August 2, 2011 Kyoto: Cloudy and Humid
Kyoto World Peace Museum
Our first stop today was at the Kyoto World Peace Museum. Not war memorial. Peace museum. That distinction alone makes me wonder how the museum intends to present their information to the public. The group is led once again by our fearless leader, Atsushi. As we walked I had the chance to talk to Okamoto San, a university administrator. She told me that Atsushi is not only a well-respected Economic professor, but is also the founder of the Kyoto World Peace Museum. It makes me wonder even more about his carefree, unpretentious demeanor.
The permanent exhibit chronicles Japanese life during WWII, the Atomic bombings, and the aftermath including the escalation of the Cold War and the recent developments in nuclear aggression. Two aspects of the museum were particularly interesting to me. First, I was surprised that the exhibit begins with a section describing the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII, such as biological warfare and the use of Comfort Women. As I watched several groups of school children mingle through the crowd, I wondered if it was common for Japanese schoolchildren to learn about this part of their history.
The exhibit comes to an entirely different conclusion about the end of the Cold War than I am used to. It suggests that the end of aggression between the United States and the Soviet Union ultimately leaves the United States without a significant adversary, therefore allowing the United States to wage war unchecked throughout the world. I have never considered our more recent wars in that particular light, and it’s a concept that I would like to consider in more depth. The group gathers after about an hour and our intrepid guide tells us that he has a secret shortcut back to Ritsumeikan. Atsushi puts one finger to his lips, winks, and is off in a flash as we follow in his wake.
Once we reach the classroom we have a reflection meeting on our reactions to the museum. I was able to ask how much of Japan’s role as a perpetrator is taught in Japanese schools. Satoko said that perhaps 30% of museums describe Japanese cruelty and that not nearly enough is taught in schools. She mentioned that there was some controversy in the 1990’s concerning information about Comfort Women in textbooks and that such information was later removed. This led into a discussion of how each country tries to control its own history. For instance, American students are taught that the United States only acts out of benevolence and a desire to spread democracy. Yet, we have over one thousand military bases around the world. The question comes down to how do we correct these lies that we are taught? Perhaps the answer lies in museums like the one we just visited. It is an entry-point for this kind of dialogue. Vinny made the point that ultimately, after this trip we can’t claim ignorance. We can correct these lies if we chose to do something with the information we are given. We have a choice to passively let our governments continue down their current course, or we can become active advocates for change.
After lunch, we broke into our Peace Families and we had another addition to our group, a young man who asked us to call him Bamba. Our family paired up with another Peace Family and we all decide to grab a day-pass for the bus and visit a couple of temples on the other side of Kyoto. Our first stop dropped us off in front of the Kyoto bus station which distracted us from our set destination for about an hour. The station was an enormous construction of chrome and glass. It was part train station and part shopping mall and food court. At the top of this incredibly modern piece of architecture was a serene garden with bamboo trees. Panels of translucent plastic served as walls, allowing passersby a view of Kyoto.
Cecilia, who had become our de facto leader, decided it was time to move on and we made our way to the Nishi Hongwanji temple. The temple stood in sharp contrast to the construction we had just left. If the Kyoto train station was a statement of modernity and efficiency, then Nishi Honwanji was an elegant reminder of the city’s past as Japan’s religious and cultural center. We wandered barefoot across the structures smooth wooden floors and inhaled the sweet scent of cedar. We snuck photos of a Buddhist monk preparing for worship before an ornate altar.
In the courtyard stood two gingko trees, where one has been planted upside down, with wooden poles strategically placed to support the weight of its massive branches. Next to this tree is a low fountain for visitors to wash their hands and prepare for worship. It is here that our group met an English-speaking minister, who offered to give us a short introduction of the temple. Up until two years ago, Ray Fukimoto had working in a large design firm in Los Angeles. He told us that he had previously worked on the signs for Euro Disney. But, he had eventually decided that his life needed a change, so he packed up his life and moved to Japan to become a Buddhist minister.
Ray described the teachings of the Amida Buddha and I found it to be a surprisingly beautiful world view. This particular form of Buddhism had been followed by common people, so it is unique from other forms of Buddhism in that there is no meditation and no worship. Ceremonies exist so that individuals can show their gratitude for already being saved by the Buddha. Since one is already saved by the Amida Buddha, there is no atonement for sin and one is liberated to truly live life freely and realize true happiness in this lifetime. I thought this was a refreshing departure from the Christian teachings I had grown up with. With no sin, there was no atonement, and no threat of Hell forcing one to live their life consumed with repentance.
After bidding farewell to Ray, we hopped a bus to one last temple. It was already six and as we walked up the front steps a man in white politely ushered us back out, and gently closed the door in our faces. Luckily the walkway up to the temple was lined with beautiful stone statues, so there were ample photo opportunities to be had. We were soon chased out by hungry bugs and decided to grab a quick bite before Karaoke. The members of our family took us to a fast food chain. Instead of giving our order to a server, we each punched our order into a machine. After saying a quick prayer, I pressed a couple of buttons that looked safe, grabbed my ticket and took a seat. It turns out I ordered a surprisingly good fried chicken dish with rice and miso soup.
I had heard that you haven’t been to karaoke until you’ve done it in Japan. When I had been to karaoke in Europe, it was usually at a typical bar that brought out a karaoke machine one night a week. So I thought I was somewhat prepared for the night’s festivities. I could not have been more wrong. We were given two private rooms splattered with neon colors and randomly placed chandeliers. And once we stepped into these dens, the reserved and somewhat timid Asian students were transformed into Rock and Roll gods. As I expected, the love for The Beatles is universal (as it should be). Andy sang a glorious rendition of Toto’s “Africa.” Bamba and I sang a not so glorious version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that had an oddly inappropriate pop beat. And as the Kirin flowed, it mattered less and less who was actually holding the microphone. The night eventually dissolved into one big sing-a-long. But in the end, the American students brought down the house with an enthusiastic version of Guns N Roses’ “Paradise City.” With that, our reservation was over and we all piled out into the night and headed back to Seminar House.
We had another great reflection meeting at 10pm on the second floor of the dorm. We returned to our previous discussion on why there was such a strong anti-war narrative in Japan and not in the United States. Since 1945, Japan has significantly altered its behavior as a global citizen whereas the United States continues to act as a ‘world police’ and wage war unchecked. One person suggested that one reason may lie in the fact that Japan suffered a crushing defeat, became militarily limited and had a peace constitution imposed on them. This was not the case for the United States. Does this suggest that perhaps a peaceful narrative needs to be imposed on a nation in order to work? Tyler, a Baptist reverend from Toronto, posited that no culture can wage war if they feel that they are flawed. This is one of the United States’ major problems. His proposal also brought the issue back to the importance of educating people about the atrocities their country commits.