I heard this via an interpreter via my headset and immediately looked up from my notebook. The speaker was an elderly Japanese woman, who had been speaking already for several minutes and had touched upon a huge number of issues which drive the work of Japanese progressive; peace, Article 9, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hibakusha, nuclear war, economic. Her statement by that time had gone from being inspiring to overwhelming to too far-reaching, and so she made this statement in an attempt to sum up her message, by asking the Japanese people present on the first day of the 2010 World Conference Against A and H Bombs, that they work to make their country the “core of the pencil.”
She did not take the metaphor any further than this, either because she dropped it or because the interpreter didn’t pick up on it. In my mind though, I kept rolling and kumilili mo’na ayu na idea esta ki mana’kabåles gui’ gi hinasso-ku. Two things came to mind after hearing this particular phrasing.
First: this type of slogan-making is something Guam is very familiar with, although in a radically different way. Guam is known as and sometimes celebrated as “the tip of the spear,” meaning the tip of America’s spear. Slogans like this are very interesting because they can easily be dismissed as being taibali, but can also explain everything and be strong yet simple forces in making meaning. When a slogan becomes hegemonic it is something which always has to be contested or cited. Naming is easy and literally anyone can do it, but what matters is when an articulation an attempt to give a specific meaning becomes hegemonic and starts to function as something more, something which seems to give an ideal impression of the state of affairs, or becomes an excuse for reality or a crack in the world which needs fixing.
“The tip of the spear” helps define Guam in the terms by which it is the most valuable or most important to the United States, as a strategic military asset well positioned in relation to Asia. If Guam had been a thousand miles east of Hawai’i, it would have a very different history to say the least. “Tip of the spear” is a way of proving that you matter to the United States, that you have value and that they recognize it. It gives us a place in the world, which especially for a colony which struggles with being American one moment and not the next, that is so crucial. But at the same time, this slogan cannot help but reveal that your relationship, your value is one of use, not partnership, not belonging, not equality, but one where you are used in the process.
The hegemonic status of this slogan gives power to, but also weakens the power relations that it is meant to reproduce, by making the exploitative and hardly heart-warming dimensions difficult to hide. In her dissertation titled An Exploratory Study of Community Trauma and Culturally Responsive Counseling with Chamorro Clients, Patricia Taimanglo provides a number of different references to this through her interviews, the most haunting of which is as follows:
…the bottom line is that we’re only Americans as the United States government wants us to be. To the extent that it is necessary to the government. So we’re not actually human beings, but tools…We’re no different than the piece of land up at NAS or Anderson Air Force Base. We are to be used and not recognized as humans.But at the same time, there can be a power in these sorts of slogans, especially if they exist to stimulate new relations and identifications, especially those meant to cross borders in the name of equality, peace or justice. There is a way that these slogans can also be invoked in more progressive ways, against oppressive or exploitative forces. Such is the case of the elderly Japanese woman and her cal that her country become “the core of the pencil.”
My second thought was to remember a passage from the book Maps of Reconciliation by Barry Lopez.
Someone will have to make an outline, draw a map and pass it around, with a pencil and an eraser with no thought of ownership. The voices of individual
authorship and the duly elected will need to give way to the repositories of
community wisdom. For the first time in centuries, wisdom will be seated beside
intelligence, a second light to cute the deep and unknowable dark.
In the remarks by that biha, she was making Lopez’s point. But rather than doing so in the abstract, almost pointless, but safe way in which Lopez does it, prior to any specifics which ultimately lead to the logical problems and violence and meaning, she chooses to fill it with herself, her history and her country. She argues that Japan has the means to not only be the core of that pencil which can write new maps based on new ethics, but that it can be the eraser as well. The messages, the politics, the stories which came out of Japan after World War II, whether they be a world without nukes or the idea of having a Peace Constitution, they can redraw the world, they can erase the borders and also help provide the means whereby it can be redrawn with the hopes that it be safer and more peaceful.