Monthly Archives: September 2007

Obama in Washington Square

I attended the Barack Obama rally in Washington Square Park this Thursday evening entirely by accident. I meet my Mandarin tutor at a NYU building on Washington Square East (since she’s also teaches Chinese classes for NYU,) and so I was walking from the 4th St subway station towards the park when I noticed police had set up a security perimeter and cleared the park, and there were thousands of people thronging on all sides. When I found out that Obama was going to be speaking there later on, I decided to go and listen after my lesson, but not having one of the tickets printed out from the website I went and stood in one of the outer, grassy areas of the park on the NW corner, from which I could just barely see Obama’s spotlit back as he gave his speech.

And it was a good speech. Not, admittedly, very specific or detailed, but I consider that simply part of the format of an event that one would classify as a general rally, and not a speech targeted at a particular group-although he was smart enough to give a number of nods to both the financial plight of college students, as well as his days living in New York, hanging out in that very park, and going to nearby bars in the Village (although he did not mention, in the heart of NYU, that he had been studying at Columbia at the time.) I read enough political news so that I wasn’t particularly interested on what he had to say about issues, since I’ve already heard the positions, but it was impressive and rewarding to see how well the man can work a crowd when he’s doing well. I’m not at all a fan of attending political events like rallies, protests, marches, and so on, but I am glad that I saw this one, and as a bonus I got to watch it with my friend Charles (yes guys, Charles from Rits) and that I met up with my friend Imara and a couple of his friends from political science class afterwards so there was someone to discuss it with.

Here is some video of the speech, courtesy of Salon.com, and you can get some more in depth coverage from the Ameripolitics nerds who blog at Salon, or from the New York Times article on the event- which naturally makes a big issue out of his criticisms of Hillary Clinton, to whom he referred as “the senator from New York.” And yet, somehow we knew that he wasn’t talking about Chuck Schumer.

Burma: Will Japan show its teeth next week?

The junta in Burma has “successfully” put down much of the protesting in the country, according to NYT, with unconfirmed reports from diplomats of dozens of deaths in the crackdown. The junta is divided as to how to move forward, while a UN inspector has arrived in the country to observe conditions there. This leaves the rest of the “international community” to figure out just how to successfully exert influence and whether stumbling blocks China and Russia can be brought along. One of the many open questions in the crisis in Burma is how Japan will act.

Amazingly, the debate in Japan has been transformed this week as a result of the apparently intentional point-blank shooting of Kenji Nagai, a photographer for a Japanese production company.

The Japanese government has gone from a basically hands-off approach to demanding full explanations at the highest level. Still, new prime minister Yasuo Fukuda has not gone ahead with sanctions and has decided only to demand an explanation and lodge an official protest over the incident. However, most significant is that major commentators have begun calling for Japan to initiate sanctions against the junta, which has so far not been a popular position as Japan has had a policy of so-called dual engagement, giving aid to the country while trying to maintain relations with democracy leaders as well.

Fueling the change in the government’s stance is the fact that Nagai’s death has put a face on the ugliness of tyranny for the Japanese public and the blunt shove and rapid-fire of bullets that felled him symbolize the almost casual brutality that Burma has faced for decades.

The protests’ coverage in the media was transformed overnight at the news of his death and intensified when it was learned that he was killed so brutally, going from the usual “instability in a foreign country that doesn’t affect us” sort of coverage to much more involved reports of the protests that more closely resembled the BBC’s intense up-to-the-minute reporting.

In addition to an increased volume of media coverage, the tone of commentary has changed dramatically. Just this morning, the host of a news talk show noted something to the effect of “the only reason the junta wants to stay in power is to protect their vast financial interests” backing up the biggest justification for targeted sanctions.

Newspaper editorials the morning after Nagai’s death made limited calls for escalated Japanese involvement. From Asahi: “Why not have Japan take the initiative? We must not allow the robes of monks to get tainted with blood.” Yomiuri noted: “As Japan has maintained ties with both the military regime and pro-democracy forces in Myanmar, it should explore ways to contribute to the settlement of that country’s difficult situation.”

However, once the news of Nagai’s apparent cold-blooded killing came out, Asahi’s latest editorial (Title: “Cooperate with Asia to Put Pressure on Myanmar”) dramatized the fact that Nagai continued filming even after being fatally wounded as a symbol of the junta’s fear of free expression of the public’s will. Asahi then called for Japan to initiate unilateral sanctions and wonders why the initial government reaction has been so tepid. “The power of Japan’s diplomacy is being called into question,” it claimed.

Sankei, Japan’s most conservative national newspaper, had a more concrete proposal while sounding the similar tone but did not call for sanctions (title “Time has come for democratization in Myanmar): “Japan, as the largest provider of economic assistance, has a major role to play. We must go further in explaining that if democratization comes to pass, aid from Japan and the West will begin again in earnest.”

Nikkei (Title: “Initiate Sanctions and Put International Pressure on Myanmar’s Military Regime”) goes the furthest of all and calls for unilateral sanctions and full participation in the international pressure on the Burmese government.

While all recognize the key role that other countries, especially China, must play in exerting pressure on the military government, it is heartening that Japanese commentators can see Japan as having an interest in democratization and will not (in some cases at least) merely toe the government line.

Expect the debate in Japan next week to center on whether Japan’s government will announce some form of sanction proposal, either unilaterally or in some kind of international proposal. While the Fukuda cabinet would like to focus on domestic concerns as it must face a tough Diet session, the pressure is on for the government to show it can protect its citizens and “play a responsible role” in the international arena. The Voice of America has described the situation in Burma as Fukuda’s “first crisis” (so we can see what the US would like Japan to do, but it would be smart for US Japan hands like Michael Green to stay out of the debate this time) and the Burma issue will remain at the top of the agenda for a while to come.

Sympathy protests have been going on in Japan (primarily in Nagoya and outside the Burmese consulate in Shinagawa). These protests are critically important to show that the message is being heard in Japan as well and its citizens are keenly aware of the situation. I will be out in Shinagawa this Sunday to show support and I hope some of the MF readers will come out as well!

BTW, Mrs. Adamu has been doing her part to get the message out to the Japanese audience. She has a translation up at BurmaInfo.net, a Japanese-language site for Burma news. The article she has translated is an account of the famous brief encounter the protesters had with democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in front of her home in Yangon/Rangoon. You can read the original article in English here.

The video can be seen here.

Japan creates translucent frog

Japanese researchers have succeeded in producing see-through frogs, letting them observe organs, blood vessels and eggs under the skin without performing dissections.

Japanese researchers have succeeded in producing see-through frogs, letting them observe organs, blood vessels and eggs under the skin without performing dissections.

“You can see through the skin how organs grow, how cancer starts and develops,” said the lead researcher Masayuki Sumida, professor at the Institute for Amphibian Biology of state-run Hiroshima University.

“You can watch organs of the same frog over its entire life as you don’t have to dissect it. The researcher can also observe how toxins affect bones, livers and other organs at lower costs,” he told AFP.

Japanese cultural influence in Taiwan- cosplay

Just after I wrote my post the other day on Japan’s influence on place names in Taiwan, I saw this article at Yahoo News on the popularity of Japanese style “cosplay” in Taiwan.

As the fashion catches on across the island, experts have said that it could help Taiwan’s young people break out of the strictures forced on them by the traditional Chinese pressure to conform.

Since “cosplay” first hit Taiwan little over a decade ago, its enthusiasts have been dressing up like their favourite manga characters and gathering at cafes, parks and manga expos across the island.

[...]

In Taiwan, role-playing dates back to around 1995 but has been gaining in popularity in recent years largely thanks to the Internet, said Mio Chang, supervising editor of bi-monthly cosplay magazine “Cosmore”.

“Cosers admire the ‘manga’ or ‘anime’ characters and want to imitate them. It is a passion for them to recreate the looks, the costumes and props,” said Chang, herself a coser for many years.


I don’t normally post about this sort of thing, except that while I was living in Taipei I just happened to stumble across one of the very events described in the article.
At a recent expo at National Taiwan University’s stadium, cosers were seen portraying a wide variety of roles from princesses to maids, space warriors, martial arts masters and even Death.

When I was studying at NTNU and considering switching to the program at National Taiwan University, I was riding my bike around, checking out the area one day, and just happened to ride through the campus right into the middle of a massive cosplay convention, which was taking place in and around the main gymnasium/hall building. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera, but it was a highly amusing thing to run across at random.

And of course, the topic of Taiwanese cosplay is always a good opportunity to post this amazing photograph of former Taiwan president Lee Teng Hui, dressed as high school principal from a Japanese manga. As his wikipedia entry says on the topic:

The cosplay was centered on Heihachi Edajima (江田島平八 Edajima Heihachi), a hawkish principal of a boarding school in the Japanese manga Sakigake!! Otokojuku (魁!!男塾) (Shonen Jump). The ; this was used as an advertisement on his personal website and “school” (輝!李塾) beginning in late 2004. This manga comic was a comedy centered on a fictitious reform school for contemporary boys, modelled under the Imperial Japanese Army.

Video of journalist murder in Burma

This video from Japanese news television shows the murder of journalist Nagai Kenji by Burmese security forces.

[Update] Second video added, link courtesy of Julián Ortega Martínez.

[Update 2:] Adam has posted some excellent analysis of the effect that this video is having on the debate in Japan. I urge everyone here for the video clips to read his article as well.

Some good news for sumo wrestling, for once

While the Japan Sumo Association has been rocked by (a) The Asashoryu fiasco; and now (b) A bizarre and tragic lynching of a 17 year old boy (learn more of the gruesome details here), at least one wrestler is enjoying the sweet spoils of success:

Wrestler awarded horses and sheep to mark victory

Fri Sep 28, 6:59 AM ET

TOKYO (Reuters) – “Yokozuna” Hakuho was given more than 100 horses and sheep in his native Mongolia to celebrate his latest major sumo tournament victory.
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The 22-year-old was feted by 1,000 people from his father’s home village where he was presented with the livestock as a gift, Japanese newspapers reported on Thursday.

Hakuho, whose real name is Munkhbat Davaajargal (awesome name!), won his fourth major title at the weekend, his first since being promoted to sumo’s highest rank of yokozuna four months ago.

“It gives me great power to know that everyone back in Mongolia is watching me on TV,” he was quoted in Japan’s Nikkan Sports. “It makes me want to keep improving my sumo.”

Any plan to revive Japanese sumo wrestling will have to include: (a) transparent judging and anti-rigging rules; (b) thorough drug testing; and most of all© big fat livestock kitties for the winners.

Short update: Two upcoming changes in Japan that will rock your world

1. The end of eikaiwa: Along with some of the minor players in the industry, former industry leader NOVA seems to be in its death throes (more info here). While the details of just how many people are getting screwed over are interesting and all, I just want to take a minute to ponder the implications of what is going on: massive change in the ESL market and, perhaps more importantly, the death of NOVA. It is hard to underestimate the presence that those four letters have become in the mind of the expat, especially those not involved directly in teaching English. Basically, in the gaijin hierarchy, NOVA teachers have been regarded with just a little less disdain than the African club promoters in Kabuki-cho. NOVA finds the most gullible young partiers eager for an easy first job out of college (or increasingly a fun place to work during a working-holiday) who then proceed to come to Japan and live as if they were still in college. It’s one thing for students and professionals to look down on NOVA teachers, but even other eikaiwa teachers hated on NOVA. There is really no better way to sound mature and like you are really interested in Japan than to cluck your tongue at a faceless mass that stays in a gaijin bubble and terrorizes the local population.

But without NOVA, who will the uppity gaijin have to kick around? None of the other schools have the nationwide presence or annoying mascot (though NOVA had the status way before the rabbit came around), so just what will the shorthand be to let other gaijin know you’re not ‘one of them’? And what will it mean if the eikaiwa industry (which was long supported by lax regulation of shady sales practices) can no longer maintain its appeal, especially now that the honeymoon is over and headlines of school closings and unfulfilled class contracts, not to mention successful lawsuits by unhappy customers, are constantly weakening the appeal of the product to the customers? The demand for English is unlikely to go away, but the shrinking of this private market (along with the decline of the JET program) is likely to erode the situation of ‘one foreigner in every village’ or (assuming that actual schools continue to hire foreigners for their English curricula) will more likely lessen it from 3 foreigners in each village to just one or two. And with the opportunities for easy employment cut off, what will become of the ‘Japanese dream’ of easy employment and Charisma Man status for young adventurous Westerners? Has this not been a major factor fueling the interest in Japan in recent decades? And will this loss constitute a truly missed opportunity for Japanese educators who feel that the best way for Japanese people to learn English is to be around native English voices?

2. Japanese mobile advancement to hit a wall in favor of better prices? Cell phone regulations are going to change in a big way – the Nikkei recently ran a story (Sept 19) detailing the report of a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication study group that recommends ending the practice by cell phone carriers of providing “free” cell phones to customers as early as next spring. These offers of free phones are deceptive because the phone companies reimburse their distributors for the phones and then charge customers a higher rate for their plans (hence the ridiculous 20 yen per minute talking fees). But with little upfront costs, the provision of the phones has been a major (perhaps deciding) factor in attracting customers to one company or another, which has spurred the insanely high technological levels of Japanese mobiles. Perhaps in a few years Japanese phones will more closely resemble those in other countries, where users get a minimum level of features but enough of what they need for a reasonable price. I mean really, do we need to watch TV on the train?

A look inside Burma’s elite

This video of the wedding of Thandar Shwe, daughter of Burmese ruler Than Shwe, has been making rounds for a while.

According to the Youtube description:

Movie footage of wedding of Thandar Shwe, daughter of Burmese dictator Than Shwe and Major Zaw Phyo Win in July 2, 2006. Held at the Zeyathiri Beikman (lit. “Royal Building of Splendour”) and Sedona Hotel in Rangoon.

And as the BBC comments on the video:
The newly-weds were reportedly given $50m-worth of wedding gifts, including, cars jewellery and houses.

Most Burmese will not see the video, since internet use inside the repressive country is restricted.

But some of those who have seen the video, both inside and outside Burma, viewed the wedding as a tasteless extravagance in an otherwise poverty-stricken nation.

One local reporter told a Thai newspaper that people were asking themselves where the money came from.

“It’s outrageous, just outrageous, especially when you consider that most Burmese live in extreme poverty,” Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a publication run by Burmese journalists in exile, told Reuters news agency.

Than Shwe himself is seen in the video, walking stiffly at his daughter’s side in traditional Burmese dress – a rare glimpse of him out of military uniform.

Is it Burma or Myanmar?

Following on the theme of my previous post on place names and decolonization, the BBC gives the best explanation I’ve seen for the confusion over the two names by which this country is known internationally.

The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon.

The Adaptation of Expression Law also introduced English language names for other towns, some of which were not ethnically Burmese.

The change was recognised by the United Nations, and by countries such as France and Japan, but not by the United States and the UK.

A statement by the Foreign Office says: “Burma’s democracy movement prefers the form ‘Burma’ because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime to change the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognised.”

It’s general practice at the BBC to refer to the country as Burma, and the BBC News website says this is because most of its audience is familiar with that name rather than Myanmar.

[...]

They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics.

[...]

“There’s a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government. [The name change] is a form of censorship.”

If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use ‘Myanmar’, but speaking they use ‘Burma’, he says.

This reflects the regime’s attempt to impose the notion that literary language is master, Mr Houtman says, but there is definitely a political background to it.

Richard Coates, a linguist at the University of Western England, says adopting the traditional, formal name is an attempt by the junta to break from the colonial past.


I’ve always been slightly puzzled that the democracy movement was in favor of maintaining the country’s colonial name, but considering that the name was changed at the behest of the Junta, one sees how it makes symbolic sense. I look forward to seeing whether the democrats currently protesting can win their battle and topple the Junta (naturally I hope that they do,) and I am interested in seeing whether they restore the official name of Burma, or continue the linguistic decolonization policy that had been started under the Junta, but giving it a popular aegis.

Taiwanese place names and colonial Japan

There was this interesting item in the “Taiwan Quick Take” section of the Taipei Times.

A plan to change the name of Sanmin Township (三民) in Kaohsiung County has hit an obstacle as residents remain divided over what to name it. A Bunun-majority township, Sanmin was called Mayatsun during Japanese colonial rule and then Maya Township (瑪雅) after World War II. It was later renamed Sanmin after Sun Yat-sen’s (孫逸仙) “Three principles of the people.” Officials and some locals want to change the township’s name back to Maya. Although the name change is welcomed by many residents, some local elders suggest using another name, arguing that the name “Maya” was an incorrect name given by the Japanese. Officials will visit Japan to research the name before making a final decision.

This is an interesting colonialism related phenomenon in Taiwan, and I’m not sure whether it exists in other colonies or not. The most famous example is indisputably the city of Kaohsiung(高雄 in kanji/hanzi or “Gaoxiong” in correct Pinyin.) The currently used Chinese characters for the city’s name were given to it during the Japanese colonial period, when they were meant to be pronounced as “Takao,” based on the Japanese kun-yomi, as if it were a Japanese place name and not a Chinese one. The same name, pronounced as Takao and written as 高雄, is also used in Japan. The twist here, however, is that the name given to the city was in fact an attempt to approximate the historical name of the city, originally based on the region’s name in the language of the aborigines (“Takau,” meaning “bamboo forest”) who lived there long before ethnic Chinese settlers ever arrived from Hokkien across the Taiwan Straight. The Chinese had used various characters to approximate the name “Takau” over the years, such as “打狗” or “打鼓.” Similarly, the Japanese name 高雄 was meant to approximate the native name, except it only does so when read in Japanese, and not in any dialect of Chinese. After the Japanese left the city’s name remained as they had made it-part of their cultural legacy on the island-except the characters are now read as Chinese (Gaoxiong in Mandarin,) with the having somewhat ironically having maintained its original pronunciation all the way throughout colonial rule, only to lose it during the process of decolonization.

Another moderately well known example is the district of Xi’men in Taipei. Now known for its plethora of fashion stores, fast food and tattoo parlors (often referenced as Taiwan’s closest parallel to Harajuku,) Ximen’s name derives from being near the former location of the city’s west gate, from the hanzi 西門, literally meaning “west gate.” In Chinese speech, Ximen is often referred to as “Ximen-ding,” with “ding” being the Mandarin pronunciation of the character ” 町.” Students of Japanese will instantly recognize this character as one frequently used in Japan as a label for streets or neighborhoods in Japan, pronounced as either “chou” or “machi” depending on the context. If one looks at a map of Taipei from the period when it was ruled by Japan, one sees that 町 was a standard designation for parts of the city, in proper Japanese fashion. Since decolonization these names have all officially been changed, but Ximen-ding (and possibly others) still lingers as a colloquialism long after vanishing from the map.

A more unusual example that I personally discovered was a small village in the east coast province of Hualian, (花蓮) by the name of Morisaka. Although Japanese architecture dating to the colonial period is fairly common in Taiwan, this village is interesting in that it was constructed entirely in that period, and entirely in the Japanese style. Architecturally, there is little to no trace of Chinese or native influence, since there was apparently no village there before the Japanese built one. It was given the ordinary, almost generic, Japanese name of Morisaka (森坂 or possible 森阪- I forget which version of the second character was used.) Although people do live in the village, it is interestingly preserved in its historical demeanor as a sort of historical museum of the period (including some actual museums.) Although I believe the original name of the village 森阪, pronounced as Shenban in Mandarin, it appeared to me from the various signs that it was renamed as 摩里沙卡, which is a transliteration of the Japanese name into Chinese, read as mo li sha ka. Perhaps since the village had no pre-Japanese name, in either a Chinese or aboriginal language, it was decided that the pronunciation of “Morisaka” was the “true” name, which should be maintained. This is however highly unusual. The standard practice with Chinese character names in different languages has historically been to maintain the original orthography, and simply pronounce it in the language of the reader whenever possible, and I can think of no other cases in which a Chinese character place name was changed to maintain the pronunciation of one sinic orthography language in another. Unfortunately I am unsure which name is ordinarily used by the local residents, leaving the exact story of the village’s name incomplete and perhaps incorrect.

So there you have it. I think four examples, one from the Taipei Times and three from my own knowledge, is enough to at least begin to hint that there may be enough going on to use the word phenomenon. Do any readers have further similar examples, either in Taiwan or elsewhere?