Break your boxes, but remember them


We live in boxes.  no matter how deeply we examine the world around us, our perception is restricted. This restriction takes place at both a physical, biological level as well as on a constructed socio-cultural level. These boxes will always be there, but that does not mean they cannot be expanded or broken.

It is all too easy to see restrictions as prisons. Indeed, many of them can become prisons, but perceiving them exclusively as such is not valuable. Humanity has not created its numerous restrictions upon itself in order to slowly imprison itself. These boxes function like bricks. They build a navigable world for us that appears to have a degree of solidity. Without our boxes, nothing would make sense to us.

Yet despite the solidity – the ‘reality’ -our boxes create for us, we paradoxically are not living in anything ‘real’ at all, for our boxes are interpretations, solidified by socio–cultural consensus and the brain’s incredible pattern building capabilities.

My aim in this article is to persuade that our boxes need opening and our bubbles bursting, but not before understanding what purpose they served. We should pursue the knowledge restricted by our self-created bubbles, yet hold onto the structure of our former cages lest we fall into an unnavigable nihilistic existence.

Biological boxes

The first of the boxes we must recognise are the biological ones. A human’s senses are not perfect. Bats hear better than us. Cats see better than us. There is more of the world to experience than we are physically able to. This really is an astounding fact. No matter how hard we try, we are unable to experience everything there is to in the universe. We will never see every colour in an image, never smell every scent present in a flower. It is all to easy to assume we experience the world in its fulness, yet our experience is but a fraction of the world.

On a neurological level, the restrictions continue. The brain is tasked with a momentous role:  to control its body and react correctly to its surroundings. A big part of this job is determining what is important to even register.

Imagine for a moment if you placed the same value of importance on absolutely everything you experience. That dripping tap in the background is as clear as the sound of birds in the garden and both are suddenly as important as the conversation you are having with your partner. Things you used to completely ignore are now given the same weighting as the matters you really care about.

This would be too much to handle. You would go mad. Instead, the brain is highly selective. We perceive only a tiny fraction of the world around us. Though this is clearly for our own good – to stop us being overwhelmed with input – it also means our ‘reality’ is a mere shadow of what it could be.

The boxes of culture and society

A large proportion of our boxes are sociocultural phenomenon. These boxes build up from the very beginning of our lives and build up as we travel through it. We are all born in a specific place and most of us remain exposed only to the microcosm of that place for many years.

In that time, cultural boxes form. What language will I speak? What nationality will I have? Which god(s) will I follow? A brand-new human baby doesn’t get to answer these questions for itself – they don’t get to choose their first sociocultural boxes.

Instead our surroundings form our first restrictions for us. In my case, I write in English today because I was born in the UK. I was brought up by atheists, and so was not immediately exposed to religion. I had a Dutch name and was born to New Zealander parents, so built a very fluid national identity. These count amongst my first boxes.

Our options – break, or ignore?

Considering our boxes, both inherited and constructed, a question arises:  Is it right to ignore our boxes, or do something about them? Let’s consider first the easy option – Ignorance. The clear advantage is stability. Ignoring the borders of perception keeps us grounded and lets us believe we understand our surroundings. It is, at least on an individual level, safe.

Such a state of existence is arguably fine. That is, until something goes wrong or changes. If we believe in a solid world, we are not equipped for when it changes or collapses. Does this happen? All the time. Political developments, divides in religion, social conflict; these are all boxes under pressure. All it takes is a brief look into the history books to know that these boxes regularly fall to pieces.

Another option is to identify our boxes and take a long, hard look at them. There is an expansive history of doing so in philosophy. Buddhism teaches of the illusory nature of our existence and encourages the systematic breaking of illusions with the intention of discovering truth and freeing oneself from the prison of this existence.  Nietzsche attacked numerous social constructs, even bravely challenging the existence of morality, in order to pursue the true potential of the individual.

The path of breaking boxes is a path of discovery and life affirmation, but is no doubt also dangerous. For every broken box, the former stability of one’s personal illusion shakes a little more. Indeed, Nietzsche was eventually driven mad by his own philosophizing (plus opiates). Is it really worth pursuing a life of deeper understanding if it eventually leads to total nihilism and madness?

The answer is to reject our identified boxes, but continue to inhabit them. What does this mean in practice?

To challenge perception itself requires extreme scepticism. Amongst the strongest role models for this kind of thinking is Robert Anton Wilson, a man who can perhaps be described as a radical agnostic. In his book, ‘The Cosmic Trigger’, Anton Wilson attempts intentionally to change his perception of reality by exploring as many modes of understanding existence as possible. On the course of his journey he meets God, the devil, communicates telepathically with extra-terrestrials in the Sirius star system and chases the illuminati.  Despite experiencing very real encounters with such figures, he neither accepts nor rejects their existence.

By doing this, Anton Wilson inhabited realities he didn’t believe in. Instead, he committed to what he calls ‘reality tunnels’; the perception we solidify around us to match our sociocultural understanding. Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels are our boxes, and his experiments in their subjectivity show how morph-able they are.

The key point to realize here is this: If we do indeed match our perception to our understanding, then playing with perception will radically change our understanding of our existence. Breaking our boxes is the key to a new world.

Breaking sociocultural boxes

Society and culture are difficult to challenge because they fight back and are bigger than the individual. Culture is built from collective reality tunnels and the majority adhere to that reality tunnel. Otherwise the culture would cease to exist. As discussed above, it is clearly valuable to challenge the reality tunnels of culture, but to do so is more than likely to be considered by society as a transgression. Moreover, you are estranging yourself from the culture.

This is precisely why it is necessary to in some sense hold onto the boxes we endeavour to dismantle. Though there is much to learn by dissecting subjective reality, each incision can be estranging and ultimately life denying.

Let’s take an example from contemporary discourse: gender.

The sexes are divided biologically, but the different characteristics of gender are predominantly socially constructed. We are still considerably restricted by the social construct of gender and as such it is worth challenging. Gender is however a deeply solidified construct that society is vehemently defending. Society would be freer without the restraints of gender, but stepping out of the gender box still attracts the ire of society.

Can someone pursuing the dissolution of their gender constraints find a balance? Can their box be blurred whilst not being ostracised from society to some degree? Let’s apply the concept of ‘remembering’ the former box. This manifests itself as a form of extreme empathy. The challenger of gender constructs will eventually, even in the most liberal of places, be confronted by the elements of society defending the construct. The challenger could fight back, but to do so risks becoming the enemy of society, and society is stronger. We are however all familiar with the reality tunnels of established culture and empathising with them serves the challenger two-fold. They keep their community and their community is more likely to listen and eventually accept the challenger’s ideas.

Challenging biological boxes

We can, with some creativity, also explore further our biological limitations. There is of course a major difference between challenging socio-cultural boxes and biological boxes: the former deals with the realm of thought, the latter with perception of material phenomenon.

It may not be possible to dissolve physical material with thought, but our perception of the physical world is widely subjective. Each person’s senses are different and the degree to which each person engages with the world around them varies. Because of this, though biological boxes cannot be broken in the same way as their socio-cultural counterparts, striving to understand them in a new way is very possible.

Let’s take sight as an example. Human eyes are set at a particular field of view. A camera however is not. If a photographer wishes to take a photo with a similar perspective to what we see through human eyes, they are likely to use a 50mm lens. If the photographer changes the lens, the perspective of the camera’s shots will differ from that of the human eye.

By simply changing a camera lens, we can learn that a human’s direct perspective of the physical world is not the only possible perspective. The physical world can truly be seen in ways not usually open to us. Within those hidden perspectives, whole new worlds await.

Break your boxes

Without to some extent holding onto the reality tunnels we reject, we lose our greatest asset in the search to find value in breaking them in the first place: acceptance and contentment with your newly created world. Free thinking spirits are almost by definition strongly individualistic, but we remain social creatures. As much as society and culture can seem to imprison us, most of us need society. The individual who explores existence is better off for it, but leaving society would destroy most of us.

Because of this, the adventurer of human existence has one choice – to break their boxes, but to remember them.

 

 

 

Climate change threatens agriculture and infrastructure in Ehime


For a cloudy day in January, it is strikingly warm in Matsuyama city. Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, Japan’s smallest main island. Usually the coldest month of the year, Matsuyama is today enjoying a very mild 14 degrees C.

The warmer winter days are only one sign of the increasing grasp of climate change in south Japan. Regional typhoon patterns are also changing, and the combination of rising temperatures and increasing typhoon damage poses new threats to the region.

According to the Japanese Meteorological survey, Average temperatures in Matsuyama have risen by 1.74 degrees C in the last century. The Paris agreement set an international target to limit the global temperature increase since pre-industrial times to 2 degrees C, and if possible to 1.5 degrees C. That means that Matsuyama has already missed the UN’s preferred target.

According to the Ehime prefectural office, The frequency of torrential rain, flooding, heat waves and drought have all increased in recent years.  Ehime, one of four prefectures in Shikoku, has suffered damage to infrastructure and agriculture due to the increasingly extreme weather.

South Japan is no stranger to typhoons, but the storms are likely to become more dangerous as water temperatures continue to rise. Sato Yoshinobu, associate professor in the faculty of agriculture at Ehime University, says that rising sea water temperature has led to an increase in water vapour in the air, which is one of the main reasons for the heavy rain last year.

According to Sato, “The increase of sea surface temperature is mainly due to global warming.
According to the climate model simulation developed by the Japan Meteorological Agency (MRI-AGCM), the number of typhoons approaching  Japan is predicted to decrease. However the strong typhoons will increase. The strong typhoons with strong wind and heavy rain will result in landslides and cause fruit to drop”

Climate change is already affecting the success of crop yields in Japan. A 2017 report from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) states that rice grains and fruit are failing to ripen completely. Popular fruits including grapes, apples and mandarin oranges are gradually losing their colour and the skins of the fruits are becoming softer.

Though the MAFF report shows that Japanese food production is already feeling the strain of climate change, Sato Yoshinobu believes that an average daily temperature of above 27 degrees C will result in very serious damage to both the local mandarin orange and rice crops, both of which are staples of the local economy. This past summer saw temperatures well over 30 degrees C, much higher than the temperature Sato considers serious for local crops.

Research stations in Shikoku are currently attempting adaption strategies to better cope with the new challenges to agriculture posed by regional climate change. For example, researchers are trying out delaying mandarin orange harvesting times and are breeding new varieties of rice better suited to the changing climate.

last year damage caused by typhoons and major storms increased considerably, and local residents were seriously affected. Takahashi Naoko, a teacher in Matsuyama, believes that the changing weather was particularly noticeable last year. “There was much more rain last year than before” she said. “In Ehime, the rain caused numerous landslides. It was very dangerous; the rivers overflowed, and sometimes roads were blocked by fallen trees or by the landslides. It really was a year of extremes”.

Most of the inhabited part of Ehime is by the coast, and the typhoons bring a hidden challenge to the region’s towns. The high winds bring salt spray far onto land, which then settles on agricultural plots. The accumulation of sea salt makes the land less productive, adding to the strain on crops already created by rising temperatures.

Not everyone is so concerned by changes in climate in Shikoku. Tanaka Hirohiko, long-term resident of Hojo in central Ehime, believes that the effects of climate change have been relatively slow in Shikoku and only poses a threat to the next generation.

Tanaka acknowledged however a number of noticeable changes. “The local fishing industry has been affected. I think that this is related to climate change, not overfishing”, he said. He is also concerned about local crops. “Because temperatures are higher now, there are more pests, which are damaging crops. This is damaging the local economy in general, as agriculture is such a major part of it”.

Tanaka also mentioned that a friend of his had completely lost his mandarin orange warehouse when it was swept away after a river burst its banks.

Shikoku is one of the most rural regions in Japan. Over 91% of Japan’s population lives in urban locations, but the cities in Shikoku are few and far smaller than those of the other three main islands of Japan. Because of this, the region is particularly sensitive to change in agriculture and damage to infrastructure between towns.

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Mikyan, Ehime Prefecture’s mascot. Ehime is famous for its mandarin oranges, so much so that the local mascot is half dog, half orange. Ehime’s famous fruit may however be threatened by climate change in the future.

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Mandarin oranges, or Mikan by the local name, can be seen all over Ehime in the late autumn. This year, they are still on the trees well into January.

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Kashima Island, known for its tame deer. The island was one of many places in Shikoku that experienced more landslides than usual during last summer’s storms.

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Fishing is a major industry in Shikoku. Locals say that fish stocks are down, and powerful typhoons have damaged fish farms.

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The main street in Hojo, Ehime prefecture. Shikoku is one of the most rural regions of Japan and the local economy is heavily reliant on agriculture. This makes the region particularly vulnerable to climate change.

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Agricultural land in Shikoku is situated on the thin stretch of land between the sea and the mountains that make up the majority of the island. The proximity of the cultivated land to the sea means that crops take the full brunt of typhoons. Crops get damaged not only by the high wind speeds and excessive rain, but also by the salt spray carried by the storms from the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The joy of goth? What the underworld of culture tells us about taboos.


This article, as well as covering a great interest of mine, is my submission to Deutsche Welle to progress further in my application to join the DW-Voluntariat. Wish me luck! The theme set by DW is “Meine Tabus, deine Tabus. Worüber wir nicht reden, aber reden sollten” (“My taboos, your taboos. Why we don’t talk about them, but probably should.”) . I have taken my own twist on the topic. My deepest thanks to Deutsche Welle for offering me a chance to persuade them of my abilities.

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Leipzig has a history of challenging social injustice, which has made it a surprisingly good candidate as the world centre of goth culture

In most places, in most times, stepping on the tram late at night shrouded in a long, black, hooded cape is likely to invoke nightmarish thoughts in the minds of your poor fellow commuters. Who could blame them? The average person doesn’t tend to smile and wave when the embodiment of fear intrudes on their weekend night out. This tram journey does not however fall into the categories of ‘most places’ or ‘most times’, and the hooded figure – me -takes a seat next to a friendly looking fetishist, just across from a particularly wise looking wizard and a jovial viking.

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Vikings welcome, something to raise your drinking horn to

Down the aisle, a woman is chatting with a very confused, out of place looking family dressed in ‘normal’ clothes. “Don’t worry”, she says in a comforting voice, “don’t be afraid. We’re actually all very nice”. The viking and the wizard giggle and pass on their most dashing smiles to the family.

Welcome to WGT, Wave Gotik Treffen, the world’s largest gothic festival. For one week a year, the city of Leipzig in Saxony turns black as the world’s dark alternative scene comes out of hiding and throws one giant, subversive party.

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Leipzig doesn’t need to try too hard to be gothic. It has its fair share of old churches and architecture, many of which become venues during WGT.

WGT has been held annually in Leipzig since 1991 and is now the world’s biggest event for celebrating dark culture. Each year artists and over 150 bands from around the world descend on Leipzig. The whole city is covered in cultural events for a week. Old factories in the western quarter become the home of cybergoth raves. gothic fashion fills the ‘Agra’ hall in the south of the city. A Viking village is setup in one park and a Victorian picnic in another. The residents of Leipzig temporarily become, amongst many other guises, steampunks, witches and Victorian goths. For a week, nothing is taboo.

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magical visitors to MPS, one of Germany’s other alternative festivals

What do we mean by taboo? A taboo is a collectively perceived yet unmentioned wrongdoing. They are the actions or words which reside just outside of societal acceptance, at a point where they are publicly disdained yet often privately indulged in or sympathized for.

As a social phenomenon, taboos are culturally dependent. What is taboo in Germany may not be taboo in Malaysia, and vice-versa. In the UK, you don’t ask others how much money they make, but in China it can be one of the first questions a new acquaintance asks. In most of Europe, you won’t upset anyone by sticking chopsticks up vertically in your rice bowl (instead you might impress your friends for using them in the first place) but doing so in Japan is a symbolic act reserved for funerals.

As socially and culturally created phenomena taboos are not objectively real threats. They are rather an accumulation of collective experience, essentially socially constructed fear. The low-level fear of taboo is a powerful force which shapes you from the moment you are born. As a child, every time your parents scold you or stop you doing something, you have reached the taboo line. At school the contradictory rule of teacher and rule of cool shape us further and divergence from those rules is taboo. When we start work we don dour suits and serious faces; wearing the yellow and pink polka dot tuxedo in the wardrobe would unfortunately be taboo.

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Far from the dress norms of the ‘real world’, There are no taboos in the WGT dress code.

The net of taboos of course does serve a valuable purpose. It helps form common ground on which to build a functioning society. Yet seeing how arbitrary the taboos are, there is as much value to be had in subverting them as there is in withholding them.

This is the forte of the dark alternative scene. The gothic underworld is not strange to the outside observer because it is inherently scary, but because it is a micro-society built on the unbuildable. Because of this, there is much to learn from the dark.

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It may be up to debate how much we can learn from the dark alternative scene, but there are a lot of wise looking folk about at WGT.

In the dark alternative scene (in Germany, the ‘Schwarze Szene’) numerous societal matters function very differently. Goth has always been about subversion and challenging norms. It grew out of the 70s punk scene as its younger, more sensitive sibling. Where punk was predominantly anti-establishment and political, goth contributed deeply emotional and human concerns to the message of punk. Gender politics and the treatment of age are two examples of where the wider world could learn from facing its taboos like a goth.

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Goth grew out of the punk scene, and still often looks very punk.

Subcultures are almost always considered to be youth movements. After their 20s people in theory grow out of their youth subcultures and get on with ‘real life’. The gothic subculture is however no youth culture. Though plenty of stereotypical mopey teenagers are amongst the ranks of the gothic underworld, the average visitor to WGT is well into their 40s. Some of the age-old wizards roaming the streets of Leipzig really are over 80. Age plays no role in determining your welcome in the gothic scene, though the more senior members may grow more majestic beards than the visitors still in prams.

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no one loses their grandeur with age at MPS in Leipzig.

The dark alternative scene takes a different approach to gender too. Goth has always had infamously blurred lines surrounding gender representation. The singer of The Cure, Robert Smith, wore makeup. Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees was as formidable as a warrior on stage. Subversion of gender roles is still a major part of the scene. The band Versailles is often mistakenly seen as an all-girl band, when they are in fact an all-boy band. Where much of mainstream gender politics debate is fought over two camps – that gender is binary, or that gender is a spectrum – the gothic answer is to take whatever form you choose. If gender is a performance, why not perform it with panache?

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Sometimes, stilts help you get the edge in a place where everyone stands out.

The dark alternative alternatives to age and gender norms pose valuable lessons to the world outside the scene. Neither age nor gender norms need restrict us as they do – a big part of these restrictions is illusory. The goth scene goes much further than challenging age and gender. As the illusory nature of our world is one of the big recurring themes of gothic culture, any social construct can be challenged – in short, nothing is taboo.

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Lady Morte, singer of Trobar de Morte.

Of course, a world with no taboos quickly shows why we developed them in the first place. A world with no social norms is incredibly difficult to navigate.  As the dark alternative scene is so varied and open, it has naturally developed extremes. Combichrist, a group that explores very extreme themes has been criticized for inspiring fans to act badly. According to the mastermind of the group, Andy laPlegua, Combichrist was always a way of exploring the darkest parts of humanity, and that on stage he was not himself, but instead the twisted personalities he has created for his art. He does not endorse his characters but does condemn fans that choose to act like his characters. For all there is to learn from exploring our taboos, LaPlegua’s experience suggests that one can go too far.

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The goth scene has better hats.

Luckily most of the members of the scene are not so extreme as the more radical fans of Combichrist. The dark alternative world is predominantly a positive place, arguably because it braves to challenge the taboos of society. It is an age-old piece of wisdom that states there is light in the darkness. No one knows that better than a goth.

Below is a short self introduction, as requested by Deutsche Welle

 

Is Japan afraid to fix its overwork epidemic?


On an empty train station platform in rural Japan, there is a poster pasted on the wall with a message in imposing red letters: “Stop Karoshi!” Karoshi is a phrase meaning ‘death by overworking’, and the concept has become so normalised that it has entered the Japanese lexicon. The phenomenon, despite efforts to counter it, appears set to stay.

At first glance, the Japanese government appears to be working hard to battle the nation’s unhealthy working hours, but its current approach is at best superficial and at worst a purposeful avoidance of the problem.

The first case of Karoshi was recorded in 1969, and since then the number of annual deaths has not reduced. According to the Japanese labour ministry, 190 people died of karoshi in 2017. Almost half of those were suicide victims, driven by their working hours to take their own lives. Karoshi came more clearly into the public eye after the death of Miwa Sado, a journalist at NHK, Japan’s national public broadcasting organisation. She was found dead in her apartment still clutching her phone. She had clocked up over 159 hours of overtime in the month leading up to her death.

Attempts by the Japanese government to address the overwork epidemic have been widely ineffective, though the need for change is reflected in the statistics. According to a survey in 2016, 1 in 5 of the working population is at risk of Karoshi. 21% of the working population are working over 49 hours a week, yet work productivity is at the very bottom of the G7 and below the OECD average. Instead of benefitting productivity, the long work hours affect the health of workers to a dangerous extent. Even outside of the Karoshi statistics, there were 750 worker claims in 2015 due to brain and heart failure resulting from work stress.

Last June, the Japanese government introduced Hataraki-kata Kaikaku, a new plan to combat the country’s overworking problem.  Overtime is now capped at 100 hours a month, of which any is illegal without a written agreement between the employer and the employee. Though an average Japanese worker receives 20 days of annual paid leave, many do not take it as long holidays are perceived as irresponsible in Japan. Because of this the new government plan includes 5 days of forced paid holiday a year.

It takes little effort to see that these measures do not go far enough. 100 hours a month of overtime, if taken, equates to increasing weekly hours by over half. Due to the work culture in Japan, many workers will feel obliged to take overtime to the 100 hour limit. The same situation is likely to emerge for the minimum holiday policy. 5 days will be taken, but no more. In short, the new government plans do not address Japan’s overworking culture at all, but simply change the threshold from within it operates.

Hataraki-kata Kaikaku also has an intentional loophole. The newly imposed caps are all eliminated for those making three times the average income. According to the government, this will allow employees to be paid based on performance rather than the hours they work. The claim is however unconvincing. If the cap exemption were truly a performance improvement measure, it would be applied to everyone, not just the highest earners. The exemption suggests instead that the current system relies on overworked leadership and management and that the government has no sufficient plan to tackle this for what it is: a severe structural crack in the Japanese labour force.

There is a very good reason why the Japanese government is struggling to fix the overwork epidemic. Overwork is deeply ingrained in the nation’s work culture. Effort, responsibility to family and superiors, as well as self-sacrifice are age-old pillars of Japanese culture, and in the modern age these ingrained norms have been transferred from feudal lords to the modern corporation. In the context of modern business, the old cultural standards contribute strongly to Japan’s overwork problem. Unfortunately, culture cannot be changed by policy alone; it requires wide reaching social change.

Japan is however thoroughly resilient to the social change it requires, a fact which reveals itself on numerous levels of Japanese society. The country is often heralded as a futuristic tech giant, yet still relies on fax machines and remains a cash based society. Japan has often played a major role in setting international environmental goals, but has failed to adjust its over-packaging habits. In the political world, an apathetic Japanese electorate vote for leaders they are dissatisfied with to keep a status quo. Japan does not do change, and in the world of work, that resilience is harming it.

Victims of overwork are unlikely to reduce any time soon in Japan. The deep cultural norms that the phenomenon stems from make Karoshi very challenging to sufficiently resolve, and the government’s attempts seem entirely lacklustre. The measures even appear to intentionally avoid the heart of the problem – the work culture itself. That problem is exacerbated by Japan’s hard resilience to social change. Some change may however be on the far horizon. With high profile cases such as that of Miwa Sado in the public eye, the call for tangible improvement may gradually grow stronger.

The nightmare of Japanese names


What’s in a name? Or, in the case of Japan, what on earth is the name in the first place? I found out the hard way just how tricky a Japanese name can be.

Names are important. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have never forgotten a person’s name, even of those who he only ever met once. I assume the reporters meant twice, as with those he met only once, there’s no way to tell.  I can tell two things for certain from this: Lincoln understood the power of names, and Lincoln never had to learn the names of Japanese school children.

In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie argues that  there is no sweeter sound to a person’s ear than their own name, and that someone who makes the effort to remember names will consistently make a positive impression on new acquaintances. With that in mind I set out on a task I neglected upon arrival in Japan due to just how challenging a task it is; I set out to learn all the names of my 400 middle school students.

At first I struggled to remember Japanese names because I couldn’t actually hear them clearly. Even now, if I ask a student what their name is, I hear this.

“Hello, my name is mffrruf *indecipherable mumbling*-mura. I am mfffirrlkkl years old.”

I get adult names now, but kids mumble to oblivion. The problem is, as a teacher, it’s the kids that matter. 400 names were going to be an uphill struggle, and we haven’t even touched why Japanese names in particular are such a pain to the British brain.

Remembering the sound of names that you have never heard before is half the battle. If you have ever lived somewhere with many names you are unfamiliar with, you will know how hard it is to get those names to stay in your head. They have a tendency to sit in a dark, rarely used, and slightly slippery corner of the brain for about a minute, before sliding stealthily right back out.

I had the same problem when learning Chinese. At first Chinese names don’t seem very memorable to a non-Chinese person.  Back when I was teaching in China, after much thought on how to learn the names of my 1200 students (I failed), I slyly decided to ask all my students to write their names in my notebook so I could go home and learn them. Surely then would I solve this utter…

Chinese school kids write in Chinese. Damn.

See, now this would not be a problem. I can read Chinese now and Chinese does this clever thing where the sounds of the characters don’t really change much from word to word. There are of course minor exceptions, like my good friend whose Chinese name is 柏嘉丽. Some end up calling her bai jiali rather than bo jiali, but generally those Chinese characters behave themselves.

…And that is precisely why Japanese names are a nightmare. Japanese kanji do not behave themselves. They may look nice, but Kanji have an identity crisis. Though most uses of Kanji maintain fairly consistent pronunciation, this all goes haywire when it comes to naming people. Most kanji do indeed have multiple readings, but context makes their sound clear. 新 in 新聞 is read as shin because of the compound it is part of and because it is a word with Chinese origin, but 新 in 新しい has the Japanese reading atara, made clear by the しい on the end. [1] Names however are different. Though commonly used readings of Kanji can be understood contextually, Japanese names don’t always settle for the commonly used readings. In fact, I imagine that the average Japanese family expecting a new member pulls out their dusty tome of Japanese names, and with gleeful and slightly sadistic grins announces:

“Let’s make this name so horrifically obscure that even we forget how to say it.”

How is this possible? Let me give you an example. If I put the name 陽菜 into an online Japanese name dictionary (yes, these exist with good reason), I can find out, with much relief to my prior confusion, that 陽菜 can be read as Akina. Unfortunately, 陽菜 may also be Hana. Or maybe Haruna. Sometimes, it’s Hinata. Or Hina. Or Yona. Or Youna. Or yuuna.

Heeeeelllllpppp. Calm down Japan, you need sleep. Come back to me after another 1000 years of Kanji development, and streamline this time.

Of course, any speakers of Japanese will have picked up immediately on my big mistake. I’ve been learning first names. This is problematic on two levels. Firstly, Japanese people tend to use surnames much more than we do in the English speaking world. Teachers generally call students by their surname for example. Us English assistants however seem to have a different expectation. If I ask a teacher for a student’s name, they always go by first names, and some students put their first name in English letters on their table. It is more personable and in principle I like it this way, but the fact is, Japanese surnames are much more predictable than first names. The 100 most common surnames cover the majority of the population and most are covered by a relatively small number of Kanji.

I was kindly given a name lists for each of my classes to learn names from. The example above, 陽菜, is one of my students, and I have absolutely no idea whether she is called Akina, Haruna, Hana, Hinata, Yona, Youna, Yuuna, or something completely different. Now I’m too embarrassed to ask. I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve forgotten. Are you Akina, Haruna, Hana, Hinata, Yona, Youna or Yuuna?  Luckily most of the names are considerably easier to work out, but that doesn’t detract from the mammoth task of working out 400 of these puzzles.

I don’t know whether I should feel distraught or relieved that the name deciphering game is difficult for Japanese people too. I have shown the most difficult names on my name lists to Japanese people, only to be met with a blank stare and with luck some possible suggestions of how a certain name might be read. For the trickiest names, I blame the parents.

There is of course also the good old fashioned way of learning names – talking to people. Human interaction is nice, in moderation. It’s just that there are only so many times you can ask someone their name before they either hate you or decide to write it on your face in permanent ink. I don’t particularly want either of those fates, so I have retreated to my name lists, even if I do end up calling Akina Hinata by mistake. With a bit of luck there might be someone else in the class actually called Hinata, but written with even more obscure and flamboyant kanji, and the real Hinata will unwittingly save the day by thinking I was talking to her.

So, to those venturing into the brave territories of knowing the names of hundreds of Japanese school children, my advice is this. Either make use of the ingenious ‘(insert characteristic here)-lad’ and ‘(insert characteristic here)-girl’ system used by two good friends of mine (Clever girl, can you help dangerously sarcastic lad with this question?) , or give up. I’m too stubborn to take my own advice.

 

 

[1] しい is not some marker of words with Japanese origin exactly, but adjectives in the い form, as this word is, mostly are of Japanese origin.

INDUSTRIE 4.0 AND SOCIETY 5.0 – COMPARING SOCIO-POLITICAL INITIATIVES IN GERMANY AND JAPAN


First published in Politik : Perpektive, The student-run German politics journal based at Leeds University. 

At this year’s CeBIT expo, Japan presented its Society 5.0 initiative to the land of Industrie 4.0. CeBIT is the largest expo for data and communication technology in Europe, taking place annually in Hannover. As strikingly similar initiatives, it is noteworthy to compare each of them in light of Japan’s visit to CeBIT. Why are political initiatives being promoted at a German technology expo and what do these initiatives say about their country’s socio-political challenges?

The name Industrie 4.0 refers to an initiative which aims to maintain and develop Germany’s position as a manufacturer. It is seen as the next stage of economic progression which began with the process of industrialisation in the 18th century up to now – a fourth industrial revolution through the development consisting of ‘cyber-physical’ systems. Germany’s current industrial development signposts the combination of physical industry with the possibilities of advances in data technology advances such as big data and the ‘Internet of things’.

Japan’s Society 5.0 is in principle very similar. It is an initiative working towards effectively combining the possibilities of information technology with the ‘real’ world. Like Industrie 4.0, this initiative is described as the next stage of a historical progression. But where the German initiative is at the end of industrial progression, Society 5.0 is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the next societal advancement. It is promoted as a “super smart society”, following on from the hunting, agrarian, industrial and information societies.

Society 5.0 focusses on society as a whole, not only industry and manufacturing. At least within government rhetoric, Society 5.0 is committed to raising the standard of life, whereas Industrie 4.0 strives only for a more effective economy. This is however not the whole story. Industrie 4.0 is one of the ten ‘future projects’ set out by the German government in 2006. These, as a whole, address industrial, environmental, and health issues, but do not extend to the breadth of Society 5.0.

The difference in focus between Industrie 4.0 and Society 5.0 is significant, regardless of the initiatives’ shared goal of developing data technologies. Their respective names highlight the problems each initiative is attempting to resolve. Industrie 4.0 is an attempt by the German government to maintain the country’s position as a global leader in industrial manufacturing. Meanwhile, the Japanese government wants first and foremost to tackle issues such as Japan’s rapidly ageing population through Society 5.0.

These initiatives are predominantly political, not business projects. It was after all Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who was present at CeBIT to make a speech endorsing Society 5.0. It is a form of political rallying behind emerging technological trends. The different names and approaches simply represent a national interpretation of those trends. Each initiative reflects each country’s own challenges and tries to push that agenda internationally. These initiatives promote patterns that would eventually develop independently. Just as ‘Industrie 1.0’ or ‘Society 1.0’ were not political decisions, neither will their contemporary counterparts be. The politicisation of an existing progression is simply a declaration of interests and an attempt to steer a boat that already has its course.

As nationally focussed projects they will not necessarily translate well onto the international stage. There are a number of potential conflicting interests between Germany and Japan alone. For a bureaucracy-loving country such as Japan, AI maintenance might be great news, since the current human-run administration may finally be streamlined. Expanding AI possibilities do not enthuse Germans nearly as much, however. Germany is already suspicious of Google and its ever-growing digital capabilities. AI maintenance isn’t too far off becoming AI surveillance – a sensitive topic for a nation that suffered at the hands of surveillance in both the National Socialist period and the Communist period in the east.

We have to consider what triggered a need for the countries’ respective projects. In regards to Japan, it is clear from their publications on Society 5.0 how important the challenge of a rapidly increasing population is to the initiative’s development.

Germany’s aims are a little harder to pinpoint. Germany is already one of the world’s great manufacturing nations and one could easily jump to the conclusion that tinkering with Germany’s successful manufacturing sector is a mix-up of priorities. The urgency for Industrie 4.0, however,may have its roots abroad. China is an established manufacturing powerhouse. China’s business culture, that of inviting foreign investment and business into China for formative purposes, has gradually allowed it to compete aggressively with its ‘teachers’. Germany remains one of its most prominent teachers. Yet, China does not play by the usual rules, so a rule-abiding nation like Germany may have to work doubly as hard to maintain its leading manufacturing position.

Unfortunately for Japan, putting its initiative alongside Industrie 4.0 has highlighted just how uninspiring the Japanese vision of Society 5.0 could be to an international audience. It has unwittingly shown the world how a nation famed for its technology is actually very behind in the places it matters most. Included amongst Society 5.0’s suggestions for dealing with Japan’s ageing population is the digitalisation of medical records – something much of the world did a long time ago. Likewise, cashless payment technology is promoted, which – though a worthy advance for Japan – is hardly ground-breaking on a global level. And, although Japan may be a technology giant, Society 5.0 may represent a realisation that it needs to focus more on practical than fun technology.

The differences in aims and approach between the two projects highlight their political natures. Each initiative represents a political steering of a progression that will happen regardless of politics. However, the convergence of interests between Industrie 4.0 and Society 5.0 does point towards developing international recognition that new data and communication technologies can benefit the world. Though Germany’s focus on manufacturing is unequivocally beneficial in the short term as a means of maintaining competitive advantage, improvements in data and communication technology will be better implemented through closer international cooperation. The benefits of new technology developing interconnectivity will only be fully realised through simultaneously improving interconnectivity between the national initiatives that attempt to drive the development. With this in mind, both Japan and Germany are missing the point by attempting to become world leaders in the implementation of these new technologies.

The unheard plight of Xinjiang (original published in The Gryphon, 2014)


Seeing as Xinjiang’s re-education camps have brought the region and its controversies finally into wide public view, I have decided to post my old article published in The Gryphon in 2014 to my blog. It is out of date, but my reasoning for putting it here is to highlight that what is happening now is not something new, but an escalation. I understand many of the claims in the article may seem unjustifiable, but much of what I wrote stemmed from either personal experience or from the direct experience of people I met in Xinjiang.  My question, for which I have no answer yet, is why did it take so many years and the possible imprisonment of 1 million innocent people to make the news?

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The unheard plight of Xinjiang

The question of Tibetan independence from Mainland China is relatively well known to the west, and there has been a large amount of campaigning from within and abroad the region to declare it its own country. The culture and way of life of native Tibetans has been slowly chipped away at –arguably with the intention of being wiped out completely – and amongst other equally as important contributors such as limitations of Religious and political freedom, this has led naturally to heavy unrest.

What makes its way into the public eye much less often, are the similar problems that are taking place in the North-western Xinjiang autonomous region right now. Clashes between Han Chinese and the Uighur minority of China’s largest region have been common for a number of years in recent times, caused by strikingly similar reasons to Tibet and resulting in strikingly similar problems.

The official line on relations between the ethnic groups of Xinjiang is that each lives in perfect harmony, all striving together for a better China. Considering some of the blatant discrimination towards Uighurs, this claim is more than questionable. In some towns, Uighurs are attacked simply for being Uighur. As a Muslim minority, the rules imposed by the city of Karamay to ban Muslim dress were most likely aimed at Uighurs.  In other towns, only the top Uighur students are allowed to study alongside Han students.

This discrimination, alongside the gradual disappearance of the native culture, has resulted in extreme unrest and violence. In 2009, Riots broke out in the regions capital, Urumqi. Official numbers claim 200 deaths and nearly 2000 injured in the violence. Just this year, 3 train stations across China were bombed, allegedly by a Uighur terrorist group. Even this week, a bomb killed 50 (recently marked up from 2 from the authority’s sources) in Luntai county.

Whether this violence is justified is a difficult question. Although peaceful protest should be the answer to solving the misunderstandings, this isn’t much of an option in China. Illham Tohti, a leading Uighur scholar from Beijing’s Minzu University has been sentenced this week to life imprisonment for voicing the plight of the Uighurs. He has been labelled a separatist by the authorities and accused of being involved with underground activist groups. If a respected, leading scholar in Beijing has no voice, then the people of Xinjiang have even less chance.

Many Uighur people want independence from China and wish for the region to be declared ‘East Turkistan’.  In the current world political climate, this nationalism could easily be misinterpreted. The Uighurs have no country of their own, so if their culture is wiped out in Xinjiang, it will be gone completely. The government dismisses the violence as ‘Muslim extremism’, when the desperate unrest is entirely a helpless, hopeless attempted defence of the Uighur way of life.

. The authority’s response to current violence has been to increase the military presence in Xinjiang (Urumqi is now dotted with soldiers and tanks, many of which point permanently towards Uighur public buildings). Anti-terror propaganda is being placed around cities and over Chinese social media. A year -long crackdown on ‘terrorism’ is now in effect across Xinjiang.

The problems in Xinjiang do appear to unfortunately be escalating currently, with many more major incidents being reported this year. Now that some of the alleged terrorism has spread to other provinces, an already uncertain ordeal has become even more so. As the problems escalate, tensions between the regions ethnic groups also are becoming more electrified. It is difficult to predict what will happen in Xinjiang’s foreseeable future, but one thing which is certain is that its current road is not a comfortable one.