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.

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.

 

 

 

 

Germany and the Silk Roads – Chinese Imperialism, or German Protectionism?


 

The Silk Roads are returning. China’s largest and most ambitious international economic plan, the “One Belt One Road Initiative” (yidaiyilu) will see its influence tangibly spread over Asia, Africa and Europe. With newly planned trade corridors over much of the world, a vast number of countries will be affected by the initiative. Included in that number is Germany. The question arises: how will “One Belt One Road” affect the country?

The “One Belt One Road” initiative has not appeared over-night. Xi Jinping first announced his masterwork in September 2013[1] and has since then developed into an extremely ambitious vision. The Chinese leader pictures a better connected world, held together by free trade and global cooperation. The proposed maritime ‘road’ leads over South-east Asia to Africa, where China has been carrying out major infrastructure projects already for a number of years. The ‘belt’ stretches across Central Asia and all the way to Western Europe[2].

“Inclusiveness” (baorongxing) is the central word to Xi’s rhetoric for the project. For many outside of China, this standpoint seems uncharacteristic of a country renowned for its history of closed borders and secrecy but China has been gradually opening up business since the start of economic reforms in the late 70s. China is now not only more open economically, but also confident in its business know-how. The “One Belt One Road” initiative signals China’s desire – and capability – to join the major players of the world economy.

A number of German media outlets are already expressing their fears over the new silk roads. Wary Critics point to China’s track record for promoting their own form of ‘illiberal free trade’ at ends with the western model of international trade, expecting its development to be damaging to German companies. The Brics states are portrayed as an enemy of a more just existing western system, with China at the centre of the trouble[3]. The closeness of Putin to the Chinese leadership and his willingness to be part of the project scares the German media further. [4] There is concern for China’s apparent desire to make economic in-roads into the Eurasian region on their own conditions.[5] This behaviour is generally known as making trade agreements, and both Europe and America are quite used to doing it themselves.

Any bilateral agreement does of course have political implications, but Germany’s fear of working with China on predominantly Chinese terms is telling of previous agreements where Europe has been the instigator of negotiations. More justified would be a view of caution towards the kind of company, rather than Chinese FDI in general.  Up to now mainly only state-owned companies have been involved in the initiative.[6] That could potentially lead to more Chinese political influence internationally in trade compared to Chinese private companies.

Some German companies are however openly enthusiastic, with eyes fixed solidly on new business opportunities. Duisburger Hafen in Nordrhein-Westfalen already considers itself a central point for trade relations not just between China and Germany, but also Europe. In October 2016 the port claimed that “when you are in Duisburg, you are in Europe”[7], as part of an announcement regarding expanding its China business. Duisport already cooperates with Urumqi, Far-western China’s trade powerhouse; a city central to the new Silk Road’s expansion due to its strong position in central Asia.

Some Chinese groups are meanwhile not entirely satisfied with current Sino-German trade relations. The China International Investment Promotion Agency, accused Germany of protectionism directed at China after changes in Germany’s regulation of foreign trade[8] but as both countries are members of the WTO, it seems unlikely that Germany actually is able to target China unilaterally with trade restrictions. It is however important that Germany is the one being criticised for poor international trade practice. The standpoint also parrots Xi Jinping’s ‘Inclusiveness’ rhetoric.

Germany does not appreciate the very general sounding rhetoric China prefers to use when it talks about official plans. Just like the extremely vague (and clearly related) Chinese Dream (zhongguomeng) back home in China, there is no exact, set in stone plan for the new Silk Roads. Instead China offers a lofty dream with networks of possible trade corridors on maps with a mysterious lack of national borders. Daniel Müller from the Ostasiatischen Verein believes that the new Silk Road is more of a conglomerate of many individual initiatives rather than one unified grand plan.[9] From the Chinese perspective, this pragmatic approach is perfectly normal; indeed it is part of modern Chinese culture. For Germany however, the uncertainty raises concern further.

Much of the misunderstanding between Germany and China stems from differences in political and business culture. Germany favours clear, objectively measurable plans. China on the other hand prefers big ideas resolved with pragmatism. Deng Xiaoping’s infamous pragmatism brushed off on the nation, and has remained the culture ever since. As the new Silk Roads progress,  what Germany is likely to find even more challenging than China’s apparent lack of clear planning Is the country’s special brand of pragmatism, with force.

German critics’ fears of the “One Belt One Road” Initiative are focussed on the wrong concerns. The massive infrastructure project will not necessarily be bad for Germany and its businesses, but will change political and economic relations in ways  which as of yet  are hard to predict. What is certain: the “One Belt One Road” initiative will change global relations massively.

Written by Timothy Van Gardingen,  Student of German and Chinese at the University of Leeds, on 25th October 2017. 

I am currently writing my dissertation on the relationship between Germany and ‘One Belt, One Road’. I would be grateful for any commentary and criticisms from any experts who happen to stumble across my article. As of yet, there is very little scholarship on the topic, and any pointers will be greatly appreciated.

[1] SCIO. 2016.  哈萨克斯坦:“一带一路”从这里走向世界. http://www.scio.gov.cn. Retrieved on 24/10/2017

[2] Telepolis.  2017. China: Der Traum von einer neuen Seidenstrasse

[3] Zeit Online. 2017. Chinas Traum einer neuen Seidenstrasse

[4] Zeit Online. 2017. Chinas Traum einer neuen Seidenstrasse

[5] Zeit Online 2017. Chinas Traum einer neuen Siedenstrasse

 

[6] DW. 2017. Die deutsche Sicht auf Chinas Seidenstraße

[7]“Duisburger Hafen. 2016. Duisport is expanding its China Business „when you are in Duisburg, you are in Europe” retrieved from presse.duisport.de. 25/10/2017

[8]China International Investment Promotion Agency (Germany). 2017. Kommentar zur Änderung der Außenwirtschaftsverordnung durch die Bundesregierung. www.ma-dialogue.de. Retrieved 24/10/2017

[9] DW. 2017. Die deutsche Sicht auf Chinas Seidenstraße

Is’civilized’ just imagined superiority?


Last week I was reading a book called Danubia, which is all about the Habsburg empire. Like most of the old empires, you won’t find it on a modern map anymore, but once upon a time is was the leading force in Europe and leaves its distinctive mark across Central Europe to this day.

In fact the Habsburgs didn’t really start to get left behind until the late colonial era. Where much of Europe had been having great fun being evil tyrants around the world, The Habsburg empire was busy fighting over the same territories it had been fighting over for centuries. The author of Danubia, Simon Winder, made a particularly insightful comment in regards to the colonial nations.

“These were societies which could resort to any level of violence in support of racial supremacy. Indeed, an interesting  global history could be written about the ferocity of a period which seems, very superficially, to be so ‘civilized‘.

Winder’s comment, and it must be noted that it was certainly a side comment rather than central to the book, got me thinking about that odd little word, ‘civilized’. This is a term rarely seen in a negative context, unless it happens to be collapsing. In that case, the said collapse is deemed a bad thing, so the civilization in question must once again be considered good up to its destruction.

At the very least one cannot escape the feeling of a dark side to the  notion of ‘civilized’ in Winder’s words. If the colonial powers were indeed the epitome of ‘civilized’, then being civilized must involve its fair share of killing, destruction and oppression. That’s certainly not what I imagine  goes through the mind of guests at ‘civilized’ parties and meetings.

To be civilized is itself relative to the existence of the ‘uncivilized’, whatever or whoever that may be. Watch any film or read any book with colonial Brits in and by some point you will be confronted with a haughty character accusing another, most likely a person of a colonized nation, of being thoroughly ‘uncivilized’. In the view of the accuser that is to say  rude, ignorant or perhaps even barbaric. What is really meant however is ‘different’ and in such a way to be inferior. At the heart of the word ‘civilized’ is a superiority complex.

Let’s take this back a step. ‘Civilized’ comes from ‘civilization’. The Oxford Dictionary gives a few different definitions, so I will take two which I feel express the implications of the words deeply.

“[mass noun] The stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced” 

or

The society, culture, and way of life of a particular area”

Let’s tackle the former first, as it fits best with our haughty British colonist. In labeling another society as uncivilized, a person raises themselves to an imagined pinnacle of being. You may justifiable ask, “But what if that person truly is a member of the greatest civilization on earth?”. I would argue that that has never existed. In Europe we often look to ancient Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of civilization, but numbering amongst  their contemporaries were Egyptians,  Han dynasty China and the Parthians. They were of course eventually brought down to their knees by ‘barbarian’ nations like the Visigoths. Who’s civilized now, Rome?

The fact is, the very idea of ‘civilized’ is highly fluid.

Let’s have a look now at the more egalitarian second definition. Given that civilization by this definition changes to the location, the very idea of ‘uncivilized’ becomes very difficult to fathom. Whether you live in a metropolis or a cave in Siberia you will take part in a form of civilization. With this definition, the concept of ‘uncivilised’ just doesn’t work.

So what do we really mean if we call ourselves civilized, or another uncivilized?

‘civilized’ is a word that claims a (usually imagined) superiority. It belittles those we feel disconnected from and the cultures we do not understand. It creates a framework for what is right or wrong in a world where these morals are largely constructs in the first place rather than  set in stone universal laws.

‘uncivilized’ denotes an other-ed person or society. The ‘uncivilized’ are by no means bad, just in the same way the ‘civilized’ are not necessarily good. Perhaps for the latter, the opposite is actually more likely. Two groups in conflict may well consider themselves to be civilized, whilst believing the other to be uncivilized. Sometimes that imagined belief alone is cause for conflict.

I’m going to jump right back to the Habsburg empire now just to clear something up. I may have accidentally given an impression of the former Central European power as being a beautifully egalitarian state in which its leaders abused no feelings of superiority. Sorry, but that’s not the case either. They just formed a lovely introduction to the colonial guys who have acted as my models of the dark side to being ‘civilized’.

The fact is, The Habsburg empire felt very superior for most of its history and got involved in a fair amount of conflict because of that. When you think about it, so have most societies throughout history. Sadly even today, the rising tide of nationalism sweeping the globe is fueled by feelings of superiority. The ‘civilized’ fear the ‘uncivilized’ and become alienated.

Perhaps one day, the shroud of imagined superiority will fall and then just maybe people will come to see being ‘civilized’ as a form of lowly bigotry instead.

 

 

 

 

Rogue One and crisis in the Middle East: an Analysis


originally posted in The Gryphon 

The new addition to the Star Wars world, Rogue One, has painted a much darker picture than its predecessors. In doing so it has also accentuated possible existing themes related to conflict in the Middle East. The latest film goes a step further and can be seen as a damning critique not only of current events, but also of the western meddling of over a century.

The Star Wars world pitches the ‘Rebels’ against an evil ‘Empire’. If we look to history for the main causes for conflict in the Middle East, the topic of European colonialism – predominantly British – appears promptly. The empire’s leadership of course has always spoken with a British accent, although the British do seem to traditionally be evil in American films anyway. Their uniforms also without a doubt have a certain 20th century vibe; a time where the British Empire was at its strength.

The Rebel Alliance represents the resulting anger that eventually developed throughout the Middle East. Pressured by an unwelcome power from far away, each rebel is a lost soul fighting for what they or their family once knew.

Cassian Anor epitomises this resentment. A roguish character who has been embroiled in conflict since a child, he knows only war. This is the situation we now face in the Middle East. For some countries the fighting has continued for generations. A child brought up to adulthood through continuous conflict will grow to accept it as normality, no matter how tough or how much suffering and loss it inflicts.

Cassian’s speech to Jyn before the final assault of the film highlights the beliefs such a life creates. Cassian fights the good fight. He may kill and commit atrocities, but as long as he keeps telling himself that those actions are ‘good’, then he is in the right.

Here Cassian appears strikingly similar to the rebel defenders of Aleppo. On social media the defenders against Assad’s soldiers were seen to be fighting for a greater good. As the rebels broadcasted messages across the web, the sound of bullets and bombs echoed in the background. That the rebel forces in Aleppo carried out executions and launched missiles at civilians was forgotten.  The world’s sadness and pity appeared directed at fighters who weren’t as harmless as they appeared online rather than the helpless civilians left within the walls of the city.

The film would have already been made by the time of the siege of Aleppo, but what is important is the similarity of how events turned out between the Star Wars galaxy and our current reality. The rebels of Aleppo were painted as something close to martyrs and the dark side of their fight has been glazed over in favour of anti-Assad sentiment. Aleppo was no doubt a horrific moment of the conflict in the Middle East, but the reluctance to engage critically towards the rebel force’s story covers up implications that a Star Wars film helps to reveal.

Jyn Erso offers a very diferent and valuable perspective. She is the daughter of a defected Imperial scientist. Her childhood holds memories of the ‘enemy’ as normal life. She learns to hate the Empire, but not before spending years resigned to a life of apathy towards its dominion.

In the modern day, Jyn resembles the western internet community; a land where a million sad smileys are sent and nothing tangible is done. She also represents the colonial era British citizen. She is passively a player and beneficiary of the Empire’s exploitation but only comes to realise its dark side (excuse the pun) after her family becomes dissident. Jyn expresses in the film that if she accepts silently her pseudo-enslavement to the Empire, then a satisfactory existence is possible. This is the life of a citizen under a despotic dictatorship; the life many will have experienced in the countries carved from the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Though true that the film could be seen more generally as a critique of colonialism and imperialism, the more direct link to the Middle East comes from the film’s imagery. The main planet essentially shares its name with the city Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Likewise the architecture and culture of the setting is synonymous with the Middle East, albeit sufficiently Sci-fi-ed.

Perhaps most importantly however is the Empire’s ground for colonising the planet. The empire is there to harvest kyber crystals, a fuel needed to power the Death Star’s planet-shattering capabilities. Fuel was the main point of contention in Middle Eastern colonialism too. The British Empire needed oil, and just like Darth Vader’s Empire, that fuel served first and foremost a military purpose: The British Navy.

British empiricism did however have its contemporary critics. Figures such as T.E Laurence and Gertrude Bell may be romanticised figures now but they were in some ways British dissenters. Galen Erso fills the roll of dissenter in Rogue One, choosing only to re-join the Empire in order to destroy it from within. This may not have been the intention of the above historical figures, but criticism of empirical action has certainly always been part of the conflict in the Middle East.

Finally remains the contentious issue of religion. There is an impossible to avoid link between European colonialism in the Middle East and Central Asia and the rise of radical Islam. In Rogue One, disregard for Jedha’s temple leads to the Monk character Chirrut Îmwe joining the fight against the empire. The message is clear: religion is not radical, but radicalised. A conquering land may claim to be able to bring peace to a people (the British claimed to do so in its justifications for owning India) but to disregard culture and belief can lead to violence.

Whether intentional or not, Rogue One gives a new perspective on the continuing conflicts in the Middle East. The most troubling element arising from a comparison between reality and the Star Wars galaxy is a question of perspective. Until Rogue One, the Star Wars series had a very clear distinction between who was good and who wasn’t. Somehow the blurring of those lines in Rogue One has highlighted the fact that the Empire is a past Europe and the Rebel alliance is a battered and bruised Middle East, tired of decades of exploitation and war. A question of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ is fruitless, but there remains a large amount of deficit responsibility in both the Star Wars galaxy and our own.

 

Disillusion. A new way.


The world seems helpless and it seems hopeless.

I find myself in total disillusionment with everything. The work of several years to better myself and to come to terms with myself, work which was going so very well, is collapsing.

I learned to trust and love my friends, my family even my enemies. I moulded the remnants of depression and confusion into a beautiful contentedness. It became an unshakable grounding from which I could approach each wonderful day with joy in my heart.

I learned to meditate each day, to foster only positive emotions and to discard all negativity from my life. We only curse the earth with our presence for so long; what madness would make us choose to spend it in sadness and suffering? My inspiration was calm. I lost my anger.

I lost something else too, something which took me years somehow to spot.

I lost my spark. I lost the inner fire that makes us fight to live and love each moment, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. I was at peace, but all passion was gone.

And what now?

In a matter of months, the world I see has changed for the worse. The leaders of the world have gone wild and their supporters wilder. Racism, nationalism, sexism; every imaginable form of baseless, weak-minded discrimination is on the rise. It becomes increasingly clear that we have pushed the earth to her limit and the environment is close to a point of collapse. All that is solid melts into air  and this time we are entirely to blame.

How can I then, in a time where it all is falling apart, possibly remain content? How can I hold firmly onto the contentedness  that I have fostered, even nourished in these past years?

I cannot.

That time is gone. It taught me much and I am thankful for a truly essential development in my self, but now is not a time where apathy serves. I have joined the disillusioned.

How can I sit in acceptance, as hate becomes the norm of society?

How can I sit in acceptance, as the people become divided over lies?

How can I sit in acceptance, as we burn nature to the ground in pure, brutal indifference?

I am a liberal, left-wing, environmentally-minded, vegetarian, bi-, non-binary, creative, introspective, radical human-being. In these times, the only element there I regret is the last.

In these times, where to sit in acceptance is as dangerous as to fight against the rising tides we face, my fostered neutrality has been smashed into tiny little insignificant pieces.

After years of purging pain and anger from my life in the name of breaking through my negativity, I am letting it all back in. Perhaps that seems like a truest form of madness, as if I were a monk jumping out of deep meditation to burn his temple in spite. I think however that this is a necessity.

Now?

Now I feel an uncontrollable rage at humanity’s encroaching madness. The world seems to me to be on the edge of a crumbling cliff: Past it is the void. The void is growing, in size and in strength. It can’t and won’t be stopped.

A curious feeling has grown however out of my new rage and this feeling is perhaps even stronger, or at the very least more striking. Out of the rage has grown an uncontrollable love. Suddenly I have so much joy to see the magpies each morning as I leave for university. Suddenly each falling leaf is a universe with its own story to tell. When I see my friends, they cannot possible know how thankful I am now to see them, and know that they are well, that they survive in the face of our world in flux.

I feel some of the other disillusioned are giving up. But no, why should helplessness mean giving up? Are we not still alive?  Are you not still breathing, thinking,  whilst you read my twisted  words so lacking hope?

Let me tell you then, that these words are of hope, at the very least for myself. With this development of new emotion – of conflicting love and rage – I realise: Our experience here, no matter how dark it turns, will always have glimmers of intense beauty. For each person who joins the ranks of mindless nationalism and discriminators, we can fight back with rage-fuelled love. As contrary as that seems, Love and anger are linked in impossible ways. The enemy here is apathy.

It has often been times of darkness where great writers have appeared from the shadows. I am not one of them, but I have learned from them how important the mighty pen becomes in such moments. Brecht attacked national-socialism. Lu xun gave up a medical career to take up the pen and challenge the early 20th century society of China. I am writing because although I sense a painful future, I see glimmers within its blinding darkness. I am one of the disillusioned, and it has made me see the beauty we will have until the last moment. It may hide in caves or under rocks at the very end, but it will always be there.

And so I throw away the work of years to become a content soul, thankful and accepting. I embrace now my new-found love and rage. I will stare into the encroaching void, and laugh with pure joy.