He had a mustache. I remember that distinctly. That mustache made him different from the others. The students would always draw Japanese men with mustaches, that is, when they weren’t drawing them as pigs. He had no friends at the school. All of his peers regarded him with open and uninhibited disdain. He could speak English best of all the students in class seventeen. But this was no laudable distinction. Class seventeen was the art class, the lowest academic rank of the freshmen level. Those students deemed unfit for academic success were thrown together and encouraged to doodle.
His manner was at times groveling and obsequious, at others arrogant and obstinate. After class, he would follow me to the teachers’ building and ask me if I thought he was a star, flitting about like a butterfly as he waited for my reply. “Well of course,” I would say. His Japaneseness was always the subject of his conversations with his peers and with me. He agitated about this as often as he could, even after being battered with dozens of workbooks for it.
One day he handed me an old photograph. It was of his mother and father, both smartly dressed, standing in a lush park. His eyes would gleam as he beheld them. Why did they bring him here? I would think. Didn’t they know what he was going through?
I thought about the Japanese boy one morning in September. I was standing with my nose pressed against the glass door which gave into the 7-Eleven behind my office building. The lights were off and the cheerful cashier whom I had recently befriended was nowhere to be seen. Really? Closed? His round mustachioed face was poignantly imprinted in my mind, and I wondered how he was faring just then. All over the east coast of China, anti-Japanese sentiment had been running high over the Diaoyu Islands. I later learned that 7-Elevens had become a popular target of the rioters, or protestors as they called themselves. All Japanese-owned businesses and Japanese-made products fell victim to the destructive impulses of the mobs. The boy had been so open and unapologetic about his Japanese heritage. Maybe his parents sheltered him at home for the week.
On the train to Dandong, I was seated across from two cell phone salesmen. They chatted with me affably, telling me about their lives and asking me about mine. They were a first rate bunch, and I learned all of their names during the course of the conversation. I don’t remember their names anymore. But I do remember what they said about the Japanese: that they didn’t like them, and that they had committed atrocities against the Chinese during the big war. Again, the round, mustachioed face of the hapless student loomed in the back of my mind.
In my country the war is remembered romantically. There were only heroes in those days. They didn’t commit murder, they fought; sacrificed their lives. The war was noble because the cause was noble. The basest of human capacities were hidden beneath a veil of respectability. The barbarism that took place was forgiven by the law, but never forgotten by the masses. Sometimes I would watch the Japanese boy during class. I would watch how he suffered for a crime that he did not commit. I would watch as his peers vented a deep frustration that was not theirs.
My stomach always twists when I think about the Japanese boy. That uncomfortable sensation is not a reaction to his personality, eccentric as it was, but to the warring traditions which have survived the many stages of human progress and development.