Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category.

A Trip to Mt. Hiei, Kyoto Japan

I wrote the following while living in Kyoto Japan in 1993. Noise pollution in Japan remains an issue today.

Kyoto is a city of a million people lying about 35 miles north of Osaka. Although mass transportation and urban sprawl have turned Kyoto into a suburb of Osaka, Kyoto has retained its identity as being the cultural and historical capital of Japan, even managing to retain its distinctive dialect of Japanese. It sits in a broad valley with low mountains to the north, east and west with a thin and shallow concrete banked river running north-south through the eastern half of the city. The city is a mixture of residential, commercial and industrial spaces with the edges predominantly residential and the southern part of the city industrial. Centuries old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dot the city. Although Kyoto escaped the bombings which leveled other cities like Osaka during the war, most of the temples and shrines in Kyoto were destroyed in the various civil wars which raged in the area between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries or by accidental fires which periodically spread and laid waste to the city.

Late one summer the Wife and I  decided to escape the heat and city life by visiting Mount Hiei in Eastern Kyoto. Hiei is a cone-shaped mountain rising about 3,000 feet above sea-level at the northeastern edge of the city. We chose Hiei because we were craving outdoor activity after months spent living and working in the city. Plus Hiei’s history is irresistible to any serious Nipponophile.

In the 12th century monasteries of the Tendai sect of Buddhism were established around the summit of Mt. Hiei. Thousands of warrior monks lived, prayed and trained at the “Enryakuji”, the great monastic headquarters of the sect. As the power of the rulers in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto ebbed with the general collapse of centralized government during the period, the warrior monks caused problems. At various occasions during the next three hundred years the monks would descend on Kyoto to rape, pillage and generally wreak havoc in the city and the surrounding areas, returning to the safety of their heavily fortified monasteries before an organized defense could be mounted. Weakened by corruption and the shift of power to the provincial nobility, the central government could do little to combat the raids and the threat the monks posed to feudal society.

Oda Nobunaga was the first of three great leaders who unified Japan in the 16th century. He was a provincial lord from the east of Kyoto who, using diplomacy and force, began the unification of Japan which his successors Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Tokugawa Ieyasu completed in the early 17th century. In 1568 Oda seized Kyoto and for 3 years worked to control the various sects of warrior monks living in the mountains surrounding the city. In 1571 he laid siege to Mt. Hiei in an attempt to subdue the monks of the Enryakuji. With the failure of various diplomatic overtures and military attacks and no sign that the monks were suffering from the siege, Oda installed archers at the siege line circling the mountain and the set fire to the trees. The heavily forested mountain of cypress, fueled by dry summer winds created an inferno which trapped the monks at the mountain’s summit, setting fire to their wooden fortifications. In desperation the monks ran through the flames and were picked off one-by-one by the archers. Thousands of monks were killed and at a single stroke he power of the warrior monks was destroyed. Only in 1992 did the monks of the Tendai sect begin to include Oda Nobunaga in their prayers at their annual memorial of the event.

We took a city bus to the foot of the mountain then a cable car which ratcheted up the side of the mountain on geared tracks. Halfway up we switched to a rope-way which lifted us above the cypress-covered valley and carried us to the summit. As we exited the car and stepped on the broad summit of the mountain, all thoughts of a quiet hike in contemplation of nature and history were blasted out of our skulls by a barrage of Japanese pop music blaring from loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles and trees around the summit. Expecting to find quiet Buddhist temples and hiking trails we found a miniature golf course and game center with a grass-ski lodge where one could strap on roller skis and ski down the mountainside while being serenaded by Japanese pop stars. Searching the woods for an escape from the cacophony we stumbled upon a broad asphalt parking lot flanked by small open air kiosks selling souvenirs and fast food such as fried octopus and squid omelets. We crossed the parking lot and ignored a chain across a trail head and set down the path strewn with soft drink cans. cigarette butts and even rusting refrigerators. Although quieter the noise echoed between the ridges and trees to become an even more annoying din.

The trail zig-zagged down the mountain but try as we might we could not escape the noise. Just when we thought we had found a place where the noise was blocked, the wind would shift and we would be assaulted by the noise again. After half an hour of hiking down the mountain, the litter and omnipresent noise were too much and we decided to leave.

As we turned and began the hike back up the trail we heard the sound of a distant temple gong. Behind a thicket of trees we could make out a Buddhist monastery. The gong sounded again and for an instant I imagined the how the valley must have looked hundreds of years ago during Oda’s siege. The encampment and bamboo barricades at the foot of the mountain. Oda’s banners flapping in the summer breeze. The smoke and advancing wall of flame. But the gong stopped and the din from above muscled out the thoughts. We slowly made our way up the trail and left the mountain.

2014 Update: Beat poet Gary Snyder once said of Japanese Buddhism, “They got the message but didn’t open the envelope.” While living there I was never able to bridge the dichotomy between what the Japanese present and what they really are. Pollution was everywhere, and noise pollution in particular made it impossible for one to ever be alone with his or her thoughts. There were even speakers at the famous rock garden temple of Ryoanji that never shut up. The idea of tranquility never became reality, and the Japanese couldn’t understand it because they had grown up with the noise pollution and so couldn’t understand why foreigners complained. They just didn’t get it.

 

The Watch

The following was written by me on August 22, 1996 while living in Kyoto Japan. I refer to this event in the About Me page of this website.

I witnessed the pathetic end of a rather sad life today. A young woman killed herself beneath the wheels of a commuter train. Her life ended this afternoon at 12:33, and now some dozen hours later I cannot think of anything else.

Leaping in front of commuter trains is a common method of suicide in this part of Japan. In other parts it is relatively rare from what my friends tell me. Most suicides choose a station with a beautiful view and near a bend so that the train drivers have no warning. As some stations are only served by local trains, these are also more popular as the express trains fly through them – often at speeds approaching sixty miles an hour. On stations where the bullet train pass, they do so on outer, inaccessible rails with tall fences constructed to deter the jumpers.

The young woman chose Tofukuji station on the Keihan line – a station on a bend affording a pleasant view of the eastern mountains of Kyoto. It is also served by local trains only. So at 12:33pm, just before a Kyoto-bound train was to pass through the station and pass my Osaka-bound express train, she threw herself onto the rails. I’ve heard that when the suicides jump, they instinctively land on their feet. I wonder if this girl did the same. Did she stand and see the train driver’s stunned face? Or was she looking at the eastern mountains?

There is a wall of air that surrounds any fast moving object, and hitting this is the equivalent of hitting concrete. The would have sucked her body under the train carriages, dragging it along for several hundred yards until the train stopped. Supposedly death is quick, though I’ve often wondered whether that last instant of life stretches for the doomed, turning into infinity. In all the dangerous scrapes I’ve survived time seemed to become quite elastic, with seconds stretching into minutes before reality snapped back on itself and the flow of time resumed once the crisis was over.

My Osaka bound train had been scheduled to pass it’s Kyoto-bound counterpart at the station. Her leap changed all that. Both trains stopped, with mine halting a car length or so from where she laid beneath the wheels. Any commuter knows the rhythm of her train or bus, and the sudden slowing down of the train broke me away from my newspaper and awakened numerous dozing passengers. A group of high school boys at the very front of the train began chattering, and as the train came to an abrupt halt, I knew there was trouble. The driver scurried between a window and a telephone and the high school students along with some curious old people stood up. I moved forward expecting the worst but drawn forward nonetheless by the irresistible force that draws strangers towards the site of a tragedy.

She laid face down on the tracks beneath an axle, her body covered by the shadow of the passenger car  above her. The high school students and the old people began asking each other, “Is it a man? A woman? From the heap laying on the tracks we couldn’t tell. The driver of our train left and trotted to her body, putting on some latex gloves as he did so. I noticed some station attendants appear, each removing his white gloves and replacing them with purple-colored latex ones. One of the station attendants carried a green tarp which they spread on the ground next to the body. They lifted her gently from under the train, and I was surprised by how limp her body was.

I understand that there are those such as paramedics, firemen, and police who know how a dead body looks when it is moved, but to someone whose experiences of death are thankfully few and far between it is quite stunning. When dead bodies are moved in movies, they never look like that. To me it looked as if the station workers were picking up an odd shaped sack of cement. There was no muscle control or rigidity to the body whatsoever. She was completely, impossibly limp. It may have looked like a sack of cement to me but it wasn’t. What those men laid gently onto the tarp had moments before been human, and I suddenly felt sick.

As they arranged her body on the tarp we saw the gold watch on her arm. It was a slim watch, obviously a woman’s, and the students and the old people said almost in unison, “It’s a woman.” For having a five hundred foot long train run over it, her body was surprisingly intact. The head and all the limbs were all where they were supposed to be. She wore blue jeans and was barefoot. She probably had been wearing shoes which had come off during her death since no one walks barefoot in the street of Japan. To be honest I forget what top she wore, but I can see the watch clearly. It was a gold watch, a slim woman’s analog. Had it been a gift or had she purchased it herself? How often had she looked at it, and had she used it to time her death?

As they carried the body across the rails in front of our train the Japanese boys twittered excitedly among themselves as an old woman gazed upon the scene solemnly. The station attendants and our driver hefted her body onto the train platform and blood gushed upon the concrete, eliciting shouts of “Gross!” and “Disgusting!” from the high schoolers. I found myself shaking and noticed that some old people sitting on the train station platform turned their bodies away from the scene only a few feet away from them, gazing up the tracks and waiting for the next train to come and take them away from the little human drama unfolding nearby.

They were not alone. I noticed that quite a few people remained in their seats on the train throughout this little drama. Some of them were reading newspapers or the ubiquitous comic books which occupy the time of so many Japanese when they aren’t working or sleeping. Others simply stared into space, off in their little worlds seemingly oblivious to this scene. Others waiting in the train which had hit the woman looked annoyed as they looked back and forth between their watches and the station attendants, as if their fidgeting would send the body quickly to the morgue and get the train back on schedule. Their train conductor no doubt was making the same train announcements as ours throughout the ordeal – apologizing for the inconvenience and promising we would soon be underway.

And soon we were as our driver returned, removing his latex gloves as he entered the train. The train conductor announced his thanks and appreciation for our wait. The woman’s body laying covered by the tarp, station workers beside it, slowly slid past outside our windows as our train continued on its journey. Next stop Fushimiinari, famous for its Shinto shrine dedicated to prosperity.

We returned to our seats, the students still chattering excitedly. I stared at the newspaper and at the article I had been reading but couldn’t concentrate. At this paragraph the woman had been alive and I hadn’t known it; at the next she was dead, and that I knew.

No doubt some would scoff at my apparent naivete and sensitivity regarding this woman’s suicide. My wife and I are expecting our first child in two months, and we were warned that parenthood would make us more sensitive to certain events and stories in the news. Perhaps that explains why I have spent the past hours thinking about that watch and that girl, imagining the future.

Somewhere a person was living their life and received a phone call that changed it forever. Their lives, along with those of her family, were now part of a very ancient play in which loved ones are mourned and their bodies consigned to oblivion. The funeral would last several days, and from what I know about Japanese funerals, they are quite extraordinary affairs. Given the state of her body, the family may forgo the usual dressing of it and placing it in a futon, as if the dead were asleep at her family home. On the next day she would lay in an open wooden casket with a large portrait of her hanging above as a Buddhist monk chanted and incense filled the air. Later she would then receive her death or spirit name, the name which would appear on her gravestone. This practice where the dead are given different names makes tracing ancestors by searching headstones in cemeteries impossible. But the Japanese maintain meticulous family histories, some of which go back a thousand years. Finally on the third day she would be cremated.

Funerals are always bizarre affairs in any culture, so perhaps what I’m about to describe isn’t as strange to some as it was to me. But I find the custom of Japanese cremation to be downright spooky. The Japanese cremate their dead at a much lower temperature which burns away the flesh but leaves the bones. Afterwards the bones are removed from the oven and laid out before the family members. Each member then uses a pair of large wooden chopsticks or tongs to pick up a bone and place it into a special ceremonial box. The rest of the remains are then added to the box with the skull placed on top. The box is then covered and carried home where it remains for several days until the family gravestone is opened. One student told me about her grandfather’s funeral. She mentioned the smell and the warmth emanating from the box as she carried it home. Small ceremonies where a Buddhist monk chants, burns incense and rings a bell are then carried out forty nine days, one year, three years, seven years and thirteen years after death. Each year during the Bon holiday in August her relatives will come to her gravestone and pour water over it as they offer a prayer to her soul.

And so it shall be for this girl whose broken body I saw on my way to work today. I will never know her name nor what drove her to a death which mildly inconvenienced several hundred passengers on the Keihan line for a few minutes on a hot summer day in Kyoto Japan.

Post script: There was no mention of her death in the local media.  I don’t know whether this omission was meant to protect the family or because such acts are relatively common here.

Update: The woman has been dead almost 18 years now. Her broken body has faded into shadow, but the raw emotion of this scene still stirs within me. The watch remains clear.

 

The Vanishing of Malaysian Air Flight 370

While the world wonders what happened to Malaysian Air Flight 370, a quote keeps recurring from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s unflappable Sherlock Holmes. “(W)hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth(.)” The longer this mystery continues it’s hard not to speculate and perhaps even engage in a conspiracy theory or two while remaining mindful of the fictional Holmes’s dedication to the evidence.


Unfortunately when it comes to that, we’re pretty screwed at this point. Six days after the plane disappeared we seem no closer to resolving the mystery. It is very difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine a plane full of 239 people simply vanishing. The longer the mystery remains the worse it will be. If in three months we have no further evidence of what happened to this plane, I have no doubt that it will become the most talked about disaster of all time, becoming the 21st century’s Titanic.


One of the most intriguing possibilities comes from the Wall Street Journal, that quotes US investigators theorizing that the plane’s transponders were turned off intentionally and the plane flown to an unknown airstrip. The map at the bottom of the article shows the range of the aircraft, covering some of the most rugged and isolated areas in the world. That’s a lot of area to land a plane in. And if this theory turns out true, there won’t be a kid on the planet who won’t know the name of the mastermind behind it.

China’s Rise No Longer Peaceful

There’s a song I like that has a verse, “Fortune presents gifts not according to the book. When you expect whistles it’s flutes. When you expect flutes it’s whistles.” I hear that song a lot these days even as life becomes extremely predictable. Obama makes another speech and continues to avoid the consequences of his actions. Another prominent opponent of the administration gets arrested or audited by the IRS and the media yawns. The stock market rising to greater heights even as middle class wages stagnate.

But as the song goes, when you expect one thing, be prepared for something else completely different. And that something just might be a war with tanks, missiles, ships and men in uniform, a conventional war after years of asymmetric guerrilla-style conflicts in Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Such a war would be fought on a scale not seen since World War 2, with tactics, technologies and weapons that have not seen mass usage since their inception, wielded by soldiers who have grown up in societies where “shared sacrifice” doesn’t go beyond recycling garbage.

For decades Americans have been conditioned to dealing with far-away threats that are small and because of their size, manageable. It was easy to sympathize with the Vietcong as many on the Left did during the 1960s and 1970s when the VC posed more of an existential threat to Saigon than San Francisco. Even today when those like me proclaim the threat posed by radical Islam, the potential of such a threat lies in one-off terrorist attacks and the long-term danger posed by the acceptance of the normality of Islam, due to our culture’s chauvinistic belief in moral relativism, than in cruise missiles striking targets in Washington DC or airstrikes in Los Angeles. Such ideas are almost unthinkable except as  fodder for movies like Red Dawn or video games like Call of Duty: Ghosts.

We have lived for generations expecting whistles. Tin-horn dictators causing trouble in small, far away countries. The occasional terrorist attack by radicals, or some despotic regime stirring up trouble like North Korea. What happens when Fortune decides to present us with flutes instead?

If one listens carefully you can hear the high pitch whispering sound in the air emanating from the West. For centuries China has felt disrespected by its neighbors and bullied by the West. Today it is enjoying power and prosperity on a relative scale that hasn’t been experienced since the 17th century. But that economic might hasn’t translated into the military variety, and in some minds it cannot truly be freed from its past unless China takes its place as a military superpower. For many that means a return to a bygone era when China was the center of the world, and all states, especially those at its periphery, bowed to it.

And that time has come. The states at its borders are currently weak and in disarray. The United States is being eclipsed in economic, diplomatic, and military power by the Chinese regime, its president weak and timid. The next two to three years represent the best time for China to act with force and grasp its destiny. After that countries like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines will have rebuilt their defenses enough to resist Chinese advances, and America will likely replace an appeaser like Obama with a Republican warmongerer the way Reagan followed Carter over 30 years ago.

There are three likely scenarios:

1. Forceful Unification of Taiwan – The Chinese have been building up their amphibious attack capabilities as well as locating several large missile bases across the Taiwan Straits for decades. During the same time they have infiltrated all levels of the government and military making it likely that a cross-straits invasion would be firmly ensconced on Taiwanese soil before any adequate response would be mounted by the Taiwanese government or military.

Then there’s the question of America.  Would the Americans go to war over Taiwan? Much has been written about the defense treaty between the United States and Taiwan, but like all treaties, they are only as good so far as the treaty partners are willing to abide by them. The Taiwanese themselves expect an invasion within the next six years and believe the US would be defeated by China even if it did respond. Given the propaganda that would pour out of Beijing, it’s sycophants in European capitals, and its agents in the US all touting the invasion as an internal matter between Chinese, it is unlikely the US would go to war with China over Taiwan at all. The Chinese know this. The Taiwanese suspect this, and the Obama administration won’t admit this.

Diplomats like to state something to the effect that with all the cross-border trade and personal ties between Taipei and Beijing there is no need for a war to forcefully reunify China. Aside from similar attitudes towards Germany in the 1930’s, this ignores the problems of different elites ruling Beijing and Taipei. The princes who run mainland China, the scions and heirs of Communist revolutionary leaders, are not the same people who run Taiwan. Simply put there isn’t room for both in a reunited China, and it’s unlikely the Taiwanese elite, the scions and heirs of the Nationalists who fled China, would allow themselves to be ruled by the sons and grandsons of the enemies of  their parents and grandparents. For elites survival is a zero-sum game, and it is likely to be the case with China and Taiwan. War will be the only way to decide who survives and who is forced into posh and comfortable European exile.

It’s not so much about economics or even territory anymore given that most of Taiwan’s investment is in mainland China. It’s about righting a wrong in the eyes of mainland Chinese nationalists. An independent Taiwan is as much an affront and humiliation to Chinese nationalists as the takeover of the American embassy in Teheran in 1979 was for Americans, except the embassy takeover lasted only 444 days while Taiwanese independence has lasted 65 years. Just because Americans have the attention spans of gnats with ADHD they shouldn’t assume the Chinese are the same. What happened in 1949 is just as important to them today as it was in 1949, just as the treatment at the hands of the European powers, and the United States,  in the 19th century is as real and important today as it was yesterday, the day before or a 100 years ago. The Chinese have a memory that is just as long as their 5,000 years of history. Americans must remember that.

2. Small Battles Over Disputed Territories - China seems to make claims and demands of its neighbors on a daily, seemingly ad hoc basis. So far no lives have been lost, but it’s only a matter of time before China pushes its luck and a Philippine frigate or a Vietnamese “fishing boat” decides to push back. Such disputes are expected to be more common as China builds up its military and it’s neighbors do the same. While the scale of these confrontations will be small, and the likelihood of a unified aggressive response small, particularly from the United States, over time China will have seized what it covets at the expense of turning east and south Asia into the most heavily armed region in the world.

3. Full-Scale Sino-Japanese War – A  small skirmish over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands could easily lead to full-scale war between the second and fourth largest economies in the world. Such a conflict is the least likely of these three scenarios to occur but it also stands as the most dangerous. An attack on Japanese soil by China could not be portrayed as a civil matter between participants as would be the case for an invasion of Taiwan. The Japanese response would also be much faster since Chinese spy capabilities to disrupt command and control in Japan through the spreading of disinformation and sabotage are nowhere near as developed as they are in Taiwan or even Europe and the United States. The Japanese ability to change their collective minds and act accordingly seemingly in the blink of an eye has been shown numerous times, beginning in the Meiji Period when the Japanese embraced modernity and embarked on transforming their feudal country into a modern nation, to the rise of the military junta in the 1930s that united the country in the war effort, to the post-war period when shared sacrifice rebuilt a country ravaged by the deprivations of war. Even more recently the rebound in Kobe after the 1995 earthquake and the effort to rebuild after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster show how quickly Japanese society can mobilize and work together on a common goal.

This ability to change and the national resilience it represents is unlikely to be adequately appreciated by Chinese military strategists. Pacifism has pervaded Japanese culture since the end of World War 2, and on the surface it’s difficult for foreigners to understand how Japan could turn away from it. But this ignores a basic fact: they’ve done it before, in the days after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were smoking ruins. They can easily slip back into a more militaristic stance.

Finally there is always a 4th option: a Black Swan that by definition cannot be foreseen, but could involve North Korea in some way shape or form. Also this analysis ignores South Korea, which at this time finds itself in the middle between China and the US and could play an important role in any conflict in the region. Additionally I don’t mention Russia since it is a weak player in the region.

In the past I have talked about the Chinese point of view of seeing the world in zero-sum terms. It is impossible for Chinese nationalists to believe that China can rise without other nations falling. Such nationalism has been out of favor for so long in the West that it’s difficult to see the world in these terms, yet our failure of imagination should not blind us to the forces motivating China as it takes its place as the world’s hyperpower. Regardless of what Sinophiles like myself and others want to believe about China, it is only the reality that counts. And the reality is that China’s rise is no longer peaceful, and the consequences will likely return the world to its default state of war.

Failure – The Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy Legacy

I’m fascinated by disaster and failure. I’m not talking natural disaster; although fascinating in themselves (who around back then does not recall when Mount St. Helens blew up in 1980?) natural disasters don’t provide teachable moments the way a man-made failure or disaster does. Soon the Discovery Channel and The Science Channel will simulcast a scripted movie about the Challenger disaster. The movie is based on Dr. Richard Feynman’s memoir “What Do You Care What Other People Think” and will invariably show how Science and the human analytical mind went from a cloud of smoke and debris at 50,000 feet to the reason for the disaster: an O-ring seal in a solid rocket booster. Such failure analysis is why travel on large aluminum jets is the safest method of transportation in human history, going from perhaps the deadliest form of transport to the safest in less than a century. Such success came about through hard detective work the scene of each disaster, followed by a long period of investigation and analysis where the failure was pinpointed and most importantly, having the lessons learned applied to the rest of the industry.

The bible for those interested in the study of failure is German professor Dietrich Dorner’s 1996 book, The Logic of Failure. The book is based on a set of cognitive experiments done with software simulating a small town’s society in the US, and a fictional area in the Sahel. The studies found that while participants came from varied walks of life and backgrounds, “People court failure in predictable ways.” It then ties the experiments to real life failures such as the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl. As a systems analyst involved with complex multi-million dollar software development programs, I consider the book “must reading” for everyone in IT. Feel free to pass along a copy to those behind the Obamacare rollout.

Five years ago the people of Iraq had, thanks to the blood of thousands of American and allied soldiers, achieved a level of freedom unparalleled in their history. The national sport of kite flying was legal again and girls headed to school in Afghanistan. al Qaeda and its affiliates were on the run and confined to lawless patches in northern Pakistan, northern Nigeria and Somalia. Iran was boxed in between biting sanctions that undermined the regime internally, successful American military operations on either side of it, and an Israel ready, willing and backed by American leadership to attack Iran to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons. China was busy flooding the world with cheap crap, content to use North Korea as its proxy to stir up trouble in favor of the regime in Beijing. Our relationship with Russia had begun drifting away from engagement towards confrontation over its aggression towards Georgia, but Russia was clearly a state in decline both internally and internationally. Even Syria was seen as a player, with Democrats having genuflected at Bashir Assad’s feet, Nancy Pelosi having claimed “the road to peace begins in Damascus” in 2007, four years before Vogue’s schmaltzy interview with the Assad family, “A Rose In the Desert.”

Today Iraq is a client state of Iran, its skies filled with Iranian cargo planes resupplying the Assad regime in Syria and Hezballah in Lebanon, its social fabric once again ripped by car bombs as the Sunni/Shi’a war rages on the ground. The Obama administration, convinced of its failure before it took office walked away from American success in Iraq by its refusal to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Baghdad. Historians will one day ask “Who lost Iraq?” and the answer will be Barack Obama. Immediately after setting up their base in Afghanistan in 2001, the Marines buried a piece of steel taken from the World Trade Center rubble on the site. Soon the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies will reclaim this as a war trophy as the kites and girls disappear from the streets, and the music that has filled the air in Kabul since 2001 will be replaced once again with silence punctuated by gunfire and explosions. Again historians will ask “Who condemned these people to savagery? Who lost Afghanistan?” Again the answer will be President Obama, a man who once called Afghanistan “the good war.”

After taking power President Obama fluttered around the world on what critics like me called his “Apology tour,” apologizing for American misdeeds both real and imagined, in the belief that the new-found humility would please our friends and sway our enemies. The Obama Administration has accomplished exactly the opposite. Today Iran is expanding its “Shi’a Crescent” throughout the Middle East, and the only ones standing in the way is Israel in an unlikely (and unspoken) alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This after a popular rebellion took the streets in 2009 that could have changed the course of History, but it received no hint of support or backing from the Obama administration and it was ruthlessly crushed. It will be decades before the people rise up against the theocracy, if they ever do.

Today from Morocco across northern Africa to the Sinai, and from Nigeria across the continent to Somalia Africa burns with Muslim extremists allied with al Qaeda. Obama’s support of the rebellion to replace Mohammar Khaddafi in Libya has opened a Pandora’s Box of weaponry built over decades by Libya’s Great Loon, handing AK-47s, RPGs, and anti-aircraft missiles to everyone with an axe to grind and a Koran burning a hole in their hearts. Where there had been one failed state 5 years ago, Somalia, there are now at least 3 (Somalia, Mali, Libya) with numerous others (Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Western Sahara) circling the drain. After Khaddafi’s fall al Qaeda training camps sprouted like mushrooms across North Africa and the Sub-Sahara, breathing the lawlessness that the Libyan Debacle created, and repaying the Obama administration for its “lead from behind” strategy by killing an American ambassador and his three bodyguards in the first such incident in 30 years.

Although the administration’s failure vis-a-vis China is not as bad as the disaster it has created in the Middle East, the Obama Doctrine of placating our foes while dissing our friends has been noticed in Asian capitals. South Korea is developing closer ties with China at the same time Japan rearms and prepares to ditch its anti-war constitution ghost written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Nations like Pakistan who haven’t really decided whether they are American allies or its enemies see no downside to throwing their lots in with the Chinese or Iranians. Pakistan even provides China the tail-section of a top-secret stealth helicopter used in the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, America’s enemy number 1 watching porn in air conditioned comfort on Pakistani soil. There is no blow-back, no consequences suffered for entertaining the man responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Americans, and none for handing over the tail rotor section to America’s greatest military adversary. And to top it off, the true hero of the event, a local doctor who had the guts to help the Americans confirm Bin Laden’s identity, sits in jail as a traitor to his people. If anything playing up to America’s adversaries almost wins respect from the Obama administration itself. China understands this best, waging a cyber war against the US government and private industry without retribution.

Then there’s Europe. When the Obama Administration hasn’t sacrificed its allies to appease its enemies in Teheran and Moscow, it bugged their phones, proving yet again this administration’s inability to differentiate friend from foe. “Everyone does it,” is not an acceptable excuse for a superpower. There is absolutely no reason the US should be bugging Angela Merkel’s phone just as there is no reason it should be spying on 10 Downing Street. Perhaps the mushy-headedness that comes with moral relativism has blinded the administration to the differences of say, between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, or David Cameron and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The “Special Relationship” with the UK is special for a reason, one that is much older than the inhabitants of the West Wing and much more sublime than the political wonks can comprehend. Ditto the German Chancellor. Frau Merkel was born in East Germany and has first hand experience with illegal and unjustified surveillance. Unlike some of her predecessors, she has not risen to power on an anti-American platform, and has done an exemplary job of aligning the interests of Germany with the broader interests of Europe and the United States. Spying on her was a stupid idea that should never have been approved, and once approved, it should have been cancelled, and if not cancelled it should never have been revealed. Yet a contract DBA waltzed off with the keys to the entire American Intelligence in the worst espionage failure since Klaus Fuchs handed the Soviets the Bomb. Again, no consequences. No one fired let alone jailed.

Many on the right have concluded that this is all by plan, that the Obama administration and his Democratic party supporters have been intent on taking the ship of state and intentionally running it aground because they are socialists or communists. In the Irving Kristol Lecture to the American Enterprise Institute on February 10, 2004 Charles Krauthammer suggests it is more complex and subtle than that:

“What I do know is that today it is a mistake to see liberal foreign policy as deriving from anti-Americanism or lack of patriotism or a late efflorescence of 1960s radicalism.

On the contrary. The liberal aversion to national interest stems from an idealism, a larger vision of country, a vision of some ambition and nobility – the ideal of a true international community. And that is: To transform the international system from the Hobbesian universe into a Lockean universe. To turn the state of nature into a norm-driven community. To turn the law of the jungle into the rule of law – of treaties and contracts and UN resolutions. In short, to remake the international system in the image of domestic civil society…

And to create such a true international community, you have to temper, transcend and, in the end, abolish the very idea of state power and national interest. Hence the antipathy to American hegemony and American power. If you are going to break the international arena to the mold of domestic society, you have to domesticate its single most powerful actor. You have to abolish American dominance, not only as an affront to fairness but also as the greatest obstacle on the whole planet to democratized international system where all live under self-governing international institutions and self-enforcing international norms.” – Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passion, Pastimes and Politics

Seen in this light, Obama’s foreign policy has not been a failure at all. It has accomplished exactly what it was intended to do. It has weakened America’s foreign policy hand across the board. America’s military is weakened through political purges of its officer corps, lack of direction and budget cuts. Its diplomatic corps is undermined by the lack of protection of its staff, as proven in Benghazi, by the White House’s high-handedness shown towards America’s closest friends the UK and Israel, and the spying program targeting American allies as well as its enemies that State Department personnel are forced to explain in their host countries. Its adversaries Syria, Iran and North Korea are all in better positions than they were five years ago. Ditto China and Russia. As the US weakens its enemies strengthen, and its allies are then forced to either band together (EU standing up to Russia and encouraging Ukraine to join, ASEAN nations co-coordinating efforts to balance China) or leave its sphere of influence entirely (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps Israel in the Middle East, South Korea in East Asia).

Obama has domesticated America on the international stage, to use Krauthammer’s term: so now what? Where is the Golden Age promised by Locke and the internationalists? If they are correct, a humbled America should encourage its enemies to stop their own military buildups (they don’t need offensive military capability with America’s gone). North Korea and Iran no longer need nukes now that American nukes are rusting away awaiting destruction as Obama unilaterally disarms. Without American backing Israel should engage its enemies diplomatically in a desperate bid to secure peace with the Palestinians. The world should be much better today than it was five years ago.

Is it? I suppose that depends on your perspective. Five years ago Americans could have traveled safely throughout Africa except for one nation Somalia. Today I’d hesitate to walk through the narrow streets of Zanzibar as I once did freely nearly two decades ago, and have struck Valley of the Kings in Egypt off my bucket list until further notice. Northern Kenya, Mali, Eritrea, Mauritania, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Western Sahara, and Libya are now no-go areas for Westerners. I suppose that’s great if you can’t help but shout Allahu Akhbar every time you touch an AK-47, but for the rest of us things have gotten worse not better under the new regime.

Dietrich Doerner writes, “For them (people who failed most often at complex analytical tests) to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary. Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated ‘truths’.” The Obama administration came to power proposing a hypothesis, that the world would be a better place with the United States weakened. It treated this hypothesis as a truth, steadfastly refusing to let go of it, sacrificing ambassadors, diplomatic relationships built over generations, and American influence in the process. When Doerner’s study participants failed, they invariably blamed others for their failures just as the Administration has focused the blame on the GOP.

When the Obama administration took power I and many others had hoped it would govern from the center, that things wouldn’t be as dire as we had feared. We hoped that it would try its crazy ideas, learn they didn’t work, then try something else. But they didn’t learn. They stuck to their “truths.” Five years on our foreign policy is a shambles, America weaker and friendless as it has been at no other time in its history. The disaster is worse than we expected, and we still have 3 full years left in this president’s term.

Will America be able to survive this epic failure? Thirty-two years ago Ronald Reagan took power and turned around foreign policy debacles of the previous Carter administration pretty quickly. Will a Republican president be able to do the same after eight years of disaster? And what if the GOP selects the wrong candidate and Hillary Clinton wins in 2016? How much failure can this country accept and still survive?

My Kim Jong Un Fan Page

My homage to the hungriest sexiest man alive.

Kim Jong Un - Sushii

Kim Jong Un - Krispy Kreme

Kim Jong Un - Rollin-Hatin

Kim Jong Un - Downton Abbey

And of course, this classic ripped from FreeRepublic many moons ago…
Kim Jong Mickey

TESL PTSD Leaves Me SOL

Long ago I was a conversational English teacher in Japan. It was my first real job, and killed any idea of my becoming a teacher. By my count I taught roughly 7,000 lessons between April 1992 and February 1997 with a year away in Africa and a three month break in the US waiting for my work visa to clear. Even though my last lesson was 16 years ago, in my dreams I often find myself in a crowded teacher’s lounge, struggling to find the manilla folder containing the student’s record, my heart sinking to learn that I’m stuck with a 7C – the least capable of students. It’s then off to find the blue edition of American Streamline, a book that I have memorized. 16 years later I can still recite Lesson 25, prepositions of location: “Pete’s standing outside the movie theater. He’s waiting for his friend Betsy. He’s looking at his watch because she’s late.” The bell-tones sound and I see the high middle school student forced to take the class by her mother waiting for me. Her face shows a smile at first then her eyes fall ever so slightly as she realizes that handsome Greg or Steve are not her teacher for today, but me. It’s going to be a long 40 minutes “man to man.”

Worse, I’m back in Japan and inevitably have a pocket full of American cash that I need to change to Yen. How am I going to get to a bank when all the trains and buses take yen only? In fact, what the hell am I doing here anyway? Wasn’t I married with a kid living with a passel of dogs, cats and chickens in the rolling hills of North Carolina? Where is my passport and my return ticket? And why am I living in this disgusting gaijin dorm anyway? I thought Norwegians were a clean people, so why am I smelling one in my dream?

I wake up sweating to find myself back in reality. Dr. Wife believes I have a form of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and the dreams are part of it. The level of PTSD does not rank up there with that suffered by servicemen and women, or refugees fleeing terrors of their home country. But anyone who has lived in Japan and taught “eikaiwa” at a conversation school knows where I am coming from. I suppose there are all types of stressors that can lead to PTSD, and my experiences while living 4 years in Japan must contain some of them.

It has been 16 years, but every few nights I find myself back In Country, in a lonely jungle filled with the bored faces of my students, teaching the exact same lessons I’ve taught hundreds of times before, in a land where I struggle to communicate, am a foreigner and unwanted.

The Japanese Earthquake of 2011

This is the first I’ve written about the earthquake that hit the Tohoku region of Japan on Friday. It’s not because I haven’t been thinking about it – it’s always in the back of my mind thanks to my history and ties to that country. It’s more because writing is a synthesis of ideas, and as the magnitude of the disaster grows with each passing hour, there aren’t many ideas to be had. What more can be said about a wall of water that wipes away an entire city, leaving behind such indelible images as a house on fire floating out to sea or ocean freighters floating through neighborhoods? This is the kind of disaster that sticks in your throat and leaves you at a loss for words, and after decades of writing I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to forget the words and simply let yourself experience the event. Writing about it and understanding it will come later.

Here are some points that I can muster as the disaster continues to unfold.

1. I’m already seeing articles out there wondering why the Japanese aren’t killing each other over bottles of water and blankets. This is a common reaction by outsiders who marvel at the social harmony exhibited by the Japanese, especially during times of stress.

The Japanese are unique in the world. They are unlike any other nationality or ethnicity (in fact they should be thought as the latter, not the former. Japanese nationality is by blood, and it’s nearly impossible for a foreigner to get it unless you are a sumo wrestler). There aren’t riots and looting in Japan because the individualism and selfishness that drives those actions have been repressed for centuries out of the Japanese. While this social trait seems exemplary at a time of disaster, it also underlies the high Japanese suicide rate (and declining birth rate), the lack of entrepreneurship or creative thinking shown by young Japanese, and even the reason the Japanese treated conquered peoples and POWs so viciously during World War 2.

To us “the nail that sticks out gets hammered” is a cliche but in Japan it’s a way of life. Japanese society is a pressure cooker that forces people to conform to the norms set by the group. Those that can’t be pressured occasionally leave or more often drift towards the edges of society where the Yakuza and other criminal elements flourish. Most drown their frustrations in alcohol; some even take their own lives. In a disaster Group-think and collective action is good, but the history of Japan is filled with bad ideas that were put into action without anyone defying the group and saying “No.” The Rape of Nanking. The treatment of POWs during World War 2 as exemplified by the Bataan Death March. The sex slaves euphemistically called “comfort women.” Unit 731 experiments on Chinese and POWs.

There is nothing we can learn from the docile and calm reaction of the Japanese to this disaster, and kicking ourselves for not being more like them is a pointless exercise. What we should learn from their behavior is to get relief supplies to those in need within 48 hours no matter what obstacles are in the way. It’s only after the first 48 hours that law and order in our society begins to fray.

2. The Japanese government is weak and incapable of operating effectively in this crisis. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995 I met people who walked from Kyoto and Osaka into Kobe along deserted railroad tracks carrying backpacks of food and water into the devastated city because the central government hadn’t acted. The government needs to be pushed aside (at least in deed if not thought) by the Japan Self Defense Forces (JSDF). The JSDF has a history of mounting relief operations, and has only gotten better since the Kobe quake. In 1995 the Japanese central government refused aid from foreign countries including the United States which had aircraft carriers and fully-staffed ships hospitals at its disposal in the area. This was an act of nationalist pride by the government, and the citizenry paid the price. Here again the JSDF has worked closely with the United States armed forces and can access aid offered by the US military much faster than that offered through non-government and diplomatic channels. Although the scope of this disaster is unprecedented, the JSDF is in the best position to lead the relief effort – NOT the politicians in the Diet (and especially not PM Kan).

3. We need a sober and non-biased assessment of our nuclear power plants. I am a strong proponent of nuclear power even as three nuclear reactors are in the process of meltdown. The immediate reaction of the anti-nuke crowd will be “See? We told you so!” and advocates of nuclear power will be on the defensive. Neither Japan in microcosm nor Modern Society as a whole can ignore nuclear power. To paraphrase Professor David Mackay, author of “Sustainable Energy: Without All the Hot Air,” it’s not a choice between wind, or solar, or coal, or nuclear – we need all of them. Our species is a voracious consumer of power, and our demand is going to continue to outstrip supply for the foreseeable future. Nuclear power will remain an important contributor to our power needs, but we must learn from this disaster to determine what went wrong and how we could redesign reactors to withstand even greater disasters in the future. We need to move away from the outright rejection of nuclear power and replace it with a model where engineers learn from past mistakes to improve designs. When the first passenger airliners crashed there were outcries that air travel was too dangerous. But instead of chucking air travel into the dustbin because it was too dangerous we learned from each aircraft disaster to reach a point where we are today when a downed aircraft anywhere in the world makes news because it is such a rare event. The same can happen with nuclear power if a) The anti-nuke lobby isn’t allowed to kill the technology and b) The pro-nuclear lobby is willing to allow engineers to design safer reactors and the public accepts them.

4. We 21st century humans have proven time and again that we cannot predict how bad the worst natural disaster can be. Just off the top of my head I think I’ve heard over the past 38 years the flooding of the Mississippi River referred to as “once in a century floods” no less than four times. Natural events are always stronger than we think they can be, as if Mother Nature consciously resists our pathetic attempts at controlling her by binding her with worst-case predictions. When we design anything that is meant to resist natural forces we should make it so that it “fails gracefully” – not to resist the worst earthquakes or hurricanes we can imagine. Why? Because rest assured, there will be always be worse hurricanes and earthquakes than we can imagine, regardless of whether Global Warming is happening or not. It is better that we control how and when a system fails than to do the impossible: make a system 100% robust.

I have no doubt that the Japanese will survive this calamity and my gut tells me that their nation will be that much better for it. In the meantime all I can do is watch, and hope that the tens of thousands missing are found alive and that relief reaches even the most isolated village as soon as possible. The Japanese people gave me much while I lived among them, and I wish I could do more to give back to them now in their time of need than ask that you to consider a donation to the American Red Cross.

Japanese flag

Of Chinese Wheelbarrows and Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program

I have been wanting to write about China for a very long time. My interest in China predates my interest in Japan by several years. I began studying the Chinese language my freshman year of high school and continued studying it through high school although I never reached more than a rudimentary ability with it. By studying the language I became exposed to Chinese culture and its rich (and lengthy) history. But in college I got caught up in the “Rising Sun” fad and switched my focus to Japan.  I ended up getting a degree related to that nation and spent most of the 1990s there.

My personal experience with Japan has made me deeply skeptical of the current thinking that China will supplant the United States as the world’s great superpower. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore what Beijing does and act as if its economy is going to cool and its leaders are going to mellow. Far from it. We need to seriously consider what motivates the Chinese and how their viewpoint on everything from foreign relations to economic globalization differs from our own.

I recently bought a wheelbarrow at a home and garden chain, spending about $90 on a model that was three times the cost of the cheapest one sold there. It came completely disassembled and was made in China – as was every wheel barrow sold there and at all the home stores in the area. I wasn’t intimidated by the fact that I had to put it together in the least. I have assembled things from Ikea furniture to servers and everything in between. But after an hour this thing is still sitting on the porch unfinished.

Shoddy workmanship that cut corners to save pennies or even fractions of pennies made putting it together an exercise in frustration. For example, instead of punching square holes into the metal to match the square locking heads above the threads, the Chinese company drilled round holes in the wheelbarrow pan. This may have saved the company a few tenths of a cent per pan, but it made stripping the screws inevitable as they spun when bolted and dug out the metal hole to the diameter of the locking head. Other metal pieces hadn’t been pressed properly, forcing me to bend them and shape them into place. The warning “Do not tighten nuts until you have completed assembly of all parts,” appears before step 1 of the five step assembly instruction. The reason for this warning is the ill-fitting, poorly machined parts. If everything was machined properly everything would fit together properly and it wouldn’t matter when bolts were tightened.

This is a wheelbarrow – a tool designed for a very simple chore: hold and haul yard waste and dirt around. But its very existence is indicative of much more.

When did America stop making wheelbarrows and did anyone beside the workers who made them notice? It’s quite possible that Americans built shoddy wheelbarrows; after all I only drive Japanese branded cars (some made in America, by the way) because I got tired of the American ones I owned dying at 40,000 or 50,000 miles. But the Honda I drive is 10 years old and on its way to 200,000 miles; it is a much better car than the Chrysler I pushed into the dealership to trade in at 50,000 miles. Thanks to globalization I got a better car.

But this wheelbarrow isn’t better than the American ones I grew up. My parents had an all metal wheelbarrow that lasted over 20 years. Looking at this Chinese made wheelbarrow, I’ll give it five – and that is if I can fix the stripped hole in the pan. Here globalization has taken away a better product and replaced it with a poorly made one.

It’s not just wheelbarrows. I don’t shop at Ikea anymore because I got tired of throwing away my purchases after two or three years. When we moved the moving company made us sign a waiver absolving them of damage to Ikea furniture. Luckily for us there was little left.

Globalization is supposed to allow choice, but when I searched at several stores yesterday for a better made, preferably American-made wheelbarrow, I couldn’t find one. All were made in China to the same sloppy standards and often by the same manufacturers.

North Carolina used to be a state known for furniture manufacturing. The industry is gone today, and the empty factories litter the landscape. Our family has given up buying new furniture and we now shop in second hand and antique stores looking for solid, well-made wood furniture. Try to buy solid furniture today, and you’ll find that you have deal directly with carpenters and small outlets that specialize in Amish made furniture.

Even countries like Mexico are feeling the pinch. Many of the jobs that left the USA for cheap labor there have moved on to China. When I find products made there or in other nations like Brazil, Honduras or Colombia it’s a relief from the guilt that underlays all my transactions with the Middle Kingdom. That guilt derives from supporting a nation that has chosen to become an adversary of the United States in all areas.

Being a communist country, China takes a Marxist view of the free market. Whereas free marketeers emphasize the win-win nature of basic economic exchanges, China views such transactions as zero-sum with a winner and a loser.

A free market capitalist will say that in the sale of my wheelbarrow I exchanged $90 that I didn’t need for a wheelbarrow that I did need. From my perspective as a buyer, I give away something that I don’t want in exchange for something I do want. The sale is a “win” for me. Conversely the Chinese company through the retailer sells me a wheelbarrow that it needs less than my cash. The sale is therefore a win for the manufacturer.

Marxists don’t see it that way. In their view I lose part of my wealth in exchange for a piece of junk. I am made less wealthy through by the transaction, whereas the Chinese company gets wealthier. Since money is power in capitalism, as an American I am weakened while the Chinese nation is made stronger.

China views all transactions this way, not just economic ones. This zero sum nature of relations hearkens back to its colonial period when under occupation by Germany, Great Britain and Japan China was forced into political and economic circumstances that were to the benefit to the occupiers and to the detriment of China.  It explains the deep nationalism that drives China in its relationship to the outside world, and its knee-jerk reaction to do the opposite of whatever the United States or other major power proposes.

The North Korean problem isn’t an American or a Korean problem; it’s a Chinese problem. Imagine an unstable Mexico run by a hermit with a taste for Russian hookers, Chivas Regal, and nuclear missiles. Would the United States expect the European Union or Russia to handle the situation? Absolutely not. These nations would expect the United States to intervene and stabilize its region. Yet for some reason American, Russian and European leaders allow China to ignore the North Korean problem and use Kim jong-il for its own advantage. North Korea therefore becomes a tool to weaken the outside powers to the benefit of China since in China’s view,  that weakness makes China stronger.

Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons has even rattled its traditional supplier the Russians who recently have come around to supporting stronger sanctions against the Teheran regime. But in the zero sum world of Chinese foreign policy, whatever the Western powers propose must be resisted, drawing China closer to Iran.

China cannot imagine a system whereby both sides win or both lose. This basic failure of imagination on the part of its leaders make China a difficult power to deal with, especially by foreigners who fail to appreciate the Chinese point of view or understand its underlying mindset.

UPDATE: I took the wheelbarrow back to the home improvement store and picked up the cheapest one they had – a $30 model. I figured that if all the wheelbarrows were poor quality, I may as well spend as little as possible on one. I gave it to the Kid to assemble, and he dutifully followed the instructions. Step three called for two 3” carriage bolts, but the box only contained one – and an extra 2 1/4” bolt that wasn’t long enough. So I’m going to call the store and see if they can Fedex me a screw since I won’t be in the neighborhood anytime soon.