Japan


Not militaristic at all ...

Not militaristic at all …

I am not a big fan of baseball, and I didn’t enjoy my high school days overmuch. Combining these two seems like a recipe for a bullying and unpleasant experience, and definitely not something I would have any interest in.

The Koshien, however, changed my mind about high school baseball. The Koshien (甲子園) is an annual high school baseball contest that takes place across all of Japan, and comes to its glorious, bittersweet climax during the hottest months of the year – this week, in fact, in mid-August. High school baseball teams compete to become prefectural champions, and champions from each prefecture – two from Tokyo – then converge on Kobe in August for the finals. The finals are a knockout, with four matches played every day to whittle the teams down from 48 to 32, then through knockout rounds to the final, which happens to be tomorrow. Each match is 1.5 to 2 hours long and is played under the punishing August sun, in extremely harsh conditions[1]: temperatures above 32C (often over 35 this year!) and very high humidity. Today, for example, was 32C with 82% humidity and much, much more pleasant than last week when the quarter finals were being decided. The teams have to play continuously too: the semi final was today and the final is tomorrow, which means that the pitchers in the final will have been playing every second day now for a week or more in this heat.

When I first saw the Koshien a few years ago I dismissed it without watching it. Baseball in Japan is renowned for its bullying atmosphere, which verges on militaristic at times, and the idea of making schoolboys of 16-18 years of age play a contest in the middle of the day in this heat is a classic representation of just how callous and brutal its culture is. But this year one of my students revealed to me her passion for it, showed me the website and sang the praises of its passion and energy. Since I had a week off for the summer break I thought I’d check it out – and I was hooked immediately. It’s amazing.

It isn’t just the contest itself that is great – in fact that’s barely part of it at all. Rather, the culture and the style and excitement of the entire series gives it a feeling that ordinary baseball just can’t get. Similar to cricket at its best, it has its own sound and pace, and the crowd are as much a part of the event as the teams. Every team brings a huge contingent of supporters, wearing school colours and usually including a school band and cheerleaders, who make a constant racket throughout the game. This highlight reel is a good a example of the sound of the game – the school song (or a supporter’s chant) playing in the background, drums, pipes, cheering, and the flash of pom-poms as the cheerleaders go wild on a home run. At the end of the reel you can just hear the announcer in a classic, high-pitched voice introducing the next batter, with the honorific “kun” at the end to remind everyone that these heroes of ours are actually just high school kids. During the match the commentators prowl the stands interviewing fans, and showing the world what ingenious support methods the schools have thought up; they read support messages from school children and adults around the country, and every day they have a different pro-baseballer on to help with the commentating. This year the commentators have identified a man they call “Rugger san” (Mr. Rugger) who sits in the same place directly behind the batter in the front row, and is so named because he wears a rugby shirt every day – he has been there the entire two week period. It’s a serious, extravagant two week festival of sport, very similar to the Ashes or Sumo in the strength of its associated support culture, its deep connection with a season, and its importance to ordinary sports fans. But in this case it has its own bittersweet feel, because these are boys near the end of high school, who are going to get one – maybe two, for the younger ones – shots at glory, then graduate and move on with their lives and leave this fleeting moment of fame and joy behind them forever.

And this is where the Koshien really makes its mark, because it captures something about the strange and furious passion with which Japanese people look back on their high school days. From the west looking in we are often led to believe that Japanese high school is a terrible place, strictly regimented, heirarchical, full of bullying, where the creativity is drained out of little humans ready to turn them into drones for Japan’s massive corporate machine. But Japanese people see it very differently – to them High School is a period of freedom, openness, and passion, this sunny couple of years of freedom before they hit the regimentation of the outer world. High School is where a lot of Japanese people experience first love, and it is also the time when they form deep bonds of friendship that will last them through many years, even though they will likely move away from home for university and work, and only see those old high school friends once a year. This disparity between the western view of Japanese school and the local view is really striking – Japanese people I speak to are very often deeply nostalgic for their high school days, which they describe to me as a time of freedom and happiness. This is especially noticeable when you mention the Koshien to anyone who is old enough to have begun forgetting their high school days: they will become instantly, powerfully nostalgic, and it’s clear that the word conjures up sounds and scenes that remind them instantly of everything they left behind when they left school. On the weekend I mentioned that I had watched the Koshien to my hairdresser, and even though he was a rugby player at school[2], not a baseball player, he immediately became misty-eyed, singing the praises of the event and its special meaning in the same way as my student.

This passion I think also explains the special role of high school in anime. From the outside looking there appears to be a strong strain of schoolgirl fetishism, but there’s much more to it than that – anime and manga is also packed with stories about male high school sports clubs, which to me seem like they must be singularly boring tales, and also love stories about high school students. TV shows and manga that feature these high school groups and love affairs and dramas are actually appealing not to some weird fetish for children, but to a strong, nostalgic streak in adults. High school is also the setting in which first love occurs in Japan, and at least historically may have been the only time when Japanese people were truly free to form partnerships out of love rather than convenience and good sense. This is why so much of anime and manga incorporates this setting, and this is why the schoolgirl’s uniform and the schoolboy’s baseball kit are so powerfully evocative in this medium. Watching the Koshien helps to make sense of the power of high school in Japanese popular culture. The Koshien packs all those years of yearning for the change to come, of waiting for something to happen, that sense that you are someone special who is ready to bud and explode into the world, into two weeks of intense emotion and self expression, all while sharing that deep bond with your peers that only late adolescents can genuinely and uncynically revel in.

And so, it can even make baseball interesting. Truly, Japanese high school students have magical powers! The final is tomorrow at 1pm Japan time, and I think it can be viewed live on the Asahi TV website. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Koshien, the final contest is between Kanagawa and Miyagi prefectures. Tune in, and enjoy the unrestrained passions of high school once more!

fn1: People who haven’t spent time in Japan in August tend to poo-poo reports of just how oppressive the heat is, but once one has spent a day here in that season, and wilted under the intensity of the heat, one readily adapts one’s view. Australians really aren’t used to the humidity, so for example although I grew up in a town where daytime temperatures are routinely 8C hotter than Japan in summer, without airconditioning, I find Tokyo in summer far worse. It’s not just the urban heat island effect, which in Tokyo is extreme: basically it’s as if a huge mass of hot air rolled in off the ocean at the end of July, squatted down and decided to stay. There is very little wind, night time temperatures do not drop below 25 or 26 C, and usually there are very few clouds, but it is still so hot that everyone sweats just sitting still. It’s exhausting at 32C, but when it hits 35C it’s potentially dangerous …

fn2: In Japan hairdressing is a macho job and male hairdressers are rough, macho figures, so this makes perfect sense.

Today is the 70th anniversary of victory in the Pacific (VP Day), when Japan surrendered to allied forces. For the USA, UK and Australia this marked the end of four years of merciless war; for China it marked the end of about 20 years of colonial aggression on the mainland; and for Korea it represented the end of 35 years of colonization by Japan. For the rest of the Asia-Pacific region the end of the war brought on in many cases a new era of instability as colonial governments collapsed and the independence movements of south and south-east Asia took off. The start of peace for Japan was only the beginning of years of civil war, colonial confrontations and communal violence in the rest of Asia, and in comparison to the slaughter and chaos visited on these countries before and after the war ended, the other allied powers’ experience of the Pacific war was relatively pleasant. Still, Australians have many reasons to mark VP Day as a major event in our history, both on account of the huge loss of life sustained, the cruelty experienced by Australians at the hands of Japanese captors, and the profound political implications for Australia of the collapse of British colonialism in Asia, and the UK’s inability to protect Australia (or even win a single battle against Japan!) Japan’s early, complete and ruthless victories over the supposedly superior army, navy and air force of the UK shook the foundations of the UK’s colonial project and brought on the rapid collapse of not just British but also the Dutch, French and Portuguese colonial project. For Australia that meant a major reorientation of our political outlook, first towards the USA and then (much later) towards Asia.

While the long-term political consequences of world war 1 were a second war in Europe, the holocaust and the cold war, the long-term political consequences of the Pacific war were decolonization, rapid development, and ultimately a long peace and relative stability in all of Asia, presided over initially by US power, then by a resurgent and determinedly non-colonial Japan, and now by the three great industrial powers of China, Korea and Japan – once mortal enemies who now have a shared goal of peace and development in all of Asia. Seventy years after Japan’s colonial ambitions were thoroughly repudiated, at great cost to China and Korea, they share a broad set of goals in the region. These goals are disturbed primarily by only two issues: border disputes that no one is really willing to go to war for, and the issue of Japan’s acceptance of its past crimes. Every VP Day there is renewed controversy about exactly how much Japan admits past wrongdoing, and renewed calls for an apology for past acts, and it was expected that on this day especially the Japanese government might do something special about this.

Unfortunately Japan’s current prime minister is a historical revisionist like no other in a long time, and is playing to a right-wing rump at home that prevents him from properly acknowledging Japan’s guilt. He is exactly the wrong prime minister to be making statements of contrition, but it was him who had to give a speech, widely reported, in which he stated that he did not want Japan to have to continually make new apologies. Seventy years on, he wants to draw a line over the past, and look forward to a world without war. Such lofty ideals might sound better if they were coming from someone who was not intent on denying the truth of the comfort women issue, and who was not trying to reform Japan’s constitution to enable this peace-loving nation to deploy its (considerable!) military in joint self-defense actions.

But putting aside the political background of this particular PM, is he actually wrong? Japan has made many apologies over specific incidents and general wartime aggression and violence, and in particular on the 50th anniversary of the war made an apology with the full backing of the Cabinet (the Murayama statement) that is widely seen as an official apology. This statement has been repeatedly reiterated and referred to in subsequent dealings with the affected nations, and at other VP Day events (including in 2005). Abe did not explicitly reference that statement, but he did implicitly endorse it when he stated that “Such position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future”. He went on, however, to make clear that he thinks that Japan should stop continually apologizing, while remaining aware of the sins of its past and endeavouring never to repeat them:

In Japan, the postwar generations now exceed eighty per cent of its population. We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future.

This statement is being taken by some in the media as a repudiation of past apologies and a statement of intent to forget the war, but I don’t think it can be seen that way at all. It’s simply making the obvious point that when a population has apologized, and is no longer connected to the people who did these things, there comes a point where you have to stop expecting remorse to be a key part of how they memorialize those past mistakes. Instead Abe proposes that future efforts to remember the war be focused on better understanding of the events of the past, and stronger efforts to build a global society that does not or cannot seek war to resolve economic or political problems.

As a citizen of a nation that has only recently apologized for past wrongs that were committed recently enough for a large part of the population to be connected with them, I think he raises a strong point. In 2008 the Australian federal government apologized officially to the living Aboriginal people known as the Stolen Generation who had been stolen from their families by commonwealth policy, and also made a broader statement of recognition of guilt for genocide. This apology came after long years of campaigning (in which I as a young Australian was involved) and a broadly-supported reconciliation movement which wanted to see not just an apology but full recognition of Aboriginal people’s history and the history of genocide against them, and proper compensation where proper compensation could be given. This reconciliation movement was tied in with a land rights movement that saw victories and defeats but was built on a fundamental acceptance of the role of white Australia in stealing land from black Australia and benefiting from that theft.

I don’t think at any point that when we were campaigning for that Apology, we ever intended that the government should repeatedly apologize and continually be forced to officially admit its guilt in some public and formalized way, even as it continued to work on development and welfare improvements for Aboriginal Australians. We saw the Apology as a moment to convey acceptance and recognition, and … well, to say sorry. There is discussion about formalizing a national Sorry Day, but this wouldn’t be a day intended to force every PM to continually reiterate these apologies; rather, it would be a day of recognition of the past, with local events intended to revitalize and reauthorize our commitment to working together to make the future better. I think if the official Apology had been proposed as an ongoing, annual ceremony of abject admission of guilt, no one would have supported it and no government would have done it.

There is something about apologies that requires at some point they stop. As a nation we can have ongoing recognition of the past, through e.g. national memorials, national days of commemoration, or whatever; but the requirement that every government reiterate the sorrow of its predecessors for deeds committed (ultimately) after all those involved have passed on (or been found guilty) doesn’t seem to be the right spirit of apology.

In the case of Japan, the entire Asia-Pacific has VP Day in which to remember the events of the past, but that doesn’t mean that every VP Day the Japanese government should craft a new apology and seek forgiveness again for something that happened 70 years ago; rather, a simple reiteration of past statements, the laying of a wreath, perhaps the unveiling of any new local projects (Japan is involved in projects throughout the Asia Pacific, including research projects aimed at better understanding the war itself); surely, after 70 years and multiple apologies, it’s time that everyone recognized that the past is the past, what was done was done, and moving on from that past to make a better future requires that the events of the past not be raked up and made fresh, whether out of anger or sorrow?

The same can be said of Australia’s genocidal past. There are ways still in which Australia hasn’t come to terms with that past, but mostly these are best confronted and expressed not through apologies but through concrete actions: efforts towards the finalization of land rights law and land reform; redoubled efforts to improve Aboriginal health, welfare and employment; and better incorporation of Aboriginal people into Australian political life. Although in many cases the problems that still exist are bound up with racism that needs to be confronted through political action (see, e.g. the recent shameful treatment of Adam Goodes), this political action needs to be expressly practical. This is exactly what happens in Australia now, too, I think – for example, Adam Goodes’ treatment was not tackled by further apologies, but by practical action by the football association and statements of support and respect from other football clubs and their captains.

In my view apologies are a very important part of the process of political reconciliation and healing, but they should not be some kind of constantly-repeated process of formal self-flagellation because, while on an individual level an apology usually involves an explicit admission of personal guilt for a personal act, on a political and national level they do not represent guilt, as most of the people whose representatives are doing the apologizing were not responsible in any way for the crime. Political apologies are an act of recognition and restitution, not an expression of guilt. At some point the apologies need to stop, and life needs to proceed with practical political commitments and goals.

So I think it’s time that Japan stopped apologizing, and the other nations that were affected recognize that Japan is a good neighbour, an exemplary world citizen, and a nation that is genuinely aware of and remorseful about its past crimes, with a real intention never to repeat them. Japan doesn’t deal with its past crimes in a perfect way, and indeed much work still needs to be done on understanding what Japan did (many records were lost), on coming to terms with the comfort women issue, and on dealing with the (frankly ridiculous) Yasukuni Jinja situation[1]. But these are all practical efforts, that will advance future understanding and respect much more than further apologies.

I also think it’s high time that people in (and on occasion the politicians of) the USA and UK stopped criticizing Japan’s “lack of apology” and instead started thinking about doing themselves what Japan and Australia have done: Apologizing for their own crimes. There is a new willingness in India to make demands for recognition of Britain’s colonial crimes, but many British people – including most of their politicians – still cling to the repulsive notion that the colonization of India was an overall plus for its people. The UK, Holland, Spain, France, Belgium and Portugal all owe apologies for severe and extreme crimes committed expressly in the interests of stealing other people’s land. Similarly the US puts a lot of effort into memorializing Vietnam but hasn’t apologized for its murderous war, let alone subsequent adventures that killed a million people, and whose architects are advising Jeb Bush on foreign policy. Indeed, Kissinger and McNamara are still respected in the USA, when they should be in prison. I think it’s time that the world recognized that while the great crimes of the 20th century have been pored over and guilt ascertained and accepted, there are many slightly lesser crimes that go unremarked and unrecognized, and that a mature nation should recognize those crimes. Rather than seeing Japan as a recalcitrant revisionist, Japan should be seen as a model of how to acknowledge and atone for past crimes, that “better” nations like the UK and USA could learn from.

A few other notes on Abe’s apology

Abe’s apology, which can be read here, is extensive and, I think, quite powerful. He talks about how Japan lost its way and went against the trend toward peace that other nations were following, and explicitly blames colonial aggression for its actions in China. He thrice refers to the injury done to women behind the lines, giving a nod to more than just the issue of the comfort women but also to the general evil of rape as a war crime, and explicitly identifies the need to prevent this from happening in future wars. He also has some very powerful thoughts to add on the nobility of China and Korea after the war, when he states that Japan must take to heart

The fact that more than six million Japanese repatriates managed to come home safely after the war from various parts of the Asia-Pacific and became the driving force behind Japan’s postwar reconstruction; the fact that nearly three thousand Japanese children left behind in China were able to grow up there and set foot on the soil of their homeland again; and the fact that former POWs of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and other nations have visited Japan for many years to continue praying for the souls of the war dead on both sides.

How much emotional struggle must have existed and what great efforts must have been necessary for the Chinese people who underwent all the sufferings of the war and for the former POWs who experienced unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military in order for them to be so tolerant nevertheless?

I think this is a powerful statement of respect for how well Japan was treated after the war, and recognition that there is a great willingness on all sides of a conflict to move on from it despite great cruelties committed. I think also the paragraphs near the end of the speech, which start “We must engrave upon our hearts” are also very powerful, showing how Japan and the world can strengthen efforts to make sure that the crimes Japan committed are not possible anywhere in the world in the future.

Also, I note that this apology is a Cabinet Statement so represents official government policy, not just Abe’s personal opinion. I think it’s a good basis to move forward, recognize that Japan did wrong, and accept that apologies should not and cannot continue forever.

Instead of constantly dwelling on a world consumed by war, let’s work on building a world without it.

fn1: I personally think that this problem could be solved best by opening an official national war memorial – Japan currently has none – that explicitly excludes the 14 war criminals, is non-religious, recognizes Japan’s war crimes and war of aggression, includes a memorial to the people killed in other countries by Japan, and has a high quality modern museum that accurately reflects the truth of the war. Then on some nominated day that isn’t VP Day, politicians can officially go there and pay their respects to the dead and officially, without controversy, reflect on what was, ultimately, a great tragedy for the Japanese people.

I have been in Oita on a ferocious business trip, one day of which was meant to be spent watching fireworks in Beppu, only to have them rescheduled due to a typhoon that failed to deliver either any rain or any wind. Nothing interesting happened in Beppu, although I am proud of having survived a 7-hour meeting (yes, Japanese people work hard) without a break, spent entirely speaking Japanese, including teaching Markov Modeling and the basics of Relational Database Management Systems without any warning or preparation.

However, something interesting did happen on the way to Oita: I flew by Solarseed Air, and in their cute little in-flight magazine I found the following advert for a live-action Hello Kitty Role-playing experience:

What manner of bastard would imprison kitty chan?

What manner of bastard would imprison kitty chan?

Isn’t that adorable? Apparently Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel(?) have been kidnapped by Kuromi, who is some kind of evil anti-kitty that the official website describes as “cheeky but charming,” and you have to enter the “Black Wonder Tower” to rescue them. There is a password hidden in there somewhere, and you have to find it and get them out. It costs 600 yen each and children under 3 are free! The picture of the two girls with lanterns has writing next to it that says “Let’s pick up our lanterns and go in pairs to help!” The writing at the very top of the advert describes it as an “RPG-style Attraction.”

I don’t think there is better evidence than this of how much more comfortable Japanese nerd culture is with women than is western nerd culture. Or of how much more mainstreamed it is capable of being than it is in the west. In Japan there is a traveling roadshow of Hello Kitty RPGs that visits remote rural areas like Miyazaki (where this is being held), targets girls, and is advertised in aircraft magazines.

Shall we go?!

Something Hollywood could learn from ...?

Something Hollywood could learn from …?

This week Vox posted an article on “Japan’s blackface problem,” which aimed to give an American perspective on the practice of Japanese actors putting on black faces, and to discuss what the author calls Japan’s “bizarre, troubled relationship with race.” I wonder what Japanese people can learn about how to treat race from that sophisticated bastion of cultural critique and racial neutrality, America?

Before I look at yet another nuanced and authoritative insight into the world’s problems from a racially enlightened American, I thought I’d share an insight from this month’s print edition of The Economist magazine, which I happened to pick up in my travels. In an article on racial inequalities in access to selective public schools in New York, an American documentary maker is reported as follows:

Curtis Chin, who has been filming New York teenagers preparing for the SHSAT, adds that all some black and Hispanic families want ‘is that their kids don’t get locked up in jail. It’s hard to measure that against an aspiration of going to Harvard or working for Goldman Sachs

I can say with considerable confidence that there is no black, Hispanic or indeed non-Japanese community of any race living in Japan now who are concerned about their kids going to jail rather than university. Which makes one wonder – what does America have to say to the rest of the world about race that it shouldn’t be saying first and only to itself? Let’s see what Vox has to say.

What does blackface mean in Japan?

The article is centred on concerns about a phenomenon that has no associations with colonialism or racism in Asia. Blackface has a long history of racist associations in the USA, and probably Europe and the UK, but in Asia it has no association at all with discrimination against black people. Black people in East and south-East Asia are basically just a different colour of foreigner, and discrimination against them stems from the same well spring as discrimination against all other foreigners. In some countries (Japan, probably Korea, I don’t know about China) black skin has an ancient association with demons and evil outsiders that predates Asian knowledge about the existence of black humans, but the extent to which this figures in Japanese attitudes towards black people is hard to say. The existence of the yamanba phenomenon in Japanese youth culture suggests that deliberately darkening the skin for fashion is shocking in a similar way to dressing as a Goth in the west (with associations of death and horror), but the leap between this and discrimination against black people is pretty weak sauce – weak sauce that the Vox article applies through an “analysis” of ganguro culture. The article cites an American living in Japan as describing this and the associated “b-girl” phenomenon as “exotic othering” and suggests that it’s potentially racist even though it is specifically cited as being done in “appreciation” of black American culture. It describes hip hop being culturally appropriated by taking American hip hop and running it through a J-pop machine.

This makes me think that the author and probably the American in Japan who they quote have never been to a Japanese hip hop club, or paid attention to the music there. There is a big difference between “cultural appropriation” and performing a foreign style, and if you don’t get this difference you’re pretty clueless about the music you’re describing. It’s also funny to read concerns about cultural appropriation from an American community that has engaged in one of the most breathtaking pieces of such appropriation in history, describing people with no cultural connection to any part of Africa as “African Americans” simply because of their skin colour. Newsflash, America: Africa is not a country.

American critiques of blackface centre on the fact that your intent does not change the racism of the representative behavior that blackface performs. That is, a white person putting on blackface just so that they can do an authentic portrayal of a black character at, say, Halloween, is still being racist even if their intent is simply and honestly just to do an authentic portrayal of a black character. The Vox article wants to apply this ideal outside of America in a culture that has never had a history of lynching, segregation, slavery or colonialism in Africa. Is this going to give a useful insight into how Japanese people think about black people, or how they should behave towards them?

A “recent” history of fascism

It appears, based on the Vox article, that I left a key word out of that paragraph. I should have written about a recent history of lynching and segregation. The Vox article writes

the national government has done stunningly little to prohibit racist hate speech, particularly given Japan’s recent history of fascism

The “particulary” in this sentence is clearly intended to stress the link between Japan’s “recent” history of fascism and the government’ s intentions, but this is laughable. Japan’s fascism was precisely 70 years ago, and Japan is the only country on earth with a constitution that forbids it from going to war. America’s segregation laws ended less than 50 years ago, but this government report on Obama’s speech at Selma doesn’t refer to heroes who changed “recent” history there. The last lynching in the USA was (depending on how you look at it) in 1998 or 1951, and laws were still being passed against it in 1968. So when we discuss racial problems in the USA should we refer to their “recent history” of lynching, segregation and Jim Crow? Their “recent history” of communal violence against native Americans (Wounded Knee was in 1972)?

When was the last time you read an article on Germany and Greece that referred to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism? Even articles explicitly about the Nazi occupation of Greece and recent demands for reparations don’t refer to Germany’s “recent” history of fascism. This sentence is a really jarring reminder that Japan is held uniquely victim of its historical actions in a way that Germany and especially the USA are not.

If we are going to talk about the influence of Japanese colonial history on its attitude towards race we should make sure that a) we assess all countries by the same historical attitudes and b) we recognize that Japan has no history of aggressive colonization of black nations. This is a uniquely white, European phenomenon.

Misinterpreting Japanese legislative intent

The article notes that Japan makes no efforts to ban hate speech or control the behavior of its racial extremists. The article fails to note that Japan also took a long time to move on child pornography, that it generally has a very liberal approach towards protecting speech, and that there are many countries in the world that don’t care to pass hate speech laws. Indeed, the article manages to gloss over America’s own tortured conversation on this issue – lots of Americans see hate speech laws as an affront to their own constitution, and while disagreeing with hate speech think that it should be protected. To present the absence of a law that is contentious in your own country as proof that another country is racist is disingenuous to say the least.

The article also exaggerates the role and position of racial extremists in Japan. I once had the pleasure of standing at the Shibuya hachiko meeting point waiting for a friend while a fascist stood nearby on a black van, yelling hateful slogans about how foreigners who complain about Japan shouldn’t live here. Why was I comfortable about this? Because I know that almost every person passing that black van sees those people as crazy weirdo, and as a result they are generally excluded from public conversation, to the extent that they have to drive around towns in black vans blaring out their hate speech. The same ideas that are seen as extremist in Japan are widely disseminated in the English press by, for example, the leader of UKIP, who has a column in a Sunday newspaper. The Economist recently had to withdraw a book review of a history of slavery that complained that too many of the white characters were portrayed as immoral and too many of the black characters as victims. The kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric you hear from mainstream politicians in France, the UK, Australia and America is not usually uttered by Japanese politicians or newspapers (though it does sometimes creep in).

Any article describing Japan’s famous “racism” needs to recognize this, and give at least some time to the myriad ways in which Japan treats its foreign residents better than many white countries do. I bet, for example that my reader(s) doesn’t know that in some parts of Japan I can vote, even though I’m not even a permanent resident, and there are moves afoot to give non-citizen residents the right to vote in national elections. One-sided depictions of racial politics in Japan give a misleading impression of how strong it is here.

Misinterpreting Japanese attitudes towards multiculturalism

The article cites an associate professor from Temple University saying that

The blackface thing is emblematic of a larger problem of Japanese politics and civil society in which diversity is not recognized, or cultivated, or respected

I think this is an overly simplistic understanding of Japan’s attitude towards diversity, also based on a misunderstanding of Japan’s legislative intent. Yes, Japan doesn’t have an official policy of multiculturalism (although some towns such as Osaka do), but this is because Japan generally doesn’t have a practice of legislating cultural movements. In fact, Japanese people implement a kind of basic principle and acceptance of multiculturalism that is staggeringly simple in its open-mindedness. Japanese people naturally assume that foreigners who come to Japan will continue to live their foreign ways, speak their own language at home, and pursue their own cultural traditions, while obeying Japanese law. This is essentially multiculturalism. For example, if I am in a majority Japanese environment (e.g. kickboxing) with a single other foreigner, and we speak in Japanese, the Japanese around us will laugh and ask why we aren’t speaking our natural language, because it seems strange to them that we wouldn’t. Japanese often ask whether living in Japan is difficult, because they accept that we will be trying to continue our own traditions in a society that doesn’t necessarily accomodate them. They are remarkably forgiving of foreigners who don’t learn Japanese, and they respect that learning to read Japanese is an extremely burdensome task for adults. They assume that we will want to continue cooking our own food and accessing our own cultural goods in our own homes, and are surprised if we do Japanese things. This can sometimes appear as racism – e.g. the assumption some landlords make that foreign residents will wear shoes inside – but it also reflects a basic assumption of multiculturalism underlying the Japanese approach to foreign residents of Japan.

It’s worth noting that a lot of Japanese cultural movements are determined outside of government, through corporations and local community activities. Reporting on racial issues in Japan needs to respect this, and look beyond government legislative activities to understand how Japan is responding to major cultural issues. I would add that this is important in other areas of cultural relations too, such as Japan’s attitude towards world war 2. It is not enough to say “the Japanese government has not done enough”[1], one also needs to look at the broad groundswell of support for global engagement, maintenance of the ban on war in the constitution, and other community-level activities to draw Korea, Japan and China closer.

In general, however, foreign commentators on Japanese cultural issues don’t bother to look deep, or don’t know how, and take Japanese government actions as the sole representative of Japanese attitudes towards those issues – which is particularly ironic in this Vox article, which makes the point that Japanese people see themselves as culturally homogeneous when they’re not. Perhaps the article could start by not assuming that the actions of a few people or the absence of an American-style legislative pattern represents the homogeneous view of the whole society.

You Americans … you talk too much

In closing (and paraphrasing Monty Python), Americans need to stop lecturing the world on race until they have sorted out their own house. Combined with Vox’s generally patronizing tone, an article that misrepresents or misunderstands aspects of Japanese legislative and cultural attitudes, in discussing an issue that is of zero relevance in Japan and is not capable of reflecting a Japanese racial attitude, comes across as hectoring. Furthermore, in assuming that Japanese people should have the same view of race as Americans, and invoking a history of colonialism that is older than America’s own more recent fraught issues, and ascribing to Japanese people views that are uniquely American, the article is itself flat out racist. It might make Americans feel better in light of their own recent disturbances in places like Ferguson, the huge disparities in economic wellbeing between races in America, and the massive incarceration of a whole community on the basis of its skin colour, but it doesn’t make America look better when it lectures other countries as if their racial issues are the same as America’s. Americans should shut up about racial issues in other countries until they have sorted out their own house, and non-white Americans should recognize that they too can be racist when they present their unique cultural perspective, leveraging the unique power of America’s cultural exports, onto other countries.

I have written on this blog before about how culturally toxic I think American feminism has been for feminist movements in other countries, exporting a unique blend of conservatism and identity politics to countries that don’t need it. I think the same thing applies when people in other countries listen to America on racial issues. Yes, America has had some inspiring and powerful black figures who dragged American racial politics out of a deep, dark place. But most other countries were never in that place to start with, and in admiring those figures we should be careful not to also draw too deeply from the font of American exceptionalism and christian conservatism that they often drink from. Too often American “progressivism” is conservative by international standards and flounces about the world trying to teach others how to behave from a perspective of American exceptionalism rather than genuine intercultural respect. This Vox article is a classic entry in that ledger of American cultural exceptionalism, telling Americans nothing about race in Japan and giving Japanese nothing useful to learn about their own racial issues.

fn1: As always on this blog I would like to remind my reader(s) that Japan has repeatedly and thoroughly apologized for its wartime activities, and has paid reparations.

OHMIGOD it ate the salmon!

It was the salmon mousse!

Tonight I was having dinner at kushi no kura in Shinjuku with a friend, and we noticed the mysterious oddity of shinshu salmon on the menu. For those of you unfamiliar with the vagaries of Japanese food culture [1], shinshu is an area of inland Japan roughly encompassing the Prefecture of Nagano, and its snowy mountains. I have previously visited Matsumoto in the shinshu region, and reported on the Kaichi school, an interesting museum about Japanese education, but I don’t have any particular sense of what does or does not constitute food from the region, but I naturally assumed it would be sansai,  vegetables from the mountains.

So my friend and I were a little confused by shinshu salmon. How can a mountainous inland region have salmon? That doesn’t make any sense! Looking around the restaurant we saw a poster for chicken from the area, and for the salmon, with a picture of … a salmon. Are they laying claim to fish that swim to shinshu from the sea? And surely they can’t do that in January, those salmon rock up in July or something. What’s going on?

Naturally I googled it, and discovered that shinshu salmon has its own webpage (in Japanese) and is basically a genetically engineered food. It is bred from rainbow trout and brown trout, which when combined produce a sterile offspring called shinshu salmon that is apparently great in a ceasar salad (you may doubt; I know enough about how good Japanese chefs are to recognize the genius of this idea). This fish has been around for 10 years or so, and is a kind of famous food of the shinshu area. It has its own FAQ, which features a young woman asking a much older scientist questions about his invention (Frankenstein would have gotten the same treatment if he’d been invented by a Japanese dude). The second question – which the woman, who is wearing an apron to indicate she is a serious housewife, asks while reading a very serious book – is “since it’s artificial life does it risk damage to the natural environment?” to which of course the answer is no since it’s sterile. What could possibly go wrong?!

This is an example of how Japanese people have a very different attitude towards science to westerners. They’re concerned about the environment, much more so I think than westerners, so they check in on that, but they just aren’t able to get mystical about scientific risk, and they really aren’t concerned about GMOs. What restaurant in the west would broadcast that it has genetically modified meat on the menu? It’s the kind of thing that you need to slip by your customers in the west whereas in Japan it’s a selling point. Japanese people are in general very concerned about global warming, the health of bees, pollution and recycling, rubbish rules here are very strict, and things that might affect the environment are taken very seriously – but there is no magical thinking about genetics. OH! Someone designed a new fish! Let’s eat it! It’s as if, if someone could convince a kangaroo to fuck a whale, there’d be a restaurant in Tokyo selling Kangawhale[1] (deliciously cooked no doubt). I think this also explains Japanese peoples’ much more sanguine approach to nuclear power; they’re more comfortable with scientific assessments of risk than westerners are.

This isn’t to say there aren’t anti-GMO folks in Japan, there are (I live in a suburb that is probably over-represented in this regard), but I think it doesn’t have the same salience as it does in the west. Which is interesting, because Japan has a very protected rice industry and despite this openness to science it’s my guess that Japanese people are much less likely to eat GMO rice than are the rest of the world[2], due to the protected nature of the Japanese industry. This is pure surmise, however.

I am not opposed to GMO per se, though I have previously posted about how I think GMOs are over-rated as a solution to world hunger or specific nutritional deficiencies, and I think GMO’s boosters tend to ignore practical issues that dilute the importance of GMOs in the world food system; I also don’t believe for a moment that GMOs will solve “world hunger”, and I find the silence of GMO’s supporters on this issue very disturbing. I think shinshu salmon is an example of this issue in practice: it’s not solving any food security or health issues, it’s just some dudes in Nagano decided to create a new industry to take advantage of Japan’s hunger for “local” foods[3]. This is what I think happens with a lot of GMOs, that some biotech company decides it has an interest in a new product purely for profit, and when it runs up against seemingly nonsensical local opposition it post-dates some broader justification for the food based on food security or something. But basically there is no difference between roundup ready corn and shinshu salmon: it’s food designed for profit. The difference is that whoever designed shinshu salmon had the good taste to advertise it as a luxury food product, rather than pretending they’re solving world hunger. And in Japan no one cares, because a cartoon science dude says it’s okay.

If only things could be so simple in the west …

fn1: There is a huge whale restaurant in Shibuya actually, it has a big sign out front warning foreigners in English that it sells whale; recently I passed it and saw through the window a group of white foreigners eating whale. When I was in Iceland I noticed all the whale restaurants have English signs saying they serve whale. English-speakers may make a big fuss about non-English speakers eating whale, but they’re more than happy to tuck in when they’re overseas. Racist do-gooding? You be the judge.

fn2: This is obviously a somewhat false distinction, since all rice is hugely genetically modified; but I assume that my readers understand “GMO” applies to sudden, rapid, laboratory-induced genetic advances, as opposed to those achieved slowly through crop breeding, and we all understand that this is simultaneously an arbitrary but important difference.

fn3: Japan’s “local” foods are an interesting issue. Generally Japanese people seem to assume that every town has its own specialty and that this specialty is built on ancient tradition, but it’s my suspicion that these “specialties” were invented to take advantage of the post-war tourism boom that saw Japanese travelling internally back in the 1970s when getting a passport was really tough. It’s a modern, completely invented tradition, built on some kind of previously-existing and real notion of regional difference in food cultures. Originally there were a few broad, regional food cultures but in the cut throat tourist market of the 1970s every town started making its own specialty. My suspicion is that economic necessity drove the creation of “traditional” food cultures to attract tourism.

 

 

fn1: you losers! You are missing out on one of the world’s great cuisines!

Standard economic orthodoxy seems to be that deflation is a terrible thing that all economies should avoid. Most central banks now seem to have an inflation target that is greater than 0%, and move their interest rates to try and keep inflation inside this target; inflation numbers are eagerly anticipated economic indicators, with anything below 2% or so greeted with horror; and one of the core goals of Abenomics is getting Japan out of its deflationary situation. Indeed, one of the central criticisms of Japan’s economy is that it has long been deflationary, which is supposed to be terrible.

Recently Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns and Money observed in a somewhat surprised tone that deflation has been the norm for a large part of American history, and before world war 2 inflation often only accompanied major economic shocks and war. He writes:

(1) Overall prices in the American economy were about the same at the beginning of FDR’s presidency as they had been at the end of George Washington’s second term.

(2) Prices were nearly 25% lower in 1900 than they were in 1800 — that is, on net the 19th century was deflationary.

(3) Prior to the middle of the 20th century, significant inflation, rather than being seen as a normal thing, was very closely associated with, and clearly caused by, war. Indeed, prices would have been very strongly deflationary over a 200-year period if not for bouts of severe inflation during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War I.

(4) If we consider American economic history from colonial times to the present, the last 75 years have been an almost freakish exception to the normal course of events, in which prices are as apt to fall as they are to rise.

The tone of his blog post is mild surprise, and it includes a request for a recommendation for a cultural history of inflation. He notes that until recently American economists could compare average prices in nominal terms over very long periods, because prices would be relatively similar even over 200 year periods, though in the short term they might not be stable. His observations about the history of inflation in America surprised me as well.

It’s obviously difficult to compare economies across 100 years, and the economic fundamentals of expansionary, colonialist America with a gold standard currency were obviously very different to modern America or Japan, but it should be obvious I hope that for large periods of time during these deflationary eras the US economy was both growing, something of a miracle around the world, and also generally working to enrich and improve the lives of its residents. So what is going on with this deflation thing? Why is it so terrible?

This question bugs me a lot because I live in Japan, and for a country that is supposedly suffering under deflation it seems to be doing pretty well. It’s difficult to say people aren’t consuming, for starters, and indeed the same newspapers that will decry the dampening effect of deflation on the Japanese economy will also carry stories stereotyping Japanese as brand-obssessed hyper consumers. I certainly don’t notice a lack of consumer effort in this country, and in just the last year in my suburb three new department stores have been built. Economists often tell you that the problem with deflation is that it discourages people from buying things today because they know they will be cheaper tomorrow. If that is the case then in Japan it is probably working as a very useful dampener on economic activity – if Japanese people consumed any more than they do, everyone in Japan would have to work without sleep just to deliver the goods. It certainly doesn’t appear to be stopping people from consuming, and furthermore life in Japan is excellent, the standard of living is high and it is a peaceful, functioning society with excellent quality consumer goods and (comparatively) low rents … So why are economists so worried about deflation, and why do they constantly criticize Japan for its deflationary situation?

My theory is that deflation is viewed by most mainstream economists (and especially economic commentators) through the same narrow, biased lens as inflation and printing money. There are several aspects of Japan’s deflationary economy that most economic commentators completely ignore, because they would mean taking into account the whole nature of the economy and the behavior of individuals and institutions in it, rather than reciting a simple mantra. These aspects are:

  • Japan’s population is aging and older people consume less goods from many sectors, so reduction in consumption is to be expected as part of population realignment
  • Japan has a long history of infrastructure growth and investment, and still does, and as population growth stalls this historical infrastructure has to do less and less work, so maybe prices don’t have to rise
  • When you can’t compete on lower prices because everyone expects prices to fall anyway, you have to compete on quality, which is why Japanese services are such high quality
  • For a long period of time Japanese companies have been avoiding raising prices by giving more work to the same number of people, making their workers work longer hours without hiring new people, and I think this is an inevitable aspect of an economy with very low unemployment
  • The bubble saw prices rise way too high, and a long period of deflation has been necessary to reset these prices to a more reasonable international standard, so here deflation is at least partly a correction to a historically stupid mistake

None of these things (except the overwork thing) are necessarily bad, and fixing the overwork problem would require that Japanese institutions find a way to employ the last 3-5% of the population who aren’t working but want to work, or employ more women, and there are lots of reasons why this can’t happen. You would think that with Japan’s labour economy bumping up against structural unemployment limits, prices would rise under labour constraints, but I think this is balanced by the aging of the population and reduction in consumption in many areas of social life, plus automation, and it all just ends up balancing out.

It is sometimes said that inflation is the friend of the poor and the working class, because in chewing away at the value of money it prevents the rich from getting richer. I think this is very far from a universal truth, because whether inflation works in this way depends on what prices are inflating and why, and what the balance of interest rates and inflation are. If interest rates have to be raised to keep inflation in check, there may be long periods of time when prices are growing as fast as wages but interest (and therefore accumulated wealth) is growing faster. Or the opposite may occur. The same applies with deflation – it’s the friend of the working class if it arises because access to infrastructure and land is falling in value (which may have happened for long periods of time in US history as it opened the interior), but the enemy of the working class if it is arising because of economic collapse that leads to labour instability and loss of work. Looking at the history of the USA as presented at Lawyers, Guns and Money it appears that inflation was the enemy of the working class before world war 2, when it was associated with instability and job losses; perhaps deflation was largely irrelevant to them.

What is the real story now? Is deflation to be universally feared, or is it just one more partial indicator of the quality of the total economy?

Update: Subsequently to writing this post I discovered a chart of historical inflation at Eli Rabett’s, which shows the step change in 1950, with his opinion about what this means for discount rates and future costs of climate change.

 

The most well-respected methods for reducing carbon emissions seem to be carbon taxes and carbon price mechanisms. I have written before about how I think they will not work to achieve a zero carbon state, based on lessons from the field of public health. Here I want to explore in a little more detail just what we might expect in the long-term from a carbon taxation system.

An illustrative example: Effects of carbon taxes on fishing

Fish are a staple food in Japan, and fishing is a carbon intensive practice because fishing fleets use diesel oil. We can get a rough estimate of how much carbon is required to produce a single piece of fish, and use this to estimate how price would change under a carbon tax. First, consider the total carbon emitted in catching fish: this website puts it at between 1750 and 3300 kg for a ton of fish, with the highest carbon emission amongst farmed fish. The analysis suggests that 1kg of wild-caught frozen salmon will be associated with 1kg of CO2; a carbon footprint of up to 6Kg can be expected for fish that is caught in say Chile, and shipped to the US. Taking 5kg as a conservative estimate of the carbon footprint of a kg of fish, we can see that  for a carbon tax of $X per ton, $X/200 is added per kg of fish sold in the super market. So for a price of $250 per ton, we get $1.25 per kilogram; for $2500 per ton, we get $12.50 per kilogram.

The Coles website tells me that salmon fillets are currently $30 per kg. A carbon price of $2500 a ton will increase their cost by approximately 30%.

We can calculate the cost for fresh fish in a supply chain directly, so let’s try this for a typical fresh Tokyo fish, Mackerel. The Seafish.org website has a carbon footprint profiler which indicates that you need to take into account “landed to live weight” and “final processed form to landed weight,” which we can estimate fairly conservatively (though I don’t know the details). This ancient paper (pdf) gives an efficiency of about 3% for shrimp fishing, while this FAO document gives landed weights of between 3 and 84%. Working with Mackerel from that document, let’s assume that only 3% of caught fish is actually edible[1], and make that the “landed to live weight” ratio. The FAO provides a handy guide to “conversion factors” for converting landed fish to actual final processed form, as an annex (pdf) to this guide. Taking the mackerel factor, let’s assume that only 50% of the final fish is eaten, in the form of a fillet. The site then asks us to show how much the fish traveled before and after processing, and by what means. Let’s assume it is landed fresh in Tokyo after a 5 day fishing trip, and that it traveled 40km by truck to the processing plant, then 40 km by van to the shops, and was eaten within a day (pretty standard in Tokyo). Using “Trawling for Herring in the NW Atlantic” as our model fishing method, we get 7.4 tons of CO2 for every ton of final product. So we would need to add X/133 to the per kg price of the fish. For a carbon price of $250, that’s $1.90; for $2500, a $19.00 impost. This site tells me that Mackerel in Japan costs between 600 and 8000 Yen per kilogram ($6-80), so a $2500/ton carbon tax would change this price range to $25-100 per kg. The Coles website tells me Australians already pay $20/kg for tinned mackerel – is it very likely that Japanese will baulk at paying $25 for fresh mackerel? Furthermore, this is for the most inefficient live catch and processing values I can find. If the live catch efficiency goes up to 10%, for example, the impost for those carbon taxes drops to $0.60 – $6.

No one on earth is currently considering a $2500 ton carbon tax. Even $250 a ton is considered radical, but $250 a ton will increase the final price of mackerel by $0.60 – $1.90 per kg. Does anyone seriously believe that this impost will be sufficient to force the fishing fleet to go carbon-neutral?

What are the long-term impacts of carbon taxes?

I chose fishing as an example because it differs from electricity generation in one simple way: short of returning to sailboats, there is no viable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for fishing boats at present. So the fishing industry will have little choice but to absorb the price of a carbon tax, pass it on to consumers, or disappear, unless and until an alternative energy source becomes available. If our goal is to get to a carbon zero economy and still be able to eat fish, a carbon tax is surely not going to work. But there are other aspects of the economy that are entirely vulnerable to a carbon tax, most especially electricity generation and public transport. So how well are carbon taxes predicted to work in these industries?

There does not seem to be a lot of available modeling on the long-term impact of carbon taxes, but those reports that have been published are not promising. For example, this report by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby describes a carbon tax starting at $10/tonne and increasing to $250/tonne at $10/year. They use four different established models to identify total, and industry- and region-wide effects of the carbon tax. Their final estimate of the effect of the carbon tax is a 50% reduction in emissions by 2035 (page 30). After that the gains decline. This report, from the carbon tax center, proposes a system of tax and credits that appears to correspond with a $113/tonne tax, and would lead to 25% reductions in emissions by 2024 on a 2012 baseline.

350.org says we need to get to 350ppm by the end of the century to avoid catastrophe; we’re currently on 400ppm and increasing at 2ppm per year. If we halve global emissions by 2035, we’ll be above 420ppm, and still increasing.

As another example, my July electricity bill was $66 for 214kwh of electricity. In Tokyo at the moment this is mostly gas, and would (according to Wikipedia) have released a total of 107 kg of CO2, based on median emissions. At $250/ton that’s going to increase my electricity bill by about $25/month. How much electricity use will that discourage? $25 is a cheap meal out with a few drinks. At $2500/ton it’s $250/month – two cheap meals out and two trips to a love hotel. Am I willing to give up two dates a month in order to keep my electricity use unchanged?

I don’t believe that even a $250/ton carbon tax will be sufficient to force carbon neutrality in electricity generation, and $2500/ton, while it will make solar and wind competitive and force a fairly rapid switch to renewables, may not lead to much change in other behavior, especially in industries like shipping and trucking where alternatives are expensive and still barely off the drawing board. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby report tells us that in the USA each $1/ton of carbon tax is a $.009/gallon increase in petrol prices; $2500 a ton will increase petrol prices by $22.5/gallon. Currently in Tokyo gasoline is sold at probably $2/gallon. Will people completely stop using cars at $25/gallon? Given that a single journey in Japan can cost $5 in parking, and a car can travel 35 mpg, i.e. two trips per parking cost, the total cost of those two trips will go from $14 to $35 in Tokyo. Is that sufficient to stop recreational use of cars?

These reports make clear that even sizeable taxes of up to $250/ton are not enough to get where we need to go. The first report, suggesting $10/year increases in the tax, shows the obvious problem – as the tax grows, the incremental benefit of further increases declines, so going to higher taxes will have smaller and smaller effects. By the time we’re at $300/ton, a further $10/year increase will be less than the effect of inflation on prices in many countries. People will stop responding to those taxes by that time. And as I showed in the case of fishing, there will be many industries where this cost can be passed onto consumers with a negligible effect. I routinely buy fish fillets in Tokyo for $2/fillet, am I seriously going to reduce my carbon footprint if the price of such cheap food doubles?

What we need to bear in mind here is that we don’t want to reduce recreational use of cars by 50% over the next 30 years, or by 90%; realistically, any CO2 emitting form of transport needs to be cut by 99%. These taxes alone are not going to do that.

What do we need to do to achieve carbon zero?

Carbon neutrality will not be achieved by taxes alone. We need additional government interventions to make it happen. Carbon taxes with appropriate transfers to ensure that poor people are compensated for the change are a good start, but they are only a start. We need to go a lot further if we want to achieve these goals. Some policy interventions should include:

  • Complete electrification of freight rail: Australia’s rail freight system (indeed all inter-city lines) is still diesel-powered; it should be electrified immediately, so that it can be shifted to a renewable energy source as the taxes bite
  • Expansion of passenger and freight rail: Most Australian cities are heavily dependent on road transport, which for the foreseeable future is immune to carbon abatement policies. As much as possible, the transport network needs to be shifted to rail, that can be electrified
  • Electrification of all buses: all public buses should be immediately electrified
  • Implementation of tollways: all major interstate highways should be shifted to a toll system, with tolls based on both distance travelled and journey speed, and tolls manipulated to ensure long distance travel is always cheaper by train and bus than by car
  • Construction of high speed rail: this is never going to be profitable in Australia, so it should be subsidized by government, using carbon tax proceeds, and prices fixed in such a way that it is always competitive with air travel and private road travel
  • Minimum price for air travel: Air travel will never be carbon neutral, so it needs to be discouraged or people need to find ways to use their journeys more efficiently (i.e. travel less often and stay longer). A minimum price will encourage this, and should be designed so that electric high speed rail is always cheaper
  • Nuclearization of all large ocean-going vessels: if it’s large enough to have a nuclear power source, it should. No freight should be carried on a CO2-emitting ship.
  • Reorientation of commercial fishing fleets around batteries and nuclear tankers: I don’t know if this is possible, but fishing needs to be redesigned so it is carbon neutral. If it isn’t yet possible to design battery powered ships, research funds should be dumped into this
  • A timetable for the banning of internal combustion engines: Some time in the future, internal combustion engines need to be banned. This timetable should be implemented now. By e.g. 2020, gasoline-using cars should be illegal, so people have 6 years to buy a battery car or convert to CNG; by 2025 or 2030, CNG cars should be illegal. That gives a 15 year time frame to completely electrify the personal transport industry
  • Immediate conversion of cars to compressed natural gas: This should be a brief boom industry, as all old cars are converted.
  • Lower all speed limits: so that cars travel more efficiently and private travel is less time-efficient than public transport
  • Ban all new coal-extraction licenses: No new coal mines should be built anywhere in Australia, and furthermore no new development should be allowed in connection with existing mines. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks to efficient extraction should be seen as a good thing.
  • Divestment laws: Investment funds should be required to divest all holdings in carbon-intensive industries on a reasonable but definitive timetable
  • Scale-up of electric charging points: Cars should be rechargable anywhere
  • Mandatory roof-top solar: for all businesses
  • Mandatory grid integration: no power company should be able to refuse a reasonable request to sell power into the grid.
  • Mandatory storage in new buildings, and subsidies to convert existing buildings: apartment blocks are not efficient solar collectors, but they could still be built with sufficient storage that they can store some solar power for release onto the grid at night
  • Ban all rice and cotton production in the Murray-Darling watershed: water needs to be returned to the river for greening of the river course, because restoring natural wetlands and green areas is essential to improving carbon sequestration
  • Huge rewilding and reforestation programs: Carbon sequestration through forestry management is essential, and this project needs to be undertaken immediately, so that it forms a key part of future carbon reduction strategies. It can be conducted in such a way as to support and restore biodiversity
  • Huge research grants on storage and renewable energy: We need to get to the point where electric trucks and ocean-going boats are a possibility within 20 years. This will need research. We should be doing it

And finally, I think that climate change denial should be illegal outside of scientific journals – if people want to claim it’s not happening they should be required to present peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Funding climate change denial should be a criminal act. The government should further refuse to offer contracts to organizations that have hosted denialists or funded denialists in e.g. the last 10 years. These people need to be driven out of public life and should have no influence on public debate. It is absolutely ludicrous that after three of the hottest months on record (April, May and June), the government’s business advisor is publicly claiming that a period of major global cooling is imminent. That dude should be unemployable, and preferably in stocks[2].

A lot of these programs will require major government subsidies, transfers and loans, and huge government intervention across a range of marketplaces. We need to stop acting as if the worst consequence of responding to the climate crisis is government intervention in markets, and start recognizing that it is the minimum requirement to stave off a civilization-level disaster. It’s huge government intervention now, or civilization collapse later.

So go looking back through history and ask yourself – has any civilization collapse ever been preventable through a small tax that raised the price of fish by 10%? I think you’ll find the answer is no. The emergency is coming, and we need to act as if it’s an emergency, not a minor market failure.

fn1: For farmed fish, this number should be near 100%, obviously.

fn2: This is clearly a rhetorical point

Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Industrial Workers of the World, Unite!!

Cheerleaders from two US football teams – the Jets and the Bills – are suing their former bosses for unpaid wages, and as part of the case we get to see some fascinating insights into how the football teams tried to control the lives of their cheerleaders. These women paid incredibly poorly – something like  $150 for a game that lasts 4 hours and requires at least 9 hours’ practice a week, and they have to pay all their beauty and transport expenses themselves. They also didn’t get any healthcare as far as anyone is able to tell, which of course in America is a big issue since they would be receiving no public support – and they were working in a very dangerous job (which Dick Cheney famously used to minimize the evils of Abu Ghraib prison). But on top of this, they were subjected to intrusive and patronizing efforts to control their personal behavior, all outlined in a detailed manual for cheerleaders. For example, they were given detailed instructions on how their hair should look, and how they should behave in public. For example:

Do not be overly opinionated about anything. Do not complain about anything- ever hang out with a whiner? It’s exhausting and boring.

and

Keep toe nails tightly trimmed and clean. PEDICURES!

A lot of the advice in the manual is for behavior at public events, but a lot of it also impinges on personal life – the whole section on hygiene, while it contains good advice, is not your employer’s business, and the idea that your boss can tell you how you should look after your tea towels is just ridiculous. This level of control, though, seems to be something that the contractor feels they have a right to force on these women even though they are essentially unpaid volunteers. These women are allowed to be married or engaged but they will be sacked instantly if they fraternize with football players.

All these rules and controlling behavior remind me of a phenomenon in Japan that is almost universally viewed with scorn by westerners: AKB 48. I have discussed the onerous restrictions on the women of AKB48 before, and particularly the rule that they cannot have boyfriends, and it appears that they have a lot of similar petty-fogging rules placed on them. However, there are two big difference between the cheerleaders in the linked lawsuit, and AKB48: 1) AKB48 are paid for their work; and 2) Westerners generally view the phenomenon of AKB48 as a completely illegitimate piece of constructed culture, an indictment of a plastic entertainment industry. Exploited cheerleaders being micro-managed so as to form a constructed culture are seen as a labour issue (see the comments on the linked blog for examples of this); AKB48 are a manufactured culture that cannot be taken seriously.

In reality these two groups have a lot in common, beyond the fact that they’re both all-girl units. They are both tools in the construction of a culture, though the cultures they construct are very different. AKB48 are the pinnacle of J-Pop, though they’re often misrepresented in the west as paragons of “kawaii culture,” a phenomenon I think exists only in the minds of western commentators. They serve to perpetuate the image of replacability in Japanese female performance artists, and they also serve to reinforce the connection between cosplay and nerd culture. But on a deeper level, they are a machine devoted to replicating the imagery of the cultural pattern of hard study, careful adherence to group rules, and graduation into adulthood: they serve to construct and reinforce the idealized culture of Japanese high-school/university/jobhunting, and I don’t think that on a cultural level this is a coincidence. Japanese people have begun to question the ludicrous complexity and challenge of this cultural transition from high-school to work, and oh look! Suddenly a huge cultural phenomenon has appeared that is devoted to preserving its fundamental strictures. Of course, when westerners view AKB48 they don’t see them in terms of this deeper cultural reification, viewing them instead as a shallow constructed cultural artifact built on the trivilization of Japanese women. This is an incredibly shallow interpretation, which arises from the classic mix of racism and sexism with which westerners (and western cultural commentators) always approach any issue connected with Japanese women. When you peel back the layers of cute and the cosplay, AKB48 is a signifier of a very powerful cultural force in Japan, and serves to reinforce and reconstruct the process of maturation through adherence to group practice and strict patterns of advancement. Contrary to westerners’ interpretations of it as a cheap and exploitative manifestation of “kawaii culture,” it plays an important role in preserving and reinforcing certain aspects of traditional Japanese culture.

So what culture do the cheerleaders construct and reify? Many of the commenters on the linked websites viewed the cheerleaders as an irrelevant aspect of the football business model, something that could be done away with at no cost to the teams. While on a strictly financial level this might be true, it completely misses the importance of cheerleaders as signifiers of heirarchies in sport. They serve to show where football stands in the social hierarchy, who the cultural phenomenon of football serves and represents, who is welcome and who is not. This is why they have strict image requirements that reinforce the image of the available but chaste Southern Belle, and all signifiers of working class origins or alternative lifestyle are to be expunged. But they also serve to show where women stand in the heirarchy of football: women serve to watch and cheer, and only certain kinds of women are welcome. They signify the role of women as adornment for football and footballers, rather than active participants in a culture. In this sense they serve the same purpose as chainmail-bikini-warrior-women in role-playing: they tell women that they are not welcome here except as adornment, and set the terms on which women are allowed to engage in the hobby. But they play a further role than this in football, because these cheerleaders are required to attend fund-raising and social events on behalf of the team (including annual golf days!) and to entertain potential donors. The social guidelines linked to above primarily concern their behavior at these events. By selecting cheerleaders from a certain race and class background, training them to behave in a certain way and tightly controlling their behavior, the football team shows potential donors what type of organization they’re dealing with, and makes them feel comfortable that they are engaging with a certain type of culture. It projects an image of a sport where women know their place and take certain restricted service roles, and where a certain social order is maintained. These women serve as symbols of the expungement of any form of radicalism or uneasy ideas from the culture of football. This isn’t just a small point of etiquette: there are serious problems of bullying and hazing in football culture, and efforts to prevent and eliminate this culture of bullying will almost certainly have ramifications throughout the coaching and training system, and will require changes to the hierarchies of the whole system. The most obvious manifestation of this would be wholesale changes to the way the game is played: it currently has huge rates of brain injury by design, and the whole game will need to be changed to eliminate this risk. Positioning cheerleaders as the teams do reassures funders and supporters that change isn’t going to happen, through the public presentation of a cultural model that everyone secretly knows is frozen in a different time.

I think this is also why the teams don’t want to pay their cheerleaders even so much as minimum wage. A culture that pays women to perform is fundamentally different to a culture that not only expects them to do as they’re told, but to be ready to perform for free on demand. Cheerleaders, unpaid and carefully groomed for public consumption, are the mechanism by which a highly macho and bullying sports culture tells the world how it views women and what it expects women to do, as well as how it expects women to contribute to the sport. Far from being useless adornments, they play a key role in reproducing the macho and closed culture of the modern sport.

When viewed as creators and reinforcers of cultural norms, both AKB48 and these cheerleaders show the difficulties that women face when they want to work in a field where their beauty, femininity and social talents are recognized and appreciated. On the one hand they are underpaid, micromanaged and exploited; on the other hand they are enlisted in the service of reproducing or constructing important cultural norms, a service of huge value to both their employers, the culture they represent and society more broadly. But at the same time they are attempting to gain appreciation and respect through the performance of femininity, which is generally derided in the west as a trivial thing, and so cultural commentators do not take them seriously either as people or as a social force in their own right. This is why AKB48 are not taken seriously by westerners inside or outside of Japan, and why western commentators cannot understand their huge popularity or why they have taken Japan by storm; and this is why cheerleaders somehow managed to spend years slaving away for a misogynist sports culture, helping to reproduce its bullying and hierarchical cultural structures, without ever coming to the attention of a union organizer or labour rights lawyer.

This is the price women pay for enjoying and attempting to be appreciated for their own femininity, a concept that in the west carries huge importance for cultural representation and as a site of contestation and representation of power, but which is universally derided and dismissed as trivial and unimportant, or as some kind of silly and youthful fancy. When western cultural analysis wakes up to the power and importance of femininity within our own cultures, then perhaps the Lady Gagas and cheerleaders of this world will be taken seriously by those who should be defending their rights – and maybe after that, by those who are restricting their rights.

China and Japan are in a dispute over the Senkaku islands. China has pulled out of UN negotiations over a territorial dispute with the Philippines.

Both of these disputes (and a few others) are about possession of the oil and gas resources under the South China Sea.

If the world is to avoid warming beyond 2C, all of the oil and gas under the South China Sea needs to stay buried there forever. If China and Japan resolve their disputes in any way that grants either side actual exploitation rights, the world will take one more small step towards being fucked. Some scientists are now arguing that even 2C is going to cause catastrophe; we need to get even tougher. This means that the best thing for the world is for China and its allies to continue locking horns over these islands for … about 1000 more years.

The best thing China, Japan and the Philippines can agree on is that exploiting these islands is against everyone’s interest. The whole region should be set aside as a marine park, and the military forces of every side of the dispute put to the task of sinking any oil research vessel, fishing boat or seismic survey ship that comes within a sniff of the place.

But that’s not going to happen, is it?

And you thought an army of dolls must be sinister ...

And you thought an army of dolls must be sinister …

Today I visited Meiji Jingu to attend one of the stranger rituals I have seen in Japan: the Doll Appreciation Ceremony (oningyo kanshasai,お人形感謝祭). This ceremony takes place once a year under the sponsorship of the Doll Appreciation Society, and is held to venerate those dolls that are being passed out of use. The information we received when we entered the shrine told us that many Japanese people believe that dolls have souls, and that many shrines hold ceremonies to venerate or consecrate dolls when they are thrown out. The basic process is you bring your dolls (as many as you want) in a plastic bag, and get charged 3000 yen (about $US30) per bag. You are given a doll-shaped piece of paper to write a message on, and then the priests very carefully arrange the dolls within the shrine precinct. Once the viewing period is over, the good wishes you wrote on the piece of paper are incorporated into a ritual of consecration, and then the dolls pass on. It’s not clear what happens, but I’m guessing they go into landfill. But appropriately consecrated.

Were sacrifices ever cuter or more numerous?

Were sacrifices ever cuter or more numerous?

This is a very sweet idea for a ceremony, and very well attended by people of all ages and descriptions. The dolls were arranged carefully in the eaves of the inner wall of the Meiji Jingu main compound, and there were so many by 2pm today that they took up two whole sides of the compound (which is not small). Interestingly, the shrine workers laid them out very carefully and respectfully, with that careful attention to detail that Japanese people always apply to any task that they consider responsible for.

The "traditional" section: new year's animals and hina matsuri dolls. Disney was on the top shelf!

The “traditional” section: new year’s animals and hina matsuri dolls. Disney was on the top shelf!

They also arranged the dolls in related categories as much as they could. There were whole sections full of Disney characters, a huge swathe of hinamatsuri dolls, squads of Doraemons and Winnie the Poohs, and of course lots of animals. Even toy soldiers and lizard souvenirs from museums were on display.

The bears await their fate

The bears await their fate

I think one year a group of war-gamers should get together all their old and unwanted warhammer figures and bring them along. Then they could watch as the shrine workers meticulously laid out huge armies of skaven and undead, knowing that after years of war and struggle those exhausted soldiers would be vouch-safed eternal rest, protected in the bosom of Japan’s 8 million gods: surely a worthy end for every war-gamer’s most dedicated heroes!

« Previous PageNext Page »