Japan from the inside out

Weather forecasts and streets of gold

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A sidewalk made of gold in a Chinese shopping mall

THE word majinai, or more frequently o-majinai, is the Japanese word for a magical formula or incantation. One Japanese textbook I used years ago had an explanatory example that also highlighted the Japanese sense of humor and love of wordplay.

During the war between Japan and Russia in 1905, Japanese soldiers had an o-majinai to keep from being struck (ataru) by bullets. It was to say tenki yoho (weather forecast) three times. That’s because the weathermen in those days seldom got the forecasts right (also ataru).

That meteorology in Japan has improved over the past century is confirmed by a Chinese in Japan blogging (in Japanese) under the name of Bai Liang. The blogger thinks the weather reports here are far superior to those in China.

Bai is impressed not only with the detailed forecasts for every area throughout the country, he (?) also likes the forecasts that predict the weather a week in advance. “This enables people to easily plan their schedule.”

Further, Bai appreciates of the constant readjustment to actual conditions and the informative forecasts that are broadcast hourly on television. He cites with approval the statistic that today’s Japanese weather forecasts are 98% accurate.

But perhaps the real reason he is so taken with the Japanese weather forecasts is not so much their accuracy but the failure of Chinese weather reports for public consumption to meet the Japanese standard:

“The vague Chinese weather forecasts are extremely inconvenient, and show that the technology at the meteorological institute is not up-to-date.”

The blogger thinks this could have serious consequences, because weather is often the cause of natural disasters. and he accuses the weather service of lacking a sense of public responsibility. He ends by complaining, “They should stop broadcasting those rough programs for two minutes after the news that always have a commercial in the middle.”

That characterization reminded me of the weather reports tacked on the end of local news programs on American television when I was growing up. But nowadays they’ve got a weather channel on cable.

It also reminded me of the 2005 book Honto ni Nihon ni Akogareru Chugokujin, which could be translated as The Chinese are Really Admirers of Japan. The author is China-born Wang Min, a linguist, translator, writer, and scholar of comparative culture in Northeast Asia who presently teaches at Hosei University in Tokyo. From the flyleaf:

The Chinese reaction to Japan is excessive in regard to such issues as historical consciousness and the Yasukuni shrine. That reaction is viewed as the result of the Chinese government’s anti-Japanese education. But an entirely different trend has emerged in the substrata of Chinese society, where the market economy is growing. The Chinese aspire to Japanese products and the Japanese lifestyle. Murakami Haruki novels have become best-sellers. A “Japan boom” is underway in manga, games, and music.

Based on the history of Japan-China interaction and various statistical data, this book examines the factors that have created a duality of love and hatred that is latent in the Chinese view of Japan, and examines the ideal approach for friendly relations between the two countries.

By admiring Japan, I think the author means, in essence, that China (and South Korea) admires the Japanese commercial and cultural success in the world and the fruits of that success. Japan was the first country in the region in the modern era to demonstrate that they could hang with the Westerners on the Westerners’ terms.

Japan has been the role model in modern Asia for more than a century. When then-Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke traveled to India on a state visit, he was stunned to hear President Jawaharlal Nehru tell a large, open-air crowd that he was inspired as a young man by the Japanese victory over the Russians in that 1905 war. It proved that Asians could fight Westerners and win. For a young man determined to help his nation win independence from Great Britain, that could have convinced a young man that dreams come true.

Centuries ago, Chinese culture and erudition flowed outward, first to the Korean Peninsula and then to Japan, and later directly to Japan. That flow was reversed long ago. Even today’s K-wave wouldn’t have existed without there first being a clandestine J-wave in South Korea.

Regardless of the geopolitical ranting and the rent-seeking of the Chinese and Korean governments, there is a respect for what Japan has accomplished, a wish to emulate them, and a desire to have what they have. While the South Koreans are just about there, let’s not forget that China as a whole isn’t close to being there yet:

“Up to 40 million Chinese people still live in caves. That’s more than the populations of Texas and Illinois combined. In fairness, a fraction of these caves are apparently pretty nice, complete with electricity and well-compacted dirt floors. But that’s grading on a curve because, well, they’re still caves.

“Meanwhile, 21 million Chinese live below what the Communist party calls the “absolute poverty” line. That sounds pretty good if you have in mind our poverty line, which is just under $11,000 per year for an individual and roughly $22,000 for a family of four. The absolute poverty rate in China is $90 a year, or $7.50 per month. And 35 million live on less than $125 per year. Hundreds of millions of Chinese live on $1 or $2 a day.

“Michael Levy, who recently wrote a book on his stint as a Peace Corps worker in rural China (yes, China still asks for Peace Corps help), put it well in an interview with NPR: “Imagine that there’s a country exactly like the United States. Exactly the same size. It’s got the same cities. It’s got the same number of rich people and poor people. It’s just like us. And now add 1 billion peasants. That’s China.””

We already know the other side of the Chinese duality. Earlier this summer the Japanese think tank Genron NPO and the state-run China Daily conducted their annual joint public opinion poll that began in 2005. The results were worth noting for several reasons. First, the percentage of Japanese who said they had a negative view of China rose to 84.3%, the highest percentage ever and a six-point rise from last year. The two reasons most frequently cited for the bad image were:

1. Chinese behavior to secure resources and energy is selfish and egocentric: 54.4%

2. The Chinese continue their hostile behavior over Okinawa and the Senkakus: 48.4%

They were separate answers, but they’re really part of one larger issue. The Chinese had always recognized the Senkakus as Japanese territory and couldn’t have been arsed to even include them on their maps until the potential for energy resources was discovered nearby circa 1970.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Chinese who said they had a bad impression of Japan fell 1.4 percentage points from the previous year to 64.5%. That’s lower than the Japanese figure, but still quite high.

The problems most frequently cited by the Chinese were historical issues (i.e., the war), followed by the “Japanese government’s hard line on the Senkakus.”

In other words, the Japanese are irritated with the Chinese because of what the latter are doing now. The Chinese are upset with the Japanese because their government intentionally mixes the proverbial gunpowder into their food, in part to deflect popular dissatisfaction, and in part because it is an accessory to an attitude the Americans once called manifest destiny.

We should also note that the attitude of the Japanese public has emerged in spite of, and not because of, the behavior of the Japanese government and media. Both the LDP and the successor DPJ governments have tended to downplay conflict with China, and jingoism is seldom — if ever — seen in the mild-mannered Japanese print and broadcast media. For media jingoism, try the English-language newspapers affiliated with the Chinese government, such as the China Daily, or the Global Times, affiliated with the Communist Party. For school textbook jingoism, look first to the Chinese history books — the educational equivalent of people living in caves — before citing the diluted Japanese versions. In any event, the latter are used by classroom teachers, many of whom are affiliated with leftist unions and who actively subvert their content.

It’s now obvious to everyone except the Chinese that the Chinese are overplaying their hand in East Asia. A more prudent nation wouldn’t behave as they are now, but prudence is not a characteristic of people who got very rich very quick, and who imbibe the endemic ethnocentrism with the air that they breathe.

They might even be overplaying their hand domestically. A country where 30-40 million people live in caves now has a sidewalk made of gold — literally.

“A mall in Wuhan, Hubei, has laid a path consisting of 200 1-kilogram bricks, a veritable gold brick road. It is about 7 meters (more than 20 feet) long.”

The reported cost is $US 10 million. Access that link for photos and a 30-second video from the China version of YouTube. Do the residents of those grotto hideaways have access to television and those news reports? Do they really find those living quarters as chic and desirable as some beefwits in the West would have us believe?

In recent years, architects have been reappraising the cave in environmental terms, and they like what they see.

“It is energy efficient. The farmers can save their arable land for planting if they build their houses in the slope. It doesn’t take much money or skill to build,” said Liu Jiaping, director of the Green Architecture Research Center in Xian and perhaps the leading expert on cave living. “Then again, it doesn’t suit modern complicated lifestyles very well. People want to have a fridge, washing machine, television.”

Liu helped design and develop a modernized version of traditional cave dwellings that in 2006 was a finalist for a World Habitat Award, sponsored by a British foundation dedicated to sustainable housing. The updated cave dwellings are built against the cliff in two levels, with openings over the archways for light and ventilation. Each family has four chambers, two on each level.

“It’s like living in a villa. Caves in our villages are as comfortable as posh apartments in the city,” said Cheng Wei, 43, a Communist Party official who lives in one of the cave houses in Zaoyuan village on the outskirts of Yanan. “A lot of people come here looking to rent our caves, but nobody wants to move out.”

The Japanese sometimes say they suffer from heiwa-boke, a phrase that means to be made feebleminded or woozy from peace. But the triple disaster of the government’s failure to respond appropriately to the Chinese in the Senkakus in 2010, its failure to deal with the natural disasters and their aftereffects in the Tohoku region, and the failure of everyone in the National Political Establishment to pay attention to popular will, is causing the nation to shake itself awake just as the post-postwar generation is coming into positions of power and the Chinese belief in themselves as the natural regional hegemon has reawakened. Little is being said about it so far outside of Japan, but the movement to amend the Constitution is slowly gaining momentum, and the days of Article 9, the Peace Clause, are starting to look as if they could be numbered.

If the Chinese continue to overplay their hand, another 98% accurate forecast is that we’ll need a more effective o-majinai than repeating tenki yoho three times.

UPDATE: Excellent example of serendipity from CNN, of all places, which publishes the observations of a think tanker. It starts with the failures of information control and disaster management (or is it information management and disaster control?)

…(T)he latest disaster to tax Beijing’s information management apparatus: the deadly floods that swept through the capital on July 21. The systemic failures that led to at least 77 flood-related deaths have been broadly commented on, and have recalled another deadly infrastructure disaster that occurred almost exactly one year earlier: the Wenzhou high-speed-rail crash on July 23, 2011.

In both cases, the authorities appeared unprepared for the disasters, responded poorly to the aftermath, and failed to provide adequate, timely information. The Chinese public quickly linked these disasters to the dark side of China’s economic boom, particularly rampant official corruption and the extreme prioritization of rapid economic growth. In the case of the Wenzhou crash, it was the link to the Ministry of Railways – whose former chief had been accused of massive corruption just months prior to the accident – and the triumphalist official propagandizing around China’s HSR network. In the case of the Beijing floods, commentary has keyed in on failures of the development model as well. Reports have highlighted the dramatic disparities between Fangshan – the site of the worst flood damage – and the much better drained thoroughfares of more prosperous areas of central Beijing. Some have also noted that the ancient drainage canals around the Forbidden City and other imperial sites worked well, while newer infrastructure failed to handle the floodwaters effectively. There were even wry mentions of the billions spent to prepare Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, while basic sewer infrastructure was left wanting in less privileged parts of the city.

The conspicuous failures of official Chinese disaster response are intensifying anger among the population, as citizens can increasingly compare the official version of events to local, on-the-spot reporting by average people using smartphones to post images and commentary to Weibo and other social networking site

And makes a point the Japanese have long been aware of and factor into their thinking:

As other sources of the party-state’s legitimacy are looking weaker, particularly the economy, there’s reason for concern that the party state will become increasingly reliant on its other pillar of legitimacy: an assertive nationalistic foreign policy. The importance the party-state places on information control in portraying the Chinese Communist Party as the protector of the Chinese nation can’t be understated. From pre-school curricula to the work of top scholars, from village newspapers to the People’s Daily, the importance of a clear and centrally defined narrative on key national security issues is paramount. Yet here again, the credibility gap is increasingly undermining the party-state’s effort to control the narrative.

Since 1949, China’s foreign policy identity has been rooted in three core elements: the “victimhood” narrative, that characterizes China as having been abused and taken advantage of by colonial and western powers; the “salvation” narrative, that portrays the Chinese Communist Party as the entity that enabled China to finally “stand up” and begin returning to its rightful place in the international firmament; and the “non-interference” narrative, that depicts China as a benign power that doesn’t meddle in the affairs of other countries. Setting aside issues of validity of these themes, they have come to broadly characterize Chinese views of international relations at both an official and societal level.

Increasingly, these elements are overlain with a gloss that conflates the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese nation, and an intimation that China’s return to its rightful international position means that it can begin to “right the wrongs” visited on it when China was “weak.”

What puzzles me is why the Chinese blogger is disappointed in Chinese TV weather broadcasts. I’d rather watch this than the Japanese equivalent. In fact, I’d make a point of it.

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