairs, the journalist said it was schoolchildren, another report suggested it was a woman waiting for the bank to open...



I understand the journalist wanted to temper the Anzac memory with what he saw as another kind of truth about war. I was surprised at the degree of opprobrium which rained down on twitter. I was also interested in the way others rallied in support. I'm sure it will be Storified somewhere. 

I don't think he deserved to be sacked. War and its memories--real, or constructed; fact or mythology--are always contentious. But we need to talk about them. Not just as history, as I have learned. But from our elders. I'm yet to meet one who lived through a war who wants to go through it all again. 

It's probably no coincidence that both Prime Ministers Abbott and Abe are children of the post WW2 era and appear to want to lead their respective countries back down a glorified war path. We need to sort our memory from myth. Sometimes a truth is unpleasant.

This post is written as a brief response to events of the past week: poppies and ads, my lectures, Anzac Day, a play and a twitter storm. I continue to work on these issues in greater depth as part of my research and teaching and publish in peer-reviewed journals. I have a couple of book manuscripts in draft that address these questions as well. It never really goes away.