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The Power of Empathy (Special to The Japan Times, Aug. 9, 2005)

Published in The Japan Times on Aug. 9, 2005.

August is a time when the questions of war and peace seem to hang in the heavy summer air, like the feverish trilling of the cicadas. This year, in particular, marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, which finally came to a close with Japan's surrender on August 15, 1945.

What did humanity learn from the cataclysmic events of those years and in the decades since? The continuing fact of war, the carefully planned slaughter of humans by their fellows, makes it tempting to answer: very little. Now, as then, it is ordinary people--it is especially mothers and children guilty of no crime whatsoever--who bear the brunt of the appalling physical and mental suffering wrought by war.

So many of the young men of my generation were incited by the militarist government to march proudly into battle and give their lives. The families left behind were praised for their sacrifices to protect the home front and as "military mothers"--a term deemed to carry high honor. But, in reality, what a devastating tumult of pain, grief and misery swirled in the depths of their hearts! A mother's love, a mother's wisdom, is too great to be fooled by such empty phrases as "for the sake of the nation."

One incident from that time is still vivid in my mind. It happened one early morning in the spring of 1945, after a sleepless night taking cover from the air raids that were by that point a regular occurrence.

Around dawn, about a hundred B-29s flew away, heading into the eastern horizon. Though they were the planes of the enemy, they were a magnificent sight, and I watched them until they were tiny dots in the sky.

Just then someone shouted, "Hey! What's that?" Something was falling from the sky. It was a parachute. A plane must have been hit, and now an enemy soldier was dropping towards us. The soldier landed in a field some 200 or 300 meters away. From what I heard later, as soon as he landed, a group of people ran up to him and began beating him with sticks. Someone also dashed up with a Japanese sword, threatening to kill him. Beaten nearly senseless, he was eventually led away by the military police, with his arms tied behind his back and his eyes blindfolded.

When I got back and told my mother what had happened, she said, "How awful! His mother must be so worried about him."

My mother was a very ordinary woman, in many ways the product of the era in which she was born and raised. But looking back, I am struck by her ability, as a mother, to empathize with the sufferings of a fellow mother--an "enemy" mother separated by thousands of kilometers of physical distance and by the high walls of political ideology.

Women are, in my view, natural peacemakers. As givers and nurturers of life, through their focus on human relationships and their engagement with the demanding work of raising children and protecting family life, they develop a deep sense of empathy that cuts through to underlying human realities.

When the war's end came on August 15, there was a widespread sense that the inevitable had finally happened, that the defeat that had clearly become unavoidable had finally arrived. And there was a widespread, if largely unvoiced, sense of relief. No one at the time could bring themselves to come out and say, "I'm glad Japan lost," but that was, I am sure, the sentiment in many hearts.

My mother had often expressed her disgust for the war, her wish that it would soon be over. I remember her diminutive figure as she prepared dinner that night with an almost girlish excitement: "How bright it is! Now we can keep the lights on!"

Her greatest wish was for the safe return of her four sons, my elder brothers, all sent to the front in China and Southeast Asia. Over the next two years my brothers returned home, one by one. In their tattered uniforms, they were a pathetic sight. All returned except my eldest brother, Kiichi. We hadn't heard a word from him since he reported having left China for Southeast Asia.

From time to time, my mother would tell us that she'd seen Kiichi in a dream, and that he'd told her that he would soon return.

Eventually, on May 30, 1947, we received the news of Kiichi's death in the form of a letter brought by an elderly local official. We had moved after having been burned out of our home, and apparently it had been difficult to track us down. My mother bowed politely and accepted the letter. She turned her back to us, shuddering with grief. One of my other brothers went to pick up Kiichi's cremated remains. I couldn't bear to look at my mother as she stood clasping the small white box that held all that was left of her eldest child. I felt, in the depths of my being, the tragedy and cruel waste of war.

Surely no era can rival the twentieth century in terms of the number of mothers throughout the world forced to shed bitter tears of pain and sorrow. Women and mothers are the greatest victims of war--wars started virtually without exception by men.

To end the human institution of war, to relegate it to history with such barbarous practices as slavery--at one time also considered natural, inevitable, "part of human nature"--we must establish respect for the inviolable dignity of human life as the core value of our age. Rather than turning away from the staggering scale and depth of misery caused by war, we must strive to develop our capacity to empathize and feel the sufferings of others.

It is up to ordinary people--each of us--to voice our abhorrence of violence and war. Men and women who know the brutal reality of war, who know that war strips people of their very humanity, must unite in a new global partnership for peace. Women are powerful protagonists in this effort. Their voices, concerns, wisdom and insights must be brought to the fore in all spheres of society.

By extending and deepening the solidarity that grows from an empathetic recognition of our shared humanity--the universal desire to protect ourselves and those we love from harm--I believe we will be able to make the twenty-first century a century of life. In such an era, the prayers for peace of all mothers--the earnest yearning of all humankind--will finally be answered.

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