Friday, April 23, 2004

When They Return, Well There Isn't Much 

Geez... the Japanese, man...

The young Japanese civilians taken hostage in Iraq returned home this week, not to the warmth of a yellow-ribbon embrace but to a disapproving nation's cold stare.

Three of them, including a woman who helped street children on the streets of Baghdad, appeared on television two weeks ago as their knife-brandishing kidnappers threatened to slit their throats. A few days after their release, they landed here on Sunday, in the eye of a peculiarly Japanese storm.

"You got what you deserve!" read one hand-written sign at the airport where they landed. "You are Japan's shame," another wrote on the Web site of one of the former hostages. They had "caused trouble" for everybody. The government, not to be outdone, announced it would bill the former hostages $6,000 for air fare.

I'm forced to start agreeing with the central thesis of Sofia Coppola's magnum opus: The Japanese are different from us in ways that are weeeeired.

I don't mean to engage in a bit of the ol' Colonial Orientalism, musing on the Exotic Otherness of these weirdos, but I will admit that I really don't understand Japanese culture, and I'm speaking as someone who's seen quite a lot of Pokemon.

Beneath the surface of Japan's ultra-sophisticated cities lie the hierarchical ties that have governed this island nation for centuries and that, at moments of crises, invariably reassert themselves. The former hostages' transgression was to ignore a government advisory against traveling to Iraq. But their sin, in a vertical society that likes to think of itself as classless, was to defy what people call here "okami," or, literally, "what is higher."

They violated a government order. The government is seen as more or less the final word on these things. In my country, if you haven't violated a government edict by lunch, you're falling behind.

This is somehow General MacArthur's fault.

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