Thursday, 29 September 2011

To understand a country, you must look at its prisons

Pencil sharpener crafted by a prisoner and sold in the Fuchu Prison shop.
Yes, you must look at its prisons. Do not look at how it behaves to those it considers 'normal'. Look at its treatment of those over whom it has the most power, those it considers inferior; those at its mercy, concealed from the public eye. Only then can you learn of a country's ethics.

Today I had the chance to attempt just that, on a visit to Fuchu Prison in Tokyo. So first and foremost I would like to thank the Warden and his team for providing the presentation, tour, and direct and thoughtful answers to challenging questions, and the UN University for organizing and leading the excursion.

But first, some context about where I'm coming from, with the obligatory tirade against a particuarly nasty vein of humanity's corruption.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Tokyo Homestay

Today I write a post of gratitude. I would like to express my thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Achiwa of Kodaira city for their hospitality, generosity and tremendous kindness while accommodating me during the UN University's homestay programme this weekend.

So here is a break from the customary walls of text, and instead some interesting photographs from the Kunitachi community centre (Sat 24 Sept.) and the Imperial Palace Gardens and Zojoji Temple today (Sun 25 Sept.).
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am here to present my plans to take over the world, so please pay close attention."

I cannot remember what these stilt-things are called, but they are very difficult to use correctly. Here we are treated to a masterful demonstration of the proper way.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

In Defence of Video Games - Artistic Merit and Socio-Political Relevance

Video games remain frowned upon in mainstream society. Like any emerging art in its day, they struggle to break into popular recognition as art at all. That we widely consider they are only "for kids" only chinks at the surface. Admit you like them, and your employer may sack you. Suggest they make serious aesthetic contributions, and people may laugh at you. They are even scapegoated for serious violence and terror, from school shootings in the US to last month's English riots.

I oppose this paradigm. As art is subjective by definiton, I do not expect to suddenly convince many skeptics, but here are ten examples from my own journey of why in my opinion, video games may exhibit as much artistic merit, or even social-scientific relevance, as the utmost in literature, cinema, music or visual arts; indeed, few art forms offer the same opportunities to combine all these into an overarching and interactive experience far greater than the sum of its parts.

All these examples come from my own journey, with the specific scenarios among those I found most potent in their respective work, while representative of its overall power.
To those whom it may concern, be aware of potential spoilers in this post!

(And excuse the formatting errors. I'm not exactly good at this.)

1) Bioshock (PC)"Would You Kindly"
'I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? "No," says the man in Washington, "it belongs to the poor." "No," says the man in the Vatican, "it belongs to God." "No," says the man in Moscow, "it belongs to everyone."
'I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose...Rapture.
'A city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small. And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city, as well.'

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the most potent videogame moments knows this one well; may feel shaken at its very mention.

The bulk of this game has you struggling through the underwater city of Rapture, a self-interest, free-market paradise-gone-horribly-wrong much inspired by the Objectivism of Ayn Rand. As such the story directs you to find and subdue its maddened founder, the (brutally) idealistic and unmovable Andrew Ryan. Eventually you encounter him in his office – at which point the game goes into a cutscene in which, in a shocking exposition of the player character's story, it turns out your character was mentally conditioned all along, compelled to obey any order associated with the trigger phrase "would you kindly"; at which point he uses it to order you to kill him, still stuck in the cutscene with no control over your actions as you watch yourself beat him to death with his golf club regardless of what you want to do – all as he defiantly pronounces his defining principle: "a man chooses, a slave obeys".

The effect cannot be replicated in mere words, and was painstakingly designed. Andrew Ryan chose to go down on his terms, not yours, and his final, ultimate insult to the player is a massive mind-screw. In this one-minute sequence seethes so many levels of challenges to your values, your society's values, your identity as a person who plays video games, and your condition as a human being, that it would be impossible to properly cover them here; a thousand essays could be written to analyse it, and probably have. Videogames are unique in art for typically giving you choice, control, agency within the work; but into your guts this sequence propels the alarming question: are you really in control? Or are you a slave, sleepwalking through life or the game alike, doing what you are told, what is expecting of you, following your railroad with no way to leave that path?

And if so, why? Why did and do you obey without question, accept what authority or structure would have of you without stopping to think about why you do it, and whether it is right? And so control is taken from you; if you don't use the choice, there's no point it being available at all. "A man chooses, a slave obeys."

From videogames to every institution in everyday life, this event has resonance; the sort which locks itself among your mental and intellectual reference points and demands you consider its relevance time and again. And from where I stand, its significance is starker still: for so many horrors in this world come from that terrible invention called obedience, and its usurpation of human ethics. In this day and age, as humanity faces crises which for the first time threaten it on a universal scale, it is more important than ever that we question everything we are expected to follow by our twisted social paradigms, with their whisper into our souls we cannot hear but cannot resist: "would you kindly".

2) Pikmin 2 (Nintendo Gamecube) – Cuteness, ecological depth and a Japanese social perspective

"When I look at the president, I can't see myself climbing the corporate ladder. To be a manager, you've got to be an inhuman, heartless villain. This trait allows them to flog their dedicated workers without mercy and still sleep at night. I feel that same merciless cruelty radiating from this metallic altar. I wonder if it was once used for dark, unspeakable ceremonies. Or perhaps it was once the desk of a corporate boss. We'll never know..."

"Sometimes it's difficult to tell if a treasure is natural or manufactured. The ship has concluded that this treasure is natural, but I'm not so sure. The ship sulks and gripes for days if I disagree with it, so I'll keep my opinion to myself."

"This must be the fossilized remains of an enormous land-dwelling creature. I was unable to piece together the entire beast, but it certainly had a massive head! It's obviously quite different from the Pikmin and other creatures I've encountered. Perhaps it's an extinct creature that couldn't adapt to changes in its environment."

A charming contrast to the previous example, this is perhaps my all-time favourite game. Within it are combined so many different elements of excitement and engagement with the mind and the heart: a strong ecological theme in what is first and foremost a real-time strategy game, in which you play a treasure-hunting captain on a mysterious planet suspiciously resembling Earth, directing armies of creatures called 'Pikmin' of different colours and abilities to fight predators, change the terrain and salvage treasure for your hoard. In doing so Captain Olimar hopes to dig the frieght company he works for out of a monstrous debt, but only by relying on the Pikmin can he complete necessary tasks too mammoth to accomplish alone.

The civilization from which your captains come is on a much smaller scale than ours – hence how the scenery resembles ours but far magnified, and the treasures endearingly mundane objects from everyday life like batteries or sardine containers, only enormous (the first quote above concerns a manual fruit juicer, and the second a whistle) – but no indication is ever given as to where we humans are, whether we existed at all, or if we did, where we have gone. As he reflects on the treasures, Olimar and his amusingly full-of-itself ship AI occasionally twig how they hint at some strangely absent civilization; but that is as far as humanity is touched upon. Perhaps this is an Earth long after an unsustainable humanity's extinction, by when it has recovered its natural balance and is carrying on without us?

There is such richness in this game's experience that it must be played to really appreciate it, but I will touch on just one more humourous aspect: the Japanese social commentary that emerges time and again from hard-working, life-for-the-company Olimar's reflections in his log, the ship's sassy attitude, and the bumbling and rotund shacho (company president) who spends the first half of the game bombarding Olimar with daily emails describing his terrified attempts to evade the loan sharks, and the second venturing back to the planet as a playable second captain, in the search for the previous assistant captain who was left behind. It feels like a light-hearted but poignant satire of modern Japanese business and family life, so masterfully reflected in these characterizations and relationships. This game is a delightful aesthetic experience.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Commuting Will Ruin You

(The text reads: 'Please be careful not to lean against the person sitting next to you should you fall asleep.')

When asked – often perplexedly – what is so bad about London, the London Underground springs instantly to mind.

It is that bad. And though an exasperating public transport system may not appear so terrible next to some of the problems in this world – it's perhaps not quite yet crimes against humanity – its contribution to the world's miseries, and certainly London's miseries, is significant enough to warrant grave concern, including in discourses concerning the country's "development" status and the condition of humanity within it.

Of course, this problem is hardly unique to London. As development is, after all, a continuous journey on which all societies have a long way to go, all cities should be constantly seeking to improve in all ways possible, regardless of how well they believe they are already doing.

The gravity of the London Underground's horrors might be expressed as the combination of three aspects: their depth, their duration and their context.

-Depth: The severity of the ordeals it inflicts on its passengers defies belief. To ride those carriages is to experience their aura of perpetual depression, accentuated by poor cleanliness, an abundance of litter and graffiti-scratches in windows, a still worse abundance of tasteless adverts so blatantly seeking your money, exorbitant fares, unbreathable subterranean urban air, absence of disabled access for many stations – and this is before any mention of the recurrent strikes, signal failures, severe delays, and a total lack of resilience to even the mildest shocks or circumstance changes such as snow or leaves.

-Duration: London Underground miseries are less a sudden and acute experience, and more a long-drawn-out nightmare which snips and slices at your endurance over months and years. In London there are few transport alternatives, with its millions of commuters dependent on the Underground network; thus however unbearable you find a given signal failure or severe delay, you know that you have no choice but to get back on it the following day, and the day after that, and so on indefinitely. Given enough exposure, it inexorably grinds your soul to dust.

-Context: Many of those so encumbered already struggle through a deplorable London existence. Work is likely stressful, demanding and loaded with institutionalized unfairnesses; indeed the very conception of work in Britain is a broken one, and so too are many families and personal relationships. In this era of barbarous austerity, making ends meet is a burden enough as it; and so this anguish radiates from all it affects on the Underground, and spreads pervasively while magnifying the shattered commuter's strife.

Again, it doesn't quite reach the level of a manifest failure in the Responsibility to Protect. But in London and elsewhere, the daily commute is a critical institution in the lives of millions of people, and the commuting experience impacts so much in the citizen's morale, efficiency, mood and attitude to life. Taken on aggregate, think how massive the scale of effect must be on a country's social and economic health.

If all your commuting was like this, it would surely do little good to how well you work and how pleasant others find your companionship:

But even the simplest introductions of niceness can bring tangible improvements. How about posters like the parrots above; or even what I encountered a few years ago in St. Petersburg, where a station's escalators were lined not with greedy adverts, but bright and colourful photos of tropical birds? What if the announcements by drivers or station staff sounded like they actually care about you – or indeed, if a word is actually comprehensible and not drowned by static? Or if nothing else, what of the mere satisfaction of watching your train arrive on the time the display says it will – the sense that this, at least, is right in the word?

As recently considered, this is not a matter of outright revolution or regime change – at least, not in most societies. All it calls for is an ounce of reflection on all our parts – the managers, the drivers, the station staff, the cleaners, the station designers, and indeed the commuters too – on what might make life just a little less soul-destroying for those our work brings us in contact with. This alone won't rescue the London Underground, less so a human society broken in so many ways; but it will make a difference everyone can notice, set an example where it counts, and generate hope. From hope comes the will to change the world: the most necessary and important ingredient for actually doing so.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Fuzzy animals!

This post contains an amassment of cute and cuddly fuzziness from my visit to Ueno Zoo. But first, some serious business!

One indicator of society's "development" should be its attitude towards animals. This represents a key part of what makes us human: our relationship with the living Earth. There's only one, and we have to look after it. In that regard, many societies are neither developed nor developing, but un-developing. Those that consider animals to exist solely so humans may exploit them, have gone backwards.

Companions, mounts, cargo bearers, artistic inspirations, food: we would be nothing without other animals. They have given the human race more than we can calculate, often asking little in return.

Inevitably, animals aren't all cuddly and sweet. Some can be downright mean. And many animals, including ourselves, depend on eating other animals. All said, there is enough empirical diversity in the animal kingdom that how we conceptualize our relationship to it, normatively speaking, is entirely our own choice.

On the whole, I love and respect the creatues with whom we share the world. If nothing else, the human record for barbarity leaves us in hardly a position to judge that of any other species. "Clean the house before entertaining guests."

And just one aspect of the broad animals discourse is zoos.

I went to Ueno Zoo as much to check out its ethics as because I love animals. There are arguments that we shouldn't have zoos at all: that it is always wrong to take animals out of their natural homes. There are also arguments that through zoos we can help animals, by researching and understanding them better, contributing to conservation work and educating visitors. In the end it depends on the individual zoo, and from my impressions as a visitor, Ueno Zoo has certainly come a long way.

When it comes to education, it offers plenty of information on its massive range of animals. On the day it was packed with scores of children, often in enormous school groups; and despite my grasp of Japanese being as yet inadequate to decipher most info boards, I made out plenty that it's good to see imparted. A few animals, such as the monkeys and some birds, look like they could do with more space; others like the big cats have nice big areas where clearly much effort has been put in to provide them a comfortable home. Work must go on, attitudes must keep improving; but it's come a long way since its origins over 100 years ago, in an era where humans worldwide were terrible at attitues towards themselves and other animals alike.

Here is the cenotaph to the zoo's animals massacred by the Japanese army in 1943. We should pause in silent respect to those creatures, and in reflection on why we still cannot fight wars without inflicting the most needless and reprehensible cruelties on every innocent victim we can reach, animals included. They did nothing to ask for that fate. And on this day, let us especially think of the animals in Tripoli Zoo, suffering crippling shortages of food, water and care as the humans fight around them.

When and only when you have paid those respects, should you see fit to look upon the beautiful creatures that follow.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Tokyo National Museum

The Tokyo National Museum is one of several in Tokyo's spacious Ueno Park. As a student one can save an entire 200 yen to get in. Here's a selection of photos from my visit.

A crow in the park. The Japanese crows I've met are bulkier and noisier than their European cousins. Along with the ubiquitous cicadas, their call is integral to the ecological setting here.

Saigo Takamori, a samurai who became a major character in the story of the Meiji Restoration. Things didn't go so great for him after that. The tale gets rather sad, and becomes a reminder that in our struggle to captain our destinies, we sometimes find ourselves bound to paths we did not choose – on which we can only do our best.
What actually happened? Go and look it up! It's an incentive to study history about civilizations other than one's own!

The museum:

And back three thousand years to the neolithic Jomon period. The Jomon gave the world some of its first pots, many already exhibiting a uniquely Japanese aesthetic sense. Pots were actually a critical new chapter of humanity's journey, allowing us to store food to eat later, protect it from adverse weather and mice and the like; and of course, to further express ourselves through their art. Of course, there's also these fellows...

What were these dogu for? Representations of gods? Fertility symbols? Shamanistic ritual tools? There's still no consensus: the big comrade with the "goggles" is one of the most enigmatic and iconic images in all of human archaeology. Hmm...could astronauts or aliens be involved? Who knows? There's no shortage of contexts and manifestations the dogu have found in Japanese popular culture.

And the haniwa terracotta tomb figures from the Kofun period (~250-538 CE) are no less haunting...

Anyone familiar with Okami or Pikmin 2, among other masterpieces, might recognize some homages.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Powerful Bear

 He deserves a post all to himself, doesn't he?

There are people in this world who view humanity's existence as but a competitive struggle for power. To dominate others. To maximise one's slice at others' expense. Every man or woman for him or herself. Human nature, they say; or the nature of the state system. Some, in arrogance, title themselves "Realists", as though to imply they are so enlightened as to grasp the "truth" of the world from which most people hide behind idealistic illusions. It's all about accumulating power, they say: power, of course, which comes from the barrel of a gun.

They know nothing of power.

Take this bear, for instance. One look at those big round eyes and you are compelled to touch him or hug him. No resistance is possible.

But the bear rejects the violent, coercive notion of power. The bear doesn't say "Hug me or I'll shoot you!" The bear won't lock you in a cell. The bear won't have you sacked. The bear won't cut your benefits. The bear won't deport you. And if he did, it would hardly convince you to hug him.

No, the bear persuades you to hug him because hugging him feels good. He doesn't force you to do things you don't want to do: he gets you to want to do things.

This bear could get you to do many things that the barrel of a gun could not, because power is not a linear measure of your ability to crush people. It is qualitiative, not just quantitative: there are many different kinds of power, whose effectiveness varies between people and situations. Which is more powerful: the tank on Tiananmen Square in 1989, or the young man who was filmed standing in its path, blocking its advance, broadcasted around the world to become an international symbol of the Chinese Communist Party's brutality which dogs its reputation (and rightly so) to this day? Those tanks were deployed to destroy one city's rightful opposition; that man who stood in its path inspired up one planet's worth.

Force, fear and the infliction of suffering are ineffective at getting people to do what you want. They breed indignity, hatred, give people a reason to fight you. Crushing dissidents is expensive, especially when each abuse against humanity generates a further ripple of loathing – and incentive to your destruction – through families, friends, communities and everyone in the world who watches you do it on YouTube. Those to whom power is to make others fear, doom themselves. This outcome is absolute.

How better for society to uphold a kinder and more respectful power, like that of this bear? More demonstrations of care, more love, more persuasion, more reliance on decent reasoning and positive feelings, more leading by good example, more abiding by the same standards you expect of others, and more consideration of the outcomes for them. That is more effective at getting them to do what you want; they will do it better; and you won't have to watch your back for their inevitable daggers if you'd chosen to make them fear. It also makes society that much more pleasant for everyone in it; would we not prefer to live in a world like that?

I am soon to start my course at the United Nations University. If I like what I see, then however hypothetical this is today, I might just go on to investigate opportunites for UN- or UNU-related work. If ever I do, the bear shall have a prominent position on my desk, such that its power radiates upon all who come before me.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tokyo - How the smallest things make the greatest difference

One cannot in fairness judge an entire society by first impressions. However, my first three days in Japan have presented me with the following:

-Customs officials at Narita Airport who did not harangue, demand and interrogate me, but dealt efficiently with my papers and politely welcomed me to Tokyo. I recall my arrivals of old at Heathrow, into immigration halls packed with anxious foreigners, confronted with onerous or intimidating features such as "Britian is tightening its borders" posters or other such menacing displays, designed to make it as uncomfortable an experience as possible even for British passport-holders, let alone the asylum seekers who duly get thrown out because of Britain's institutional prejudice towards outsiders.

-Extremely helpful and friendly civil officials at the Setagaya ward office, who despite the language barrier helped me through the Alien Registration procedure as though they felt every moment of their service to be a privilege.

-A gentle and aesthetic atmosphere in public settings: trains, shops and so on usually play relaxing and cheery music, have calming colour schemes, make announcements in pleasant tones of voice, and have "kawaii" pictures or diagrams on just about everything – even on formal documents and government information posters, which takes so much stress out of bureaucracy. Even my washing machine makes happy beepy noises.
(I sense those "kawaii" pictures or anime-faces have a great pragmatic function, in fact: by displaying people or creatures in emotional conditions appropriate to the theme – like the trembling and sweating fellow on the poster informing foreigners what to do if they overstay their visas – society displays empathy, connects to the people reading, which is far more effective at informing or persauding people than faceless stick figures, blunt commands with threats of fines, or you-are-a-microbe Legalese.)

-The aforementioned official posters, along with signs and warnings more generally, appear on average less didactic or threatening, and more encouraging or respectful. Even a simple "please" on the front of "give up this seat for someone who needs it" or "stand on the left" makes for a more comfortable civic environment – still more so when accompanied by those little cartoons of happy chibi-people hugging or the like.

-It's also intriguing that there are vending machines on practically every street corner – I saw it estimated that there is 1 per every 23 people in Japan – and all these machines are clean, functional, and offer a great variety of affordable drinks: water, tea or coffee, juice, and vitamin or energy beverages. Especially welcome considering it currently averages about thirty degrees Celsius here.

Again, it would be premature to reach comprehensive conclusions from these surface-level observations. A fairer conclusion however is that all these things make daily life a much nicer experience than in, say, London: and most importantly, these are not massive government policies or expensive investments, but small, simple acts of thoughtfulness or kindness, of empathy or consideration for the fact that other people are living creatures too; things any society could do in ways unique to their own cultures to improve the lives of everyone in them, at no ideological cost and negligible expense.

Tokyo is of course no less commercialized and urbanized than London. If nothing else, in so challenging an environment to what humans have been used to for millennia, every little glimmer of underlying humanity that reaches the surface makes an enormous difference.