From past to present…


Book review, from Tokyo – A century has passed since the end of the first great war. Some say the peace treaty gave the world a short 30-year hiatus before the next one, one that was also fought in Asia. Hundred years seem a short time in our shared history, but how many real-life accounts actually remain? Published 70 years after the end of WWII, 若者から若者への手紙 1945←2015(Wakamono kara wakamono he no tegami 19452015, lit. Letters from youths to youths 19452015) affords us this luxury. But be prepared.

“19452015″ contains 15 accounts and reflections of the war by 15 men and women, mostly around their 20s in 1945. Young men sent to frontlines across Asia, one tasked to conduct biochemical tests, a field nurse who subverted a medic’s order, a teacher sent inland with school children to avoid bombings in the city, an ethnic Korean who lost his family name before getting conscripted, one lured by the promise of Manchukuo and left behind in China, survivors of the a-bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

One portrait photo precedes each account – this is my story.

We can read facts from history, but the 15 letters shine light on those lives and their inner journeys –

How they were trained to kill, to see the enemy, to follow orders. How their compatriots fell like flies to disease, weakened by malnutrition. How their misery continued even after surrender, facing stigma as returners, as Okinawans. How they found salvation, finding lessons for humanity, remembering their will to live, not just survive, and as survivors, to continue telling their stories.

Reading leaves much to imagination, and the words painted uncomfortable images. My first reading left me numb, even nauseous. Just try substituting the third person (they, their) for the first person (I, my/our) for the paragraph above that starts “How they…”

Thankfully, those stories were spaced by reflections and letters from 15 youths writing back, each again with a photo. Thoughtful responses expressed gratefulness for sharing, filled with hope and dedication to a future of peace and no war. What shocked was the gap in perspectives – the chasm between today and those personal accounts seemed too far to bridge. But that is only natural, since the backdrop that colours our view of life, and with that our readings, are drastically different.

“19452015″ brings readers actual accounts of 1945 alongside attempts to frame the 2015 view of the last world war after 70 years. It paves a journey to understanding life in that tumultuous period of Japanese and world history, but more importantly, poses questions on humanity and life, whether in war or peacetime.

When the book was first published in 2015, more than half of the survivors had already passed on. But their stories remain and are set to reach English readers as an e-book, partly funded by an online campaign that will soon close comfortably past its original target.

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Aside 1: I remember first reading this on the train last year, when North Korea fired ICBMs in Tokyo’s direction. A nearby salaryman snidely remarked to his colleague, “We’ll just fire back, huh?” before alighting at Shinjuku station.

Aside 2: Recently, I’ve noticed more flybys by Chinooks and Black Hawks. Once a whole squadron(??) flew North over Kanpachi, a major ring road in Tokyo. Never have I seen such scenes before in this city that I’ve lived for more than ten years. It felt more like Yamato, in neighbouring Kanagawa.

Aside 3: Earlier today, my phone buzzed. A Yahoo! Japan news flash – The filling of Henoko bay has begun.
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Title: 若者から若者への手紙 1945←2015
Text by Naomi Kitagawa and Motomi Murota, photos by Yuriko Ochiai
Publisher: Korocolor Publishers, 2015

Just different


Book review, from Tokyo – Four teens popped into the train the other day. One of them was visibly larger than the other three, and a tad bit more tanned. He seemed relaxed, laid back, as did the rest. The train crowd that day was just enough for everyone to see whatever happened across the length of the carriage.

The next moment began an episode I would not forget in a hurry. One of the boys starts picking on this bigger boy, making snide comments on his size, his stubby nose, the tiny curls in his hair, his brownish-blue eyes, anything that seemed obviously different.

Hums and haws deflected each attack, as his large frame sank deeper into the cushion. One of the other boys interrupts to ask the interrogator about his family, offering his friend a brief respite. The bigger boy musters a  response, asking some questions of his own. The exchange continues, mostly one-sided, with the obtrusive teen probing deeper.

Perhaps there wasn’t any ill intent, but it was still a disturbing exchange that happened right in front of everyone else.

This episode brought to mind the OECD PISA 2015 report on bullying released earlier this year, where 15-year-olds provided, for the first time, self-reports on their experience of frequent bullying. Compared to other forms of bullying, Japanese teens saw more verbal bullying but less overall than the OECD average. However, PISA acknowledges that cultural differences could have affected responses. Incidentally, the suicide rate among Japanese school children peaks when school resumes in September after about 6 weeks of summer vacation.

Fortunately, Jason Parker, the brave, level-headed sixth grader in Holly Thompson’s verse novel “Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth” (Henry Holt and Company, 2016), never contemplates suicide, but he does come within a whisker of joining them.

Jason’s story starts with him being thrown into a group notorious for bullying. He would have to navigate various tasks together with them for almost two months, until the next seat change. His friends advise him to keep a low profile, to never react, lest it got worse. The teacher is indifferent, even apathetic. Everyone just goes about minding their own business, keeping a safe distance.

Respite comes from his little sister, whether it is the mess in their shared room, their adventures storming through the streets, meeting new people in the neighbourhood, and ultimately when she saves him. He also finds some joy outside school and peace at Aikido class, where he trains his mind and body to be ready for his enemies, or so he thinks.

Two crimes are woven into the plot – a fire and a lost paperweight. The former was arson, a primer for the latter case that had a greater bearing on the story. For the class, it was theft. For Jason, it was betrayal and the worst possible scenario averted by his little sister.

The verse format forces the reader to stay close to Jason, as we follow him through a harrowing period of his life in a coastal town.

We join him in keeping alert for attacks at school, which leaves one exhausted but still looking to avoid contact in town. We are grateful for the pockets of refuge in Aikido and other parts of the town, the space to reach out to Jason’s interests elsewhere. We are blind-sided by his wayward focus, losing sight of obvious danger, before finally finding closure and a way forward with Aikido.

Jason’s story made me step back to reflect on my reactions toward differences, on the importance of learning to accept differences as they are, as a chance to connect, not abuse. It opened the door to delving deeper, to view outward aggression as a suggestion of other problems, to recall how difficult it is to handle peer pressure, and to look out for tell-tale signs of abuse and reach out, because it could make a whole world of difference for someone.

Title: Falling into the Dragon’s Mouth
Author: Holly Thompson
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2016 (available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook)

Questions from The Ranch of Hope


Book review, Tokyo – Years after the 3.11 triple disaster, a rancher continues to tend to his herd of more than 330 cattle in a no-go zone in Namie, Fukushima. Portrayed as a nuclear rebel by parts of the media, the picture book behind the ranch raises some serious questions.

On the cover of “Kibou no Bokujo” (The Ranch of Hope), he could easily have been chewing in defiance on a burning cigarette. Instead, it shows a man with his dog, cat, and cow with the ranch in the background.

The pictures go from animals and houses abandoned after the disaster to the lone rancher who stayed behind to tend to his ranch. Inside, cattle eat, drink, defecate, and get hungry. The rancher continues his job, feeding and tending to them. Some of the weaker grow ill and die, but the rest have remained healthy, eating, drinking, defecating, and getting hungry again. Cattle numbers have recovered, it says, as the ranch took in those that had wandered near from elsewhere.

The touching parting gaze between another rancher and his endearing calf is paired with a page splashed in red with carcasses and several men in the faraway background clad from head to toe in white protective wear. In contrast, the owner of the Ranch of Hope goes around doing his daily chores in his regular farming attire. He is simply doing his job, keeping his cattle fed and alive, even if they can no longer be sold because no one would take them.

The story goes deeper, into the rancher’s thoughts – what is the meaning of life, of plentiful rice fields, rivers teeming with fish, clean fresh air, a local brand painstakingly built up by the community over the years, that vanishes just like that?

The book’s sobering pictures serve as a reminder of the gravity of some decisions in life, which are made by a few and end up affecting many others.

Title: 『希望の牧場』 (Kibou no Bokujo, The Ranch of Hope)
text by Eto Mori, illustrated by Hisanori Yoshida
Publisher: Tokyo, Iwasaki Publishing, 2014

Ideas from the man on the 10,000-yen note


Book review, Tokyo – 10,000 yen is about 100 US dollars. So, a Fukuzawa is about a Ben Franklin, money-wise. ”Who?” you may ask. While the founding father is widely known for his adventures with kites and lightning, the former is no where as famous, possibly even in Japan.

So again, who is this man, the face on Japan’s most valuable note in wide circulation?

Fukuzawa is, in fact, the founder of Keio University and a forward-looking thinker at the time of the Meiji Restoration in Japan. When Japan faced colonial pressure and technology, Fukuzawa published “Gakumon no Susume (Encouragement of Learning)” to advocate learning to build knowledge and individual prowess to ensure sovereignty. He was quite a figure in the modernization of Japan. (His reputation after that requires more careful research, for me at least.)

A few months back, I found “Kodomo no ‘Gakumon no Susume’“, a book that re-presented his ideas for primary school children. Among the series of such books by Takashi Saito, which includes the Analects of Confucius, this one caught my eye because I was looking for something from Japan, and about it.

My immediate impression was the universality and relevance of his ideas. Nothing too overwhelming. Just simple ideas on tolerance, diligence, honesty, righteousness and good demeanor, just to mention a few.

A familiar board-gamesque path lining the page borders illustrate each of his 19 ideas, leading the reader from start to end. A learned bird donning a graduation cap would sometimes offer prompts to help the reader understand and think deeper.

Fukuzawa himself is known as a keen student and translator of Chinese, and later European and American thinking and sciences. He clearly found many dots in the course of his learning that he connected to form his own coherent ideas. To me, this was the master demonstrating to would-be students how to acquire information to create new knowledge.

The Internet is today often our first, immediately-available, omnipresent, go-to data source, but I shudder at how information is sometimes generated online, let alone have knowledge created from it. To me, learning and questioning have never been more important, and perhaps it is this urge that led me to acquire this book for myself.

Maybe only Keio University alumni and note maniacs or collectors would dig deeper into the face on the 10,000 yen note. Neither of these am I. But the ideas in this reworked version struck me as immensely relevant, and I am sharing my thoughts here to help foster the formation of new knowledge, and understanding.

Title: こどもの「学問のすすめ」(Kodomo no “Gakumon no Susume”, lit. “Encouragement of Learning” for children)
by Takashi Saito
Publisher: Tokyo, Chikuma Shobo, 2016 8th reprint (1st published in 2011)

A picture book of mirth and love…


Book review, Tokyo – On one of my frequent visits to the children’s section of a local bookstore, a familiar cover caught my eye. A lady ghost smiled warmly with a tear in her eye, holding a little boy tight high above a town in the light of the moon. A picture of mother and child separated by death no doubt, reaffirmed the title, “Mommy’s a Ghost Now!“.

I read this a few months back in some other bookstore. Then, I was drawn by the cover and had picked it up to see what stories it held. I recalled the sorrow, the tingling in my nose that grew into sniffles, and the ticklish vibes I got from the exchanges between mother and son. The pictures in the pages struck a chord, as I clearly remember tears welling up the last time.

This time was slightly different. I could read it more calmly, braced for the feelings and memories that were sure to grow as I turned the pages. And they did. Emotions had gotten the better of the reader in me the last time, probably more than just once. So I chose to focus on the text and pictures that told the story.

Roundish shapes, clear and distinct colors, the pictures seemed primed to brew humour. The text told a story of parent-kid bickering, over tiny details, countless I-told-you-sos and don’t-do-it-agains. All tinted by a sentimental  and funny take on a relationship that everyone can identify with, one that began with love from the start.

A picture book that exceeded my expectations, the title prepares readers for a story of mother and son coming to terms with her sudden and accidental death, and then being separated from her (and her eccentricities) by life and death. It seemed to suggest that it was all part of the journey for everyone, and, of course, the boy has to have his way of finding the courage and strength to live on.

Having read it more than once, it sure would make a special present, if I can emulate others in finding the courage to buy it for someone, perhaps for myself.

Title: ママがおばけになっちゃった!(Mama ga obake ni nacchatta, lit. Mommy’s a Ghost Now!)
by Nobumi
Publisher: Tokyo, Kodansha, 2015
http://children.kodansha.co.jp/en/books/picturebook/42631.html

Economic indicators for happiness?


Book review, Tokyo – What does it mean to be economical? Does it mean living within one’s means? Prudence probably sums that up better. What about only using what we need? That’s being frugal. Maybe being economical is about getting our money’s worth, and economics about efficient distribution of limited resources. Time is money, goes the old adage. So who’s measuring how we use our time for something worthwhile?

Modern life is about being tied, to loans, debt and feeding the ravenous monster that is the world economy. Countries chase numbers to pull in money for growth and indicators, to make sure the huge monster stays happy. Have we taken the time to stop and think about how happy we are as a cog in this unstoppable machinery?

Is it surprising that a picture book with a profound message that is more than 5 years old strikes more than a simple chord with someone in finance? The speaker, a former guerilla fighter, also happened to be the simple, frugal former head of state of a nation once known as the Switzerland of the Southern hemisphere, who featured in a series of Japanese books. Before these two picture books by Chobunsha, how the two languages sounded was the most obvious link between the two countries. The books created a new one, the ideas of former Uruguayan President Jose “Pepe” Mujica.

The first picture book released in 2014 vividly illustrated the then president’s simple, frank Rio+20 speech of his view on the state of human civilization. Lives misled by the demons of desire that end unfulfilled, saddled and ultimately crippled by debt. He proposes a rethink of our goals, our lifestyles at the fundamentals of modern society. He was content with his, tending to his vegetables, chickens, and refusing his official ride but indulging in a simple daily dose of tea. Acknowledging the importance of work to society, he leaves hints to being content and happy. His message that day still rings strong in Japan and recently Taiwan, and on Youtube, in the world’s search for sustainability.

The second book, a follow-up nearly 18 months later, is a longer, deeper look at the story behind the man who made that speech. Compiled from years of speeches and an interview after he was relieved of his stately duties, the book brings readers on a journey through his past as a guerilla fighter, the things, books and people, that changed him, and his thoughts on the future that we can fight to create.

The second book specifically mentioned Asia, hinting at the value of Asian teachings. By doing so, he seems to suggest that, when the time comes, Asia and its values would promise a chance to move the world in a new direction, toward a new type of life.

The illustrations and stories in these books are targeted at children, but the ideas are ones that adults relate more easily to. These books invite reflection and interaction, to discuss and find a way forward. It found success in Japan with a thoughtful population seeking escape in a time of a pro-growth national policy. So why not in other societies or markets that chase the same lofty highs? The language is the first barrier, the unconventional ideas are the next. Hopefully, we will get to see these books in English, preferably sooner rather than later. Otherwise, we’ll all have to depend on the Japanese and Chinese to work on finding happiness together.

 

“Sekai ichiban mazushii daitouryou no supiichi (A speech by the world’s poorest president)” was later translated into traditional Chinese as “Quan shijie zuiqiong de yeye lai yanjiang” by RuHe publishing. “Sekai ichiban mazushii daitouryou kara kimi he (A message from the world’s poorest president)” was released in October 2015 in Japan.

Publisher Jp:

  1. http://www.choubunsha.com/sp/book/9784811320670.php
  2. http://www.choubunsha.com/sp/book/9784811322483.php

e-commerce Tw: http://www.books.com.tw/products/0010689941

J-Lit Center En: http://www.booksfromjapan.jp/publications/item/3197-a-speech-by-the-poorest-president-in-the-world

Tokyo’s looking at diversity


Tokyo, 12 November – Last week, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released its latest survey on the diversity of working arrangements in Japan’s shrinking population. For the first time in the survey’s history, non-perm or temp workers account for exactly 40.0% of the national workforce. Initial media reports highlighted the record, albeit slightly suspicious, ratio and a stunning statistic that many temps preferred the flexible working hours that part-time, temporary, and contract assignments offer. Unlike the survey, reports did not highlight the diversity in the temp workforce, a grouping of part-timers, full-time contract workers, and retiree rehires.

Part-timers, as the term suggests, work differently than other temps. For example, female part-timers, a third of temp respondents, were the main breadwinners less than 25% of the time, which means 75% were out there for the sake of pocket money. So part-timers choose when they lined their pockets while other temps looked for hard money and a job-skills fit even as they knew that the dearth of perm opportunities kept them swimming around the temp pool.

Meanwhile, close to 95% of male retiree rehires were still breadwinners making that smooth cost-heavy transition into full retirement. For younger temps, about 80% of men between ages 24-45 were breadwinners as compared to below 30% of women. So, temp or not, men in Japan still bring home the dough. Note that this age band is home to new and future families and parents.

Temps were also much less satisfied than perms about remuneration, job stability, and career prospects. On the other hand, perms were marginally unhappier with the quality of instruction from their managers and their working hours. Japanese work culture is infamous for long hours, and they don’t seem any more pro-family or pro-baby than the boomer years, so who will be there to power any future growth? With companies already turning to contracts to rehire retirees of proven value, it looks like even longer work hours and active aging for everyone.

Maybe a longer working life could translate into longer-term, sustainable growth, targets of Japan’s new stewardship and corporate codes. Before those two came around, Japan also changed its employment contract laws. They slapped a 5-year limit on dated contracts. Beyond that, a worker had the power to issue an ultimatum to convert to a rolling deal. This power came at a price – the law only applies to dates after promulgation. No backdating, slates wiped clean, employment contracts renewed from zero.

The law was devised to bring stability to contracted work, but if Japan’s economy were to grow again, as its government envisions, then the power to switch to a rolling contract on, most probably, a frozen wage will only slowly squeeze a temp’s already thin pockets. Some lawyers have commented on this no-win situation for temps. Companies are now free to estimate long-term temp costs using 5-year ceilings. No need to mention “black” companies, a growing social problem of employee exploitation, temp or otherwise.

Who can make things better? Activist investors are more of the latter, so since cheap, skilled labour is a win-win, don’t expect an agent of change there. What about employers? Do they have the principles or pockets to take valued temps on their permanent payroll? Or would they force them out? Maybe even deprive them of CV-pretty work ahead of the 35-year-old glass ceiling for jumping ship or before the temp-to-perm window arrives? The ball has been placed firmly in the hands of employers. Some temp agencies have switched to directly hiring registered persons as full-time ready to go employees, so there is new hope.

The flip side of this employment conundrum is the 60% perm workforce, where the temp-perm disparity could breed elements that are even less motivated toward productivity. Stability in the perm world can easily be twisted into protecting the system, scraping through with the bare minimum, and producing the goods only when a chance to climb up the corporate ladder comes round.

Toxic for productivity? No rocket growth, just inching up or down every year? Maybe that’s sustainable for a while. Now the case is for the entire workforce to be included in the numbers game, or a respected bastion of moral authority, like Justice Bao or Mito Komon, to ruffle some feathers and clean up the show, because it’s high time companies show some real commitment toward embracing diversity.