Friday, February 10, 2012

Facing history

Sayaka Chatani's recent post mentioning the idea of running a history/critical thinking summer camp for high school students from Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan reminded me of an Oberlin College graduate's "rep letter" from the '50s about a workcamp and seminar for Asian college students run in Japan by the American Friends Service Committee. (Chew on that sentence for a while...) The rep letter, by Ray Downs, who was an Oberlin Shansi rep at Obirin Gakuen, was reprinted in Something to Write Home About: An Anthology of Shansi Rep Letters, 1951-1988.

In Chatani's post, she wrote that one of the difficulties she imagines with running a summer camp like this is that she doesn't know
how to lead the history workshop to constructive critical thinking, instead of creating the clear-cutting aggressor-vs-victim narrative. (Ugh, this positionality issue, again.)
The rep letter by Downs is concerned with a meeting at the work camp among college students from Japan, the U.S., India, Vietnam, Malaya, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Canada, and Hawaii. The leader of the meeting, a Fulbright scholar named John Howes, wanted the participants to discuss tensions that might have remained after the war. As Downs writes (and recall, this was written in 1955),
Howes was interested in bringing emotions themselves to the surface rather than discussing issues in which emotions were involved only indirectly insofar as they influenced opinion. For a time it seemed that he would be unsuccessful. Discussion moved along on a relatively scholarly and impersonal level. I began to think that most of those present, like myself, had ceased to think of the last war except as history, since it all was over before most of them were twelve years old. I asked a question to this effect. I had been wrong. (14)
After Downs asked the question, the participants began to open up about their experiences, telling about how their families and friends had suffered. As Downs writes,
... I think a new dimension had been added to the understanding of all of us. Certainly in parts of Asia the scars of war have not all disappeared with reconstruction. I think we all learned something more of the horror of war in its varied manifestations. (15)
Interestingly, he concludes that the participants were still able "to work and live happily together" even after the stories they told that evening,
and within a day or two there seemed to be a new depth in our sense of community. Before I left I began to appreciate more fully the role of this kind of experience as a means toward the greater end of increased understanding. (15)
I don't know if there are still camps like this, but a couple of thoughts occurred to me in comparing the experience Downs had with Chatani's concern about the "aggressor-vs-victim narrative," both of which revolve around questions about memory and "the scars of war." How did the university students manage to "work and live happily together" only ten years after the war, when they had witnessed with their own eyes atrocities committed by their fellow participants' countrymen? How could feelings about an event become even stronger decades after the event, when most of the survivors had died and the people with the strong feelings had little or no direct experience of that event? Note that I am not trying to be cynical about this.