Archive | September 2010

Burning Bodies and Witchcraft in Malawi

Tragedy in Ndirande

Recently, Malawi was rocked with reports of a suicide-arson case in Blantyre’s slum quarter of Ndirande. Details of the case are hazy, but what is known is that one night three sisters, aged 31, 27 and 19 and one brother removed all of the furniture from their home, set it alight and proceeded to jump into the blaze to their deaths. The house caught alight as well, badly burning another brother who died in Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s burn ward a few days later. One sister survived the incident. The father claims that the sisters acted completely normally until the week previous, when they started performing satanic rituals and began to forcibly perform oral sex on him. The father, a Methodist minister has been accused of casting spells on the children, forcing the children to take the matter into their own hands. A local church has also been implicated in fueling the hysteria which led to the family taking their own lives.

Newspapers and blogs from Malawi point to the dangerous influence of Satanism in Malawi as a root cause for the events in Ndirande. To me, “Satanism” is just a convenient tag with which to avoid asking the hard questions but in Africa, those questions are especially difficult. The father makes grand claims that the daughters forcibly performed oral sex on him the week previous, but a statement like that could very well imply that the father repeatedly sexually molested the daughters, likely over the course of a lifetime. One would think this, but claims from witnesses and community members indicate that the father was indeed repeatedly victimized over the course of the previous week and had sought help from local community leaders. What is interesting about this particular event, is its group nature. One person suffering a nervous event may set one’s house alight and commit suicide, but how do five people do it together, wildly chanting and holding Bible’s to their chests? The surviving mother make claims that a local church figure is to blame and even participated, inviting implications of cult-like activity not unknown to even the United States. The sole surviving sister made a telling statement:

“I was just following what my siblings were doing,” she said. “At first I didn’t believe, but they insisted… I thought they were right because were preaching the word of God.”

Witchcraft in Malawi

Although the event has a strong Christian undertone, witchcraft has been implicated as a cause. Explaining witchcraft in Sub Saharan Africa is no easy undertaking. academics spend a lifetime trying to parse out its roots and implications. Few come to any solid conclusions. Some consider it to be the result of deeply-rooted African superstition. Others theorize that witchcraft accusations occur as a result of repeated illness (e.g. malaria) from birth. Still others, point to the close and intimate nature of African families, living in close quarters under the stress of poverty. It is worth noting that most accusations of witchcraft target elderly widows, who cannot support themselves and young children in large households unable to meet basic needs. Regardless, nearly all witchcraft accusations occur within impoverished families. As Africa’s population swells, communities broken up due to migration into cities, and traditional community support fades, the problem becomes increasingly serious.

Child Witches in Malawi

Articles in the popular American press have unveiled a rash of accusations of witchcraft among children, specifically girls in Nigeria. Similar to Nigeria, accusations against children often occur in poor urban areas and specifically against children orphaned by HIV and forced to move in with relatives. In contrast to other countries, girls in Malawi are prized as they can help around the house and with the raising of younger children. It is not surprising, then, that most accusations in Malawi are against boys. In Malawi, as in most of Africa, the family is a tight and sacred unit. Counsins are like brothers and nephews are like one’s own children. Ejecting a member of the family because of the inability to feed him or her, presents grave social consequences. Thus, it is easier to accuse a child of being a witch and send him or her off to an orphanage, the streets, kill the child or worse, put him or her at the mercy of human traffickers. In addition to the grave human rights situation presented by such baseless accusations, baseless superstitious accusations against a child rip the fabric of community apart, as well as detroying the prospects for a child whose only crime was to be orphaned by AIDS. From a humanist site:

“In Nigeria, in Cross River and Akwa Ibom states, children accused of witchcraft are abandoned, beaten, slashed with knives, bathed with acid or lynched by parents, family and community members. Some of these so called child witches are chained and starved, some have been tortured to death by unscrupulous pastors during deliverance ceremonies. Also human rights activists working to defend the rights of those accused of witchcraft have been at risk. They have suffered attacks, threats, intimidation and harassment. ”

The Business of Witchcraft

Where there is a social problem, there are those who profit off of it and seek its continuance. Traditional healers, known to have powers that can rid people of and fight witchcraft are the first candidates. While some healers deal in herbs that purportedly heal a number of physical ailments, the most profitable sector of their business is fighting witchcraft. The claim to be able to detect witches, and are often employed by the state to serve as witnesses in witchcraft related cases. Often they are called into communities by local chiefs to root out witches and can receive an incredible sum of money, approximately $100 (US) a head.

Christian pastors, as in the United States, claim the ability to fight witchcraft through the power of God and frequently travel throughout the villages of Malawi, selling their services for donations. Pastors and traditional healers, by promoting their services, provide legitimacy to witchcraft claims, and exacerbate witchcraft accusations among a desperate and scared populace. It has been reported that Angola has been proactive in shutting down witch hunting operations by Christian churches, citing gross human rights violations amongst community members. Clearly, Christian organizations are seen as a community power, and the presence of pastors willing to perform these services legitimizes accusations and abuses against community members, using even the power of the state for their own ends. The rewards are power and money.

Religious Freedom in Malawi

The implications of the event are deeper than one initially assumes. Malawi, after years of enduring a repressive totalitarian government under Kamuzu Banda, now seeks to deal with a young but reasonably well-functioning democracy, despite Malawi having one of the lowest GDP’s in the entire world. One question is the role of religion in Malawi and whether Malawi is a secular or Christian state. The Constitution of Malawi, a wide ranging, progressive document by any standard, makes several allowances for religious freedom including:

“Every person shall have the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion, which shall include academic freedom.”

Calls to ban witchcraft legally are being made as I write this. Aside from the questions as to its Constitutionality, a state ban on witchcraft presents two major dilemmas. First, critics worry that a government ban on witchcraft will result in state recognition of it’s existence and legitimize the practice. Second, religious freedom advocates worry that a ban on witchcraft will apply to all animistic religions and create an Abrahamic hegemony, further marginalizing those who do not practice religious such as Christianity or Islam. The populace likely widely supports a legal ban on witchcraft, but the legal implications are immense. Government representatives have even begun to meet with Christian and Islamic church leaders to explore the possibility of creating legislation which sets standards for church activities. Of course, broadly speaking, the implication is that government will be given incredible control over the populace of Malawi, as religious faith is a given to just about everyone there, further reminding one of why the Founding Fathers thought it important enough to exclude religion from American government.

Americans for Peace Now Israeli Settlement Database

Using what I believe is the Spiegel Settlement Database, Americans for Peace Now have come up with a killer app for the iPhone and and online version in Google Maps where users can track Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory. Not only do you get a map of the settlements that plainly shows the Swiss cheese like nature of Palestine, but you can also click on each of the settlements to get a breakdown of details on the settlement. Americans for Peace Now along with other Israel Peace Now are using the maps to help end Israel’s apartheid-like policies toward Palestine. This becomes all the more important as Israel signals that it will end it’s moratorium on new settlements. Maps add a new level of transparency to human rights and peace issues, and in particular raise the level of accountability of Israel toward Palestine. It is completely true that a picture is certainly worth 1000 words.

“Facts on the Ground: The APN Map Project,” APN’s “App” for iPhone and iPad devices, available also on the web, is a real-time application that provides detail and context for the debate on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It allows anyone with a computer or a smartphone to access a comprehensive settlements database, integrated with high-tech mapping technologies. APN’s new app will be updated constantly to reflect breaking events and issues in the news, such as new settlement plans and construction, the establishment or removal of outposts, or violent incidents perpetrated by Palestinians or by settlers.”

Contract on America: Educated need not apply

My jaw dropped when I saw the contents of the Repuglican party’s revamped, 2010 version of the 1994 Contract on America. For those too young or those who were politically asleep in 1994, the Contract With America was a 10 point policy shopping list of what the Republican Party planned to implement during the next Congress. It was a sweeping document that including smoky promises of “fiscal responsibility” (we know how that turned out), a bolstering of law enforcement initiatives aimed at incarcerating and killing African American men, and the cutting of welfare programs in order to discourage black women from having babies, all the while giving tax breaks to white land and business owners in the name of “economic development”. In short, it was angry white people speaking out, desperately hoping to hold on to power in a country suffering under the thumb of out of control, dangerous and parasitic minorities and educated, atheistic liberals trying to enforce their anti-Jesus, pro-gay agenda. Liberals who wished to turn America into a vice filled cesspool akin to the Biblical Sodom and Gommorah. In short, not much different than anything we have today.

In the new version, what we get are the typical talking points of tax breaks for white people and a reining in of government spending, an end to TARP payments, bigoted social points relating to “traditional marriage”, anti-woman “life” measures and a bizarre condition that all bills presented by Congress have a Constitutional seal of approval, as if that wasn’t already the job of the Supreme Court. Buried in the text of this FOX News inspired treatise, is a hiring freeze on all new non-security federal employees. While I am sure that the employees of the Virginia hardware store where this was unveiled are thinking that this means that the feds will stop hiring black people and mexicans to work on the highways, what it really means is that the brightest and most productive members of American society will, for the time being, not have the option of entering public service. For example, American public health students will no longer need to apply for jobs at the Center for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), USAID, or the NIAID .

Statisticians and trained scientists no longer need to bother applying to the Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department of Agriculture, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Census Bureau, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US Department of Transportation, the Government Accountability Office or any other governmental agencies which help maintain and protect America’s infrastructure. Educated and experienced people who entered their respective academic fields in the hopes of entering the public sector and serving the greater good, need not look to the American government. Rather, they should get a job in the military, which is not such a bad gig but useless for domestic issues, or working the cash register at the local hardware store (not a bad gig, but a waste of a degree). It’s obvious that Republicans don’t believe that non-security agencies actually provide a worthwhile service. In fact, its pretty clear that they just don’t believe in government, which explains why they run it so badly.

The Republicans, while spewing talking points of economic development and tax breaks, have proven themselves over and over again to have incredible disdain for the educated. They, in their rhetoric, have done nothing less than vilify scientific research and knowledge. Only one of the Senate candidates believes that climate change is real. All of the new candidates spew excuses for blocking environmental policy as if they were experts, while not being able to digest even basic scientific thought. Note Rand Paul’s recent comparison of climate scientists to Osama Bin laden:

“Now Osama bin Laden had a quote yesterday. He’s says he’s after the climate change as well. It’s a bigger issue, we need to watch ‘em. Not only because it may or may not be true, but they’re making up their facts to fit their conclusions. They’ve already caught ‘em doing this.” [Rand Paul, 2/4/10]

Their new policies, while one the surface may appear to aim to cut spending and rein in debt, result in nothing more than closing the door on the educated, revealing yet another nail in the coffin for American science, hammered down by a dimwitted sector of the populace which would rather believe that humans rode dinosaurs and encourage large businesses to pollute than create a responsible and competitive society. Hiring freezes on services that the private sector can adequately provide may be in order, but the blanket wording of the Repug’s new Contract suggests grave implications in the shrinking of the American brain pool, arguably, our greatest resource. Note that all of the agencies I mentioned previously provide services that the private sector cannot responsibly perform. Blocking the hiring of young, talented, willing and qualified individuals from entering these important organizations will have implications that could extend for decades. Vote in November, someone’s job may count on it. Our future may count on it.

Katsuichi Honda

I’ve been distracted from writing on this blog due to a combination of back to school overwhelm-ment and a read of Katsuichi Honda’s landmark work on the controversial Nanking Massacre. I’ll spare a run down of the event, but will suggest his book to anyone interested in how disasters like Nanking come to pass. The Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, Mi Lai, gang rapes of schoolgirls in Okinawa, organized lynchings in the United States, the atomic bomb attacks of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the recent revelations of the killing and collecting of body parts by a group of American soldiers in Afghanistan are all, on the surface, inexplicable, but knowing that the participants are likely not all that special makes their occurrences real and frightening. Anyone could be a participant in any of these crimes with the right combination of group-think, fear, desperation and the inability to see their victims as living, breathing, feeling human beings.

In the early 70’s, Honda ran a series of articles in the Asahi Shinbun detailing eyewitness and newspaper accounts of atricities commited by the Japanese military during the invasion of Nanking. The articles and the subsequent book helped prompt a fierce debate within Japan that continues to this day. Many books on the massacre have been written, some are good, some are bad and some are revisionist texts written by right wing Japanese groups with a specific political agenda.

While I’ve not read every book on this event, I’ve skimmed through a few, and this is the best and incidentally, the most horrifying that I’ve seen. The eyewitness accounts of both the Chinese victims of the assault and the soldiers who participated in them present a vivid picture of the unthinkable, but Honda weaves the book into a treatise on how a government propaganda machine can use the press to suppress damning information and allow atrocities to continue.

Honda’s book presents accounts that appeared in Japanese newspapers at the time, and the more truthful accounts of the people who wrote the articles. People who were willing to come out later and tell what they really saw. One has to wonder the role that a truly free press could have played in halting the massacre or in at least reigning in the absolutely out of control Japanese military.

People like Honda are heroes. Unlike Germany and Italy, Japan did not make a full accounting for it’s actions during the imperial years in the period following World War II. There were limited war crimes tribunals to prosecute major players in the Asian occupation, but the horrific events during that time were not a major part of public discourse. This was partly a result of American policies forbidding representations of Imperial Japan in the popular media, but likely mostly the result of a victimized populace that preferred to move on, rather than dwell on the mistakes of the past.

This changed in the 1970’s when Honda’s articles began to appear in the Asahi, and the events in Nanking finally entered the public debate. Right-wingers, anxious to create a positive view of war time Japan and fight off what they saw as an oppressive meddling in Japanese politics by America and other foreign powers, summarily denied the existence of the massacre and cast aside Honda’s reporting as pro-Chinese propaganda. Honda, in response to the revisionist’s claims in the media and in the famous but conservative Bungei Shunju, continued to publish and eventually released this book, an abbreviated version of a monster 3000 page manuscript. While the full version has yet to appear, the book itself shattered revisionist claims and positively contributed to the debate as to how events like Nanking are to be treated in Japanese schools, and, by result, how the events are to be viewed and remembered by future generations.

This was, in no doubt, a risky venture and Honda likely put his life and safety on the line. Most likely, his high profile status as a writer protected him from the worst, but could have easily cost him a career. Honda’s incredible contribution to human rights awareness and to greater social change cannot be denied, lending credence as to the great power that journalists have in maintaining a conscientious and fair society.


I know these posts would be infinitely more interesting were I actually in the place I’m writing about, but these will have to do. It’s a least a way to sort through the 60000 pictures I took in Japan (praise digital). Obon is the yearly Buddhist holiday season where people in Japan pay respects to their dead relatives. Usually, they travel as a family unit to grave sites all around Japan. Train tickets are difficult to get and it’s usually standing room only. While it certainly is an important holiday and helps to keep the memory of those who have long since passed, I think that it’s likely just an excuse to help keep the family ties of the living secure.

The holiday season is usually prefaced by Obon festivals where folks, young and old do the Bon-odori, or Obon dance. The festivals are principally for younger children, who are on summer vacation at the time. They can play games and win small prizes at the festivals, in addition to learning the Bon-Odori from their aging community members. I got to go to the small Obon festival in Okubo, a small suburb of Akashi city in Hyogo. Here is some poorly shot video of the event. You can’t see much, but at least you can hear what’s going on.

The next day, I was able to travel to Tennoji in Osaka to visit the famous Shitennou Temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, originally built in 593. It’s a large compound, that houses temple buildings, a school, a hospital and serves as home to the famous Shitennouji flea market on the 21st of every month. The flea market is a great place to go and get odd items from Japan, like guitars with Loudness stickers on them, and old Japanese vinyl. Take some cash, some things aren’t cheap. On the day, I was there, there was a crafts flea market including knife vendors from Niigata, wood carvers and papermakers. I used to teach not very far from this area and many of my students came from the Shitennouji school. I remember they routinely complain about their uniforms, which they claim make them look like gravestones.

Once you make it past all the old ladies, you can check out the temple grounds, it’s well worth the trip. If you can get there at night, they have a candle lighting ceremony. I couldn’t make it to the candle lighting, but it looked as if the entire compound gets lit up. Check out some photos (that I didn’t take) in the link above. Shitennouji was apparently hit during the war and I was able to find an interesting photo of the damage on this site. Obviously, it’s a beautiful compound now.

After Shitennouji, I was able to make it to Isshin-ji, which was under construction when I lived here in the late 90’s. Compared to Shitennouji, Isshin-ji was packed with visitors. It is a smaller, but more modern compound, definitely aimed at formal (and money holding) visitors. To get a sense of the difference between the two, all one has to do is check out their respective websites, Shitennouji’s being a in house production, whereas Isshinji obviously paid some professional organization to construct theirs. It’s a beautiful site and I got to visit the Buddhist supply stores along the way. You can also pick up traditional Asian remedies for your gout or constipation condition, while you’re at it. Like the US, religious institutions are primarily utilized by the aged. Isshinji also has a live camera so that you can monitor the temple when the sun is out.

Isshinji is also known for being a temple where the god of alcohol abstinence is enshrined. Apparently, from as much as my reading skills will allow, a relation of Ieyasu Tokugawa was stuck here during a battle, and ended up dying due to alcohol poisoning. From then on, Isshinji has been known to be a place where people who are having trouble with alcohol, or whose families suffer because of an alcoholic, can come and receive spiritual support. Patrons purchase a “Syamoji” (rice paddles pictured at the right) and write their own message asking for help. It’s like an Buddhist AA. I was struck by the sincerity of the messages. Whereas most of these sorts of offerings ask for love pairings or to graduate from school, this one really struck home. In a country plagued by unspoken alcohol abuse and societal excuses for alcoholic excess, this was a stark reminder that, under the veil of denial, real problems do exist as anywhere else. This is perhaps a first step that alcoholics may take before joining the Danshukai, a Buddhist based alcohol abstinence society.

Oh, Rev. Jones, Can I Buy You a Ticket to India?

Recently, news of small but moronic Rev. Terry Jones’ plan to burn Korans on September 11th. Ostensibly, the goal was to promote his insignificantly small church, interestingly called “Dove World Outreach” and promote unity within his band of morons, fighting against a common brown enemy in a far away land. While normally, not a human in the world should care what happens in a meaningless Florida church, Jones got front page coverage due to election year politics and a fractured Republican party that wants to be a major stakeholder of American power. The result of this is 73 people dead and many more injured through rioting in Pakistan and India and a burned Christian church, among other incidents which we have yet to hear about.

It’s about time that the American right understand that the world is not limited to their isolated and brainless communities of absolute dunces, but that their divisive and vitrol-filled rants of white Christian superiority and brown inferiority have ripple effects which lead to people being killed and injured, and to Christians around the world having to live in fear that every time some redneck, small government, faith loving bozo opens his or her mouth, a band of angry mobsters will come and set their house on fire. An activity that smacks of the historical right’s penchant for immolating black people and their houses over being nothing more than a minority.

What I would like to see, is for these bozos that stupid white people in America happily vote for to go to a place like Pakistan and look some injured kid in the face and try to say something meaningful. The American right can use these riots and violence as another weapon in their fight against evil Islam and “the Islamization of America” (whatever the hell that is), but in the end, its almost impossible for Rev. Jones and all his supporters in the ranks of conservative America to escape blame here. The media in America also has to take full accountability for it’s role in promoting this kind of hate filled nonsense, and freely giving a Cro-Magnon like Rev. Jones a platform on which to expel his nonsense.

We are not alone in this world. If you marginalize people, they will come for you, eventually, especially when they have as little understanding of the complexities of American culture as you do of Islam. When the next 9/11 happens (only a matter of time), will these troglodytes on the American right stand up and say “We fanned the flames with our inability act with civility”? I think not. On this 9/11 anniversary, I can say that Terry Jones, who interestingly did an about face under pressure, is at least as complicit as Bin Laden.

Nagasaki: How I Learned to Hate the Atomic Bomb

A couple of weeks ago, I had the fortunate opportunity to travel to Nagasaki to visit the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Nagasaki University. Nagasaki, as many (depending on age) know, was the site of the second military atomic attack in history and the first and only plutonium bomb explosion. The explosion on Nagasaki killed 73,884, wounded another 74,909 and sickened hundreds of thousands in the years following the attack. More than 70% of those killed and wounded were women, children and the aged.

Rolling into Nagasaki, however, one would never know that anything ever happened. It is, by Japanese standards, a tiny town, worn down and clearly not nearly as blessed by the Japanese economic miracle as Kansai/Kanto, but a typical Japanese city, nonetheless. There is no subway in Nagasaki due the the unique and narrow configuration of the city along a river delta, but street cars run the length of Nagasaki and can quickly take one to any location. It is a beautiful city with a long and complicated history which has much more to offer than just the atomic bomb attack.

The city of Nagasaki operates an impressive museum on the atomic bomb attack, meticulously detailing its history, the attack itself and the long felt after effects. The museum complex is located not but 50 meters from the bomb site, which is memorialized through a peace and remembrance park. People from all over Japan regularly make the trip to visit the museum and I was not the only non-Japanese present. The presentation itself points no fingers at the United States but rather criticizes war and the horrific destructive power of atomic weapons. The human costs are well detailed through multimedia displays, actual pieces of burned and melted items, human remains, testimonials and data. As an American, it was an intense view of the great costs of Word War II, which are often ignored and mostly forgotten here likely due to the mass suppression of information regarding the horrific effects of the attacks. Unfortunately, American schoolchildren do not see photos of the intense devastation.

There are many in America who view the United States as a Christian country, and criticize, for example, Islam for it’s alleged savagery and backwards brutality. Yet, Christians were responsible for the death and destruction spread across Nagasaki. The atomic bombs were called a gift from God by Truman, yet would Christ himself have approved? Nagasaki is the heartland of Japanese Christianity, at one time providing home to the largest Christian cathedral in all of Asia. Christians in Nagasaki were routinely persecuted, killed and tortured by the Japanese authorities due to perceived economic exploitation by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century. Practicing Christians were forced to conceal their faith for nearly 300 years until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and, to this day, the Christian influence is obvious in Nagasaki. Conversations with older Japanese people reveal that there was little support for the war all over Japan, but the residents of Nagasaki in particular were the least likely to be in support of the war and the least likely, outside of Okinawa, to have any measure of support for the mainland central government. Yet, the Americans saw fit to exterminate Japan’s largest Christian community and, in the process, burn the massive Cathedral which was situated not but 600 meters from the bomb site. One cannot discount the effect that years of propaganda depicting the Japanese as uniformly less human and calling for their total extermination (like insects) fueled the choice of Japan to serve as a principal attack site.

Conversations with Nagasaki residents reveal that the atomic bomb is very much on their minds, particularly since this year marks the 65th anniversary of the attack. People attempt to make sense of the event and will tell stories of their parents and grandparents who were killed or survived the attack, even if some silently try to avoid any outward signs of having been affected. Survivors of the attack were met with considerable scorn, marginalized as diseased and untouchable for years afterward, being discriminated against for marriage and employment. Movies and literature explore the topic, not the least of which is Ishii’s “Horrors of Malformed Men“, which portrays, in a gruesome and avant-garde fashion, a marginalized community of deformed freaks which operate on the fringes of society. The movie was banned in imagined anticipation of offending survivors, but the result is to marginalize the victims even more. It could be said that the people who died in the initial blast fared better than the survivors.

An older gentleman expressed to me his discomfort at discussing the bombs with an American, but I reassured him that it was me who should be uncomfortable. While there is certainly resentment toward the United States government all over Japan, I never sense any particular resentment toward individual Americans. I do however, feel that Japanese people are disappointed that the Americans ignore their concerns, not only in regards to the bomb attacks, but also toward the continuing difficulties that result from the presence of so many US military bases throughout Japan. This is something I don’t think I was particularly cognizant of when I lived here, perhaps due to a combination of age, education and linguistic ability.

People of my generation were raised to believe that the American military was a force for good. Soldiers were likened to superheroes, selfless defenders of the weak and the oppressed. As an adult, I would very much wish this to be true and I know that there are a great many honorable and proud individuals who join the military hoping to be superheroes. However, as I have grown older, I have come to known that the American military is a force to serve the aims of a self-involved America, protecting American business and political interests around the globe. This, of course, is very much to be expected. World War II was no exception. I would however, greatly wish that the Americans would be those superheroes I was taught to respect but maybe that’s asking way too much.

Many argue that the atomic bomb attacks were a great catalyst which helped to end the war and spared millions of American and Japanese lives. This may or may not be true. People can freely argue history and speculate on what might or might not have been but the ends do not make any wartime actions right. There are some things which are just plain wrong. What the Japanese military did in Nanking was wrong. What the Germans did in Auschwitz and Dachau was wrong. But neither those make the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the least bit right.

One thing that my relationship with Japan has taught me is that it is unproductive to search for people to blame. Rather, we should look at actions and events and figure out ways to keep them from happening again. Americans are obsesses with the fight between good and evil, in Japan these poles are mired with shades of gray along with distinctions between groups and individuals. While this attitude is not unique to Japan nor do I put it into practice very well (ask my wife), it’s a laudable goal. As humans, we are all to blame for horrors such as the atomic bomb, as individuals it is our duty to never forget the human potential for destruction.

On the upside, I was able to hang out with the excellent folks from the Nagasaki Tropical Medicine Unit.

Mount Maya

This continues my after the fact travel blogs. I figure it will assist in keeping me in a state of denial that I’m back in the land of liberty, even though writing about things that happened two weeks ago strikes me as disingenuous. Regardless, Fumie and I decided to brave the heat and scale Mount Maya, part of the Rokko mountains outside Kobe, Japan. While I could find no evidence of legends of ghosts of spirits on Mount Maya (unlike Mount Mulanje in Malawi), the name derives from the Mayabujin, or the mother of the Buddha Shakyamuni, who is enshrined here.

The path up the mountain is well prepared, requiring no special skill to reach the top. Centuries of travel through the mountain have worn out walking paths. Maps are provided at various points and sign point the way to prevent being lost in the woods. The trip is mostly easy (assuming cool weather), aside from a series of stairways ending in what’s known as the “agony slope”, a nearly vertical, seeming endless slope. Fortunately, there’s much to see along the way and one can always stick one’s feet in one of the mountain streams to cool down.

Aside from the multitude of shrines and odd abandoned houses along the way, one passes by dam which provides the city of Kobe with fresh water. I was always curious as to where Japanese cities got their water and now I know how. Seeing this pristine water in the middle of a mountain top causes me to question the nearly obsessive water quality suspicions Japanese residents have. The water in Kobe is likely cleaner than the water in Michigan.

It takes about six hours to reach the top of Mount Maya. Highlight of the trip was stopping to read a sign describing the types of people who get dementia and having a female wild boar sneak up behind us. Presumably, the boaress has a strategy where she frightens people who stop for lunch into running away from their bentos. After we walked way, she started gnawing on the bench hungrily. These animals are feared throughout Japan, being known for quickly attacking and biting humans with little provocation. However, I could tell that this one was just after lunch.

One can do the walk back down the mountain to catch the train home, but then you would miss the sweet cable car ride back down. While the view is excellent, it’s a bit disconcerting to spend a mere ten minutes going down a mountain that took you six hours to scale. Conclusion? Highly recommended. Easy and safe walk, great scenery and if you get into real trouble there are people around. Maps and vending machines abound. I’m still wondering why I didn’t do this kind of thing when I actually lived in Japan. The twenties have to be the dumbest period of person’s lifetime, at least for me.

Himeji Heat Wave

This summer in Japan was the hottest on record in six decades. Even after 13 years enduring Mississippi summers, I can never get used to such unbearable heat. More than 300 people died from the heat while we were there and there were at least 40,000 hospitalizations due to complications from heat stroke. As in the US, elderly individuals are at the highest risk of adverse effects from heat exposure, and many either can’t afford air conditioning or refuse to run it, thinking it a waste of money. Maybe it’s my public health training, but I can’t help but think that dying of heat stroke is inherently an affliction of the poor. Rich people have air conditioners and don’t mind using them. Regardless, Japanese air conditioners are ill equipped to deal with Japanese summers.

Braving the heat, I borrowed my brother in law’s bike and rode the Akashi/Himeji Cycling Road from Akashi Okubo Station to Himeji. It was only 100 degrees but I wanted to get in a least some amount of bike time in while I was in Japan. Japan is excellent for cycling. The government has created a vast network of paved cycling roads, well off the main automobile infested streets, with detailed signs and maps along the way so that one does not get lost. Convenience stores and vending machines are everywhere, no fear of getting mugged or sick, it’s tailor made for cycling. Plus, one gets to enjoy the incredible scenery along the way. Unfortunately, though, the Akashi-Himeji Cycling Road is mostly under a Shinkansen track and looks like the picture on the right for miles. The plus side is that there is shade underneath the track.

Once one actually gets to Himeji, however, the challenge is to find the castle. After getting some miserable directions that took me at least 5 miles out of my way, I finally made it to the castle. Himeji castle is famous for being one of the most beautiful existing castles in Japan. Kurosawa filmed both Kagemusha and Ran at the site. It’s breathtaking, but now looking at the pictures, I realize that the heat must have been getting to me (some pictures are fairly inexplicable). I don’t think I really appreciated how fantastic it is. Unfortunately, the main building is closed for renovation and will be for the next 5 years or so. One can still get into one of the minor buildings, though.

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