Deep, Controversial Conversations

Story By:
Jeremy Teo
(SPY, 45th SSEAYP)


The contents of this write-up might be a little controversial, but I feel I should pen them down anyway as it is one of the biggest takeaways I have from the program. For reasons that I can fully comprehend, it is more than likely that what I have to say will not be made public.

Being in the news industry, I come across a fair share of world events daily. On several occasions, I have wanted to ask locals for their points of view on how certain facets of their countries are portrayed in the media. Once such topic is militarism and World War II in Japan. This topic is nothing short of divisive, and I have been told by some during PDT not to bring it up during the program. However, I feel that there is no better platform than SSEAYP to learn more about this issue, and in the process, establish a deeper relationship with the speaker.

Due to the nature of this topic, I had to drive my conversations away from superficial exchanges. It was not easy, and at times, I could feel that the JPY whom I spoke to was feeling uncomfortable. Thankfully, perhaps due to my background in journalism, I was able to bring up the issue. I will not be revealing who I spoke to as I am unsure if he is comfortable with me doing so, if that’s ok. If my submission was to be selected, I can hand the prize over to the speaker.

Militarism and World War II in Japan

Through my understanding, World War II is a topic that is frequently avoided by Japan, and that Japanese students do not get a full picture of what happened in their textbooks. My impression was affirmed by the JPY I spoke to, who explained to me that that was indeed that case. However, he also told me that Japanese people can search for information online if they wanted to, and that such information was not censored by the government. When I probed deeper, he said that he feels Japan should acknowledge what they had done during the war, so that it will not, so frequently, but an issue of contention with other countries. I brought up the case of Germany, whereby the government openly acknowledges the country’s aggressions in World War II, and how they have repeatedly apologized in a bid to seek closure. The PY feels that this approach is one that Japan can emulate, but he does not foresee that happening in his country anytime in the near future.

As our conversation progressed, I found out that he knew about the many deaths and suffering his country had caused in China and Southeast Asia through his own research. This is the first time I have heard a Japanese citizen recognizing the fault of his nation with regard to the war. His view reinforced that fact that sometimes, the views of common people of a country might not be synonymous with the narrative of their government.

We shifted our exchange to the next topic, militarism in Japan. From my work, I knew that there are talks in Japan to review to their constitution to allow the country to have a full military capable of foreign invasion. Since the end of World War II, Japan was only allowed to have a self-defence force as part of reparations they had to make following their surrender.

I asked if he supported the proposed amendment, and he said no. He is of the impression that Japan must live with the restrictions placed on it as a result of its actions in the past, and that the self defence force is a symbolic representation of Japan’s commitment to peace.

I posed a counter argument to him, citing the increasing threats of China and North Korea. I felt that Japan should be able to keep a full army, should invasion have to be an option to deal with the increasing hostility of the two countries when it comes to protecting Japan’s interests. In hindsight, this was quite an irony. A citizen of Singapore, whose country suffered under Japan in the past, was now advocating a Japanese to increase his nation’s military might even when he has expressed his disapproval. After our discussion, the JPY said that he has not considered the external threats that I mentioned. He acknowledged my perspective on why having a military is important. However, he is still apprehensive and undecided over Japan’s right and need for a full military.

I am glad to be able to have such a frank and open conversation with a Japanese about World War II. To be honest, I feel that a lot of SSEAYP is wasted by PYs on superficial topics like NP dates and attractive participants. Maybe because I am older than most of the participants (I am 29 in case you are wondering). Because of this, I am very grateful to have been able to have such a substantive exchange on a contentious topic. Through my conversation, I found out that we should not generalize a country’s stance on a particular topic to what its citizens think. Japan is often portrayed in the media as a nation that is refusing to accept blame for starting World War II in Asia. If you look deeper, however, you would realise that some Japanese think otherwise. This has been a revelation for me on SSEAYP.

Other than World War II, I have also spoken to PYs from other contingents about the Rohingya crisis and the government’s efforts to find a solution, the shortcomings of a socialist system in Vietnam, the Vietnam War, as well as corruption in Cambodia. These might not be what the NLs had in mind when they mentioned about deep conversations. To me, however, these verbal interactions have been extremely valuable in gaining a fresh perspective about issues happening beyond the borders of Singapore. In a way, the speakers’ willingness to share about such topics is also testament to the depth of my relationships with them. I will treasure these social exchanges we had, for a long time to come.

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