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A suite of articles published recently by Forbes allege that Japan’s actually been doing quite well, and that the supposed Lost Decades of economic stagnation since the 1990s have been false, a myth, all along. Of course, as one commenter adroitly stated, if that’s the case, why did no one notice or realize it until now?

But, while I by no means consider myself an expert in contemporary macroeconomics or business or financial policy in any way, and while I by no means mean to give myself a pat on the back, I have kind of been saying this all along. I’ve been to Japan, I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve seen the lifestyle people lead there, and I’ve read of Japan still being the 2nd largest economy in the world for all those years (now 3rd), while constantly putting out new technologies, lightyears ahead of us in robotics, in cellphone features (up until the advent of the iPhone), in bullet trains, and most certainly in customer service and overall quality of life. All of this sparkly shiny, and yet people are saying that Japan’s economy is in the dumps? Not that I knew any better, in terms of hard-and-fast macroeconomic statistics or anything, but, still, it was a bit hard to swallow.

One way or the other, I am no expert, and I have no idea what the truth is. But these articles present some interesting perspectives.

As an aside, I wonder why it is that these Forbes articles include one by NYTimes constant commentator Paul Krugman. I have no doubt that Krugman’s a really bright guy, well-read, and all of that. But he’s no Japan expert. I wonder what Hiroko Tabuchi, the NY Times’ own Japan specialist, has to say about all this. And, considering the Times’ track record, continuing to talk about wacky Japan and inscrutable Japan, refusing to put aside Orientalist attitudes even in the 21st century (couldn’t find any particularly excellent examples, but, believe me, they’re out there), I wonder what real Japan experts, like Gerald Curtis, have to say about it? Why is it Krugman, and not Curtis or Tabuchi, who’s reporting on this?


A colophon by Dong Qichang (d. 1636), on a handscroll painting formerly attri. Dong Yuan (d. 962). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

*Stanford has placed online what appears at first glance to be a very nice guide to Classical Chinese. It starts off by going over the basics – that a given character can have many meanings, and play the role of multiple different forms of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) depending on where it is in the sentence, and the incredible importance of paying attention to character order (i.e. “word” order). The guide then goes into further detail, explaining individual particles as it leads the reader through selections from famous classical texts, including the Analects of Confucius and the writings of Mencius.

Now that I’m beginning to look through it, I’m not sure how effective self-studying from this guide, alone, might be. But, as a reference, it could be quite nice. And, especially since what little I know of Classical Chinese I learned by way of Japanese, seeing it explained, in English, without that Japanese intermediary, could also be helpful (though, weird as it might sound at first to say that I’ve studied how to read Chinese in Japanese, actually, since Japanese uses the same characters, I think it’s actually more understandable, at least for me, than going straight from Chinese to English).

*Meanwhile, on a completely different subject, as I mentioned briefly in my previous post, there was a massive spill, or leak, of hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses into Honolulu Harbor, on Sept 9.

Right: Not a picture of the spill, but just a photo I took, some years ago, of the city.

Though molasses is, essentially, just sugar, and though one might therefore assume that it shouldn’t be such a problem, an NPR report explains that the molasses somehow pulls the oxygen out of the water, suffocating the marine life. And, since it sinks to the bottom rather than floating on the surface as an oil spill would, it is far more difficult to clean up. Plus, this particular part of the harbor is relatively shielded from ocean currents, meaning that the natural flow and exchange of water between the harbor and the ocean will not, on its own, clean up the spill for years. One report I read, though I can’t quite remember where, said it could be decades before the ecosystem revives back to the levels it was at before this spill, a spill which some are calling the worst environmental disaster in the history of the State of Hawaii. A Hawaii Public Radio report by my friend Molly Solomon tells us that Matson – the company running the molasses pipeline – knew about the leak a year ago, but did not take proper action to see it fixed; the report discusses briefly the possibilities for liabilities, lawsuits, or fines that Matson may face.

*Much thanks to BoredPanda, for sharing with us a series of photos of Costumes of Still-Practiced Pagan Rituals of Europe. I quite enjoy traditional costume, especially festival performance costume, from many different cultures, but, while we may enjoy “privilege” in a great many other aspects of our lives, one place where those of us of European descent get shafted is in having a national costume, or traditional dress, to dress up in when occasion allows. It’s beautiful and wonderful to see these examples of a deeper, older, cultural tradition still practiced in Europe which goes beyond the multitude of things that, beautiful, interesting, traditional, cultural though they may be, are unavoidably seen as utterly typical, normal, today.

*Switching gears yet again, The Justice, the student newspaper at Brandeis University, reports on the myth & history of Usen Castle. Now, I know this may be of little interest to anyone who didn’t go to Brandeis, but, here’s the story in a nutshell: we have a castle on campus. It is of course not a “real” castle, and, I think, looks it, when you consider the conical fairy-tale turret-toppers and such. But, it’s still really cool, and I’m still sad I never got to live there (it’s a sophomores-only dorm, and I didn’t make it into the Castle in the housing lottery that year).

Getting to the point, as at any college campus, a number of rumors and stories swirl around Brandeis campus about the true origins and history of the castle, some of them perpetrated and perpetuated by admissions tour guides and other official sources. In most accounts, the castle is said to have been based on a specific castle in Scotland (never named, or specified, in the story), which the campus architect saw and liked, but to which he was denied entry, and as a result, the castle looks like a castle on the outside, but follows a less than standard plan on the inside. I’ve also heard stories about it being formerly used as an animal hospital, and about Eleanor Roosevelt having lived there at some point. This week’s Justice article banishes these myths and gives the real story.

*The BBC reports on a recent large-scale public art project in which the silhouettes of 9000 bodies were created on a Normandy beach, a simple but powerful visual reminder of what took place there in June 1944, and just how many people lost their lives on that beach. As one of the organizers/artists is quoted as saying, “”All around us there are relics of the Second World War, but the one thing that is missing are the people that actually died.”

The silhouettes were created simply by disturbing the sand within roughly body-shaped stencils – the disturbing of the sand itself, I realize as I write this, gives a sort of symbolism of the project disturbing the beach, disturbing the peace the beach sees today, disturbing its current modern-day identity, and disturbing our own, what’s the word, our glazing over in our awareness of the battle. Of course, everyone knows of the storming of the beaches of Normandy, but how many of us have ever really given thought to the level of the violence, the number of the bodies, right there on that beach?

We are forced – powerfully, violently – to remember. And then, the tide came in, and washed away the entire artwork.

The handwritten siddur (prayer book) of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism, 1698-1760) with his students’ names in the margins to help him remember them in his prayers. The siddur is in the collection of Agudas Chabad Library, in Brooklyn. The book is open to the Amidah or Shemone Esreh prayer. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So, apparently, Russia is not lending any artworks to American museums right now. Why? Because they are afraid that anything they send over here might be held for ransom until Russia turns over the 15,000 or so books & other documents they hold formerly belonging to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, aka the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late leader of Chabad, a very prominent Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. A recent article in the magazine Tablet explains out the situation in some nice detail – I myself knew extremely little about it, and am glad for the information. But I would wager that the vast majority of curators & other museum professionals in the US know next to nothing about this collection, or about the controversy. It may be a huge big deal within Chabad circles, and who knows just how prominent it is within the Russian government, or the Russian museum world, but, for museums all across the United States to be denied loans of Matisses and Monets, across the board, because of a dispute between the Russian government and a Jewish sect over a collection of books (and these 15,000 volumes are not even the entirety of the Rebbe’s collection; Chabad has another 250,000 volumes in Brooklyn), seems, well, silly.

But, then, that’s just how the museum world works sometimes. Reality can be stranger than fiction, and as in any set of politics, in the museum world or in any other field, all sorts of things can get twisted up together that really shouldn’t be connected…

The collection was obtained by the Russians when they took it from the Nazis who had taken it from where the Rebbe stored it in Warsaw after successfully escaping from Soviet Russia (in order to protect both himself and the collection). After that, nothing was heard or known about the collection for many years, until around the time of Gorbachev, and then the fall of the Soviet Union, information began to come out. But still the Russian government would not let go of the objects. They allowed Chabad rabbis to come to Moscow, believing they were going to be allowed to at least see the collection, but in the end denied the rabbis even that, allowing them to see only a catalog of the collection. Then there was some kind of legal decision, in which Chabad won the decision and the Russians were obliged to, or agreed to, return the collection. But, that too didn’t end up happening.

Now, Russian officials are asserting that The Schneersohn collection is a “national treasure of the Russian people.” As representatives of Chabad have appropriately responded, “There is no justification for Russia’s retention of Jewish texts that were stolen by the Nazis in Poland and then looted by the Red Army during the Holocaust.” And that’s the least of the justifications, it would seem, for why Russia’s claims are, well, on less than solid ground. This is coming from a country that for nearly the entire 20th century suppressed all religion; a country where anti-Jewish pogroms were so bad in the pre-Soviet era that these pogroms are among the most famous, most prominently known & cited causes of Russian Jewish emigration to the United States. A country where anti-Jewish policies were so severe, the State of Israel worked to “rescue” over 160,000 Jews from Soviet Russia in the 1960s-70s alone. So how could such a thing be a “National Treasure” of such a state?

The new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Opened 2012, according to Wikipedia it may be the largest Jewish museum in the world.

Of course, towards the middle of the article, we see a somewhat more sympathetic and nuanced side. Rabbi Gorin, a spokesperson for Chabad in Russia (Chabad is active in Russia? I’m surprised.) claims that the Russian government, which is now moving the collection to a new Museum of Jewish Tolerance, has Hebraists on staff who are working to more properly & accurately catalog the collection, and who intend to digitize the entire thing and make it all accessible to the public. Wow. Sounds nice. So I guess the books aren’t locked away in some basement, hated and forgotten about. And, he explains, all the talk about the books being a “national treasure” is just posturing, and what it’s really about is that, as part of a sort of umbrella stance/attitude, the removal or return of anything from any of the national libraries is essentially out of the question. The British Museum has spoken similarly as to the inability of the Elgin Marbles, or objects of potential Nazi provenance, being removed from their collection and given over to previous or allegedly “rightful” owners. Further, Gorin says “that the Schneersohn library is typical of great eastern European rabbis’ personal collections,” and that furthermore, since so many such libraries were destroyed, that makes this one all the more valuable as a source for research, and as something to proudly hold – and keep – in one’s collection. This is an argument I’ve seen before in numerous other cases, and with which, I must say, I can sympathize. There are countless cases of museums in the US, UK, and elsewhere that don’t want to give up a given object or collection because it is such a valuable example of X, Y, or Z, and indeed I sympathize with that and in many cases would side with the museum. This makes it a lot harder to feel definitively one way or the other on this issue.

And, in the end, as the article concludes, in truth, contrary to what was represented earlier in the article, it would seem that many/most Russian officials are not in fact concerned about anything relating to the objects themselves, e.g. bitterness against Chabad for the virulence of the conflict, but, rather, are afraid of setting a precedent. They’re afraid that by letting anything go, it sets a dangerous precedent for other groups to start making claims of their own. I wish we could file this one away under the Russians being crazy, obnoxious, stubborn, or anti-Semitic, or refusing (or failing) to change from their Soviet ways of doing things, but, unfortunately, these arguments sound all too familiar. I can imagine American institutions making very similar arguments, and I can imagine siding with them in such circumstances. So… while I sympathize with the Chabadniks to a great extent, in the end I’m really not sure which side to believe, or to side with. Hopefully this plan to digitize the collection and make it publicly available actually manifests. It’s not as much as the Lubavitchers may want, but it’s certainly something.

The Kabuki-za in Ginza, as it appeared c. 1930. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks so much to Diego of My journey into Noh theatre for sharing today a link to a Japan Times interview with Ichikawa Ebizô entitled “Ebizo rethinks kabuki’s strategy.”

In the interview, Ebizô, the leading actor in the kabuki world since the death of his father this past February, discusses his upcoming “Invitation to Classics” (古典への誘い, koten e no izanai) tour, beginning Oct 5 in Osaka, and touring around various parts of Japan through the end of the month. (For more details on dates and venues, see this page on Zen-A – in Japanese). The tour is part of a continuing effort to bring kabuki out to regions where people might be interested, but might not otherwise have much chance to see a performance, and also to hopefully inspire interest in kabuki, especially among young people. On a related note, Ebizô also talks about overseas tours, the interest that exists overseas, and the desire to do more to attract more fans. In essence, the whole thing comes down to the continuing fear – perhaps quite rightly placed – about the aging kabuki fan base, and concerns that if kabuki doesn’t have enough younger fans, it faces a very indefinite future.

The “Invitation to Classics” tour features chiefly dance pieces, not full plays, or even full scenes or acts of plays. As Diego rightly suggested in a brief online exchange, staging fuller scenes could become prohibitively expensive on tour, if they require fuller stage dressing (i.e. set pieces) and more actors, which would then also mean more costumes, more props, etc etc. Not to mention that most regional stages would not be equipped with the rotating stage, trap doors, and other such equipment that many plays call for. By contrast, it’s much cheaper to tour with a smaller company, with only one or two actors dancing at once, with only a few costumes, plus all the musicians, crew, etc. So, that’s a concern, I’m sure.

Ebizô further explains this choice by saying “It’s a form of culture, it’s the classics,” and that “basically the songs (I’ll dance to) are like the pop music of the Edo Period (1603-1867)… The Kiyomoto School of kabuki music features high-pitched sounds, and is played in a pretentious manner. Whether that’s interesting or not, I don’t know.” On the subject of overseas tours, he says “that he’s banking on marketing kabuki overseas through non-verbal, dance-only performances at first,” and “If foreign audiences enjoy kabuki dancing and feel like watching more, we would test new waters and show them (a full-fledged) kabuki performance.”

I appreciate the sentiment, the desire to be true to the classical form, and to show audiences something that’s genuine, authentic, cultured, refined – to present them with the real thing and hope they like it, and not worry about if it’s interesting. But, personally, I’m rather skeptical about the use of dance pieces as an introduction to kabuki. I wonder if the people at the National Theatre are following a similar logic in organizing their utterly lackluster and underwhelming (and, frankly, though I’m sorry to say it, sleep-inducing) Kabuki no Mikata performances.

The problem with popular attitudes about kabuki in Japan is that people think it’s too obscure, too abstract, too hard to understand. I’ve heard it countless times from Japanese friends, and others I’ve spoken to. Frankly, the number of Japanese people I know who’ve ever gone to a kabuki performance even once is, I think, pretty damn slim. And so you think you’re going to draw them in with dances that only abstractly refer to some narrative context, without dialogue or action or character interaction? You tell us this character is Yasuna (above), and that he’s distraught over seeing his lover killed before him, and that this dance is an expression of his emotions at that time… I appreciate that as a performer, you know, you feel, you understand, the deep, powerful emotion, the complex layers of symbolism of every movement. And for a viewer with some experience, background, and knowledge, such a performance can be quite beautiful and moving and powerful. But for a novice, this is only going to confirm for them the idea that kabuki is obscure, inaccessible, and a dusty old art form – not unlike how young people in the US for example might regard opera, ballet, and Shakespeare as something they don’t understand, can’t relate to.

I appreciate too the concern that audiences might not understand the dialogue, and the impetus to think it’s therefore better without the dialogue. But, the actor’s (or the character’s) expression, their emotion, can be conveyed quite well even if the audience doesn’t understand the lines. Last year, after explaining briefly the story behind it, we showed the students the scene from Chushingura where Kira attacks Asano (which, of course, I can’t find on YouTube. It’s only the most famous scene in all of kabuki. Good grief.). It had character, it had plot, it had energy, it had action, it had humor, and the students ‘got’ it, and enjoyed it. We also showed them a bit of a kabuki dance, and they were completely lost and confused – the dance is too symbolic or metaphorical, it’s not explicitly clear enough who the character is, or what the dance means.

So, while I can certainly see how one might feel the dances to be simpler, or to be more compact, more condensed, more pure representations of the visual aesthetic of kabuki, I don’t think that’s the way to go about getting people interested in kabuki.

The second half of Sukeroku, starring Ebizô’s father, the late Ichikawa Danjûrô. Yes, there’s a lot of dialogue, but also a lot of physical humor, stage combat, and other action. So long as you have some kind of plot summary or explanation, I think this is a great introduction to kabuki as a full theatrical form, with characters and plot, elaborate costumes and sets, a distinctive vocal chanting style, beautiful music… and not just some condensed, refined, all-too-traditional-feeling, inscrutable-seeming dance form.

Kabuki is not really a dance form. It’s a theatrical form, and they should show that off. To each their own, of course, but for me personally, as for my tastes, I think that if you want to get more young people, and more foreigners, interested in kabuki, you need to draw them in not with abstracted classic dances that we are told have some kind of story or meaning behind them, but rather, with exciting and action-packed stories. Give out a summary of the story ahead of time, in the playbill or whatever, and then perform a proper full scene or act or set of acts that actually tell a story. Give the audience fun or interesting characters, and an interesting or exciting story. Give them fight scenes and special effects. This is what will draw them in, I think, more than the dances. And that’s authentic kabuki, too – it’s not sacrificing or changing anything, or dumbing it down. It’s showing them something that’s fully authentic – in fact, to my mind, more truly representative of kabuki as theatre, rather than as dance – and is at the same time something they’ll enjoy.

Video by YouTube user <dandomina, linked from the POST article discussed below.

POST, a blog / podcast series associated with MoMA, recently featured a podcast by Prof. David Novak, professor in the Music department here at UCSB, in which he talks about recent anti-nuclear protests in Japan. As an ethnomusicologist, Novak focuses on the music employed at the protest events, and in association with the sentiment of the movement, an approach I think is quite interesting and refreshing – to focus on a live event, a contemporary, current, ongoing set of protest marches and demonstrations, but to focus on the music performed or played at those demonstrations, which may not be by big-name artists and may not even be formally published at all.

In the aftermath of the 3/11 disasters, all of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down. I believe only one or two are active today. As the only country to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons, Japan of course has a unique relationship with nuclear energy. And so, perhaps it comes as no surprise that as the Fukushima crisis continues, with no end in sight, people would turn against nuclear power, seeing it as too dangerous, too risky, especially in a country that is the site of a significant proportion of all earthquake activity in the world each year. That said, though, despite Japan’s reputation for cutting-edge technology and environmentalism, since the shutdown of the nuclear plants, Japan has been getting 85% of its energy from fossil fuels – and not from clean, renewable, “green” sources of energy. So, I’m not sure the solution, the answer, is so clear-cut. In the meantime, though, how has Japan managed to get through this past summer, A/C units blaring, with all but one or two nuclear plants shut down, and yet without blackouts or energy supply problems? CNN Money / Fortune magazine suggests it was simply by cutting back – more efficient use of electricity, and more efficient equipment (lightbulbs being just a start), has made a profound impact.

Regardless of where one stands on the energy issue, or how one feels about the ongoing situation at Fukushima and how it has been handled, Novak points out another very remarkable aspect of all of this: that Japan is today seeing larger, more widespread, and more active protests than it has in some time. I really don’t know very much about it, but, stereotypically, we generally associate the Japanese with not standing up or speaking out individually against the status quo, or against societal consensus. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is said so often in association with Japan it’s cliché; but I think there’s some truth to it – there are the famous examples of Minamata disease, along with several other cases of industrial pollution, in which individuals were ashamed to speak out about their own personal, individual, suffering, and were indeed strongly pressured to not say anything against the companies, government policies, and legal decisions that were polluting their water and destroying their lives, placing emphasis instead on the prosperity and growth of the nation, and personal sacrifice for the benefit of the greater whole. The most famous, and likely largest, most extensive, set of protests in post-war Japan was in the 1960s, when student protests combined with protests against the Vietnam War, and against the renewal of ANPO, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The campuses of a number of universities, including the University of Tokyo, were taken over by the students, as campuses were here in the US, and it was a really big deal. But have we seen such a thing since then? And is what we’re seeing today truly that much bigger than anything else since? Do the protests we’re seeing today represent a true shift in the political involvement of the Japanese public (especially young people)? If so, it’s remarkable.

Image from JapanCrush.com.

But it’s not only the anti-nuclear movement which is seeing strong activity these days. Protests against hate speech have been growing as well in recent months, along with the anti-foreigner / anti-immigration that spurred them.

This recent Japan Today article is quite brief, but describes a “rally” 2000 strong, held in Shinjuku (in Tokyo) last week, protesting against racism and hate. A large protest was also held in Osaka, back in July. Though opposed by worryingly bold and explicit anti-foreigner protests, with messages such as “all foreigners are criminals,” it is heartening, encouraging, to see that thousands of Japanese are turning out with messages like “You are the shame of this country!” and “You’re the ones who need to go home!” This, after a controversy surrounding an ESL teacher trying to teach his students about racism in Japan involved discussions that, supposedly, in Japan, it is widely believed that racism is chiefly or exclusively an American problem, and that racism doesn’t exist in Japan. It would be patronizing to suggest that this is truly the first time that anyone in Japan has really come to understand what racism and hate speech are, and that they exist in Japan – but, it’s encouraging to see that the idea seems to be spreading, and gaining traction. Only time will tell where this leads, how it develops.

Photo my own, taken Aug 6, 2013, near the gates to Futenma.

Meanwhile, Okinawa of course continues to be a separate story unto itself. The ANPO demonstrations are surely the most famous protests in the history of post-war Japan as it was taught to me, as a student, educated in the United States and United Kingdom. That education included almost nothing at all about Okinawa. So, where does the Koza Riot fit into this narrative of the history of protest in modern Japan? Where do the ongoing protests against the US military presence in Okinawa – and against the current base at Futenma, the proposed base at Henoko, and the Ospreys in particular – fit?

I don’t follow the Japanese news all that closely on a day-to-day basis, but a recent article in the Number 1 Shimbun (“Number One Newspaper”, published by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan), suggests that “What happens in Okinawa… [stays in Okinawa].” Or, to put it more explicitly, as Jon Mitchell does in this article, “the mainland press … consistently turns a blind eye to the iniquities suffered by residents of Japan’s poorest and most militarized prefecture.” He opens the article with the surprising information that in September 2012, protesters blocked the gates to the Marines’ air base at Futenma, preventing anyone from going in or out, and successfully closing the base – for the first and only time since the end of the US Occupation in 1972 – for a full 22 hours. And yet, few heard about it. Why is that?

It can be easy to ascribe the lack of attention to Okinawa’s situation to an imperialist agenda or colonialist bias (if we wish to use such strong terms), and/or to pressure from Washington, or the like, in broad terms. But Mitchell clarifies for us here, spelling out a series of reasons or factors, in a somewhat more detailed and specific fashion.

I link to many articles on this blog, but, and I hope I say this rarely enough for it to carry some weight – this is a particularly good one. I definitely recommend reading the entirety of Mitchell’s short article. I’ll certainly be keeping it, to potentially assign as readings for students if I ever get to teach Okinawan history, and for whatever other purposes.

He notes, firstly, that mainland Japanese reporters typically rely too heavily on press releases and other information from government sources (including the Japan Self-Defense Forces), and that mainland Japanese reporters tend to be well “handled” by American officials. Mitchell also describes how Okinawan reporters – or their direct mentors – made their careers handling these subjects during the pre-reversion period, at a time when Japan and Okinawa were much more distant and disconnected, in terms of their political status, travel access, etc. This is not simply to say that Okinawan reporters are “closer” to the issue, more familiar with it, plainly by being Okinawan, or even that it is more personal for them because their Okinawan, but rather that it’s a step beyond that, to say that by virtue of their direct experience handling this particular issue, Okinawan reporters are more experienced at asking harsh, biting questions, at pushing past barricades, and in otherwise interacting with or dealing with the US military and with this specific set of circumstances. This is, of course, a compelling argument, and I don’t doubt that it enters into it to some extent, but, given that it has now been more than 40 years since reversion, I’m not sure we should quite let the mainland reporters off the hook so easily. Mainland reporters today specializing in security issues, or reporters working the Okinawa desk for a national, Tokyo- or Osaka-based newspaper, have also been specializing in these issues for years; how is it they have not developed the same skills, experience, or approach?

Posters posted by students at the University of the Ryukyus (Ryûdai), one of the more politically active/activist student bodies in Japan. The one on the right reads, roughly, “Opposing the Abenomics which worsens the great poverty of students and workers! Tear down the Abe administration!” The one on the left reads, roughly, “Let’s stop the revision* of the Constitution! STOP! Opposing Osprey deployment and Henoko military base construction!” (*The normal word for ‘revision’, 改良, means roughly “to make better,” but here they’ve written 改悪, “to make worse.”)

Perhaps they see Okinawan issues more as regional issues… Of course, in my mind, I see them as major issues, and lump them in with Fukushima and other things that are prominent issues in Japan. But, I guess, when one steps back a moment and thinks about it, do any major national papers in the US give very much attention to Hawaii, at all? The big news in Hawaii right now is a spill, or more accurately, a leak, of 233,000 gallons of molasses into Honolulu harbor on Sept 9, which many fear could devastate the local ecosystem to such an extent it might take decades to recover. For Hawaii, this is a really big deal; and, as something which is occurring within the United States, one would think it might merit national attention. Yet, while I haven’t exactly scoured any genuinely representative sample of national news sources, the New York Times, at least, seems to have devoted no more than a paragraph to the incident. So, I’m sure the feeling of Okinawa as being only of regional concern plays a large role; but, then, are Fukushima, or the recovery in Tôhoku, merely of regional concern?

Mitchell ends his article by citing the example of Nishiyama Takichi, whose reputation was destroyed by “the powers-that-be” after he reported on payments made by the Japanese government to the US in connection to the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control. It would seem that shame for stepping out of line, fear of being the nail that will be hammered down, and pressure to not rock the boat, i.e. to not challenge the mainstream consensus, is still quite a strong force in Japan after all.

It remains to be seen how these three sets of issues, these three categories of protests, will develop. Perhaps they’ll grow. Perhaps some kind of actual societal shift or policy change will be effected. Only time will tell.

What is college for?

Sometimes you write a post thinking you’re really sort of contributing something to a conversation… and then afterwards, you read it over and the whole thing seems so atari-mae, so obvious, like it really goes without saying. Hm… But, given how many articles I see every week emphasizing career prospects and monetary earning, maybe there is some value in stating what I think should be a rather common sense idea.

An article in TIME magazine from this week asks “What Colleges Will Teach in 2025.”

This is just the latest in a slew of articles on the subject of what colleges should be teaching, what the purpose of college is, what the end goal of attending college is, and how we should be evaluating academic quality or success.

In addressing these questions, countless commentators focus on professional training, and monetary success following graduation. Another major thread focuses on creative thinking skills. I cannot fault either of these, and of course agree that both of these are of great importance. However, recently, increasingly, I have come to believe that college needs to pick up the slack and take up the role once associated chiefly with high school – namely, turning out informed citizens.

I don’t know how much high school curricula have changed in the last (nearly) 15 years since I completed high school, but in my personal experience, there is so much I have learned in college and in graduate school about identity politics, race, (post)colonialism, and feminism and gender relations, and indeed about law, politics, and economics (in short, “civics”) that I never learned in high school.

There is a logic, an underlying reasoning, behind public education in general, and behind the teaching of civics, of US history, world religions, etc. at the high school level in particular, that speaks to the great importance of having our neighbors, our countrymen, ourselves, be informed members of society. Critical thinking skills are a big part of this, but so too are historical/cultural knowledge, among other subjects. I can certainly appreciate why World Religions, for example, might be seen by students, and by many commentators, as somewhat frivolous, as somewhat extra, as not essential for someone’s professional training into being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, or whathaveyou. The classic argument of “when am I going to use this?” The answer: every day.

I could write an entire post on just the value of being able to question your own religious beliefs in order to have a more meaningful relationship with your own upbringing, identity, tradition, and values. But, even putting that aside, if the type of education students receive in a World Religions class were more privileged, more emphasized – that is, if more college graduates, more members of our society, knew more about Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, than fewer people on our streets would get attacked for some perceived association with “terrorism.” Imagine where race relations could be today if more people in our society had taken more classes in Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian-American Studies, Indigenous Studies. And if students took more courses in History (or certain other fields, certain other departments), especially non-Western history, then, in their everyday lives, in speaking with one another, in writing opinion pieces, in voting for politicians or voting for policies, they could speak and act in a more informed, less misguided, manner, on a myriad of topics, from the war in Syria to atrocities in Africa to the perceived economic threat of China.

The potential topics are nearly endless. Stereotypes and misbeliefs abound in our society, as they do in all societies. Mistaken beliefs about what the Constitution says and what it means. Mistaken beliefs about the history and impact today of colonialism/imperialism. Mistaken beliefs about whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Arabs, and Hispanics. Mistaken beliefs about Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Mistaken beliefs about gender and sex. Mistaken beliefs about the place of America in the world. The list goes on and on.

Of course, I want students to be financially successful, and to be successful in pursuing their career ambitions. And, of course, I want students to be able to think for themselves. And, I suppose that the idea of doing research, taking the initiative to learn about something, to analyze it critically, to choose to want to become informed, and then to do so, could all be included under the rubric of a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking. But, that research, and the informed opinions that result, are essential; they are absolutely crucial, I believe, beyond the mere condition of being open-minded, and asking questions.

There are a multitude of things I do not understand, the fine intricacies of contemporary American politics, economics, law, health insurance policies, etc. certainly being among them. But, learning what I have in the last ten or so years about East Asian history, about Asian-American history, about Hawaiian/Pacific history, about colonialism/imperialism, about race/ethnicity/identity discourses, about media discourse, and about gender performance, has absolutely opened my eyes to all kinds of things in the world that are profoundly important to my being a more informed member of society – in how I see myself, and how I interact with other people, as well as in how I view political issues and how I act upon those views – and I have come to believe, more and more, that these kinds of things are truly crucial, essential, in the education of our next generation.

The Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II in DC, which I visited a few years ago. Not precisely related to this exhibit in NYC, but…

*Up through October 11, an exhibit of works relating to the Japanese-American internment, entitled “The Japanese American Internment Project, If They Came for Me Today: East Coast Stories, is showing at The Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Dr, in New York City. The show was supposed to open on Sept 9, and I went on Sept 10, but it wasn’t yet open, unfortunately. So, I have not seen the show myself, and can’t really say much at all about what it contains. Still, it sounds like an important and powerful event – growing up white & Jewish on the East Coast, the Japanese-American internment was something I barely learned or heard anything about. Since moving to Hawaii, and then to the West Coast, I’ve seen how it has so much more of a presence here, and rightfully so.

*While in Okinawa last month, to my surprise, I came across the Battle of Okinawa / Holocaust Photo Exhibition Hall, in Naha’s Nishi neighborhood. Sadly, they were closed by the time I got there (around 6pm, though still plenty of hours of daylight left), so I didn’t get to visit inside. I wish I might have made sure to go back later in the week. But their website is quite extensive (though, mostly in Japanese), so one of these days I might read through some more of it.

I won’t pretend like I really know, deeply, about the full depth of Okinawan(-American) identity; I’m not an anthropologist or sociologist, or expert in contemporary Asian-American diaspora studies or anything like that. But, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, based on my own upbringing and identity, and having heard and seen what I have of Okinawan & Okinawan-American identity, I feel that there are some powerful similarities, in terms of the role of past tragedies, past atrocities, in our cultural memory, that are quite central to our contemporary identity. The incredible losses of the 1940s for both our peoples, not only in terms of the number of human lives so tragically, so horrifically, terminated, but also in terms of the great losses of culture, and land, at that time, I think we share a lot in terms of our struggles, today, as a Jewish community, and as Okinawan and Okinawan-American communities, to retain or revive cultural traditions and identity. Since I began studying Okinawan history, I’ve begun to see parallels, and to feel a connection; to see this idea, this connection, validated by the existence of this institution is quite encouraging.

*Moving on to the world of contemporary art, I’ve come across a site recently called ART PAPERS. It features, as you might expect, various essays on contemporary art. To be honest, I can’t quite make heads or tails of what they’re talking about, haha. But, I eagerly look forward to other posts in the future, to see what insights or ideas they might present.

*One of two contemporary Japanese artists I’ve learned about recently, Morita Rieko produces stunning, brightly boldly colorful images of birds & flowers, and of beautiful women (bijinga), in a neo-traditional, Nihonga style. Sadly, I don’t see anything on her website explicitly describing what media she uses – whether it’s ink & mineral colors in the truly traditional manner, or whether it’s oils or acrylics or digital or something – but, in any case, the works are truly beautiful.

*Gajin Fujita is a rather different kind of neo-traditional artist, not recreating or maintaining the tradition, but remixing it into graffiti / hip-hop / street art styles. I don’t normally go for the graffiti/hip-hop aesthetics, but the way he incorporates ukiyo-e figures, kabuki characters, in the style of ukiyo-e imagery, into these contexts, is really wonderful. You can see more about Fujita at LA Louver gallery’s website.

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