Saturday, 27 December 2014

Bukō-san (武甲山), Chichibu, Saitama: The Mountain That Built Tokyo

To round off this year's hiking, here is a mountain which will be familiar to anyone connected with Chichibu. Bukō-san (武甲山) stands at 1304 metres high, towering over Chichibu town independent of all other mountains. Its northern face has been completely carved out into terraces, making it instantly recognisable.

From these terraces come limestone which dates back 200 million years, and which over the last 100 has been quarried at an escalating rate on account of its service as a key ingredient in cement. More specifically, it is this cement that has fed the eruptive growth of the thousands of roads, apartments and skyscrapers of Tokyo, first during the Taisho period (1912-26) but most dramatically following the post-World War II economic explosion.

Limestone from the quarries is transported to the many concrete plants that have sprung up below, evidently centrepieces in the local economy, and there it is processed to feed the Tokyo construction industry.

Perhaps surprisingly, this has not reduced the mountain to some devastated, mined-out wasteland. On the contrary, the southern flanks offer an refreshing hiking experience where aside from the odd industrial siren, the quarries rarely intrude on your day. Admittedly demand for wood has done to the south what demand for concrete has done to the north: much of Bukō-san's forest is young sugi plantation rather than true wild woods. That said, these forests tingle with the whispers of sacred sites and secrets from a mysterious, more spiritual era gone by; at the large shrine on the summit, for example, the evidence of devout observances goes back centuries. And at the peak, if you plan well enough to make it there on a clear day, there unfolds a glorious mountainscape that surely ranks among the finest views in the region.

This walk is just over 9km long, takes about 4-5 hours, and is a navigationally straightforward up-and-then-down concern. There is no major technical challenge, but it can get rather steep in places and presents a good workout for anyone of reasonable fitness.

To get there, take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line to Hannō (飯能), where you can change on the same platform to the Seibu-Chichibu Line as far as Seibu-Chichibu (西武秩父) station. From here, take a taxi for about 20 mins. (approx. 2500 yen) to Ichi-no-torii (一の鳥居), on the east side of the mountain. (You can also get off the train one stop earlier at Yokoze (横瀬) station and walk, but this takes an extra two hours along a road in frequent use, not least by trucks trundling in and out of the concrete plants on the way.) You'll finish on the west side at Urayamaguchi (浦山口) station on the Chichibu Main Line; note that this line does not accept PASMO or SUICA cards.

As an aside, like most walks in this part of Saitama, you will pass Musashi-Yokote station on the way. By means of a platform sign it proudly declares itself “the station with goats", so be sure to look out of the window for reference.

“House of Goats”.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Obscenity of Obscenity - or, Get Off My Ship

The Tokyo police, for the second time this year, have arrested a Japanese citizen, Megumi Igarashi, for expressing her plans to build a kayak modelled on her own vagina – or, as the official parlance refers to it, 'three-dimensional obscene data'.

Read that again, if you please. Three-dimensional obscene data.

No, I don't have a clue what that means either.

Let's try to unpack this a bit. Recall, if you will, that “obscenity” comes from the Latin obscenitas, meaning “impurity”, “immorality”, or “filthiness”.

Filth. A powerful concept. A dangerous concept.

Its evokes dirtiness; pollution; immorality. It carries a strong emotive charge of hatred and disgust, a roar to punish and forbid. It is that most sinister of things: a taboo. It does not describe its object, but rather projects on it a repulsive odour, such that we assume that it is to be taken for granted as foul without even bothering to think about it, and that anyone who thinks otherwise shares in its foulness.

Make no mistake. “Filth” is rarely an inherent quality of the object being described. It is more often a stain produced by the describer and splashed upon something he or she wishes to damage.

This makes it a concept less fitting, perhaps, to the realms of informed and sober reasoning, such as legislation – which is why it is all the more disturbing that any society should have ever seen fit to give it a place in its lawbooks. It is a subjective, not objective, judgement, measured not by harmful outcomes but by the tastes, instincts, prejudices and political interests of the person or society judging. It has nothing to do with the public good, and everything to do with that great shipwreck we humans call morality, which has proven a far less seaworthy vessel than that of Igarashi-san's design.

Take a few moments to think about what you consider immoral. Did you come to the conclusion that those things are immoral by yourself, in a way that satisfies your own critical reasoning, your emotions, your curiosity, and your concern for others? Or are you afraid of something that might happen if you think differently?

Any morality grounded in force and fear is no morality at all. It is slavery.

Humanity must correct its mistakes regarding obscenity. It must drop the arrogance by which for hundreds of years it has upheld systems of torture, murder and abusive power relations which it then has the gall to call morality. These concepts are only valuable if they relates to tangible, demonstrable outcomes of harm to human beings or the world around us.

To be clear. Vaginas are not obscene. Penises are not obscene. Sexuality is not obscene. Our bodies, and all parts thereof, are not obscene. There is nothing immoral, unclean or offensive about any of these things.

Igarashi-san makes exactly this case on her website, and further contends that while vaginas are uncompromisingly subject to taboo in Japan, penises, by contrast, are not. I have personally encountered evidence for the latter and documented it here. “Obscenity” thereby takes on an aspect of gendered discrimination, which magnifies the gravity of the problem many times over. This is mirrored, incidentally, by the unpardonable Euro-American terror at the female breast, whose consequences have included breastfeeding mothers being harassed, abused, or expelled from public premises.

So what is obscene?

For a start, the idea that parts of our bodies are obscene, is obscene. Obscenity laws are obscene. Censorship is obscene. Coercion is obscene. Political control over art is obscene. Sex-negativity – the notion that sex and sexuality carry a negative moral charge – is obscene. Moral panic is obscene. Gendered and heteronormative prejudice is obscene. The use of taboos to socially control people's bodies, especially women's bodies, is obscene. And cultural, ideological, political or religious forces which advocate sex-negativity and the persecution of those who challenge it, are obscene to the highest pinnacles of wickedness.


Because all these things here identified as obscene, have an unambiguous historical record of generating, promoting, or coming associated with all forms of tyranny, conflict, social division and the most terrible atrocities in all societies in the world, past and present. They are things that bad or mad societies do. They are inherently villainous practices, because they hurt people. And we can all recognise them as such because we can all study and observe their roles in our collective heritage of crimes against humanity.

Now what does it say about us, when we are happy to entertain these terrors whose cruelties have bled and subjected people in a thousand civilisations, but tremble at the sight of a kayak?

This has not killed anybody. This has not hurt anybody. Therefore, it is not obscene and not immoral. This is not complicated.

Japan's arrest and re-arrest of Megumi Igarashi is shameful in the extreme. The ignominy is worsened in this case because this country, notwithstanding its share of problems with gender and prejudice, has done relatively well to protect itself from sex-negativity and moral panic. Its obscenity laws, which should never have existed, are an anachronistic artifact of foreign influence whose outcomes today are the very meaning of arbitrary. In an erotic art scene featuring all forms of tentacles or fantastic unimaginable paraphernalia, what is even the point of censoring mere genitals?

Perhaps the answer is straightforward. We do not have tentacles – as far as I know, and perhaps excepting some individuals in the UK Treasury – but we do have vaginas and penises. By coercively controlling our discussion and expression regarding these, society attempts to exert power over our bodies; to set the terms and the narratives of our sexual journeys. In other words, all sexual censorship is by definition political censorship.

Or, maybe that overestimates their intelligence. Maybe they are seriously just that terrified of sexuality, and so they spout and swing legislation around in the way that we instinctively scream or flail our arms wildly when in panic. In truth it is probably a combination of both, but either motivation is beneath us as a species.

So long as obscenity, as a concept, remains hijacked by social and political forces disgusted by sexuality and intent on controlling our bodies, it is a meaningless idea, a nothing wielded as a tool of wanton repression. Until we take it back, all laws based on obscenity are illegitimate, and all moral judgements that invoke obscenity are immoral. Our obligation is not to respect them, but to tear them down, and by all means necessary ensure their perfidious architects never construct such nightmares again.

Our bodies are ours, not theirs. Our bodies are our vessels for our journeys through a beautiful universe, and there is nothing obscene about them or any aspect of them. Hurl the hijackers overboard and bail out the bile of their broken moralising judgements. Tell them that we will have our bodies back. Tell them, to their faces: Get. Off. My. Ship.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Kōshū Takaō-san (甲州高尾山), Yamanashi - The Winelands

When you think of Japanese culture and industry, wine might not be the most iconic piece of heritage that comes to mind. Consider, however, Katsunuma (勝沼), in Kōshū (甲州), Yamanashi Prefecture, just west of Tokyo. Look closely at those buildings and fields.

The large buildings are wineries and wine-related facilities, and the fields are not rice paddies, but vineyards, producing Japan's most celebrated Kōshu variety of grapes. Katsunuma is the heart of Japanese wine production, responsible for almost half the country's total wine output, and if you believe the stories, this industry traces its origins back almost 1300 years.

Kōshū gets its name from an abbreviation for Kai (甲斐), the traditional province that became Yamanashi during the Meiji period (1868-1912). It is a landlocked zone centred upon the Kōfu Basin, which is ringed by towering mountains covered in forests. These rise to the north and west into the Japanese Alps; give way to the south to Mount Fuji; and extend east into the mountains of Oku-Tama (Tokyo) and Chichibu (Saitama).

Looking west across the Kōfu Basin. The large road is National Route 20, which roughly follows the old Edo-period Kōshū Kaidō (甲州街道) highway discussed here.
Katsunuma sits on the eastern edge of this basin, and above it rises 1,120m-high Kōshū Takaō-san (甲州高尾山) – not to be confused with the other Takaō-san in Tokyo. What follows here is a hiking route that takes in Kōshū's wine-making heritage, including a very old temple where it is said to have first begun, then launches into the bright mixed forests and breathtaking autumn ridges, where some more secretive shrines and temples hide in the deep wilds. This route can be walked in 5-6 hours, but be prepared for a punishingly strenuous climb from the temple to the Kōshū Takaō-san summit.

To get there, take the JR Chūō Line west out of Tokyo: past Tachikawa, past Hachiōji, past Takao (where you may have to change trains but on the same platform) and past Ōtsuki – but not as far as Kōfu. Get off at Katsunuma Budōkyō (勝沼ぶどう郷) station (“Katsunuma grape district”), where this walk begins and ends.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Mitō-san (三頭山): Three-Headed Mountain

Mount Fuji from the summit of Mitō-san.

Mitō-san (三頭, 1525m), the highest of the 'Three Mountains of Oku-Tama' in western Tokyo, is trickier to reach than the others. For one thing it is scarcely in Oku-Tama at all; it stands in the far southwest corner, on the boundary with Hinohara village and Yamanashi Prefecture. On the other hand, if you go there on a day with nice weather, you can get to see things like this.

Mitō-san – so named because of its clump of three summits – was apparently closed off to people in the Edo Period. This left it in peace to grow a splendid forest of huge beeches (buna, ブナ) and maples (kaede, カエデ), which still stand despite the dominance of sugi plantations in the area and display impressive colours in the autumn. This rich mixed forest also supports a thriving diversity of plant and bird life.

In a reversal of its former status, Mitō-san is now the centrepiece of the Hinohara Citizens' Forest (tomin no mori, 都民の森). The mountain and its surroundings are now open to everyone, with a well-equipped and well-maintained network of hiking trails and facilities which attract large numbers of people, although its relative remoteness stops it from getting overcrowded or detracting too much from immersion in nature.

There are multiple hiking routes to choose from, and they are generally quite easy – occasionally steep, but never punishingly so. This is definitely a mountain suitable for beginners, with a lot of cabins and information boards making it easy to navigate, rest or find support if needed. For more advanced walkers, longer routes out of the Citizens' Forest are also an option – you can go down to Oku-Tama Lake, or even up to Gozenyama if you are feeling ambitious enough.

The Citizens' Forest occupies the northwest corner of Hinohara Village, Tokyo. Mitō-san is in the top-left corner. To the north is Oku-Tama, to the west Yamanashi.

The biggest challenge lies in getting there. Hinohara, the last part of Tokyo still designated as a village (mura, ), is a sleepy place, whose mountain and forest coverage far exceeds its rail coverage. Unless you have a car, take the Itsukaichi Line (which branches off the Ōme Line) from Tachikawa to Musashi-Itsukaichi Station (武蔵五日市駅). From there, ride the Nishi Tokyo Bus (2014-5 timetable here) to tomin no mori (都民の森), although it may only run to Kazuma (数馬) where another bus will be waiting to take you the rest of the way. That's about 1 hour 10 minutes and 910 yen one-way, incidentally.

Click below for the full article.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Aizu (会津) - The Other Fukushima

This is Fukushima.

Yes, that Fukushima (福島). The prefecture in northern Japan brought to such suffering by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in March 2011, since when it has joined a very long list in the company of places like Chernobyl, or Hiroshima, or Jonestown, wherein the very mention of the name evokes fear and disquiet. Wherein its entire story, its entire identity, in the eyes of those not in the know, is reduced to one defining calamity.

But let us get some perspective. Fukushima is large and diverse, the third largest prefecture in Japan, and is divided into three regions: to the west, historic and mountainous Aizu; in the centre, the well-connected Nakadōri; and to the east, the coastal Hamadōri. Of these, the nuclear disaster exclusion zone covers a segment of Hamadōri, and the vast majority of the prefecture is still safe to visit.

Aizu (red), Nakadōri (green), and Hamadōri (blue).

I recently had the good fortune of a weekend visit to Aizu (会津), which warrants special discussion in its own right. Historically Aizu was not only a separate domain, but a leading power in its neighbourhood overshadowed only by the rise of nearby Sendai under Date Masamune, who briefly occupied parts of it during his conquests. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), when Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, the Aizu lords became very close to the Tokugawa family and turned Aizu into one of the shogunate's most dedicated and loyal domains in the country. It was – and is – a proud territory, whose heritage reverberates to this day with echoes of the samurai and bushido warrior spirit.

This close relationship with the shoguns, however, transpired to Aizu's great sadness. Aizu is perhaps best known for its bloody defeat during the 1868-9 Boshin War, during the Meiji Restoration, in which the Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown and the Japanese emperor restored to power. Even after Edo (Tokyo) fell to the imperial forces, whose leaders and members came mostly from the southwestern domains of Chōshū and Satsuma, Aizu continued to fight on the shogunate's behalf at the core of a coalition of northern domains. Long one of the revolutionaries' bitterest enemies due to its extreme loyalty to the Tokugawas, Aizu put up ferocious resistance until it was crushed after a month-long siege of its capital at Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松).

Given the southern domains' special hatred for it, Aizu was dealt exceptional brutality during and after this conflict, with many of its people massacred, tortured, imprisoned or sent into exile. Furthermore, in an insult as unpardonable as insults came, the survivors were prohibited from tending to the bodies of their fallen, and these were left to decay in the streets. Aizu' defeat made the northern coalition untenable, and what remained of the Tokugawa loyalists fled Sendai for Hokkaido by sea, pursued by the imperial forces to their final destiny at Hakodate.

Tō no Hetsuri (塔のへつり), in Shimogō, southern Aizu.

I have seen it written that to this day, significant enmity, or even hostility, towards Chōshū and Satsuma remains in the hearts of many people in Aizu, who find it hard to forgive this ruthless treatment. For example, in 2006, this commentator observed the following:

A few weeks ago when I was in the city of Aizu in Fukushima, Japan, there was a panel discussion which included the mayor of Aizu...(involving) a letter from the mayor of the city that would have been the capital of Choshu (presumably Hagi) asking the governor of Aizu whether they could forget the past and just get along. The incidents were over 130 years ago. There was a heated debate that involved a lot of cheering and jeering from the audience, but it was clear that Aizu would not forgive these two clans...The panel pointed out that it was the victim that should reach out for peace, not the aggressors...The conclusion of the panel was that there would be no “forgiveness” but that “dialog” should continue.


The same account goes on to mention that because tending to the bodies of fallen Aizu soldiers had been forbidden, they were never commemorated at the Yasukuni Shrine, as is the custom for Japanese war dead. This supposedly gives many people in Aizu a uniquely negative view of government officials' visits to the controversial shrine; including by the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who in a further twist, happens to come from Yamaguchi Prefecture – that is, Chōshū.

Under the Meiji government, the old system of feudal domains was abolished, and replaced by what would become today's prefectural system. This was the end of Aizu as an independent domain, for it was joined to the rest of what would become Fukushima Prefecture, but to this day it remains highly conscious of its historical clout. It tells its stories and exhibits its identity at every opportunity, retains the name of Aizu in many place names and railway stations, and has built up a very strong tourism sector upon this heritage.

Akabeko, a symbol of the Aizu region.

Alas for unforeseen consequences. When Aizu was incorporated as part of Fukushima, nobody could have predicted that some hundred and forty years later the March 2011 Triple Disaster, in particular the spectre of nuclear radiation, would batter that tourism sector in the stomach for no more reason than this mere association of names. Even though Aizu was not so directly affected by the disaster – indeed, Aizu-Wakamatsu now shelters some thousands of people evacuated from the nuclear exclusion zone – its status beneath the very name of Fukushima has frightened off hundreds of thousands of visitors, both Japanese and foreign, especially because of the lack of rigour and transparency in how radiation safety was assessed and communicated.

Nonetheless, I hope that this article can provide a few insights and images, and help persuade you that a journey to Aizu, Fukushima is not only quite safe but certainly worth your while. Unfortunately my own trip was short; time and resources limited me to a small exploration of its south (Minami-Aizu, 南会津), and I did not get the chance to go to Aizu-Wakamatsu. Nevertheless, I saw splendid things. Click below for the full article.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The 10 Game Challenge

Recently, my honourable friend Kunal Mathur of Quixotic Quagmires issued a challenge to several persons, myself among them, to list the ten books that have most influenced their thinking.

It occurred to me, however, that although I have the highest respect and admiration for good literature, not least as a writer myself, my own path has been shaped to a far profounder degree by video games. I could certainly have listed the books from which I have derived greatest influence, but a list of the most influential video games appeared more fitting to my circumstances. It would also be an opportunity to challenge anti-videogame prejudices, and show that games, as much as books, have the worthiest contributions to make to a person's growth and thought. This article, therefore, is my response.

It took me some time to narrow down the list. I should point out that these are not necessarily my favourite video games, though I consider them all splendid or better. Nor is this list like the other I have compiled here, which gives ten examples of video games' excellence as an art form and potential for socio-political commentary. These, here, are simply the eleven games which I believe have had the greatest influence on my thinking, my values, and the person I have become.

You read that right, by the way. Not ten. Eleven.

The list is as follows:

1) Rallo Gump
2) Loom
3) Star Control 2
4) Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
5) Command and Conquer series
6) Discworld
7) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
8) Pokémon Blue
9) Ultima 7 & 8
10) World of Warcraft
11) Monster Girl Quest

I should also give honourable mention to the following, among others: Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy; Theme Hospital; the Metroid Prime series; Bioshock; the Legend of Zelda games Majora's Mask and Twilight Princess; the Advance Wars series; Little King's Story; Planescape – Torment; and the two games that most directly oriented my path towards Japan: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon and Okami.

Click below for the specifics.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Hills of Kamakura

In the 1180s, a certain Minamoto no Yoritomo (源頼朝) overcame the Taira clan in a national power struggle, and established a bakufu – that is, a military government – in eastern Japan, for the first time eclipsing the power of the emperor in Kyoto. The Kamakura Period, as the ensuing age of military rule became known, was named for Minamoto's chosen stronghold of Kamakura (鎌倉), a few kilometres south of Tokyo, and generated many of the forces that would shape and symbolise Japanese life for centuries to come: the rule of shoguns; the rise of the samurai class and the Japanese feudal system; and the flowering of Japanese Buddhism, among others. After Yoritomo's death the shogunate fell under the dominance of his wife's Hōjō clan, which is perhaps best known for organising Japan's successful resistance to the Mongol invasions of Kublai Khan.

To anyone who has travelled around Tokyo and its environs, Kamakura should be instantly familiar. Effectively the capital of Japan for a century and a half, it is today a beacon of tourism and popular culture and is saturated with hundreds of historic temples and shrines.

Less celebrated however are Kamakura's wooded, rocky hills – perhaps unfairly, as it was these, which surround the town on three sides with the sea on the fourth, that convinced Yoritomo to establish his power base there. Indeed, Kamakura's geography made it a nigh-unassailable stronghold. It was so inaccessible that the only ways in before the rails and roads of today were the “Seven Entrances”, each a narrow pass artificially carved from the rock.

These surroundings make for some superb walking, and the route that follows is a day-long kaleidoscope of nature, culture and history. It sets out from Kamakura Station and links the hiking trails of the eastern, northern and western hills into a single loop, by which you can encircle the town, dropping by a few less prominent pieces of its heritage along the way, before winding down with a stroll along the beach. Even if you have visited Kamakura before, you may have missed the shrines or temples covered here, but they are no less intriguing than its greatest landmarks, and certainly no less historically pivotal.

They include a shrine overflowing with foxes...
...some exceptional examples of traditional Zen garden design...
...and an unassuming spot in the woods, where the Kamakura Shogunate came to a bloody end in 1333.

Kamakura Hills
Length: Long. I do not have an exact measurement but would estimate at least 15km.
Hiking Time: Give yourself at least 7-8 hours to cover both hiking time and the places of interest along the way. Allow more time if you would like to look at these more closely.
Height: The highest point is Ōhirayama at only 159.2m. However there is a fair deal of up and down throughout the walk.
Access: Take the JR Yokosuka Line to Kamakura Station (鎌倉駅).

As these details suggest, this walk is long. Allow yourself a whole day if you are planning to do it in full, and go ready for a good workout. On the other hand, you are never too far from the town. There are shops or vending machines within bearable distance at any point on the route, and the many train stations or bus stops let you curtail it early if need be, or select portions to do at your own discretion.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Three Myths in the Struggle Against Gender, Part Three: The Myth of the Others

In the first two articles in this series, we challenged two common assumptions: first, that that gender is natural; and second, that gender has anything to do with tradition or modernity.

If this is your first time here, it may be worth first orienting yourself by having a look at those articles, or the more general discussions about gender, what it means, and why it is a problem. Let us briefly recall, in any case, some of its further problems. They include, but are not limited to:
  • gender inequality;
  • gender conflict;
  • the subjection of women in almost all spheres of public and private life;
  • hegemonic relationship dynamics;
  • hegemonic family structures;
  • hostility to sexual diversity;
  • the mistreatment of people who are not biologically male or female, such as intersex people;
  • the mistreatment of people who do not conform to masculine or feminine gender expectations, the consequences of which include exclusion, alienation, mental health problems and suicide;
  • and the abomination that is rape, among others.

Today we confront a third and final myth. It is the belief that some societies, cultures, religions and/or ethnic groups are better or worse at gender problems than others.

It might inhabit statements like these:

[Religion X] is repressive towards women.

[Culture Y] is a conservative culture, and still does not tolerate homosexuality.” (For why the word still is a problem in itself here, see the second myth.)

Unlike [Country Z], democracy and human rights are in our national DNA.

And inevitably: “Why are you complaining about [Gender Problem N]? Don't you realise that it is better in this country than anywhere else? If you don't like it here then fuck off to [Country Z].

As with the Myth of Modernity, these may sound like entirely fair sentiments in certain places and times. But let us be clear. When we challenge this myth, we are not suggesting that [Religion X] does not currently have serious problems with its subjection of women. We do not mean that [Culture Y] does not have homophobia problems, nor even that [Country Z] is better at [Gender Problem N] than the country of the fellow comparing them. We will not ignore, in this article, the very real and deplorable problems of countries and cultures and faiths all over the world when it comes to gender.

What we are questioning is the idea that any of these are inherently better or worse than any of the others. The key word here is inherently.

That is to say, it is very possible that, say, Japan, currently and arguably, experiences less gender inequality and gender conflict than, for example, India. This however, does not let us say that India is worse at gender problems than Japan. The reason might be that gender inequality and gender conflict exists at all in both countries, meaning both are in an infinitely broken condition. Or we might be ignoring the mass gender atrocities Japan committed a few decades ago during the Pacific War, or the fact that a lot of Japan's current subjection of women is expressed through constraining social norms and expectations, rather than a culture of open violence. Or we might be forgetting, also for example, that Indians have reacted, on the whole, with greater systematic outrage, popular activism and rigorous confrontation of their gender problems than has been the case in Japan. 

The bottom line, nonetheless, is that gender is and has long been an unjustifiable problem in both countries. To suggest one is any better than the other ignores their unique and complex stories; ignores their changes over time; ignores the variations within them; and above all, shoves aside the most important concern, which is that gender problems exist at all in both countries when they straightforwardly should not.

The idea that such comparisons are meaningful, in ignorance of this, on purpose or otherwise, is the Myth of the Others. The myth, that is, that gender might be more a problem with “them”, and less a problem with “us” – or vice versa – when in fact it is a catastrophe for us all.

It does not matter, by the way, who exactly “we” or “they” are. The statement is problematic from any perspective, including yours, wherever you are – that is after all the point. The Myth of the Others might be the belief that either Christians or Muslims have worse gender problems than one another; or Europeans and Africans; or settler and indigenous communities; or -isms and -isms; or the global North and the global South.

All comparisons like this are first, inaccurate; second, divisive; and third, pointless. We are all bad at gender. All societies, all cultures, all nations, all religions have colossal mistakes to face up to. Indeed, we have not grasped the problem of gender until we recognise it to be precisely of such dreadful magnitude as makes these comparisons meaningless.

In other words, we are all struggling to climb the same cliff out of the same gendered hell. And it is high time we worked together to get us all out of there, rather than pulling out our iPhones mid-climb and trying to take pictures at angles that make it look like we have climbed higher than everybody else.

So instead, I would like to suggest the case is the following.
  • No societies, cultures, religions or ethnic groups are inherently gendered.
  • None, however, are immune to gender and its problems.
  • When gender exists in a society, culture, religion or ethnic group, it is not part of that group but a problem with that group.
  • And in the final analysis, gender is a universal problem facing all humankind regardless of nation, culture, religion or any other line of division.

Let us look now at some of the forms the myth takes. It may appear an us vs. them myth, but look again: it cuts both ways.

The Blobs Return
A few days ago, I was reading a news article on sexual violence in video games, and lamenting, as one must, that such a magnificent and promising art medium has become one of the most bile-infested bastions of gendered nastiness in the world today, particularly in Europe and the United States. (That in itself, by the way, is a subject for another time: video game design suffocates beneath the ooze of gendered tropes, while misogyny of the most reprehensible order gushes from the orifices of so many player communities. In particular, there are those among the latter who shriek abuse, death threats and rape threats, at any person – particularly any woman – who dares to draw attention to the problem.)

The reason I mention this here is that on that occasion, I resisted my better judgement and scrolled down to the Comments section, which, as anyone well-travelled on the internet will tell you, has an effect akin to accidentally dropping your sanity into the latrine and only realising it just after you've pressed the flush and stand watching helpless as it vanishes to oblivion. And sure enough, one comment immediately lived up to this custom. It was somebody claiming, vehemently and with customary disdain for grammar, that genderedness in video games had no importance because 'actual' rape – presumably 100% unrelated to the wider culture of gender violence, of which games are a part – was happening in 'places like Africa'.

Yes, you read that right. 'Places like Africa'.

Now we could just about construe that as accurate, if we define 'places like' to mean 'places with human beings'. In that case 'places like Africa' would equally include Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australasia, all of which suffer horrifically under the rape pandemic. But somehow I don't think the commentator meant it that way.

I recalled, at this point, a different article that has stuck in my memory for several years. The author and context escape me, but I remember it was castigating feminists in Europe and the US for their criticism of the subjection of women there, when according to the author, these countries were the best in the world at equality, tolerance and women's rights. The feminists, he asserted, should therefore stop attacking their own 'democratic' and 'developed' countries, and focus instead on the relative barbarisms of the Middle East, Asia and – though he perhaps did not use the exact phrase – 'places like those'.

Here we see the Myth of the Others in its most crude and honest form. It states: “we are a good blob; they are a bad blob”. But we may note that its target is rarely the Others themselves. More often, it is You. When You attempt to make the case that Our group is not simply a “good blob” but something more complex than that, the “bad blobs” of the Others are deposited upon your arguments as a caricatured point of comparison, to either dissuade you from your case, or to shame you for making it in the first place when others are, by this image, so obviously worse. In other words, this Myth is a political tool: a box of blobs we unleash to bounce attention away from our own societies' gendered problems, and to smother critiques of them.

In other words, it is the moral equivalent of the argument that “(our) Dictator Jia killed only 9 million people, while (their) Dictator Yi killed 10 million, so take it easy on Dictator Jia”. And the parameters of comparison are about the same with gender, when we recall from the previous article that:

Humanity drowns in a sea of overlapping gendered pandemics – domestic violence, emotional abuse, sexual slavery, sexual apartheid, female infanticide, “honour” killings, “morality” police, gender-related mental health problems and suicides, bride kidnappings, human trafficking, genital mutilation, unequal laws and wages and sizes of meals and recognition of evidence in court, hegemonic and arbitrary body image standards, failed relationships, child custody battles, and cultural media saturated to bursting with the same gendered tropes, ugly stereotypes and male-female relationship dynamics repeated over and over again.

...and when we recall, moreover, that most of these not only exist but rampage across even the most so-called “liberal”, “democratic” and “developed” societies in the world. Indeed, the level at which gender is a problem transcends such notions. “Democracy”, “development” and related chimeras have no relevance to gender except in so far that because of gender, they do not exist.

It gets worse though. They, the Others themselves, or rather those responsible for Their gendered problems, know exactly how to take advantage of the Myth of the Others to cover for their misdeeds.

The Relativist's Defence
During the rise of the universal human rights regime in the late twentieth century, a certain line of argument gained popularity. Its most organised manifestation was the “Asian Values” platform erected by characters like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia. They stood upon this platform, and declared that societies have their own cultures and identities that do not necessarily reflect “Western” values like human rights. In the Asian Values case, for example, Asians, as a matter of culture, supposedly preferred authoritarian governance, obedience to authority, and collective harmony rather than individual freedom. It is thus in societies' best interests, the argument goes, that they be permitted to organise themselves according to their own cultural values, rather than be bullied or pressured by those colonial Westerners into changing to become like them.

This so-called cultural relativism is now mostly discredited. There is nothing wrong, of course, with the idea of cultural self-determination. But “Asian values” is hollow when we consider that “Asia” is not a monolithic unit – not a blob – but in fact some four billion people spread across 44 million of the most diverse square kilometres in the world, making the idea of any homogeneous “Asian-ness” a nothing. We may also note that plenty of these four billion Asians categorically oppose authoritarianism and repression – perhaps you know some of them – and that such critics as Anwar Ibrahim, Chee Soon Juan, Lee Teng-hui and Amartya Sen have as much claim to represent Asians as the likes of Mahathir or the other Lee in Singapore. As indeed, we must sadly admit, do Mahinda Rajapaksa or Osama Bin Laden. You might say there are actually four billion sets of Asian Values, not one.

Nonetheless, the same species of cultural relativism has lashed out across much of the world with a popular appeal far surpassing its substantive integrity. It has been wheeled out to excuse the imprisonment of dissidents here, to cover for crimes against humanity there, often in the guise of anti-colonial or anti-capitalist struggle or the defence of national sovereignty. Its credence has naturally suffered blows – the advocates for “Asian values” themselves, for example, were made miserable when the prosperity they claimed would result from that path spectacularly disintegrated in the 1997 East Asian financial crisis.

However, one of its fronts has yet to collapse. It is, of course, gender.

Cultural relativism on gender is a curious mirror image of the Myth of the Others. Those who exercise it accept the gender problems in their societies, but deny they are problems. Instead, they take pride in these problems and even consider them marks of national or cultural superiority over others. These roles and rules for men and women are our religious values, we say. There have been no homosexuals here for thousands of years, we say. The immaculate language of morality, purity, tradition and self-determination is unfurled to shroud gendered cruelties in a mantle of solemn and severe respectability. And then comes the killer blow: the Others. They are out to get us, we claim. They seek to pollute our values, corrode our culture, compromise our innocence, and make us as selfish and sinful and materialistic as they. If you don't believe it, just look at them!

Yet this is no more than another exercise in blobs. From the gender relativist's perspective, the world is divided into two portions: We and They. We are reduced to a good blob: homogeneous, pure, with a single, undiluted culture and heritage unchanged since the dawn of the universe, the archetype of moral life. They are reduced to a bad blob: cultureless, dissolute, a shambling mass of greed and perdition that devours all it touches and has shed all capacity to know right and wrong. The latter, these relativists advance, must not be allowed to touch the former. We must protect our societies - our children! - from Their contamination.

We talk here not merely of Wahhabi clerics or Putin or the Indian BJP, however, but of a more pervasive smog that has poisoned the entire global gender discourse. Ultimately it does away with all real meaning between Us and Them, uniting the two in complicity and reducing this relativist non-argument to plain disingenuousness. Cases in point are Western companies like McDonaldses and Starbucks who segregate men and women in their Saudi restaurants, covering for themselves by claiming sensitivity to others' cultures, whereas it is actually because feeding off those markets matters more to them than human rights. Consider also politicians who wheel out the relativist's defence to fend off difficult questions about the countries they want to sell weapons to.

In other instances it is more insidious. For example, take the myth of the “conservative country”. I would swear I have heard this label applied to every country in the world at least once by now by the mainstream British media, most frequently the BBC, when considering gendered repression, sexual violence, or hostility to sexual minorities in countries they cannot be bothered to properly research. In fact there are no “conservative countries”. Countries are diverse, as discussed under the Myth of Modernity, and any honourable conservative must surely feel mortified when that term “conservative” – which after all refers to a legitimate segment of any society's political mosaic – gets applied like this to gendered abhorrences with no place in the universe, and whose existence represents the mosaic's tiles being blasted off and the earth beneath them scorched.

There is a troubling puzzle here. How have proud concepts like morality and tradition come to be associated with gender inequality, gendered conflict, the subjection of women, hegemonic family and relationship systems, and uncompromising hatred of sexual diversity? How can anyone even consider, let alone believe, that these things have anything to do with morality in the face of the lacerating pain they visit upon the souls and carcasses of people they love?

Politics can only go some way to explain this. Absolutely, elites from Henry VIII to Goodluck Jonathan have an established history of inciting populist hatred against conjured bogeymen to win public support, or more particularly to distract people from their own incompetence or corruption. Our societies' long failures to develop a sober, informed conversation about sexuality and gender make these fertile ground for such illusions. But their effectiveness in too many places and times suggests that many people genuinely believe that a more coercive, repressive gendered society is a good thing – or at least, that it is worth it for the sake of (again, the illusion of) moral and cultural integrity. No scheming politician, no matter how clever, could orchestrate madness like that.

Perhaps the power of these broken narratives can only be understood against the wider horror of recent human history. The shadows of colonialism and slavery fell upon the world's civilisations and diced them to ribbons, producing traumas, conflicts, and existential confusion that plague them to this day; and it is within those shattered mindsets that people have been immediately confronted with the terror of culture-eroding, value-destroying market fundamentalist globalisation. Perhaps it is no wonder we are insane.

And so we get the madness that is “[insert gender atrocity here] is our culture, so do not criticise us.” Warped as We who make that claim are, we do not understand the logical poverty, and soul-destroying cruelty, of that statement. Correspondingly, against a They who are increasingly aware of their own cultural brokenness, who grapple with the shame of their colonial and neo-colonial misdeeds, that is a devastating statement. It carries a corollary of “you know you are in no position to do so”: not morally, because you have no high horse to ride on; not physically, because you no longer rule the world.

So in the end, They too give in to this mirror of the Myth of the Others. How many people do you know who, on hearing your criticisms of gendered crimes elsewhere, respond with the infuriating relativist's defence of “but that is their culture”?

Racism by any other name...
To be clear then, the Myth of the Others narrative has two basic problems.

The first is reductionism. All societies, cultures and religions, whether ours or theirs, are extremely diverse and exhibit enormous variety in their values and beliefs, often in contestation with one another. The comparisons and caricatures of the Myth of the Others ignore this variety, and would have us believe that societies, cultures and religions are blobs in which everyone – or everyone judged to matter – believes the same things and behaves in the same ways.

Its second problem is essentialism. Societies, cultures and religions, whether ours or theirs, are on journeys. They have always been changing, evolving and revolving in countless directions through history. Nations awash in war rape, witch-burnings, and the most hideously coercive gendered roles, as was once the very image of Europe, have transformed into places which abhor capital punishment in all circumstances, and where concerted efforts against sexual violence exist at most levels of society. Nations once famous for striving for equality between men and women, like Turkey or Afghanistan, have lost focus, or altogether crashed into the abyssal depths of gendered carnage. However, the myth ignores these changes and would have us consider that its caricatures of societies reflect them at an essential level. That is to say, it suggests that those societies have always been that way, and always will be – freedom as part of who we are, repression as part of who they are.

In short, the Myth of the Others ignores two of the most fundamental facts about all cultures: that they are diverse, and that they change. The equation is simple: reductionism plus essentialism equals blob.

So let's cut those blobs up once and for all, shall we? Remember: we must cut both ways.

In one direction, we have the societies that consider themselves in a better position – mostly Western European societies and their offshoots like the US. There the Myth of the Others compartmentalises the problems of gender into distant and frightening otherlands of savagery. Foreign countries, cultures and belief systems are reduced to monochrome blobs of barbarism, ignoring that they are always complex, always diverse, and contain a great deal of people struggling against the mistakes and failures of their own fellows. By the same token, people of these would-be better societies are invited to ignore that the problems of gender still afflict their societies to a magnitude utterly beyond pardon, and more dangerously yet, led to forget that their own histories are saturated, over centuries and perhaps millennia until extremely recent decades, with gendered atrocities as grotesque as anything carried out by the likes of ISIL or the militias of eastern Congo today. Do we say, then, that these atrocities are British traditions, or Canadian culture, or Australian values? No, and quite rightly not. But neither should we dare believe there is anything inherent in these cultures, values or belief systems that would stop them happening again in those places in future.

In the other direction, we have those so visited by the odious habit of appealing to cultural relativism to justify their gender crimes. Like the aforementioned societies, gendered horrors have often infested their cultures, their traditions, or their values too. But that does not mean they define, say, African cultures, Indian traditions or Muslim values at an essential level. On the contrary, these are each as diverse as galaxies, have undergone massive changes over the centuries, and will continue to do so; indeed the most ironic change of all has been the absorption of gendered norms, values, and laws – especially those hostile to sexual diversity – from the very colonising countries they claim these beliefs are resisting. Neither do these feeble excuses for morality reflect these cultures even in the present, for there are huge numbers of people in every culture, every nation and every religion who have devoted their lives to overthrowing gendered repression, who believe their respective groups have it in them to do so much better, and who make the toughest of sacrifices for the struggle to make it so.

As such, if the Myth of the Others seems more convoluted and complex than either of the previous two myths, there is good reason. This myth stands squarely upon the junction of two colossal fault systems. The first, as we have explored in these articles, is that of gender, which has divided and pitted us against one another in all the most unconscionable of ways. The second, which here we meet, is another great and terrible divider, which has been no less senseless, no less pitiless and no less corrupting to the journey of the human race for a similar length of time. It is, of course, racism.

This is why we must reject the Myth of the Others, by falling back upon our common humanity: the knowledge, accessible to us all, that all of us share over 99% of the same genome and all of us hurt when we bleed. Gender has divided us more than enough as it is. The last thing we need, in the struggle against it, is to be further divided by the stuff that gave us colonialism, slavery, two world wars, countless genocides and ethnic cleansings, and the ongoing alienation between the North and the South – or indeed, that most racially reducing and essentialising notion of “developed” versus “developing” countries.

Let no-one ever hear you defend gender and its problems by calling them a result of someone's culture, or tradition, or religion, or ethnic or national identity. It is no different from suggesting that getting incinerated by a nuclear bomb was a cultural practice of Hiroshima, or telling a person with malaria that the Plasmodium parasite is part of his or her body. As a means of attack, it is self-injurious: it will generate shudders and awkward silence, and rightly so. As a means of defence, it is at best intellectually lazy, and at worst a most unfathomable evil.

Gender's tentacles have different widths, lengths and colours in different lands, but it has legitimate claim to none of them. Gender is not African, Asian, American, European, or indigenous; not the product of any ethnicity or territory. Gender is not Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Confucian; it does not belong in any religion or spiritual system. In any place, any system, in which gender exists – and right now that includes most of them – it is not of them, but a problem with them, and a problem they will surmount.

Gender has no nationality, no ethnicity, no culture and no religion. It makes barbarians of us all.

Thus concludes this series on Three Myths in the Struggle Against Gender. As thanks for reading, here is something nice, transcending time, space, and gender itself.