Monday, October 10, 2011

Some Thoughts About Racism in This Context (Happy Columbus Day)

One of the things that I am learning a little bit about through these letters from my grandpa during the war is his feelings toward Japanese people.  Let me say right now that my grandpa was not an outwardly racist man in actions or words when I was alive.  However... when I was in junior high I did a little exchange program with some Japanese students - they came to us for a couple of weeks one summer, then we went to them for a couple of weeks the next summer.  We studied Japanese language and culture in between and tried to be somewhat knowledgeable, at least for junior high kids.  It was a wonderful fun and broadening experience that I'm very lucky to have had.  When I came home from Japan I brought my Grandma and Grandpa some little chopstick grandparents as a souvenir.  I don't remember anymore exactly what made me realize this, but it was a little uncomfortable with my grandpa when I gave them to him.  At that point I knew it related to the war (we had gone to Pearl Harbor on our way to Japan, which gave me a tiny bit of context), but I really couldn't understand it yet, and honestly didn't try very hard (and maybe even felt a little exasperated by it - all of my new Japanese friends were so nice and so much like us - what was the problem?).  He didn't talk about the war, and I didn't ask about it.

In a letter from January 14, 1944, my grandpa wrote about one day when his ship was several miles out, and something was swimming up to them.*  They didn't know what it was for a while, so they had their guns trained on it in case it was a Japanese soldier.  (He said, a "Jap," and that they were "tricky."  You can read his words below.)  It turned out to be a water buffalo that they presumed was scared into the ocean by all the warfare on shore, and was now looking for some safe landing (which makes my disney-fied self unspeakably sad, but that's another story.)  It couldn't get on board, so there wasn't much they could do aside from not shooting it (which they didn't).  So on it went, and on they went, amid air raids and being shot at and watching planes dive bomb their fellow ships. 

I have tried to put myself in his shoes in that situation, and it's terrifying.  And it makes me understand yet another destructive element of war a little bit better.  After you have found yourself pitted against another set of people, who are actively trying to kill you, how could you ever stop seeing them as the enemy on some level?  Even if you had all kinds of context to put something like that in, and years passed and peace was realized between your countries, and their grandkids are friends with your grandkids, do those kinds of muscle memories ever really go away?  Is it maybe good sometimes that we as humans don't have a very good collective memory about a lot of things? I would imagine that for Grandpa it was a very conscious effort to be smarter than his body would have him be, if you will.  I haven't thought it all the way around yet, but I'm working on it, and I wanted to write some of it out and hear what you think as well.  

My grandpa was not a racist man, and yet this part of him has always bothered me because it didn't square in my understanding of him.  Now I know why.  I believe I've said this before and I know I'll say it again: The greatest gift of these letters and keepsakes is the chance to see my ancestors in a more human and complete way.  It was brave of Grandpa to let me and others have these things.  It touches me that the lessons I might learn from these things were worth the risk to him that I would get to see him as himself, which was not perfect.  And I am not perfect, so it makes me love him all the more.  And it makes me feel more brave about preserving my things like this for my daughter.  What a wonderful journey this is.

*Sidenote neat thing:  I found a reference to this water buffalo event in another of his shipmate's journals here:


  1. I know it's lame to comment on every post, but I love stuff like this!

    This is the value of going through old letters/photos: it is a primary source that gives an honest picture of the person/times. The conclusion that you reach in this entry is similar to what I read in "Lies My Teacher Taught Me": it isn't necessary to create folklore around the ones we love. In fact, an honest, balanced view somehow makes us love them more as we can relate to them much better. And so is the case with your grandpa - you learn more about who/what he loved and what scared him as well.

    Thanks for having the courage to post this and offer an honest appraisal. What a great blog! I really need to do something like this.

  2. Matt, it is so far from lame that you comment! It makes me incredibly happy to know that you are reading and I'm not just sending this out into the ether to gather... ether-dust? Anyway, I love the conclusion you offer: that we don't need to create folklore around the ones we love. It's the danger of someone being gone - they can be deified and become inhuman. I try so hard not to do this with my dad - he was great to me because he was my dad, but he was just a person too, thank goodness, and remembering him as perfect does him a disservice.