Monday, May 6, 2019

Thirty-five years--or thereabouts: a changing of an era, revisited

A changing of the Imperial Eras: Heisei to Reiwa, a few observations

This week in Japan is probably an interesting week to resume posting. ‘Golden Week’ as it is known, is a series of public holidays from the end of April to the beginning of May. This particular week has the added ‘bonus’ of the abdication of the Emperor (Akihito) in favour of his son (Naruhito). And that transition has been one of my motivations to start posting on my 35 years associated with Japan, or random postings for an unreliable memoir

You see, I happened to be here in 1989 when the country moved into the Heisei era following the end of the Showa era. The week has been both interesting and a little disorienting. The 'celebrations' marking the start of the new Reiwa era have been in stark contrast to the Heisei era. Preparations for the new era got underway in 2016 when the now Emperor Emeritus (Akihito--personal names are not used in reference to members of the Imperial Family, just their titles), made a speech in which he indicated his desire to abdicate in favour of his eldest son. This had not happened in about 200 years. All transitions in modern Japanese history have happened upon the death of the Emperor, not abdication. 

And so it was in 1989. Saturday morning, 7 January, at the end of a very long and prolonged illness, the Showa Emperor died. I remember seeing the kanji characters flash up on the TV screen, we were to learn later, they were the characters to denote exclusively the 'death of the emperor' 御崩御 and very few people (including my friends at the time) had seen them before. For most Japanese people, the death of Hirohito was the first imperial death in their lifetime, he was 87, and had been on the throne for 64 years. The months leading up to January 1989 had been shrouded in a certain kind of bleakness, deepening as the Emperor's condition deteriorated. How did we know? Towards the end his vital signs were beamed into homes via TV with almost hourly updates on his pulse, blood pressure, heartbeat, and so on It was considered improper to 'celebrate' throughout much of 1988 and into 1989. New Years greetings via the customary postcards were discourages, people getting married were similarly discouraged from offering celebratory bream and other signs of 'ostentatious behaviour'. 

From Showa to Heisei to Reiwa

And so, on that Saturday morning, for a brief moment, we were 'era-less'. There was a waiting period before the new name was announced, again on TV by then Cabinet Secretary Obuchi, who went on to later become Prime Minister (and who I got the chance to interview in a keen student of politics).  Heisei was to commence at midnight on 8 January and indeed, the next day many (myself included) went out to purchase a train ticket, not to use, but because it had the date stamp 1. 1. 8, the first year of the new era. These days, most people (including myself) have IC cards and probably haven't bought a train ticket in ten years or so. Still, I did go out and buy the papers (which I do anyway). 

The day's news

But back to 1989, the death of Hirohito, and so the Showa era, which had straddled Japan's emergent Imperialism, its colonial period, World War Two and onto massive economic growth and development, was a time for much reflection on an era in two parts. There was much reflection on what was, and what was to come and much anticipation of the type of emperor Akihito would be. 

Sensing the moment of history, my friends and I spent much of 7-8 January walking around Tokyo, taking in scenes at the Palace surrounds, the right wing conservatives, the general public, the black curtains drawn over shop windows (all faithfully recorded on film camera and photos, and stored in my archives at home). Similarly, the funeral procession through the streets of Tokyo a few weeks later garnered huge crowds lining the streets to catch a glimpse of the hearse taking the late Emperor, the man born a god but who died as a 'symbol' of the country, following defeat and demilitarisation and a new Constitution promulgated in 1947. 

It took some months to recover from the extended period of 'restraint' leading up to the death of Hirohito and for things to 'return to normal'. Akihito vowed to be a symbol of the people and his personal experience of war, having been sent to the country to avoid the worst of it, has remained a part of his reign. 

It is for another time and place to reflect on the Heisei period, so let's fast forward a bit to the point of this post, the transition this week to Reiwa.

Midnight, let the new era begin
The now Emperor Emeritus's 2016 speech set in train a number of events which required a changeover in quite different circumstances. Firstly, Akihito's speech was interpreted in some quarters as a subtle but 'symbolic' rebuke of PM Abe's push to amend the Constitution, to strengthen Japan's military. Rules had to be made to determine how the Emperor could abdicate, how the throne would be passed on to his son, how the era should be named and when this should all happen. 

So it has taken quite a while, from 2016, to now. It was announced that the naming of the new era (decided on by a committee of 'learned people') would be made public on 1 April 2019 (traditionally the start of the Japanese financial and academic year) but that the new era would not formally commence until 1 May 2019. As a result, all of April was spent talking about the 'last something or other of Heisei', something that couldn't have been uttered in 1988-89, when we were all supposed to be hoping for the emperor's health to recover... 

Where 1989 had morbid constraint as its underlying (indeed, overlaying) atmosphere, 30 April to 1 May 2019 was, well, how were people going to deal with it? Abdication was unprecedented in living memory and the only reference point for those over thirty was ascension after death. It was a topic of discussion in the classroom and the corridors at work. My students were curious that I had been in Tokyo in 1989 but not so curious, for the most part, about moving from Heisei to Reiwa. I guess that's the difference a generation makes. Nonetheless, I've set them a reflection task for when we return to class later this week. Some of my younger colleagues were also quite intrigued I'd been around 'that long'...

The new emperor receives the sacred treasures,
no women present, no women allowed...
In the end, it was a bit of a party atmosphere for the most part. People lined up at Shibuya's now (in)famous scramble crossing, there was a countdown on TV, as well as extended versions of regular programming. It was like new year celebrations, shifted to 30 April. It was, indeed, very different. Whereas in 1989 I wandered the streets taking in the history, in 2019 I was a more distant observer. As an Australian and a political scientist, I have misgivings and questions about the concept of constitutional monarchy/democracy as it is practised in the 21st century. I will watch with interest how Naruhito takes on his role, and how his wife Masako takes on hers. That will be observed in another post, as the new era settles. 

Pictures from a live broadcast by NHK
Since 1 May, it has been wall-to-wall TV dissecting every nuance, every word, every response, even down to some detailed analysis of Masako's choice of yellow in her appearance for the formal greetings to the members of the public, some 140 000 of whom stood in the heat on 4 May to wave flags and catch a glimpse of the Imperial Family, standing imperially on the balcony of the palace. 

And through the doors, to a new era

I do hope, as someone from the same generation, that Masako-sama finds some solace in her new role, after years of private (and not so private) torment.

However, given my line of work, I have to say I’ve been fortunate to have been here in Tokyo for two changes of eras. It reminds me just how long I’ve been doing this gig.

To be reflections on the role of the monarchy on the one hand, and ongoing random thoughts on engaging with Japan, for thirty-five years, or thereabouts.

A sub-blog: of infinity parts--thirty-five years, or thereabouts

Dear reader, 

It has been a while. Time (or lack thereof) has been the main culprit but that is no excuse for one who aspires to pursue a writerly life...eventually. But over the last few months I have had pause to reflect that it is now some thirty-five years since I first came to Japan, having just completed a university degree in Asian Studies, (formal graduation was to come in April the following year, it took a while back then), and very keen to get a start on looking at the country with which I had
Sun rising on a new view of life (from my office, Tokyo)
been somewhat enamoured for several years. 

The first three months were spent at a language school, intensifying my studies, using textbooks even older than the ones I'd just finished studying, and enduring what can only be described as the homestay, if not from hell, then most certainly a small detour via an off-ramp from the freeway of life. 

Fortunately, neither the classes nor the homestay lasted forever and in April 1984 I sat in on my first classes in political science at Daito Bunka University in Tokyo and the rest, as they cliche, is history. Actually, it isn't history at all unless someone writes about it so here I am. And here you are, dear reader. 

I recall reading in a foreword to a book by a Japan scholar I admire and who has been somewhat influential in my own approach to Japan, Professor Gavan McCormack, that he first came to Japan in 1962 and my first reaction was, 'gosh, before I was born!', and I thought well probably one day that will be the same for me for my students...and indeed, 1984 is a long time before many of them were born. I guess at this point, I feel it is important to put down in words what I've learnt over the years, why it takes some time to become familiar enough with another country, another culture, before you can make some inroads into understanding and, hopefully, leaving the world a little better off. 

'Thirty-five years--or thereabouts' will be the sub-blog to reflect on a number of these issues, and probably non-issues, but matters worth noting. I was just going to make it one post on the anniversary of my thirty-five years but as I thought about it, made notes, and thought a bit more, well, it grew to more than one should have to bear in a post.

I haven't spent the whole 35 years here in Japan. After that first stint as an exchange student in 1984, I returned home at the end of 1985 and completed honours at Griffith in 1986. In 1987, against my better judgement (*filed under life lessons for the young ones) I headed over to the University of Queensland to start my PhD. In April 1988 it was back to Tokyo, this time the Graduate School of Tokyo University to study International Relations and do a bit of field work for my PhD. It was back to Australia in late 1989, ostensibly to continue my PhD (the topic of which I had become quite bored with, my then-supervisor even more so--*also filed under life lessons for the young ones) but I found myself applying for and getting a job in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for about a year, and where I probably would have stayed if my then director hadn't promised to derail my progress through the department (*no mechanisms to cite harassment or bullying in those days--*note to those coming through now). 

So in 1991, it was back to the university, as a part-time roustabout--language tutor, research assistant, whatever was going, scraping things together. I found myself with enough resources to get back to Japan for some more research during the year, just a couple of weeks. 

There was another short work trip back to Japan in 1993, research for a series of textbooks we were writing--all royalties to the department in what I now suspect was some kind of dodgy deal--and then something of a small break when I was granted a half-time teaching position (full-time workload--precarious work in the University has a long history) which had the promise of full-time, properly, at the end of 18 months. 

Turned out, one of the lads needed a job, so at the end of 1995, despite having been timetabled into teaching the Masters degree and writing up course outlines for all my courses in 1996, that was it, out. 

I very nearly quit the University entirely...instead, I changed departments but through much of 1996 found myself unemployed and for the first time in 16 or 17 years, 'deinstitutionalised'. I found myself working in a secondhand bookshop in Brisbane, with pretty poor working conditions but work nonetheless. 

By 1997, Japan and academia were pretty much gone in my mind. What was I to make of it?

In April 1997, thrown a bit of a lifeline of sorts, I was offered a position in the office of an independent (previously ALP) senator and the latent political scientist in me, decided to take it on. Politics from the inside, I conjectured. And what a ride it was, but again, pretty far from Japan and indeed I spent some time looking at other ways to pursue a career when the position retired with the Senator in June 1999. 

So, briefly, it was back to uni. I had completed a Masters along the way and was about ready to resume the old PhD topic in a new department, with a new supervisor and a little more enthusiasm. 

Again supported by some part-time paid, full-time workload teaching and research assistant work, I managed to make it through. 

In January 2003, I took up a position at the university just north of Brisbane, straddling both my language and politics and international relations expertise, a bargain two lecturers for the price of one as it turned out. 

Still, I hadn't been back to Japan for a few years, financial reasons mostly, but I naively imagined that a full-time tenured position at a university would mean some assistance to get there, surely. With no research money available it looked bleak. At the same time, I couldn't consider myself 'authentic' if my last trip to Japan had been back in the mid-1990s. 

In 2007, I was meeting with some high school language teachers, one of whom gave me pause to rethink. She mentioned she made her way back to Italy every year, on her own money, just to brush up--here she was, a single mother on a teacher's salary and making the effort...if I kept waiting around for research 'grants' and their concomitant 'authenticity', then I'd probably never get there. 

So in 2008, I made my first trip back to Japan, under my own steam, in my own time. I endeavoured to do so every year., and did so until 2015, mostly to watch the elections close up...because? well, it is what I did. Unfortunately, given the system, none of the work I did as a result was validated because it didn't come as part of research grants (*a story of a system, broken, for another day)...

In 2015 I was offered my present post. I started in 2016. In April 2016, it was as a professor of political science; in April 2018, I was asked to become Director of International Relations and a member of the university's senior executive (just like a Pro-Vice Chancellor at home) and in April 2019, this year, I was asked to step up to be Chair of the Department of Political Science, at the start of my fourth year here in my current iteration of thirty-five years, or thereabouts. It is also like a twenty-year career trajectory squeezed into three short years. 

All of which is to say (and thank you dear reader, if you have come this far), that in 35 years, I've spent a total of just over six and a half years living in Japan, at quite different times in its history. I guess you could say there is some longitude in my engagement with this place, if not the everyday familiarity of someone who might have spent all thirty-five of those years here. But I've been engaging and observing and reflecting and thinking and it is probably time I started putting fingers to the keyboard...there is a story or three to be told. 

More to they cliche. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Talking peace, looking at Costa Rica

From security to peace

'Perpetual peace is not an empty ideal, it is a task imposed on us all to achieve',
Kant, Perpetual Peace, 1795

In the space of three weeks during August, I found myself speaking at various peace forums. A few years ago, that might have been a little bit surprising. As a political scientist, my specialist fields are Japanese and Australian politics, and international relations. I have in recent years turned to viewing politics through particular philosophical prisms such as Kant's peace essays, the works of Hannah Arendt, John Rawls, Susan Sontag, Maruyama Masao and others. I am trying to make meaning of my politics, for politics, for a better world.

A sunny Saturday in Itabashi
My interest in Japanese security has moved through phases of its late 20th century non-military security, to its growing moves towards a stronger military and on to examining the the domestic resistance to changes to Article 9* of the constitution. Indeed, one of the reasons I returned to Japan a couple of years ago was to look at this phenomenon first hand (as well as being offered a very good job...). Of particular interest was Australian government and (in some circles) academia's growing tendencies to effectively support and indeed enable the growing securitization of Japan by the Abe government both in its first iteration in 2006-07 and more recently, 2012 to the present.

I currently teach Peace Studies at my university, but it is not that different from the approach I took when teaching East Asian Security at my previous university.

A brief history: after several years in the postgraduate wilderness (a story in life experiences for another time) I returned to engaging with the relationship between Australia and Japan post-Cold War, post the era where all was painted East (USSR) vs West (US), for what turned out to be that brief decade of new ideas about 'security' before September 11 2001 returned us to a militarisation of security issues.

A photographic essay on
Kant's Perpetual Peace
Nonetheless, some of us persisted. I was particularly interested in the ways Japan defined 'security' without a military, within the confines of an admittedly flexible interpretation of Article 9 of its Constitution. I was moved by seeing the devestation wrought on Hiroshima and shifted my study of politics to something bigger than intra-party factionalism. That led to a long discursive thesis on Japan, Australia and security communities, whereupon a community (of states) believe that peaceful change, via institutional procedures, can occur without violence or resort to war. The European Union is often cited as one such example, ASEAN perhaps as a nascent version of one. My main work is focussed on a security community in East Asia.

But I digress.

If engaging in research which champions peaceful change over resorting to war, puts me in the Peace Studies camp, well so be it. It takes a bit of stoicism to endure the barbs and scorn of those who would insist that ramping up military stocks is the only way to 'keep the peace'. The latter is the easy path to grants and fame, the former, not so.

But, I persist.

Film: A Bold Peace
In August, in the week of the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I spoke at a photographic exhibition in my local community in Tokyo, offering a view, as a foreigner living in Japan, of the significance of maintaining Article 9. Later in that week, I was in Brisbane, also my hometown, speaking to Just Peace and others about the level of activism in Japan with regards to peace and preserving Japan's peace legacy. It is an opposition that gets little voice outside the country, as the Japanese government seeks allies in ramping up its military.

Back to Tokyo, in late August, I was asked to speak again, offer some commentary on a documentary about Costa Rica, A Bold Peace by Matthew Eddy. It was the first time I had the opportunity to view the film (on this day watched it twice) and I was mostly inspired by the courage of Costa Ricans to maintain a healthy national consciousness towards a non-military state. In its place, there was a strong sense of social democracy, that security in fact comes from the citizens feeling secure through health, education and other important forms of social coherence, not a military.

The film also showed people of enormous courage, starting with Jose Figueres Ferrer, Oscar Arias Sanchez, and Luis Guillermo Solis Rivera, presidents who persisted with the importance of social good over miltitary. The film was not all roses and chocolates. It showed the consequences of free trade and growing inequality that characterises much of the world's present economic/political malaise. But the people also, did their best to return to first principles in electing Solis as President in 2014. It was optimistic, ultimately, cautious but optimistic.

Why I do what I do, Kant and Hiroshima
We have too few leaders of courage at present.

Within my broader research project, one of the issues I am looking at is Arendt's ideas of civil disobedience, about the importance of the collective actions of the people to address political matters. I sense that each time I attend and observe/participate in gatherings such as the ones I attended in August. I encouraged the people in the crowd to continue with their work, it is important work we must do.

It is well beyond our time to turn around the academic-bureaucratic complex which marginalises the voices of the peace movement. We are beyond merely saying give peace a chance, but instead ask why those who would rather spend billions on warcraft can justify their budgets, their policies in the 21st century, over growing inequality.

Costa Rica is one example, the peace movement/resistance to militarisation in Japan is another. It is possible. It is up to us to make it happen.

*Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution:
The official English version of the article is:

ARTICLE 9. (1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

第九条  日本国民は、正義と秩序を基調とする国際平和を誠実に希求し、国権の発動たる戦争と、武力による威嚇又は武力の行使は、国際紛争を解決する手段としては、永久にこれを放棄する。
2  前項の目的を達するため、陸海空軍その他の戦力は、これを保持しない。国の交戦権は、これを認めない。

It is likely the present government will hold a referendum in late 2019 or 2020 to change the meaning of Article 9, to either delete it completely, or to redefine it to give constitutional legitimacy to the Japanese Self-Defence Forces, or jieitai.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Notes on Ishinomaki 1


Three, eleven. Two numbers that are etched in contemporary Japanese memory. The day, in 2011, that first an earthquake, and then a tsunami hit the northern coast of Honshu, the largest of the main islands that make up the Japanese archipelago. The tsunami also terminally damaged one of the nuclear power reactors on the Fukushima coast. These are the things most people know about. The images, the stories, the lives lost, the lives saved.

It is almost seven and a half years since this triple disaster. I have at various times headed to towns in the region with colleagues participating in research projects but mainly listening. So many people here want to tell their stories, easier to tell to outsiders, because they want their stories to be told 'for the next 500 years' as one person told me. Easier to tell outsiders because there is no need to preface conversations with 'I didn't lose as many family members as you but...' or 'I still have my house and belongings but...'

The view from the hill
During the 2018 summer break from classes, I am participating in one particular project in the town of Ishinomaki, about one hour by express train from Sendai, about three hours north of Tokyo. Students from the university where I work will be volunteering with an organisation which produces a monthly newspaper, the kizuna shimbun. Some will spend a month there, others will spend a week. It is part of their extra-curricular studies.

I went up there last week, 22-23 August, just to see how they were going. I spent much of Thursday delivering the papers with them. Their role is to not just deliver the papers but offer conversation with those who want it, and know when to walk away from those who don't want the intrusion. Many years ago, I volunteered with my local Meals on Wheels service in Brisbane. Part of the day reminded me of those times when some days you knew you were the only person the resident saw all day and they wanted to talk while others opened the door just enough to push the meal through. It was a matter of refining your judgement as you went along, something I observed these students learning during the day.

Looking upriver
In terms of my research, I am also doing work in these areas to look more closely at the idea of 'community', how we form them, how we keep them, how we make them work and the politics that might tie them together. At the macro-level, from the outside looking in, we have a small seaside town, population of approximately 145,000 people (approximately 4000 people died during the tsunami), relying largely on fisheries as a main industry. There is a lot of rebuilding going on, on the other hand, there remain many cleared blocks of land. The physical scars of the tsunami are everywhere, the psychological ones take a little more time to find. At the micro-level, community is less-obvious, more contrived. Some are trying, some have almost given up. On this day I was fortunate to witness both.

We start at 6.00am on Thursday morning to head up to the top of the landmark Hiyoriyama Park to join in with a group of locals who have started up an exercise group. About 12 people all up, ages ranging from 40-70, welcome the four of us into the group as we do various stretching exercises. It is not so serious, but the camaraderie is apparent and they are committed. After the exercises finish, we linger a bit longer, chatting and then learn a little more about the landscape we can see from the top of the mountain, pre and post tsunami.

On the way back to base, we pop in to a local shop to pick up breakfast, a couple of rice rolls, eggs and green tea. As one more accustomed to eating breakfast *before* I leave the house, the 5km walk and thirty mins exercise sans food has been a little taxing. But the shopkeeper is pleased for our purchases and wishes us well. (The shopkeepers around Ishinomaki really would like people to buy things, help the recovery.)

Breakfast done, we plan the day's newspaper deliveries. Now, to be honest, I wasn't expecting to join in the delivery part, but I'm glad I did. Over the course of the next seven hours we visited several new developments, combinations of single-standing houses, terraces, newly-built apartment blocks--everything trying to look 'normal' and 'lived-in'  but all still too new for character to have set in.


Section of the (almost) vacated temporary housing
Many of the people we visited today had spent six or more years living in the temporary housing set up by the government and adjustment to the new settings was taking some time. What we learnt was that people are adapting differently. Some were open to receiving the paper, others said just put it in the letterbox, still others said don't bother.

So many stories came out of our work today. One woman, in her 80s, was on her way out to meet up with friends for a spot of karaoke. She spent her days making papercrafts and flower arrangements and said she needed to do these things to stay young! Her little maltese pup did not move from her side and she gave us each a can of coffee as we left, huge smile and enormous personality.

Charming charms
A few doors down, another woman, who lived by herself, seemed grateful for the attention of all four of us (we were actually supposed to be working in pairs but we met in the middle of this floor of apartments). We must have spent 30 minutes at her door. At times she was on the verge of tears--partly through recalling events of the tsunami, partly, I think, simple emotion of having an audience for a short time. In her spare time, she made small charms, embroidered shells with bells attached, beautiful craftwork she proceeded to show us. She brought out a boxful. She wanted to give them away, all of them, to us. She said she doesn't know anyone anymore to give them to. But all the people here, in your apartment block, on this floor...we said. No, she said, she doesn't know anybody really.

She reminded me a lot of some women I delivered meals to all those years ago. Grateful for the conversation, knowing that I had more meals to deliver, knowing I had to go but wanting me to stay...She had a strong sense of religious belief, sure I would appreciate the Japanese translations of the bible that were given to her by a Christian group in the wake of the disaster, or the calligraphy banners hanging in the local church.

The students were moved, you could see that. The emotions of their first experience of this kind of interaction were palpable. Names and addresses were exchanged, letters will be forthcoming.


At a different new estate, deliveries done and seeking shade from the oppressive summer heat (over 35degC on this day) we sat down in front of one of the 'community halls', each estate had one made especially apparently. We heard a voice inside, 'otsukaresama, otsukaresama' (thank you for your efforts, well done), not realising it was directed at us. A man opened the window and invited us inside for some refreshments. We hesitated, we were already behind schedule, but what was that point about community? We accepted the offer. Turned out, this fellow was not a resident of the estate but elected as the estate's 'mayor', he lived a bit further away, closer to the hills, his house wasn't affected by the disaster, yet he saw it as his role to get the community up and running and to that end organised activities of all sorts, finding ways to bring people together. He regaled us with so many stories, particularly his efforts to speak English in spite of his junior high school education. Communication was his main aim. And communicate he did. As his colleague noted with some pride, this building might be barrier-free, (meaning wheelchair-accessible) but his heart is also barrier-free--a lovely turn of phrase to describe this man's big open personality. If you want someone to build your community, he would be one of the first picks. He sent us off with a bottle of tea each.


Back to base at the end of a long hot day. The students were asked to reflect on their day, and not surprisingly, the people mentioned above figured prominently in their reports. I think today they realised the importance of their work, and their small contribution to community-making. It doesn't take a lot to make a big difference.

There will be more trips for me over the next couple of years. And I expect the students will return too, in time. There are many more stories to hear. To listen.

Ishinomaki, for those interested, was also the township which lost a school and its students in the most dramatic of circumstances. At the time of the quake, the students assembled dutifully on the school oval, as is usually the case, despite the fears of some. The tsunami which came a little later swept many of them away. It is a story I still find difficult to tell. Tokyo-based journalist Richard Lloyd Parry has written a book detailing the event and subsequent investigation, Ghosts of the tsunami (Vintage (Penguin Random) London, 2017). I highly recommend it but it is a difficuly story to read.