Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
Nelson Mandela was seen and revered not only as a political hero but practically a living saint. The hagiography surrounding him somewhat disguises his many family tragedies, his policy failures and his political cunning. With his passing he has rightly received the expected praise for the way he conducted himself in prison and, outside of prison, led his nation. He was living history, a demonstration of the confluence of current events and history. The editorial “A 20th-century hero and icon,” (Japan Times, Tuesday, December 10, 2013) plus the plethora of news and opinion articles about Mandela seem to indicate that even in Japan the man’s exceptionalism is recognized. However, when I woke up on the morning of December 7th and heard the news on the radio I asked my Japanese wife, who was already watching television, “Did you hear about Nelson Mandela?” “Who?” I subsequently asked the same question to dozens of adult Japanese acquaintances and students and the response was the same. “Who?”
I was shocked at first, but the shock has passed. I recognize that I have a very broad idea of what constitutes public knowledge. And in fact most average North Americans (where I am from) don’t know very much, either. How many North 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. After school, most people forget about DNA, and mitosis, Niels Bohr and French verbs. Who do Japanese people know? JFK, Abraham Lincoln, The Beatles, Stephen King, Michelangelo and Nostrodamus are fairly popular, it seems, although people have little notion of when/where they lived or what they did.
Westerners are making a mistake to think that some ideas, values, images, people and information are universal. Obviously Nelson Mandela was more a hero and a saint for Westerners. He meant very little to Japanese, apparently.
Published on Sunday, December 22, 2013 as "Exactly who do you think he was?"