Japan


Big sister’s gonna get ya

Recently I went on a five day holiday to China, and while I was in Fuzhou I took part in an escape game with my partner Miss Jade and her Chinese friends (hereafter referred to as Team Princess). The escape game was played at Mr. X Fuzhou, one of the shops of a national chain called Mr. X. Mr X runs a variety of different escape rooms at any time, with some changing on a seasonal basis and some permanent fixtures. We played Yayoi, which is a horror/investigation type with a Japanese theme. Others available included an alien-themed Area 51 game, an Alice in Wonderland introductory adventure, and a couple of other mystery investigations. Team Princess chose Yayoi because they wanted a challenge and because it is one of the new genre games that features NPCs (i.e. human actors).

The other games

I’ve never done an escape room before and my image of them is as a kind of boring puzzle in a single room, so I really wasn’t expecting the Mr. X experience. Miss Jade and Team Princess do these games every time she returns to China (she lives in Japan at the moment), and I was kind of surprised when I heard this because given my image of the games I really didn’t think they would be so compelling. How wrong I was! Here I will explain briefly what happened in the game, and then give a review. If you’re planning on doing this Yayoi game, I recommend you skip the section describing the adventure itself and go to the review.

Approximate layout of the Supernatural Hostel

The events of the game

This game has a whole backstory and took us 90 minutes to complete, which involved a frantic series of investigations and pursuits, so I will explain briefly here what happened and how it worked, based on my memory and the explanations I received from Team Princess afterwards. We were a team of investigators who had been asked by the police to investigate a mysterious death in a hotel that is rumoured to have supernatural connections. We took an elevator to the hotel, and entered the first room we found, room 401. I have prepared an approximate map of the hotel as we experienced it, but when we arrived we only knew about the four rooms (401 – 404), not the strange supernatural section behind the closet. In room 401 there was a body on the bed, which we shall refer to as Dead Dude (DD), which body I had to touch (it was gross). He had apparently died of dehydration. At the back of the room was a closet (visible in the map) and near the door a small desk with a weird computer screen on it. The computer worked, and had its own email client with emails from various organizations and individuals in the inbox. In the drawer of the desk we found a cassette, which activated a video on the computer. This video showed DD’s boss (we shall refer to him as The Boss), sitting at a desk, face out of view, explaining to him that he needed to find a doll, of which he showed an example. There were rumoured to be 6 dolls in the hostel, each with a Japanese girl’s name, and all under the control of some spirit thing called Hasegawa san. He was to find a doll.

We guessed DD died trying to find the doll, so we sensibly set about finding the doll. We went to room 403 and found a way to open it, and in room 403 we found a second cassette. This cassette had new instructions on how to get the doll, involving the word kagome, so we went to room 404 to investigate. The door at 404 had a keypad with six buttons, each of which when pressed emitted the sound of a child reading a single Japanese syllable. We entered ka-go-me and then opened the door. This led us into a room with five of the dolls on the far wall and a strange arrangement of ropes with bells on them, in a circle in the room. One of the dolls was missing! A song then started playing, the kagome song from Japanese childhood (this is a kind of Hey Mr Wolf game). At the end of each repetition of the song the ghost voices singing it would say a Japanese girl’s name (corresponding with the doll’s names, which were on a diagram on the wall of room 401), and we had to ring the corresponding bell. This process took us two tries but when it was done Hasegawa appeared in an empty space in the middle of the far wall of the room, between the dolls. Hasegawa appeared in the form of a Japanese spirit from a picture, wearing a mask and yukata, and he carried the key to room 402 (Hasegawa was our first NPC!) He also told us that now we had sung the song correctly we would be able to see the ghost that killed DD. Yay! Apparently this ghost only comes out to kill when it is raining, but it wasn’t raining so yay.

In room 402 we found a series of crawlways that we had to search through. We found a third tape, which when we played it had a video from The Boss giving DD new instructions. It congratulated him on finding the doll but told him to hide it and explore the hostel some more, because it was rumoured to have some secret place where you could find an elixir of youth. Wow! So we guessed DD had hidden the doll in room 402 and went back to find it. Eventually we found it and took it back to room 404, where we placed it back in the place DD had stolen it from.

Which was when everything went dark and the rain started. We all panicked and ran screaming back to room 401 where we all jumped in the closet[1], the last one into the room being a member of Team Princess, Mr. J, who had lingered in the hallway to see the ghost that killed DD. This ghost was apparently some monstrous thing in a torn yukata that crawled down the hallway rapidly on all fours, and it freaked him out a lot. So we all dived into the closet, and then the closet began to shudder and twitch and move and after a few moments it came to rest again but there was this horrible, hideous laughter outside, that can be best likened to the creaking hacking laugh of the ghost in The Grudge. It was horrible.

After the laughter faded we opened the closet door and found ourselves in a strange redlit room like a study, with icons and buddhist type stuff on a desk at one end and the walls lined with candles. Apparently we were no longer in the normal world, because now the ghost that killed DD could speak to us. It revealed that it was the older sister of a girl called Yayoi who had died here, and whose soul was restless. Since we had escaped the ghost, she would give us the chance to escape if we could pass certain tests and restore the soul of her younger sister to rest.

Well, now we certainly knew how DD died! But we had more pressing concerns, like getting out alive. So we followed the tests. The first was relatively easy, we had to blow out the candles in the room as they flared up, in the right order. Then we went back into the closet and it again moved and shuddered, and when the door opened again we found ourselves facing a long, narrow cave-like room with taiko-style drums at regular points on the wall, and at the end. Between the drums were ropes stretching across the hall, hung with bells that we must not touch. We manoeuvred ourselves to the drums and beat them in the right order, which took some figuring out. This opened a secret door that in turn led to a small cave-like room with a chest in one corner and a locked door on the far wall. The walls were covered in ivy, in which a few skeletons and old bones were entangled. There was a strange clear orb over the locked door, and a locked chest on the floor. We could see through the locked door to a weird kind of temple with a figure of a cat god on the far wall and a big lantern in the middle. Obviously we needed to get through to there, but how? Also in the room were two hand mirrors. Weird. In one of the skeletons we found a note printed on leather, which gave clues to open the combination lock on the box. This we did after some faffing, and inside we found a key. Two of the team took this back to the drum room, and used it to open a compartment under the drum at the end of the hall. This triggered a laser that shone down the hallway, and we used the two hand mirrors to direct it into the clear orb over the locked door.

With that simple task out of the way the door opened and we entered the temple of the cat god. In front of the idol of the god were two empty pedestals for small icons, and the room was lined with miniature sake barrels, each adorned with a Chinese character. We had to choose the characters that would match the wishes of the cat god. Eventually we settled on the barrels with kanji for 9 and tails, because there is a legend that the cat god wants 9 tails. This was the right choice, and it activated something in the lantern, a kind of glowing orb. This, once pushed into position inside the lantern, restored Yayoi’s soul to rest, and we were free! The door opened and we stumbled out to freedom!

About the escape room

I have never done an escape room before so I can’t compare, but this was a genuinely excellent experience, as close as I think I have ever (or could ever) come to LARPing. It was atmospheric, carefully constructed to maintain a complete sense of immersion, challenging and scary. The lighting, decorations, music and sound effects were all designed to build up suspense and terror, and it took minimal effort to really feel like we were there. The addition of NPCs – including one crawling along the floor like a Japanese ghost – really brought the whole thing to life, so that we spent 90 minutes in a state of constant tension. It also sprawled over a wide area so it felt equal parts horror, investigation and exploration – very close to a dungeon crawl, in fact.

If you were to lay out the after action report above and add one or two combats, the escape game I played is essentially equivalent to a single full day session of an RPG. We could have done the whole thing in some Asian-themed Call of Cthulhu and it would have been just as great. This escape room experience really was as close to a real life role-playing session as I can imagine being able to do. It was a thoroughly excellent experience and I commend it to anyone who has a chance to try it.

There is of course a small problem with trying it though – you need to be able to speak and read Chinese very very well to get away with it. I can’t speak any Chinese (I have only learnt Japanese since coming to Japan), and although I can read some Chinese characters and understood the Japanese components of the game, I was essentially a chump for much of the game. I could help with searching and some basic tasks (like the bells and the drums and the candles) and I found some important clues (like the orb above the door and the glowing contents of the lantern in the final room) that were important, but I couldn’t answer any of the riddles, read the emails, or understand the necessary components of the story. So only try this if you have really excellent Chinese or you’re in a team who are patient and willing to go out of their way to coddle your chumpishness. If you can do that though, you will get to have a really good role-playing experience.

I also think that the game I played could form an excellent part of a campaign, with the second stage being to find the Boss who sent DD on his mission, and the third to kill or free Hasegawa san. Each game changes every six months or so apparently (it takes a long time to design and set up new settings) so this would mean a group of regular players like Team Princess would have 18 months of a story before they completed it. I hope Mr. X takes this on in future! They could probably also do a nice sideline in modules for actual RPGs, and if this escape room experience is any guide to how seriously Chinese otaku take their otaku world, it’s likely that China has a really amazing TRPG scene. If you know about that, I’d like to hear more!

About Mr. X

The Mr. X chain isn’t just an escape room company. They also provide rooms to rent for playing games of your own, and have tables in the main area where you can play card games supplied by the company. They provide drinks and food, and board games and card games that you can play while you’re there. The atmosphere is very comfortable and relaxed, and the staff are also very serious otaku – one of our staff was a young Uyghur woman who had moved to Fuzhou from Xinjiang so she could get a job in this company, because she loves the games. They are also able to explain the rules of the board and card games that they have available, and are friendly and warm and patient with our many demands.

The card game options …

Mr. X is an excellent otaku world, with a wide range of challenging escape room games and a nice environment for lazy days of board games and RPGs. It gave me a hint of a world of role-playing and nerdy games in China that I had never heard of before, and suggested to me that there may be a huge, vibrant and very advanced fantasy role-playing scene in China. I hope that more of this will become accessible in the west in future, and if any of my reader(s) visit China in the future and are in a position to do it, I strongly recommend you try it. For me it was a very impressive and new experience, and I hope you can all have a chance to share it in future.


fn1: Apparently we were given instructions before starting the game that we should a) run to the closet when we heard rain and b) not try to fight or interact with NPCs.

 

Are you young, American, living in America and scared about where your country is headed? Want to get out before it all goes down? Are you worried about getting shot at school or work, or by the police? Don’t think that the healthcare situation is going to get better or even stay as bad as it is? Have a pre-existing condition and don’t know how you’re going to be able to afford medicines after you turn 26 (or even now)? Are you worried about Roe vs. Wade and pretty sure your reproductive rights are going down the tube in the next few years? Noticed that the new Georgia anti-abortion bill includes ectopic pregnancies, so is actually gynocidal? Are you poor and doubt you’ll ever be able to get into a good university and make a decent career, but don’t want to be stuck in an Amazon warehouse the rest of your life because working class work no longer pays in America? Are you black and don’t want to get shot by the police, or Jewish and a little bit worried about where those Proud Boys are taking your country?

Do you need to get out? This post outlines two strategies for a simple and easy way to get out of the USA, for people aged 16-21 who are either finishing high school or finishing university, and not sure what to do next. If you’re confident that even if the Dems win the next presidential election things still aren’t going to get better, you might want to consider one of these two strategies. Both involve leaving America for Japan, and this post is to tell you how.

Strategy 1: English Teacher

Lots of young people don’t know about this, but there are lots of private English teaching companies in Japan that are always looking for staff from native English speaking countries to work in them. To get a job at an English teaching company in Japan you need three basic qualifications: you need to be a native speaker, you need a bachelor’s degree, and you should still be in possession of a face[1]. Most of the big English teaching companies do recruitment tours in the USA, but they usually also have open recruitment on their websites. You can find them pretty easily on google. For a company like Aeon you will go to a day-long recruitment seminar that doubles as an interview, and usually you’ll get a job offer as a result. You just need to turn up looking presentable, act like you care, and be willing to work with kids. You do not need to be able to speak Japanese or have any knowledge of Japanese culture (though knowing more about Japan than “manga!” and “geisha!” would be helpful probably).

Once you get the job the English teaching company will place you in a random city in Japan, pay for your airfare, and organize an apartment for you. This may be a share house or it may be a one room. You’ll get paid probably 200-250k yen per month (about 1800 – 2000 USD) and will have to pay taxes and health insurance from that. Health insurance is affordable, and it covers everything: no pre-existing condition exemptions or any shit like that. It starts from the day you arrive in the country. Usually the company will help you set up bank account, phone etc., so even if you don’t speak Japanese you’ll be good to go. Once you arrive and get settled you can save a bit of money and after a few months you’ll be in a position to move somewhere you like, or change companies to a better one. If you speak Japanese because you were lucky enough to study it at high school you can maybe shift to a better job. But the key thing is you’ve landed in civilization, and you’ll be safe.

The salary isn’t great but it’s enough to save money if you don’t do dumb-arsed things, and you will be able to make occasional short trips in Asia on that salary. Japan is not an expensive country and especially if you aren’t in Tokyo or Osaka it’s a super cheap place to live. The working conditions at teaching companies aren’t great (typically some evening and weekend work, and your days off may not be guaranteed to be Saturday and Sunday) but they don’t have at-will firing over here and even though you’re foreign you have all the employment rights of a local, including unemployment benefits after a minimum period of time in the job. English teachers are generally considered to be the lowest of the low among foreigners living in Japan, for reasons you’ll understand within minutes of meeting your colleagues, but it’s better to be the lowest of the low in Japan than to be middle class in America. So do it!

If you’re a high school student this option isn’t open to you (these companies require a bachelor’s degree) but you can aim for it: they don’t care where your degree is from so you can attend a local low-cost uni (I believe you guys call this “community college”?) and still get accepted when you graduate. See my special notes for high school students below.

There are also similar companies in China and Korea (see my notes on other Asian countries below). There is also an Assistant Language Teacher program where you work in schools, which is apparently a little more demanding to get into. Google is your best friend here!

Strategy 2: Japan government scholarship

The Japanese government runs a large scholarship program for students from overseas, called the Japan Government Scholarship, also known as the MEXT scholarship or Monbusho scholarship. This is available for all education levels: undergraduate, masters or PhD. You apply through your embassy (the US website is here) about now. The scholarship pays your university fees, a monthly living allowance, and a return airfare. You can apply for this for your undergraduate studies, so you apply from high school and go straight to university study in Japan. Unless you are planning on studying certain topics (e.g. Japanese literature) you don’t need to be able to speak or read Japanese: they set a Japanese test during the application process but this is used to determine what level of training you need, not to screen you out. The amazing thing about MEXT scholarships is that they’re not very competitive – not many people know about them and not many people want to move to study in Japan – so even if you don’t have a stellar record you still have a chance. Also they don’t discriminate on race or economic background, as far as I know, and it’s a straight-up merit-based application. The allowance is not great – I think about 100k yen for undergrads and about 150k for postgrads – but you’ll get subsidized uni accommodation and won’t pay tax, so it’s perfectly viable. If you go for Masters you need to find a supervisor who teaches in English and isn’t an arsehole – this is a big challenge – but you can do it if you try. One big benefit of the MEXT scholarship at postgrad is you get a year as a “research student” during which you don’t study in the department you’ve chosen but instead just learn Japanese. You can get really good at Japanese this way if you pay attention. Another great thing is that once you’re in the MEXT program it’s easier to go to the next step – so you can go from undergraduate to masters to PhD. Theoretically you could go from 1st year undergraduate to the end of a post-doc on Japan government money, which would put you in Japan for 11 years and probably stand you in a good position for a permanent faculty position, which are like hens’ teeth in the USA but quite common here. ALSO, if you do undergraduate study here you have a very good chance of being able to get a job in a Japanese company when you graduate, probably quite a good one, and build a career here.

The application period is usually about now so get busy!

Special notes for high school students

Note that if you’re finishing high school you can target all of these strategies now. Apply for the MEXT scholarship and if you don’t get it, go to a local community college or whatever they’re called. Target one where you can study an Asian language, either Chinese, Korean or Japanese. Then apply for MEXT again at the end of your undergraduate, and if you don’t get it apply for an English-teaching company in whatever country you studied the language for. You can use this English teaching job as a base to find a job in whatever field you actually want to work, because you’ve got four years of language training under your belt and so should be able to speak the local language reasonably well. If this falls through you’re still okay because no matter how shit your degree was at that community college, a second language is a skill you can take to the bank. You can probably then find an okay job in a US company targeting that country. This means you’re still trapped in a failing state, but at least your attempt to get out didn’t doom you to work at Starbucks (though who knows, four years from now maybe America won’t have any industry except Starbucks).

Remember, if you get the MEXT scholarship you’re going to graduate from university with no debt, proficient in a second language, and with a full career path in Japan likely right there in front of you.

Notes on other Asian countries

Most Asian countries have the English-teaching option available – for sure you can get to China or Korea if you don’t want to go to Japan, and they all have approximately the same requirements. All three countries now have functioning health insurance systems and you won’t get shot in any of them. They’re all aging and need young people, and at least in Korea as well as Japan Americans are generally still viewed well (for now; this is changing). Obviously there are some issues about personal freedom in China and if things continue to go south in the US-China relationship you might not feel safe from reprisals from the government. Other countries like Thailand, Vietnam etc. also have English-teaching jobs but I’m not sure about the pay and conditions – you might find you can’t save money in these countries and it becomes a kind of trap. I don’t know. But any of the high-income Asian countries are good places to teach English.

China also offers scholarships for overseas students through the CSC. The Chinese education system is very good and if you get a degree at a good Chinese university you’re probably getting a better education than you’d expect in any American uni. I don’t know if the CSC offers scholarships to Americans (since, let’s face it, you guys suck) or what the long-term consequences of that will be for your career in either country, but it could be worth investigating. You might also want to consider Singapore, which has excellent universities, but I have no idea how it works.

A note on the long-term risks of English teaching

You can make a life time career as an English teacher in Japan but it won’t be well paid and you’ll remain permanently lower middle class, which is not a big deal over here (Japan is an equitable country) but also not the best working life to pursue. But most importantly, if you spend more than a few years as an English teacher straight out of uni, your employability in your home country will take a nose dive, because you have no skills or experience relevant to a real job. So you need to make an exit plan if you want to return to the west. One option is to get an English as a second language (ESL) masters (you can do this online) and try to move into teaching English at uni, which pays slightly more and has a bit more prestige, but is a slightly riskier career (it can mean a permanent career as an adjunct, which is tough). Another option is to try and jump ship to a real company using whatever skills you’ve got but this can take time and may not lead you to a good place. If your Japanese is good you can maybe shift to being a standard office worker, but if you have no Japanese you need to bear in mind that English teaching is a trap if you do it for more than a few years. Bear in mind that Japan is aging fast, the pool of available workers is dropping in size, and as time goes on opportunities for foreigners here (even foreigners with weak language skills) are only going to grow. Also contrary to what you’ve heard (see below) Japan is becoming more and more open and welcoming to foreigners, even under supposedly militarist Prime Minister Abe, so things will just get easier as time passes. It’s worth risking for a year or two to try and build an escape plan, and if it doesn’t work out what have you lost? Just be ready to jump out if you see that trap closing before it’s too late.

Why Japan?

I’m recommending this escape plan because I know Japan: I live here and I know it’s a good place to live. You’ve probably heard that it’s expensive, treats foreigners badly and is very inward-looking. None of this is true. You’re not going to experience much racism at all, if you’re a woman you’re not going to get sexually assaulted on the train, and it’s not an expensive place to live. Rent is affordable even in Tokyo on an English teacher’s wage, your health insurance is fixed at a small proportion of your salary and is always affordable, food is good and cheap, and you can live a good life here even on low wages. You can’t live an American life of huge housing, a car, an assault rifle and all the home-delivered pizza you can eat but that’s a good thing, not a bad thing: those are the reasons your country is killing the planet and itself.

If you live in Japan you will be safe, you will be healthy, and you’ll be able to build a life for yourself even on a low income. If you want to live here long term you’ll need to learn the language (which is boring and bothersome to do); you may find that as a foreigner you are not going to be able to ascend to the peak of your career here no matter what it is. It may be hard for you to buy a place here either because your low salary precludes saving a lot of money for a deposit, or the bank won’t loan you money if you don’t have permanent residency. You won’t be able to afford to go back to America a lot unless you get out of the English teaching trade, and you will be restricted to short visits to nearby Asian countries. You’ll probably have to work hard and if you choose the wrong company after university (or the wrong post-graduate supervisor) you’ll be bullied and overworked. These are risks of moving here! But you’ll definitely have healthcare, you’ll have no risk of being shot by either crazy white guys or police, if you’re a woman you can walk safely at night no matter what time or how deserted the streets, and no matter what you earn people will show you the respect you deserve as a human being. And the government is not going crazy, nor will it.

So if you’re young and scared and worried about your future in America, and you really want to get out, consider these two strategies, and get out while you still can.


fn1: Actually I’m not sure if they care about whether you have a face. But just to be sure, apply now before some lunatic gets a chance to shoot you in the face.

Stay sleeping, gentle giants

Today we are hearing reports that Japan will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 2019 and resume commercial whaling. These reports are being greeted with some dismay but I wonder if they actually herald the beginning of the end of Japanese whaling.

The reports suggest that the Japanese whaling fleet will stop hunting in the Southern Ocean and restrict their whaling activities to Japan’s territorial waters. On its face this suggests that the fleet will be able to easily and comfortably catch as many whales as it wants, but there’s a problem with this: Japanese people don’t like whale meat, and whaling is only profitable if it is heavily government subsidized. But when the whaling fleet switches from a dodgy “research” program to a commercial whaling program, will the government still subsidize it? I wouldn’t be surprised if the subsidy gets withdrawn and whale suddenly has to compete on price and quality with beef and fish. I suspect then that commercial whaling will become unsustainable very quickly. Furthermore, many areas where whaling could be conducted will put it in direct competition with whale watching tourism (for example in Kochi, Okinawa and some areas around Hokkaido). This political battle played out for years in Iceland, and although the whale watchers finally lost it took a lot of work by the whaling organization to make that happen.

In the past a large part of the reason whaling was supported by the government was its political appeal in a few important rural electorates, but over the past 10 years there have been repeated efforts to reduce the political power of rural electorates, with electorates merging and being rebalanced so their effective vote is closer to parity with urban areas. This means that the government is under less and less pressure to support rural money-sink projects like whaling, and in an era of straitened finances where the boutique demands of a couple of rural electorates conflict with the growing and critical problem of aging in rural areas, I suspect the government will very quickly find it convenient to slash that subsidy (or not transfer it) and leave the whaling towns to sink or swim on their own. It’s worth remembering that one un-subsidized similar operation, the annual dolphin hunt, is not financially successful on the basis of the meat consumed – the main profits from that hunt arise from selling captured dolphins to aquariums (many of them international). With no such secret market to support it the whale hunt may well not be profitable, unless the operators can somehow convince Chinese people to eat whale meat.

This decision also removes much of the international embarrassment that Japan faced from whaling. Until last year, when the Sea Shepherds admitted defeat in their conflict with the whaling fleet, Japan endured an annual parade of shame on the global stage as its tiny pointless whaling fleet hunted endangered animals in international waters while being chased by an aggressive foreign fleet that sometimes had surprising victories. It was defeated in the international courts and forced to change its plans, and it only defeated the Sea Shepherds after militarizing its whaling fleet. In contrast, moving to commercial whaling in Japan’s territorial waters and leaving the IWC incurs a one-time PR hit, because the Sea Shepherds won’t be able to operate in Japanese territory, and so there won’t be annual vision of this conflict. It also removes all political disputes with Australia, which despite its small size remains an important trading partner for Japan and a good international friend, and with whom they disagreed on pretty much only this issue. It also strips the whaling program of all its nationalist political baggage, since it will be removed from the public eye, and potentially opens it to political conflicts within Japan over less politically-charged and more prosaic issues of budgeting and industrial strategy.

This decision also makes me wonder if prime minister Shinzo Abe has not been playing his nationalist base very well. Since he came into office he has implemented new programs to encourage women in work, increased annual migration numbers and relaxed rules on who can come here, made better friends with China, and now he’s stripping the whale hunt of all its nationalist overtones. His apology on the 70th anniversary of the war was actually an expansive improvement on previous apologies, and although there have been some restrictions on international aid Shinzo Abe has adopted a fairly radical global health program that puts the end of war, and international engagement, at the centre of Japan’s development programs. His introduction of this global health policy linked it to Japan’s violence towards women in the second world war, with an implicit rebuke of people who denied the comfort woman issue (which he also almost settled with the Koreans). So I wonder what his nationalist base have actually got out of him? Sure there have been some mild changes to the constitution to enable group self defense, but the most likely short term result of them will be that Japan ends up fighting in a war as an ally of South Korea (should that horrific scenario come to pass). Besides this mild concession, I cannot see that the nationalist wing of Japanese politics have gained a single thing from Abe. He doesn’t even visit Yasukuni Shrine anymore! I think Abe may have presented the world with a text book example of how to play to a nationalist base while implementing policies they don’t want, and stealing them of all their thunder.

So let’s hope that this decision causes the whaling issue to slide out of view, and then bankrupts the whaling fleet and forces them to be converted into expensive, high-class whale-watching ships. There’s a precedent for this: the first Sea Shepherd ship was a converted Japanese whaler. I hope that in the years to come the Sea Shepherds will be able to say that the Japanese fleet’s victory in the battle for the Southern Ocean was pyrrhic, and that the Sea Shepherds won the war.

Flying in a blue dream …

Last week in Tokyo was Golden Week, the long week of public holidays that people traditionally use to travel. I stayed in Tokyo and chose to use one of the days to visit what I thought of as “the Mucha exhibition” at the National Art Center, Tokyo. This exhibition was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum, the 60th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, and the Year of Czech Culture, 2017, so I guess it was intended to be something special. I had previously seen a Mucha exhibition at the Kitakyushu Art Museum in Fukuoka, where I saw primarily a collection of his illustrations and advertising work, and I was expecting the same in Tokyo but perhaps expanded, so I was completely stunned when I walked into the first room and found myself facing an 8m x 6m canvas of luminous beauty, The Slavs in their original homeland, pictured above. In fact this exhibition was displaying almost all of Mucha’s Slav Epic, a collection of huge oil paintings describing key events in the history of the Slavic peoples, which he painted over an 18 year period (1910 – 1928). These pictures showcase incredible art nouveau technique, while displaying striking mythical figures and key historical events in splendid beauty, and their impact cannot be appreciated by viewing them on any screen. Take the picture above, for example: The god on the right of the picture must be 4 or 5 metres high, and the two human figures at the bottom centre are almost human sized. The god doesn’t just loom over the viewer, but seems to actually float out of the picture, and really dominates the space around the picture in a way that even the best onscreen rendering cannot picture. The glowing fires at the centre left also spring to life with an almost feral radiance when you view the picture in person, the stars actually seem to sparkle, and those semi-corporeal distant figures on horseback are vague and indistinct in just the way you would expect if you were standing before that god, looking into the real distance to see oncoming soldiers.

The other pictures in the series are similarly dramatic, and to stand near them is to feel as if you are part of the unfolding drama rather than a witness in an art gallery – and this despite the fact that, because it was golden week in Tokyo, this gallery was packed. The photo below, which I took in the area where photos are allowed, gives a sense of the scale of the pictures and the crowd at the gallery, and the way the pictures stand imposingly above even this many people. In some ways the crowd was a boon, since it forced one to move back from the pictures and view them from their proper distance, as well as helping to keep the scale of the images in perspective.

Let’s enjoy Red Square together!

I’m quite a fan of art nouveau – I visited the Tiffany Museum in Matsue when I lived there, and I’ve visited Mucha and other similar exhibitions before where I can. I know a lot of people probably view it as not real art – kind of effete and shallow, the way perhaps some people view the romantic poets or perhaps like the pop music of art, but I think it has an evocative beauty that also speaks of a rare period of time in history when our developed nations were not yet modern but were full of hope and idealism and looking forward and upward. I also think it reflects non-European influences and I appreciate its intricate connections with advertising and popular theatre, which gives it a kind of populism that I appreciate in art. It’s not as “experimental” as some of the other movements that came at the same time, and for that I think it gets frowned on, and I think some modern art critics probably don’t respect its simple enjoyment of classical or saccharine beauty (especially feminine beauty). But I think at its best it is able to capture something of the human soul or the desire humans have always had to find transcendent beauty in their surroundings, and I think it must have been really stretching the available techniques of the time to achieve that sense of liminal and supernatural beauty that it aspires to. If I ever had any doubt about just how well art nouveau was able to achieve these goals, Mucha’s Slav epic dispelled them. This series of works is a masterpiece, and a perfect showcase of all the best aspects of this style. Walking through the halls of the epic is like drifting through an art nouveau dream, full of diffuse lights and ghostly figures, radiant spaces, beautiful ethereal women and striking, tragic moments. After viewing these massive pieces there was a large collection of his other work but some of his famous pieces – like the four flowers – which would have been masterpieces if they had been shown on their own were anti-climactic after the gigantic dreamscapes of the main display.

This is probably the third really great exhibition I have visited in Tokyo. In 2007 I saw Ashes and Snow at a temporary space in Tokyo Bay, having no idea really of the scale of its content; then quite recently I saw The Universe and Art at the Mori art museum,  and now within a year I get to see this unique apotheosis of art nouveau. This is one of the really good things about living in Tokyo – it may happen only once a year and they may be very crowded, but the quality and global nature of the content is really high. This exhibition lasts until the 5th June, so if you are in Tokyo I strongly recommend getting along to see it. Even if you aren’t especially into this particular artistic form, I think it will capture you with its scale and ambition, and if you do appreciate art nouveau I doubt you’ll ever get the chance to see as good an exposition of its best qualities as you will when you visit this exhibition. So, go, and get lost in dreams of Slavic history.

Who doesn’t want to be this guy?!

Trigger warning: Long rant; gender and racial theory; I may use the qualifier “cis-” in a non-ironic way[1]; Since saying “male genitalia” or “female genitalia” is apparently bad, I may use the words “cunt” and “cock” to refer to the things they refer to; Aussie pride; excessive footnotes[2]; dead naming of dead dudes[3]; anti-Americanism; as always, sex positivity, along with a healthy dose of trans positivity (I hope, though maybe 800 people will judge me a bastard) and my usual disdain for radical feminism; insufficient or excessive trigger warnings

TLDR: WTF is going on with feminist philosophy?! Also, if you think that transgender people are serious and real and should be given full rights and respect, you probably also need to accept that transracialism is cool; but unless you’re American you probably already did, without even thinking that it was A Thing.

I just discovered a horrific conflagration overtaking the world of feminist philosophy, which has got me thinking about a concept that I didn’t even really know existed, but which is apparently A Thing: Transracialism. Transracialism is the practice of people of one race adopting the identity of another and living that identity even if they hadn’t been born into or raised with that identity, so superficially it has this transition process in common with being transgender. I’ve obviously been out of touch with left wing radical social ideals for a while, because I didn’t know that transracialism was A Thing, and that it is Bad while being transgender[4] is Good. In this post I want to talk about transracialism and the stultifying consequence of Americans hogging the debate about sex and race, and also about the disastrous state of modern leftist discourse[5] about so many things.

The controversy concerns an interesting paper in the philosophy journal Hypatia, discussing some of the logical consequences of accepting transgender as a real and serious issue[6]. The article, In Defense of Transracialism, examined the similarities between transitioning to a new gender and transitioning to a new race, and argued that logically if you accept one you really run onto rocky ground if you don’t accept the other. For case studies (and not, apparently, as the fundamental logical basis of the argument) the paper presented the case of Caitlyn Jenner as a transgender, and Rachel Dolezal as a transracial person (“transracer”?) As we know, Jenner got widespread public acceptance for her decision, while Dolezal received widespread public scorn. The article argues in what, to me at least, appears to be a quite tightly reasoned and accessible style, that it’s hard logically to accept one and reject the other, and maybe that means transracialism is actually okay.

The paper was published in March but recently a bunch of Associate Editors connected to the journal published an open letter demanding that the paper be retracted because its publication caused many “harms” to transgender people, and because it was academically poor. The outline of the case, and a solid takedown of the public letter, can be read at this New York Magazine post. It should be noted that the author of the paper is a non-tenured Assistant Professor, a woman, who is therefore quite vulnerable in a highly competitive field dominated by men, and that some of the signatories to the open letter were on the author’s dissertation assessment committee, which makes their signing the letter an extremely vicious act of treachery, from an academic standpoint. For more background on the viciousness of the letter and its implications for the author’s career and for the concept of academic freedom, see Leiter Reports, a well known philosophy blog (e.g. here) or the Daily Nous (e.g. here). It appears that the author has a strong case for defamation, and that many of the leading lights of feminist philosophy have really made themselves look very bad in this affair. (In case you haven’t gathered, I am fully supportive of the author’s right to publish this article and I think the open letter, demand for retraction, and pile-on by senior academics to an Assistant Professor near the beginning of her career is a vicious over-reaction of which they should all be deeply ashamed).

Beyond the obvious bullying and the ridiculous grandstanding and academic dishonesty involved in this attack on the author[7], I am disappointed in this whole issue because it is such a clear example of how Americans can dominate feminist (and broader social justice) debate in a really toxic way. I’ve discussed this before in regards to the issue of sex work and radical feminism, and I think it needs to be said again and again: American influence on left wing social debates is toxic, and needs to be contained. Just look at the list of signatories to this attack on this junior academic – they’re almost all American, and this is yet another example of how America’s conservatism, it’s religious puritanism, its lust for power, and its distorted republican politics, combined with its huge cultural output, is a negative influence on left wing politics globally.

I’m also really interested in this paper because I think it shows not just that transracialism may actually be an okay idea, but when I thought about the implications, I realized that I think most people on the planet already accept transracialism, and if Rachel Dolezal had occurred in any other country we would probably just have shrugged and got on with our lives. So in this post I’d like to discuss what Americans can learn from other countries’ approach to race.

Transracialism in Australia

Just to clarify, I was born in New Zealand to British parents and moved to Australia aged 13, taking Australian citizenship when I was 21. My grandfather was a Spanish war hero, a proud soldier in the losing side of the civil war and a man who spent nine years fighting fascism, and I was raised by him and my (deeply racist, white) British grandmother for two years as a child. So actually I’m a quarter Spanish, and so in theory I could have been raised Spanish but wasn’t, and don’t know anything about my birth race, which at various times in history has been defined as a separate race or just a culture. This makes me probably really normal in Australia, because Australia is a nation of immigrants making a new life in a land swept clean by genocide. It’s my guess that if you grew up in Australia you know a lot of mixed-race people, and if you paid any attention to the discussion of the Stolen Generations in the 2000s you’re aware that race is a very contested and contestable concept, and that Australian government policy has always assumed that race is a mutable concept subsidiary to culture. I think it’s likely that if you grew up in Australia you will know at least one of the following stereotypes:

  • An Aboriginal person who doesn’t “look” Aboriginal, and who maybe has no connection to their Aboriginal culture; you may even not be sure if they are Aboriginal, suspect they are but don’t know how to ask
  • A young Asian Australian who looks completely Asian, acts in ways that are stereotypically associated with Asian Australians (e.g. the guy holds his girlfriends bag for her, the girl is a complete flake in a very Asian Australian way) but is in every other way completely and utterly unconnected from their Asian heritage and is thoroughly through-and-through “whitebread” Australian
  • A completely Australian guy who speaks fluent Greek and goes back to Greece to “be with his family” every year
  • A person who has discovered that they have an ethnic heritage of some kind and is trying to recover that heritage in some way that might inform them about their own past, even though they are effectively completely disconnected from it, but they are clearly serious about rediscovering their heritage and all their friends and family support this apparent madness
  • A black or dark-skinned Australian who literally knows nothing about the culture of whatever race gave them their skin colour

If you’re a little older, like me, or know a wide range of older Australians, you may also have encountered an Aboriginal Australian who was stolen from their family at an early age and raised white but is on a bittersweet quest to recover the heritage they never had – and may have found that that heritage was extinguished before they could be led back to it. When I was 20 I was paid to provide maths tutoring to a bunch of 50-something women who were training to be Aboriginal Teaching Assistants – a kind of auxiliary teacher who will assist fully qualified teachers in remote Aboriginal communities – and some of them couldn’t even do fractions. When I asked how they missed such an early stage of education they told me they were taken to “the mission” when they were young, and didn’t get a proper education. I was young and this kind of issue wasn’t discussed then but now I understand that they were from the Stolen Generation, and were at various stages of understanding of their own racial heritage. They were going back to help their community, and recovering their own heritage, not just to settle the question of their own background but also to right wrongs done and change society[8]. These kinds of people are a normal thing in Australian cultural life. But can you look at that list of archetypes and say they aren’t all in their own way transracial? Indeed the underlying philosophy of the Stolen Generations was that you can eliminate racial traits of Aboriginality in half-Aboriginal people simply by raising them white; and the underlying principle of Multiculturalism is that culture transcends race, and we can all get along. Also in Australia there is a lot of tacit recognition of the problems second and third generation migrant children go through as they “transition” from the cultural heritage of their parents to that of their born country, where although racially they’re distinct from the majority they are clearly culturally more similar to the majority than to their parents. In the 1990s this was happening with Greek and Italian kids, in the 2000s with Vietnamese kids, and in the 2010s with Lebanese kids. Everyone in Australia knows that this happens, which surely means that everyone in Australia sees transracialism as a common pattern of multiculturalism.

Since I’ve moved to Japan I’ve seen this confirmed in many ways, but the best I can think of is a child I knew in a rural country town. His parents were both white New Zealanders but he had been brought to Japan at the age of 3 and raised in rural Japan, and when I met him at 17 he was thoroughly and completely Japanese. He didn’t speak English, communicating with his parents in a mixture of Japanese, really really bad English, and typical adolescent boy grunts. He hadn’t experienced much racism in Japan and had been sheltered in a very nice and welcoming rural environment, had a good group of close Japanese friends, communicated in the (ridiculously incomprehensible) local dialect, and was a typical cloistered Japanese boy. But he was also a big, white lump in his Japanese world, standing out like dogs balls. His race was irrelevant to his cultural background, except that he knew he was “white” and that therefore every Japanese person who ever meets him will engage in a boring conversation about why he is so. Fucking. Japanese. How is this not transracialism? Sure, a lot of transracial experience is not a choice per se, but whether it is a choice is surely irrelevant to the fact that it is completely possible and that for some of us – probably only a small proportion – changing “race” is a choice we feel compelled to make. I.e. not a choice. Rachel Dolezal might be a bad example, but whatever her motives might be, is her ability to do it under question? I would suggest that from an average Australian perspective, it is a completely ordinary concept. The only thing at issue is “why?” But since most well-meaning people don’t impugn the motives of strangers, who gives a fuck?

Race is a social construct

The possibility of transracialism becomes even clearer when you recognize that race is a social construct. This doesn’t mean race doesn’t exist – it clearly does – but that it is an invention of humanity structured around clear physical lines, not a real thing. While there is a clear difference between black and white people, there is no boundary at which this difference can be defined, and no genetic markers that clearly distinguish between one and the other. This isn’t some weird fringe idea popular only amongst Black Panthers, but a fundamental plank of modern science, reasonably well accepted at least in the biological sciences and anthropology. When we talk about races what we really are referring to is distinct cultural identities that can be mostly distinguished by noticeable visual cues (e.g. Nigerians are black, and stress the first syllable of every word in a cool way). This also means that race has very little influence on the culture you can actually adopt, which is why although I’m a quarter Spanish I’m completely white, while there are Aboriginal or Maori people who are one quarter Aboriginal but completely wedded to the culture of that quarter.

In comparison, sex is an absolute category that is definable and distinct. It has a chromosomal origin, and multiple definable, distinct characteristics. It is also clear across cultures that men and women tend to be different in many physical and personality characteristics, though these aren’t always the same in every culture and there can be lots of differences between people of a single sex between and within cultures. But sex is a clear, binary concept that, for all its massive cultural baggage, is not independent of its biological underpinnings. This, by the way, is not an idea anathematic to feminism – lots of feminists accept that the sexes are fundamentally different, and although there may be argument about to what extent these differences are biological vs. cultural, there is a large body of feminist work that assumes these differences are real and important.

And yet still people can want to change sex. Really want to change sex! And this phenomenon is common across almost every culture, though it receives higher levels of acceptance in some cultures (e.g. some Asian and Indigenous cultures) than others (e.g. modern USA). It’s also clear that you can’t force someone to change sex the way you can race. You might be able to “breed out the colour” of “half-caste” Aboriginal people by stealing them from their parents and raising them in a white family, but you can’t breed out the pink by forcing a girl to grow up as a boy – she’ll still know that she’s a girl. The same is true of sexuality of course – most people can define their sexuality clearly by the gender of the people they fuck, but we have no evidence that you can change that, no matter how hard you try. We know in fact that down that road lies tragedy. And so most of us take people’s sexuality – and the right to express it freely – very seriously. Yet most of us also accept that the right to change sex, to express a desire to be the opposite sex to our birth sex or even to be a third sex, very seriously as well.

So why not race? It’s way more fluid than gender, it has no biological basis, and we have huge amounts of evidence that people do it by accident all the time. Yet when Rachel Dolezal was outed as white she attracted general derision across the political spectrum; and Trump trades on the Pocahontas slur for Elizabeth Warren, whose sole crime apparently is to have been raised thinking she might have Native American heritage. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture, especially if like me you grew up in a race-fluid environment. Why is it so wrong to be transracial?

The toxic American influence on sex and race debates

Of course in America race is not a simple issue, because of slavery. America has a complex, toxic and quite unique racial environment which makes it very hard for Americans to react reasonably to these debates. Just consider the “politically correct” term for black Americans – African American. How is this not a transracial identity? Africa is neither a country, nor a culture, nor a race. Being “African American” is a completely concocted identity, a race that didn’t exist until the 1970s and the advent of pan-Africanism. Nothing wrong with that per se, obviously, but it leads to strange contortions in which, for example, the previous president[9] was dismissed as not “African American” enough by some of his critics even though his dad was Kenyan. We also see unedifying moments like this, where we discover that one of Dolezal’s trenchant critics was raised in a white household from the age of 2, and has clearly made a conscious choice to be black – but rejects Dolezal’s choice on clearly spurious racial grounds.

I think the problem here is simply that Americans need to come to terms with their own racist history, and simultaneously with their role as centre of empire and cultural hegemon. It’s not just that white Americans are beneficiaries of a long history of slavery, or that a sizable portion of white Americans can’t even yet accept that slavery was really wrong, or that treason in defense of slavery was really bad. It’s also the case that black Americans are simultaneously deprived in their own country but hyper-privileged globally, benefiting from many of the profits of empire just as their white compatriots do. This is why, for example, in response to the water poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan we heard so much about how this was happening “even in a developed country” – black Americans are used to certain basic things that many of the people in America’s tributary nations don’t get. Similarly, black Americans can talk about pan-Africanism while black Americans are bombing Libyans. This is a complex, messed up problem that Americans have to come to terms with before they preach to the rest of us about transracialism. Combine this with America’s well-established puritanism and religious extremism, and you have a perfect storm of stupid. It makes you wonder why they even bother doing philosophy.

It also makes me think that they don’t really have a proper grip on some of these issues. Instead of talking about their own race issues, I think a lot of American feminists could stand to look around the world and learn from others. Australia has a unique culture of multiculturalism and acceptance that, while far from perfect, offers important lessons on how to negotiate racial conflict. We also have a history of genocide and responding to genocide that is deeply entangled with old fashioned racial theories that still seem to have some influence on both the left and right of American politics. But as an Australian I think we have learnt a lot and grown a lot, both about sex and race, in ways that Americans need to learn from. Instead, however, these American philosophers seem to think that their experience of race is unique and universal. I even recently stumbled across a tweet by a “key” philosopher of transgender issues (American) who claimed that transracialism had never been practiced anywhere except by one person (Rachel Dolezal). What a joke! This shows deep ignorance of broader issues of race and culture and a kind of infantile understanding of what the rest of the world is doing. I bet right now there are huge debates going on in China in Chinese about people faking ethnic minority identity (or vice versa) that no American philosopher of race even knows about, let alone can turn into a lesson for American philosophical dialogue.

I think it’s time Americans learnt some humility. America is a nation of religious extremists with a history of slavery that just elected an orange shitgibbon for president. Some humility would be in order.

And a little less bullying too! So if, like me, you think that this article might have pointed you to a phenomenon that is more common than you think, that you didn’t even know existed, maybe you should read it. And then reconsider whatever passing judgement you might have made of Rachel Dolezal, and ask yourself how easily the media are fooled by ugly narratives, and what that says about their quality.

And then, I guess, be whatever race you want to be!


fn1: Google it!

fn2: Including but not limited to references to Aussie pride

fn3: Until today I didn’t know that this term existed, though I think that I probably tried to avoid doing what it refers to. Google it!

fn4: You’ll note that I am writing “transracialism” but not writing “transgenderism”. This is because apparently the latter term is offensive while the former is not; and this has nothing to say! Nothing at all! About how one of these processes is accepted by those who police our language in the name of social justice, while another is not.

fn5: Add “will non-ironically say ‘discourse'” to the trigger warnings! Too late!? Too bad!

fn6: Because for arbitrary and stupid reasons I can’t say “transgenderism”, every sentence where I want to refer to the process or state of being a person who is transgender is going to involve these slight awkwardnesses of English language. I’m going to stick to the politically correct phrasing here, but I hope that everyone sees how awkward this is, and how telling the acceptability of one -ism but not another -ism is.

fn7: I’m making a decision not to name the author because I suspect that if things go badly for her and the paper is retracted she is going to want her name not to be associated with the paper that she struggled over; I know that my actions won’t make a difference to the google search results, but I choose not to add to them. Nonetheless I think this is work she should be proud of and I hope she doesn’t have to retract or disavow it. Also what kind of budding philosopher wants their name turning up on a disreputable blog like this, associated with fantasy gaming and sex positivity?!

fn8: And they were being taught fractions by an ignorant white dude half their age. Can you imagine the indignity!? But they were very nice to me, and I think I did a good job of the teaching. But teaching fractions is HARD.

fn9: Please come back!

(This review is a little pointless because the exhibition closes tomorrow).

Yesterday I visited the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills to see the Universe and Art exhibition. This exhibition attempts to show the relationship between artists’ and scientists’ attempts to explain the cosmos and the human relationship with the stars. It incorporates artistic visions of the cosmic order, scientific explanations of space over time, and artistic interpretations of science, from many different cultural perspectives. To do this it displays a wide array of art, items, scientific objects, film and video art. These objects have been drawn from many different cultures – Indian, Asian, Europe and the Americas – over several thousand years, with a particular emphasis on Japanese material from the past and the present. They include mandalas from India and Japan, star charts from China and Japan, and early stories about space from Japan and Europe. It also includes film, photos and objects from the space programs of several nations, science fiction art and stories inspired by these programs, and visual art that either glorifies or critiques or reinterprets them. Some highlights that I particularly enjoyed are listed below.

The meteoric iron katana

Blade of coolness +5

Blade of coolness +5

What can I say? Apparently Okayoshi Kunimune made two swords from meteoric iron, which took three weeks to craft and required several trips to the local shrine for prayer. One of these is on display, and it is quite impressive. It has all the fine lines of a classically-forged katana, but the metal is kind of darker and less shiny, more sinister-looking. Also the scabbard has “Meteor sword” written on it, which just says it all really. This blade was forged the old-fashioned way in 1898, which was after the samurai era, but was forged in the traditional way, which means that it has that slight rippling pattern in the metal around the blade. Viewed end on it looks wicked sharp. The photo I took is just a snap and overstates how dark the blade is, but I do think it is darker than a normal blade (I haven’t seen many of these artifact blades so I don’t know how dark an original samurai blade is). One of these blades ended up in the possession of the Taisho Emperor, which means that he was decked out in a sword made from a meteorite. I think that makes this a kind of unique artifact and it genuinely is very cool, just sits their heavy with its own sense of foreboding awesomeness. Everyone was impressed by this sword.

Bjorn Dahlem’s Black Hole (M-Spheres)

Space!

Space!

This installation is large and imposing and when viewed in detail kind of naff – it’s just a bunch of fluorescent lights stuck onto some wood – but viewed from afar with that kind of disfocused gaze that you have to take with certain kinds of art it suddenly becomes much more imposing and abstract. In the centre is supposed to be a black hole, with what I guess are galaxies or some kind of star tracks circling around it. A single sphere of black metal somewhere in the middle is, I guess, the black hole that it all is meant to be built around. It’s surprisingly cool (though the windows at the far end of the room give a view of Tokyo from the 52nd floor of this building and are kind of more awesome in their own way). It doesn’t move or anything, unlike …

The God Machine

It watches and waits ...

It watches and waits …

This monstrosity is set up in its own room, and is basically just a series of robust metal arms circling slowly in rings of different size and speed, with brilliant lights on the arms. The lights themselves move in simple planar orbits but the whole structure is set at an angle to the floor surrounded by walls of white, and the motions of the shadows of the arms on the wall are complex, occasionally threatening, and frustratingly close to predictable. The size, clarity, depth and position of the shadows changes as the arms complete their loops, and depending on the direction you look you see a very different system of shadows interacting. A single spike sticking up from the floor casts a complex pattern of shifting triple shadows on the floor. The whole thing is a simple set of ordered moving parts, but it carries this sense of immensity and brooding threat that makes it really cool. I think it’s by Wolfgang Tillmans, who contributed a few beautiful images as well. His website gives a sense of some of his other art, which is quite striking.

The great books

Original history

Original history

The exhibition also featured first editions of Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, and the first works of Copernicus and Kepler. Kepler and Copernicus’s books are open at centre pages so you can see the quality of their work, while the Principia is open to the frontispiece.

On the shoulders of giants ...

On the shoulders of giants …

I studied physics in my undergraduate years, and then statistics, and so for me even just the frontispiece of Newton’s original work (shown above) carries an enormous weight and power – this is truly a book of vast importance in the history of science, and to stand in front of a work that is so close to the original hand of one of science’s greatest and most influential minds is really a great privilege. This book is over 300 years old, heavy and worn with the weight of history, and everything in my career and everything I love about the science I do is built on what is in its thick and fragile pages. So it was really great to stand looking at that frontispiece and revel in the significance of of those three words: Naturalis Principia Mathematica. I imagine if one were an evolutionary biologist one would get the same feeling from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which was also on display, but for me as someone trained in physics this book is a great treasure and it was the first (and I guess, the last) time I will be in the presence of this original piece of history.

The exhibition had other contributions from the scientists of that era, including an excerpt from da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus that described the movement of the planets (his handwriting is incredibly beautiful, every letter a work of art), armillary spheres and beautiful navigational tools made in intricate and beautiful detail out of brass, and a replica of Gallileo’s original telescope (also, his Sedereus Nuncius and his sketches of the moon, that he made with that incredibly primitive telescope). It’s really humbling to stand in the presence of so many of the original moments of modern science, and to think that almost everything we do now depends on the work these men put into these humble books, or that once people had to find their way to Tokyo using nothing more than one of those brass navigational instruments. It’s quite incredible to see them and realize just how primitive it all was – these scientists really were fumbling around the universe, making guesses on the basis of almost nothing, when you think about what we can do today. And almost everything we can do today depends on their fumbling efforts … So it was quite amazing to see all this stuff in one exhibition, and also to see some of the wild, amusing and speculative ways in which artists of that time and since have speculated on the implications of those scientific endeavours. It’s also obvious when you see that early work that there is no barrier between science and art – those scientists were technicians but they approached their work with a religious zeal and an obvious sense of aesthetics, a joy in the beauty of maths and physics as well as in the discovery of the unknown. For all the challenges of that era, for these men it must have been a very exciting time to be alive.

The Crows and the Insects in Amber

Some of the video installations weren’t so great but there were two amazing works. The first was a high resolution high magnification video exploration of a piece of amber with insects trapped inside it. Set to eery backing music, it moved through the amber filming different parts of it in such a way that it produces spacescapes and scenes like starscapes, nebulae or distant galaxies. In between these strange galactic visuals it zoomed in or out on the insects themselves, so that they loomed in the camera like Cthulhoid monsters, alien horrors, or strange planetary landscapes. This installation was probably 4-5 minutes long (or at least the part I saw was) but it was a fascinating way to turn a piece of something ancient, terrestrial and tiny into something vast, timeless and cosmic. A brilliant idea.

The second was a video work by teamlab, Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as well, Blossoming on Collision–Light in Space. For this you enter a large dark room and stand in a specific spot in the centre of the room, then the entire room begins to shift and move as the video covers all the walls, floor and ceiling. From your central spot you watch crows take flight and then you chase them along the lines of their flight, and then they burst over you and disappear and suddenly you’re chasing new ones. I don’ t know why crows, I don’t know why we’re chasing them, but it’s really good. It’s a kind of mixture of video game and interactive exhibit, I guess, but all through a movie. It probably wasn’t entirely suited to this exhibition – it could easily be the open sky rather than space that these crows are flying through – but it was still a splendid experience.

This exhibition finishes tomorrow so there is not really any point in recommending that you, dear reader(s), rush on down to see it, but at least now you know what you missed. This was a really interesting attempt to combine two fields of human endeavour that are often seen as at odds with each other or unconnected, and it did a really good job both of merging the two and also of introducing me to some genuinely cool modern artists working in this field. It also serves as a good reminder of how space exploration, from its earliest beginnings, has been not just an engineering and physics endeavour, but an artistic effort that expresses something about what it means to be human and what our position is in the cosmos. As we watch new and modern efforts to explore our solar system – and, possibly, to colonize it – it’s worth remembering that they are always about more than just science, which makes them simultaneously both a luxurious waste of money, and an essential attempt to understand the core of what it is to be human. I hope in the future other museums and art galleries will attempt a similar exhibition to this, so people outside of Japan can share this unique insight into how art and science have worked together over thousands of years to bring humans closer to the stars, both physically and spiritually.

Mushroom man on the spit!

Mushroom man on the spit!

I just finished reading episode 1 of this entertaining and weird manga, called Dungeon meshi in Japanese, by Ryoko Kui. It’s the tale of a group of adventurers – Raios the fighter, Kilchack the halfling thief, and Marshille the elven wizard – who are exploring a dungeon that is rumoured to lead to a golden kingdom that will become the domain of whichever group of adventurers kill the evil wizard who has taken it over. The story starts with them having to flee a battle with a dragon, which swallows Raios’s little sister whole. She manages to teleport the rest of the party out of the dungeon in an act of self sacrifice, and they decide that they should go back in and save her from the dragon. They could wait and resurrect her from its poo, but they decide they would rather go in, kill it and cut her out of its belly (dragon digestion is very slow). No answers are forthcoming to the question of why she can’t just teleport herself out as well, or how she will survive in a dragon’s belly, but I’m sure the reasons are clear.

Anyway, because they left all their gear and loot behind when they fled, they would need to sell their armour and weapons and downgrade in order to make enough money to buy supplies for the return trip. Also they don’t have time to go back to town and get more stuff. So they decide to go straight back into the dungeon and live on a subsistence diet of whatever they can gather and kill in the dungeon. This is particularly appealing to Raios, who has always secretly wanted to eat the creatures he kills (when he tells them this, Marshille and Kilchack decide that he’s a psychopath, but they ain’t seen nothing yet …) Off they go!

They soon run into a dwarf called Senshi who has spent 10 years exploring the dungeon and learning to cook its monsters. Raios has a book of recipes but Senshi tells him that’s all bullshit, and teaches them to cook as they go. Senshi has always wanted to eat a dragon, so he offers to join them and help in their quest. Thus begins the long process of returning to the deepest levels of the dungeon, one meal at a time …

The food chain, in the dungeon

The food chain, in the dungeon

This manga is basically a story about a series of meals, with some lip service to killing the monsters that go in the meals. It starts with a brief description of the ecology of dungeons, which sets out a nice piece of Gygaxian naturalism, along with the food pyramid suitably reimagined for mythical beasts, and gives us a tiny bit of background about the dungeon crawling industry, which is so systematized as to be almost industrial in its scope. Once we have this basic background we’re off on a mission to eat everything we can get our hands on: Mushroom men, giant scorpions, giant bats, basilisk meat and eggs, green slimes (which make excellent jerky apparently), mandrake, carnivorous plants and ultimately a kind of golem made of armour. In the process they make some discoveries about the nature of the beasts – for example, Marshille discovers that you can use giant bats to dig up mandrake and that a mandrake tastes differently depending on whether you get it to scream or not, and the golem is actually armour that has been animated by a strange colony of mollusc-like organisms that are excellent when grilled in the helmet or stir-fried with medicinal herbs.

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Giant scorpion and mushroom man hot pot

Plus, we get recipes, which are detailed and carefully thought-out and also slightly alarming. For example, for the mushroom man and giant scorpion hot pot (pictured above) we get to see the team slicing open the body of a mushroom man, which is kind of horrific. The final meal of this issue, the walking armour, is particularly disturbing, since the crew basically sit around in a room plying mollusc flesh out of the pieces of an empty suit of armour, then grill them, except the head parts, which they cook by simply sticking the entire helmet on the bbq and waiting for them to fall out as they roast. It’s made clear that the armour is operated by an interlocking network of separate mollusc-things that have some kind of group sentience, but then once they manage to drag some out of the armour they slip them into a bowl of water and declare happily “they drowned!” Really it’s just like eating a big sentient shellfish. i.e. completely disgusting, in a disturbingly fascinating way.

Each recipe also comes with a disquisition on its nutritional benefits (and the importance of a balanced diet), along with a spider diagram showing the relative magnitude and balance of different ingredients (in the bottom right of the picture above, for example). In some cases special preparation is required – the green slime needs to be dried for several weeks, but fortunately Senshi has a special portable net for this task, and a green slime he prepared earlier which the crew can sample. In other cases, such as the basilisk, medicinal herbs of various kinds need to be included with the meal, which sadly makes it impossible for the reader to make their own roast basilisk, lacking as we do the necessary ingredients to neutralize the poison in the basilisk after we catch it. There are also tips on how to catch the ingredients – the basilisk has two heads for example but only one brain, so you can confuse it if you attack both heads at once – and some amusing biological details too. For example, it is well known that chimaera made from more than two animals are not good to eat because they don’t have a main component of their structure, while chimera of just two animals – like the basilisk – will adopt the taste and general properties of whatever their main animal is (in this case, a bird)[1].

In addition to the rather, shall we say, functional, approach to non-human creatures, the story also has some quite cynical comments on the adventuring business. During the encounter with the carnivorous plant, for example, they find a half-digested body. They feel they should return this body to the surface, but just like climbing Everest, they don’t want to go back up till they reach their goal, so instead they leave it in the path for a returning group to deal with. Realizing this might cause someone to trip, they arrange to hang it from a tree by a rope in what is, essentially, a mock execution, and then they go to sleep underneath it (Marshille, unsurprisingly, has bad dreams). To counter this cynicism Marshille acts in part as the conscience of the group, spinning on her head in rage at one point when they suggest eating something, and refusing outright to eat humanoids, but she is usually overruled and then forced to admit that yes actually this meal is quite delicious. Marshille seems to be the stand-in for the reader, since she generally expresses the disgust that the reader is likely (I hope!) to feel, and also gets things explained to her obviously for our benefit (this comes across as very man-splainy, since it’s the male fighter telling her how the world really is, but since she spends most of her time responding in apopleptic rage, it’s bearable).

Beyond its cynical but loving commentary on the world of dungeon crawling, its fine recipes and detailed exposition of dungeon ecology, this book is also a careful retelling of a staple of Japanese television entertainment – the cooking variety show. Anyone who has spent more than about a minute in Japan will have noticed that Japanese television is heavily dominated by variety shows about food, and a common format is for a group of stars and starlets to go to a remote town and sample its local delicacies. Usually this happens in rural Japan, though it can also often be seen in overseas settings, and it always involves a brief description of what is special about how the food is prepared and the ingredients obtained, and then a scene where everyone eats it and says “delicious”, and if there is a starlet involved she will be the one asking the questions while an older person (usually male) explains things to her. So this manga is an almost perfect recreation of that format, except with adventurers instead of starlets and magical creatures instead of standard ingredients. Also, the food shows usually don’t go beyond saying oishii over and over, but in the book we get more detailed expressions of the nature of the food, its texture and taste, which is just great when you’re talking about a humanoid mushroom.

Part RPG dungeon crawl, part variety show, part ecological textbook, this manga is a simple, pleasant read with an engaging story and two entertaining characters (the dwarf and the elf). It’s a really good example of the special properties of manga as a story-telling medium, since the entire idea and its execution would be almost impossible in short story or novel form, but is really well-suited to words with pictures. The pictures give it a more visceral feeling than if you were simply reading a short story about a dungeon cooking show, but the manga format gives I think more detail to the food and science descriptions than you would get in a TV drama. It’s a great balance, and an entertaining read. From a non-native Japanese perspective, it has the flaw that the kanji don’t have furigana (the hiragana writing by the side of the kanji which makes them easy to read), so it takes a while for a non-expert reader to get through, but it doesn’t have the heavy use of slang language and transliteration of rough pronunciation that you see in comics like One Piece, which makes them almost unreadable to non-experts. In general the grammar is simple and straightforward, though sometimes Senshi’s speaking style is overly complex and he uses weird words. In some manga, and especially in novels, the sentences are long and complex and very hard to read for slow readers, but here the sentences are short and straightforward, and the language is mostly standard Japanese. I found I could read in ten page blocks without too much difficulty, using a kanji lookup tool on my phone (I use an app called KanjiLookup that enables me to write them with my finger, which I’m not very good at but a lot better at now I have read this whole manga). After about 10 pages I get sick of constantly referencing the app and put the book down, but it’s not so challenging that I gave up entirely, probably because of the simple language and the short sentences and the very clear link between what is being said and what is being depicted. So as a study exercise I recommend it. As a cookbook or a moral guide, not so much …

 

 


fn1: Actually I’m pretty sure the “basilisk” in this story was actually a cockatrice.

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