Monthly Archives: March 2008

Back to Kyoto

Anyone reading carefully over the past couple of weeks would have figured this out, but I never said quite specifically. Tomorrow I will be flying back to Japan, and living once again in Kyoto. This time I will be studying again, but instead of as an exchange student or employee at Ritsumeikan University (what I did the first and second time I lived there) I will be a graduate student at Kyoto University, on the Japanese Ministry of Education foreign research student scholarship.

I have to find a place to live once I arrive, but I do have a place to crash for a couple of weeks while I make long, or at least medium-term arrangements. Anyone living in or near Kyoto or who might be passing through is encouraged to let me know, and I will of course be visiting Tokyo from time to time, and other areas of Japan at some point in the future.

I know that a lot of people reading this may be interested in the application process for this scholarship program, so at some point I will post a detailed description of my own passage through it, which I began writing as an email to a friend of mine who told me that he had changed his mind about applying for it when I was about halfway through.

My onlineness may be a little unstable for the next couple of weeks, but hopefully I will be able to respond to messages with moderate promptness, and of course I will have my trusty vintage 2006 keitai-at least until I buy a fancy new 2008 model, with my fancy new student discount.

Taiwan gets a little bit more modern

From The Taipei Times:

A ban on poultry slaughter in traditional markets will take effect on Tuesday as originally scheduled, National Science Council Chairman Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) said yesterday. “Despite protests by poultry vendors who fear that the ban will affect their livelihood, the policy will go into effect on April 1, and all chicken, geese and ducks should then be slaughtered at licensed abattoirs,” Chen said. But as some complementary measures have yet to be completed, the government will postpone enforcement, originally scheduled for Oct. 1, for three to six months, he said. Chen, who concurrently serves as convener of a Cabinet bird flu epidemic prevention task force, said that preparatory work, such as setting up electric slaughter houses, disinfecting facilities at the abattoirs and launching a food safety publicity drive, is yet to be completed.

I may not exactly be in the habit of buying freshly slaughtered whole chickens at the market (or, for that matter, cooking) I am still mildly and inexplicably saddened at the fact that I will no longer have the opportunity should I once again live in Taiwan.

Linky Desktop

As I am about to permanently disassemble this computer and bring only the hard drives with me to Japan, where I will then assemble a new system after finding a place to live, I figure it would be a good time to post the various things that had been sitting around my desktop in case I ever found the time and motivation to write something about them.

  • Genetic tests have shown that the Taiwanese aborigines are likely to be the ancestors of the entire Polynesian and Micronesian population, which also includes the Malay group, comprising the majority population of the three large countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and The Philippines. While study of archeology and linguistic variation, as well as phenotype analysis of modern populations, had led some researchers to suspect that the ancestors of most Pacific islanders were descended from the ancestors of the pre-Chinese Taiwanese aboriginal population (who themselves migrated across the Taiwan Strait thousands of years ago, when the Han Chinese probably still lived far to the north) but this genetic study provides the strongest evidence yet for the theory.

  • Although Japan may be the only country in which a unique word exists for “chikan”, the phenomenon is hardly unique. I once linked to a New York Times article on the prolificicity of flashers or “bumpers” in the NYC subway, which likely occurs with frequency in any city with a crowded public transit system. Another place famous for it- Mexico City. Apparently the problem is bad enough so they have introduced women only buses, perhaps inspired by Japan’s women-only commuter train cars.

  • U.S. anti-terrorism special operations forces assisting the Philippines military have contracted a Manila-based marketing firm to create comic books with an anti-terrorism message. American style superhero comics are extremely popular in the Philippines, but I am very skeptical that a marketing firm would be able to create a comic with a genuinely compelling story, regardless of how slickly produced the graphics and printing may be. I would love to actually see the comics though, which sound like a prime example of the force that American cultural products still carry in the country, over 60 years after colonialism officially ended there.

  • Korean’s Chosun newspaper has a truly hysterical article entitled Manhattanites Served Korean Food as Japanese. Just read and laugh.

  • Samurai-Sword Maker’s Reactor Monopoly May Cool Nuclear Revival”. An amazing headline and a pretty amazing article. Apparently, Hokkaido’s Japan Steel Works Ltd. is the world’s largest-and virtually only-supplier of steel-cast nuclear reactor containment chambers, which naturally must be built to VERY exacting standards. Despite an apparently massive surge in demand for these massive products, the company is skeptical how many plants will actually be built in the end, and are therefore reluctant to make the capital investments required to raise their output above the current level of 4 pieces per year. Yes, FOUR. The fact that this single plant is a bottleneck for the global nuclear power industry seems to be the result of some past failure in strategic planning, but the solution is unclear. And yes, they really were a maker of samurai swords- and apparently still are!
    They’re made in a traditional Japanese wooden hut, up a steep hill from the rest of the Muroran factory. It’s decorated with white zigzag papers called ``shide’’ used in Shinto shrines, creating a sense of sanctity in the workshop.Inside, as the factory clangs and hisses below, Tanetada Horii hand-forges broad swords from 1 kilogram (2.2 pound) lumps of Tamahagane steel.”

  • Suriname, the tiny South American nation which was formerly a Dutch colony has been searching for an appropriate national language. Currently this is Dutch-which is also used in government and law- but English has surpassed it for international business, and Sranan-a local language derived from an English creole-has surpassed it as the language of the street. The language situation gets even more complex:
    Slip into one of the Indonesian eateries known as warungs to hear Javanese, spoken by about 15 percent of the population. Choose a roti shop, with its traditional Indian bread, to listen to Surinamese Hindi, spoken by the descendants of 19th-century Indian immigrants, who make up more than a third of the population. And merchants throughout Paramaribo speak Chinese, even though the numbers of Chinese immigrants are small.Venture into the jungly interior, where indigenous languages like Arawak and Carib are still heard with languages like Saramaccan, a Portuguese and English-inspired Creole spoken by descendants of runaway slaves who worked on plantations once owned by Sephardic Jews.”
    What is an appropriate common tongue in a country like this? When deciding on a common language, what weight is given to the linguistic history of the state itself, the background of the people, ability to communicate with (much larger) neighboring countries or international business?

A Brief History of Thai-Japanese Art Exchanges

Given our recent focus on Thai-Japanese relations, I thought I would share some excerpts from a translation I did about a year ago on the topic. The essay was written by a Japanese scholar as part of the catalog for the Show Me Thai museum exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo.

Art Exchanges Between Thailand and Japan in the Modern Era

by Masahiro Ushiroshoji

Thailand and Japan in the Early Modern Era

Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation to have escaped Western colonization. Squeezed between the balance of power between the British Empire, which merged Burma into British India and brought the Malay Peninsula under its control, and France, which controlled the Indochina peninsula, King Mongkut (made famous in the movie “The King and I”) and King Chulalonkorn succeeded in their modernization policies and in keeping the country independent. The turning point in modern Thai history came in 1932 with a coup d’etat, whereupon the nation of Thailand started on the road modernity as it became a constitutional monarchy similar to Japan under the Meiji emperor.

Thailand’s modern art, distinct from its neighbors in Southeast Asia that became colonies of the Western powers, developed under the art policies of the government, which aimed to create a nation state. In this sense Thailand’s experience mirrors Japan’s modern art. More specifically, Thailand invited a foreign expert from Italy named Corrado Feroci, among others, to build a national school of fine arts (Rongrien Praneetsilpakam) in 1933 (which in 1943 became Silpakorn University). As a modern nation, there was a need to quickly train Thai artists, especially sculptors, to build the Democracy Monument to commemorate the democratic coup, and the “Victory Monument” intended to celebrate Thailand’s victory in a war with France, as well as monuments to the king. Since then, many Thai artists have emerged from this art school.

What is crucial to note when considering Japan’s role in Thai art history is the presence of Japanese artists in Thailand before and during the Pacific War. The Thai government invited not only Western advisors but also Japanese advisors in various fields. Accordingly, records remain of gakou (artisans specialized in painting) and choukokushi (artisans specialized in sculpting) dispatched by the Ministry of Education to Thailand.

There were three Japanese artisans/ artists who taught at Rongrian Poh-Chang—lacquerware artisan Sakae Miki, Western-style painter Niro Yokota, who joined Rongrian Poh-Chang as a teacher in 1930 and opened the school’s bamboo craftwork course.

Thai Students in Wartime Japan

It was rare for Thai students to study in Japan before the war, but Jitr Buabusaya stands out as an early pioneer.
In November 1941, Jitr, who had hoped to study in Europe, ended up in Japan since Europe was in the middle of the World War II. Ironically, Japan entered the Pacific War a mere two or three weeks after Jitr arrived in the country, and his five years in Japan coincided with the war he tried to avoid.

jitr-pic03.jpgJitr was born in Bangkok in 1911. He studied at the teacher training course at Rongrian Poh-Chang, and after more than a decade of teaching experience went to Japan on a Thai education ministry a scholarship. In Japan, he studied oil painting and sculpture at Tokyo Fine Arts School. It is often noted as historical fact that he studied oil painting under Kunzo Minami and sculpture under Fumio Asakura, but Jitr himself professes that he did not study under any one specific master.

As one of the few foreign students to come to Japan from Southeast Asia, Jitr was invited to events held throughout the country, such as the opening ceremony of the Kanmon undersea locomotive tunnel. He painted gorgeous scenes of Japan, rich with seasonal beauty, using his travels as inspiration. In 1942, Jitr held a solo exhibition at the Nichido Gallery and planned an exhibition in his home country as well. But tragically, most of his works, which would have served as important artifacts in the history of Thai-Japanese relations, were burned in bombing raids, and Jitr was only able to bring a few small pieces back to Thailand. Still, it is possible to glean from his remaining body of work that he had mastered portrayal of external light in the impressionist style as seen in his brilliant paintings of Japan’s vistas. Impressionism was not yet known in Thailand at the time, and Jitr is credited as the painter that brought the impressionist style to his homeland.

Jitr’s Artistic Contributions and Japan

Jitr returned to Thailand in 1946 to find the Poh-Chang school building destroyed in a bomb attack. He worked to rebuild the school and served as its headmaster. Jitr modeled the school after the Tokyo Fine Arts School where he himself had studied. He was impressed by Japan’s teaching methods, which struck a balance between Western influence and Japanese tradition, and used them to structure the school’s curriculum. He added new courses, including anatomy, composition, color theory, and art history.

Outdoor nature sketching also came into practice under his leadership. Moreover, Jitr designed the school building by himself — it was erected in Japanese-style mix of Japanese and Western convention known as the “Imperial Crown style,” only with a twist: he added a Thai-style roof to a Western structure.

Jitr’s art studies in Japan were in line with the Thai government’s goal of establishing an art system, and took place within the framework of public art administration and the training of art teachers. But Jitr the painter brought the impressionist style that took root in Japan after the establishment of the Hakubakai in 1895 which was the first Western style painters’ group in Tokyo, and from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s, Jitr provided the opportunity for French impressionism, imported via Japan, to take the Thai art scene by storm. In the late 1950s, Fua Hariphitak’s cubism made an impact among Thai painters, quickly pushing impressionism into the annals of history, but Jitr’s role in the history of Thai-Japanese art exchange will not be forgotten.

Postwar Exchanges: From Prints to Modern Art

On Jitr’s heels came many postwar artists who went to Japan to study, mainly printmakers. This group returned home after learning Japan’s advanced woodblock techniques and played a key role in the development of printmaking in Thailand. The pioneer artist who studied abroad was woodblock printmaker Praphan Srisouta. Srisouta was more interested in Japanese traditions, not in the latest printmaking techniques. Born in Lamphun in the Northern region of Thailand, he went to Japan in 1964 after studying at Silpakorn University. He reportedly spent most of his time studying Ukiyo-e woodblock prints by famed masters such as Hiroshige.

He journeyed from Japan to Germany before returning home in 1967 and went on to gain notoriety for his first solo show,
which showcased 90 of his original woodblock prints. These prints, which were dually influenced by Thai temple mural paintings and Ukiyo-e, portray the daily lives of children and feature vibrant depictions of people and beautiful black and white contrasts, and are considered some of the most precious masterpieces in all of Southeast Asia.

In recent years, Thailand’s modern art has received increased exposure in Japan, ushering in a new era of art exchanges between the two countries. Notable among these artists is Montien Boonma, who is often exhibited in Japan. His installations, which reflect an almost meditative Buddhist mindset, have remained popular even after his sudden death.

One artist of the younger generation has set in motion yet another new turning point in Thai-Japanese art exchange. That artist is Navin Rawanchaikul, who is married to a Japanese woman and works out of Fukuoka, Japan and Chiang Mai. Navin is not content to simply work out of this regional Japanese city. He closely examines the Fukuoka community where he lives and creates pieces that deal with issues within it.

These works have in turn allowed him to become involved in the Fukuoka community. He will continue to be watched as a new harbinger of Thai-Japanese interchange whether from the perspective of a teacher, learning as a foreign student, or showcasing his art.

Nifty finds 40% of Japanese blogs are SPAM

One of the key doubts about Japanese blogging activity that I expressed in my last real post almost four months ago was that it seemed that an inordinate number of accounts on major blogging sites were nothing but spam generators:

Basically, [a Technorati report claiming that Japanese was the most prevalent blogging language] counted the number of submissions, so dead blogs don’t count, and since it is Technorati, I am sure lots of spam blogs ended up being counted (seriously, go try a blog search on Technorati Japan right now!).

Now it appears I have been vindicated in my claim. CNet Japan reports that Japanese web portal Nifty has announced findings that a full 40% of Japanese blogs are set up as nothing but ad platforms to suck up clicks and affiliate bonuses. The announcement coincides with the release of an auto-filter developed for Nifty’s proprietary blog hosting service.

A Nifty-affiliated research body randomly sampled 100,000 blog entries per month using the filter between October 2007 and February 2008. Over the five-month period it was determined that “40% of domestic blogs are spam blogs.”

While the definition of “domestic blog” is unclear, the sheer volume (and any time spent surfing the Japanese net) should tell you that spam blogs are a major problem. And considering that the original Technorati figure put Japanese-language blogs ahead of English by a mere 1%, I am content to conclude that Japan is most certainly not the world’s top blogging nation, putting the statistics more in line with reality.

Hong Kong taxis and their Japan connection

During my New Year’s trip to Hong Kong, I managed to ride in a taxi only once. I was at Hong Kong International Airport and I needed to get to Mui Wo on the other side of the island of Lantau, where I was spending the night. This required a fairly expensive ride up and down a giant mountain in the middle of the island, but fortunately I got to split the fare with a friendly Cathay Pacific pilot who didn’t want to wait for the next elusive blue taxi.

You see, in Hong Kong, there are three kinds of taxis. In central Hong Kong and Kowloon, the most developed parts, you mostly see “red taxis” which are licensed to serve the urban center. In the New Territories to the north, you see “green taxis” which are limited to the New Territories. Lantau likewise has its own fleet of “blue taxis.” If you are traveling solely on Lantau, your only option is the blue taxi: a red or green taxi is not allowed to carry you. Which is a shame because there are a LOT of red taxis at the airport.

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I ended up calling a dispatcher (after waiting for a few minutes to see if a blue taxi would show up at random). Ten minutes later, a blue taxi showed up, and the pilot and I began a long trek across Lantau.

Most of the island is undeveloped mountains and hills, and the road crossing through the middle is in a never-ending process of being widened to two lanes. I learned from my traveling companion that driving is tightly restricted on Lantau, and even if you have a car there (which requires a special permit) you can’t drive it around during the day—only at night. The poor throughput on the mountain road was enough to convince me that said policy was justified.

Our journey gave me plenty of time to notice something odd about the cab. It used to be Japanese, and in fact it still had a few Japanese stickers in the window, including a peeling and somewhat outdated fare quote in yen.

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It turns out that, at least according to Wikipedia, “almost all taxis in Hong Kong are Toyota Comfort“—the same model as the boxy taxis and police cars found all over Japan. After spotting this example, I spent quite some time getting intensely interested in Hong Kong taxis, and I noticed that this was not a one-off: many other Hong Kong taxis carry Japanese markings here and there. In some taxi windows, I could see spots where the stickers had been removed.

What led to this practice? I can’t say for sure, although I can give some plausible reasons.

  • One is that cars lose value pretty quickly in Japan because of stringent roadworthiness testing (“shaken“) requirements which make older cars prohibitively expensive to keep. As a result, exporting is a big business: a person who doesn’t want to pay for the inspection is often happy to sell their car to an exporter for a bargain price. Then the exporter can ship it to Australia, Russia, Hong Kong or elsewhere, sell it to a local and collect a tidy profit.
  • Hong Kong is also the closest left-hand drive territory to Japan, which makes it a natural market for used Japanese cars: they fit right in, much moreso than they would in Korea, Taiwan or mainland China (where people drive on the right).
  • Hong Kong shares the crowdedness and hilly terrain which Japanese taxis are (I assume) well designed to handle.

I’m sure there’s some funky tax or regulatory reason for this as well, which some friendly commenter will point out.

Anyway, Mui Wo, my final destination, was an odd corner of civilization, and it served to show me that even Hong Kong, the most modern and developed part of China, still has its little pockets of Third Worldliness.

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Who knew Bhutan could be so kinky?

While reading about Asia’s newest self-proclaimed democracy I did a double-take at the following factoid:

Bhutan’s first democratically elected prime minister will be Jigmi Thinlay, a charismatic politician who has portrayed the DPT as the party of ordinary Bhutanese. His rival, Sangay Ngedup, leader of the rival People’s Democratic Party (PDP), is the brother of the previous king’s four wives, all sisters.

(Note to readers: I know my last couple of posts have been frivolous. Many apologies. This stuff is just too amusing not to blog.)

Remembering the Railway of Death

About a week ago the New York Times had an article entitled “Seeking Recognition for a War’s Lost Laborers” on the lack of recognition for the Asian victims of Japanese forced labor in the construction of the famous “Railway of Death.” According to the article, the history of the 200,000-300,000 Asians who were employed, and often killed, in the construction of the railway, which was being constructed to link Bangkok and the Burmese (Myanmarese) capital of Rangoon (Yangon) to provide logistical support for Japan’s invasion of Southeast Asia, has been almost completely overshadowed by stories of the smaller number of Western POWs.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 Asian laborers — no one knows the exact number — were press-ganged by the Japanese and their surrogates to work on the rail line: Tamils, Chinese and Malays from colonial Malaya; Burmans and other ethnic groups from what is now Myanmar; and Javanese from what is now Indonesia.

“It is almost forgotten history,” said Sasidaran Sellappah, a retired plantation manager in Malaysia whose father was among 120 Tamil workers from a rubber estate forced to work on the railway. Only 47 survived.

[...]

By contrast, the travails of the 61,806 British, Australian, Dutch and American prisoners of war who worked on the railway, about 20 percent of whom died from starvation, disease and execution, have been recorded in at least a dozen memoirs, documented in the official histories of the governments involved and romanticized in the fictionalized “Bridge on the River Kwai,” the 1957 Hollywood classic inspired by a similarly named best-selling novel by Pierre Boulle.


One reason given for this inequality of historical memory are that virtually none of the Asian victims were from Thailand, giving the local government little incentive to commemorate them. Another is that, unlike the American and British POWs who wrote memoirs and gave countless interviews to journalists and historians, virtually none of the Asian laborers were literate, and they lacked ready access to mass media.

At this point, I would like to present some photos I took at a very peculiar museum that Adam, his (now) wife Shoko, and I visited when we were in Kanchanaburi, the location of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

The Jeath War Museum (JEATH is an acronym for Japan, English, American and THai) is a rather eccentric museum based on the collection of a wealthy Japanese history buff, who apparently purchased a building a number of years ago, stocked it haphazardly with local WW2 memorabilia of both great and small interest, and has not had arranged to have it cleaned since.

First, some photos from outside the museum itself.

This is a picture of the famous Bridge which I quite like.

Here are Adam and Shoko posing with the bridge behind them. I do not know the sleeping man, but I have to assume that he is a war criminal of some kind.

This is a silly little train which lets  tourists ride across the bridge and 1 or 2km into the jungle on the other side, and then ride backwards to the other side.

I blurrily snapped this memorial obelisk in the jungle across the river, from aforementioned silly train. It says something along the lines of “the remains of the Chinese army ascend into heaven.”

This plaque is location near the bridge. I did not, however, see one for the British POWs, although I certainly could have just missed it.

And now we reach the museum portion of our tour. I do not seem to have any photographs of the entrance area, but the first thing you see upon approaching the entrance to the museum proper are these statues of historical figures, with biography written on the wall behind them. I will transcribe the highly amusing text another time.

Here is Tojo.

Adam and Shoko again, with their good friends Josef Stalin and General Douglas MacArthur.

The lovable Albert Einstein gets a wall as well.

Inside the museum we are confronted with more dramatic statues, such as this tableau of POWs constructing the railway.

Here is one in a cage. Note the real straw.

Eerie closeup of another caged POW statue’s face.

Adam and his new friend, the WW2-era Japanese soldier driving an old car.

The driver.

Another old car. I do not recognize the make, but it is covered in dust that may weigh as much as the steel.

US Army signal core teletypewriter

Recreation of Japanese army tent

Read the text carefully. Do you know when the CD was invented?

A message from Japan to the Thai people. It’s a bit hard to read, so if anyone wants I can transcribe it.

A British anti-Japan political cartoon

Overall, the museum is a complete shambles. While it has a huge array of cool stuff, it is strewn about almost at random, covered in dust, and sometimes behind other stuff. Not to mention placed in crowded and un-lit cases with poor labeling. Despite the numerous flaws, it is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area, but I can’t say that it will do much to provide any sort of historical narrative, and certainly does not even try to meet the standard hoped for by the Times article I began this post with.