Hello Friends' List and random internet readers. I'm going to step out of a maven's
shoes for a little while and write a report just for fun for a change.
THE PEACE BOAT REPORTS
MARCH 5 TO APRIL 7, 2005
Or: How I spent my 2005 winter vacation.
By Arudou Debito, Sapporo, Japan
This site is organized thus:
PREAMBLE: HIGH HOPES FOR THIS TRIP
PART ONE: PRELUDE TO BOARDING THE BOAT
PART TWO: LIFE AT SEA WITH A JAPAN IN MICROCOSM
PART THREE: EARNING MY KEEP
PART FOUR: JAMAICA, SLAVERY, AND HOME AGAIN
PREAMBLE: HIGH HOPES FOR THIS TRIP
(email sent to my Friends' Lists, slightly revised)
Date: Sun, 20 Feb 2005 00:42:59 +0900
To: Arudou Debito at home
Subject: Thoughts: Slavery, overseas travel, and comics
ON A FEVERISH NIGHT
On discrimination, slavery, going abroad, and comic books
By Arudou Debito
February 19, 2005
Hello Friends. This is not one of my usual essays. I have been writing and
rendering a current project all day, and, after getting more than a third of
it done in a six-hour rush, I went to bed thoroughly exhausted at 9PM
tonight. However, suddenly, about two hours later, here I am again wide
awake, hammering out an essay which simply will not let me sleep until it is
This may seem like a mere blog entry. But bear with me. I promise there
will be a payoff at the end.
I have had a few nights in my life like these--as a child growing up Upstate
New York, in college at Cornell or UC San Diego, in my adult life when I
realized that certain choices had to be made, etc. And always, I let my
mind wander until the creative muses, daemons, random neuron firings of the
dream world, whatever you'd like to call it, finish igniting inspirational
fires inside me. Then I would get up and scribble away, or make some
decisions that would become, as it would turn out, watersheds way down the
line. Stones put in place on the Go board that would only later clearly
make all the difference.
So let me unload three stones weighing heavily on my mind tonight:
1) THOUGHTS ON TRAVELLING OUTSIDE OF JAPAN FOR THE FIRST TIME IN FIVE YEARS
I have lived close to half my life overseas. Yet looking back to where I
came from, I have few wistful memories of "home". I feel little affinity
for the United States, and short of some high school and college friends (I
am long estranged from my parents; they didn't like my naturalizing into
Japan), I really can't imagine, if I were to show up at an American airport
someday, anything like a "homecoming": A scene of someone running across
baggage claim just to embrace me. Moreover, in Post-9/11 America, I fear
being viewed with suspicion at the American border: "So many millions want
an American passport, and you gave yours up?!", were the comments of former
friends I had the US Government, one of whom thought I was somehow
"betraying" his country by choosing Japan over America. Not all that
extreme an attitude, actually: If those few hundred people who gave up
their US citizenship every year have to get listed in the Congressional
Register, imagine how US Customs would treat me now.
But this year, as it turns out, I will be going back to the US again.
Twice. One reason is for business; my university has ties with UC Santa
Cruz, and I have been tapped to spend three weeks with our eager English
students in California this August. But the second occasion is purely
accidental. From March 11 until April 7, I have been invited to join
something called the Peace Boat (<http://www.peaceboat.org>) as a volunteer,
teaching about racial discrimination occurring in Japan. I board the boat
at Rome, disembark at Jamaica, and fly back to Narita via New York. Turns
out I will have to overnight in New York City, and provided that I don't spend the night in the
airport, stranded like nonpassported Tom Hanks in the movie THE TERMINAL, I
might just be in the Big Apple the night of April 5 or 6, 2005. "Would
anyone rush to the airport specially to meet me?", remains the question.
Given that I have had little reason to be homesick in the nearly-unbroken
sixteen years I've lived in Japan, I'm not sure I want to know the answer
either way. It might break the spell somehow.
2) THE VISION QUEST OF THIS JOURNEY
But there's more to tonight's musings than just something which may be
construed as self-pity. An obvious theme of this Peace Boat trip will be
"Discrimination"; the PB organizers were sagacious enough to go beyond
Japan's commonly-held view of "jinshu sabetsu" [racial discrimination] as
something that only happens overseas (a la South African Apartheid or
Segregation in the American South). Not in Japan, of course, as it
mythically has no racial minorities to discriminate against!
But another surprising theme, which came to me tonight, will be "Slavery".
The Economist just happened to review three books that I decided to make my
Peace Boat reading (no trashy novels for me anymore!). I'll mention each
title and why it matters as separated paragraphs:
"BURY THE CHAINS--Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's
Slaves", by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin 2005), promises to tell me
what sorts of activists managed to wean two major world powers (Britain, and
secondarily the United States) off one of the world's most diabolical (and
economically viable, especially in the latter country's case) systems ever devised
by humankind: the ownership of human beings as property.
"THOUGH THE HEAVENS MAY FALL--The Landmark Trial that Led
to the End of Human Slavery", by Steven Wise (Da Capo 2005),
will tell me how the 1772 James Somerset trial in Britain's courts laid the cornerstone
for the end of slavery in Britain.
"KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST--A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial
Africa", by Adam Hochschild again (Mariner Books 1998) will tell me about
the evils of the Belgian Congo (yes, the place that inspired Joseph Conrad,
and later director Francis Ford Coppola, to write about Hearts of Darkness).
This is a chronicle of one of the modern world's first international social
movements, and how activists without the internet, or even telephones (this
took place in 1890s-1910s!), could turn whole nations against a country
committing genocide (5 to 8 million or so dead!) for increased rubber
output--in a world addicted to the economics of Imperialism.
All these books, handed to me after just one chance magazine article, will
hopefully give me some insight on how I can likewise turn Japan away from a
bad habit--of seeing racial discrimination as an inevitable part of human
interaction, defended even in Japan's courts as "rational discrimination".
And as an added bonus, I will be disembarking from the Peace Boat in Montego
Bay, one of the old-world capitals of the slave trade. (That's within
character: Some of the world's best beaches, and here I am visiting former
I'm not a terribly religious person, but this all seems so incredibly
convenient. A path that is just unfolding before me will probably increase
my sensitivity to broader issues of history and the mistakes of humankind,
and hopefully make me better able to make a stronger case someday in the
quest for an anti-racial discrimination law in Japan.
3) A COMIC BOOK
In another burst of inspiration, last November 2004 I sat down and
storyboarded out some ideas for a comic book. I won't get into the story
here, but it's written in Japanese as a picture book to be read aloud in
school. Aimed at children 5 to 7 years old, I hope to teach them that the
growing number of their classmates with international roots (a product,
among other things, of the 40,000 international marriages every year in
Japan) who look a little different on the outside are still the same human
beings inside. Catch them while they're young, one hopes, and they may grow
up more tolerant of differences (it certainly worked for me when I had an
African-American teacher in fourth grade; but that's a story for another
Anyway, I'm rendering the comic in pen and ink and crayon. Yes, I'm drawing
it myself. Don't scoff; back in high school my favorite subject was
art--oils, acrylic, and cartooning--and after winning an award in a state
competition for my comic strip "Pantherman" (a panther was our high school's
sports symbol), I thought about becoming a graphic artist. Seriously. You
can see an example of my drawing in the form of a political cartoon for the
Japan Times, March 30, 2004, at
(once at the site, page down to see it)
So tonight, in a burst of penning and inking, I finished rendering (waiting
to be colored) the final eleven of the 24 pages, which occasioned me going
to bed so early. And, thanks to a lucky afternoon of phone calls two days
ago, I managed to make appointments with six (yes, six!) children's book
publishers in Tokyo next month before I board the Peace Boat. Here's hoping
that it all means something in the end.
And that's it. I feel much better after writing this out. I think I can go
back to sleep now. Thanks for reading. Best wishes, Arudou Debito in
February 20, 2005
THE PEACE BOAT REPORT
MARCH 5 TO APRIL 7, 2005
Or: How I spent my 2005 winter vacation.
PART ONE: PRELUDE TO BOARDING
I had an amazing March. I was a whole month on the road staying with friends and going around the world. But I do have to admit: On March 5, loading my suitcase for a week in Tokyo before heading overseas, I felt a little fearful. I hadn't left Japan even once in five years, and would be heading for places where neither English nor Japanese would avail me of communication as smooth as I was used to. Money would be different, time zones would be different--by crackey, everything might be different! And what if I got sick, or somebody wanted a tip (I HATE giving tips; I find it--pardon the pun--gratuitous) and I was unwilling to cooperate or unable to understand...? And what about those border police, who in this age of terrorist paranoia might go all gimlet-eyed at a Caucasian with a Japanese passport...?
Pause and realize: I have been in Hokkaido too long, becoming a regular Japanese ojiisan used to having things "just-so" and fretting over trifles. So I gave myself the same advice I have always given my students: just go, and make do. Things would work out somehow. And how, they would.
MARCH 5-10, 2005. TOKYO, JAPAN
As I have no university classes in January through April (only occasional exams to proctor and grade--and I got those out of the way very quickly), I had time to leave Hokkaido early and spend time with friends. I stayed the duration of the Tokyo jag with Chris Pitts, of Amnesty International Japan Group 78, who had a spare room and a flexible enough spirit to let me spend my days as I liked. I complied, for my Tokyo schedule was soon full.
Whenever I go somewhere for an extended period of time nowadays, I send advance notice to my mailing lists--to see if anyone down south has any need for a guest speaker etc. People did. I got to speak for Amnesty (see handout for speech at http://www.debito.org/amnesty030905.html), Temple University, and Tokyo Institute of Technology on matters relating to activism and the Onsens Case.
What happened at the Tokyo Tech lecture (guest speaking for an English class) may be of particular interest to readers. The audience was comprised of exchange students from a dozen countries discussing issues of Japaneseness in English--timely, as I needed to be easied back into the mindset of an international crowd.
The most interesting question came from a Chinese student, who clearly had issues with me claiming I am Japanese (surprisingly--or perhaps not--most PRC Chinese I talk to find my situation hard to swallow). He stood up an asked if he could take a class poll of the Japanese students in this English class--to see if they considered my claims of Japaneseness valid.
Yes, I was a bit startled by this--his premise was presumably that Japaneseness (moreover one's identity) was determined by popular vote, not personal choice. So I asked if I may correct one caveat beforehand: "One problem you might be having could be due to 'linguistic acclimitization' (the linguists out there probably have a more specific term for this phenomenon). What I mean is, I've been speaking in English for ninety minutes, in 'gaijin' prototype. If I could just speak in Japanese for a bit, that might make a difference on first impressions. Mind if I do?" Not minded.
So I launched into my standard lecture about the Onsens Case (with jokes, puns, and catty remarks about the logic underpinning discrimination) all over again for about fifteen minutes. That seemed to make a difference. I asked the Chinese gentleman if he still wanted to survey the class. He demurred with a smile and joined me for lunch.
Afterwards, I asked the student over a bento if he would ever naturalize into another country. He said flat out that his parents and family would never understand or allow it. Understandible. But when I asked him the same question with the qualifications that he had fallen in love with a Japanese, had children with that Japanese, had lived in worked in Japan for half his life, and was intending to spend the rest of it here as well, he was not so clear in his answer. I concluded: "Of course the opinions of your family and peers matter to you now. But you're only in your early twenties. When you reach forty like me and if you share my lifestyle, you might see things differently. After all, I've lived your life a second time over, and what people around me think has come to matter to me much less. Quite frankly, I've come to the conclusion that David Bowie is right when he sang: 'Nobody cares what you do; please be yourself to death.'" ("Makin' My Love", from album Day-In, Day-Out 1987. Okay, now this essay is gettting self-indulgent...)
But the Tokyo week was not all just lecturing people. Last February, I created a 24-page comic book entitled "Kakumaru-chan's face looks different" (Kakumaru-chan no kao wa chigau). It's about a little boy who looks like both his round mommy and square daddy in a land where everyone looks round--with interesting playground results. (See cover at http://www.debito.org/kakumaruchancover.jpg). Storyboarded in a fit of inspiration last November, "Kakumaru-chan" got rendered over ten days in pen and ink and crayons (don't scoff--you can create magical colors and textures with wax, as Batik masters in Indonesia and high school recipients of my Christmas cards can attest). Aimed at 5- to 7-year-olds, "Kakumaru-chan's" message is that a person is not a matter of what's outside--it's what's inside. This is not exactly a sentiment only brain surgeons can comprehend, but it all too often gets forgotten in the conditioning and socializing of people over the years. Anyway, I've always wanted to nip these sentiments in the bud at an early age, so out the comic came.
And out promoting it I went. After looking at bookshelves at my local supermarket, I contacted seven major Tokyo children's book publishers for a hearing. Six complied. So the Monday through Wednesday I met with two per day. Guess what? Cold-calling means you can pretty much bet money on a culture of "no". It made no difference that I had been published elsewhere (yes, they all knew my publisher Akashi Shoten; two even knew my books JAPANESE ONLY, and my name). Still no. It doesn't help that "Kakumaru-ha" happens to be the name of a radical leftist group ("Revolutionary Marxist Faction") with violent underground tendencies. I promised to retitle. Still no. One publisher, to my utter suprise, wanted me to rewrite the book and have it introduce several countries, their faces, and their favorite foods. Me: "So, what you want me to do is promote stereotypes? That's precisely the opposite of what I'm trying to do with Kakumaru-chan!" I took my meishi back and left early. Fortunately, the lessons I was trying to get across in the story were clearly not all that hard to grasp--people I met later on the Peace Boat wanted color copies of the story for their social circles and NGOs. Here's hoping. Anyone out there interested?
Conclusion: One week in Tokyo and I was already exhausted. And worried that things might get worse overseas. If you think I'm a trouble magnet here in Japan, you should see me as a tourist!
TAKE OFF: ROME, ITALY, MARCH 11-16, 2005
My past travelogues/travel trouble magnet mishaps are duly catalogued as follows:
where I take my wife and toddler kids Interrailing throughout Europe.
where I realize that America is now the foreign country.
where I first jump on my mountain bike and shed a lot more than just a few pounds around Hokkaido. Possibly my best essay series ever.
CALIFORNIATREK AUGUST 2005
where I travel around one of my past habitats and reflect upon paths not taken.
Peace Boat (more about them in Part Two) flew me out from Narita to Rome via Naples, on Alitalia. A long flight over Siberia with a center seat, a video console that didn't work, and food that was only slightly above average, I took the time to get used to being in White society again. I know this may sound a little funny, but I consider many parts of my experience here (especially since I rarely actually feel like a "foreigner" anymore) to be a form of "deep cover" in an Asian society. When this goes on well over a decade, half of that without break, there is a little mental recalibrating necessary when you go back. I'll be painfully honest: after looking at Asian faces every day for so long, I have to admit that at odd times I have looked in the mirror and wondered why my eyes are green and my nose so big (honestly, it's not all that massive in terms of physics). Why? I had grown to expect to see every face before me to be Asian (especially in an area like Hokkaido, where the non-Asian population is lower than the national average). Now, aboard Alitalia, where there were more stewards than stewardesses, and they were all taller than I was used to and either descendents of Romans or their invaders, I found myself using oversimplifying Japanese methods of social science. Romans or invaders? I kept having to caution myself against painting peoples in such broad strokes.
Touching down in Naples, then Rome, was also jarring. Bags took an hour to come through, people drove on the wrong side of the road, advertisements were a little on the garish side, and buildings actually had a sense of style. My first night was spent in a four-star hotel (all other hotels in town were booked due to the concurrent Rome Marathon, if not by a few pilgrims waiting for the fading Pope's clock to run out). Breakfast was immensely edible for a change and I spent the next few days just walking around Rome.
Rome, like Florence, Paris or Washington DC, is one of the great cities to perambulate--as there is usually something to see around every corner (particularly compared to the architetctural desert that is just about any Japanese city), not to mention a nerve net of piazzas to settle down in for a break, a drink, or a quick meal. Anyway, I'm not going to turn this essay into yet another tour guidebook: I just want to say Rome left me with a very favorable impression, and not just because it was a sunny weekend--the first one of the Spring and a city flush with runners soaking up sunshine and Italian-food carbohydrates. I have a feeling that no matter what the weather, Rome would offer something stimulating to do. I spent one day doing the Coliseum, the Forum, and an Escher exhibition. Another day (yes, eight hours in one building--St Peter's) within the Vatican. Another day in the Vatican Museums (I never thought I would find museums fascinating--I truly am middle-aged), and finally one day just walking around town--eating when I got hungry, drinking at a cafe when I got thirsty, and just keeping entirely to myself and loving every minute. If I'm not careful, I'll wind up spending my twilight years touring Europe... Japanese citizenship or no Japanese citizenship.
And guess what: I had no trouble this time being a Caucasian bearing a Japanese passport. Italian Customs just waved me in, barely giving me a second look. Soft middle-age is lending a softer edge to my travels too, I guess. A perfect start to a trip that would grow more challenging once I hit the sea.
COMING UP IN PART TWO:
JOINING UP WITH THE PEACE BOAT
AND RESETTLING BACK INTO JAPANESE SOCIETY IN MINIATURE
April 26, 2005
PART ONE ENDS
REPORT PART TWO
LIFE AT SEA WITH A JAPAN IN MICROCOSM
Hi All. I'm surprised by the positive reception I've gotten for the first two
installments (i.e. Preamble and Part 1) of my Peace Boat Reports. Given that many
readers on my Friends' List have joined within the past couple of years, when I've
mainly issued reports and updates about social issues, I thought a digression like
this would be jarring. Guess not. Many 1) seem to be welcoming the break, enjoying
something more personal from me for a change, and 2) have heard of the Peace Boat
and want to know what it's like. They clamor for the next chapter. Well, here it
PEACE BOAT REPORT PART TWO
LIFE AT SEA WITH A JAPAN IN MICROCOSM
By Arudou Debito (http://www.debito.org)
May 11, 2005
I first heard of the Peace Boat about seven years ago, when an activist I used to work with was invited aboard as an instructor. When my turn came, the circumstances behind the invitation were a little amusing:
Last December, I was down south teaching a 3-day intensive course at a Senmon Gakkou in Sendai. On the evening of December 4th, once my 8-hour class finished around 5PM, I shinkansenned down to Tokyo to speak at a panel discussion on "patriotism", sponsored by Mindan, a Zainichi Korean action group. After my usual habit of talking too much, I found I was running a little late for the last shink north. So I ducked out before things ended, whereupon one of the audience members did the same and met me in the corridor. After introducing herself as a coordinator on the Peace Boat, she said:
"I enjoyed your speech tonight. One of our members saw you speak at the Peace as a Global Language Conference last September on foreign crime [speech text at http://www.debito.org/pglconference092604.html] and recommended you. I'd like to know when you'd be free to come aboard and teach about racial discrimination in Japan."
I pulled out my schedule book. "When would you have me?"
"Next March 16 to April 2."
"Got no classes then. Sure. Glad to." I pencilled it in, parted with thanks, ran off to meet my train, and had arrived back in Sendai at midnight before what had just transpired could really sink in.
After some of my friends heard about my invite, they volunteered loose-leaf opinions about things they'd heard about the Peace Boat. PB apparently was started up by activists who were rather left of center (among them former Diet member Tsujimoto Kiyomi, the toppler of corrupt giants such as LDP kingpin Suzuki Muneo). A couple held that the PB is a haven of bran-burger hairy-legged hemp-bag-toting Marxist Anarcho-Syndicalist hippies who take advantage of the sealed environment to engage in physical free-for-alls (okay, so I'm sexing the opinions up a little; dramatic license). The point is, rumors abound about what the PB is and is trying to accomplish. Thus the public interest in this series of reports, I guess.
Anyway, Peace Boat's goals, structure etc can be found in their own words at: http://www.peaceboat.org/english/wtpb/index.html
including the following history:
Peace Boat was founded in 1983 by a group of Japanese students who were angered by the Japanese government's censorship of history textbooks regarding Japanese military aggression prior to and during World War II. They chartered a ship to travel to the regions of concern with the objective of discovering for themselves the truth about Japan's invasions of Asian countries and effecting a people-to-people reconciliation.
Sounds comfortably left-wing and idealistic, no? Unfortunately for me, I'm naturally cynical when reading any organization's mission statement--one gets that way after years of dealing with bullspit in politics and government. So, what follows are my personal experiences aboard the Peace Boat, for what they're worth, and unsexed-up:
APRIL 16, 2005. CIVITAVECCHIA, ITALY
was where and when I boarded the boat. It was deserted, as people were finally getting an overnight ashore after more than two months afloat. Departing Feb 2, its previous ports of calls were Kobe, Shanghai, Da Nang (Vietnam), Singapore, Cochin (India), Mombasa (Kenya), Massawa (Eritrea), Port Said (Egypt), and Tripoli (Libya). It would then go on to Marseilles, Las Palmas (Spanish Canary Islands), Montego Bay (Jamaica), Cristobal (Nicaragua), Balboa (Panama), Callao (Peru), Valparaiso (Chile), Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Papeete (Tahiti), and Honolulu, ending up in Yokohama and Kobe on May 17 and 18 respectively. Total trek 3 1/2 months. See the itinerary, photo library, and more about life on board and ports of call at
This was the 48th Voyage on board a ship with a long history, built in Glasgow and launched (as of this coming June 22) exactly fifty years ago: SS THE TOPAZ (formerly EMPRESS OF BRITAIN). Registered in Panama, Topaz has a Greek command, a crew from countries including Indonesia, The Philippines, and Bulgaria, and a capacity of over 1000 passengers and crew (981 were on board this voyage, a record for the Peace Boat). An excellent website with the full history and layout of the grand dame is available from:
Something briefer at:
GETTING THE FEEL OF THE SHIP
Freshly aboard and with nothing on schedule, I spent a few hours getting used to my room. It was a single, as large as any business hotel suite I've stayed in in Japan, but with a cabinet, two closets, a sink, toilet and shower stall, television (with 4 channels--two for closed-circuit movies on continuous replay, one for receiving local TV broadcasts, and one with an outside view facing the bow), and a double bed. There was even a complimentary bottle of wine with two glasses. (Join the crowd: I had taken the liberty of bringing on board a couple of bottles of Italian white wine, as would anyone going on shore; the most popular thing to buy at any port of call was, of course, cheap exotic booze). I even had a maid service (my steward, Mr Gun Gun, was very friendly and thorough, and seemed to actually enjoy making beds). The problem was, and this would be no fault of the Peace Boat, was that it was right in the back on an upper deck, making for a couple of miserable days in the Atlantic. But I'll get to that later.
I then had a look around the ship. The lowest deck open to the public was for teachers and staff who were living (sometimes four bunks to a room) the life of a college dorm, with all the excitements and forced sociality due to the lack of privacy that entails. The next two decks were the garden-variety rooms (I of course did not see inside them all) of singles, doubles, and first-class suites that grace any passenger ship. Notably, these decks also contained one major dining hall (suitably called Topaz) that was either serving food, or preparing to do so, from morning till night. Topaz was sit-down and formal, avoiding as much as possible a cafeteria atmosphere, and doing its best to provide food (materials quite influenced, naturally, by the last port of call) with some gourmet touches (which is essential, as Japanese, especially the elderly, take their food very seriously, with a very low tolerance for fast-food settings).
Third deck from the top was where all the out-of-cabin social gatherings went on, with a movie theater (showing a movie most nights--yes, even TITANIC, although that attracted well over a hundred thrill-seekers and had to be projected at a larger venue), a grand hall on the poop deck (i.e. the very back, above the propeller) for large convocations of several hundred, a smaller hall with a capacity of a hundred plus, a bar/disco/karaoke/mah jongg area (this is, after all, a boat catering to Japanese), a common all-purpose open area for pick-up speeches and convocations of unascertainable popularity, a command and control center for the Peace Boat staff to carry out morning meetings and publish its daily newspaper, a full bar (called Hemingway) where most people had a tab, a classroom for about forty people, and finally, long corridors up and down the sides of the ship for people to sit, knit, read, play games like Shougi or Go, schmooze or smoke.
The upper decks were mostly outside, with a boardwalk along the sides and up front. But there was a second restaurant (the Yacht Club) aft offering fast-food-style tubs of salad, pizza, takoyaki, fries, squid rings, etc., and both indoor and outdoor seating. It doubled as a Japanese restaurant/bar/enkai zone between 8PM and 2AM every night for those feeling homesick. There was also an exercise room and outdoor basketball/soccer court (which attracted the younger passengers), and some classrooms for language teachers. The topmost areas offered a sun deck, jacuzzi, pool (which, matching the sea in roughness, was rarely used while I was aboard), and outdoor bar. An extra deck, according to the abovementioned SS Topaz historical website, has an indoor pool, but that area was off limits to everyone but crew, strictly enforced.
That gives you an idea of what's on offer, but it was amazing how well everything got utilized. More on that next time in Part Three of this report, so let me wrap things up with some information on the demographics of the passengers:
JAPANESE SOCIETY IN MINIATURE
I don't have any hard statistics, but I would estimate that the boat was, crew included, about 90% Japanese. This meant the lingua franca for passengers was Japanese, with the occasional (during my tenure on board) native speaker of English, Korean, Spanish, or French. Most of the Peace Boat staff seemed at least bilingual in one of the fundamental communicative skills, and several language teachers (either bilingual or studying to be) were resident, or brought on board to offer instruction to passengers for upcoming ports of call. Many of the invited guest lecturers (such as myself) either were or could speak Japanese, and those who couldn't were provided with very capable simultaneous interpreters. I was impressed with just how much effort was put into communication on this boat, with few of the overwrought Japanese worries about how difficult it must be to deal with people of differences. Probably due to the experienced, relatively young (in their thirties and forties) progressives who were in charge of things...
Anyway, of that proportion of passengers who were Japanese, I would again estimate that over sixty percent were elderly--in their sixties and seventies--retired folk who were using their pensions to see the world. Not difficult, as the cost of the Peace Boat (not including onshore excursions or bar tabs) was 1,380,000 yen per person--not bad for roving room and board for 100 days!
The other forty percent were in their teens and twenties, some touching thirty (The youngest passenger I met was sixteen, on board alone taking a break from high school. What progressive parents!). And mostly women. Now, before you think that this is like Castle Anthrax in MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, remember that most people I associated with were fairly serious activist-types (naturally, as that was what I was teaching), there to learn something. (I might add that there was, sagely, a mature aversion to creating more complex relationships. After all, you have to spend the next several months together, and, as in any working environment, if something goes pear-shaped it will be uncomfortable dealing with an ex every day.) Some were taking an emotional hiatus after high school, or after an abortive attempt at a job or a relationship, and were trying to sort out what to do with their lives.
Consequently, this demographic brought out probably my favorite parts of Japanese society--a genki social environment. The oldsters, who were not interested in sex, love triangles, politics, money, or anything but vacationing and having a good time, were pretty well determined to have one. They sunned themselves, formed societies, socialized, studied, played games, learned how to dance (the hula, salsa, and shakou dancing were quite popular), created things out of leftover rubbish, sang, ate, and drank. And ate and drank. As elderly "gate-ball-and-Go" Japanese society almost makes a point of accentuating the positive in any relationship they know will be a daily one (again, for the sake of peace of mind when dealing with exactly the same people for three and a half months), the atmosphere was quite upbeat. Yes, there were a few stir-crazy stubborn grumps and cranks, but they were, on balance, ignorable.
The youth, for their part, as usual formed their cliques, sports, arts, and musical societies, etc. But they knew they were in the minority, and were largely deferential to the oldies and constructive towards the genki atmosphere. Fortunately, they had had (by the time I had boarded) enough time to get to know the old farts as people with common interests, mostly breaking down the rather draconian age-based social rigidities which arise, again, from the Japanese business, financial, or family settings that are a feature of a regular society. But, as we shall see later, the Peace Boat was not a regular society, and for that reason was much more enjoyable.
However, as far as I was concerned, very few people were in my age bracket, i.e. middle-aged forties. Not to worry, though; after only about a week aboard I felt quite comfortable and assimilated. The key to that was keeping oneself busy.
And man, how busy I got. I will talk about that in the next installment.
May 11, 2005
PART TWO OF THE PEACE BOAT REPORTS ENDS
PART THREE: EARNING MY KEEP
As I mentioned in previous installments (available at http://www.debito.org/peaceboatreports.html), I had been brought over by the PB on a round-the-world trip with essentially all expenses paid. Now it was time to keep my end of the bargain--teach about human rights in Japan--to a captive audience for two weeks. I viewed it as a great opportunity to spread the word to sympathetic listeners, of course. It soon became a fine example of the old adage:
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR
It probably goes without saying, but like lots of people in education, I am a professional talker. When I have an agenda and a curriculum, I can talk (and do regularly) for up to eight hours at a time. Not with the stentorian style of an auctioneer, mind (although when I really get into The Zone, it comes close), but long enough and intensely enough to sate even the most absorptive listener. I've learned the value of taking breaks and letting people digest, but like the Simpsons' joke, "bartenders do it until you barf", I do it until your brain is full. I can't think of a single time in my professional career when I really felt as if the audience had outlasted me, or I had used myself all up.
Until the Peace Boat. Even I was not prepared for the intensity of the experience on offer there. It took as much as I could give, and then some, with some of the most avid intellectual cross-pollenization I've ever experienced.
JINKEN TABEHOUDAI -- ALL THE HUMAN RIGHTS YOU CAN EAT
In specific, I was brought on board to teach at Peace Boat's "Global University". Whassat? Excerpted from the source (http://www.peaceboat.org/english/edu/univ.html):
What is the Global University?
The Global University is an intensive peace studies programme which combines study on board the ship during one of our voyages with exposure programmes in selected regions that the ship visits...
On each voyage there is a number of study modules on offer, each focusing on either a regional conflict, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict or the Balkan conflict, or an issue of global concern, such as the environment or human rights. Each module takes place during a section of the voyage, during which experts from around the world join the ship to offer onboard lectures and workshops. Study programmes in the ports of call during that section of the voyage complement the onboard study, while longer exposure tours, which leave the ship in one port, spend an extended period of time on land, and then return to the ship at the following port, provide an opportunity to experience first-hand one of the regions under focus through a comprehensive range of study and exchange activities...
The Global University is divided into an English-language and a Japanese-language programme. Both are open to everyone onboard.
This voyage, the 48th, offered three GU units: 1) "Wars in Asia: Past, Present, and Future", 2) "Multicultural Coexistence: What can we do?", and 3) "Challenges for a Sustainable Society". More details on what happened in each unit at http://www.peaceboat.org/english/voyg/48/index.html, but I would be teaching part of Unit 2, during the nine-day Atlantic stretch between Las Palmas (Spanish Canary Islands) and Montego Bay (Jamaica), where there would be no land (it is one of the larger stretches of ocean anywhere with no islands whatsoever), and no distractions but what we made for ourselves.
As I mentioned in the previous report, I embarked in Civitavecchia on March 16, a full week before I would be teaching. Boarding with me were two French passengers, one a lecturer, the other an interpreter (French to Japanese), who would facilitate discussion on the first topic of Unit 2--France's recent laws against Muslim headscarves in state-sponsored Ecole schools--before we stopped off at Marseilles.
Frankly, I felt this section was a middling success. Not the fault of the Peace Boat, mind, as they prepared Japanese, French, and English simultaneous interpreters who had breathtaking talent. Nevertheless we wound up in a Tower of Babel situation: The French lecturer would speak in French, the French interpreter would render it into Japanese, and another simul would put it into English (through earpieces to three English-speaking language staff and one Korean NGO professional), without much lag at all. But very often, as the native French interpreter had a soft voice, often softer than the simuls speaking into their mics, there would be a drowning-out, if not a crowding out, of tongues.
But nothing could compensate for a debate that blurred. We could not wrap our heads around the headscarf issue. The express reason why the French government banned them in the Ecoles (I specifically asked for the selling point that convinced legislators) was because they have religious symbolism, creating problems with the separation of church and state. Ecoles cannot allow religious imagery in a free learning environment.
Fine, but the point was still raised (and not by me--this was a class of 35 very aware people ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties, from Japan, Korea, the US, and Britain): were Easter and Christmas holidays observed? Well, they're legally sanctioned by the government, not religious. What about Christmas trees? Well, they're not religious--merely seasonal custom. Well, what of the possible claim that headscarves are merely custom as well?
That was where we diverged into arguments of headscarves being a symbol of women's oppression. We were provided with burkhas (the head-to-toe women's Islamic public dress) to try on (I did--how dreadful) to illustrate the point: the intolerances of certain religious practices vs. the need to allow people who are in France to be French, learning under French codes of public expression. This meant barring the importation of customs which are intolerant of local laws and customs towards gender differences and freedom of expression.
Fine--this was the stronger argument, as nobody disagreed with the argument that Islamic practices towards women should not be forced upon women in more tolerant societies. But two problems were never fully resolved to our satisfaction: 1) the underlying French fear of coexisting foreign enclaves (compared to, say, the British, American, and even Japanese Chinatowns and Koreatowns); and 2) the apparent double-standard of Christian-based "customs" holding sway over Islamic "religious practices" simply because the Christians got there first. If one used the "gender oppression" argument in the debate, it's stronger. But that's not the one French legislators cite.
Clearly religious symbolism appeared to be the express public reason, fear of Islam's oppressive tendencies the underlying reason. Ultimately, we passed it off naturally like Japanese, as a clear case of "tatemae" [pretext, political exigency] and "honne" [the real spirit behind the decisionmaking process] and moved on.
BATTER UP--BRING THE ISSUE HOME
Then it was my turn to speak, to remind people (the PB had foresight that I found mindblowing, since people educated in Japan generally seem to believe that racial discrimination is only found overseas) that the standards that we apply to the world also apply to Japan as well.
My opening speech was to a general assembly (in the PB's largest assembly hall "Broadway", viewable at http://www.maritimematters.com/topaz7.html) with a full soundstage, raised platform, and capacity of 550 people. One hitch: it took place in rough Atlantic seas near the Canary Islands. And believe me when I say I mean rough--the boat was first pitching, or seasawing front and back, so that the only people with any respite were those in the center of the boat at pivot point. (I personally got double-whammied; because my cabin was in the back, I woke up in the morning riding a roller coaster, trying to get well enough just to leave the room by shaving and showering while sitting down. Only to find my lecture was in the very back of the boat anyway.) Once I had gotten reasonably used to the pitching, the Good Ship Lollipop started rolling from side to side, i.e. without pivot points offering any sanctuary whatsoever. It must have been comic--if one could laugh without losing their lunch--to see me up on stage, unable to stand still, prowling back and forth with the lurch of the ship, almost falling off the edge a few times, with stage lights hanging down at forehead level threatening to do a Michael Jackson on my hair. Probably over half the ship was seasick (which is why, I told myself, only a couple hundred people showed up to listen to me introduce the Otaru Onsens Case), including the speaker, making this one of my most unusual speeches ever.
(An aside. The first couple of days out in the Atlantic were so bad for this landlubber that when we made landfall in Las Palmas, the earth still felt to me like it was moving, swaying, suffering mini-earthquakes that were severely localized. There is in fact a word for this phenomenon in Japanese--"rikuyoi" (land drunk), as opposed to "funayoi" (ship drunk), and it was one of the reasons why I spent extra time on shore trying to get over it--to the point where I made it back to the boat with three minutes to spare before the gangplank got raised. And yes, if you're late back to the boat--something the administration frowns upon for obvious reasons--you get a Yellow Card; twice late means a Red Card and you're expelled from the voyage. If you don't make it back before the ship sails, you get to the next port on your own steam and expense. But that didn't stop me from having one of the most delicious meals ever onshore--garlic octopus, garlic steak and potatoes, garlic omelette, and garlic something else with two bottles of Spanish table wine with friends. Anything to shake the motion sickness before embarking on a leg of the cruise where we wouldn't even sight dry land for at least a week. End of aside.)
GETTING OVER IT AND INTO IT
So on went my classes at Global University. Given a free hand to plan the arc of my course, since I was the only one teaching, I started off with:
1) Establishing the mindset behind discrimination. I positioned myself as an onsen owner and told the class to try and persuade me to take my "Japanese Only" signs down. Great fun (even adopted my classic patented blue-collar ojisan accent). Guess what--for every point they made I had a counterpoint (I employed every argument made to me by the owners in real life), and they couldn't dissuade me. Conclusion: once a person has made up their mind to discriminate (people can think of reasons to justify ANYTHING, as history has shown), there is no way you can persuade them otherwise (horse being led to water but not being made to drink, is the axiomatic analogy). Which is why we need laws to stop the bigoted, who, left to their own devices, will discriminate. http://www.debito.org/otarulawsuit.html
2) Establishing what having no laws against it does to people in Japan. Showed the permutations of discrimination, its spread, and the reasons given for how people justify keeping the status quo (allegations of foreign crime, fear of giving people of perhaps questionable loyalties too many rights, opening the floodgates of "me-too" minority privilege...). http://www.debito.org/roguesgallery.html
3) Bringing it to the interpersonal--showing that internationalization of Japan isn't just on the horizon: it's already here and always has been. One of our simul interpreters, a Zainichi Korean born in Japan who speaks three languages, sat beside me at the lecture table and told us what it's like being a generational foreigner in Japan. Then we discussed our differences in perspective towards nationality and identity. Why she would never naturalize, and I did. In nutshell: She--not to mention her family--always considers herself ethnic Korean first, Japanese second (if at all), and doesn't feel any dire need to change the status she has always had since she was a child. As for me, I wanted to be a Japanese citizen precisely because, among other more important reasons, I had the choice to do so, and I have experience of being a citizen of a country with full civil rights.
4) Establishing current social policy which targets foreigners. Links to all that information at http://www.debito.org/foreigncrimeputsch.html , and http://www.debito.org/whattodoif.html
5) Where do we go from here? And what can you do to help? That's available at http://www.debito.org/handout.html
And more, since as part of the GU program, at the end of the unit we were to give a final presentation to the PB in general as to what we had learned. It turned out to be magic--all 35 or so students broke off into groups to cover a certain topic (the hard facts, cultural frictions, legal problems, generational feelings towards differences, future prospects, etc.), with very informed and well-thought-out presentations.
The issue that garnered the most attention was, ironically, the need for PB Japanese passengers to comment on every non-Asian passenger's acumen with chopsticks. I have long since learned to pass it off as old folk just trying to be friendly, struggling for a topic to strike up a conversation with. But the non-Asians both in our classroom and on the boat in general really took offense--thinking it worth telling the audience to kindly knock it off. To them (and me as well, when I'm in a mood), it's like damning somebody with the faint praise of being able to eat like an adult, to raise a glass to one's lips without knocking one's teeth out, or to zip up one's fly with acuity.
Highlights of the presentation were one professional writer within our midst (a Mr Kida) reading out an expository essay written specially for the occasion. And the oldest guy in our troupe, a Mr Hamada, out of the backwoods of Hokkaido and constantly chasing the thoughts in our lectures like birds (picture of him and me visible at http://www.peaceboat.org/english/voyg/48/spe/050330/index.html), stood up and said, "Buy this book!" He held up a copy of JAPANESE ONLY. "I learned a lot from it!" The book then sold out within hours, a fine example of the lessons within Malcolm Gladwell's tome TIPPING POINT. I think I'll savor that moment forever.
But that was not the end of doings. I also gave speeches to the language teachers aboard, talking about survival strategies within Japan, and how they can cope with mental gear-grinders (like that old chopsticks chestnut) without going nuts (info at http://www.debito.org/HAJETspeech.html). I also attended a panel discussing "What is wealth of a society?", and held a general "get to know Sensei" Q&A session (entitled by my helpers cleverly as "Shitsumon Aru Do!"), and gave a concluding general speech to the PB about what the everyday person could do to further human rights in Japan. (Nutshell: See something mean and nasty in the mass media? Phone or email them to complain--that's why they have free phone numbers and websites. Hear your friends say something a bit off or overgeneralizing about people? All you have to say is, "Dou ka na, chigau n ja nai?" [I wonder if that's true]--and break the spell. That's plenty. Just do a little bit--and let people know that silence does not necessarily mean tacit agreement.) This time, with calmer seas, the hall was near full.
And it was beyond full when I gave a speech on slavery (my first, in Japanese, no less--I had six pages of vocabulary notes thanks to the books I had recently read on the subject (see Preamble Section above). In an area with a capacity of about 30, around 150 people showed up to hear me try to describe why slavery existed, how it was done away with in almost every country, and how it exists even today. This had some resonance, because the very sea route and ocean current we were on had historically brought slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, where the majority died in horrible sugar plantations. More on that in Part Four of this series.
GETTING ALL USED UP. ALONG WITH EVERYONE ELSE.
In total, I gave sixteen speeches in a little over a week. I lost my voice in the process. Instead I got the voices of other guest lecturers and their projects: Mr Mori Tatsuya, a documentarian who did movies "A" and "A2" on sociopathic Aum Shinrikyou Cult from the perspective of their members. Mr Ohsawa Norio, a professional masseur and Tai Chi instructor (he did a late-night jam-session where he massaged about 200 people for about thirty seconds each--all the while somebody dressed up in clown garb rang in whether this person was of good health or not; weird enough to be prime Japanicana. One of my favorite moments on the boat was where I entered there rather drunk to find one of my 50-year-old newfound obasan friends from Sapporo asking me what I was listening to on my CD headphones. "Crosby Stills, Nash and Young"--artists many of the young people on this boat, Lefties notwithstanding, had never heard of! She knew them, liked them, and unhooked one headphone from my ear and snuggled up, one headphone each, as we watched the masseur work over bodies. It was a moment of tenderness that only people who are drunk and old enough to be platonic can experience.). And a very talented artist and student of Tibetan Thangka (do a word search on the genre--too elaborate to get into here) named Don Van Amerongen (whose brother is a famous cartoonist in his own right), I forged quite a close friendship in a very short amount of time (then again, that's easier than one might imagine--there's nowhere else to run on a cruise ship so you might as well be social). There was also a Japanese stage voice instructor named Takarai Ginrei instructing the oldies on traditional arts, and a world-class Argentinian and Columbian dance pair (Guillermo and Rebecca)--who were HOT! to look at, and offered rhythmically-unchallenged passengers incredible Salsa lessons I found simply terrifying (only because I am petrified of dance floors; still, I gave it a try, if unsuccessfully, only because one must confront one's fears). Again, photos and reports on these people available at http://www.peaceboat.org/english/voyg/48/index.html
The point I'm trying to make is, I was certainly not the main attraction of the boat. I was but one sideshow, one planet orbiting the PB solar system offering one world view. Picking up the average copy of the daily newspaper, the "Yotsuba" (four leaf clover, meant as a symbol of happiness and good luck), you could find no less than 60 events per day, running from 9AM to often past midnight, on the ship schedule--many events put on by passengers completely independent of the PB. People learning Mah Jongg and the game of Go. Classes in English, Spanish, Indonesian... and Yoga. Morning calisthenics. Table tennis, pickup soccer and basketball matches and tournaments. Hula Dancing, Shakai Dancing, Belly Dancing, Cheerleading, and Chanson lessons... And the occasional public performances of same. I realized that given the choices available to people day in and day out, I had a pretty good attendance to all the events I put on.
And as the waters of the Atlantic changed from cobalt blue to a shallower sky, and more floral flotsam and dolphins became visible on the surface, we felt the chilly sea breeze give way to the hot, shallow-water-warmed coral caldron of the Caribbean. I first sighted the lights of the Turks and Caicos islands--the first signs of civilization in seven days, one midnight, as we sailed a route between Cuba and Haiti down through to Jamaica. The Caribbean, a wondrous area of the world where short stretches of water separate specks and landmasses that are in widely different stages of development, reflecting how they were colonized, developed, plundered, and forever changed in genetic makeup by overseas imperial powers. It's always been an impressive place--think of the some of the great European novels (Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Kidnapped, Mysterious Island...) the Caribbean inspired. It also was the scene of some of the more unimaginable examples of human cruelty. More on that in my next installment.
Arudou Debito, Sapporo
June 6, 2005
PART THREE OF THE PEACE BOAT REPORTS ENDS
Hello Friends. Let me start the new year by finishing up a series long left dangling:
January 1, 2006
The last time I wrote about this trip, which happened between March and April of 2005, was all the way back in June! Previous installments with a couple of photos at
When you see what topic I'm taking on (the whole verdammt institution of slavery!), you'll see why it took me so long. A bit ambitious, yes, but let's give it a try:
At last writing, our protagonist was completely drained of his speaking powers after sixteen speeches in a little more than a week on the Peace Boat. Disembarking in Montego Bay, Jamaica, he spent his allotted recuperation days dodging tourist targeting and trying to find traces of one of mankind's worst crimes against humanity--slavery. He then went back to the USA briefly for the first time as a Japanese citizen...
A CAULDRON OF WORLD HISTORY AND POLITICS
The Caribbean is one of the most interesting places in the world, inspiring book after book, one multicultural social experiment after another (you could arguably see the long-term effects of different governance systems--Spanish, French, English, American, even Slave (in Haiti)--in island colonies/nation-states separated by short stretches of ocean yet wide gulfs in wealth, stability, language, and development of civil society). A decent introduction to the area is James Michener's CARIBBEAN, but just to give an overview of how inextricably linked the region is to world history:
And so on. Sources are Adam Hochschild books BURY THE CHAINS and KING LEOPOLD'S GHOST, Brown and Kelly eds. YOU'RE HISTORY, and the abovementioned Michener.
SLAVERY'S EFFECTS ON MANKIND, IN BRIEF
It is hard to discount or depict the dehumanizing effects of one man treating treating another man as property, and it was widespread enough to be justified by holy writ, economics, theoretical and scientific constructs regarding racially-based intelligence and innate superiority of peoples and civilizations, even by the inertia of precedent, social order, and culture (cf. the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates; http://www.nps.gov/liho/debates.htm).
Why did slavery exist? Think money. You get your labor for next to nothing--for it is surprisingly easy to scrimp on human amenities when you can treat employees like cattle. Moreover, economies of scale in the slave trade can happen relatively easily (just capture, impress, indenture, or indebt more people), making human beings into literally "disposable labor". In the Caribbean, it was actually cheaper to buy new slaves than to feed and "breed" existing ones.
Moreover, from these cheap inputs you can create such large-scale labor-intensive super-farming operations (i.e. plantations) with such competitive advantage that rivals have to procure slaves of their own. And even if society demands that slaves be set free, the owners, based upon extant property laws, could seek compensation for losses--the ultimate deterrent to legislators (usually back then the landed classes) envisioning enormous fiscal damage to government coffers for tampering with the status quo.
However, slavery is a self-defeating system. Short of exterminating everyone you import (which the social justice practitioners of the day eventually made sure did not happen) or returning them "back home" (which never really caught on), these people were here to stay. So were great social divides between rich and poor, black and white, owner and owned, that ultimately undermined whole societies--sapping them and entire peoples within them of their potential. Then there's the fact that slavery encourages cruelty, given the corrupting spiral of control of owner over owned. Enforcement of rules and deterrents to runaways and rebels required fear, through increasingly cruel and horrifying public punishments. After all, there was nothing to stop owners from going too far--there were few, if any, legal protections for slaves against bodily harm (consider how dogs and cattle are allowed to treated in most societies, particularly if they are seen as a threat to humans). The frequent slave revolts fomented by this not only required further cruelty to repress, but also could be so destructive that all accumulated wealth was lost for everyone.
And I mean everyone--including the spoils for the slaves in the unlikely event they emerged victorious. Liberated lands, such as Haiti, tried to utilize remaining infrastructure, but society was by then so damaged by slavery that it was difficult to start afresh and succeed. For people wanted compensation, social equity, revenge, and immediate improvements to their standards of living right away, and often explosively. Sadly, to enforce social order and run slave-dependent industry profitably, new leaders often resorted to the same old tactics, redolent of slavery all over again, and wound up destroying things even further. After all, once something as indelible as skin color is used systematically as a method for social stratification, it's extremely hard for a people to stop believing it is still not a factor whenever something unsatisfactory happens. In short, slavery corrupts and destroys.
Yet slavery is a hard habit to break, regardless of the historical period or modernity of a society. Even after it was formally banned by contemporary world powers such as England and France, the trade still went on--even under their flags of those countries. Slavery still exists today in every country in the world, according to National Geographic (September 2003, http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0309/feature1/index.html). Although illegal everywhere, YOU'RE HISTORY pp. 374-7 (citing the UN's conservative estimates) says that people in indentured relationships, human trafficking, child labor, serfdom, debt bondage, etc. worldwide still number around 27 million. This is more than double the entire four centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Nevertheless, slavery WAS made illegal worldwide, surmounting enormous social and systemic obstacles. These bear spelling out, if only to demonstrate that seekers of social justice can always be successful--for if slavery can be abolished (at least on paper) then any unjust system can be.
Let me quote at length the person who makes the case best about the size of the giant killed:
"...[P]icture a world in which the vast majority of people are prisoners. Most of them have known no other way of life. They are not free to live or go where they want. They plant, cultivate, and harvest most of the earth's major crops. They earn no money from their labor. Their work often lasts twelve or fourteen hours a day. Many are subject to cruel whippings or other punishments if they do not work hard enough. They die young. They are... in bondage, part of a global economy based on forced labor. Such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today.
"But this was the world--our world--just two centuries ago, and to most people then, it was unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise. AT THE END OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY, WELL OVER THREE QUARTERS OF ALL PEOPLE ALIVE WERE IN BONDAGE OF SOME KIND OF ANOTHER [my emphasis], not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom. The age was a high point in the trade in which close to 80,000 chained and shackled Africans were loaded onto slave ships and transported to the New World each year. In parts of the Americas, slaves far outnumbered free persons. The same was true in parts of Africa, and it was from these millions of indigenous slaves that African chiefs and slave dealers drew most of the men and women they sold to Europeans and Arabs sailing their ships along the continent's coasts. African slaves were spread throughout the Islamic world, and the Ottoman Empire enslaved other peoples as well. In India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of farmworkers were in outright slavery, and others were peasants in debt bondage that tied them and their labor to a particular landlord... Native Americans turned prisoners of war into slaves and sold them, both to neighboring tribes and to the Europeans now pushing their way across the continent. In Russia, the majority of the population were serfs, often bought, sold, whipped, or sent to the army at the will of their owners.
"The era was one when...'freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.' ...[A]nyone looking back in time would have seen little but other slave systems. The ancient Greeks had slaves; the Romans had an estimated two to three million of them in Italy alone; the Incas and Aztecs had slaves; the sacred texts of most major religions took slavery for granted. Slavery had existed before money or written law.
"[Regarding the majority of trans-Atlantic traffic to the New World]... So rapidly were slaves worked to death, above all on the brutal sugar plantations of the Caribbean, that between 1660 and 1807, ships brought well over three times as many Africans across the ocean to British colonies as they did Europeans. ....From Senegal to Virginia, Sierra Leone to Charleston, the Niger delta to Cuba, Angola to Brazil... the Atlantic was a conveyer belt to early death [in plantations between] Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro and beyond.
"Looking back today, what is even more astonishing than the pervasiveness of slavery in the late 1700's is how swiftly it died. By the end of the following century, slavery was, at least on paper, outlawed almost everywhere. The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime."
(Hochschild, CHAINS, pp 1-3)
How that happened is the subject of books above, and I won't get into it as it involves a lot of political, ahem, horsetrading and even some historical accident. But one constant in the equation is tireless lifetime effort by activists, sometimes even single individuals (particularly Clarkson, Sharp, and Wilberforce. Not to leave out Edmund Morel's singlehanded exposure of genocidal slavery--five to eight million dead--in the Belgian Congo 1890-1910, creating the 20th Century's first international civil-society social movement.) Yes, one person can make a difference.
And Jamaica's Montego Bay, by the way, happens to be one of the biggest former slave ports. Let's switch our style back to first-person narrative and rejoin our protagonist as he disembarks from the Peace Boat and wends his way through the crowds:
APRIL 2-5, 2005
MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA
It was overwhelming. I was now back in an Englsh-speaking society (ostensibly--the strong accent and the prevalence of patois forced me to recalibrate my understanding of English quite a bit) as a White boy in a completely Black environment, standing out not only for my color but also my economic status. Prices for taxis, ice cream, exchange of JPY into Jamaican dollars, beach-grilled Jack Chicken, and any services requiring a tip skyrocketed whenever there was no price listed or agreed upon at the outset (even then, a tip was often demanded at the end of things, with hours of bonhomie spoiled by last-minute berates). Streets were filled with cars driving like go-karts, every corner and nearly every shop blared with sound of reggae or some rap mix, and the smell of ganja and barbecue all contributed to making me woozy and distracted and hungry. People were friendly, but the targeting and the heat and the hubbub were draining until I went to a church and just luxuriated in reading tranquil tombstones, as well as catching a chance wedding. One of the people I struck up a conversation with in the pews showed me around town a little in exchange for lunch (lamb stew with rice and beans) and a few beers at the supermarket.
That's where I found the best way to deal with the sensory overload: Drink. Everyone else was at it. And since a 15% grenade-bottle of wine was cheaper than a comparably-sized bottle of 100% cranberry juice, my discoveries of supermarket-cheap Peanut Cream Rum and Ginger Wine combined with the need to keep my water table up blurred reality from photographic to impressionistic. But it did not blunt my charge of trying to find some relics of what happened to probably all of the ancestors of the people around me.
I put myself up not within the hotels with private beaches, but on a roadside mid-range hotel with a front porch overlooking the ocean on sands open to the public. When people asked me what tour I might like to go on, I asked for a taxi to some of the major local sights (particularly former plantations on the hilltops, overlooking valleys which still did not have electricity and running water in places; having that taxi later stranded in one of those areas at night, where car headlights were the only source of light, showed me vast income inequality even in one of the Caribbean's most touristy spots). When I asked my guides if they could take me on a "slavery site tour", they shrugged and suggested a few plantations, such as the well-preserved Barnett and Greenwood great houses. There is, according to Hochschild there is not a single slave dwelling left standing in Jamaica (not surprising--they were not built to last). A few slave hospital ruins, a rusting sugar boiler here and there, but as Hochschild puts it:
"The experience of visiting such spots is not like that of seeing Nazi concentration camps, where the tours are organized, the visitors numerous, and the crematoria and other evidence of deliberate murder so painfully visible. Rather, it is like seeing the remnants of the old gulag camps strewn across Arctic Siberia: few pilgrims, nothing preserved... with nature taking over... It is the visitor, and not a tour guide, who must ask the questions... How many slaves were worked to death feeding this boiler? How many had their arms crushed in the rollers of the mill [which juiced sugar cane before boiling]?
"Much better preserved and restored are some of Jamaica's plantation[s]... A few of these are occupied by wealthy families; others have been converted into small hotels or charge admission for tours given by women in period costumes... As in the American South, the old days have been commercially burnished into a time of gracious comfort, with the assumption that the tourist will identify with the slaveholder, not the slave... [Y]ou can find life-size mannequins of a slave maid serving tea to her seated white mistress. There are, of course, no mannequins of women field laborers."
(CHAINS pp 363-4),
Historically, this is eminently unsatisfying. Especially given where we were. Consider the conditions, especially when compared to the American variety, which I had been taught was pretty bad:
"Caribbean slavery was, by every measure, far more deadly than slavery in the American South. This was not because Southern masters were the kind and gentle ones of GONE WITH THE WIND, but because cultivating sugar cane by hand was--and still is--one of the hardest ways of life on earth. Almost everywhere in the Americas where slaves were working other on sugar plantations, they lived longer. Besides planting the cane, they had to fertilize the soil with cattle manure they carried to the fields on their heads in dripping eighty-pound baskets. The most intense work came during the high-pressure five-month harvesting and processing season. Hour after hour in the hot sun, they had to bend over to slash as the base of the talks with a heavy machete while clearing aside the cut canes with the other hand. Sugar cane leaves have knife-like edges and sharp points that can jab the eye, cheek, or ear of a tired or unwary cutter. Slaves had none of the protective gear available to day: safety boots, aluminum arm and leg guards, canvas gloves with leather palms. Furthermore, in the lush tropics where land was being fertilized, planted, weeded, or harvested for most of the year, there was little winter respite from field work.
"The sugar regime was not the only burden. The West Indian climate brought a raft of tropical diseases... [T]he Caribbean slave diet was far worse than that on the North American mainland, causing nutrition-deficiency diseases like rickets and scurvy... On average, Caribbean male slaves were three inches shorter than those in the American South.
"Among the slaves, almost all the skilled jobs, like maintaining mill equipment, building sugar barrels, or doing masonry, went to men. This meant that... the majority of slaves in the fields... were women. The fact that women did the hardest labor, combined with their abysmal diet, delayed menarche and brought an end to a slave's fertility by her mid-thirties. In the mid-eighteenth-century British West Indies, fully half of all women sugar slaves never bore a child.
"Because of [this], Caribbean masters depended... on a constant flow of new slaves... Plantation owners generally felt, as the saying went, that it was cheaper to buy than to breed. An Antigua planter [said] that his policy was 'with little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they became useless... and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places'.
"One final set of grim numbers... When slavery ended in the United States, some 400,000 slaves imported over the centuries had grown to a population of nearly 4,000,000. When it ended in the British West Indies, total slave imports of two million left a surviving slave population of only about 670,000. The tiny French island of Martinique took in more slave imports over the years than all thirteen North American colonies, later states, put together. The Caribbean was a slaughterhouse."
(ibid, pp 65-7)
That is why it is a shame this history apparently has been lost forever even in a land still frequented by outsiders.
So I gave the plantations a miss. I did hire a driver to take me 100 miles south to the Appleton Estate, makers of Jamaican rum (still a mainstay of Jamaican exports and culture. The waste product of sugar--molasses--had to go somewhere, and fermented into rum it became currency for buying even more slaves!) Yep, not a mention of slaves anywhere in the rum museum--a few dark faces in historical drawings, but not in any way alluded to. The trip wasn't a total loss, however; I was driven by my stoned and Red-Bulled driver at breakneck speeds (I myself drank and let the inescapable reggae music transport my fear away) through Maroon country. Maroons were escaped slaves that took refuge in Jamaica's interior impenetrable limestone mountains and caves, forming independent communities for generations. After occasional raids on White coastal communities, they were finally put down at great cost in 1795. Many of their descendents still seem to be living to this day in similar subsistence conditions...
Finally, I decided to just go to the the gorgeous sands like any other tourist and peoplewatch. As I said, I was on a public beach, and as such the only White face there. Feeling a little self-conscious, I just floated in the perfect-temperature water watching the young Jamaicans (who at this age were shaped like gazelles! Think singer Grace Jones--she's Jamaican.) frolic and play water tag with a ball. After a while, some of the preteens took an interest in me, and a seven-year-old girl, after playing a bit of catch with me, asked me a question several times. I had a hard time penetrating the patois, so she just pointed to my arm and said:
"Why are you that color?"
"What, this? Because my mommy and daddy were that color. Just like your mommy and daddy are your color. But there's nothing wrong with it."
She nodded and resumed catching the ball, as if her curiosity was settled. It would be nice to think that maybe I had a hand in increasing the racial tolerance of one little girl at an impressionable age.
APRIL 5-7, 2005
My return flight was Montego Bay to Tokyo, with an overnight at Newark, NJ. It would be my first time in the US since relinquishing my American citizenship (see how that all came about at http://www.debito.org/deamericanize.html ), and America had certainly changed since I was last there (in 2000), to the point where I would hate to be a foreigner there now. I was worried that my presenting a Japanese passport to a US Homeland Security official would engender suspicion and secure me some private time with a rubber-gloved interrogator.
Didn't happen. The INS at Newark looked at my passport, ran it through the reader, then after taking face and fingerprint scans, asked me how long I was going to be in the US. One night. He then waived me through.
"Thank you for making it so easy for me." The official shrugged and called the next person in line forward.
As I waited for my bags, I made arrangements by cellphone with a friend in this port of call, Chris, studying international law in a nearby university. He had already gotten his friends together and was on his way by car to meet me. We spent the evening first tooling around a dark and scary part of Newark buying fried chicken from a shop run by an Ethiopian. But I had a hankering for a roast beef sandwich (since ham and roast beef is largely insipid in Japan unless you pay premium prices), so I went across the street (gazing nervously at some nearby flashing police cars apparently answering some crime), and took refuge at a Jewish deli run by Spanish speakers. Withdrawing some money from their ATM, I asked them to make me said sandwich.
"I don't think we have any bread," the clerk said. Some words tossed around in Spanish. "Nope, no bread."
If this were Japan, the conversation would have ended there with no sale. But one of the things I like about America is a recurring "can-do" attitude. Without hesitation, he went over to the shelves on the other side of the store, brought back a submarine loaf, asked if I would be willing to buy it, and proceeded to make me an enormously thick sandwich (another thing I like about America) after shaving a mound of beefish product off an industrial-sized slab and putting every possible topping on it. Cost? Three bucks. Yet another thing I like about America!
Chris and company got us some booze, we headed back to my hotel, and spent the entire night socializing. Yes, the entire night, just like old college roomies. Even though this was the first night we'd ever met. Two of them even wrote blog entries about the event:
Gotta love the Internet.
The next day, I was on my way back to Japan. Through Japanese passport control without an eyeblink. And not minutes after clearing customs, I had my first phone call.
It was a reporter from the Hokkaido Shinbun. "Arudou-san, care to comment?"
"Comment about what?"
"The Supreme Court just handed down your decision on your lawsuit against the Otaru City Government."
"Oh, first I've heard. That was quick. How did it turn out?"
"Okay, here's what I think..." and I launched into a speech I'd prepared for this exact occasion.
Right away, I was back into the swing of things. Fighting for my own version of social justice. Japan had truly dragged me back home.
January 1, 2006
PEACE BOAT ESSAYS END
PS: If you enjoyed this essay, and would like to see a similar one on my August 2005 trek around California (now with photos) click here: