Fighting Words

Obon Jour

What a Japanese community festival tells us about America’s gift for reconciliation.

The Bon Odori dance festival in Kuala Lumpur

This time every summer I begin to suspect myself of going soft and becoming optimistic and sentimental. The mood passes, I need hardly add, but while it is upon me, it amounts to a real thing. On the first weekend of every August, in Palo Alto, Calif., the Japanese community opens the doors of its temple and school in order to invite guests and outsiders to celebrate the Obon Festival.

Ancestor-oriented celebrations are not exactly my thing, but there is a very calm and charming way in which the Japanese use this particular moment in the lunar calendar to remember those who have preceded them and to make the occasion a general fiesta. (I suppose the nearest regional equivalent would be the Mexican Day of the Dead.) The clement weather allows the wearing of the lighter yukata, or summer kimono, and the staging of the Bon Odori dance, in which all can join, to the soft rhythm of taiko drums. For the rest of the time, the yagura, or wooden scaffold, is the center of a sort of fairground, in which stalls and raffles compete for custom with the sellers of sake and Japanese beer and with an amazing teriyaki buffet.

There’s a large turnout of non-Japanese for these attractions, getting larger every year it seems to me, but it doesn’t succeed in swamping the main event or in making it into a mere tourist attraction. You come across a group of grave and serious Japanese gardeners, engaged in the judging of a bonsai competition, and you suddenly appreciate that nothing can turn this consideration into a hucksterish sideshow. (One day, perhaps, someone will write something serious about the Japanese genius for small things and for miniaturization, which extends from carvings to plants to the idea of painting on grains of rice and which seemed at one point to lead the world in the concept of the microchip.)

This tendency toward the exquisite is also to be noticed—or have I become completely absurd?—in the very young and the very old. Japanese babies look like small-scale models of grown-ups in a way that makes one want to laugh out loud, while their old people achieve a sort of fineness and slenderness in bone structure and bearing that causes one to turn the head and also to wish to bow in deference.

I suppose that I am risking these generalizations (Japanese teenagers appear to look pretty much like teenagers everywhere, especially the males, so who knows what’s going on?) because it’s only a few decades ago that Japanese people were portrayed as especially ugly and misshapen and menacing. You don’t even have to look at cartoons and caricatures of the World War II epoch—more recent stereotypes from the economic rivalry of the 1980s were also pretty rough. And the first week in August is when we commemorate, or at any rate ought to commemorate, the first use of the atomic bomb. It is in living memory that this device was used on humans and the term yellow peril used to justify its use. (Japanese skin comes in several attractive shades. Yellow is a nice enough color but is not the word one would use for any of them.)

In the United States, and especially in California, the war against Japanese imperialism was also accompanied by collective punishment of Japanese-Americans and the sequestration of their persons and property. When I first came to the Bay Area in 1970, I was introduced by Carey MacWilliams, a great historian of the state, to Lou Goldblatt of the longshoremen’s union, one of the very few public figures to have opposed the indiscriminate internment. It was a crime committed largely by liberals like Earl Warren, as many people prefer to forget, and was even supported at the time by the Communist Party. (Actually, why do I say even? Communists by then were getting pretty used to supporting mass roundups and deportations.)

Hatred and fear and bigotry were probably never more general or more strongly felt than against Japanese people in America in the period between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima/Nagasaki, and Hollywood and the comic book industry kept the feeling alive for some years afterward. Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas drew howls of laughter when he said a kind word to young Rep. Daniel Inouye, who had lost a limb fighting for America in Europe, and—thanked for taking the trouble to notice the newcomer—roared: “Ain’t no trick to it! How many one-armed Japs we got around here?”* (Actually, I think that was pretty funny.)

And my point? Well, my point is that under the azure blue skies that prevailed all of last weekend, you would not have known that any of the bitterness and misery had ever taken place. There were old people present, Japanese and non-Japanese, who had a real memory of it. And there were young people to whom, if it occurs at all, it must seem prehistoric. But there was no awkwardness; no “making nice,” no pretense of a false coexistence. All could meet under the great roof of a secular multiethnic democracy, and all did, sharing the food and the music and admiring one another’s children. And if this of all reconciliations can occur, without it even having to call itself a reconciliation, then perhaps we are not all heading for hell on a sled as fast as we sometimes think. Ernest Renan said that to form a common nation, people had to agree to remember a few things but also to forget a few things. Without undue amnesia, and without being mandated or enforced or policed, this maxim seems to have been followed naturally in this case.

Correction, Aug. 3, 2009: This piece originally and incorrectly claimed that Sen. Daniel Inouye lost an arm fighting in the Pacific. He lost the limb while fighting in Italy. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)