Who Started the Fire?

September 6th, 2010

In 1989, Billy Joel released his song “We didn’t start the fire,” a song that catalogues the events that took place throughout Mr. Joel’s lifetime. The overall message of the song is clear: the baby boomer generation—of which Mr. Joel himself is also a part of—was not to be blamed for the downsides and shortcomings of society. After all, these societal ills were around before the baby boomers were born, so thus, argues Mr. Joel, his generation should not be held accountable for historical responsiblities.

The song’s lyrics references dozens of historical accounts, events, and people all the way from Marilyn Monroe to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion at a dizzying speed, adding to the songwriter’s case that societal events occur in such a manner that no particular generation can be singled out and found at fault.

Two decades have passed since Mr. Joel’s song charted #1 on the U.S. billboard top 100, and now a new generation of people, most popularly christened the children of the “digital age,” have come into existence. Though there has been an easing of finger-pointing over the years, the question still remains: are historical responsibilities inter-generational?

This question was proposed this year on August 25th at The University of Tokyo by Harvard professor of philosophy Dr. Michael Sandel. He asked the mostly Japanese audience of 300—picked by NHK out of an 8,000 strong applicant base—whether or not today’s generation of Japanese have any responsibilities for the crimes committed by previous generations.

Dr. Sandel, of course, was talking about the wartime atrocities committed by Japanese forces during World War II.

The audience found itself divided into two camps: one claimed that historical responsibilities are inter-generational, since each generation is built upon the achievements and faults of the previous one. In contrast, the other camp asserted that there are social paradigmatic shifts brought about by galvanizing change, which makes the idea of a Darwinian-Marxist model of an “evolutionary path of society” untenable.

This question is particularly interesting because the interpretations of the link between the concept of time and the concept of society clash most often at the country-level.

Both views of historical responsibility based upon a particular interpretation of time raised at Dr. Sandel’s lecture at The University of Tokyo were mentioned by Benedict Anderson mentions this in his book “Imagined Communities.”

 “The idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogenous, empty time,” he observes, “is a precise analogue of the idea of nation, which is also conceived as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history.” (p.26)

Which lies in stark contrast to the argument against this notion, namely a “more Foucauldian sense of abrupt discontinuities of consciousness.” (p.28).

The crucial fact that we must realize here is that historical responsibilities where the parties involved are at the nation-state level are mostly issues of restorative justice, and have little to do with the true academic inquiry of the time-society link.

What we ought to be analyzing, therefore, is whether or not restorative justice really eases the pain of the victimized party, or rather leaves the victimized party grinning after he has successfully capitalized on the descendants of the relenting aggressor.

Historical texts seem to indicate that events in history underscore man’s ineptitude to have amicable relations at the nation-state level. Large-scale wars have only been decreasing in the past half-century because of the deterrence offered by nuclear weapons and the birth of supranational organizations, however infantile and largely powerless they may still be.

The case for time-society links and the larger philosophical context in which it ought to be analyzed should be done, first and foremost, by consulting the notions of collective memory forwarded by Maurice Halbwachs, a French philosopher. Whereas “history” shared by nation-states inevitably introduces politics, shared experiences and collective memory of mankind as a species are factual and actuary.

Perhaps then, the notion of collective memory may be the nitrogen that finally extinguishes the “fire” Mr. Joel had mentioned in his masterwork song.


Why We Ought to Read

August 25th, 2010

Today, very few people feel the need to read the dusty, classical texts of ancient writers. Or perhaps, a more accurate account may be that they are unable to do so, what with the zeitgeist of contemporary life being one where people are overloaded with societal duties. It seems as if people today are often forced to multitask to incredible extremes. As Nicholas Karr points out in his book “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,” we are becoming increasingly inept at focusing on one particular task.

Technology has been no savior in this regard. As a matter of fact, as Karr has noted, technology is the prime culprit in preventing people from detaching themselves from society and engaging in leisurely activities.

So then, what do I mean by leisurely activities and how does it pertain to reading? Well, the concept of “leisure” envisioned by say, Hannah Arendt, is a deliberate act of “contemplation.” So thus when we are robbed of time, robbed of time to reflect upon ourselves, robbed of time to read, then we are losing the time we can spend to “contemplate,” or to be inquisitive about the world around us. When men are robbed of their ability to be inquisitive, they are effectively blinded of their ability to see the faults of the established zeitgeist and are washed away with the times.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Ray Bradbury had pointed out in his book “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953, that though technology shaves time to do chores, it also erodes peoples’ time to contemplate—for example, as dressing up for the day becomes easier, “the man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour.” (p.74).

“Fahrenheit 451,” one of the most well-known novels depicting a distopian society, tells of a chilling alternate history where firemen burn books. The story unfolds as a fireman proudly proclaims, “Monday burn Millay. Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then bury the ahes. That’s our official slogan.” (p.15)

As the story unfolds, the protagonist, a fireman by the name of Guy Montag, begins to have doubts about whether or not burning books will really increase society’s aggregate happiness, as he had been taught by his superiors. Montag is led to realize that books must have enormous significance when an old woman commits suicide upon learning that her books must be burnt. In a sudden bout of enlightened discourse, Montag proclaims, “I thought about the books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper […] we need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” (p.68-69).

Yet Montag was challenged by another character who reminds him that “the public itself stopped reading of its own accord […] in any event, you’re a fool. People are having fun.” (p.113) In other words, if the public didn’t care about grave issues, then wouldn’t it be better to let them become carefree of all societal woes?

Ray Bradbury was not the only author who imparts this question upon the reader. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author credited for creating the jazz age, has one of his characters point out in his most celebrated work “The Great Gatsby” that “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool […] everything’s terrible anyhow, everybody thinks so—the most advanced people.”

So then, the question comes down to whether or not the public ought to read books and become aware of societal woes, or remain ignorant?

Ignorance is bliss.
Or is it?

One thing that we can observe is that the cause for reading books is not a lost cause. As a matter of fact, many of Japan’s topmost business “elites” have read classic texts consciously aware of what the books’ significance. For example, Katsunobu Onogi, well-known in Japan as the former president of Long Term Credit Bank, was reputed to have read books voraciously. As Gillian Tett, former bureau chief in Japan for the Financial Times reveals in her book “Saving the Sun”—an account of Japan’s failure to modernize its financial institutions—that “In London, Onogi happily roamed around secondhand bookshops, devouring European and American works by Weber, the German political scientist, John Milton, the English author, and Charles Lamb, the English essayist who had written about the dangers of financial speculation and asset bubbles back in nineteenth-century London.”

So then books, through their ability to store the collective knowledge of mankind, have the ability to give us the wisdom to make better decisions.

Once again, in “Fahrenheit 451,” Montag is made aware of the significance of books when Faber, an academic-in-hiding tells him,“the books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.” (p.112)

Even the most seemingly infallible of us make mistakes. But we can lessen the severity of these mistakes and make better decisions and thus create a better system of informed decision-making handed down from one generation to the next if we decide to retain our collective knowledge through books—which are tangible relics of our experiences, and arguably our greatest treasure.


For Want of Silence

August 14th, 2010

“E pur si muove,” Galileo muttered in 1632 as he was forced by the Catholic church to recant his theory that the earth moved around the sun. Galileo’s four words changed the way we fundamentally view the universe and justified the centuries of scientific inquiry that followed.

In the same century, a little Japanese monk who had carved out a name for himself for his poetry was looking at the island Sato, the stars, and the oceans. The monk was compelled to write, “turbulent the sea, stretching across to Sado, The Milky Way” in the haikai no renga form.

The famous line was written by Basho in 1689.

Be it Galileo or Basho, both have conveyed messages of enormous significance and beauty while maintaining the brevity of a simple sentence unassailed by verbiage. Basho saw the sea and wrote poems that have endured centuries. Today, Japan is still surrounded by the sea, but it is also surrounded by a sea of clutter.

Japan’s major news organs all tout the same headlines. People are bombarded left and right by messages. Noise pollution and light pollution, two evils brewed by urbanization, are the consequences of contemporary modernization.

Public transit has not been spared, either. The tranqulity of the trains are treacherously destroyed by voiced messages reminding commuters not to get their fingers stuck as the train doors close and not to forget their belongings on the train. Urbanites, especially those in Tokyo, do not enjoy the same serenity that clear-minded thinkers had enjoyed during eras of great cultural and artistic achievement.

The Information Age has birthed new words like “digital divide,” and “information literacy.” UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich coined words like “symbolic analyst” in reference to those employed in the tertiary sector that can swim through today’s sea of information and make some sense out of it.

Today’s world is brimming with information; keep the water flowing and we’ll all surely drown.


Jihad, McWorld, and Bureaucratic Officialdom

August 8th, 2010

In the March 1992 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Barber, an American political theorist, published his work “Jihad vs. Mcworld.”  He claims, with great brevity, that in today’s world, the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld are the two primary forces vying for the hearts and minds of men.

In his opening paragraph he remarks: “Just beyond the horizon of current events lies two possible political futures – both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe – a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food – with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald’s, pressing nations into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.”

Thus, Barber sees McWorld and Jihad pitted against each other as they exert their influence across the four corners of the world. McWorld, a gruesome patchwork of multinational corporations trumpeting blind, voracious consumerism, has birthed a resurgence of corporate symbolism and the decline in influence of traditional culture in our daily lives.

In contrast, Jihad is traditional culture turned avenging-angel-incognito, causing sporadic acts of violence as symbolic acts of resistance against McWorld’s strengthening clutches upon our daily lives. Barber does not, however, see Jihad as justified, but rather that it is little more than a movement by small groups of people of myriad variety trying to gather whatever vestiges of identity they can morsel.

Barber puts it most succinctly when he observes: “neither McWorld nor Jihad is remotely democratic in impulse. Neither needs democracy; neither promotes democracy.”

It would be stating the obvious to say that Japan, as a nation, has largely sold itself to the seductive luminosity of what Barber calls “McWorld.” One stroll to Shibuya’s notorious pedestrian intersection will dizzy the unsuspecting tourist with relentless bombardments of corporate symbolism.

Though Japan is recognized as a democratic country, in essence, vested interests, largely protected by bureaucratic red tape, holds the Japanese citizenry from garnering true political representation. Ever since the end of World War II, true political power has been firmly in the hands of bureaucrats, and despite a strong albeit short-lived campaign to wrest control from them by former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, bureaucrats are still calling the shots today.

If Japan’s bureaucrats were a well-intentioned bunch with noble ideals and true civil servants in the name of the word, then perhaps a spoonful of bureaucratic paternalism might be digestible to the general public. But such has too often not been the case. This is perhaps most perceptible in the number of excessive and unnecessary public works projects that have been proposed and carried out by bureaucrats and their construction companies (through which they make hefty sums of money) over the years.

Of course, there have always been public protest, no matter how feeble and ignored by the media the protests may have been. The efforts though, were mostly in vain, as Alex Kerr, a critic of contemporary Japan, notes in his book “Dogs and Demons” that “so weak is Japan’s democracy in the face of [bureaucratic] officialdom that in twenty-five out of thirty-three such cases, between 1995 and 1998, legislatures have refused to conduct referendums.”

In his book, Alex Kerr laments the damage that has been wrought to Japan’s environment. Kerr illustrates the ghastly reality of contemporary Japan in excrutiatingly vivid detail: “Japan has become arguably the world’s ugliest country. To readers who know Japan from tourist brochures that feature Kyoto’s temples and Mount Fuji, that may seem a surprising, even preposterous assertion. But those who live or travel here see the reality: the native forest cover has been clear-cut and replaced by the industrial cedar, rivers are dammed and the seashore lined with cement, hills have been leveled to provide gravel fill for bays and harbors, mountains are honeycombed with destructive and useless roads, and rural villages have been submerged in a sea of industrial waste.”

Much of this damage is irreversible, or reversible albeit with a very high cost. The public has been so detatched from policymaking through bureaucratic officialdom and so blinded from relevant matters due to total immersion into the labyrinth of McWorld’s objectified symbols that flowering of true democracy in Japan seems to be the wishful thinking of a fool.

The kind of democracy that Japan should strive to achieve, if it still has the capability to strive for democracy, is the kind of “Open Society” advanced by the late Karl Popper in his 1945 book “The Open Society and its Enemies.” Popper, disillusioned with top-down government after his fellow socialist friends were shot dead in the name of greater societal good, became a strong advocate of liberal democracy. According to Popper, it is the unpredictability nature of the future of society through any viable scientific means that necesitates a bottom-up approach to governmental decision-making, and thus there lies the latent need for true democratic participation by all respective citizens.

Whether or not Japan’s citizens will garner true political representation lies in the citizens’ ability to rally under the battlecry for true representation – which is possible only when they realize that they must represent themselves.


Amartya Sen and Sadako Ogata: Their Views on Japan

August 1st, 2010

On July 22nd, Hitachi sponsored a forum where Amartya Sen (Harvard professor, recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics) and Sadako Ogata (President, Japan International Cooperation Agency) exchanged their views about Japan’s future in the coming century.

Sen, the first to talk at the podium, provided an in-depth analysis of the oft-pervasive “culture-based accounting of economic values” In other words, was Japanese culture – in particular its “samurai tradition” – the explanation for its explosive economic growth, as Eiko Ikegami had proposed?

Drawing upon the words of Max Weber (Sen alludes to the links that Weber saw between Protestantism and economic development in Weber’s book “The Protestant Ethic and the Development of Capitalism”) and Michio Morishima, Sen describes the notion of how the “Japanese ethos” and its emphasis on rule-based behavior values (which can be classified as somewhat Weberian) is one convincing explanation of Japan’s growth.

However, Sen is quick to note that the aforementioned thesis was quickly disproved by the rise of the NIES countries in the 20th century, and added that Confucianism cannot account for the “Asian Miracle” considering how Thailand is a Buddhist nation.

Sen concludes his observations regarding the culture-based assertion that the “explanation of economic dynamism [through cultural explanations has] clearly strong arbitrariness.”

Instead of looking at Japan’s culture as the key ingredient in its growth throughout the past half-century, Sen looks at developments during the Meiji Restoration. According to Sen, Japan’s renewed emphasis on global openness and education were key towards positioning itself as a future economic power to be reckoned with.

Sen added that Tadayoshi Kito put it most succinctly when Kito observed, “it only depends on education, or lack of education.”

By 1910, Japan was almost fully literate, and by 1913, Japan was publishing more books than Britain. A rise in literacy rate, Sen observes, is cardinal towards the “expansion of human capability.”

As such, Sen places great emphasis on Japan’s education-oriented approach to economic development, and notes, “widespread participation in the global economy would have been difficult if people could not read or write,” and that “there is much to learn still in Japanese educational expansion.”

In conclusion, Sen stresses the emphasis on human capability and public dialogue, and warned against the obstructive nature of “dialogic neglect.”

Sadako Ogata, whose speech followed Sen’s, was no less visionary and deeply rooted in political realism.

Asked what is meant by “human security,” Ogata first responded that “it started in the 1990′s when the question was, ‘what is needed for development?’” and then added, “it was this background that Kofi Annan saw the need for ‘freedom from fear and freedom from want.’”

Ogata, one of the most well-known figures in Japan for her continued diligence towards overseas aid and her work towards alleviating the woes of refugees, repeatedly emphasized the importance of education, such as when she said during her concluding remarks, “education will have a big role with human equality [...] people should become a bit more sensitive to inequalness, to insecurity,” and noted the role of JICA by adding, “my organization JICA [advances] inclusiveness [...] bring all the people who need more help into the equation – our slogan is inclusiveness.”

Sen was quick to contribute his final words towards stressing the importance of education as well. He proclaimed, “basic education is absolutely essential for living an intellectual life [...] it’s a huge value [...] literacy is a tool for political participation and economic participation.”

Two individuals who both command enormous respect, both Sen and Ogata realized not just the importance of education, but Japan’s success in embracing it.

Geopolitically, Japan is sandwiched between America and China, two polarities vying for the reins of global authority. But Japan’s importance as a role model in the world cannot be overlooked – it has shown itself to be a clear leader in economic growth through the “educational approach,” and still offers a sound method of growth for other like-minded countries to follow today.


Delicious Coffee, Doused Hopes

July 10th, 2010

The goal to “halve global poverty by 2015,” along with a slew of equally zealous objectives encapsulated in the UN’s Millenium Development Goals seem more forlorn now than ever before.

Mounting global unrest, becoming ever more conspicuous as different interest groups rally in the streets to protest international institutions like the WTO, have caused policymakers to bring the issue of poverty reduction to the fore.

It is glaringly obvious that the rules of global governance are skewed heavily in favor of developed countries. Global civil unrest continues to grow, and yet the winds of change have yet to show even the slightest breeze.

What keeps the winds of change at bay?

Perhaps Jeffrey Sachs, professor at Columbia University and the man behind the MDG’s, has an answer. In his book “The End of Poverty” Professor Sachs eloquently depicts the unfathomable ills globalization has caused to many living in the “Third World.” In particular, Sachs shows how the juggernaut character of corporate globalization has eroded both the economic independence and cultural spheres of many living in less developed regions.

Coffee, a drink that rose to prominence thanks to Islamic traders, is now one particular commodity that underscores exactly how faintly reminiscent of colonialism modern-day policies are.

As Ryuichiro Usui, a former professor at The University of Tokyo notes in his essay “Coffee and Globalization,”

“coffee, a world commodity which ranks number two in world trade after oil, demonstrates quite well what globalization is about [...] suppose 500 grams of coffee sold at a German supermarket costs four euros [...] of the four euros, only about 0.8 goes to the producer of the coffee. In contrast, 1.0 euros will go to the German government. It’s strange that the country that produces the coffee gets less than the country that consumes it, but that’s how the world market works.”

It is strange indeed, but provides a good case in point. Zimbabwe, other African countries, and many Latin American countries voice their grievances against modern global governance because all of these countries have the ability to be independent if they were only given the ability to export their goods to the global market on fairer terms.

Professor Usui cleverly Christens today’s globalizations as “grotesqualization,” and by this he means that “the global and the local are collapsed together in such a way that colonialism and postcolonialism, the premodern and the postmodern, have been blended horribly together.”

There is, however, one country that has managed to rise above modern-day globalization’s influence: Bangladesh. A country that has shown strong economic growth, Bangladesh is also a country that’s on a firm course to be able to actually realize the goal of halving poverty by 2015.

Here’s the real catch: it’s economic growth and domestic system of wealth distribution didn’t arise from the paternalistic guidance of developed countries.

Rather, the goal was attained by allowing local villagers to bring their commodities to the market and be able to sell their commodities under fair terms. In particular, banks that issued microcredit loans to the poor, like Grameen bank, empowered these individuals with the ability to become entrepreneurs.

Muhammad Yunus, an economist who studied at Vanderbilt University and who is also the founder of Grameen bank, has shown the world that it doesn’t take an MBA to be a successful entrepreneur.

With better trading practices and fairer trading terms, more countries can enjoy newly created wealth and enjoy better standards of living. Now is not the time to increase the amount of money we dole out through the form of ODA’s, now is the time to revamp a system that is heavily beneficial to some, and largely detrimental to many.


Lee Kuan Yew, Abstraction, and the Limits to Human Knowledge

July 3rd, 2010

1997—Amid cheers, wails, toasts, tears, triumphs, and treachery, the financial battle between Thailand’s government and the world’s hedge funds had been settled.

The hedge funds had won. As their managers and clients toasted to newfound wealth, Thailand and much of Asia was sent reeling into one of the worst economic recessions of the century.

Stanley Fischer of the International Monetary Fund was one man amongst many who watched the chaos unfold. As he recalls, “I went to Bangkok in 1997 […] Thailand had fixed the value of its currency in dollars [and] people began to wonder ‘do they really have enough dollars to always be able to give me dollars in exchange for the baht, the Thai currency I have?,’ and when they begin to wonder about that, they start asking for the dollars, and then they attack the currency.”

And attack the Thai currency they did. The method? Shorting—an investing practice of “selling” something you don’t have and promising to buy the original amount later. People shorted the Thai baht in large droves, testing the Thai government’s limits. Investors all across the world who shorted the Thai baht placed a bet that the Thai government wouldn’t have enough foreign reserves to keep the baht pegged to the dollar.

Overwhelmed, the Thai government was forced to unpeg the baht. Investors, who could now “buy back” the baht at a steep discount, made millions. To use Thomas Friedman’s words, the “electronic herd” had pounced upon the baht mercilessly.

But the story didn’t end there. The collapse of Thailand’s economy—a very small portion of the global economy—made perky investors wary of neighboring countries. If Thailand’s currency was destabilized, what about all the other South-East Asian countries?

As Lee Kuan Yew, the senior minister of Singapore lamented, “the fund managers didn’t know the difference between Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore. They just said, ‘I want out.’ Property prices collapsed; companies collapsed. And in the case of Indonesia, the social fabric collapsed. Churches have been burnt; mosques have been attacked; they have killed each other. This will take years to heal.”

What began as a scheme by investors to create a rupture in market stability and earn easy money triggered a regional phenomenon. Millions of people in Asia saw their livelihoods change for the worse.

It would be easy to say that this episode is just another example of investors’ greed and seemingly mechanical lack of empathy.  But as Lee Kuan Yew so perceptively saw, there’s more to the story. To investors, “South East Asia” wasn’t a cartographic area demarcating an area brimming with a variety of different dialects and distinct cultures.  In their eyes it was a homogenous bloc—a lump of countries of little notable differences—and when Thailand went sour, they were quick to assume that others would too.

What’s particularly frightening about the Asian financial crisis is the limit of human knowledge. No matter how cautious investors are, they must accept some level of abstraction because it’s impossible to know everything about a particular country. In fact, from an epistemological perspective, people make abstractions every day for the sake of molding their knowledge into something that’s easy to organize and understand.

As many economists and politicians are already aware, the 21st century will see a rise in Asia’s growing importance in the world. Thus it is more important now than ever before to realize the differences between each country, each region, prefecture, city, town, and village—no matter how daunting the task may be—lest we dare trigger a catastrophe of even greater proportions.

Japan is no anomaly in the matter. Eisuke Sakakibara, commonly known as “Mr.Yen” notes: “one sector of the Japanese economy is an export-oriented sector which is highly competitive, consisting of Toyota’s and Sony’s. And the other is [the] domestic manufacturing sector which is extremely uncompetitive. We have a market-oriented capitalistic system on one hand; we have a very socialistic, egalitarian sector on the other.”

While most of the world only knows the former aspect of Japan, it is precisely the latter that has derailed Japan from its phenomenal growth in the 80’s and continues to be a nagging problem today. Japan is still an industrial giant, but at the same time it also has highly inefficient domestic industries. Both are part of Japan, but eventually Japan will have to pick one course over the other. This is one particular kind of diversity that Japan cannot afford to harbor for long.


The Plight of Feminism

June 19th, 2010

As we greet the 50th anniversary of “the pill,” it seems apt to reinvigorate feminist discourse. 

Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed “one is not born a woman, but becomes one,” affirming Spinoza that we are not predetermined to act but rather that society determines how we act—effectively breaking the long-established explanation of female social inequality based upon biological grounds. In other words, while men and women may differ in sex from birth, the difference between male and “man” and female and “woman” is the difference between a human being born with a tabula rasa—a blank slate—and a human being after he has been molded by his social environment.

This, in itself, ushered huge strides in how we think of the role men and women play in society—that is, we are not biologically determined to act in a certain way. If it is society that mandates how “men” and “women” ought to act, then we may be critical of what society decrees.

Today, feminism is a huge global movement that involves the participation of both sexes in its discourse. However, feminism itself has many different varieties: American feminism differs greatly from French feminism and post-colonial feminism.

American feminism emphasizes equal social rights—in particular, equal political footing between the two sexes. This can be seen in how women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton had fought for women’s suffrage alongside Frederick Douglass, who fought for equal rights for African Americans.

In contrast, French feminism distances itself with American feminism and instead focuses on much more metaphysical questions, like what defines the difference between the “body” and the corporeal body.

Though American feminism and French feminism have made their marks in changing how society views gender inequalities, postcolonial feminism has been established in part as an antithesis to the aforementioned variants of the feminist movement.

Postcolonial feminism is a movement spearheaded by the unheard millions of voices of women in developing countries (I use the term “developing countries” here only because it shows the cartographic area I am referring to; in no way do I believe that “developing countries” are “backward.”) Women in the Southern hemisphere, who have long been denied equal footing with their male counterparts, found some homage in the succession of “traditional knowledge” from one generation of women to the next.

In other words, women in the Southern hemisphere, whose roles have largely been restricted to the household, sought both meaning and individual identity in “traditional knowledge”—knowledge that has allowed women to raise hundreds of varieties of crops in a small plot of land.

Yet the one bastion of strength these women have enjoyed has been increasingly been encroached upon by large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, an American multi-national company. As Vandana Shiva, a highly acclaimed Indian economist argues, in today’s corporate-led globalization, there is no room for true female empowerment. As a matter of fact, as agribusinesses plow away small fields and farms that have a diverse range of crops and replace them with large tracts of monoculture fields, “traditional knowledge,” the one source of power for women in the Southern hemisphere, is undermined and placed at risk.

Shiva argues that there must be a resurgence of feminism, one that is truly global and reflects the voices of all women. She criticizes American feminism and French feminism for establishing the Western image of women upon their counterparts in the Southern hemisphere, which is eminent in how some traditional customs of women in “developing countries” have been frowned upon by those in the North.

In place of male supremacists and religious conservativism, feminism faces new fronts against corporatocracy and MTV. The former puts “traditional knowledge” and postcolonial feminism in peril; the latter confuses the high ideals of feminism with overt sexual liberalism and the affirmation of promiscuity.

Speaking of which, feminism, as understood by the populist culture in Japan, is as denigrated as MTV’s image of women. As the late Masao Maruyama, a political theorist in Japan notes, Japan has always never reached the idealized vision of freedom envisioned by Locke and instead has been stuck swimming in the low-brow, trivial, sensational, and irrelevant freedom of Hobbes. Feminism in Japan has been tainted by the sexual promiscuity professed by MTV, and draws not the quill of the academic but the frills of sexy lingerie.

On the bright side, in recent decades feminism has grown as a field of study in Japan—providing fertile grounds for domestic public discourse on issues of gender in a country long plagued by a male-centered society.

The reason? A declining fertility rate (which bottomed at 1.26 in 2005) has made gender equality a central issue in Japan, particularly in Japanese politics.

There are already signs of conscious improvement: the Japanese government initiated the “Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society” to try and help Japanese women tackle both child-rearing and retaining a career.

Whether or not reform towards true gender equality will be realized in Japan (and the rest of the world) remains to be seen, but it seems that true academic discourse towards the role of women in has finally begun after centuries of oppression.


Inequality, Intelligence, and the Post Crisis World

June 12th, 2010

Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, writes in his book “Inequality Reexamined” that when we think about inequality, we first ought to ask ourselves “inequality of what?”

Until Sen posed this question, policymakers often talked of “a more equal society” in a rough, slipshod way. As Sen notes, it is pivotal to debate what kind of inequality one is focusing on and how it ought to be addressed.

Sen proposes that the best way to gauge socioeconomic inequalities within a particular society is by measuring each individual’s “capabilities”—calculated by the sum of one’s “functions.” For example, a child starving in Africa and a man engaged in a hunger strike are both being deprived of food, but the latter has the option to eat should he decide to do so while the former does not. In this regard, the latter has the “function” to eat, while the former does not enjoy such a “function.”

We see here that starvation has two distinct forms when analyzed through Sen’s “capability approach”—“chosen starvation” and “forced starvation.”

This observation is crucial when it comes to policymaking: especially when the policy is geared towards lessening a particular inequality. Combating a particular inequality is usually a problem of distribution, and this is where the notion of “capabilities” becomes particularly important. Though distributing food to poverty-stricken African countries may help, it doesn’t do much good to distribute food to people fasting in Islamic countries, because they’re engaged in a form of “chosen starvation” out of a religious belief.

This problem of prudent distribution is also a problem of “pareto optimality,” named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. In short, “pareto optimality” is a state in which no further distribution will bring about any further utility (“utility” is a term akin to “happiness” – advanced by the fathers of utilitarianism J. Bentham and J.S. Mill.)

Today, the world is increasingly divided by “have’s” and “have-nots.” This problem is most conspicuous in the “North-South problem,” which depicts the enormous wealth disparity between the northern and southern hemispheres, an ugly phenomenon that has progressed due to globalization’s polarized, partisan governance.

It is time we develop a better system of global governance. It is time we establish new guidelines for economic prosperity in which every country is entitled to the nectars of growth. It is time we move beyond mere awareness of unequal global distribution of wealth, and move towards amending it.

As Amartya Sen observes in his essay “How to Judge Globalization,” globalization “deserves a reasoned defense, but it also needs reform.”

But without the intellectual infrastructure, in other words an academic infrastructure to mandate global policymaking, any hope of better global governance and better global distribution of wealth would largely be in vain.

The first realistic step towards establishing a post-Westphalia-system epistemic community—that is, a truly globalized intellectual brain-cloud that goes beyond the mere cathartic expression of today’s blogosphere—would be most easily achieved by networking all academic institutions into one giant, intertwined forum.

Some progress has been made since Joseph Nye indirectly affirmed the growing importance of intellectual persuasion in by coining the phrase “soft power” in his book “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power” (1990). The relevance of intellectual persuasion has gradually risen over the past several decades, and there are growing signs of change within the ranks of many government bodies.

A prominent voice in international relations, Akihiko Tanaka agrees with Nye in his book “The Post Crisis World” that there is now a much greater emphasis on “soft power” rather than “hard power” as the political realm shifts towards intellectual brawling and the economy also shifts towards knowledge-intensive industries.

For example, Obama’s cabinet, which some have branded “Obama University,”—qualified by the fact that Obama has amassed an impressive echelon of brains wielding M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s, shows some early signs of growing brain-clouds that will soon hover over much of the political realm.

Unfortunately, Obama’s example hasn’t been followed by countries such as Japan, whose political leaders have shown a marked inability to lead through intellectual discourse. Prime minister Hatoyama shocked the world as he resigned, the sixth Japanese prime minister to do so in five years.

What Japan and much of the world needs today is to follow Obama’s example and bring about a renewed intellectual discourse on foreign policy, one that emphasizes the establishment of a global public sphere to tackle tomorrow’s problems.


Smokey Mountain, Sinking Japan

May 31st, 2010

Every morning, tens of thousands of Filipino slum-dwellers flock in droves to what has now become known as “smokey mountain” – an outrageously large heap of waste located in Manila, Philippines. It has become somewhat euphemistically known as “smokey mountain” in reference to how the decomposing rubble occasionally catches fire.

For Filipinos mired in poverty in Manila, there is little other option than to salvage whatever they can from the “mountain” and survive. Though the Japanese media has repeatedly shone much spotlight on the issue, little real progress has been made in lifting Filipinos out of poverty.

What’s worst about it all is the number of young children who manually sort through the garbage looking for edible grub: a sight quite worthy of being included in Dante’s Inferno. Philanthropy-dollars do help, but without long-term programs to enable slum-dwellers to become self-sufficient, marked progress is forlorn at best.

But while the Japanese media scrutinizes every grime-clad child scrummaging “Smokey Mountain” for today’s grubby meal, there lies another entity with equally zealous eyes meticulously examining a far larger mountain of rubble.

Who is this entity, and what is he after?

After spending a week dining with top-brass executives from renown companies including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and McKinsey & Company in Japan (their names will remain undisclosed), they seem to be in accordance with one seemingly undisputable fact: within 20 years, Japan will be awash with foreign capital.

Of course, not in a good way.

Overthe last 20 years, roughly 2/3rds of Japanese companies listed on Fortune 500 – all multinational companies that no one thought would tank – simply vanished. And within 20 years, Japan’s labor force will shrink relative to the total population as the population continues to age – sure signs of mounting fiscal deficits as government pension schemes are stretched to their limits.

That means an absolute decline in the savings rate in Japan. Without the ability to issue government or corporate bonds within national borders, there’s only one other investor that the Japanese, who have been reluctant  to do so thus far, can rely on: Mr. Gaijin-san (gaijin: a somewhat derogatory term used in reference to foreigners.)

Odds are, as many economists predict (and as current trends already indicate), Japanese medium and small-scale parts makers will “detatch” themselves from their parent companies and begin selling their parts to overseas companies and investors eager to absorb Japanese technology and precision. When that happens, Japan’s comparative advantage in high-tech goods and Japan Inc.’s brand for safety, reliability, and precision will be for sale.

This only means one thing: Japan, with its thousands of islands big and small, is now one big “Smokey Mountain” that foreign capital will flock to in droves. Make no mistake: every pebble will be turned over, every shrivel of technology will be eagerly consumed, and everything sellable will sell to the highest bidding foreigner.

That, in itself, is not a bad thing, unless you’re a conservative eager to tout Japan’s supremacy. But it does mean a long-term decline in real competitiveness, and with that a continued chain of bankrupt Japanese multinational-companies, a gradual yet incessant decline in full-time jobs, and a sizeable long-term shrinking of Japan’s GDP.

I leave you with one over-used marketing slogan to mull over:

Coming to a store near you: The secrets to Japan Inc.’s gadgets and wizardry.
Get your reservations in advance.