When the Rice Is on the Ice

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

December 13, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- We just barely made it through the great Pearl Harbor anniversary without stirring up another war with Japan, for which both sides can be thankful.

If those Americans who were not alive in 1941 paid attention in recent weeks, they now know more about what happened that Sunday morning than most of the servicemen who were there. But whether we all have a better understanding of what drives modern Japan is another question.

Much was made of Japan's national cohesion, and its determination to make up for what it suffered -- by its own doing -- in World War II. Little was said about the years of humiliation after the war, when U.S. forces occupied and reformed a nation bound by tradition.

That situation went on well beyond the formal occupation, which ended with the peace treaty that took effect in 1952. Through and after the Korean war, U.S. forces still used the ports, barracks and firing ranges that had so recently belonged to the Emperor's army and navy.

Many Americans, in those years, learned to love Japan and the Japanese.

Although the country had been a formidable war-making power, elements of domestic life in Japan were still primitive. Every level, unpaved acre was planted with rice, cultivated as it had been for generations.

During growing season, men toted ''honeypots'' of human waste at each end of long poles, to spread on the fields as fertilizer. For a while, that aroma dominated the countryside -- and then in late summer, the world turned golden at harvest time.

As families outside thatch-roofed houses pounded the grain and winnowed it, white cranes that lived off fish and frogs in the paddies flew from island to island of trees among the rice fields. Viewed at the right angle, life went on exactly as it had a thousand years before.

From another direction, the most conspicuous fact of life was the tall Americans who skimmed the surface of Japanese existence, seeing all but comprehending little. True, some U.S. servicemen married Japanese women, and a few even learned the language. But most met only bar girls, and spoke only bar language.

I still retain most of my Japanese vocabulary, which I spell as casually as I pronounced it then: komban wa, dozo, hai, ichi ban, gohan, sukoshi, biiru, domo arigato, do itashimashita, kampai, anone, ohayo gozaimasu, benjo, choto matte, gomen nasai, sayonara . . .

What more did we need then than ''Good evening, please, yes, No. 1, rice, little, beer, thank you, you're welcome, cheers, listen, good morning, toilet, just a minute, I'm sorry, goodbye,'' and a few words I have wisely forgotten?

The winter I was there, we sang to the tune of ''Moonlight on the Wabash'':

When the ice is on the rice in southern Honshu,

And the sake in the cellar starts to freeze,

When you whisper to your jo-san, 'I adore you,'

Then you know that you're sukoshi Nipponese.

We were young, ignorant, chauvinistic in every way, no doubt offensive to most of the Japanese we encountered, yet full of good will.

Despite our clumsiness, the Japanese were inherently courteous; after all, we paid for everything from rickshaw rides to antique prints with good hard cash, a solid 360 yen to the dollar. But the men, who had been through the war and then had to watch us clomp through their country like oversized kindergartners, clearly had to strain to be polite.

Perhaps I am straining to draw a parallel between our good-natured offensiveness nearly 40 years ago and the relations between Japan and America today. But in our conduct as young men in uniform, we were much like the U.S. government and public, then and even now.

There is no doubt that one of the things that motivates Japanese government and industry in our time is the ignominy that country endured at mid-century. And there is no doubt that Americans are nearly as ignorant of what makes Japan tick as we were when the first U.S. Marine stepped ashore at the entrance to Tokyo Bay on the morning of August 30, 1945.

We are a cosmopolitan, scientifically sophisticated country, yet unwilling to study the homogeneous nation that has challenged us where we once were strongest. In this world, simply being American no longer guarantees being prosperous and dominant. That fact demands effort, but so far its main product has been rhetoric.

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