Category Archives: Japan

Just an Abe-rration?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has abruptly resigned, after only a little over a year in office:

Abe, who had just recently resisted calls for his ouster and vowed to carry out his reform program, said he was stepping down to achieve a breakthrough in the stalled political situation. But the timing of his announcement raised more questions about what was going on in the political world.

“I made the decision because I felt that a new prime minister should continue the fight against terrorism,” the prime minister told a news conference.

Abe said it was his responsibility–as well as an international promise–to pass legislation in the current Diet session to continue the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s mission in the Indian Ocean refueling ships of the multinational force fighting terror in Afghanistan.

The special measures law that allows the MSDF to operate in the Indian Ocean expires on Nov. 1. Opposition parties have made clear they could not support an extension of the mission.

Considering the way his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi was able to gain immense political capital from facing down the old guard of his party in the 2005 general election, and before that persuade the Diet to allow Japanese troops to be deployed into a combat zone for the first time since 1945, Abe’s early exit will be particularly humiliating, especially as he had staked his political reputation on contiuing Koizumi’s post-9/11 special measures law. But there could be more here. After this summer’s disastrous results for the LDP in the upper house elections, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seems in the ascendant. Abe’s twin political projects have been to instill patriotism in the education system and make Japan a “normal country” with a military able to act unconstrained by Article 9 of the Constitution. He could have thought that extending the MSDF’s mission in the Indian Ocean was something important enough to sacrifice himself for. Or, it could be about a possible forthcoming election:

The DPJ was pushing for a general election, which we all knew the LDP would have a hard time winning.  The question now is to what extent Abe stole the DPJ’s thunder by stepping down, acting as a lightning rod and taking the DPJ best ammo down with him.  Is a general election now more or less likely?

(via CA) Then again, it could be that after a series of scandals involving several ministers, Abe knew that his was a lame-duck administration and felt that the political situation really had reached stalemate. Japan could be heading back to the weak prime minister model that had been the status quo for years before Koizumi broke the mold. Now, as it looks like xenophobic and gaffe-prone Foreign Minister Taro Aso might take over, it seems Koizumi didn’t break the mold so much as scrape some of it off.

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Baggy trousers – not just for Madness

From newly-discovered PingMag (The Tokyo-based magazine about “Design and Making Things”), a piece on Japanese construction worker fashion. During my time in Japan, I would see construction and maintenance crews everywhere, all wearng much the same regalia – hard hats, overalls, very wide, baggy trousers and tabi (Japanese two-toed shoes). I was intruiged by the baggy trousers most of all, as I’d have thought they would get in the way. But this article says otherwise:

There are various theories why the lower part under the knee is pumped up like a balloon. The main reason, however, seems to be a simple one: the baggy pants make it easy to move, easy to bend, stretch and stride.

Other explanations can be, that when working on very narrow scaffoldings high up in the air, it is good to have some kind of sensor: the balloon part of your trousers touches obstacles before your legs do, which acts as kind of a warning system without necessarily having to look down. Besides, they can measure the intensity of the wind and the bagginess prevents the fabric from clinging to your leg even when you are sweating. It also works as a cushion when you drop spiky tools onto your body.

Right below the pumped up part, the trousers become narrow again in order to tighten up your calves. Why? Pressing the calves encourages blood circulation and helps you to work longer and to stand for hours without your feet swelling up.

As soomeone who grew up in Cambridge during the whole baggy skate pants craze, I feel weirdly reassured that the fashion survives somewhere.

(Incidentally, I go back to Leeds on the weekend. Not much to say about that at the moment.)

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Domo arigato, Professor Roboto!

In homage to the dudes at Mutant Frog – a post that combines Japan and robots!

A Kyoto researcher has built an android which looks almost exactly like him, and has on occcasion sent it into his classes at Osaka University to deliver lectures for him. (Japan, robots and the Kansai region – score!) The print version of the story is especially hilarious, as it includes a small picture of the professor and his robot double. They’re eerily similar, but the robot has this cross-eyed scowl, like the puppet Kim Jong-Il in Team America: World Police. Still, the guy has form – he built the team that won the first robot world cup.

Now I think about it, I wouldn’t mind having robots delivering lectures to me. And after the recent dispute over UK university workers’ pay, neither would those in charge of the universities. Until the army of robo-academics inevitably rises up to crush their human masters, of course. Then workplace relations in academia will be a very different place. What on earth will David Lodge write about then?

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JapanBlogging from another continent

Well, I’m back, without too many mishaps. Came across a couple of articles this morning: one from TCS Daily about the Japanese government’s efforts to promote patriotism as part of the education system, and one from the Japan Times concerning China and Korea’s own issues with history and patriotism. The Marmot’s Hole, an excellent blog on Korean affairs, provides some thoughtful commentary on the latter.

The issue of revising Japan’s Fundamental Law of Education to encourage patriotism in schools is a long-running controversy. It is unlikely that it will be passed during the Diet’s current session, due to continued wrangling between the parties. The last I heard, there was a disagreement between the two parties of the dominant coalition over whether the precise wording should be “love the nation” or “treasure the nation”. Apparently, one of them was too overly nationalistic. No, I’m not sure which one either.

So, does Japan have a problem with patriotism? I’m of the opinion that it does – there is still an awful lot of walking on eggshells when it comes to attitudes towards their country. As I’ve written before, there is a curious tension between ultra-nationalist undercurrents in Japanese society and the general attitude that Japan paid too big a price in the Second World War for a resurgence of the kind of blind chauvinism that was instilled by the authorities through that period.

Thoughout the 1930s and 40s, children were indoctrinated through the education system. The mere suggestion of returning patriotism to the curriculum is enough to make some people worried, as the TCS Daily piece reports:

In Saitama prefecture at least 45 local schools were producing report cards for 6th grade students on “love of country”, though officials stress that how to evaluate this is being left up to the schools.

However, despite widespread concerns about juvenile crime and a breakdown in classroom discipline, there are many Japanese who question both whether teaching patriotism is a good idea and whether it is even possible. They argue that it is easy to say you are patriotic just to get a few boxes ticked on a report card, but there is no way of knowing whether you really mean it. Some are also concerned that it will create too restrictive a definition of patriotism that will inhibit students from thinking for themselves.

This is an essential and long-time feature of the Japanese education system – its goal is more to do with “socialising” children and making them into ideal members of society than encouraging personal growth:

The children here are shuttled from school classes to cram class and then to club activities like basketball or kendo. They are exhausted. A friend of mind who teaches in a language school here said that many of the students at her branch look liked they are about to fall asleep in class. Indeed one child did.

Working the kids longer isn’t the right way forward, and getting them to be good citizens isn’t going to happen by changing school textbooks to gloss over the past. If the government wants young people to be proud citizens then it should provide opportunities for them to do what proud citizens do. Instead of encouraging token gestures and empty words, perhaps schools and parents should be easing some of the incredible pressure on their children to achieve academically and get them involved in their communities through voluntary work. Simply punishing people for not singing the national anthem is more likely to engender resentment and rebellion than pride.

Couldn’t agree more. This misguided notion that you can simply tell people to love their country from above is being pushed in Britain as well. The governments of both these countries seem unaware that patriotism – real patriotism – comes voluntarily, and from having things in your country to be proud of.

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My Second-Last Day

Last night I went out with some Australian and Japanese students for a few drinks at an izakaya. Which turned into a few drinks and karaoke afterwards. Great fun, and reminds me that karaoke should also get a mention in the previous post. It’s hard to believe that by tomorrow I’ll be back in the U.K. Still, it’s been an amazing nine months.

I will continue to keep an eye on Japan, blog on any news or issues about it that I find interesting, and of course carry on learning the language. For than anything else, the year abroad has reminded me of why I’m interested in Japan. That’s definitely going to help with the remainder of my degree. And after that, I’d like to come back here. While my interest has widened to other countries in Asia over the course of this year, I’m pretty sure that Japan will always hold a special place in my heart.

UPDATE: This post from Adamu at Mutant Frog looks back at his experience in Japan. A good read, and sort of says what I was trying to say.

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Things I will miss about Japan

Partly inspired by Feitclub and quasi‘s lists of things they would/will miss about Japan, here’s a selection of things that make me very sad to be saying goodbye:

Food

Top of the list, as it should be. Before I came, some aspects of Japanese food, such as azuki bean paste, I remembered with trepidation from my last trip. Over the course of this year, I’ve become a fan of all of them – except natto. Ramen, okonomiyaki, sushi, shabu-shabu, yakisoba – not only are they all delicious, but most are pretty healthy as well. I honestly don’t know how I’ll get by at home without them. Also, my time in Japan has introduced me to Korean food, which is so good that I resolved to travel to Seoul to try the real thing.

Urban Life

hanami 045
Because I live in a small town with not a lot going on, I enjoy going into Osaka or Kyoto. Osaka definitely has the edge in big-city atmosphere, and I enjoy wandering around Umeda, Shinsaibashi, Namba or Tsuruhashi, experiencing the crowds, the bustle, the crazy arrays of neon lights, and the many opportunities for fun.

Kansai Manners

As I fond out, people from the Kansai region behave quite differently to the traditional view of Japanese people. They’re often upfront, direct and pretty in-your-face, which makes for fun conversations. Osaka is renowned for its contribution to Japanese comedy – many comedians on TV speak in Kansai dialect – and you can see some of that humour in how Kansai residents go about their business.

Onsen

I’ve written a few times before about how much I like Japan’s hot springs and public bath houses. They are a fantastic way to relax, and although they’re better in winter, I’ve enjoyed them in all seasons. Although your fellow patrons (at least in the male side) will be on the old side, I have no problem with public nudity. Unless it’s done by other people, in which case it’s disgusting.

Public transport

train arriving
I’ve done a fair bit of travelling while I’ve been here, mostly thanks to the cheapness and convenience of public transport over here. In particular, Japan’s widespread rail network is very friendly to the student traveller. I’ve gone by shinkansen three times for some long journeys, but for others, such as trips to Ise and Toba, we took a local train and got amazing views of the Japanese countryside as we trundled through.

Matsuri

danjiri action shot
Just as festivals across Europe provide an intruiging glimpse back into our pagan history, Japan’s traditional festivals let you look past the usually formal, buttoned-up view of Japanese society. There are family groups, tourists, stalls selling all kinds of food, and usually groups of middle-aged men in traditional happi-coats, who look like they’ve been drinking heavily all day. At the Kishiwada Danjiri matsuri, which I went to last September, these men were in charge of pulling large floats, or danjiri, round corners at breakneck speed (see above). Nobody died last year, which according to some people was unusual.

TV

On the occasions when the TVs in Seminar House 4 weren’t being used by clueless Americans to watch CNN or the Discovery Channel, I loved checking out Japanese TV. Sure, it’s renowned for its craziness, and rightly so. But you can also learn quite a lot from it, mostly thanks to NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting service, which is second only to the BBC in terms of size. I remember watching a Japanese sign-language program on one of NHK’s channels, at prime time on a Saturday evening. I can’t think of any other network in the world that would give such a prominent slot to that kind of programming.

My fellow gaijin (and Japanese friends)

group shot, ise
Over the course of this year, I think the greatest help to me has come from the other international students. We were pretty much all in the same boat, and apart from a few exceptions, snobbery over language ability or knowledge about Japan never reared its head. Along with the Japanese friends we made, they were the best support network for finding yourself in a strange country that I can imagine. Together we explored Japan, from remote countryside shrines to city-centre bars, learning about Japan, our own countries and ourselves. It’s been brilliant.

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Why Japan?

Some time ago, I came across this link to an exchange student’s speech on why he came to Japan. (Note: later found out this guy was also at Kansai Gaidai. Small world, eh? I don’t think we spoke at all, though.) Anyway, commenter Mayumi recently asked why I came to study in Japan. This is still a big question for me. I still can’t give an exact answer to why I’m studying Japanese, but it’s become such a part of my life now that I can’t really feel like anything else is as important – not even English, the other half of my degree, and until last year my favourite subject.

I guess part of the answer is luck. The year I chose subjects for my GCSEs, Japanese was on there for the first time. So I picked it, sort of on a whim, because I’d never studied anything like it before and I was curious. I did pretty well, but lost interest in 6th Form, when it was all about constantly revising kanji. I let the spoken language slide, and got through with a decent pass. I’d already applied to Leeds to do English and Japanese, as they were my two favourite subjects and I wanted to continue them.

My academic performance in my first year at uni wasn’t exactly stellar – in fact, I ended up having to convince my tutors to let me go on the year abroad. This was partly because due to my previous experience, I didn’t take Japanese lessons for the first semester. Once I arrived, everyone had their own social groups and I found it quite hard to fit in. I made friends, but felt like I didn’t have much of an investment in my work. So I let things slip.

Of course, once I actually got here, things changed. I had a reason to speak Japanese, to learn Japanese, to engage with everything around me. And once I get back, I’m going to carry on. There’s so much I’ve learned, and so much I want to learn. I only hope I’ve managed to put a little bit of it across on this blog.

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