Monday, November 17, 2008

Readings for November 17, 2008

We'll start with some interesting news on crime:
"Where can I get a bag?" there has been a recent spate of arrests involving marijuana use here in Japan, most notably being the two sumo wrestlers that were arrested. If I understand correctly, it is not illegal to cultivate marijuana in Japan if you are a Shinto priest. It's not that Shinto advocates the smoking of marijuana, but the use of the plant is necessary for certain ritual purposes. By far, the most abused drugs in Japan are alcohol and amphetamines. In fact, amphetamines were such a problem in the wake of the War in the Pacific that it is illegal to have over the counter cold medicines like Nyquil or Sudafed here because of their potential use in manufacturing meth.

The Elderly Life of Crime - Japan's population is becoming lopsided, with the fastest-growing section of the population being those over the age of 65. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer babies are being born. This means that the university system here is becoming bankrupt, and that health care and social security measures for the elderly are being eroded because the State is reducing the funding for these programs. In response, more and more of the elderly are becoming criminals. I am having hard time finding a better example of why poverty is such a major concern. Typically poverty looks like distended bellies in a remote part of the globe, but the reality is that poverty is pernicious and ubiquitous. And sometimes a rational response to poverty is crime. Being a prisoner here provides not only three hots and a cot, but it also provides a reliable schedule of tasks to be completed and a consistent relationship between those that are jailed and those that treat them within the criminal justice system. Many of these criminal elderly lack precisely these cornerstones to personhood as conceived here in Japan.

Google and the Battle for Nihongo - Google Trends, that fun-filled zeitgeist site is doing well here in Japan. I think it's really interesting to see the rise of English education in Japan and the concomitant rise in katakana-izing Japanese. For those that don't know, the Japanese have a special syllabary (they don't use an alphabet, but combinations of consonants and vowels) so that they can recreate the sounds of foreign languages. As an example my name is Paul but the Japanese don't have an "L" sound in their syllabary so to get as close as they can to my name it becomes Po-Ru. Once you know how to read katakana you would be amazed at how much you can get done here in Japan. That doesn't mean that you can write very much, though. For reading and speaking, katakana is very powerful; for writing and more "adult" reading you must really know hiragana and kanji. Hiragana are the native Japanese syllabary, taken from Chinese characters, and it is from these that katakana are developed. Kanji are the Japanese versions of Chinese characters (hanji). Kanji are awesome for communicating complicated ideas and are simply necessary to be considered as educated as a high school student. But, katakana are used to communicate foreign words (and so, ideas) and this exoticism is tres chic among the younger Japanese. So, even native things get katakana-ized but there is the potential erosion of the use of kanji which is a star in the constellation of cultural artifacts, like Shinto, or natto, that makes the Japanese "Japanese." This "Japanese"-ness is a constant talking point among the Japanese. As an American it's hard for me to relate because when I learn about America I learn about 250 years - the Japanese learn about a period that is nearly ten times as long.

- It seems counter-intuitive that a society that stresses the collective as the Japanese do should simultaneously be so fanatical about the local. The best paradigm for understanding this phenomena (again, part of what makes Japan so "Japanese") is Thomas Kasulis' Intimacy or Integrity. In the above article we learn about the Wakayama Prefecture's fishing cooperative that is trying to promote interest in their region by selling New Year's (a family time like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined) greeting cards made out of dried squid. Dried squid is like the beef jerky of America - ubiquitous.

And Speaking of Processed Meats That Are Ubiquitous in Okinawa - Aww, Spam. The world economy is in a profound shift (which looks like apocalypse for Wall Street) and when the U.S. has to tighten its belt, it also buys a ton of canned meat. This canned meat tendency goes wherever poorer Americans go and Okinawa has become a major Spam-eating center.