Sunday, January 24, 2010

Snow Falling on Cedars

In the past, I've posted about my inadequate history education. I remember studying American history up through World War II, with minimal focus on concentration camps and no mention of Japanese internment camps or much about Japan's role in the war beyond Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. To be honest, Japan wasn't much on my radar screen until I left the U.S. at the age of 21 to go live there. I ended up in Japan mostly by chance...I wanted to live abroad, and a visiting professor at PLU had a contact in Japan who was recruiting teachers. I applied for a job and my offer letter said they wanted me to start the next month. I knew absolutely no Japanese and had never traveled abroad. I had applied on a whim, and decided that if I got offered a job, I would go. You might say Japan chose me.

After living in Japan and traveling throughout Asia for three years, I grew to love many things about the country and its people...and dislike other things.

Disliked: the low status of women and girls, racism toward other Asians (for example, Koreans), rigid reliance on tradition and protocol, feudalism, and extreme politeness toward people in one's social circle combined with apathy and even rudeness at times toward people outside one's social circle.

Loved: the generosity of spirit of the Japanese people, food, appreciation for beauty and aesthetics, contemplative nature of the culture, reverence of culture and tradition, appreciation of the senses and the seasons, and value placed on culture, family, and respect.

We left Japan over 20 years ago and haven't returned since...but I have revisited over and over again in books, movies, plays, you name it. Of course when Snow Falling on Cedars was published in 1994, I read it immediately. It seemed to be the "it book" of that year. Apparently it's frequently banned in school libraries--another reason for me to reread it! (I'm sure those people who ban books also are not too happy about the interracial romance...)

This afternoon we went to the Portland Center Stage (PCS) production of Snow Falling on Cedars. Before the play began, Mike and I were commenting that since Chris Coleman joined PCS 10 years ago, he has brought a wonderful diversity of voices onto the stage. How many plays depict the Japanese-American experience, much less that dark period in American history when its own citizens and residents were interned?

For those who have not read the book or cannot remember the plot, Snow is the story of a Japanese-American Northwest fisherman, Kabuo, accused of killing another fisherman. Racial tensions are high in post-war America, and ironically, one of Kabuo's central accusers was the victim's mother, a German immigrant. As a person of German ancestry, I wonder myself why Germans were not interned as well during the war? Could it be the color of their skin?

As always, the acting and staging were impeccable. The fishing boats, courtroom, and internment camps were depicted mostly by spare sets and mime. I was especially impressed with the actors playing the Japanese and Japanese-American roles, and I always love watching Scott Coopwood, a PCS veteran.

Leaving the restroom at intermission, I ran into a woman whose eldest son is a classmate of Chris. She and her husband had brought both their sons to the play (a 7th grader and a 5th grader). What a unique education for them, to learn about prejudice and this part of America's history at their ages. Plays and historical fiction make history come alive.

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