“Disunion” in the New York Times: “Noli Me Tangere”

Anyone who follows me on Twitter may know that I have been a huge fan of the New York Times online series “Disunion”, in which a number of historians take turns writing essays about the American Civil War in largely chronological order – laid out on a great interactive timeline that offers links to contemporary articles on one screen, and links to new essays by historians on a parallel screen.

On top of the generally high quality of the writing and the presentation of lesser known but fascinating anecdotes and characters, the real time nature of the project makes it particularly interesting. When reading history it is all too easy to skim over the happenings of months or years with no appreciation that people at the time experienced them with just as much ambiguity and complexity as we experience current events today.

I don’t know how many people are actually reading the whole thing, but I have just been taking a few hours to read through the entire archive and I must say that this would form the basis for an excellent Civil War curriculum in say, a high school AP or undergraduate US History course and I am sure that more than a few teachers will be using it.

While I don’t feel like just listing my favorite posts from the series, I must point out the proposal of New York City mayor Fernando Wood to secede along with the Southern States, but instead form an independent city-state with the peculiar name of “the Free City of Tri-Insula.”

Entries such as this profile of William Webb, a slave man and underground political activist, or this one on the slaves’ view of Abraham Lincoln are also a necessarily supplement to the admittedly excellent posts on the all-white statesmen and mostly-white soldiers.

As a photography enthusiast I also very much enjoyed this post on photography in the Civil War, in particular its very first photographer – George S. Cook – who took portraits of Major Robert Anderson and his men at Fort Sumter shortly before they were attacked. Cook’s two photos below, of Union ironclads firing on Fort Moultrie in South Carolina on September 8, 1863 are believed to be the world’s first photographs of combat. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, the pair of images seem to have been intended for viewing in 3D, with a stereopticon!   (There is also a slideshow of his work.)

But the single detail that jumped out at me the most is, oddly, the obverse of the banner for the “Wilcox True Blues,” a company in the Confederate military from Alabama.

Above you can see the front of the banner, which looks like it depicted some sort of giant, similar to the not-yet existent Statue of Liberty.

And here on the back you can see a snake curled amidst a flowering bush, and the slogan “Noli Mi Tangere.”

This appears to have been a variant on, and reference to, a proposed design for a Republic of Alabama flag during the brief period between the decision to secede and the formal creation of the Confederacy.

Students of European art history may be familiar with this phrase as the title of a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Correggio. Those same art historians, or well-studied Catholics, may be familiar with the original source of the phrase, below as explained in Wikipedia.

Noli me tangere, meaning “don’t touch me” / “touch me not”, is the Latin version of words spoken, according to John 20:17, by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she recognizes him after his resurrection.

The original phrase, Μή μου ἅπτου (mê mou haptou), in the Gospel of John, which was written in Greek, is better represented in translation as “cease holding on to me” or “stop clinging to me”.

Doing a quick search through books published before the Civil War shows that Noli me tangere was also the name of both a kind of skin disease sometimes associated with either lupus or cancer and a type of flowering plant. In 1719 it probably seemed common sense to name a skin disease “touch me not” and according to our 1802 botanical guide: “The elastic valves of the capsule, when ripe, curl up, and fly asunder on the slightest touch, whence the common name Touch me not.”
<iframe frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” style=”border:0px” src=”http://books.google.com/books?id=pEEPAAAAYAAJ&dq=noli%20me%20tangere&pg=PA937-IA1&output=embed” width=500 height=500></iframe>

Before considering exactly why the slogan noli mi tangere was used on the battle standard of an Alabama military unit, a glance at the books cited above and the many dozens of other search results shows that the phrase was commonly known at the time as a phrase of Biblical origin, with the literal meaning of “touch me not” as well  as a number of metaphorical secondary meanings, such as for the names of diseases or plants.

Although the phrase was apparently common at the time, I would hazard a guess that it is very little known except among people familiar with the reference that made it so noteworthy to me. That is, as the title of the first of two novels by Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, whose publishing activities  – especially his two novels of social protest – helped inspire the 1890s revolution against Spanish colonial rule. Originally written in the Spanish language and published in Europe with the  Latin phrase Noli Me Tangere as its title, the 1887 novel came some time after the US Civil War and has no direct connection to it, but part of the symbolism of the title – “touch me not” – as an expression of defiance rings similar to its use on the Alabama flag.

Since “noli me tangere” or the English translation of “touch me not” refers to a number of plants that do grow wild in the American South I had wondered if the plant featured on the banner’s obverse might be one of them, but it is easy to verify that it is in fact a cotton plant. This is hardly a surprise, as slavery – and therefore the cotton economy – was the central reason for secession, a pillar of the state’s economy, and a cotton plant is still featured on the Standard of the Governor of Alabama (not the state flag).

The heritage of the snake, specifically a coiled rattlesnake,  is probably also obvious to most Americans. This is of course a reference to the Gadsen Flag, not well known by name (I must admit I was not familiar with this name) , but well known as a symbol of the 1776 American Revolution.

“The Gadsden Flag, 1776 – The uniquely American rattlesnake became a popular symbol in the American colonies and later for the young republic. When the American Revolution began, the rattlesnake appeared on money, uniforms and various military and naval flags. To provide a striking standard for the flagship of the first commodore of the American Navy, Christopher Gadsden, an American general and statesman from South Carolina, chose the rattlesnake for
his design.”

Perhaps even better known than the coiled rattlesnake image on the Gadsen Flag  is the segmented snake of Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join or Die” cartoon, which the Gadsen was itself referencing. But it is the coiled rattlesnake motif that the Alabama secession flag employs, and “Noli me Tangere” or “touch me not” – is obviously a reference to “Don’t Tread On Me.”

The use of the phrase Noli Me Tangere by both Jose Rizal and the State of Alabama were in the service of protest, and a move towards revolution and self governance (although Rizal was not exactly a revolutionary he did help to inspire them.) But Rizal, whose anti-colonial novel was inspired by the anti-slavery propaganda novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and preached universal freedom. Alabamans, by contrast, used the phrase to propagandize for their own freedom, but in favor of slavery – an irony that would certainly have disgusted Rizal. One imagines that had he seen this flag, rather than interpreting the snake among the cotton as a symbol of the free agrarian Confederacy, but as the Satan of slavery lurking below King Cotton’s promise. And he might have even chosen a different title for his novel.

I conclude this post with the following two minute animation, an artistic illustration of the “right” for which the Confederacy fought.

<iframe title=”YouTube video player” width=”500″ height=”405″ src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/Tu3j7rPscpY?hd=1″ frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen></iframe>

[Update: I originally neglected to point out that the banner reads “noli mi tangere” rather than “noli me tangere,” which is simply a spelling error and of no significance that I can determine.]

The endangerered species known as local government assemblymen

The number of local government councilmen in Japan dropped a staggering 39% from 2003 through 2011, according to a recent survey by the Asahi Shinbun. The average compensation for assemblymen also dropped by 8% over the same period.

The drop was most pronounced in the municipalities that merged during the “Great Heisei Merger” of municipalities from about 1999, but it wasn’t limited to just those municipalities and also included prefectures. Municipalities subject to merger over the last ten years or so saw a drop of 58% in the total number of assemblymen — losing more than half the total numbers in just 8 years. The largest single drop was Niigata City, which ten years ago was 13 municipalities, where the merger resulted in a total of 314 local assemblymen to just 56, a drop of 82%. Even in the largest cities of the greater Tokyo area, and large cities mandated by cabinet order (seirei shiteishi), these regions saw a drop of 14% in the number of assemblymen, even though most of these regions were growing.

Having observed politics in the US and in Japan very closely for the past decade, what this shows to me is a surprisingly positive side of reform in Japan. The US would never be able to achieve this type of reduction of publicly elected officials, not even during the “Reagan Revolution.” In Japan it took place through a relatively silent, technocrat revision of government. It was a relatively top-down reform, implemented by incentivizing (or bribing) local municipalities to cooperate with money benefits and guarantees on various financial obligations, and while there are criticisms on both sides about the scope of the reforms, to me, this is a promising sign for Japan’s ability to change in the future.

2010 census numbers released

This week the internal affairs ministry released preliminary results of the 2010 census. According to news articles, the population rose slightly to 128 million, with immigration cited as one reason for the gain. At the same time, the far-flung regions of Japan continued to hollow out as people moved to and closer to urban areas, especially Tokyo. Other population estimates show Japan’s population seesawing up and down around 127 million, and the official projection is for the population to shrink to around 100 million by 2050.

The number of households continue to increase faster than the population with the rise of smaller and single-person households.

More detailed census data will be coming in the months ahead.

Zen Training at Engakuji


**BUMP–Registration will close in the next couple of days**

Engakuji (円覚寺), one of the major temples in Kamakura and training site of D.T. Suzuki, is holding its Spring Student Zazen Training Session from March 4-6. Application is open to anyone (including non-students).

I attending the Fall training session last year with almost no prior experience and found the weekend intense but very rewarding.

More details on the website (Japanese) here.

If any readers in Japan are interested in attending, please fill out this application form and send it to the temple via fax or mail. The sessions tend to be popular so I suggest applying as soon as possible. Neither prior experience with meditation nor advanced Japanese skills are necessary but having one of these is helpful.

I’m happy to answer any questions/concerns in the comments section.

More to life than growth?

So says the FT (hat tip to Dan Harris).

Underlying much of the head-shaking about Japan are two assumptions. The first is that a successful economy is one in which foreign businesses find it easy to make money. By that yardstick Japan is a failure and post-war Iraq a glittering triumph. The second is that the purpose of a national economy is to outperform its peers.

If one starts from a different proposition, that the business of a state is to serve its own people, the picture looks rather different, even in the narrowest economic sense. Japan’s real performance has been masked by deflation and a stagnant population. But look at real per capita income – what people in the country actually care about – and things are far less bleak.

By that measure, according to figures compiled by Paul Sheard, chief economist at Nomura, Japan has grown at an annual 0.3 per cent in the past five years. That may not sound like much. But the US is worse, with real per capita income rising 0.0 per cent over the same period. In the past decade, Japanese and US real per capita growth are evenly pegged, at 0.7 per cent a year. One has to go back 20 years for the US to do better – 1.4 per cent against 0.8 per cent. In Japan’s two decades of misery, American wealth creation has outpaced that of Japan, but not by much.

Those numbers are significantly gamed, since the US housing market was basically peaking in 2005/06 and began to collapse shortly thereafter, whereas 20 years ago (back when Clinton was first running for president) the US economy was in the toilet and Japan was still in the midst of its landing from the bubble. But you get the point.

I had a conversation with a local lawyer friend a few nights ago, part of which went something like this:

FRIEND: Man, this place is dead. No business, no innovation. Even the population is declining. Some guys respond “uhhh! uhhh! immigration will fix it all!” but I don’t buy that crap.

JOE: Well… [pause for effect] that’s one way to look at it. Tokyo is still growing even if the regions are hollowing out. Infrastructure is getting better. We can get real pizza and Mexican food now.

FRIEND: Yeah, but so what? There’s still no activity, no buzz, no meaningful deals in the pipeline. Everyone is just sticking their heads in the sand or living off of their savings.

JOE: It says a lot that they actually have savings. Anyway, if this is what an apocalypse looks like, none of us have much to worry about. I’m not in a rush to escape. Crowding and corporate lameness aside, life is pretty good here.

FRIEND: Ehhh, I just don’t see a future here.

JOE: Yeah, well, even when people “see a future,” they often get nasty surprises. (NOTE: It’s possible that being in Japan for a while has simply eroded my personal risk appetite.)

No flag burning please, we’re Japanese

Russia calls for probe into provocative actions of Japanese extremists

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on the Japanese authorities on Tuesday to prosecute Japanese radicals for desecrating a Russian flag during protests over a territorial dispute between the two countries.

Japanese ultra-right campaigners dragged the Russian flag along the ground outside the Russian Embassy in Tokyo on Monday amid the heating up of a diplomatic row between Russia and Japan over four islands off Russia’s Far Eastern coast, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Kuril Islands in Russia.

“Not only did we protest, but we also asked the Japanese authorities to launch a criminal case over the desecration of the Russian flag,” Lavrov said. “We were told that in Japanese law there is an article that forbids the mockery of foreign state symbols.”

Correct, FM Lavrov! Article 92 of Japan’s Criminal Code is referred to as 外国国章損壊罪 (gaikoku kokusho sonkaizai), or “Foreign National Symbol Damage Crime”). Clause 1 reads: “A person who damages, destroys or sullies a country’s flag or other national symbol, with the intention of insulting that foreign country, shall be punished with up to two years imprisonment and a fine of up to JPY200,000.”

Importantly, this crime is a 親告罪 (shinkokuzai), and requires the formal request of the victim for the prosecutor to proceed. Clause 2 reads: “The crime in the previous clause shall require the request of the foreign government to be prosecuted.” So Russia’s statement is required for the prosecutors to act.

How many such cases have there been? Not surpringsly, very few.

* In July 1956, the Qing Imperial flag was destroyed at an Osaka demonstration. The Osaka Prosecutors ruled that as the flag was private property, the act was not subject to prosecution.
* In May 1958 in Nagasaki, a man desecrated a PRC flag and was fined JPY500 by the police. Both the ROC (the government of which Japan recognized as the government of China at that time) and the PRC (which Japan did not recognize) made formal complaints, and resulted in some commercial contracts between the two countries being terminated.
* After an October 1993 soccer game in Qatar when the opposing Iraqi team tied with a final goal that disqualified Japan from the final rounds (known as the “Doha Tragedy“), Japanese supporters tore down the Iraqi flag at the Iraqi Embassy in Tokyo. The Iraqi embassy response was that the reaction was a “natural expression of patriotism” and they asked that the flag be returned by mail.

Japan is unique in that it only prosecutes desecration of foreign national symbols. There has never been a law prohibiting or punishing the desecration of the Japanese national flag. One reason is that, when the Criminal Code was drafted in Meiji Japan, the Emperor was soveign, and crimes against the emperor were the crimes against the state. These provisions of the law were cancelled after World War II.

Death of Detroit: “The Karate Kid” vs. Eminem

I finally got around to seeing The Karate Kid (i.e. last year’s remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan) last weekend.

Though not a revolutionary classic of filmmaking by any means, it was still pretty enjoyable and interesting from my perspective. One reason is that it is the only Hollywood film I have seen that captures the modern experience of being an American expat in Asia — particularly of being an American kid coming to Asia. The protagonist, 12-year-old Dre Parker, goes through the same stages of frustration and emergence in Beijing that I went through as a 15-year-old in Osaka. This balances to hilarious effect with the “overawed clueless expat” character of Dre’s mother Sherry, who spends most of the movie fawning on the wonderfulness of everything Chinese.

The other interesting facet of the film is its historical context in the industrial decay of America and simultaneous emergence of China. At the very beginning of the film, Sherry and Dre move from a middle-class existence in Detroit to a middle-class existence in Beijing, and a long portion of the opening credits consists of shots of the decaying metropolis of Detroit. The reason for their move, which is only briefly mentioned in the film, is that Sherry worked at a car factory which closed down, and the only way she could keep working was to transfer to a factory in China. When Dre gets exasperated and wants to go home, Sherry emphatically tells him that they cannot go home because there is nothing left for them.

In short, it’s a movie primarily about a kid overcoming his weaknesses through kung fu discipline, and secondarily about America, China and the expat experience in the 21st century. On the latter point, it does a much less groan-worthy job than the likes of Rising Sun and Gung Ho did during the Japanese emergence of the late 1980s.

The decay of Detroit is, of course, nothing new; there have been a few big movies made on the theme, such as the non-fictional Roger & Me in 1989 and the fictional 8 Mile in 2002. Now Chrysler is using the legacy and the decaying grit of Detroit as selling points for their high-end cars; on Sunday, they ran the following ad during the Super Bowl, which is the most-watched TV program in the US just about every year, and got Eminem to pop in as a spokesman. (Hat tip to James Fallows for the link.)

The ad conveniently ignores the fact that Chrysler will be owned by Italians as soon as it pays off its debts to the US federal government. But hey, image is everything.