Dispatches from Japan

Recently I spent the better part of 11 days in Japan with my wife and son. The following are some of the thoughts and experiences I had during the trip:

1). Tokyo: the thing that first impressed me about this city, aside from its tremendous size, was its organization; it is a city of over 30 million people but doesn’t have a lot of the problems with traffic much smaller Canadian cities have; they have this elaborate highway system rising above and below the city; and a number of the places where people live and work are built into essentially terrace. Tokyo is a city symbolizing the word up-wards and downwards. The other thing about Tokyo was the sheer number of people. My group traveled downtown to a place called Hachiko Square at night. There were all sorts of neon signs, video screens (like one would find in a Blade Runner film) illuminating one of the streets where hordes of Japanese people criss-crossed and partied.

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The cool thing about Japan, generally speaking, is even around large groups of people you feel perfectly safe. There’s virtually no crime. No one locks up their bikes. My wife sat down in a food court in a Hiroshima mall and two Japanese girls left their purses and smart phones on a table. The girls left their valuables to go to the washroom. Canadians are fairly law abiding; nevertheless, if you did this at a food court in Saskatoon you probably shouldn’t be surprised your purse or phone is gone. In Japan it’s just the opposite. I guess, ultimately, to be a good person or not is just a choice after all. Japan is about as safe a place as you can visit.

Oh, and you can’t tip anyone. I left a tip for a waitress at a Tokyo restaurant. When I started walking away the waitress stopped me and returned the money. Apparently, if you leave a tip it suggests the person helping you is somehow low or needful or not as worthy of respect (or something like that). I didn’t know this. I didn’t tip again; however, some of the people I was traveling with purposely left a tip and ran just to see what would happen; and the waiter ran and caught them returning the money.

2). Politeness: Japanese people are super polite. I think my neck strength increased tenfold from all the head-bowing-in-thanks I returned to everyone. I only ever had one interaction where a Japanese person appeared to lose patience with me, e.g. a man working at the front desk of one of the hotels we stayed at. I was talking to a colleague at breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. My wife left me to return to our room. I didn’t have a key (really a card) to access my room, i.e. you need a card to even make the elevator work. Plus, I didn’t know what my room number was. So I asked the clerk at the front desk what my room number was and his English was probably as bad as my Japanese. Anyways, he directed me to the wrong room. I should’ve talked to his robot for help (there was a little robot, that also only  spoke Japanese, that stood at the front desk to help visitors).

There are apparently hotels where the font desk is looked after by only a robot. I don’t think the robots are cleaning rooms (yet) but Japan is definitely on the front line when it comes to automation. I have some misgivings about all this automation, in that, as we automate we continue to push people out of jobs (and there’s a limited number of jobs available to people as not everyone is capable or willing to get an advanced education).

3). Shrines & Temples: we visited a ton of holy sites. One thing struck me as odd yet predictable: every single one of these sites–Buddhist or Shinto–required the faithful to drop money into some sort of grate in order to pray or ask for divine favor. I highly doubt God or the gods or Buddha will deny you something important unless you give them some yen. Institutions trading off of the religious feelings of people certainly isn’t unique to Japan. Money corrupts everything it touches in my honest opinion. I’m not anti-capitalist but I would like to see money stay out of certain sacred intellectual, religious and artistic spaces.

My favorite site to visit was a Buddhist temple called Fushimi Inari-taisha. The temple was constructed at the base of a small mountain and had steps–complemented by a series of arches–leading from the bottom all the way to the top over top of a staircase. I left my group in an attempt to visit the top of the mountain but ran out of time before hitting the top.

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The walk was absolutely picturesque, in that, the stairs and path upwards were ensconced in ancient trees and moss. The place, along with many of the gardens we visited, reminded me of something out of a J. R. R. Tolkien novel. The picture below is from a Shinto shrine called Kinkaku-ji; it was home to a golden pagoda and was some sort of haven for samurai during the Edo period.

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4). The Food: if you have an adventurous pallet, and you don’t care if your food is sentient while eating it, then Japan is the place to go.

I’m not such a person.

I confess this was the thing I least liked about Japan. There were a couple highlights, e.g. Hiroshima Pizza (called Okonomiyaki) was pretty good; it’s a pancake, fried egg, cabbage, bacon, and saucy construction. The curried rice I quite liked, as well. However, I did get sick of rice (the Japanese eat rice three times a day) and the raw fish wasn’t attractive to me at all. Many meals literally looked like they went directly from hook to plate. One of the people I was traveling with opened a container and observed, “Oh, a creature is looking at me”; it is a rare meal indeed when something isn’t looking at you accusedly in Japan.

I survived the trip largely by eating chocolate covered almonds. As healthy as the Japanese diet is they don’t eat a whole lot of fruit. I found it hard to find anything other than a banana or apple here and there.

5). Hiroshima: we visited the site of the atomic blast. The thing that struck me most was the extent of the explosion. For example, I saw a display in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum presenting the scale of the explosion. In order to avoid the direct impact of the blast I would have to travel about ten minutes by subway from the epicenter (or hydrocenter) of the blast. The attack on Hiroshima is nothing compared to what current nuclear weapons are capable. If you look at the top of the dome, you’ll notice it is slanting slightly to the left. The force of the atomic blast melted the metal and pushed it sideways. There was another building, not too far away from this site, where a Japanese man in a basement survived the blast. He must’ve been Irish.

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6). Trees, Trees & More Trees: Japan is the most treed country on the planet. The cities and countryside are equally treed and beautiful. I visited Tokyo in July; however, if you visit in Autumn you can see this one street with ginko nut trees lining either side (see below).

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Japan is full of such living pictures and images; it is probably the most singularly beautiful country I’ve ever visited. If you love trees and nature, this is probably one of the best places on earth to visit. I was absolutely enamored of the countryside. I might try to grow some of these ginko trees in my back yard. I regret not bringing home a maple leaf from Japan.

 

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Remembering George

When I was a boy I was fascinated by war stories. I read book after book about World War II. I had the great privilege of visiting with my Great Uncle George every Sunday. He landed on Juno Beach with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Europe on June 6, 1944. He was a tiny man (which is probably why he survived). I remember sitting in the living room with him–he sat quietly, his fat black cat stretched out on his lap. We didn’t say much but those afternoons were formative. As I grow older finally, finally, I’ve reached the only conclusion available to a reasonable man about war: I hate it. Yet, we need familiarity with it. We need to learn about it. We need to remember what it cost. For if war remains strange or abstract to us it will continue to be a viable option for people inured to its cost. War, I hate war.

Teaching White Hatred…Accidentally

There are a lot of websites and videos online illustrating how terrible Europeans were with respect to establishing their overseas colonies or how poorly minorities have been treated in the former colonies of Canada and the United States. These sources are often used in primary, secondary and university classrooms. These ideas have their place in an accurate retelling of Canada’s and every other Western nation’s history.

I wonder though: how effectively is this information being presented? Is it taught in a nuanced way where students emerge with an appreciation for the overall ethical and historical significance of these events? Or is it taught in such a way as to push people towards fascism, towards obstructionism, or to reinforce an ideology like progressivism? Regrettably, the way these things are taught sometimes has unintended consequences.

The unstated premise of “white people have enjoyed unearned privilege and power” could be “white people are the enemy of progress.” I accept, historically speaking, that because of that power white people have inflicted–intentionally and unintentionally–a lot of pain and repression on people of color and other marginalized peoples. Also, I totally support the justice aims of everyone being secure in their person and equal under the law; however, the villianizing of white people will no more establish a culture of tolerance, or a more equitable and sympathetic society, than the repression of marginalized peoples could.

I am white (and a male) but I most certainly did not establish the reserve or residential school system. I never held the opinion that women could not do anything a man could do. I have always argued in favour of Canada possessing a progressive tax regime where the nation’s most vulnerable have access to healthcare or unemployment insurance. My being the prototypical “white male” has nothing to do with the values I hold; a sense of justice isn’t limited by or an expression of genetics.

So, I think it would be great if schools taught the facts–that yes Canada has some sordid periods of history–but avoid teaching this collective white guilt nonsense.

To illustrate: when I learned about Catholic repression of Lutherans during the 15th century when I was in my grade 10 history class, I automatically sided with the Lutherans and came to detest Catholicism. This is because I had no larger context to operate under. I had a knee jerk reaction (typical of emotion rather than reason at work). I just saw injustice in the most immediate sense and failed to see a larger picture (mainly because my history teacher was substandard). Over time I came to see the issue in a more nuanced way and that I did not have to practice self hatred (I was a Catholic) in order to feel fraternity with Protestants.

I have since studied race relations at the university level and had professors tell me only white people are capable of being racist or repressing others. I challenged that notion in class by appealing to racial/ethnic differences being the cause of genocides in Rwanda and Turkey in the 20th century; and I pointed to the fact that the Chinese have an unflattering term used in reference to white people that translates to ‘garbage’ and that during the 1930s and 40s Japan taught master race theory to its people. My professors largely ignored me (one literally telling me to just be quiet).

So it seems I had crappy professors and teachers at every level: myopic intellectuals fixated on the moment or present need, incapable of seeing a larger picture.
If we are realistic we accept the fact any individual can not only experience racism but also be a racist. Schools that teach a limited narrative, that refuse to build an appropriate overall context are inadvertently teaching young white people not only to hold a greater sense of civil responsibility to others but also, potentially, to feel a sense of “white guilt.” This is counter-productive; and while this might appease the emotional requirements for revenge held by some of the more emotionally charged folks out there, it results in the creation of a self defeating fiction.

Effective teaching would not result in this happening. If you go into teaching, please do not do this.

The Right to Potentially Offend

“I hate your opinions but I will die for you to have the right to express them.”

Voltaire

Nowhere in Canada’s Constitution does it say you have a legal right not to be offended.

In fact the Charter protects your fundamental right to speak your mind and potentially offend.

Nowhere in the Constitution does it say we cannot wear whatever we want when we want; that right to wear whatever is upheld by the Charter. And so on and so forth.

Progressives are well-meaning individuals who, regrettably, mistake their deep conviction for the legal colour of right. They also mistake the advent of political correctness for genuine progress. They seem to fail to appreciate exactly what it means to live in a liberal society governed through the rule of law in their attempts to childproof society.

Specifically, it is not reasonable to shame or morally coerce citizens into accepting that certain parts of the language are off limits because you feel certain words should not be expressed; we do not live in a theocracy–secular or otherwise–where certain words like Jehovah or phrases like “manning the table” (a male micro-aggression) are off limits; political correctness is intellectually stultifying and I have a legal right to speak my mind short of promoting active hatred of others. That right you do not have the power to take away but you have a right to disagree.

Thus, while I accept the fact I am not absolutely free, but that certain responsibilities follow from possessing and practicing fundamental liberties, I reject the apparent moral authority of leftists who seek to reshape society into some sort of childproofed utopia (by using their personal feelings on any given matter as the standard by which we should all judge a thing right or wrong).

Democracies are supposed to be messy; and although many of the aims of progressives are admirable the means by which they are attain them–the shouting down, black balling and public shaming of opponents, the wrong headed indoctrination of the young in high schools and universities churning out social justice warriors unwilling to entertain nuanced positions on complex issues–demonstrates, at least to me, that they are more of a threat to genuine progress than anything else. Why? Because they push for greater tolerance through their own intolerance; they push for greater freedom by seeking to restrict that freedom; and they claim the moral high ground when in fact this cannot be achieved through bully tactics but through genuine dialogue and agreeing, potentially, to disagree.

If this post offends and you want to unfriend/unfollow, I respond, “So what? It is too bad our friendship couldn’t weather such disagreement. I wish you well.”

If I was a betting man I would say we are going to see the successful push for sanity from actual liberals (centrists) and conservatives in the coming years. Political correctness is a blight on our society and I will resist it unto my dying breath.

Love & the Cosmos

I read something bordering on the profound last night: love and justice are non-historical forces; they are not tied to, or bound by, ideology, politics or even religion; they are what they are and they are pushing humankind inexorably towards unseen ends.

The last part is my own innovation. The first part about love being non-historical is not. For some reason the transcendental quality of love fills me with hope–possibly because even if you try to improve the world in some measure, and fail, you can take some consolation you have allied yourself with something greater than yourself or resisted any arbitrary power the Cosmos can throw at you.

I suspect love, in a certain sense, would even survive the Cosmos’ end: hugs transcending time; joy outliving the joyful; gentleness and acceptance persisting past the Heat Death; and the gravity of a deep upwelling of feeling flowing past the bounds of a finite physical universe.

Does the Left Appeal to Guilt as Opposed to Principles?

http://thestarphoenix.com/…/column-why-not-rewrite-the-enti…

Gormley’s article (see link above) is a satirical piece pressing home the point that people need to chill with all the engineering of society through language. For example, there are people who want to change the New Testament so it doesn’t say “Jesus sits at the right hand of the father” because it alienates left handed people. These social justice warriors are well-intentioned people but they:

1). Mistake their own sense of personal indignancy as the standard by which all others should measure what is socially acceptable or unacceptable. The identity wing of the political left definitely shares some behaviors and attitudes consistent with ‘benevolent’ authoritarian regimes.

2). They assume that nuances or any semblance of tradition cannot continue to exist because it reflects white male patriarchy.

I confess I understand what they want to achieve but their activity makes me fearful because good people are afraid to disagree with them since no one wants to appear to be bigoted or prejudiced; whereas if I disagree with them I might, in fact, be reasonable and justified in doing so.

The Continued Influence of Ancient Greece

Belief in the “supernatural ” belongs to a “bygone era” (along with the belief in ghosts or that ideas exist outside of mind.) The very act of entertaining the existence of ghosts reflects the continued influence of pre-scientific, mythological thinking on the present; and despite the privileged position reason, logic and science currently occupy, Western culture appears incapable of entirely shedding its ancient skin, e.g. we still call our galaxy the Milky Way even though no one believes in the existence of the goddess Hera; while continuing to entertain the idea of mind-body dualism despite advances in neuroscience which quite satisfactorily describe consciousness—“ideas” if you will—as an emergent quality born out of the complex physical workings of the human brain. There is still a minority of neuroscientists who entertain the notion consciousness implies that the sum of the brain’s parts alone do not satisfactorily explain consciousness; nevertheless, this is a minority position and the neuroscience community appears to have made peace with the fact a physical explanation agrees with observation. Or to invoke Ockham’s Razor the mechanistic explanation definitely makes far fewer assumptions than the idealist explanation does.

So, no brain? No ideas. Yet, an argument can be made ideas potentially exist, i.e. ‘truth’ and ‘beauty’ do not exist “out there” as in some sort of Platonic form; however, it is quite reasonable to suppose—and I’ve heard various philosophers and scientists seriously consider this hypothesis—that once an appropriate mechanism evolves (like the brain, for example) consciousness and then ideas inevitably follow. So, in a sense, ideas exist independent of mind as something potential rather than actual; they just need a host in the same sense a bow needs an archer to pull the string.

Why do people continue to entertain beliefs in things like soul, spirit, idealism, mind-body dualism though? There are a combination of factors but I would appeal first and foremost to Thomas Paine’s explanation, i.e. the long habit of thinking a thing true gives it the superficial appearance of being right.

People have thought these things exist or are true for so long the culture has literally succumbed to a sort of organic or inherited “argument from antiquity”. The reason you appear to even entertain idealism (and by extension mind-body dualism) is Western culture–to which you belong–was shaped considerably by Hellenistic thought. From the Greeks we inherited some useful ways of looking at the world and some not so useful. For example, from the rationalist Thales we inherit the idea that we can explain what happens in the natural world (like a volcano erupting or lightning striking) by appealing to natural causes (or mechanisms) rather explaining these things by saying Hephaestus or Zeus are angry. We also inherited the assumption that souls, spirit and mind exist independent of the body. Plato, as I mentioned previously, even went so far as to claim, as you’ve entertained, ideas exist “out there” objectively and that the so-called “mind’s eye” perceived them. The problem with idealism, souls, gods, mind-eyes, etc. is there’s no reason (no evidence) to suppose any of it reflects the way the world actually works. Gods, etc. were all constructed from common sense deductions—based on the assumptions of the time—that offered a pseudo-scientific explanation satisfying the ancient Greeks. Nobody told the inheritors of Greeks (us), however, that not only could we drop belief in gods but also assumptions about souls and objective ideas, as well.