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As Others See Us...and History

Richard Pooley

In “To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church”, one of Robert Burns’ most amusing yet profound poems, written in 1786, the final verse contains these lines (translated from the Scots):

Oh, would some Power the gift give us

To see ourselves as others see us!

It would from many a blunder free us,”

“As Others See Us” was an essential element of the cross-cultural courses that I used to run for business people around the world from the late 1980s to 2017. The message to my participants was blunt: if you want to successfully manage or do business with your foreign colleagues and clients, you must learn how they perceive you and your culture. I would often add that this meant learning what they were taught at school about your country’s role, if any, in their nation’s history.

In a February 2018 article in Shaw Sheet I wrote about how the French currently view the role the British played in France’s history in the Second World War. It starts out by telling about a remark made by a French woman after the mayor of our village in France had given a speech beside its war memorial on 8 May 2014 – France’s Victory in Europe day. Here is a link to the article: Issue 141: 2018 02 15: You took part too – the Shaw Sheet emagazine, a Monthly Briefing on the News. For those not willing to plough through the whole piece, here is the bit with the woman’s remark:

“There are nine names listed on Vayrac’s war memorial under Guerre 1939-1945. It’s unusual to have so many, even in this part of south-west France where the Resistance was arguably the strongest. So, it was not surprising that our mayor devoted almost all of his speech to recalling the courage and sacrifice of the Resistance fighters. After all, he and we can buy our bread each day from the grandson of one of those nine men. There was just one sentence reminding his listeners that others had come to the aid of France – the Russians, the Americans and the British. In that order. The mayor then pinned a medal on one ancien combattant to go with the others the old fighter was already wearing. After the ceremony we were all invited to have a drink at the mairie. A middle-aged woman came up to us and asked if we would like to pay for a bleuet de France, the blue cornflower which, like the poppy, was one of the few flowers that continued to grow in the smashed-up land between the First World War trenches. The bleuet is worn on 8 May as well as 11 November. When the woman realised we were English, she cocked her head to one side and after a moment’s hesitation said: ‘L’Angleterre? Ah oui, vous avez participé aussi.’ She was referring to the Second World War.”

Several British readers (and other Brits to whom my wife and I have recounted this story) expressed disbelief: the French think we merely “took part” in the Second World War?! This was usually followed by a tirade against France’s ignominious behaviour during the the British see it.

One of the strangest requests I ever received in my business life was from a Japanese human resources manager. It was 1991 and I had been running my company’s Tokyo subsidiary for less than a year. Saito-san worked for Sony. I had impressed my Japanese sales staff soon after becoming their boss by managing to persuade Saito to send Sony staff to us for International Presentation Skills training. He had just come back from working for Sony in France and had seen how many of his European colleagues derided their Japanese managers for their inability to speak persuasively and clearly. He was also a history buff and an Anglophile: he was a huge admirer of the way we British had managed our empire.

One day he turned up at our training centre, ostensibly to sit in on the end-of-course presentations of a group of Sony managers but, in fact, to ask me if we could train those staff being sent to China to work in Sony’s new factories. Japanese expatriate managers, technicians and trainers in their Chinese plants and sales offices were being treated with contempt by Sony’s Chinese employees. In Saito’s view one of the biggest problems was that the Japanese expats did not know the history of China in the first half of the 20th Century. They did not know how much and why they were loathed by almost every Chinese. Could we Brits (and the Australians, Canadians and US Americans among my training staff) train the Japanese being sent to China on how to work successfully with their Chinese subordinates?

Saito was right. He showed me the official history textbook he had had at school. The Japanese text on the Pacific War, as the Second World War is called in Japan, barely filled a single page. It began with the reason why the Japanese had invaded Manchukuo, north-east China, in 1931: because the USA and Dutch had banned the export of oil to Japan from the Dutch East Indies and elsewhere. The Japanese had invaded Manchuria to find oil and other natural resources. In fact, such sanctions took place after Japan’s invasion, and as a response to it. And while the Japanese rightly believed there was oil in Manchuria it wasn’t discovered until 1959. The last sentence of the paragraph on the Pacific War described the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Saito and his colleagues in China had been taught that in the Pacific War the Japanese were the victims not the aggressors.

Above all, there was no mention of what every Chinese child learns at school: the 6-week Nanjing Massacre which started in December 1937. The consensus is that Japanese soldiers murdered about 200,000 Chinese, mostly civilians, tens of thousands of whom were women who had been raped before being killed.

Saito told me that no Japanese trainer of his assignees would tell the truth about their countrymen’s appalling treatment of the Chinese during the Pacific War, either because they did not know of it themselves or because it was too shameful (or, as he admitted, they simply did not believe it to be true). He had thought about hiring Chinese trainers but decided his Japanese colleagues would think they were spouting Chinese Communist Party propaganda. Only ‘Western’, ideally British, trainers could do this and be believed by Sony’s managers. The trouble was that whilst we might know about China's recent history neither I nor any of my non-Japanese colleagues had sufficient first-hand knowledge of China and its business culture to be able to prepare Saito's assignees effectively. In the end, if I remember correctly, Chinese trainers were used, after being carefully vetted by Saito.

I have often wondered if Saito knew how negative is the image that the Chinese have of the British. Every Chinese child also learns at school about the two Opium Wars conducted by the British against the Chinese in the 19th Century and the “unequal treaties” that the Chinese were forced to sign. The British behaviour towards the Chinese during the “century of humiliation” has neither been forgotten or forgiven.

Even today the Japanese version of Wikipedia’s entry on the Nanjing Massacre calls it the Nankin Jiken (Incident), displays none of the gruesome photographs that can be found on the English-language version, and expresses doubt that the numbers killed were so high.

In 2019 I was in the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, as interested in watching and listening to the reaction of the many parties of Japanese schoolchildren as I was in the exhibits themselves. The most poignant exhibits were the bones of a small hand fused into molten glass (a child drinking from a glass of water?), the blackened rice in a metal lunch box which had the owner’s name and class number scratched on the bottom (14-year old Satoko Tsutsumi, whose father discovered her corpse alongside those of his parents) and the ‘shadow’ of a man at the foot of a ladder. But the school children of Satoko Tsutsumi’s age looked bored. I watched them as they passed her lunch box. Not one glanced at it. They had already had enough and were giggling over their smartphones*.

In the last room there is a panel which shows a timeline from 1933 explaining what led to the Pacific War and finally the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. It’s only in Japanese, is badly lit and hides behind another panel, which also has a timeline but starting from 1943, in English and Japanese, focusing on the development of the bomb itself. The schoolchildren looked at neither panel. Perhaps they felt they did not need to. After all they know what happened. Unlike Saito’s textbook the standard history textbook in Japanese secondary schools today devotes 19 out of 357 pages to the period between 1931 and 1945. Even so, there is still just one sentence on the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I was often asked by my cross-cultural course participants what they should do when preparing to do business or work in a country new to them. My answer was always the same: read a good history of the place and when you get there, ask questions of the locals to learn how they see their nation’s story...and yours.

I went to Russia three times in the early 2000s, each time in Moscow to deliver a course, once to also do some selling with a Russian-speaking colleague. Following my own advice, I re-read Orlando Figes’ vast “A People’s Tragedy – The Russian Revolution 1891-1924” and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s equally huge “Stalin – The Court of the Red Tsar.” Insight into the Russian mindset was provided by the many Russian, Belarussian and Ukrainian businesspeople I trained on Executive MBA courses in Latvia between 2009 and 2017. And I have learned yet more having a Ukrainian refugee living in our house for the past sixteen months. Yet it has required me to have some knowledge of Russian history to know what questions to ask these people to find out what makes Russians tick.

The current Russian tsar, Vladimir Putin, has been rewriting his country’s history and that of Russia’s neighbours from the start of his reign in 1999. This month, Russian high school students will have a new textbook for studying modern history. From it they will learn that “Ukraine is an ultra-nationalist state. Today, any dissent in Ukraine is severely persecuted, opposition is banned...” and “the USA has become the main beneficiary of the Ukrainian conflict.”

Putin is carrying on from where all but one of the Soviet Union’s leaders left off. It was only under Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s that Moscow allowed the full horror of Stalin’s reign of terror to be aired publicly in the USSR. Only then did the Kremlin condemn the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939, which led to the Soviet invasion of Poland the following month and the Soviet annexation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Little, if any, mention of all this is made today in Russian classrooms.

A letter to the Financial Times last month from a Christopher Bellew told of a visit he had made to Kyrgyzstan, the central Asian state which was part of the Russian empire and then the Soviet Union from 1876 to 1991:

Our guide was an economics graduate; I asked him what if anything he had been taught at school about the UK. He looked embarrassed before saying he only knew we had joined both world wars at the end, when we knew we would be on the winning side.”

*I have quoted myself again in this bit. It's from an article I wrote for Shaw Sheet in October 2019 after visiting Japan during the Rugby World Cup -


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