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Archive for September, 2006

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29
Sep

Americans!

Seriously, what’s up with Americans?

They’re freaking everywhere.

How often I hear droning, cosmopolitan liberal-by-age-not-by-choice American college students speak of foreign perspectives of Americans.

It is just so gosh darn negative, they say.

They burn flags in Afghanistan. The subject of U.S. foreign policy brings laughter to businessmen in Germany.

Understand. Internationally, there is overwhelming criticism of American foreign policy. Great power rarely evokes indifference; it is either great respect or great antipathy, sometimes both. Ask most Americans, they tend to criticize that government of theirs as well. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the last round of polls, taken in mid-September, put President Bush’s approval rating in the low to mid 40s.

Indulge me in some expansive and irresponsible generalizing.

They wear anything Nike in Ghana; Mexican children want to touch Americans in Tijuana.

Here in Tokyo, Paris Hilton is loved, Madonna has a week of sold-out concerts, Richard Gere, yes, Philadelphia-born, Julia Roberts’ costar in Pretty Woman Richard Gere appears on billboards at major intersections. And his last movie was “Bee Season.” Yeah, I haven’t heard of it either.

My point is that both Americans and the global environment that is snickering at, and terrified of, U.S. diplomacy delineate between the American government and the American people.

Don’t let someone tell you that they hate Americans in Iraq or that Pakistanis or Lithuanians or the 9 million citizens of Bolivia do. You want to say Venezuelans hate the American government? Well, the Venezuelan president has taken to calling President Bush “the devil,” and I’ve never been there, so I can’t much argue it. But, Hugo Chavez does not hate Americans. It has been called political grandstanding and maybe it is, but the man has come to the United States to offer subsidized oil to poor American families. I know. I was there when he did just that in North Philadelphia.

And why shouldn’t the 200 or so countries of this world divide Americans from their government? There are Americans everywhere, and, damn it if some (I’ll hesitate from saying most) of them aren’t trying to help, or at least just trying to live their lives peacefully.

I am struck by that again and again here in Tokyo.

Temple University-Japan, where I am taking classes this semester, is the largest and oldest foreign university in the country and remains home to a handful of Americans who are now longtime Tokyo residents and influential Japanese academics.

One of the first weekends I was here I went to a lecture on sake, Japan’s historic rice-based alcoholic drink. Its featured speaker? An American. Ohio-born John Gaunter is known as leading the push for popularizing sake outside of Japan, as well as for his books and columns on sake. He also managed to become the only non-Japanese member of countless government and sake-industry organizations.

My fourth episode for JYA features a legend of Asian cultural studies who just happens to be an American. Donald Richie is as famous as an academic can be. He has lived in Tokyo for six decades and pumped out more than 40 books. He has written thousands of newspaper columns and reviews and found time to be a reporter, tour guide, film critic, director, actor, novelist, editor, professor, lecturer, actor and more. He also happened to be born in Ohio. (I don’t know what that coincidence is about.)

The United States is 150,000 births from the 300 millionth American, according to the Census Bureau. Do enough of us have the opportunity and the interest in traveling abroad to get a tour of another culture? Probably not. But, there are those that do, and, fortunately, some of them represent the United States well.

Tanks are not often appreciated as signs of friendship. But, luckily I believe the majority of this world knows that most Americans don’t drive tanks, and those that do don’t have much choice. There are Americans and there is the American government. That duality is unspeakably important.

You can support our government – I encourage that. You can agree with our government – I can respect that. Just don’t believe that others can’t recognize that duality, because I find that more Americans than non-Americans have difficulty seeing the difference – as if Americans living abroad tend to be hypercritical of their country out of embarrassment for their government.

Forget all that. I am as blindly patriotic as they come, but I see nothing difficult about traveling with an American flag while also trying to remain critical of my government. Dissension is not un-American. Indeed, rather I see nothing more patriotic than just that.

Mark it down as another reason to travel: show this world how beautiful and kindly and brilliant Americans can be.

Jaa mata,
Christopher

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27
Sep

Yasukuni

On Sunday I trekked on that bicycle of mine six miles to the Tokyo American Club – think a fancy country club without the golf, but with a pool, restaurants and ballrooms – for an academic symposium on the foreign diplomatic issue in northeast Asia: Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine.

I mentioned it in a previous blog, but, in short, Yasukuni is a Shinto war memorial with a right-wing taste to it, from the pamphleteers that walk the grounds to the adjacent revisionist history museum. A great deal of foreign nations, particularly the Asian states who suffered from 20th century Japanese imperialism and fear Japan is trying to ignore its past, are deeply opposed to the shrine’s existence and the recurring trend of Japanese prime ministers visiting the grounds. If you want to hear more, check out any legitimate news source and you’ll be able to find plenty.

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26
Sep

Daibutsu

I made a series of pledges in a blog post a few weeks ago. One of those pledges was to travel somewhere every weekend. I am glad to say, with another weekend having come and gone, I haven’t forsaken the writer/reader relationship. The pledge is in tact.

On Saturday, I took an hour of train hopping down to Kamakura, which was Japan’s capital until 1333. While it suffered from the 1923 Kanto earthquake, Kamakura was spared Allied bombing during World War II allowing for the hilly residential district to house more than 60 intact temples and nearly 19 shrines.

I began my tour by stopping at Jufukiji, one of the five most important Zen temples of the Rinzai sect, which together are known as the Kamakura Gozan. Jufukiji had been rebuilt, as all but two of the five had, but, I decided, if I were to visit any of the 65 temples in Kamakura, why not make one of the five most significant my destination?

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21
Sep

Man vs. Machine

Ride my bicycle
Through these buzzing Tokyo streets
Sweaty guide is me

Yes, I did just begin this entry with a haiku about my bicycle. My street cred has been eviscerated.

Do you hear that obnoxious bell ringing behind you? Well that is me, clamoring up the busy thoroughfares of Tokyo, pushing my way past silly tourists and dazed businessmen. Ladies and gentlemen, I bought a bicycle today.

For 9,999 yen ($85 USD), I am the first-day-new, cooing owner of a three gear, two-wheeled Japanese bicycle. If I was a gloating man, I would mention the friction-powered guiding light or the positively-convenient metal-wire basket in front. But, I’m not a gloating man. So I won’t.

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20
Sep

Understanding

It is good to be reminded.

Let me explain.

We all know a great deal. Whether it is useful or meaningful or if for some reason you just know how to beat Super Mario Brothers in under twenty minutes, we all know a substantial amount about the world, most of which someone next to us doesn’t know.

A very small portion of what we know is comprised of things we understand. Interestingly, unlike things we know, the amount of things we understand has no correlation to age.

There are countless thirteen-year-old girls who understand how to comfort someone, no matter the reason that someone needs comfort. This is nothing I have come to understand.

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20
Sep

Shortcomings

As it tends to do, time has been going by faster than I can catch it. I am entrenched behind the protection of a word processor in the fourth week of my embattled stay in Tokyo.

This is more than enough time for me to let my mouth run off. This is nothing new to anyone who has ever known me.

See, my name is Christopher and I never shut up. I am the eighth largest source of air pollution in the world, just lagging behind California. There was a time when I had this notion that it might be admirable for me to say whatever I thought, whatever I felt, whenever I wanted to say it, whether it was an appropriate time or not.

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19
Sep

Disorientation: Episode Two

Don’t navigate by international chain restaurants.

My second episode, Disorientation, in which I get hopelessly lost my first week in Tokyo:

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17
Sep

Out for Battle

It was1:38pm on the Sunday of a holiday weekend and I was writing a paper for a class on modern Japanese politics. The beat of a drum and the sound of voices broke what little concentration I had managed.

It was a cool afternoon, another cloudy day in the late Japanese summer, and beyond a bordering building, the source of the commotion was revealed: a local festival. Like the Kichijoji omatsuri I had seen a week ago or so, there was a crowd, albeit much smaller, encircling a traditional drum and an omikoshi, portable shrine.

It should be noted that near my parents’ home in New Jersey it is odd to see roving festivals. Even my apartment in North Philadelphia has yet to yield a spotting of Americans dressed in Revolutionary War clothing swaggering passed.

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17
Sep

Ingoshira Park

Not too long ago, I walked into the Ingoshira Park, a quiet walk-in closet away from the buzzing room of Kichijoji in Tokyo, with a Japanese friend.

There, under the ceiling of fawning trees, hid more street performers than I have ever seen in any American city. On the warm Sunday I was there, I didn’t go more than fifty feet before I saw another musician or painter or magician. One tune floated in the air before being consumed by the next song, from the twang of a traditional Biwa to covers of Beatles songs.

We sat on a bench looking out onto the small pond, heavily trafficked in the sun with rowboats and giant, paddling swans, analogous to their famed cousins that live in the Boston Public Garden.

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17
Sep

Professors

Professors are funny things. They are directing one of the most important tasks in our land, educating the leaders of our future. They give the type of intensified and specified bases of knowledge that have been pursued the world over by the most powerful for millennia. For $10,000 U.S. a semester you can have that type of access at a major American research institution.

Part of that education is learning from a professor or two. The way they’ll smile after saying something they find particularly eloquent. Or how they chuckle when they’ve bested a classroom with a powerful question; meanwhile their students are debating whether they should stab themselves with a pen or not.

It has become a rule of mine. I don’t trust or admire professors. David Horowitz was derided for his academic purging, but what university student can really say they haven’t seen any indoctrination by over-zealous scholars. Opinion fills the gap of fact. It is worrying that more haven’t realized it.

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