Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Flophouse Has Moved!

Moving the Flophouse to another blogging platform has been in my thoughts for a few months now.  Readers and blogging confrères et soeurs have kindly shared with me their  views about things that would make the Flophouse easier to read, to share and to comment on posts.  So I tried another blogging home (Wordpress) and I liked it.  I moved all the posts and comments over this week and have been tweaking it to make pretty.   You will notice that the font size is bigger - that's for me because my eyes are going. (Hey, I'm an old lady now.)

So from now on you can read the Franco-American Flophouse at:




And please let me know what you think of the new site.  Are there things from the old site you would like to see on the new one?  For example how useful are the categories (Americans Diaspora Tax War, Crossing Cultures, Cancer Journey and Flophouse Reviews ) and would you like to see the same on the new site?  All comments and suggestions are most welcome!

Friday, October 13, 2017

French Garden Dreams Inspired by Japanese Garden Reality

“Might I," quavered Mary, "might I have a bit of earth?”

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

For years I dreamt of a "bit of earth" and when we moved to Versailles my fantasy was realized, first in the garden of our rental apartment and later when we bought our house.  A decent-sized lot was a requirement (I could care less about the size of the house) as was a layout with possibilities:  small and large spaces, shade and light, trees and shrubs;  and room for fruits and vegetables.  

That was a lot to ask for but the property we purchased has all that if I plan and plant it right.  My time in Japan has both inspired and instructed me.  The gardens here are amazing and they provide clever solutions that apply to my garden at home:  How do I get the maximum effect out of the space I have?

In the front of my is house a small rectangular courtyard which gets sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon.  It was separated from the street by a horrible chain link fence covered in blue plastic and a very nice maroon metal gate. Here is what it looked like back in 2012 after I got rid of the weeds.



The blue plastic went to the dump.  We had the chain link fence painted maroon to match the gate and I also painted the concrete brick walls.  After amending the soil I started to plant a few things every year.  Here is what has been accomplished so far.


Better but still a work in progress.  The house is very close to a busy street and the noise and pollution are a big problem.  M. (our house sitter) planted a row of shrubs along the chain link fence which (interestingly enough) is a plant that comes from Japan: Aucuba japonicaWe chose this shrub because it's an evergreen with lovely foliage and because there is already a row of them growing insanely fast in the backyard and they are lush and green with no hint of disease. The next phase is to plant more small trees like Japanese maples (there is already one on the other side of the courtyard and I'm waiting to see if it does well) and/or alders and/or witch hazel and a few box shrubs (or perhaps azaleas) so that there will be a mixture of tall and short things that provide a beautiful multi-layered screen against the dust and noise. Another idea I have is to pull up some of the flagstones and put a small tree in the middle of the north side for yet another beautiful barrier against the street.  

It was in Japan that I really got a feel for how to place and prune trees for a small space. The rule I have lived by ever since I read Cass Turnball's works  is never plant anything that you can't allow to grow to its full height and width.  Well, the Japanese don't do it that way and their way works and looks fantastic.  I have walked gardens in Himeji, Hiroshima, Shodoshima, Kyoto, Tokyo, Wakayama, Sapporo, and Osaka and have taken countless pictures of how they pruned in particular spaces and what trees were used to create certain effects.  Two books I have read and would recommend to you are The Art of Creative Pruning: Inventive Ideas for Training and Shaping Trees and Shrubs and  Niwaki: Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way.  Both are by Jake Hobson.

Turning to the backyard garden this is what it looked like when we moved into the Versailles house.


Messy but filled with potential.  A garden with great "bones".  Note on the right side of the photo the diseased shrubs.  In the back right corner what looks like a shrub was actually growth coming out of a tree stump.  But along the back stone wall there were roses and muguet which said to me that this garden was wonderful once.  The first step was one of subtraction - everything that was dead and dying had to go and it took months.  Only then could I amend the soil and start adding.  Slowly.  A few things a year.

Here is what it looks like now.


See what I mean by good "bones?"  So what's the plan here?  See that big bush on left side just after the bamboo?  That one is a conundrum.  There are many lovely varieties of weigelia but this isn't one of them.  This one has spindly boring flowers and has to be cut back fiercely at least once a year. So much work for so little reward.   I want to move it (perhaps to the front courtyard if there is enough light) and place a small pond in its place.  Something that looks like a smaller version of this:


In other words I want to dip my toes into water gardening.  When we were in Brittany we brought back some beautiful granite stones and a small auge which I will use instead of a waterfall.  The effect would be something like this:


So much to do and it's all doable with sweat and blood (I cut myself often).  And affordable if I just spend enough hours on Le Bon Coin

But I am so grateful to have spent time in Japan and to have had my old ideas about gardening challenged.  And to be abundantly clear, I don't want a Japanese garden.  What I want is a garden with the best and most locally appropriate ideas from the three countries I've called home:  the United States, France, and Japan.   I want it to be the best "bit of earth" it can be - a transnational garden from an old transnational gardener.

And just for fun (since it's Friday)  here is a short clip about my favorite garden in Japan:  Kokoen Garden in Himeji.  If you have only one thing to see in that city, skip the castle and go to see this garden divided up into nine spaces that are so beautiful that each and every one will make your heart sing.



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Chain Migration

"Chain migration is the process by which one immigrant is admitted to the country, then he or she sponsors relatives back home to come to the U.S., who in turn could sponsor more relatives. In other words, under current U.S. immigration policy, admitting one immigrant to the country who can sponsor family members can set off a chain reaction that swells immigration numbers."

Tessa Berenson, Sep 15, 2017 Time Magazine

Lately "chain migration" has been in the US news  and the context of course is immigration reform, in particular DACA (Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals).  As the definition above shows, chain migration is being framed as a problem associated with family reunification policies.  Oh my goodness, let one immigrant in, give him or her legal status (residency or citizenship) and suddenly the entire family has an open door to move to the US.

Aside from the fact that family reunification in the US is not so simple (and this is true in more and more countries), the above definition of chain migration is misleading in so many ways.  Chain migration can be about families but it's also about transnational networks. And that definition is incomplete because it presumes that the chain is all about the immigrant and says nothing about other factors that made emigration likely for other individuals.

Chain migration is about networks - ties between a home and host country. If we look at yesterday's post Burke's arrival in Japan and getting the job she wanted was a very deft use of a migrant network.  The ties need not be familial all all; they can be professional, academic connections or friends and friends of friends.  (Maybe even just Facebook friends.)  Look at your email contact list and every one in another country is a connection to that place.  Some of my best contacts come through Alcoholics Anonymous which has a community in just about every city I've ever lived in.  

Multiply these connections by thousands or tens of thousands and they become very significant.  It's the folks already in place (and they can be either migrants/expats from your country or local citizens with connections to it) in contact with people on the other side of a border somewhere and using those contact to seek opportunity while mitigating the risks associated with migration by inspiring or helping them.  Sometimes even the dead are a kind of connection.  It's not unusual for Americans in France or Japan to cite the influence of Ernest Hemingway or Lafcadio Hearn as being instrumental in their decision to come to Paris or Tokyo. 

 Having a relative (a live one) in the host country who is a citizen is sometimes very helpful but it is not necessary in order for chain migration to occur.  Undocumented residents and mixed communities of citizens, legal residents and sans papiers can and do offer a kind of sponsorship  to friends and family seeking to enter a country.  So the focus on families and chain migration is overstated in my opinion. 

Chain migration is real but it's so much more than just family.  Stopping it (if that is indeed what you desire) involves a lot more than limiting family reunification.  People are, after all, free to talk with one another.  They are allowed to write and publish books about their experiences in the host country and explain how they managed to migrate and make a life for themselves.  They can even offer a spare bed to a friend of a friend until he finds his feet and a job.  Stopping the chain means limiting or stopping the information flows that are circulating all over the world even as we speak.  

My second point is that every migration chain has a beginning.  It doesn't just kick off of its own accord.  The very first migrants to come are sometimes called pioneer migrants because they are the ones who pave the way for others to follow.  But why do the pioneers leave in the first place?  This is where chain migration gets very interesting because a lot of things can start a chain or kick one into high gear.  Things like war, for example, or occupation.  According to the Migration Policy Institute in 1990 there were around 45,000 Iraqis in the US.  By the year 2000 there were  90,000 Iraqis living in the US.  In the 2016 Census Bureau report  Place of Birth for the Foreign-Born Population in the United States they estimate that there are now 222,000 Iraqis in the US.  Some were refugees but others were marriage migrants (not necessarily an easy road but soldiers did marry local men and women) or they were sponsored by contacts and allies in the US.

US bases around the world are also generators of family reunification and (potentially) chain migration to the US.  As Hidalgo and Bankston note many sources have noted the connection:
"Military wives have arrived from many of the countries in which the U.S. has had troops, including Germany, Japan, and Korea. In some cases, a military presence has led to a country becoming a major source of female marriage migration. After the World War II, for example, the U.S. kept two large military bases in the Philippines. By one estimate, about half of all the immigrants who came to the U.S. between 1946 and 1965 arrived as wives of U.S. military personnel (Riemers 1985)."
(And now that there are many more American women in the military, we will surely see more foreign "military husbands"  arriving in the US.)

 And then there are the other Americans abroad, the civilians.  There are about 7 millions Americans living outside the US and countless others who go as tourists or students.  While they are abroad they make friends, find spouses, adopt which also can sustain a a chain of migration.  Most of the people I know abroad are married to non-US citizens.  All the spouses are aware that moving to the US is a possibility though the folks I know haven't or won't exercise that option.

In short chain migration doesn't start with an immigrant who becomes a citizen who sponsors her relatives for entry into the US.  It starts well before that with contacts, connections, voices long dead that still speak to us today and the presence of a country's citizens in a foreign country.  There are around 300 million native-born and naturalized Americans in the US and every one of them has the potential to be part of a migrant network and has the right to leave the country and return.  The activities of the government abroad and the creation of a permanent American presence (military or civilian) abroad are also factors in creating or sustaining immigration.  

And yet, it seems that very few people want to admit that there is a link between American citizens, the global communications network, US military interventions and migration.  Another case, I think, where people prefer to place responsibility for the immigration "problem" firmly on the backs of the migrants with the citizens themselves portrayed as the innocent victims of the "hordes" of people trying to crash the gate.  Nonsense.  Not when they were the ones to unlock the gates of globalization  in the first place.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck

Himeji, Japan



My time here in Japan has one fatal flaw:  no garden.  Yes, there are gardens everywhere to admire, but there is not one bit of earth here I can call my own. At moments like these, it heals the heart to live vicariously though someone else's experiences.

Cutting Back:  My Apprenticeship in the Gardens of Kyoto by Leslie Buck was all that for me and more.  If you are a migrant/expatriate and a gardener, I think you will love this memoir.  And for those among you who aren't particularly enchanted by the finer points of Japanese pruning techniques, I would still recommend it for insights into the Japanese system for training craftsmen and women.




Buck is from California and when she left for Japan she was 35 years old and the owner of a landscaping company in the United States.  She had studied under Japanese craftsmen living in the US and had a portfolio of her work.  This is a definite advantage that craftsmen and artists have because they don't have to rely entirely on language;  they can actually show what they have done.   

How she managed to get the apprenticeship in Kyoto is illuminating.  Much of it was about using a Japan-US migrant/expatriate network.  Through one contact she found a place to live in Kyoto.  Through another master gardeners from Japan living in the US gave her names and letters of introduction.  A very kind woman at an party translated her cover letter into Japanese.  Another contact introduced her to a neighbor in Kyoto who spoke English and owned a landscaping company.  And yet another person went with her on an interview as a translator.  Her approach, which was a combination of persistence, determination, and humility, was successful and in the end she had two offers.  The power of a transnational network?  Absolutely.

How did she make her choice between the two companies?  One was very tempting because the company was close to where she lived in Kyoto and the owner spoke English.  The other was a very well-known company but it was much farther away and she was told before she interviewed that no one in the company spoke English (something that turned out to be false by the way).  She chose the harder road and became an apprentice at the Uetoh Zoen company.

And it was hard in so many ways.  What makes her book a cut above many other expat memoirs is how forthcoming she is about her many mistakes and things that she found particularly difficult.  She was integrated into a hierarchical, all male work crew and since she was the latest arrival, she was almost at the very bottom of the hierarchy.  The work itself was physically taxing (6 days a week) and sometimes very frustrating because there was almost no spoken guidance given.  She was given a tree to prune and if she did well, she was given another.  If she did poorly, she was yelled at and told to start hauling brush.  Learning was 90% observation and 10% negative verbal feedback.   She writes,  "Working with the men was a codependent's dream job!  The company hierarchy kept the momentum going. No one stopped to discuss a plan.  You do as you're told, or guess and accept the consequences."

Among the many things she found odd was the requirement that she wear white gloves when working.  If you've ever gardened than you know that anything white will turn grey within the first hour.  The boss of the crew mocked her when she tried to get away with reusing her gloves.  All of us migrants/expatriates have experienced these moments when something just doesn't make any sense to us and we search for why the culture asks this of us.  Buck did, in my view, exactly the right thing which was to obey and buy a pack of fresh white gloves at the store.  And only then did she attempt to make sense of it. 

Her conclusion was, "By asking me to wear new white gloves every day, I think Nakiji was trying to teach me that if I act like a premier craftsperson, I might feel like one."  That may or may not have been true but her after-the-fact reaction feels more like an attempt to rationalize obedience.  Here is a strong independent woman needing a reason to put aside her own thoughts and beliefs and performing an act of humility when faced with a cultural difference.

The nadir of her apprenticeship occurred toward the end when she was temporarily assigned to another crew.  It was snowing and when the crew broke for lunch they climbed into the truck to warm up and eat and the crew chief handed her a sandwich and told her she had to eat outside by herself.  "Fine, I thought spitefully, I can adapt to this situation, like all the other workers would.  I ate my lunch with my back turned to the men, my silent protest."

Cold, wet and physically exhausted she was in that state of cultural confusion where one begins to imagine all kinds of nefarious intentions on the part of the natives, she stubbornly sat there even when a woman came out from the nursing home and invited her to come inside.  When she wouldn't move the woman brought her a cup of hot coffee.
"As I sipped my cooling cup of coffee with lovely, icy snow falling around me, the woman came out again to retrieve the cup.  I looked at the ground so she couldn't see my tears.  But she kept saying something to me over and over.  I finally looked up.  I must have looked a sight.  I watched her expression turn from polite friendliness to horror then to tenderness in the space of a second. She understood... I struggled not to feel ashamed.  Surely she must have understood my determination to act strong, like a dedicated craftsperson.  But deep down, I felt expose and overly sensitive.  What I believed was our female pact, to suffer in silence, made me cry even more."
I think many of us woman migrant/expatriates can relate to this experience though our reactions and actions might have been different.  When entering another culture a woman has to find a way to fit that does not do deep damage to her deepest self.  Buck was fearful from the very beginning that she would be treated differently because she was a woman and she went to great lengths to prove that she could keep up with the men.  Being yelled at, for example, was (she was told) a good sign: "You'll be lucky if your boss yells at you.  That means you're being treated like one of the guys, not an outsider." Buck wasn't asking for positive special treatment, but here was a situation where she was experiencing negative special treatment: isolation from the crew. 

Was she treated this way because she was a woman, a foreigner, or just the lowest person in the hierarchy?  Buck didn't know a culturally appropriate response to what was happening. And that is a situation I have encountered many times in my workplaces in France.  What actions can you take and which options are not acceptable?  Only time and observation can give you answers.  Watch what men and women actually do (and not what they say) in order to solve the riddle of gender relationships in the host country workplace.

A really fine book.  I have not written nearly enough about the gardens and how hard it is to make a Japanese garden look "natural."   There is every bit as much work as there is in a formal "unnatural" garden like Versailles. 
"We picked up every last pine needle by hand.  On top of that we cleaned up a gravel area around a sitting bench, per Nakiji's request. All he had to do was point and grunt. I knew instantly that the area wasn't up to his standards, that I would have to grab a bucket, move the rocks aside, square foot by square foot, dust the ground and replace the rocks."  
The great Japanese gardening classic (Sakuteiki) says  that nature is the guide but the act of creating a garden is one of interpretation, not re-creation. Gardening is a craft and an art. And I think there is an analogy here to integration.  The culture is the guide from which we take inspiration but we ultimately are the interpreters.  I like this notion much better than the one that says culture is static and something to be bullied into learning by rote. Because as every landscape, every garden, is unique, so are we.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Neo-Nationalism and Identity in Japan

Over the past year I have been paying attention to a national scandal here in Japan that is centered around a kindergarten here in Osaka.  (The school is not far from where I was biking a few weeks ago along the Yodo River.)  The larger context of the scandal is the emergence of nationalist movements which are provoking debates over Japanese identity.

The Tsukamoto Kindergarten (école maternelle is a private school with some very public supporters including the wife of the current prime minister.  Elements of the curriculum are definitely on the very conservative side of the political spectrum and are meant to instill pride and patriotism in Japanese children.  Children stand before the Japanese flag, bow to a portrait of the Emperor, recite the Imperial Rescript on Education (1890) and learn what are called "pre-war" (World War II) values.  Here is a short video filmed at the school that shows a few of these activities.  (Note that uniforms are not something particular to this school, but are common in public and private schools.)


The scandal was not so much about the curriculum (though criticism of it abounds) as it was about anti-foreigner comments by school officials and corruption. The corruption is said to have occurred when the Japan government sold a piece of land to the school's owners at a very good (some say ridiculously low) price so they could construct an elementary school .   The bigotry was discovered in letters and pamphlets issued by the school with statements like, “The problem is that people who have inherited the spirit (of Koreans) exist in our country with the looks of Japanese people” and reports that  the school administrators were espousing belief in the "uniformity of the Japanese race."  
And for the cherry on the top, the school's principal is a member of a Far Right organization called Nippon Kaigi (The Japan Conference).  Lest you think that this is a marginal organization with few members, think again.  Nippon Kaigi is reported to have around 38,000 members but more importantly it enjoys strong support from the prime minister, members of his cabinet, and parliament. 

Here is a short video from France 24 in English about the organization which I think is fairly balanced reporting.  Looking beyond the title of the piece, The Return of Japan's Imperialists, Nippon Kaigi members are interviewed and give their side of the story.


This is a classic modern battle over national identity, one that is very similar to such debates going on elsewhere.  The tactics are also very familiar:  revising the curriculum, arguing for a different interpretation of historical events, creating a top-down movement led by political and social elites, and using religious, philosophical or ethical systems to support a return to an older (and ostensibly better) framework of national values. (And here I deftly avoid the question of whether or not Emperor worship is a religion.)  It reveals a belief that it is possible to construct a different national reality through institutions, the education of children, and persuasive efforts led by political elites.  And it makes me wonder to what extent these tactics, even in a democratic society, are a way of circumventing the wishes of the citizenry.   I do not see great enthusiasm for the prime minister's commitment to a more militarized society and yet, he seems to be moving forward anyway.

Ultimately, the big questions for me are:  How successful is this movement likely to be?  In other words, is Japanese national identity going to change significantly in the near future as a result of neo-nationalism?  (Perhaps it has already changed in some ways.)  And, if so, how might it change citizenship laws and immigration policies?  Or to put it another way do migrants and naturalized citizens have good reasons to be very concerned about where this might go?  

A suivre....

Friday, September 29, 2017

Reclaiming French Nationality

As I was writing the post on Turkey and dual nationality, a conversation I had here in Japan flashed through my mind but I decided to leave it for later.  The core issue is:  Can you get your French national back if you renounce it?  The person (French) I was talking to believed that it was easy to reclaim French nationality, and therefore, no worries for a French about becoming Japanese.  The day she wants to leave Japan she simply applies to be "reintegrated."  Easy peasy.

Now far be it from me to argue with a French citizen about this.  But I have lived in France for a long time and in my experience French citizens don't always follows changes to immigration or citizenship law.  This person could be wrong, could have missed something. On the other hand I sure hope this person does check it out before doing something irrevocable.  Because it turns out that, well, it's complicated.  So complicated that I read a bunch of articles that seemed to say conflicting things and so I threw up my hands and went to look at the law and at government websites.  What follows here is what I was able to determine from those sources, which I tried to verify in the  décret n° 93-1362 du 30 décembre 1993, (the updated version as of 29 septembre 2017).  I nearly went blind reading so if there are any errors or nuances I missed, please let me know.

Voluntarily Losing French Nationality:  There are different ways to do this depending on the situation:  Repudiation is available to French citizens with a non-French parent upon reaching their majority or following the naturalization of a French citizen who has married a citizen of another country and that country does not accept dual nationality.  Or it can be done through a declaration following the acquisition of another nationality.  The Declaration is a limited time offer - 1 year to apply after acquiring another citizenship.  After the year is up one can still ask to be Liberated from the Ties of Allegiance to France under certain conditions.

Some of the conditions are pretty standard like having another nationality so the person won't be stateless.  The would-be-renouncer must also prove that he or she is French and that may involve getting a certificat de nationalité française - something that takes time in my experience.  He must also provide a certificate from the country of which he is a citizen with information about how and when it was acquired. And he must prove that he habitually and durably lives abroad (at least 10 years) and has no unmet obligations to the French state. The state also reserves the right to examine the motives that the citizen has for making the request.  Tax avoidance, for example.  If those conditions are not met and they are not satisfied that the motives are pure, the French government can refuse the request.   If it is granted than a decree is issued and published in the paper version of the official government journal.

Reclaiming French Nationality:  How she gets it back depends on how the French citizen gave it up.  The process is called reintegration.  Yes, it can be done but again there are conditions.

The easiest is Reintegration by Declaration which is available to those who lost French nationality via marriage.  The I-want-to-be-a-citizen-again must show that she has retained ties to France and may not have acted against the interests of France abroad or have committed crimes.

In the case of a French citizen who was Liberated from the Ties of Allegiance (decree) it's more complicated and there are more conditions.  It can't be done through a declaration; it must be done via another decree.  And, in essence, the I-want-to-be-a-citizen-again is treated as if he was an immigrant seeking naturalization.  The state asks for proof of assimilation and adherence to the values of the Republic. Her life is examined in terms of morals and good conduct in addition to not having been caught doing something criminal like not paying taxes. And, finally, he must come back and live in France. Here again the state has the right to refuse the request.

So the French citizen I spoke to is, in principle, correct that it is possible to renounce French citizenship and then get it back.  That said, it appears loss via declaration due to marriage or naturalization (if done within 1 year) would be much safer and easier than trying to get it back via decree.  I can also see how a French citizen could theoretically do an end run around Japan's laws against dual nationality:  become Japanese, renounce via declaration, apply for reintegration, move back to France as a French citizen, retain Japanese citizenship on the sly.  However, getting that French citizenship back is not at all a sure thing and is contingent on things like how the former French citizen has lived his/her life abroad.

Fascinating.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

National Unity and the Sins of the Past

"Dans le passé, un héritage de gloire et de regrets à partager, dans l'avenir un même programme à réaliser ; avoir souffert joui, espéré ensemble, voilà ce qui vaut mieux que des douanes communes et des frontières conformes aux idées stratégiques ; voilà ce que l'on comprend malgré les diversités de race et de langue. Je disais tout à l'heure : « avoir souffert ensemble » ; oui, la souffrance en commun unit plus que la joie. En fait de souvenirs nationaux, les deuils valent mieux que les triomphes, car ils 
imposent des devoirs, ils commandent l'effort en commun."

"A people shares a glorious heritage as well, regrets, and a common program to realize. Having suffered, rejoiced, and hoped together is worth more than common taxes or frontiers that conform to strategic ideas and is independent of racial or linguistic considerations. “Suffered together”, I said, for shared suffering unites more than does joy. In fact, periods of mourning are worth more to national memory than triumphs because they impose duties and require a common effort." (Translation by Ethan Rundell.)

Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (What is a Nation?), 1882.

If you've never read this text, I really encourage you to do so.  It was a lecture Renan gave at the Sorbonne in the late 19th century in which he asked this deceptively simple question.  At a time when people viewed race, ethnicity, language, national borders and even common interests as the elements that make up a nation, Renan argued rather that a nation has a "soul" that is composed of the past and the present:  "One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received."

That is a emotionally stirring and surprisingly inclusive definition.  It's not something that one can prove empirically and the fact that he had to argue for it says that many at that time would have disagreed. Many still would.  Is is possible to conceive of the French or Japanese nations today without the French and Japanese languages? And yet Renan argues against making it a defning feature of the nation for "When one exaggerates its importance, one limits and closes oneself up in a particular culture understood as national. One leaves the open air that one breathes in the midst of humanity in order to lock one’s self away in little freemasonries of one’s compatriots."

However, where I definitely part ways with Renan is when I read these passages (the ones most often quoted):   
"Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality. Historical inquiry, in effect, throws light on the violent acts that have taken place at the origin of every political formation, even those that have been the most benevolent in their consequences." and "However, the essence of a nation is that all of its individual members have a great deal in common and also that they have forgotten many things. No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgund, an Alain, a Taifala, or a Visigoth. Every French citizen has forgotten St. Bartholomew’s Day and the thirteenth-century massacres in the Midi."
Renan argued that forgetting was a good thing: A collective memory of the past is what makes it possible for members of the nation to envision a common future.  This is an appeal to national unity which should, in his view, override historical accuracy.  

This argument is still with us;  you can hear it in the US, in Japan and in France.  Some say Why do we have to keep talking about the history and legacy of slavery and colonialism?  Let us all instead indulge in a collective act of selective amnesia and just move on. There are many answers to that suggestion written by far wiser people than I.  But my belief is that this simply can not be asked of people whose recent ancestors suffered great injustices and who are still feeling the weight of the past in the present.

This proposition also offends my own honor:  Am I so small a person (so delicate a flower) that I need lies or erasure of facts in order to think well (or badly) of my or any other nation?  Nor would I like to think of myself as so lacking in intellectual integrity that I decide to accept one pleasing and palatable version of an historical narrative and sweep all others aside.  "You can't handle the truth!" was an insult, not the wise words of a venerable warrior.  The truth certainly can elicit all kinds of emotions but it is not for someone else to say whether you or I can "handle" it.

In the context over these thoughts about forgetting, I am following debates over the Confederate statues in the American South and the shrines to the war dead in Japan.  I confess that I have never been to that part of the US but I have been to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.  (And I went with full knowledge of the controversies surrounding it.)   The arguments for and against them are not so far apart though the existence of the shrine is a recurring national debate and an international cause célèbre in Asia.  

Are they memorials or monuments?  Are they recalling events to which Renan might counsel forgetting in the name of national unity?   Do they promote an historical narrative that is one-sided and based on principles like imperialism and white supremacy?  What does it mean when a Japanese prime minister pays a visit (or for that matter, Jean-Marie Le Pen) or when American politicians argue against the removal of statues?  Do we accept that "Yasukuni Shrine was established to commemorate and honor the achievement of those who dedicated their precious lives for their country" and Confederate statues and flags as simply a part of the "heritage" of the region?* Or do we reject those arguments and ascribe far more nefarious motives to those who built them, visit them, or support their continued public existence?

National tragedies are not so forgettable as Renan seems to suggests, nor is it obvious that a people necessarily see themselves as united in suffering.  Akiko Hashimoto had this to say about the nation and the past in The Long Defeat:   "Memories of difficult experiences like war and defeat endure for many reasons: the nation's trajectory may change profoundly as it did when Japan surrendered sovereignty in 1945; collective life must be regenerated from a catastrophic national fall; and losers face the predicament of living with a discredited, tainted past." May I suggest that if people perceive that those are the stakes, then efforts to explore the past together in order to come to a place where there is that desire to move on together will be a Sisyphean task.  Because anything that smacks of Sin without the possibility of compassion and redemption leaves people with nowhere to go but Hell (in which case they will fight like devils just to get into Purgatory.)

I think these debates are necessary, however acrimonious and painful they may be.  It may very well be that what we are experiencing now in so many places - the angry debates, the culture and identity wars and the never-ending arguments over "the moral character of heroes, victims and perpetrators" (Hashimoto)- is a form of Renan's "suffering together."  Like all things under the sun, it will be over one day and how it will end, I cannot say.  But I do think that Renan is right  and national unity (and better international comity) may actually come to pass once we have learned  to sincerely regret and to grieve with and for each other.  

*This connection has been made before by others.  Just google Yasukuni and Confederate Flag.