January 30, 2012

Starting in the fall

In Japan, the fiscal and school years, public and private, corporate and government, have traditionally all begun in April. But over the next five years, Tokyo University (Tôdai) plans to shift the start of its school year from April to September.

Although Tôdai is the Harvard, Yale and MIT of Japan, it receives only a middling ranking in world-wide comparisons.

Tôdai believes that facilitating the exchange of students and faculty will raise its status. Giuseppe Pezzotti, a materials scientist at the Kyoto Institute of Technology, analogizes what Tôdai is after, a ruby made beautiful by a few parts per million of chromium:

Without this impurity the [aluminum oxide] would simply be white, while the chromium itself would be featureless. We foreign residents can similarly be regarded as intentionally inserted elements, or dopants, which make the society more beautiful.

Incidentally, demographically speaking, the "parts per million" part of the metaphor is apt. Japanese in general definitely do not embrace immigration as a "cure" for its birth dearth. But the less elegant reasons are probably the more important ones.

First of all, Tôdai is creating is a back door around Japan's punishing entrance exam system. Similar regimes used throughout northeast Asia are little more than draconian filters that sift students by raw IQ (with an emphasize on memorization skills).

As far as most employers are concerned, a student who can get into Tôdai has already proven he's got the right kind of raw clay. Job done. Time to party.

At the same time, the number of all Japanese exchange students has fallen drastically over the past quarter century, something about which Nobel Laureate Eiichi Negishi (who did most of his work at Purdue) has voiced concern.

I wouldn't dismiss a reemergence of nascent isolationism left over from the Edo Period at the heart of this. But the bigger problem is that Japanese corporations march in lockstep and do their hiring only in April. Missing that window can doom a career.

If Tôdai can start to shatter some of these deeply ingrained (and deeply stupid) bureaucratic conventions, the value of this transition to Japanese society will greatly outweigh feel-good pronouncements about "internationalism" and "diversity."

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January 26, 2012


Unlike public baths (sentou), where tap water is heated by a boiler, an onsen (温泉) or "hot springs" (the literal meaning) is fed by geothermally heated and therefore often heavily mineralized water.

Sitting squarely on the "Ring of Fire," Japan has no shortage of hydrothermal vents and no shortage of onsen. But seismic activity can also change the "character" of an onsen, or turn off the tap entirely.

Although the sentou has declined in use over the past fifty years, the onsen has seen increasing popularity as what was once an upper-class luxury became a middle-class vacation destination.

Whether a corporate retreat or spring break, the "traditional" ryokan-style inn with an onsen has become practically de rigueur. The onsen is a travel show favorite.

Even the staid NHK doesn't shy from onsen travelogues featuring naked kids and naked butts (male only, sumo having made the male butt an inconsequential sight; on camera, women sport white bath towels).

Incidentally, "mixed bathing" (kon'yoku) can still be found a small number of onsen, though the typical Japanese would find them as exotic in actual practice as the typical American.

The onsen featured in chapter eleven is based on the Katsuragi Mishima Onsen at the Hidaka crossroads in Katsuragi.

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January 24, 2012

The soul of brevity

As a good Mormon, Romney should remember from his days in Sunday School the "two-and-a-half minute talk" (no kidding, that's what it's called). Okay, if he's elected president, he gets to increase the time allotted one order of magnitude. Promise to keep the State of the Union (and all other excuses for meaningless gas-baggery) to twenty-five minutes and he's got my vote. Seriously, that kind of discipline alone would speak volumes.

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January 23, 2012

Arrietty ("The Borrowers")

Disney is officially releasing Arrietty, Studio Ghibli's version of The Borrowers, on February 17. At least based on the trailers, I prefer the U.K. dub to the U.S. version. Mary Norton was British, so it's not at all clear to me why there should even be an American English version.

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January 19, 2012

The help

The Edo period haiku poet Kobayashi Issa wrote often about the plain and practical aspects of life, including the disposition of servants and seasonal workers, as in this haiku:

degawari no ichi ni sarasu ya gojû kao

The fifty year-old face of a
a laid-off servant at market
there for all to see.

David Lanoue comments:

In springtime, old servants were replaced by young ones. The old ones would leave their employers to return to their home villages; the young ones traveled in the opposite direction. In earlier times this took place during February; later, in March.

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January 16, 2012


Cars is the most postmodern, meta, utterly surreal work of art I've seen in some time. Yes, I mean the Disney/Pixar film about talking cars.

To be sure, there is nothing original about the plot. Cars is a point-for-point retelling of the "arrogant big shot ends up in little town, learns life lesson" trope that Garrison Keillor has been parodying for years on Prairie Home Companion.

Doc Hollywood with Michael J. Fox is a good example (car included).

This again goes to my contention that the most creative and lasting art is accomplished by artists (John Lasseter being one of the best) who not only know how to do things the old-fashioned way, but understand the value of doing things the old-fashioned way.

What's prosaic and persistently unoriginal are those "avant guarde" types who think they are being "original" and "daring" by upending these familiar stories and betraying the expectations inherent in them.

But John Lasseter didn't simply do the same only better. With the story solidly nailed down, he unleashed his animators to create whole freaking alternate universe (including an alternate universe Pixar Animation Studios).

We're talking about world-building on a massively creative scale, and a mechanical world at that, down to the insects (which are, of course, Volkswagon Beetles; lightning bugs leave on the turn signals). Not a human being in sight.

A nostalgic romp through small-town Americana alone would have been a tad too sentimental for my tastes (Frank Capra annoys me too). Thankfully, Lasseter married this trusty old tale to a full-blooded celebration of the gas-guzzling American car culture.

And that most American of motor sports, NASCAR (which, like American football, is far more sophisticated than the aristocratic European versions). And then tied that squarely to the American landscape and those wide-open spaces the car was designed to serve.

The car and the freeway have evolved together to fit a unique ecological niche no less than Darwin's finches. So it makes perfect sense to depict the automobile as a vibrant, sentient, argumentative creature with a say about where the road is going to take us next.

Forget about robots taking over the world. Cars already have. We're just along for the ride.

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January 12, 2012

Muko-iri marriage

Jane Austen wrote that "a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." If she'd been Japanese, she would have written that a man with five daughters and no sons must be in want of a muko-iri (婿入り) marriage.

The task before a Japanese Mr. Bennet would have been to find a husband for one of his daughters slightly lower in social class but hopefully wealthier. Upon marriage, he would be formally adopted into the Bennet family.

Their children would inherit his money, but his wife's social standing and surname.

Although Japan is no less patriarchal than its neighbors, muko-iri marriage, a "liberal" approach to primogeniture, de facto polygamy, and the use of "cadet" families meant there were always plenty of "spares" in addition to the heir.

Before adopting the "European" monarchal model in the 19th century, the Fujiwara clan had four cadet branches; during the Edo period, the Tokugawa clan had three.

Because there were always ways to compensate for the lack of a male heir (until recently), uses could be found for the girls. At least that's one theory for why the birth bias against girls in China and India never fully materialized in Japan.

The prevalence of muko-iri marriage among the aristocracy may also explain the relative lack of surname extinction in Japan.

Commoners rarely used surnames, so surname extinction also had less time to take effect. In any case, unique surnames in Japan number over a hundred thousand, compared to only hundreds in China and Korea.

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January 10, 2012

YA in Japan

Most anime and manga start out as, or eventually become, "light novels," the publishing format favored by most young adult narrative fiction in Japan. Here's an in-depth exploration of Japan's vibrant and eclectic YA publishing world (in five parts) by Matthew Reeves.

I find the unapologetic commercialism of Japan's YA industry reassuring. It means in bottom-dollar terms that publishers pay close attention to their customers, delivering titles that are cheap, illustrated, and often quite "edgy," but without falling into the "Dreadlit" trap.

It's an approach that works on every level. One result is that, rather than avoiding YA, "boys have gravitated to it." And despite having the world most complex orthography, "a person would be hard pressed to find a country more in love with the written word than Japan."

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January 05, 2012

Battle of Red Cliffs

The Battle of Red Cliffs was fought on the southern bank of the Yangtze River at the beginning of the third century AD. It signaled the end of the Han Dynasty and led to the tumultuous Three Kingdoms period, comparable in geographical scope and devastation to the Thirty Years' War in Europe.

John Woo's "50 percent factual" Red Cliff captures the massive expanse of Chinese warfare of the period--a quarter of a million combatants took part in the actual battles--and vividly depicts in the big climax how Huang Gai sent boats full of wax and straw into Cao Cao's anchored fleet.

The movie suffers from too much melodrama, depicting the "bad guys" in black-hatted, vaudevillian terms. The good guys can not only forecast the weather with uncanny accuracy, but anticipate every move the bad guys make. (This confusing of luck with intelligence is a constant gripe of mine.)

But if a DeMillean or Leanean spectacle is what you're looking for, nobody these days does actioners with non-digital "casts of thousands" anywhere but in China. Here are a few more notable examples of Chinese historical spectacles:

The Emperor's Shadow
The Emperor and the Assassin

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January 02, 2012

The Second Coming went

Maybe you missed it, but the Second Coming didn't happen last year. Remember that Harold Camping guy? He had it scheduled for May 21, and when that didn't pan out, October 21. Oops! As with all unprovable negatives, Reverend Camping should have doubled down on the proposition:

"Hey, how do we know Jesus didn't return? He could be currently holed up in an undisclosed location. Like Japan!"

Incidentally, Camping's "apology" is a beautiful piece of spin. First he blames God, and then he blames the model. Yep, Dispensationalists (along with astrologers) were avid computer modelers (these days using actual computers) long before anybody was talking about "climate change."

"Amongst other things I have been checking my notes more carefully than ever. And I do find that there is other language in the Bible that we still have to look at very carefully and will impinge upon this question very definitely."

I suggests that all future presidential and Supreme Court candidates adopt that template (just swap in "Constitution" or any debatable chunk of legislation for "Bible") into their PR repertoire.

On the heels of the world-not-ending came the concern trolling (does the mass media do anything better?) about the world's population reaching seven billion. Another reminder of how much Dispensationalism and the latest environmentalist cause du jour have in common.

Just like global warming, "overpopulation" once triggered exactly the same apocalyptic visions of doom and gloom, and calls for a dictator of the world to save us from ourselves. Okay, nobody says it out loud now, but that's what it'd take to make any of these utopian schemes work.

By "work," I mean "address real problems," unless, again, an authoritarian government with a big army and few qualms about using it ends up running things. Again, note how both religious and secular utopians pin their hopes on an angry, almighty god to save us from ourselves.

Except that the biggest authoritarian government with a big army and few qualms about using it isn't exactly on board.

As P.J. O'Rourke puts it, "There are 1.3 billion people in China and they all want a Buick." Stopping continental drift would be easier than convincing China to cut its carbon emissions in a meaningful way (rather than nod solemnly until the earnest environmentalists leave the room).

We're all going to be doomed by global warming until the globe warms and doom doesn't arrive. But take heart. At that point, some other looming environmental catastrophe will rouse us to action, and the end of the world will again threaten our existence in equally exciting ways.

Besides, everybody knows the world is really going to end in December.

Related posts

Apocalypse not now
The world ends (and I feel fine)

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