Japan from the inside out

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The DPJ and the pero-guri pol

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 18, 2009

IT SOMETIMES SEEMS as if the only person with the skills required to describe Japanese politics today would have been the novelist Charles Dickens–and sometimes it seems even he wouldn’t have been up to the task.

Tanaka Yasuo

Tanaka Yasuo

For example, spearheading the drive for the devolution of governmental authority are Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru and Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, two Dickensian characters who have parleyed their celebrity into a national soapbox to present the case for stronger local governments. The former is an attorney turned television performer, and the latter was a television comedian associated with Beat Takeshi, himself a famous comic and film director under his real name of Kitano Takeshi. The nation’s mass media are happy to give the TV veterans and audience favorites that soapbox, and the pair are just as happy with the chance to perch themselves on top and promote their cause while indulging their inner publicity hounds.

Working in a loose alliance, they’ve had a significant role in shaping the parameters of the national political dialogue this year with a potentially landmark lower house election due next month. But constant media attention and popular support is a dangerous combination that can drive anyone over the top. Over the past month, Mr. Hashimoto might finally have found the adult supervision he needed, while Mr. Higashikokubaru did indeed go over the top, but we’ll save that for later.

Of interest this week was the sudden reemergence of the celebrity governor who foreshadowed nearly a decade ago the appearance of the Dynamic Duo on the national political radar. That would be Tanaka Yasuo, an award-winning and best-selling novelist, governor of Nagano for six turbulent years, and now a national at-large delegate in the upper house of the Diet for his vanity party, New Party Nippon.

Mr. Tanaka has agreed to act as an electoral assassin for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan by running in Hyogo’s 8th district against incumbent Fuyushiba Tetsuzo of New Komeito, who has a Dickensian background of his own. Mr. Fuyushiba began his lower house career as a member of Komeito in 1986, switched to the New Frontier Party in 1994, served as a party official when former DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro led the group, and then switched back to New Komeito when it reorganized in 1998. He later served as New Komeito’s secretary-general, but resigned that post in 2006 to serve for two years as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport.

With his New Frontier Party background, Mr. Fuyushiba might be considered an Ozawan-style conservative, if that concept still has any meaning. Like the DPJ, he supports voting rights in local elections for those people of Korean ancestry born in Japan who choose to retain Korean citizenship. Yet the DPJ, depending on who’s doing the interpreting, is either trying to eliminate New Komeito as a political force because Mr. Ozawa detests them, or making them an offer they can’t refuse to have them defect from the ruling coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party. But let’s get back to Mr. Tanaka.

The incumbent might seem to be in a strong position. New Komeito is backed by Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group. The membership of that group is said to have a relatively high proportion of Japanese-born Korean citizens, as does the population of Hyogo.

Mr. Tanaka might be able to overcome these disadvantages because he is well-known in the area for his hands-on volunteer work during the recovery from the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. He told the Sankei Shimbun that those volunteer activities opened his eyes to the necessity for changing politics and society. He added, “I want to create a type of politics with a close connection to the local residents, and destroy the vested interests of rule by the bureaucracy.” And this is definitely a year for the anti-incumbents.

La vie est belle

La vie est belle

What would Dickens make of him? He wrote a best-selling novel while still a university student, as did the granddaddy of celebrity governors, Ishihara Shintaro—with whom he is engaged in a long-running feud.

After a career as a novelist and critic, and recording one LP as a singer, Mr. Tanaka became involved in community grassroots activities. He spent six months helping the earthquake victims and then campaigned against the construction of the Kobe Airport. He was asked to run as the governor of Nagano, where he lived as a child after his father began teaching at Shinshu University. He originally declined, saying that he thought he could be more effective outside politics, but changed his mind.

Sui generis is the only term to use to describe his politics. He favors stronger local government, but is opposed to municipal mergers, particularly in remote areas. He is an anti-bureaucracy reformer who was blood-in-the-eye-angry over former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s privatization of Japan Post, citing as his reason concerns that the measure would allow foreign interests to purchase it. Though he is known to have a personal relationship to some degree with Ozawa Ichiro, he dislikes both the LDP and the DPJ and calls himself an “ultra-independent”. He dismisses both the major parties as “department stores”, staffed by personnel seconded from business and industry groups in the case of the former, and labor unions in the case of the latter. He is critical of the influence of what he calls the Labor Aristocracy in the DPJ.

Mr. Tanaka also says he combines the best qualities of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, though it isn’t clear if he knows what they actually did, or is attracted to what he perceives as their image. He has somewhat nativist tendencies—the URL for his party’s website includes the string “love-nippon”–and he thinks that Japan should stake out a more independent international position. Yet he is also well-known for his taste in foreign automobiles, particularly Audis and BMWs. He rejects the label anti-American, preferring to refer to himself as a critic of America. (The Japanese expression he uses is the difficult-to-translate 諫米, if anyone wants to take a crack at it.) But he strongly supported Bill Clinton and redoubled that support after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. (We shall see the probable reason for that shortly.)

He ran for governor in Nagano after his predecessor became embroiled in scandals, which parallels Higashikokubaru Hideo’s entry into prefectural politics. He campaigned in opposition to unnecessary public sector projects, most notably a local dam. He was opposed by every political group except the Communist Party, as well as local legislators. But he was one of the few people in the country to understand and act on the hunger of the Japanese electorate for anti-establishment politicians. Assisted by the publicity that a friendly national media provided, he won the election and assumed office in 2000.

The media coverage lavished on his administration very much prefigured that now bestowed on Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Higashikokubaru. At one point his approval ratings were slightly above 90%, outdoing even the other two, whose ratings still languish at the 80% level.

Tanaka Yasuo 3

Mr. Tanaka recently sat for a long interview with the Sankei Shimbun, but his scattered line of thought makes it too difficult to describe concisely what he said, much less translate. Let’s look instead at this interview from four years ago in the Japan Times. It too is scattershot, combining a serious discussion of legitimate issues, grandiose unsupported statements, and more holes than a pound of sliced Swiss cheese. There are too many hard truths to keep it from being useless, but too many flaws that prevent it from being important. Complicating matters is an amateurish interviewer who seems more interested in producing hagiography than bringing to the attention of a non-Japanese audience a man who then was a nationally prominent politician. It all starts with the second sentence.

After converting his private office into a glass-walled room to make his work as transparent as possible…

Excellent PR, isn’t it? “I have nothing to hide.” It also screams, “Hey, everybody, look at me!” The glass substantiated one of the most common criticisms of Tanaka—that he’s nothing more than a publicity hound.

It’s puzzling why a journalist would be making positive references to the glass-walled room at that point in his term. Not long after he became governor, Mr. Tanaka demonstrated his transparency by entertaining a female television personality in this office. They shared a drink together while she sat on his lap. The glass walls made it easy for someone to take their photo and send it to a weekly magazine, which promptly published it. That embarrassed the people of his prefecture, who probably expected him to behave like most politicians and dally somewhere other than his office on his own time. For Mr. Tanaka, however, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Gov. Yasuo Tanaka defiantly declared “No More Dams” in a direct counter to the local economy’s heavy reliance on public works projects at the expense of ecological concerns. He also abolished the traditional, self-serving press club system in his prefecture.

Here we give the man credit where credit is due—Japan could use more governors (and prime ministers) who pursue the same policies, even when the ecology isn’t a consideration. He brings up other worthwhile points in the interview.

Besides tackling local politics, the flamboyant 49-year-old devotes his time to writing columns for magazines and criticizing and analyzing national and local politics on radio and television programs. He is also a well-known restaurant critic….When he was still a student at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in 1980, he received the prestigeous Bungei Award for his novel “Nantonaku Kurisutaru (Somewhat Like Crystal).”

But he hasn’t written a worthwhile novel since then. He has, however, written a regular column for a magazine called The Pero-Guri Diaries. Here’s how Time Magazine explained it a few years ago:

“To understand Yasuo Tanaka, you need a piece of slang you won’t find in any Japanese-English dictionary. Pero-guri is a phrase Tanaka coined himself to describe the sexual act. More specifically, his sexual acts. It’s an onomatopoeic word, the pero coming from the slang pero-pero, which means to lick. The guri comes from guri-guri, which means to grind….Tanaka is Governor of Japan’s mountainous Nagano prefecture, west of Tokyo, but he’s also a writer, specializing in autobiographical pero-guri tales, which reveal a predilection for flight attendants, married women and fine champagne.

“‘Appointment with Mrs. U. Nap at Park Hyatt. The entire floor must have heard us. Midnight. She goes home to her husband… Dom Perignon at Roppongi’s Kingyo. Head to Chianti at Iikura for an espresso chaser but end up on the roof of the adjacent building, pero-pero guri-guri with the Tokyo Tower in the back. Her screaming fills the air. Pull out moist wipes from the bag and clean up.’”

Once upon a time, they used to say a gentleman never tells…And leave it to the Japan Times to fail to mention any of this in the interview.

After graduation, Tanaka at first joined the oil giant Mobil, only to leave three months later to pursue his career as a writer.

Tanaka also got married soon after joining Mobil, but got divorced 11 months later to pursue his career as a pero-guri writer.

…in 2002, conservative assemblymen who were upset by Tanaka’s challenge to tradition and decades of pork-barrel politics passed a no-confidence vote against him, and forced him from office.

Yes, they were upset by his challenge to pork-barrel politics…and creating undesirable attention for Nagano Prefecture by drinking in his glass-walled office with celebrities on his lap, his pero-guri tales, and endless self-promotion.

In the ensuing gubernatorial election, however, Tanaka made a successful comeback, thanks to overwhelming popular support.

Showing once again how desperately the Japanese voting public craves a reformer.

Then…he expanded his curriculum vitae yet again when he became leader of New Party Nippon, a new political party founded to challenge Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party in the Sept. 11 general election.

His party mates are strange bedfellows for a reformer—in addition to Mr. Tanaka, the other four members of his party all voted against Mr. Koizumi’s reforms in the Diet. In other words, they are anti-reformers who support the status quo of tradition and pork barrel politics.

At least the other members ran for the Diet, but Mr. Tanaka didn’t. He just went around the country giving interviews about his new party, leaving the citizens of Nagano to shift for themselves in his absence.

Though (the party) is small…

So small, in fact, that they had to “borrow” one member from another party of anti-reformers to meet the minimum requirements for selection in the proportional representation phase of the election.

Tanaka hopes his fledgling party will make a difference in Japan by encouraging people to think twice about Koizumi’s ongoing reform drives, which he believes fall far short of being true reforms.

Though his interview strangely lacks any concrete suggestions for reform.

On to the content:

Many young Japanese can only define themselves by naming the company they work for or the designer brand they wear. Our society is filled with people who can’t objectively describe themselves without the help of company names or brand products.

If I were Mr. Tanaka, I wouldn’t be so quick to complain about people incapable of objectively describing themselves.

Just as I described in my book, Japan is an affluent society with an abundance of material goods, where people have no need to worry about food or clothes. But who can be proud of, or be happy about, being a member of this society?

The basic needs of human beings are food, clothing, and shelter. Despite admitting that Japan is remarkably successful in providing the basics that so many other countries lack and offering an abundance of pero-guri opportunities, Mr. Tanaka thinks this is nothing to be proud of or happy about.

Japan’s debts have increased by 170 trillion yen since [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi took office four years ago. What’s more, 100 people take their own lives each day.

That’s called a non sequitor. He might be able to do something about the first, but he’ll never be able to do anything about the second.

The interviewer, Sayuri Daimon, pipes up:

How can we reform this sick society?

Before you can call it a sick society, Sayuri, you have to show us some of the symptoms. Too much food, shelter, clothing, and pero-guri? Plenty of countries are just waiting to come down with that disease. But if the problem is pork-barrel politics, why is Japan being singled out for an illness that is endemic over the globe?

Back to the governor:

In my case, if someone gives me a hard time, I write or speak publicly about it. So I think people decided not to give me a hard time.

Was that before or after you were removed from office in a no-confidence vote?

What do you think about Koizumi’s postal reform drive?

Answer 1
Where would the money in the postal savings and postal life insurance go once they were privatized?

Uh, nowhere?

Answer 2:

What happens if a foreign company takes control of the privatized postal savings company and the postal insurance company?

Is his alliance with the anti-reformers beginning to make more sense now?

I think politics should be about what politicians actually say. For example, South American countries may have some political turmoil, but the debates in their parliaments are like an art formed by the politicians’ speeches.

Yes, Japan could learn a lot about parliamentary democracy from the politically stable and economically thriving South American countries.

…in other non-English-speaking countries, such as Thailand, there are foreign-language media that enjoy a leading position in those countries. But in Japan, unless something is reported in Japanese-language newspapers or it appears on Japanese TV, it does not become “evidence” to be taken seriously.

If the foreign-language media in Thailand have a leading position, what does that say about the indigenous media? And how can media that the Thai people—or Japanese people–can’t understand have a leading position?

My current girlfriend doesn’t seem to want to get married.

No surprise there.


Are you going to run for another term as governor?


I will do what the Nagano people want me to do. I want to listen to what people in Nagano say, whether they say I should stay or leave office.

The people of Nagano were already speaking, but he wasn’t listening. As of the date of that interview, Mr. Tanaka had the lowest approval ranking of any Japanese governor. (35% unqualified approval, 40% unqualified disapproval; when combined with those who approve somewhat, his approval rating exceeded 50%)

In fact, he was defeated for reelection the following year in 2006. He began his term as a media favorite, but his stance against the kisha club system that allows major media outlets to monopolize information put the kibosh on that. (More than politics and government needs reforming in Japan.) He certainly didn’t help himself with the prefecture’s voters by neglecting local affairs to start his own political party and get involved in a national campaign. And what can you say about the lack of common sense demonstrated by his failure to escort a female companion to a private spot for a tête-à-tête rather than share a drink with her in his glass-walled office on government property?

Nevertheless, to his credit, he did succeed in producing budget surpluses seven years running and slashing the amount of money required to win bids on local public works projects by making bidding practices more transparent.

Now imagine what will happen if he wins the Hyogo seat and joins an alliance with a government led by the DPJ, whose membership ranges from Nanking Massacre deniers to de facto Socialists looking for a piece of the action instead of holding meetings in coffee shops with the rest of the faux Social Democrats. Team them up with the corrupt petty baron Suzuki Muneo, the paleos of the People’s New Party, and the Social Democrats themselves, and circus will not be the word to describe what ensues.

But even Charles Dickens could not find the words for that.


Japan’s lax residency requirements for running in an election, which allow Mr. Tanaka to parachute into Hyogo at the last minute (though Ozawa Ichiro claims the decision was made a long time ago) are more conducive to political maneuvering in the back rooms of upscale Tokyo restaurants than they are to serving the people of a particular area.

The longer I’m in Japan, the more I’m convinced that the political class remains stuck in the Warring States Period:

(F)or all practical purposes, Japan by 1467 was in fact 260 separate countries, for each daimyo was independent and maintained separate armies. The political and territorial picture in Japan, then, was highly volatile. With no powerful central administration to adjudicate disputes, individual daimyo were frequently in armed conflict with other daimyo all through the Ashikaga period.

The only way this ends is if the electorate reminds these people just who serves whom and makes them unemployed every time they get the chance to vote.

Posted in Books, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Amae, amas, amat…

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, July 11, 2009

“JOURNALISM LARGELY CONSISTS of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive,” observed G.K. Chesterton, and that corresponds all too well to the reports earlier this week of the death of Dr. Doi Takeo. A psychoanalyst, Dr. Doi developed and presented first to Japan and then to the world his theories on the role of amae in the Japanese psyche and cultural behavior. As the obituaries noted, people consider him to have been the first Japanese trained in psychiatry to influence Western psychiatric thought.

Those with an interest in psychiatry and in Japan knew his work well. When I studied Japanese at university, it was considered de rigeur to have read Dr. Doi’s book, Amae no Kozo (The Anatomy of Dependence). For everyone else, however, Dr. Doi might as well have been Lord Jones, and that’s how the English-language press treated his passing.

That treatment is something of a tragedy, because his work and the concepts he presented offered an important new perspective for Japanese to understand themselves and for foreigners to understand them. Perhaps that’s shikata ga nai, as the Japanese say; it can’t be helped. The interest of the lumpen readership in either Japan or psychiatry is limited, and the concept of amae is difficult to understand for anyone not familiar with Japanese society. In fact, I suspect it would be next to impossible to understand unless one were Japanese or had lived in Japan for several years and paid close attention to what was going on.

Amae defined

Dr. Doi used the word amae because there’s no real English equivalent. Indeed, it is said to be a back formation he coined himself from the verb amaeru. The underlying emotions, said Dr. Doi, are instinctual and present in every society, but the Japanese have a greater awareness of those emotions because they have specific words to describe them. Thus, Western terminology is insufficient to describe the Japan psyche. That further complicates the understanding of subtle concepts difficult to describe and prone to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

One trustworthy source translates amae as “dependency wishes”, in which a person relies on the love, patience, and/or tolerance of other people or groups who form the other pole of an emotional relationship. Dr. Doi himself described it as presuming on another’s love, basking in another’s indulgence, or indulging in another’s kindness. Right away, that definition causes problems with misinterpretation. Westerners often view relationships and emotional dependence of that sort in a negative light. Dependency is to be outgrown because it is a manifestation of weakness and childishness.

That view does not predominate in Japan, however. The word amae has the same root as the word amai, or sweet, imparting a positive sense that makes it impossible to render into a single English word or phrase. In that spirit, the name of his book could also have been rendered literally as The Structure of Amae. Translators know better than anyone that converting from one language to another is not the same as handling an algebraic equation.

Amae in everyday life

A Freudian, Dr. Doi postulated that the origin of amae lies in the restoration of the lost mother-and-child union, a relationship that might be considered even more important in Japan than elsewhere. He then used it as a way to describe the dynamics of different relationships in adult life, including those between parent and child (in which amae is present even after children become adults), husband and wife, teacher and pupil, patron and acolyte, master and apprentice, and even feudal lord and samurai.

In many instances, the one-way direction of this relationship is only temporary, and in other cases, the dynamics move in both directions. People often use as an example of amae women indulging in emotional dependence on men, but that works in reverse from men to women as well. Also, pupils grow up to become teachers, and apprentices grow up to be masters. While Westerners may consider dependency a weakness, in Japan amae can strengthen the social fabric through a relationship between two people or among a larger group of people.

Dr. Doi used the concept to explain the importance in Japan of developing a rapport or relationship that transcends the feeling of simpatico, in which there is merging, or tokekomu. He held that amae helped explain the blurring of the distinction between subject or object—or self and other—in Japan, and why the notions of privacy and individual rights were different here than elsewhere.

He extended his theory by using it to explain the Japanese dislike of cut-and-dried logic, frequently referred to as “fart logic” (herikutsu), the nature of long-term business relationships, and the importance of nonverbal communication.


Another layer of complexity was added by his application of amae to examine the contrasting feelings of giri, or obligations in social relationships, and ninjo, or human emotions—in other words, the conflict between what one should do or has to do, with what one would naturally want to do. This issue is a much greater part of both the daily dialogue and general cultural discussion in Japan than elsewhere. In Japan, Dr. Doi claimed, ninjo is characterized by both using and responding to amae, while giri is infused by ninjo.

While giri may seem to be an unpleasant burden that Westerners might prefer to shuck as soon as it becomes convenient, the Japanese recognize it as an important social lubricant. Unlike ninjo, it is not universal, so it is restricted to specific relationships. It can involve helping those who help you and returning favors to those who do one favors. People neglect these obligations at the risk of their social standing.

Of course these same obligations are present in the West, but they seem to have an added dimension here. Try giving an unexpected present, no matter how insignificant, to a Japanese with whom you are on friendly terms and watch what happens.

This side up

There’s still more. One of the first things a foreign student of Japan learns is that it is a vertical society, rather than a horizontal one. Dr. Doi claimed that amae was the reason for the prevalence of vertical integration in Japan to begin with.

Incidentally, the Japanese themselves are aware that vertical structures can be inefficient and frequently discuss them as an obstacle rather than an advantage. For example, people often criticize the excessive verticalization of the governmental bureaucracy when discussing ways to reform the system. Some think it was one reason for the poor performance of the military command structure during the war. That might provide a hint why bureaucratic reform has been so difficult to achieve–how does one change the natural default position of everyone’s emotional structure?

Those who disagree

Naturally, these theories were, and are, wide open to criticism. All the Japanese with whom I’ve discussed the book said that while they thought it was essentially accurate, the doctor tried to stretch the concept too far by applying it to every aspect of life. Perhaps that’s to be expected of pioneers anxious to spread the awareness of new ideas they’ve developed.

Some of this might also be dated. Dr. Doi was born in 1920 and formulated his theories after a psychological culture shock while visiting the United States in 1950s. For example, he thought that the phrase “help yourself” was rude. He assumed it meant “no one will help you”, when it actually means “do as you like”. (Let’s also not forget that some Westerners raise their children by emphasizing “no one will help you” as a way to inculcate self-reliance.)

Lately, however, it seems that some of these tendencies might be disappearing. Perhaps this is most apparent in the way that single women now deal with men. In passing, it should be noted that people often fail to consider just how fast Japan is able to change or adapt to change, and yet retain its stability. This was still a feudal society fewer than 150 years ago, and it is astonishing how quickly it has incorporated concepts for which it took hundreds of years to evolve in the West. Thus, it’s not surprising that emotional structures in place for more than a millenium might melt in the space of a few decades.

One of Dr. Doi’s Western critics was Peter Dale, whose book The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness no longer seems to be in print. (None of the on-line descriptions I found of Mr. Dale’s objections cite his qualifications, though he must have had some.)

Dale dismissed the whole concept as belonging to the class of ideas known as nihonjinron, or theories on the Japanese people. That was once a thriving cottage industry for the presentation of claims that the Japanese were unique, which itself gave rise to another thriving cottage industry for the snorters offended by those claims.

More specifically, Dale criticized Dr. Doi for irrationally expanding the meanings of common Japanese words to convey the idea of uniqueness. He compared it to the prewar twisting of such words as kokutai (national polity) and kokusui (national essence) for propaganda purposes.

One can imagine the criticism that would have erupted had Dr. Doi analyzed the Japan-U.S. relationship through the prism of amae.

The problems of nihonjinron

Discussions of nihonjinron from either perspective have always seemed like a waste of time. First, it has little or no practical application for anyone’s life in Japan, regardless of nationality, giving the whole enterprise an airy-fairy quality. Second, some of the ideas are grounded in the social sciences, whose limits tend to be reached very quickly. Third, the debate attracts the type of people who think intellectual discussion consists of inflated claims informed by emotional predispositions, again from either perspective, and who enjoy it for that reason. We’ve all heard it said that academic arguments are so ferocious because there is so little at stake. Is it a coincidence that many of those involved seem to be either the overeducated or people who insufficiently digested what education they did receive? Given a choice, I’ll take in vito over in vitro every time.

Not to be overlooked is that those who most intensely argue against nihonjinron often use it as a vehicle for their real motive—Japan-bashing. And in turn, Japan bashing is often a vehicle for lashing out at some demon in one’s personal background entirely unrelated to Japan. Perhaps more Japanese should consider developing the field of gaijinron as it concerns foreigners’ views of them.

Nor should we overlook that those most scornful of nihonjinron somehow fail to notice the libraries full of arguments claiming a similar uniqueness for the Americans, the English, the French, the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Koreans, and scores of small tribes throughout the world known only to their neighbors and anthropologists.

So who was Lord Jones?

A website post cannot do justice to all the issues required to fully examine a concept as important and as difficult to grasp as amae, both pro and con. That’s why journalists might honestly struggle to describe for use as corner space filler the life and ideas of Dr. Doi–a Japanese Lord Jones whom the public did not know, and whose reputation was formed in a different era for a subject with which few people are conversant and even fewer would want to be.

So how did they handle it? Here’s one example from AP (emphasis mine):

Takeo Doi, a scholar who wrote that the Japanese psyche thrived on a love-hungry dependence on authority figures, has died, his family said Monday. Doi…wrote the 1971 book, “The Anatomy of Dependence,” which introduced the idea of “amae” – a childlike desire for indulgence – as key to understanding the Japanese mind.

One wonders just how many people in journalism—helplessly watching their credibility vanish, their market shares vaporize, and their stockholders hit the silk—realize that much of the public has grown to detest them for the habitual and intentional professional malpractice the above excerpt demonstrates. There is no question that the person who wrote that–and I don’t care what her name was–deliberately chose the most unflattering way to describe the man’s work.

One also wonders if the journalists realize that for the same disgusted public, watching them commit suicide is an opportunity to pop some corn and crack open a beer. It’s obvious to those of us familiar with Japan that the journalists assigned to cover this country are (pick one or more) superficial, ignorant, incompetent, eager to play off negative stereotypes, or ready to create new ones. They have an attitude of charity towards none and malice towards all.

If all your information about Japan is derived from the Western mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

Afterwords: I was curious about the statement that Dr. Doi coined the noun amae (it’s been a while since I read the book), so I did a quick check of Japanese-Japanese dictionaries. The word does not appear in the 1984 edition of Kojien, which was the standard reference in those days, but it is defined in Sanseido’s 1984 Reikai Shinkokugo Jiten. That dictionary was compiled for younger students, but it has excellent examples and concise definitions that are useful even for adults. There’s now a fourth edition, and I highly recommend it for foreign students of the Japanese language.

Posted in Books, Language, Mass media, Science and technology, Traditions | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Apt observation

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 3, 2009

IN THE BOOK Jiminto wa Naze Tsuburenai no ka (Why Won’t the Liberal Democratic Party Collapse?), former LDP and opposition Democratic Party of Japan member Hirano Sadao makes a perceptive observation during his roundtable discussion with Murakami Masakuni and Fudesaki Hideyo about the type of people who populate the DPJ. He adds that the same could be said for Japanese society as a whole.

Here it is for your consideration. (Note: The Jomon period, from prehistory to 200 BC, is the earliest of the Japanese historical periods. It was followed by the Yayoi period, which is defined as 200 BC to 250 AD.)

“Actually, there are three types of people in the DPJ. The first is the Jomon type. They speak belly to belly, as typified by (past party president) Ozawa Ichiro, and words are used as a complement to that.

“The second is the Yayoi type. They speak using only letters and numbers, and they’re the members of labor unions, citizen activists, and the pampered sons of the wealthy.

“The third is the Internet type. They think using only letters and numbers, and never consider the essence of the words.

“That means communication in a real sense is not possible. This phenomenon is occurring throughout Japan, and is the basic cause of the confusion in contemporary society.”

Throughout Japan? Could not the same be said of the entire developed world?

Posted in Books, Politics, Social trends | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Cannibalism and torture part of everyday life in North Korea

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 12, 2009

THE ASIA TIMES has a curious article about the book Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor, by Kim Yong as told to Kim Suk-Young.

From the descriptions, it would seem that North Korea is run like a concentration camp on a national scale. Mr. Kim’s personal experience shows:

“…just how drastically North Korea had regressed – to the point that unimaginable acts such as cannibalism and torture have become part of everyday life.”

He was once a member of the elite who drove imported automobiles, but wound up in a prison camp after being accused of treason. He worked underground at the camp and came to think of daylight as a luxury. After six years, he escaped with the help of old friends and made his way to the U.S. and agreed to be interviewed for the book to present the facts of North Korea to the world.

As the article points out, it is a North Korean version of Solzhenitsyn’s expose of the Soviet gulag. But the curiosity of the article is that the author, one David Wilson, spends almost as much time on Kim Suk-Young, the person who put the book together.

While Ms. Kim is to be commended for her work, readers would have benefited from a further description of the book’s content instead of a personality profile of the transcriber/interviewer.

The problem is compounded because Ms. Kim, a performing arts professor at the University of California, is a naive geopolitical lightweight:

“(She) describes the country as “strange”, noting that there is nothing you cannot buy if you have money despite the abiding power of communist ideology.”

There’s nothing strange about that–it’s a salient feature of every communist government that’s ever existed. What’s strange is Wilson’s use of the term “abiding power of communist ideology”. That ideology has no abiding power, and North Korea is obviously not run according to communist principles.

Ms. Kim also finds it noteworthy that North and South Korea are very much alike because they share the same sense of humor and respect family ties. Why shouldn’t they be culturally similar? They’re the same tribe!

Mr. Wilson calls this a “twist” for some reason.

“She is convinced that America is equally guilty of propaganda. Before making any uninformed assumptions about North Korea, the West should try to understand it, she said. Treat the country with respect is her message.”

Cannibalism and torture are everyday occurrences while the elite lives in luxury, and the country is always last in the World Press Freedom Index Rankings. It floods the world with date rape drugs and counterfeit currency, and adamantly refuses to end its unneeded nuclear weapons program. What “uninformed assumptions” from the “equally guilty” propagandist America could be worse? And why should a country such as this be treated with respect? Would she have also had us treat the apartheid regime of South Africa with respect?

But then what else would you expect from a UC drama professor?

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Posted in Books, North Korea | 9 Comments »

The Watanabe-Eda platform for reform in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 8, 2009

THE MOST COMPELLING STORY in Japanese politics today is the struggle to eliminate the control of politics and policy determination by largely anonymous civil servants in the bureaucracy rather than elected representatives. Many of those who seek to put the bureaucracy at Kasumigaseki in its place also advocate small, decentralized government. If that movement has a firebrand, it is surely the now-independent Diet member Watanabe Yoshimi, who has already been the subject of several posts here. (Click on the tag at the end of this post for more.)

Working with his political partner and fellow lower house MP Eda Kenji—himself a former bureaucrat—Mr. Watanabe is determined to ignite a citizens’ movement for a drastic change in the face of Japanese government.

On 20 April, the two men presented their political philosophy and objective with the publication of a book-length dialogue titled Datsu Kanryo Seiken, or very roughly, Eliminating the Political Power of the Bureaucracy.

At the end of the book, the authors conveniently provide a summarization and condensation of their objectives in a ten-point program that should serve as the basis for all discussion about governmental reform in this country. Perfection is not an achievable goal for any political system, but Japan is unlikely to find a better action plan for reform than this.

Students of government might find the resemblance of aspects of the program to the American conception of federalism to be striking.

The following is my quick and dirty translation of their platform.

Ten Issues for the Citizens’ Movement, Eliminating Bureaucratic Control, and Regional Autonomy

There are steps that should be taken before taxes are increased! Diet members and the bureaucrats should be the first to sacrifice.

1. The complete prohibition of amakudari (The source of wasted tax money)
(Note: Amakudari is the practice of giving senior bureaucrats important jobs in government-affiliated organizations and private companies when they retire.)

  • Immediately and completely prohibit watari recommendations and individual ministry and agency recommendations. (Further note: Watari is the name for the ministries’ arrangement of successive jobs for retired bureaucrats at government-affiliated corporations, with the former civil servants getting retirement money each time.)
  • Eliminate personnel banks on a timed schedule. (Specifically mentioned is a center under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet Office that handles employment recommendations for bureaucrats in one organization rather than allowing individual ministries and agencies to make those recommendations.)
  • Eliminate the practice of encouraging early retirement, and establish a personnel system based on working until retirement age.
  • Revise the seniority-based salary system by overhauling the laws regarding remuneration, and reduce all personnel expenses.
  • Conduct a private sector-type restructuring of government by loosening the restraints on the basic right to work for public employees.
  • Establish oversight organizations operated by third parties. (Establish punitive provisions for violators and strictly enforce those provisions.)

2. Completely uncover the hidden funds in special accounts (30-50 trillion yen)

  • Conduct a complete and thorough accounting of the differential between assets and liabilities in the special accounts, starting with the surplus and reserve funds for the three largest sources of those accounts: government investment and loans, labor insurance, and the special account for foreign reserves.
  • Sell state-owned assets and stock held by the government.

3. Sharply reduce the number of Diet members and bureaucrats, as well as their salaries

  • Reduce the number of lower house members to 300 (by eliminating the 180 proportional representation delegates) and the number of upper house members to 100 (by eliminating the 142 proportional representation delegates).
  • Eliminate the jobs of 100,000 national civil servants (Introduce the state/province system and eliminate the central government’s organizations in regional blocs. There are now 330,000 national civil servants.)
  • Cut the salaries of Diet members by 30% and their bonuses by 50%. Cut the salaries of civil servants by 10%-20%.

4. In principle, abolish or privatize independent administrative agencies, and drastically reform public interest corporations.

  • The independent administrative agencies and public interest corporations are hotbeds for amakudari. These should, in principle, be abolished. Those independent administrative agencies that cannot be abolished should be privatized. The need for public interest corporations should be reevaluated on the premise of a zero-based review.

5. Eradicate collusive bidding at the initiative of public officials, and eliminate and conduct more rigorous oversight of the single tendering of contracts and designated competitive bidding

  • Beef up the law to prevent collusive bidding at the initiative of public officials, thus preventing collusion with the organizations where amakudari is a problem (by expanding the application to former bureaucrats). Strengthen the Fair Trade Commission’s authority in regard to this collusive bidding.
  • In principle, replace single tendering and designated competitive bidding with general competitive bidding. When such practices are unavoidable, require the reason for their need and the public disclosure of information on current amakudari-based employment at the contracting partner.

6. Integrate the management of senior personnel decisions through a Cabinet Personnel Bureau under the prime minister’s office, and hire general personnel simultaneously

  • Put senior personnel decisions under the control of the prime minister’s office to ensure the primacy of political appointments.
  • Foster a bureaucracy whose personnel are aware that they serve the nation rather than individual ministries or agencies. Eliminate vertical administration (of the ministries and agencies).
  • Hire private sector personnel experts and place private sector personnel from outside the government in leadership positions.
  • Require the provisional resignation of all senior personnel in the bureaucracy at the level of department head and above. Rehire some of those personnel in special positions for limited times only. Employ both politicians and private sector personnel as a state strategy staff and political appointees (political appointments).
  • Create a mechanism for identifying the responsibility of bureaucrats for policy failures.

7. Maintain the authority to formulate budgets by a Cabinet Budget Bureau under the prime minister’s office

  • Put budget formulation under political control by removing the work for budget assessments, government investment and loans, and tax planning and proposals from the Ministry of Finance and establishing a Cabinet Budget Bureau under the prime minister’s office. Zero-based budgeting will be the general operating principle.
  • Disband the Social Insurance Agency and combine its functions with the Tax Administration Agency. In the future, create a public taxation and collection agency and integrate the work for collecting local taxes. This would kill two birds with one stone by improving the collection rate for taxes and social insurance premiums, as well as reducing the number of government personnel.

8. Completely prohibit contributions by corporations and other groups to individual politicians (the source of political corruption)

  • Completely eliminate the branch offices of political parties. Allow corporate and group donations only to a party headquarters. (Implement the pledge made to the people when political party subsidies from public funds were created during the Hosokawa Administration.) Crush the connection between politicians and their vested interests on the one hand, and pressure groups on the other.

9. Establish local autonomy and adopt the state/province system to improve the lives of the people and a focus on the regional areas.

  • Transfer “the three ‘gen’” (kengen, or authority; zaigen, or revenue sources; and ningen, or people) to the basic local government units: municipalities.
  • Establish local autonomy and residential self rule for laws, taxation, and other measures.
  • Abolish the system of “subsidies with strings attached” provided by central government ministries and agencies, and national taxes distributed to local governments. Introduce a new mechanism for allocating financial resources among local governments.
  • Move to a state/prefecture system based on local autonomy in 10 years.
  • Limit the authority of the national government.

10. Use all of the foregoing to dismantle Kasumigaseki (the ministries and agencies of the central government)

  • Reorganize the ministries and agencies of the central government (Kasumigaseki) again to leave only the “national minimum” required for diplomacy, the maintenance of safety (including food and energy), public finances, monetary issues, and social insurance. Rid the country of governmental authority concentrated at the national level.

This agenda is ultimately a basis for discussion when forming groups (for political action). It is adaptable, and items can be added, subtracted, or amended in the future through activities in which citizens have the lead role.


By the numbers:

1. Some people go no further than amakudari when discussing the abuses of the Japanese bureaucracy, but as this list demonstrates, the problems go much deeper than that. The personnel bank to which the two men refer was, ironically, established to reduce the impact of amakudari.

3. Reducing the number of national legislators is another step that would kill two birds with one stone. In addition to cutting the cost of government, a new (presumably) winner-take-all system in electoral districts would result in a real two-party system that sharply curtails the influence of the smaller parties. Even the non-reformers in both the LDP and the DPJ have been discussing this step as a way to eliminate their pesky coalition partners.

This measure would reduce the strength of New Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partners in government, from 31 seats to eight in the lower house and from nine to two in the upper house. The Communist Party would lose all of its seats in both houses—nine in the lower house and three in the upper house, and the Social Democrats would lose six of their seven seats in the lower house and both its upper house seats.

That’s fine by me. While I understand the argument that it shuts out minority views from the process, too often in parliamentary systems those minority parties wind up to be the tail wagging the dog. One of the problems of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is that too many puppies are trying to wag the big dog’s tail, both internally and among the smaller parties aligned with it. The party can function efficiently only when kennel meister Ozawa Ichiro dictates party policy.

That’s no way to run a political party.

4. Yes indeed! These hotbeds of amakudari include:

The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the National Agricultural Research Organization, the National Institute of Animal Health, the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, the National Traffic Safety and Environment Laboratory, the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency, the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, the National Institute for Japanese Language, the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, the National Hospital Organization Kyushu Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Kyoto Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Hokkaido Cancer Center, the National Hospital Organization Nagoya Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Kure Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Osaka National Hospital, the National Hospital Organization Yokohama Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Fukuyama Medical Center, the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, the National Museum of Western Art, the Fukui National College of Technology, the Japan Foundation Japanese-Language Institute, Urawa, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the National Livestock Breeding Center, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, the National Agency for the Advancement of Sports and Health, the Commemorative Organization for the Japan World Exposition ’70, the Japan Student Services Organization, the National Research Institute of Fisheries Science, Fisheries Research Agency, the National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries, Fisheries Research Agency, the Japan Water Agency, the National Research Institute of Fire and Disaster, the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, the Welfare And Medical Service Agency, the National Center for Seeds and Seedlings, the National Statistics Center, the National Institute for Sea Training, the National Institute of Technology and Evaluation, the Center for Food Quality, Labeling and Consumer Services, Livestock Industries Corporation, the Kansai Advanced Research Center, Communications Research Laboratory, the Urban Renaissance Agency, the National Research Institute of Brewing, the Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency, the Japan Organization for Employment of the Elderly and Persons with Disabilities, and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

Just imagine all the comfortable sinecures these organizations offer those bureaucrats who descend from Kasumigaseki heaven. They all have English websites paid for by Japanese taxpayers—pop any of them into Google and see if you think any of them really need to be spared elimination or privatization.

6. It is not easy for people outside of Japan to appreciate how a system of “political appointees”–a phrase that makes most Americans cringe–would be an improvement, but that again demonstrates the excessive influence and power of the Japanese bureaucracy in politics and government.

7. This is designed to eliminate the control exerted by the Ministry of Finance on the budget. The Finance Ministry is considered to be the Big Swinging Dick of all the ministries.

8. One can sympathize with the efforts to eliminate the influence of big business on politics through campaign contributions, but it’s probably impossible to do so. Similar reforms in the United States have failed miserably. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Candidate Obama refused public financing, and his website accepting credit card contributions intentionally had the address verification function turned off (which has to be done manually). That allowed people to donate under fictitious names to skirt contribution limits and the law preventing donations from foreigners. A lot of money (just how much will never be known) was collected for Mr. Obama in Africa. His campaign raised a record amount of nearly 750 million dollars, and included website contributions from Adolf Hitler, Mickey Mouse and all sorts of goofy fictitious people that the donors and the campaign, in their contempt for the law, didn’t bother to disguise.

After his election, Mr. Obama appointed Eric Holder as Attorney General. When he served as Deputy Attorney General, Mr. Holder facilitated outgoing President Bill Clinton’s scheme to sell presidential pardons for cash.

Senior Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod said that all fraudulent contributions would be returned, and my eyes rolled while typing that sentence just as much as yours did when reading it.

Nobody is going to be prosecuted for the obvious fraud. And corporate contributors in Japan will find a way to skirt the law, too.

9. I’ve wanted to do a piece on the proposed state/province system for a long time, but that really deserves a magazine-length article. This system would create anywhere from nine to 12 states or provinces that would eventually supplant the current 47 prefectures. The result would be a three-tiered structure of central government, state/province government, and municipal government, each with clearly defined functions and the power to levy and collect taxes.

The reorganization of government at the sub-national level is currently the subject of intense debate among the political class in Japan, and some hold that the introduction of such a system would be a powerful weapon to nullify the bureaucratic stranglehold on government.

This one’s fine by me, too. Anything that removes authority from the central government and puts it closer to the people is always fine by me. Power to the people, don’t you know.

10. Hallelujah!

Who would have thought that two decades after the unquestioned successes of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain that the working politicians most passionately devoted to small government, devolution of authority, and budget hawking would be in Japan?

As a Japanese taxpayer and permanent resident of Japan, I’d love to see all 10 of these platform planks implemented immediately–especially before any tax increase, most of which is likely to be wasted. Will they all come to pass? Probably not. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the howls of protest from the smaller parties, particularly the ones on the left, that it is undemocratic and unfair to allow only those people who actually win elections to hold Diet seats. Yes, it’s beyond parody, but it also doesn’t take much imagination to know that the mass media will give them as much megaphone as they want.

Nevertheless, Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Eda do everyone a service by presenting these ideas in a coherent program, thereby redrawing the boundaries of the debate. The most successful politicians are the ones who drag the center in their direction.

Posted in Books, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

The collapse of journalism in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, October 8, 2008

BIG JOURNALISM the world over is turning itself into dinosaur journalism before our eyes, and that process is also underway in Japan. One difference here, however, is that the problems are as much structural as they are attitudinal.

Freelance reporter Uesugi Takashi has published a paperback in Japanese that describes some of those problems. Called The Collapse of Journalism, it is reviewed in the November issue of Shokun! by Kawamura Jiro, himself a former reporter for the Asahi Shimbun. The following is a quick translation of that review.


“After working as a government-paid political aide in the upper house of the Diet and as a salaried reporter in the Tokyo bureau of the New York Times, author Uesugi Takashi became a freelance political reporter. This book presents his descriptions of the behavior of political journalists working in the Japanese print and broadcast media, based on what he’s seen through his own work. It might be more apt to say, however, that it exposes their behavior.

“For example, the political reporters, known as ‘duty reporters’ are assigned (by their employers) to cover specified politicians only. When that politician gives a speech, the duty reporters get together and compare their notes. It’s no wonder all the newspaper articles read the same.

“Those reporters assigned to the ruling party are not able to interview opposition party members as they would like. The mass media often criticize the government and public offices for their vertical compartmentalization, but the media are guilty of the same practice themselves.

“The duty reporters sometimes act as watchdogs for the politicians. Whenever a reporter from a different desk at the same newspaper or a freelance reporter tries to talk to a politician, the duty reporters will try to prevent them from meeting. As a result:

‘Political reporters monopolize the right of access to politicians, are fully conversant with affairs at Nagata-cho, and take the government to task, yet still have never done any hard-hitting coverage of politicians. In every instance, scoops that terrify the prime minister’s office, articles that cause parliamentarians to resign, and stories about scandals that throw a politician’s reelection into doubt have been written by journalists not working the political affairs desk.’

“Come to think of it, the Asahi Shimbun broke the Recruit scandal, but the reporters who got the scoop were young journalists working at the Yokohama and Kawasaki branches, not the political reporters. At the time, the author was assigned to the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi, and it was common practice for the duty reporters to act as watchdogs for the politicians instead.

“I was struck speechless by the sentence, ‘Reporters who are superior journalists cannot survive at the political affairs desk.’

“When there are fewer journalists of excellence and more reporters with little ability, we shouldn’t be surprised at the appearance of op-ed writers who write pieces calling the Justice Minister ‘The Grim Reaper’. (The God of Death in the original Japanese)

“Many newspaper executives lament that people nowadays are reading less, and reading fewer newspapers, but the content of this book makes one wonder if this tendency to turn away from the print media shouldn’t be expected.

“Newspapers conduct polls to determine the public’s support for the Cabinet, but they just might be in urgent need of polls to find out how many people actually read what they’re writing, and whether the readers trust it. The first poll they should take is to find out whether their own employees are actually reading it. Make the poll anonymous for the sake of the cowards.”


During a newspaper interview conducted the day after Abe Shinzo assumed office, the book’s author predicted that the new prime minister would be gone in a year. The Abe administration lasted 366 days.

Here’s the Amazon link to the book.

Posted in Books, Mass media, Politics | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

Mom & pop shops in Japan and South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 28, 2008

THREE WEEKS AGO, we had a post describing South Korean Prof. Che Kei-ho’s defense of the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula. The professor incorporated in his argument the unenlightened attitude of the Joseon Dynasty rulers, whom he said were anti-progress, anti-commerce and industry, and anti-intellectual. Prof. Che maintained that it was inevitable a stronger power would colonize such a backwards place.

This week, a discussion of that same Joseon attitude popped up in an unexpected source in which an entirely different point was being made. That source was Nihonjin to Kankokujin: Naruhodo Jiten, a book consisting of short articles two or three pages in length written for a Japanese audience. These articles compare and contrast daily life and customs in the two countries.

One article contained a discussion about small shopkeepers, particularly for eating and drinking places. The authors paint with a broad brush, of course, but their explanation of why most of those shops in South Korea are operated by women instead of men, as is usually the case in Japan, is interesting in light of Prof. Che’s lecture. Here’s a summary/translation of that article.


“The shops (in South Korea) are left to the wife, while the mainstream conservative husbands get to do whatever they like. Yet seldom do their wives and children criticize the men for their behavior. This is perhaps due to the lingering influence of the system of paternal authority, or the old concept of respecting men and demeaning women (danson johi in Japanese), but the prestige of the man as the head of the household is maintained. That the women’s efforts have been successful enough to allow the families to buy their own homes can only be a source of envy for Japanese men, who often have to work like dogs in the same circumstances.

“Of course, not all Korean families that operate successful and profitable shops have a man lying in front of the TV set all day. But the idea that the shop would be very profitable if the husband were to cooperate and apply himself to the business is how the Japanese think. Those shops (in Korea) where the husband is enthusiastic about the business are successful in their own way. But the reason most men are not interested in doing that sort of work has its origins in an old Korean attitude that has been handed down to the present.

“There is an old tradition in Korea that commerce is an ignoble occupation. This attitude of the privileged classes who controlled the Joseon Dynasty filtered down to the common people. That’s why some still consider the sight of a man in an apron welcoming customers to the shop to be unseemly.

“It’s a different story with larger enterprises. It’s perfectly acceptable for men who owns a restaurant chain with several outlets to stand in a suit and greet the customers. That’s an upgrade in rank from petty commerce to business enterprise, and from shop proprietor to company president. Japanese find it difficult to understand, but there’s a wide, unbridgeable chasm between petty commerce and a business enterprise in South Korea.

“One exception in Korea are those people who lost their jobs due to corporate restructuring in the late 90s and opened a small shop with the intent of turning them into a larger business enterprise. Those men did wear aprons and toil in front of the stove.

“This historical background is the same reason there are few shinise (Japanese for long-established shops) in Korea that boast of having been in business for decades or centuries. Most parents would rather see their sons succeed in a large business enterprise than hand over a shop to them. In contrast, a Korean is likely to be puzzled by Japanese shop owners who are proud of their unbroken line of succession. Some might think the only reason the current shop owner is operating the business is because he lacks the talent to do something better.

“Of course, we cannot overlook the Japanese colonial control of Korea and the Korean War as factors for the lack of shinise. These two factors cut Koreans off from the economy and industry that existed previous to them. While it’s not unusual to find shops in Japan that have existed since the Edo period (1603-1868), it would have been difficult in Korea for shops from that era to continue to operate even if the proprietors wanted to.

“Since the end of the Korean War, the attitude in Korea toward shinise has started to change. As society has become more affluent, people are starting to appreciate such things as “traditional flavor”.

“Perhaps the day that the “heavy hips” of the men of the house grow lighter is also not far off.”


If the article’s positive tone and the lack of nationalistic or ethnocentric propaganda are not what you were led to expect by what you’ve heard or read elsewhere, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s typical of the contemporary Japanese attitude toward South Korea.

Posted in Books, Food, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Popular delusions and the madness of crowds in South Korea

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 22, 2008

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one!”
– Charles Mackay

THE QUOTE ABOVE comes from Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, published in 1841 and still one of the most insightful books on the human condition ever written. Mackay states his intention in the preface to the first edition:

The object of the author in the following pages has been to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.

He made it even clearer in the preface to a later edition:

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.

Most contemporary references to the book cite incidents from the three chapters on economic bubbles, particularly the Dutch tulip mania in the 1630s. But Mackay’s book covers a wider range of human behavior, which he classified in three groups: National Delusions, Peculiar Follies, and Philosophical Delusions.

Lest anyone dismiss these stories as humoresques or curiosities from a less enlightened age, we should realize that the nexus of modern communications and information technology, including television, personal computers, the Internet, and the mass media, has allowed this aspect of the human character to flourish.

For an excellent example, we need look no farther than the current popular delusion and madness of the crowd in South Korea over President Lee Myung-bak’s decision to allow imports of American beef after a five-year ban.

Try this post by Sonagi at The Marmot’s Hole for a brief but penetrating look at the phenomenon. Most astonishing is his account of the misinformation published in the International Herald Tribune. (The links to Korean newspapers are unfortunately not in English, but you’ll get the idea.)

Sonagi provides us a taste with this quote:

During the Saturday rally, a high school girl took the microphone and said before the crowd: “I drove four hours to join this rally because I don’t want to die.”

Whenever there is a new advance in information technology, some people talk as if it will change the world. It won’t, of course; it’ll just make it easier for some to conduct their business, some to have a new toy for killing time, and for others to behave like the fools they are.

And we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the business of the mass media is anything other than to profit from this behavior by encouraging it. Claiming that their mission is to speak truth to power and give voice to the powerless is only a popular delusion within the infotainment guild.

None of the rest of us has to fall for it.

Disclaimers: I’m an American who almost never eats beef, supports free trade among nations regardless of the nations involved, and thinks that protectionism hurts everyone in the long run.

Posted in Books, Mass media, Popular culture, South Korea | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The grand game on the Korean Peninsula

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, June 21, 2008

PEOPLE WHO INSIST ON DEBATING Northeast Asian history at the top of their cyberlungs owe it to themselves and to the rest of us to realize that some issues are too complex for two-dimensional, monochrome explanations.

That should be clear from reading this Korea Times review of Early Korean Encounters With the United States and Japan, a collection of essays written in English by Lew Young-ick.

As other Korean historians have pointed out, the Joseon Dynasty’s misrule created a backwards and xenophobic state that seemed ripe for the picking by imperial powers. Explains reviewer Lee Hyo-won:

(Japan) sought to manifest its imperialistic ambitions on the Korean peninsula, which would additionally act as a buffer against the perceived Russian threat. Japan would also be able to generously “share” the blessings of their newly acquired Western culture.
“Inadequately equipped” for such advances, the xenophobic state started to recognize “the beneficial aspects of Western civilization.” The alarmed Korean rulers “tried to gain time by dilatory tactics, hoping in the meantime to achieve national ‘enlightenment’ and ‘self-strengthening.’” In 1882, Korea signed the Shufeldt Treaty with the U.S., establishing its first diplomatic ties with a Western state.

However, Korea’s tributary debt to China was omnipresent, and the agreement, according to the author, “was the strategic calculation of the Chinese statesman Li Hongzhang, namely to ‘play the American barbarian’ off against the Russian ‘barbarian.’” Li’s main aim was leveraging China’s assertion of suzerainty over Korea.

Nevertheless, King Gojong (1852-1919), the second to last Joseon monarch, saw the U.S. treaty as a potential buffer against Japan’s growing imperialistic tendencies and, to Li’s discontent, repel China’s suzerainty.


…after the Shufeldt Treaty, Korea was “set adrift on an ocean of intrigue which it was quite helpless to control” (Tyler Dennett), with subsequent pacts with Great Britain and Germany (1883), Italy and Russia (1884), France (1886) and Austro-Hungary (1889). The small peninsula thus became “a major playground for contending imperialistic powers.”

On the one hand, $30 is a lot to pay for a 249-page book, but the KT article cites reviews that praise the collection of papers and keynote speeches as being very readable.

All of us (including the KT reviewer) would benefit from the realization that it’s not possible to unravel the tangled skein of the past as long as people want to use history as a weapon in the present, and that pointing misdirected fingers will yield no benefits for the future.

Posted in Books, China, History, International relations | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Were Koreans oppressors in the war, or its victims?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 30, 2008

IF YOU BELIEVE the newspaper narratives, the Japanese nation denies or chooses to ignore its behavior during the first half of the 20th century, while the Koreans were innocent victims of that behavior.

That might be the price one pays for choosing to swallow the mass media product, but then sometimes the antidote to that particular poison can be found in a surprising place—such as a Korean newspaper!

Here’s an example: Earlier this month, the Choson Ilbo of South Korea published an article titled Were Koreans Oppressors in the War, or its Victims? The piece gives readers a glimpse of a reality more complicated than that usually presented in the popular press.

It is in fact a review of a book recently released in South Korea called A Metahistory of Korean-Japanese Disputes over Historical Awareness. (It doesn’t seem to be available in Japanese yet.) The newspaper (poorly) translated their own article into Japanese, and I’ve tried to render it into English because I think the information it conveys should be more widely known. Please keep in mind that what you see after the process went from Korean to Japanese to English (and in one excerpt from English to Korean to Japanese to English) is probably not what people higher up the linguistic chain got.

The Choson Ilbo chopped up the review into three separate pieces for some reason, so I’ve put them all into one place. I’m not sure how well-written the original was, but the situation is what it is. Hereafter, the voice is that of the reviewer, Yu Seok-je.


A 19-year-old youth born in the colony of Korea volunteered to serve in the Japanese military. He rose to the rank of first lieutenant in the army and became a member of the kamikaze special attack squadron. Before leaving on his mission, he made a sound recording of his will for family members back home. The disc on which that will was recorded was discovered decades later. The voice cutting through the noise on an old record was by no means filled with sadness. It was the powerful voice of a first lieutenant in the Japanese army who pledged his loyalty to “His Majesty the Emperor”, and wished for the health of his parents. After his death in battle, he was enshrined with 26,000 other Koreans in the Yasukuni Shrine.

There was a surprising response to a television documentary broadcast three years ago that contained this information. Previously, one constant in Korean society was that the mention of the word Japan, with its negative image, would create a frenzied reaction. This time, however, there was no reaction at all.

Why was that? It was because these people were victims who, it was claimed, died an unjust death, while at the same time, serving as officers in the Japanese military and shouting Tenno Heika, Banzai! (Long live the Emperor!) In the decades-long debate about the faction friendly to Japan (during the colonial/merger period), dominated by the Korean-Japanese problem, there were no means available to offer an explanation about them.
The editors of this book are Kan-Nichi Rentai 21 (Korea-Japan Solidarity 21), a group consisting of Korean and Japanese intellectuals launched in 2004 to seek a new Korean-Japanese relationship appropriate for the 21st century. They are searching for a means to achieve solidarity by examining themselves and achieving a more mature viewpoint that transcends the antagonistic relationship that has arisen between the two countries. In brief, they now want to leave behind the intolerant nationalism with which one party views the other for a closer study of history. That’s why the authors of this book have chosen to step back from knee-jerk nationalism itself and develop a new viewpoint of their own through self-reflection.
The book So Far from the Bamboo Grove (In Japanese, Yoko’s Story) touched off a dispute about historical awareness last year. (Note: This is a semi-autobiographical novel by Yoko Kawashima Watkins describing a Japanese family’s escape from northern Korea at the end of World War II. The father was serving there as a government official during the colonial/merger period.) Commenting on the book, UC San Diego literature professor Lisa Yoneyama said, “Yoko’s Story closely resembles that of A Little Princess (a 1905 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett). Both have the backdrop of a colonialist history that is not American and leave the impression that the United States is not connected with the history of colonial rule. That’s why mainstream American society appreciated Yoko’s Story as a book depicting the suffering of war. In this book, the historical background of Japanese colonial rule in Korea is wiped clean. This is related to the lack of historical awareness in the United States of their own colonial domination of others.”

Also commenting on Yoko’s Story was Professor Shin Hyon-gi of Yonsei University: “The dispute regarding this book began drawing nationalistic battle lines over the war in memory. Moreover, there was a sense of outrage that the Japanese, in their memories, considered themselves the victims. If you think about it carefully, however, (you’ll wonder) is it true that all Koreans were victims and all Japanese were always the victimizers? Talking about the experience of cruel persecution and ordeals is one way to achieve a collective identity. A clear line of distinction is drawn between the “good Korea” and the others, who are the villains. But crushing the memory of the Japanese does not mean that the memory of Koreans has won.”

Thus the book extends the horizon of thought into “troubling territory” that had been viewed as taboo in both countries. The victims in the victimized country have raised their voices to censure the victimizers in the oppressor country. But neither the victims in the oppressor country nor the oppressors in the victimized country are visible in this construct. No clear distinction can be made between victimization and victimhood, and the construct is both compound and multilayered. When the nationalism of both countries is in conflict, there is no place for one to stand in the rapids.

The Japanese wives have been forgotten by nearly everyone. Professor Kano Mikiyo of Keiwa College asserts that the problems of the past are by no means resolved. In the latter half of the 1930s, the policy of forming a unified whole of Japan and the colony of Korea (in Japanese, the naisen ittai policy) led to the strong encouragement of intermarriage. There were 5,458 marriages between Koreans and Japanese from the years 1938 to 1943, and of these 3,964, or 73%, were between Korean men and Japanese women. Most Japanese women stayed in Korea (after the war), and according to a 1975 survey, 73% of the remaining 956 women were in the economic classification of poverty or extreme poverty.

Professor Kano said, “The backdrop to the tragedy of these Japanese wives is the tacit acceptance of their fate in the patriarchal systems of both countries. In Japanese society, Korean men, who were ethnically weaker, were stronger both socially and culturally in gender terms under the patriarchy. Fixing up these men with the women of the stronger (Japanese) group exacerbated their self-esteem as males. Did this really achieve a balance by promoting equality?”

Considerations of the “troublesome territory” continue. Professor Lee Yon-hun of Seoul National University was critical of the explanation written in a South Korean history textbook that “Japanese imperialism stole 40% of Korean territory”.

In regard to the argument that the Class A war criminals should be separated from the rest of those venerated in Yasukuni Shrine, Prof. Takahashi Tetsuya of the University of Tokyo worries this would be a “dangerous scenario”. “After the Class A war criminals were separated, the war dead who were involved in Japanese invasions overseas before 1928, and who had no connection with the invasions after 1928, would remain enshrined. Once the Class A war criminals were removed, if the Yasukuni Shrine were to become operated by the state and visits by the Tenno (Emperor) were possible, it could be used as a device for supporting Japanese military activity.”

The critical weakness of this book is that the opinions and assertions of the 18 Korean and Japanese authors, and the logic behind those assertions, are not unified. One possible interpretation is that the lowest common denominator for the authors is simply that they have removed themselves from the line of sight of nationalism, with which many people have been permeated. As the book itself states, if that is the case, as heated disputes with a multiplicity of viewpoints rage with no one offering a conclusion or a proper answer, its significance can only be discovered by considering it as one attempt to identify their common ground.


I’m not sure why Mr. Yu thinks the lack of a unified voice is a drawback; it is inevitable there will be a wide range of viewpoints in an issue such as this, and I think it is worth drawing attention to them.

The group Korea–Japan Solidarity 21 recently published a textbook examining the war that was written by Japanese, Korean, and Chinese historians. Nothing by that group is available on Japanese, however.

It is interesting to note that a textbook is apparently in use in South Korea with the claim that “Japanese imperialism stole 40% of Korean territory”. Who knew that such a textbook existed? Yet everyone knows about a Japanese textbook that glides over the same period in history–everyone except students in Japanese schools, because only a miniscule micropercentage of them even use it.

It is unfortunate that all the Japanese cited in the review are academic leftists; Prof. Yoneyama in particular seems to have permanently pitched a tent out in left field. Here is her profile on her university’s site, in which she tells us as much about her cat as she does her “partner”. The professor is rather upset at the success of So Far from the Bamboo Grove, as you can tell from this article in the English-language version of The Hankyoreh, a South Korean newspaper. Here is a plot summary of A Little Princess; I haven’t read either book, but to think the two are comparable seems like something dreamt up by a college literature professor with an axe to grind and time on her hands. She’s offended that Ms. Watkins wrote the book, and she’s offended that Americans like it.

Extend the logic of her argument and one would expect her to be attacking Gone with the Wind for its portrayal of slaveholders on a plantation during the American Civil War.

It is worthwhile for people outside Japan to realize that viewpoints such as those of Prof. Takahashi exist, even though the scenario he postulates here is as likely to occur nowadays as a cow jumping over the moon. His Japanese language website describes him as an enthusiastic participant in the Peace Boat voyages to South Korea and Pyeongyang. (Members of their cruises also met several times with Yasser Arafat.)

The Peace Boat project was the brainchild of a group that included Tsujimoto Kiyomi, a member of the lower house of the Diet in the Social Democratic Party (formerly the Socialist Party). She was forced to resign in a financial scandal, and was later reelected through the proportional representation system. She is also suspected of, at minimum, having ties to the Japanese Red Army terrorist group. Others think she funneled them money.

It would be interesting to know if a wider spectrum of Japanese political opinion is represented in Korea-Japan Solidarity 21. There are other currents in contemporary Japanese-Korean relations, after all. For example, former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, a conservative/traditionalist, is the chair of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union; an assistant executive director of the same group is former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

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Posted in Books, History, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Did FDR bankrupt Japan?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, October 11, 2007

NOW HERE’S A SERENDIPITOUS FIND—while searching for something else on the site of an Internet merchant, I discovered a recently-published book that looks intriguing. It’s called Bankrupting the Enemy: The U.S. Financial Siege of Japan Before Pearl Harbor.

According to the publisher’s blurb, the main points are as follows.

  1. American government experts thought the war in China would bankrupt Japan, but didn’t realize that Japan had a supply of dollars hidden in New York.
  2. When the Americans found out about the money, Japan tried to repatriate it. President Roosevelt moved to block them by using the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act to freeze the assets and forbid the sale of Japanese gold to the U.S. Treasury (the only open gold market at the time).
  3. Some Washington bureaucrats “thwarted” the plan, however. (The blurb does not say how.) Dean Acheson, the man Roosevelt selected to implement this plan, managed to prevent Japan from getting the money.
  4. The author examines an OSS-State Department study of conditions in pre-war Japan that found the measure created economic hardships for Japan. Those hardships contributed to the country’s resolve to maintain the aggressive course that led to Pearl Harbor. Apparently, no one in the U.S. government had bothered to analyze the policy’s impact on the Japanese economy.

The publisher’s promotional copy is not well written and might lead a reader to think the OSS study was conducted before the war. As a poster on this History Channel discussion board notes, however, the OSS did not exist at the time. The book’s author, Edward S. Miller, responded to the note by stating that the OSS study was conducted in 1943 and was a retrospective look at Japanese economic conditions in the 1930s. He used this to extrapolate financial conditions in Japan had it not launched its attacks in 1941.

Mr. Miller is now retired, but has served as the chief financial officer at two companies, so he seems well qualified to understand financial operations of this sort. He is also the author of a book called War Plan Orange, which analyzes American war plans devised over the early part of the 20th century to deal with a potential Japan-U.S conflict. That book won five awards.

There is a long-held belief in some quarters that President Franklin Roosevelt baited Japan into attacking America to give him an excuse to enter the wider war. One quoted passage in the review, however, suggests it was his intention to “bring Japan to its senses, not its knees.”

That in turn suggests Roosevelt’s idea might have backfired by exacerbating rather than defusing Japan’s aggression. In other words, the attack on Pearl Harbor might not have been the result of a deliberate Roosevelt strategy, but a Roosevelt miscalculation.

But as Sherlock Holmes said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” and I just discovered the book’s existence this week.

Here’s the page on the publisher’s website.

Posted in Books, Business, finance and the economy, History, World War II | Tagged: | 21 Comments »

Book recommendation request

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 8, 2007

AN AMPONTAN READER sent me an e-mail asking for recommendations about “Japanese customs and traditions in the business environment.”

In the course of the mail, he writes, “Early next year, I will make the first of several trips to Japan for business. In the course of my work I will have dealings with executive level officers, IT managers, and their subordinates.”

My correspondent lived in Japan for two years and has a Japanese wife, so he already is familiar with the country to a degree. He said that he wants to expand his knowledge.

If anyone has any recommendations for English-language books, feel free to send them in to the comments section.


Posted in Books | 3 Comments »

A more muscular Japan?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 8, 2007

THE BOSTON GLOBE HAS PUBLISHED AN OP-ED called A More Muscular Japan that combines a discussion of Japan’s growing military strength and the country’s relations with North Korea.

Some newspapers, such as the New York Times, print articles about Japan that seem deliberately malicious. That is not the case with the Globe article. It is largely a collection of superficial, mundane observations obvious to any layman, combined with a dollop of incoherence.

For example:

After decades of North Korean military provocations, Kim Jong Il now has a big problem on his hands, as the Japan of old is transforming into an increasingly more muscular nation, one less hesitant to use force.

Japan is less hesitant to use force? How do we know this? The author doesn’t say, nor does he provide any argument to support this assertion.

Japan did send a contingent of troops to Iraq, but they weren’t involved in combat operations. The Japanese did exchange fire with and damage a North Korean vessel designed for covert operations of some sort five years ago, which ended when the Koreans scuttled their own craft. (For some reason, the Telegraph article linked here did not see fit to mention the missile the North Koreans fired at the Japanese. BBC TV at the time broadcast film of the battle, and ended it abruptly without showing the missile being fired. But I digress.)

And why does Kim Jong-il suddenly have a problem? All he has to do is stop his “decades of military provocations” and his problems disappear. (Which the Japanese sinking of the North Korean ship seems to have achieved.)

Relations between the two countries have long been contentious and mutually distrustful. From Pyongyang’s perspective, Japan’s military alliance with the United States and its history of harsh colonial rule have remained impediments to normal relations. From Tokyo’s perspective, North Korea’s brazen abduction of Japanese nationals during the late 1970s and early 1980s, its repressive authoritarianism, and its flagrant militarism make North Korea a repellent neighbor.

Why should anyone particularly care about Pyeongyang’s perspective? Japan isn’t causing any problems with the North Koreans. The “history of harsh colonial rule” isn’t an impediment to relations with South Korea.

The author has one thing right—it is a repellent country because of its repressive authoritarianism and flagrant militarism. So why should the perspective of a peaceful, free-market democracy be compared to that of the repellent country in a way that suggests they have equal standing or interests?

Unlike China, where the business community acts as a brake on a Japanese hard line, businesses are largely indifferent to relations with North Korea.

Nowhere in the article is support provided for the implicit suggestion that Japan would take a “hard line” against China if the business community weren’t against it. And what form would this hard line take? The article is about a Japan whose military might is growing. Does that mean the author thinks Japan would be rattling sabers in the direction of Beijing? I hope not, as that would be a very tenuous assertion indeed.

The Japanese do chase away the occasional Chinese submarine that tests its territorial waters, but there is no sign of any serious military dispute on the horizon. Japan holds some islands in the East China Sea that China claims, but China would have to initiate military action for the Japanese to even consider taking up arms. The Chinese have indulged in bellicose rhetoric similar to that of Kim Jong-il, but they haven’t fired any missiles in Tokyo’s direction.

Perhaps that’s because the Chinese business community–which is also its political community and military community–acts as a brake on its more irresponsible elements.

…it appears that diplomacy has, at least temporarily, stemmed the tide of nuclear ambitions in North Korea. Yet, the question remains: When and where will this tide rise again? All bets are off, but you can count on one thing: The next time Japan will be walking taller, and it may be carrying a bigger stick.

Help me out here, somebody. The North Korean tide of nuclear ambitions might be stemmed, but the question remains where it will rise again? Just what is this supposed to mean? There is a specific place that nuclear ambitions rise? The North Koreans would threaten to use nuclear weapons somewhere they haven’t already threatened to do so?

Then we get the dire warning, “all bets are off, but you can count on one thing”. If all bets are off, you can’t count on anything, can you? And those are two things the author is counting on, not one.

“The next time Japan will be walking taller”. What is this “next time” supposed to mean? The next time North Korea has nuclear ambitions? But that would mean Pyeongyang hadn’t really given them up, wouldn’t it? And how will these ambitions be manifest? Will they be accompanied by new threats against Japan? If so, why?

And how will Japan be “walking taller”? Will it have amended its Constitution? (That process will take a few years yet, at the minimum–assuming attempts to amend it are successful.)

“You can count on one thing: The next time Japan…may be carrying a bigger stick.” May be? How can we count on something that may happen…or may not happen?

I am astonished that an American newspaper would publish this slapdash recitation of poorly written banalities. Who could have been responsible for it?

Richard J. Samuels is director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book, Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia, will be published next week.

This man was able to convince a publisher to bring out a whole book’s worth of this sort of prose? And the title! How is the part before the colon related to the part after the colon? Tokyo’s grand strategy is to secure Japan?

I wonder who would read this to the end—other than the MIT grad students who have it forced on them when they take his courses.

No wonder American policymakers responsible for Japan are wandering around in the dark and bumping into walls.

Posted in Books, International relations, Military affairs, Politics | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

Japan’s ongoing national conversation

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 7, 2007

WHENEVER YOU SEE OVERSEAS CRITICS maintain that the Japanese are in denial or avoid talking about their Imperial past, it is a dead giveaway that the critics are out of their depth. I’ve often made the point that the discussion of Japanese wartime behavior, including the comfort women and the Nanjing Massacre, is conducted from a broader perspective and in more detail here than anywhere else in the world.

Now, Philip Seaton of Hokkaido University has published a book presenting the same thesis. Titled Japan’s Contested War Memories, it was favorably reviewed by Jeff Kingston in The Japan Times on Monday.

Writes Kingston:

Stereotypical images of Japanese collectively in denial about the atrocities committed by the Imperial armed forces are grossly misleading and overlook the more prevalent view accepting wartime guilt and favoring atonement. In this excellent study featuring media and cultural analysis, Hokkaido University’s Philip Seaton persuasively argues that, “Japanese war memories are not nearly as nationalistic as they are frequently made out to be.”

Seaton points out that war memory is fiercely contested among Japanese, and collective amnesia is impossible given this ubiquitous and robust discourse. History remains at the center of contemporary political battles and it is thus a “current affairs” issue….The war has not been forgotten. Quite the opposite, the Japanese seem unable to let it go.”

While not mentioning the comfort women specifically, this point is made about compensation:

In terms of Japan’s steadfast legal position that all compensation claims have been resolved, he argues that “most governments tacitly accept or openly support the Japanese compensation position.”

In conclusion, Kingston writes:

Translating this book into Chinese and Korean might help.

I’d like to share his optimism, but too often it seems that some Chinese and Koreans are not really interested in facts that would derail their other objectives. In that regard, they perhaps share an affinity with some members of the U.S. House of Representatives and journalists and editors on the staff of the New York Times.

Posted in Books, History, World War II | Tagged: | 10 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 »