April 30, 2012

Occupation economics

Ume-chan Sensei, the current NHK Asadora, starts with the end of WWII, the arrival of MacArthur (swapping one shogun for another) in 1945, and the American Occupation of Japan.

With the economy wrecked and millions of soldiers and civilians being repatriated, MacArthur's first job was to import large amounts of food to keep starvation at bay during the winter of 1945/6, for which he deserves great credit.

But the food was distributed using rationing cards. Futile attempts to squash a parallel system of black markets slowed the creation of above-board distribution networks, and just as did Prohibition, lent great legitimacy to the yakuza.

One thing feudal rulers, utopian socialist and communists have in common is their contempt for merchants and traders, who make and do "nothing" but shuffle goods from one place to another. This contempt often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Alas, a world without merchants and traders is a poor and inefficient one indeed.

In one episode, Umeko's enterprising uncle flashes a big wad of cash and sums up the law of comparative advantage in a single sentence: "Stuff is worth more in some places than it is in others."

Umeko's father is a doctor (with a low opinion of his mercantilist brother), which would have placed them in the upper middle class. But by the end of the war, they've been reduced to a state of poverty only slightly less grinding than their neighbors.

They had more "stuff," such as kimono, but no way to trade it for stuff they could eat. In one episode, Umeko and her brother travel out to the country to find farmers to barter with. Unfortunately, the farmers have no use for their useless stuff either.

A farmer's wife rolls her eyes and says with jerk of her chin at a shed stuffed with clothing, "I already got more kimono than I'll ever need."

The black markets that blossomed around Tokyo was 1945's version of eBay, putting individual buyers and sellers together. What they really lacked was that other miracle of capitalism, a supply chain (not to mention a sound currency).

MacArthur would have done better to observe the black markets instead of prohibiting them, using that "natural" pricing mechanism to measure "real" supply and demand, and then enhancing distribution with the army's trucks and gasoline.

It's the same concept as waiting a couple of months before installing the sidewalks around a quad and seeing where the grass wears down (or waiting for winter and taking pictures).

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April 26, 2012

All aboard

An interesting detail in the 1908 map I used to chart Ryô's escape from Sakai is the railroad running along the Kino River. A mere fifty years after Commodore Perry presented the Japanese government with a scale model steam train, rail lines covered all the routes of the Edo Period highways, including spurs reaching into relatively outlying areas such as the Kii Peninsula.

In the century since, train technology in Japan went from the model 2-4-0 tank locomotive:

Courtesy Tony Hisgett.

to this:

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Japanese embraced the train as enthusiastically as Americans did the automobile. Even today, every roll-out of a new Shinkansen model is given the red carpet treatment. A big reason is that the population distribution, density, and geography are perfect fits for rail. A single north-south line neatly intersects every major city in Japan without a single detour.

Japan National Railways decommissioned the last steam engine at the Oiwake switching yard in Hokkaido on March 2, 1976. As in the U.S., steam engines still carry tourist on reserved routes.

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April 23, 2012

Ume-chan Sensei

NHK's Asadora or "morning (asa) drama (dorama)" is a fifteen-minute family melodrama that runs six days a week. The latest series is a "Showa drama," meaning it takes place in the middle part of the 20th century.

Showa dramas typically depict Japan (symbolized by the spunky female protagonist) struggling through the ashes of WWII to make a place for herself in the world. In this case, scaling the very high hurdle of becoming a medical doctor.

The television season in Japan officially begins in April, and Ume-chan Sensei is now the third Showa drama in a row since the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami, and the fourth of the last five (only two of the nine before that were Showa dramas).

Unlike the previous four, where the end of the war came at the climax of the first or second act, the very first episode of Ume-chan Sensei takes place on August 15, with the Emperor's radio speech announcing the surrender.

One thing this and previous Asadora have pointed out is that the Emperor had never made a radio address before, used stilted and dated language, and nobody under the age of forty could understand a thing he said. No King's Speech here.

The previous Showa dramas I've seen took place far from Tokyo, where the only damage came from an off-course B-29. Ume-chan Sensei begins in Kamata. I've been there. It's right between Tokyo and the industrial port city of Kawasaki.

Pretty much ground zero. The first scene starts with the family eating breakfast. Then Umeko runs outside—into an utterly wrecked and charred landscape. It was hard not to think of post-tsunami scenes from the Northern Japan.

I'm sure the director intended the connection to be drawn, and it makes for a fascinating and detailed look at post-war Japan I haven't seen before. Needless to say, the lead actress, Maki Horikita, makes it very much worth looking at too.

Related posts

Ganbarou! Japan

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April 19, 2012

The road to romaji

The "characters on the signposts along the road written in an unknown script" are romaji, or literally, Japanese written with "Roman characters."

Marco Polo arrived in China around 1275. "Japan" evolved from the Chinese pronunciation of "Nippon." But Europeans didn't set foot in Japan until the Portuguese established a successful arms trade in 1543 (smack dab in the middle of a civil war).

The Jesuit priest Francis Xavier reached Japan in 1549. The Jesuits initially made significant strides thanks in large part to the warlord Oda Nobunaga, who was fascinated by all things European and got on very badly with the Buddhists.

Japan's Catholic community fared much worse under Nobunaga's successor, and were eventually outlawed by the Tokugawa shoguns (for reasons more political than theological). Very limited trading rights were thereafter granted to the Protestant Dutch.

Until the 19th century, anything of European origins (especially medicine) was called "Dutch learning" (rangaku). The men sent out to meet Commodore Perry's black ships spoke Dutch, which required a Japanese-Dutch-English intermediary.

Dutch was clearly on the way out, and bilingual English speakers like John Manjiro (whose adventurous life belongs squarely in the "you couldn't make it up" category) became the shogunate's chief translators.

The most common system of romaji used today, known as "Hepburn," was first formulated in the 1880s by James Curtis Hepburn, a doctor and lexicographer.

The "official" romaji system is Kunrei-shiki, though even the Japanese government prefers Hepburn, which conforms very closely to the most common phonemes associated with the Latin alphabet (unlike Chinese pinyin, for example).

Kunrei-shiki is useful for linguists who want to exactly represent how inflections and conjugations are expressed in the underlying kana. Unfortunately, it's needlessly confusing to everybody else.

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April 16, 2012

Person of Interest

Kate's recent review at the Batman franchise got me thinking that Person of Interest is what Batman should have been all along.

Person of Interest really is the same basic concept, sans the costumes, while fixing pretty much all the horrendous problems that Burton burdened his movie versions with, and that Christopher Nolan has struggled valiantly to overcome, but only partially.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Person of Interest was created by Jonathan Nolan, who co-wrote The Dark Knight and is Christopher Nolan's brother.

Jonathan Nolan reverses the roles. Eccentric billionaire Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson) is Albert, holed up in the Batcave (an abandoned library). Batman is ex-CIA agent John Reese (Jim Caviezel). He's Bruce Wayne all the time, lurking in the shadows to hide his identity.

By avoiding apocalyptic plots and sticking to the travails of mostly ordinary people and mostly ordinary criminals ("ordinary" by television cop show standards, that is), Nolan pegs the man-of-the-people vigilante justice theme better than Batman ever did.

There are a couple of Moriartys, but even here Jonathan Nolan has them driven by straightforward goals and comprehensible motivations. No insane or insanely omniscient antagonists here.

A la Borne, the CIA wants Mr. Reese to "retire," involuntarily if necessary. This is not an all-consuming quest, and is sidelined most of the time. Then Enrico Colantoni (a regular on Flashpoint and the night janitor on Bones) shows up occasionally as crime lord Elias.

Colantoni's Elias is a model bad guy. He's so normal-looking that at first Reese mistakes him for an innocent bystander. More importantly, Elias is intrigued by Reese, but isn't interested in carrying on a ruinous blood feud. They come to blows only when their paths cross.

In one episode, a mysterious hacker shows up as an obvious foil for Mr. Finch, doing stupidly impossible computer stuff (i.e., more impossible that the stuff Mr. Finch does). While I'm sure that character will show up again, we're thankfully not asked to wait with baited breath.

The role of Lieutenant Jim Gordon is played by Taraji Henson (the good cop) and Kevin Chapman (very enjoyable as a corrupt cop who discovers he has a conscience).

The series has great promise as long as they stick to the premise and the premise continues to serve its basic function, that is, to generate story material: computer spits out name of person who needs help; our heros rush to help said person. Other than that, it's a "magic door."

I have to hope that the writers won't try to make the magic door "mean" something, or get lazy and slip into serial killer mode or conspiracy mode or Dr. Evil mode. There's nothing wrong with cranking out "the same only different" week after week. It's working fine.

Related posts

The magic door
Superbad is superboring
Welcome to the Machine
Batman and Batman Begins

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April 12, 2012

Kii Kamiya

Kii Kamiya station is marked on Gendô's map as Kamiya.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The "Kii" dates to the abolition of the provinces and the consolidation of the prefectures (from 72 to 47) in 1871 and 1888.

The large number of provinces during the Edo Period was a deliberate divide-and-conquer strategy by the Tokugawa regime. Badly-behaving governors risked having their domains whittled down and given to their rivals.

Kii Province (紀伊国) was largely replaced by Wakayama Prefecture. The "Ki/i" (紀伊) name lives on in the Kii Peninsula, Kinokuniya Bookstore, and as a prefix attached to dozens of other geographical and place names.

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April 09, 2012

Revenge of the trees

As a recent NHK documentary pointed out, one of the ironies of modern Japan is that it's more heavily forested now than at any time in the past 400 years, despite having four times the population density of California.

A burst of castle building during the Warring States period of the late 16th century, and the fuel and construction demands of oil-starved Japan during and after WWII, led to widespread deforestation and destructive hillside erosion.

The Tokugawa shogunate launched reclamation efforts in the 17th century, and significantly pruned the number of allowed castles. Similar programs following the devastation of WWII met with remarkable success.

Then foreign lumber imports priced domestic producers out of the market. Now untended tree farms, mostly comprised of Japanese cedar, are the problem.

The unharvested trees crowd out themselves and other species, causing the erosion they were supposed to prevent. The whole country is allergic to cedar pollen, which descends from the mountains like a horror movie monster.

Courtesy Andy Heatwole

And we all thought Japan was going to be destroyed by Godzilla. Maybe the trees will save Japan by giving Godzilla a bad case of hay fever.

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April 05, 2012


Benzaiten is the Japanese name for the the Hindu goddess Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune (七福神).

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Benzaiten is often shortened to Benten, and is commonly affixed to places (geographical features) and things (shrines, stores, restaurants, hotels), though not so much people.

Chikubu Island at the northern end of Lake Biwa is home to Hôgon-ji temple, devoted to the worship of Benzaiten (弁才天).

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