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Sadako Sasaki Reaches Across Borders

Brentwood Elementary School, Austin, TexasHere at last was someplace venerable, a place hidden in a high valley in Yunnan, far away from the destructive gaze of Beijing. Until recently, that is. The moment Lijiang was declared an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, the gold rush was on as thousands of Han Chinese made their way to this corner of Yunnan Province to earn their living as proprietors of tick-tacky souvenir emporiums.
– J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet China

I had similar concerns when someone emailed me several months back asking if the Shikoku pilgrimage should be considered as a UNESCO site. Granted, Japanese don’t exactly hound you at every footstep in the midst of touristy areas, but these sites can still be rather overrun by tacky souvenir stands.

Will every place in the world suffer the same fate as they get mentioned in Lonely Planet, designated a UNESCO world heritage site, or written about in a best seller? A casual reference can leave an area untouched, or inundate it with picture-hungry tourists.

It’s been two years since I hiked in Shikoku, and I enjoyed it immensely. I wonder what the trail would look like in ten years with a UNESCO endorsement? English language assistance at the first temple? Routes marked clearly? Half the fun is in rising to the challenge: learning the Japanese vocabulary for the clothing you need, buying the books showing the procedure at each temple and the trail to follow… Take all that away, and you end up with something not much better than Lijiang.

This is significant news. According to the Japan Times…

The Lower House, by a 263-167 vote Thursday, passed a bill to (1) recognize brain death as actual death and (2) allow organ transplants from a brain-dead person of any age if his or her family members approve and if the person had not openly rejected the possibility of becoming a donor.

The bill would revise the 1997 Organ Transplant Law, which allows organ donations from a brain-dead person at least 15 years old only if that person had indicated his or her intention of becoming a donor in writing, such as on a donor’s card, and if his or her family members approve the organ donation.

One of the big issues surrounding organ donation in Asian countries is the consensus that brain death is not actually death. Add to that the idea of making the body impure by removing what is naturally there (applies to accepting organs as well), and you have an idea of the current Japanese policy: many go to China to accept less-than-reputable transplant procedures from prisoners, as Kenichiro Hokamura did in March 2006. The only other option available to those in need up to this point had been to legally join the UNOS list in the US, which could take months or years to receive an organ.

I have no idea what prompted this sudden change in policy, but it’s especially good news for sick kids under the age of 15.

A film has just been posted to Hulu about the way Japanese play baseball. Check it out. And remember, read You Gotta Have Wa.
(My apologies to my Japan readers, but Hulu is only available in the states)If you’ve been monitoring my Tweets, you may have noticed I’ve been searching the Twittersphere (tell me I didn’t make that up) for information on the eclipse ceremony on Akusekijima (悪石島).

Akusekijima is one of the really small islands in the Tokara chain, south of Kagoshima city and easily reached by several hours on a ferry. I had the fortune of visiting Nakanoshima (中之島) two years ago, and remain transfixed on the culture of these small islands: Ioujima, Tanegashima, Yakushima, Amami Oshima

But this eclipse ceremony has been something I’ve always wanted to see, having lived in Kagoshima and constantly seeking escape on secluded islands.

This year will mark another anniversary of the ceremony, to be held on July 22nd (if you look at the eclipse animation, you’ll notice that Akusekijima lies dead center). It may be too late for accommodation, but see if they allow camping and book yourself a plane or ferry ticket ASAP. I’d venture to say you won’t find tribal dances with men in giant wooden masks and grass skirts anywhere else in the country.

Official website about the ceremony (日本語で)
Akusekijima information and lodging
Onsen on Akusekijima

Inspired by the parody on The Tonight Show, I’ve decided to occasionally post a few selected tweets from my Japan followers, especially if there’s any interesting news going on that warrants extra attention. For example…

Japan’s TV Asahi in major faux pas admits photo aired of DPRK heir apparent Kim Jong-un was a South Korean construction worker.

Remember, add me on Twitter for the latest Japan updates, and my progress training for the marathon.

I’ve pretty much backed off my coverage of Debito over the past year. This is not just due to the fact that I’ve left Japan, but also because I started to disagree with his tactics. True, I think he makes a valid case for the rights of foreigners in many cases:

– Children born to international couples, i.e. what are their rights, will they experience discrimination as a Japanese born in Japan just because they don’t “look Japanese”?
– Not sitting still in many English schools because you’re fresh off the boat and uncertain how to react when your rights are stripped away or you feel more like a pet than an employee. This isn’t limited to Japan; many English schools across Asia, South America, and Africa draw you in with empty promises of fair wages, benefits, and decent housing. There are some cases where employers will “request” to hold on to your passport while you’re working for them: they have no right to do this, of course.

I don’t really have any strong objections to the new gaijin cards with IC chips when it comes to first-time visa holders and short-term residents. But, as is often the case, the rules apply to everyone, from permanent residents with families to American douchebags fresh out of college looking to get laid and drink too much while blowing off work at eikaiwa

I believe Debito fulfills a need in Japanese society, by “injecting a different view into the debate.” He brings awareness to issues that many Japanese have been complacent about and many foreign residents are ignorant about. But I honestly think he’s becoming too much of an extremist (I hate putting labels on things like FoxNews, but I need something).

The key to understanding Debito’s line of reasoning (and yes, he has good reasons for thinking the way he does) is understanding racism in Japan. Strictly speaking, Japan is not a racist society. I say again, Japan is not a racist society. The reason for this is we need a new definition to define the type of discrimination which occurs far too often in Japan. Japanese people don’t treat foreigners differently because they have strong objections to white or black skin; they treat them differently because they are not Japanese. They don’t fit into society’s rules and therefore, must be treated like they don’t belong. Ironically, this is more of an attempt to make foreigners conform; it doesn’t work, because we can’t (very similar to the mentality behind ijime, bullying).

So let’s talk about this. Many people around the world, Japan included, are completely openly racist: yelling at those with different skin tones, screaming slurs with offensive language, causing physical harm in the worst situations. Dave Chappelle explains it far better than I ever could (rated R by KPIJ):

More often than not, what we see in Japan is “closed” racism, occurring almost behind closed doors and making foreigners second guess what actually happened. When you feel like you’re the victim of racial discrimination in Japan, Japanese don’t outright say things like “I’m doing this because you’re a foreigner.” More often that not, we’d get a calm, rational explanation:

“From now on, we’re going to take your fingerprints every time you cross our borders.”

“May I ask why?”

“No, you may not. But if you must, it is because we fear terrorists may attempt to attack our beautiful Japanese cities.”

“I see. Have any foreign terrorists ever attacked Japan?”


“Even if they did, wouldn’t they be likely to not have their fingerprints on file?”

“Well… you see…”

“Isn’t it true the only terrorist attacks in Japan have been committed by Japanese?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“So if you discover this to be true, you will be fingerprinting everyone, including Japanese?”

“Of course not. They are Japanese.”

Or, in the work environment…
(approximation from Fear and Trembling, Amélie Nothomb)

“You served the tea as if you spoke perfect Japanese!”

“But, Saito-san, I do speak it reasonably well.”

“Well, from now on, you no longer speak Japanese.”


“You must forget Japanese!”

That’s a rather extreme example, but still, it does describe the essence of “closed” racism; Amélie didn’t have a problem at her company because she was foreign, or a woman (well, that may be debatable). She had a problem because, despite her best efforts, she was incapable of acting, thinking, and looking like a Japanese. Some people who read blogs on Japan hear stories about Japanese on trains moving to avoid sitting next to foreigners; overhearing Japanese coworkers at English schools speaking about foreign teachers in Japanese to their faces in the belief they won’t be understood; being turned away at hot springs because it would make other people “feel uncomfortable” in the bath; policemen demanding to see gaijin cards after foreign residents innocently approach the box asking for directions; and the like. Rarely do we hear accounts of foreigners being beaten or verbally assaulted as African-Americans might in the American south (oh yes, plenty of open racism down there).

In this sense, closed racism is practically institutionalized in Japan by trying to make foreigners conform to the group (an impossible task when we can’t “look Japanese”), but it is by no means a certainty. Nor is Japan limited to closed racism. The media does its part by focusing a great deal of attention on crimes committed by foreigners in Japan; the police by issuing media instructing the public that foreigners are the #1 cause of their problems (terrorism, crime, SARS, swine flu…); schools by not providing enough information and adopting more of an attitude like “foreigners are different from us and I find that funny, don’t you?”

Maybe I’m wrong. Thoughts?

Thanks to Japan Probe for the video.

Old news, but still pretty cool. These rice field designs can be seen over Inakadate, Aomori.

Apparently, I’ve been declared an “expert” on Japan by the Matador Network. I respectfully disagree; so much more to learn.

I love this. It’s been months since I reported on a huge billboard the National Unification Advisory Council had placed in the Dallas/Fort Worth area concerning the island of Dokdo, east of Korea and west of Japan. Unsurprisingly, it is claimed by both nations in their attempts to prove their commitment to equal opportunity towards territories: “We don’t discriminate; we’ll lay claim to the most useless, non-strategic, barren piece of rock near our borders. Why would we want a nice tropical island like Fiji, when we can have Dokdo?”

Well, however you believe this should play out between Japan and Korea, I think I’ve seen the strangest PR tactic ever committed by a nation in an attempt to draw popular support: restaurant names. I’ve encountered two Korean restaurants (furthermore, sushi bars) named after this elusive territory: Dokdo Island Restaurant in Dallas and Dokdoya in Austin.

It appears that Koreans understand the American mentality better than most of the international community; the way to our blind-eye politics is through our stomachs…

“Dokdo… oooh, it must be Korean territory! I ate the sushi at a Dokdo restaurant and it was so good! The Japanese don’t have a Dokdo restaurant!” [author’s note: as far as I know]

Japan, I urge you: YOU MUST FIGHT THIS INJUSTICE. No, not with a strongly worded letter or an amendment to your pacifist constitution. You need to establish as many “Takeshima” name-based restaurants as you possibly can in the US. Only by having Americans associate “your” territory with a fine selection of fish and sake will you ensure international support and fervor. I’m waiting, Japan, chopsticks in hand.

The Territorial Dispute Over Dokdo
Dokdo Takeshima Island

In addition to Japan Discovered’s Tweetchat, Lonely Planet’s own Thorn Tree Travel Forum is a great place to get quick Q&As on Japan.…it doesn’t mean that China doesn’t have an outlet to display some good, old-fashioned nationalist fervor. And the country that currently finds itself the target for this vehemence is Japan. It’s an anger that the Chinese government has learned to finely calibrate. On most days, newspapers will carry stories highlighting the villainy and treacherousness of the Japanese. Indeed, these anti-Japanese stories can appear in some surprising. Waiting in line for the cable cat to see the Great Wall at Badaling? Bored? Looking for something to read while a hundred people cut in line in front of you? Well, the government has thoughtfully created a display highlighting Japanese wartime atrocities in the area. Now and then, such as when new history textbooks in Japan are issued sugarcoating the country’s role in World War II, the Chinese government will allow the country to erupt in righteous indignation, then backpedal furiously when the protests threaten to spiral out of control.
– J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet China

Today marked the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and I thought it appropriate to shift my focus on relations between Japan and China. Although the two share strong economic ties, I have a feeling there’s still plenty of hatred over the war, particularly Nanjing and the ways Japan downplays its involvement (e.g. referring to the entire affair as a mere “incident”, a footnote). China does have a point – just ask a Japanese high school student about the war and see what he thinks; is Japan ashamed of its actions, or ashamed of losing?

Discovering Japan One Tweet at a Time

The first ever Twitter chat about travel in and around Japan will be hosted by Shane Sakata of The Nihon Sun and Honor Dargan of Tokyotopia on Friday, June 5, 2009
at 12 noon Japan Standard Time.

Have questions? We call Japan home and want to help you plan the trip of a lifetime and we’ll help you find that special something to add to your itinerary.

Check it out in exactly 23 hours, and take a look at their website for more information.

Let’s take a look back, shall we?

In May 2005, I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering. I was dating an all-American girl. I ran my first marathon in 3:00:57. I celebrated graduation with an overpriced dinner, mounds of chocolate cake, and a night on 6th Street in Austin. Job prospects were many. Life was good.

In June 2006, I departed DFW airport to spend a year in Japan teaching English with The AEON Corporation. It was to be my first great experience living in a completely foreign culture. I knew no Japanese. My knowledge of the culture was limited to expat blogs and works of fiction.

In June 2007, I achieved my dream of spending a relaxing weekend in a traditional Japanese hot springs ryokan when I visited Kurokawa Onsen with my Japanese girlfriend. I had just secured a job as an international liaison with Shin Nippon Biomedical Laboratories in beautiful Kagoshima. My Japanese was improving. My travel virginity was broken in Sapporo. The southern islands of Japan awaited my presence.

In June 2008, I had just wrapped everything up in Kagoshima and took the shinkansen to Fukuoka to spend a birthday relaxing in my favorite capsule hotel while awaiting the ferry that would take me from Osaka to Shanghai. My Japanese residency was soon to be at an end; I would travel by train from Shanghai to Beijing to visit my brother, then ride the rails again to Hong Kong and catch a flight to Phuket, Thailand. For the next two months, I would be living in Thailand working with the Thai Mueang Volunteers. My wrist was broken, then healed.

June 2nd, 2009. A day that will forever live in infamy, as I cross the threshold from someone in his mid-twenties to officially be a boy in his late-twenties. In an attempt to experience three summers inside of a single year, I left working on a Buddhist monastery in New Zealand to return to Austin, Texas and will try my hand at hosting Couchsurfers rather than being one. I ran 10K this morning, ate a relaxing brunch at Magnolia Cafe, and enjoyed a nice custom sandwich from Whole Foods. Tonight, I will get a shiatsu treatment from a Japanese massage therapist living in Austin, and spend the evening with a few friends. A return to New Zealand may be in the works for September, and I am still seeking employment in Hokkaido

Life is still good. Every day is friday.

My experience “losing my travel virginity”, so to speak, is now published on The Traveler’s Notebook. I really attribute this moment to the start of a better experience for me in Japan. Check it out if you have a moment.