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March 17, 2011

The US & Japan; a Uniquely Troubled Relationship

The Japanese Archipelago is the central part of a longer island chain stretching from the Kamchatka peninsula in the North to the Philippines in the South. Its four largest Islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, have a combined population of 127 million people who have continued to speak their own distinct language; one which is grammatically and structurally as different from written and spoken Chinese as one could imagine, yet its dauntingly complex written form was constructed relatively recently (in the first millennium) from a host of structural elements, all based on ideographs, either borrowed or revised from their closest Asian neighbors. Much of the complexity of modern Japanese is based on the diversity of Chinese which was carried over, apparently unwittingly, thus giving modern Japanese a plethora of ways to express the same idea.

Because of its insular geography and abundant natural resources, feudal Japan managed to remain aloof from European influences throughout much of the second millennium until being literally forced open by intimidation in the form of a small flotilla of modern American naval vessels led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who had been sent from America on to establish diplomatic and trade relations.

Thus did a very homogeneous ancient country with an inward-looking feudal society come under the influence by a younger, brash nation less than a century old. Their relationship would ultimately have enormous consequences for both and has continued to be troubled by their cultural and language differences (and not a little mutual suspicion).

The first consequence for Japan was its amazingly rapid modernization. Almost simultaneously, the US preserved its its own pathway to eventual global power by resisting the threat of Balkanization implicit in its Civil War.

Despite earnest attempts at understanding by individuals on both sides, the mutual suspicion between Japan and America continued; flaring most decisively in the Nineteen Forties after Japan entered an ill-advised pact with Germany and Italy which was quickly followed by World War 2, Pearl Harbor, and war with America.

Without lingering on its multiple complex causes, the “Great Pacific War,” as it's known in Japan, forced further change in Japan’s economy and relationship with the rest of the world. Following the nuclear destruction of two cities (the cost of averting an historically bloody invasion of the home islands) the Emperor was retained as a symbol, but could no longer provide cover for a cabal of military adventurers.

The post war occupation was an extraordinary period of rapprochement that has endured since I945 despite several stresses. It was my privilege to live in Japan for four years as an Army surgeon at a military hospital about thirty miles from downtown Tokyo between August 1963 and August 1967. When I arrived, JFK was still alive and Tokyo was preparing feverishly to host the first Asian Olympics. My four year tour in Japan is logically divided into two phases: the first two were like a leisurely small town surgical practice, which gave me a chance to learn a good bit about Japanese culture and Asia in general. The last two were frantic, dominated by America's progressive involvement in Vietnam, during which the US Army Medical Corps played an important, but relatively unchronicled role. Fresh battle casualties were air-evacuated from Tan Son Nhut airport near Saigon to Yakota outside Tokyo as early as four days after wounding. The rapidity of the medical preparations made in the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is indicated by the expansion from 150 functional beds at Zama Hospital where I was stationed to 750. The total in Japan eventually reached over three thousand in four separate facilities of which the last became operational just as I departed in August 1967. The project involved "renovation" of three existing structures into hospitals with little public disclosure, either in Japan or America; a remarkable bit of military history yet to be studied or described in much detail. By the time I returned to the US for further surgical training in San Francisco, both the Summer of Love and the Viet Nam war were in full swing and the game-changing Tet offensive was only five months in the future.

It now appears that the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan will sustain enough interest to excuse a short break from drug policy issues, but I can't help observing that the crisis is as good a real-time example of denial as a characteristic human behavior.

Anxiety is also mounting: as world's economy skates on thin ice, there seems to be more interest in dismissing the importance of Japan's still-unresolved nuclear crisis than concern over the consequences of losing production from the world's third largest economy and the potential conversion of that nation into an economic cripple.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at March 17, 2011 06:19 PM