Moore Than This

"Here we are living in paradise, living in luxury..."

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Leaders of the Free World Redux

About a month ago I posted on an Asahi Shimbun piece about Iran that suggested that Japan was more worried over losing rights to an Iranian oil field than the growing tension over the nuclear programme. After mentioning this in commenting on a post at Mutant Frog (a blog on life, culture, and politics in Japan particularly and Asia generally), one of the writers did some research and within a few hours posted again, setting me straight. Good work, guys!

If you have any kind of interest in Japan or Asia I highly recommend Mutant Frog. It's intelligent, well-written and entertaining. I'd rather be proved wrong by them than anyone else on the net. (End plug)

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Saturday, February 25, 2006


An interview with freed Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg. I saw him speak at the Amnesty UK Annual General Meeting in April last year and was impressed by how calm and tolerant he appeared after everything he'd been through. Go read, it's very interesting and brings out a lot of different sides to his character.

A light-hearted article from the J-Times on the pain of learning kanji - the imported Chinese characters that stand for words or bits of words in Japanese. Just this week someone described to me their favourite kanji. This isn't as geeky as it sounds - once you know the meaning of the character, you can work out what it means in the context of the word. I used to have kanji that I could appreciate on an aesthetic level, of being a clever representation of the concept it signifies. Of course, this was before I was catapulted into the 40-kanji-per-10-days climate of Level 4, and now I view them all with equal hatred.

Hilary Benn, Minister for International Development, is looking for answers about Britain's aid and development policies. The blog post is average, but contains links to Benn's speeches and related stories, which are well worth reading. I cast my vote in the 2005 election for Benn - as MP for Leeds Central, where I was living at the time, he played a big part in redeveloping the city to the vibrant, impressive place it is today, and as head of the Department for International Development, he seems genuinely committed to a better deal for the world's poor. This is something we should all take seriously.

John Simpson reports from Iraq following the recent violence there. These lines bear quoting:
Some anti-war bloggers in Europe and North America seem positively gleeful about the way things are going here - as though the important thing is that President Bush and Tony Blair should be humiliated, and that the violence in Iraq is the method by which this can be achieved.

Yet what we are watching is the life-and-death struggle of a nation, and the efforts of its democratically elected politicians to sort things out.
One of the more sensible opinions going at the moment.


A room with a view

sunrise over toba bay
Originally uploaded by moorethanthis.
This was the view from our hotel room this morning. Pretty nice, n'est-ce pas? We took the train down to Toba, a seaside town on the Ise Penisula a few stops along from Ise Shrine, which we visited last semester. The hotel was a big Western-style construction overlooking the sea, but with Japanese rooms, complete with tatami mats, futons on the floors and sliding screens dividing rooms. You put on a yukata (light summer kimono) to walk around the hotel, and set off to the baths for a long relaxing soak. As I've written before, any embarrassment about the general nudity quickly wears off and you enjoy the lovely warm water. Well, lovely for the most part - one bath was so hot I could only sit in it halfway, leaving my legs boiled-lobster pink and my top half pasty white when I got out. Back in our room, we drank it up and watched Winter Olympics coverage - non-stop replays of Arakawa-san's figure skating victory, of course, but also the curling, where I watched the British team get trounced by a bunch of camp-looking Americans in tight T-shirts. In the presence of six American students. Not the proudest I've ever been of my country.

We woke up early to catch the sunrise (see photo above) and get some more bathing in, before we set off for breakfast at the hotel's buffet, which is known in Japanese as a baikingu ('viking'). I thought this odd name was because both the smorgasbord and Vikings originated in Scandinavia, but I recently found a blog post with a (bizarrely) different explanation...

The train carried us back through the mountains at a pretty leisurely pace (see left). By the time we were back in the urban jungle of Osaka, our time at the seaside seemed just a distant memory. One of the better ways to spend an early weekend.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Beach volleyball on ice

Lately the TVs in Seminar House 4 have been playing constant Winter Olympics coverage, which is at least a change from the American students' constant watching of either MTV or CNN. (Insert gratuitous anti-Americanism here - I frankly can't be bothered.) Japan's big hope for a gold medal in the Games is figure skater Miki Ando. In the run-up to the opening they kept replaying footage of her tearful triumph in a domestic figure-skating event, which I remember seeing on TV at some point last semester. The whole nation is behind her, and I for one can't blame them (see picture, and yes I am that shallow). Figure skating is the one event in the games where providing eye candy for the spectators is an integral part of the competition. It's the beach volleyball of the Winter Olympics. (Incidentally, at the last Olympics the beach volleyball was won by the Swiss. How the hell did that happen?)

UPDATE: Well, Japan won their first gold in the Games for figure skating, which actually went to Shizuka Arakawa (she doesn't look too bad either). As I left Seminar House on Friday morning I saw Ando blubbing on TV, but that could have meant anything - she cries when she wins, and she cries when she loses. I found out later, as the hotel's TV was replaying Arakawa-san's victory over and over again. It's a good weekend for eye candy. More on the onsen trip later.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Wandering cutlery

I've lost the fork that was given as part of the cooking utensils for each student in Seminar House. Even though I've bought a pair of chopsticks, I still cook and eat meals that are most suited to a knife and fork. You may wonder how I manage to eat without a fork - the simple answer is "With great difficulty". This is why communal property is a mistake. Without an individual feeling they have a stake in something, they won't invest the effort needed for its upkeep and continued respect. They won't clean stuff, and they'll steal other stuff to make up for it. The maintenance of publicly owned goods (common land and such) is one of the bigger dilemnas of any community. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet come up with a perfect solution, but if one exists, it probably steers a course between individual rights and community responsibilities.

The political philosophy section of the post over, I'll now talk about the weather. It got warmer today, for the first time in a long while. This may be the start of spring. I hope it is, as I'm taking a trip with some friends to an onsen this weekend. Ah, the first blush of spring, when nature is reborn anew. What better time to sit back in a big steaming tub full of naked, middle-aged Japanese men?

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Sunday, February 19, 2006


Some comments on a recent post of mine made me realise that I've spent a lot of words being cynical and superior about the people I meet here. Which really wasn't my intention at all. For the most part, I have a great time hanging around with Kansai Gaidai students, Japanese and gaijin alike. The reason I post stories about meeting stupid and prejudiced people is a) because it's out of the ordinary and b) because I think it's funnier than the average details of my day. But from now on I think I'll throttle back on the cynicism and talk about some good things that have happened.

Like yesterday, when I went out to Tsuruhashi, the mainly Korean district of Osaka. Chae, a Korean guy from Seminar House 4, was taking a bunch of people out to dinner at a Korean restaurant. I arrived late, as I had to buy some stuff in Den-Den Town, the part of Osaka famous for electronics, and spent a few minutes waiting to meet up with Chae. Walking out of Tsuruhashi station, you run into a cramped warren of alleyways with train lines running overhead and lanterns strung between buildings, filled with stalls selling Korean food. It had a kind of Blade Runner look to it, only less menacing.

A random guy stopped me on the street to practice his English. I kept answering him in Japanese, only to be reminded that he was Korean. An important distinction, and one that I hadn't had to grapple with before then. Yet another thing I'm grateful for learning.

Chae led me down the street to the restaurant, accessible through a tiny door that I had to bend double to get through. The place served yaki-niku, a type of dish where you get a selection of meat and vegetables and cook them yourself on a hot plate. I sat cross-legged around a big table with 10 other people, almost all of whom I didn't know before. It was a fun night. Some people were new, some had been here last semester, but everyone was out to learn, not to prove what they already knew. In that kind of relaxed atmosphere, you can't help but have a good time.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Romance: rhymes with dance, allegedly

My cynicism, having reached fever pitch around Valentine's Day, seems to be subsiding now. Valentine's Day in Japan is slightly different from in the UK, in that women are supposed to buy chocolate for the men in their lives, whether romantic or not. I woke up on the morning of the 14th to find two little chocolates outside our room, presumably placed there by the two female resident assissants (RAs) in our dorms. The men repay the gesture by buying chocolates for women on White Day, in March. I will have to watch out for that.

In less cheery news, foreigners coming to Japan will be fingerprinted and photographed when entering the country:

The Justice Ministry's revision will require foreigners to provide fingerprints, facial photographs and other types of information that can identify an individual.
Immigration officials will check the information against a blacklist of suspected terrorists and others deemed undesirable by the Justice Ministry, the officials said. Those who are on the list will be denied entry.
Well, isn't that great.
The new measures depend on submitting a bill to the Diet to revise the existing Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, but given how popular anti-foreign sentiment is among politicians as a scapegoat measure, it should have little trouble. Foreigners resident in Japan already have to apply for an Alien Registration card which contains your photo, signature and address, and carry it with them. But that's basically no different to a driver's license. First ID cards in the UK, now this. It's not a good week for the right not to be spied on.

Good week for confectioners, though.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

My very own education reforms

As if anything could increase my bilious, cynical, hungover mood from the weekend...

Each year, ever more illiterate and innumerate undergraduates go to university and demand to be spoon-fed answers, revealed the Times Higher Education Supplement last week.

I asked Susan Bassnett, pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick University, if it was possible to go from nursery to university in this country without learning anything. She replied: You can certainly get a 2:1 without demonstrating the capacity for independent thought and without acquiring basic skills.
(Nick Cohen's latest article, second entry down)

Roll on, thou great and restless ocean. Roll on, roll over and drown the lot of 'em.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

The View From the Afternoon

Today I am too hungover for words. Went out to an izakaya last night with a few friends from Gaidai. Walking home, we ran into a pair of absolutely charmless foreign students, one American and the other Australian - the kind of people that give rise to the negative stereotypes of their countries. The American in particular was a real idiot, who talked about nothing but how much he hated Japan, and started play-fighting with me and James. To think I almost ruined my nicest pair of trousers grappling with some drunken oaf on a bridge. This is the kind of dissolute debauchery that would seem fun back in Leeds, but in Japan it is quite beyond the pale.

I woke up late. Staggered downstairs to the kitchen. On TV they were showing the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Torino. To my impeded brain, the costumed antics appeared strange and disturbing, and I escaped to the shops. On my way back to the dorms, I found someone's bike parked right in of the single ramp leading up to the bike racks, blocking anyone else from getting their bike in or out. Who could be so inconsiderate, I thought. A clue was provided by the clog keyring dangling from his bike lock...

The pernicious Dutch were to blame, of course. The tenor of international interaction round here has suddenly sunk. And those bizarre Olympic celebrations didn't help much, either.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Culinary destruction

Living in homestay last year meant I never had to do my own cooking or washing. Now I'm in Seminar House, I've been thrown back into it kind of unawares. I'm the kind of person who tells people "I love to cook" because I think it gives some kind of special insight into my personality, making me seem cool and and a little sensual. The truth is, I love to cook when I've put a bit of planning and effort into it beforehand. If I suddenly realise I'm hungry, and my hunger won't wait for me to get to the supermarket or knock up something from the ingredients in the fridge, I'll just chow down on some instant noodles (which in Japan are plentiful and cheap, and unlike the inferior Pot Noodle, actually edible). But occasionally I get it together enough to make something nice.

The other day I made a fritata. It's a Spanish dish, like an omlette but with more stuff in it. Basically, it's potatoes and whatever vegetables you want to put in with eggs filling in the gaps. As if bringing Spanish cooking to Japan wasn't weird enough, I also have pasta and sauce, which is a go-to meal if I can't be bothered to make anything better. I've got some soba and vegetables in the fridge for another quick easy meal, and of course rice. The rice cookers in the communal kitchen make the special glutinous sticky Japanese style of rice, and take about twice as long as it takes to cook basmati, which is what I use back home. I'll still have rice with my meals, but right now I view cooking Japanese-style rice more as an invconvenience than anything else.

I'm looking forward to trying out new things as the semester continues. Usually I shop at a little supermarket called Sanko, just over the river from Seminar House, but the other day I went to Top World instead. it was an Aladdin's cave of tasty treats, definitely the Sainsbury's to Sanko's Morrison's. If that means anything. Anyway, a horde of culinary delights awaits!


Monday, February 06, 2006

I don't care (wash, rinse, repeat)

It's just occured to me that I've written basically nothing about my studies and life in general since I started this semester. Although posting entry after entry of pointless links is a way of life for some blogs, I like to think I still have some connection to the real world. So without further ado, here is a short update on the semester thus far:

As well as Level 4 Japanese, I'm enrolled for Issues in Contemporary Japanese Society and Culture and International Negotiation. They're both pretty interesting, but in very different ways, just as my last two studies courses were different from each other. Issues is a social anthropology-based course, where we take a critical look at different aspects of Japanese society. Probably inspired by my Christmas reading, I wanted to look inside Japanese culture and really inquire, rather than stand outside not knowing (or even worse, acting like I know).

Example: I was watching TV in the dining room when a music video by a band called Rip Slyme came on. The look of it was basically identical to the Constructivist/Pythonesque animation/machinery look of Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" video. An American guy beside me started chuckling and said "Wow, you'd only get a video like this in Japan huh?" Sure, I wanted to reply, if by Japan you also mean Glasgow.

International Negotiation is a more hands-on, participatory class than Issues. For our second class we were put in groups and made to do a negotiation exercise involving buying and selling car parts. My partner and I went over the variables beforehand and thought we had a pretty good game plan. However, the negotiation ended up running well into the evening, and by the end all I could think about was my dinner, and how the other party's comically bad grasp of basic mathematics and the English language was keeping me from it. The moral of the story is, eat a big meal before any negotiation. And maybe take in a couple of Cup Noodles to keep you going. Needless to say, I finished the exercise in a bad mood.

Today I wandered back home early for some lunch. The girl on the opposite team (who I liked to think of as my counterpart - we both didn't talk much) was sitting writing up her report on the negotiation. I think I got off on the wrong foot this time by asking her if she was ill - there's been a cold going around, and she was sitting in her dressing gown, hair uncombed, at half-two in the afternoon. Anyway, she apparently had a bone to pick with me over one aspect of the negotiation. This is a verbatim transcript of our conversation:

Her: But why should we have to pay 7% of the unit price for quality control testing? Surely that's your repsonsibility?
Me: I don't know. Why didn't you say something at the negotiation?
Her: But it doesn't make sense. Why should we have to pay extra?
Me: Umm ... is it really that important to you?
Apparently it was. I have no idea why it was such an issue to her - I paid precious little attention to it even during the negotiation. She, however, kept going on about it until I was forced to try that most desperate of negotiating tactics; the stonewall.

Her: But I don't understand. Why should we pay 7% of...?
Me: I don't care. It's really not that relevant to me.
Her: But why...?
Me: Again. I don't care.
I was forced to keep on saying 'I don't care' until she got the message, and even then she seemed like just one more reiteration of the question would make me sit up and applaud her perseverance and good grace. Still, as an introduction to customer care, British-style, you really can't fault it.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Free speech

What kind of issue is this for a blog? Exactly. But with the recent furore over the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed reaching an insane pitch at the moment, I felt it worth commenting on. Though I live on the other side of the world at the moment, and most Japanese probably won't have heard of this, it is still a serious matter (as evinced by the street protests, death threats, forced resignations and arrests of media figures, attacks on embassies, Palestinian gunmen storming the EU Commision offices in Gaza, etc).

Having seen the cartoons, I can say as someone with no religious beliefs that they are puerile, unfunny and offensive. Does does justify the protests we have seen? Not one bit. If anything, the threats of violence against governments and people associated in any way with the cartoons ought to galvanise people into supporting freedom of speech at all costs. If your beliefs are offended (as undoubtedly they would be by the cartoons) you have the right to be offended, and the right to complain about said offence, but not the right to issue death threats, go looking to gun down citizens of European countries who published the pictures as "legitimate targets" or any of the actions we have seen that shame Muslims, theists of all types, and the entire human race.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
- Voltaire (attributed)

UPDATE: Christopher Hitchens has written on "the case for mocking religion". Brilliant stuff.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Virtual Tour of Seminar House 4

Come, gentle reader, let me take you by the hand and conduct you on a Photo Special of Moore Than This, as I show you around Kansai Gaidai's newest accommodation block, Seminar House 4.

My room, tatami mat and unamde bed as standard. My roommate's bed is just out of shot on the left. Always neatly made, it would have been an interesting contrast.

The dining room downstairs. The modern design I mentioned is on show here. It lets you see right through to the lounge and computer room, revealing far expanses filled with students doing as little as possible.

The communal kitchen. Everything has its place here...

...Except for English spelling and grammar.

This, then, is Seminar House 4. Where I sleep, eat, cook, wash, read, listen to music, watch TV, write pointless blog entries, and maybe occasionally do some work. In short, my home until the end of May.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Lonely shoes

A pair of shoes on the ground, seen as I wheeled my bike up to the bike racks outside Seminar House 4. Of the owner there was no sign. I suppose events like this are par for the course in foreign students' dorms.

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