Thursday, March 01, 2012

A Proud Member of the Amnesia Industry

A few weeks ago I was taking one of my English classes on a short tour around the historic central area of Hagatna. We walked from Angel Santos Memorial Latte Stone Park, through the Plaza de Espana and finally to Skinner Plaza. The point was for students to see the ways in which history is layered upon itself. You can see this in the way the Spanish part of Hagatna is also filled with American history in the way the American came to occupy the same colonial place, even to the point of remaking the primary buildings, such as the palace, in small ways to make it fit their tastes or their mission in Guam. But beneath all of that there is also the history prior to colonialism. It still emerges in so many ways, most of which swing between being overly visible to barely perceptible.

Angel Santos Memorial Latte Stone Park is one such place. As both the Plaza de Espana and Skinner's Plaza seem to exist to glorify the colonizers of Guam, the Park seems to attempt to signify something else and something earlier. The large set of mismatched latte there are the most obvious marker. They were placed there after the construction of Naval Magazine down south. They were placed there as a way of celebrating the Ancient Chamorros, but also as a way of quietly apologizing for the fact that these latte are what was saved after the Navy had destroyed so much else. Then there are the large signs for Angel Santos explaining who he was and why the place is named after him. Against the wall, towards the back there are caves which are the remains of a network of tunnels dug by the Japanese in World War II, in anticipation of an American reinvasion to the island. You can find tunnels like this, bokonggo, all over Guam, sometimes in completely unexpected places. Sometimes people walk right by them and not realize they are there. Although there is a plaque at Angel Santos Park that indicates the use of the caves in English, Chamorro and Japanese, most people who simply glance at entrances to the caves might just assume them to be restrooms or some unfinished GovGuam corruption project.

While I was giving my students a tour of the area, we happened upon a group of young Japanese female tourists, each of which sporting flower print dresses, each brighter and louder than the next. They were waltzing around the park, giggling, laughing, snapping pictures. They peered at the signage for Angel Santos for a few moments and then moved on, not clear what to make of them. They settled around the latte for quite a while, taking pictures in front of them, and then eventually taking turns snapping photos of themselves modelling around them, and clinging on to the latte stones in suggestive poses.

My students responded in two basic ways. The majority of them laughed and smiled at how cute and silly the Japanese tourists were being. Remarks were made about their happy memories of the island and how they might come back or keep pumping money into the economy since they were enjoying themselves so much. Some of the boys made references to how hot the girls were and then threw out random Japanese words as if they were planning on going over and trying to woo a pack of tourists.

The second response, which only a few Chamorro students had, was one of disgust. Some of the "more" Chamorro students, meaning the ones who more readily identify themselves as such, and have a fuller scope of knowledge of things Chamorro than other students, they felt disrespected when seeing these Japanese play so ignorantly around the latte. The stones had already been greatly disrespected by the US Navy, but now these ancient relics of their ancestors were being treated like stripper poles by clueless Japanese ladies. This response was voiced quietly, sometimes just muttered or spoken to me on the side. It was clear that the first response was the acceptable one, the one that is ready for public consumption, while this second response had to be censored and silenced. Manangon ha', ti sina masangan a'gang. 


For me however, the thought of the Japanese ladies modeling next to the latte made me think of something else. In the closing days of World War II, most Chamorros had been herded into concentration camps around the island, and this combined with the US intensive bombing campaign that focused on flattening Hagatna, made it very dangerous to be out in the open. There were chances that you could get hit by bombs or shrapnel, but the more dangerous concern was being found by the Japanese. It was pretty much common knowledge amongst the Japanese soldiers that they were not going to be able to defend Guam. This fact led to the end of their time on Guam being filled with slaughters and massacres, some of which were strategic in nature, while others were the acting out of soldiers who didn't want to die, and decided to preemptively take out their revenge against the unfairness of the world on the bodies of Chamorros.

If you helped the Japanese build their defenses against the US, your fate basically was determined by the flip of a coin, or the mood of a commander. Did the commander want to let you go and be with your family and live your life? Or, did the commander not want to risk you talking to the Americans and telling them about the defenses of the Japanese? Depending on his mood, you could end up cowering with your family as the bombs continue to fall, or you could end up kneeling on the ground, with your head laying next to you.

In those final days of the Japanese occupation, if you were out at the wrong moment and met the wrong Japanese soldier, that same fate might face you. If you met a soldier who simply wanted it all to end or just wanted to go home, he might look away and pretend not to see you and just keep moving. But if you met someone else, who wanted to extract some measure of vengeance for his nation's loss or for his own family's loss, than you would most likely be beheaded.

In the area at the bottom of San Ramon hill, where Angel Santos park is today, several Chamorros were killed in the closing days of the war. One group of women in particular were beheaded there, after each was collected while wandering around Hagatna. The Japanese soldiers asked them if they loved Americans or the Japanese? When they said the Japanese, the Japanese mocked them for both their obvious lies, but also their faith in the United States. They mocked them for hoping America would save them, since by the time the US returns to Guam there will be nothing left but flies.

The soldiers mutilated the women one at a time. Cutting off heads, breasts and slicing open the stomach of another and watching her entrails spill out. The last girl, was the youngest. Before they moved on to her, one soldier asked her about his girlfriend, a half-Japanese local girl. She had been expecting a baby and he wanted to know if she had it yet. The youngest girl responded that she didn't know. Everyone was cowering in the jungles and praying that they survive.

Then the youngest girl was "executed." According to her account:

"So finally when they are finished with me, he [the soldier who asked about his girlfriend] pushed my head down and he hit me in the back of my neck. And all I did is, I feel a splash down on my body, and I was gone."

She woke up later, buried in that ditch, surprised that she was still alive. She had a terrible wound on her back, that would leave a scar for the rest of her life, but she still survived. She found another person, a young man who had been "executed" but survived and together they stayed alive until American troops found them. She would later become a famous voice in the struggle for Chamorros to receive war reparations, although like so many others, would not live to ever see it happen.

As I watched those Japanese tourists, young girls, probably similar in age to the women who were slaughtered in that very spot, I told my students my perspective on the matter. Some walked away uncomfortably, not sure how to react. Some laughed at how messed up it was. A few seemed disturbed at the sort of cluelessness of the Japanese.

Every people, every country, every community has clueless, ignorant, taitiningo' people in it. You could argue some have more, some have less. There are several factors that come into play in how we determine that. Some may argue that Europeans are much more knowledgeable about the world than Americans. Some might argue that Europeans just know more about Europe than Americans, but don't necessarily have more inherent knowledge. General knowledge, the basic sorts of facts and assumptions, fragments of the world converted into meaningful meaning are all actually based on blindspots and the assumed possible or acceptable gaps in human knowledge. We can't know everything and wouldn't want to know everything (ayu i che'cho' Yu'us). So every place has various blindspots that help determine what they should and shouldn't know. What they have to know and what they can assume not to or not even pretend to care about. Nationalism is the brew that takes care of much of this for most people. Your largest and most openly political blindspots are the ones you enjoy in order to protect the nation.

Patriotism is one of those things which feels normal and natural, but becomes silly and almost foolish the more you think about it. There is patriotism as support and love for a nation in order to keep it strong. But notice how so much of that support comes in the form of looking the other way? So much of patriotism is about passionately keeping yourself ignorant and just assuming that since this is your country, everything must be ok, since you would never feel patriotism for a terrible country. Such is the cycle of patriotic ignorance, that protects both you and your nation from acknowledging things it is doing that are wrong or has done wrong in the past. This type of patriotism is the most popular since it requires almost nothing except faith and pathetic and stereotypical expressions of political devotion. It is easy and it is simple. Just wave a flag, hate on those who question what your country is doing, and most importantly of all, don't actually do anything to affect what your country is doing.

Although for most people on Guam, the Japanese are imagined in a singular basic way, as being sources of income. Guam is such a friendly place and these people pump money into the economy and so we should just be grateful that they are willing to visit this tiny island in the Western Pacific. They are perceived through their wallets and purses. They are not imagined to have any history attached to them, there is barely any sense of irony or discomfort for most on Guam when they see Japanese people wandering around the island. There is similarly no sense of anger, discomfort or irony when Chamorros see military servicemen strolling around Tumon, even if anyone with a sense of history, should at least be able to guess why that might be ironic and bewildering.

The local blindspot, could be rearticulated as forgiveness, and some have commented on the fact that Chamorros forgave the Japanese faster than anyone else in history. Within a single generation the Chamorro people were welcoming the Japanese into the island where they had brutalized so many just 30 years earlier. Some have said that the Chamorro heart is so large that it couldn't hold the hate for very long. Others have said that their religious faith helped them forgive faster. For whatever reason Chamorros moved on in terms of hating the Japanese, although they held on to their hatred for the Chamorros of the Northern Marianas for even longer.

What I have always found disturbing about the way the Japanese come to Guam free from history or irony, is the way it supports their own amnesia and their own massive blindspots. Japanese tourists have come to Guam for 40 years, sometimes not even having an inkling of the fact that in World War II, they conquered this island and killed close to 1000 people. They play in the ocean and drive around the island. They drive by places where Chamorros were massacred or brutalized almost everywhere they go, but have no idea. Now, obviously having a tourist industry would be difficult if we put signs everywhere about what atrocity the Japanese soldiers committed in this place during World War II. Maybe we wouldn't want to recreate the island as a constant reminder of the terrible things Japan did in the past.

But, at the same time, Guam doesn't only participate in the fantasy industry of creating an island getaway for the Japanese, we also participate in the World War II amnesia industry. Japan emerged out the ashes of World War II determined to erase its past, and did so in a way that put it on par with the amnesia industries of every other major colonial or imperial power in recent history. It succeeded in whitewashing its war of aggression and transforming itself as a victim in World War II. Guam, by being a site where Japan enacted that aggression, but by refusing to allow people to be reminded about it or insist it has some ethical value, enables that forgetfulness and allows Japan to continue its fiction.

I have seen this in so many large and small ways it sometimes become hysterical and so sad. For example, recently there has been some discussion at UOG about the merging of certain programs together. There are two existing programs that are small and should be consolidated, East Asia Studies and Japanese Studies. There is also another new program Chamorro Studies, which is also being suggested to be combined with these other two programs into a new umbrella degree. The merger has caused some concern and some questions. The faculty for both East Asia Studies and Chamorro Studies are supportive of the merger, but the Japanese Studies faculty have been almost irrationally opposed.

Their core argument in opposing this merger is that Japan and Japanese Studies will be lost amid the other programs and their faculty, that it will become marganlized and taken over by Chamorros and East Asians. One went so far as to say that they refused to join the other programs for fear that they would be oppressed by the others, especially China. For anyone with a basic knowledge of history, this should make your eyeballs bleed when you hear it. In World War II Japan dominated both China and Guam, along with several other nations in the Asia-Pacifc region. They were particularly cruel in China, massacring people by the millions, including civilians. I was astounded to hear these educated Japanese professors speaking so brazenly about others colonizing and oppressing them, when it was not so long ago that Japan oppressed both of these places.

All images in this post are from Google Images. I don't own the rights to them, nor claim to have shot or created them. 

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