One August 26, 1961, while stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Buckner, Sukiran, Okinawa, I wrote my parents a typed, five-page, single-spaced letter. I do not remember writing it, but I hinted in an earlier letter that I wanted to say something about my experiences in the Far East. Mother kept it with all the others I wrote from Okinawa. I reproduce this letter at length, with some editing. Despite its pompous tone, I feel what I was trying to say 56 years ago still has validity in 2017. Here goes:
I have had some conversation of late and some experiences that have caused me to do a great amount of serious thinking. I seem to become tense and fraught when I think too seriously, so it is easier not to think; but, unfortunately, there are times when thinking cannot be avoided …
For a year and a half I have lived on this island that lies between three seas. It has been a time of countless new experiences, getting to know a different people and making new friends. Never before have I been made so conscious of my nationality, made so aware that I am an American. And since I was educated in a rather old-fashioned view of patriotism, this consciousness takes a peculiar air.
It is extremely difficult to be an American. I have just begun to fully realize this. Americans who have never been in a foreign country do not know how difficult it is. Americans who are in foreign countries and who limit their existence to life in the American “ghettos” found there do not know this either. And when you are an American who does not want “ghetto” life and who likes people, regardless of their race or habits, you are immediately subjected to shock, embarrassment, and frustration.
The first shock is the realization that every action, regardless of its supposed insignificance, is not at all insignificant but is, in fact, a weapon of war — a fantastic war of human minds and of immeasurable propensity and a war that America is allegedly losing. Almost everyone in the world, it seems, except Americans, know that we are losing.
This war is not the war you read about in the newspapers. What you read in the press is only the visible manifestations of a rather tired ideological power struggle. This war is not the war fought through the government-planned programs, i.e., Voice of America, the Peace Corps, foreign aid and mutual assistance pacts. The war is one of immediate human relationships. The important battle is the one that occurs when an American, be he tourist, government civilian, or soldier, buys cigarettes in a Japanese shop, when an American has a beer in a German brauhaus, when an American goes touring in Capetown, South Africa, when an American orders a suit in London, when an American eats fried noodles in Hong Kong. Everything depends on how the American speaks, walks, or wears his clothes; a casual comment on some small cultural difference or an excessive demand for a service can do more damage, and can create a more lasting impression, than if a platoon of troopers raped an entire Chinese girl’s school in the streets of Taipei. This is the war we are fighting. Unfortunately, most people do not realize the magnitude of the battle — the battle that is that intimate moment in a life when one human being looks at another and, in infinite space of time, decides he does not like the other human being. When that other human being is an American the battle is lost. To me it is a horribly sad, frightening devastation and I wonder if we must be so helpless in the ignorance of our own actions.
This is the first shock — the realization of the battle.
The second shock is the awakening to the fact that you, an ordinary being, can be hated for what seems to be no apparent reason. This is, of course, the result of previous encounters lost. But it is not a pleasant feeling to walk the streets of a foreign town or village and look at the people you pass and, as they look at you with either obvious curiosity or seeming indifference, wonder what they are thinking about you, wonder just what thoughts are passing through their heads.
Some people would say that what foreigners think of us isn’t important. They would way: by god, we’re the greatest and most advanced country in the world and these other people ought to appreciate this and everything else we’ve done for them. If they don’t like the way we are, to hell with ‘em.
Some years ago we could say this and feel quite secure. When an American says this today, however, he betrays his country. Not only is such an attitude fatal from the practical point of survival in this age, but it is also, in my opinion, an ignorant, stupid expression of unthinkingness contrary to all Christian doctrine that I know. … I do not mean we must kow-tow. I mean we must be decently honest. Only the poor can afford to be arrogant.
It is the person who is aware of the battle we are engaged in, aware of the influence of his actions, who suffers battle shock and frustration. The more criminal element that exists, the unknowing, uncaring American, does not suffer such emotions. He is in oblivion. But the American who tries to learn what the people of other nations think of him and his country, who manages to become intimate enough, say, with a Japanese to discuss personal subjects, who manages to be somewhat a friend in the real sense of the word — this American is the one who suffers.
From my own experience I know that an “international” friendship is, in actuality, a painful experience. Aside from the obvious cultural and linguistic differences between the individuals involved, there is the innate and sub-conscious sense of national entity and/or race that hinders any but a basically superficial rapport. Therefore, there must be a totally unexpected and spontaneous occurrence of some kind that will create a sense of comradeship that is greater than the sense of nationality. I think I can honestly say that I have experienced a few such unexpected occurrences.
The position of the American in such a situation is, I think, much more difficult than the position of the other person, the non-American. First, simply because he is an American. The so-called “typical” American image must be overcome. America’s current dominant role in the world places the American in the position of having to come to grips with the non-American’s culture and customs first. The American’s friend has probably already been “Americanized,” or at least somewhat Westernized in the cast of the Asian, via the study of English, movies, TV, Coke, baseball and social dancing. The burden of proof, therefore, lies with the American. After the American has become familiar with the other person’s history, social mores, contemporary situation and perhaps his language, the going is easier. When the American makes this effort, he expects his friend to make a similar effort. This doesn’t always happen and the American is frightened by the fact that he has received no response for his endeavor.
As Professor Segi remarks in Jiro Osaragi’s novel, “Tabiji,” “… Human beings, you see, are constructed in a remarkably complicated way. Very often they do not show their real feelings at all. And you can’t take them apart, like watches or radios, to examine them. …”
There will always be differences between the individuals involved. But if it is a true friendship the differences will be no greater than between two persons of the same nationality and background. And these differences will be understood in terms of the individuals, rather than in terms of national images.
It is, however, disturbing to be told that you are not thought to be a typical American because you are quiet, polite and interested in the people of the country you are in, rather than loud, demanding and deprecating of that country’s way of life. I say this because I have been told that I am not a “typical American” for these reasons. But how is one supposed to feel when told such a thing? It is a compliment to me, yes, but the inference made is not complimentary. Bluntly, the question is: What have my fellow Americans been doing?