LDP presidential candidate Hayashi: “Let’s play kabuki”

This morning’s NHK Sunday political show contained a disturbing reimportation of the term political kabuki.

The candidates for LDP president were debating their stances on US base relocation, and one, Yoshimasa Hayashi, made the comment (if memory serves) that if Japan cannot deliver progress in negotiations then the bilateral talks would be nothing but political theater.

Specifically, he said they would turn into “let’s play kabuki” (レッツプレイカブキ) apparently referring to the tendency for the US media to refer to kabuki theater in this sense.

Ugh. My least favorite media cliche is now being adopted by the highest levels of Japan’s political establishment.

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I don’t even really like this show that much because it tends to be nothing but unsurprising political bromides, and whatever value they have is directed at the politicos in Nagatacho, not a general audience. I always end up watching though because it comes right after one of my favorite shows 小さな旅 (“Little Adventures” is how I prefer to translate it). It’s a fun travel show but I especially like it for its amazing theme music, written by Yuji Ohno of Lupin III fame. Here it is thanks to the magic of YouTube:

My Chinese Bride (中国嫁日記) – an awesome manga blog I can relate to

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Right now I am mostly immobile thanks to a herniated disc. I might blog about that later, but for now I want to share what has been keeping me entertained on my days stranded on the couch:

It’s 中国嫁日記 (if I were a publisher I’d translate the title “My Chinese Bride”). It’s a funny and heartwarming read, and very relatable for someone in an international marriage like myself. If you want to skip my review and get started, the entire series is free online. Just start from the first post and work your way backwards. He also sells compilations that I am considering buying for some people as gifts.

It’s the blog of a 40-something Japanese tabletop RPG designer and self-described otaku about his 26-year-old mainland Chinese wife Yue-chan, who he apparently met in an arranged-marriage style introduction from a Chinese friend. She is new to living in Japan but already speaks the language a bit because her sister also married a Japanese man and Yue thought it would be useful to know the language when visiting.

The writer (Yue calls him Jin-san based on the Chinese reading of his real name, Inoue) writes mostly about her various encounters with culture shock, many of which come from her cooking misadventures. She puts coriander in miso soup, serves oshiruko with eggs and toast for breakfast, and marvels that Japanese meat is sold pre-sliced unlike in her native Shenyang. With the story told in real time less than two years after their marriage, we get a window into their relationship as it is developing – we get vignettes about her need to clean every day, learn how she leaves out the small tsu sound in Japanese, and even a series detailing their long-delayed honeymoon to an onsen. They fight kind of a lot, but in a healthy way that seems to actually resolve their problems.

Her cute foreign accent is probably the central joke of the whole manga, and he brings up many wacky anecdotes from their life together. If it weren’t written with such obvious love and care you might be forgiven for thinking he was making fun of her. There are touching moments, too, such as when Yue was scared for her life and just wanted to be with her Jin-san just after the March 2011 quake.

In news articles, Inoue says he started the blog to provide a more personal look at Chinese people in order to help improve bilateral ties and further understanding of the many Chinese living in Japan. That is understandable, especially when many of his fellow otaku harbor strong anti-Chinese sentiment and seem to love making broad generalizations about the culture. And the series contains a lot of interesting trivia about China (Yue-chan could go visit Japan initially because at the time visiting a foreign relative was one of the few ways mainland Chinese could travel abroad). But at the same time I get the feeling this is his way of processing both the joys and frustration of married life.

Sometimes Jin-san writes about his former Chinese teacher, who had an extremely outgoing personality and left a deep impression. The sample above is one story she told him and is a good entry in our list of embarrassing Japanese mistakes. (if someone asks I’ll explain in the comments)

He started the blog without her knowledge, but the quality of the work got the better of him – it became so popular that a friend clued her in eventually. Thankfully she understood and was ok with him continuing. Now that I’m hooked, I hope he’ll keep this up for the foreseeable future!

The similarity to the classic international marriage manga ダーリンは外国人 (My Darling is a Foreigner) is obvious and probably no accident. But there are some key differences that make it more enjoyable for me. First is the real time intimacy of learning about their relationship as it happens. That makes the story feel more genuine. Also, it’s told from the man’s perspective, so I found myself nodding my head when he talked about needing his office to be a “sanctuary” where it’s sometimes ok to leave a mess. And perhaps most importantly, it is not about another American living in Japan. If it were, I wouldn’t be able to help comparing myself to him in terms of language ability and attitude toward Japan.

So if this kind of thing appeals to you (and you read Japanese of course) please please go check it out. I learned about it on a Sunday morning NHK program about successful Internet original manga artists, so I have a feeling we might even see a movie version someday.

Why raising the consumption tax is a good idea AND good politics

The following is a lightly edited version of my e-mail reply to a friend who asked about the ongoing fight over passing a hike to the consumption tax. As of this writing the bill has passed the lower house but has still not become law. See Japan Real Time for a good breakdown of recent events:

The consumption tax was definitely too low for a country with such generous welfare benefits, so raising it only makes all the sense in the world. I almost wish they had put in a delay mechanism in case the economy is still in bad shape in 2 years, but hopefully that won’t be the case.

Fiscally, I think it is a drop in the bucket, and the short term economic impact is definitely not great. That is why there is such a strong knee-jerk negative reaction among the public. They either run or know people who run small businesses that will get hurt, but more importantly it’s one of the few policies that stares average people in the face every day and is easy to understand. Everything you pay for will get more expensive.

But at the same time it’s vital to get the house in order so to speak, or else Japan really is in for a hard landing. The social programs that Japan has are great and they need to be maintained. So they need to be funded in a way that’s not too onerous, and this seems like as good a way as any to me.

I have basically come to the conclusion that inflation is unlikely in Japan over the long term because there isn’t a fundamental basis for it. People are getting older fast and are just going to spend less. And productivity gains aren’t going to be fast enough to make up for that (economics isn’t my strong suit… but isn’t it the case that inflation is at least supposed to track economic cycles?) Japan isn’t going to necessarily have another growth boom, but what it can do is enjoy a comfortable and proud status as a rich nation. That is, they should be able to if people in their prime now can actually feel some security and expect a reasonable retirement not too different from what their parents had.

In terms of the political situation, there are a lot of people saying that Ozawa “won” but I don’t really see it that way. He didn’t stop Noda from doing what he wanted to do – there has effectively been a Grand Coalition in place since Noda came to power (note how close to unanimous the jail-for-download law was, or the postal reform bill, or take your pick) and for all the blustering among the parties they are pretty much united on a lot of policy measures because they are a) consensus among the Serious People muckimucks like the finance ministry and media opinion makers, and b) the subject of gaiatsu (I believe the IMF has been dogging Japan to raise the consumption tax).

And although Ozawa technically has the power to basically an early election through defecting, he is too afraid to do it because he knows that his clique is even more exposed to getting voted out than the others because it contains so many first-termers. It seems pretty shrewd for Noda to NOT punish the defectors in that case because it prevents the election from happening and lets the de facto grand coalition continue with him running the show.

If there is an election the DPJ will lose, the LDP will win (though maybe not get an outright lower house majority), Komeito will maintain, and Hashimoto’s party might make a serious splash, though Hashimoto himself has said he won’t run. So in that context I think all the established parties, especially the DPJ, have an incentive to delay an election as long as possible. Once Hashimoto has his foot in the door of national politics life won’t be the same. Every little thing will be a fight that can’t be worked out by getting drunk together at a ryotei.

Make no mistake, though, this is a big deal. This type of potential split in the DPJ was months in the making, maybe even years because Kan might have pushed for the tax hike had there been no earthquake (remember how he for whatever reason ran on that issue in the Upper House elections?).

And there is always the need to point out that this agenda of raising the tax was pushed by the finance ministry. Politicians in general are empty shells with voting power, and they need to get pushed in a certain direction by the people who they think will help them keep or increase that power. This time it was the ministry of finance because it is a permanent bureaucracy that has a political agenda that’s informed by its mission as the steward of the Japanese government’s finances.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing because if there is one thing that the DPJ coming to power has taught me is that it’s dangerous to allow people with zero expertise being responsible for governing convince themselves that they know what’s best for the country. It feels like all they are good for is posturing and fundraising. The DPJ made the critical mistake of making enemies of the bureaucrats instead of cultivating them and influencing them in the subtle, glad-handing way the LDP mastered. Or at least they could have brought in people with talent and real ideas.

NYT making fun of Osaka Mayor’s dad

In a recent article about Japan’s idling of all of its nuclear reactors, the reporter made a casual aside about the parentage of Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru.

Instead, the central government has found itself battling an improbable adversary: Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto, the young, plain-speaking son of a yakuza gangster who has ridden Japan’s loss of faith in government to become, seemingly overnight, the country’s best-liked politician, according to recent polls.

The Japanese Wikipedia page on Hashimoto, sourced from this article on the website j-cast, mentions that his father was a gangster who committed suicide when Toru was a second grade elementary school student, and that the couple had been divorced since much earlier.

Although it is factually correct that Hashimoto’s father was a gangster, he was apparently no more than a biological parent, out of his son’s life almost immediately, and no longer living just a few years later. The newspaper’s phrasing makes a very strong implication that his “plain-speaking”-ness is derived from his father’s example, but considering that he basically never knew his father, I think the association is just as unfair as the stupid attacks against Obama based on his father being a Muslim, or against both Obama and Romney because they had polygamist grandfathers.

I’m all for making fun of him for his own craziness, of which there is plenty, but don’t bash him for what his absent father may or may not have done.

On the other hand, Hashimoto has recently embarked upon a bizarre crusade against Osaka employees with tattoos, due to the traditional association between tattoos and yakuza. Perhaps he does, after all, have some latent father issues?

Kikuchi Naoko’s sarin, as described by another Aum member

By now everyone knows that Kikuchi Naoko, one of the last members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult wanted for the 1995 sarin gas Tokyo subway attacks, was arrested on Sunday. Although her face had been plastered on posters found in and around pretty much single police and train station in the country, she managed to remain at large for 17 years, until someone reported seeing her in the Tokyo suburb of Sagamihara.

Back in early 2006, Adam and I collaborated on a large job translating material about Aum Shinrikyo into English for some kind of security researcher down in DC doing a report about religious terrorism. The biggest single document in the project was the massive book Aum and I by Ikuo Hayashi, a medical doctor and member of the cult, who participated in the sarin release, which we translated a significant portion of.

I have previously posted a few excerpts from this book, including Hayashi’s description of the actual subway attack itself, the bizarre and stillborn plot to assassinate Ikeda Daisaku, leader of Sokka Gakkai, and a description of the gross practice of how cult members ate their own feces in a weird attempt to emulate the Buddha.

In honor of Kikuchi’s arrest, here is Hayashi’s memoir of his first encounter with sarin, found on pages 271-274 of the tankobon edition of the book.

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The first sarin dispersal experiment

At the end of April there was a phone call from Nakagawa to me at AHI. “Make the same preparations as when you treated Niimi and come to the Seventh Satyam, in Kamiku,” he said. The only treatment I had given Niimi was when he had been poisoned by sarin gas during the Daisaku Ikeda Poa incident, so I loaded up the station wagon with drugs, a respirator, an oxygen cylinder, and the other necessary supplies and went to Kamiku. Nakagawa went into the prefab that it was said Tomomi Tsuchiya had been assigned to, and came out carrying a box.

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He told me that it had sarin inside it.

In the flask was a triangular flask, protected by a buffering agent. When I saw the liquid at that time, it was a faint fluorescent green. Since Nakagawa had said that it was sarin, I always thought of sarin as being that color a liquid afterwards. “So, Aum has sarin after all,” I thought. However, at this time I still had no confirmation that Tsuchiya was making sarin.

At that juncture, I still had no realization of what degree of chemist this Tsuchiya person was. Nakagawa said that because he and Tsuchiya were performing sarin experiments together, if by any chance one of them was poisoned, that I should come and treat them. I had a feeling that I had learned yet another secret. I myself was not receding, not progressing, being shown the true forms of Aum’s “secret work” one by one. I naturally felt the discomfort, the unsettlement of the treatment that came with it,

Those “sarin experiments” were to discover the volatilization volume of airborne sarin. I thought that this sarin was meant to be one means of defense against the American military and the [Japanese] Self Defense Force when the “war” broke out.

A truck was parked in front of the Seventh Satyam. It was loaded with several canisters, large storage batteries and a converter, plastic bottles and a sprayer that seemed to be the type used for the spraying of agricultural chemicals and pest removal. Driving the truck was a Samana in the Truth Science Research Department.

Nakagawa and Tsuchiya got in the car together saying to me and the young Samana that we should follow them and set off.

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I had no idea whatsoever where we were going, but when we arrived it looking like a dry riverbed near the mouth of theFujiRiver. The time was night, just before dawn, and in the vicinity were no other people or vehicles. The riverbed was a broad area, and I got the feeling that they had chosen the location in advance, and we had gone to that place.

They used an ultrasonic nebulizer (sprayer) places on top of an electric balance to spray sarin into the air, measured the wind velocity and force at that instant, and checked the amount of sarin consumed based on the change in mass.

When the experiment was over, he sprayed some neutralizing agent from the nebulizer, but because he had been poisoned I gave him two intravenous injections each of two ampoules of PAM and atropine sulfate. When I examined Nakagawa it looked like there was some mild pupil dilation, but I couldn’t really tell. I treated Nakagawa based on his subjective symptoms.

Nakagawa and Tsuchiya didn’t say in what way they were going to use that data. I didn’t ask. The experiment was over, and we went back to Kamiku. Seeing this experiment, I thought that they really were going to use sarin for defense at the time of the “war.”

Thinking about it now, a much greater volume of sarin would be needed for defense and so the question of how they could get such a quantity comes up is raised, but at this time I was not thinking such thoughts very strictly, and only thought loosely about this.

Why was I called at this time? I think that it may be because I was supposed to perform treatment for sarin poisoning later on. At this time I was thinking that it would be fine if Asahara used me to treat sarin poisoning.

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I supposes that Asahara must have had the intention of making me participate as a member of the medical team in his plans, particularly his plans to use sarin.

Now I think that Asahara had me join the on-site activities with a notion to “acclimate” or “condition” me, and made me participate in that experiment as a first step.

I think that after the Daisaku Ikeda Poa incident, Asahara stepped up the “fumie” [tests of faith] and “narashi”[habituation, conditioning] that he been giving me to the next level.

 

Read up on the upcoming changes to immigration policy – pretty much all positive!

Happy foreigners love the new system!

Starting next month (July 9), the immigration authorities are going to implement a series of changes to the rules for foreigners in the country. The biggest is probably replacing the foreigner registration card (gaikokujin torokusho) with a residency card (在留カード). It’s more or less the same, but it will now be administered directly by immigration, not the local authorities.

There are a lot of other changes as well, so it would probably be a good idea to sit down for maybe an hour and familiarize yourself with them. The government’s handy website can be found here for Japanese and here for English.

All in all, these represent some real benefits for expats, so I think the authorities deserve a pat on the back on this one. So far my personal experience with immigration has been very positive, and it looks like my warm feelings will only continue. Here are some of the new rules that caught my eye:

  • The general term for a medium-term visa will be extended from 3 to 5 years.
  • A “deemed” re-entry system will allow anyone on medium-term or permanent resident visa to leave the country and return without a special application or fee, provided they come back within one year. Longer periods out of the country will still follow the old system of filing an application and paying a fee for a temporary re-entry permit.
  • Changes of address will still go through local government offices the same as Japanese people, but changes to marital and employment status, etc. will need to be reported to immigration. That could be a pain in the butt, but apparently they plan to allow you to report changes by mail, which would be a huge improvement.
  • The new card won’t include personal information such as employer or school name on the card. Instead that information will be stored in an on-board chip.
  • Violations of the new system are now subject to penalties and fines!
  • People whose old gaijin cards are still valid in July don’t need to get the new cards right away. You will have up to three years to get the new one.
  • Foreigners will be added to the juminhyo system instead of being part of a separate registry. I am not sure exactly why this is a big deal, but presumably not maintaining a totally separate database will save the government some money.

UPDATE: Another big benefit is that for newcomers, residency cards will be issued upon entry, so you will no longer need to show up at city hall to register and wait for the card to be issued. This along with some other services is only available at major airports. You are still required to go to the local office to “notify” them of your presence… But if I’m not mistaken this is functionally not that different from what Japanese people have to do when they move.

Did I miss anything big? Please let me know in the comments, and be sure to read up on the new system!

Fukushima media looks back on disaster coverage, one year later

Last month I translated the first half of a very interesting round-table discussion for Nippon.com, consisting of several reporters and editors from local Fukushima media, discussing both the developing situation in the prefecture and the way it has been perceived by the outside world. (The second half, no less worth reading, was translated by an internal staff member.)

I found reading (and translating) the piece to be very interesting, and made me realize that despite all of the attention I had devoted to the unfolding disaster and subsequent recovery efforts, I had never put any significant effort into looking at reporting actually producing by Fukushima residents, rather than national and international reporters sent in to cover the story. And, as the discussion makes clear, there was a lot of difference in tone.

For example, Murakami Masanobu of Fukushima Central Television says,

I remember the impression I had when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was opened to the press for the first time in November, 2011. The event was organized by the press club attached to the Cabinet Office, with the local media also allowed to take part. But we had been inside the plant several times [prior to the accident], and tended to emphasize aspects likely to be interesting from the local perspective—how things had changed since the explosion, and so on. But the cabinet press club members all took a very predictable line. It was as though they were learning about the high radiation levels for the first time, even though the results of monitoring had already been made public.

He also has a rather (and I must say, justifiably) exasperated take on how foreign media has covered the events.

If they come across a child with a nosebleed, sore throat, or diarrhea, they just go right ahead and run the story without checking to see if there is any scientific basis for attributing these symptoms to radiation. Then we get criticized by people in Japan who have seen these reports in the foreign media and want to know why it is not being covered here. There’s a misunderstanding that the local media is obsessed with conveying the impression that everything is safe. But that’s not true—the reality is that we’re just trying to report the facts accurately. But when irresponsible reporting appears in the foreign or national media, they end up distorting our local coverage. Ultimately, it has the effect of eroding the trust that local residents have in us. It’s a depressing situation that’s been dragging on ever since the disaster happened.

I think all of us, and Americans in particular, will also find the following assessment of Hayakawa Masaya, of the Fukushima Minpou newspaper, familiar on a certain level.

I think the local media has a vital role to play in continuing to broadcast the latest facts and raising the issues. As time passed after the disaster and nuclear accident last year, and especially after the national government announced that the nuclear crisis had been “concluded,” there was a conspicuous drop in the levels of coverage of the situation by the Tokyo-based media. There’s a vague sense that people just want to regard the story as finished and move on. But, as I said earlier, cleanup operations in Fukushima are at a standstill, and the situation is pretty much unchanged from the way it was immediately after the disaster. How can you call this a “conclusion”?

I very strongly suspect that a similar phenomenon occurs whenever a major disaster is concentrated in a less populated and less powerful region of a country rather than a major city, for example the way New Orleans has been largely ignored by the national press since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In part 2 of the discussion, Hayakawa makes explicit comparisons with the long-term national coverage of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, and the Minamata Disease of Kumamoto Prefecture, based on discussions he had with reporters from both of those regions.

These are just a few sections that stood out most to me, but please read the whole thing and let us know what you think.

Recalling Fang Lizhi as we watch Chen Guangcheng

I’m sure everybody reading this had been following the dramatic and confusing Chen Guangcheng1 story as it develops, and I also trust that all but the most enlightened remain as puzzled as I do regarding exactly what Chen, the United States, and Chinese authorities have negotiated, promised, lied about, achieved, failed, and intend to do regarding the still unfolding situation((Although, as I finalize this post, it does appear that Chen will be allowed to come to the US on a student visa.)).

I had certainly found the story interesting since it began, but had no particular thoughts regarding it until I read this New York Review of Books article comparing the Chen story with that of Fang Lizhi, a prominent Chinese dissident who similarly sought refuge in the US embassy following the Tiananmen Square Massacre and eventually settled in the US following similarly tense diplomacy, written by Perry Link, an American academic who was in Beijing at the time and helped Fang in his escape.

Fang, who died just under a month ago at the age of 76, after spending the latter part of his career as a professor of physics at the University of Arizona in Tucson, was a prominent dissident at the time of the 1989 protests, who sought—and received—protection at the US embassy in Beijing when the subsequent crackdown started. Before the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, he was already well enough known to be profiled in this May, 1988 Atlantic Magazine article.

I strongly recommend reading the entire piece, as well as Fang Lizhi’s “Confession” to Deng Xiaoping, and Fang’s own commentary on writing it, which was published in June of last year, also by the New York Review of Books.

I also found Perry Link’s concluding comparison between the Fang incident and the current situation to be quite interesting.

Today, for Chen Guangcheng, the two governments might agree that exile is the least awkward solution from their points of view, but Chen may not accept it. Chinese dissidents have learned over the past two decades that exile leads to a sharp decline in a person’s ability to make a difference inside China. Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who is now in his third year of an eleven-year prison sentence for “subversion,” made it clear after his arrest that he would not accept exile as an alternative to prison. From what friends of Chen in Beijing have been saying in recent days, it seems that Chen is taking a similar position.

Another important difference between the Chen and Fang cases is that Chen has a broader following among average Chinese people than Fang had. Fang was a hero to university students and some intellectuals. But most Chinese did not know him, and what they did hear of him were highly distorted accounts in the government-controlled press. Even before the 1989 crackdown, government television was broadcasting images of government-orchestrated “protests” in which farmers were burning Fang Lizhi in effigy. Many people, having no other sources on Fang, accepted such accounts. Today, though, with the Internet, far greater numbers of Chinese—millions of people including many outside of the big cities—know the true story of Chen than ever knew the story of Fang. And to judge from the many accounts circulating on microblogs and elsewhere, hardly anyone seems to view Chen with anything but sympathy.

But while it does seem likely that Chen has widespread support, I wonder what good that will do for him in America, other than provide a comfortable life for him and his family.

For example, look at how much support the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei received after his own unjust arrest, almost entirely enabled by the Internet. And in his case, not only did he receive the ephemeral support of Tweets and Facebook “likes”, but enough small donations (which the artist categorized as loans to be repaid in the future) from tens of thousands of donors to cover the Chinese government’s punitive taxes and fines (which Ai and his legal team continues to challenge).

But how contingent is that support on the fact that he is staying to fight? While there is no question that Ai Weiei, by all accounts charming and brilliant, would be a darling of intellectual and artistic as a political exile, he would also lose the ability to use his own ongoing on-and-off imprisonment as fodder for political artwork such as his recent and short-lifed self-surveillance “Weiweicam” project.

While much about the Chen Guangcheng case remains murky and mysterious, he does at least seem to wrestling with such a choice. Will he stay in China, despite the risk to himself and—apparently more importantly—his family, or will he seek exile2, where he would undoubtedly be safer and more comfortable((He certainly has plenty of supporters in the US, since if there is one things that the “Pro-life” and “Pro-choice” camps can agree on wholeheartedly, it’s that forced abortions are a bad thing.)), but also risk damaging his own credibility as an activist and his ability to help others.

The NYT had an article on Friday discussing this very possibility, saying “Based on past experience, China is often all too pleased to see its most nettlesome dissidents go into exile, where they almost invariably lose their ability to grab headlines in the West and to command widespread sympathy both in China and abroad.” The article goes on to mention how “If Mr. Chen receives a green light to depart for the United States, he will arrive to find a fractured tribe of Chinese dissidents and pro-democracy advocates shouting over one another.”

This line in particular made me think of a particular book I read several years ago, which had already been on my mind as I was catching up on the past week of Chen Guangcheng related coverage earlier today, In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture, By Geremie R. Barmé. Despite the bland and vague title, a significant portion, or even a majority of the book is devoted to Chinese counterculture and dissident protest, including quite a bit of discussion of the criticism and failure that prominent Chinese dissidents have faced in exile, including from one another.

Among exiled intellectuals for a time there was also a considerable amount of critical reflection on the events of 1989. Yuan Zhiming was another of the writers of River Elegy, the television series that was branded by the government as part of a wave of “cultural nihilism” that contributed to the protests. In an article published in January 1990, Yuan questioned what would have happened in 1989 if the most famous Chinese public intellectuals — Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan, Yan Jiaqi, Chen Yizi, and Su Xiaokang, had “courageously stood forward and led the movement.” He continues his speculation in the tone of a guilty survivor:

If we had formulated some mature, rational and feasible plan of action and organized a democratic front incorporating the students and civilians, if we had worked harmoniously together to struggle for dialogue with the authorities, how would it have turned out? Of course, we may still have been vanquished, but at least we could say we had done everything in our power to prevent defeat. 3

Barmé is also unimpressed with the post-exile efforts of dissident intellectuals, writing:

Prominent intellectuals and students had, bu the very fact of their exile, suffered a serious blow to their credibility. This was particularly so, since it was widely perceived on the mainland that many of the key agitators of 1989 had sought refuge with former imperialist powers (that is, France, England, and the United States((And we could add Japan to this list, which not only sheltered some refugees from China, but also applied pressure on the PRC government during the Fang Lizhi incident, using the carrot of development loans.))) and the KMT government in Taiwan. The mainland authorities were well aware of the jealous reaction of its people to reports of dissidents living off the fat of the land overseas, and the official media took delight in portraying them all as traitors to the nation.4

The remainder of the third chapter deals with this issue in greater depth, and I recommend it to anyone wondering how successful an activist Chen might be in exile.

Even though modern communications has greatly improved the ability of activists and supporters to coordinate better and more secretively across borders, it is hard to imagine how Chen Guangcheng, whose activism so far has largely taken the form of legal action that would be impossible to file from abroad, would be able to continue his activism in any substantial way after reaching NYU. Above, I cited speculation by a sympathetic Chinese intellectual over what would have been different had Fang Lizhi and his compatriots “courageously stood forward and led the movement” rather than accepting exile. In America, Fang was very successful in continuing his career as a physicist, but his post-exile activism was a mere footnote to the exile itself. How might Chen’s career develop if he comes to the US, and how might it develop if he does not?

  1. This 2006 NYT story is a good description of his career and legal troubles up to that point. []
  2. Or asylum, or “rest”, or “study abroad”. []
  3. Pages 51-52 []
  4. Page 44 []

Best ways to cope with routine gaijin questions? A reaction to Debito

Debito’s latest creation is a column about “microaggression,” which is his new term for the routine, repetitive questions and lines of conversation that Japanese people commonly have with white Westerners (“You can use chopsticks?” “Can you eat natto?” etc). He says they add up to a form of soft discrimination. It’s one of his better thought-out and organized pieces in a while, so I heartily recommend reading it.

I will admit at first the column touched a nerve because I easily tire of hearing these questions and have many times cut conversations short rather than continue (partly because my Japanese sucks). But while I agree with the basic framework of the idea–that people treat gaijin this way because they are different–I ultimately don’t think it’s worth calling that out and out discrimination and prejudice.

He goes into lots of details, and if you want to get into the finer points of his column in the comments, I will be there with you. But for now I just want to point out my biggest issue.

Boring, repetitive conversations are had all over the world. It just so happens that when Japanese people see a Western face, it calls up memories of learning English in school, the images on TV, and the experiences they or their friends have had with foreigners in the past.  It’s all completely natural and utterly mundane. A shout-out and a thank-you go to those rare people who can break this mold and have lively and fun conversations.

Rather than a small form of “aggression,” in my experience people who do this are almost always just sticking to the script of safe, polite conversation. Most people are not great conversationalists, so they gravitate to what’s easy. Doctors always hear the same questions about their job, so does that mean they’re being discriminated against?

I am totally on Debito’s team when it comes to being pissed off at ignorant prejudiced people. It’s just that while the ignoramuses do engage in the routine rote questions, doing so isn’t a capital offense, socially speaking. You will screen out a lot of perfectly decent people if you denounce everyone who ever mentioned your chopstick skills.  For one thing, talking about food is probably the best ice-breaker for intercultural encounters, so it’s kind of unfair to try and rule that out!

In the column Debito mentions “coping skills” like it’s a dirty word. But coping skills are absolutely essential for living in Japan, and they don’t need to involve trying to change the whole society. There might be a time and place to discuss with Japanese people the absurd repetitiveness of some of these conversations, but it’s probably not worth “resisting” someone you are meeting for the first time.

What are some go-to ways to cope with these situations? As I said I am not good at this, so my most common method for complete strangers might be to politely answer the questions and then clam up, thinking, Hurry up and finish cutting my hair! But when I am feeling festive, I’ll sometimes turn the question around, or even better– change the subject! People usually move on. Ken on Twitter had a good one: “Best part of being ambidextrous is as soon as I get [the chopstick] compliment I issue the challenge to use them lefty.” Really, this is an area where I’ve fallen into a pretty unfriendly routine, so being better able to deal with it would probably brighten these people’s days, not to mention my own.

Update: While Mr. Arudo’s column was worth our unqualified attention this time, our “no Debito” policy lives on in the comments section – our hope against hope is that you try to avoid talking about the man himself and his approach and blahblahblah

Revenge of the nerds: Konkatsu Killer Kanae sentenced to hang

Kanae Kojima, an alleged black widow murderer, was convicted of murdering three former boyfriends and sentenced to death by hanging by a panel of professional and lay judges. I have watched the story with some interest due to her ultra-creepy trawling for victims on Internet dating sites. Her MO was to drain the men of cash and then drop them when they were of no use to her. The three she was convicted of killing were just the deaths they had the most evidence for.

I say this is “revenge of the nerds” because she would often prey on some of the more timid members of the male public, including one awkward-looking man who had a blog for his plastic models. I am a little concerned that she was convicted on essentially all circumstantial evidence, but it does seem to be a win in the name of justice for the lovelorn and downtrodden.