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Where are the snows of yesteryear?

The past infamy of Pearl Harbor has lost its sting in a more peaceful present

  • Father William Grimm MM, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • December 8, 2011
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Outside my Tokyo window the gingko trees – late, this year – have turned brilliant yellow, standing out from the surrounding cityscape and yet-green trees before their leaves die and fall like days that once were expected to live in history, infamy, glory or whatever.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the December 8, 1941, attacks by Japan upon Malaya, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. In his address to the United States congress the next day, President Franklin D Roosevelt said that December 7, 1941, (the American date of the attacks) would be "a date which will live in infamy."

There have been many, many, many dates throughout history that those who lived them expected would be remembered forever. Most have been totally forgotten, some are remembered by historians, a few are memorized by school children for examinations and promptly forgotten. Some retain a tenuous hold on fading memories. Even 9-11 in the US or 3-11 in Japan will one day be generally, perhaps even absolutely, forgotten.

News articles about the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack that brought the US into World War II have reported that the few remaining American survivors of that attack are holding their last gathering. One, who speaks to schoolchildren of his experiences, once heard a young girl ask, "Who is Pearl Harbor?"

I live in Japan. I am interested in history and grew up in a world where nearly all the grown-up men I knew or was related to were veterans of World War II. But it was only this morning that I recalled that today is historically significant.

After all, that war was long ago, and Japan and the nations it attacked are now partners. Even the US military forces based in this country, an often-contentious legacy of that war, have earned the admiration of people for their quick and professional response to last March’s earthquake and tsunami disaster, a response called "Operation Tomodachi" (Operation Friends). The latest government survey shows a record 82 percent of Japanese holding favorable attitudes toward the US, largely due to that relief work.

Is there a lesson in this? A 15th-century French poet asked, "Where are the snows of yesteryear?" For that matter, where is yesteryear? Or even yesterday?

Certainly one lesson, illustrated by Operation Tomodachi, is that hatred, pain and resentment need not last. Time can bring healing. It can even bring a beneficial forgetfulness. I wonder how many of the young soldiers and sailors who cleared debris in northern Japan were even aware that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had fought to destroy the country.

But, I wonder if for Christians there might be one more lesson as another year of joys and pains, another year of successes and failures, another year of sin and forgiveness fades away. Even as it fades, we again approach the feast of God’s presence with us in all time.

The days of our world, the days of our lives, fade into the forgotten past. "Significant" and "insignificant" are merely words we use for a while to describe events, and even lives, that will be forgotten.

Or will they?

The 19th-century Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem "The Lantern Out of Doors" quotes the phrase, "out of sight is out of mind." But, he continues, "Christ minds."

Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of Katorikku Shimbun, Japan’s Catholic weekly.
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