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The News

The news is different here. It is a funny bit of social science to be reminded that there is no harder goal than objective news. It is harder still to find comprehensive international news. There are nearly 200 (technically) independent states in this world, all with their own events, crises and triumphs. Your local newspaper, increasingly stuffed with revenue-pumping advertisements, can’t quite fit that story on civil war in Cote d’Ivorie.

Studying abroad is as much about seeing the world differently, including its political, social and religious strata, as it as about trying different foods and wasting a different kind of money. Different news, with its different worldview, may be of a paramount importance.

Here in Tokyo, the capital and largest city of a questioned leader in the Asia-Pacific, the news floats into the classroom. In this city, where its citizens are blessed with comparable living standards to those in much of the U.S., people tend to be as indifferent to news as Americans. Many Japanese students are as bored by their country’s domestic and foreign affairs as my peers are at home.

Because, of course, the controversy that encircles the Yasukuni Shrine is as commonplace as American debate about abortion.

Yasukuni is a shrine in Tokyo dedicated to Japanese war victims. Built in the 19th century, the shrine is meant to commemorate the lives of some 2.5 million, according to the Tokyo Shimbun. But, the shrine is in the news throughout the region for less than 20 of those lost Japanese.

In 1978, more than 1,000 convicted Japanese war criminals were secretly enshrined, including 14 Class-A criminals, tried and convicted for their roles in the Japanese Pacific War effort.

Conservative ultra-nationalists in the Japanese government continue to reject their country’s atrocities of the past, like the murder of 300,000 Chinese during the Rape of Nanking in the late 1930s. While there is a swath of Japanese legislators that are outraged at the historical revisionism of some of their political opponents, current Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has repeatedly visited Yasukuni, much to the dismay of the governments of Asian countries that were victimized by Japanese aggression in the early 20th century.

In mid-August, Koizumi made his sixth and perhaps most controversial visit, as it was his first trip to Yasukuni on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the Pacific War. Through China, the Korean peninsula and beyond, governments and Asian media lambasted the obtuse arrogance of the right-wing, ultra-nationalist movements in Japan.

Yet, among American media, all I could find was a piece in the small political magazine the New Republic, a wire story from Reuters that ran in the Boston Globe, and an article on the website of National Public Radio.

This isn’t tiresome global affairs that can’t sell newspapers. This is complex and controversial international relations between the world’s fastest growing economy and the most industrialized non-Western country on this planet.

I might not have gotten the story if I wasn’t studying in Tokyo; if I was instead in my apartment in North Philadelphia.

I am absorbing political discourse and trying to follow international dialogues, the likes of which I have never grappled with before. It is a reminder that any travel is an opportunity to learn in more ways than for which anyone can prepare you. For the 150 yen I spent on the Tokyo edition of the International Herald Tribune, I was given an education that avoided overlap with my American learning.

Here in the continent we call Asia, Yasukuni seems to be in the minds of everyone. It finds its way into math lessons as well as into history classes. Probably not so in the United States.

I couldn’t find any American medium covering the birth of the Japanese emperor’s grandson last Wednesday, a cesarean birth that will, if the imperial family has its way, one day continue the world’s oldest hereditary institution.

Last week the only story in an American news source on the coming selection of a new Japanese prime minister was an AP story that I found in the Houston Chronicle. It is expected that Shinzo Abe, currently a top government official, will find his way to the prime minister’s seat when Koizumi steps down later this month. Abe is a man whom some speculate will push to change the country’s constitution so Japan will be able to use military force in its international policy.

But only the half a million Houston Chronicle readers could have known that. The news from any one place in this world is invariably spotty. (This is why your high school history teacher better have taught you to get your news from a variety of locales.)

I write this on September 11, 2006. In the United States, it is the fifth anniversary of what is often cited as the worst foreign attack on American soil since the country’s independence. Yet, the cover of today’s Japan Times focused more on sumo wrestling than terrorism.

Scary, isn’t it?


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