Monthly Archives: August 2005

Multilingual Japan

One big difference I’ve noted on this, my first extended trip back to Japan in 20 years, is how much more multilingual the nation is. I don’t mean so much that more Japanese seem to speak foreign languages better than at any time since 1945–though I suspect that is also likely to be true.

What has struck me instead, on our attempts to get maximum usage from our rail passes, is the much greater quantity of signage in Chinese and Korean–and some Russian in Niigata–designed to help tourists speaking those languages. Many goods imported from other Asian countries also list instructions or ingredients in both Chinese and Korean.

But another thing that has struck me is that most Japanese now seem to expect foreigners to speak enough of the host country language to conduct simple transactions such as making purchases and asking directions. And I’ve been very impressed by the many people I’ve queried in my limited but sometimes deceptively fluent Japanese who’ve communicated very effectively in simplified and maximally redundant Japanese designed to get through to foreigners with limited proficiency.

Of course, a few bumpkins still just repeat the same thing more loudly when dealing with non-Japanese-speaking foreigners, but many people I’ve met have proven quite adept at effective foreigner talk in Japanese. The flip side of this–the hound that no longer barks–is the near absence of the reaction I used to get so often 20 or 30 years ago: Elaborate praise from strangers on hearing my first few words of Japanese. I’ve only encountered that reaction once or twice in the past 3 weeks. Nor have I encountered the speechless panic that used to overcome so many Japanese when a foreign face approached them to ask for information. Now, when speaking Japanese, the panic is more on my side, as I anticipate the inevitable hurdles of inarticulateness that are sure to trip me up the longer the conversation goes on.

Another reaction that has mercifully become much rarer is the kneejerk shouts of ハロ、ハロ (hah-ro, hah-ro) from groups of Japanese schoolboys. The only such reaction I’ve noticed on this trip has been from a group of uniformed middle-school boys touring a Japanese shrine in Sapporo who greeted us with ヘロ、ヘロ (heh-ro, heh-ro). The girls who followed greeted us instead with a civilized 今日は (kon-nichi-wa).

UPDATE, 23 August, 23 September: Yesterday my wife applied for her alien registration at the Ashikaga city office, where I learned that Japan will conduct a national census on 1 October 2005. The notice was posted in the following languages, in the following order: English (in larger type at the top), Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, Tagalog, Indonesian/Malay (“Sensus nasional dilaksanakan”), Farsi/Persian (I think), Vietnamese, Hindi, Burmese, French, German, Russian, Malay/Indonesian (“Sensus Penduduk”), Arabic (if not Persian).

The same office also offered a Tochigi International Association flyer for “Consultation and Information Services” with contact information listed in the following languages: Japanese, English, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Persian, Thai. The local prefectural lending library, however, had nothing substantial in any other language than English, but had many volumes of classic literature translated into Japanese from English, French, German, Russian, Korean, Chinese, German, Spanish, and Italian (roughly in that order, by quantity).

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The Battle Death Blame Game

When a man died, there had to be blame. [1LT] Jimmy Cross understood this. You could blame the war. You could blame the idiots who made the war. You could blame [the dead soldier] Kiowa for going to it. You could blame the rain. You could blame the river. You could blame the field, the mud, the climate. You could blame the enemy. You could blame the mortar rounds. You could blame people who were too lazy to read a newspaper, who were bored by the daily body counts, who switched channels at the mention of politics. You could blame the munitions makers or Karl Marx or a trick of fate or an old man in Omaha who forgot to vote.

In the field, though, the causes were immediate. A moment of carelessness or bad judgment or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever.

SOURCE: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (Broadway Books, 1998), p. 177

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Hirohito: Mere Collector or Amateur Scientist?

From 1914 to 1919, when Hirohito was in middle school, Professor Hattori Hirotarô became his teacher of natural history and physics. Hattori remained his servant in scientific pursuits for more than thirty years, cultivating Hirohito’s childhood fondness for insects and helping him to develop a keen, lifelong interest in marine biology and taxonomy. Under Hattori’s guidance, Hirohito read Darwin’s theory of evolution as interpreted by the popular writer Oka Asajirô, whose book Shinkaron kôwa (Lessons on evolution) was published in 1904. He may also have read a Japanese translation of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Around 1927 he was given a small bust of Darwin, which thereafter adorned his study alongside busts of Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte.

In September 1925, during the fourth year of his regency, Hirohito had a small, well-equipped biological laboratory established within the Akasaka Palace. Three years later, during the second year of his reign, he built … the Imperial Biological Research Institute, consisting of a greenhouse and two large laboratories, each with specimen rooms and libraries. Hattori became associated with this laboratory …. Years later Hattori edited Sagamiwan sango erarui zufu (Pictorial specimens of marine life in Sagami Bay), while Sanada Hiroo and Katô Shirô did the colored drawings, Baba Kikutarô wrote the accompanying explanations. Because the re-formed Imperial Household Agency held the copyright, the book was ascribed to Hirohito. Nowhere in the book, however, did the emperor’s name appear, which raised the question, How much of its research had actually been done by him?

Hirohito himself was always very modest about his interest in biology. When Sagamiwan sango appeared, Hattori offered an assessment of his former pupil’s scientific bent in a discussion that appeared in the Sande Mainichi on October 2, 1949. Asked whether the emperor’s studies should be viewed as genuine scientific research rather than the work of an amateur, Hattori replied:

Recently Professor Satô Tadao [of Nagoya University] wrote in the Nagoya newspaper that it belonged to the category of an amateur’s research. Indeed, depending on how one looks at the matter, I think that is true. He never published anything under his own name and ended up furnishing raw data to various specialists. Therefore, from one point of view he is, in the final analysis, probably a mere collector. But I don’t think so. He did not just hand them material he had collected. Rather, he first thoroughly investigated that material himself, and on that point he is no amateur.

Hattori’s assessment makes sense … Taught by Hattori, the emperor became a naturalist and a patron of marine biology, pursuing as a hobby the collection of sea plants and animals, such as slugs, starfish, hydrozoa, and jellyfish.

SOURCE: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 60-61

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Quake-Snarled Bullet Trains

As we were about to exit our 11th-floor apartment, we suddenly felt the building sway slightly beneath our feet and heard the rhythmic rattle of an interior door against its metal latchhook. We retreated back into our doorway, nervous but confident that the newly constructed Japanese high-rise could withstand an earthquake that had not even caused us to lose our footing. Nor had it caused any visible panic in the streets of Ashikaga far below.

It was Tuesday, the 16th of August, and we were just setting out on a complex, minutely scheduled multi-train itinerary that would have us reaching Tokyo station in time to transfer to the same Narita airport express train that an old friend coming up from Osaka was booked on, so that both she and we could meet her daughter who was due to overnight in Narita on her way back from Auckland to London for university. We were all scheduled to arrive by train at 16:25, just about the time she would be clearing customs.

We would all have just enough time to eat a traditional Japanese meal together at the airport hotel before dispersing in three different directions to spend that night: our friends staying at the hotel, my wife going back to Ashikaga for school business the next day, and my daughter and I going to our friend’s parents’ house on the west side of Tokyo so we could spend a little more time catching up the next day.

The first leg of the familiar local train ride from Ashikaga to the nearest bullet train (Shinkansen) station at Oyama gave no hint of any major disruption. Nor did the man who booked our seat reservations for the remainder of the trip. But almost as soon as we headed for the Shinkansen platform, they started turning people away, saying the Northeast Shinkansen (through Sendai) had been shut down. We had no idea why until the station announcements began blaming the earthquake. We were forced to hop on a slow local train bound for Ueno station in Tokyo.

Fortunately, we had gotten an early start in order to have time to book seat reservations, so we still had a chance to make the 15:33 Narita Express (N’EX) from Tokyo. But the sprawling Tokyo Shinkansen station was a complete mess, with no reliable timetables, repeated announcements of delays, and stranded passengers all over the place in the peak summer travel season.

At 15:33, the Narita Express platform was still listing the train scheduled for 14:33, with no indication of the actual times for any of the delayed trains. The harried platform officials assured us that seat reservations no longer mattered, that we could climb aboard any N’EX that came by. So we did, and sure enough, no one on board bothered to check our seat assignments.

We got to the airport close to 17:00, wondering how to get in touch with our friends. We went first to the arrival area outside customs, and were shocked almost immediately to run into our friend from Osaka, who had arrived on the same train we had and was waiting for her daughter’s flight to clear customs. It had been delayed, too–but not by an earthquake!

We had a very pleasant dinner, imagining that the world-famous Shinkansen system was quickly getting back on schedule. When we dispatched my wife, who knows hardly any Japanese, back to the Narita Express station, we had no idea what we had condemned her to. The N’EX had canceled most of its runs, so she had to take a series of slower trains all the way back to Ashikaga, arriving home about midnight.

An hour after my wife left, my daughter and I headed for a N’EX that was supposed to go all the way to Kokubunji on the west side of Tokyo, where our hosts for the night expected us to show up pretty late anyway. But that train was canceled, so we were instead put on a bus for Shinjuku, the major west-side transfer station. As it happened, the bus got to Shinjuku early enough to allow us to jump on a commuter express that got us into Kokubunji much faster than either we or our hosts had expected.

The northbound Shinkansen was still snarled the next evening when we headed back to Ashikaga, but all the local trains and buses provided a very effective–if slower–backup system.

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Bix on Hirohito and General Nogi’s Suicide, 1912

At the beginning of the Taishô period [in 1912], on the day of Emperor Meiji’s funeral, General Nogi and his wife closed the door to their second-floor living room and prepared to end their lives. He had removed his uniform and was clad in white undergarments; she wore black funeral attire. They bowed to portraits of Meiji and of their two sons, killed in the Russo-Japanese War. While the funeral bells tolled, they proceeded to commit ritual suicide. Mrs. Nogi acted first; he assisted, plunging a dagger into her neck, and then he disemboweled himself with a sword. The departed hero of the Russo-Japanese War left behind ten private notes and a single death poem. (The writing of waka death poems was another practice from Japanese antiquity that was revised in the nineteenth century.) In one note he apologized for his action to four family members, including his wife, and acknowledged having contemplated suicide ever since losing his regimental flag in the war of 1877; he also mentioned his aging and the loss of his sons. In another note, to a military doctor, he bequeathed his body to medical use….

Nogi’s death poem, intended for public consumption, told the nation that he was following his lord into death–a practice known as junshi that even the Tokugawa shogunate had considered barbaric and outlawed “as antiquated in 1663.” Conservative intellectuals … interpreted Nogi’s suicide as a signal act of samurai loyalty, pregnant with positive lessons for the nation, and for its armed forces. Nantenbô, Nogi’s Zen master, was so enthralled by the majesty of his pupil’s action that he sent a three-word congratulatory telegram to the funeral: “Banzai, banzai, banzai.” The Asahi shinbun, however, editorially criticized those who called for the establishment of a new morality by reviving bushidô, and asserted that Nogi’s harmful action could teach the nation nothing. Kiryû Yûyû, a writer for the Shinano Mainichi shinbun, went further, not only decrying Nogi’s death as “thoughtless” and “meaningless” but warning presciently that “to comprehend death as loyalty” was a mistaken ethical idea that could only “end up encouraging great crimes in international relations.”

When informed of “Schoolmaster” Nogi’s death by the chamberlain in charge of supervising his education, Hirohito alone of his three brothers was reportedly overcome with emotion: Tears welled up in his eyes, and he could hardly speak. Doubtless he was too young really to understand the general’s action, let alone the harmful effect that his anachronistic morality of bushidô might have had on the nation. But as Hirohito remarked late in life to an American reporter, Nogi had a lasting influence on him, instilling precepts of frugality and stoic virtues of endurance and dignity to which Hirohito never failed to adhere. The brave Nogi was to Hirohito a giver of orders who meant what he said and was willing to lay down his life for his master. Hirohito not only identified with Nogi, he also derived from him the conviction that strong resolve could compensate to some extent for physical deficiencies. In Hirohito’s imaginings, Nogi was to be emulated almost as much as his other hero, Meiji.

SOURCE: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, by Herbert P. Bix (HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 42-43

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