Happy New Year: Retrospective: 10 things that made me think in 2008


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan


Hi Blog.  Happy New Year.  To open 2009, here’s my annual essay where I note ten things that caused me to think quite a bit last year.  Some things I partook in (books and media and whatnot) might also be interesting for you to delve into as well.  For what they’re worth, and in no particular order, here goes:


10) IIJIMA AI’S DEATH:  It’s not something that I would admit to Japanese female friends (who pretty much uniformly dislike Ai for what she represents — a porn star that somehow escaped into regular TV land — and for, I might add, her power over men), but I am a fan.  Have been for most of my years here in Japan.  It’s not just because I followed her from her days exposing her backside on the successor to TV show “11PM” (there’s a blast from the past for you readers here from the bubble years!), “Gilgamesh Nights”, enjoying the contrast between her and pneumatic Hosokawa Fumie (who appealed to the J-men who liked their women less spicy).  It’s not just because she was to me pretty all over.  I really liked her personality (yes, the singular):  unafraid of men — unafraid of just about anything, apparently.  I enjoyed her stints as a regular tarento on shows like “Sunday Japon” (where lucky devil Dave Spector sitting behind her got to smell her hair on a weekly basis) even after it did not involve disrobing:  She had an unabashed charm that was both abrasive and funny; you never knew what she was going to say next (or write next:  she had a decent blog and a surprise bestseller in “Platonic Sex”).  She was somebody I would have liked to have had a conversation with.  Now with her death from an apparent suicide near Xmas, that’s impossible, and I’m saddened.  She was too young (36), and I doubt she found much contentment in life aside from money and media attention; I wonder if it was the wrong kind of attention that did her in in the end.


9) CYCLING FROM MIYAZAKI TO KURASHIKI:  Every Golden Week I embark on my get-back-in-shape-after-the-long-Hokkaido-winter sojourn, where I go somewhere warm and cycle to a big airport.  This year, starting from Miyazaki for the second year in a row, I jumped on my mountain bike and went up the northern shore, getting close to Oita before taking a ferry to that funny little peninsula reaching out from Shikoku, then cycled along the coast to Matsuyama, took the odd series of bridges (which have bike paths!) comprising the Shimanami Kaidou to near Hiroshima, then pedaled the odd coast of southern Okayama to Kurashiki, where showers, booze with good friends (who I think still don’t believe I really cycled from that far south), and Scrabble galore awaited.  The biggest shock (for me):  I cycled an average of 100 kms a day for six days.  It was easy.  Yes, easy.  I’m about to turn 44 and as long as my kiester is properly padded, I can pedal all day.  Just plug in the iPod, alternate between podcasts and pump-up music, and I feel like I can go anywhere.  Let’s hope that I don’t get a heart attack on one of these trips when age finally catches up with me.


8) FRANCA:  Stands for Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association (www.francajapan.org), and the idea came forth when long-term NJ residents, furious at being fingerprinted again from November 2007, asked to form a group that would represent their interests.  We’ve been taking it slow over the year and building up awareness and interest, but this year I realized (with the Tohoku region in particular) after a series of speeches that I don’t need to tow this movement along (as I have with other projects I’ve taken up, such as the Kunibengodan).  There is a critical mass of people here who don’t see themselves as “guests”, and are ready to stand up for themselves and claim their due as taxpayers and contributors to Japanese society.  Next step:  formally registering the group as an NPO with the Japanese government.  Readers out there who are used to running businesses (I’m not) are welcome to step forward and help make this organization a paying job for them.


7) TOYOKO G8 SUMMIT:  Yes, it could have been a bonanza for Hokkaido.  Yes, it could have put us on the map like the 1972 Olympics did.  But a G8 Summit is not designed for popular participation or investment in infrastructure like an Olympics.  Summits are events where Secret Service Sherpas parachute in, seal off the entire community, and make sure the riff-raff (as in the electorate, who might have something to say as part of the democratic process) don’t get in and spoil the world leaders’ elaborately-crafted dinner and publicity parties and junkets for their entourages.  What was the payoff for Hokkaido?  Not much:  The media center they built was soon knocked down (“ecologically recycled”), and people like me couldn’t even get a job as a local-hire interpreter (the Sherpas bring their own; again, it’s a hermetic system), and by the grace of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs those allowed in (the media) stayed in officially-approved hotels (who raised their prices appreciably to gouge reporters:  More on life behind the Summit walls in by reporter Eric Johnston at https://www.debito.org/?p=1812). 

Worst of all was Japan’s bad habit of using international events to convert bits of Japan into a police state, spending far more money than anyone else in the G8 on policing and security.  (See my Japan Times article on this at https://www.debito.org/?p=1767)   And with a racial-profiling element to their “anti-terrorist” activities.  I (as well as lots of other people) discovered that when walking through Chitose Airport while non-Asian.  In sum, the G8 Summit inconvenienced thousands of people, and wasted millions of dollars on something that could have been done with a conference video call.  Made me doubt the efficacy of world leaders meeting at all, especially when the Summit didn’t prevent the financial meltdown months later. 


6) CALIFORNIA TRIP 2008:  I spent all of August and two weeks of September on tour both for business and book promotion.  Not only did I get back to see what even the bluest state in America had become under 8 years of Bush II (one mixed-up place, abandoning Gov. Gray Davis for Schwartzenegger thanks to Enron; more below), I also managed to plug back into what could have been my life had I stayed a California Boy in the Bay Area.  It wasn’t my choice to begin with (I was born near Berkeley, and moved to the US East Coast at age five when my mother remarried), but I’m still not sure which would have been the better life.  More at https://www.debito.org/?p=1905


5) DVDS:  ENRON — THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, and MICHAEL MOORE’S “SICKO”.  These are the two most powerful movies I saw all year.  ENRON doesn’t just talk about the fall of a company — it even manages to show how business gone wild through true laissez-faire (not to mention outright tolerance of lying) destroys economies and people.  It is also the most interesting movie about accounting I have ever seen (just edging out Itami Juzo’s MARUSA NO ONNA movies).  SICKO is the other side of that coin on a more interpersonal level, since similar unethical pricing and qualification schemes and unfettered management of inelastic demand (be it electric power or medical care) destroys lives all the same.  One documentary was an excellent postmortem, the other was a harbinger, singlehandedly putting universal health care back on the US political agenda.  Watch them and think about how markets and government should work.


4) BOOKS:  Francis Wheen’s KARL MARX and HOW MUMBO-JUMBO CONQUERED THE WORLD.  Francis Wheen writes like the smartest kid in the class (I never thought anyone could summarize Marx’s Das Kapital in one paragraph), and makes you want to read more of anything he writes.  He puts a very human face on Marx, as well as on the actors creating the Grand Illusion of free-market capitalism and equitable societal development.  (The biggest dupe of the Postwar Twentieth Century:  “the trickle-down effect”.)  Wheen is as lucid as Bertrand Russell at times (and more amusing) as he traces the arc of economic, political, and social theory for the past forty years.  It’s a wonderful debug.  But don’t expect a mentoring from this author (I doubt he himself would welcome the role), for he prescribes little in return.  Wheen has that veddy British tendency to whale on people by criticizing them intelligently, if not a bit cuttingly, but not offer much ideology of his own for others to criticize back.  It isn’t until you get to the very end, where in a couple of succinct paragraphs he reveals his dogma:  Put reason above emotion and non-science in all respects (even when he gets a bit emotional himself).  He has faith that “truth is great and will prevail”.  Provided that people can be educated enough to think for themselves, and not be duped by the world’s ideological snake-oil salesmen.  Reading Wheen is a valuable antidote to them.  I still think, in the end, Bertrand Russell did it better, but Wheen does it more accessibly and practically for today’s marketplace of ideas.


3) JAPAN TIMES COLUMN:  Last March, my JUST BE CAUSE monthly column started with a focus on human rights.  So far, so good:  Not running out of topics and it’s amazing just how much debate a mere 700 words can spark (viz. the “gaijin” trilogy of essays over the summer).  I also felt like people looked at me differently once this column started going — not just a “blogger” anymore, but an actual pundit in a national newspaper.  If that’s a complimentary status to have, I’ll try to earn readers’ respect over the next few years.  I hope I’m serving well enough now.  Next column out January 6.


2) “HANDBOOK FOR NEWCOMERS, MIGRANTS, AND IMMIGRANTS”, co-authored with Akira Higuchi.  This was where it all fell into place.  No longer was I just being labeled a “troublemaker” who sues people at a drop of a hat, and writes books about lawsuits as some form of catharsis.  No such dismissal could be made about HANDBOOK, a bilingual bestseller (in the small human-rights book market), clearly written as a means to help people make better lives here in Japan.  It garnered not a single mixed or negative review.  As a person who seems cause controversy just by exhaling, I’m just not used to the unqualified positive.  I hope the book serves well in future too.

And at the end (again, this list was in no particular order):  The Booby Prize for biggest disappointment mediawise of the year:


1) KEN BURNS’ “THE WAR” DOCUMENTARY:  I will watch anything by Ken Burns, the director who revolutionized the historical documentary with his daylong THE CIVIL WAR some decades ago.  I own everything he’s got out on DVD (and yes, there are a few turkeys:  THE CONGRESS is one).  But my appetite was whetted when NPR reviewer David Bianculli called THE WAR (about World War II from an American perspective) “his best”.  I watched it after viewing the even longer British-produced (and now History Channel staple) THE WORLD AT WAR series, made nearly forty years ago. 

I understand Burns’s production was about how a world war affected the US domestically, but his presentation rankled for the first time ever.  Not only was the music and tone of the documentary in places quite inappropriate (upbeat contemporary songs for wartime scenes, for example), but the feeling was cloying, even jingoistic at times, as if boostering for Americana in the face of an international war (TWAW only pandered to its British audience once:  it’s overuse of “Banzai” as Japan invaded British territories in South East Asia.)  Unforgivable was the closing line of the final episode:

“This film is dedicated to all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf.”

I see.  Well, maybe I’ve been too influenced by Japan’s need to see everyone (even the aggressor nations, such as itself) as the victims of war.  But a film about a world war should not just herald those who won it.  It should salute those who died in it, who suffered in it, regardless of side.  History already overwhelmingly favors the victors of war.  Why would a historian like Burns repeat that error by just honoring one side, as if those who suffered the historical accident of being on the wrong side do not deserve a modicum of respect for doing what many simply had to do?  There is the victimization, the tragedy of group madness and legally-enforced conformity that leads to war anyway.  It’s not all winners vs. losers, good vs. evil, is it?  Let’s be a bit more sophisticated in our paid tributes, shall we?


Alright, these are the things that made me think quite a bit this year.  Thanks for reading those thoughts, and have a Happy New Year 2009.  Arudou Debito

3 comments on “Happy New Year: Retrospective: 10 things that made me think in 2008

  • Ahh, the G8 summit… fodder for my “so this happened while in Japan” stories for years to come! As I was in Tokyo during the whole ordeal, it was certainly an interesting experience. I’d almost never even seen a Japanese police officer before (except when I actively looked for one while lost), and to be suddenly watched by gangs of them roaming the streets, seeing them shake down random otaku in Akiba, sealing up lockers and bins in subways, always with an extended baton in hand ready to go… interesting experience indeed.

    Regardless, happy new year Debito & fellow readers!

  • Re #7. On July 5th in Sapporo a rare chance for mass action was wasted. This was the first (and possibly last) chance for quite some while to protest and get wide coverage for our cause(s). The turnout estimated at between 1500 to 5000, was dismal compared to previous anti G8 demos. It was a lost opportunity for all people here with a grievance to get the attention of the world’s media. I was deeply disappointed but realize that for some it’s easier to hide at home than it is to challenge the power structure on the streets.

  • Debito,
    You comment (about Ken Burns) that war is madness, then go on to write that combatants on both sides ought to be saluted and heralded for participating in the madness. I think I catch your drift, though. I haven’t seen “The War” but I would submit as a general principle that the day more people lament warfare’s participants than celebrate them is the day that war will begin to be seen as avoidable and not something people just have to do. Of course, participants need not be dishonored. But if everybody is seen as a victim, then nobody is a perpetrator, when in fact waging war is society-wide effort, from paying taxes to building bombs to pulling triggers, or simply remaining silent. War making has become ever more sophisticated, but the way many (most?) Americans seem to think about war remains more or less the same, Vietnam not withstanding. You can hear evidence for this everyday in the United States. Soldiers returning from Iraq are greeted with an obligatory “thank you for your service.” Service to what? Certainly not the American constitution. The Iraq war, as you’ve suggested in other columns, was in the service of a deceptively promoted self-serving neocon policy, not about American liberty. For an excellent interview by Bill Moyers related to this, I recommend


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