Daily Archives: 14 February 2006

Kunimoto Takeharu’s Bluegrass Shamisen

Hiroshima-based blogger Wide Island profiles Kunimoto Takeharu.

Yesterday I posted a picture of my daughter playing with her mother’s sanshin, a banjo-like Okinawan instrument that is the direct ancestor of the Japanese shamisen. I thought I’d post today about the shamisen player Kunimoto Takeharu and his foray into bluegrass, a style of music I vastly prefer (and I realize I’m in the minority here) to pop, J or otherwise.

Kunimoto was born in Chiba Prefecture. Both parents were practitioners of a form of storytelling called roukyoku. Unlike the older and better-known art of rakugo comic storytelling, in traditional roukyoku narrative is combined with singing, and the storyteller performs standing, accompanied by a concealed shamisen player. There is an improvisational element as well, and the same piece may be dramatically different from one performance to the next. Roukyoku was widely popular at the height of radio, but like many older arts has lost a great deal of its audience in recent decades.

There’s more. And the picture he refers to really is quite charming.

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Filed under Appalachia, Japan, music, U.S.

Muninn’s Recent Japan Travelogue

Catching up on my favorite Asia blog reading, I came across Muninn’s post from two weeks ago recounting a few wonderful anecdotes about his latest trip to Japan to present a paper at a conference. It starts off with his encounter with a Swedish-speaking customs official who tests out how similar Norwegian is.

This time, the inspector look at my passport, smiled, and said, “Hei!” I thought he was speaking to me in English and that I was thus being greeted with an exclamation of some kind. I looked around to see what he might be trying to bring my attention to. He then said, “Can I say … Hei!” Then I realized: He is saying “Hei” in Norwegian – that is “Hello.” He said, “In Swedish I can say Hei! Can I say Hei! in Norwegian?” I said, “Yes, it is the same in Norwegian.”

My immigration officer went about continuing to process my visa and after a few seconds he looked up and said, “Norwegian and Swedish is all the same right?” I replied, “Umm…ya Danish, Swedish, Norwegian are all very close, think of it as something like Osaka dialect and Tohoku dialect.”

A few more stamps got issued and mysterious commands entered into his computer as he went back to looking like the stern mechanical immigration officer I have come to expect. Then, suddenly, he asked, “Can I say, ‘Jeg elsker deg.’” I felt a bit weird, looked around to see if there were any laughing Scandinavians nearby but smiled and said, “Yup, in Norwegian ‘I love you’ is also ‘Jeg elsker deg.”

At the conference he attended, one speaker indulged in some uncontested fantasies about Asian values.

Some of these concerns can be seen in the content of the conference’s final talk. At the end of the conference, Iwate University president and former Waseda professor Taniguchi Makoto gave a speech about Asian community in English. I was the only non-Asian at the talk (or at the conference for that matter) and couldn’t help noting the irony that English was the necessary choice of language given that some of the guests from Thailand and Mongolia didn’t speak Japanese (they were also the only participants not to make their presentations in Japanese). Taniguchi speaks fantastic English and his eloquent presentation fit his Cambridge education and long years of experience working for Japan’s foreign ministry, the UN, as deputy head of the OECD, and elsewhere. After an interesting analysis of Japan’s recent failures in negotiations related to the formation of “an Asian community” (indeed, he argued that after losing control of the movement, the foreign ministry is actively trying to torpedo all attempts to make anything meaningful out of the concept), he launched a critique of “Western values”. In passages that remind me of the confidence of the bubble period Japan or Asian leaders before its humbling economic crisis, Taniguchi suggested to the audience that Asia should take pride in its own values and take a more critical stance towards the West.

He offered two pieces of evidence for the inferiority of Western values. He recounted a story of when he was criticized by colleagues in France for having dined with his own chauffeur, thus violating the aristocratic separation of classes. His second anecdote lamented the inhumane behavior of New York City police officers he witnessed rudely expelling the homeless sleeping in Grand Central Station. The message was clear: Asian values have a higher degree of compassion and are less class conscious. The problem, of course, is that this is absolute nonsense. I have indeed accompanied Chinese company managers when they have dined and socialized happily with their chauffeurs in Beijing, but I have also seen Korean executives treat their chauffeurs as barely human slaves on the streets of Seoul. And as for compassion towards the homeless, it is interesting to note that one of Japan’s leading headline stories today (January 31st) is about violent clashes between Japanese police and homeless being evicted from a park in Osaka; their blue tarp tents being torn down.

There’s lots more. Read the whole thing.

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A Chechen View of the Cartoon Offensive

David MacDuff’s well-informed blog A Step At A Time keeps a close watch on events affecting Chechnya and Chechens abroad. From the Russian-language Chechen Society website, he translates posts a portion of an intriguing interview with Musayev Ilias, Copenhagen spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (ICR).

How are your relations with the Danish government?

– They are definitely good and friendly. If they were not so, I do not think that we could have the possibility to lead such a way of life as we do now. The Danish government practically helps us in all kinds of conflicts with Russian authorities by supporting the Chechen community here.

I am sure that you have heard about the scandal of the published Muhammad drawings in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. What is the position of the Chechen community on this issue?

– Definitely, we consider the drawings to be scandalous but I think there is one very interesting point in this story: I realized Jyllands-Posten’s editor of culture is married to the daughter of a FSB [formerly KGB] general. And he had been working in Moscow as Jyllands-Posten’s correspondent. I suppose that this scandal is nothing else than another regular provocation of the Russian Special Services. Why did they do this? That’s another question. We all know very well that Russian authorities for a long time have been trying to close the North Caucasus’ door for western humanitarian organisations, which have a good experience of supporting the Chechen population and also collected a large data archive about war crimes permitted in Chechnya. Of course, they do not want this information to be used by international human rights prosecutors. And the present situation with the Danish Refugee Council is not surprising. Of course the official position of our government in exile is that we would like the Danish Refugee Council to remain in Chechnya. Ramzan Kadirov, the prime minister of Chechnya, only has a 3rd grade education, and he is only a Kremlin mafia’s puppet. He never had his own opinion. And he cannot do such kind of steps without the Kremlin’s special edict. Also it is a possibility for FSB to create in Denmark the same massive phobia that we have now in Russia. It is the same dirty business, they only changed the picture of the public enemy. If in Russia it is Chechens blasting Russian buildings, in America and, now in Denmark , it is warlike Muslims burning the Danish flag. Using their own agent in Jyllands-Posten, they felicitously prepared the world for the 3rd World War. War between two civilisations – East against West. And I do not really think that Russia will take sides in such a war.

If this has any measure of validity, Putin’s FSBocracy may have decided that turnabout’s fair play. This time it’s Russia’s turn to play the nonaligned Third World role while the Islamists take over the role of the Third International in trying to overthrow bourgeois Western society–and impose a totalitarian war-footing on their compatriots until they achieve that goal. Putin can play one side against the other, just as much of the Muslim world did during the Cold War, when every frontline client state enriched its thugocracy and enfeebled its civil society in the process.

In any case, it’s more than your run-of-the-mill conspiracy theory.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, Richard Cohen in the Washington Post notes how stark the difference is between Putin’s policy toward Hamas and his policy toward the Chechens. (via PeakTalk)

Stratfor has also weighed in on Russian’s new game. A Step At A Time has the whole thing. Here’s a small chunk.

Russia’s willingness to speak to Hamas creates a new dynamic in the Muslim world. Syria and Iran are seeking “great power” support against the United States. Indeed, we could expect an evolution in which the Iraqi government also would be looking for counterweights to American power. By inviting Hamas and possibly opening a channel between Hamas and the Israelis, Russia is positioning itself to become a mediator in other disputes, and to walk away with relationships that the United States has been unable to manage.

Given the robustness of Russia’s arms industry, which is much more vital and advanced than is generally understood, the Russians could return to their role as arms provider to the region and patron of governments that are hostile to the United States. The situation from 1955 to 1990 was a much more natural geopolitical dynamic than the current situation, in which Russia is really not present in the region. Russia is a natural player in the Middle East.

Remember also that Hamas is very close to Saudi Arabia, with which Russia has an intensely competitive relationship in the energy markets. And then there is Chechnya. The Russians have long charged that “Wahhabi” influence was behind the Chechen insurgency as well as insurgencies in Central Asia. In the Russian mind, “Wahhabi” is practically a code word for “Islamist militants,” including al Qaeda. The Russians also feel that, while the Americans have forced the Saudis to provide intelligence on al Qaeda, they have not elicited similar aid on the issue of the Chechens. In other words, Moscow perceives the United States not only as having neglected to help Russia on Chechnya, but as actually hindering it.

The Russians badly want to bring the Chechen rebellion under control without allowing Chechnya to secede. They believe that the Chechen insurgents, and particularly the internationalized jihadist faction among them, would not survive if outside support dried up. They believe that the United States is not displeased to see the Chechen war bleeding Russia, and that Washington has discouraged Saudi collaboration with Moscow. All things considered, this is probably true. In reaching out to Hamas, Russia is also reaching out to the Saudis. The Saudis cannot control the Chechens, but they may have some means of determining the level of operations the Chechens are able to maintain.

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