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How an American changed Japanese culture

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The American military viewed Japan as "the most alien" people it had encountered in war. Understanding Japanese culture was critical to the post-war effort. Understanding that culture from the perspective of everyday Japanese citizens was not. Pixabay
By Amanda Price

Before launching into this article, I wanted to address some concerns raised by readers of last week's article, "Japan's killing culture." Having received comments ranging from "I agree to a point, but what about Korea's 'accidental catch' loophole," to "I hope you get eaten by a whale," I felt some clarification was called for.

Without a doubt, the article was hard-hitting. While I am normally not afraid to enter the boxing ring, I usually do so with my gloves on. When writing last week's article, my gloves came off.

Surprisingly, among the volume of emails that filled my inbox, the most positive ones came from Japanese readers who didn't want the slaughter of whales to be seen as part of their culture.

That was, of course, the issue, that the Japanese government had employed culture as the justification for killing whales. What other nations did, or didn't do, had no impact on that decision and, as a result, were not mentioned.

No matter our opinion on who are the worst offenders, or who should eat what, it is wrong to meddle with culture, and the consequences, as seen in the whaling debate, can have a dangerous and long-lasting impact.

But the Japanese ruling elite are by no means the first to meddle with Japanese culture, nor are they the worst.

But first, let me put my gloves back on.

When the horrific Second World War came to an end, it is no secret that Japan was left in tatters.

The possibility of defeat, and such an overwhelming and devastating defeat, did not exist in the Japanese mindset. No doubt, the thought must have occurred to those wise enough to read the signs, but to voice those concerns would have branded them traitors.

As the unthinkable happened, and the Instrument of Surrender was signed onboard the U.S.S. Missouri, a deathly silence descended on an entire nation. The Japanese, so accustomed in modern times to winning, found themselves locked into the hellish dark side of conquest.

A generation of conquered, demoralized and wounded Japanese also had no idea of who they were as a defeated nation. No precedent or past history existed to provide them with answers.

The nation of Japan was in search of an identity and an understanding of how and why this catastrophe had occurred.

In the American War Office, the victors were asking a similar question, but for different reasons.

The American military considered Japan as "the most alien people" they had ever encountered, both in war and peace time. Consequently, the military had not the vaguest understanding of Japanese culture, nor knew what to do with these "alien" people now under their jurisdiction.

During the war, an American anthropologist had been employed as a special officer to provide information on how best to deal with the people of occupied territories.

Germans and Italians, Americans somewhat understood, but the Japanese enemy left Americans completely and utterly perplexed.

The special officer previously mentioned now assisted the American military to understand Japan and its culture.

Renowned American anthropologist Ruth Benedict is credited with unraveling and explaining the Japanese culture to Western and Japanese readers. Benedict never visited Japan, did not speak Japanese and used........

© The Korea Times