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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.

The symposium was five hours of academic presentations and a lot of me drinking water and going to the bathroom. The topic, to be sure, is a fascinating one, but, while the panel featured a couple of professors from Temple whom I both know and respect, it also hosted a few of your garden-variety stuffy, ultra-dry, out-of-touch intellectuals.

I found the symposium to be one-sided and, well, I found a lot of it boring. Don’t think for a minute anything educational has to be boring. I see my yawning at the symposium less a reflection on my political awareness and interest than on some of the speakers, but how can I judge?

So, instead of thinking of more excuses to get out of my chair, I escaped for an hour to ride my bicycle around bright orange Tokyo Tower, 1,100 feet tall, nearly 50 feet taller than its model, Paris’s Eiffel Tower.

Later, I returned and learned a bit more about one of the world’s more complex controversies. I don’t have the space or the energy to recount the words of perspectives from a former Japanese ambassador, a professor who formerly lived in China – one of Yasukuni’s greatest opponents – and more.

What I was hoping to remark on was what the event led me to think about as I tried to keep my eyes open. The symposium gave me access to a socioeconomic class of people to which I don’t often have much access and therefore, about which I tend to forget.

I have written before about the world of academia, a world that I certainly don’t understand yet whose members I more often consider pretentious than praiseworthy (though glaring exceptions certainly exist). In addition to hearing one blather on about his research, the Tokyo American Club also brought me shoulder to shoulder with wealthy expatriate Westerners, who almost entirely populate the club. The symposium itself, which was held in the club’s “Grand Ballroom,” featured more than a few questions from people who seemed egregiously distant to anything familiar to my sense of common lives.

Their language and demeanor, the man who wore a scarf in September, the woman who seemed to imply that idiot-Americans were the only devoutly religious people in industrialized states. These are strange things to my eyes and ears.

My life’s travel and work in North Philadelphia has graciously afforded me the awareness of the privilege with which I was born and the undeserved gifts I have been given. Some in the symposium’s audience managed to make me feel a bit more earth-bound and a little more concerned about how the richer, better educated of us see the world.

After buying my discounted student ticket for 1,000 yen ($8.50 USD), I wouldn’t let my boredom or discomfort with my fellow symposium-goers discourage me from attending the reception afterwards. While the uppercrust chatted about international affairs, I chased down roving waiters and gorged myself on assuredly pricy, but delicious appetizers. I figured it was another clear signal that I am simply terribly uncultured. You see, I wear no stylish scarf, my bosses are plumbers and carpenters, and I tend to be more proud than embarrassed by that.

Jaa ne,

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