I'm sitting in a plane headed from Tokyo to Guangzhou to Perth. Someone at China Southern Airlines likes a recent Hollywood release called Oblivion, and I can see why. There are only a few recent releases to choose from, and it's the first one that comes up when you touch "Sky Movies" on the screen. (At this point I should say "spoiler alert.")
In the movie, Tom Cruise is a clone, one of thousands, but he doesn't know it. He knows his memory was wiped since "the war," for necessity's sake, presumably because it was all just too awful to remember. The truth is, he's serving an alien occupation of Earth. His job is to fix drones. The job of the drones is to kill Scavengers ("Scavs") who live in the radioactive wasteland below his airborne home. The massive alien triangular thing in space he's unwittingly serving is sucking up the oceans, supposedly in order to help the remainder of the human race populate a new planet they've all had to move to, since Earth was destroyed in the war.
The truth is that the remainder of the human race isn't on Titan (the new planet). Rather, the "Scavs" are what's left of humanity, and they're trying to stop the alien mother ship from sucking up the oceans. The drones are killing them, and Tom Cruise and all the other Tom Cruise clones are keeping the drones running so they can go about their business. All the clones know not to go into the "radiation zones," which aren't radioactive in actuality -- it's just that the radiation zones are where the other Tom Cruise clones are operating, and they're not supposed to run into each other because then they'd wake up to the whole thing. Which of course they do, since it's Hollywood, and they defeat the alien nemesis and are victorious in the end, salvaging what remains of life on Earth.
Seems to me this movie is a pretty good allegory for modern America. We (Americans, and others) have been raised on a combination of lies and ignorance -- our memories have effectively been wiped. We are serving a sort of alien occupation which you could call capitalism, empire, or the "point one percent," which, though it's basically not human, has a mind of it's own. It is sucking up the oceans because there is profit in that, regardless of the fact that in the process we'll all be killed. It uses us to service its drones, so the drones can kill the Scavs, those humans whose memories are still intact, who are trying to resist this insanity. The aliens in power make sure we don't go near the "radiation zones" where we might discover the truth, and they make sure we are convinced that it's actually us who are in control, and what we're doing is in our collective, democratic best interests.
There are so many layers to this onion that I get the feeling I've so far only uncovered the first few of them.
The further west you go in the United States, the more military bases there are. It was a young Chicano in New Mexico who first pointed this out to me a few years ago. I had been traveling the US constantly for years and I hadn't consciously noticed this fact. My friend in New Mexico figured this was because the leaders of the country were more worried about their more recent acquisitions, such as what we now call the southwest (which of course the Mexicans used to call the northeast).
If this is true of the southwest (and it is), it is even more true of Hawai'i, which was the first destination of my current four-continent world tour. (Or three continents and one extremely large island, depending on how you measure Australia.)
The Hawaiian islands were a sovereign nation with a royal family and various foreign embassies, and it was very blatantly and unequivocally stolen at gunpoint by the US Navy one day. What's immediately obvious to any visitor to Hawaii, even if you don't get any further than the capital city, is that both the US Navy and the Hawaiian natives are still there. The Navy runs the place, and the natives are, for the most part, it seems, homeless and living on the streets and on the beaches, constantly getting harassed by the authorities for making the tourists uncomfortable, by existing.
My family and I arrived in Honolulu only days after the "not guilty" verdict for Trayvon Martin's racist killer. Not coincidentally, in Honolulu a trial is ongoing, which will probably end with a similar verdict, for an off-duty law enforcement officer who was in town for a conference one day. He and his colleagues had been briefed that they should watch out for the restive natives. So, for good measure, he shot one in a fast food restaurant one night, after a night on the town, drinking. But his victim was a young nonwhite man who was out late at night hanging out with other young nonwhite men, so he must have been up to something, anyway.
Aside from the occasional beach off-limits because of whatever toxins the US Navy poisoned it with, aside from the outrageously high property values which only the rich can easily afford, aside from the masses of disenfranchised natives, what has become of Hawaii since it was forcibly annexed by "the mainland" (never mind the fact that it's closer to Asia than it is to North America -- the US is "the mainland") is actually pretty cool. Since the nineteenth century, people have been moving to Hawaii to work (slave, more like) in the fields, to fish, to work as merchants, to escape famine, to live in an island paradise, or some combination thereof, from all over Asia, North America and Europe. At this point, looking at the beautiful brown bodies covering so many of the beaches around Oahu, the average Hawaiian is some wonderful mixture of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Polynesian, and European heritage. There are those from these various communities, particularly the Japanese, it seems, who eschew the sun, just as they do in their land of origin, and have also avoided quite so much intermarrying as everybody else. But for the most part, the Hawaiians who are not recent transplants from "the mainland" are a pan-Pacific, sun-worshipping potpourri of humanity.
Reeking with money, with an economy based largely on tourism and military spending, it's not an easy place to be a revolutionary. The relatively few people you might call "radicals" coalesce around Revolution Books. On "the mainland" much of the progressive movement shuns those elements many consider to be "the sectarian left," but in Honolulu Revolution Books is an ecumenical hangout for anybody with a brain, despite the large posters advertising Bob Avakian's latest book. For a musician like me visiting Honolulu, this is the place to play, and was indeed the only venue anybody ever recommended for me to investigate, when I asked residents of Hawaii who I met online about it.
Former ambassador and military officer Ann Wright, who resigned in protest against Bush's invasion of Iraq, is based in Honolulu, and she was at the gig. Jeff Paterson now lives in California, but when he was in the military he was based in Hawaii, and it was on a military airfield in Hawaii where he sat down and refused to board a plane bound for Iraq during the build-up to what they call "the first" Gulf War. (The US and other western powers had been at war many, many times in the Gulf long before 1991, but these memories have largely been wiped clean.)
If there's a place in the world that is a sort of "compromise" between the US and Japan, culturally speaking at least, it would have to be Hawaii. About one-third of the population is of Japanese descent, and the Japanese language can be heard all over Honolulu, along with restaurant chains you won't see outside of Japan and Hawaii, and sometimes occasionally parts of California, staffed with real Japanese people. The Japanese population is accustomed to US military bases -- they're all over Japan, as well. But it is an uncomfortable fact that one of the biggest tourist destinations is Pearl Harbor, where the history books tell us World War 2 began for the USA, after Japan's Air Force attacked it.
History is written by the victors, and the narrative always begins wherever it's most convenient for the narrative to begin. So the history of Japan-US relations began with that massive "sneak attack." The US embargo of Japan that preceded it -- widely acknowledged as an act of war, though undeclared, as usual -- never happened. Neither did the US Navy's merciless bombardment of Tokyo, previously called Edo, at the end of what became known as the Edo Era, in 1856. In our history textbooks it's very briefly referred to as the "Opening of Japan." Japan's 250 years of peace became Japan's era of "isolation" -- never mind the fact that they carried on robust trade relations with their neighbors, Korea and China, as well as the Netherlands, in the largely Christian port city of Nagasaki.
Admiral Perry's unprovoked attack 157 years ago destabilized Japan, leading to a revolution in that country -- a revolution largely motivated by a desire to regain the sense of national security that they once thought they had, not wanting to become the opium-addicted colony which much of China had become by that time. And so Japan embarked on the fastest industrialization process the world had ever seen, becoming a major industrial and military power virtually overnight, becoming the first non-European nation to defeat a European empire in a conventional war (the war with Russia in 1905).
But the nineteenth-century British-US-French-Russian war to "open" China -- the Opium War, in which the western powers got together to force the Chinese emperor to allow the importation of an addictive drug, in the process killing tens of thousands of people and burning entire cities to the ground -- has been wiped clean of our collective memories, along with the Naval bombardment of Japan that followed, way back when. This is an inconvenient place to begin your narrative.
No, rather, the fact that most of the US Navy was half-way across the Pacific, in Hawaii, so close to the shores of Japan, in 1941, while war raged in Europe, was some kind of coincidence. And the fact that most of the US Navy is now once again half-way across the Pacific is because of a fear of "Chinese aggression." Never mind the fact that nobody can tell you when was the last time China committed any actual acts of aggression against another country aside from Tibet. (A notable exception, no doubt, but not exactly what the US is on about when stirring up fears of Chinese aggression.) And the Korean War is even called "the Forgotten War" by the US media on the rare occasions it's mentioned. Even more forgotten are the half-million Chinese soldiers killed by the US military, who went to defend the popular, revolutionary government of Korea from the US invaders. Still more forgotten is the fact that the puppet government the US was trying to keep in power was itself put into power by the Japanese occupiers, who were asked to stay on by the US temporarily, lest the far more popular communists take the country back. (The history textbooks never mention the fact that the US always, always prefers fascists over communists. Democratic governments are tolerated, but only when they're "business friendly.")
We flew from Honolulu to Fukuoka at the end of July, to visit my wife's family and friends in the city of Ube, in the province of Yamaguchi, home to many of the Samurai revolutionaries who brought the Edo Era to an end, abolished their own class, and ushered in the disastrous era of the Japanese Empire that followed. And also a beautiful place, full of mountains and very community-oriented communities -- very far from Tokyo in so many ways.
Reiko's parents organized my first gig in Japan, at the Nishigaoka Community Center -- one of the many community centers in Ube and other towns and cities in Japan. It's a wooden building whose front yard is a playground with fun stuff for kids to climb on, and a dirt parking lot. Little kids from the neighborhood spontaneously gather there to climb and run in the playground or play cards on the porch, oblivious to the 100-degree (34 Celsius) heat. Adult members of the community rent the place out very cheaply for different purposes -- morning exercises, concerts, rehearsals, dance classes, English classes, community festivals, etc.
Recently when the community center needed repairs, every household in the community volunteered to contribute the equivalent of $700 (over the course of three years) for these expenses. Not a single household turned down the request for funds, though it was entirely optional, and in many bigger cities of Japan, these community centers are a thing of the past. Not in Nishigaoka.
In some instances, people in the neighborhood have to deal with the contradictions of wanting to fit in to their neighborhood, and wanting to fit in to their broader Japanese community. For example, the man they keep on reelecting as their representative in the prefectural legislature is a member of the JCP, the Japanese Communist Party. Very few of the local community members would call themselves communists, but they constantly reelect Fujimoto-san. This way they can remain loyal to their overall concept of what it means to be Japanese -- which does not involve being a communist -- but they can also be loyal to their community, which means voting JCP.
The folks who organize my gig included a bunch of people in addition to Reiko's parents, and the people who came to the show -- over 70 of them -- were just regular members of the community, of all ages. Not raving leftists or anything, but they enjoyed the gig just fine, as far as I could tell. They certainly bought lots of CDs -- and they could even tell what the songs were about, since Reiko spent many long hours setting up a Powerpoint slide show with translated lyrics, one verse at a time, to project on a screen next to me.
Which of course was where almost everybody in the room was looking. This always takes a bit of getting used to for a performer, who is naturally accustomed to being the center of attention, both for the ears as well as the eyes of the audience. Half of Reiko's friends seem to be English teachers, but even they were looking at the screen. The exception to this were the Gaijin -- the foreigners. Including my daughter and me, there were five white people in the room that night, which may be more than there have ever been at one time in the Nishigaoka Community Center.
Japanese culture -- like most cultures around the world aside from the "rugged individualist" Anglo countries and some others -- is very community-oriented. The group is considered to be more important than the individual, generally. But of course there are different ways to be loyal to that group, and different definitions of what the group is.
For Doro-Chiba, a radical (that is, sensible), small labor union, loyalty is to the working class -- not only the working class of Japan, but the international working class. These were the folks who paid for Reiko, Leila and I to take the bullet train from Yamaguchi to Hiroshima to spend two days and nights commemorating the day that the name "Hiroshima" become synonymous with the term, "apocalypse."
In 2007 Reiko and I were in Hiroshima for the annual commemorative events, but that time we were involved with the bigger events, organized by the bigger anti-war coalition, led by the JCP. I like the JCP, but sometimes their orientation involves an umbrella which is a little too big. I like the "big umbrella" approach generally, but when your umbrella covers anybody who claims to be against nuclear weapons, even if they're basically just against nuclear weapons because they don't have one yet, and they're otherwise representatives of nasty dictatorial governments, then I have a problem. Such was the case in 2007, where I sang in between speeches delivered by folks like the foreign ministers of countries like Malaysia, and Mubarak's Egypt.
Doro-Chiba's events don't involve people like that. Rather, their events and protests embrace the commonality of the movement against nuclear weapons and the movement against nuclear power, and the speakers included not only survivors of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the nuclear tests in Micronesia, but survivors of the Fukushima disaster as well.
Everyone involved with the events of those days seemed to unanimously agree about what was the most notable moment of the whole thing.
There were maybe a thousand of us marching from the Atom Dome, past the place where Prime Minister Abe was giving a typically messed up speech, decrying the use of nuclear weapons, and embracing the future of nuclear power, while his government stockpiles massive amounts of weapons-grade plutonium.
Japanese chanting during political rallies has a martial feel to it -- someone chants a rhythmic phrase, and then everybody else repeats it, and maybe raises their fists in unison. So this was happening as we were going along, and the person leading the chants was using a wireless microphone. Other people were carrying bullhorn-style speakers on their shoulders, for the sound to come out of. The police were "escorting" the march with big trucks, and each truck had big loudspeakers on top.
Normally what's coming out of the police truck's speakers is a continuously-playing announcement by someone with a very polite-sounding female voice, advising nearby drivers and pedestrians that there's a march coming through, and apologizing for the inconvenience. Suddenly, for the first time that anybody can remember, the chants from the person with the wireless microphone started coming through the speakers mounted on the police trucks, but about fifty times louder than they were through out little mobile bullhorn things, complete with feedback.
At first everybody was confused as to what exactly was going on -- it was so ear-piercingly loud it was disorienting. I was worried about my daughter's ears -- we were near the front of the march, right in front of the police and their trucks. And I was wondering if one of the Doro-Chiba folks who was good with computers might have hacked into the police's system somehow. But it turned out that their sound system just randomly happened to pick up the frequency that the wireless mike was broadcasting on. One of the cops went into the truck and did something, and it stopped happening. What we could be certain of was that the Prime Minister might not have heard our march passing by otherwise, but with the help of the police he sure heard it that day.
Leila saw a playground soon after that incident and we left the march. Sitting on a bench in the park was a hibakusha, a survivor of the atomic bombing on that day in 1945. He said he didn't like crowds, so he didn't go join the marches and such, but that he liked to come and sit nearby the epicenter on this day each year. He told us he lived four kilometers away at the time, and was going to school, in first grade. He mentioned that one of his classmates was an American boy, though he didn't know what that kid or his family was doing living in Japan during the war. He said there was a bright flash of light and tremendous heat, and suddenly all that was left of his classroom were the pillars. He and his classmates wanted to head home, but home for most of them was closer to the city center, and they figured that was a bad idea, so they just stayed there where they were. After a while, horribly burnt people started walking like zombies past them, walking away from the city, holding their arms out in front of them so their hanging skin wouldn't fall off.
The extreme right activists were there in Hiroshima on the day, as usual, in small numbers, as usual, with their war-time flags. And as usual, they were surrounded by riot police who were in turn surrounded by progressives of various sorts who were shouting them down and not letting them create much of a scene. These were the sights and sounds that greeted us initially on the morning of August 6th, when we took a taxi from our hotel room to the Atom Dome, where these events are generally centered. Very notably, and movingly, at the moment just after 8 am, the moment just after the bomb exploded in 1945, everybody was silent for a minute -- the rightwingers and leftwingers stopped yelling at each other, the speakers stopped speaking, the singers stopped singing, the Buddhists stopped chanting. Only the cicadas didn't care.
Ten days or so later, stranded at a Narita Airport hotel after being denied entry to New Zealand, I was listening to a BBC report about the Japanese far right yelling at Koreans in an immigrant neighborhood in Tokyo. Apparently there were several hundred of these rightwingers behaving in very un-Japanese ways, screaming at the immigrants. What I didn't hear about until later, from folks I ended up staying with in the city, was that soon after the rightwingers started up with these shenanigans, five times as many people turned out to protest against them. If BBC covered that, I missed it.
Perhaps it's not considered newsworthy that there are at least five times as many vocal antifascists as there are fascists. Perhaps it's just considered the norm that that would be the case, and therefore not "news." But I wish that kind of thing would get more coverage, because otherwise some people might be left with very wrong impressions about Japanese society. One might get the impression the society is full of clones who just go along with the status quo, which of course is true to a large extent, but not nearly as much as either Japanese nationalists or American propaganda would have us believe. In reality, there's a rich current of rebellion in Japan, today and historically, as with everywhere else on the planet -- from the rebel Samurai who overthrew Japanese feudalism after the first US invasion, to the rebels against the Empire like Chiune Sugihara, to those protesting the xenophobes in the immigrant neighborhood last week.
My last night in Japan, before boarding this plane, was spent at a veritable hive of leftwing activity, a place called Cafe Lavanderia (so named because it used to be a laundromat). Red and black flags and posters everywhere from the Zapatistas and the Spanish Civil War, they even serve their banana smoothies with red and black straws. In the cafe I met a friend of my dear friend Brad Will, who met him in Oaxaca only days before he was killed there. There was a trumpet player who had just come there from the weekly Friday protests against Tepco and the Japanese government's inadequate response to the ongoing nuclear disaster not far to the north of Tokyo. There were a couple of folks who invited me to visit Terminal 2 at Narita Airport the following day (I didn't have time), where there is a small house and community garden in the middle of the airport, a remnant of the militant struggle led by local farmers there that delayed the construction of this huge international airport for nine years.
The clones and drones are everywhere doing the bidding of the capitalists, but the Scavs are everywhere, too, in the occupied North Pacific. Next stop: Australia.