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The famous “aho/baka” map of Japan.

ahobaka1Japan, despite the refined image it traditionally likes to present to the world, has no shortage of words with which to call people stupid.

These words are mostly regional and the uses and nuances of calling people stupid also vary by place.

Over dinner, I was reminded of an episode of Tante Night Scoop, an investigative television program which ran throughout the 90′s. They did an exhaustive survey and mapped the locations of the common ways of calling people stupid throughout Japan.

Of interest is the centrality of the word “aho,” commonly used throughout the Kansai region of Japan (and denoted in red) and the radial spread of “baka” (denoted in blue), a word mostly associated with Tokyo and commonly found in Kanto-centric anime programs.

The map was intended as entertainment, but it has serious historical significance.

When people move, they take words with them. It would appear that people in Kansai, historically the political and economic center of Japan, had little reason to leave the region, which would explain “aho”‘s limited spread. Baka, however, can be found on both sides of Kanto, indicating that there were strong connections between the two sides, despite the distance between them.

Oddly, the other words for “stupid” occupy the same radii from Kansai indicating that certain groups of people had peculiar spatial advantages in trade, where as others did not. Though I really have no idea, I’m thinking that particular perishable products traded with Kansai might have different spoiling times necessitating particular proximities. It’s important also to note that the extreme peripheries might have been trading non-perishable resources like coal, which, though heavy, doesn’t rot.

Economics, trade and language have deep links. English wouldn’t exist without it, and the many forms of English spoken throughout the world have been influenced by the multitude of groups of people who chose to speak it to facilitate trade.

OK, enough for now and back to Kenya.

A day to celebrate JICA toilets in Nyanza, Kenya

DSC_2057Today I went along with some of my colleagues to not one, but four, dedication ceremonies for a JICA sponsored clean water project.

It’s been an extremely long day.

Nearly 80% of people in this area of Kenya practice open defecation. They don’t use toilets. Of course, fecal matter washes into the lake, which happens to be where they all get their drinking water from. Diarrheal disease is, of course, out of control.

As a public health professional, I’m justifiably annoyed that there are people out there who can’t handle even the simplest sanitation solution: shitting in a single hole. However, it is what it is.

JICA has sponsored the construction of put latrines and the installation of water tanks at several schools in the area. These interventions are dirt cheap, but are way beyond the financial reach of impoverished communities along Lake Victoria. While we would assume that the Kenyan government would be expected to contribute money to help protect their children, the reality is that this area has been politically marginalized since independence. Schools can’t depend on the government to provide even sufficient wages for teachers, let alone sanitation infrastructure. Given the political problems between the current Kikuyu government and the Luo, it’s unlikely that the funds would be provided, even if they were available.

One of the schools we visited is 100% community funded. While it was a rudimentary facility, the locals have to be commended for taking matters into their own hands. I just wish they’d take sanitation more seriously.

Talked to a great bunch of people, listened to some great stories and drank 7 bottles of Coca-Cola. Off to bed.

Morning reflections on the Japanese Communist Party

I’m still getting adjusted to being halfway around the world where night is finally slowly turning into day and I promise this site won’t morph into a daily blog on Japanese politics (though it wouldn’t matter since noone reads this anyway!)

On my morning walk, however, I was struck by a poster from the Japanese Communist Party which made three points. First, that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will destroy Japan’s economy and the agricultural sector, second that the United States will have to stop using the Osprey aircraft in Japan, and third that Japan should leave the Japan-American protection agreement as soon as possible so that Japan can build a peaceful future.

While I generally like the Japanese Communist Party, I had to laugh. Japan’s agricultural sector is already in major trouble and protectionist policies which insure price floors for aging farmers while restricting supply (which has the happy effect of keeping Japan thin) are not doing Japan’s food security situation any favors at all. Japan is a manufacturing and a consumer economy. It should sell cars and buy food, not rely on the good graces of a corrupt cabal of octogenarians to keep growing rice.

Second, the JCP’s focus on a particular aircraft really doesn’t get to the heart of the problems surrounding bases in Okinawa. The mention of Osprey’s is merely a way of pandering to the mainland vote, while not challenging mainlanders to investigate Okinawa’s situation to any appreciable degree.

The third point was the most troubling. It’s odd that the JCP would hope that Japan leave the Japan-American protection agreement given the current state of Abe’s right wing government. Without fanning more flames of the Yellow Peril at all, Japan will have to think long and hard about the implications of the LDP’s long push to amend the current Constitution to allow Japan to deploy troops outside its borders or preemptively strike targets it deems as a potential threat. Given the unwillingness of the LDP to substantively recognize Japan’s imperial incursion into Asia, and their willingness to agitate China at any cost, I think that the costs could be far greater than the benefits and doubt that the JCP would be around to hold the LDP back.

I know that small parties have to pick their battles carefully to ensure their political survival, but the JCP’s demands were almost comedy. I’m not sure what that makes me. Every year I become more and more cynical about progressive opposition parties and politics both in Japan and in the US. I’m not sure what that makes me. Are they really that poorly informed or is this just political pragmatism?

Movie review (super short): 永遠のゼロ (The Forever Zero)

04015dde6181377015fe977f56c94dd7I finally watched this on the plane. For those who don’t know, 永遠のゼロ is a right wing film production, which tells the story of a contemporary family seeking information on their grandfather, who signed up to be a part of the Kamikaze program at the end of WWII.

I learned a couple of things by watching this movie. First, the Japanese incursion into Asia never really happened. In fact, it’s never mentioned at all. No wonder kids don’t know anything about the war. The right wing is selectively erasing it from the history books.

Second, I learned that Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent war with the US wasn’t a bad idea. It was a great idea, but just need to be fought smarter. If only more people had been like the heroic main character of the, the Japanese would have won. The main character isn’t worried about fighting a senseless war and that millions are dying all around him, He’s really only worried that it’s being fought badly.

The right wing in Japan and in the State have a lot in common. They selectively pick snippets of history which they like, regardless if they actually ever happened, and ignore the parts they don’t like to create a new historical narrative. This movie, aside from the generally annoying dialogue and subpar acting, works as a great propaganda piece, but not for much of anything else.

Is this racist? (これ、差別的かな??)

I really have no clue. I think I’m too distracted by the utter awfulness of this musical crime against humanity. Can we really give Lavigne that much credit?

Is this racist? Somewhat odd given the themes of the song (submissive Japanese women ready to commit to her man “unconditionally”), but at least a step above the first clip.

Is this racist? I’m willing to say probably. Japanese girls bowing down to the white lady at the beginning kind of throws me over the edge. At least some locals got a paycheck….

Is this racist? Though I have to credit Styx with teaching me the first Japanese I ever learned, watching this video now does give me the shivers. Japanese people as army of mindless, though secretly cunning robots (with big teeth a la Breakfast at Tiffany’s) ready to infiltrate and destroy America’s sacred classic rock world.

Is this racist? Kobota Toshinobu and EXILE in blackface. I’m pretty sure Kobota and EXILE are both great fans of American soul and plenty of Japanese stars have tried to look like white people in the past so I’m hesitant to call this racist, but painful, nonetheless.

I’ll leave it up to the reader to discuss, but THIS is DEFINITELY racist:

“I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he said. Mr. Bundy recalled driving past a public-housing project in North Las Vegas, “and in front of that government house the door was usually open and the older people and the kids — and there is always at least a half a dozen people sitting on the porch — they didn’t have nothing to do. They didn’t have nothing for their kids to do. They didn’t have nothing for their young girls to do.

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“And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do?” he asked. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Obokata Haruko: Shoddy scientist or scapegoat?

photo_2I know very little about lab sciences. A few months ago, Obokata Haruko, graduate of Waseda University and researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, discovered something “too good to be true.” She found a way of creating pluripotent cells, that is stem cells which can become anything, without the awful side effect of inducing cancer in a vertebrate host. Though my knowledge of such matters is sadly lacking, from what I understand, virae are usually used to induce the cell to convert, which can make the cell unstable, and likely to turn cancerous. Obokata discovered that the cell could be manipulated merely by stressing them with pressure.

The results followed the peer review process, were rejected once, and, after revising and resubmitting, were eventually published in Nature. Soon thereafter, the results were challenged and it was discovered that the images accompanying the paper did not represent the content of the paper and had likely been lifted from her doctoral dissertation. Obokata was disgraced.

Yesterday, an article appeared which claimed that even more improprieties were found in Obokata’s doctoral thesis and that she has formally requested that her dissertation be withdrawn. She supposedly lifted portions of her introduction from the NIH website without attribution and had doctored images. Even some of the chapter bibliographies were suspicious:

Each chapter in the dissertation has a separate bibliography. For chapter 3, there is a bibliography of 38 references even though there are no footnotes in that chapter. The bibliography contains the authors of the material referred to, the title, the journal and the pages on which the original article appeared.

However, the bibliography in question is almost exactly the same as the first 38 items in a bibliography containing 53 reference materials that was published in 2010 in a medical journal by researchers working at a Taiwanese hospital.

It is entirely possible that Obokata is a shoddy researcher. Actually, it’s quite likely given the mountain of evidence against her. What isn’t clear, is how her mentors allowed her train wreck of a career to happen. Research doesn’t occur in a box. I’d certainly be entirely happy if no one at all ever looked at my dissertation again (outside of the published papers from it). But, one would assume that the most egregious of infractions would be caught by her committee members (and her co-authors) before the work goes into print.

It’s worth nothing that Obokata, like a lot of academics, is quite odd. She had her lab repainted pink and yellow, and would don a Japanese smock more characteristic of kindergarten teachers rather than a traditional lab coat. Though I encourage such behavior, I’m not sure that her eccentric style is doing her career any favors at this point.

This incident brings more than a few conflicting ideas to mind.

First, Japan is a terrible, awful place to be a woman in a professional position. In fact, Japan is pretty much just a terrible place to be a woman at all. In terms of women’s empowerment, wages, education and political representation, Japan is 101st out of 135 countries, well under less developed countries like Kenya, El Salvador, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and among the worst in all of Asia.

Once, I remember when I was visiting Japan, a tenured faculty member who happened to be female was tasked with serving us men tea. I was enraged.

Though Obokata is likely less than professional, professionals are made, not born. I can imagine that, given her reproductive capabilities, her mentors refused to take her seriously, and slacked on their most important job, which was to create and nurture a responsible and talented scientist.

Of course, Obokata, though likely a victim of shoddy mentoring, has to shoulder some of the blame. Shoddy mentors create shoddy students, but shoddy students still have to take responsibility for their own actions. But I can’t help but thinking that it’s interesting that a young female is taking the heat for what should be a collective fuck up.

Obokata is currently being eviscerated in the press. After making numerous appearances on television as an eccentric though brilliant scientist, her downfall has brought out the worst. Many are alleging that Obokata slept with her mentors to attain her position (despite being trained at Harvard), following a narrative that women can’t attain privileged positions without having sex with someone. The vile depths of the interweb are even speculating that Obokata will start making porn, a common standby career for fallen actresses and swimsuit idols, again following a narrative that women are never degraded enough.

Does Obokata deserve the brutal punishment she’s receiving? While scientists need to held accountable for their work, given the amount of shoddy research out there, I would say that Obokata is probably being treated rather unfairly. It would seem though, that the extreme nature of her punishment is due to her gender, her age and the fact that she was unlucky enough to appear on Japanese television.

Interview with an academic: Megan Hill, ethnomusicologist

Continuing our series of interviews with interesting academics, this time I have Megan Hill, PhD student and ethnomusicologist at the University of Michigan (Thanks for doing this!).

s200_megan.hill1. Who are you and where do you come from?

Starting off with existential questions… I’m Megan Hill, doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at UM. I’m originally from Mason City, a town of about 30,000 people in north-central Iowa.

2. What is your current research about?

My research, broadly speaking, concerns contemporary musical practice in Japan, with a secondary specialization in American popular music. Right now I’m writing my dissertation on urban soundscapes. The concept of “soundscape” is usually used to explore the ways that people create and perceive meaning through sound in the places they inhabit, but it has also traditionally been used in an all-encompassing way, assuming a homogeneous and/or pastoral environment.

My dissertation—Asakusa’s Soundscape: Sound, Agency, Place, and Montage—specifically offers a new theoretical apparatus for analyzing the nuanced ways that people experience sound in dense, heterogeneous urban environments. I’m using the Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa to demonstrate this. I have chosen Asakusa because it is dense and urban, it has a strong unique identity as a particular neighborhood, that identity is defined by a large variety of cultural categories (i.e. “traditional Japan,” religion, international tourism, low-brow entertainment, working-class Tokyo, etc.), and sound and music are fundamental to the ways that people behave in Asakusa and understand what Asakusa is about.

3. Urban spaces are characterized by often contrasting and competing uses of space. Did you find that there was any impact of location on sounds? Did sounds clash or blend in interesting ways?

Yes, absolutely. Certainly “competing” uses of space happen throughout cities, and all around the world, but I think it is particularly interesting how this plays out in Asakusa because of the particular kinds of activities that go on there. Many urban neighborhoods—NYC’s theater district for instance—are defined by one particular kind of activity, but Asakusa is defined by its particular amalgam of several contrasting activities (those having to do with “traditional Japan,” religion, international tourism, low-brow entertainment, and working-class Tokyo). Because of this, I find that the sonic overlap that goes on there is particularly fascinating, and has particular implications for how people perceive the space. You used the word “competing” to describe the use of urban spaces, but what I see going on in Asakusa is often more like juxtaposition. Contrasting sounds overlap, but because all of them “make sense” within the larger space, the resulting sense isn’t one of competition but one of montage.

For example, there is an amusement park called Hanayashiki which is practically bordering the precincts of Sensô-ji Buddhist temple. The screams of people riding the drop tower and roller coaster can be heard easily from the steps of the temple’s Main Hall, and those sounds mix in with the sounds of rituals that take place in the temple, as well as the boisterous sounds of tourists that fill the Main Hall and the rest of the precincts at all hours.

4. I know that you share an interest with things Japanese. All of us Japanophiles have unique set of events which brought us here. What brought you to Japan?

I started out, in my undergrad at Wartburg College (a liberal arts college in Waverly, Iowa), studying music education. Growing up, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in music in some way, but coming from a fairly small town with few visible music careers (high school band director and church musician being pretty much the extent of things), I decided music ed was the way to go for me. I studied that for two years with moderate levels of emotional investment, but along the way I was exposed to the field of ethnomusicology through one of my professors, with which I became totally enamored. I changed my major to clarinet performance (which allowed me to drop the education courses and add electives in ethnomusicology) at the beginning of my third year. At the same time, my dorm roommate was a woman from Tokyo in Iowa to study psychology (long story) who came to be one of my best friends. Studying ethnomusicological / anthropological theory in the daytimes and coming home to talk with my roommate about everyday things—but also Japanese music and culture—in the evenings basically started me out on the road that led me to where I am today.

5. You spent a year (or two?) in Tokyo. What were you doing there?

I’ve lived in the Tokyo area on two occasions, actually. After my undergrad in 2006, I got a job with AEON (national English-conversation school) and was given a teaching position in Koshigaya, Saitama, about 20 minutes north of Tokyo. I basically used the teaching position and visa as an opportunity to live in Japan and learn real-life things for 13 months before pursuing a graduate degree focusing on Japan. I had a great time learning all I could, talking with my fantastic students, making friends, learning to play the koto, and doing research for a paper on the use of gendered pronouns in Japanese popular music.

More recently, I was living in Tokyo doing dissertation fieldwork. I got funding from The Japan Foundation to be there for a year to study the soundscapes of Asakusa, which I’m now using as the basis for my dissertation.

6. You seem to be interested in people who don’t traditionally “belong.” The examples I’m thinking of are that of African-American Enka star Jero, the perception of soundscapes in Tokyo by a Buddhist monk and even Yoko Noge, a blues musician in Chicago. While I could be entirely off the mark, does the breaking of traditional musical belonging play a role in your work?

Interesting interpretation! You’ve been scoping out my academia.edu profile, I see ;-)

I would say that you’re on the mark in identifying which topics excite me. I tend to admire people and their work who do interesting things that are against the traditional grain, for sure. And I think your observation that those people are in particular abundance in my research is mostly evidence of my personal taste in that way—Yoko Noge, Jero, and also Japanese female singers like Ringo Shiina, Iruka, Love Psychedelico, and Ayumi Hamasaki wielding gendered-language in pop song lyrics in interesting ways.

I haven’t really approached those topics by focusing on that commonality, necessarily. Contemporary ethnomusicology makes use of all kinds of socio-cultural as well as scientific theories to study musical practice (linguistic, structural, literary, Marxist, cognitive and communication, gender/sexuality, performance, and postcolonial theories, as some examples). I think what you’ve picked up on as a trend in my research is my interest in issues of self and identity, though I am not committed to always exploring those from the same approach. My dissertation focuses on individual agency and music/sound as they intersect with ideas about place, for example, while in my other projects, ideas about self/identity have intersected with music and gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, psychology, globalization, and postcolonial culture.

7. Have you met Jero yet?

Alas, no…

8. You play a number of instruments. Do you play live at all?

I studied piano and clarinet, each for 12 years. With an undergrad degree in clarinet performance, I played a number of solo recitals, as well as countless concerts as a member of orchestras and wind bands.

I studied koto in 2006-7 and was invited to perform at my local 燈籠流し festival in Saitama with my teacher, which was really fun. I also studied Tsugaru shamisen for about 9 months as a part of my dissertation fieldwork, but I’m still a very rough beginner and have no business on a stage… At this point, I don’t have the time necessary to devote to practice to make performing a reality.

9. How did you find your teachers? I’ve heard that people studying shamisen have to spend the first two years doinng nothing but tuning? Did they cut you slack given your limited time there?

I found my koto teacher with the help of one of my English students. He was the son a friend of hers. I took the bus to his apartment every Friday morning before going to work at the English school, which began at noon. He also taught koto at a local middle school as part of the school’s offerings of “traditional” arts which became mandatory in public schools from 2001 I believe. He is also the member of a small indie band called Shiro Neqo, which includes an Indian sitar and tabla and two vocalists in addition to koto. You can see/hear them here.

I found my Tsugaru shamisen teacher in Asakusa. He owns a restaurant where he—and sometimes his higher level students—perform every lunch and dinnertime for customers. I wanted to interview him for my dissertation research, and when I found out that he teaches lessons too, I asked if I could also study with him. We started out learning how the instrument works, tuning, and practicing a simple folksong right away. I did not get the sense that I was being treated differently than other students. I have also heard the only-tuning-for-two-years story, but I don’t know how widespread that regimen really is.

You can see/hear him here (link is down below) with his band, Ryûjin. His sister is the other person playing shamisen in the video

10. What’s up for the future?

Good question… My husband is applying for academic jobs right now (he will be defending his dissertation within the calendar year), and hopefully something will work out on that front. I will be finishing mine by next spring at the very latest, so I will be applying for jobs come the fall. I’m very open to non-academic positions that would allow me to make some use of my degree (I have a friend who works for the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example), or an academic one that would center on teaching, preferably not in the middle of nowhere. I’m too much in the world of my dissertation to have many thoughts on my next research project, but there’s a lot of music out there!

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