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I came across a reference in my 50-year-old Okinawan history book to a sacred Buddhist temple bell, cast in 1465 by the order of the king. It was inscribed, “May the sound of this bell shatter illusory dreams, perfect the souls of mankind, and enable the King and his subjects to live so virtuously that barbarians will find no occasion to invade the Kingdom.” Truly, a national treasure, a very sacred and important object, both culturally/religiously, and historically. Unfortunately, inscriptions on bells do little to stave off invasion, and Okinawa suffered just that, and subordinate status to several nations over the course of its history. A very similar bell, forged in the same year, and with similar importance and sacredness, was stolen by the invaders, and set up at their military academy, essentially a war trophy. But who were these barbarians, who would invade and destroy so much culture, so much history, killing thousands of civilians, and stealing national treasures as war trophies? It wasn’t the Mongols. Nor the Chinese. Nor the Japanese. No, it was the Americans.

I thought we were the good guys. I thought we didn’t do this kind of thing. I thought that’s what separated “us” from “them”. Maybe I read too many comic books. Maybe there are no good guys in this world. Such flagrant disrespect for the history and culture of another people… you can blame it on the racism, the values, the attitudes of a past age (i.e. 1940s America is not the America of today) but in light of the vast destruction of irreplaceable priceless world heritage in Iraq in the last five years or so, I would say nothing’s changed. War trophies!? Are you serious? Who are we, the Romans? The Mongols? Are we keeping heads or ears or noses as well, to count which warrior was the most valiant in claiming the most heads of our enemies?

This bell was thankfully returned to Okinawa in 1991, 46 years after it was stolen. The inscribed bell described above, and in my history book, was brought back to the US by Commodore Perry a century prior, whether as a gift or as a war trophy I do not know, but displayed at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, removed entirely from its Buddhist, royal, and Okinawan contexts, and rung at the most unsacred and plebian of occasions – the victory of the Navy over the Army in football games. This one was returned in 1987; I visited this temple when I was in Okinawa, not knowing the story of the bell…

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