Category Archives: Japan

Thoughts on Sakaguchi Kyohei’s ‘How to build an Independent State’ 独立国家の作り方

Last week I attended the Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference in Paris. This was my first Crossroads conference and incidentally my first trip to Paris. I have many fond memories of France but the one time my family ventured into a major French city we ended up in a car crash. So it was much to my pleasant surprise that Paris was as beautiful as it is made out to be, and I was lucky enough to spend it with two very lovely people.

Unfortunately I missed the keynotes, but thankfully Jeremy Gilbert has posted his excellent discussion of the challenges of neo-liberalism on the OurKingdom section of openDemocracy (here). In it he argues that the various cultural and political movements of the 1960s represented a democratic surge that threatened the status-quo by asking a number of dangerous questions relating to the distribution of wealth, economic and military power and crucially how we live to together. The strategy of capital in response to this upsurge has, in Gilbert’s words, been to ‘meet precisely those amongst that set of demands which would not threaten the over-arching goal of capital accumulation, while determinedly opposing the realisation of those which would.’ People protested and demanded and critiqued. The market gave the people what they wanted, but in commodity form and on the market’s terms.

This is one of the major problems of critiquing capital. As a system it is incredibly resilient, precisely in this ability to give us what we want, but not on our terms (a mechanism well captured by the second part of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ mini-series). It is this adaptability in the face of critique that leads Gilbert, near the end of his article, to note that:

‘Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened. Everything my political mentors warned might happen, since I was a boy growing up on a poor council estate (that’s a housing project, if you’re American) in the North of England in the early 80s, or a high-school student reading denunciations of Thatcherism in the left press a few years later, has turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.’

One of the problems with critique is that there is no exterior to launch a critique from, seemingly no viable alternative. Communism, at least in its past forms, looks to be a dead end, and the nihilistic hope for some sort of terror led revolution by people such as Zizek leaves me queasy. This is the reason that some academics are keen to hold up groups seemingly untouched by capital relations. As one of the two lovely people said over a fine meal in a Parisian cafe at 11:30pm, the previously colonized subjects of anthropology are now being held up as models for the future.

This brings me to the book I am reading at the moment, ‘How to build an Independent Country (独立国家の作り方)’ by Sakaguchi Kyōhei. In all honesty I bought it because I liked the title and wanted something to read on the Shinkansen from Fukuoka to Tokyo, but it ended up in the bottom of my bag. I fished it out again on return to the ‘long toothache’ that is the UK, and am about a third of the way through it now. Although I was pretty skeptical at first, I am finding it quite interesting for at least two reasons. The first is that it offers up a model of a different attitude to living derived from a group that has fallen through the cracks: homeless people living in Tokyo. The second is that his argument so far has been a lot less about theorizing and a lot more about getting on and doing something.

So to begin with I was skeptical. Its all very well and good holding up homeless people as paragons of virtue but (a) shouldn’t the state have stepped in to make sure they didn’t become homeless in the first place and (b) wouldn’t the homeless people themselves rather be, you know, home-d? Both these points are still niggling away as I read the book, but lets put them to one side for a moment and see what Sakaguchi has to say.

Sakaguchi’s main point is that the vast expense incurred by either renting or owning a house is actually, when you think about it, ridiculous. People grind away at work in order to pay that 100,000 a month rental bill or the equivalent in mortgage payments. For the majority of people outlay on their housing will eat up the lion’s share of their wages, meaning that they have to work harder and longer in order to provide for all the other things they need in life.  Indeed, Sakaguchi seems to suggest that this system was set up intentionally as a way of integrating people into the economy.

In this he is backed up by scholars such as Hirayama Yosuke. Hirayama argues that homeownership was vigorously promoted by the Japanese government in the early post-war period as the key means by which people could gain security for their old age. Japan is interesting in that it is one of the very few developed capitalist nations that did not produce a comprehensive welfare system. Provision of welfare was mostly left to corporations and security (in the sense of the long term prospect of stability) was promoted through the prospect of homeownership and a pension. As long as you worked hard and paid off your loan you could look forward to stability in your old age, drawing a pension and living in your fully paid for house.

However, since the 1990s this system has been breaking down. Neoliberal reforms and casualisation of the labour force have taken their toll. The rise in fixed term contracts, permanent part-time work and falling wages means that the prospect of living on one’s own, let alone buying a house, is becoming less and less achievable. The pension system is also under ever increasing strain due to the dual problem of an aging population and declining birthrate. For many young people the old social contract simply does not work anymore.

It doesn’t work, but it still has a ring of commonsense to it. In the book Sakaguchi notes time and again that the idea of paying lots of rent, or getting a 35 year loan to buy a house is hardly questioned in Japan (and I would argue that it is hardly questioned here either), even though it is increasingly difficult to do so. To a certain extent there is anecdotal evidence that attitudes to housing are changing and the notion of shared-living is getting some interest in the media (witness J-Pop phenomenon Arashi’s new segment on their show ‘Secret Arashi’, where they welcome guests into their own ‘share-house’ studio). However, renting an apartment and eventual homeownership is still the generally accepted norm.

So, Sakaguchi, a trained architect, sees the housing system as a transparent way of getting people to work and pay taxes. His solution to this problem was to look for ways to build houses that cost as little as possible and avoided the tax system. This is where Tokyo’s homeless come in. While walking around the Asakusa area Sakaguchi met with a number of homeless people who nevertheless had homes. Small, yes but homes nonetheless. These homes were built out of what he refers to as ‘gomi’ (rubbish), such as discarded pieces of wood and blue sheeting, but were also augmented with solar power generators and car batteries rigged to produce 100v electricity. Local parks offer water sources and toilets, libraries bookshelves, the local public bath in place of the shower. Food is a little more difficult — many homeless in Tokyo receive handouts from restaurants and supermarkets — and I doubt many people would be comfortable with this arrangement. However, the idea was there in principal: a radical rethink of what is needed to live and the relationship between the public and the private sphere.

It is this relationship that Sakaguchi continues to probe in the book. He refers to the bureaucratic world of Japan as ‘anonymous’ (tokumeika sareta) and relates it to the proliferation of private house buying, and the concomitant steady encroachment of the private into the public. Part of his ‘mission’ (his words not mine) is in questioning this privileging of the private over the public and the effect this has on human relations.  Perhaps if there was a reconsideration of the relationship between private and public the anonymity of the system would be replaced with more enduring human relationships: going to the library to get your books means you have to talk to people and share a public space; likewise with going to public baths.  And perhaps with the cost of housing reduced more people would have time to sit in parks and talk to each other.

Of course there is also the problem of the law. But here Sakaguchi found that as long as your home has wheels it is not legally classified as a house and therefore it is not taxed. He also found that there are pockets of land in Tokyo where long running disputes over ownership have left them ostensibly free to use — something that he hasn’t talked about much yet but will, I am sure, make a reappearance later in the book. Anyway, armed with this information he built a small (3 tatami mat) house for around 30 000 yen (£250), put wheels on it and, after negotiating with the owner, set it up in a car park. He even got a Pizza delivered to the house as proof that it was actually a house.

The point that comes through here is that Sakaguchi didn’t come up with a clever theory of emancipation from capital relations. He just saw something that looked like a viable alternative and started an experiment. Now of course we could argue that he is still embedded in ‘the system’: the fact that he is pumping out books and making money would seem to undercut his efforts at extraction. He still bought his materials from a DIY shop. He still has an iPad and buys clothes from, you know, shops. Hypocrite, right?

I’m not so sure. Sakaguchi uses the strategies of homeless people as an example because they have been forced by the their situation to develop a new way of living, not necessarily outside capital relations but certainly on the margins. They have been forced to use their own resources by neoliberalism, incidentally what this particular ideology is all about, and in doing so they offer a model for something different. Again I can’t quite shake the feeling that the state should be stepping in to help, but perhaps state intervention that stops people from having to fundamentally rethink value systems is part of the problem. What Sakaguchi is doing is working through the consequences of a shift in perspective on the meaning of home, the relationship between public and private and the relationship between work, property and stability that comes from having to piece together a life on Japan’s streets. Lots to think about anyway, and I haven’t even got to the bit where he sets up his own country.

Here is a trailer for a documentary that follows his project:

 

 

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Filed under Capitalism, Japan, media, Modern Living, politics, Uncategorized

Vaguely topical, mostly drivel

After much searching and consideration I have come to conclusion that best place to buy Japanese DVDs in Japan is seated in my minshuku in Kyoto from America via Amazon UK.  Thank god that the good people of Greece voted to stay in the Euro — financial crisis, trade tariffs and the subsequent re-erection of national barriers could have seriously imperilled by  DVD purchasing enterprises.  However, according to THE MEDIA, we aren’t out of the woods yet and so I decided it most prudent to go on a credit fuelled spending spree before it all goes tits up.  My rationalisation is based on the demands of research and teaching, i.e. I’m (1) doing it for science and (2) for the kids.  Therefore I have no choice.  Poor me.

In other news I tweeted for the first time in ages yesterday.  My tweet commented on how awesome tatami mats are.  I reiterate on the eve of my second night in Kyoto:  Tatami mats are awesome.  They smell nice and invite you to sit on them.  Like in Hotaru no Hikari you find yourself overcome by the urge to roll around.  Its wonderfully liberating.  Indeed, over the last two days I have actually come to believe that furniture is the enemy.  Look at the way it just sits there and glares at you, judging your every move.  Furniture thinks you’re fat and barely conceals its contempt when you sit on it.  You cant roll around a room full of furniture either as you are very likely to bang your head on a chestefield or smack your ankle on a wing back.  Furniture is crap.

I cant think of anything else to write so have some photographs of tatami.  You will notice me sitting on furniture but I promise you it didn’t last.

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Red

I am now the proud owner of two volumes of Red by Yamamoto Naoki, analysis of which will form a part of a paper on contemporary representations of the United Red Army.  DVDs and a few novels are awaiting purchase, but should it all go to pot and I fail to find them, I will have to plump for Amazon and their exorbitant shipping fees.

Yamamoto Naoki is an interesting chap who probably deserves some closer investigation himself.  He caused a bit of stir in the early 1990s with a manga called Blue (1991), that has the dubious honour of being designated ‘dangerous material’ (有害物)under the Youth Protection Law and being a reference point in the ensuing debate.  I know very little about this debate of dangerous comics, and it is fair to say that Japan has its fair share of racy illustrated material, but it seems Yamamoto Naoki is no shrinking violet when it comes to his themes.

It seems that Yamamoto first started writing about terrorists with a serialised manga called Believers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Believers), which was inspired by both the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack and a book on the United Red Army (yet another thing to buy I suppose).  I haven’t done any research into the motivation for Red, but I assume it was a continuation of this original interest.  What I have read of the first volume has been very compelling, and also quite eerie, with the reader being told in advance how long the characters have left to live, or how long it is until they will be caught by the authorities.  Some of the characters are also numbered, which in an ominous indication of the fate that awaits them…

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Book Shopping

It was clear to both of us that the 6 hours of walking in Kamakura (including impromptu 2 km hike) just wasn’t enough.  More walking was required.  Hours more.

And so it was to be.  We woke up at around 10am and after stretching our tired (but not tired enough) legs we set forth on a magic journey of discovery.  Our mission was to find the mythical land of books known to local Tokyo-ites as Jinbouchou, where over 150 book shops huddle together for shade under the harsh Japanese summer sun, sheltering their pages from UV death rays.

Our first mistake was made early, and was almost fatal.  It certainly resulted in wounding.  Instead of my wife checking the map as per usual I decided to, thinking that because this trip was about books I would be the best person to take the lead.  Furthermore, even if we did get lost I, as an academic, would be able to follow the scent of musty. knowledge laden pages on the wind and lead us to our destination.

However this impeccable logic proved flawed for at least two reasons.  First, as I have proved on numerous occasions I am crap at orienteering, mostly due to my inability to conjure up images and remember stuff.  Secondly, I am an academic, not a blood hound.

Therefore we wandered in the general direction of book land, never quite sure where we were going or how we would know when we had arrived.  What google maps promised would be a 49 min walk turned into a 2 hour hike, during which my wife’s feet were eaten by her cute but utterly impractical shoes. (Jo: practical for a 49 min walk NOT a 2 hour hike!).

But we did make it and it was good.  I could quite easily spend the next month or so wandering around the streets and diving into the piles of books (not literally of course, that would get me deported.  It would also hurt, cf. Peter in Family Guy diving into piles of gold a la Scrooge McDuck and breaking his back).  There were history books, culture books, art books, design books, film books, magazines, photo collections, novels etc. etc. etc. all of which looked out at me like puppies at the dog shelter desperate for a new home, their black puppy eyes watering in anticipation, their big puppy hearts full of love to give.  I wanted to pick them all up and tell them ‘yoshi yoshi, it’ll be all right’ and take them all home.   However the sheer volume of material was a little daunting and I only had a very vague idea of what I wanted.  And its 120 yen to the pound so…

Ultimately we bought the grand total of nothing.  I ended up getting the first volume of Yamamoto Naoki’s Manga ‘Red’, which is about the United Red Army, and Jo bought the next volume of her basketball manga.  I will have to buy the rest of Red for an upcoming paper on contemporary representations of left wing terrorism in late 1960s/1970s Japan.  I also picked up a collection of Ozu films for £20, which cant be bad.

So you DID get something I hear you say (yes yes I realise nobody is reading this but I am using the phrase as a literary device.  Literature, pah! I hear you say…see?) but no, we bought these things in Akihabara, which is only a couple of stops away on the train from Ueno.

My wife’s foot looks really sore.

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AIJ, Bankruptcy and Pensions in Japan

A recent NHK special detailed the challenges facing the Japanese pension system. The programme stared with a discussion of the effects of the gigantic losses made by the AIJ pension fund, which recently lost around 200 billion yen, affecting 84 pension co-operatives that represent 880,000 employees.

The programme explained the AIJ scandal, its impact on the pension system and the future of pensions in Japan with a combination of classic Japanese television styrofoam mockups, colourful bits of cardboard and (very poor) animation. The producers also drafted people in to sit and represent the different socio-economic groups affected. As we can see from the following graphic, Freeters (those damn young-uns with their job hopping and such), salarymen (and women) and the elderly are all represented:

On the whole they were not allowed to smile, although this lady broke the rule.  She is the only one getting any cash though so I suppose it is to be expected:

The reason for this blog post is just to check that I have followed the logic of the pension system and how the collapse of pension funds can lead to corporate bankruptcies. I think this is also a good example of how policy enacted to protect public interests can have the exact opposite effect, although a combination of reckless investment strategies on the part of some fund managers and the inherent unpredictability of the markets doesn’t help much. So without further ado…

Pension payments are made by both the company (kigyō nenkin) and the employee (jūgyō nenkin) with the idea being that the employee will be able to draw upon both in their retirement years. However, in the meantime companies can ‘borrow’ some of the employee contributions from the state to leverage their own investments, make more money and expand their businesses. This borrowed money can then be packaged up with the company contribution and invested with a pension fund such as the one managed by AIJ. Sometimes a number of small businesses will pool their pension pots in a co-operative, making the initial sum for investment greater and as such making even greater returns possible (more on this in a minute).

Ideally, the fund managers take the pension pot, invest it all over the place and return a profit. This would mean that the company could return the money they borrowed from the original employee pension payment to the state and make a tidy sum themselves. The fund managers would also get their cut. Everybody is happy, as illustrated by this graphic:

However, if for whatever reason (international financial crisis, fears over Europe, last year’s earthquake) the fund manager’s investment plans make a loss, the companies that invested in the fund would be unable to return the borrowed money to the state (the employee pension payments). In this case it is the responsibility of those companies to fill this hole using their own funds, which places them at risk of bankruptcy.  But if it all goes horribly wrong and it looks like the company cannot adequately fill in the hole without going bankrupt, it can decide to close the pension fund (kaisan). If it decides to do this the borrowed employee contributions still need to be paid back, but the company contributions can be written off. This means that the employees, on retirement, will be able to collect some of their pension from the state, but not all of it. However, it is very difficult for companies to close their pension funds like this because the Ministry of Health and Welfare is keen to protect company employees’ right to draw this company pension.

Now for those co-operatives, and its here that it gets scary.  Should a fund be closed another layer of complexity is added by the state’s method of reclaiming the deficit in payments caused by the initial pension fund losses. As stated above, it is usually the case that a number of companies pool their pension pots together and act as a co-operative. This co-op then has even more cash to hand over to the fund manager who is promising the big returns. But if the fund is subsequently closed due to huge losses, liability for repayment of those losses is spread out across the entire co-operative. Now the magic ingredient.  If one of these companies should be unable to keep up with the repayments and go bankrupt, their debt is distributed across the remaining companies, which puts further strain on their cash flow. In this situation it becomes more likely that some of the other companies will not be able to keep up with their payments and also collapse. Their debt is then distributed to the remaining liable companies and so on. In this way the collapse of the pension fund can set off a chain reaction, which has the potential to result in multiple bankruptcies. The paradoxical result of this system, which has been designed to safeguard the state pension, is that it could lead to all the money being lost.

So that is how a pension fund run amok (or any pension fund in today’s heady financial climate) can cause corporate bankruptcies in Japan. But the main challenge to the pension scheme is still the simple fact that the baby-boomer generation is about to retire while at the same time the Japanese birth rate remains well below that needed to maintain, let alone increase, the population of young workers. The Japanese system works by taking money paid into the system by workers and giving it directly to those receiving a pension. This worked fine when there was a surplus of payments, with the state able to pass payments onto retired people, while at the same time building up a cash reserve of around 150 chō (150,000,000,000,000) yen. However now that there is a deficit, the cash reserve is being used to top up pension payments. This can only happen for a finite amount of time: when the cash reserve is gone other ways of addressing the deficit will have to be found.

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Ha Ha! Theoretical physics is on my side!

My studies have recently taken me on a very interesting diversion into the world of knowledge. To be more specific: the ontological and epistemological assumptions that we use when we go about placing things in categories, so that we can do useful things such as talk about the world around us and compare stuff. When we are talking about Japanese identity we are also talking about the categories that separate ‘Japanese’ from ‘foreigner’ etc. Of course, these categories need to come from somewhere and in the case of Japan, John Clammer suggests that a lot comes from indigenous cosmologies (read Shinto and Buddhism) that have shaped the ways in which the Japanese think about basics such as inside and outside, purity and impurity etc.

But another, perhaps even more fundamental categorising element is language. I was lucky enough to get Steven Pinker’s excellent “The Stuff of Thought” for Christmas, which is a great book about how language and thought are interlinked. Although I am by no means a theoretical linguist, the idea of language determining how people see the world seems very rich: the immediate question being can learning another language allow one to think outside the confines of one’s own mother tongue? This has implications for my study: are Japanese who can speak foreign languages and foreigners who speak Japanese slowly modifying their respective world views in a way that is challenging hegemonic cultural understandings of each other?

The physics bit comes from this week’s New Scientist. In it there is an article entitled “Trapped in a World View” that reiterates and builds upon an argument made by Niels Bohr that: “it is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out about nature. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” (p. 42, my italics) The article suggests that Western European languages are getting in the way when it comes to understanding the latest in theoretical physics. Why is this? Well, it seems that the concepts that ideas such as string theory deals with are not wholly compatible with the basic mechanics of our language, which is made up of nouns acting on nouns in various ways using verbs. The author suggests, however, that different languages offer a ‘better’ set of categories for understanding the weird world of quantum mechanics, notably the Algonquian family of languages that have lots of verbs but little in the way of specific noun categories. In this world view the world is a set of processes that we are part of and the world is in a continued state of flux – quite close to the physicist’s own observations of particles that showed them to be more process than thing. What is stunning about this revelation is the fundamental importance of language – to the extent that the cutting edge of physics is only now (well, 1992) making insights into the universe that some of us on this planet have had access to from day one thanks to the language they grew up with. But here is the kicker. The author suggests that by studying other languages we may be able to break down categorical walls and address the limitations that they impose upon us. “The study of other types of languages opens us up to other world views, to complementary ways of speaking about the cosmos.” (p. 43) Back in the universe of me, I wonder if the same holds true for the world views that come with national identity.

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Filed under Japan, Language, Philosophy, Physics, politics, Reality, theory, Wierd

More artwork

Gareth just posted this on his facebook but I think it needs to be seen.

awesome.jpg

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