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.

 

 

 

 

On the Trail of the Wild Onegaishimasu


If there is one word that you hear every day, every hour, maybe even every minute in Japan, it is Onegaishimasu(お願いします). You hear it when you meet someone. You hear it when someone asks you to do something. You hear it thrown on the end of a sentence when someone isn’t entirely sure what they should say next. If in doubt, Onegaishimasu will get you through the day unharmed.

There is however a big problem with this word.  It is an elephant in the room that is so large that it long ago crushed the room and has moved onto obscuring the entirety of Japan in its vague shadow. No one seems to really know what it means.

The word does of course have a meaning, but it seems to have become rather unclear with the passing of time and excessive overuse. Onegai (お願い), without the shimasu on the end roughly gets used to mean ‘a favour’

A quick Google search didn’t much help on this one. The featured answer was entertainingly specific and raised its own questions. It jumped straight to usage of Onegaishimasu in the game Go. Apparently even when Go is played properly in English, you start the game with a well meant Onegaishimasu. See, to me this seems pretty ridiculous as I can’t see the word being a particularly integral ritual of the game. In, let’s say, Mahjong, you build a wall out of your pieces because it symbolises…a very great wall.

Turning onegaishimasu into an essential part of English Go seems to me a bit like making the phrase “lovely weather today”, even when it’s absolutely pissing it down, a ritual at the start of all football games. Imagine it’s the world cup for a moment. The pitch is a quagmire, the players resemble washing up sponges before the game has even begun, yet they turn to the skies in unison and cheer “LOVELY WEATHER TODAY” and the game begins.

No. It just won’t do. And neither should onegaishimasu be considered special to Go. The two players are essentially sitting down to a table, nodding, then saying a long, drawn out, awkward ‘so…’.

So… let me look to personal experience to try and understand that mysterious onegaishimasu. It was the 7:40 am in the office and one of the teachers came over show me her English lesson plan for the day.

“hello Timothy, onegaishimasu”.

Onegaishimasu number 1.

“This is the lesson plan for today, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number 2.

*runs through lesson plan, with numerous onegaishimasu-es along the way*

“Is that lesson ok? Onegaishimasu.”

Onegaishimasu number nn

“thank you, Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+1

“yoroshiku Onegaishimasu”

Onegaishimasu number (nn)+2

*teacher exit right*

Apologies for using the word, as I’m sure you’re very bored of it by now, but Onegaishimasu is certainly very polite. It exists to be polite. The problem is it’s clearly more than a mere thank you.

Thinking of the word as a thank you has after all led to some rather odd English usage in Japan. Japanese textbooks teach kids nice and early to say thank you all the time. That’s no bad thing. It would just be better if they use thank you when you would use thank you. Say, for example, when you are giving thanks. Instead, the most common usage in Japan’s English textbooks is as an ending phrase for longer texts. A text may look something like this:

Hello, my name is ben. I am 13 years old. I am from America. I like tennis. Thank you!

Yes, the English is accurate (more than can be said for some English blips in the elementary school materials), but plain odd. Who is being thanked? Why? The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in the dark mysteries of that pesky onegaishimasu. An Onegaishimasu would fit very comfortably there, if Ben had spoken in Japanese. Part of me wants to try using ‘thank you’ in English conversations whenever a Japanese person would use Onegaishimasu, but I fear the world would think me a madman.

So let’s move on from that. Thank you.

Seeing as the word seems to mean more than simple polite gesturing or thanksgiving, we need to go back to the drawing board. Enlisting the aid of locals should help. That definitely can’t just confuse the situation, right?

One day, a co-worker had just, naturally, said Onegaishimasu.

Afterwards she turned to me and asked me how best to say Onegaishimasu in English. It’s worth noting that she is an excellent English speaker with a native English speaking husband. My first reaction was to claim we don’t really say onegaishimasu in English, but it just wasn’t a satisfying answer, so we continued trying to get to the bottom of the conundrum. I asked her how she would explain the phrase.

“please be kind to me” was the tentative answer, but she hadn’t convinced herself. Japan is already a kind place, so there is no need to ask for more kindness every twenty seconds. That would just be greedy.

She added that when she asked her husband the same question, he philosophically answered “Onegaishimasu is… Onegaishimasu.” and left it at that. Clearly the novelty of the world had long worn out the poor man.

So I took a different angle and asked how she would explain Onegaishimasu using Japanese. Stumped. There she came to a horrible realisation. All these years and she literally hadn’t known what she was saying. In such dark times as these, there is probably only one phrase to use. Only one phrase that can console, or at the very least fill the ensuing awkward, impenetrable silence. お願いします。

Given all this, there can only be one answer to the mystery. There isn’t one. Nobody knows what on earth an Onegaishimasu is. Because of this, I will be forced to the same radical measures as many have been when trying to understand the Scottish delicacy of haggis -to hunt the hills for a wild Onegaishimasu, because it definitely doesn’t exist logically in the language.

Early observations of school life in Japan


Seeing as I came to Japan as an assistant English teacher, Japanese school makes up a big part of my life currently. As such, my schools are very much worth writing and thinking about. In short, I’ve been very impressed with how school works here, but school life in Japan is still very new to me and I am in no position to talk in terms of good or bad just yet. Instead I am restricted to commenting on what I currently like or dislike about the differences in system. I also work in a limited environment that cannot be representative of Japanese schools as a whole. Though there are some points that will be universal across the country, many of my observations will be completely unrepresentative of other schools.

Quick note on the lack of photos on this post compared to usual. The education system here is rightfully disapproving of public sharing of photos including students, so I have only used a photo where students’ faces are not clear.

General observations

Firstly, school size.  My base school is much smaller than I am used to. Where my secondary school had nearly 2000 students, I estimate my base school has fewer than 500 students – maybe even fewer than 400. I don’t know if this is standard across Japan, but other schools I have seen around Matsuyama do not look much bigger. It could simply be that Japan prefers smaller schools, but more of them.

Being in Japan, there are some things you would only get in Japan.  There are some rooms for example with tatami floors; an iconic element of Japanese buildings. One day after school at one of my elementary schools I attended tea ceremony club – they did that naturally in a tatami room in the school. Though my school doesn’t seem to be particularly into martial arts, I know some schools are. The local high school for example has a Kyuudo club, Japanese style archery.

The school day is very long here. The teachers must be in school before 8am, and most are in well before then. I leave at 4pm, but the other teachers stay for longer. I essentially follow the time schedule of the students, but plenty of students stay longer than me for sports and clubs after school.

On the mention of sport, a higher proportion of students really tries hard at sport, and enjoys it more for trying all the harder. I disliked sport at school and only really started to enjoy it after I left. The culture around sports was different. In the UK, there were the sporty kids and the not-sporty kids. I was amongst the latter and would try hard not to be involved. I was driven away from sports by the macho approach donned by the sporty kids. Students in Japan seem more supportive of each other when it comes to sports. For my middle school’s sports day, each of the teams (each year group has one class of each group colour – red, yellow, blue or green) had its own group dance that they did to egg on their teammates. Green, my team, just would not give up with the group dance. They kept going for a big proportion of the day.

One element of the schools here which makes me uncomfortable was very present during sports day: the militaristic element. It’s not just there during sports day, but marching, coordinated routines, dramatic flag-waving, unified shouting, and bowing to the national flag was all there making sports day feel occasionally like a battleground. It was a very happy battleground, but a battleground nonetheless. There is something puzzling about Japan’s occasional overt militarism. They have had no official standing army since World War 2, yet military-inspired culture is still going strong.

Non-academic and responsibility

I know of many people in the UK that lament how UK schools apparently do little or nothing to prepare students for the ‘real world’. Though I do not 100% agree with that sentiment, there is some truth to it, and without getting into the phrase ‘real world’, which bugs me like no other phrase, Japanese students do develop non-academic skills as an obligatory part of school life. Students help for example every day with serving lunch. They dress up in white aprons and face masks and make sure their classmates all have their meal. Following lunch in the elementary schools, the students pull out their toothbrushes and follow a guided tooth brushing video. I’m still confused by the existence of this video and despite it not being far off watching paint dry, I watch it every time with the utmost attention. I just can’t help myself.

I’m not entirely sure what roles they are, but a large proportion of students seem to have responsibilities between classes to report messages and collect items from the teachers’ office. Where in the UK a visit to a teacher’s office was unusual and maybe even a little intimidating, there is constant dialogue between students and teachers here.

The students are also the school cleaners. There is a cleaning period every day where the students and teachers (but mainly the students) get out brushes and cloths, and sweep the school clean. I help with cleaning the teacher’s office, which suits me fine – I just stand up from my chair and start. The students cover the whole building. Students in the classroom, students in the office, students in the corridors, students in the bathrooms; everywhere gets covered in a mere 20 minutes.

Learning focus differences

As a language teacher and enthusiast, I can’t help but feel the language teachers are too serious in the middle school. My fellow language teachers are kind people who are good with the students, but I can’t help finding their classes a bit too serious for language learning. I remember having quite wacky classes for German back in school and the wackiness was exactly what was needed for language learning. Efficient language learning should utilise all sorts of memory and recall tricks, many of which can focus heavily on the silly. Addressing that of course can lead learning in the opposite direction – all silliness and no substance – but being too serious in language learning slows down progress. You have to shrink inhibitions to develop communication. Language learning is essentially a study in communication after all. The best language learners are willing to gesture a lot (though cultural differences can really screw that up sometimes), they smile and show expressions clearly, and they just go for it. Of course that is easier said than done – I know first-hand – but it makes all the difference.

There is however also fantastic news on the language front. Japanese students get started young. There is an initiative in Japan right now to improve the country’s English standard and one of their methods to achieve this is to further encourage the learning of English in elementary school. This is great news. Although elementary students don’t push to a particularly high English level, they should be less intimidated by the idea of studying English when they’re older. In the UK most students only begin foreign languages at secondary school where, as a new subject, it is considered intimidating and overly difficult. The walls of inhibition go up and few get past an elementary stage.

Outside of the world of spoken language and into a different kind of communication, everyone seems to learn to read music in music class. That was at least in my school reserved for students that took music as an optional subject later on in school. I see that as a wonderful thing. I see it as a step towards demystifying music, making it more accessible; it takes a good chunk of the elitism out of music, as can develop occasionally in the UK. I sat in on an elementary school music lesson where every student was reading standard notation to learn how to play the Doraemon theme tune. Most students were learning on the recorder or melodica, but one student had the piano part and a few others were learning percussion parts. They had a whole band going and I was left thoroughly impressed.

Meditation before class

Something that really impresses me is the short meditation times between classes. Students sit with their eyes closed in silence for a few minutes before class begins. The teachers however do not, and personally I think if the students meditate before class, so should the teacher. The teachers work hard to be role models in so many different ways, so why miss out this opportunity? If the benefits of meditating before a class are recognised for students, is it not reasonable for teachers also to make use of those benefits?

Student/teacher dynamic

I expected a stronger sense of hierarchy in Japanese schools than actually exists. Though the final word amongst staff will always be reserved for the principal, the student/teacher dynamic is softer than I expected. It could well be that my schools, being in a small town, are more relaxed than city teachers but that assumption doesn’t really work in practice. The teachers here work not directly for the school, but for the Matsuyama board of education. They change schools, mainly within the city, every few years so most of the teachers here in Hojo will have also worked in inner city schools.

Discipline is very interesting. The stereotypical highly regulated, ordered classroom doesn’t exist. Instead, the students generally keep themselves in better order than students in the UK would. This is great on average, but when there is a troublesome student, you notice. The main teachers often aren’t so adept in controlling them as in the UK, and I personally am not allowed to be involved in disciplining students. Though I am happy not to have to discipline anybody, it can be frustrating when it would be useful and there is nothing I can do.

The question however is still there. Why do Japanese students require less explicit discipline? I think part of the answer lies in the teacher/student dynamic, as both sides appear to treat each other more as people and less as a teacher and student. When you start seeing someone as a person more than you see them in their role, you tend to stop being an ass where it’s not necessary. Similarly in UK schools, the teachers who did treat students on a more equal level tended to be rewarded with more abiding students. I also wonder if the short meditations in between classes help. I can’t help but notice that often one or two of the students who keep an eye on the other students to check they have their eyes closed and therefore are not meditating themselves are amongst the cheekiest in the class. I wouldn’t be surprised if the non-academic responsibilities like school-cleaning and food-serving contributes to the students’ self-discipline, but the thought is purely speculative.

What next?

There is of course much still to learn about Japanese schools. Here are a few things I want to explore further. I’m mystified by the ‘moral education’ text book I’ve seen in the office. The very concept of teaching morals out of a standardised textbook puzzles me, and I assume the class has its roots in the national learning movement of the 19th century, but I honestly don’t know.

Perhaps the greatest mystery to, as cynical as it may sound, is this. How come so many Japanese students genuinely really like school? What’s the secret?

Leading on from that mystery, what can other countries learn from Japan’s school system?

There is still much more to learn, and for that I’m thankful.