After surrendering unconditionally to the Allies in 1945, Japan was occupied by these allied powers for seven years. It was the period when every necessity of life was badly lacking as the nation struggled to recover from the devastation of World War II. There is a well-known episode of a public prosecutor who refused to eat anything from the black-market and he soon died of malnutrition. That was how serious the food shortage was.
The occupation forces, often referred to in Japan as the GHQ (general head-quarters) is well-remembered as those who introduced democracy by implementing a new Peace Constitution or enacting a modern trade union legislation. Equally, they were very keen to bring-in new ways of Western life out of strong business interests. For example, when the school meal program started, bread was served instead of rice and stew not miso-soup (and that was still the case in my school days in the 1960s).
One Blanche Appleton at the GHQ was in charge of food programs who judged that too much soy beans is spent on manufacturing soy sauce when this grain was in shortage. Her plan was to re-direct the consumption of soy beans to feed more cattle as she was confident that the Americans can change the Japanese food culture by importing tonnes of tomato ketchup and replace soy sauce.
As the allocation of soy beans went down drastically, 1,500 soy sauce manufacturing plants went out of business. Nevertheless, one company quickly developed a new method of producing the sauce. It saved the whole industry from collapsing because they shared this new production method with the rest of the manufacturers. They minimised their competition to save the culture and a way of life which had a proud history of more than 700 years.
Today, soy sauce is available in more than 100 countries and 900,000,000 bottles are consumed every year. And whilst tomato ketchup did not take over the Japanese cuisine, it is widely used in Japan as well. In fact, mixing ketchup and soy sauce is quite good with some food like fried chicken.
The lesson I wish to stress from this anecdote is that there could be similar stories in the international work that we do. Even the ones with good will and intention, we could still be damaging or even destroying the local culture or practices. Often the recipients of our solidarity work are in a weaker position financially and it can be hard for them to say “no” to our offers. And donors may be in their comfort zone, resting in their ivory tower and has no mind to learn from the local context to build its work bottoms-up.
My British friend Celia lived and worked in South Africa during the Apartheid days to fight the oppressive regime. And she was trusted by her comrades. Together, they saw many wise men and women descending to their soils and preaching campaigns that were so out of context to the local realities. It was hard to keep a straight face and not to burst out-loud in laughter, she once told me. They only did so when the visitor left the meeting room and the door was shut.
Well the text is getting very long so I will stop here for now and will continue later but I wish to post here my report of a solidarity campaign which was in essence a fusion of local and international cultures; not one taking over the other. Some learnt and accepted that their experiences from the ‘advanced’ countries were not feasible in the local context. Local leaders realised that international support does not always mean intervention to their political work. Some organisations had resources that they could share with the local union in dispute but at the picket-line that they visited, they saw activism that the money can’t buy. And me, I was in the centre of all these development and it was almost like an all-out-war that I have never experienced in my work!