Before the cultural assault of the 1980s the word Japanese was almost universally associated with three things: cheap transistor radios, “tinny” automobiles, and, The War. In the 1970s phrases containing derogatory words like ‘Nips’ were common, and the Japanese almost universally despised, especially in small towns where xenophobia ran freely and easily between the minds and mouths of locals unused to difference greater than that between beef or chicken fried rice.

As Merv, my grandfather has grown older I’ve continued to observe that his use of these phrases was always guarded, and it is only now, in his dotage, that I’ve heard him really put weight behind words like “the Yanks”, or worse and most cringe inducing, that “Yank nigger”. But for the Japanese he always seemed to reserve some respect, even to this day.

It was with the turn of the 1990s and the death of my Grandmother, that sergeant-major of a woman, who continued to speak ill of the Japanese until her heart finally gave out on her, that Merv was able to return to Japan as part of his second trip outside the Antipodes. And I’ve often wondered what he felt when he landed in the new, slick, modern Japan built on the profits of sales to the West. Did his thoughts echo back to that time of misery? Of poverty? Of ritualistic and sadistic humiliation of a nation? Of blustering, arrogant American soldiers demanding recompense for a war they they themselves forced?

A tale Merv tells of  Japan is being a tractor driver in the ruins of Hiroshima. He tells of winter snows, and the absolute desolation of the landscape. Of still-proud but shamed Japanese begging in the streets. Of the few remaining buildings perched precariously in the kind of post-apocalyptic landscape we discussed and feared so widely during the days of the Cold War, when a fiery holocaust was a possibility we all considered.

And he tells of being on that tractor, and of working with others to lift a ruined concrete wall. And of a wave of heat hitting he and the other workers, despite the chill air, and frozen ground. But this was common, yes?

New Zealanders, lackeys to the Empire just one last time.

It was when he returned that the price of that life-changing trip occurred. A simple illness at first, a swelling in the neck. The disbelief of doctors that he was sick at all. The gradual loss of hair from his entire body, bar his armpits, and an associated loss of a third of his body weight. A third.

But in the midst of all this, and illness that crippled and almost killed him, he seems to have seen not a price paid by the Japanese for a crime, albeit one committed against another nation he continues to dislike, but simply a crime. And so the warrior became, it seems, and despite all bluster to the contrary, a pacifist.

F,FLP

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