Moore Than This

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

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A clear view

As I've said before, the semester is coming to an end. However, lessons are still going at full pace, despite the general winding-down feeling which is starting to percolate through. In our Spoken Japanese classes my strategy is to find a seat which gives me a clear view of the tall Australian girl with long, flowing dark hair and drift ... right ... off. Doubly effective as it saves me from having to listen to our dangerously incompetent teacher.

My project for Issues in Contemporary Japanese Society and Culture (and if it's boring to read that, imagine how tired I get saying it) took a step forward yesterday, when I got to interview a zainichi student and talk about her experience, particularly with the parallel Korean edcuation system in Japan, and sense of identity. It was very interesting stuff, and gives me an idea of where I should take my final paper. Doing the interview itself was actually kind of tough, as not only was it a little awkward at first to sit down with someone you don't know, but will subsequently see around campus, and ask them a lot of profound questions, but because I had to keep an eye on myself.

I was trying to keep my questions impartial, as I didn't want to skew her answers through my own opinions. It's harder to do than I thought. Because this project is a work of sociology, having an impartial view is crucial. But it's also something I want to cultivate for myself. From asking non-loaded questions to knowing when to listen, I've done a lot of learning this year, and I know I still have a lot to learn. Coming to a person or situation without prejudice helps you understand them better, and gives you a clearer view of the world.

Example: I had the privilege of performing another takedown on a bad Issues presentation today. The student in question was doing their presentation on Christianity in Japan, and was coming at it from an obvious bias. She opened with an account of a meeting at the Japanese church she attended, and used that for a lot of her field research cited. She ended with questions implying that Japanese needed to "fill the void" in their hearts, and that Japan was a country where religious belief was invisible. Uh, yeah, right.

I wouldn't have minded if she'd declared her interest at the beginning. We all have our hooks to twist on (my strong atheism played a part in prompting my response), and as long as you're prepared to acknowledge it, that's fine. Either be honest with yourself, or shut up. That's a clear view, of sorts.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

Asia: bigger than Japan, would you believe?

I started learning Korean yesterday. Chae, the guy who organised the trip to Tsuruhashi, is giving lessons after class hours on Fridays. It was good to recapture a little of that awesome feeling you get when you've just started learning a new language, when you're still getting to grips with the real basics, and you're just pleased that people can understand what you're saying. This being my first proper lesson, I wrote out the basic phrases in romanised English - a stopgap measure until I get the alphabet down. That will be a challenge, but at least there are no kanji.

The preceding week was the first time I'd been to Chae's lessons, and we watched a Korean romantic comedy with the English title "My Sassy Girl". It was a fun film, slapsticky at first, and then unashamedly sappy and sentimental - in a good way. Korean romances seem to have a tendency to end happily, unlike films from Japan (bittersweet) and China (relentlessly depressing endings). I always feel like I should watch more Korean films, given their growing international reputation and immense popularity in Japan. I guess I could just rent a couple and take my chances with the Japanese subtitles. Then again, if like "My Sassy Girl" they star the very beautiful Jun Ji-hyun (right), the dialogue probably won't seem so important to me.

One of the bigger changes that have come over me during this year abroad, almost without me noticing it, is my growing interest in other parts of Asia. I was always interested in modern Japan's international relations, but since I came here I've started looking at China and Korea not just in relation to Japan, but in their own right. Course, interest in China is a given these days considering its influence on the international stage, but Korea now fascinates me as well. In both cases it was meeting people from those countries, talking to them and learning about their views that created the desire for knowledge on my part. And at the risk of seeming tiresome, the Internet and blogs in particular have been good for information and context that I wouldn't get otherwise. Sure, a fair few people out there have an axe to grind (usually in comments on other blogs), so they're best used sparingly. But I can recognise well-written, well-thought-out stuff when I see it, and it's always good to get views from other places.

Rather belatedly, I've also decided to do a bit more learning for myself outside of lessons and homework - hence hacking through the Japanese music mag, and Korean classes. I was even considering learning Japanese Sign Language (手話), inspired by two girls in my dorms who are enthusiastically taking it up (They use it to secretly mock me when we're out together - I've been called "stupid and [Japanese foodstuff]" more times than I care to remember). But in the end, it came down to the age-old question: Which will enable me to get more girls? It's the method by which I make most of my decisions in life. Needless to say, comparing the odds on hot Japanese deaf girls versus hot Korean girls is not the most exacting correlation, so Hangul it is.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Four Seasons of Japan

Four Seasons of Japan

Thought I'd share this montage with you, created using fd's Flickr Toys. Allowing for some artistic licence - "Winter" (mountain in Nagano) and "Spring" (plum blossom at Osaka castle) were actually taken in March within a week of each other - it's a pretty good indication of why the Japanese are so proud of their seasons.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Messing about in boats/language update

On the weekend I went on a boat trip on the Hozu River with some friends. We were taken from Kameoka to Arashiyama, just outide Kyoto, by a group of (very tough) boatmen who rowed our wide wooden boat downstream through occasional rapids:

Cue lots of screaming from impressionable girls every time we got splashed. It was good fun, and to do it at this time of year with the sakura in bloom along the banks was very beautiful.

Currently writing some begging letters aimed at securing both my research project and my place in Japan once term ends. The fact that I have to make up an original composition in Japanese that says what I want it to say is doing wonders for my language skills. In Level 4, there are so many tests, homework assignments and the like that you have no time to actually do anything with the language beyond the class schedule. Make of that what you will.

I have a rare week where the workload has slackened, so I'm going home to try and read a Japanese magazine article. I used to do it with French magazines all the time, so getting through an article (however laboriously) will be a milestone of sorts.

UPDATE: I found the IMDB entry for the sumo film I mentioned at the end of an earlier post. It's actually rather good, in a laid-back, droll, charming kind of way. It was done by the same guy who did "Shall We Dance?" which was a huge hit in Japan and eventually got its own American remake. And the strange dance of Japan-U.S. relations goes round and round, oblivious to cack-handed attempts to write it off...

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Friday, April 14, 2006

Body Bag Redux

Moore Than This - last with the news that matters!

Some of this blog's adoring readership, on hearing of my epic adventures in the mountains of Nagano, wondered if there were any pictures of me in the "rescue boat" that took me down the mountain after I knackered my ankle. I'm pleased to say that Josh finally has his Nagano pictures up, and you can now see the battered but unbowed adventurer tasting sweet fresh air after his ride back to civilisation.

Props to the Mountain Rescue girl on the right, by the way. As you can see, the thing is shaped like a boat, but with runners. You're strapped in, zipped up and from there it's downhill all the way. Something I'll probably avoid trying again next time I hit the slopes.


“What do they know of England who only England know?”

From Curzon at the always-interesting, a post on the value of foreign language skills and living abroad. Very well written, and sums up my feelings on the matter:

I would not recommend that an adult over thirty spend too much time learning a language. By then, it’s too late for most people. But living abroad at a young age is an invaluable experience. On multiple levels.

I admit that this bias comes from my own background. I first lived in Japan when I attended a rural public high school at the age seventeen. Being a teenager, it was pretty easy to learn the language, or at least easier than many people who I see trying to learn in college or as professionals...

But there’s more to speaking a foreign language than speaking a foreign language. Effectively wielding the skill requires a “sense” and understanding of a different culture and people. Living in Japan taught me much about Japan, but also concepts of linguistics and insight into human nature. You learn to deal with the fact that some things can never be translated; different cultures think and act differently; you must learn to say the “same thing” in different ways; the appropriateness of ettiquette, humor, and custom varies wildly; and much more.
First off: he went to live in Japan at age seventeen? How jealous am I?
Crazy jealous.

Second, the post has got a lot of comments from language enthusiasts such as myself, who all heartily agree. Nevertheless, if language is your thing, your specialty that you love doing and plan to use in any future career, you'll naturally view it as important. I believe travel is great for broadening the mind and enhancing your outlook on life, but without an insight into the cultures you visit, your experiences will undoubtedly be shallower than otherwise. Languages, for me, are the best way to that insight. The conclusion: travel all you want, but at least pick up a bit of the lingo while you’re there.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Nationalism, nonsense and other things

I had my presentation this Monday for Issues in Contemporary Japanese Society and Culture. It was on the zainichi Korean population in Japan - the Koreans who came to Japan before the end of World War II, and their desecendants, who are still registered as foreign nationals. Went pretty well, but I still have to do field research. Which, come to think of it, is a good excuse to go to Tsuruhashi again.

Almost all the presentations I've seen so far have made me think, and I like that some people have obviously taken the time to research their topics and come up with new ideas. When I saw that one guy was giving a presentation on Japanese nationalism, I was doubly interested - it's an important subject that says a lot about contemporary Japan.

Unfortunately, this wasn't what we got from the presentation. It was lazy, biased, scaremongering, anti-Japan and woefully under-researched. A little walk-through: it kicked off with the hilarious assertion that Japanese nationalism died out after World War II exclusively because of General MacArthur's Occupation reforms. So, nothing to do with the immense suffering, food shortages, firebombing and two atom bombs, all of which created the intense post-war backlash among the Japanese population against militarism of any sort (which is still strong today).

Then, apparently, Japanese nationalism was recently kickstarted again - by the Americans allowing Japan to use their navy in combat operations. (The closest I can find to this is a law passed during the 2001 war in Afghanistan that allowed Japan's navy to support the US fleet with supply missions.) From hearing his presentation, you would assume that nothing happened in Japan without America's say-so. And if nationalism was dormant for 50 years, how does this guy explain the fact that the 14 Class-A war criminals were included in the dead at the Yasukuni Shrine in 1978? Or the fact that the first Prime Minister to visit Yasukuni did so back in 1985? (Nakasone Yasuhiro, and no, his nationalist outlook didn't get a mention either.) Any kind of deep political change occurs over a long period of time, it does not just snap from one extreme to another.

On the international front he was even odder. Summed up, that bit went: Japan bad, nationalism rising, wants to regain control over Asia. Remind you of anyone? I challenged him on a few of these points after the presentation, and he had nothing to say. I got kind of bogged down in the question of Japan's recent military moves, and was constrained by politeness from doing the kind of point-by-point demolition that I wanted. It's a real shame that a subject with such potential got such a pisspoor treatment. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few Japanese nationalism-related things I'd love to hear about:

Novelist Yukio Mishima, his ultra-nationalism and fondness for samurai chic, his attempt to take over the Self-Defence Forces headquarters with his own private army (seriously), and subsequent ritual suicide.

Kenkanryu, the controversial Japanese manga (the title can be translated as 'the hate Korea wave', a play on words on the 'Korea wave' pop culture boom in Japan). The manga, which has sold about 400,000 copies, puts across a right-revisionist view of Japan's colonial record in Korea. An interesting view of it

Japanese nationalism is not always overt and scary, like the big right-wing sound trucks I've seen in Hirakata and Tokyo. (They were actually kind of a let-down - I thought they'd be much louder than they actually were.) I'm currently watching a film for my Japanese classes about an underdog university sumo team, which is quite interesting in terms of overtones. The sumo team gains members from students who are fed up with American sports, such as pro-wrestling and American football, and a gaijin character who is ignorant of Japanese tradition and relies on brute strength to win has recently been introduced. I suspect he will soon be shown the error of his ways. Would that I could say the same for the guy behind that awful presentation.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"Not helpful": my favourite diplomatic phrase makes a comeback

Remember my post on the Indonesian cartoon depicting the Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister as "copulating dingoes"? And the Australian cartoonist who, in true hip-hop "beef"-style, came up with a response? A nice moment in the whole spat was when Indonesia described the Australian drawing as "not helpful". What a wonderful phrase (and thanks to Matt in the comments for pointing that out). Now this beautiful bit of diplomatic-speak rears its tactful head again, with regard to Iran:

The speech - carried live on state TV - was punctuated by chants of "Death to America", "Death to Israel", and "Death to counter-revolutionaries". [...] A Foreign Office spokesman said the speech was "not particularly helpful".
That'll teach them.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Irony: a definition

When you revise for a test, and stay up so late that you oversleep and miss it.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Sushi and sake, beer and burgers

As per regulations, Japan blogs are now filled with pictures of cherry blossom (or sakura). Now Moore Than This gets in on the action, following a hanami (flower-viewing trip) to Osaka castle yesterday with some friends. Before setting off from Hirakata on the train, we grabbed some sushi from a supermarket and I bought some beer and sake at a liquor store (with the splendid name "Liquor Mountain"). When we all met up in Osaka, one guy got a load of food from Wendy's as his contribution to the picnic - East met West in a delicious fashion.

hanami 006

Looking through the photos of our day out, it seems like the weather was horrible and overcast, when really it was very nice, milder than it has been for a long time. It only started getting overcast towards the end of the afternoon, when we decided to leave. I was slightly the worse for wear, but hey, I was engaging in Japanese culture - everyone gets plastered on sake at hanami. Not sure if that engagement extends to standing on a crowded platform on the Osaka Loop Line swigging from a bottle of sake. Oh well. You're only young and stupid once.

hanami 056

We took the train to Shinsaibashi, central Osaka's shopping district, and wandered down the big covered arcade there. We saw some pretty odd things, like a pick-up game in an arcade where the prize was a load of creepy pod-babies. We finished off in an izakaya in Namba, the main nightlife place of Osaka, which is dominated by huge neon displays.

hanami 045

From viewing cherry blossom in the grounds of a castle to this in one day. After a rough week or so, getting out with some friends and enjoying myself has really given me a boost. My first sakura season has been brilliant. Here's to spending many more of them in Japan.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Photography madness

I had the opportunity to play with an SLR film camera this week, thanks to a Japanese student who knows a bit about photography and would like to teach others. It was a very cool bit of kit, and just makes me want to storm Yodobashi Camera and buy a digital SLR. Unfortunately, not knowing the film in the camera was black and white, I took a load of photos of the sakura (cherry blossom) around Hirakata, as well as some arty scenes and candid shots of people. I'll scan the good ones and post them on Flickr when I get them developed. Speaking of which, out of my Flickr pictures the ones that are getting all the comments and views are the photos of silly Engrish signs that I take from time to time. If I wanted to turn this blog into a half-arsed version of I could well do so.

I plan to go to Osaka on the weekend with some friends for an overdue look at the sakura there. I'll be sure to take some photos with my digital camera. The ease of use, and the fact that a picture I take can be on the Internet by the end of the day is to me one of the best arguments for digital (MF may beg to differ though).


Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Glory Days" (Lost in the Glasshouse)

This week was the start of term for the Japanese students (school terms in Japan start in April, while the CIE operates on a Northern Hemisphere September-May system). On Monday the campus was full of giggly Japanese students who hadn't got over the gaijin novelty factor, and had us pose for pictures, gasping in astonishment at our ability to speak Japanese. It took me back to when I first arrived. Back then, the "gaijin novelty factor" was a strange but welcome ego-boost, but it still felt odd to be treated like some kind of exotic pet. Fortunately, as the year went on both Japanese and international students settled down, and I came to know a bunch of friendly, intelligent Japanese people who treat me as a friend without the superficial foreigner stuff getting in the way.

Anyway, that made me think back to the new sensations at the beginning of the year: I used the phrase "glory days" ironically in coversation with some friends. They weren't the glory days, of course - no days ever are - but it was the time when there was a lot ahead of me. My interest in the language, my studies and Japan itself had been kickstarted again, and I couldn't wait for what was up ahead. Now, on the other hand, the year seems almost over. I have two months till the semester finishes and my housing contract runs out. The overwhelming sense at the moment is limitation. I feel like things are closing in, leaving me less and less room to move.

I think about things I've said that maybe I shouldn't have, about people I don't talk to anymore. Walking down the corridor past the CIE lounge and looking through the glass walls, I see another person I've alienated, another person I don't talk to, another person I've never talked to but wish I had. Missed chances, missed opportunities. This is the time for making the best out of whatever I have left, before it shrinks any further.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

Apologists, of one stripe or another

A very good post from Adamu at Mutant Frog reflecting on whether or not he is a "Japan apologist". Bottom line: no, because he's not getting paid for it. The post sprung from a debate over whether the term "Japanophile" was derogatory or not. The two terms are sort of linked; but Japanophile seems to have a more amateur connotation - you can be one whether you're a respected historian, university professor, martial arts fan, anime freak, or even a humble language student (check my bad self).

Japan apologists, on the other hand, are people who reside in paid (often infuential) positions, either in Japan or outside, whose job mainly consists of presenting a favourable image of Japan to the outside world. In the initial explosion of Japanese studies in the late 70s and 80s, the attitude that Japan was a fascinating and misunderstood place that needed to be "explained" to an often hostile world gathered a lot of credence. However, Japan's economic slump and the complicated post-Cold War world have given rise to more nuanced explorations of Japan's society, culture and international relations. As Adamu says:

As I’ve said before: I love Japan, but it’s screwed up. The society’s got major problems that have translated into things that have affected me personally. But at the same time, I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend enough real, intelligent, and genuinely friendly people to keep me from dismissing the whole country as the kind of place that wraps foreigners in lacquer.
I'm optimistic enough to think that most people who come to Japan with an open mind share this view, despite some reductive and stereotyped viewpoints from a few people I've come across here. Official apologism is still all around, of course, and not just for Japan.

China seems to be filling the role that Japan had back in the 80s: rising economic power, relentlessly hyped from either a friendly or hostile perspective. Academics, journalists and other writers can make a good living churning out hyperbolic pieces on "the rise of China", with little research or impartial thought. A regular culprit is Martin Jacques of the Guardian. I agree with the assessment that most of his articles can be cobbled together from platitudes such as "China is rising" "Europe is falling" "Japan must come to terms with its past", but this doesn't mark him out as a paid-up China apologist. He is, sadly, just an old-fashioned Orientalist.

See this takedown of one of his pieces at Blood and Treasure. It's one of Jacques' rare articles that doesn't mention China being on the up and up, but it relates to his opinions on "the East" versus "the West". Jacques writes:
The belief that western institutions, values and norms were of universal applicability, in the here and now, blinded the proponents of western-style democracy to the importance of history and culture; it marked a return to the western arrogance of the colonial era, when such attitudes were the common sense of the time.
To which Jamie K replies:
Jacques has the idiot’s habit of arguing against himself. The west has values and norms. The rest have “history and culture”. The first require a thought process. The second simply imply immemorial superstitions.
So Jacques is happy to portray everyone outside "the West" as lacking thought processes, yet believes they will take over the world. This is classic Orientalist thought - projecting your own opinions and prejudices onto the subject, without ascribing them free thought or agency. As the B&T post goes on to explain, China has a long tradition of political philosophy "absolutely none of which is founded in an ideal of individual liberty." This is why the frequent rural protests in China's countryside aren't demanding freedom - they're demanding justice. There's even now a strain of Chinese political thought which blames the atrocities of the Communist government on the importing of radicalism from the West. Societies can be influenced from outside, but lasting reform can only come from within, and asking people to junk their own traditions of discourse based on the fallacy that "freedom and reason and science" are the West's alone is doubly counterproductive.

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Day Today territory

Howard 'unfazed' by sex cartoon
Australia's prime minister has played down an Indonesian newspaper cartoon portraying himself and his foreign minister as fornicating wild dogs.
Not in other news: Australians burn down Indonesian embassy, boycott Indonesian goods, call for beheading, massacre of those who insult their PM.

UPDATE: The Aussies have decided that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Is this Cartoon Wars: Episode II?

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Nocturnal Adventures

I've had a bit of a rough week since spring break ended. Work is mounting up, people don't seem to have time for each other, and once more I've been left feeling like I don't what this year is for. So, come the weekend, what do I do to let off steam?

Picture the scene. Midnight, at the river in Makino, on the large stepping stones set in the riverbed, a classmate and I swinging at each other with sticks trading exaggerated samurai-movie-style grunts. I gots to get my kicks somehow.

Our little group wandered along the river from our dorms to Makino, a little suburb which doesn't really have much except a train station, a karaoke place, and a bowling alley. We went to the bowling alley, but having a near-terminal indicisiveness about what we wanted to do, just hung around in the arcade at the front. I went on the taiko-drumming game, which is easily one of the best arcade games ever. Whack at a model taiko drum in time with the coloured dots that flow along the screen to the tune of various J-Pop classics, and let your wildest Keith Moon fantasies run riot.

No karaoke, no booze, no arguing over politics. It's not the kind of socialising I usually enjoy. But like I said, I needed to let off some steam, and I had a fun night.
"I got a fever. And the only more taiko!"

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