My homage to the
hungriest sexiest man alive.
And of course, this classic ripped from FreeRepublic many moons ago…
Ockham’s Razor – Since October 2001 – by Scott Kirwin
Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category.
My homage to the
hungriest sexiest man alive.
And of course, this classic ripped from FreeRepublic many moons ago…
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.
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.
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.