Kim Jong-un (金正恩), next leader of North Korea
Larry Sellers, D student and non-owner of brand new red sports car
Slate has an article on the missing centenarian scandal, and it could have been better. Go read the writer’s take. Unfortunately, the subtitle is wildly inaccurate, “macabre Japanese trend – mummify grandma and collect the pension – what America can learn from these macabre tales of mummified Japanese centenarians.”
I will concede that she is more or less right on most of the facts, taken separately. But ultimately this article leads nowhere and tells very little. It tries to combine many separate issues – the missing old people issue and the “parasite single/aging society” common explanations for the Japanese malaise – without really making the case for why they go together.
What bugs me most, though, is the detached approach. In reviewing her book The China Price, a Bloomberg writer called her style “breezy, almost florid” – spot on, if this article is a guide. I wish more writers would actually try to have some empathy for the situation here rather than looking down on Japan from a distance.
One of the more entertaining characters I’ve run across in my studies of Taiwan is has been George Psalmanazar, one of the famous hoaxers of all time. Born around 1680, nothing factual is known about his early life, even his country place of birth, although he later claimed it to be somewhere in southern France, which was allegedly corroborated as likely by those who had heard his French dialect, while doubted by those who were familiar with his ability to impersonate such dialects.
Regardless of where he spent his early years, upon completion of his education Psalmanazar began traveling around Europe, attempting to scam his way to Rome by impersonating an Irish pilgrim. Upon realizing that Ireland was neither exotic enough to elicit much interest from potential marks nor far enough to be entirely unfamiliar, he began instead impersonating a rare pilgrim from the distant land of Japan, and later to the even more exotic and lesser-known island of Formosa, which we now usually call Taiwan.
His wild tales of alien customs and bizarre foreign lands were popular, and after a detour through Rotterdam he arrived in London in 1703, where he became a minor celebrity. Banking on his fame, in 1704 he published a book entitled An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan. “Originally written in Latin by Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa was translated into English and quickly went through two editions. A French translation appeared in Amsterdam in 1705 and interest in the book was high enough a decade later to prompt a German version, which was published in Frankfort in 1716. By this time, however, Psalamanazar’s fraud had been revealed in England and he lapsed into relative obscurity.”
This book provided a detailed description of the island of Formosa, including its history, geography, flora and fauna, religious customs, language, and so on. And virtually every single word of it was completely fictional. Psalamanazar knew all of this, he claimed, because he was himself a native of Formosa. Having been named after the great Formosan “Prophet Psalmanaazaar, who delivered the Law to the Formosans” as well as their writing, Psalamanazar was bringing knowledge of his exotic homeland to the credulous and curious people’s of Europe. In fact, not only had he never been to Formosa, or Asia at all, he knew nothing about it.
Although there were a handful of Jesuits who had been to the real Formosa, their denial of Psalamanazar’s fantastic claims were largely ignored due to the anti-Catholicism prevalent in England at that time. While it might seem absurd to us today that people would have believed such outlandish tales, consider how unreliable information on foreign lands was in the days before the photograph, the telegraph, and even regular long-distance trade to many regions. We may find it unbelievable that the English believed that a man with Western European features similar to their own could have been a native of the East Asian land of Formosa, but how many Londoners would have ever seen an Asian face themselves?
He not only created fanciful, entirely invented, accounts of Formosa all the while portraying himself as a native of that exotic island, but also invented a Formosan language, in what must have been one of the very, very few pre-Tolkien attempts at such an endeavor. Psalmanazar’s creation of a fictional Formosa was actually very Tolkien-esque, not merely in the way that it included a fictional language, but in the way that the development of the language was linked to the invented history. Although the fantasy island was named after the real island of Formosa, and the title of the book claimed that it was “an Island subject to” the very real island of Japan, the descriptions of the customs, geography, history, and language of these real places was very nearly as invented as that of Rivendell or Gondor. Psalmanazar describes the language of Formosa as follows:
The Language of Formosa is the same with that of Japan, but with this difference that the Japannese do not pronounce some Letters gutturally as the Formosans do: And they pronounce the Auxiliary Verbs without that elevation and depression of the Voice which is used in Formosa. Thus, for instance, the Formosans pronounce the present Tense without any elevation or falling of the Voice, as Jerh Chato, ego amo; and the preterperfect they pronounce by raising the Voice, and the future Tense by falling it; but the preterimperfect, the plusquam perfectum, and patio poft futurum, they pronounce by adding the auxiliary Verb: Thus the Verb Jerh Chato, ego amo, in the preterimperfect Tense is Jervieye chato, Ego eram amass, or according to the Letter, Ego eram amo; in the preterperfect Tense it is Jerh Chato, and the Voice is raised in the pronunciation of the first Syllable, but falls in pronouncing the other two; and in the plusquam perfectum the auxiliary Verb viey is added, and the same elevation and falling of the Voice is obsery’d as in the preterit.
The Japan Language has three Genders; all sorts of Animals are either of the Masculine or Feminine Gender, and all inanimate Creatures are of the Neuter: But the Gender is only known by the Articles, e.g. oi hic, ey hoec, and ay hoc; but in the Plural number all the three Articles are alike.
TheJapannese wrote formerly in a sort of Characters most like those of the Chineses; but since they have held correspondence with the Formosans, they have generally made use of their way of writing, as more easy and more beautiful; insomuch that there are few now in Japan who understand the Chinese Characters.
He also provided a more significant sample of his Formosan language, amusingly in the form of a translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the first five lines.
OUR Father who in Heaven art, Hallowed be
Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy, Gnayjorhe
thy Name, Come thy Kingdom, Be done thy Will
sai Lory, Eyfodere sai Bagalin, jorhe sai domion
as in Heaven, also in Earth so, Our bread
apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen, Amy khatsada
daily give us today, and forgive us
nadakchion toye ant nadayi, kay Radonaye ant
our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers.
amy Sochin, apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin.
To get an idea of how famous Psalmanazar actually was in his time, consider that he was referenced very prominently in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay A Modest Proposal, in which Swift uses him (albeit spelled a bit differently, perhaps due to imperfect memory and a lack of handy reference) as part of his case for the encouragement of cannibalism.
But in order to justify my friend, he confessed, that this expedient was put into his head by the famous Salmanaazor, a native of the island Formosa, who came from thence to London, above twenty years ago, and in conversation told my friend, that in his country, when any young person happened to be put to death, the executioner sold the carcass to persons of quality, as a prime dainty; and that, in his time, the body of a plump girl of fifteen, who was crucified for an attempt to poison the Emperor, was sold to his imperial majesty’s prime minister of state, and other great mandarins of the court in joints from the gibbet, at four hundred crowns. Neither indeed can I deny, that if the same use were made of several plump young girls in this town, who without one single groat to their fortunes, cannot stir abroad without a chair, and appear at a play-house and assemblies in foreign fineries which they never will pay for; the kingdom would not be the worse.
Following the end of his career as a hoaxer, Psalmanazar used his celebrity to start a career as a legitimate writer, producing such works as The general history of printing: from its first invention in the city of Mentz, to its first progress and propagation thro’ the most celebrated cities in Europe. Particularly, its introduction, rise and progress here in England. The character of the most celebrated printers, from the first inventors of the art to the years 1520 and 1550: with an account of their works, and of the most considerable improvements which they made to it during that interval, published in 1732. As a now-respectable man of letters, he became friends with such luminaries as Samuel Johnson.
Although he revealed his fraud as early as 1707, details were not revealed until the year after his death. Naturally, this was in the form of a book, which is wonderfully entitled: MEMOIRS OF ****. Commonly known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; A Reputed Native of Formosa. Written by himself, In order to be published after his Death: Containing An Account of his Education, Travels, Adventures, Connections, Literary Productions, and pretended Conversion from Heathenism to Christianity; which last proved the Occasion of his being brought over into this Kingdom, and passing for a Proselyte, and a member of the Church of England.
The one thing that he never revealed, even in his posthumous memoir, was his real name. As far as I know, no details of his early life have ever been verified.
The table of contents, as well as some all too brief excerpts of Psalmanazar’s first book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, can be found here, but until earlier this year it was very difficult to get one’s hands on a copy of the English version of the book, at least outside of certain libraries. Although it was published in Taiwan a couple of years ago, that was a Chinese translation, which even if I could read well would hardly be as entertaining. Original copies are very expensive, with the English first edition going for US$1426 on a rare book site, and the French version selling at an even less accessible $1900! Copies of his memoir go for a technically more affordable, yet still entirely unaffordable $600 or so.
Luckily, not only has an affordable reprint edition of both his Description of Formosa and his Memoirs (as well as some others) are available for purchase online. However, even better, just the other day I managed to locate a scanned electronic edition of both books, freely available in an archive of the British Library. As the online version only seems to be accessible from licensed institutions, such as libraries and universities, I am providing both of them for download as PDFs. Since their PDF creator can only generate files up to 250 pages in length, both of them have been split into two files. Scans of 300 year old books, these files are as public domain as they get. Feel free to spread them far and wide.
Update [August 5]: I regret that I forgot one very important detail from this when I first published it yesterday. While Jonathan Swift may be the most significant literary reference to Psalmanazar’s imaginary Formosa, it is not the only one. Many readers may be familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s wonderful comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and hopefully not the abysmal film based on it), in which they spin a version of our world in which every fantastic story, character, and geography is integrated into a single tapestry. While the story proper is mainly told in the form of comic book panels, Volume Two (for sale here, and highly recommended) contains, in the form of a lengthy appendix, a sort of gazetteer of this fantastic geography, which contains the following text.
We passed east of Zipang, or of Japan as it is these days called, and went south by way of Formosa, which possesses of its coast another smaller island of the same name, where the women and the men go naked save for plaques of gold and silver.
The great difference between the Japannese and Formosans, consists in this, that the Jappanese wear 2 or 3 Coats, which they tye about with a Girdle; but the Formosans have only one Coat, and use no Girlde. They walk with the Breast open, and cover their Privy parts with a Plate tied about them made of Brass, Gold, or Silver.
This is already widely reported, but just thought I would share an amazing, terrifying story that happened pretty close to where I live.
Basically, the headline says it all. Back in June, some local workers visited the home one Sogen Kato to present him with an award - at 111 he had become the oldest resident of Adachi-ku, Tokyo, and the second-oldest man in Japan (on paper at least). However, his 80-year-old daughter wouldn’t let them in – “He’s upstairs but doesn’t want any visitors,” she said.
Undeterred, the officials complained to the police, who eventually got to the bottom of things – according to family members, in 1980 the then-octogenarian Kato declared he wanted to become “enlightened through mummification” (pic possibly NSFW - 即身仏), so would they please leave him alone in his room forever with no food or water, thank you very much.
Apparently, this claim might be a ruse – however Kato died, it’s possible they failed to report it in a ploy to keep receiving his pension. If true, that’s an incredibly stupid way of providing for your family after death. If he had bought a life insurance policy the survivors could have paid for a proper funeral (and therefore “proper” Buddha-fication) and still had enough left over to provide. And the biggest upside would be no skeletal corpse in the house for 30 years! I mean, just think of what you could do with that extra bedroom.
A little while ago a story swept the Internet that “white people are available for rent in China.” Apparently, sometimes companies hire Western actors to pretend they’re either visiting foreign businessmen or high-level employees to make a positive impression.
For the purposes of this post, I am assuming the posts and CNN report are basically accurate, though I couldn’t find any corresponding job listings on a cursory Google search.
What surprised me about this story was the cool reaction of much of the reporting and reaction (I’m looking at you, CNN). The dominant explanation seemed to be that white people lend “face” to a company, a characteristic aspect of Chinese culture. But when does getting “face” cross the line into fraud? Sending a fake company representative might sound like a funny sitcom premise, but misrepresenting your company’s operations can have some serious negative consequences. Not that any of this crossed the minds of the winners in the video. By the way, who wears a wifebeater to their CNN interview?
For a case in point, let me point to this Asahi story about securities fraud among startup companies in Japan:
FOI Corp., a maker of chip production devices in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, pretended to have sold products to overseas companies when the goods were actually gathering dust in a warehouse in Machida, Tokyo.
To sell the story of its overseas business, FOI took CPAs abroad where they met the company’s supposed business partners. The translator hired by FOI lied to the accountants about the sales, sources said.
FOI was listed on the Mothers market in November last year after apparently window-dressing accounts starting in fiscal 2003.
The company reported fiscal 2008 sales of about 11.8 billion yen, but investigators suspect that 98 percent of the amount was fictitious. The company is now undergoing bankruptcy procedures.
FOI’s tactics fooled not only the CPAs, but also Mizuho Investors Securities Co., which advised the company on the listing, and the TSE.
Today I will point out a minor error in a pundit’s description of Japan. This is sort of nitpicky, but hey that’s what we do here.
NPR’s Planet Money recently had an interesting interview with an author whose theory is that countries like Japan and Germany that grew rich after WW2 did so by selling exports to countries like the US who were willing to overspend (thanks to cheap credit provided to compensate for failing to provide good educations and hence good jobs to the people). This way, those emerging countries were able to achieve wealth and growth without subjecting their domestic industries to intense competition.
Japan, he says, has top-rate manufactured goods but a hopelessly inefficient domestic service sector. However, the example he gives is somewhat outdated. Basically, he says that haircuts in Japan are very expensive because the existing players banded together to keep out new competition by requiring that all haircuts require a shampoo afterward; to do otherwise would be unhygienic.
That might have been the case maybe a decade ago, but in today’s Japan Y1000 haircut places are everywhere. Just yesterday I got my haircut in Tokyo with no shampoo. I am not too clear on the history, but if memory serves the operator of QB House fought for more than a decade to liberalize the byzantine barber shop regulations.
Here’s the comment I left on their blog:
The interviewee’s example of Japanese barber shops is very outdated. Just today I got a haircut for about $12 with no shampoo. Until recently he would have been right, but there has been considerable deregulation since then. That isn’t to say there aren’t other occupations with ridiculous guild-based restrictions – Japan’s many dubious “qualifications” have recently come up as a subject of debate under the new government. It’s just that the particular case of haircuts doesn’t apply anymore.
Adam in Tokyo
That said, I think he’s got the right idea, even today. Even without special regulatory protection, many Japanese institutions have become massively inefficient thanks to successful attempts to keep out competition – think JAL, all those shuttered shotengai shopping districts, TV broadcasting, the music industry, you name it.
The title says it all. From Nikkei (sub reqd), we learn that Paramount is doing a co-production with Shochiku to remake Ghost, the 1990 the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore romance. It will star Japan’s tallest movie star Matsushima Nanako opposite Korean actor Song Seung-heon. NTV is apparently also involved. The US studios are apparently broadening their cultural horizons because their native, English-language content isn’t as popular with Japanese audiences as it used to be. Japan is no doubt a lucrative market for Hollywood since movie tickets cost significantly more here than they do in the US.
Ghost was a pretty sweet movie, so a remake might make for some good viewing. More to the point, I love the idea of remaking classic American films for Japan.
Personally, I want to see a Japanese version of Be Kind Rewind. “Sweded” versions of Seven Samurai, Godzilla, and Audition would be intense.
Or maybe Mr. Baseball, only in reverse? Given how times have changed, the story of an aging Japanese ballplayer getting sent to a small team in the US is probably more common now than the scenario in the original.
I have recently enjoyed downloading episodes of Sono toki Rekishi ga Ugoita, the iconic NHK series on key moments of Japanese history. (Much to my surprise, these episodes are available due to a passionate following that the series has in Taiwan, and many episodes are available via bit torrent download, with Traditional Chinese subtitles.)
In watching these episodes, I was pretty horrified to see that, for an episode regarding the strategy behind the victory of the Battle of Tsushima, the theme music from the horror film SAW was used—just see these two key scenes that I clipped for the purposes of this blog post (the break between the two separate scenes is seamless, but there is a 20 minute gap between scenes at 1:22).
Why on earth does NHK pick this kind of music, and what’s the decision-making process behind the selection? For someone who knows where the music comes from, it really ruins the otherwise well-produced TV documentary.
With fastly approaching deadlines I have been blogging very little recently, but I have been posting a lot of random links and very short thoughts to my Twitter account (as a former English major, I am, like the New York Times, too proud to use the word verb “tweet” in public). I’ve noticed though that the discussions here tend to be so good that long and in depth ones often develop out of little more than a link, so I am curious, do you – the readers and commenters – think that I (perhaps we) should shed my (our) bias against very short, content-lite blog posts, and put more short posts in this space rather than silly Twitter, on the off chance that it can get some valuable discussion threads going?
Source: Pop Crunch
I’ve long been a detractor of Sanrio’s policy of licensing Hello Kitty’s image to appear on just about anything (and some offerings have been downright questionable [NSFW]). But apparently, if you throw hundreds of darts at the board over ten years, you’re eventually going to hit a few bulls-eyes:
Sanrio Co., the Japanese owner of the Hello Kitty character brand, may boost profit after arresting a 10-year slide in sales by slapping its logo on wine, wallpaper and minicars.
The popularity of Hello Kitty, a white cat with a red bow and no mouth, with celebrities including Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton, has led the company to focus on licensing and to pare its retail and restaurant businesses (Sanrio intends to shut 40 of its 260 gift shops in Japan over the next three years).
Sanrio almost doubled overseas licenses last year and counts clothing chains Hennes & Mauritz AB and Inditex SA as customers. President Shintaro Tsuji, 82, plans to set up an office in Dubai this month to grow in the Middle East.
An appearance by Hilton, a reality TV player, at Sanrio’s 35th birthday party for Hello Kitty, and by Gaga, a pop singer, on Japanese television holding a stuffed toy, helped the company boost fiscal 2009 sales 0.8 percent from the previous year, the first annual gain since 1999.
“Hello Kitty’s Zen-like calmness and faceless expression are the major reasons for its appeal across age groups and markets,” said Martin Roll, chief executive officer of Singapore-based consulting firm VentureRepublic.