Memories of a Grassroots Man

It has been heartwarming and heartbreaking, inspiring and saddening, all at the same time, to see all the tributes to and news coverage about Native American elder and activist Dennis Banks, in the wake of his passing on 29 October at age 80.

Banks is most well known for having co-founded the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s at a turbulent time in modern history and the many confrontations he led or joined in during that time, most notably the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA. He was a warrior who stood up when his people most needed him, when the times most demanded it, and for that he will always be remembered and loved.

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The Boy in the Picture: A Remembrance

A 16-year-old Japanese boy lies face down on a hospital bed, his eyes closed and face partially obscured from view. His back and arms, oozing blood and pus, show the severe radiation burns he suffered during the atomic bombing of his city, Nagasaki, just five months before by the United States. He is still clinging to life and the Japanese doctors keeping him in a bath of penicillin to fight off infection seem amazed that the boy is still alive.

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Arigato, Japan, for Thirty Years

The sight of huge gaudy billboards, one next to another, advertising some of the biggest names in Japanese electronics: Sony, Panasonic, Fujitsu — that was my first image of Japan. That was how Japan presented itself on the world stage back in the 1980s, and several decades later that is still the strongest memory I have of the country I’ve long called home.

The date was 23 December 1986, exactly 30 years ago today. It was the day I first arrived in Japan.

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Three Books in the Bag (or, A Year of Living Creatively)

It is always worth a celebration when you get a book project finished. You naturally want to share with the world the results of your labor, and you watch with great anticipation how your work is being received one way or the other. These past few years I’ve been lucky enough to get at least one book project (and sometimes two) brought to completion in a year’s time.

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POTUS Comes to Hiroshima

History was made one month ago when POTUS (President of the United States) Barack Obama landed in the city of Hiroshima, Japan — the first sitting American president to ever visit the site since it was destroyed by a single atomic bomb on August 6, 1945.

Depending on who you are and what your political views may be, the visit to Hiroshima by Obama was: (1) flawless, with one of the greatest speeches of all time (2) a good photo opportunity and little else (3) a great disappointment, since he didn’t apologize to the Japanese for anything (4) an insult to American war veterans for daring to go there in the first place (5) an obvious slight to the Japanese atomic survivors, since he didn’t listen to any of their stories of suffering (6) a missed chance at making a major anti-nuclear policy speech (7) or anything else you can think of.

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Fukushima, Year 5, and Counting...

Nine days ago, March 11, marked Japan’s slide into Year No. 5 of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. So much has happened these past five years, and yet so little seems to have been meaningfully accomplished in the way of resolving what can be called without exaggeration the worst nuclear accident in the history of humankind.

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A Place Called ‘Motomenai’

The Japanese press reported widely in early January of this year about the recent death of someone I had known fairly well, Shozo Kajima, of old age. He was 92 years old. He was cited in most of the obituaries as the author of a mega-bestselling poetry book titled Motomenai [Not wanting], published in 2007.

But what most of the media here didn’t report in their brief stories on Kajima were the kinds of things I had gotten to know personally about him in recent years: how he had been among the up-and-coming literary figures in Japan after World War II, how he became a renowned scholar and translator of English-language classics (especially by the U.S. author William Faulkner), how he found a new form of expression in watercolor painting, and how, later in life, he rediscovered his Asian roots in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and had become known as a respected Taoist philosopher in Japan.

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