Tag Archives: Senkaku

Burrowing into the news that matters

hamster

Japan. The 3rd largest economy in the world. A country with a population of over 120 million. A country which suffered a magnitude 9 earthquake and devastating tsunami in 2011. A country still trying to sort out the nuclear mess in Fukushima, still trying to build new homes for about quarter of a million people displaced by those events. A country currently engaged in a protracted and heated row with China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. A country where senior politicians visit a controversial shrine to the country’s war dead with increasing frequency and decreasing concern for the feelings of people in other Asian countries.

Japan. According to the BBC World website this weekend, a country obsessed with hamsters’ bottoms.

On May 4th, Japan was hit by the most powerful earthquake since the huge one on March 11th 2011 and the subsequent, related aftershocks. Since it was ‘the biggest since . . . ‘ I expected there to be some report of it on the BBC news, but not a squeak, all day. I checked the website too, thinking there must be something there, but again, nothing. It was reported elsewhere, but not by the BBC, at least nowhere I looked.

On May 15th, the Asia section of the BBC website had an article titled ‘Japan PM Abe calls for new defence law interpretation’:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27420077

The part of the constitution the government would like to reinterpret, since that’s the word we’re using, is Article 9, which states:

‘Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognised.’

Now, you may think that Japan’s massive Self Defence Force is therefore unconstitutional; there are certainly people in Japan who believe it is. However, the Supreme Court has, on several occasions, affirmed the SDF ‘s constitutionality. So, Japan can have its SDF, but Mr. Abe’s government would like more. China, South Korea, and other Asian countries who have been at the sharp end of Japanese military aggression in the last century take a dim view of this. The BBC article in question featured a photograph of Mr. Abe shaking his fist and looking suitably decisive or aggressive, depending on your, ahem, interpretation. The article is still available but disappeared from the headlines on the Asia page in less than twenty-four hours.

Earlier this week, on May 20th, the New York Times reported on what had happened at Fukushima Daiichi in the days after the tsunami hit, in an article headlined ‘Panicked workers fled Fukushima plant in 2011 despite orders, record shows’, which is only just in the news because the report was not public until recently.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/world/asia/fukushima-workers-fled-plant-after-accident-despite-orders.html?_r=0

The BBC reported this a little later. There has also been an article about groundwater being diverted and pumped into the ocean before it can be contaminated by whatever is going on at the plant these days. At the end of this article is a link to the one about workers at the plant and the aftermath of the tsunami.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27487332

However, to get to the article above, you have to scroll down past a section called ‘Also in the news’ and this headline:

Craze for hamster bottoms hits Japan

which you can read in its entirety here:

http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-27515892

And so once again, here I am, taking issue with the BBC’s reporting of Japan. It recycles those lazy stereotypes of Japan; that Japanese people are ‘obsessed’ with ‘cuteness’ and other weird and wacky stuff. Apparently there are books about hamsters’ bottoms (‘hamuketsu’), there is a Facebook group, it is a ‘craze’, it is a ‘phenomenon’, there are ‘thousands of fans’, there have been ‘hundreds of photographs’ uploaded to the Facebook page.

I have checked this page, and fewer than 10,000 people have ‘liked’ it. As you might expect, it’s a collection of uploaded photographs of hamsters’ bottoms. After a few you wonder who on earth wants to look at a lot of them. Checking other Facebook pages for Japanese sportsmen and women, for musicians, and animation characters, I found that they all had far more ‘likes’.

Then I started to wonder, is this really a ‘craze’? Or is it a news story that is perpetuating itself? A search for ‘hamuketsu’ took me back to the original BBC article and one in USA Today, plus some links to the books referenced in the article. This isn’t news, it’s fluff.

Now, I am not averse to fluff. This week I was very taken with a photograph of an alpaca surfing.  It was a completely ridiculous picture, but although I believe the caption said it was a Peruvian alpaca, there was no cliché’d portrayal of the Peruvian people in connection to this daredevil animal.

What I object to, once again, is this lazy attitude the BBC seems to take in connection with news about Japan. There is a stock collection of words which they trot out on such occasions; they declare the Japanese people to be ‘obsessed’, they make reference to ‘cuteness’, there are images of trends sweeping the country, becoming a ‘craze’ or a ‘phenomenon’. You are led to believe that this is something which is convulsing the whole country. At the same time, there are serious issues facing Japan, and they are reported sometimes, kept on the website for a short time, and then archived.

Until this article appeared, I had not heard anything about hamsters’ bottoms. I have, however, heard plenty about Article 9, Yasukuni Shrine, Fukushima Daiichi, the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and comfort women.

Japan is a country of over 120 million people. The Facebook page for Hamuketsu has fewer than 10,000 ‘likes’, while over 80,000 people have ‘liked’ Anpanman’s page. There is a grand total of 3 books; one is out of print, one is available and the third has not yet been published. This is not even ‘news’ from elsewhere, it seems like astute marketing on the part of one or more of the publishers.

It doesn’t make Japan ‘obsessed’ with anything. All it does is reinforce stereotypes, once again, of wacky Japanese people and their ‘obsessions’ with weird stuff. Meanwhile, there are serious news stories being under- or unreported. Again.

And anyway, the alpaca was far better:

alpaca surfing

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Time to be gentle with each other

plum blossom

This morning on the train I annoyed a commuter. I didn’t mean to, and I suspect his day had already started badly by the time he encountered me, but I annoyed him all the same. He was around sixty and wearing a mask, since the hay fever season has started. I am fortunate to not have to face the daily crushed commute, but when I do get on a rush hour train I like to listen to music to block out everything else. Armed with my trusty iPod I squeezed onto the train and turned on some music. He immediately fixed me with an icy stare and I quickly hit stop. He looked away, so I pressed play and his eyes swivelled back to me. Music off again, he looked away. I started to listen again, and this time waited a few seconds. He fixed me with a venomous, beady-eyed stare, he was definitely annoyed with me. I turned the music off and could hear him muttering, ‘urusai’, ‘noisy’ and not wishing to incur any more wrath I stood in silence for the rest of the journey.

Now, I didn’t take out the ear buds, I was not going to surrender so easily, but as I stood music-less in the great crush of people, and looked at all the other commuters happily plugged into their smart phones and iPods I wondered what I had done to upset him so.  Maybe I was the closest noisy person. Maybe I was more easily separated from the crowd because I’m not Japanese. Maybe he had bad hay fever this morning. Maybe he hates his job. Maybe he didn’t enjoy his weekend. Maybe he doesn’t like Monday mornings. I hope I didn’t spoil his whole day.

Living in Japan it’s easy to forget how to roll with the more feisty approach to interaction I encounter in Europe. Here we are aiming for wa, harmony, and the education system inculcates this subjugation of the individual to the group. Students learn to work together, in club activities, for sports days and culture festivals. The individual who, for example, asserts his right to be hissy on a crowded train is not playing by the rules. His safety catch was off and I didn’t know what he might do next.

Standing there wondering what on earth could be going on, listing all the possible stressors, I realised that there is a tiredness in the air. We have had a cold winter and we’re ready for spring. The plum blossoms are blooming, so are the early cherry blossoms, but it’s still cold. For students and teachers it’s almost the end of the school year, bringing tests and grading with it. Tree pollen is already in the air, starting with the most dreaded of all, Japanese cedar, planted widely after the war to counter deforestation and now widely responsible for the itchy misery of millions.

Most of all, tomorrow is March 11th. The 3rd anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the M9 earthquake and the monster tsunami that devastated Tohoku.  I wrote about this last year, and it is frustrating to write that there are still 267,000 people living in temporary housing.

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/10/national/267000-still-evacuees-three-years-on/#.Ux3JTtw-ATs

While we all say we have not forgotten about Tohoku, we (collectively) seem remarkably able to live with this fact and more. Of course, we don’t live with the reality. The people of Tohoku do that. On the Japan Times website there is this heartbreaking article about the children of Fukushima, unable to play outside:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/10/national/life-indoors-exacts-toll-on-koriyama-children/#.Ux3Jxtw-ATs

and this one, about junior high school students:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/10/national/tohoku-kids-stressed-haunted-by-trauma/#.Ux3KaNw-ATs 

So how did I get from an irritated commuter to this? I have been thinking today about a quote from the writing of Lu Xun, a Chinese writer I studied at university. I have been trying to track down the piece where the quote occurs, but so far I’ve had no luck. I think it’s somewhere in Wild Grass or A Call to Arms.

‘My heart is extraordinarily lonely.’

Are we taking care of each other? Do we see individuals in a crowd? Do we really listen to each other, really connect with each other? I am glad I annoyed my fellow commuter this morning, because it made me stand in silence and wonder about what was going on for him. Deprived of my music, the bubble I usually choose to put myself in I stood there and made a list in my head of what could possibly be upsetting him. How often do I do that? Squashed in the middle of the carriage I found myself in fact in a space to think, and it was such a gift.

There is plenty of news in Japan to distract us from the ongoing challenges in Tohoku; the economy, a right-wing government rattling its sabres at South Korea and China over territorial disputes, various members of NHK’s board of governors making outrageous revisionist statements about Japan’s recent history. We can be squashed into a crowded news cycle and not remember what life is like for the people whose lives changed on March 11th, 2011.

We need to make space, for ourselves and other people, even in a vast crowded city like Tokyo. We need to be gentle with each other every day, but as the clock ticks towards midnight and we get ready to mark another anniversary, we need to remember ourselves, three years ago. This evening the lights on Tokyo Tower have been spelling out ‘kizuna’ (絆), chosen as the kanji of the year in 2011 and meaning ‘bonds’. Three years ago there was a feeling that we were all together in the days following the earthquake. One of the most common questions we asked each other was, ‘Were you with other people?’, because I think we recognised that being alone made everything much harder to bear.

‘My heart is extraordinarily lonely.’ Is that how the people of Tohoku feel?

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/03/10/national/photos-tohoku-three-years-after-the-311-earthquake-and-tsunami/#.Ux3LNNw-ATs

Goodbye 2013

tokyo sunsetWhen people hear that I teach in Japan the most common reaction is some kind of assumption that all the students (a) work incredibly hard, (b) are unquestioningly obedient and well-behaved and (c) are quieter than proverbial church mice. My response to this is (a) their industry is the same as students in other countries, some work very hard, others do not and many are hindered by a lack of study skills, (b) they are certainly less of a challenge than the students my friends often teach in the UK but not unremittingly well-behaved, and (c) I work at a girls’ school, are you kidding?

As I have mentioned before, I think Japan is a country which is often portrayed in a stereotypical manner, and the appetite for wacky stories in foreign media is always there. What people say to me about my students is an extension of what many people believe to be an accurate portrayal of Japan and its people. It is frustrating to live here and watch with disbelief as yet another journalist files a stereotype-laden report, or takes one incident and extrapolates to imply a general truth. In over twenty years in Japan I have yet to meet a Japanese person who conforms to all those stereotypes, the quiet, obedient automaton.

Over ten years ago, a Swedish gospel singer came to visit the school, and as she sat on the stage waiting to begin a question-and-answer time after she had performed, she remarked that she could tell she was at a girls’ school because there was a noticeable level of chatter in the hall. Some things are not a surprise. What may come as a surprise to people who only know of Japan through cliché’d news items is the levels of noise in Japan sometimes. It is not always a land of zen-like tranquility, as anyone who has ever walked past a pachinko parlour can tell you. Politicians, right-wing sound trucks, recycle companies, roasted sweet potato vendors and purveyors of laundry poles are all capable of disturbing your wa (和), or harmony, as you relax at home, walk down your local street or take the train.

There is a word in Japanese which has a lot of different meanings, but Japanese language learners probably first encounter it as ‘noisy’: urusai (うるさい). My dictionary, however, offers all of the following as possible meanings: noisy, loud, annoying, troublesome, bothersome, persistent, fussy, particular and fastidious. I would say a person who is ‘urusai’ is a wa-disturber, and this year the leading lights of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been disturbing all kinds of wa. That their antics have not been more widely reported internationally is disappointing. I have heard Japanese friends express concern that this is how Japan slid towards militarism in the 1930s.

So, just to do my bit to draw attention to what Japanese politicians have been doing this year, here are their greatest hits:

* In May, Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka declared that the ‘comfort women’ (women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during WW2) were ‘necessary’. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22519384

* In July, the Deputy PM, Taro Aso (also a brother-in-law of the Emperor) suggested that Japan could learn from how the Nazis pushed through unpopular legislation. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23527300

He was referring to the current government’s desire to abolish Article 9, the part of the Japanese Constitution in which Japan denounces war and the means of war. Mr. Abe, the Prime Minister, has been getting more and more bellicose and would very much like to ditch Article 9 and arm Japan to the teeth. There is a hefty, so-called Self Defence Force, but Mr. Abe wants more. There have been groups all over Japan for a long time to protect Article 9, but this year it has come under serious threat.

* In September PM Abe reassured the IOC that Tokyo is and always will be safe from any danger that may come from the crippled nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi. Following his statement and Tokyo being awarded the 2020 Olympics, the word ‘lie’ was used by parts of the media to refer to his comments. You can read about it here:

http://www.internationalpolicydigest.org/2013/09/25/did-japans-shinzo-abe-lie-to-get-the-olympics/

* Of course, the news that has rumbled on all year is the ongoing dispute between China and Japan (and Taiwan) regarding sovereignty over the group of tiny islands in the East China Sea, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands, and in Japan as the Senkaku Islands. In November China  declared an ‘air-defence zone’ over the islands, just the latest move in this very dangerous dance. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-25062525

* Finally, at the end of the year, Mr. Abe decided to make a visit to Yasukuni Shrine in his capacity as Prime Minister. While millions of Japan’s war dead are enshrined there, the souls of hundreds of war criminals, including a number of executed Class A war criminals are also enshrined, and it is this fact, and the apparent honouring or worship of these souls which so infuriates China and South Korea. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-25517205

So, Japanese politicians, I would say that you have been very ‘urusai’ this year, that this war-mongering is deeply troubling, that your lack of sensitivity (or deliberate disregard for other people’s and other countries’ feelings) is equally concerning. What are you doing to the country I love? This has not been a great year for Japan. With the exception of the successful Olympic bid, which did seem to boost spirits, 2013 has been a steady stream of worrying news from TEPCO and Fukushima Daiichi and the constant sound of rattling sabres.

So for 2014, my first prayer is for a concerted effort to really do something about the giant mess that is Fukushima Daiichi. The situation there is scary and there are many people who don’t know if, or when, they can ever go home. My second prayer is also related to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami; that the people who are still living in temporary housing almost three years later be re-housed in permanent new homes. My third prayer is for peace between the countries in East Asia, that we can all be much better neighbours than we have been in 2013.

12:30 blue skyFor myself, this has been a very mixed year, but I am ending the year feeling positive. I have travelled and seen friends, and in my life in Tokyo I have so many blessings. I have a job I love, friends and colleagues I am grateful for. In the last fifteen months I have found a new joy in writing this blog and been amazed that people read it. It’s a very humbling feeling. I am going into the new year with plenty to think about, lots of things I want to do.

Yesterday I was in Shibuya and saw a lot of people with suitcases, on their way somewhere to celebrate the New Year. When I went out to do some grocery shopping this afternoon I noticed how quiet everything was already. With the exception of the crowds in the supermarket there weren’t many people about. Tomorrow I am going to start the year the same way I did this year, walking a Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage. The weather forecast is for another sunny day.

Goodbye, 2013. You’ve been an interesting year; not the best, but not the worst either. The neighbourhood has gone quiet, and I can hear the sound of the local volunteer fire corps on their yomawari (夜回り) or night patrol warning us of the perils of starting a fire. My new year cards are written and mailed, it’s time to curl up and relax.

new year postbox