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Cultural Responses to Atrocity

An interview with Alan Tansman

What is the connection that brought you to BYU?
Marc Yamada [assistant professor of Japanese literature, BYU] was one of my students, and he invited me.

When did and how did your interest in this comparison between the Jewish and Japanese experience begin?
My interest in the comparison began seven or eight years ago. I grew up in a Jewish family whose grandparents were in Europe in the 30s, so there was a family connection to the Holocaust. When I started doing Japanese literature, there was no connection to the Holocaust in my work. And then I became interested in WWII, and the reactions of the Japanese to the bombing of Hiroshima, specifically. I found myself, because of my own biography, thinking about the connections between the two things that happened, and how the people responded to them. That’s how it started, partially personal and partially professional; and the two things came together when I started teaching an undergraduate class with a colleague who was in Jewish studies—I did the Japanese side, and my colleague did the Jewish side.

Rather than there being a universal human response to atrocity, do you feel that culture plays a role? Will you identify some specifics in these two cultures?
I think going into it I assumed that there wasn’t a universal response, and I’m not really that convinced anymore. That is, I think the responses are sometimes so idiosyncratic that it’s hard to say that it is necessarily a cultural difference. It might have to do with individual differences: a person’s own mental, emotional fortitude; a person’s own sense of religiosity or not; or a person’s socioeconomic situation. But something that sticks out might include, for example, in European-American, Jewish-European, Jewish-American culture, there is an emphasis on talking about one’s suffering, processing one’s suffering through psychoanalysis or therapy. And perhaps the Japanese feel that one matures oneself by being stoical or by reintegrating into the community as a form of healing. These are different ways in which people deal with the psychological aspect of suffering. And then for religious Jews, there’s a biblical narrative to work with on suffering, for secular Jews there isn’t. For some Japanese there’s a certain kind of Buddhist sensibility that has to do with a sense of life, that may come into play, but not all Japanese have that same sensibility to the same degree. And the last thing I would say is that the way in which writers and filmmakers narrate the past, narrate these experiences, may differ because of different narrative traditions in each culture. Marc knows this well, that often in Japanese literature, pre-modern and modern, there isn’t the same kind of structure found in European/American novels with a beginning, climax, and a conclusion. Japanese narratives tend to drift off in different directions. And I have found that when people are trying to cast their experiences into their narrative form they do call on their own culture’s narratives, and that affects how they represent their experience. In the end, an individual’s response and ways of representing their challenge and their sufferings is complex—so complex that the category of culture doesn’t quite cover it.


At the time of the Holocaust, do you feel that there were more or less religious and secular Jews than now?
German Jewry was for the most part completely secular. The Jews prided themselves at how well they were assimilated into the German culture to the extent that many did not think of themselves as being Jews. Most Jews in the Holocaust weren’t from Germany; they were from Poland and Lithuania, where there was a more traditional society and culture. Religious learning is more a part of them now than American Jewry. European Jews are more familiar with biblical texts, either in Hebrew or in Yiddish. But people weren’t killed because they were religious or not, there were many people who were killed or who suffered and survived who were not religious. There videos of survivors talking about their experiences in the camps, for example, and as many don’t talk about religious ways of understanding their experiences as do. From what I’ve seen, fewer tend to talk about religion. But some talk about how they lost religion in their camp, and some who had been secular, talk about how they gained religion. To me this is a mystery that somehow in their experience of suffering they came to believe in God.

You mentioned that it wasn’t as many of the German Jews who were killed. To what do you attribute that?
It’s a very simple fact that they were far fewer in number that’s all. Most European Jews were not in Germany; they were killed in the millions. Comparatively, there were hundreds of thousands of German Jews. Assimilation didn’t affect anybody. Basically, people with money and resources were able to leave; that was another factor for the majority of European Jews who did not have those resources.

Do you feel that culture is a factor in the response regardless of the size of the group or the breadth of the event. For instance, when the Amish children were slain in Pennsylvania this last fall?
I can’t imagine why the size of the group would matter, because in the Amish case, which is an interesting case, it is a very small group, but from what I understand, the religious cultural sensibility modes of understanding the world are very strong; they are very strongly felt by people in the community. Even though it is a tiny community, I don’t think that has as much to do with their experience of their culture as a way of understanding that tragedy, for example. And I don’t think the public got a sense of how they mourned this. To me it is not only stoic but saintly. I don’t fully understand it in my gut. Related to my sense of the Japanese response, one thing that was often misdefined, about the bombs especially, was the people didn’t generally express anger toward the United States. The bombs are often talked about as natural events that fell from the sky. It’s pretty rare that people are angry at the United States. And it’s a complicated situation, because people remember they were liberated from forms of oppression by the Japanese state, too, so there is that and there is relief at the war ending. But even for the people in Tokyo who suffered terribly from American bombings (one night in Tokyo 75,000 people were killed), it wasn’t about the Americans. I can’t get into the mind of the Amish resident, but I’m glad there are people like that on the planet.

Based on your research, do you feel that culture helps or hinders a group and their response?
It depends. I think it can help or it can hinder. We heard the Amish elders, but we don’t hear the people we don’t hear from, so for all we know they don’t feel that way, and the elders are imposing this culture model on them and they are suffering because they can’t express rage. The mothers for instance. I mean you can imagine the suffering of someone who is being told by the community you cannot express rage. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if it is true, that’s a case in which I think culture is causing damage. But this is all so subjective. Personally, I think that it can do both. Having grown up in a unique culture, I know personally that it can be a positive thing, it can be liberating, or it can be oppressive.


What was the most surprising find as you explored the roles culture played in the Jewish/Japanese experiences?
I guess the most surprising thing came very gradually, because of the categories I had in my mind when I went into this. We scholars, teachers, intellectuals, whatever—we want to figure things out; we have categories. At the end of all this, I think having taught this numerous times and written about it a bit, people are complex. It’s very hard and no one should reach for broader conclusions. And that goes against our instincts. I don’t know if that’s disappointing or just sobering, but there it is.

Do you have plans to apply your findings to others groups who have experienced catastrophic events?
The Japanese/Jewish comparison isn’t quite right because the Jews were victims and the Japanese were not just victims. And the German people are interesting, because they’ve always been understood as victimizers, but Germans suffered terribly in the war. It has been hard for Germans to have a public voice about that because they spent so many decades dealing with their Nazi past, and it is wonderful that they did that. But more and more writing is coming out, and that is an experience I’ve become interested in and added to the class. Last year, I co-taught with an anthropologist who studies Africa, and there we had lots of material about the Sierra Leone conflict. And that makes it even more complicated because at least with the Japanese/Jewish case you’re taking about literate, modern people. In Sierra Leone, we are talking about tribal people, preliterate people.

What has not been covered here that you would like for us to understand?
The most important thing, and I really don’t have an answer to it, is what it does for students—what it does in a good way and a bad way. What’s the point of teaching it? What’s the point of putting people, young adults, through this? Because serious students tend to get drawn to a class like this, and they do experience the content quite emotionally. So when you’re done, what have you produced? Have you made them feel strongly? “What’s the point?” is the question that I would put on the table. You make someone sensitive to people’s suffering, you make them understand what happened in the past, and see where it’s happening now. You understand different cultural ways of feeling and representing feeling. Students are moved in the class, but I don’t know if that gets through. Once in a while there are those who are motivated to do something in the world, which we teachers don’t generally do so that’s always nice when that happens. But once in a while, you get a student who walks out of the class thinking that all violence is equal. So the Holocaust is no better or worse than the American war in Vietnam. Bad universalism. It’s one downside of the class that I see in student papers. When that happens, I feel like I don’t want to teach it anymore. I feel like it’s really gone haywire.

How was this changed your own personal view of your biographical knowledge?
I realized looking back that I did Japanese literature because I grew up with this dark cloud of a bad past. Japanese literature and the study of Japan seemed like a relief to me that had absolutely nothing to do with it. Ironically, years later I found a way that the two are related. I think that this study has made me much more forgiving of my grandparents and my parents. If they were depressed or angry or couldn’t talk about things, or were impatient, I am much more sympathetic and forgiving, which is a nice thing. So that’s good.

And the last question would be, what is it about culture that is important for us to understand?
No one can just ignore their own cultural biases, but I think it’s important to discipline oneself, to put a check on it when trying to understand how other people are behaving and reacting to things and not assume something is barbaric or something is malformed, and try to appreciate that. There could be cultural ways in which a person is talking about violence, or representing violence or something that you and I might not appreciate as being cultural; we just think it’s raw or unformed, but there may be something cultural there that we’re not aware of, and we need to be willing to be open to that possibility. We need to be very open to the possibility of different ways of being in the world.