Today is a day that was supposed to live in infamy.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. response, kicked off a chain of events – including the internment and the atomic bombings – that still reverberate today.

day_of_infamy quoteWhat do we know? President Roosevelt called Pearl Harbor an “unprovoked and dastardly attack” by a nation we were at peace with. Months after declaring war, Roosevelt deemed it “militarily necessary” to give the Secretary of War the power to control large segments of the country, and strip people of their citizenship, liberty and property (via Executive Order 9066), which resulted in the imprisonment of 120,000 American citizens and their Japanese immigrant parents. Three and a half years later, President Truman dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, calling the bomb “marvelous,” and “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.” He threatened the complete and rapid obliteration of Japan and promised “a new era” of atomic energy.

What if it was also common knowledge that before Pearl Harbor the US had imposed economic sanctions on Japan, frozen Japanese assets, and broken the Japanese diplomatic code? That two weeks before the attack, the Secretary of War (him again) wrote in his diary of efforts “to maneuver the Japanese into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves”?  Would we still believe that acts of war have no provocation?

What if schools taught these truths about the internment: that there was no evidence of spying, that it was the result of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” for which the US government apologized, and that the Japanese Americans who volunteered to serve the US army out of the internment camps were some of the most decorated US soldiers in military history? Would we still have politicians today pointing to it as an example to emulate today?

What if the public knew that Japan had been trying to surrender for months before we bombed them to “save lives”? What if our government have not squelched the images of the devastation, or the very unmarvelous truth about radiation sickness – would we have detonated more than 2000 nuclear bombs since then? Would we be more aware of the fact that 75% of our nuclear power plants in the United States are leaking? That, four years after the disaster in Fukushima, Japan is still dumping tons of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean, and it is now detectable in the water of the US coast?

History, as we have famously been reminded, is written by the victors, and alternate narratives are too often dismissed as conspiracy theories or beside-the-facts. My point in this history lesson is that we do know much more than the safe, comfortable sound bites that we choose to hang onto. We have actual images, diaries, records, declassified documents that prove that reality is more complicated that we allow it to be.

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel reminds us of this truth: ”the world did know and remained silent.”

How does a writer “break the silence” when the facts are readily available, just ignored?

For me, this infamous anniversary is a reminder of how we choose not to hear, not to see, not to know, and most of all, not to learn from our mistakes. It is not a lack of information that hampers us, but a plethora that paralyzes us. As a result, we tend to come up with simplistic responses, and, at the same time, throw up our hands in despair at the complexity of the situation. We block each other out, refuse to listen; we let ourselves be led away from common ground. Silence, rhetoric, despair – all different ways to come up with the same response: nothing.

To police brutality. Gun violence. Racism. Environmental degradation and climate change. Redlining, redistricting, resegregating, restricting the vote. Limiting access to women’s reproductive healthcare. Closing our borders to refugees. The list goes on and on.

What do we do, as writers?

I don’t know. Do you?

At the January residency, Douglas A. Martin and I are going to be initiating a discussion on resistance. We’ll see where it goes: What do we resist? How can we resist? How do we as writers take the information we have and shape an understanding? How do we change the narrative once and for all?

In the comments below, I invite you to share a “silence” that we know. Maybe if we each focus on just one, we can begin to understand the narratives that are spun to confuse and obfuscate; the falsehoods and tangents that encourage complacence. We can find ways to “interfere” rather than become “accomplices”:

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.” (Elie Wiesel)

Give it some thought, and join us at the Writer in the World panel at the residency, or here, in the comments.

This Day, in Infamy and History
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Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is the author of the memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was a National Book Critics Circle Finalist, an Asian American Literary Award Finalist, a Dayton Literary Peace Prize Nominee, and the winner of the Grub Street National Book Award. Her first novel, Why She Left Us, won an American Book Award in 2000. She is also a recipient of the U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. She was Associate Editor of The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings About New York City and is a Hedgebrook alumna. Reiko has been interviewed widely on motherhood including on The Today Show, 20/20, and The View. Her articles on motherhood, Hiroshima, the Japanese internment camps and radiation poisoning have been published globally, including in the L.A. Times, Guardian UK, CNN Opinion and Salon, and through the Progressive Media Project. She is a faculty member at Goddard College in the MFA in Creative Writing program, and is the advisor of the national literary journal, Clockhouse. Reiko is Japanese/Caucasian and was raised in Hawaii.
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12 thoughts on “This Day, in Infamy and History

  • December 8, 2015 at 9:21 am
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    Dearest Reiko & Jan,
    Great piece, great comments.

    Posted Reiko’s essay on my FB page. Because nationalism scares me. Because writers need to keep getting the truth out. Because we are not alone. Because look at the Presidential candidates. Because Truth is Beauty.

    Stay strong, j

  • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
    December 7, 2015 at 8:19 pm
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    Hi Claire,

    Not open to non-Dardians, but here’s the good news: we are happy to have alums join us if you are in the neighborhood. In fact (going to put this in bold to catch readers’ eyes), our new policy is that all Visiting Writer and Alumni events in the residency schedules – the readings and the workshops – are now open to alums. And, as it turns out, the Writer in the World discussion is scheduled just before Carla Norton’s workshop. So the schedule – still in draft form – is that Mark Doty reads in the evening of January 6th (open to the public), then Thursday the 7th begins with his workshop in the morning after advising group (alums invited), then ends with Carla’s evening reading (public). The next morning, we will talk about resistance, then Carla is giving a workshop on the Arc of the Novel – both open to alums. So if you are a Goddard alum, and you are local, we’d love to see you.

    For others, I like your idea for the radio station. I have to look into it more.

  • December 7, 2015 at 5:25 pm
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    Sadly, resistance in the medical community as it pertains to women’s understanding and control over their own bodies is present in even the most seemingly benign situations.

    My evidence is personal and anecdotal not statistical- but all too real. As a peer counselor for many years to female cancer survivors I have seen resistance by some patients to be their own advocates to avoid “upsetting the doctor” and doctors resist accepting opinions that come from other doctors or by patients.

    As a “seemingly benign” example of resistance, I offer a recent one of my own. Sitting naked but for a paper gown on an examination table, I asked my doctor what kind of screening I could expect as a cancer survivor heading toward menopause. He immediately strode to the door and with his hand on the knob offered, (only upon my insistence of an answer) that the “protocol is inconclusive” and walked out the door.

    This is a benign resistance, an avoidance- that could have tragic results. I saw another doctor.
    Many women would not have done so.

    As a writer I have chosen to be an example of how to use my voice through the workshops I lead. I only hope that as the women I work with are celebrated in class for their voices, they become more vocal in every aspect of their lives, especially their health care.

    • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
      December 7, 2015 at 8:48 pm
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      “Personal” and “anecdotal” are some of the most powerful tools we have to share experience and effect change. I suspect part of the reason for these “pernicious silences” (thank you, Jan) and rhetoric is a lack of empathy, as well as a worry that what we see/believe/know is not significant enough – which either silences us or makes us shout over each other. Personal anecdote can address both of those things. Hope to hear more from you at the residency!

  • December 7, 2015 at 5:08 pm
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    Thank you, Reiko. Your amazing piece makes so many necessary connections; above all, for me, what resonates is the reminder of the atrocities perennially committed in the name of a self-righteous nationalism. The danger is there whatever the specific nation may be, but is exacerbated in the case of the U.S. by our rhetoric of “exceptionalism” (the claim to be somehow a MORE virtuous nation than the others)…not to mention by the arrogance of empire. Your call to name pernicious silences has set my brain to buzzing at such a level that it’s hard to pick one. However, I will follow the assignment! I’d like to talk about the relationship between socioeconomic class and education: how class determines access to education, how education gets advertised as an escape from the negative consequences of one’s class background (which, of course, is not even supposed to be a real factor in this “equal” yet increasingly stratified country), how assumptions about class determine the formats of mainstream education and also, undoubtedly, inflect the innovations of “progressive” models. And how we experience all of this at Goddard…inevitably, as our institution cannot possibly stand apart from the larger society.

    • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
      December 7, 2015 at 8:35 pm
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      And I want to hear your thoughts, Jan! What I’m hoping is that by looking at the difference between what we know, and what we are told is true, we will find new ways to approach old problems. We may be doing more sharing in the discussion, and less saving the world (yet), but this is a topic that I expect many will want to contribute to, and perhaps will continue to work on as the semester progresses.

  • December 7, 2015 at 1:35 pm
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    It’s unnerving to me that Pearl Harbor Day inspires flag-waving. I recently tried to write about this, Reiko, but you’ve done a far better job of illuminating these events.

    Few Americans reflect on the fact that Honolulu was not bombed. Civilians were not bombed.
    The armed warships anchored in Pearl Harbor were military targets. The unsuspecting populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not.

    I look forward to talking with next month at Goddard. In the meantime, I’ve just posted this article, “Breaking News: Crisis Reveal Character,” which I was inspired by all jingoistic hate-speech we’re hearing so much in the news.

    • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
      December 7, 2015 at 8:24 pm
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      Looking forward to seeing you too, Carla. This discussion will take place immediately before your workshop. Maybe you’ll drop by? Meanwhile, where is your article posted? Is there a link you can share?

      • December 8, 2015 at 11:15 am
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        Yes, my article, “Breaking News: Crisis Reveals Character,” is posted on AlgonquinRedux.com, where I blog monthly. Here’s the link: http://algonquinredux.com/author/carlawriter/ Also, my website–CarlaNorton.com–now has a “Blog” tab, and if you click on that, it will take you to all the pieces I’ve written for AR over the past two years. Thanks for asking!

  • December 7, 2015 at 11:47 am
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    Thanks for this, Reiko. For reminding us that silence is tantamount to agreement. My public resistance has been in the form of volunteering during elections and marching, although the last time I marched against war (in Santa Fe in 2003, with hundreds of other people), the media forgot to notice.

    Perhaps the place to start is with one thing, one burning issue, such as gun control. What if we could get fellow universities to align against the sales of assault weapons? To press for background checks on the sales of ALL weapons? Or . . . any number of other issues, as you’ve listed.

    I’m behind whatever you do, but won’t be back in January (having graduated this June). Please broadcast your discussions so alumni can stay involved.

    peace, Kita

    • Profile photo of Reiko Rizzuto
      December 7, 2015 at 8:22 pm
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      Hi Kita, Love the idea of university-led pressure for social issues like gun control. If we find a way to broadcast, we’ll make sure to let you know. And if you are in the neighborhood…

  • December 7, 2015 at 11:27 am
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    Is the panel discussion at the January residency open to alumnae/i? How about non-‘Dardians? I would like to invite my poetry group, the Gossamer Stone Poets, as well as the Sistah Writahs (writing group that formed from my 2006 teaching practicum and is still meeting) to form a caravanserai to this.

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