Nippon TV’s Online Video News Site Improved

The video news site of Nippon TV (日テレ) has undergone a rebirth; no longer known as Nippon News Network 24, they have renamed themselves “NTV News 24.” In addition, the video streaming is much smoother at 300kbps and comes in clearer. Try the full-screen version!

Now all they have to do is make it a constant stream for it to be perfect. I wouldn’t mind if they included commercials even, as long as it kept me up to date on the goings-on in Japan. Sometimes the print news sites (such as Asahi with its appallingly tiny photographs) just don’t cut it.

Memoirs of a Geisha: If it isn’t one inauthenticity, it’s the other

Curzon pointed me toward Tom Barnett’s take on the new movie, citing it as evidence that Barnett “is a complete git.” Let’s quote:

Unfair to have Chinese playing Japanese? About as unbelievable as having Brits and Aussies play Americans? Or Americans playing English? Or Canadian Mike Myers playing Austin Powers?

Puh-leeze. Marshall went with these three ladies because they’re simply the biggest best stars available. Globalization, baby.

The hubbub over Chinese actresses playing Japanese characters is a bit misplaced, I think. It’s not directly comparable to Mike Myers playing Austin Powers: it’s closer to, say, Patrick Stewart playing Jean-Luc Picard. When it comes down to it, almost all of the visible differences between Han Chinese and Japanese are in language, mannerisms, and (often) dress. A well-coached Chinese person could play a Japanese person convincingly enough, but probably not with their default skill set. So Barnett’s take… not quite “git” in my book.

What bugs me more than the movie’s lack of racial purity is that the characters, who are supposed to be in old-school Kyoto, speak horribly-accented English for hours on end. And the Chinese actresses are speaking in Chinese accents… totally different from Japanese accents. I can’t foresee sitting through the whole movie without throwing things at the screen. Maybe it’ll be tolerable on mute.

On a related note, this is a snippet from a conversation I had with Adamu concerning the HBO series “Rome,” which, I should add, Curzon really likes.

[10:20] Adamu: does everyone have a british accent
[10:20] Joe: yup
[10:20] Adamu: good then its authentic

Recommended reading: Okamoto’s Iraqi “Food” Diary

If you’re “nihongo-ready,” or don’t mind wading through unreadable text to look at awesome photos, visit Okamoto’s Iraqi “Food” Diary. Hiroshi Okamoto is a photographer who went to Samawah, Iraq on assignment. He took pictures of food, people, more food, more people, and the occasional borderline war zone. And, like any good Japanese person, he complained about the lack of beer.

Adamu’s initial response: “That is the most hep blog ever… tagging AND Iraqi food!”

Random awesomeness – video sites, Japanese quiz

First up is Net Cinema, a project sort of similar to the English-language ifilm. Features original shows starring B-grade actors such as former porn star Ai Iijima (NSFW), my favorite nutty rightwinger with googly eyes Terry Itoh (pictured above, left), and second-tier okama (gay) comedian KABA-chan. I haven’t got into any of the shows yet, but given some free time I’m willing to give it a chance out of pure longing for some semblance of Japanese TV. (Hmm, after watching a bit of Iijima-chan bitch about her stocks I am getting skeptical…)

Then there is Japanese Govt Internet TV. This site brings you various government propaganda featuring Koizumi, Abe, and all your other favorites in “high” definition streaming video! It worked great after I downloaded Windows Media Player 10. Koizumi had a swank Ramadan party with all his Muslim ambassador friends.

I’ve mentioned KOKKAI TV (Diet TV — great taste, less filling than regular TV! Watch here: Lower House, Upper House) before, but now it’s new and improved, allowing you to see higher definition video and archived footage. Want to see that magical moment when the postal privatization bills were passed? Just click on October 14, 2005!

Finally we have a fun little Japanese quiz at ALC. I got the first one wrong, and so should you! Updated daily.

That’s what’s wasting my time these days. Enjoy!

Guns, Germs, and Steel- a reader’s exercise

At the moment I am about 2/3 of the way through Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” Basically it’s a history of human civilization written by a scientist, trying to uncover root the root causes for the success and failure of civilizations around the world while attempting to destroy the racist and culturalist theories behind the common ‘rise of the west’ narrative. With this rolling around in my head, here is my off the cuff (and in true blog style, completely unedited) attempt at a response to a post over on the blog, in which Chirol argues that Arab cultural values are responsible for their current material backwardness. I don’t normally post this sort of thing here, but it may lead to some interesting comments.

It seems to me that the failure of the Arab world is not at heart a result of their culture, but their lack of significant exploitable natural resources aside from oil. Yes, oil makes a lot of money for them, but it requires only a very, very small percentage of the population to actually exploit it to its maximum potential, creating no incentive for the rest of the population to work. One could argue that in effect, the culture is backwards because there are few good ways for them to modernize in a material fashion.

Why is the West advanced and the Arab world behind? Due to the allocation of natural resources, the industrial revolution could only have happened in Western Europe (or possibly China), and the Middle East was too far away from deposits of iron and coal necessary for industrialization to make such innovations realistic. Only in the later stages of industrialization, when we began using engines that ran on liquid fuel instead of coal did the region have anything of material worth to offer the modern world, and it is only a single raw resource destined for export, not raw materials that could become the bases of a production oriented economy.

Oil is basically the only source of wealth in the Middle East, and it is for the most part controlled and profited from exclusively by the elites. Look at the Saudi family, and the former Saddam Hussein regime. The only places where most of the population is actually well off are those such as Dubai, where oil money is redistributed through a socialist benefits system that works because there’s so damn much money they don’t even have to worry about managing the economy. It’s not even ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,’ everyone just gets free money without having to work at all. Sure, everyone gets a free education, even fully-subsidized study abroad if they want, but to what end? How many of the people you have met in your life would in fact work hard under such conditions, when failure presents no threat of want?

Regardless of whatever ‘cultural values’ people in the Middle East possess, I don’t see how their economies and societies can realistically modernize under the dual strangle hold of oil and autocratic government. If democracy genuinely takes hold in Iraq than we may have the opportunity to make an interesting experimental comparison, but it still remains to be seen how much the free oil money may retard genuine development there as well. Perhaps if they follow Norway’s example, and put the bulk of the money in a kind of trust fund and use some to fund contemporary development of other industries they will actually be able to succeed.

You cite above “Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure” as a trait of “failing cultures.” It seems to me that in fact success and failure are to a large degree determined by ones environment, and the current environment of the Middle East, awash in oil but no other opportunities, is one which offers precious little hope for more than a small minority to improve their personal circumstances significantly. The other conservative social and religious values on your list make more sense when you realize that religion is primarily the refuge of the weak, there is nothing like the promise of Heaven to justify one’s sorry lot on Earth, and nothing like calling those who are more successful than you infidels or heretics to sooth one’s self esteem.

Sometimes in April

Last Thursday evening I attended a small, private screening of the HBO original film, “Sometimes in April.” The film is a fictionalized account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide as experienced by two Hutu brothers. One, Augustine, is a Hutu military officer married to a Tusti woman, who is also the mother of his three children. The other, Honore, is a disc jockey/journalist for Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines (RTLM), or “hate radio,” as it would come to be known because of its incessant spew of anti-Tutsi propaganda.

As the film opens in April 2004, Augustine has just received a letter from his estranged brother, presently being tried as a war criminal at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Tanzania. The letter implores Augustine to visit his brother, who wishes to come clean. The remainder of the film consists of two interwoven story lines taking place a decade apart, one in which Augustine attempts to face the past, and one in which he lives it.

The Rwandan genocide took place 11 years ago last month. If you don’t know what happened by now, I see no need to belabor the point by describing the hellish atrocities here. Nor do I intend to make any moral condemnations and sanctimoniously declare, “never again.” If you are looking for any of these things, then I suggest you watch the film or read one of the number of excellent books that have since been written about the subject.

But I would like to share a few of my thoughts after having had a few days to digest what I saw.

Several adjectives spring to mind whenever genocide is mentioned. Terrible. Most certainly. Hellish. Without a doubt. Tragic. Yes. Evil. You bet. Preventable. Perhaps. Anarchic. No.

To describe the state of affairs that unfolded following the downing of Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane by Hutu militants on April 6, 1994 as anarchic would be a mistake. These killings were carefully planned well in advance. And, at least in the early days, they were carried out with frightening efficiency.

Hutu militias had been trained. Guns, grenades, machetes (by one account, enough to arm every third adult Hutu male with a machete), and other weapons had been imported, distributed, and stockpiled in caches across the country. Lists, containing the names of Tutsi and moderate Hutu who were to be executed, had been prepared and circulated by the military prior to the slaughter. Later, names of those missed in the initial sweep of the capital city of Kigali were broadcast over the radio by the station RTLM.

This was far from anarchic. And more than anything else, this was what most terrified me after seeing the film.

As a resident of the United States, like residents of most other developed nations, I can think of a number of material comforts that I more or less take for granted. Central heating and air. Public transportation or private ownership of automobiles. Indoor plumbing. And indeed all of these things do contribute to a high standard of living with few inconveniences. Yet it isn’t difficult to imagine life without most of these things.

But try to imagine waking up one morning to discover that everything you thought you knew about your world, every rule and societal norm you had come to accept as permanent, all of this, gone in an instant.

I’m talking about the certainty that you can walk down the street in broad daylight without having your head caved in by a gang of drunken goons – gone. The certainty that your house won’t be set on fire with you and your family inside – gone. The certainty that you won’t be stopped at a roadside checkpoint, be violently pulled from your vehicle and then summarily shot, chopped, or beaten dead on the spot – gone.

One moment it’s there, the next – gone.

It’s not as though these things happened in Rwanda overnight. Again, much of this had been planned in advance. But for some 800,000 Tutsis and their Hutu defenders, the moment that that plane went down, all of that certainty just simply vanished.

One of the noteworthy books I referred to earlier is former journalist Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Although the book does contain a chapter on Rwanda, it is meant to be a survey of major genocides of the twentieth century and a detailed examination of American responses. As I said before, I don’t intend to pass moral judgment here. And I don’t think that was Power’s intent in writing the book either. So don’t please don’t cringe at the mention of “American responses,” because I’m almost to the point.

One of her conclusions is this:

Despite graphic media coverage, American policy makers, journalists, and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil. Ahead of the killings, they assume rational actors will not inflict seemingly gratuitous violence. They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy. Once the killings start, they assume that civilians who keep their heads down will be left alone. They urge ceasefires and donate humanitarian aid.

But this isn’t just a problem for Americans. Time and again, Power writes of the difficulty of not only outside observers to wrap their minds around the horror, but also that of would-be victims to do the same. On Cambodia she writes:

…[T]hose with the most at stake are in fact often the least prone to recognize their peril. The Cambodian people were frightened by the reports of atrocities in the [Khmer Rouge]-occupied countryside, but they retained resilient hope… [I]n the mental duel that was fought in each and every Cambodian’s mind, it was the concrete features of a horrifying, immediate war that won out over the more abstract fear of the unknown.

It is precisely this difficulty to “wrap one’s head around” the horrors of genocide that I speak of when I describe that total absence of certainty and security that has been characteristic of all past genocides. Say what one may about democritization, economic development, free trade, etc… They are all important means in themselves, no doubt. And I by no means intend to suggest otherwise. But before suffrage, before the ability to produce semiconductors, and before hvaing a selection of imported French wine on my supermarket shelf, I’ll take those basic certainties and securities as an end any day of the week.

Review: Into the Sun (SPOILER ALERT)

Thanks Amazon

This is a review (with spoilers) of Steven Seagal’s latest crapfest, Into the Sun, but first some background:

Steven Seagal was 17 when he first made his way to Japan. By the time he left at age 32, he was the head of a major Aikido dojo in Osaka and spoke fluent Japanese. He then returned to his native California to become personal trainer to the stars.

Eventually he met Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz and the rest was history: crappy action movie after crappy action movie. Yet something always puzzled me about Seagal’s career: he rarely if ever brings up Japan and hasn’t really attempted to become a gaijin tarento despite his fluence in Japanese and obvious desire for stardom.

There are a few possible explanations for such reluctance. In interviews, Seagal comes off as extremely humble (even though he could beat your ass just by thinking about it), a trait he likely learned in Japan. When asked why he left Japan, Seagal betrays his tough exterior and claims to be shy of the spotlight:

When I was in Japan, people tried to deify me, and the reason I left there was that deification is truly a death trap. That is a reason why I kept my spiritual practice to myself in America. I don’t think deification has been one of my biggest problems in life because I am lucky enough to have understood a long time ago what adoration and power really are about. I think the great obstacle was just a lack of understanding of the way.

My translation: “There’s no money to be made in Japanese showbusiness.” (See this good article for more on the Japanese entertainment industry)

Anyway, Seagal’s first wife was Japanese, and depending on how bad their divorce was I would understand if he didn’t feel like immersing himself in Japanese stuff for a while.

The actor seems to be coming out of his shell, finally, with his new movie Into the Sun. Let me start out by saying some nice things about the film. It was well-shot, there are lots of good-looking actresses dressed impeccably, and Japan is filmed very realistically and without the usual stereotypes. Seagal wrote the screenplay and obviously wanted to make sure his beloved Japan got treated well. The plot is ripped from the headlines as well, dealing with such up to the minute subjects as Japan’s ultra-conservative, anti-foreigner governor Ishihara Shintaro and the Chinese mafia’s expansion into Japanese territory.

The plot: Seagal stars as a retired US government agent (CIA? Special Forces? We are never told) who grew up in Japan and has decided to live out his golden years as a part time sword salesman and a full time badass. However the yakuza/triad-related murder of the anti-foreigner governor of Tokyo forces the CIA to bring him out of retirement in hopes that they can crack the case. Why is the CIA investigating the murder of a Japanese politician? “They could be terrorists.” Welcome to post-9/11 America, where non-sequiturs like that are the major themes of presidential addresses.

However, what the CIA (and the producers for that matter) didn’t bet on when they put Seagal on the case is that he is a complete fuck-up. Continue reading Review: Into the Sun (SPOILER ALERT)

The Flattening of Tom Friedman

Those of you who read the final post on my former site have probably guessed by now that I am not a terribly big fan of New York Times’ columnist, Thomas Friedman.

Originally, I had planned to write up a clever introduction to this review of Friedman’s latest book, The World is Flat. Then, a few sentences into it I realized there is very little worthwhile I could add to what New York Press‘ Matt Taibbi has already written, and I certainly cannot touch his sense of humor.

Knowing that I’ve been bested, I leave you with this small taste of Taibbi’s review, and my suggestion that you read the rest.

I think it was about five months ago that Press editor Alex Zaitchik whispered to me in the office hallway that Thomas Friedman had a new book coming out. All he knew about it was the title, but that was enough; he approached me with the chilled demeanor of a British spy who has just discovered that Hitler was secretly buying up the world’s manganese supply. Who knew what it meant—but one had to assume the worst

“It’s going to be called The Flattening,” he whispered. Then he stood there, eyebrows raised, staring at me, waiting to see the effect of the news when it landed. I said nothing.

It turned out Alex had bad information; the book that ultimately came out would be called The World Is Flat. It didn’t matter. Either version suggested the same horrifying possibility. Thomas Friedman in possession of 500 pages of ruminations on the metaphorical theme of flatness would be a very dangerous thing indeed. It would be like letting a chimpanzee loose in the NORAD control room; even the best-case scenario is an image that could keep you awake well into your 50s…

Japan Goes to East Timor: The Original Soundtrack on MP3

In 2002, Japan’s Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF, Motto: “There are some people I want to protect”) sent a brigade of engineers to East Timor to aid in the rebuilding after the chaos of the secession movement. Since this was the first time in a while for the SDF to do anything at all, the dispatch was kicked of with great fanfare.

As part of that effort, JGSDF Engineer Katayama Yoshio of the first wave of troops composed the following songs, which the Japanese government was nice enough to make available for download. Allow me to share:

The Winds of East Timor” — They messed up the links on the site so that both the first and second songs link to the second song. But with my “elite skills” I magically changed the filename from “timor2.mp3” to “timor1.mp3” and PRESTO! all their base belonged to me. The sound? Picture a Muzak version of Southern Allstars crossed with the wussy background music to those public service announcements on Japanese TV.

The Stars of East Timor” — Sounds like any given anime theme from the early 90s meets any given American sitcom theme from the 80s. Compare this with the ALF or Perfect Strangers theme if you dare.

The Other Side of East Timor” — OK, now we’re getting intense. You thought East Timor was gonna be some walk in the park? Fuck you then. Every corporate instructional video or infomercial that I’ve ever scene probably had this for opening music.

The Independence of East Timor” — Final Fantasy ending theme, Karate Kid ending theme, the music for the unveiling of a new car model, take your pick. Never before has Muzak sounded so triumphant. It’s as if to say: “May the East Timorese have a generic and cheesy future full of last-minute soccer goals and defeated bosses.”

East Timor Jubilee” — Let’s party! Remember the parade song in Final Fantasy VII? This sounds JUST like that. Nobuo Uematsu may have a juicy lawsuit opportunity here. Listening to this makes me think the first thing East Timor did when they gained independence was have a nationwide conga line.

The Dunes of East Timor” — OK, now we’re back to anime themes. Nothing more to say about the song, really, but I have to admire this guy’s use of a MIDI keyboard.

Don’t believe me? Listen for yourself!

In all honesty, these lame songs make a pretty apt soundtrack to Japan’s efforts in East Timor. They ignored the problem there for decades, instead opting to trade with the Indonesian government out of economic self-interest and (maybe) a belief in macro-economic assistance to raise living standards in other countries. The afterthought of an SDF dispatch is about as uninspired as these songs are, and about as sincere-looking as the guys holding hands at the top of the site.

Thanks to JGSDF, RPGamer,, and Barbneal for the songs!

Born Into Brothels: Charity, Hollywood-style

I saw this movie, Born Into Brothels, at the E Street Cinema the other day. It’s about this British woman, Zana Briski, who goes into the red light district of Kollkata, India, to shoot photos. Eventually she decides to teach the children living there how to take pictures and tries to use this as a gimmick to raise funds for them to go to good schools. It’s charity, Hollywood-style.

While it was interesting watching her navigate the international and Indian systems to try and save the kids from what all can agree is a pretty horrible life, you can’t fight the feeling that for her they are no more than “noble savages” whom she has decided to civilize. Plus she only succeeds in getting one or two of the children to actually stay in school. The rest of them are either held back by their own lack of discipline or by their parents who need the children to sustain their livelihood in the sex trade. Letting these kids play with cameras and taking them to the zoo ends up giving some of the kids false hope. Suchitra, one of the most enthusiastic photographers, ends up becoming a whore despite hoping for the best: “When I have a camera in my hands I feel happy. I feel like I am learning something…I can be someone.”

Also, the director had a very narrow and gimmicky approach to helping these kids. They were only worth helping insofar as they remained photogenic, their families and the rest of India be damned. There are lots of scenes of hopeless Indian bureaucracy — forms are filled out with old typewriters, moldy records litter offices — but they aren’t put into any context except to serve as barriers to Briski’s mission to save these children through the magic of photography. One gets the feeling that she doesn’t understand much about India’s problems save for what she can see immediately surrounding her.

Now that the movie has won an Oscar for Best Documentary, however, protests have arisen from a Kollkata NGO that claims that the woman didn’t follow proper protocol. The filmmakers didn’t check in with the largest NGO in the area before filming in a dangerous location, and in addition ignored attempts by the organization to contact them. At first, the NGO’s complaints sound like territorial bickering and sour grapes. Like many institutions, they are looking to get a piece of the pie and are probably bitter that they didn’t get an ounce of credit in the film for the work they do. But take a look at this:

DMSC officials, who have not seen the film but heard about it from other sources, said they fear the documentary is inauthentic in not being shot in Sonagachi, but in some other neighbourhood in the city.

Doubts are also being raised about the identity of the children showed as offspring of sex workers of Sonagachi.

“No one told us that a documentary was being made on the lives of the children of sex workers. We are not unhappy about that, but we wish a balanced view of things were presented. Also, we want the collective uplift of the children and not only a few individuals,” said Dutta.

OK, now I feel cheated. These people weren’t even in the *real* Red Light District! Was this lady pulling a fast one on us? It sounds like the lady who made this probably had a good reason to avoid a legitimate NGO — this stinks of the crass heart-string pulling filmmaking that Oscar loves. She was doing exactly the kind of stupid crap that they would frown upon — going in and exploiting the kids to get a few good photographs and a lot of recognition.

I had my doubts when watching the film — not only is the film woefully light on background, the film leads you to believe that these kids are totally uneducated and don’t speak English. But in certain parts of the film you can overhear kids speaking English or they’ll say something in English with a far-too-good accent.

Don’t get me wrong — you don’t doubt the woman’s sincerity when watching the film — it’s just that her approach is so wrongheaded as to be harmful. Now that it’s won an Oscar, people might actually believe that this kind of behavior is legitimate charity work.