Category Archives: Asia

Parade of Nations in Katakana Order

I don’t remember how Japan ordered the Parade of Nations when it hosted the Olympics in 1964 (when I was in high school there), but this year the nations were ordered according to how their Japanese names sounded in katakana, the Japanese syllabary used to render foreign names. A full list of the nations in Japanese order can be found in the NPR report about the parade.

Katakana order was used even when names contained kanji (Chinese characters). So Equatorial Guinea (赤道ギニア Sekidou Ginia, lit. ‘Redroad [=equator] Guinea’) appeared between Seychelles (セーシェル) and Senegal (セネガル) because they all start with the sound SE, written セ in katakana.

Similarly, Great Britain (英国 Eikoku, lit. ‘brave-country’) and the British Virgin Islands (英国ヴァージン諸島) appeared after Uruguay (ウルグァイ) and before Ecuador (エクアドル) because the katakana syllabary starts with the five vowels in the order A I U E O (アイウエオ), then proceeds to KA KI KU KE KO (カキクケコ). So the E+I of Eikoku precedes the E+KU of Ekuadoru. (In Chinese, where the name 英国 originated, the character 英 sounds much more like the first syllable of England.)

The last of the vowel-initial names are those that start with the sound O: Australia (オーストラリア Oosutoraria), Austria (オーストリア Oosutoria), Oman (オマーン Omaan), and the Netherlands (オランダ Oranda < Holland). I’ve transcribed the long vowels here as double vowels.

The order of the consonant-initial syllables is KA (カ), SA (サ), TA (タ), NA (ナ), HA (ハ), MA (マ), YA (ヤ), RA (ラ), WA (ワ), N (ン). Most, but not all, of these consonants occur with each vowel. The YA series has YA (ヤ), YU (ユ), and YO (ヨ), but YI and YE have been replaced by the vowels I and E. As a consequence, Yemen is written イェメン Iemen, and its team preceded Israel, Italy, Iraq, and Iran in the parade, while Jordan was relegated to near the end of the parade as the only name starting with Y, written ヨルダン Yorudan. The WA series only has WA (ワ) and WO (ヲ), with WI, WU, WE replaced by the vowels I, U, E. The final sound, N (ン) only occurs at the ends of syllables, as in Iemen and Yorudan.

In katakana, voiced consonants are distinguished from their voiced equivalents by a diacritic that looks a bit like a double quote mark: KA カ vs. GA ガ, TA タ vs. DA ダ, SA サ vs. ZA ザ. The consonants with and without diacritics are considered equivalent for ordering purposes. So Canada (Kanada), Gabon (Gabon), Cameroon (Kameruun), Gambia (Ganbia), Cambodia (Kanbojia) are in that order because of what follows their initial KA/GA syllables (-NA-, -BO-, -ME-, -NBI-, -NBO-, respectively). On the same principle, Zambia (Zanbia) precedes San Marino (Sanmarino) (-NBI- > -NMA-), while Singapore (Singaporu) precedes Zimbabwe (Zinbabue) (-NGA- > -NBA-) among the nations whose names start with S/Z.

The same principle applies to the three-way diacritical distinction between HA ハ, PA パ, and BA バ. So Bahrain (Baareen), Haiti (Haiti), and Pakistan (Pakisutan) begin the series of names beginning with HA ハ, which also include Vanuatu (Banuatu) because Japanese has no syllable VA. (However, the V can be represented by adding the voiced consonant diacritic ” to the vowel ウ U, as in ヴァージン Vuaajin for the Virgin Islands.)

Nor does Japanese have a syllable FA, but the syllable HU (フ) sounds close enough to FU to substitute for F in foreign words. So names beginning with F sounds fall into the same group as those beginning with H, P, and B. Thus, the next countries to enter after Fiji (フィジー Fuijii), Philippines (フィリピン Fuiripin), and Finland (フィンァンド Fuinrando) were Bhutan (ブータン Buutan) and Puerto Rico (プエルトリコ Pueruto Riko).

The TA/DA (タ/ダ) series is at least as complicated. When pronounced, the syllables TA TI TU TE TO (タチツテト) actually sound like Ta Chi Tsu Te To and are usually romanized that way in English, while DA DI DU DE DO (ダヂヅデド) sound like Da Ji Zu De Do. So nations whose names start with Ch or Ts sounds are ordered among those whose names start with T/D. So the teams for Chile (Chiri), Tuvalu (Tsubaru), Denmark (Denmaaku), and Germany (Doitsu < Deutsch) entered in katakana order チツテト (TI TU TE TO, which sound like Chi, Tsu, Te, To), keeping in mind that TE=DE and TO=DO for ordering purposes.

Just as the normally syllabic フ FU can be combined with イ I (in フィ) to represent the foreign syllable FI, normally syllabic チ TI/CHI can be combined into チャ (TI+ya=) CHA, チュ (TI+yu=) CHU, チェ (TI+e=) CHE, and チョ (TI+yo =) CHO to represent foreign syllables starting with those sounds, as in チャイナ Chaina (China) or チェコ Cheko (Czech). Foreign words starting with J- can be represented using similar combinations starting with ZI/JI. So ZI+ya = JA in ジャマイカ Jamaica and ZI+yo = JO in ジョージア Georgia, which are sandwiched between ジブチ Djibouti and シリア Syria in katakana order. (Jordan is written ヨルダン Yorudan.)

It’s interesting that the Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, and the People’s Republic of China all appear among the nations whose names start with T/D, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would too, if it sent a team to this Olympics. The official name of South Korea in Chinese characters is 大韓民国 (Great Han Republic), which is pronounced in Japanese as Daikanminkoku. This name places South Korea immediately after Thailand (タイ Tai), which starts the T/D section of the parade of nations. Chinese Taipei (Chainiizu Taipei) and Tajikistan (Tajikisutan) immediately follow, so the former is ordered as if it were Taipei, not Chinese Taipei.

Tanzania, Czech (チェコ Cheko) Republic, Chad (チャド Chado), and the Central African Republic (中央アフリカ共和国 Chuuou Ahurika Kyouwakoku) precede China (中華人民共和国 Chuuka Jinmin Kyouwakoku ‘Chinese [‘Middle Splendor’] People’s Republic’) because the official names of both the CAR and PRC start with 中 ‘middle’, which in katakana is written チュウ Chuu. The official name of North Korea in Chinese characters is 朝鮮民主主義人民共和国, pronounced in Japanese as Chousen Minshuushugi Jinmin Kyouwakoku (‘Korean Democratic People’s Republic’). It would immediately follow Tunisia (Chunijia) because チュ Chu precedes チョ Cho in katakana order.

Finally, because Japanese R renders both R and L in foreign names, and katakana RA RI RU RE RO come near the end of the syllabary, Laos, Latvia, Lithuania, Libya, Liechtenstein, Liberia, Romania (Ruumania), Luxembourg, Rwanda, Lesotho, and Lebanon come after Jordan (Yorudan) at the tail end of the parade, just before the current and future Olympic host nations.

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Defining Japan’s Southern Periphery

From Liminality of the Japanese Empire: Border Crossings from Okinawa to Colonial Taiwan, by Hiroko Matsuda (U. Hawaii Press, 2018), Kindle loc. ~415:

Before proceeding, I should clarify the usages of the key terms in this volume, including “Ryukyu,” “Okinawa,” “Mainland Japan,” “Inner Territory,” and “Outer Territories.” The geographical name “Ryukyu” appears in Chinese historical documents such as the Book of Sui, which was written in the seventh century. In the fifteenth century, “Ryukyu” became the official name of the kingdom unifying the archipelagos of Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama, known today as the Ryukyu Islands or Southwest Islands. Under the Ryukyu Kingdom’s rule, the name “Okinawa” indicated the main island of Okinawa and surrounding small islands. In 1872, Japan’s Meiji government changed the kingdom’s status to that of a domain (han) by fiat; the government then declared the abolishment of the kingdom and the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. However, as Wendy Matsumura explains, the word “Okinawa” is not a neutral geographical title referring to a Japanese prefecture but a term that implies a cultural community distinct from the Japanese nation-state. This volume loosely defines “Okinawans” as people whose families and relatives originated in Okinawa Prefecture or the Ryukyu Islands. The term “Okinawans” therefore encompasses people of diverse backgrounds, including those born in Okinawa Prefecture and those born and raised in Taiwan whose parents were born in Okinawa Prefecture. In fact, people from the Yaeyama and Miyako Islands often distinguish themselves from “Okinawans” even though they are part of Okinawa Prefecture, identifying themselves as people of Yaeyama and Miyako rather than as Okinawans. Nonetheless, in this volume, the term “Okinawans” includes people with Yaeyama and Miyako backgrounds unless otherwise indicated.

Likewise, in this volume, the term “Mainland Japan” loosely indicates the islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. As the following chapters reveal, the word “Japanese” occasionally includes and excludes “Okinawan.” In other words, the social and cultural categories of “Japanese/the others” and “Okinawan/the others” have been persistent, although the categories are malleable and changeable. Mainland Japan is geographically ambiguous, but the notion of such a place suggests that Okinawans are “the others,” as Mainland Japan was considered dominant over the local islanders. In Okinawa Prefecture, Mainland Japan has customarily been called the “Inner Territory” (Naichi). However, to avoid confusion, this volume defines the Inner Territory as the territory under the rule of the Meiji Constitution (Constitution of the Great Japanese Empire). The notion complements the idea of the “Outer Territories” (Gaichi), which refers to the territories excluded from the Meiji Constitution.

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Cracking the Japanese Water Transport Code

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 241-242:

Ambon. Canton. Davao. Haiphong. Hankow. Kiska. Kobe. Kuching. Kupang. Osaka. Palembang. Rabaul. Saigon. Takao. Wewak. Dot Braden until a few months earlier had never heard of most of these places. Now they ruled her life. They kept her running from the big table where she worked, over to the overlapper’s console, then back again to her spot at the big table. These were the names of places, somewhere in Asia or the South Pacific, likely to be mentioned toward the beginning of messages coded in 2468, the main Japanese water-transport code, or one of the other, smaller transport codes.

Or rather, they were some of the places. Transport code 2468 was massive; 2468 was everywhere; 2468 dominated the Pacific Ocean. Anything anybody needed was sent by water. Water was how the rice was transported, and the soldiers, and the spare airplane parts. To move the goods the Japanese Army needed, the marus were always sailing. Always leaving and arriving. A maru [丸] could be a tanker, a freighter, a cargo ship, a barge, a cable layer, a motor transport. [Japanese Navy ship names never use maru.] They plied between Hiroshima, Yokohama, Wewak, Saipan, Tokyo, Manila, the Truk Lagoon. Exotic places. It was not necessary for Dot to know how to pronounce the cities and ports, but it was helpful to know the four-digit code groups that stood for them. Code system 2468 commanded Dot’s attention, controlled Dot’s movements. It filled her brain.

A job more unlike teaching Virginia schoolchildren would be hard to imagine. No longer was Dot Braden standing at a chalkboard, explaining physics formulas to eye-rolling teenagers, or ordering senior girls to march and salute. Instead, she was sitting head down at a table puzzling over words she had never heard before she came to Arlington Hall. “Sono.” “Indicator.” “Discriminant.” “GAT.” The sono [‘that, aforementioned’] was the number appended to messages that had been divided into parts before being transmitted. Sono #1 was the first part, Sono #2 was the second part, and so on. The discriminant was the number that identified the system—for instance, 2468. The indicator was the tiny clue that told you what book to look in. GAT stood for “group as transmitted”: the code group plus the cipher. The GATs were what you saw when you looked at the message for the first time.

Dot, of course, was not to utter any of these words outside the high wire double fences of the Arlington Hall compound. People were warned never to use, outside the building, the words they used inside it. “This material is extremely secret and must be treated with the utmost care,” one training document said. “Some of the words which you will consider elementary have been used only in this code, eg KAIBOTSU SU ‘to sink a ship’ [海没す ‘sea-reject do’?]. If you should mention this word to any one connected with the Axis or in some way succeed in letting it get into improper hands, this one fact alone would betray to the Japanese that we are reading their most recent transport code.”

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Long History of People Exiled

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle p. 67:

The driving out of unwanted peoples, to be sure, is a practice almost as old as recorded history. The Old Testament tells the story of numerous forced migrations carried out by the Israelites and their neighbors against each other, the Babylonian Captivity being the most celebrated. Philip II of Macedonia was renowned for the scale of his population transfers in the fourth century B.C., a precedent that his son, Alexander the Great, appears to have intended to follow on a far more massive scale. The colonial era witnessed many more forced displacements, often accompanied or initiated by massacre. Some of these bore a distinctly “modern” tinge. The Act of Resettlement that followed Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, for example, ordered Irish property owners in three-quarters of the island to remove themselves to the impoverished western province of Connacht by May 1, 1654, to make room for incoming English and Scottish colonists; those remaining east of the River Shannon after that date were to be killed wherever found. “The human misery involved,” in the judgment of Marcus Tanner, “probably equaled anything inflicted on Russia or Poland in the 1940s by Nazi Germany.” On a smaller scale, but proportionately just as lethal, was the United States’ forced relocation of part of the Cherokee nation from Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to eastern Oklahoma along the so-called “Trail of Tears” in 1838; perhaps a quarter of the fifteen thousand men, women, and children who were driven out perished, most of them while detained in assembly camps. Extensive forced migrations occurred in Africa and Asia also. In what is today Nigeria the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest independent state in nineteenth-century Africa, practiced slavery on a massive scale—by 1860 it possessed at least as many slaves as the United States—as an instrument of forced migration, the purpose being to increase the security of disputed border areas. “Enforced population displacement … was supposed to strengthen the Islamic state, which was achieved through demographic concentration.” On the western borderlands of China, the Qing Empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “used deportations and mass kidnappings to build a human resource base.”

Contemporary scholars agree, though, that the twentieth century has been the heyday of forcible population transfers. The rise of the nation-state, in place of the dynastic multinational empires of the earlier period, was both cause and effect of the ideological claim that political and ethnographic boundaries ought to be identical.

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Melaka, Asia’s “Gullet”

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 552-76, 592-600:

The fleeing rulers of Temasek found a new home in Melaka, almost exactly as far from today’s Singapore as Albany is from Manhattan (127 miles). The name Melaka proved highly appropriate, deriving as it does from the Arabic meaning “meeting place” or “rendezvous.” Its origins are hazy like those of its predecessors Temasek or Singapura being the stuff of legend, but early in the fifteenth century a Hindu kingdom emerged there, soon to become a Muslim sultanate, the faith brought in by itinerant merchants traveling from the west.

Melaka was not a new kind of settlement but was in the pattern of other Southeast Asian cosmopolitan maritime entrepôts, a place for trading. Here on the straits a tiny fishing community evolved into a hangout for those wanting a center to conduct commerce or to exploit a strategic position to exact fees from passing ships, and, more crudely, we might say a place to fence stolen goods.

Unlike most Southeast Asian trading towns, which placed themselves defensively upriver to discourage maritime marauders, Melaka sat boldly at the mouth of a muddy stream where moored vessels rolled gently in the current or rode offshore in a sheltered spot on an easily navigable approach where ships could find safe anchorage.

The city that arose there depended almost totally on trade even, with the exception of fish, needing to import its basic foods to fill the rice bowl as well as to provide most other sustenance. Its land, hacked out of dense jungle, was ill-suited to growing grain although fruit orchards flourished at hand. Fruit does not travel well, especially in a hot climate. If you wanted to eat it, you had to grow it. Melaka, with its back to untamed jungle, lacked continental hinterland and we have no indication that anyone was interested in clearing and farming land beyond the outskirts of town.

Without an easily accessible hinterland, trade furnished Melaka’s life stream. Although not situated at the straits’ narrowest point, the city could control a navigable passage through which much oceanic traffic passed. It lay on the direct route between the Maluku islands (the Moluccas), the heart of Indonesian spice growing, and Alexandria, the Egyptian feeder port for Venice, the European distributor. Melaka would become the metropolis of the straits for more than a century, a flourishing maritime state presumably never as populous as Venice, but comparable to London at the time. Like other trading cities in the region, it was largely independent of any bigger territorial authority. Saltwater space formed its true sphere, “the axis of the realm.”

At the peak of its power in the fifteenth century, Melaka made itself master of both sides of the straits and the islands within, but its empire was less a matter of territory than situation, its purpose being to protect trade streams and sources of manpower and foodstuffs.

The cast of characters in Melaka at its peak illustrates the multiethnic, multicultural character of maritime life. Giving it color and pulse were Chinese, Javanese, Tagalogs, Persians, Tamils from South India, Gulf Arabs, Gujerati Indians from the far northwest of the subcontinent, and even a few of the great cosmopolitan traders, Armenians and Jews. In short, people from the whole of the Asian maritime littoral and beyond crowded the streets and bazaars of the city, all intent on doing business.

An early European visitor would call the straits, a place of cultural and commercial convergence, Asia’s “gullet,” and, mindful of its wide-ranging significance in the spice trade, declared “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” the center for distributing spices to consumers throughout Europe. If Venice were the “hinge of Europe,” so Melaka might have been described as the hinge of Eurasia.

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Trans-Siberian Railway to 1916

From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2982-3019:

A LITTLE MORE than one hundred years ago, two elements were introduced into Russia without which the Russian Civil War would not have been so consequential or so deadly. One element was the Czecho-Slovak Legion, which quickly emerged as the most disciplined fighting force in that conflict. The other was the Trans-Siberian Railway. According to Harmon Tupper’s history of the railway, “The Trans-Siberian is inseparable from the history of this bloodshed.”

Virtually completed as the war dawned over the neighboring continent of Europe, the Trans-Siberian was designed chiefly to move settlers and soldiers across distant lands Russia first claimed in 1582, when Vasily Timofeyevich, the Cossack known as Yermak, embarked on an expedition beyond the Urals with an army of 840 men. Although Yermak was paid by the wealthy Stroganov family, he claimed Siberia for Tsar Ivan the Terrible, with whom he hoped to make amends for past crimes. Siberia gave the tsarist kingdom at Moscow the world’s largest land empire and the reach and resources of a great power, without which she would have remained just another European power on a par with France or Italy.

The Trans-Siberian infused this empire with a thin metal spine that extends from the Ural Mountains to the edge of the Pacific, stretching almost five thousand miles. Siberia’s 5 million square miles are bounded by the Urals in the west and the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan in the east. To provide perspective, Siberia could contain the United States (including Alaska) and all of Europe (excepting Russia) and still have 300,000 square miles to spare.

In 1891 Tsar Alexander III’s ministers announced their intention to build the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the heir apparent, Grand Duke Nicholas—the future Tsar Nicholas II—broke ground for the rail line at Vladivostok on May 19, 1891 (OS). The line would connect Vladivostok with Chelyabinsk, the frontier town on the eastern slopes of the Urals, which was already connected with European Russia’s rail network. To save money, the designers adopted building standards far below those used elsewhere. Plans called for only a single track of lightweight rails laid on fewer, and smaller, ties and a narrow, thinly ballasted roadbed, while timber was used for bridges crossing three-quarters of the streams. All this parsimoniousness raised safety concerns, though Italian stonemasons built the massive stone piers supporting the steel bridges over Siberia’s widest rivers, most of which still stand. While most Siberian towns and cities were built on rivers, further cost saving dictated that the Trans-Siberian cross those rivers at their narrowest point, which placed most train stations one to fourteen miles from towns. Three miles outside of Chelyabinsk, construction of the eastbound route was begun on July 19, 1892, eventually linking the city with the cities (west to east) of Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk.

Discouraged by the rough terrain between Sretensk and Khabarovsk—where steamships along the Shilka and Amur rivers filled a gap in the railway, but frequently ran aground—the Russians in 1896 negotiated a loan and treaty of alliance with China to build a line from Chita to Vladivostok across Manchurian China, reducing the length of the rail journey by 341 miles. China surrendered a strip of land more than nine hundred miles long to the Russian-controlled Chinese Eastern Railway Company and construction began in 1897. The Chinese Eastern lines connecting Chita with Vladivostok, through the city of Harbin, and a branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur, opened in 1901. With the start of regular traffic on the line in 1903, the Trans-Siberian Railway was complete—except for a 162-mile missing link around the southern tip of Lake Baikal.

Russia was still putting the finishing touches on that link on February 8, 1904, when Japan opened a torpedo-boat attack on Russia’s naval squadron at Port Arthur. Competing with Russia to dominate Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, Japan decided to strike at Russia before the completion of the Trans-Siberian would allow for easier shipment of Russian troops into China—due to the gap at Lake Baikal that was not yet closed. In the peace treaty signed on September 5, 1905—mediated by US president Theodore Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts—Russia had to surrender to Japan its lease of the Chinese Eastern’s branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur; the southern half of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, which sits north of Japan; and an exclusive sphere of influence in Korea. Fearful that Tokyo might one day seize the Chinese Eastern Railway, Russia later built the stretch of the Trans-Siberian between Sretensk and Khabarovsk. The five-thousand-foot-long bridge across the Amur at Khabarovsk completed this stretch in October 1916, as well as the original dream of a railway crossing Russia entirely on Russian soil.

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South Caucasus: European or Asian?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 186-210:

Is the South Caucasus in Europe or Asia? By one definition, proposed by the eighteenth-century German-Swedish geographer Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, the region is in Asia, and the border with Europe runs along the Kuma-Manych Depression, north of the Greater Caucasus range. Other geographers, a bit more tidily, have made the mountains of the Caucasus themselves the border between Europe and Asia. Nowadays, the consensus is to place Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Europe and make the Turkish border and the river Araxes the Europe-Asia frontier. The strange result of this is that “Europe” in Armenia and Azerbaijan is directly due east of the “Asian” Turkish towns of Kars and Trabzon.

No definition is satisfactory because the South Caucasus has multiple identities. It is both European and Asian, with strong Middle Eastern influences as well. Politically the three countries, and Georgia in particular, tend to look to Europe. They are members of the two European institutions, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—but then so is Turkey. The Georgian politician Zurab Zhvania famously told the Council of Europe in 1999, “I am Georgian and therefore I am European.” But Armenians maintain links with their diaspora communities in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, and Azerbaijanis have affinities with the Turkic nations of Central Asia. In the end, it comes down to a matter of self-identification. At the beginning of Kurban Said’s classic 1937 novel of the Caucasus, Ali and Nino, set in Baku before and during the First World War, a Russian teacher informs his pupils that the Russian Empire has resolved the ancient geographical dispute over the Caucasus in favor of Europe. The teacher says, “It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia”—at which point Mehmed Haidar, sitting in the back row, raises his hand and says, “Please, sir, we would rather stay in Asia.”

The Caucasus also has its own identity. Anthropologists identify its customs and traditions fairly easily, and they get more marked the closer to the mountains one gets. The Caucasian nationalities share similar wedding and funeral ceremonies, and all mark the fortieth day after the death of a loved one with strikingly similar rituals. The same elaborate rituals of hospitality and toasting are found across the region, even among Muslim Azerbaijanis. Foreign mediators between “warring” Armenians and Azerbaijanis or Georgians and Abkhaz have frequently seen how once the two sides sit down to dinner together, political differences are forgotten and convivial rituals of eating and drinking precisely observed. Ethnic and religious differences were always there but are much more accentuated by modern politics. A century ago, attitudes toward religion could be deeply pragmatic. In her memoir of early twentieth-century Abkhazia, Adile Abas-oglu writes, “Arriving in Mokva for the Muslim festivals I always laughed when I observed how people drink wine and vodka at them and some families cooked holiday dishes from pork.”

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Political Implosion Journalism

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 178-195:

As a correspondent for the Washington Post in Northeast Asia, I had been searching for more than a year for a story that could explain how North Korea used repression to keep from falling apart.

Political implosion had become my specialty. For the Post and for the New York Times, I spent nearly three decades covering failed states in Africa, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the slow-motion rot in Burma under the generals. From the outside looking in, North Korea seemed ripe—indeed, overripe—for the kind of collapse I had witnessed elsewhere. In a part of the world where nearly everyone else was getting rich, its people were increasingly isolated, poor, and hungry.

Still, the Kim family dynasty kept the lid on. Totalitarian repression preserved their basket case state.

My problem in showing how the government did it was lack of access. Elsewhere in the world, repressive states were not always successful in sealing their borders. I had been able to work openly in Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Mobutu’s Congo, and Milosevic’s Serbia, and had slipped in as a tourist to write about Burma.

North Korea was much more careful. Foreign reporters, especially Americans, were rarely allowed inside. I visited North Korea only once, saw what my minders wanted me to see, and learned little. If journalists entered illegally, they risked months or years of imprisonment as spies. To win release, they sometimes needed the help of a former American president.

Given these restrictions, most reporting about North Korea was distant and hollow. Written from Seoul or Tokyo or Beijing, stories began with an account of Pyongyang’s latest provocation, such as sinking a ship or shooting a tourist. Then the dreary conventions of journalism kicked in: American and South Korean officials expressed outrage. Chinese officials called for restraint. Think tank experts opined about what it might mean. I wrote more than my share of these pieces.

Shin, though, shattered these conventions. His life unlocked the door, allowing outsiders to see how the Kim family sustained itself with child slavery and murder. A few days after we met, Shin’s appealing picture and appalling story ran prominently on the front page of the Washington Post.

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Comparing the Russian and Turkish Revolutions

From The Sultans, by Noel Barber (Simon & Schuster, 1973), p. 284:

During all these years there were remarkable parallels between those two arch-enemies of the past, Turkey and Russia. The Russian revolution in 1905, the Young Turks in 1908, had both sprung from the same original passions – a deeply rooted desire for democratic government at a time when the equivalent of Britain’s Industrial Revolution was changing the face of the two empires, each half European, half Asian. Each had reached a moment of destiny after losing a succession of wars. The parallels went further. Both separated Church from State. And while Constantinople became Istanbul, and a new capital was built out of a primitive village on the steppes, St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad and the capital was moved to Moscow. In both cases the move was symbolic, the sign not only that each country wanted to blot out its tarnished history but wanted also to signalise to the world that it was making a fresh start.

There was, however, one vital difference between the two countries. A massive ideology underlay the tremendous events in Russia, often paralysing the Bolshevik attempts to introduce reforms, to get things done. By contrast Musatafa Kemal, as he Europeanised Turkey, unceremoniously nationalising banks, introducing rural electrification, was never hampered by mystical theories which had to be earnestly debated. Since the basis of Mustafa Kemal’s ideology was to produce a modern, Westernised Turkey, he could bulldoze any measures, however startling, through Parliament simply because reform was the only creed he preached.

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Just Another Imperial Expansion

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 3230-3243:

If we focus only on the century following Columbus’s voyages we see Mexica and Inca warriors as losers, West Africans as fighting slaves, and Spaniards as quite reasonably contemplating a world empire. But the age of expansion began with the rise of empires outside Europe, with the Mexica fanning out across Mesoamerica and the Inca dominating the Andes, and in West Africa with the rising of the Songhay empire from the ashes of that of Mali. In Europe, the Ottomans and the Muscovites began empire building before the Spaniards, as did the Portuguese—who beat their Iberian neighbors in the race for a sea route to East Asia. And after the sixteenth century the Spanish empire was gradually eclipsed by the trading and colonial networks of the Dutch, English, and French.

Looking at human history over thousands of years, the Spanish Conquest is a mere episode in the globalization of access to resources of food production. The plants and animals of certain Old World environments and regions have a greater potential as food, and the peoples of those regions have enjoyed advantages over others as a result. But eventually, through uneven encounters, those advantages have been introduced to the previously disadvantaged regions. In the case of Europeans introducing new foods to Native Americans, the parallel introduction of Old World diseases made the encounter especially uneven, while colonialism hindered native access to these new resources. This process is too broad and complex to be understood in terms of the alleged and simple “superiority” of one group of people over another. It is also a process that is incomplete. We are still living through the long period of uneven encounters and the gradual globalization of resources.

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