AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for June, 2007

Paying tribute to the new Chinese emperors

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 30, 2007

ON THE RIGHT SIDEBAR there’s a quote from author Michael Crichton: “We need to start seeing the media as a bearded nut on the sidewalk.” He’s not just speaking metaphorically—some people really do fit that description. One of them is the London-based independent journalist, Gwynne Dyer.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. He’s more likely sitting in an office somewhere rather than pounding the pavement and haranguing innocent pedestrians. But as you can see from the photo on his website, he is bearded, and as you can read from this article on Chinese pollution, he has some nutty ideas, too.

His sermonette was inspired by China’s emergence as the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide. The primary reason for all the Chinese hot air is the use of coal-fired power plants, which accounts for about 70% of the country’s energy consumption.

It’s already causing serious problems in the region; in a previous post, I noted how Beijing’s air was among the filthiest in the world, and how Chinese air pollution is causing air pollution alerts in Japan.

The normal response would be to get the planet’s largest country to shoulder some responsibility and act like an adult. But Dyer has a completely different approach to this problem:

..if China imposes the same kind of curbs on its emissions (as Western countries), then it will not become a country where most people are prosperous and secure in this generation, or perhaps ever. The same goes for India and all the other once-poor countries that are now experiencing very rapid economic growth. So the deal must be that they get to keep on growing fast, and the rich countries take the strain.

Now that’s nutzpah: the developed world should allow the Chinese to continue to use the planet as its toilet because otherwise they won’t get gloriously rich—perhaps ever!–and hold its nose while serving as China’s Permanent Latrine Orderly.

Dyer further beclowns himself by offering two “main ways” for achieving this:

One is (for the developed nations) to cut their own emissions very deeply, leaving some room for the developing countries to expand theirs. The other way is to pay directly for cuts in the emissions of the developing countries: pay them to adopt clean-burning coal technologies, pay them to build renewable energy sources, pay them not to cut the rain-forests down. Pay them quite a lot, in fact, because otherwise we all suffer.

In other words, the developed nations must forego their own prosperity for the sake of Chinese affluence by literally paying tribute to the new emperors and letting them behave even more irresponsibly.

Would anyone care to speculate on the shape of the New World Order after that mission has been accomplished?

The author seems to be suggesting the West should run a screwy protection racket in reverse. Instead of hoodlums leaning on a shopkeeper for money with the threat of trouble if he doesn’t cough up the cash, the local police are supposed to seek out the neighborhood delinquent and hand him their wallets for not breaking the law.

One would think that a man whose column is published in 175 newspapers in 45 countries (according to his website) would have done some basic research. That no longer seems to be a prerequisite for taking up space in the mainstream media, however.

For starters, Dyer seems to be unaware that 30% of Japanese ODA to China is already earmarked for environmental projects. The academic sector is involved as well. Next April, Kyushu University will open a research institute expressly to train Asian technicians in clean ways of utilizing coal energy.

Dyer thinks his is a simple plan:

The (industrialized countries) can easily afford to, because they are already rich and bound to remain so.

They’re not bound to remain rich by having their wealth redistributed to China. And no, Dyer’s website contains no suggestion that he ever studied economics.

Of course, this would allow the Chinese to divert the money they should be spending on environmental measures somewhere else. Where else?

China is now lavishing funds on its Navy, long a neglected arm of the military services. Since George W. Bush took office, China has been building up its fleet of amphibious assault ships and submarines, and last December launched its first in a new class of nuclear subs, years earlier than anticipated by U.S. intelligence.

How much are they spending?

In the first half of 2002, the attention of Western military specialists was drawn to two large-scale contracts concluded by China and Russia and aimed at PLA (People’s Liberation Army) Navy modernization:

1. Construction of two Sovremenny-class missile destroyers, for $1.4 billion;
2. Construction of eight upgraded Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, for $1.6 billion.

Indeed, $3 billion in six months is a huge sum of money. However, this represents only a part of the resources directed at PLA Navy (PLAN) modernization. In any case, the rate of PLAN modernization and construction is not inferior to similar rates of the PLA Air Force and air-defense network.

Instead of “paying them a lot” and indirectly subsidizing a military buildup that China is bound to use (or, at minimum, threaten to use) for malevolent purposes, a better idea would be to have the Chinese pay for it themselves. It’s not as if they need substantial naval forces. A Chinese refusal to use for clean energy resources the funds it’s already spending on unnecessary military upgrades would be a clear indication of the government’s intentions in the future.

That Dyer fails to consider this possibility is puzzling. His website states that he served in three navies and held an academic appointment at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

If we are to agree it behooves the rest of the world to help the Chinese with their pollution problem, a cleaner and better way would be to provide them with the know-how for building nuclear power plants instead of using coal, but that idea would really shiver Dyer’s timbers. A quarter of a century ago, he was shouting from the sidewalks to warn us that the end of the world was nigh because of the threat of nuclear holocaust.

We see how that turned out.

Since the point of the exercise is not the content of the program but the platform it provides, Dyer simply amended the text of his apocalyptic sermons to switch the focus from nuclear weapons to the environment. But he doesn’t consider Chinese air pollution, an example of which is shown in the accompanying photo, to be the big problem–he’s now a full-fledged member of the Church of Global Warming:

But climate change will affect the lives of ordinary Chinese people, and the government and the experts know it. One government study last year predicted a 37 percent fall in crop yields within the next 50 years if current trends persist. Since we may assume that climate change will be having comparable effects elsewhere and that even a rich China will be unable to make up the shortfall by importing food, that prediction implies mass starvation.

There is going to have to be a global agreement on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions within the next five to 10 years or the world faces runaway climate change, but countries like China and India must get special terms or their hopes of a prosperous future are doomed.

Doomed if we do and doomed if we don’t. At least it keeps Dyer gainfully employed.

It would be futile trying to convert the true believers–somewhat akin to trying to convert a Moslem to Judaism. But for those who you who aren’t in Dyer’s amen corner and wonder if we really do face “runaway climate change” and mass starvation, this article is for you. Don’t pass up to chance the follow all the links, particularly those in the underlying articles themselves.

Posted in China, Environmentalism, International relations, Mass media | 8 Comments »

Sukiyaki Western Django: For teenagers from 13 to 30

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 29, 2007

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY, some young Brits had such a yen for American musicians and their music they decided to imitate it for their countrymen’s entertainment. To everyone’s surprise–especially their own—the sensation they created caused other young people throughout the world to imitate them, even the Americans. How’s that for irony? Young Americans were playing music to mimic the young Englishmen they thought were cool, while the English were mimicking the Americans, whom they thought were the cool ones.

Rather than being isolated phenomena, artistic reverberations such as these are part of the creative process everywhere. At the same time as the British Invasion, modern African popular music was being fashioned by Africans imitating Cuban and other Caribbean music, which itself was a hybrid of traditional African music and that of several European countries.

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Those precedents came to mind when I read this article about a new film from Japanese director Miike Takashi called Sukiyaki Western: Django. It’s loosely based on the movie Django, a so-called Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci. Miike’s twist is to use that film as a vehicle for retelling the story of the late 12th-century Taira-Minamoto war as recounted in the Tale of the Heike.

At first glance, the idea seems to have the potential to stimulate some serious miscegenation and give birth to an entertaining flick. The similarities in the way Japanese mythologized their feudal past in cinema and television and the way Americans mythologized their 19th century frontier past have been discussed for years. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was influenced by American director Frank Capra, and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was turned into The Magnificent Seven, making the Western an American remake of a samurai film by a Japanese director inspired by an American.

The Magnificent Seven also left some other cultural progeny in its wake. The main theme from Elmer Bernstein’s score was cut and pasted straight into television commercials for Marlboro cigarettes. In those days, the company was still reworking its former brand image as a ladies’ cigarette by using a rugged Western motif for TV ads and changing the spelling from Marlborough into something more butch. Listen carefully and you’ll also recognize Bernstein’s theme as part of the horn riff in Arthur Conley’s top 40 hit, Sweet Soul Music–the title of which also became the title of a book about 60s Southern soul by Peter Guralnick.

The Spaghetti Western rode into town a few years later when the Italians, most of whom wouldn’t know a stirrup from scaloppini, got hooked on the image and started making Westerns of their own, often with the theme music of Ennio Morricone. Those films turned out to be the career break for a down-on-his luck actor named Clint Eastwood, who had gone abroad to look for work. They were so successful Hollywood made its own Spaghetti Western starring Eastwood–The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Americans imitating Italians imitating Americans.

djangoset

Meanwhile, the Japanese were quick to spot the similarities between the Spaghetti Westerns and their own samurai movies, and incorporated aspects of those films into their own movie and television work, particularly the theme and incidental music. Some directors even incorporated Western motifs into movies about other subjects, such as Itami Juzo’s Tampopo, which was very loosely a story about a woman running a ramen shop.

Adding even more flavor to this international stew was Eastwood’s apparent incorporation of some licks from Japanese movies into his own films. I watched the fourth and last Dirty Harry movie in Japan with some Japanese friends, and when a backlit Eastwood appeared for the climactic scene at a closed amusement park at night, they all yelled “Yojimbo!” in unison. (And that was a Kurosawa movie inspired by Dashiell Hammett and remade by Sergio Leone.)

That’s the tradition Sukiyaki Western: Django, slated to premiere in September, could have updated. Peeling back the top layer, however, suggests a work that’s all surface with no underlying resonance–a project that seems be sinking under the weight of post-adolescent irony rather than soaring on the wings of post-modern meta-hipness.

One could also compare it to a Japanese pizza: By replacing the pepperoni with potato salad, they missed the point.

The American sense of fashionable irony is one aspect of the country’s culture that doesn’t translate very well in Japan. Many Japanese just don’t get it when Americans come across that way, and not that many like it when they do get it. (More power to the Japanese.) So it’s not surprising that Miike’s attempt to cop a feeling seems both off-key and heavy-handed:

Miike’s film, to put it mildly, does not worry about anachronisms. Set “a few hundred years” after the Gempei War’s decisive 1185 Battle of Dannoura, the movie features men with punkish hairdos who blow to bits bottles of liquor at a saloon. The film…is set during a gold rush in the dusty, barren village of “Utah” — which, in Japanese, means “field of hot water.”

Yes, a “field of hot water” is such a common expression in Japanese, not to mention English. How clever.

A gunman, played by Japanese star Hideaki Ito, arrives under the torii gate to delve into gangland score-settling.

And when Ito rides into town, a man has already been lynched and is hanging from the torii with a rope around his neck, dripping several quarts of WD40 irony.

Miike…shot the film entirely in English, forcing some of the Japanese cast members to head for a crash course. “I couldn’t speak English, so it was difficult,” Ito said of being presented with the script. Kaori Momoi, one of the film’s female leads who also appeared in Hollywood’s Memoirs of a Geisha, said she finds it more difficult to ad lib in English.
“If the way Japanese actors speak English comes to be accepted, then it will add to Japanese actors’ range,” she said.

She means it will add to their range of available employment without them having to do any work to earn it.

Miike said he told the actors to speak English as best they could. “For this movie, we used Japanese English, not the English perfectly spoken in the United States or in the UK,” he said. “If this is accepted, then Japanese English will come to be known as something very cool.”

Sure, podnuh, in the same way the Japanese English on t-shirts is already known worldwide as something very cool.

All your unbranded cattle are belong to us.

The cherry on top of this tongue-in-pierced-cheek sundae is a cameo appearance by director Quentin Tarentino playing a character called–what else?–Ringo.

Tarentino’s appearance in Sukiyaki Western: Django is a perfect fit because his own films have become so increasingly ironic and packed with obscure references that the last one (the two Kill Bills) is unwatchable for anyone other than really cool people into movies so bad they’re really cool.

I have no idea what Tarentino does in the movie, but if Miike wanted to carve some notches on his six-shooter, he’d have cast him as a masterless samurai in Utah, complete with topknot and speaking phonetic Japanese written out in the Roman alphabet.

“To be such a cool character, doing fast draws, wearing a cool costume, it just doesn’t get any better than that,” the Pulp Fiction director said. “There’s a childlike innocence to it. We could all be eight years old and doing this in our backyards and just having a whale of a time.”

I think Tarentino is selling the project short when he says it was like being eight years old. From what we know so far, I’d raise the age a bit–it seems to be much more down the alley of a high school renegade intellectual who spends too much time alone in his room.

For example, take a look at the trailer at YouTube. Give Miike credit for his visual sense, but the swordplay on the saloon staircase, the guy with the pearl in his pierced lip, the body hanging in a noose from the torii, and the machine gun suggest this is little more than a sardonic snickerfest for international otaku who grew up on video games and manga.

That would explain the English dialogue. The enjoyment of a video game doesn’t depend on good acting from the animated characters. Humans aren’t even necessary–a machine-generated voice will do.

The manga connection is a real one, by the way. The first of 10 installments of the serialized version of the movie came out earlier this month in Shogakukan’s Big Comic Superior.

But one has to wonder if Miike’s lariat fell short of roping a few strays. If he’s going to go this far, why not go all the way? We know from his stated intention of making Japanese English cool that fluent dialogue is not a priority. If the objective is to create a northeast Asian Spaghetti Western, why not have the actors deliver their lines in Italian and dub it into English, just like the originals? It’s going to have to be subtitled or dubbed in Japan anyway. (My money’s on the former. It’s more cool and ironic that way, and besides, the trailers are subtitled.)

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If he really wanted to play hipper-than-thou, he’d have released it domestically in Japanese English as is, suggesting to his audience that they’d still understand it, and if they couldn’t follow the dialogue, it wouldn’t make any difference. Then he could demonstrate that he does reside in a dimension of irony far beyond the rest of us.

And surely he could have come up with a better title. Telling people up front that it’s a Sukiyaki Western is like having to explain to someone that you were joking. If the joke were funny, no explanation would be needed.

That’s not to say that whatever Sukiyaki Western: Django turns out to be will be without merit. Some will enjoy it as entertainment, and entertainment is usually harmless. For millennia, people everywhere have been wearing silly costumes and outrageous makeup while playing pretend on stage, so it’s not going to herald the end of the world as we know it. It’ll just be the end of the Sukiyaki Western.

But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend it is what it isn’t: entertainment for adults. This simply isn’t grown up enough to be placed in the same company as Kurosawa, not to mention The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, or even The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly at its best.

And if Miike were to try to convince us otherwise, then the irony would be on him–even if he recouped the investment because enough geeks rented the DVD some Friday night when they didn’t have anything else to do.

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Posted in Arts, Films, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: | 10 Comments »

Asian-American lobbying groups playing hardball in comfort woman game

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 28, 2007

READER TOPCAT came up with the Japanese version of an article describing how Asian-American lobbying groups, particularly the Chinese, are threatening to withhold support for American congressmen if they don’t back the resolution slamming Japan over the use of comfort women.

They’re targeting Tom Lantos in particular. He represents a district whose population is roughly one-third Asian-American.

Then reader Ponta found the original English version in the Palo Alto Daily News, here.

Ding said he does not understand how a morally correct resolution with no financial strings or political agenda can be so easily put aside….Chang and Ding also suggested that if Lantos, who represents a district that is 33 percent Asian-American, can’t communicate with them, than perhaps it’s time for new representation. The group backed their threat with demographic numbers from the 12th California District and election results that they feel lend support for putting up their own candidate to run against Lantos in the 2008 election.

It’s a shame that it hasn’t dawned on the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia and the Chinese Americans for Democracy in Taiwan that they’re Americans now, and the battles of the old country belong in the old country. Most of the Europeans who migrated to the United States either figured it out (except politicians with Irish heritage, such as Teddy Kennedy, who found ways to funnel money to the IRA), or were told to figure it out.

Most politicians are gutless in the face of groups such as these, so it’s a safe bet Lantos and the others will cave.

And how about the name of that first group? Why don’t they just be honest and call themselves the Asian Alliance for Sticking it to the Japanese Every Chance We Get?

Posted in China, History, International relations, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: | 61 Comments »

Will the LDP double down in the next election?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 26, 2007

NOW THIS GUY HAS SHARP EYES: Japanese blogger Hiroshi, writing for the Japan Handlers blog (in Japanese), spotted two snippets in the Japanese press that present the possibility of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party dissolving the Lower House of the Diet and holding a double election on the same day as that for the upcoming regularly scheduled Upper House poll.

Hiroshi found the first snippet in a Yomiuri Shimbun report yesterday of an address given by Yoshimi Watanabe, the Minister of State for Regulatory Reform, Administrative Reform, Regional Revitalization and (pant, pant) Regional Government. Speaking in Kusatsu, Shiga Prefecture, Watanabe claimed that pending legislation to reform Japan’s public employment system was “the most important” of those bills presented by the Abe administration, and that a double election was possible if the Diet failed to pass it during the current session.

The article covering the speech is only a paragraph long. Perhaps it’s being overlooked because of another speech Watanabe delivered the day before in Yamaguchi City, in which the minister said that Prime Minister Abe would not abandon his post even in the event of a crushing LDP defeat in the Upper House election about a month from now. (That’s not to say the other party members wouldn’t make him walk the plank, but we’re way ahead of ourselves on that.)

It’s also worth noting that Watanabe would call this the Abe administration’s most important legislation, despite the passage of some heavyweight bills since the prime minister took office last September (including those for reforming the educational system and for holding a referendum on amending the Constitution).

The second snippet appeared in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Japanese equivalent of the Wall Street Journal. They reported that the Democratic Party of Japan, the main opposition party, has been conducting a frenzied search since the end of May to find candidates to run in the single-member districts in the event a Lower House election is held. They trot out this quote by party Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama: “It is vitally important that we take dissolution (of the Lower House) into consideration.” The Nikkei Shimbun also suggests the DLP’s sense of urgency stems from the LDP’s head start in selecting candidates to run in the next election.

Hiroshi has his doubts about this scenario: he thinks the New Komeito Party, the LDP’s coalition partner, detests the idea, and that the LDP’s huge majority in the Lower House should ensure the passage of the reform legislation anyway. He suspects the LDP might be threatening its Lower House members to straighten up and vote right.

While that’s possible, it also seems to be an empty threat to me—why would the LDP cut its nose off in the Lower House to spite its face? Their huge majority is probably going to be whittled down in the next election, regardless of the circumstances, the candidates, and the polls. Why not delay the election and hold on to that majority for as long as possible?

Of the theories Hiroshi discusses, the most plausible one is that the LDP is forcing the DLP to disperse their resources for the Upper House election, which is going to be held anyway.

I’ve dismissed the idea of a dual election here in the past, and I still think it’s unlikely to happen, but then again, the LDP didn’t become the dominant force in Japanese postwar politics by asking for my opinion.

Links to Japanese newspaper articles are as evanescent as the cherry blossoms in spring, so those who can read Japanese should follow the link to Japan Handlers, where Hiroshi conveniently cut and pasted the articles in full.

Posted in Politics | 3 Comments »

Sushi as a metaphor for globalization

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 25, 2007

THE CURRENT ISSUE of Washington Monthly has a review of The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy by Sasha Issenberg, which explains how sushi was transformed from a Japanese delicacy to supermarket fast food in the space of a couple of decades.

I haven’t read the book, but if the review is any indication of its contents, that might change soon. From the review alone, we learn that:

  • Before World War II, the Japanese considered tuna to be inferior food, and wouldn’t even eat toro–they used it for cat food.
  • The industry leader in the U.S. supplying the fish for sushi is a company established by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.
  • A significant amount of the world’s bluefin tuna is now raised in pens in Port Lincoln, Australia, which has reaped enormous financial benefits as a result. It is also the home to an annual tuna-tossing championship. (My wife was appalled when she saw a film clip of this recently on Japanese television.)

The entire review is here. You can find the website for the tuna toss here. Meanwhile, this is a Chicago Tribune article on True World Foods, the Reverend Moon’s company. And here’s the True World Foods company site.

Posted in Books, Food | Tagged: , | 14 Comments »

Aceface on Korea

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 25, 2007

It’s worth taking a look at Aceface’s comment about the Korean Wave, here. His observation about the possible effect of Japanese-language versions of Korean newspapers–with their strident anti-Japanese tone–is definitely worth pondering.

Posted in International relations, Mass media, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

On the folding edge of origami

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 25, 2007

origami

MOST JAPANESE can quickly flick together without much thought an origami crane or some other object, using whatever paper that’s handy. That’s the result of Japanese kindergartens having taught the art of paper folding for more than a century.

But the modern world of origami has gone far beyond making birds out of scrap paper—today artists square off in Bug Wars to produce paper insects requiring more than 100 folds, give their creations opus numbers, and use lasers to score the paper before folding.

The New Yorker recently gave its full-scale treatment to modern origami, focusing on scientist-turned-origami artist Robert Lang:

For centuries, origami patterns had at most thirty steps; now they could have hundreds. And as origami became more complex it also became more practical. Scientists began applying these folding techniques to anything—medical, electrical, optical, or nanotechnical devices, and even to strands of DNA—that had a fixed size and shape but needed to be packed tightly and in an orderly way. By the end of the Bug Wars, origami had completely changed, and so had Robert Lang. In 2001, he left his job—he was then at the fibre-optics company JDS Uniphase, in San Jose—to fold paper full time.

The artists are choosing subjects that transcend animal art:

(John Montroll) also made origami models of complex polyhedra that no one had thought possible. “John has done models in origami of all the Archimedean solids! All the Platonic solids! All the Johnson solids!” Lang said excitedly. “He did all the polyhedra!”

The time it takes to read the article (it’s five screens long) will be more than repaid–it’s excellent. The only slip-up I can spot is a reference to the old TV show Naruhodo Za Warudo as a Japanese “What’s My Line”. (That wasn’t the show’s format during most of the time it was broadcast.)

And while you’re you’re in the mood, you might stop by Joseph Wu’s Origami Page, with an extensive photo gallery that includes pictures of Lang and his creations. This page has photos of the works of Akira Yoshizawa, and this is the English site of the Origami Detectives, which I’ve added to the links at right.

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Posted in Arts, Traditions | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

Matsuri da! (27): Give us this day our daily rice

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 24, 2007

WHEN WRITING POSTS ABOUT MANY OF THE FESTIVALS here, I often emphasize their unusual elements, such as unique competitions, sake, simulated sex, mikoshi smashing, fire rituals, water, dancing, and of course, more sake.

Perhaps it’s not fair to accentuate the novelties (for foreigners, anyway) when the most basic of all Japanese festivals are simple, subdued, and conducted unobtrusively, albeit with splendid costumes, particularly for the women who participate. Those are the rice planting festivals that are held by the hundreds throughout Japan in May and June. Not only are they the most basic type of festival, but since Japan’s very existence is defined by wet paddy cultivation, they are the most important.

In my part of Japan, the most well known is the rice-planting festival held last week by the Yutoku Inari Shrine in Kashima, Saga, in supplication for a bountiful harvest. It has been held in this same form for more than 300 years.

Eight shrine maidens, or miko (corresponding very roughly to altar boys in a Catholic church) wade into the new rice paddy to plant rice seedlings to the accompaniment of special songs, as three other miko play wooden clappers and flutes. The rice is planted in a specially consecrated shrine paddy and harvested during another festival held in the fall. That rice is used for offerings at the shrine over the next year.

But there are many more of the same sort of event throughout the country, and their variations on a theme offer interesting contrasts. Such as the ones here, here, and here.

Or here, here, and here. (You’ll be glad you clicked the links…)

And there are countless more…

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Koreans wonder where the wave went

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 23, 2007

WHILE PACKING UP AT 10 DOWNING ST., British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week spoke about the difficulties of conducting governmental affairs in today’s media environment. Many observers in the U.S. as well as Great Britain noted with interest his description of the Independent as a “viewspaper, not a newspaper”.

Britain’s not the only country with a viewspaper problem–many newspapers in Western countries and Japan aren’t interested in making distinctions between a Page One news story and an editorial. I’m sure we all could offer our favorite candidates.

And after reading this recent article in The Hankyoreh about the Korean Wave of pop culture in Japan, the deadly viewspaper virus has wormed its way into the South Korean print media, too.

The article starts as a newspaper piece, offering more bad news for K-Wave fans and those whose taste runs to international soap operas:

  • The rise of “hallyu,” or the “Korean wave” of cultural products, was short-lived in Japan.
  • Cinemart Roppongi, a Tokyo theater devoted to showing Asian films, has screened 16 South Korean movies since late March, but has attracted only about 2,300 viewers during the entire festival.
  • When Cinemart Roppongi opened, Korean films accounted for almost 90 percent of its lineup, but now comprise about 60 percent.
  • Korean film distribution rights, even deeply discounted for the Japanese market, are getting too pricey for the amount of box office they pull in.
  • Just three or four Japanese companies import and distribute Korean films, a drop of more than 50 percent from their peak.
  • The average sale price of a film’s distribution rights in Japan is about 10 percent of what it once was.
  • “No matter how cheap they are, nobody wants to buy Korean movies,” said Lee Eun-gyeong of Kadogawa Pictures.
  • According to a survey performed by the Korean Broadcasting Institute (KBI), Japan’s import of Korean TV programs decreased by about 16 billion won (approximately US$17 million) in 2006 as compared to 2005.

Connect the dots, and it’s obvious they’re having a hard time giving Korean product away in Japan now, a mere three years after the country’s movies and TV programs had become so popular it led to the coining of the phrase “Korean Wave”.

Then The Hankyoreh inexplicably switches from newspaper to viewspaper mode. Take a look at the headline:

Is the ‘Korean wave’ dead in Japan? Don’t bet on it, say experts
Other cooperative projects grow out of surge in interest in Korean culture

The sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, once wrote, “The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.”

The Hankyoreh is curiously passionate about “the palpably not true”, despite the Korean Wave having gone flat and glassy. This isn’t new information; everyone involved, including the Koreans, knew it at the beginning of last year. Here’s a quick translation of excerpts from article that appeared in Japanese in the Nishinippon Shimbun almost a year ago (all subsequent emphasis mine):

The value of Korean film exports, the primary element in the so-called Korean Wave sweeping Japan, plunged by roughly half in the period from January to June this year (2006). The most important factor was the sharp decline in exports to Japan, which accounts for 70% of the export market. The Korean Film Society commented, ‘We cannot say this phenomenon is temporary. Rather, it is the result of the “export bubble” to Japan bursting.’
…The statistics for exports to Japan were particularly revealing. During the same period last year, 36 movies with an average export price of US$860,000 each were sent here, while this year the figure fell to just 15 films with an average value of US$580,000. In addition, the amount of money received from exports to Japan during the first six months of this year accounted for roughly half of all film export income, while it amounted to about 74% last year.

If the people of any country are in a position to understand Japanese behavior, it should be the Koreans. Apart from some small islands under Russian occupation, Korea is Japan’s closest neighbor, and interaction between the two—albeit at times antagonistic and involuntary—stretches back for millennia.

senko hanabi

Senko hanabi

Therefore, The Hankyoreh should already be aware of the tendency for Japanese interest to suddenly burst into flame, burn almost incandescently, and just as quickly die out. The Japanese themselves are the first to acknowledge this behavior; they use the expression senko hanabi—literally, incense fireworks—to describe this phenomenon. Senko hanabi are a traditional Japanese version of the American sparkler often seen at family gatherings in the summer. These backyard, child-safe fireworks have become a metaphor for transience, a favorite Japanese theme.

The popularity of Korean movies and TV in Japan had reached such a height in 2004 and 2005 that people were openly speculating when the inevitable collapse would come. As the Nishinippon Shimbun article excerpted above reports, that collapse came in the first half of 2006.

None of this should be a big deal. Trends wax and wane in countries everywhere, all the time. Yet The Hankyoreh seems desperate to come up with excuses to believe in the palpably not true.

Excuse #1

Bang Sang-won, a Korean executive of Samsung in Japan, said that he now has many new topics of conversation with his Japanese business partners since they are all watching the same Korean TV dramas.

I suspect Mr. Bang’s Japanese business partners are relieved to have finally found some subjects for casual conversation with him. Another common trait of the Japanese is to search for the least common denominator enabling them to initiate friendly communication with people. (That’s why they compliment newly arrived foreigners on their use of chopsticks or attempts to speak Japanese. That’s also why the Japanese think talking about the weather is an excellent way to start a conversation.)

If Mr. Bang has to struggle for topics of conversation with the Japanese, the fault lies either with his Japanese ability or his personality. What’s he going to do now that most of those dramas have disappeared?

That’s not to mention the most peculiar aspect of all: most of the Korean programs shown in Japan were made either for the women’s market or for a younger demographic. How often do Samsung executives talk about soap operas with their business partners, much less watch them?

Excuse #2

The next excuse raises so many red flags, it’s like a Moscow May Day parade from the Soviet era.

Yuka Anjako, a researcher at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University’s Korea Research Center, said that due to the exposure of Korean culture to Japan, “some kindergartens designated ‘Korea Day’ as a special event. When these children grow up, they will be able to overcome the painful past between Korea and Japan.”

Ritsumeikan APU is a unique educational institution: roughly half the faculty and the students are from overseas (70 countries in all). It’s not surprising an official from that school would find a way to put a positive spin on anything that improves international relations.

But there are other problems. First, I can’t find a “Korea Research Center” on their website. Is either The Hankyoreh or Ms. Anjako padding her qualifications? In fact, she’s not listed as a faculty member at all (either under that spelling, or Anzako).

Then there is her assertion that Japanese today need to “overcome the painful past between Korea and Japan”, and that a Korea Day at kindergartens will turn the bilateral relationship into one big smiley face.

I don’t know Ms. Anjako’s age (or nationality), but most Japanese—either the average citizen or those committed to improving bilateral ties—simply don’t talk or think that way. They don’t have anything to overcome.

In 1984, my first year in the country, a friend remarked to me that while his parents disliked Koreans, no one in his generation felt that way at all. He’s in his 50s now.

I’m also familiar with Japanese efforts to promote grassroots interaction between the two countries. I was involved in the planning of the first exchange event held locally with Korean university students nearly 20 years ago, in 1989. As chance would have it, the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) died on the same day it was to begin. The Koreans were worried that the Japanese would cancel, but it was never seriously considered.

Koreans and their culture were not an exotic novelty before some of their movies and TV dramas found an audience among middle-aged Japanese housewives. Nor do Japanese have any reticence about interacting with Koreans. I’ve seen too many Korean college students studying in Japan enjoy themselves too much during their time in this country to think that anybody has to overcome anything.

My experience, combined with her manner of expression, made me wonder if Ms. Anjako has a certain agenda, so to speak.

Well, what do you know! This item from the North Korean news agency turned up (7th from top):

South and Overseas Delegations here
Pyongyang, September 28 (KCNA) — The south side’s delegation headed by Jon Jae Jin, chairman of the Society for Probing the Truth behind the Sinking of Ship Ukishima by Explosion and the overseas delegation led by Hong Sang Jin, secretary general of the Central Headquarters of the Korean Side of the Fact-finding Group of the Forcible Drafting of Koreans arrived here on Sept. 27 to participate in the Pyongyang symposium for probing the truth behind the “Ukishima-Maru” incident. Also arriving was Japanese delegate Yuka Anjako.
They were greeted at the airport by Hong Son Ok, chairperson of the DPRK Measure Committee for Demanding Compensation to Comfort Women for the Japanese Army and Victims of Forcible Drafting, and other officials concerned.

I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions.

By the way, if, like me, you didn’t know about the Ukishima-maru incident—and want a good laugh–this will tell you all you need to know.

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, some 3,800 Korean expatriates in Japan were aboard the “Ukishima-Maru” a Japanese naval vessel, which had been supposed to arrive in Pusan, a southeastern port of Korea, bidding farewell to their slave-like lives in the Japanese Archipelagoes– a suzerain of Korea. The ship had left a pier in Maizuru Port on August 24, 1945, but the vessel suddenly sank inside Maizuru Bay, north of Kyoto, Japan, claiming the lives of approximately 550 passengers.

The DPRK has claimed that the ship was sunk intentionally by the explosives planted inside the ship went off according to a plan carefully worked out by the Japanese authorities.

Flatly denying that the “Ukishima-Maru” was bomb-exploded, the Japanese side has been saying that the ship sank when it hit a mine.

Once again, I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions. Especially about the Japanese going out of their way to sink their own ship in their own waters one month before the war ended.

This time, the lady from Ritsumeikan turns up as Yuka Anzako, but it’s probably the same person.

Once they decided to turn this article into fiction, The Hankyoreh’s journalists really got on a roll. Their next excuse is one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen in a newspaper:

Excuse #3

Kim Mi-deok, a Korean researcher at the strategic institute of Japan’s Mitsui Corp., said, “The fact (is) that Japan’s major enterprises have started to be moved along by the Korean wave. Since hallyu hit Japan, Japanese businesses have acknowledged the possibility of Korea, and have strategically used Korea to advance into the greater Asian community.”

There are two possibilities for this nonsense. One is that Mr. Kim figured that he might as well tell the reporters what they wanted to hear, because his bosses at Mitsui would never read what he said.

The other is that The Hankyoreh just made it up.

It didn’t take long to find the Japanese government’s figures on Japanese foreign investment broken down by country, as you can see from this website (Excel file). These statistics show that Japanese businesses “advanced into the greater Asian community” long ago–with the notable exception of South Korea (considering its proximity and population). Japan has invested substantially more in China than in South Korea over the years, as well in the NIES and in Thailand. Their investments have sporadically been greater in Singapore, and more frequently higher in Hong Kong, considered separately from China—and both of those are city-states.

The next step was a search for statistics from the Korean side, to either corroborate or amplify the Japanese information. Before I found any statistics, however, I found this editorial that ran in the Korea Times two years ago (.pdf file):

Foreign investment in South Korea has never been high. For decades, the government pursued policies that successfully impeded foreign investment…These policies were in part an understandable response to the country’s colonial history and fears that if the economy were opened widely to foreign investors, the country’s assets would be bought up wholesale by Japanese investors.

Oh.

Many are not doubt familiar with a proverb common to China, Japan, and Korea: “The frog at the bottom of the well knows nothing of the ocean”. I found myself wondering if the people who wrote The Hankyoreh article had the same perspective, but that frog’s not at the bottom of a well—it’s living in a roomful of mirrors.

Then the thought arose that they might be carrying a torch for all those Japanese consumers who deserted them. They could be going through the same sort of temporary denial that sometimes affects people when a lover decides to move on to greener pastures for a reason they don’t understand.

A more unfortunate possibility emerges the more one reads of that Korea Times editorial:

But what is more worrisome is that these specific manifestations may reflect xenophobia that is encouraged by the dominant institutions of Korean society….In 2002, pollsters from the Pew Survey on Global Attitudes interviewed more than 40,000 people in 46 countries around the world…One of the questions they asked was whether respondents agreed with the statement that “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others”.

Here are the results:
France: 40% agreement
Russia, U.S.: 60% agreement
Japan: 75% agreement.
South Korea: 90% agreement, the highest score of any country in the world.

Yet:

Paradoxically, while an astonishing share of Koreans apparently feel culturally superior to the rest of the world, they also apparently lack confidence in that culture’s resilience—five out of six Koreans think it should be protected from foreign influence.

People describe the thinking of the inhabitants of island countries as “insular”, but that’s more insularity than I’ve seen in Japan in nearly a quarter of a century. Maybe that’s a “pan-insular” philosophy for the residents of a peninsula.

We’ve already heard from Tony Blair and H.L. Mencken, so let’s finish with a comment by former U.S. President Harry S Truman. He is reported to have said, “I feel sorry for my fellow citizens who read the newspaper every morning and thereby think they have an idea of what is happening in the world.”

The people I feel sorry for are the South Koreans who actually spend money to read The Hankyoreh.

Addendum: After all that, I don’t have the heart to translate this article from JanJan about the current Japan Wave of films in South Korea. One new Japanese movie opening every week…35 Japanese movies shown last year, attracting 1.2 million viewers, particularly women in their 20s…occurring during an overall downturn in the Korean movie industry…total audience down 17.3% during the first quarter, compared to the previous year…audience for Korean films down 41%…One person quoted said, “The time has come to learn from Japanese cinema”…

What the heck. Maybe JanJan is just a viewspaper, too. Maybe they took their cue from The Hankyoreh and made it all up.

Posted in Films, Mass media, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Kidsbeer: The full story

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Japan Probe has a post about “Japan’s 10 Weirdest Drinks” that includes a photo of two pint-sized carousers toasting with one of the beverages, called Kidsbeer.

I wrote a post about Kidsbeer a while back for another site that includes the full story. Here it is, in an encore performance!

*******

This article from Kyodo has novelty and tut-tut value that conceals some poor journalism and incompetent research. It’s about the growing popularity in Japan of a guarana-based soft drink called Kidsbeer. The brewer, a small Saga Prefecture company named Tomomasu, is now shipping 75,000 bottles of the beverage nationwide. They are marketing it for use at events and celebrations attended by children, as well as a gift item. Their advertising slogan? “Even kids cannot stand life unless they have a drink.”

Here’s how Kyodo describes the beverage’s origin:

The drink originated from a cola-like beverage that used to be sold at the Shitamachi-ya restaurant in Fukuoka, run by 39-year-old Yuichi Asaba.

Asaba renamed the sweet carbonated drink “Kidsbeer” from “Guarana,” a move that made it an instant hit.

Asaba outsourced its manufacturing to Tomomasu, a beverage maker based in Ogi, Saga Prefecture.

Tomomasu tinkered with the drink by decreasing its sweetness and increasing its frothiness, the company said. It began shipping the transformed drink in late 2003.

That raised my suspicions. Here’s why: I live in Saga Prefecture and had been served a local guarana-based drink that looked like beer long before Asaba came up with his idea (which was around 2000, according to the manufacturer’s website).

Kidsbeer

The first time was at a banquet following a Buddhist memorial service on the anniversary of my sister-in-law’s death. On these occasions, family members gather for a meal after the temple service. This can be either at someone’s home, or at a banquet hall. This time, everyone met at a banquet hall near the home of my father- and mother-in-law.

I make it a rule never to drink during the day, and not being in the mood for an orange soda or a cola, I was wondering what to order. (This was before chilled oolong tea became popular in Japan.) Someone in my wife’s family knew that this particular banquet hall stocked guarana and suggested I try some. I had never heard of it before, so I was game.

It was served in a brown bottle designed to look like a beer bottle, with a label that vaguely resembled one that might be used for European champagne. It was the same color as beer and poured out just like beer, with a frothy head. I even liked the taste—it wasn’t anything like beer, but it didn’t taste as sweet or artificial as a soft drink, either. In fact, I ordered a second one, and have had it on the two or three occasions I’ve been back to that same hall.

The reason for serving it is obvious. The Japanese are known for emphasizing group activity rather than individual activity. That results in a tendency for people tend to behave in similar ways in the same situation. Whether this is because everyone is expected to behave that way, or because people do not wish to attract attention to themselves for behaving differently, or a combination of both, is a bit of a chicken-and-egg question.

So, a guarana beverage that looks like beer gave men a way to appear to the casual observer they were drinking beer without actually drinking anything alcoholic.

I’ve never seen the drink anywhere else, however, whether in a store on a restaurant menu, or served by other banquet halls. That’s why my suspicions were raised when I read the Kyodo report that it was the brainchild of a Fukuoka restaurateur. I took a look at the website of Tomomasu, the Kidsbeer manufacturer (all in Japanese) and read the section on the history and origin of the drink.

Kyodo Gets Lazy

It soon became apparent that Kyodo left out a large chunk of the story. It turns out that one of Asaba’s suppliers brought him a guarana-based soft drink in a beer-like bottle one day. A lightbulb went on over his head, and Asaba decided to turn the soft drink into Kidsbeer. He designed his own label, had them printed up, peeled the labels off the existing product, pasted on his own, and sold the drink at his restaurant.

Piracy? Highly illegal? You bet, but he got away with it, probably because he was only offering it in his restaurant.

Kidsbeer became a hit among his patrons. Two more ideas probably hit him simultaneously: one, I’ve got a moneymaker here, and two, if I don’t find another way to do this, I’m looking at a jail term.

That’s when he went to Tomomasu, who claim they dialed back the sweetness and increased the suds. They are a Saga-based company that already made a cider drink and another guarana-based drink that doesn’t look like beer, so it’s possible they manufactured the drink I had at the Saga banquet hall, or were the original producers of the drink Asaba pirated, or both.

The Kyodo article says Asaba “outsourced” production to Tomomasu. That’s a funny way to describe Asaba’s proposal for selling a drink he had no legal right to outsource to begin with. The professional journalists at Kyodo couldn’t spend an extra 15 minutes on research to discover this? Makes you wonder what else the average journalist can’t be bothered to do.

The guarana jolt

This article piqued my curiosity about guarana, and a Google search turned up plenty of interesting information. Here, for example, is the site of Guarana.com, which provides basic info on guarana drinks, which are popular in Brazil and other parts of South America. Efforts are now underway to market them worldwide, and Pepsi has gotten into the act. Guarana has a caffeine jolt—it’s dubbed “the rain forest energy secret”—and people can buy guarana tabs for an energy boost. There are also claims it can be used as an aphrodisiac. Some companies produce beverages that combine guarana with ginseng; one also contains bee pollen. That sounds like it would be a big winner in markets throughout Asia.

And the second photo above of a guarana soft drink looks like it could pass for a whiskey and water at a Japanese banquet hall. What versatility!

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Food, Mass media, New products, Social trends | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Dealing with debtors, Asian style

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 19, 2007

TWO DIFFERENT STORIES highlight two different approaches taken by two countries–the United States and Japan–against the clandestine activities of other East Asian nations actively working against them. From all appearances, Japan actually has an approach, while the U.S. does not.

Writing in Contentions, the blog of Commentary magazine, Gordan Chang takes the Bush administration to task over continuing reports that the Chinese are supplying the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraqi insurgents with weapons. To provide background, he provides links to other reports suggesting that the Chinese have been providing military assistance and training to the Taliban for several years.

There have also been reports that some people in intelligence circles suspect the Chinese are providing nuclear technology to countries in the Middle East, which I’ve linked to before. Indeed, when Libya’s Col. Khaddafi abandoned his nuclear program and turned over his resources to the IAEA, it was discovered that much of the documentation was written in Chinese.

Chang wonders why the United States lets China get away with it.

In contrast, Japan is dealing with years of belligerent North Korean behavior by cutting off the flow of currency and goods to the Pyongyang regime and refusing to allow North Korean ships to call on Japanese ports. The starving North Koreans make a habit of eating the carrots offered in carrot-and-stick diplomacy—and usually the bark from the stick, too—and then stiffing the joint for the bill. Now (for a change) they’re having to deal with a Japanese hard line, which has been the hallmark of the Abe administration’s Pyongyang policy.

They continue to tighten the screws. Yesterday, the Tokyo District Court ruled that unless Chongryon, the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, repays a debt of more than US$500 million to the government-run Resolution and Collection Corp., the company may seize their Tokyo headquarters (photo at right). In fact, the ruling allows RCC to act immediately to claim assets.

Chongryon is a pro-Pyongyang group that represents about 50,000 Korean citizens in Japan (most of whom were born and grew up in Japan), and serves as the country’s de facto embassy. They also are widely assumed to act as a conduit for funds to Pyongyang. Some observers think the association now may be forced to dissolve unless it ponies up the money it owes.

Japanese efforts to stop the flow of funds to North Korea are very likely to be causing real pain. The Japanese government officially claims that about US$24 billion flows from Japan to North Korea every year, but since 90% of the money is hand-delivered, no one knows exactly how much is remitted. Some estimates are as high as US$75 billion.

A good chunk of this money is believed to have come from the pachinko industry; many of the gaming halls are run by companies controlled by people born in Japan but with Korean passports. Japanese newspapers have run articles about people cutting back on their pachinko play because of worries it indirectly funds the North’s nuclear program. Another possible North Korean income source is smuggled methamphetamines. But it has become difficult to smuggle out the cash now that Japan is no longer a port of call for North Korean ships.

There’s an unusual twist in the case involving the Chongryun. Shigetake Ogata (photo 2), who attempted to buy the property but couldn’t come up with the money, warned, “This ruling will be conveyed to North Korea and there will be retaliation against Japan, which is not good for Japan’s national interest.”

I think it’s safe to say that Ogata is exaggerating about the retaliation. There is nothing Pyongyang can do economically to harm Japan, and its military options—if it wants to survive—are extremely limited.

It’s also safe to say that Ogata’s involvement in the purchase of the property created a media sensation, as you can see from the forest of microphones. Ogata is the former head of the Public Security Intelligence Agency. That’s Japan’s domestic intelligence outfit, which is responsible for monitoring North Korean activities in the country. In fact, as the Daily Yomiuri reports:

In March 1994, Ogata testified on behalf of the agency at the Diet about Chongryon’s activities. He told the House of Representatives Budget Committee that “about 5,000 members of Chongryon are engaged in secret activities.”
Many in the government and legal profession have spoken of their embarrassment that Ogata would act to help the same organization.

The deal fell through when Ogata failed to raise the funds, but not before investigators questioned him and searched his offices. Ogata held a press conference a day ago, during which he claimed that he became involved because the situation “struck a chord in his heart” and that he wanted to help ethnic Koreans in Japan.

Japanese media reports also note that Ogata told the press conference that Chongryon informed him it gave US$2.8 million yen to an unidentified former president of a Tokyo real estate company to facilitate the deal, as well US$80,000 for Ogata personally as the plectrum to strike his heartstrings.

He denied taking the money, but then again, he also said he was moved by the unidentified man’s stories of having to deal with racism in the U.S. and Japan. Ogata explained that their relationship deepened, and their thinking was alike on certain issues, but that he never got the man’s name card or knew his given name.

In short, Japan’s former top spycatcher claims the reason he was on the verge of being paid by the North Koreans to act as their bagman in a deal to save an organization he knew was trying to harm Japan was that he got taken in by a sob story from someone he didn’t bother to check out. (Would you care to speculate on whether he actually did turn the money down, or would have had the matter not come to light?) He could use the money now, because he’s under investigation for submitting fraudulent documents in connection with the deal.

Meanwhile, the Mainichi Shimbun is reporting that the owner of Chongryon’s Osaka headquarters declared bankruptcy to avoid a similar seizure by the RCC.

Why is it that Japan can put a full-court press on the North Koreans, while the Americans are so loath to act against China? Among several reasons, this one might be the most important: China is recycling the profits from its huge trade surplus with the United States into U.S. Treasury bonds. That allows the United States to defer its diet and continue its supersized spending—some of which buys goods manufactured in China.

Meanwhile, all Japan has to do is keep finding ways to turn off the spigot while whacking Ogata and any other cockroaches that scuttle across the floor when the lights get turned on.

It’s good to be the creditor, as both Japan and China are finding out.

Addendum: While the Chongryun is affiliated with North Korea, some people in Japan whose loyalties or family ties are with South Korea also actively support the organization or work for it. That’s because the South Korean-affiliated organizations in Japan are emasculated by internal disagreements and are not as effective in promoting the interests of native-born Koreans. Indeed, my upstairs neighbors right after I got married were Korean nationals born in Japan, and the husband worked for the local Chongryun branch (about a 10-minute walk from my house). His wife gave the same explanation to my wife!

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, China, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, North Korea, South Korea | Tagged: | 19 Comments »

Asahi Weekly citation

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 18, 2007

In Surf ‘N’ English, his regular column in the Asahi Weekly, James Watt offers three capsule profiles of foreign bloggers in Japan: Japan Probe, Gaijin Smash…and Ampontan!

Here’s the link to his Asahi article, which in turn contains links to the sites of the other two bloggers. And here’s the link to James’s own blog, Surfin’ English, which also has a lot of posts about space.

Here’s the best line from his column:

All of the bloggers here have a common belief: that Japan is not the country of tentacle-waving, war-criminal baseball players that the world thinks it is.

Amen!

Posted in Websites | 4 Comments »

Matsuri da! (26): Fukui’s festival for fools

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 18, 2007


GIVE THEM CREDIT for honesty—the folks in Fukui City tell everyone up front that the festival they hold at the end of May every year is a lot of foolishness. They call it the Baka Bayashi, which is derived from the words meaning blockhead and musical accompaniment, respectively.

Costumes, particularly masks, are the most important part of the festival, which is staged at the Homusubi Shrine in Fukui City. It’s been designated as an intangible cultural asset by the Fukui Prefectural Government.

The performers wear Noh masks with a variety of expressions, some quite grotesque. Their crowd-pleasing techniques include beating on taiko drums and dancing in comical, choreographed movements corresponding to the mask they’re wearing. One exhibits exaggerated feminine behavior, another does some funny business, while a third is frightening. Musicians play flutes to accompany the drums during the dances.

The spring festival has been conducted for an estimated 400 years. It’s said to have originated when purveyors to the Asakura shoguns of the Warring States Period in the 16th century donated Noh masks to a local fire festival and performed the dances. Today’s festival uses 37 of those original masks.

Now doesn’t that sound like it would be more fun than anything you ever did in a church?

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Askew on Nanjing

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 17, 2007

YOU CAN’T TELL THE PLAYERS without a scorecard, and if what you’re following is the debate on the Nanjing Massacre, particularly in Japan, here is the scorecard: The Nanjing Incident: Recent Research and Trends, a paper written by Prof. David Askew.

One will not find a better overview of the debate anywhere. It is, in short, superb. I recommend reading the entire piece. (It also incidentally exposes the absence of credibility of those who claim the Japanese are not trying to come to terms with their role in the war.) Thanks to reader Tomojiro for bringing up Askew in the Comments section.

If I were to have any quibble with Askew, I would suggest that he has gone only half-way with this particular point:

(T)oo many Japanese researchers in particular are either completely ignorant of, or do not care about, the fact that Nanjing for better or for worse has become a central plank in the construction of the modern self-identity of the Chinese. To discuss Nanjing is to threaten this self-identity. Once aware of this fact, all who participate in the debate need to show some sensitivity to it. I am not arguing that the Chinese orthodoxy needs to be accepted without question because the feelings of so many will be hurt if it is questioned. Indeed, I strongly believe that human beings have to come to terms with the “real” past and accept it, and that it is more dangerous (at least in the long term) to found national identity on a lie than to discover the truth and live with it.

I might also suggest: Too many in East Asia, not to mention the West, are just as unaware, or ignorant of, the efforts Japanese are also making to create their own identity in the modern world. This debate is part of those efforts. In some ways, these efforts demand more of the Japanese: they function in a free-market democracy with freedom of speech, while China remains an oligarchy. Many in the West hold the Japanese to a higher standard, and at the same time they have to sort out their complex relationship with the United States (which includes revising a constitution the Americans wrote for them).

But as I said, that is only a minor quibble. The time it takes to read the paper will be well spent.

Posted in China, International relations, World War II | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Nanjing deniers in their own words

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 16, 2007

IN MY PREVIOUS POST, I wrote the following about those Japanese who are increasingly challenging overseas criticism of Japan for its wartime behavior:

In one sense, this growing Japanese assertiveness in challenging anti-Japanese activities overseas is a positive development, regardless of where the truth lies. By actively confronting their antagonists, the Japanese are in effect saying, “Put up or shut up,” thereby forcing them to present hard, irrefutable evidence.

That in turn will require those Japanese who object to the activities of their overseas antagonists to present their own evidence. The Japanese who deny the Nanjing Massacre and government coercion of comfort women will be forced to put their own cards on the table.

One would think that China, South Korea, and some elements in the U.S. Congress would welcome this new Japanese approach and actively engage them. Now that they have walked out into the open ground, it makes them a lot easier to hit as targets. If they really are massacre/comfort women deniers, what better opportunity to definitively discredit their position?

Commenting on the post before that, readers Tomojiro and Aceface were dismayed to see that certain people signed the full-page ad that appeared in the Washington Post this week stating the case that it was not the Japanese government’s policy to coerce comfort women during the war. They think the support of those people would hinder rather than help Japan’s position.

What better opportunity to provide an outlet for the opinions of those individuals? The following offers some information in English about the people Tomojiro mentioned.

NOTE: These links are to direct source material only. In other words, you get their words unfiltered. I am making this information available because I believe in the marketplace of ideas. In that marketplace, unworthy ideas become bankrupt ideas, and worthwhile ideas thrive.

Be advised that under no circumstances does this presentation mean that I either agree or disagree with any or all of their views.

Here’s the lineup:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in China, History, International relations, World War II | 7 Comments »

 
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