Sunday, January 30, 2005

Winter in Tokyo

Mt. Fuji viewed from the 10th floor hotel room (C) Lrong Lim

Was at Tokyo over the last few days with a group of scholars from China, Vietnam, and Japan.

While I have collaborated with other researchers in the past, it was almost always on a one to one basis.

I had presumed that it was difficult to 'coordinate' if the group is large.

But I was surprised at how 'easy' and how much fun it was.

I absolutely enjoyed the time spent with those folks.

And what more, one of the Chinese scholars is the president of a major university in China, hosting about 5000 foreign students.

I normally don't fancy traveling in wintertime.

It is just too cold to be comfortable.

But luckily, the snow did not accumulate on the roads.

For two of the mornings, I woke up to glorious blue skies, with snow-capped Mt. Fuji sitting somewhat shyly in the backdrop of a clutter of high-rise buildings bathed by the morning sun.

Glorious, in the context of the gray and unexciting winter skies.

I had anticipated viewing Mt. Fuji on the flight to Haneda Airport and on the return trip.

I was to be disappointed on both counts.

On the way there, Mt. Fuji hid behind the sea of clouds.

On the return trip, the weather was marvelous, only that I sat on the wrong side of the fully loaded airplane.

I had my breakfasts at a nearby cafe, watching the crowds whizzing by.

One rainy morning, I was sipping my coffee and chewing the toast.

I observed there were twelve patrons in the no-smoking section.

All of them, except yours truly, were reading either newspapers or novels.

They looked so serious in their thoughts.

I gazed at the umbrellas of blue and white, red and yellow, slowly gliding away from my sight.

I had the honor of visiting Waseda University for the first time.

This 'ivy league' private university boasts a posh hotel as well as full-fledged Japanese garden in its grounds.

In the offices, the cotton-pressed 'waiters' served us aromatic hot coffee in chic porcelain just as in classy restaurants.

We managed to conduct an exhilarating session with the students of the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies.

Back in the hotel room, there were reports of the possibility of Japan having a lady emperor in the future.

The crown prince's only child is a little girl.

The current constitution states that only males can be emperors.

My thoughts switched to the world of sumo.

There are no lady professional sumo wrestlers and the tradition disallows females to even climb onto the ring, known as 'dohyo'.

The second of the six annual tournaments are held in Osaka.

For the last few years, Osaka has a female major.

And the Osaka Major gets to present the 'Mayor's Cup' to the tournament champion on the dohyo.

Only that, the major must be a male.

So goes the saga.

At the Catholic-established Sophia University where one of our research partners teaches, I was informed of a certain building that forbids females from entering.

I wonder why.

Back the possibility of a lady emperor.

Apparently, taxpayers will be further burdened because of the fact that more 'royal' families will have to be kept on succession line.

At the moment, princesses are not placed on line to succeed the throne.

Furthermore, once princesses marry, they lose their 'royal' status.

The other major line of talk is the treatment to be given to the spouse of the lady emperor.

On the ground, a majority of the Japanese people supports the prospects of a lady emperor.

Why not, they say.

After all, there have been a few lady emperors before in Japan.

Personally, I think so too.

Why not, I say, when in my little experience as a teacher, I have almost always observed that female students are more conscientious than male students.

Females will probably not make worse emperors than males.

Who knows, they may even make better emperors than males.

The debate continues...

Friday, January 21, 2005

The push of the devil

The headlines read yesterday, 'After 11 years, former athletics coach acquitted of molest charges'.

Meanwhile, I had a big shock last Friday upon hearing that my work partner at the university was arrested for molesting a 17-year-old high school student in a morning train at Fukuoka city.

He was reported to have dug his hands under her skirt and fondled her buttocks for about 10 minutes.

The schoolgirl alerted the train conductor and he was reprimanded at the next stop.

This incident marks the third arrests of our university staff in two months. (See also Bribery and sexual harassment in the university).

He is a nice guy, really.

Unassuming, quick to apologize, does not create trouble for colleagues.

I have a lot of difficulty trying to understand why.

He is still under police custody in Fukuoka, and probably slamming his head against the wall, gnashing away, 'why... why... why...'

He has a wife, and a cute little child.

The Japanese call it, 'at the push of the devil' (that is, at my interpretation).

He means no harm. He is a good man.

But at that very instant, the devil enters into his soul, and (mis)leads him to commit that unthinkable act.

The former athletics coach lost 11 years of his life, fighting to regain his reputation.

That is simply too much to lose in a lifetime.

Lesson to be learnt is... not to allow/invite/entertain the slightest doubt on one's reputation and morals.

Hopefully, not even 'at the push of the devil'.

For, to be suspected is damaging enough...

Friday, January 14, 2005

NHK and RTM...

There is a somewhat rare drama unfolding at the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, known by its Japanese acronym NHK.

NHK is somewhat like our RTM in that its budget is dependant on the Japanese parliament, the Diet.

Unlike the RTM, NHK is very much independently managed and run, offering high quality, unbiased news, programs and commentaries.

One particular program that I like is the 'Nichiyo Touron' or the Sunday Debate, whereby politicians and political watchers are invited to debate on current political issues.

A wide spectrum of individuals from the ruling and opposition parties, universities, and various business arenas get to speak in a very well moderated environment.

There are very little, if any, accusations from the public of biased and unfair reporting by NHK.

However, earlier this week, a mainstream newspaper called Asahi Shinbum broke news of an apparent meddling by the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP).

Asahi Shinbum quoted an anonymous source saying that NHK executives ordered revisions to be made to the program because NHK couldn't afford to resist LDP politicians' demands at a time when its budget was being deliberated in the Diet.

The whistle blower was Mr. Satoru Nagai, the NHK producer for the 2001 documentary on Japanese war crimes.

Reports the Japan Times...
"We were ordered to alter the program before it was aired," Satoru Nagai told reporters in Tokyo. "I would have to say that the alteration was made against the backdrop of political pressure."

The program originally included footage of a mock trial held by civic groups in December 2000.

The "verdict" found the late Emperor Hirohito, posthumously known as Emperor Showa, guilty of permitting the sexual slavery.

Historians say Japan sent as many as 200,000 women -- many from the Korean Peninsula, which was then under Japanese rule -- to frontline brothels that served Japanese soldiers.

Japan called the sex slaves "comfort women."

This segment was substantially cut before NHK aired the program.

Bear in mind that we are talking about political interference in just one documentary program, not a systematic pattern of interferences on multiple programs as in RTM.

The LDP has always been, understandably, rather 'defensive' when it comes to the emperor, especially Hirohito.

The two high profile LDP politicians involved, Shinzo Abe and Shoichi Nakagawa, are denying the allegations that they pressured NHK.

But I have a feeling that more worms will crawl out soon.

In speaking out, there is too much to lose on the part of Mr. Nagai, a sobbing family man with dependants.

Unlike the brazenly slanted environment at RTM, I think more worms will spill out...

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A novice... but a 'gardener' no doubt...

Fresh turnips (C) Lrong Lim

The temperature dips to just below zero in the early mornings.

It is cold, at least for a warm-blooded Kedahan like me.

Been trying out gardening for the last three or four years.

Lots of failures, but lots of fun too.

The current winter cold is a little too harsh on my cute little veggies, except for the red turnips as shown above.

As salads, they tasted really fresh and crunchy... delicious...

One of my pals said, why waste your time gardening when you can easily and cheaply buy any veggie you want from the market?

True, true...

But it is the fun of doing it, and the joy of 'having to learn' the ropes of cultivating... chemical-free, that is...

Through the seasons, I see butterflies hovering... colorful little birds perched on the fragile bamboo fence... and the mantis, voraciously devouring the grasshopper...

I love it...

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Age and long-windedness

Some smiles at the New Year Party (C) Lrong Lim

When I was a graduate student at Nagoya University, I used to join the many pleasure field trips organized by the Aichi Foreign Student Association (AFSA).

The founder and advisor of AFSA was Makishima Sensei, a man in his late seventies when I first got to know him in 1990.

He was in his forties when he gave up teaching to take care of foreign students full time.

Makishima Sensei was a real nice man and was fond of making long speeches.

Speeches that almost always begin with 'Does anyone know how old I am?'

Those who already knew kept quiet.

And each time he revealed his age the 'new' students would give a thunderous 'whaaa'.

I was very interested in foreign student affairs, and somehow I became involved in AFSA deeply.

I could more or less know what his next words were in the countless speeches I heard from him in my six years at Nagoya.

Today at Takamatsu, as in the last ten years, several 'international' associations got together to hold the Japanese New Year celebrations.

I have been in the organizing committee for about eight years.

Time and again I have rejected nominations of me being the chairman of the organizing committee.

Too much hassle. Until this year.

So, there I was, making the opening speech as the organizing committee chairman.

I had all the time to prepare for the speech but I did not do it.

So there I was... babbling and babbling away on matters of no consequence.

Until one committee member yelled softly from the crowd, 'hey, your speech is getting too long'.

In my 'younger' days, I have never been reminded of such behavior.

But this was the second time in a month that someone alerted me of my long and winding speech.

(Prior to this, I was droning away on stage at the Christmas party organized by the Lions Club).

Is it that, the older one gets, the more long-winded one becomes?

An elderly Japanese professor said this on stage a few years ago.

'Speeches, should be short... like mini skirts. But contents should be fulsome... like bosoms'.

If he were to say this on stage today in Japan, he may be charged for seku-hara, (sexual harassment).

But please don't charge me either; I am only the 'story-teller'.

The New Year Party went extremely well with almost 300 people in attendance.

The food was delicious, as always... the entertainment, lively... and the company, joyous.

But as usual, I didn't get lucky in the lottery draw.

Recalling what I mumbled on stage, probably the only notable thing was my urging the attendees to remember the millions who perished or are presently suffering from the tsunami disaster.

We passed the hat around, intending to send the contributions to the Japan Red Cross Society.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Japanese reactions to the tsunami

Several of my Japanese friends and colleagues ask me if my family in Kedah and Penang are ok.

Thankfully, being non-beach goers as they are, they have not been affected.

The televisions here have been showing captions of Japanese family members seeking out and identifying their loved ones.

As in the case of many other nationalities, the whereabouts of up to 180 Japanese remain unknown.

Up to 120 people may be missing in Thailand, 30-40 in Sri Lanka and 10-20 in Maldives.

The Japanese death toll in the disaster currently stands at 23.

The Japanese government has pledged a total of $500 million to the rescue funds.

On Wednesday (5th Jan), international tsunami aid pledges totaled more than $3.6 billion after Australia and Germany announced significant increases in their assistance.

On the non-monetary aspect, the Japanese Self Defense Agency has deployed more than 800 personnel mainly to Indonesia and Sri Lanka to assist in the areas of transportation and medicine.

They are to man the medical units, helicopter units, transport ships, and transport airplanes.

This emergency relief operation is the largest operation conducted overseas by the Japanese Self Defense Agency since 1992.

Taking the government's cue, Japanese top companies are pledging contributions for the disaster relief effort.

With operations in the hardest-hit nations of Thailand, Indonesia and India, Toyota Motor Corp. is donating 100 million yen.

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. is giving 20 million yen in cash as well as 26,500 flashlights, 210,000 batteries and 5,000 emergency food packages to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and India.

Sony Corp. has contributed 30 million yen through the Japanese Red Cross and has offered Thailand an additional $128,000 in aid.

Toshiba Corp. is donating 22 million yen, while Hitachi Ltd., is coming up with 20 million yen, and Ajinomoto Co. Inc. donated 40 million yen.

What about the average Japanese?

No doubt, there is concern and sympathy among the average Japanese for the tsunami victims.

However, Japanese aid groups said that efforts to help the survivors are falling short despite the unprecedented level of support and donations.

Among the Japanese aid groups is Peace Winds, which is delivering medicine and food to northern Sumatra.

This group has received about 3 million yen in donations but still needs more medicine, water and emergency rations.

Ironically, the motivation for some Japanese to act comes from South Korea, when actor Bae Yong Joon contributed 300 million won.

This actor is the main star of the immensely popular soap drama, Winter Sonata.

More than 100 Japanese fans of this actor sent donations to the international relief organization World Vision after their idol made the contribution.

I hope they were not only thinking of their idol when they contributed, but also the tsunami victims as well.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Sago, nipah, tsunami contributions, and tourist dollars

Today, most of bureaucratic Japan returns to work.

I attended what is called a 'shigoto hajime' (literally, start work) lunch gathering at past noon.

Here, we greeted our colleagues and mutually wished for a cooperative working relationship with one another for the next twelve months.

Meanwhile, the Star reported a 23-year-old Achenese woman who survived days of floating in the open sea, clinging on to an uprooted nipah palm.

She survived the ordeal by drinking rainwater and eating the fruit of the palm (nypah fruticans), which Malaysians call attap chee.

A Malaysian tuna trawler found her alive.

At the same time, Bernama reported that the woman hung onto a sago palm and ate its fruit and bark for five days after being hit by the tsunami.

Now, if my understanding of 'sago' and 'nipah' is correct, then I do not know whether to believe the Star or Bernama.

I had always thought, sago is sago; and nipah, nipah.

The newspapers and weblogs continue to be filled up with news and comments on the tsunami.

Among the notable ones are, who is contributing what and, how much.

Writers such as Seah Chiang Nee highlighted the poor response by the rich Middle Eastern Muslim states and Brunei.

He said it was 'shameful that rich Muslim countries respond so weakly to humanity's catastrophe'.

The 'Western' nations led by the US are commended for their huge contributions.

Said a reader of Jeff Ooi's Screenshots, 'Let us also OVERCOME our OVER-SIZED EGO to admit that the US and Bush administration's response is the BEST and QUICKEST, MOST EFFECTIVE, MOST PRACTICAL'.

Personally, I was pleasantly surprised to see to President George W Bush and two of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George Bush Senior, calling on Americans to aid the Asian tsunami's victims.

Another Screenshots reader, Salamis, queried what George Soros is contributing in times like these.

Salamis added, 'Our former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir must also not be forgotten since he has several separate pensions as (a) ordinary member of parliament, (b) minister (c) prime minister. His sons and daughters are also in big business and should be able to compete with White Men in donation to a good cause'.

Good point, if you don't mind the potentially contentious 'White Men' term.

But Mahathir is not remaining quiet.

Bernama reports that he is convinced that the tourism sector in Langkawi, which was struck by the tidal waves or tsunami last week, will not be affected.

I almost fell off my chair.

Mahathir, who was the architect of the island's development into a leading tourist destination in the region, further rubbed: 'Tourists will continue to come because Langkawi is an attractive island and safe to visit.'

I salute this man for his big heart.

Even in times like this, he worries for Malaysia.

Contributions to the tsunami cause?

Bernama again... 'Dr Mahathir said he had contributed in the form of bottled drinking water for the victims in Aceh, which were delivered by a C-130 aircraft Sunday'.

Hmm... bottled drinking water?

Over at Jeddah, Malaysia's Consul-General Zulkifli Yaacob announced there was no cancellation of holiday bookings by Arab tourists despite knowing about the destruction inflicted by the Tsunami tidal waves.

'We only received calls from those who had made reservations to enquire whether it is safe to visit Malaysia now.'

'Tourism promotions to Malaysia in Saudi Arabia continued to receive good response and holiday packages from today till Jan 21 were snapped up by the Saudis who were unperturbed by the Tsunami giant waves triggered by the underwater earthquake in Acheh, Indonesia, on Dec 26'.

As Seah Chiang Nee pointed out: shameful...