George Psalmanazar, the famous fraud of Formosa

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.

Anyone with even the scantest knowledge of Japanese will instantly realize the absurdity of every word quoted above. In fact, the Formosan languages of his time (before it was extensively colonized by China) were the Austronesian languages still spoken by Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples today, which have no relationship with Japanese.

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.

Lord’s Prayer
Koriakia Vomera

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.

(A longer excerpt of the chapter on language, including the full Lord’s Prayer, can be found online here.)

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.

The fact that must be remembered here is that not only was George Psalmanazar a famous public figure in Swift’s time, but that by the year in which A Modest Proposal was published, 1729,  Psalmanazar’s account of Formosa was already been widely known as a fraud, the author having had confessed as much in 1707. While Swift’s essay is still widely read, virtually no modern readers will have any clue to what he is referring in this paragraph, and even fewer will realize that much of the basis for the humor in this section is due to the fact that the essayist is attempting to prove his case by referring to a a source that, at the time of publication, would have been recognized by Swift’s audience as not merely fraudulent, but famously and comically so.

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.

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Description of Formosa: Part II

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part I

George Psalmanazar: Memoirs of ****: Part II

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.

Zipang is in fact one spelling of the Shanghaiese reading of “Japan,” formerly used by some Europeans and thought to be the origin for the modern spelling. Moore here is obviously referencing Psalmanazar’s Formosa, as we can see from page 225 of the Description (first page of PDF Part II). By describing this Formosa as “another smaller island of the same name”, Moore is cleverly leaving room on the map for both the real and fantasy Formosa.

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.

Incidentally, Moore’s reference to Formosa is located just above a large illustration of Laputa – which readers may remember from either the eponymous Miyazaki Hayao film, or its original source: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift. When one considers that Swift was clearly a fan of Psalmanazar’s imaginary geography, it actually seems quite reasonable to wonder if perhaps the Description of Formosa was an influence on Gulliver’s Travels, which as a chronicle of fantastic geography has some undeniable similarities.

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Coverage of Yoshida-ryo piece on CNNGo

Reaction to my recent CNNGo photo/article feature about Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida Dormitory has been very positive. I want to thank whoever it was that submitted it to Boingboing, who kindly linked to it as they have several Mutantfrog posts in past years. I also want to especially thank frequent MF commenter KokuRyu, who posted a link to the piece on MetaFilter, where there have been some pretty interesting comments from people who seem to have experience in other cooperative/squat type housing, making some comparisons between them and Yoshida-ryo.

I am also planning on doing a follow-up piece sometime, discussing a little bit more about the history of Yoshida-ryo and the other self-administered dorms at Kyoto University, as well as some of the  “self run” (自治) student activity areas in the university, and the relationship between Yoshida-ryo and the various squatting protests that have occurred on campus over the years, such as the Ishigaki Cafe and the currently still ongoing Kubikubi Cafe. Since CNNGo would not really be an appropriate venue for this sort of piece, I’m hoping readers can suggest or introduce someplace that might be interested!

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My photo gallery of Kyoto University’s famous Yoshida-ryo, with article, on CNNGo

Dammit, I can smell the rooms in your pictures, Roy.

Said my friend Jon after looking at my piece just published at CNNGo.

Little known outside of Kyoto is the fact that Kyoto University has the last remaining truly old style dormitory, constructed in the late Meiji era timber construction style. Opened in 1913, Yoshida-ryo (吉田寮) still exists nearly 100 years later despite decades of attempts by the school to raze it and replace it with a less scummy and earthquake-unsafe bland concrete box. A relic in both architectural and social terms, it exists today in a weird nebulous state somewhere between an official school dormitory and a giant squat-house.

When I took our friend, and current CNNGo editor, David Marx on a tour of the campus during his brief visit to Kyoto some time last year he demanded that I do a piece on Yoshida-ryō for him, and we finally got it done. For my 20 part photo gallery and a brief history of the dorm, check out my article at CNNGo.

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Underground Gamblers and Academic Grants

This week’s Metropolis has a feature on underground gambling. It’s an interesting read:

The gambling professional is, in general, not who you think he is. For a pro gambler, Rei looks pretty normal. He has an average build, wears average clothes and works a regular day job. He lives in a messy six-mat apartment. The paint on the walls is peeling off, and his stuff is strewn about the room. In the corner lie a couple of duffel bags thrown there the previous night. By all appearances, it’s a standard Japanese bachelor’s apartment.

Except that those bags contain enough ¥10,000 bills to wallpaper the entire room.

Later on in the article, there are short notes about gambling in Japan. Academics may be surprised to read this:

Doing research on Japan? There’s a good chance you’re being supported by the gambling industry. Every year The Nippon Foundation donates roughly ¥30 trillion to charitable and educational causes. It all comes from boat racing.

For the most part, this is true. The Nippon Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in Japan, receives over 3% of kyotei (motorboat racing) annual revenues.  According to the 2006 Government Whitepaper on Leisure, the total market for 2005 for kyotei was 978 billion yen. In the early 90s, it was about double this. More details can be found in David Plotz’s Pachinko Nation. (Incidentally, Plotz’s research was supported by a Nippon Foundation grant.)

Of course, this isn’t to criticize the foundation itself, which has supported good works around the globe. Apparently some academics in Japan do look down on their grants, however. Last year, a friend of mine was faced with the choice of either a Fulbright or a Nippon Foundation grant for her dissertation research. When she told an academic friend of hers about this, the friend closed the door and quietly told her that she risked a small amount of stigma were she to go with the latter.

If this is how some Japanese academics deal with researchers whose grant is merely peripheral to gambling, I wonder how they will treat someone whose research is on gambling…

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Japanese exchange students skipping over US

According to the Asahi Shimbun, OECD data shows Japanese university students are increasingly skipping over the US in favor other other destinations. The US captured a whopping 75% of the “market share” for Japanese students in 1997 with 47,000 America-bound that year. However, by 2007 that number had fallen under 50% with around 37,000 students. China has been on the rise as a destination – 19,000 students in 2005 (up 100% from 10 years ago). The total number of students was around 80,000 in 2005, up 30% from 1995. US diplomats in the country are concerned and have noticed a drop-of in attendance at their annual study abroad fairs in Tokyo.

Reasons for the shift include:

  • The erosion of America’s image as a vibrant, exciting country. (Note: My mistake. See comments) Students see America as a highly competitive place to study and may choose Canada or Australia instead for the more laid-back image. The article claims that some even choose Scandinavia, thinking that learning English among non-natives will be easier because they speak slower.
  • A growing interest in the broader world among Japanese students (and more universities forming exchange relationships with a more diverse set of schools)
  • A university source claims more students are asking whether Japanese-language service is available in the host university, though that’s almost never the case.

The tone of the article is that kids these days are more “inwardly oriented” and less willing to challenge themselves. However, more and more Japanese students are studying abroad. I find it much more plausible that Japanese kids are simply more interested in Asia and the wider world, partly because those countries are a lot more developed and accessible now than they were even a decade ago.

The article does not get into another major hurdle for Japanese students who want to study in the US – the draconian visa process and the image that the US has become harder to get into. Since 9/11 the US has made the visa process progressively more restrictive and annoying. As a result, even though the number of foreign students to the US from all countries rose from 475,169 in 2000 to 595,874 in 2007, the US saw its market share fall from 25% to 19.7% in the same period.

More detailed data in English on all countries can be found at the OECD website.

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Profile of the (surprisingly lucrative) university co-op business in Japan

When I did a year-long exchange at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, one of the more interesting entities on campus was the co-op that ran cafeterias and a general merchandise store. Prices were reasonable, the food was excellent, and service was comparatively decent. The store even had an entertaining message board where students could ask the staff questions on any random topic, similar to the Japanese blog “Shiraishi of the Campus Co-op.” Like me, many foreign students probably leave Japan with fond memories of their university cafeteria and the friendly middle-aged ladies who served them.

I thought I knew all I needed to know about the co-op system, but the always informative Shukan Toyo Keizai’s profile of the university co-op system taught me a thing or two.

Here are some key facts:

  • University co-ops are non-profit institutions operated and funded by student members. Around 30% of Japan’s 762 four-year universities (around 230 228 to be exact) have a co-op on campus, which will likely run at least one cafeteria, merchandise shop, and bookstore each. 40% of all university students (1.3 million) are members. At universities that have co-ops, membership is around 95%. Students pay between Y10,000-30,000 to join when they enter university, which is returned without interest once they graduate or drop out.
  • All such co-ops are organized under the umbrella of the National Federation of University Co-operative Associations in Japan, formed in 1958. While the first university co-op was formed in Kyoto’s Doshisha University in 1898, they didn’t really start to take off until after World War II, as universities set up co-ops to help ensure steady food supplies as Japan’s economy got back on its feet, similar to neighborhood co-ops (they are regulated by the same law). The federation’s website notes that co-ops offer a wide range of goods and services, among them “food, clothing, housing, books, stationery and PCs…arranging and subcontracting for tourism, Student Mutual Benefit [a type of insurance plan], language training programs, courses for applicants for public employee and computer training programs.”
  • Co-ops are a serious business – in 2008 the federation counted revenue of Y207.5 billion. Considering there are only co-ops on 230 228 campuses, it’s nothing short of amazing their revenue compares with convenience store chain am/pm (Y195.5 billion in FY08, 1,129 stores) and Tokyu department stores (232.3 billion in FY08, scattered stores in major cities). The article explains the universities benefit from a captive customer base of students on campus and virtually no other on-campus competitors (though that has changed slightly following some deregulation in 2004).
  • About a quarter of all sales are recorded in March and April ahead of the start of the academic year. However, in those two months the co-ops typically sell around 60,000 PCs. Sales in 2008 break down as follows: 15% from cafeterias, 19.9% from bookstores, and 65.1% from merchandise stores (in the merchandise category, 18.6% comes from hardware & software vs. 11.5% from food).
  • Gross margin (revenue minus cost of goods sold as a percent of total revenue) is roughly 20% overall and 50-55% in the cafeteria segment. That basically means that for every 100 yen in sales, 20 yen is profit before labor/administration, financing, and tax costs.
  • One benefit of being a student association is the university charges virtually no rent. This allows them to keep cafeteria prices low and charge the same for electronics as big-box retailers. The co-ops also have considerable bargaining power as procurement is all done through the national federation. That’s how the cafeterias can charge an average of Y380 per meal.
  • Another advantage of the co-ops is service. One student interviewed from the article bought a PC at the co-op because he liked getting advice from a fellow student.
  • One disadvantage of having your business limited to college campuses is the limited number of business days. Vacations slash the total number of business days to around 250-300, and students only show up for class on about 150-170 days a year.
  • In 2004, Japan’s national universities were stripped of their status as arms of the government and reorganized as corporate entities. This meant they gained a freer hand to get creative in running their campuses, and one such initiative has been to open convenience stores on campus in direct competition with the co-ops. Already, 40 co-ops are reported to be competing with on-campus kombini.
  • Co-ops have responded to this competition with initiatives of their own, for example opening chain stores inside cafeteria areas and selling pre-paid meal plans to students (something typical at US universities).
  • The population of 18-year-olds in Japan (an indicator of the size of the co-ops’ target demographic) expected to hold steady at 12 million in 2009 but then fall steadily into the foreseeable future. With this declining customer base, the author speculates there will be closer cooperation with universities and co-ops in the future. Already there are examples of a co-op collaborating with Yamanashi University to offer Yamanashi wine on campus.
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Union Extasy court decision tomorrow

Back in March, while I was traveling, Adam wrote a post about Union Extasy, a two-man union of former workers at Kyoto University who decided to protest the limited term contract system after it forced them out of their staff jobs. While their most visible form of protest was the construction of a tent squat underneath the landmark camphor tree in front of the famous Kyoto University clock tower (a location which is the basis for the university’s logo and the preferred location for graduation photos and the like), they also engaged in the more traditional labor complaint route of filing a formal grievance, conducting formal union/management negotiations (団交), and eventually filing a lawsuit alleging the illegality of the mandatory limited-term contract system.

While the Union Extasy squat was inspired by the “temp worker village” set up in Tokyo’s Hibiya park during the 2008-2009 new years season, unlike that particular stunt it never actually ended. Although they had originally expected it to only last for a couple of weeks before shaming university management into doing something, when they realized that things were going to take a long, long time to resolve, instead of taking down the tent they instead expanded it, adding a public area with seating that was labeled the “Kubi Kubi Cafe.”Kubi is the Japanese word for the head or neck, and has also become a synonym for “firing” or “sacking”, as beheading is the Japanese metaphor of choice for such a practice.

The university was naturally displeased with the ongoing protest, particularly in such a prominent and symbolic location, and filed a lawsuit in May or so (the date escapes me at the moment) against Union Extasy, ordering them to vacate the premises. Why exactly they had or chose to actually file a lawsuit escapes me since I would have assumed that they could just ask the police to remove trespassers without any special legal maneuvering, but I presume there is some legal reason that they took such a course of action. Aside from the existence of the lawsuit itself, there were two things that struck me as rather odd about it. First, that the lawsuit was not filed against the two men (Ogawa and Inoue) but against the Union Extasy organization itself. The second odd point, and this one if very odd, is that they were not seeking an order for the union to vacate the campus completely, but only a specified zone including the area immediately in front of the clock tower. The university was actually so cautious about acting without a court order that they did not even disconnect the power cable siphoning electricity from the clock tower building (which kept the lights and vintage iMac running at night, network connectivity naturally courtesy of the campus Wifi). Inoue let me flip through a folder of documents that had been filed in the case, and sure enough there was a map of the campus with a rectangle drawn around the very specific area. Amusingly, among the supporting evidence was a land assayer’s appraisal of the land value of the entire campus, as if the market value of the national university’s grounds-which I expect is legally impossible to sell in any event-was somehow relevant to the matter at hand.

After receiving a court order to vacate the area, they complied with it-by moving about 10 meters over to another patch of lawn, just far enough away from the camphor tree and clock tower so as to allow an unobstructed view of the landmarks.

I have spent little time speaking with the involved parties since before I went home for the summer and had not been following the progress of their protests or court case, except of course to notice that the protest squat had never ended, but I just got word that the initial verdict of their lawsuit is due out tomorrow, presumably with a party to follow. I will be there tomorrow afternoon after lunch to see how things turn out and will report on it after, but in preparation, here is a gallery of photos I’ve taken at the Kubikubi Cafe.

Continue reading Union Extasy court decision tomorrow

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An ex-diplomat’s three-step English boot camp for university students

judge_yanai

Shunji Yanai, former Japanese ambassador to the United States and current judge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, offers some radical measures to help university students bring their English communication skills up to speed.

Writing in the July 21 evening edition of the Nikkei Shimbun, he explains that when he first started teaching at a university after retiring as a diplomat, he was asked to help lead extracurricular study sessions for students.

Though his students could read English fairly well, he soon became painfully aware of their poor conversational English. Typically, he blamed Japan’s education system for emphasizing test preparation over actual communication skills.

Out of a concern for their futures as global citizens, Yanai came up with the following crash course to whip the students into shape:

  1. Memorize and recite US presidents’ political speeches: He made all his students memorize a speech word for word and recite it in front of the group. The variety of sentence structures in each speech helped with conversational skills and composition, while speaking at length trained their mouth muscles to speak in English.
  2. Memorize jazz standards and listen and sing along to the songs at live performances: He took some of his students to jazz bars and pays for their drinks… on the condition that they memorize the lyrics ahead of time. Singing along to the songs with some drinks in them, he claims, helped students start speaking more fluently.
  3. Place a digestive pill in your mouth to help learn how to pronounce R’s differently from L’s: Japanese people grow up without using the English L and R sounds in their everyday lives – the sounds in standard Japanese that are written with a letter “R” in English are actually pronounced with a sound that’s somewhere between the L in “la” and the “D” in “dog.” To fix that problem, Yanai had students practice saying R words with a pill of biofermin digestive medicine in their mouths. The weight of the pill kept their tongues from hitting the roofs of their mouths, which would result in a mistaken L sound.

Now, I seriously doubt Yanai ever used these methods on himself. As a former diplomat he has presumably gone through the foreign ministry’s rigorous language training. As far as I can tell from the diplomats I have met over the years, this training is highly effective – every Japanese diplomat I’ve met has spoken very good, fluent English. If this is because of days spent with pills in their mouths, I would be very surprised.

I am far from an expert in English teaching methods, but I can’t help but question this plan’s effectiveness. Can a strict regimen of memorizing speeches and jazz songs, recitation, and jury-rigged palate correction do what commitment, good guidance, and more traditional practice cannot?

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Two-man union on strike at Kyoto University

photo175035

According to the Asahi, Kyoto University has issued a final warning demanding the dispersion of two men who have been camping out on the university main campus for a month. The pair formed their own union, called Union Extasy in English, to demand that their employment contracts be extended past their five year maximum. Thirty supporters, presumably members of the regular Kyoto University workers’ unions who have taken a position supporting improved conditions for campus part-timers, stood with them in solidarity.

The crowd scene could be a sign that the moment when the university forcibly removes the two from campus could end up becoming a publicized confrontation, similar to the one seen at the Shinagawa Keihin Hotel earlier this year, when police forced the staff of the bankrupt hotel from keeping the business open against the wishes of the owners. The event was apparently crowded with both protesters and journalists, making for an enormous spectacle, itself something of a replay of the “temporary employee village” set up in Hibiya Park over the new year holiday.

The two men, both in their late 30s, were doing data entry work for the agricultural faculty for monthly wages of around 120,000 yen, according to an earlier report. I find it just amazing that they were both able to live on that much (20,000 yen/month apartments, probably a very meager diet).

A JANJAN citizen reporter who interviewed the strikers  notes that of Kyoto University’s 5,400-strong staff, 2,600 are part-timers, 85% of them female.

The employment rules for university part-timers are on paper intended to promote full-time, indefinite employment. Universities are basically required to prioritize permanent hires and can only hire contract employees on a provisional basis. However, in typical lukewarm fashion, when the Kyoto U and other national universities  were officially branches of the education ministry, Kyoto University signed non-permanent employees to 364-day contracts, theoretically terminated employment on March 31, “re-hired” the same people the next day for another term, and repeated this process for years. Exploiting this loophole had the added benefit that none of the “new employees” needed to be given raises from the previous year.

But when the national universities were corporatized in 2004, the rules changed. The ministry decided to close this loophole and instead, for employees hired on or after fiscal 2005, limited contract employment to a maximum five years, after which universities were barred from hiring the same person as a contract worker. In other words, the schools must now choose to either take them on as a full-time employee (and provide all the job security and regular pay raises that entails) or hire someone else on a contract basis. Kyoto University apparently decided to go with the cheaper option at the time, and now five years later they have this protest on their hands along with all the creative artwork that’s come with it:  

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 The decision for these older men to protest may have been in part due to their stated desire to raise the wage levels for this type of work. The assumption for years has been that this so-called “part-time” work is the province of housewives in need of extra cash, so the fact that they are men and not basically dependents of their spouses breaks with this stereotype. And of course, this also implies the question,  what difference does it make whether men or women are expected to fill the position? 

The university Director involved in the labor negotiations has argued that non-permanent employees have no “operational responsibility” — in other words, they are not expected to become Company Men and accept forced transfers or other duties that would come with permanent status. But in an era of decreased job opportunities to the point that men are competing for jobs that were traditionally seen as women’s work, these old divisions seem pretty irrelevant.

Despite the clearly brazen and confrontational tactics taken by the union, asking to change this arbitrary rule seems pretty reasonable. Saga University has apparently already done so. They apparently are not asking to be taken on as full timers, just for a raise and the chance to stay on.

As often happens when observing events in Japan, I get the feeling that viewed from the outside this issue seems simple – just allow indefinite part-time employment, and leave the decision of who to promote to full-time status up to the university managers. I can understand the university’s reluctance to take on indefinite staff – in these uncertain economic times and an era of declining population, I wouldn’t want to promise someone a job for the next 30 years either. But there is strong resistance in Japan to a system of at-will employment, and the US model that I am used to is certainly not an obvious path to prosperity.

In addition, the various parties have widely divergent agendas. I would imagine the politics of a university employees union must be quite intense indeed, and they along with the bureaucrats have a vested interest in maintaining the seishain system of stable employment and regular pay increases, at the expense of everyone else. In addition, other actors such as the Japan Communist Party have a somewhat extreme vision of maintaining employment, as seen in their platform of forcing companies to use their “internal reserves” to maintain employment.

(Photos courtesy JANJAN)

Video of the “kubikiri” fish head exhibit:

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Day 1 in the Philippines: Chatting with communists

After my mishap last week I made sure to get to the airport about two hours earlier than I needed to, and so naturally the plane was an hour late-which would have easily more than made up for the amount of time by which I had missed my plane last week.

I found a place to crash for the night in the backpacker/tourist district near downtown Manila as it is not too far from the airport, although I will be staying for the next couple of days in the University of the Philippines area up in Quezon city, about an hour away from the airport.

I took a brief stroll around the area after checking in to pick up some toiletries at a 7/11 and grab a snack. This is not the nicest part of Manila to walk around at night, as you have to dodge both men trying to sell you women and women trying to sell you themselves. Even if that had been the goal of my walk, as opposed to toothbrush and stuffed bread thing, I am perfectly capable of reading signs and walking into a store and don’t need anyone following me and gabbing in my ear, thank you very much.

In the morning I took another stroll around to get breakfast, and instead of being accosted by pimps and whores met with watch and viagra merchants. Shouldn’t the viagra sellers be out when the prostitutes are? Doesn’t anybody coordinate their schedules? Such are the mysteries of the cosmos.

Walking around with my new camera, I was reminded of one of the peculiarities of the Philippines, being that a foreigner wielding a fancy camera will actually be stopped by locals asking you to take their photograph. “One shot, right here.” They say. Needless to say, this is the reverse, or at least crossverse, of the usual relationship between the tourist photographer and the busy local. It takes a few times, initially, to realize that there is no scam, no demand for money involved, but merely some globally rare but nationally common enjoyment of the experience of being documented.

After being called upon to photograph one smiling old man-a pleasant enough interaction-I had the misfortune of stepping on a sidewalk stone which shifted in a downwardly spinning fashion beneath my foot, plunging it into the murky sewery depths beneath, soaking my foot and mildly scraping my shin. A couple of people on the sidewalk nearby hurried over to ask if I was all right, and  no serious harm done I said that I was, as one man hawking cigarettes nearby shifted the slab back into a less precarious place.

Just before getting back at the hostel (whose wifi I am currently perusing) I stopped to briefly admire a well-maintained fire truck parked on the street, whereupon I was greeted b its crew, relaxing at the side of the street across from it. Exchanging hellos, they asked me where I was from, I told them “US, New Jersey, currently studying in Japan”, the usual introduction, following which I become absorbed into a nearly hour-long conversation with one of the men. They were volunteer fire fighters, not city employees, and even the fire truck is privately owned. I saw a Rotary Club emblem on it, presumably one source of funding.

This man, whose name I will not mention for reasons that will be apparent, looked to be in the general neigborhood of 30. When I started to expain to him that I was studying the area of colonial history he gave his widely-shared opinion that education was the best thing that America had given to the Philippines. He then followed up by expressing dismay that America and the Philippines, having been engaged in building a system of education generally maintaining a high level relative to the region, had not carried those high standards into the realm of Philippine history, choosing instead to present a slanted and incomplete version of that history, particularly where the Community Party of the Philippines is concerned.

He asked me if I had heard of Jose Maria Sison,  which I had. Sison, now elderly and living in political exile in The Netherlands, is the leader of the CCP who has written many revolutionary tracts over the years. I mentioned that I have one of his books, “Philippine Society and Revolution”, written in the 1970s, which I had downloaded from a website. I mentioned that I had read more of Renato Constantino, the most famous left-wing historian of the Philippines, to which he replied, “well he’s OK too,” clearly indicating a strong preference for the writings of Mr. Sison. Out of both interest and politeness I then asked where I might find some more of Sison’s writings, to which the reply was “well, for that you have to go up there” by which he meant, to the mountain camps where the communists hide out and train. His writings are banned in the Philippines, and cannot be bought or sold or even possessed openly.

He, or perhaps I should say The Young Communist, which is what he gradually and eventually came out as, was originally from Manila, of middle class background. Of partial Chinese descent, his grandfather had married a non-Chinese Filipina and been disowned, which says enough to The Young Communist about Chinese society for him to want no part of it. He went to Polytechnic University of the Philippines,which he described as the second most communist university in the country after UP (University of the Philippines), where he had been recruited by one of his professors. UP, he said, while containing the highest proportion of communists and communist sympathizers, is also by far the most elite and wealthiest of the nations universities, with over 80% of the student body themselves coming from an elite background. While people there may be intellectually communist, and may even join the struggle, they will never have the full level of understanding of the need for revolution possessed by those of a more humble background. “Poverty is part of the education.”

He had then spent his university career traveling back and forth between the city, where he studied in class, and the mountain regions, where he studied in the communist camps. He never lived full time in the mountains, because (and he stressed this) he “never had a job up there” due to not being a member of the armed struggle. Instead, he studied comunist philosophy and methods for organizing and activism, and worked in some aid programs for the aborigines. The aforementioned writings of Sison were studied, but he said he would always shred or burn a copy after reading it.

After university, he stopped going to thee camps in the mountains to concentrate on work in the city. He mentioned that there was some sort of amnesty for CCP memberss, which applied to him perhaps since he was not in the armed faction-I did not adequately get the details. The Young Communist then gestured at the fire truck saying that it was part of his work, to do something for the community. While he does consider himself a communist and refers to other communists as “comrades”, he is pragmatic and considers himself a realist. He says he works for revolution, but not in the radical and dramatic sense of a popular uprising and the establishment of a People’s Republic, but in the sense of changing the social order in a gradual and peaceful fashion. To this end he is involved in organizing in the labor movement and in the promotion of revolutionary art, and even the volunteer fire fighter duty, and makes money to live off doing some kind of event organizing thing, which I got virtually no sense of due to his clear lack of interest in talking about work when he could be talking about the real work.

Having seen the results of revolutions throughout the 20th century, he does not believe that an armed uprising will actually improve things long-term except, and here I dare to presume, in the case of a violent and oppressive dictatorship. He had particular venom and bile for Marcos, whom he considers perhaps the worst person in modern Philippine history-a statement that many would agree with. In his view, following the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, which toppled Marcos, there was a window of opportunity for real reform, which was squandered and undermined by the same old elite, and each president since Corey has only been worse. Like many here, he bemoans the fast that the best and brightestt and most educated leave the Philippines behind to go work in the US or other foreign countries, which “is bad for the Philippines on a macro level, but you really can’t blame them for taking care of their families” even as it continues the cycle of underdevelopment.

While I can understand how an espoused communist might not be in favor of armed struggle for both moral and pragmatic reasons, I am both startled and puzzled to hear him say that he considers Marxism to be unrealistic and Marxists to be mistaken. When he goes on to say that national democracy is the only framework that makes sense to work within for the foreseeable future, I am left wondering what actually makes him a communist as opposed to merely a very progressive liberal. What, aside from self-identification, is different from my own views? We seem to have similar views on both history and current events. Neither of us is calling for the overthrow of the state, but think that dynasty in electoral politics (a far more serious problem in the Philippines, but one that is distressingly on the rise in the US) is unforgiveable. Perhaps he has a dream of some distant communist society, but what person with any spark of imagination and optimism doesn’t fantasize about a future utopia? I certainly don’t pretend to think that any society in existence in the world today, however much better things may be now than in the past, is more than a shadow of things to come. But I also don’t pretend to have any glimmer of what future society might be, as fun as it is to guess or imagine. And I wonder, does The Young Communist even believe in communism? Does it matter? If someone can follow a religion-say Christianity-as a set of moral guidelines but not a literal description of history or roadmap to the future, why can’t someone calling themselves Communist approach that doctrine in the same way?

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