A long time since the blog spoke forth. This posting will sum up a number of issues and trends, so please skip the bits that seem of limited interest, as there might (just possibly might) be something of more interest further down. There is security, lots of Japan stuff, some personal stuff, and musings on what the devil living in Britain is all about, with no particularly insightful answer at the end of it all. Therefore, you may wish to skip the blog altogether, and who could blame you? With warm, sunny summer weather, there are many better things we could all be doing at this time.
It has been a time of some turmoil, a great deal of interest, and also a fair amount of confused musing. All three were combined in a presentation made at extremely short notice at the Land Warfare Conference 2013 at the end of June, organised primarily by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the leading defence think-tank in Europe, in association with the Ministry of Defence, British Army, and Association of the US Army. A few days notice to produce an incisive analysis of Japanese Lessons Learned regarding civil contingencies and national resilience, and then within a 10 minute limit resulted in a significant injection of tension. It seemed to go quite well, given the inherent limitations, but the greatest limiting factor was neither time nor personal capacity but the inherent nature of the subject.
What can be said about Japanese security, nuclear safety, constitutional reform, and relations with China that won’t seem utterly contradicted by events within days? Senkaku tensions beginning to subside slightly? And then China makes the logical move of consolidating its multiple maritime security agencies into one, hopefully coherent coastguard force, which makes its presence felt by redoubling its efforts to sail around the disputed islands, intimidate the Japan Coastguard (itself a most impressive, if rather stretched, force), ward off Japanese fishing vessels, and make more and more provocative airspace intrusions. But surely the Japanese government is making great efforts to calm tensions. Abe has hinted strongly that he won’t be trooping the nationalist colours up and down the Yasukuni Shrine this year in the August holiday period which coincides with Japan’s surrender, also known as the cessation of hostilities of the Pacific War. This is despite Abe insisting there is nothing wrong with this, as it follows the pattern set by his mentor former PM Koizumi, and should be seen as simply a mark of respect for the nation’s fallen, to praise those who made the supreme sacrifice. Only, there is obviously something very seriously wrong with this. Or somethings. Can one praise the innocents while they are interred with war criminals? Can one respect the dead while not being seen as worshipping the cause for which they died, seemingly blind emperor worship under a militarist state that ruined the country and killed millions at home and abroad? Can one ignore the feelings this raises in other countries, especially China? It seems that Abe, despite his many faults, has actually learned from his past mistakes and taken heed of his and others’ senses that there are several things wrong with the PM praying in an official capacity at Yasukuni, especially at this sensitive time.
However, the cabinet has another who is not quite so squeamish. The deputy PM, former Olympic athlete (well, he stood quite upright and shot things at the Montreal Olympics, 1976), and all round nice guy Taro Aso has many hidden talents. He is one of Japan’s surprisingly numerous semi-underground Christian movers and shakers, being from a Catholic family. He studied in the US and UK, and it seems his family worried that he was becoming too ‘westernised’. He also has considerable linguistic ability, in English, Portuguese, and other languages. Sadly, none of this seems to count much when he speaks in Japanese, and he is one of the most reliably and outrageously reliable gaffe-meisters in the land. Where some make obtuse comments about Japan’s former empire ‘not being all bad’ Aso sweeps all aside by making ‘humorous’ suggestions that perhaps the current government (yes, the one he is second-in-command of) should learn a few lessons from the Nazis and change the constitution on the sly, in a very quiet manner, as a fete accomplis, before any of the sneaky lefty types can rally the people to block such moves. Yes, most amusing. Which would, one presumes, have him cast in the comedy clown role of Herman Goering to Abe’s Adolf Hitler. Not sure how much Abe would have laughed at this characterisation, but nobody really takes offence at Aso. He is a playful, rich, playboy-dandy of a type more common in mid-18th century Europe, although one suspects that Seoul and Beijing are finding that a little difficult to accept.
The problem is that despite the recent elections, the LDP and their fellow travellers are still lacking the two-thirds majority they desire and require to change the constitution, thereby changing the Japan Self-Defense Forces into a national military, renounce the renunciation of force, and make Japan ‘more normal’. Abe and chums have much more pressing issues to deal with, such as what to about China, North Korea, the TPP trade talks, welfare, the budget, the nuclear crisis, and just about everything else. But what they have done is suggest that a new head of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau will be appointed, and that Abe favours the Ambassador to France. Sound a bit obtuse? Well, yes it would, unless you realised the CLB is the key body in recommending changes to the government’s interpretations of the constitution. Remember those long distant days after the Gulf War? The CLB said Japan could not dispatch the JSDF overseas, and could not join in UN peacekeeping. Guess what? The CLB changed its mind, and next thing you know the JSDF went overseas for UN PKO. Great eh? Now, Abe wishes to appoint an outsider to the CLB, current Ambassador to France Komatsu Ichiro, who unlike the current CLB head, Yamamoto Tsuneyuki, has never worked in the CLB, is not a lawyer, and believes that Japan should change its interpretation of the constitution to allow for collective self-defence. Collective self-defence is in itself not a bad thing, as it would permit Japan to cooperate far more closely with other democracies which share its interests, such as Australia, Britain, India, and possibly even Korea. There is no harm in Japan doing what others do, and helping them do these things together. Indeed. However, as Aso showed, while some people can occasionally get away with making jokes about underhanded tricks in order to get your way, it is quite another thing to achieve your goals by such means. When attempting to achieve something reasonable it is counterproductive to go about it in a way that is widely seen as unreasonable.
One might say the same is true of a number of issues. One of these would be nuclear safety information. Not all information could or should be made available to everyone all the time. There are cases where more time is required for making sure, not causing alarm, and conducting deeper research. Recently in Japan, however, this has crossed the line into information management on a scale that Rupert Murdoch would consider quite acceptable. It seems that information relating to radioactive waste being discharged into the Pacific Ocean was withheld until the July general election was completed. The idea seems to have been that such information cold have skewed the results, spread alarm, and caused confusion. It also is coincidental that only one party was campaigning on a pro-nuclear platform: the LDP of Abe and Aso, and they won. Release of information, such as that large amounts of tritium were feared to have run off into the ocean from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, but that the operating company, TEPCO, wasn’t sure how much has gone, or how much remains, or how it has exactly got into the sea, might just have resulted in less support for nuclear power and for the LDP.
The culture of Britain is a question that has often vexed expatriate Brits. What is it, does it exist, how would you best characterise it? For the repatriated Brit it is an even more vexed imperative, as the gap of 20 years is not one easily filled by occasional visits, web pages, and the fruits of literature and other media. Many have been the instances when the repatriated is faced with socio-cultural norms of expression, and how people tend to view one’s expressions of gender and emotion. Two decades in Japan have tended to result in a relative containment or at least management of emotions that may appear to be a display of inner calm or else of cool disengagement. Even more difficult to gauge is the expression of femininity and masculinity by a man. It seems as though this repatriot has been noted as displaying an excess of feminine qualities, or those traits thus defined, while that was rarely noted in Japan, while also being criticised for being overly emotionally expressive, while at other times being praised for seemingly extreme calm. Is this the passage of time and change in British norms or the effect of half a life in Japan where overt masculine displays often are within exceptional contexts of sport, festivals, and assorted activities seen as beyond ordinary? Are expressions and calmness really such extremes on a spectrum of behaviour for those that live within British society? Answers on postcards please.
It seems that norms regarding tattoos, public drinking and drug use, and certainly the uses of fashion to indicate identities have changed during this period, but not to an exceptional degree in each case. However, the sight of a half-naked man covered in a mass of tattoos drinking Special Brew at 10am in the park while sporting a combined Mohican and dreadlocks is an indicator of how far the outer-edge of this normative shift has travelled.
Another example is how we refer to each other in public discourse. Naturally, cyberspace and social networking spaces are full of numerous examples of how oddly people conduct themselves. In recent weeks there have been public figures exposed as having made highly offensive Tweets about others. The worst cases have seen campaigners for a woman’s image on the new bank notes, hardly a highly controversial case, and a Cambridge history professor targeted by misogynist ‘trolls’ who see their role in life to hide behind fake identities and launch vile outbursts against those they regard as their foes, as though they constitute a vigilante force for dim-witted mankind. Abuse is bad enough, but in recent weeks it has reached the point of threatening extreme violence against these women, and that is the level at which most news agencies become interested, and the Twitter and Facebook monoliths are reluctantly forced to try and do something about the abuse.
However, the abuse is more common than internet trolls. The government has been paying for trucks to drive around areas of high immigrant populations with signs reading that illegal immigrants are not welcome, and should leave asap. This is a new level of discourse, which even the leader of the right-wing UKIP has denounced as highly provocative and possibly inciting racial hatred, and which seems designed more to reassure the white, middle-aged, middle-class Tory voter than to actually achieve anything tangible. It does tell us a lot about how Britain has changed over two decades, however, for this would have been unthinkable even under Thatcher, and certainly her immediate successors.
One constant from the Thatcher era, though, is the old North-South split issue. Myth or reality? Northern chips on shoulders? Well, you decide. Lord Howell, Chancellor George Osborne’s dad in law and former energy minister, now a Tory peer, stood up in Parliament last week and said that fracking, the rather violent process by which shale gas and oil is extracted and which is being undertaken in Sussex, true blue Tory land, should be undertaken elsewhere. Now, where do you suppose he suggested? Surrey? Bedfordshire? Hampstead? No, oddly enough he suggested there were many poorly populated and desolate areas in the north-east of England where fracking would be just fine. The response of many was to denounce his idiotic comments, as well as inundate media outlets with images of the desolate north east with its beautiful coast, castles, Hadrian’s Wall, fine cities, and lovely countryside. He apologised the next day. He had made a mistake he said. He had meant to say desolate areas of the north-west. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-23527634
Like with Taro Aso, you couldn’t make him up.
Here in Cambridge, an island of ‘otherness’ in a sea of dreary little England narrow mindedness, it is a season of change. Friends are going or have gone, as the university visiting researcher/scholar community enters its period of metamorphosis. Many of those departing who shall be missed are Spanish, with notable American, Japanese, Chinese, and other nationalities also departing. Some have become very close in a very short period, perhaps drawn together by the warm feelings that the university has worked hard to engender. Some have simply befriended each other in a coincidental, organic manner.
These are emotional times, but they are mixed emotions, as now each person has a wider and richer network of friends and colleagues across the world, which also includes their families. For those few staying on, it is difficult to say goodbye, but we hope we shall meet again soon, and that new friends will be made in September. If only members of the British, Japanese and other governments could share such an experience once in their lives then surely they would think and act differently when considering ‘the other’ and ‘others’ in this world. One wonders if they have ever been through the extreme emotional process of making such close relations, and having to give them up to some degree.