Recently, I went to Los Angeles. While I was there, I was able to visit my good friend Joel Black whom I had not seen in 23 years. I’ve known him since high school and he is one of my favorite people on the planet. Joel was responsible for one of my favorite records, The Terrifying Sicko’s “Chipping Talc off Priscilla’s Calm Demeanor” along with countless other incredible musical projects including one of my own. All of this, in addition to being a beautiful human being. I can’t say that about a lot of people, but Joel is one of them. I don’t know why, but I made this short film about him.
For the past three years, I’ve made it a point to go the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science Conference (SACNAS). SACNAS is an organization devoted to encouraging minority students to pursue graduate education and careers in science. Although I am likely well beyond the targeted age demographic, it’s a really great time to hang out and talk with younger kids embarking on careers in science; kids who are largely the first members of their family to graduate high school, let alone go to University. More or less, many of these hard working and excellent kids aren’t much different than me. I go to a few conferences every year, and find that most are filled with the typical one-upmanship and grandstanding that you would expect in the science world. SACNAS on the other hand, with its emphasis on younger scientists, is entirely laid back. It’s incredible to meet faculty and working scientists in an environment outside their element.
This time, I was able to present a poster of a project that I’ve been working on. While the poster was nothing to get excited about, one of my judges, a Chicano gentleman from New Mexico State, and I must have talked for more than a half an hour about the importance of science as a tool to make the world a better place. After more than a half an hour of explaining how my research could be used to influence health policy to more efficiently deliver health services to isolated and at risk populations, the gentleman teared up and gave me a huge bear hug. It was incredible and completely out of my academic experience at the U of M, where more often than not, it seems that making a name for yourself and keeping the economics of science moving is priority one.
To hell with that. Science is at its core subversive. It’s about shaking up preconceived notions of the world. All the way back to when Galileo disrupted the hegemony of the church by simply pointing out the world rotated around the sun. Now, with the world facing a litany of problems and challenges, the likes of which humanity has never seen, our voices are more important than ever.
Organizations like SACNAS encourage the perfect demographic to contribute to science. People who understand what the poor and marginalized experience. People who have just enough conscience to contribute to the betterment of the world and people who think in a unique enough fashion to avoid all the pitfalls of trendy scientific thinking and contribute exciting and original ideas.
Recently, in the online edition of TBS Television, I encountered a news story on Miyashita Koen in Shibuya, Tokyo. It appears that Nike Shoes have negotiated a deal with the Shibuya Ward Office to $200,000 per year for naming rights and permission to perform a large renovation on the park, including a project to create a large slide in the shape of the Nike swoosh. In effect, the park will end up being a giant billboard for the massive shoe manufacturer. The incursion of private enterprise into a public space immediately raises suspicions of back room corruption and shady dealings amongst Ward officials, not to mention the cheap price of for complete control of a publicly owned space. Why Nike? Why not Adidas or Birkenstock? And why should tax payer funded areas promote one particular privately owned business?
Of course, Ward officials and some local residents are happy to have the park renovated at someone else’s expense, but the implications of this are that private business merely needs to flash money and it can then post it’s trademark on just about any public space it likes. Soon, we’ll be seeing Disney billboards on the Imperial Palace, or worse, Tommy Hilfiger signs on the Diet building itself. Of course, Japan is no stranger to billboards and advertising, which are ubiquitous throughout Japan. Until now, however, business advertising has been limited in publicly funded spaces, outside of that on vending machines.
However, Miyashita Kouen is significant in that it has become home to a small but present squatter community of homeless persons in addition to providing a home base for local community and political groups. The Ward office has begun the process of forcibly evicting the homeless individuals this month, some of whom have resided in the park for years. Local community groups have come the park residents’ aid, vocally protesting the eviction, surrounding the park and creating problems for the clean-up crews through large art installations and signboards. Interestingly, the article I read on TBS made not a single mention of the homeless issue, inferring that the community groups were merely a group of misdirected troublemakers without a specific agenda. This struck me as interesting, given Japan’s predilection to ignoring the homeless, almost as if they do not exist. What one does not see, does not exist. More disappointing however, is TBS’s lack of spine.
The quandary, of course, is that the park is paid for by taxpayers, for the use of taxpayers. Local residents will not use the park specifically because of the presence of homeless and the fear for the safety of their children. Yet, the Ward is not willing to provide housing for the homeless and the lack of jobs in a rough economy for aging, single men keeps the men in the park. The Ward may clear the park, but may create another problem by scattering the men throughout the Ward aside from the important human rights concerns.
As in the United States, homeless people in Japan have little recourse. To make matters worse, homeless in Japan are denied the right to vote having no permanent address, thus they have zero representation in government. A lack of political will in a climate that is experiencing a crushing limitation of financial resources prevents local authorities from being proactive on the issues of the local homeless, and worse, a societal attitude that assumes family support for elders, completely marginalizes aging, single men as being outside the network and thus not true members of society. How the situation will play out in the long term, is unknown, but for the short term, it appears that Japanese local officials have taken a cue from the Americans and put business ahead of the demands of social minorities.