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What We Heard About the Japanese -- Rachel Rose

Guest poem sent in by Laura Simeon
(Poem #982) What We Heard About the Japanese
 We heard they would jump from buildings
 at the slightest provocation: low marks

 On an exam, a lovers' spat
 or an excess of shame.

 We heard they were incited by shame,
 not guilt. That they

 Loved all things American.
 Mistrusted anything foreign.

 We heard their men liked to buy
 schoolgirls' underwear

 And their women
 did not experience menopause or other

 Western hysterias. We heard
 they still preferred to breastfeed,

 Carry handkerchiefs, ride bicycles
 and dress their young like Victorian

 Pupils. We heard that theirs
 was a feminine culture. We heard

 That theirs was an example of extreme
 patriarchy. That rape

 Didn't exist on these islands. We heard
 their marriages were arranged, that

 They didn't believe in love. We heard
 they were experts in this art above all others.

 That frequent earthquakes inspired insecurity
 and lack of faith. That they had no sense of irony.

 We heard even faith was an American invention.
 We heard they were just like us under the skin.
-- Rachel Rose
Today's poem is actually one of a pair, and I think they really work best
read together....

    'What the Japanese Perhaps Heard'

    Perhaps they heard we don't understand them
    very well. Perhaps this made them

    Pleased. Perhaps they heard we shoot
    Japanese students who ring the wrong

    Bell at Hallowe'en. That we shoot
    at the slightest provocation: a low mark

    On an exam, a lovers' spat, an excess
    of guilt. Perhaps they wondered

    If it was guilt we felt at the sight of that student
    bleeding out among our lawn flamingos,

    Or something recognizable to them,
    something like grief. Perhaps

    They heard that our culture
    has its roots in desperate immigration

    And lone men. Perhaps they observed
    our skill at raising serial killers,

    That we value good teeth above
    good minds and have no festivals

    To remember the dead. Perhaps they heard
    that our grey lakes are deep enough to swallow cities,

    That our landscape is vast wheat and loneliness.
    Perhaps they ask themselves if, when grief

    Wraps its wet arms around Montana, we would not prefer
    the community of archipelagos

    Upon which persimmons are harvested
    and black fingers of rock uncurl their digits

    In the mist. Perhaps their abacus echoes
    the shape that grief takes,

    One island
    bleeding into the next,

    And for us grief is an endless cornfield,
    silken and ripe with poison.

      -- Rachel Rose

Rachel Rose is a young Canadian/American poet whose work has been published
in a volume of the Hugh MacLennan Poetry Series (_Giving My Body to
Science_, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1999,
[broken link] http://www.mqup.mcgill.ca/99/rose.htm), as well as appearing in _The Best
American Poetry 2001_.

When I first read these poems, they resonated strongly with me on several
levels. Being half Japanese, I have heard it all: both extreme negative
stereotypes and the almost unbelievable idealizing of Japanese culture that
some Westerners indulge in. Either approach reduces the Japanese to
something not quite like us, whether it's less-than-human or super-human.
Rachel Rose captures these absurdity of these contradictions economically
and strikingly in just a few lines.

Secondly, as an American with many friends from Japan, I'm often in the
position of trying to explain things about US culture that I can barely
grasp myself. Things like guns and individualism and attitudes towards the
elderly. Rose's second poem crystallizes all of this into a few vivid and
colorful images, showing us how strange and inscrutable we can appear when
viewed from the outside.

And finally, the timing of when I read poems felt significant. Much of what
I've been hearing lately about Muslims reminds me painfully of what was said
about the Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. They were
seen as people with no respect for life or regard for self-preservation, no
sense of morality that we could understand, showing fanatical loyalty to an
evil empire, and threatening our culture with their alien customs. I.e. not
"good Christians." Sound familiar? Life for Muslims in America today must be
much like it was for Japanese during World War II. It makes me ache, but I
do have hope that we can learn from past mistakes.

Laura Simeon

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