The day after we roamed the Atomic Peace gardens, we woke in bustling Kyoto: ‘The City of 10,000 Shrines’ which was only spared the same fate as Hiroshima at the personal behest of US Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Stimson so loved the city that he had spent his own honeymoon there, before imploring the President in the midst of international crisis ‘there was one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto’.
Our own love affair with the former Imperial capital began with a day at Kyoto University, where prominent academics took us back in time to key events in Japanese history that shaped the complexity of its domestic structures and foreign relations today.
During the first lecture, Professor Sochi Naraoka gave due appreciation to the Great War centenary by transporting us back to the Japanese involvement in the First World War. Unfortunately the legacy of Japan being ‘on the wrong side of history’ during the Second World War has meant that much of its efforts in the First have been forgotten. We discovered how Japan joined the war in pursuit of German territory in the Asia Pacific, and proved a formidable ally in Europe when it dispatched escorts to the Mediterranean in 1917 to protect Allied convoys. On April 10th the Japanese were called to escort the British ship Saxon from Port Said to my home country of Malta, where they were then stationed for the rest of the war. How extraordinary for me to voyage over 10,000 kilometres, only to find such an emotional link between home and my host country! The Mediterranean was a vital theatre of strategic importance during the War, the protection of its maritime operations essential for the transport of Allied resources and troops. As the Governor of Malta, Lord Methuen, praised the Japanese forces still based on the islands in 1919 he wished that ‘God grant our alliance, cemented in blood, may long endure’. Although the rest of the century unfolded in a way that severed this bond for many years, sitting in the classroom by my newfound Japanese colleagues today I was moved by the shared experience of our ancestors and the courage they shared in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. This was a side of our common history I never knew before and which added a personal dimension to my learning on this trip.
Apart from the centenary, today also marks the 60th Anniversary of Japan’s accession to the United Nations, making Professor Hiroshi Nakanishi’s lecture on ‘Japanese Diplomacy’ particularly timely and building on our previous discussion on UN Security Reform at MOFA. The talk introduced the unique geopolitics of the Japanese islands, found at the edge of the Continent and the Pacific, and the challenges posed by the earthquake-inducing tectonic plates upon which it sits. We charted the course from a stretched empire, through the ‘Yoshida Doctrine’ whereby post World War II reconstruction of Japan was focused on peaceful economic expansion and cooperation, whilst enabling its security alliance with the United States to guarantee security. As Japan became an economic power house in the 1980s, the end of the Cold War saw a transformation of the US-Japan alliance and today Japan plays more of a security role as it asserts regional and global co-leadership. Relations with the USA, Russia, China, Korea and Europe today were all delved into and as European visitors, we could identify shared liberal values, the same challenges of ageing societies, and an enduring long-term cultural understanding which reinforces our ability to work together across the continental divide.
Whilst our heads were filled with knowledge, our souls too were nourished as we spent our break in contemplation at the Yoshida Shrine. Kyoto University is adjacent to the shrine, which is found in the heart of a forest at the food of Mount Yoshida. After the flurry of our eighty enthusiastic students hastening from station to station and city to city, the visit to the shrine brought a moment of stillness and quiet from the intensity of the remarkable schedule. As we returned to the University, it felt as though there was a benevolent solemnity and wisdom just beyond its walls, laying a strong foundation for the young people who pass by each day.
Text and pictures: Hillary Briffa