Japanese and Nelson Mandela
I woke up on Saturday, December 7, 2013 to hear the news of Nelson Mandela’s death in South Africa at the age of 95. I heard it on the American Armed Forces Far East Network radio station in Tokyo, and soon after I began reading about it in the morning Japan Times English language newspaper. He had been ailing for many months, so the news was not unexpected. Lucky for him he died quietly at home, and he was buried on December 15th according to his wishes in the small village where he grew up. A court order settled family squabbling last summer by exhuming and re-interring three of his deceased children to prepare for Mandela’s own funeral wishes.
After my shower I saw that my wife was awake and watching television. I asked her,
“Did you hear about Nelson Mandela?”
“I don’t know who that is.”
And she didn’t, either. I mean she was sincere when she said she didn’t know one of the most famous names in the modern world. Mandela was famous not just after his release from prison in 1990. He was famous while still a resident of Robben Island and other prisons. Photographs of him with his Winnie walking to freedom are among the most iconic of modern history. In the rest of the world, in the West he was sooooooooooo famous! But that’s just the point right there. He was famous in the rest of the world. But this is Japan. He wasn’t famous here except among the pointedly aware, among which I never count my wife. She does not read books, newspapers or magazines. She does not watch the television news, only the weather and Japanese variety shows. It’s pathetic. Why did I ever marry her?
When the Americans invaded Iraq in March 1993 the situation was the same. Even though there was a six-month build-up to that war that got endless international publicity Junko was still completely ignorant of it when it happened. Seriously. I think that kind of ignorance is almost a pathology, a mental illness. But this is Japan.
Westerners are making a mistake to think of some ideas, images, people, information, etc. are universal. In the West, for example, Adolf Hitler is the very symbol of living evil. It’s difficult for teachers or academics to teach about Hitler as just an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances because the Evil Narrative is so established. But in Asia Hitler does occupy such space in the cultures. Here Japanese think of North Koreans like Kim Il Sung, or Kim Jong-il, or the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong as the ultimate picture of evil. In many places in Asia Hitler and Nazis are quite fashionable.
Similarly, my wife doesn’t know who the Pope is or any world leaders except for the current American President, Japanese Prime Minister, and British Queen. She knows very few people from history. Galileo, Michelangelo, Nostrodamus, William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein and Stephen King, The Beatles, JFK and Abraham Lincoln, okay. Napoleon maybe. But she certainly has at most only the vaguest idea of when and where these people lived and what they did. Others, like Charles Darwin? Vladimir Lenin? The Red Baron? Jefferson Davis? Max Planck? Niels Bohr? Charlemagne? Bertrand Russell? Leo Tolstoy? Mark Twain? King David? Mark Antony? Jim Morrison? No way.
Of course maybe I am too strict. I recognize that I have a very broad idea of what constitutes public knowledge. And in fact most average Canadians and Americans don’t know very much, either. How many Canadians and Americans can name the current Japanese Prime Minister? People know about the things that concern them in their daily lives: the price of gas, the minimum wage, today’s weather, the cost of medicine. I admit that Jim Morrison and Max Planck don’t figure into most people’s lives, and they don’t need to. After school, most people forget about DNA, and mitosis, and French verbs.
Published by The Japan Times newspaper on Sunday, December 22, 2013 as "Exactly who do you think he was?"