I brought up the subject of the Confederate flag with my son at dinner the other night. I could have avoided it. We live in Japan, after all, and my son hasn’t been to the States in about four years. As a sophomore at a public high school in Japan, he is absorbed with his friends, and studies, and baseball. But I teach at a Japanese university where a lot of students have no interest in what goes on abroad. They chose to attend the local university because it’s close to home, and when I ask them what country they’d like to visit, they say, “Nowhere. Japan is best.” I want my son to be engaged in the world.
To be fair, he is more interested than most. His favorite subject is Social Studies. He reads the newspaper and watches the TV news. So he probably heard about the massacre of nine African Americans at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, before I brought up the issue of the flag.
I didn’t really want to bring his attention to the fact that this horrible tragedy had occurred in South Carolina, the state where his grandparents and uncle and aunt and cousins live. I didn’t mention that the killer, Dylann Roof, attended the high school down the road from my parents’ house for a time. I would rather that my son have a postive image of South Carolina, that when he thinks of his visits to the state he remembers playing in the surf at Myrtle Beach, or the carriage tour that we took on our visit to Charleston, or making a snowman with his cousins. But in two years my son will be elgible to vote in both the United States and Japan. He needs to have an awareness of current events and their significance so that he can vote for the change that he wants to see.
Thinking about the Confederate flag, and how it represents racial prejudice and hate, is a way to prepare my son to think about issues in Japan, such as the Prime Minister’s insistence on visiting the Shrine at Yasukuni in commemoration of Japanese soldiers who died in World War II. Just as many Americans, both black and white, see the Confederate flag as a symbol of the brutal enslavement of human beings, many see the Shrine at Yasukuni as a symbol of atrocities committed by Japanese troops in Asia during World War II. Just as a minority in South Carolina defend slavery and white supremacy, the current administration in Japan defends the enslavement of women — the so-called “Comfort Women” — as a business deal. Just as taking the flag down from the pole outside the South Carolina state house would be a welcome step toward healing festering wounds, I think that the Japanese government would be wise to avoid re-opening wounds by retracting apologies and denying the past. (And by not making official visits to Yasukuni.)
In Japan, teachers are not allowed to be “political” and there is some handwringing among educators as to how to prepare young Japanese to become part of the electorate (the current voting age is 20). Personally, I don’t think it’s the school’s responsibility to teach kids how to vote. I think the conversation can begin at home.