Friday, May 26, 2006

U.S. lawmaker Henry Hyde wants Koizumi's guarantee that he won't visit Yasukuni

Translation: Another loudmouth falls fowl of China and Korea's smokescreens, ignoring facts in favour of popular opinion and propaganda.

Anti-Japanese propaganda coming from China and Korea I can understand, even if I don't like it. Popular opinion in the west about Japan whitewashing its history is an annoyance, but ultimately without consequence. Lawmakers in the west blackmailing the prime minister of Japan is going a little too far. You can't accuse a country of simultaneously glorifying its war criminals and pretending the crimes never happened. It's time to speak up.

The Textbook Issue
This one comes up every 4 years, resulting in huge anti-Japan riots across China that the local government curiously doesn't seem to have any problem with, despite the amount of damage done to Japanese cars, businesses, businessmen and other bystanders. What's it all about?

According to Chinese and Korean "experts," the Japanese government is taking the official stance that the Nanjing/Nanking massacre never took place, and if it did, it was simply a case of high spirited "boys will be boys" getting a bit carried away with their bayonets in a far away land, and who could begrudge them that?! This is a clear whitewashing of the "realities" of history, because it's well known that WWII history as reported in both China and Korea is completely neutral and even handed. What more could you expect from a country that can't apologise after all.

Sadly as is often the case, easily found (if you bother to care) facts tell a slightly different tale. What is construed to as the country's "official stance" is nothing more than government approval of school textbooks. This approval takes the form of a transparent set of factual criteria that all textbooks are subject to. Any submitted textbook that satisfies this criteria is approved regardless of focus, balance or political bias. Japan is after all a democracy, so these things are not for the government to decide. The issue of contention is that out of a number of history textbooks submitted, one extraordinarily right wing group - a private entity I'll add - came up with a revised version of history which certainly did downplay the events of the period, stretched about as far as they could be stretched and still meet the criteria. Consequently, there was no choice but to approve it. And in a rare show of magnanimity, the government even upped the ante for the following period to try to appease foreign criticisms. The best part of this system though is that government approval entails no implication of any kind of endorsement. Less than 20 schools nationwide adopted the textbook, and those that did were predominantly for mentally handicapped kids who were much more able to learn from the simplified style of the book in question.

So what we in fact have is a government who has put the necessary cornerstones in place to ensure the internationally approved facts of WWII are taught properly, and school boards up and down the country are unanimously choosing textbooks that go far beyond this basic criteria. So what exactly is the problem here? No seriously - what is it? Are China and Korea saying that for an unpopular political viewpoint to even EXIST is a crime the government must take responsibility for? Maybe that's how it is in their countries, in which case I'm glad I live in mine.

As for whether or not your average Hiroshi on the street is aware of Japan's wartime past, I think it's fair to say that there is a general awareness. The thing is, not many people really care that much. It's not that they think it wasn't important, just that Japan now is a very different place - one committed to peace, and wartime atrocities are not really relevant anymore. For the greatest part and for whatever reason, the country has learned and moved on. Wasn't that the point of the exercise?

And as for the whole apology thing, Japan has had a clean record of peace and peaceful co-operation in world affairs for 60 years, but they want a verbal apology. Japan has verbally apologised 17 times, but they say actions speak louder than words. Which is it to be then?

And China is absolutely not the country to be talking about another country whitewashing its history. Next time you're in an internet cafe in Beijing, why not Google "Tianenmen Square" or "Tibet" and see if you can find anything beyond tourist information.

Apparently Japan is proposing to China that a neutral committee be appointed to oversee the contents of history books in both countries. China has yet to respond.

Yasukuni Shrine
Prime Minister Koizumi's annual visit comes up more frequently than the textbooks, and is very good at undoing diplomatic relations just as they start to gain steam. This time, it's gaining greater international attention in the US and UN.

According to Chinese and Korean "experts," Yasukuni enshrines 14 class A war criminals. Ipso Facto, for the Prime Minister to visit on the anniversary of the end of the war, he (and therefore Japan) is honouring their deeds, glorifying Japan's military past, and generally being very very naughty.

According to the (very easily found for anybody that cares) facts, little is really known about Koizumi's true motives as he rarely speaks of them, except on one occasion where he did make it clear that he weren't there to honour no war criminals. Considering that in addition to the 14 class A war criminals snuck in undercover a few decades back while nobody was looking, there are some two and a half million regular war dead enshrined there, then to believe that his visits are something other than a solemn rememberance of the horrors of all aspects of war and a renewed commitment to peace would require exceptional jingoism. That and/or additional evidence such as some kind of move to change the constitution, article 9, to allow military involvement overseas...

Let's put it into perspective for a moment. When I lived in Britain, there was always an annual one minute silence in remembrance of war dead on the 11th November, nationwide. Now, I don't recall it particularly being a case of "we sure kicked those Deutschbags's arses," but let's say that Germany was threatening to halt all diplomatic relations with Britain all the time this continued, because among the war dead being remembered are certain RAF members that fire bombed Dresden. Britain goes ahead anyway. Then other countries start getting in on the act, saying that Britain must stop its remembrance day celebrations as it's an insult to other nations that suffered under Britain's tyranny. Eventually it becomes common sense and factions of the British start to reject it too. The very notion that this would happen is laughable, but that's exactly what's happening here.

Remembrance is not about glorifying war, it's about learning from it. Is the Prime Minister, and indeed Japan, to remember and reflect on the past with all its horrors, or are the horrors and war criminals to be somehow forgotten, shoved under the carpet, whitewashed over during that time? China and Korea, make up your minds!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Fresh out of marketing school perhaps?

Or simply fresh out of ideas?

Discovered this wonderful new range of snack bread being sold in convenience stores over the weekend. The product name reads as follows:

たいしたもんじゃありませんがベーコンをのせて焼きました。 (Nothing special really, I just put some bacon on it and grilled it.)

It rather reminds me of advertising campaigns of yore where people would name their shop/business/product "untitled" or something equally unimaginative, tricked by lazy artists into believing that if they put just the right lack of any kind of effort into their marketing, it will somehow strike that magic artistic chord with the general public and be a huge success. Naturally, the philistines that make up the general public are a little too low brow to appreciate or understand such genius believing it to be "extremely stupid and unimaginative" - really a case of setting the bar too high on the part of the artist I guess. Still, this does not deter the average art student from insisting that the key to great art lies not in effort, imagination, composition and aesthetics, but in simply finding something people aren't expecting, dropping it on a canvas of sorts, and calling it "inspired."

So what motivates people to jump to such ridiculous conclusions, that merely picking some random word or drawing a picture of a clothes peg or something equally arbitrary somehow consitutes art? The answer is probably best summed up by the last two words of the last sentence - "constituting art." Rather a silly notion if you think about it, perpetuated no doubt by institutions granting prestigious awards to controversial art projects, that leads to every tabloid asking the big bold question "is a dead cow put on display art?" The anwer is very simple, and requires only the briefest check in the dictionary - Yes, duh! Actually, the little spider's web I scribbled in the corner of my note book during this morning's meeting, that's art too. So's the picture that goes with this article, and the layout of this page. All these things are most certainly without a doubt art, and the most amusing part is that my spider's web is in fact every bit "art" as a Monet or Picasso or Dali or that other guy who always gets confused with Monet. However, and this is important... while the works of the countless established artists that adorns galleries and rich people's toilets are what could be considered to be exceptionally good by most standards, my spider's web is unfortunately utter crap.

And that's really what it boils down to. Rather than debate whether something is or isn't "art," we should be reasoning "sure it's art in the broadest possible definition, but is it any good?" And my answer to the various organisations marketing themselves with unimaginative names such as "Untitled," students trying to pass off a shirt draped over the back of a chair or a pile of bricks as inspired, and even more established artists that put dead sliced up cows on display, is that your art sucks dudes!

Still, it's nice to know that in the case of the bacon bread, they put in enough effort to at least come up with a sentence, and as the whole "Untitled" idea never really took off here it could even be deemed original (ignoring Mujirushi of course). Still not gonna buy any though.

Update In response to the comment below, why indeed did I specifically exclude Mujirushi when it appears to be doing exactly what I described? The reason is that while on the surface, Mujirushi-ryohin (lit. "logo free goods") appears to be pushing thoughtlessness as artistic marketing, the underlying premise is that by virtue of being logo free, the consumer is able to pay a much lower price for a wide selection of high quality goods (though I think the low price aspect is somewhat lost in foreign outlets - you foreigners will pay a premium for anything that says "imported" on it won't you!) What makes Mujirushi particularly interesting though is the unique uniform look to the products - despite the supposed lack of any kind of design, it is still aesthetically appealing to a remarkably wide demograph. It would not surprise me if it cost a phenomenal amount of money to develop that look.

In short, Mujirushi is way more than a thoughtless gimmick pretending to be art, and that's why I excluded it.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Otaku from USA: Part 2

This is the second instalment of subtitled TV concerning the troupe of manga and anime fans that visited Tokyo over Golden Week that I wrote about last week. Despite only being a third of the length of the first, it also appears to have about 3 times the worthwhile content. Bit of a rush job again though, so apologies for any mistakes or timing errors...

Update Wow, I got Boingboinged! That would explain why my hits are through the roof. Hey everybody here via Boingboing! If this is your first time, try the fish!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hands up who has a Japanese passport!

I should however be watching my back for satellites tracking my every move. The controversial RFID chips that are to be placed in future American and European passports, and are currently causing waves amongst those concerned with privacy, have already found their way into mine. And not just a hidden chip somewhere in the cover either - it's a full page size clump of unbendable card about 1 millimetre thick stitched right into the centre with "WARNING! IC CHIP!" written in big letters on both sides. However, unlike my cousins overseas, the information stored on the chip is extremely limited. It's basically personal information and a scanned photo, the exact same information you'd find printed in the passport and nothing more. There's no fingerprints (I know, because I never gave any, and wore gloves when I filled the form in to be safe), blood type, medical history, DNA samples, nothing. In fact, having the picture in there could even work to my advantage - for some reason people don't expect somebody with a mug like mine to have a Japanese passport, and the RFID chip basically proves I'm not having the nice men at immigration on.

Monday, May 08, 2006

TV in Japan: Otaku From USA

TV in Japan: Otaku From USA

Update And a rather different take from (I assume) the tour organiser...

Back of my head getting more exposure per click...

This one's too good to miss - a nature programme style look at American anime fans on a utopian tour of the nerdier side of Tokyo. And it's pretty good natured in tone, which isn't surprising as the people featured come across as a bunch of happy-go-lucky folks, who happen to enjoy Japanese cartoons, having a good laugh while indulging a bit in their own geekiness. Nothing wrong with that. The only issue I guess is in referring to them as "American Otaku," which may be a term of endearment over there, but certainly isn't here, and with good reason.

Otaku are a pretty sad bunch who don't so much enjoy their genre as rot in it. They are not fun people, just sad little men (gender specific) whose mums dress them funny, and stay locked safely in their respective rooms from the inside with their VCRs and laserdiscs watching cartoons and reading comics because it's so much less threatening than real people and the world outside. And they smell, because the wonders of personal hygiene and the various benefits it brings humanity have not been specifically introduced to them by some magic time travelling duck with blue hair and really huge eyes yet. When you see pathetic middle-aged men thumbing through porn on the shelves of convenience stores right in front of passing children, it's not because it's socially acceptable to do that (a common misapprehension), but because they are otaku and have no idea of the concept of social niceties. Otaku are to be avoided.

This is not to say there aren't terms of endearment for fans of the various geeky genre this land is so famous for - "Akibakei" (Akihabara style) comes to mind, and is probably about as close to the American meaning of otaku as you can get without being beaten round the head with a 15 tonne hammer. Obviously this isn't the first time a word has been butchered on its way from one language to another - even the word anime itself has narrowed itself right down from a very general word in Japanese meaning "animated cartoon" to a very specific style of cartoon that leaves people questioning whether the works of master animator Hayao Miyazaki are indeed, strictly speaking, of the anime genre.

Another rather miffed take on what it is and isn't to be an otaku from that bastion of truth and hard, cold facts, Waiwai.

I digress. A rather amusing video I thought, and if it wasn't crippled I'd knock out a subtitled version tonight so self-professed otaku the world over could be warned. Guess it'll have to wait. Update Bit of a rush job so the timing's a little off, but a subtitled version is now up.