The day’s news in Patriotism and rememberance

Glancing at today’s top stories at The Japan Times, I am struck by how thematically linked many of them are. Now, of course it is a slow-news Sunday with few actual current events to report on, which leads the news people to slot the historical stories into the front page, but we can still see an interesting congruence of themes in four of today’s top stories.

The big story is that the New ‘patriotism’ education law takes effect. All readers of this blog already know that this law has been in the news for some time, it has been debated by everyone, protested against by citizens groups, teachers unions, parents and students, and contested by a coalition of the DPJ and other minor opposition political parties, who in the end failed to stop its passage by the eternally ruling LDP. While I haven’t read the actual text of the law [available here] yet (which I really should do soon), we do all know that the controversy stems from one particular section of the comprehensive education law-containing many provisions on reforms generally accepted as necessary-in which it states that “an attitude that respects tradition and culture and loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them” should be promoted by throughout compulsory education, which incidentally I believe has also been extended to include high school for the first time, in one of the less politically charged provisions of the law.

This rather innocuous sounding passage sounds like part of the basic curriculum of lower education in pretty much any country, and one could argue does not even sound any different from what is already taught in classrooms throughout Japan, but many people think of the recent case of teachers being disciplined for not singing the national anthem and feel a worry that the actual implementation of these newly mandatory provisions is another stage in the resuscitation of a particular pre-war style of nationalism. In reality, the debate is not over whether patriotism and shared national values should be taught to children, but what meaning that patriotism has, and what those values are.

The worry among the opposition camp is that the official patriotism will be a doctrine of subservience to the state, which could someday lead to a return to the military days of the past. The fact that the education law was passed in the same parliamentary session as the bill elevating the head of the Self Defense Forces to a cabinet level minister does not appear to them to be a coincidence. But the opposition has their own narrative of patriotism, primarily based on the doctrine of pacifism and anti-militarism that was embraced throughout Japan after the multifaceted disaster of Japanese Imperialism and the Second World War. The relentless defense of these principles, primarily in the guise of Article 9 of the American imposed postwar Constitution-the protection of which seems to be invoked in virtually every campaign poster of a politician campaigning against the LDP-represents a particular vision of Japan, which they are proud of and want to protect. This is an attitude that I think should be considered a form of patriotism.

While statements by the reigning Emperor tend to be somewhat bland and cryptic, this seems to be the attitude expressed by Akihito, the Heisei Emperor, in remarks made on his birthday-which was also a top story today. Although I mentioned above that it was The Japan Times in which these four stories were placed next to each other, I’m going to present the somewhat longer quote from the BBC article (also the front page of that site).

“Now that the number of those who were born after the war increases as years pass by, the practice of mourning the war dead will help them to understand what kind of world and society those in the previous generations lived in,” Emperor Akihito said, in remarks made on Wednesday, but only made public on Saturday.

“I sincerely hope that the facts about the war and the war dead will continue to be correctly conveyed to those of the generations that do not have direct knowledge of the war so the kind of ravage of war that we experienced in the past will never be repeated,” he added.

However, the emperor avoided touching on how people should honour those who died in World War II.

(The original Japanese statements can be found here at the Yomiuri)
Somewhat limp statements like these are a result of how it is generally considered inappropriate for the Emperor to engage in any political activity, or suggest or endorse any particular thing or action, lest it remind us of the bad old days. If you read the entire statement of the”symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” you can see that he is very careful only to specifically reference the deaths of Japanese soldiers and civilians and the general horror of war, but he also hopes that the “history of both Japan and the world” should be “properly conveyed to the generation of people who have not directly experienced war” so that “the horrors of war like those of the past shall not be repeated.” Right wing supporters of the new education law may argue that children will be upset by learning about evil things done by their own country in the past, but it is difficult to believe that this sort of education encourages the strong anti-war sentiment in present day Japan. Could anyone really say that the Emperor’s desire for the history of war to be taught in such a way that it helps encourage students to be anti-war is unpatriotic?

The concept of “patriotic” education is not inherently nationalistic or jingoistic. I believe that growing up I was taught about American history in a way that was intended to strongly foster patriotism, but not by entirely white-washing the past. Among the things I specifically recall studying in American History class at some point over elementary school, middle school and high school classes are: slavery and segregation (lesson plans inspired in no small part by the fact that the public schools of Montclair, New Jersey were in the twelve years I spent there roughly 50% black/white), smallpox blankets, the Salem Witch Trials, Manifest Destiny, industrial revolution child labor, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the Wounded Knee Massacre, the Trail of Tears. And this is not even a complete list of the various injustices committed by the United States of America that I was taught about in history class.

A Kobayashi Yoshinori or Shintaro Ishihara might think that I went through a history curriculum written by anti-American rabid communists or something, but as I already said these were actually patriotic lessons. How could that be? Well, slavery had Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad and the abolitionist movement-lessons of heroism and virtue. Segregation brought us Brown Vs. Board of Education-a lesson that our system of law is eventually a system of justice and the civil rights movement, with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and other heroes, and of course the eventual end of legalized segregation. The Salem Witch Trials lead to separation of church and state, a fundamental principle of American society. The dark side of the industrial revolution eventually led to the labor movement and various legislation and a significant improvement in worker’s rights. And so on. I do not recall if it was ever spelled out, but in retrospect the basic narrative is clear. Not “America is perfect,” but “America’s founding principles are good, and if we work at it, someday they can be fully realized.” How similar my education was to the national average I have no idea, but I expect that this core narrative is standard. And today’s third article, telling us that President Bush has signed a law providing for the preservation and restoration of all the Japanese internment camps from World War II. “The objective of the law is to help preserve the camps as reminders of how the United States turned on some of its citizens in a time of fear.”

Right wingers in Japan deride the teaching of things such as comfort women, war crimes and colonialism as anti-patriotic, saying that it will make children feel bad about their country. But it is all about the approach. Certainly teaching children about the mistakes and excesses of the colonial decades makes them feel bad about that time, but presented correctly it makes them feel good about living in today’s Japan: a nation which has moved past that stage. Perhaps by being over-reactionary about terms such as “patriotism” and “nationalism,” peace activists, politicians and teachers in favor of actually teaching kids about the past are in fact making a serious strategic error. By saying patriotism=right wing makes it all too easy for the rightists to label them as unpatriotic, when many of them are actually very patriotic.

And now the fourth and final article, Sex slave exhibition exposes darkness in East Timor, which describes the findings of a Truth Commission by the East Timor government on the systematic rape of East Timorese woman by Japanese soldiers in so-called “comfort stations” during Japanese occupation of the then Portuguese colony, as well as the far less organized rape of East Timorese women by Indonesian soldiers during their occupation of the now independent country. While all of this is very interesting, particularly how characteristics of the local society led to different recruiting practices of comfort women from certain other colonies, the following passage is the one relevant to the current essay. [Emphasis added]

Citizen groups concerned about the lack of accountability for the wartime sex-slave atrocities convened a people’s tribunal in Tokyo in 2000 that found the late Emperor Hirohito and high-ranking Japanese military officers guilty of crimes against humanity. The verdict was later censored from an NHK documentary on the trial amid allegations by a major daily newspaper that two heavyweight Liberal Democratic Party politicians — Shoichi Nakagawa and Shinzo Abe — paid a less than comfortable visit to the public broadcaster before it was aired. [Detailed article on this case here at Japan Media Review]

Charges of government censorship of NHK, which seemed sensational and cynical at the time, are now quite believable in the wake of news that now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered NHK to focus on the North Korean abductee case. Fears that Japan is returning to 1930’s style thought control are both premature and somewhat hysterical, but increasing interference with NHK and education is inarguably more of a step in that direction than away from it. However, while the LDP did manage to pass this bill, opposition to it was fairly strong, and the Abe administration is not looking particularly popular, so it is always possible that we have another amendment of the education law by a future administration to look forward to. Yet, I think the return of education that teaches Japanese kids to take pride in their country is here to stay. The big question is, what will teach them to be proud of? German style guilt based education is entirely off the table, but that does not mean that history class has to be sanitized. There is a big difference between teaching children to be ashamed of the past and teaching them to be proud of having surpassed it.

Part 2: A brief history of Philippine-US relations: Early colonial rule

Since it turns out that all of my books on the Philippines are back home in the US and I’m not going to hit the library for a blog entry, I’m relying on a combination of memory and internet sources. I apologize for any errors, tell me if you spot any, and don’t quote this in your schoolwork.

Continued from Part 1: The “Nicole” Rape Case.

The fact is barely remembered in the US, but The Philippines was a colonial possession of the United States from approximately 1900-1946. The exact date at which The Philippines became a US colony is open to debate. The US purchased the Philippines from Spain in 1898 after winning the Spanish-American war, but since The Philippines had already declared an independent republic earlier that year, after years of resistance against Spanish colonial rule, and with neither the nascent first Republic of the Philippines nor the United States recognizing each other’s legitimacy as administrator of the country, the Philippine-American war broke out. The US defeated the Philippine military and established a colonial government in 1901, headed by Governor General William Howard Taft, whose experience in this job led to his later role as President of the United States.

Although The Philippines was a colony of the US, administration of the colony was markedly different from the colonies of European nations that still existed, or the colonies that Japan was busily establishing to the north. United States rule was particularly different from the earlier Spanish rule that it replaced. “From the very beginning, United States presidents and their representatives in the islands defined their colonial mission as tutelage: preparing the Philippines for eventual independence.” (source) In many ways, US colonial administration of The Philippines, with its mission of “tutelage” in preparation for independence, was more similar to US led occupation missions in post-war Japan and Germany, or present day Iraq than to traditional concepts of colonial rule. Keep in mind that Douglas MacArthur, the leader of occupation era Japan, had been in the Philippines before the Japanese invasion of World War II.

Compared to Spanish rule, whose policy was to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the Spanish and mixed-blood colonial elite, spread the Catholic faith, exploit the land for resources that could benefit the home country, and keep the populace illiterate and unorganized, US rule was an improvement. Governor General Taft’s administrative philosophy was “the Philippines for the Filipinos . . . that every measure, whether in the form of a law or an executive order, before its adoption, should be weighed in the light of this question: Does it make for the welfare of the Filipino people, or does it not?”

To this end, and with the eventual goal of independence, the colonial administration promoted economic development, building political structures and instituted compulsory education for all citizens, using English as the primary language of instruction-in contrast to Spanish times, when very few Filipinos ever became proficient in Spanish. The Catholic Church had been the official religion of the colony and actually conducted much of the local governance throughout the islands, with the Spanish colonial government primarily sticking to urban strongholds. The Church had thus accumulated massive holdings, and priests had been known to run isolated parishes in the manner of medieval fiefdoms. The act establishing the colonial administration also revoked the Church’s official status, and the United States bought the majority of Church land, reselling it to private citizens and businesses.

But even though American colonial rule of the Philippines was relatively benign when compared with most European administered colonies over the previous centuries, it was still colonial rule. Like any colony, the colonizers imposed their language and culture on the colonized. English was the official language throughout the American colonial period, a constant reminder of who was really in charge, and in the early years also an impediment against participation in the civil service by Filipinos. Today, English remains one of the two national languages of the Republic of the Philippines, along with Tagalog, the native language of the region of Luzon island surrounding Manila, the country’s capital and economic center. While citizens throughout the country are supposed to be educated in both national languages, many Filipinos with a native regional dialect besides Tagalog are actually more comfortable with English, which they consider a supplement to their native language, as opposed to Tagalog, which is sometimes seen as threatening regional dialect. The various dialects and languages are all strongly influenced by the language of their colonizers, with a large part of everyday vocabulary consisting of Spanish and English words. Interestingly, speakers of Philippine languages will sometimes use entire grammatically correct phrases or even clauses of English in ordinary conversation in their native language. I have heard that speakers of the Tagalog (Manila region) dialect use the most English words, but the more provincial Visayas dialects contains a higher proportion of Spanish words. However, Spanish derived words are used only as vocabulary in all dialects, and never as complete grammatical structures, which is reflective of the rarity of actual Spanish fluency in the Spanish ruled Philippines.

All governments have some level of corruption, and those which are not answerable to the people they administer, such as colonial governments, tend to be worse. The American colonial government in the Philippines was described in a 1921 letter from Dean C. Worcester as one in which graft was “generally, openly and insolently demanded as a prerequisite to the performance of their duties by government officers and employees.” (Worcester was an author of several books on the Philippines. One can currently be found at Project Gutenberg.) Aside from corruption, there was also contempt for the natives from many colonial administrators, even including at least one Governor General. In 1905, Taft’s secretary wrote “the trouble with Governor-General Wright and some others was that they came from the South and that they could not get rid of the race-prejudice which the man from the South of the United States has.”

Some prominent figures such as Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan had opposed on anti-imperialist and anti-racist grounds the colonization of of the Philippines in the first place, but during the early years of the colonial period there was little support for granting them independence in the near term. There had been a promise by the US government from the beginning that the Philippines would be granted independence someday, when it was ready, but the primary debate was between those who wanted to establish a local Philippine civilian government subordinate to the US administration, and those who wanted to continue direct rule. Representing the first opinion, former Governor General Taft, now Secretary of War, wrote in 1907 that “the partial control of the government which is now in the hands of the Filipinos has itself developed both conservatism and an interest in the existing government which will have a healthful tendency to delay the pressure for immediate independence on the part of those who are actually exercising influence in the Assembly.” On the other side, an American teacher working in the Philippines wrote in 1908 that a “mistake was made in introducing civil government quite so soon, but on the other hand the military people exaggerate very much the danger of an insurrection and the need of an army–it is for their interest to do so.”

Next, part 3: Through Independence.

Ibuki seeking to further dehabilitate young minds

According to this report by Debito, new Education Minister Bunmei Ibuki is opposed to English in the elementary school curriculum.

The reasoning is that Ibuki (as do many conservatives) believe that students’ Japanese language abilities are going down. They should work on their native language, hone that to a good level, then work on English. Studying a foreign language at such an early age a) apparently confuses the kids, and b) takes class time away from good, honest study of our language.

Now, check out this translated quote from the Japan Times:

“I wonder if (schools) teach children (the) social rules they should know as Japanese,” Ibuki said. “Students’ academic abilities have been declining, and there are (many) children who do not write and speak decent Japanese. (Schools) should not teach a foreign language.”

No wonder he hates English–he wants kids to speak nice hazy traditional Japanese, where sentences have no subjects. It’s very handy for imperial mind control when you never have to say who’s doing something!

Anyway, everyone should have to study a foreign language, even if they never plan to actually use it. Learning another language changes the way you view your own language. Every time you have to translate a sentence, you gain a deeper understanding of the grammar and vocabulary of your own language. Of course, it might also dilute your language with random foreign jargon, but what’s the real harm in that?

(Fun fact: The name “Bunmei” means “civilization.” You know this guy must have had some weird parents.)

Asian History Carnival

Welcome to the 7th installment of the Asian History Carnival, a project of Jonathan Dresner and the Asian History blog Frog In A Well. For this installment I have decided to, instead of using the usual geographic classification, separate posts into three broad thematic categories. First “History Wars,” for posts and articles about attempts by contemporary people and nations to control the memory of the past. This title comes from the excellent book of the same name, which I read recently. Next are History Finds, posts in which the author presents his or her own research or discovery of some not commonly known piece of history. Finally we have History Lessons-posts which are, in some form, teaching history. Of course this overlaps with the other two categories, so this section includes only posts which do not fit the criteria of either of the other two. That is, they are presenting history which is, if not necessarily well known, something which can be discovered from conventional sources, and not based on the personal discovery of the previous category.

History wars

With all the controversy over the ABC Road to 9.11 miniseries, the US public is finally getting a taste of the history wars that East Asians are continually waging.

There’s always some sort of territorial dispute going on in East Asia. If it isn’t Russians arresting Japanese fishermen over islands nobody really cares about, it’s Japan arresting Taiwanese fisherman over other islands nobody cares about. Or maybe a Korean guy engaging in an awesome protest stunt for obscure reasons.

While there was a miniscule controversy over a poorly drawn map on the Okinwana prefectural website showing Tsushima, an island which is actually part of Nagasaki prefecture, as foreign territory, the current major fad in East Asian territorial disputes has to be over Koguryo, an ancient kingdom on the Korean penninsula that ceased existing in the year 668, after being defeated and absorbed by the rival Silla kingdom, with plenty of help from Tang China. One might think that disputes over the borders of Koguryo would have ended back then, but sadly things are not that simple.

What do you need to know to understand this? Well, it might not hurt to read up on Koguryo history a little. (And it might not hurt to check out Tang China, Silla, and so on while you’re there.) Then try The Korea-China Textbook War–What’s It All About? from History News Network. This article is from back in March and may have been in a previous edition of this history carnival, but it’s good background. Next try this article on The “history war” Between China and SK, which while published in the Asia Times Online, is written by the blogger Andrei Lankov, of North Korea Zonesome comments in response to this article, as well as links to some Korean coverage of the battle. There are of course plenty of other bloggers discussing this issue as well.

As speculation mounts (again) that the Kim dynasy of North Korea may be weakening, a post-collapse scenario by Robert Kaplan has been making the rounds. This is where the academic debate over ancient territorial borders starts to have a practical result. After the DPRK collapses, does China get to grab part of the former North Korea to protect their territorial integrity from ethnic Koreans in China who want to rejoin their distant relatives? Does the newly Unified Korea get to grab nearby territory in China because of the significant Korean minority? Time to bust out the historical precedent-no matter how flimsy or dusty. You can find discussion of this article by bloggers at DPRK Studies, GI Korea, or in the comments thread at the Robert Kaplan fan-blog Yes, in the end it’s just speculation about the future. But in the end this is exactly what the History Wars discussed just above are really all about.

Antti Leppänen, a Finn who blogs on Korea, reports on the possible rehabilitation of Pak Hôn-yông , “Southern-born communist leader who went over to the North before the establishment of separate states, was a member of the early DPRK leadership and was given the responsibility for the failures of the Korean War and executed in 1955 for having been a ‘spy for the American imperialists.'” Does this amount to an admittance of fault by the Kim dynasty? Is the initial report even true? Like most developments in North Korea, we have more speculation than hard fact.

Is it already 30 years since Mao’s death? Try comparing this Apply Daily article with this one from Canada.

Is Taiwan “China”? The debate has raged for decades, if not centuries, and shows no sign of calming. Jonathan Dresner gives his opinion on Michael Turton’s argument “China has never owned Taiwan” largely because Taiwan was “never the possession of any ethnic Chinese emperor.” This is one of the many arguments that Taiwanese pro-independence forces use in their ongoing battle. Of course, however sympathetic one may be to the cause of Taiwanese independence/autonomy, it does seem unlikely that they will achieve formal recognition by the PRC as a separate state through superior rhetoric.

Noja, of Frog In A Well Korea, has an article questioning the difference between “resistant collaborators” and “collaborative resistors.” Since Noja is actually trying to puzzle out the answer for inclusion in a Russian textbook on Korea’s history (being written in Kyushu University!) this could almost have gone in the Lessons section below, but Noja is grappling with definitions of some issues touchy enough to have gotten many of the original actors executed, so I’ll leave it here.

History finds

Michael D. Manning of The Opposite End of China finally discovers the original location from which an “ancient” 1998 photo of Korla, Xinjiang, was taken and snaps his own photo for comparison, at the exact same angle. There is probably less difference between the two photos than you would find in most Chinese city centers over the same period.

In a similar vein, Richard Barrow shows an interesting contrast between a photograph of the Royal Tonsure Ceremony for the boy who would late become King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) and a line drawing made for reproduction in the book”The English Governess at the Siamese Court,” (photographs could not be printed with the day’s technology) which I will assume is the basis for The King and I. The editor made a mistake which I imagine even under Thailand’s modern lese majesty statute could get him in trouble. Shortly below this you can see some photographs and description of what slightly less regal Thais were wearing in the mid-19th century.

It may seem premature, so let’s call this preemptive history. The statistics and survey in Japan blog What Japan Thinks has a survey on what will be Koizumi’s legacy as Prime Minister. It’s an interesting list, particularly since it shows the massive contrast between issues that the foreign-language press pays attention to, and what Japanese people actually care about themselves.

The absolutely essential China blog EastSouthWestNorth has posted translations of a couple of dozen passages from “Extraordinary Sayings” (非常道) by Yu Shicun (余世存), an unstructured collection of, well, extraordinary sayings gleaned by the author from hundreds of books, covering China’s history from 1840-1999. A two part post, you can find Part 1 herePart 2 here.

Roland Soong, the now famous and formerly semi-anonymous ESWN blogger has also been doing some historical research of his own, into his own family roots. The first installment of his findings, in which he tracks the fate of his grandfather’s once-famous library, makes for fascinating reading.

This is where I would like to plug one of my own postings. After several weeks of minimal posting I stumbled across a reference to an important but largely unknown American-born engineer by the name of William R. Gorham, who emigrated to Japan in the early 20th century, helped build their early aeronatics and automobile industries, and finally towards the end of his life became a Japanese citizen on the eve of World War II. A man with an important history, but just on the edge of total obscurity, I spent some time tracking down everything I could find out about him using only conventional and free online resources, and wrote up my findings in this article here.

History lessons

When I went to Xinjiang, China a few years ago I was surprised to find that Turpan is full of Japanese speaking Uyghur guides, to accomodate the steady stream of Japanese tourists that have been heading there ever since the famous Silk Road documentary aired on NHK in 1980. In looking through the archives of various blogs for this Carnival, I found that earlier this year Our Silk Road had reported that this highly influential travel/history documentary is being updated with recent scholarship, and even better, higher resolution imagery.

The Central Asia and Caucasus themed blog collective has an excellent special feature looking back at the Soviet breakup on its 15 year anniversary. There are posts at each country blog – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – as well as an editorial and a “special guest post” by Dr. Johannes Linn, Brookings scholar and former Vice President of the World Bank for Europe & Central Asia. No, I haven’t had time to read all of them yet.

This August was also the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Cultural Revolution in China. In honor of that, the Chinese Media blog Danwei has one long post with “two first person accounts beginning of the decade of chaos, translated and with an introduction by Geremie R. Barmé.” They also put up a companion post with links to several cultural revolution resources, including a recording of the original radio announcement. Jottings from the Granite Studio also has a post with some thoughts on History and Memory and the Cultural Revolution.

I wasn’t sure whether to put this one in the History Wars or the History Lessons section. And I’m still not sure. I may even change my mind before I finish editing. The Taiwan based Betelnut Blogger is ticked off by historical revisionism in the Taipei Times editorial page, and he’s decided to set the facts straight on the history of the KMT/CCP civil war in China. Does the politicized introduction make this a History War post, or is the content neutral enough to leave it here? In a sense, this is the question of authorial viewpoint that one has to consider in any historical document being consulted,cited or referenced, whether primary or secondary source. Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Blogging… Walk The Talk is a Hong Kong based blog maintained by two men involved in the tour guiding industry in some fashion. Naturally, it often contains posts on interesting history, and last month included two worth noting. First is the story of The Colonial Flag of Hong Kong, which like the symbols of many ambiguous territories never really reached the level of popularity that such things achieve in more nationalistic populations. Second is an interesting piece on Japan’s Heroin Habit in the Roaring Twenties. The thing I like about this post is that it is not referencing Japanese sources, but an exerpt from a 1923 Hong Kong Imports and Exports Office document. Maybe someone else can find some confirmation from the Japanese end that the heroin actually got to where it was supposed to?

In addition to just articles that teach history, we also have one about teaching history. Jonathan Dresner has a post introducing his syllabi for a class on Japanese Women.

Other contributors to Frog In A Well brings us two reproductions of original documents. First is an illustration from an article on smoking in an early 20th century Shanghai newspaper, which seems to show an army of premature Elvis clones out to destroy traditional Asian value. Finally we have an extraordinarily specific contract spelling out just exactly what it was like as a slave in Han China.

* * *

And that’s it for this installment of the Asian History Carnival. I apologize for the delays and lateness. I blame the anonymous neighbor from whom I had been borrowing wifi service from, who seems to have changed their settings to make the connection just barely on this side of semi-usable for me. The DSL installer is coming in one week…

Here are a few announcements for related events:

Carnivalesque (Ancient/Medieval and Early Modern)
coming up sometime soon.

The History Carnival coming up 10/1 at Rob Macdougal’s place (most recent edition at Cliopatria.)

Carnival of Bad History, coming up at World History Blog.

And of course, the next edition of the Asian History Carnival to be hosted by Nathanael Robinson.

“Taiwan still a good place to learn Mandarin”

The following is an op-ed piece from yesterday’s edition of the Taipei Times that considering I myself went to Taiwan instead of China to study Chinese makes a very good point. Time Magazine’s goddawful article on learning Mandarin can be found at their web site here.

Taiwan still a good place to learn Mandarin
By Dan Bloom

Tuesday, Jul 25, 2006,Page 8

“Time” magazine published a long feature in its June 19 edition about the benefits of studying Mandarin — in China. Not once did the magazine’s 10-page report mention that Taiwan is also a good place to study, learn and live the Chinese language. How could such a reputable, international magazine, with many readers in Taiwan miss the boat on this?

When a reporter in Taiwan queried a Time editor in Hong Kong about the cover story, which was titled “Get Ahead, Learn Mandarin,” he received the following note: “The story did not discuss Taiwan because the subject of our cover story that issue was the rising interest in studying Chinese. That phenomenon is directly related to the growth of the Chinese economy, hence the focus on China. People study Mandarin in Taiwan, of course, but that has long been the case and isn’t really news.”

Good answer, but it didn’t really answer my question. When an international news magazine devotes its cover story to “learning Mandarin” in Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea and does not once mention the country of Taiwan as a place to learn Chinese, something is very wrong in the biased way the editors perceive things. Perhaps Time’s editors in Hong Kong believe that Taiwan is a mere province of China and therefore not worth a mention in the article in question?

Mark Caltonhill, a longtime resident of Taiwan, recently wrote an online commentary in the Taiwan Journal about his own learning curve in acquiring Mandarin. He noted that Taiwan was a very good place to learn and live the Chinese language, and is not in any way inferior to China.

Caltonhill wrote: “Whatever [a] student’s interests and specialties — art or history, religion or philosophy, literature, martial arts or Chinese cuisine — Taiwan has as much or more to offer [than China].”

Taipei, of course, is a very good place to study Chinese. Time’s editors know that. Time even has reporters who work for the magazine here. And there are many schools here that offer Mandarin classes, such as National Taiwan Normal University’s Center for Chinese Language and Culture, the National Taiwan University Language Center and the Tamkang University Language Center.

The Time article stressed that “while English may be the only truly international language, millions of tongues are wagging over what is rapidly becoming the world’s other lingua franca: Mandarin.”

Quoting a statement by British linguist David Gaddol, the magazine added: “In many Asian countries, in Europe and the US, Mandarin has emerged as the new must-have language.”

Time even quoted a professor in China, who said: “Promoting the use of Chinese among overseas people has gone beyond purely cultural issues. It can help build up our national strength and should be taken as a way to develop our country’s `soft power.'” That was Hu Youqing, a Chinese-language professor at Nanjing University talking.

Time mentioned that China has sent more than 2,000 volunteers to teach Mandarin overseas, mostly in Asian nations such as Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. Why didn’t it also mention that Taiwan also has sent volunteer teachers to several Asian countries? China’s goal is to have 100 million foreigners studying Mandarin by the end of the decade. Well, won’t some of them be studying Mandarin in Taipei or Kaohsiung? Time missed the boat again.

Will Mandarin ever overtake English as the world’s common language? Probably not, but as Time notes, “just as knowing English proved a key to getting ahead in the 20th century, learning Chinese will provide an edge in the 21st.” This was a good point and was an important theme of the entire cover story. But by ignoring Taiwan — not mentioning Taiwan even once in the entire feature — the magazine’s editors showed their ignorance and bias against Taiwan, even though they work and live in Asia.

Taipei is a very good place to learn and live the Chinese language, and Time magazine did a huge disservice to its readers around the world by ignoring Taiwan completely in its June 19 cover story.

Wake up, Time magazine, China does not have a monopoly on Chinese-language centers and Mandarin schools. Wake up and smell the coffee — in Taiwan, too.

Dan Bloom is a freelance writer based in Chiayi.

Is Japan getting bored with English? Let’s Hope So!

After glancing at a few developments in Japan’s news, something has hit me – Japan’s interest in the English language seems to be on the decline! Let me give you some examples along with my own speculation as to why this is happening:

Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reports that Japan’s municipalities will accept 5,508 foreigners as teachers/token foreigners in the JET program. More interestingly, this year marks the 4th straight decline in the number brought in by the program after a peak in 2002 (see the announcement for a clearer chart):

JET Number accepted 1987-2006.JPG

My explanation for this decline – JET salaries and other costs are covered by the central government in the form of kofuzei, or tax revenues collected from local governments and redistributed back so as to achieve an equilibrium in economic development nationwide. Since kofuzei has been the target of major cuts as part of Koizumi’s reform program to make outlying regions more autonomous, it’s likely that the municipalities had to make a decision between an ALT and money for a new bridge. Not a sign of a lack of interest per se, but the dynamic of the incentives to accept these people is changing, forcing towns to reexamine their priorities.

The decline in the English teaching market is even more striking in the private sector. FujiSankei Business-i examines the glut in English teachers in Japan in a July 12 article. According to NOVA’s estimates, the market may have peaked in 2004. The increased competition among schools is exerting pressure toward innovation, improvement of service, and the closure of schools (NOVA, the king of eikaiwa schools, is restructuring – not a good sign!). While this could spell a period of decline for the eikaiwa schools, maybe this will actually inspire the schools to actually get results.

The JET Program and private eikaiwa schools share the same essential method and selling point – put a recent college graduate from an English-speaking country in the room with Japanese person/people, wait for magic to happen. Call it English by Osmosis. For a long time college students have considered “teaching English in Japan” a valid first job option if nothing else panned out or if they really really liked Evangelion. But considering the above developments it could be only a matter of time before teaching English in Japan ceases to be an automatic option for undergrad students in English-speaking countries looking for something easy.

After something like 25 years of the “eikaiwa boom” it should come as no surprise that just about every Japanese person has given eikaiwa a try in one form or another. And once the majority realize that it’s not a magic replacement for a lack of motivation/talent, they get bored, leaving three things behind: 1) new generations of suckers; 2) hardcore students who know how to work the system and learn despite the flaws; and 3) disgruntled students who may no longer believe in the method. I realize that there are many teachers in Japan working very hard every day (I used to be one of them), but it is simply a flawed system.

And in a not unrelated development Japan’s pop culture is starting to look more into the Asian market these days at the expense of Hollywood. Just as we here in the US finally picked up on the trend of US celebrities making extra cash by appearing in Japanese commercials, it looks as though Hollywoord stars are no longer the commercial pull that they once were:

A Hollywood in-house secret, Japanese TV commercials were once talked about with a wink and a shake of the head. Piles of cash were paid to stars willing to peddle anything from whiskey to cigarettes, cars to coffee, instant noodles to cafe latte — as long as nobody told the fans back home. Hey, did you know Dennis Hopper did one for bath products? How much do you figure Leonardo DiCaprio got for that SUV spot? A million? Three?

Sadly, the days of seeing, say, Harrison Ford guzzling Kirin beer may be over. American stars have not vanished from the Japanese advertising landscape, but their numbers have dropped dramatically since the heyday of the 1990s, when even Mickey Rourke was considered bankable here.

The article goes on to say that the recent popularity of Korean dramas has spurred the shift in focus. Thankfully, the good times aren’t over – you can still see the many many ads that the Japan-pandering era produced at the wonderful

Another development in the background of all this is the political backlash against Koizumi’s reform agenda. Those who decry economic reform often cite their distaste for “market fundamentalism” (such as privatization of public corporations etc), considered a mechanical application of the American system to Japanese society. Regrdless of the validity of such claims (even though the US is unlikely to privatize its postal service anytime soon!), it may be inevitable that the anti-America rhetoric translates into fewer people taking up English as a hobby.

While the JET Program and eikaiwa schools are here to stay as an institution in Japan, it seems to me that the underlying support for grassroots English interest is waning a bit – the Japanese are getting a little bored with the “English through osmosis” model. While I dread the uncomfortable oyaji conversations that will no doubt result from the popularity of tripe like Dignity of a Nation, Japan’s shift away from its fascination with English/Hollywood (and perhaps by extension the rest of Europe/the entire “white race”) may at least have the fortunate side effect of making people realize that foreign-born TV personalities in Japan such as Dave Spector and Pakkun aren’t intrinsically all that interesting despite their mad Japanese skills. One can only hope.

But seriously, getting away from this flawed approach toward language learning is a promising sign for Japan. I tend to agree with calls to “learn Japanese first” (made in a recently popular anti-American diatribe Dignity of a Nation and elsewhere) that recently seem to be hitting a nerve. The logic in Japan of “English is the world language, so everyone needs to study English” is just basically wrong (as is the general curriculum that forces students to memorize a series of codes that only happen to be English and have no bearing on applied use of the language). In short, if you don’t learn your native language well and can’t express yourself on a deep level, there’s not much point in you being conversant in another language – you’ll have nothing to say! I think it’s best to provide quality opportunities for people to learn languages, and encourage those who are interested to pursue it to a high level. That might not make Japan into a nation of English speakers, but I don’t think that it’s politically possible for Japan to take the real steps needed to do that (i.e. make English essentially a second official language).

And another thing: it’s a little unfair for the JET Program to lure some 5k foreigners to Japan every year knowing that most of them are wasting their time. Considering that everyone is hired on contracts that last a maximum of 3 years, just what do 2 years at an elementary school or sitting at a desk in a city hall in the middle of nowhere in Japan have to offer anyone in terms of skills that can be applied elsewhere (outside maybe education)? In my own experience, I have met dozens of former JETs who are completely at a loss for what to do after completing terms in JET. They often want to use their Japanese language skills in their careers but for a number of reasons (never got any decent chance to take their Japanese to a high level, no meaningful job training except very little in education, and no meaningful further job opportunities for them inside Japan) it just doesn’t happen. But at the same time I can understand the mass interest in Japan and the eagerness of college grads to take a job in an interesting foreign country.

But rather than frittering their time away in a classroom, both sides would be better served if Japan had a JET Program for areas in which the country actually needs foreigners, like nursing, factories, finance, and IT jobs. Some recent proposals to promote these less parasitic foreigners, such as enhancement of visa programs, elimination of corrupt “language schools” and “entertainment visas” that serve as hotbeds of illegal immigration and crime, and attraction of more foreign students, whose numbers keep growing, are intriguing steps in the right direction IMO. This way, maybe all those people thinking about living in Japan might try studying something in a field that they know Japan needs, so when it comes time to graduate maybe they can get jobs that actually contribute to Japan’s GDP rather than padding its massive fiscal deficit. And for the Japanese, perhaps living in tandem with folks like this will provide a real incentive (“This person is my neighbor and I want to be her friend” rather than “I don’t want to waste the lessons I’ve already paid for”) to deal with foreigners and perhaps actually acquire the diversity and fresh experience that they seem so willing to pay for with eikaiwa.

Lapses of historical education: Spain edition

To readers of this blog, when you think of controversy over history education you may very well think of Japan first. The teaching of history in Japan has been a huge issue in recent years, with a certain infamous textbook even sparking protests in China and South Korea, but even as dismal as Japan’s teaching of certain dark aspects of their Imperial past can be, some other countries have it far worse.

According to the BBC:

But despite the importance of this Civil War, one survey shows that 50% of Spaniards have not talked about it at home. And 35% say they were never taught what happened in 1936, at school.

This amnesia has been actively encouraged at a political level.

Thirty years ago, Spain’s emerging new democracy felt so threatened by the ghosts of the Civil War and the recently defunct Franco regime that there was a ‘Pact of Silence’ between the left and the right of politics not to raise the issue or seek reparations for crimes committed by the dictatorship.

I find it somewhat mind-boggling that history classes in Spain have actually managed to keep the Spanish Civil War off the curriculum for so many years. What did they even talk about instead?

But Spain realizes that history can only be ignored for so long, and on the 70th anniversary of the rise of Spanish fascism they are preparing to address the past publicly for the first time.

The legislation will provide compensation for those who suffered under the dictatorship and is also expected to makes changes to General Franco’s most imposing legacy: The Valley of the Fallen, the former leader’s colossal burial chamber on the outskirts of the capital.

One suggestion is to convert part of the monument into an education centre about fascism. And, for the first time, the local authorities are expected to have guidelines to help people locate the bodies of family members, still missing, who were murdered during the Franco regime.

The government says its Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory is not about rewriting history, or making people responsible for crimes of the past. But for many Spaniards it represents a new willingness to examine the truth about their history.

The part about “not rewriting history” makes me wonder, is actually altering Franco’s monument a good idea? Despite all of the atrocities that he was responsible for, are the interested of a more accurate actually history served by altering a well known monument, or would it be better to leave it alone and simply build a new one?

I think of Taipei’s Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall. Built in the style of China’s Ming Imperial Tombs (which I think gives a fairly accurate hint as to Chiang’s aspirations) shortly after his death in 1975, this admittedly very attractive complex is dedicated to the memory of a man who’s name peppers the names of streets and schools in Taiwan as much as “The People’s” whatever does in the Mainland-a man who ruled Taiwan for decades with a brutality comparable to that of Franco’s, and whose policies were according to some responsible for the ROC loss of the Chinese Civil War, and later ROC/Taiwan’s UNSC seat.

After military rule ended and Taiwan democratized, what did they do with the memorial? Well, they kept it basically the same. Chiang is still deeply respected by much of the population, particularly supports of his former ruling party, and much like Spain (up until now) there has never been a truth commission, and the former dictator’s official public image may be tarnished, but hardly criticized on the level of Spain’s former-dictator. The memorial is given a military honor guard, still filled with memorabilia of his life, and and I believe still has text claiming that he was responsible for fostering Taiwanese democracy in the 40’s and 50’s (although I could be mixing it up with text I saw at his former house up on Yangmingshan- but more likely both have similar text.)

On the other hand, the lower level of the CKS Memorial Hall is used for a host of general cultural events, such as the Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration and a children’s science fair (two examples I saw myself) and the grounds are used at least weekly for various performances and festivals. While these activities do not exactly undermine it as a memorial, they do subtly alter the perception of the memorial itself by creating an image of the area as a public space devoted to positive activities, and somewhat weakening its role simply as a place of veneration for a political figure. This could be seen as reflecting to a degree the way in which nationalism in Taiwan has itself shifted away from being so linked with political figures and the Nationalist Party to a popular nationalism today more based on an independent culture and political system. By filling the Memorial CKS Hall with unrelated cultural events, it comes to be thought of more as a convenient performance space than a political symbol.

Compare General Chiang Kai Shek in Taiwan with General Francisco Franco. According to Wikipedia:

Since Franco’s death, almost all the placenames named after him (most Spanish towns had a calle del Generalísimo) have been changed. This holds particularly true in the regions ruled by parties heir to the Republican side, while in other regions of central Spain rulers have preferred not to change such placenames, arguing they would rather not stir the past. Most statues or monuments of him have also been removed, and, in the capital, Madrid, the last one standing was removed in March 2005.

Will Spain follow up by also altering the Valley of the Fallen? Will the government pay restitution to victims? How will they teach the Civil War-just flip it around and focus on all the bad things Franco and the Nationalists did, or explore the divisions in society that led to the conflict? Choosing a balanced approach to the teaching of history is always difficult, and in conflicts like this one which are particularly bitter there is a tendency towards propaganda in favor of whichever side is in power. According to the Guardian News Blog, a survey conducted by a Spanish newspaper says that one in three Spaniards still believes that Franco was right to overthrow the Republican government. Finding a historical narrative that can satisfy the two-thirds and the one-third is going to be difficult.