With the swine flu suddenly in the news, some might wonder why the authorities are so frantic to stop the disease in its tracks. For context, it might be worthwhile to mention the modern world’s worst disease outbreak, the deadly Spanish flu of 1918 that killed tens of millions.
But ironically, the “Spanish flu” almost certainly did not originate in Spain.
The only reason it acquired the name was because of Spain’s neutral position during World War I. Other countries at war instituted press restrictions, and the decision was taken not to report widely about the flu epidemic out of fear it would hurt morale. Since Spain had no such restrictions it was the only country in Europe reporting an outbreak, hence fooling observers into thinking that’s where the flu had come from.
Walking from Nogizaka Station to Tokyo Midtown this morning, I joined thousands of commuters who were forced to step over what appeared and smelled to be a smear of human feces on the Roppongi sidewalk. Was it anti-capitalist terrorism, or just the work of a partier who couldn’t contain himself?
Now that some of my anger has subsided, I can’t help but see this as an aptly pungent metaphor for modern Roppongi. While conveniently located in the center of Tokyo, for a long time the Roppongi area was not considered a business district but overwhelmingly the notorious nightlife center of Tokyo. But the construction of business centers such as Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown over the past few years has re-branded the area as office-friendly. Yet as long as the dozens of clubs continue to infest the Roppongi Crossing area, workers such as myself will be forced to commute each morning using the same streets taken by the drunks and gangsters to go home the previous night. I have had more than one run-in with drunks returning from a night out, but needless to say today’s experience trumped them all.
Premier Liu Chao-shiuan (劉兆玄) yesterday offered an apology to patients with Hansen’s disease— also known as leprosy — for the “grievance” and “unequal treatment” they have suffered in the past, promising that his administration would take good care of their nursing and medical needs. The apology came six months after the enactment of the Act of Human Rights Protection and Compensation for Hansen’s Disease Patients (漢生病病患人權保障及補償條例), which detailed measures the government must take to care for leprosy sufferers.
“I will not accept the government’s apology, because they did not apologize for what they did to me in December,” said Lan Tsai-yun (藍彩雲), a Losheng resident who was removed by the police from the Joan of Arc House. “I asked them to give me two more weeks to pack, but they refused. They cut the power and water while I was still inside, then they cut through the door with an electric saw and took me away by force. But look, Joan of Arc House still stands there today, a month after that incident — why couldn’t they give me two more weeks?”
Here is a video from Taiwanese TV showing activists being dragged away when protesting in support of Losheng preservation back in December. At exactly the 1:00 you can actually see my friend Em having her camera taken away as the police pull her away, although I think she got it back later on.
Ever since the start of our current financial disaster various economists and pundits have been comparing first the US banking problems with Japan’s, and then more recently the infrastructure-heavy stimulus program with Japan’s construction state. Today’s NYT has a substantial article that easily marks the most high profile comparison yet. I’m certainly no economist and I’m not even taking the time to look at numbers right now, but my quick take on the issue is that the comparison is being significantly overblown, but it is still a very worthwhile comparison to make, so that Japan’s various successes and mistakes can be absorbed as lessons. See the following summation of Japan’s massive pork spending:
Dr. Ihori of the University of Tokyo did a survey of public works in the 1990s, concluding that the spending created almost no additional economic growth. Instead of spreading beneficial ripple effects across the economy, he found that the spending actually led to declines in business investment by driving out private investors. He also said job creation was too narrowly focused in the construction industry in rural areas to give much benefit to the overall economy.
He agreed with other critics that the 1990s stimulus failed because too much of it went to roads and bridges, overbuilding this already heavily developed nation. Critics also said decisions on how to spend the money were made behind closed doors by bureaucrats, politicians and the construction industry, and often reflected political considerations more than economic. Dr. Ihori said the United States appeared to be striking a better balance by investing in new energy and information-technology infrastructure as well as replacing aging infrastructure.
Japan’s huge boom in public works spending was less a national stimulus program than a gigantic rural welfare program of pork-barrel projects designed to prop up the ailing LDP in its long decline. The money was largely directed not to the areas where it would benefit the largest number of people, but the areas where it would benefit the largest number of politicians. This was not done entirely out purely cynical political motives but also due to a genuine desire to arrest the decline of the rural regions themselves, in the face of continuing urbanization and a decline in Japan’s traditional and lionized (if anachronistic) agricultural lifestyle. Regardless of intent, a huge proportion (I won’t use words like “most” without looking at actual numerical research) of the spending was “stimulus” but not “investment”.
I am very, very wary of the general principal of “economic stimulus.” I am not opposed to government spending, or even large amounts of government spending, as long as it is being spent on something that is actually necessary or build further value in the future, i.e. services or investment. I think this attitude should be obvious from the mass transit funding letter I wrote and posted here a few days ago. In short, I worry that the discussions on spending currently ongoing in Washington may turn into a series of worthless boondoggle projects oriented at unpopulated rural areas, combined with random tax cuts and other expenditures poorly aimed at short-term (i.e. one election cycle) economic recovery, while continuing to ignore the trillions of dollars in outstanding repairs or upgrades as well as vital new investment that the country needs. I think it’s safe to say that politicians are going to spend this money. The question is, what will it buy us? Would we rather have a bunch of bridges to nowhere, vacant museums and amusement parks in virtually deserted rural towns, and paved-over mountain tops, or would we rather have a modern electrical grid, mass transit that at least meets late 20th century standards if not 21st century, a safe and reliable water system, bridges rated to not collapse, and maybe even an adequate system of public health care?
The historic Lo Sheng Sanitarium, built by the Japanese colonial government in 1930 and located in Sinjhuang City, Taipei County, may not be preserved after all. As I wrote about following my visit there this summer, activists have been working to arrange a preservation agreement for the site with the government, following a plan to demolish it entirely to make room for a metro train depot. The government had made a promise to preserve 40 (approximately 3/4) of the buildingds on the site, but now appears to be reneging.
The protest came after the Taipei County Government posted a bulletin on Tuesday in which it said that residents who have not moved out before Monday would be evicted, including residents living in 25 buildings the government had promised to preserve.
The government agreed to preserve 22 buildings at the first site.
“Of the 40 buildings that were to be preserved, the Department of Rapid Transport Systems only guarantees the safety of 15 during construction. It will fence the other 25 buildings, which means residents cannot live there anymore,” the group said in a statement.
They said the government’s sincerity in vowing to preserve the sanatorium was doubtful.
“The preservation agreement was made last May, but until now, the government hasn’t declared the sanatorium a historical site … Before it is declared as a historical site, we will not allow the MRT department to destroy the complex,” the group said.
I just finished reading the book Sketches From Formosa, a memoir by the English Presbytarian missionary Rev. W. Campbell, D.D., F.R.G.S., Member of the Japan Society in 1915. This is one of many wonderful facsimile reprint editions of old books concerning Taiwanese history (in both English and Japanese) published by the Taiwanese historical publisher Southern Materials (南天), which I picked up in their Taipei store. Towards the end of the book he gives his impressions of the Japanese takeover of Taiwan and their policies, and in that section (p. 325-6) was the following passage concerning Japanese efforts to eliminate opium use in Taiwan:
Those who favoured the gradual method of extinction felt that there were serious objections to an immediate adoption of the root-and-branch way of going to work. For example, they said-as many Medical Missionaries have also affirmed-that the latter course would entail unspeakable misery on the opium-smokers themselves, and that the enactment of stringent laws in such circumstances would necessitate a fleet of armed cruisers round the Island to prevent smuggling, with Police establishments and Prison accomodation on a scale which simply could not be hoped for.
Doesn’t this sound like a pretty good description of our current failed drug war policies, from a 1915 perspective?
On Saturday, I went with a friend of mine to see the “Children of the Dark“(闇の子供たち) , a new film by Japanese director Sakamoto Junji primarily about child prostitution in Thailand. The story is primarily told through the perspective of the two Japanese main characters, a reporter for Bangkok bureau of the fictional Japan Times (no relation to the actual English language Japan times, but more of a pastiche of the Asahi or Mainichi. I believe the Mainichi was thanked in the credits) named Nambu, and a Japanese college student named Keiko, who is volunteering at a tiny Bangkok NGO. Secondary characters include Nambu’s mildly irritating 20-something Japanese backpacker/photographer sidekick, and a wide selection of Thai criminals, NGO workers, and abused children.
Except for a brief trip back to Japan around the middle of the film, it takes place entirely in Bangkok. The dialogue is mixed Thai and Japanese, probably with Thai dominating. Nambu speaks appropriately good Thai, as a foreign correspondent should (even if they don’t all), and Keiko speaks a bit haltingly, but according to the subtitles at least she seems to have no trouble expressing complex thoughts, or understanding what anyone says.
The central plot thread is your fairly typical “newsman uncovers a story and chases it ragged even at the risk of his own life” and makes sure to include a selection of the typical cliches, such as a back-alley gunpoint menacing in which none of the stars are harmed, despite a secondary Thai character having been shot in the head in another scene moments before or the photographer’s constant wavering between going home to safety in Japan or staying in Thailand to fight the good fight. At the beginning of the film, Nambu receives a tip that Thai children are being murdered so their organs can be transplanted into dying Japanese children. This is just one of the ways in which children become disposable in the film, but I felt like the addition of this imaginery (although certainly not impossible) scenario to the array of real horror detracted from the film’s effectiveness.
The primary goal of the film is the depiction of evils inflicted by adults on children, and there are a number of truly unpleasant scenes involving child prostitution by foreigners of both Western (American and European) and Japanese origin, as well horrendous mistreatment of the child slaves by their Thai captors. These sorts of terrible things happen all day long in many parts of the world, and it is understandable that the film makers wanted to depict it on screen, but I found the “deeper” messages to be more muddled than sophisticated.
Incidentally, the Japanese Wikipedia article on the film has a rather odd criticism I’d like to mention briefly. It mentions that Japanese blogs (2ch-kei foremost I imagine) have called it “an anti-Japanese film” since it “puts all of the blame for the selling of children in Thailand on the Japanese.” This claim is patently absurd. Of course a significant part of the film’s purpose IS to blame Japan predatory Japanese, but Western perverts are given at least as much of a spotlight in the brothel vignettes. And the Thai criminals who actually run the victimization business are hardly made out to be innocent bystanders.
For some reason I was mildly irritated by Keiko’s inexplicably competent Thai throughout the film, but it may simply have been the fact that I found the character generally pointless. When she first arrives at the NGO, one of the ladies working there asks her “Why did you come to Bangkok, isn’t there some good you can do in Japan?” While this question lingers throughout the film, and naturally Keiko does come to do some good in Bangkok, her motivations are never explored and her character acquires no depth. Why did she come to Thailand? Why is she even in this movie? She is tabula rasa- a standin for the audience, or rather for the way the film maker wants the audience to think. Her initial appearance suggested that she could have been an aspect of a message that I think the filmmakers were trying to convey-that Thailand (and presumably other countries like it, although no others are mentioned) are playgrounds for Japanese and Western neo-colonialists to act out their fantasies of either depravity or heroism without repercussion. However, despite this theme perhaps being touched on ever so briefly during her first appearance, Keiko turns out to be nothing but an autonomic cliche of a young NGO volunteer.
I hope my ramblings do not give the impression that I hated the movie- I did not. I would, in fact, say that it was overall decent. But I did find it very disappointing. It starts well, and has a number of powerful scenes of horror and despair, but it is too long, the story is meandering and a bit cliched, and one of the leads is just dull to the point of no longer being annoying. Those with a particular interest in the problems this film addresses should see it, but wait for the DVD.
Update: Photo gallery added on 9.23.2008. The new Flicker flash gallery has a fullscreen mode which is excellent for photos like these. Also added some additional comments by Mr. Chang.
I had meant to write a few days ago about what I’ve been doing in Taiwan, but my friend’s house mate forgot to pay the DSL bill and so I haven’t been able to get online all that easily, so tonight I finally broke down and paid the NT$100 (about US$3) for a 24 hour WiFly (WiFi service in every Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, etc. in Taiwan) access card.
So, today I visited Taiwan’s famous Losheng Sanitarium (樂生療養院), a leper colony built by the Japanese colonial government in Xinzhuang City, Taipei County. As in leper colonies throughout the world, Taiwanese victims of Hansen’s Disease were forcibly imprisoned in Losheng by the government, as they were in Japan by the government there. Although the leper imprisonment order was lifted in Taiwan in the 1950s (I believe someone today told me 1957), they have for the most part remained. With modern medicine the patients are no longer inmates, and no longer contagious, but nothing can de-cripple them or regrow their missing fingers and stumpy limbs. And they have nowhere to go, and no way to survive except by public welfare of some sort.
I had first heard of Losheng perhaps a couple of years ago, due to the wave of protests to the government’s plan to demolish the entire complex to make way for a train depot, as part of Taipei metro’s never-ending expansion plan. Although there are naturally no opponents to MRT expansion itself, there have been severe doubts regarding the sense of building the depot in this particular location, which apparently requires the leveling of mountain to create flat ground which naturally occurs elsewhere and is widely suspected of having been chosen to satisfy local political interests before practical considerations of engineering.
Primary opposition to the plan however, is due to a desire to preserve Losheng. The adage goes something like, you never really appreciate something to it’s gone, and it is born out time and again in the history of urban preservation. New York City’s historical preservation regime was established in the wake of the foolhardy and abhorrent demolition of Penn Station in the 1960s, and throughout the world preservationist activity is often triggered by the threat of imminent loss. The government’s plan to demolish the place made people realize for the first time that it was worth preserving, and recent protests have spurred a surge of interest in the hospital site and its residents that has gone beyond simple preservationism to community organizing attempting to integrate Losheng, which for most of its existence was in principle as isolated as a prison, into the surrounding community. This has led to large numbers of non afiliated visitors spending time with the patients for probably the first time in many years, if not ever.
Since I cannot process the files from my digital camera until I get home to my desktop computer, words will have to suffice for now in describing Losheng. it turns out that from the articles I had read in The Taipei Times, not to mention the briefer pieces I saw in Japanese media I had no idea what it was like. When I read about a hospital/leper sanitarium being destroyed to make way for MRT construction I had for some reason imagined a cluster of shabby old buildings on a city street corner. But of course a leper colony could not be in such a place, and is in fact built on slightly elevated and up-sloping terrain on mountain foothills of a part of Taipei county that, at the time, was mostly farmland. Less a modern style hospital or a prison, Losheng is actually a sprawling and rather pleasant, almost collegiate-looking, campus with abundant greenery and attractive brick buildings. The main hospital building looks properly medical, and the general sense of design reflects its Japanese period origins, with semi-exposed corridors reminiscent of the older buildings on the Japanese Imperial Universities of the early 20th century, such as today’s National Taiwan University or Kyoto National University (the two examples whose architecture I am familiar with). Most other buildings are also in the pre-war Japanese style common in Taiwan, with a few notable exceptions. The least Japanese buildings in Losheng are probably the Buddhist temple, which is in standard Taiwanese style, and the now shuttered Catholic Church, which is perhaps the most spartan Catholic church building I have ever seen, with only a spare cross on the roof and no writing of any kind on the outside, but with a green Chinese roof, oddly complete with dragon tiles on the corners, and outer walls painted in the Chinese temple fashion. It reminds me of nothing so much as the far more elaborate Tainan Catholic cathedral, which is constructed and painted completely in the manner of a Chinese temple, if you do not look too close at the paintings. Of particular interest are the residence buildings for patients (originally, remember, inmates) from particular parts of Taiwan, such as Penghu or Tainan, donated by the governments of that region.
I mentioned above activity integrating the Losheng campus into the greater community. This consists of various activities, such as holding lectures and community meetings inside Losheng, or educational programs for children. As chance had it, I happened to go on a day which was particularly active. Community activists are currently running a summer camp for children from various elementary schools in the area, using various Losheng buildings for different activities. I was taken to see the room being used for a week-long Japanese language class run by a Japanese woman studying a PhD in Urban Planning at National Taiwan University, in the room of the hospital building where the sickest patients were brought, connected by a locked iron door to the much smaller room where they were taken to die. This is either morbidly incongruous beyond belief, or an excellent symbol of the way in which the space is being reclaimed and repurposed from its grim past. But little of that darkness remains. The staff (mostly Taiwanese college students) had cleaned the room fastidiously, and it was festooned with child drawings illustrating various basic Japanese words and phrases.
Then I went to a much larger room, a sort of meeting hall I suppose, where the kids were being led in Japanese songs by some of the old patients who remember their Japanese well. One played the keyboard-no easy task with hands ravaged by Hansen’s Disease, while another sat in front of the stage in his motor chair, leading the children in Furosato.
After the class was over, I spent some time speaking to the old men, who seemed both movingly thrilled and slightly amazed to have so many young people, children, teenagers and 20-somethings, having fun inside Losheng and spending time with the patients as human beings, and not afraid of their no longer contagious disease. As is the case with many elderly Taiwanese, their first language is Taiwanese (aka Minnan, Hoklo, Fukkianese, etc.) Their Mandarin is generally weak and heavily accented, and most of them also speak Japanese to some degree, having undergone elementary education during the colonial period. I spent the most time speaking with one old man, Chang Wen-pin 张文贫 (can’t figure out how to type pinyin with traditional characters on this thing…), whose fluent Japanese was easily the best out of the group.
Mr. Chang, now 81 if my calculations are correct, went to a Japanese colonial elementary school in Taiwan and worked as, I think, a locksmith both under the Japanese and in the early years of the KMT, before he was interned. He was around 20 years old at the time of the 228 incident, and considers Chiang Kai-shek to be the worst thing to have happened to Taiwan.
To paraphrase, translated and from memory:
Taiwan’s history is full of tragedy. After WW2 Taiwan shouldn’t have been given to Chiang Kai-shek, but instead the allies should have occupied it. America, England and Russia should have managed Taiwan and then organized it for independence. If they had done that then we would have avoided the 228 massacre and noone in Taiwan would be speaking Mandarin (lit: guoyu) today!
He went on to mention that he suspected a war between China and Taiwan would involve Japan and the U.S., and expand into not just a nuclear WW3, but literally “becoming the battle of Armageddon as described in the Bible.” He mentioned his strong distrust of Ma Ying-jiu, and his worry that Ma and the other KMT supporters of unification with China would lead to the destruction of Taiwan.
When we were done speaking and I was preparing to leave, Mr. Chang and the others made me promise to come back and visit next time I come to Taiwan, and before I left he made me wait while he went back to his room and brought a copy of the photo and essay book about Losheng assembled by the preservationist activists, which he signed and gave to me.
Countless speakers have said that “A society is ultimately judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members.” (Based on a quick search, the source of this quote seems obscure.) The leper has always been a symbol for the lowest in society, and despite having no use for religion myself, I think I can understand why Mr. Chang finds his solace in Christianity, a religion in which the leper is a symbol not of disgust, but of redemption. It says a lot of a society in which lepers are no longer lepers, but patients, and the resurrection of Losheng from a medical prison into a park where children play may be taken as a symbol for Taiwan’s transformation from colony and then military dictatorship into the relatively free and effectively independent country that it is today. But the current metro expansion plan still requires the demolition of something like 30-40% of Losheng’s territory, with some buildings kept in place, a few relocated, and many destroyed entirely. Even the preservationists have abandoned their attempts to save the entire site, with construction of the nearby depot building already well under way, and their best case plan today is the “90% plan.” There is still room for improvement.
After having my aching knee MRI-ed and examined by a sports medicine specialist at Kyoto University Hospital last week and been told that the problem wasn’t particularly serious and that riding a bicycle should be safe, I decided to finally go and buy one. I asked a Japanese girl I know who is a bit of a bicycle otaku to accompany me on the shopping trip so I would be decently advised in buying something a few times the price of the crappy mama-chari I rode during my previous two periods of residence in Kyoto, and she took me to a shop she likes inside the Sanjo Shotengai. After picking out the bike I wanted and the accessories that needed to be attached, I went out to the east exit of the shotengai to withdraw some cash at the 7-11 and grab something to drink.
With a cold drink in hand (Thursday was a bloody hot afternoon in Kyoto), I sat down on the bench just outside the convenience store next to a middle aged man smoking a cigarette, in the typical fashion of a 50-ish Japanese guy who would be hanging out with a cigarette in front of a 7-11 in the middle of the afternoon, and looking over his envelope of documents. I had my headphones on, listening to some podcast or other, but the man said hello, and having an hour to kill before my bike was ready I took off the headphones and talked to him for a bit.
When I asked his name, instead of just telling me, he reached into his wallet and pulled out, to my mild surprise, an Alien Registration card very much like mine. I say very much, because there were a few important differences. The first being that, as the card of a Korean national permanent resident, the fields for such information as “Landing date” and “Passport number” were filled with asterisks instead of numbers, and the name field contained both his legal Korean family name of Chang (I will leave the personal name out) as well as a Japanese family name of Oyama, in parenthesis and with the same personal name for both.
Mr. Chang was born and raised in the south part of Kyoto, where the so-called Zainichi Koreans are clustered, and described himself as “basically half-Japanese” despite having Korean citizenship and speaking Korean. He is the oldest of three children, at 55, with a younger brother practically half his age at 29 who is currently in graduate school at Kyoto University and a younger sister in the middle, around 40 years old. He mentioned that when he was younger his Korean was good enough to do simultaneous translation, for which he would practice by reading the Japanese newspapers aloud to himself in Korean, but these days he has gotten a bit rusty. Although he was actually born with North Korean (DPRK) citizenship, he changed it to South Korean (ROK) years ago, as traveling abroad is extremely difficult for DPRK citizens. He mentioned having visited New York, which I presume would have been virtually impossible as a North Korean. He also spoke more English long ago, when for a time he lived with an English woman who had no interest in learning to speak Japanese (or, presumably, Korean, although he did not even mention that possibility) but says that these days he would not even be able to string a sentence together.
Now essentially retired, aside from having to take care of certain kinds of corporation registration and tax documents such as the envelope he was holding, he is the owner of three different companies, which include several drinking and eating establishments in Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya. He started with one izakaya 30 years ago out in the “sticks” of southern Kyoto, then opened another in Nagoya, and now at the end of his career has reached a high level of success as owner of a highly priced Gion hostess bar.
He was quite keen to talk about how the hostess club is an important part of Japanese culture, the high pricing of and lack of sexual availibility therein often baffles and angers foreigners. He mentioned that on a few occasions foreigners came to the club, and were then outraged at the final tab, not understanding that this was not the sort of place one goes for a drink if one is the sort of person who worries about the tab. There was a specific anecdote about a Turkish man who, while not outraged about the price per-se, was quite angry that such a sum of money did not allow him to bring one of girls home with him. The problem, Mr. Chang explained, was that in the West there is not such a clear distinction between businesses which provide girls for “fun” (i.e. hostesses) and those which provide girls for sex. In his own country, the Turkish gentleman would be able to take the girl home for a night of what he might consider “fun” but in Japan, there are entirely separate businesses which cater to the physical. This is, he said, the modern version of the Geisha system, which in the past also separated the working girls into those for higher and lower pleasures.
But Mr. Chang does not actually spend time in any of his bars or clubs anymore-not even the hostess bar in Gion. He has cancer, and it has metastized beyond the realm of surgical efficacy, not leaving him long for this world. As owner he takes care of the paperwork, but no longer does anything one might actually call work. The pain of the cancer is often intense, and he has trouble sleeping at night. He is close with a singer in Tokyo, who sings to him over the phone when the cancer pain keeps him up at night, until the gentle voice lulls him to sleep, with the reciever falling off to the side.
He never had any children, but he wanted to do something positive for the world, to “make up for [his] sins.” To that end, he has become the official sponsor of an AIDS hospice in Chiang Mai, Thailand, whose several-dozen residents are all, as he says, his children. Although he is the active sponsor, he was not the sole fundor. To gather funds for the community, building their bungalows, providing their education and health care, he went around to all of the “shady characters” he knew from his business dealings over the years- the fellow bar owners, the real estate people, the local yakuza-and strongarmed donations out of them. “Think about what you did to get that money,” he says he told them, “surely you can spare a few yen for this.” It turned out that they could. Tragically, every time he visists there are “those who are no longer there.” He can afford to make them comfortable and provide some level of treatment, but the drugs cocktail that keeps wealthy first-world AIDS patients alive indefinitely is still too expensive in mass quantities.
And so it was time for Mr. Chang to pick up his laundry and drop his papers off at city hall, and for me to pick up my new bicycle. He asked if I would be willing to give him some English refresher lessons, so he could have some simple exchanges with the foreigners that came into his establishment, despite having said that he no longer spent any time there. While I do not normally have any interest in English conversation tutoring, I gave him my phone number.