Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Walking backwards for Christmas 16 February, 2014

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:09 am
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our hero

When I came to Japan the emperor Hirohito was still here, somehow transformed into a harmless marine biologist, but the same warlord who had presided over the Japanese empire of the 1930s and ’40s. It seemed a vaguely amusing curiosity at the time – we Europeans tended not to know so much about what happened in the Asian war, and my impression was “Yes, the Japanese did some bad things, like mistreatment of British and Australian POWs, maybe bombed some cities, but nothing to compare with the evils of Nazi Germany”.

I was wrong.

It was only fairly recently that I figured I’d better know what the Chinese and Koreans were complaining about, checked out the Wikipedia on Japanese War Crimes and followed up some of the references there. It’s not easy reading let me tell you and I felt thoroughly shaken by some of the content. For example, if you don’t already know about Unit 731 have a look and see if you still feel exactly the same way about this country. Try to imagine the feelings of someone, probably Chinese, whose grandfather or aunt had been murdered there. Bear in mind that Chinese, unlike most Japanese, have been taught all about the atrocities committed in their country by the Japanese, and the anti-Japanese riots of a couple of years ago become a little easier to understand. There may be scope to argue about how many tens of thousands of people died in some incident or other, but there seems no doubt whatsoever that many horrible things were done on a vast scale by the Imperial Japanese Army, mostly under the direct orders of those at the top of the chain of command.

Many countries have right-wing extremists with outlandish beliefs – my own UK, the US, France, Germany and Russia come to mind – and here there have long been “uyoku” who drive around on the odd Sunday afternoon in vaguely military-looking trucks blasting patriotic music from high-powered speakers. There are also some politicians, mostly in the LDP, who have very strange ideas about the past. Like the White Queen, they have no trouble believing six impossible things before breakfast, for example:

  1. The Nanking Massacre never happened.
  2. The “comfort women” issue has been blown up out of the kind of prostitution that follows any army.
  3. China, Korea and all the countries invaded by Japan welcomed their occupation and benefited from it.
  4. The Tokyo trials of war criminals were distorted “victors justice” and an unfair imposition of alien Western values.
  5. Asperger’s syndrome is caused by “leftist influenced” parenting. (“Parents and Education” at the bottom of this page.)
  6. and… Japan should have nuclear weapons.

1 and 2 are easily dealt with by referring to any historian. No-one seriously doubts those things took place. 3 is a gross insult to those who suffered occupation. Ask an older Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indonesian… 4 does have an element of truth. The trials were distorted; every effort was made by McArthur to hide the emperor’s involvement in war crimes, and the despicable Ishii, who ran Unit 731, was able to rejoin Japanese society as a respected researcher – because the Americans wanted his data.

I used to think that these beliefs were limited to a small fringe element generally rejected by society, and that in another few years we would all be over the war and its aftermath, ready for a new era of peace and co-operation in Asia and in the world.

I might have been wrong there too.

In the last couple of weeks, several unpleasant creatures have emerged from where they had been hiding and started saying in public what they had long been thinking in private. It started with Katsuto Momii, the new chairman of NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, who, at his inaugural press conference, compared “comfort women” with brothels in Amsterdam, defended the controversial State Secrets Law and said NHK International should promote government policies. Shortly after, a member of the NHK governors, Naoki Hyakuta, went campaigning for one of the candidates in the Tokyo gubernatorial election, a guy called Toshio Tamogami. If that sounds inappropriate enough, on the stump he said the Nanking Massacre had been made up and added that the three leading candidates (a former prime minister, a former minister of health and a former chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations) were “human trash”. OK, it gets better. It turns out that another newly appointed NHK governor, a lady called Michiko Hasegawa, had written an essay last October about an ultranationalist, Shusuke Nomura. This guy didn’t like something the Asahi newspaper had written about him in 1993, pulled out a couple of guns and shot himself in the stomach three times in their office, dying shortly after. Rather than condemning the illegal use of firearms in an attempt to intimidate the media, Hasegawa said this was a wonderful thing that made the emperor a living god in spite of what it said in the constitution. Pretty weird people on the NHK board of governors, right? Hyakuta and Hasegawa were both appointed by Abe along with two others close to him, and the freshly adjusted board subsequently chose Momii as NHK chairman.

More, the surprise in last Sunday’s election for Tokyo governor was not “establishment” candidate Masuzoe winning, as expected, but this weirdo Tamogami who came fourth, but with 600,000 votes. (24% support among voters in their 20’s, tapering off to 6% for over-70’s) Tamogami used to be a Self Defence Force general but he had to resign after writing an essay full of the kind of nonsense referred to above. Tamogami’s essay won a contest run by the Apa company. The English translation is still available from the Apa website, and a fairly careful deconstruction by Tobias Samuel Harris here. I don’t know if you remember the scandal about apartments and hotels that didn’t meet earthquake standards a few years ago, but the hotels belonged to Apa, whose president Toshio Motoya is another right-winger close to Abe. Abe himself might be a hopeless idealist but many of the people around him are thoroughly unpleasant characters whose prime motivation seems not to be the protection of the Japanese people but how best to exploit them.

So it looks as if Abe is trying to put NHK under pressure not to publish content inconvenient for him, and is already succeeding. It took them three days to mention the Momii controversy and I still haven’t heard anything from them about Hyakuta or Hasegawa. The relatively high support for Tamogami among the young suggests the LDP’s proposed editing of school textbooks might not be needed. The young already have no grasp of how outrageous the things Tamogami and co. are saying really are.

The english-speaking web is full of articles about Japan’s “swing to the right” at the moment, but I’m adding my small voice to all this because I think it’s important, and very dangerous for Japan. As a friend put it the other day, the country may be “sleepwalking into disaster”. Now it’s true that the rulers of China have been instilling anti-Japanese feeling in their people for years, and this is helping to promote nationalism in Japan, along with genuine fear of the growing Chinese army. In return, the Abe government’s hawkishness is a convenient distraction from China’s many domestic problems. Even so, no good is being served by this attitude on the Japanese, Chinese and to some extent Korean sides. The example of Germany is often held up as a way for Japan to make peace with its neighbours, but I’d like to offer another one: South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission may not have been perfect, but the attitude of honestly facing up to what happened in the past is surely a necessary foundation for a healthy future relationship?

Abe thinks that his years of zen and carrot juice in the wilderness have made him into a Great Leader who will Save Japan. I think he’s an arrogant prick. He’s just so full of himself it’s impossible to watch without wanting to throw up. Japan is a beautiful country with a wonderful culture and sincere, good-hearted people. I like to think that sooner rather than later they will see through the idiotic nonsense he and his cohorts have been peddling and throw him off, as America finally rejected George Bush. I like to think that Japan will return to the sort of sensible path briefly hinted at by the DPJ in their short turn at power. I like to think that Japan could set a good example of how mankind can deal with some of the huge problems on the near horizon.

Please, Japan, don’t let me be wrong this time.


Asian war nobody wants? 15 January, 2013

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 1:44 pm
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Of course it’s probably grossly exaggerated. There’s no way that China, Japan and America could go to war, is there? It would be a disaster for everyone that no-one wants. So how to avoid it? It needs some careful thinking all round, which we can only hope is already going on.

Meanwhile this article in the Sydney Morning Herald at the end of December:

Caught in a bind that threatens an Asian war nobody wants.


65 years 13 October, 2010

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 3:02 pm
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I was born not long after the war and its after-effects reverberated through my childhood. Boys’ comics were full of brave British soldiers battling nasty Germans shouting “donner und blitzen!” (although I preferred spacy stuff like Dan Dare), my parents got nervous at the sound of the siren from a nearby airfield, friends would mutter in the corner of the playground about fiendish “torture” practiced by evil Germans or Japanese and distant mushroom clouds were a regular item in my dreams for some years. But some 580,000 Japanese civilians, and more than 2 million soldiers died in that war – far more than for the UK or USA, if not coming up to Russia or Germany ( Wikipedia ) and most Japanese of that generation have terrible memories of the war.

The last couple of years, NHK, the national TV network, have made a project of interviewing eyewitnesses to build an archive of war experiences while they still can. Many Japanese soldiers died in the most horrific circumstances, with little support from central command beyond exhortations to rely on their “samurai spirit”. Most older Japanese have strong anti-war opinions, and I think it would be fair to regard the civilian population as co-victims, along with many fellow-Asians, of the militarism that gripped the country in the early 20th century – a time when people were tortured to death for mentioning in a letter that they hoped the war would end soon… So maybe NHK are hoping to maintain this pacifism into the next generation, who grew up in the postwar era of prosperity. Good luck to them!

The anniversaries of the monstrous flashbulbs that went off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki come early in August, just before the end of the war itself. Now, more people actually died in the firebombing of Tokyo, but that doesn’t alter the suffering of children who were fried on their way to school. Tragedy, like peace, is indivisible – it’s not really a question of numbers – and I was glad to see the American ambassador at Hiroshima this year, to pay his respects. Just a natural human response, you’d think, so why was this the first time since the end of the war 65 years ago? Even more, why did so many Americans get angry about it, complaining that there was nothing to apologise for? Leaving the issue of whether the atomic bombing was justified or not – there are arguments on both sides – surely there’s nothing wrong with recognising the suffering of innocent people?

Now, maybe it’s time for Japanese to face up to the Nanking Massacre?


Summer 22 September, 2010

Filed under: customs,seasons — johnraff @ 2:14 pm
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Finally it’s over – sort of. That sultry sticky sweltering sweaty squishy soggy humidity has dropped way down as the dry Autumn air from the continent takes over. Although we’re going over 30°C today and you wouldn’t call it cool exactly, the mornings and evenings are really pleasant and there’s a nice breeze even now, at 2 in the afternoon. It’s been a record-breaking long hot Summer this year – more than 500 people are reported to have died from heatstroke and the electricity companies are expecting to make record profits from all the carbon they burnt to keep our air conditioners running. (How are we going to escape this situation where the only way to make life tolerable is to contribute to making it worse? I’m reminded of the old, old Kevin Ayers song “Why are we sleeping?“) A lot of my friends teach at universities, get long Summer vacations and head right out of here for the month of August. Conversely, for old friends in Europe, August is the obvious holiday season and that is when they want to come over here to visit. I try to talk them out of it, explaining that they’ll likely find the heat intolerable, but they don’t really get it …till they arrive.

Even so, Summer in Japan is a special time. For a month or two we share the same air mass as Southeast Asia (apparently Hong Kong has Japan beaten for humidity) and it’s as if the whole country has taken off southwards. You don’t need more clothes than a T-shirt and pair of shorts, and even when working there’s a sort of holiday atmosphere. (I guess the suit-wearing salarymen might see it a bit differently…) The kids are all off school and along with the cicadas the heavy air carries the sounds of High School Baseball from a thousand open windows. And the evenings can be magical. The warmth just envelops you so that there’s no distinction between indoors and outdoors. Just take a walk around your neighbourhood, follow the smoke pouring out of a local yakitoriya for an ice-cold beer and some grilled chicken, or maybe even head to a beer garden… These are a different story really – while eating outside, maybe on the roof of a tall building, has an appeal, you’re usually obliged to go along with some kind of “all you can eat and drink” sort of deal, usually with a time limit. The foods not that great, there are hundreds of people and the effect is a bit like feeding time at the zoo.

Much better are the Summer festivals, especially out in the countryside. There’s dancing, more of that indispensible ice-cold beer and young people come back from the cities to revisit relatives. The young girls look really cute in their Summer kimonos and there are quite often fireworks too. Japanese fireworks are some of the best in the world, and the big displays draw millions of people. All this is really based on the “Obon” festival, when the spirits of dead ancestors return to their families and have to be entertained with Bon odori – traditional dancing. Fires are lit to help them find their way home, and later to send them off again. ( Could that be where the fireworks come from? )

This is also the time for ghost stories – some say it’s because they give you a delicious chill, but maybe it’s just that Obon connection again. There are some real ghosts too. Among the spirits who return for consolation are the nearly three million who died in World War 2. The anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of the Pacific war come in quick succession at the beginning of August, and the ringing of temple bells joins the cicadas and baseball.

So it’s not all festivals and fun, and the Autumn just coming can be really beautiful, as can Spring, but I’d still say Summer is my favourite season.


The Missile 4 April, 2009

Filed under: news,politics — johnraff @ 2:24 pm
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Of course North Korea is just over the water, and Japan has a lot of unfinished business there: the abductees issue drags on, and the DPKR still bring up WW2. Even so I’m getting a bit tired of hearing about this is-it-a-satellite-or-is-it-a-missile that’s been occupying the top news spot for the past week or so. “Don’t panic!”, “just carry on as normal” everyone shouts at us and today, when it looks as if the thing might well be launched, it comes up on NHK TV every five minutes or so. Just after 12:00 there was even a false alarm!

Of course it will just fly overhead (that’s the point when they decide if it’s a satellite or a missile), bits will fall into the sea, and nothing will drop on us, but just in case it does the Self Defence Force have got their new Star Wars toys out ready to shoot it down. That whole thing was a ripoff for the American arms industry to sell billions of dollars worth of equipment to their “allies” anyway, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Americans had been stirring things up between Japan and North Korea to improve their sales prospects…

It will probably all be over today anyway. Heads down.


A Blast from the Past 16 January, 2009

Filed under: news,places — johnraff @ 2:19 am
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Yesterday in Okinawa, there was an explosion at a construction site. The driver of a mechanical digger was seriously injured, and windows were broken at an old peoples’ home 50 metres away. It wasn’t a terrorist attack but a (hitherto) unexploded bomb, left over from the second world war. A lot of them fell on Okinawa, and even 60-odd years later they can still go off, apparently.

They said on the TV news last night that there was still an estimated 3000 tons of bombs left in the ground …


Nagasaki 6 December, 2008

Filed under: places — johnraff @ 2:23 pm
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The seasons seem to change really suddenly here. Only just over a month ago we were in Nagasaki (first visit) baking under a scorching hot sun in a clear blue sky. West Kyushu felt like a different country from the Tokai strip from Tokyo to Osaka where most Japanese (and foreigners) live. Tonight they’re due to get some snow, apparently.

For many people outside Japan Nagasaki, along with Hiroshima, is mainly associated with the atomic bombing that came at the end of World War Two, but it’s a beautiful historic city and if you’re planning a trip to Japan well worth adding to Kyoto and Tokyo if you can manage the time. The bomb fell in the north of the city and because of the mountainous geography most of the devastation was confined to that area, where some 40,000 people died that day and about as many subsequently. There is now a Peace Park and museum near the epicentre, but we didn’t visit them. I’ve already been to Hiroshima, seen several TV documentaries on the horrible effects of nuclear weapons and consider myself already thoroughly committed to the cause of peace.

More selfishly, we only had a couple of days, and there were other places we wanted to visit. The centre, round the harbour, seems to have been pretty much untouched by the bomb and there are beautiful old temples, churches and houses. Nagasaki used to be a very important port and has a long history of contact with foreigners: Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, British… all of whom have left traces. Add lots of hills with views, nice old trams they’ve bought from other places too short-sighted to keep them, a fantastic view from a nearby mountain of the city and harbour, good food and a different culture from Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka and you can see why it’s a popular tourist destination. (We must have been off-season because there were huge almost-empty carparks everywhere.)

A church in Sotome, near Nagasaki.

Goa? Brazil? No, Japan.

Winter starts quite late here and we were lucky to catch three blazing hot days – Summer’s sayonara party. There’s some beautiful countryside around and the blue sky, blue sea and lush sub-tropical greenery almost reminded me of Okinawa. The plants that grow around there are not the same as what we have here – there seemed to be many that I’d never seen. I don’t claim to be a Christian or anything (hard-line fundamentalist agnostic maybe?) but have to say that there are some really beautiful churches in the area. There have been Christian communities there for hundreds of years and some fishing villages have a local church instead of the usual shrine or temple. Even for a Westerner the effect is quite exotic.

Out of the handful of places we had time for I would recommend So Fuku Ji. This is an old temple, built by Chinese so it looks quite different from the usual Japanese temple, but not gaudy at all. That garish tinselly style I’ve assocated with Chinese temples up to now seems to have been subdued a bit and the result is peaceful and beautiful. Running out of time, we took a taxi back. Hearing that we had just visited a Chinese temple and hadn’t been to the peace park he remarked that the peace park should have come first. I could have pointed out that I was British and not responsible for dropping that devilish weapon, that I had taken part in a (tiny) anti-war demonstration, that I already knew plenty about what happened, that more people had died in Tokyo and Okinawa and many millions in Europe, but anything I said would have sounded as if I was belittling the dreadful suffering of all the innocent people who had that thing dropped on them, so I kept silent.

Sou-fuku-ji in Nagasaki

Sou-fuku-ji in Nagasaki

Maybe we should have visited the Peace Park.


Peace 15 August, 2008

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:16 pm
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Today, August the 15th, is the day the Pacific war ended in 1945, and the event is marked with ceremonies all over Japan including a speech on TV by the Prime Minister. Coming in the middle of the “Obon” holiday, when returning spirits of departed relatives are entertained for a few days, the timing is perfect. While I remember the boys’ comics when I was a kid were full of war stories with heroic Brits and evil Germans, commemoration of the war seemed to be mainly about giving thanks for the sacrifices of troops who died. Japan has its own Yasukuni Shrine for that, but it is unfortunately tangled up in right-wing nationalism and attempted revision of Japan’s historical record, which is nowhere as well known to most people here as, for example, that of Hitler in Germany.

The main message here is “never again”. While atrocities committed in Asia cannot be denied, the Japanese people themselves suffered terribly during and after the war – the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was really horrible – and seem to have lost any faith in war as an instrument of foreign policy they may have had in the 1930’s. I think the same might be said of most Europeans. Both have fully tasted the bitter fruit of extreme nationalism. Others might take note.

Here in 2008 the world doesn’t seem such a peaceful place: wars, invasions, massacres of innocent civilians continue, spurred on by greedy, short-sighted governments’ cynical distortion of peoples’ natural love of their place of birth into fanatical nationalism. Well, if we don’t move on from that soon and get together to deal with the real issues that face all humanity, then there won’t be too much more history.

(…all we are saying…)


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