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Comments Off on Japan Part 2 of 3: Domestic

Japan Part 2 of 3: Domestic

In our continuing series on figuring out Japan, today, why don’t you learn a bit about Japan domestically? Seriously, why don’t you?

Japan is roughly the size of California – just a bit smaller – with a population of 127.5 million, while the Golden State has just over 36 million residents.

What might account for Japan being smaller than California but having 3.5 times as many citizens? Well, the Japanese live longer, that’s for sure. Life expectancy in Japan is over 81-years-old putting it in the top ten among the world’s oldest living people, a list topped by the people of the small, western European country of Andorra, whose population can expect to live to 84-years of age. For some perspective, the title of lowest age expectancy goes to the landlocked south African country of Swaziland. There, citizens can be called lucky for crossing the threshold of 33-years-old.

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Comments Off on Japan Part 1 of 3: Tokyo

Japan Part 1 of 3: Tokyo

This is a month in the making and perhaps even tardier than that. As your disorientated guide, uninformed teacher and uninspiring leader, I apologize. Let’s figure out Japan.

NBC has done a lot of things right in this, the premiere season of what I hope to be a show of divergent course in the nascence of online-only media. What they didn’t do was give you viewers nearly enough information about our countries of travel. But, then, I suppose that is just what I am supposed to do, and so I am here to do it now.

So here it is: my first in a three part series that might just be my bid for an Encyclopedia Asiananica. I hope all of this will give you a better understanding of one of the world’s more interesting and powerful nation-states. Today, we’re going to very briefly and generally discuss Tokyo in every way I could think you might want to break it down. I will follow with two posts on Japan, a domestic breakdown and then try to place the country in a global concept. If you’re actually still reading, you’re probably alone, so keep going, if only out of pride.

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Donald Richie: Episode Four

By most standards, I am not particularly cultured. So, it might surprise you to hear that recently I was in a small, basement club in Tokyo watching Japanese avant-garde films from the 1960s. Yeah, it surprised me too.

I was there to see the event’s host, an 82-year-old author who has lived in Tokyo for some 60 years. Anyone who takes cinema seriously or who knows anything about Japanese culture has heard of Donald Richie. He is considered a central figure on Japanese film, and the man has pounded out more than 40 books on Japanese culture, in addition to his own films and weekly columns. There is scare a scholar known more widely than he.

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Comments Off on Travel


I am taking a short rest from Tokyo-telling. I was eating my daily breakfast of rice, egg and a soy sauce splash, and got to thinking that your college guidance counselor and showy and nosy neighbor are right, a point that even I continue to harp upon, the strange importance of travel. Between you and me, I don’t even think you have to do much once you do travel to get anything out of it. You certainly won’t learn as much as you can, but if you were to sit on a couch in a different country or a different time zone for just a week or so, I bet you’d see something differently. Don’t think this type of experiential learning requires great lengths.

Still, the grandness of so-labeled “study abroad” is exceptionally altering. I can tell you. I can tell you because I sit writing this at a university in Tokyo, Japan. I can tell you because I took classes at the University of Ghana in West Africa. I can tell you because I even did more than just sit on a couch at these places.

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I made a purchase ten days ago. Ten days is long enough for me to decide that the 9,999 yen ($85 USD) I spent on that hill-clobbering, three-geared, two-wheeled Japanese bicycle was well spent.


I closed my Tokyo bus school-commuting tenure after a month of slobbering on those wide, tinted bus windows as I stared at the skyline above. After finishing my bus pass, I find myself wheeling through those very skylines.

Now it’s me that is swooping past hand-holding couples and ringing my bell at slow-moving elderly men, always with, “sumi ma sen,” excuse me, floating over my shoulder. The ride to school is a hilly trip, which always hastens a sweat on my forehead, even with the increasingly cooler winds of a late Tokyo September riding along my side.

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Climbing Mount Fuji: Episode Three

In my sixth episode, I scaled the iconic 13,000 foot dormant volcano south of Tokyo.

Read about my experience in greater detail: Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Comments Off on Jaa mata

Jaa mata

So I have this peculiar habit of ending my entries with, “jaa mata.” From a recent blog comment, it has occurred to me that I never mentioned what that meant. How absurdly anti-educational that is. It comes in closing, so, yes, some of you are savvy enough to understand it is, indeed, a Japanse farewell. “Jaa mata” can be translated to mean “See you again,” while its shortened, and more commonly used, form is “Jaa ne,” which I sneak in from time to time, means, basically, “See you.” Dreadfully complicated isn’t it?

Anyway, for those of you hoping to expand your everyday Japanese, here’s Christopher’s pronounciation guide, (JYA maTAH) yes, JYA being the first sound, not the name of this dreadful show you’re experiencing.

(JYA nay)

That being said, what you should know is what the Japanese call Japan: Nihon. If you are to continue to travel with me in Tokyo, you need to know this, that is just respectful. Nihon, get it, (NEE hone)

And a particularly literate comment brought forth, “Fuku wa uchi,” which, someone far more capable of Japanese translating than I tells me means literally, “Fortune comes in.” (Ignore what Googling the phrase tells you, my source is more reliable)

Commonly the phrase runs as, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi” The Devil is out! Fortune comes in.”

(OH nee wah so TOE. FOO koo wah oochi)

And, while we’re on this subject, I should clarify the two Japanese words I knew before I started learning in the months preceding my Tokyo arrival. “Sayanora” and “kon’nichi wa.” They meant goodbye and hello to me before I learned better.

“Sayanora” is really only used when referring to a goodbye with a sense of finality, as if the departing will not return for a long time. And “kon’nichi wa” is “good afternoon,” though it is used widely, from 10am to well past sunset for some.

See, who among us can say we didn’t learn something new today? Who, I demand!


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My Fingernails

It is 3:53pm on Sunday and it is raining.

This whole typhoon season is no joke. I don’t know if I ever been anywhere that endured so much rain so regularly. It has allowed me to get a great deal of schoolwork done, but it has also kept me munching. I have had two cups of rice, an egg, and a peanut butter and blueberry jelly sandwich. Oh, and plenty of apple juice. Yes, I am terribly wild.

The rain has also made me think which makes me write. I am sorry for those here enduring my verbose incoherence.

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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,

Comments Off on 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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