Georgie Anne Geyer
April 29, 2013

WASHINGTON -- The first time I met the legendary Sam Jameson we had tea in Tokyo in 1979. He told me with unwavering assurance why he was dedicating his life and talents to Japan.

This tall, stolid Yankee with the open Midwestern smile had arrived in the island nation with the U.S. Army in 1960, when World War II had still not really ended. Parts of Japanese cities were still in ruins and mentalities were still mired in confusion. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the brilliant American substitute for the emperor after the war, had gone home, but the future had not yet arrived.

"I decided I would stay as a correspondent," Sam told me that day. "I wanted to see if two people who had been at war could be friends again."

Those words stayed with me, as from afar I watched Sam go from writing for Pacific Stars & Stripes to the Chicago Tribune and, finally, to a quarter-century as the Los Angeles Times' bureau chief in Tokyo. His first "trick" was to learn perfectly fluent and nuanced Japanese, itself a tremendous accomplishment.

While other correspondents flocked to the "new Japan" and did their jobs well, Sam stood alone in his talents. Whenever his friends from home visited, he took us to his favorite piano bars, and at a certain time, the big Yank got up and sang in perfect Japanese, and the crowd went wild.

Another evening we were having dinner at The Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo, and I began complaining that I had been unable to get an interview with Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, already an international leader of considerable note. Sam picked up the phone on the table, dialed Nakasone's private number, spoke a moment in Japanese and hung up.

"Shall we go over there now?" Sam asked, with that wonderful smile hovering on impishness. And that very night, I had an excellent interview with the notably evasive Nakasone.

As Bob Gibson, the L.A. Times foreign editor who worked with Sam, noted this week, "Whereas other reporters often use Western diplomats as sources, Western diplomats in Japan used Sam as a source."

Unfortunately, Gibson was speaking for Sam's obituaries after Sam died at 76 on April 19 of a stroke -- in Tokyo, naturally -- after half a century's work and dedication not only to a profession, but to an idea.

It may seem that I am simply reminiscing here, about someone I greatly admired professionally and had deep affection for personally, but it is more than that. In a time when we have more need in understanding the Chechens, the Afghans, the Sunnis and the Shiites, the Syrians and the Iraqis, and the Malians and the Mauritanians, I am trying to throw much-needed light on how understanding between peoples is best accomplished.

When those two nitwit Tsarnaev boys committed mass murder in Boston, people asked, "Chechen? Chechnya? Maybe, Czech?" And all most writers could come up with was the rather obvious information that Chechnya was a small Muslim tribal area in the Caucasus, and that the Tsarnaev family had come out of Chechnya's wars with the Russians.

This week I found the best analysis to be from Russian writer Konstantin Kazenin, who wrote in Moscow that the Tsarnaev family were not among the Chechen exiles after the wars as expected, but part of a different tragedy.

Instead, this family, which ended up in a unique and unusual diaspora in Boston, is "an example of a Caucasus family which existed in the last Soviet and post-Soviet decades without communal supports and in a vacuum of new unfriendly spaces in which it was necessary to find a way to survive without having any accustomed support," according to Kazenin.

In short, they were not villagers, with a village to support them. They were not city dwellers who fought off the Russians together. They were part of the groups written about by the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in "The Gulag Archipelago" -- effectively atomized individuals and individual families, lost without any support except themselves.

To me, this means that the brothers could be at least as much against America as against Russia: to the Tsarnaevs, both countries are equally huge, impersonal entities in which they are lost and afraid; both are enemies undeserving of pity.

Another excellent analyst of the Chechens, Almut Rochowanski, coordinator of the Chechnya Advocacy Network, also writes brilliantly about the Chechens' "exaggerated masculinity, the way a 'real man,' a 'real Chechen,' has to conduct himself, and the treatment he is entitled to expect from others."

The Chechen boy in a world like America brings with him the idea that "he should get respect from everyone and tolerate no slights; he should control 'his' women or else lose his honor." And if he doesn't, he strikes out against the society that ignores him.

In Japan after World War II, Douglas MacArthur relied on total victory, but also upon cultural wisdom about Japan from American anthropologists he hired, such as the great Ruth Benedict. In Vietnam, Cambodia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, our forces instead treated locals as if they were poor copies of ourselves. We know the tragic outcomes.

Now, as we try to figure out the "whys" of Chechen and other terrorists -- and as more and more talk is given to "getting into Syria" -- it is time that we dig deeper, as my dear friend Sam and even MacArthur so surprisingly did.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)