American Guilt

(Matt DeButts)– An American traveling abroad can grow accustomed to being the “good guy.” He can gaze upon the minarets of Tripoli with a dose of national pride, because NATO saved the Libyans. He can take pleasure in Taiwan’s bustling economy, because the U.S. protects Taiwan. But most commonly, he can go anywhere in Europe content in the knowledge that America was on the right side of history.  The steady diet of jingoism is supplemented by America’s phenomenal standing in the eyes of the world: this year, yet again, the U.S. was named the #1 Most Admired Country in Forbes Magazine. Katy Perry rules the airwaves, Coca-Cola dominates the vending machines, and the iPhone is everywhere. The American traveling abroad might look at the sea of foreign faces and conclude: They love us. We rock.

Last summer, I shipped myself off to Japan because why not, and to hell with internships. I arrived in Tokyo with that selfsame moral certainty in American goodness, primed for Japanese nation-wide contrition and gratitude in the wake of World War II. I found some of those sentiments, but I also encountered something unexpected in myself. Guilt! And furthermore, male guilt! Prior to leaving for Japan I lifted my veil of ignorance a little too far. My mistake was to read about the American occupation of Japan.

Post-war Japan was characterized by the absence (via death or deployment) of thousands of Japanese men. Japanese women were essentially destitute, their families and lives broken from the war. Upon this scene enter thousands of virile American GIs, single or far away from their wives. Unsurprisingly, some ethically sketchy sex occurred. American men took Japanese wives, often in addition to wives back in the States. Government-sponsored brothels cropped up in Shinjuku. For some reason, a five-second clip (from the documentary ANPO)etched itself in my mind’s eye: an American GI sits on a bench with a Japanese girl in a kimono. He leans back casually, as if he is comfortable or else in control, with his left hand stretched across the back of the bench. His right hand curls around his Japanese girlfriend and up to her cheek, which his two fingers gently stroke. The Japanese girl shifts her weight and attempts to brush away his hand. She is smiling at him, but I cannot tell if her smile is forced. That’s the crux of it. I can’t tell if her smile is forced.

This film clip runs itself on loop in my mind. Does she want to be sitting with him? Is she actually interested in him? I couldn’t tell then and I can’t tell now. A similar strand of ambiguity seems to permeate post-war sexual relations between American men and Japanese women. Did American men take advantage of the poverty of Japanese women? A charitable interpretation might hold that the arrangement was a free market exchange. A more accurate one might suggest that the Americans took advantage of impoverished women. Miles away from home, tired from war, they sought comfort. Was that comfort entirely voluntary? It is difficult to say.

Herein lies my male guilt. Every time I thought of a Japanese woman sexually (which Japan somewhat encourages; the objectification of the female body is commonplace) I was treated to a pang of guilt. My mind felt the need to conjure a blasted five-second clip of an American GI on a bench. Why do I feel guilt for something in which I played no part? It wasn’t me, nor my parents, nor even my grandparents who occupied Japan. It was American GIs, 70 years ago, who I do not know and will never meet. Yet for some godforsaken reason, my conscience has chosen them as legitimate sponsors of contemporary guilt, and I am obliged to suffer the consequences.

My takeaway here isn’t all that profound. It’s more like a message from myself to myself that I’ll reproduce here. The American traveling abroad can enjoy the virtues of his predecessors. Cheers, we did a great job in 1940s Europe so  hip-hip-hooray old Uncle Sam. But if we are to celebrate our predecessor’s virtues, we must also take ownership of their faults. Which are faults and which are virtues, of course, is for the individual to decide. My conscience seems to have made a decision for me. Her smile is forced.