Friday, December 26, 2014

Christmas Traditions

Everyone has a pet peeve about Christmas.  Mine is a little unusual.  See, about this time of year, people write articles about the “Christmas Truce” of World War I.  It is especially bad this year, as it’s the centennial.  This tradition annoys me because as a historian I see things very differently.  Remembering Christmas 1914 as the day everyone called time-out on the worst war the world has ever seen is a comforting story, but that’s all it is.  A story.  The Christmas Truce is mythical.  Of course, like many myths, it has some true stories at its core.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sony Panics and North Korea Tries to Avenge an Insult

I want to say right off the bat, that seeing a freakin’ movie is not standing up for your freedom.  Sitting down for it, maybe.  I have been trying to write about the Sony/North Korea/hack/panic fiasco since the story broke, but it evolves so quickly I felt compelled to re-write everything.  I think we’ve about reached the endgame.  Sony staff may be scared out of their wits, but now that The Interview has been released, one would think Sony Pictures could not have asked for better publicity.  All of this panic was unnecessary.  North Korean violence tends to come without prior warning, but vocal threats from Pyongyang are mere bluster.  I discussed this tendency last Spring.  We in the biz call it calculated madness.  North Korea effects the appearance of irrationality in order to scare the rest of us.  ‘They are unpredictable!’ we say, ‘who knows what they can do!’  And then the rest of us give North Korea something they want out of fear.  You see that in the initial response to “the Guardians of Peace” threats. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Back to Yasukuni

              Last week the New York Times ran an interesting article about Yasukuni Shrine and the War Bereaved Families Association (Izokukai), one of the Shrine’s bigger patrons.  Abe visited Yasukuni again this past August to the typical responses from the world at large.  The NYT tells us that Izokukai has an interesting request for the shrine: remove the Class-A war criminals.  Izokukai has joined other people in protesting the presence of the class-As since they were enshrined in 1974.  But Izokukai also calls on the Prime Minister and the Emperor to pay homage at Yasukuni.  The Emperors have boycotted Yasukuni over the class-As investiture.  It is interesting to see this nuance from Japan about the controversial shrine, but removing the Class-As would not make a difference to other people around Asia.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

F-35 Does Something It's Supposed To

Normally when the troubled F-35 Lightning II makes the news, it's because something went wrong.  On Sunday, a Navy test pilot successfully landed his F-35C on USS Nimitz.  The F-35C is a variant of the stock F-35 model designed to operate from US Navy aircraft carriers.  So, good news for the plane and Lockheed Martin.  The US Navy may get it's stealth plane after all.  For a while, it looked like the STOVL and carrier F-35 variants were going to be cancelled due to delays and cost overruns.  Plenty of people probably still want to cancel the project.  If Lockheed Martin and the US Department of Defense have more successful tests and exercises with the plane, then it will succeed.  I wrote last year that South Korea had committed to buy F-35As, and Japan is planning to as well.  So, I think we should expect to see them flying in Asia sooner or later.  Unfortunately, that will only encourage China to develop counter-measures, such as it's own stealth planes (remember the mysterious J-20?) 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe

Book Review: Orderly and Humane by R.M. Douglas

            Full disclosure, Ray Douglas was one of my history professors at Colgate University.  

            That said, Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War delves into a history many people have forgotten, even those who lived it.  After World War II ended, millions of German-speakers remained in Eastern Europe.  Some of them were settlers sent East by the Nazis, to Germanize the conquered territories, but most of them came from families that had been there since the Middle Ages.  The governments of the newly liberated countries, especially Poland and what was then Czechoslovakia, considered the “ethnic Germans,” called Volksdeutsche in the book, as guilty as the Nazis for the war and all the suffering visited upon the peoples of Europe.  Furthermore, the continued presence of Volksdeutsche outside of Germany would be a threat to Europe’s future peace.  Eastern Europe, with support from the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, began forcing the Volksdeutsche to leave for Germany in mass expulsions that lasted from the end of the war to the early fifties.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Making Sense of North Korea: How We Know Anything

North Korean is in the news again.  Lately, the stories about the impossible state have been relatively normal, even by the DPRK’s standards: the secretive leader Kim Jong-un may have health problems, he may be purging the country’s leadership.  National rulers develop health problems, same as the rest of us, and dictators conduct purges to protect themselves.  With all things North Korean, some skepticism is warranted.  The first question we need to ask: how do we know about this?  How do we know anything about North Korea in general?  Most of the outside world’s knowledge about North Korea comes from defectors.  Another important source of information on the DPRK were the negotiations conducted under the auspices of the Six Party Talks, or the Agreed Framework talks of the 1990s. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Asahi Shimbun and Comfort Women

            In August, the Asahi Shimbun retracted thirty years worth of stories about comfort women when they realized their source, Yoshida Seiji, was not reliable after a review of his testimony.  Yoshida Seiji approached the Asahi in 1982 when he claimed that as an army officer in the 1940s he was personally responsible for taking Korean women from Jeju Island to serve the Japanese Army.  After citing Yoshida’s testimony sixteen times over thirty years, Asahi editorial re-examined Yoshida’s accounts, determined they are not verifiable and issued retractions.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Narendra Modi, Japan and the United States

On May 12 India completed national elections that saw the ruling party in national government change.  The Bharatiya Janata Party won enough seats in Parliament to make one of their own, Narendra Modi, Prime Minister.  According to the Financial Times, the BJP did not gain enough seats to form a majority government, and had to form a coalition, but Modi gets to be Prime Minister.  Modi himself is a colorful figure.  A former candy-maker turned politician, he campaigned on the promise of “toilets, not temples,” meaning he intends to focus policy on economic and infrastructure development rather than the Hindu identity that has long defined his party.  A politician like Modi does need to make that distinction.  Bharatiya Janata was founded in 1949 in response to the secular National Congress Party.  BJP is Hindu Nationalist in ideology, and now they have the advantage of having been out of national power long enough to avoid associations with problems of corruption and inefficiency, like their archrivals the Congress Party.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

Large and At Large: We're Just Here for Godzilla

           In a lot of ways Godzilla is a perfect topic for me to write about.  “Godzilla” is a common English expression referring to something huge.  We append “zilla” to another word to suggest a giant-sized version, often with comedic intent.  The character has appeared in ad campaigns (outside of Japan), comic books, and American Saturday morning cartoons, but the Japanese have never bothered with an ongoing Godzilla cartoon.  Gareth Edwards’ new film Godzilla, hereafter called Godzilla (2014) demonstrates that plenty of Americans get Godzilla, because this is certainly a Godzilla movie.  It is not as layered and meaningful as 1954’s Gojira, but Edwards’ film follows the formula used by the majority of Godzilla movies.  The plot unfolds in the same manner as older Toho-produced Godzilla movies, and preserves the most enduring weakness of the franchise: uninteresting humans.  If you fear this will be a repeat of 1998’s Matthew Broderick vehicle, fear no more.  This one is a real Godzilla movie.  But I am not writing a review of the movie.  I am here to examine why Hollywood made this movie, and not Toho Studios itself. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Casino Gambling in Japan?

There has been quite a bit of chatter over the last few months about the possibility of Japan legalizing gambling.  The big international gaming companies have been lobbying Japanese politicians to change the laws, and presented plans for prospective resorts in casinos in some of Japan’s major cities.  Abe Shinzo himself made an appearance at a gaming industry event in Tokyo last fall, and pundits read his appearance as support of the inevitability of changes that will legalize new types of gambling in Japan.  Japan’s present gaming laws prohibit casino gambling, but allow bets on horse, bicycle and boat races, and non-cash reward games.  There are a number of reasons Japan would consider legalizing casino gambling and reason to prevent it.  Legalization would raise tax revenue, keep more money in Japan, and possibly create more job opportunities in the casinos themselves and in the regulatory apparatus.  But the wealthy pachinko business can afford to fight back, alongside anti-gambling elements in the Japanese polity.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Next Verse, Same as the First

              There is a noticeable tendency for tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul to flare up in the spring.  Last year North Korea sealed the border, closed factories in the Kaesong Industrial Zone and denounced US-ROKA exercises as a provocation.  Said military exercises occur every year.  Two years ago, North Korea announced it would resume nuclear tests, and the US Navy dispatched Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington to South Korea in response.  Well, last week, on Sunday March 30, North Korea fired artillery into the ocean, over the armistice line, and the Southern Navy responded in kind.  Then on Monday March 31 the South Korean Defense Ministry announced they had recovered a crashed North Korean drone.  These events are nothing new, but later in the week Prime Minister of Japan Abe Shinzo ordered the Marine Self-Defense Force to patrol the Sea of Japan with an AEGIS-equipped destroyer and shoot down any North Korean missiles bringing a new factor into the mix: the Japanese might actually do something.  Previously, Japan was the least powerful party interested in the tension on the Korean peninsula.  However, if the Japanese were to actually shoot down a North Korean device the rest of the region would have to take them more seriously.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

3/11 Three Years On Part 3: In Which I Write about Radiation

            I said in “3/11 Three Years On Part 1” that I would not write about radiation because enough people had written about it, and I would rather write about other effects of the earthquake that I happen to feel personally about.  Well, that was before I read anyone else’s thoughts on the anniversary of the Triple Disasters and changed my mind.  I know that the nuclear disaster has overshadows the others, and I have understood this since March 2011.  Hell, that is the reason I initially decided not to write about Fukushima.  But ye gods.  From some of the chatter, and you all know if this applies to you or not, one would think the nuclear disaster was the only significant consequence of the earthquake.  I believe the nuclear disaster is the most significant consequence, so I do understand all the attention it gets.  Or rather, I would be able to if it were not for the sheer ignorance that permeates so much of what has been written about Fukushima.

Monday, March 10, 2014

3/11 Three Years on Part 2: What Happened to Me

Day 1 Friday March 11, 2011
            It was graduation day.  After the ceremony the students had gone home early so only we teachers were left at school and another teacher and I were talking to each other about the faculty party scheduled for that night when the shaking started.  I instinctively took shelter in the doorway out of the teachers room.  For the past year my rule had been that if the shaking did not knock anything down, I would not worry.  The first tremor knocked everything over, including me.  After the shaking ended I could not move for a minute.  The lights went off.  The shaking stopped and the office was a mess but the building appeared to be undamaged.  The principal came out of his office and began to direct everything.  I went back to my desk to sort things out when the next tremor struck and one of the Japanese teachers told me all had to leave the building so we ran out onto the baseball field.  It was snowing and I hadn’t tried to get my coat.  The shaking continued.  Some of the teachers got out their cell phones and turned on a web browser or television in order to get the news and we heard about the tsunami.  The teachers kept using a word I had never heard before but could understand that translates to “great tsunami.”

3/11 Three Years On Part 1

            I was in Northern Japan on 3/11/11, the day of the Great Northeast Japan Earthquake.  It has gotten easier for me to talk about it since then, because I have told the story so many times, and have been able to come to terms with my experiences, and with the consequences of the earthquake that I did not experience firsthand.  I do not intend to write about radiation and nuclear energy specifically, because enough people continue to write about that topic, and they do not wait for the anniversary to do so.  I will use my soapbox to write about the rest of Tohoku, where is lived and worked for a year, and came to appreciate and love.  I will tell you about Tohoku, because this is the story of the earthquake that is neglected these days.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Let's Do the Tension Tango

On February 20 2014, the Financial Times reported that a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officer, speaking to FT anonymously, said that China is training for a “short, sharp war” with Japan and its allies (which include Australia and India).  On February 23, 2014, the New York Times reported on the US-Japan Iron Fist exercise at Camp Pendleton, as if it was something entirely new.  Iron Fist occurs every year, yet, this year, the Times ran the headline “In Japan’s Drill with the U.S., a Message for Beijing.”

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Japanese Medical Education

Different countries have different standards for medical training.  Take Japan: it's a very healthy society.  They have lower healthcare costs than the United States thanks, in part, to near-universal healthcare insurance coverage.  The progression for becoming a doctor is a little different from the United States.  The biggest difference is duration of education, but when you speed things up, something else gives.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Afghanistan in the 1960s

You hear over and over how “Afghanistan is stuck in the thirteenth century” (or some other medieval century).  Well, no, its not.  The reality is more complicated.  Would you believe, the pictures posted here: are from Afghanistan? Well, I’ve encountered this part of the Afghan history before, and can assure you its all real.  Modernity is fragile.  I think it is very important for us to view photographic collections like this because they show us something we Westerners tend to overlook about Afghanistan.  I have had shouting arguments with people who refused to believe Afghanistan had ever been different from the one they saw on the news for the last thirteen years.  Well, here is my proof. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Play Ball!

           I need a break from politics.  So let’s talk about something else.  Since my round-up of the new anime season is not finished yet, let’s talk about something else Japan and the USA share a love for; baseball.  I’ve never been much of a sports fan, but once in a while I will claim a team as my own.  Since I come from a family of Yankees fans, I tend to pick that team.  Its not bandwagonning if your family is into it.  When I was little I would root for the Phillies, but they sucked in those days so I turned my back on them.  When I lived in Miyagi I adopted the local Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.  And now the Yankees have signed the Eagles’ pitcher, Tanaka Masahiro.  The Eagles have a bad few years (and that’s going back before the earthquake), so I can’t imagine the fans are too happy to lose a good player.  At least it isn’t to the Yomiuri Giants. My brother tells me Tanaka’s contract is normal for a pitcher.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Abe Goes to Yasukuni Jingu

         Last month the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, went to Yasukuni Shrine
(Jingu in Japanese) to pay his respects to the enshrined military dead. At first, I thought I had nothing to add to this story. After a few weeks of reading the same arguments over again, I realized I do have something to add: I find fault with the way English-language writers portray the Yasukuni issue and describe the shrine itself, I find fault with the difficulty we have with Yasukuni’s whole context, but I do not find fault with the rest of East Asia’s grievances over everything Yasukuni Jingu represents.
Whenever a Japanese prime minister visits Yasukuni Shrine, one of the more common recurrent responses (besides outrage) is a befuddled ‘why?’ Why go through the same drama over and over again, risk the ill will of the neighbors, and endanger Japan’s foreign affairs. Well, Abe Shinzo, despite all the work he did on his visit around Southeast Asia last month, seems not to care how he comes across overseas. Or he is gambling that the states of Southeast Asia are worried enough about China to overlook the pain of war memories. It is an interesting contrast to Abe’s foreign policy actions from last fall. The deal over Okinawan bases announced last week would suggest that Abe and his advisors want to minimize the amount of risk they want to take.