Wednesday, 26 September 2012

9) SENDAI – Its Rise, Fall, Rise, Fall and Rise (仙台)

Sendai came as a surprise. After dawn-to-dusk train rides through the open fields of Tōhoku, all of a sudden there erupted this massive metropolis, and for a moment I felt as though I was back in central Tokyo (or one of the dozen central Tokyos).

Here was a serious city, and one identifiably of the South: the heat had returned with a vengeance, the humidity sweltered off the scales, and the trains became more crowded – and their occupants more grim in the face – in proportion to the southerly distance covered.

Sendai's image, captured in a train station window: giant Tanabata star festival streamers; Matsushima, to which we will return; and who is that fellow at the top with the crescent-shaped crest?

He is the “one-eyed dragon”, Date Masamune (伊達 政宗), his image celebrated as though the city owes him its very existence – which might not be far from the truth. His story is a fascinating prism of Japan's chaotic age of inner conflict, and even more so of the different view of it you get from a tenacious Tōhoku perspective.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

8) NARUKO – Kokeshi Road (鳴子のこけし)

Tōhoku's image hasn't had an easy time. Distant, cold and mountainous, the last region of Honshu to fall under Japanese consolidation, and once the home of the mysterious Emishi: aboriginal tribes who resisted the ancient Japanese tenaciously, and who may or may not have had something to do with the Ainu; but they faded from the record so long ago that nobody's really sure who they were now.

Thereafter, Tōhoku developed as a back-of-beyond agrarian region, too rough and remote to thoroughly settle, but nonetheless generating a great deal of rice to feed the nation. The dialects can range from tricky to utterly incomprehensible, though a fair number of its people pulled off the establishing of rather formidable power bases, castle towns and regional identities.

First among these centres stands Sendai, my final port of call on this voyage and base for exploring the east coast prefecture of Miyagi. Both, along with wider Tōhoku, are presently most associated with March 2011's triple calamity – especially to foreigners, for whom it may be the beginning and end of their knowledge of the region at all.

And yet, I found there a society keenly aware of itself and the destiny it's had to forge in the shadow of the southern political heavyweights, or of the wilder exciting frontiers to the north. And Tōhoku's nature, while not unbound and vast like Hokkaido's, offers a beauty of its own: one of concentrated secrets and stalwart local traditions, hidden away amidst the forested hot springs and mountain passes of Japan's upper spine.

As with the Namahage of Oga, it was a video game that brought me to Naruko. Nestled in the high ravines towards the border with Yamagata, this spa town and its neighbouring villages sit amidst natural hot springs which fill the air with a sulphurous fragrance. It is one of about a dozen onsen regions associated with a very peculiar Tōhoku tradition.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

7) HAKODATE – Beginnings and Ends (函館)

It is the end of winter, 1854, and you gaze across the glistening waters of Hakodate harbour. As far as you're concerned, this is the greatest and safest port in the world. But the light of the sun and cool, crisp winds of the sea do little to comfort you.

You are on edge, and so is everyone else still here. The authorities have herded the townsfolk far away, along with their horses, their ships – is it because those who are coming are frightening? Or is it that what they are bringing, and you sense this too, might just herald the cataclysmic collapse of your world, the only world your civilization has known for centuries?

What goes through your mind, your heart, as the Black Ships (kurofune, 黒舟) loom into the bay? They intrude with the certainty of drifting death. You know who is on them. And when the shogunate brought humiliation on the imperial throne by giving in to the foreigners' demands to open up, it is here – in Hakodate – that this capitulation actually means something. That's why the Black Ships are here: surveying the port they've coerced open to service the desires of foreigners and their ships on whatever terms they wish; the port which within five years, after centuries of seclusion, is to be forcibly plugged into the wild and whimsical network of international trade.

Within a few short years they'll come and go as they please, bringing all their crazy ideas and technologies with them, for good or for ill. And after a few years more, the Japan of the Tokugawa shoguns will collapse on itself: and right here, in Hakodate, is where its violent death throes will at last subside, and its final pillar will crumble.

Hakodate is in many ways the ultimate gateway, a bridge between eras and worlds. With typical origins – settlers who put their structures down and chased out the Ainu – Hakodate surged as the Matsumae clan's seat of power and perch on the edge of Hokkaido, and grew into the springboard from which Japan would launch itself at the untamed north. The shogunate, and dramatically more so the imperial regimes that followed, would widen and strengthen this bridge, so as to cross into Hokkaido and make it their own; and so too grow stronger on what came from far across the sea – for once forced open to trade, it was also a bridge to the world.

A bridge in time, too. On one side, Japan the island fortress, the “locked country” (sakoku, 鎖国) shut off from the outside world, which no Japanese could leave or foreigner enter on pain of death. On the other, Japan the global character: the creative, confused, sometimes brilliant and sometimes bloody phenomenon it's been since its integration into the world's diversity, a journey that continues to this day. Here was the threshold of this transformation.

This, all this, is Hakodate. Wherever you tread, wherever you look and listen, history is in your face and all around you. In Hakodate, more so than anywhere I've been, history is the present.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Reflections on International Peace and Security

For everyone following the Hokkaido-Tohoku series, don't worry – it's still on course, and this is just a timely interlude. Specifically, my contribution to the UNU International Peace and Security course of 2012, in the form of extended reflections I did on its themes in the previous year. Please excuse the small font-size errors which I've yet to work out how to fix.

I am posting this mainly for any benefit it might give to those currently working their way through this course, either on clarifying some of the topics or offering (perhaps) some perspectives on them. Even better if it's of interest to other people too, as a taste of what's going on in this organization that – hypothetically, at least! - is meant to help stop us from all destroying each other.


I'm putting this out in the hope that it helps and encourages people to think, and think critically, thus to develop their own opinions and therefore characters. I am not putting this out for it to serve as a substitute to that thinking. Plagiarism is bad! If anyone wants to use ideas from here in their own reflections or other work, please make proper reference to this blog entry! Because if you take something I came up with and use it as your own, I will be most assuredly upset. And when I'm upset, I write scary, scary things that drive whoever sees them to insanity just by reading them and cast the world in flames. And I guess that would defeat the point of discussing peace and security – so let's be friends and all do what is right for peace and security, okay?

And yes, each "wall" is one week's reflections. Writing is fun.

Weekly Reflections: 12 September – 13 October 2011
Ai Chaobang (a.k.a. John Ashton)

WEEK ONE: Responsibility to Protect, Terrorism, and Proliferation of WMDs
WEEK TWO: International Law
WEEK THREE: Peacekeeping, the UN System and its Foundations
WEEK FOUR: Humanitarian Intervention, National Interests and Democracy

Saturday, 15 September 2012

6) ASAHIKAWA – More Fuzzy Animals (旭川: 可愛い 動物!)

The Grand Penguin Dictator of the Universe stands on his rock on high, and casts a scrutinizing crimson gaze on the proletarians below. Never mind that their average biomass is over twice his own, or that they will empty the buckets of fish before he can reach them unless he better positions himself. No, all he has to do is leer from his rock, and all will bow before His Excellency's timeless might.

Frankly, it makes as much sense as our own species's power games. And I'd support this penguin over a great deal of humanity's Excellencies any day.

This fellow and his impressive yellow eyebrows swaggers round Japan's most original penguin exhibit, along with members of half a dozen penguin species. Unlike other penguin exhibits, this one contains a long underwater tunnel from which you can watch them soaring through the waves from beneath, brings you almost to nose-to-beak proximity on the surface, and takes them all out for a nice long winter waddle around the zoo, for exercise, when the snow on the ground is cold enough for their feet.

Asahiyama Zoo: like everything in Hokkaido, quite different from what you'd expect elsewhere. Despite its site in the suburbs of only 350,000-people-strong Asahikawa, this zoo has surged from prior tough times to eclipse even Ueno Zoo in Tokyo as Japan's most popular zoo.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

5) KURODAKE – The Pinnacle (黒岳)

The Ainu called it kamui mintara: the “playground of the gods”. The Daisetsuzan mountain range: a group of volcanoes, lava domes, plateaus and peaks that soar from Hokkaido's central highlands like a bridge to the sky.

They are young, dating back only about 30,000 years, but it is easy to see what the Ainu were getting at. Far from the mortal realms below, freezing atop the clouds, these mountains carry their own climates and rich ecologies far removed from anything else in Japan; indeed, their conditions are said to compare to northern Alaska.

To tread these realms, where the only lords are the sun and the wind and all human authority must prostrate itself before the supremacy of the earth, was the apex of my voyage. And parts of them are surprisingly accessible: like the 1984-metre high Kurodake (“black peak”), a magnificent pointed lava dome that towers over the Sounkyo gorge and hot springs. Click the expander below the pictures to see more.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

4) FURANO – Flowers and Farms (富良野)

Furano. In a valley stretching through Hokkaido's volcanic and mountainous heart, upon the Ishikari River, resides this postcard-picture town at the exact geographic centre of the island.

This is an agrarian region, and on first impressions presents as idyllic a rural scene as you can get. Tranquil, clean, hard-working, prosperous: from its origins as a settlement site of immigrant Japanese homesteaders in the 1890s, Furano has soared to fame as much as a tourist magnet for its spectacular flower fields and ski slopes, as it has as an agricultural engine churning out onions, carrots and melons by the shipload.

I am unequipped to measure how sustainable it is, or indeed how sustainable modern life in Hokkaido is as a whole. But all impressions paint Furano as one of the most successful endeavours to emerge from the long Japanese colonization project, and one well suited to its most literal central location.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

3) SHIRAOI – Return of the Ainu (アイヌ)

Today we take a closer look at Hokkaido's original people. I particularly recommend this post to my friends, colleagues and former students in Guyana, whom I encourage to consider the Ainu's story very carefully, and think about what it offers for their own communities' journey.

We touched on them previously. They were the first. Their name for themselves, 'Ainu', in their own language means 'human', and they inhabited Hokkaido, northern Tōhoku, the Kuril Islands, and even Sakhalin and the tip of Kamchatka, long before the first Japanese or Russians set foot in the area.

They developed their own culture and way of life. They hunted and fished, sported impressive beards and tattoos, and so identified with the wilderness on which they relied that it came to totally define them through their conceptions of gods, their rituals, their music, their clothing, their language, their architecture. They did not write, but their oral histories were among the longest and richest epics in the world.

Today, there are hardly any left. At least, any in the sense of persons of pure Ainu descent, living according to Ainu traditional culture – as far as I could establish. Japan's limited awareness of them itself attests to the scale of their catastrophe. Most people, when asked, admit how hard it is to gauge how much of Hokkaido's Ainu heritage remains in people alive today; and while estimates of numbers of these Ainu go as high in some cases as over 20,000, most it seems have been largely integrated into Japanese lifestyles, Japanese practices, and Japanese genetic heritage.

Finding out about them from afar proved next to impossible, and was one of the many reasons I long sought to travel to Hokkaido. On arriving, I was surprised just how fast their persisting influence made itself known. A huge array of Hokkaido's place names, including virtually all those I meant to visit, originate from the Ainu language. Sapporo, as we've seen; Furano, from fura-nui (“stinking flame”, a reference to volcanic sulphur); Sounkyo, from sou-un-betsu, “river with many waterfalls”; even Asahikawa, “morning sun river” in Japanese, is thought to come from a mis-interpretation of chiu-pet, “river of waves”. And so too shirau-o-i, the “place with many horseflies”: Shiraoi.

As usual, click below to see the full post.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

2) SAPPORO – The Story of Hokkaido (北海道 の ものがたり)

I left Akita at 4:30am, hauled my luggage on and off trains for seventeen hours, and staggered into Hokkaido's prefectural capital long after dusk.

As with most things in Hokkaido, the first word belongs with the Ainu, the indigenous people, whom we shall return to properly in due course. Sapporo's name comes from sat poro pet ("dry, large river") in the Ainu language.

Sapporo is one of Japan's youngest settlements, with dedicated settlement only beginning in the 1860s. A century and a half later, it is Japan's fourth most populated city, prosperous and popular, and renowned for its beer, chocolate biscuits, miso ramen, snow festival, and hosting of the 1972 Winter Olympics.

Now is that or is that not a planned city?

But to understand it – and to understand Hokkaido – we have to go back further than the birth of Sapporo. Much further. 40,000 years further, in fact, to the Pleistocene epoch: far enough to make out its geo-ecological umbilical cord, which was totally separate from that of Japan's.

Notice anything major that isn't there now?