[Poem] At First

November 9th, 2010

At first I had thought I would hate this class,
It’d be another irrelevant pass,
But now I admit I find myself corrected,
My interest in writing has been resurrected.

She stood in the front of the unwelcoming room,
And I felt like I was stuck in an old tomb.
She told us she’d grade us very harshly
I prayed to God and hoped for her pity.

But when we began to write
Gone was my earthen plight
Soon enough my mind was brimming with thoughts
That could not be restrained by glue or knots.

Like a faucet that leaks endlessly more
One twist then two twists then three twists then four
My passion for writing has multiplied fourscore
Making me become someone different from before.

So take pencil in hand and voyage the seas
Or close your eyes and hoard honey with bees.
I’ve learnt from you that while you plea
Your heart and mind will not be free.


Japan’s Identity Crisis

November 4th, 2010

The chapter “Ethnic Diversity and Citizenship Education in Japan” in the textbook “Diversity and Citizenship Education: Global Perspectives”  is a rather scathing critique of the Japanese government’s backwardness. The government, despite egregious indicators suggesting otherwise, has continued to preach the notion of a homogonous Japan.

This façade obviously cannot hold  for long. Borders between countries are becoming ever the more porous, and Japan is already finding itself in the throes of globalization’s turbulence. Even if the government doesn’t recognize a multicultural Japan, they’ll have to recognize it when the ministries are swarmed with trick-or-treaters from all across the world nagging at their sleeves for candy.

Of course, the rational hunch would be that the Japanese government officials are fully aware of Japan’s future as being inevitably awash with foreigners, and they’re probably just as equally aware of the outdated notions of the “pure and homogonous Japan” that they’re trying to peddle with increasing desperation. It is all most likely their way of buying time before the day of reckoning.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s book “utsukushii kuni he [To a Beautiful Country]” really comes to mind in terms of rising nationalistic sentiments amongst the Japanese people. The book’s notoriously nationalistic overtones is probably matched only by Masahiko Fujiwara’s “Kokka no hinkaku [The dignity of the State].” Both are, quite conspicuously, attempts to try and resurrect a national identity amongst the Japanese people.

As Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, the author of the chapter eloquently pointed out, the sense of collective identity has continued to decline precipitously in Japan. But efforts like Abe and Kiichi’s are counterproductive: any man with a morsel of liberal education will be able to quickly spot the words which connote the arousal of nationalistic fervor.

What we really need, then, is a new generation of Japanese who consider themselves members of one multicultural global village.


Japan: The Place that Never Existed

November 3rd, 2010

The French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, a man who advanced new frontiers in linguistics in the 19th to 20th century, once observed that “every language is a complete system of signs.” His work in linguistics led him to differentiate between signifiers (the symbol, or word) and the signified (the object that is brought to mind).

Nearly a century later, a Frenchman by the name of Roland Barthes would step foot onto Japanese soil. Barthes, who devoted much of his life to sociology and lexicology, was intrigued by the country.

So intrigued, in fact, that he would go on to write an entire book—Empire of Signs—on his observations of Japan in 1972.

His initial quest was simple, audacious, and fascinating; Barthes would go to Japan although he spoke no Japanese.

And thus Barthes’s journey began:

“The murmuring mass of an unknown language constitutes a delicate protection, envelops the foreigner in an auditory film which halts at his ears all the alienations of the mother tongue: the regional and social origins of whoever is speaking, his degree of culture, of intelligence, of taste, the image by which he constitutes himself as a person and which he asks you to recognize.” (p.9)

Yet Barthes could not have been ever the happier:

“What a respite! Here I am protected against stupidity, vulgarity, vanity, wordliness, nationality, normality,” Barthes notes exuberantly. He then goes on to play observant: “the unknown language, of which I nonetheless grasp the respiration, the emotive aeration, in a word the pure significance, moves around me, as I move, a faint vertigo, sweeping me in its artificial emptiness, which is consummated only for me: I live in the interstice, delivered from any meaning.” (p.9)

Eventually, Barthes reaches the conclusion that Japan is, as the title suggests, an empire of signs devoid of meaning. He arrives at this conclusion from his analysis of Japanese haiku, gastronomy, and city planning.

Starting with Haiku, he first enumerates a few such as:

I come by the mountain path.
Ah! This is exquisite!
A violet!
Basho (p.71)

Which leads him to conclude that “The haiku wakens desire: how many Western readers have dreamed of strolling through life, notebook in hand, jotting down ‘impressions’ whose brevity would guarantee their perfection, whose simplicity would attest to their profundity.”

This basic analysis leads to a much deeper observation: “there is a moment when language ceases, and it is this echoless breach which institutes at once the truth of Zen and the form—brief and empty—of the haiku.” (p.74)

What Barthes is thus talking about is haiku’s attempt to elucidate the lack of a Saussurian signifier to accurately represent the Saussurian signified. In other words, he realizes in haiku a certain form of arresting silence that talks quite loudly to the soul in the most ineffable of manners.

Likewise, in the field of gastronomy, Barthes notes Japan’s emphasis of lightness rather than the rich and creamy tastes preferred in his France:

“For us, in France, a clear soup is a poor soup; but her the lightness of the bouillon, fluid as water, the soybean dust or minced green beans drifting within it, the rarity of the two or three solids which divide as they float in this little quantity of water give the idea of a clear density, of a nutrivity without grease, of an elixir all the more comforting in that it is pure.” (p.14)

By stumbling upon Japan’s emphasis on things that are clear, pure, and silent, Barthes triumphantly lands upon one more triumphant find: the lack of a “Center” in Tokyo.

Again, Barthes begins his observations with what he’s used to seeing at home—a concentric city with the center filled with churches, offices, banks, and other key functions of civilization. In contrast, “the city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a center, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen.” (p.31)

Thus Tokyo’s ominous center imposes the stillness of nothing amongst the daily havoc of a typical modern city.

And thus, concludes Barthes, “daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred ‘nothing.’ [Tokyo] is thereby built around an opaque ring of walls, streams, roofs, and trees whose own center is no more than an evaporated notion, subsisting here, not in order to irradiate power, but to give to the entire urban movement the support of its central emptiness […] in this manner, we are told, the system of the imaginary is spread circularly, by detours and returns the length of an empty subject.” (p.31-32)

Welcome to Japan—the land that has never existed.


[Poem] A World Unseen

October 26th, 2010

If I could choose to be a being of the past
I’d be a Native American.
I could talk with the trees,
Have quarrels with the squirrels,
And dance with the flames.

The Great Spirit is guardian to all,
On his land we are bound together.
So hello mother who peers out from the logs.
Hello father who sleeps all winter.

My horse and I are twin brothers.
We explore the land from water falls to rocky ledges.
I pet his mane and call out his name.
He carries me home from day to day.

Come and see my cousins, the deer.
They graze and prance and say hello
With small ears and beady eyes beckoning you
Into their welcoming homes.

But who are these white-skinned newcomers
Who wear sturdy looking armor?
Well behold my immaculate skin,
Reflecting the smile of my sister the sun.

Their axes hack at my elders the trees
Their guns kill my cousins the deer,
So let loose my fearsome uncles, the arrows
And protect this world which cannot be seen.


[Poem] Coming Home

October 24th, 2010

The hero comes home. He wants to sleep.
But the trumpets are blaring.
The newsreels are rolling.
There’s no peace for the hero.

The hero comes home. He wants to sleep.
But his mother weeps with joy.
His children scream for attention.
There’s no peace for the hero.

The hero comes home. He wants to sleep.
But there’s a mountain of bills.
A forest-like lawn.
There’s no peace for the hero.

The hero comes home. He wants to sleep.
But his comrades come visit.
They reek of tobacco.
There’s no peace for the hero.

The hero comes home. He wants to sleep.
But his beard’s grizzled.
His hair’s disheveled.
There’s no peace for the hero.

The hero comes home. He goes to sleep.
But those he’s killed appear in his dreams and greet him.
They wave hearty hello’s. We’ll see you soon. Just wait.

There’s no peace for the hero.


The Faults of Reconciliation: Stuffing Words in a Dead Man’s Mouth

October 23rd, 2010

In many newspapers, the word “conflict resolution” is often used interchangeably with the term “reconciliation.” However, while the former indicates an end of state-level discord, the latter is a branch of peace studies that is rapidly gaining followers.

From an academic perspective, “reconciliation” connotes a deeper level of attitude-change amongst the parties involved. It is not merely a change of diplomatic stance but a deeper level change where simmering animosities are relieved, which progresses to benign coexistence and finally, it is hoped, towards a relationship that is mutually intimate and symbiotic.

Yet for all the buzz in the academic sphere, for all the hype amongst International Relations majors, reconciliation as a conceptual framework for establishing peace is and remains flawed. Reconciliation counts amongst its tools the seeking of justice, truth, restitution, reform, and oblivion (“time heals all wounds.”) These tools are used to ameliorate hostilities with the aim of normalizing and establishing amicable relations between the parties involved in conflict.

All of this sounds good in theory. But there remains something evidently disturbing about reconciliation.

To realize just what’s so disturbing about this notion, one must first question who is the most disenfranchised when conflicts occur.

Needless to say, it’s those who have lost their lives.

The crucial fault of a posteriori claims for justice after conflicts occur is in the fact that we are essentially acting as agents for the dead, we are representing people who have lost ability to voice their opinions. What we ought to bear in mind then, hypothetically, is the rights of the dead.

Some may have sought vengeance had they been killed, yet others who are more docile of heart may not have sought retributive justice. As survivors of conflict, we can only surmise what the dead (the most disenfranchised of all) would have wanted us to do.

But reconciliation is a scary science, and it’s a scary science because it justifies the act of putting words in a dead man’s mouth.

Considering what to do afterwards, a form of retrospective analysis, is by its nature subjective. This leaves a great margin of interpretation that the victor can capitalize upon. Hence the term “victor’s justice.”

To make matters worse, reconciliation’s benefits are dubious. The fact that conflict continues to occur despite the work being done on reconciliation, shows that historical reconciliation, as a study, does not have preventative qualities; thus the essence of the study of historical reconciliation is not an answer to conflict or even a preventative measure but rather a form of a posteriori opinion surveys as a framework for how conflicts ought to be dealt with after they occur.

Besides, why do we need to reconcile? Are not the relatives of those who have been killed retaining the identity of their deceased by harboring deep resentment towards the aggresors?

As John, one of the main characters in Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece work Brave New World states, “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

To which another character replies, “in fact, you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

John’s response?

“All right then, I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.” (p.240).

Reconciliation may have lofty ideals, but killing resentment may be the same as a ridding the world of the last remaining memories of the dead. Which, might I add, is a form of memory genocide.


High Time for Watershed in East-Asia Relations

October 12th, 2010

Last month’s collision of a Chinese trawler and two Japanese Maritime Coast Guard vessels comes at a time when both countries were looking forward to warmer relationships. Since 2009, China has been Japan’s largest economic trading partner, and the new Japanese leadership under Prime Minister Naota Kan was reputedly the most pro-Chinese government in decades.

Yet as bilateral relations were strained by the collision, much of this goodwill has been dashed. The collision occurred in disputed waters near the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu by the Chinese), bringing disputed territory to the forefront of politics. In the end, China ratcheted up its grievances against Japan, and a bizarre slew of incidents—unusually thorough custom inspections of commodities headed for Japan, China’s sudden weeklong ban of rare earth exports, and the detention of 4 Japanese construction workers—seemed to be more than Japan wanted to bear.

Japan freed the trawler’s skipper on September 24th, perhaps in an effort to defuse escalating tensions. Another factor may be the host of multilateral talks scheduled to take place over the coming months, such as the G20, East Asian and Asia Pacific Economic Co-Operation Summits. In light of talks, Japan may have seen a need to bring about a quick conflict resolution.

However, Japan’s ultimate decision to free the skipper has several lasting implications. For one thing, China’s assertion of legitimacy over the islands seemed much more coordinated than Japan’s mixed-signal response during the weeks the trawler’s captain was detained. This underscored Japan’s ineptitude to appeal its stance to the international community. China, too, made a firm point that it intends to take a hard-line stance when the going gets rough, a clear contrast to the “peaceful rise” it has long preached to its neighbors. The collision has undoubtedly made nearby countries with territorial disputes with China fidgety, while simultaneously giving a wake-up call to the United States that it may not be able to get away by playing observer when tension in the region escalates.

As far as the islands and the development natural gas reserves in vicinity go, it is unfortunate that Japan and China cannot agree to jointly develop the large reserves of natural gas discovered in 1969 by ECAFE (UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East) near the islands in a harmonious manner. In essence, the struggle over disputed territories in East Asia is not just about development rights and EEZ’s (Exclusive Economic Zone). Making territorial claims is a way countries assert themselves as the nexus of power in the region. This means that geopolitically, the close proximity of the countries and the framework of an “East Asian” region makes reconciliation and integration that much more difficult, especially when so many countries are trying to become the leader of the region.

Where judicial interpretations of territorial claims differ, regional integration is the only way to avoid a zero-sum conflict. Though the region is stable on the surface, underlying mistrust still looms large. If true reconciliation does not take place, new conflicts will stir old grudges—in particular sentiments characterized by rumination on past victimizations. What the region desperately needs is historical reconciliation, now in the “forgiving and cleansing” way which is colored by religious overtones and therapeutic language, but macro-level psychological reconciliation where past wrongs become incorporated into a new narrative told by all parties. By combining narratives through reconciliation, mutual understanding will become more tenable, and region will not just be marked by increasing economic interdependence but increasing mutual trust as well.


Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand and Visible Misinterpretations

October 4th, 2010

Famously absentminded and an avid player of whist, he roamed the campuses of Glasgow and Oxford in the mid-18th century. This man was also frequently overheard talking to himself. Nonetheless, this eccentricity of a man was a preeminent thinker and held the chair of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. He counted amongst his friends great intellectuals such as David Hume, D’Alembert, Turgot, Voltaire, and even Francois Quesnay.

This man, of course, is Adam Smith.

Today, Adam Smith is one of the most well-known figures in economics. Most textbooks begin with an expert from his book The Wealth of Nations, enlightening young students about how an invisible hand tends supply and demand towards equilibrium in the long run. Hailed as the founder of economics, Adam Smith has certainly made lasting contributions towards modern economics.

But do we really understand Adam Smith and his insights? Can we be certain that we did not misunderstand him?

Ironically, Adam Smith himself did not see himself as a “founder of economics,” nor did he even consider The Wealth of Nations to be his greatest work.

The former claim is an easy one to verify: Smith had intended to dedicate The Wealth of Nations to Francois Quesnay, the French thinker who authored the Tableau Economique—an economic model of macroeconomics.

The latter claim can be deduced when one looks at Smith’s life-history: Considering his long-standing reputation as an authority on moral philosophy, it is quite probable that Adam Smith died thinking that his book Theory of Moral Sentiments published in 1759 was his greatest work.

So then, what about the bloated fanfare about his notion of the invisible hand? The term appears on page 572, where Smith writes,

“[The market participant] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

When one reads The Wealth of Nations, the reader cannot help but wonder if Adam Smith wrote of the invisible hand in passing. After all, Smith makes sure that he repeats important claims several times within his work to reinforce his claim. In contrast, the term “invisible hand” appears only once. Perhaps it’s just a metaphor.

It seems reasonable to conclude that Adam Smith considered himself more an authority on philosophy than a voice for economics, and we ought to titillate the feasibility of whether or not the invisible hand is just overbloated hype.

But with all of that said, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations is certainly a bible of macroeconomics. The book hints of Smith’s stance as a Rawlsian long before John Rawls established his notion of the “difference principle” and also contains Smith’s insights on population growth, statistics, and speculation—just to name a few. Smith also draws liberally from French thinkers, which makes The Wealth of Nations a rich and enjoyable read.

Students of economics would do well to read The Wealth of Nations—being content with the notion of an invisible hand may in fact lead to very visible misinterpretations of not only Adam Smith, but of economic theory in general if the students’ attitudes towards studying are characterized by lazy inquiry.

Thus the fork in the road towards sound economics and vulgar economics seems to lie in whether or not an individual sees the continuity of the economics as a study.


Defending the Undefendable

September 23rd, 2010

Meet Dr. Walter Block: a man born in New York who started his early career as an academic embracing the egalitarian ideals of liberalism.

This was, of course, until he met Ayn Rand.

People well informed of the libertarian school of thought will be quick to realize that Ayn Rand provided the philosophical backbone for America’s about-face in socioeconomic policy from a gracious welfare state towards one that relies increasingly on free-market fundamentals. Rand’s influence are far-reaching: she counts among her disciples big names such as Alan Greenspan—the former chairman of the Fed, and Ronald Reagan—the man who made neo-conservatism more digestible, and thus more widely supported by the populace (think Reaganomics).

In the mid-1960’s the young and liberal-minded Walter Block engaged in an academic battle against people such as Rand and other notable libertarians of the day. Both sides proclaimed the superiority of their ideals, and the two intellectual camps decided to wage the war of words and ideas upon each other at occasional luncheons, a very benign way to settle a war at that.

Unfortunately for sympathizers of liberalism, Block’s defense of egalitarianism eventually collapsed, and shortly after he was converted to the libertarian faith. Block, now a supporter of laissez-faire capitalist anarchism, is a member of the Austrian School of Economics and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

It is clear that Block is one of the most vociferous and staunchest supporter of freedom and individual liberty today. In his book “Defending the Undefendable,” he applies the non-agression axiom—the cornerstone of liberatarian philosophy—in some of the most extreme cases.

In the book, Block eloquently and wittily presents his rational and systematic refutational analysis of the common misconceptions harbored against various members of society. In other words, Block illustrates the misguided public opprobrium leveled at a total of 32 types of social pariahs, which include blackmailers, counterfeiters, crooked cops, drug pushers, drug addicts, employers of child labor, and even people who yell “fire” in theatres. In each of these cases, Block presents a well-reasoned argument that depicts these people as heroic members of society.

For instance, one may be quick to proclaim that the blackmailer is a villainous figure. After all, he knows something embarrassing or harmful about an individual and is threatening to reveal it to the public! Thus, isn’t it quite obvious that the blackmailer is evil incarnate?

Block argues no. In fact, he reasons, “the sole difference between a gossip and a blackmailer is that the blackmailer will refrain from speaking—for a price. In a sense, the gossip is much worse than a blackmailer, for the blackmailer has given the blackmailee a chance to silence him. The gossip exposes the secret without warning. Is not the person with a secret better off at the hands of a blackmailer, than a gossip? With the gossip, all is lost; with the blackmailer, one can only gain, or at least be no worse off.” (p. 42-43).

So then, the blackmailer may be the lesser of two evils perhaps, but what of those who employ children as child laborers? Aren’t these people exploiting children? Isn’t this a morally reprehensible practice that must be banished from modern society in all nations?

Against this notion, Block first elucidates the fallacy of the notion of “adulthood,” which is nothing more than “the age of 21 […] an arbitrary cutoff point.” (p. 245). He then reminds readers, “there is first the problem that several, if not many 10 year olds, have a greater grasp of political, social, historical, psychological, and economic factors, presumably the factors that enable one to vote ‘wisely’ than do many people over the age of 21.” (p. 245).

Basically, he’s talking about child geniuses.

So then, if the exact time at which a child becomes an adult is arbitrarily dictated by society, when, exactly, does a child become an adult?

“A child becomes an adult,” Block states, “not when he reaches some arbitrary age limit, but rather when he does something to establish his ownership and control over his own person.”

Thus if a child’s mental capacities are capable of self-ownership, then he is ready to be acknowledged as an adult. And because the child is now an adult, he may enter voluntary labor contracts as he pleases.

In this manner, Block takes reader on a journey on why none of the “disgraceful” occupations in society are morally reprehensible and roots his logic deep in the virtues of libertarianism—namely, the efficiency of market fundamentals, the ridiculous notion of “moral” or “immoral” societal roles when in fact all societal roles are amoral, and of course, the grandest axiom of libertarianism: “it is illegitimate to engage in aggression as nonagressors.” (p. xiii).

This leaves us with one simple, provocative question: what of the link of amoral markets and moral-minded human beings, and how should we construct an academic framework for such an inquiry?


Sensing Nature

September 15th, 2010

The latest exhibition at the Mori Art Museum, which will be on display until November 7th, is aptly named “Sensing Nature”—a collaborative work by world-renown Japanese artists Tokujin Yoshioka, Taro Shinoda, and Takashi Kuribayashi.

Showcasing some of the masterpieces of the three artists, the exhibit subtly imposes the question of “rethinking the Japanese perception of nature.”

And masterpieces they are. Those who view the exhibit are first greeted by Yoshioka’s “Snow,” which recreates the seemingly fantasy-like quality of snow. Yoshioka achieves this feat using 15 meters of enclosed open space, a fan, and 300 kilograms of feathers. The fan spins every now and then, causing the feathers to fly, float, and fall to the ground, leaving visitors the impression that they’re actually watching snow fall slowly to the ground.

Curious patrons of the Mori Art Museum then proceed to view the works of Taro Shinoda, who has been working on the theme of the “connection between man and nature.” Among his intriguing works is the Ginga—a series of water-filled bottles with air tubes hang from the ceiling that releases a droplet of water simultaneously, causing the white milky water in a round pool below to ripple. The resulting effect is nothing short of spectacular; observers feel the slightest sense of a disturbance in the water’s “harmony,” an iconic symbol of the Japanese notion of natural beauty.

Shinoda reveals that his work Ginga was inspired by the Hojo garden at Tofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto, which was designed by Shigemori Mirei, a notable Showa-era Japanese landscape artist. The east garden is a karesansui—a dry landscape—and features stars arranged in a Big Dipper motif that ‘shine’ by way of a pattern of furrows raked in the gravel. Shinoda effectively recreates the waxing and waning starlight of the Milky Way in his eccentric work.

Lastly, visitors to the museum enjoy the works of Takashi Kuribayashi, a legendary Japanese artist who specializes in nihonga. His works show how one’s perspectives can change with different locations, which he achieves by dividing his works into certain different layers.

While notions of Japanese shintoism were faintly perceptible, contemporary questions related to traditional worship of nature, such as neo-animism, neo-drudism, and a resurgence of voodoo rituals were left largely untouched. However, the artists’ creativity is certainly no short of genius, and their choice of materials (such as feathers for snow and white cardboard for a forest) invokes within the patron a sense of child-like glee as she makes her way about enjoying the works.

Right in the heart of Tokyo, the exhibit delivers a captivating experience for Tokyoites and urbanites hailing from around the world to see the beauty that nature has to offer. If anything, the museum is undeniably fun, and the minimalism of the exhibition space acts as a temporary retreat from the urban sprawl.