Monthly Archives: February 2006

Leaders of the Free World Redux

About a month ago I posted on an Asahi Shimbun piece about Iran that suggested that Japan was more worried over losing rights to an Iranian oil field than the growing tension over the nuclear programme. After mentioning this in commenting on a post at Mutant Frog (a blog on life, culture, and politics in Japan particularly and Asia generally), one of the writers did some research and within a few hours posted again, setting me straight. Good work, guys!

If you have any kind of interest in Japan or Asia I highly recommend Mutant Frog. It’s intelligent, well-written and entertaining. I’d rather be proved wrong by them than anyone else on the net. (End plug)


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An interview with freed Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg. I saw him speak at the Amnesty UK Annual General Meeting in April last year and was impressed by how calm and tolerant he appeared after everything he’d been through. Go read, it’s very interesting and brings out a lot of different sides to his character.

A light-hearted article from the J-Times on the pain of learning kanji – the imported Chinese characters that stand for words or bits of words in Japanese. Just this week someone described to me their favourite kanji. This isn’t as geeky as it sounds – once you know the meaning of the character, you can work out what it means in the context of the word. I used to have kanji that I could appreciate on an aesthetic level, of being a clever representation of the concept it signifies. Of course, this was before I was catapulted into the 40-kanji-per-10-days climate of Level 4, and now I view them all with equal hatred.

Hilary Benn, Minister for International Development, is looking for answers about Britain’s aid and development policies. The blog post is average, but contains links to Benn’s speeches and related stories, which are well worth reading. I cast my vote in the 2005 election for Benn – as MP for Leeds Central, where I was living at the time, he played a big part in redeveloping the city to the vibrant, impressive place it is today, and as head of the Department for International Development, he seems genuinely committed to a better deal for the world’s poor. This is something we should all take seriously.

John Simpson reports from Iraq following the recent violence there. These lines bear quoting:

Some anti-war bloggers in Europe and North America seem positively gleeful about the way things are going here – as though the important thing is that President Bush and Tony Blair should be humiliated, and that the violence in Iraq is the method by which this can be achieved.

Yet what we are watching is the life-and-death struggle of a nation, and the efforts of its democratically elected politicians to sort things out.

One of the more sensible opinions going at the moment.

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A room with a view

sunrise over toba bay
Originally uploaded by moorethanthis.

This was the view from our hotel room this morning. Pretty nice, n’est-ce pas? We took the train down to Toba, a seaside town on the Ise Penisula a few stops along from Ise Shrine, which we visited last semester. The hotel was a big Western-style construction overlooking the sea, but with Japanese rooms, complete with tatami mats, futons on the floors and sliding screens dividing rooms. You put on a yukata (light summer kimono) to walk around the hotel, and set off to the baths for a long relaxing soak. As I’ve written before, any embarrassment about the general nudity quickly wears off and you enjoy the lovely warm water. Well, lovely for the most part – one bath was so hot I could only sit in it halfway, leaving my legs boiled-lobster pink and my top half pasty white when I got out. Back in our room, we drank it up and watched Winter Olympics coverage – non-stop replays of Arakawa-san’s figure skating victory, of course, but also the curling, where I watched the British team get trounced by a bunch of camp-looking Americans in tight T-shirts. In the presence of six American students. Not the proudest I’ve ever been of my country.

We woke up early to catch the sunrise (see photo above) and get some more bathing in, before we set off for breakfast at the hotel’s buffet, which is known in Japanese as a baikingu (‘viking’). I thought this odd name was because both the smorgasbord and Vikings originated in Scandinavia, but I recently found a blog post with a (bizarrely) different explanation…

The train carried us back through the mountains at a pretty leisurely pace (see left). By the time we were back in the urban jungle of Osaka, our time at the seaside seemed just a distant memory. One of the better ways to spend an early weekend.

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Beach volleyball on ice

Lately the TVs in Seminar House 4 have been playing constant Winter Olympics coverage, which is at least a change from the American students’ constant watching of either MTV or CNN. (Insert gratuitous anti-Americanism here – I frankly can’t be bothered.) Japan’s big hope for a gold medal in the Games is figure skater Miki Ando. In the run-up to the opening they kept replaying footage of her tearful triumph in a domestic figure-skating event, which I remember seeing on TV at some point last semester. The whole nation is behind her, and I for one can’t blame them (see picture, and yes I am that shallow). Figure skating is the one event in the games where providing eye candy for the spectators is an integral part of the competition. It’s the beach volleyball of the Winter Olympics. (Incidentally, at the last Olympics the beach volleyball was won by the Swiss. How the hell did that happen?)

UPDATE: Well, Japan won their first gold in the Games for figure skating, which actually went to Shizuka Arakawa (she doesn’t look too bad either). As I left Seminar House on Friday morning I saw Ando blubbing on TV, but that could have meant anything – she cries when she wins, and she cries when she loses. I found out later, as the hotel’s TV was replaying Arakawa-san’s victory over and over again. It’s a good weekend for eye candy. More on the onsen trip later.

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Wandering cutlery

I’ve lost the fork that was given as part of the cooking utensils for each student in Seminar House. Even though I’ve bought a pair of chopsticks, I still cook and eat meals that are most suited to a knife and fork. You may wonder how I manage to eat without a fork – the simple answer is “With great difficulty”. This is why communal property is a mistake. Without an individual feeling they have a stake in something, they won’t invest the effort needed for its upkeep and continued respect. They won’t clean stuff, and they’ll steal other stuff to make up for it. The maintenance of publicly owned goods (common land and such) is one of the bigger dilemnas of any community. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet come up with a perfect solution, but if one exists, it probably steers a course between individual rights and community responsibilities.

The political philosophy section of the post over, I’ll now talk about the weather. It got warmer today, for the first time in a long while. This may be the start of spring. I hope it is, as I’m taking a trip with some friends to an onsen this weekend. Ah, the first blush of spring, when nature is reborn anew. What better time to sit back in a big steaming tub full of naked, middle-aged Japanese men?

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Some comments on a recent post of mine made me realise that I’ve spent a lot of words being cynical and superior about the people I meet here. Which really wasn’t my intention at all. For the most part, I have a great time hanging around with Kansai Gaidai students, Japanese and gaijin alike. The reason I post stories about meeting stupid and prejudiced people is a) because it’s out of the ordinary and b) because I think it’s funnier than the average details of my day. But from now on I think I’ll throttle back on the cynicism and talk about some good things that have happened.

Like yesterday, when I went out to Tsuruhashi, the mainly Korean district of Osaka. Chae, a Korean guy from Seminar House 4, was taking a bunch of people out to dinner at a Korean restaurant. I arrived late, as I had to buy some stuff in Den-Den Town, the part of Osaka famous for electronics, and spent a few minutes waiting to meet up with Chae. Walking out of Tsuruhashi station, you run into a cramped warren of alleyways with train lines running overhead and lanterns strung between buildings, filled with stalls selling Korean food. It had a kind of Blade Runner look to it, only less menacing.

A random guy stopped me on the street to practice his English. I kept answering him in Japanese, only to be reminded that he was Korean. An important distinction, and one that I hadn’t had to grapple with before then. Yet another thing I’m grateful for learning.

Chae led me down the street to the restaurant, accessible through a tiny door that I had to bend double to get through. The place served yaki-niku, a type of dish where you get a selection of meat and vegetables and cook them yourself on a hot plate. I sat cross-legged around a big table with 10 other people, almost all of whom I didn’t know before. It was a fun night. Some people were new, some had been here last semester, but everyone was out to learn, not to prove what they already knew. In that kind of relaxed atmosphere, you can’t help but have a good time.


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Romance: rhymes with dance, allegedly

My cynicism, having reached fever pitch around Valentine’s Day, seems to be subsiding now. Valentine’s Day in Japan is slightly different from in the UK, in that women are supposed to buy chocolate for the men in their lives, whether romantic or not. I woke up on the morning of the 14th to find two little chocolates outside our room, presumably placed there by the two female resident assissants (RAs) in our dorms. The men repay the gesture by buying chocolates for women on White Day, in March. I will have to watch out for that.

In less cheery news, foreigners coming to Japan will be fingerprinted and photographed when entering the country:

The Justice Ministry’s revision will require foreigners to provide fingerprints, facial photographs and other types of information that can identify an individual.

Immigration officials will check the information against a blacklist of suspected terrorists and others deemed undesirable by the Justice Ministry, the officials said. Those who are on the list will be denied entry.

Well, isn’t that great.
The new measures depend on submitting a bill to the Diet to revise the existing Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law, but given how popular anti-foreign sentiment is among politicians as a scapegoat measure, it should have little trouble. Foreigners resident in Japan already have to apply for an Alien Registration card which contains your photo, signature and address, and carry it with them. But that’s basically no different to a driver’s license. First ID cards in the UK, now this. It’s not a good week for the right not to be spied on.

Good week for confectioners, though.

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