One-sided Forgiveness

I am writing to express my outrage and pain in response to the article “My Father’s True Nature,” by Curtis White, in the Fall 2015 issue of Tricycle.

I am a child of a Japanese woman not unlike the Japanese women Curtis White writes about. After reading the article and seeing the three photographs of American GIs posing with an exposed Japanese woman, I cried with deep sorrow and pain. I felt the woman’s shame, abandonment, helplessness, and unfulfilled longing.

Mr. White’s article makes no effort to understand what Japanese women were going through at the war’s end and during the subsequent occupation of Japan by U.S. forces. There was a severe shortage of food during and after the war. My mother’s family members, along with millions of other people, were starving, going from one temporary shelter to another after the massive bombings of Tokyo. They were in a state of shock while struggling to survive.

My mother knew several women who worked in the dance halls that GIs such as Mr. White’s father frequented. I grew up overhearing rumors about their suicides and abortions. When I saw the three photographs of the small Japanese woman with the big GIs in positions that convey rape, there wasn’t a way I could view it as “the malign innocence of their hearts,” as Mr. White describes it. Instead, I imagined her humiliation, shame, and bewilderment—and perhaps even her suicide. Mr. White may have thought that everyone “appear[ed] to be having a good time”; to me, these American soldiers took pictures of this woman like hunters do with their dead prey. Why did Tricycle endorse these photographs and make them public without any concern for the women’s identities or dignity?

If the article had protected the women’s anonymity, perhaps I could have read it as Mr. White’s one-sided account of making sense of his father. But this is a Buddhist magazine, whose mission includes alleviation of suffering, presumably not just for the white majority that Mr. White and his father represent, but for all. Is forgiveness really possible without compassion for all parties concerned?

In the piece, the author is comforted by a letter from one of the women his father had a relationship with, writing that he saw his father’s goodness because of it. Thus, Mr. White makes seeing “his father’s true nature” about himself, without extending concerned curiosity toward the women themselves. His comfort is based on ignorance of the lives of the women his father exploited. Something the author thinks is so simple as writing a letter in English was an ordeal in Japan in 1948, and he naively assumes the letter conveys what she intended.

Mr. White, then, tells a story of “forgiveness” from a perspective born of his white privilege and ignorance, and reinscribes the trauma his father inflicted. The women have no way to defend themselves, no way to tell their side of the story. These women lived and died in silence, women who wished to be happy and be safe just like any of us. I urge Tricycle to examine its editorial policy related to race and gender and eliminate articles of white supremacist and misogynistic tendencies in the future.

–Kyoko Katayama
St. Paul, MN

The Editors respond:

Curtis White’s article came to us not as a submission for publication but as part of an informal correspondence between him and one of us at Tricycle, friend to friend. That editor recommended that it be considered for publication, describing it as a beautiful, original, but unsettling piece of writing. We questioned the wisdom of publishing the piece. We knew that in doing so we would risk offending some of our readers, something we never take lightly. But when we weighed that against the article’s merits, we decided that to reject it would be to act out of editorial timidity.

We read and assessed this as a literary piece, one that gathers fractured events, images, impressions, and correspondence and builds from them a story that illuminates something of spiritual value in human experience. It speaks about how hard it is to know the heart of another and what a precious thing it is to get a glimpse of what lies hidden behind one’s familiar perceptions.

We did not read it as a work of history or reportage. Though it is not fictional, it is the kind of nonfiction that works the way fiction does. Literature of this sort works by means of limits, with things close at hand, with meaning as it is felt intimately, with the particular and specific and not the general. Within the limits of this story, the author attempts to recognize the presence of a truer and better nature even in someone like his father, someone whose mean-spiritedness, alcoholism, and racism were, it seems, largely the result of his own unacknowledged shame. The story was told, we felt, the only way it could be, in fragments and through his father’s relatedness—or lack of relatedness—with others, especially one other, from his past. The form of the piece and its content were inextricable, and we saw no way the former could be altered without damaging the latter. Having decided to publish the piece, we felt it essential to respect its integrity.

As to the issue of preserving the anonymity of the women in the photos: this is something that must always be weighed in art and in journalism. If an article shows concentration camp survivors, Syrian refugees, Rwandan child soldiers, or anyone else at the end of a chain of suffering, a responsible publication must be convinced that this is being done in the service of meaningful communication. Given our belief in the article and that the photos were essential to the telling of the story—and not least because the photos were nearly 70 years old—we trusted that their meaningful character would be apparent to readers.

The personal story takes place against the backdrop of the postwar occupation of Japan by U.S. forces. While the author does not discuss the occupation in as much detail as Ms. Katayama thinks he should, he does not overlook it. He is very clear that it was impoverishment that forced so many young women to work as “taxi girls.” He is very clear that their treatment by men like his father was exploitative and racist.

The great hardships suffered by civilians, and especially by women, during the postwar occupation of bombed-out cities such as Tokyo, Berlin, or Nuremburg are often overshadowed by more well-known accounts of wartime civilian suffering in such cities as Nanjing, Leningrad, or Warsaw. If Ms. Katayama feels this is a wrong deserving of redress, we agree. But that is a task for historians and, again, Curtis White’s article was not a work of history. It was an intimate work of much more modest scope. Still, we sincerely regret that reading it caused Ms. Katayama pain, and we appreciate her willingness to share her feelings and objections.

Argument flows in the lifeblood of any publication worth its salt, and we like to make room for it, both in the pages of the magazine and online. We would rather have readers sometimes question our decisions than ourselves know that in making some decisions we are giving way to our own timidity or to the fear that accusatory rhetoric might come our way. Once a publication goes down that road, it is time to throw in the towel. We don’t yet feel ready to throw in the towel.


Our interview with Stephen Batchelor (“After Buddhism,” Winter 2015), a prominent figure in the Secular Buddhism movement, sparked a lot of passionate discussion online among our readers. Here are a few of the many comments:

For me, the most useful verbal “fingers that point to the moon” are high in both clarity and humility. Batchelor’s work has both of those qualities. Religions throughout history become less effective as they accrete a surplus of ritual, rule, institution, and corruption. Attempting, as Batchelor and others have done, to correct for this natural tendency humans seem to have (as Martin Luther did) by going back to the simple yet profound beliefs (small “b”) and practices that were so fresh and revolutionary when the Buddha lived is laudatory. He’s very open and honest in the admission that it’s risky, unfinished, exploratory.

–Cynthia Lunine
Ithaca, NY

Stephen Batchelor’s take on Buddhism may appear sound and even quite enticing from a modern Western perspective, but what he has proposed for years is actually far removed from the actual dharma that the Buddha taught.

–Grayson Harris
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Nothing like the words “Stephen Batchelor” to tangle the knickers of Buddhists attached to the identification with Buddhism. He’s a constructively critical voice in the Buddhist community just as Gotama [the historical Buddha] was a constructively critical voice in his spiritual community.

–Mike Weis
Chicago, IL

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I’m enjoying this Winter issue a lot. As a Zen practitioner, I enjoy the articles on the philosophy. 5 stars!

–John Gigliotti (@JohnGigliotti)

Self-help tips: go bang your head against a wall, don’t put your shoes on your head as a visor. Love this article.

–Yogini Kari (@Yogini_Kari)

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Illustrations by Roberto La Forgia

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