THE GULF between Americans and those in the Muslim world seems to be growing into a frightening divide. Exacerbating that situation is the lack of direct contact between Americans and those in the Muslim world. One simple custom that could at least be a start to closing the divide is also one that seems to have fallen by the wayside: the pen pal.
Fifty years ago, I began to forge a lifelong friendship with a Japanese boy my age, Shinzo Yoshida, at a time when our citizens had scant contact with the Japanese and our nations had been at bitter odds. Our nations' disaffection with one another ran deep and had simmered for half a century. When World War II began, we even shipped Americans of Japanese descent to detention camps. Movies lampooned the Japanese with portrayals of bucktoothed pilots shooting at American planes. Certainly Japanese wartime conduct merited our hostility.
But not long after the war, as some of our negative perceptions of the Japanese lingered, my junior high school in Los Angeles started a pen-pal program with one of its counterparts in Japan. I began writing to Shinzo, who was my age. Americans are a tolerant people. Most nations that have been at war will carry on feuds for generations, yet our schoolchildren were corresponding with Japanese kids.
At first, Shinzo and I exchanged information about ourselves and our families and often sent each other coins and stamps. In one letter, he wrote that he had won a "Geta" race -- a wooden clog race -- and asked about the election and the "H" bomb. I discussed the Hollywood Stars minor league baseball team and inquired about Japanese games, religious practices and vacations.
As time went on, we traded notes about our travels, school and eventually our jobs, our wives and our children. Shinzo worked in a clerical capacity for a paper company and was a union member. I had become a lawyer. The letters continued to come, generally every couple of months. And I always wrote back.
Through our correspondence, he learned about American life and culture and I learned about Japan's. We each found much to admire about the other's societies. Twice I met Shinzo in Japan -- once when I worked on a ship that went to Asia, and later with my wife. Neither he nor his family could speak English, but we were able to communicate with dictionaries and writing. Even though he had modest means, he and his family spared little to make my visits memorable. I recall a Japanese meal in a tiny apartment that was immaculate. Notwithstanding the language barrier, we felt like what we were -- old family friends.
Not long ago, I received an e-mail from Shinzo's daughter: Shinzo had died. I was grief-stricken. The passing of someone with whom I had corresponded for more than half a century left a great void.
I write about this experience to point out that this type of program can bring people closer together no matter what their religions, philosophical differences, past difficulties or perceptions. What better place to start than with children.