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Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View

* 2000 COLUMNS

10 October, 2001


I am old enough to remember the anti-war movement of the 1960s and '70s, when Americans protested the country's involvement in the war in Vietnam. The movement was led by the energy and passionate commitment of young people, mostly college students, who organized rallies, marches, "sit-ins" and other public demonstrations to voice their opposition to the war.

The protesters came ominously close to where we sat stuck in the street, followed by the police, who held clear plexiglass shields in front of them and threateningly gripped wooden clubs.
I know it's a cliché to say this, and I hope I don't sound merely nostalgic. But it was an exciting time, because there was a sense that individuals could make a difference by joining together into a like-minded community and making a statement. As a kid, I saw the difference protests made - the majority of Americans finally got tired of the ongoing war and began agreeing with the students. The war ended officially for Americans in 1973, when the last US soldiers were helicoptered out of Saigon. But it really had ended several years earlier, when US public opinion forced the country's administration to begin scaling back or involvement.

I recall one day when I was a Boy Scout in northern Virginia, when my troop went on a day trip to Washington DC to visit the Smithsonian Institution museum complex, located along the grassy open mall that includes the Lincoln Memorial at one end and the US Capitol at the other, with the Washington Monument and other notable sites in between (including now the Vietnam War Memorial). After spending a day exploring the museum, the troop climbed into our vans and cars to head home. But across the street from the Smithsonian was a large group of people, and although it seemed at first like a festival or other happy gathering, we realized soon enough that this was one of those anti-war demonstrations we had all seen on the television.

The troop leader driving our van looked grim as we sat in the blocked traffic and watched as police massed a few hundred feet in front of the raggedy mob. Many of the protesters were chanting and waving their hands folded into the peace sign (even then I thought it was ironic, since the "peace" sign was actually a "V" that had previously been used to symbolize "victory in battle"). Many also held signs making it clear they didn't believe in the war in Vietnam and had no intention of going.

The protesters came ominously close to where we sat stuck in the street, followed by the police, who held clear plexiglass shields in front of them and threateningly gripped wooden clubs. I don't remember how it started, but suddenly the protesters were throwing rocks and the police responded by throwing tear gas canisters to disperse the crowds. Our troop leader yelled at us to close our windows as the traffic finally jerked into motion, but it was too late - an errant rock landed on top of our van, making us all yelp in fear. We made a hasty retreat back to the safety of the suburbs, and watched the demonstration on TV news that night.

I am not a pure pacifist - to be honest, I don't know if I am categorically opposed to war. War has always been a part of human experience, and although I prefer peace, I am not so naïve to think that the world can avoid violent battles forever. And wars have sometimes made the world a better place to live. As a 13-year-old, I agreed with the anti-war protesters of 30 years ago, but I wonder today if it was more because I didn't want to be drafted. I don't know if would have had the strength of conviction to refuse the draft as many had done, and either go to jail or be forced into exile in Canada.

That was what life was like back then if you were a young man: With a long-running war draining the country's spirit and fighting forces, a generation gap appeared between adults who initially supported the war and young people who did not. And boys like me faced the possibility of a terrible decision: Become a soldier and fight for our country in a war we didn't believe in, or risk prison or exile.

Luckily, I didn't have to struggle with such heavy questions of the heart. The military draft - the system by which young men were required to register with the government at age 17 and then conscripted into the army by lottery - was dismantled a few months before I turned 17.

As an "Army brat," I grew up amongst the symbols of US military might in Japan. When I was a child, though, I never thought why I saw many more US soldiers and sailors in Japan than Japanese military. Now I know that's because Japan is constitutionally forbidden from having any offensive armed forces.

After World War II, the Occupation Forces of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who ruled Japan as a combination of president, emperor and benevolent dictator until 1951, instituted a new constitution on the people on Japan. The document included an article that stated, in part, "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."

Instead, Japan assembled a "Self Defense Force" (SDF) since WWII that has only been allowed to prepare itself for the defense of the country. Japan has served as a staging ground for US troops, notably during the Korean War and Vietnam, but Japanese troops have not fought on foreign shores. As Japan has become a world power, though, this policy has become controversial. Japan's reluctance to join in the Gulf War a decade ago hurt her reputation with her allies. But since then, Japan has undergone a generation gap of its own, and the politicians who run the country are younger and perhaps less anchored to old ways of thinking.

The young populist Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is heading up an effort to expand Japan's role in the new world, and send SDF troops to help the US's campaign against terrorism. And younger politicians are hoping to expand the SDF's power as well, allowing Japanese troops to shoot not only in self-defense, but also to help defend Japan's allies.

There is a rising wave of nationalism in Japan that is troubling, but it is also patriotic - much like the wave of nationalism/patriotism now overtaking the US - and so far, there has not been a lot of protest. I'll follow with great interest to see if the Japanese will continue their pacifist worldview.

I know Americans will welcome Japan's help in this war against terrorism. Now that war is here, I just hope it makes the world a better place.


Copyright 1998-2002 by Gil Asakawa -- not for use without permission.
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