Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ancient Wonders and the Backward Worldview

I was watching Ancient Impossible on the History Channel and was struck by the hegemonic discourses it presented as self-evident truths. Particularly, the discourse of relativist historical valuation and the obfuscation of inequality were striking. The synopsis from the History Channel's website exhibits these two epistemic positionings:

"A mega factory is a modern invention--wrong--the ancients were the first to build these thousands of years ago. What was the incredible 16 wheel Roman automated factory in the south of France which could feed 12,500 people a day? How did the ancient Egyptians produce hundreds of vehicles of war every month? How did the Romans forge enough iron to equip an army, and mine enough gold to keep an economy afloat? With today's technology, this would be achievable, but how did the ancients do this thousands of years ago? We reveal the impossible ingenuity and techniques that made it possible for the ancients to have "Mega Factories" of their own" (Synopsis).

First, the rhetorical question about a 'modern invention' plays with conceptions of modernity and our supposed sense of superiority over previous generations of humans. The hidden interrogative of the first line and subsequent questions also serve as distracting clickbait - a genre for drawing attention by hiding pertinent facts from the reader. What is hidden is a false dichotomy - that a 'mega factory' in a primitive society is a sign of genius, instead of the mundane mark of scientific progress filtered through capitalism that it is today. This depiction ignores two things - first, it obfuscates the objectivity of science, wherein the materials and principles for these inventions and indeed any scientific breakthrough have always been hidden in plain sight, but are too often smothered by our obsession with earthly power acquisition or divine favour. It also ignores the destructive use to which the factory is put, but the reader cannot fail to notice that the subsequent examples are drawn from military industrialization, the very definition of scientific progress turned to destruction for political ends. War is not a wonder, but an aspect of human nature as 'achievable' now as it ever was, if society is willing to embrace its appetite for destruction and the waste of human potential it entails.

Second and more troubling, the programme erases from history the individuals dominated by the wasteful and unethical practices that lead to the creation of these 'wonders'. The narrator himself is ebullient about cathedrals and underground waterwheels, skipping over the excess spending on symbolic buildings of politicized religion and the hard reality of wheel-turning slaves dying in the dark. On a moral level, these advanced 'wonders' hardly seem worth the ethical costs they demand, considering their flimsiness when compared to modern buildings, and the inequality between those who created the cathedral or water wheel and those who carried bricks or walked in the dark should force us to question the 'wondrous' nature of these constructs.

This dichotomy leads to the major motif of the show - that these buildings and their creators were ahead of their time. This dangerously gets the reality backwards. These ancient societies, who turned their production to the destructive enterprise of war, who kept slaves, and whose genius inventors came from a small elite portion of the population, were in fact centuries behind where they should have been had they embraced democratic education for all, and the allocation of resources towards human progress. Pushing this narrative of 'wonders' puts forth what Foucault (2003) called an elite scientific discourse of war (50), one that uses the rightness of war, in this case symbolized by the 'wonders' which were no more than proto-capitalist mechanisms of war, and that silences the voices of those it dominates.

Put bluntly, when we look back wistfully at the 'ancients', we should see that it was precisely their moral retardation that held them back and prevented them from advancing themselves, and consequently us, further. Only educated elites could see where they should be and make 'wonders' that we surpass everyday in our more educated and equal world.

On the other hand, we in advanced countries have stopped making the wonders that came at breakneck pace since the Enlightenment, trading an inward-looking, comfortable post-scarcity lifestyle for resource exploitation of other parts and peoples of the planet, all enforced by unending wars. As futurist William Gibson (1995) famously quipped, "The future is here, it is just distributed unevenly" (Science, 11:55). What does this say about us and our moral advancement? Or more importantly, how will humans of the future see it?


Ancient Impossibles show site

Ancient Impossibles episode synopsis

"The Science in Science Fiction" on Talk of the Nation, NPR (30 November 1999), Timecode 11:55.

Foucault, Michel. (2003). Society Must Be Defended. New York: Picador.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Gender and Dreams: Japanese Payday Loans

See this picture?

These billboards are visible on my way to work every morning, when I walk from the Japanese Railway Osaka Station to switch trains at the Umeda Hankyu Railway Station. Both billboards are advertising Mobit, a payday loans company here in Kansai.

Both boards are variations on the same themes and images.

There is the face of actor Naoto Takenaka, best known for the smash hit film Shall We Dance? that inspired a remake starring Richard Gere. Takenaka's enlarged head stares wistfully out of the board, eyes piercing through circular-rimmed glasses, a fedora on his head, stubble on his chin and looking tanned and vigorous. Next to the Moa-like bust of Takenaka is a reduced halfshot of actress Natsuna in a red silk dress playing violin. Natsuna became an actress after being scouted for her beauty and became star of several TV dramas.

The contrast between the two images is strong. The man is dressed conservatively, even his eyes are covered. The woman is in red silk dress, arms, legs and head bare. Her clothing exudes femininity, openess, approachability, a red of strength and sexuality in direct opposition to his detached watcher's face and muted tones.

The genderized message is clear. Women need loans to be sexy and alive, to be and make the art the man appreciates. The loan allows the woman to be watched. The man conversely is deepened by the loan, made wiser and stylish, and in the position of observer.

Men are targeted in another way - the billboards can also be read as inviting men to become 'sugar daddies', patrons of women who become works of art.

Does this approach match the population of users? Let us consider that the top three users of such loans are women 40 - 49 years old (25.8%), women 20-39 (20.9%), and men aged 40-59 (19.1%). This 'double targeting' of middle-aged men and elision of middle-aged women, who are both already a large customer base and not considered suitable for an ad based on female sex and youth, may thus be read as an attempt to enlarge the market share of middle-aged men, who will incur both their own costs and the women they support.

Public advertisements are texts that speak to all people, appealing to their hopes and fears in the attempt to create necessity for their product. In the case of payday loans, they appeal to culturally ingrained discourses of gender relations that require finanial capital to maintain. In the case of Japan especially, the cultural acceptance of 借金 (shakkin or borrowed money/debt) in novels, movies, films, as well as the 'life stories' of executives and entertainment district workers is huge and thus impacts the psyche of the average Japanese, who sometimes kill, die, or sell themselves to pay off their or other's debts.

This is a larger topic for another time.


Mobit homepage.

Nippon Statistics Center. (2012). Shakingyou riyousha ni kansuru chousa kenkyuu [Research survey about payday loan users].

Yahoo talent informtion website, Natsuna.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Japanese Flinch Games

Riding Japanese transit (JR + Osaka subway) for five hours daily the past two years, I had lots of time for people watching.

One thing I observed on a daily basis was the Japanese 'flinch game.' Usually participants were two males, students from elementary to high school, although the occasional undergraduate pairing could be seen. One participant would take the role of 'attacker', the other 'defender.' Attacker would stand in a relaxed stance, hands weaving in front towards Defender. He would make taunts towards Defender, while saying words like "omae na" (this guy!) or "yaru zo" (here I come), if memory serves, before making feints and attacks in the form of pokes, prods, smacks, or light punches.

Defender would be clinging to overhead rack or strap, legs closed at knees to protect groin, free hand out front or across chest with elbow towards Attacker. Some would make protestations like "yamero" (cut it out), but most would be quietly twisting body or arm to deflect attacks.

On occasion, Defender would overtly block a feint, hit back, defend against a false attack, scream or otherwise do something that broke some unwritten rule. Defender would then lower defenses and submit to a punishment smack or pinch from Attacker.

Both Attacker and Defender would be laughing throughout the flinch game. As many of these games as I witnessed, I could never discern the rules to the interaction, nor did I ask questions as I so wanted. It reminded me of Fox's (1991) early 20th century anthropology of fights among Irish laborers, about which he commented, "it was not chaos and mayhem, but ritual in the simplest sense. It was entirely rules-governed, though no one could have told me what the rules were - in the same way that language is rules-governed" (153-154)

I estimate having seen near or over a hundred such interactions in my travels spanning 5 days a week for 30 weeks over two years. I wish I had had the energy and equipment to film or record these flinch games.

In terms of discourse, I suspect a few were in operation in the regulation of the game.

First would be the discourse of senpai-kohai, or superior-inferior that dominates so much interaction in Japan's vertical society. Although as mentioned I never talked to participants, I strongly suspect senpais were mostly Attacker, while Defender was a kohai role. The subjectification and reinforcement functions of these roles is clear.

Second, the changing Japanese definition of violence is another discourse on display here. Japanese popular culture has several instances of interaction that would be termed 'violence' from a western standpoint but are not considered such here. There is the 気合い入れ (kiaiire) or strong pat on the back with an open hand or even kendo sword to get one motivated for a contest or trial. There is also the binta, a face slap between friends that is met with laughter, as well as the many types of headslaps visible in Japanese manzai comedy routines. Rapidly disappearing is the genkotsu (knuckle to head) , a staple 'education technique' I witnessed in the countryside during my teaching days there in the 1990s, but which is rapidly coming under the heading of 'corporal punishment' in urban centres such as Osaka. Normalized or acceptable corporal punishment at schools is still a problem in Japan (Kobayashi 1997).

The question is, what role does the flinch game serve? How is it regulated, and what happens when the Attacker transgresses with too much real instead of ritual or symbolic violence? I think this last ambiguity is where power harassment and other forms of violence propagate in Japanese society, and need to be looked at in detail.


Fox, Robin. (1991). Encounter with Anthropology. London: Transaction.

Kobayashi, Noboru et al. (1997). Prevention of Childhood Injuries: Intentional and unintentional. 9th Asian Congress of Paediatrics

Friday, April 1, 2016

Looking at 'Die Japan'

Today I’ll be taking a look at an infamous blog post in Japan, entitled “Preschool Failure, Die Japan!”

The post appeared February 15th, in the season in which Japanese mothers search for schools to put their children for April start. It was brought up in government debates, but dismissed by PM Abe as an anonymous and unreliable source. This was met with protests of Japanese wearing signs saying “It was me!” expressing solidarity with the original poster. The Abe regime responded by launching a new day care plan and providing new funding, which was a factor in Japan’s largest postwar budget, despite poor economic performance.

Currently, I identify three ‘debates’ that dominate Japanese public discourse, as is evident by their appearance in media and public protests. There is the nuclear power discourse, in Japanese datsu-genpatsu (脱原発) involving such issues as government response to the Fukushima disaster, as well as Japanese use of nuclear issues. Second, there is the ‘Militarizing Japan’ discourse, centered around kennpo-kaizenn (憲法改善), which would allow collective self-defense and increase Japan’s role in foreign peace-keeping missions for the UN. Last, is the problem of what officials call Japan’s Aging Society Issue, or shoushika-mondai 少子化問題. Although the government uses this term from its viewpoint of having to pay for an increasing number of retirees with less tax income from working age people due to decline in births, the flip side of this is the popular discourse of lack of support for child-bearing families specifically, including lack of daycare, lack of support for mothers returning to the workforce, and virtual non-existence of paternity leave or support., This latter problem and its entailed viewpoint is the stance of the ‘Die Japan’ poster.

Yet neither of the previous two discourses have attained the change of the latter. First, both issues are too broad for popular support. The nuclear discourse especially stretches from Fukushima response to waste disposal, nuclear power regulation, and allowing US nuclear weapons into Japan. Next, both issues require specialist knowledge, which prevents many Japanese from commenting on them. Finally, both are separate from daily life for many Japanese, and thus are beyond topic of discussion. In this way, in the debates on nuclear power and Japanese military, the official discourse is dominant, and no organized or effective opposition can be raised against the status quo. This is not the case with the third debate, where the government discourse of supporting women is contradicted by the everyday experience of many Japanese, as the protests inspired by 'Die Japan' indicate.

In other words, ‘Die Japan’ is part of an anti-discourse, challenging and contesting the official discourse of adequate government support for women returning to work. There have been other responses to this problem, such as the appearance of companies that allow daycare on site, allow flexible working hours, and the rise of ikumen(育メン)or men who step outside the traditional work role to take a greater part in raising children. Although CDA is generally used to analyze official texts for examples of strategic domination, it works equally well for uncovering how anti-discourses challenge existing domination, and this is how I will use it to unpack ‘Die Japan.’

The ‘Die Japan!’ post is a polemic, a frenetic mix of tough talk and political rhetoric. Government ‘buzzwords’ from the Abe plans are thrown back at politicians, as well as their own scandals. In terms of genre, it is best classified as guchi  (愚痴)、best translated as 'grumbling.' This is a uniquely Japanese form of communication, in which the calmness and objectivity that characterizes discussion which might be termed 'hot debate' in other cultures is utterly dropped in favour of a no-holds barred critique of the object. This critique is based on the subject's bitter personal experience and wry observation or even mocking of the object's discourse. 'Guchi' is usually limited to family or personal acquaintances. It is thus the very antithesis of the studied and serene speeches of PM Abe, both in tone and substance.

A word about genre of social messaging is also relevant here.