I have Japanese students in my university classes. They are studious. And if you say "Oh-HI-oh" (Japanese for "good morning") or "Ko-NICH-I-wa" (for "good afternoon"), the Japanese student cannot help but stop, face you and reply with a small bow while other students would just wave "Hi" as they pass on by.
They are polite, playful, and often giggle. Try as I might, I cannot mentally picture them in the uniforms and bayoneted rifles of 70 years ago performing terrifying acts of war. They are generations removed from those events in the 1930s. Yet there are regions of China today where my Japanese students would still not be welcome.
That poses the very serious question that can be stated in Old Testament terms: how long must the sins of the fathers be visited upon the children?
In virtually every country, there are war memorials and days of remembrance. "Lest we forget" is a phrase that in many languages calls people to never forget the sacrifices of their past generations of soldiers and to remember the injustices they suffered.
John Rabe, the "Schindler of Nanjing" and Nazi leader who organized the Safety Committee and saved thousands of Chinese lives in 1937 saw the gravest of atrocities. And yet he wrote in his diary: "We must forgive, but never forget."
But just how can we forgive if we never forget? That is a profound question. Two factors give us hope.
I have visited many memorials in China from 1993 onward. In the 1990s and early 2000s, there would be elderly survivors working at the museums who told their personal childhood stories of terror and suffering to the visitors, face-to-face. You could see tears welling up in students’ eyes. We sympathize greatly when we hear the passion in other’s voices. And that is good. It is a principle good teachers know: students learn best from real genuine experiences.
But today, those survivors are too old. Their testimony has been videotaped. But their same stories on a media screen just do not have impact. Student groups move on without listening through the tape.
In the classroom, teachers know abstract media are less effective. Perhaps here, that is not bad.
The second factor was suggested by the great German quantum physicist Max Planck. He asserted that ideas in science do not win out because they are better argued, but because the old scientists who held to old ideas die off.
We see this effect in many areas of society. Selling Japanese-made cars in the United States of the 1950's was unthinkable. But today, Toyota and Nissan are the dominant brands in America. Before the 1960s, it was considered legitimate in parts of racist northern states to say: "Git that flat tire fixed ‘cause they ain’t still gonna be in this county after sunset"—but not today.
The greatest of atrocities often occur in holy wars; the Crusades and the wars between Protestants and Catholics were among the worst. Ireland only recently put out that fire and the remaining animosity will mostly await the passing of the older residents.
These factors—the loss of direct testimony and the aging of prior combatants—take long periods of time. Long-practiced hatred does not go away overnight.
But time is not on our side. History gives us many examples of how easy it is to incite populations to war at a moment’s notice. Along with that comes the demonizing of others; just look at our wartime propaganda against the "Krauts" and the "Japs."
I am not sure that humans can carry out John Rabe’s plea to "forgive, but not forget."
But as a teacher with foreign students in my class, I could no more join in a war that would hurt them than I could hurt my own children. As my students, they are my children.