Ill-placed trophies and Tea Gatherings

Michiel Emmelkamp - The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited museums in the US. It has put key icons of America’s pride together. Space Shuttle Discovery, the most used spaceship in history. The Super Constellation and Boeing 707 that made it possible for the masses to cross the Atlantic in a day. An SR-72, the impressively big black spy plane that traversed the Soviet Union so high and fast that the Soviets couldn’t do more than stare helplessly at their radars, knowing that they were being spied upon, but lacking rockets with sufficient speed to do anything about it.

And then, suddenly, in the middle - Enola Gay. Indeed, the plane that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima, killing 70,000 instantly and making another 90,000 incurably ill, which finally forced the Japanese emperor to surrender. Tourists are taking pictures of this apparent top attraction. A guide tells about the preparations and the courage of the pilots. A sign tells the heroic story of the flight and its result – final victory in World War II.

But nothing about the moral dilemma, which was perhaps the most difficult one to date in human history. No empathic explanation about the effects, the casualties and destruction that may have been deemed necessary but remain horrible nonetheless. No, just presented there as part of the central narrative about America’s achievements, its innovation and imagination, its dominance in the world.

Yes, a truly American museum, very popular; and impressive, because these achievements have indeed, as Reagan said, kept freedom away from extinction. But still. A murder weapon for 160,000 people – how can one just put it there, without any reservations or context?

Monday we had the honor of visiting the residence of the Japanese ambassador. I must admit I was a bit nervous asking him about his opinion of this unreserved exposition of the weapon that instantly killed many ancestors of the people he represented - even if it served a just cause. After all, he could have hit back – calling it a disgrace. He could have declared the topic a taboo. But he didn’t. He waited a few seconds and then took a step back – stipulating the difficulty of the topic, the necessity to treat it with rationality rather than emotion. Had he been able to vote on it, he admitted, he wouldn’t have been in favor. But if the Americans had chosen to do so, then that was the course of history, and all one could do was respect, or rather accept, this choice.

Earlier, his wife had shown us around the residence and the Tea Room, a simple room where the ritual of Tea Gatherings takes place. The Japanese are in the habit of doing business over a cup of tea, and even the sayings on the wall written on scraps of paper, or the smallest hints, often have an important meaning in the conversation. It was a beautiful expression of the Japanese culture of modesty, in itself a subtle hint, a metaphor for this peaceful and gentle trading nation.

"Clear water never stops running", the scrap of paper on the wall said this time, expressing that while the past fades away, time itself never stops and the present is there to be enjoyed and lived. What a sharp contrast between the Americans, who seem to regard the tragedies of history as trophies, and the Asians, who peacefully and humbly pursue prosperity, slowly claiming their place on the world stage. Obviously, though some say its memory is fading, World War II still shapes today’s world. But after almost 70 years, maybe America can learn a few lessons from the Asian way.