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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more improprieties were found in Obokata’s doctoral thesis and that she has formally requested that her dissertation be withdrawn.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 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!

Results of the Tokyo gubernatorial election

Percentage share within age groups for (L to R)  Yoichi Masuzoe, Toshio Tamogami, Kenji Utsunomiya and Morihiro Hosokawa

Percentage share within age groups for (L to R) Yoichi Masuzoe, Toshio Tamogami, Kenji Utsunomiya and Morihiro Hosokawa

I’m checking out the results for the Tokyo elections yesterday. I’m not so surprised at the result, but surreal nature of the election should have everyone scratching their heads. Much is made about the insanity of American politics, but I would have to say that Japan’s are worse.

Masuzoe, the presumed winner, is a “expert in international affairs,” but once stated that women shouldn’t hold sensitive political positions because they menstruate. Apparently, he is unaware that several major economic powers have female leaders. I’m thinking that the only reason he won is due to his many (annoying) appearances on Japanese talk shows. Since the only people who seem to watch television anymore are past retirement, the data here could support this idea.

Hosokawa was prime minister at one time (but retired from politics to do pottery), and Utsunomiya is a favorite of the Japanese socialist and communist parties. Both of them ran on anti-nuclear platforms. It’s worth noting that Masuzoe is also opposed to nuclear power, but doesn’t think that Japan is ready to give it up any time soon. If you think this sounds a bit like he’s trying to appeal to both camps while doing nothing, you’re probably right.

The most perplexing is Tamogami, a disgraced military general, who once wrote an op-ed claiming that Japan’s entry into WWII was the fault of Chang Kai Shek and FDR. Tamogami is an unabashed revisionist and would normally be worth on immediate dismissal, but his batshit ideas play well to Japanese right wingers. Apparently so well, that he was even able to run for Tokyo’s gubernatorial seat.

What I’m perplexed by is his disproportionate amount of support from young people. It appears that old people weren’t’ interested at all. Are the youth of Japan really this conservative?

Tokyo’s GDP is bigger than that of many countries including neighboring Korea. One would think that the electorate would take the seat a bit more seriously, but clearly we don’t live in a rational world.

China and Japan fight like crying children…. in Africa.

chinaPrime Minister Abe Shinzo recently visited three African countries to unveil plans to provide 320 million dollars in aid to Africa. This should, of course, infuriate China enough as they seem to consider the continent their own in 2014.

However, following Abe’s stupid disregard for common sense in his visit to Yasukuni and a spokesman’s less unrealistic quip about China’s unwillingness to hire locals, the Chinese Ambassador to the African Unions call a press conference. In truly comic fashion, he screamed at the press, labelled Abe the “biggest troublemaker in Asia” and held up graphic pictures of Japanese war crimes committed during World War II.

During his press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where Abe had just visited, Xie held aloft photos of Chinese he said had been massacred by Japanese troops. “[Abe] has worked hard to portray China as a threat, aiming to sow discord, raising regional tensions and so creating a convenient excuse for the resurrection of Japanese militarism,” said the Chinese envoy.

Is there any level at all where this isn’t absolutely ridiculous? First, we have to question Abe’s judgement in visiting Yasukuni, which enshrines a number WWII war criminals, as an inexplicable act of stupidity. The stunt was guaranteed to annoy China, setting back already strained relations over the Senkaku islands off the shores of Taiwan. It’s possible, though, that it was orchestrated to do just that. If so, it worked.

Second, setting aside the fact that most people who were participated in WWII are long dead now, and China’s old history of bloodshed, no matter how one looks at it, waving pictures of war crimes at the African Union is likely to have, well, no effect at all. Many African countries are still autocracies and nearly all have deep pasts of violence against civilians. In fact, both of the highest leaders of Kenya are currently in court for crimes against humanity!

Third, let’s just ponder how stupid it is to have two of the largest economic powers in the world quabbling like crying children. Please, we can do better, kids.

Movie of the Week: 三里塚 第二砦の人々 (Sanrizuka: People of the Second Fortress) (Dir: 小川紳介 Ogawa Sinsuke) 1971

kikujiro2_04The University of Michigan is hosting a series of films from Japanese documentary film production group, Ogawa Productions. Last night I had the pleasure of seeing “Sanrizuka: People of the Second Fortress” for the first time.

Narita airport was built on agricultural land claimed through eminent domain. Some of the residents, who were nearly all peasant families, sold early on and left. A number of families, however, feeling slighted by the Japanese government’s unwillingness to engage them in dialogue, stayed and fought.

This was no sit in protest, but a violent confrontation of peasants against government and private forces. The peasants built elaborate fortresses to prevent construction on the land, deep tunnels to hide in , and used spears, molotov cocktails and hurled projectiles to protect themselves. The Zengakuren (an anarchist group similar to America’s SDS) maintained the front lines armed with spears and throwing stones at riot police.

The entire scene is filmed like a grand Kurosawa epic. Armed forces besiege a well defended fortress on a hill top, while troops on the ground go toe to toe in battle. The riot police were clearly unprepared for the level of violent resistance they encountered and retreat more than once. In desperation, the Japanese government hires non-locals (at a rate of 20,000 yen a day, presumably to minimize liabilities and accountability) to charge in on their behalf.

A few questions came to mind. First, where did the non-locals come from? I’m wondering if they were hired from the day laborer slums of Kamagasaki and Sanya, again illustrating the complex relationship between anti-social dropouts and the State. Day laborers are simultaneously marginalized by the State and completely necessary to its survival. Even as recently as 2011, despite decades of exclusions and abuse, the Japanese government called upon day laborers in Kamagasaki to clean up Fukushima (again for 20,000 yen a day), presumably since few would care about the threats to their health.

Second, the Zengakuren play a major role in defending the fortress. It is mentioned during the film that the Socialist Party of Japan (社会党) initially involved itself, acting on the behalf of the farmers, but at some point during the five year struggle, became disinterested. It was mentioned by others that the Communist Party of Japan (共産党)was also involved. As I was watching the film, I was wondering how the situation could have become as extreme as it did, and though that these political actors might have agitated the farmers to move to more and more extreme methods. If that was the case, then the farmers might have been mere political pawns for an anti-establishment agenda. Though the Zengakuren obviously stuck it out to the bitter end, I’m wondering if they too might have self-servingly exacerbated the situation.

While Ogawa takes time and care to film and interview the farmers, both individually and as a group, not a single member of the Zengakuren speak for the entirely of the film. In fact, Ogawa never even shows them in close-up. Not only do we not know what they think, we don’t even know what they look like. Even more mysterious are the large crowds of bystanders, which are shown only through holes in the barricades the farmers have constructed or on the tops of hills in the distance. We actually know more about the riot police than any of the Zengakuren.

Third, and a minor point, the farmers had set up a tower with which to broadcast inspirational leftist music and speeches to the riot police and bystanders. It’s not clear why the riot police didn’t knock the largely unguarded tower out immediately. Also, though the film is incredibly violent, one has to wonder how much of the violence is performance. All sides had ample opportunity to kill and injure people, but, miraculously, only a handful of people were killed.

kikujiro2_04When farmer ladies are chaining themselves to trees to prevent airport crews from entering, they make a big production out of wrapping the chains around their neck, but have arranged them in such a way that one would merely have to bend down a bit to break free. One has to question how serious the farmers were, and how much of the fighting they preferred to leave to the Zengakuren, and whether they wanted the anarchists there at all. Though some of the farmers suggest directly engaging the riot police at one point, it is clear that there isn’t much consensus on how violent they were willing to become.

The relationship of the farmers, who prior to the planned building of the airport had likely lived in relative isolation from the rest of Japan, to the outside political upheaval of Japan is perhaps the most interesting part of the film. Though the farmers are very serious about protecting their land and continuing their lifestyles, they seem rather ambivalent to Japan’s political problems, but are regardless resigned to become a part of them.

As with many documentaries from Japan, it’s unclear how sympathetic the film’s producers are to the subjects they have chosen. On the one hand, Ogawa seems to want to advocate on behalf of the farmers, but on the other, he spends much time showing them as isolated and slightly naive. He makes no attempt to deny the futility of their cause.

“People of the Second Fortress” is a fantastic film. The producers risked their lives to make the film. Miraculously, the camera wasn’t smashed during filming.

Here are some great pictures from that time.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip of “People of the Second Fortress,” but here is an extended clip of one of the films from the same series:

Japan’ Military: “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”

The NYT did an interesting article this morning on Japan’s recent increase in defense expenditures. I’m never sure where I stand on the issue of Japan’s military (not that I have a say). One the one hand, a stronger Japanese military would help solidify Japan’s position and a major global player, and put a formal end to it’s stupid, weak-kneed political isolation.

It would no longer be able to hide behind the skirt of the United States, a situation that complicates domestic and international policy. Japan’s military, one of the largest and most well equipped in the world, largely operates in the shadows, on paper, surrendering military policy to the United States. This complicates international policy by disincentivising Japan from taking a global leadership role and tends to exacerbate isolationist behavior at home. The influential words of Peter Parker’s venerated uncle may ring true.

On the other, Japan has to respond to credible threats from China and North Korea and can’t wait on the Americans to protect them. This is dangerous for us. Even a small skirmish would require the immediate response of the Americans, which could result in a global war.

On the other, other hand, giving Japanese right wingers the proper tools of war would be disastrous. I have zero confidence in American right wingers. My confidence in Japanese right wingers falls into the negative zone. Though Japan, in general, is a very pacifistic country, its extreme elements are so deeply backward as to be irresponsible.


Big day today: submitted dissertation draft then submitted paper for publication, getting ready to submit another.

I can’t wait to get back to reading about economics. Writing is fine, but retroactively creating a story that somehow some non-related things are related is unpleasant. Please don’t do it at home.

I’ve figured out, though, that this is what people who write books do. If you keep revising, eventually it all makes sense.

I had some time today to read the news. I learned that the Bank of Korea is headed by a lady, which is awesome in Korea/Japan. I CAN’T EVER IMAGINE JAPAN HAVING A FEMALE PRIME MINISTER let alone a female head of a central bank. Significantly less developed Thailand even has a female head of state.

In many ways Korea is behind, in many ways, they are way, way ahead. I believe, though, that women have given up on the establishment in Japan, and just go ahead and do their own thing.

This headline, though, was disconcerting:

“Bank of Korea’s Suh Shuns Schoolgirl Outfit to Tackle Contagion”

Huh?? I read the article, and it appears that it was an OL outfit, not a schoolgirl outfit, but the headline was like, “huh?” Yes, I’m losing IQ. Too much writing.

I’ll say it again: JAPAN WILL NEVER HAVE A FEMALE HEAD OF STATE OR HEAD OF ANYTHING ELSE. And that’s a miserable, depressing and embarrassing state of affairs for the second largest economy (we can ignore China) in the world and one of the most developed places on earth.

Better yet, was thsi article, “Is Paul Ryan an Inflation Nutter?” Of course, the answer is an emphatic YES along with the entire Tea Party/Libertarian (オバタリアン?)set (sorry Ralph, you know I love you). Despite ZERO evidence of runaway inflation, even in the worst economic crisis since the depression, doom and gloomers have been predicting it all along. We got 99 (million) problems, but inflation isn’t one.

It’s like waiting for the rapture. The US is stronger in reality than Americans would like to think.

OK, I’m going to go and stare into space for a while. This LaTeX infused Alzheimer’s has got to go.

Donald Richie, RIP

Donald Richie

Donald Richie

Sometime in 1993, I became interested in Japanese cinema. To date, I’m still not sure why, but it happened nonetheless. I picked up a large tome, “The Japanese Film: Art and Industry,” for a discount while I was working at a local bookstore. That book was written in 1959 by a Mr. Donald Richie, who, it turns out, was teaching a class at the University of Michigan, where I was enrolled. It was too late to add the course to my schedule, but I went anyway, listened to the first lecture and was immediately hooked.

I approached Mr. Richie after class and asked him if it would be alright if I sat in on the class. He looked a bit distressed and asked if I would be doing the course work. I said that didn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to come to the course every week and listen to his lectures.

Richie loved the Japanese cinema. His lecture style was so un-alienating that one couldn’t help but love it, too. He would present the films in a manner that made them entirely foreign and unique products of the particular culture that produced, but simultaneously fit them squarely in a worldwide tradition of movies. He would present his lecture on the movie of the week, then we would watch the film in a theater, where he would deliver an abridged version of his Tuesday lecture for people who didn’t have the pleasure of attending his class. I think I learned more about art, cinema, media, culture, social science, the humanities and politics in that one 7 week course that I did in the entire remainder of my undergraduate education.

The time for the first mid term came, and I sat for it. Richie came up to me again with a distressed look on his face and stuttered, “A-a-are you taking this c-course for c-c-credit?” I said no, but asked him if I could take the exam anyway. He looked stressed but said yes, no problem. The following week, when he passed back the exams, he had thoughtfully commented on my work, writing more than a page of notes, ending with “If I were grading this, I would give you an A+. Good work.” When the time for the final exam came, the entire incident was repeated. To this day, I’m not sure why my not officially signing up for the course stressed him so. Perhaps he had too many students. I would like to think that he was trying to be meticulous and follow the rules to the letter, which was rather uncharacteristic of a man who flouted so many rules in his lifetime. Perhaps Japan had rubbed off on him more than he cared to consider (though there was no sucking of air through teeth).

I would see him on the street and he would always say hello. I regret not engaging him more while he was there, but it’s hard to just approach someone when you’re a starstruck kid. I later learned that he had a terrible time in Michigan, mainly because the stodgy faculty in the Japanese studies department would take him out on the town in neighboring Ypsilanti. I wish I would have known.

Shortly after that, I became more and more immersed in Japanese cinema studies and decided that I wanted to go to Japan and eventually pursue a graduate degree in the field (I didn’t do the latter). I arranged for a job teaching English conversation in Osaka (with the help of a friend), and left for Japan in November of 1996. It was there that I started speaking Japanese on a daily basis, and met my wife, who still puts up with my abhorrent command of the language.

If I had not taken Richie’s course, I don’t think I would have gone to Japan. It can’t be said that life would have been better or worse had I not gone, but it certainly would have been very different, and probably a little less interesting and certainly minus a life partner. For this, I am entirely grateful for Donald Richie’s existence and wholly sad for a great man’s passing.

Richie made experimental films in the 1960′s. This is one of them:

Donald Keene Takes Japanese Citizenship: Now Let’s Move On

Donald Keene took Japanese citizenship. Keene is a nearly 90 year old retired Professor of Japanese Studies at Columbia University. He was notable for his many excellent English translations of some of Japan’s most important literary works. Keene served in the US military during World War II working as an interrogator. Keene went to Japan, fell in love with the country and stayed. The New York Times wrote a short article detailing his life and reporting that he had finally retired to Japan.

Truthfully, I found the article quite annoying. Keene was an important member of the unofficial “Chrysanthemum Club,” a group of military associated academics and culturalists who were tasked with repackaging Japan as a friendly and tranquil ally of the United States. The incredibly deep cultural legacy of Japan most certainly cannot be denied, and is deserving of study. The “Chrysanthemum Club,” however, not only whitewashed Japan’s awful militaristic history, but exacerbated the existing “Nihonjinron,” a soul seeking quest of nationalistic Japanese academics hell bent on proving Japan to be “the most unique culture on the planet.”

The myth of Japanese “uniqueness” would go on to inform the manner in which Japan presented itself to the world and the way that Japanese departments and language education would educate. I studied Japanese briefly in the early 90′s at the University of Michigan. We were told that the author of the textbook (Jordan) believed the Japanese language so unique, that it is impossible to foreigners to achieve any level of proficiency. Presumably, because Japanese is “difficult” and that foreign brains are inherently unequipped to handle Japanese’s special nuances.

This “uniqueness” of the Japanese language is, of course, nonsense. Korean and Japanese are so grammatically similar as to almost be dialects of the same language. As for foreigners not being able to learn Japanese, well, come on over for dinner sometime. I’ll invite some of my friends and we can hang out.

As much as I want to venerate Keene, whose great contributions are many, I found my blood pressure rising while reading the NYT article. On taking Japanese citizenship, Keene states:

“When I first did it, I thought I’d get a flood of angry letters that ‘you are not of the Yamato race!’ but instead, they welcomed me,” said Dr. Keene, using an old name for Japan. “I think the Japanese can detect, without too much trouble, my love of Japan.”


““I have not met a Japanese since then who has not thanked me. Except the Ministry of Justice,””

These statements appear innocuous, but they are anything but. “A Japanese” grates on my nerves, sounding more like an animal than a human*. Worse yet, it implies that all people in Japan are the same, which they are certainly not. Anyone who speaks Japanese knows what a deeply diverse place Japan is. Keene’s probably well-intentioned statements are, to me, the worst kind of friendly racism out there.

This antiquated idea of Japan’s people as a “race” and the toxic “us vs. the other” attitude that dominated discussions of Japan following the War has got to go. Keene, as a thoughtful academic, should know this. Though I feel bad beating up on an old man, an esteemed individual like Keene should know very well how important semantics are.

When I was in Osaka last June, I had dinner with the head of the Economics Department at Osaka City University. He told me that Japan needed people like me (Japanese proficient academics) because it was so academically behind the United States. While I believe that he was just being kind, I quickly corrected him. Japan and the United States in 2012 are equals and we deserve to treat each other as such. Pandering and antiquated ideas of a strong US and a cute, child-like and fluffy Japan, an idea which Keene still appears to hold, have to finally be put to rest.

* “An American” is purely a statement of statehood to me. “Americans” are holders of blue passports.

Hobbled By Bureaucracy

Red Tape Dispenser

While I’m always quick to dismiss right wing calls for deregulation and reduced government oversight, I must admit that I am in favor of reduced red tape when the tables are stacked against me. I am for regulation where it is necessary, however.

I have dealt with travel and research reimbursements from the United States a number of times to some inconvenience, but little trouble. Despite a love of protocols, Americans, do, in the end, want to make things work. If for nothing else, an ease of procedure reduces the work load for office workers so that they can get back to Farmville.

Japan, if my current experience is any indication, is a complete bureaucratic nightmare. They seem to have never heard of a developing country, have little awareness of international currency exchange and are more intent on exercising the micromanaging authority of overfed office workers than trying to streamline processes and facilitate research and development.

Reimbursements take several months, and I get nailed with taxes on the way out, despite technically being exempt. Frustrating, but not frustrating enough to make me never want to work with them again. I can see how people could get discouraged, however.

A reimbursement from a Swedish institution, however, contacted me with the following:

“I sent the form to our economy department today. If you not hear from me again, you will receive your money within a few days.”

How easy is that?!

The World Bank keeps data on the relative ease of doing business in several countries around the globe. Overall, the US ranks 4th, Sweden 14 and Japan 20th.

For obtaining a construction permit however, the US is 17, Sweden 23, and Japan, a weak 63. If you want to start a business, stick with the US, it ranks 13th, Sweden 46th and Japan, an embarrassing 107! It’s easier to start a business in Ghana.

Granted, many of the current discussions of decentralization in Japan are directly related to this problem, but, in the meantime, I am astonished that it has taken this long.


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