September 11 Through a Japanese Lens

A distant perspective can put moral and logical issues in the sharpest focus, something being an American in Tokyo has taught me

By Brian Bremner

Living abroad certainly has its moments -- not all of them exactly pleasant, especially since September 11, 2001. When terror struck in New York, the Pentagon, and rural Pennsylvania, I watched the whole thing on CNN just like millions of other Americans and millions more of every nationality around the world. But from Sept. 12 forward, I have been dealing with the welter of emotions one feels about such outrages in a different place, Japan, which doesn't necessarily see the world as Americans do.

Yes, I know, it seems an obvious point. But it has complicated things. So has the fact that I'm raising two daughters who, truth be told, don't really think of themselves as Americans. They speak Japanese, play with Japanese kids, carry Japanese passports. My eldest, who is 6, has taken notice of the impact of the event, and I have tried to explain what happened as best I could, without scaring the hell out of her with visions of a terror-filled future or coming off as one angry American -- which I certainly was for about six months.

In hindsight, I realize I'm going to remember for a very long time quite a few things that have happened in the year since, most of them inspiring. There were initial and small acts of kindness and acknowledgement in the early days after the attacks. On the train into central Tokyo on Sept. 12, no fewer than three Japanese asked me if I was an American, expressed their condolences, or asked if I had lost anybody close in the attack.


  A few days later, during a solitary lunch, a Japanese executive who had lived in America sat down and just started talking about what the attacks had meant to him. After all, the lives of Japanese, particularly bankers and traders working at the World Trade Center offices of Fuji Bank and others, were snuffed out by Islamic extremists as well.

The public discourse in the Japanese press has probably been similar to much of the European press. It started off extremely sympathetic, was mildly supportive but skeptical during the campaign against the Taliban, and has been extremely critical and sometimes quite anti-American ever since. I happen to think that kind of give-and-take about American foreign policy is quite a good thing, by and large. But it's also true that it isn't just the Europeans who see America as arrogant, unpredictable, and maybe even a little dangerous.

Some of the commentary has been surprisingly thoughtful. Early on in the crisis, former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa reminded his countrymen in a published interview that the U.S. was a very young country that doesn't have a long history of dealing with cataclysmic societal shocks. At first, I thought such thinking somehow trivialized what had taken place in my homeland. But now I think Miyazawa, who lived through much worse turmoil than most ordinary Americans -- a government on a military rampage, the atomic bombings, and a national collapse -- was on to something.


  Back in 1995, a devastating earthquake took the lives of 6,000-plus in Kobe. No, it wasn't a terrorist attack, but it was terrifying. I remember the frantic emotions of my wife, Yuki, who couldn't reach her sister in a nearby town for many hours. I recall, too, a TV announcer breaking down at the end of a very long day of nonstop coverage devoted to the carnage.

Obviously, those most directly affected by the quake are still living with the consequences and always will be. But the society at large eventually found a way to rebuild Kobe, place the disaster in the right context, and move on.

The challenge facing the U.S., of course, is different, far more multifaceted -- and potentially lethal. But maybe it's worth remembering Stateside that we aren't the only country to suffer such a lethal blow. In fact, we've had a pretty safe and prosperous run. That's not to say Americans in any way deserved what happened a year ago. But in watching and reading the saturation coverage of September 11 in the American media, it came off as a bit too self-absorbed and overwrought.


  I've learned that sometimes it's a delicate balancing act between being a father and a red-blooded Yank with fairly hawkish views on dealing with terror. My daughter thinks America is a pretty scary and predatory country right now. She watched the images of Americans bombing the hell out of Afghanistan, the associated civilian casualties, and my bet is that, in 2003, the big show will move to Iraq.

Obviously, it's tough to make an extended argument to a 6-year-old about the history of extreme Islamic thought and the nightmarish scenarios of a world with loose nukes and all manner of chemical and biological weapons. If we lived in New York right now, I wouldn't have to bother.

What am I getting at here? Well, maybe that context really does matter a lot more than we think. The risk in the U.S. is that the understandable shock and outrage of a year ago didn't create a lot of moral clarity but dulled us to some creative thinking about what American values truly are about. It may also lead the U.S. into some very ugly foreign-policy blunders if the country doesn't try to think through precisely how its actions will affect the rest of the world.

And here's the punch line: I'm pretty sure I would never have given this too much thought if I hadn't experienced September 11 through the prism of Japan.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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