The Simple Joy of Bashing A Culture

https://player.vimeo.com/video/28627261

Mystery of the Missing Million from Phil Rees on Vimeo.

Germans love Japan. I live in Düsseldorf, home to one of the largest Japanese expat communities in Europe, and it shows. There's an annual Japan Day, a cultural institute (the Eko-Haus) — complete with temple, garden, bell, and a traditional Japanese house – and excellent Japanese food everywhere you turn.

When I visited Japan, most of the other tourists seemed to be from Northern Europe. Like me, they all raved about the discreet hospitality, the cleanliness, the attention to detail, the love of traditional handicrafts, the organization, the quiet, the world-class museums, the excellent fresh food everywhere, and all the many other things that make Japan such an intense pleasure to visit (seriously, drop everything and go now). Northern Europeans have an instinctive preference for cleanliness, order, and discretion, and they immediately sense they are among kindred spirits in the Japanese. And if you think that's a crude generalization based on outdated national stereotypes, loosen up. We're not in a seminar room here.

But of course these are only surface impressions. They obscure two central facts: First, many of the things cultured Europeans love about Japan (the tea ceremony, Noh theatre, Kabuki) are like organ music in Europe: followed only by a tiny, graying minority of aficionados.

Second, Japanese society overall is in long, possibly near-terminal decline.

Which brings us to an interesting 2007 book about Japan written by an American journalist who spent years there: Shutting Out The Sun: How Japan Created its Own Lost Generation (book excerpt and interview here). The first part of the book deals with the bizarre Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori: young people, 80% male, who simply drop out of society altogether. They cannot take the pressure to conform, the endless high-stakes testing, the cram schools, the bitter rivalry to get into the best colleges, and the myriad other pressures of Japanese life. 

So they simply drop out, like Bartleby. They retire to a room in their parents' house, and never leave. They usually change their sleep schedule to stay inside during the day and leave, if at all, only at night. They don't go to school, don't work, just sketch or read or play video games or watch porn. Their parents allow them to stay and provide them with food and other necessities, and often cover up the fact that their son or daughter has become a recluse to save face.

The defining factor of hikikomori is that they're not mentally ill. They are also usually of above-average intelligence, since it is these children who are under the most pressure to perform. Usually, their reclusion starts after some stinging failure (failed exam, university rejection, bullying) along the assembly-line route of school-college-job. These people have simply decided to reject a society which they see as forcing them through a bunch of meaningless and terrifying hoops, all in service to a failing and irrelevant social model which nobody seems to be able to change. Estimates are that there are between 500,000 and a million hikikomori in Japan. The consensus seems to be that this precise phenomenon happens only in Japan.

The author, Michael Zielenziger (who speaks Japanese) interviews a number of hikikomori and the counselors and psychologists who try to help them. What's refreshing about his book is that Z pulls no punches. He obviously likes the Japanese, has enormous admiration for their many achievements as a society. He's not simply spewing a rant, he backs up many of his assertions with interviews, statistics, and other staples of good journalism. And many of the harshest indictments come from Japanese themselves. But still, to use an appropriately American phrase, he tears Japan a new asshole

American and Japanese psychologists have demonstrated that when faced with a social situation they do not like, Americans readily try to influence others to change their behavior. Japanese, by contrast, are far more likely to adjust their own behavior to the demands others make upon them, to accommodate the wishes of the collective….

The group harmony this homogeneous people struggled so obsessively to achieve—through the pressure to conform, the resistance to criticism, the repression of dissenters, and a desperate, almost pathological need to keep “outsiders” at bay—carried a dark and destructive seed. Not only did this system seriously constrain individuality to the point of “infantilizing” many of it own people, effectively robbing them of their own identities; it also stripped the nation of its ability to adjust to the unforeseen changes in the world and in business practices that the inexorable process of globalization was now stirring up. Until this moment, Japan had been able to appropriate the trappings of the modern world without creating for itself a critical consciousness, a truly democratic sensibility, or a vision of how a “unique” people might interact easily and equally with the rest of the world. “The essence of Japan is to have no essence,” one famous Japanese political scientist concluded, arguing Japanese had never learned to properly differentiate between the instrumental and the ideal. His society, he said, was like a pot crammed with octopus, unable to discern a world separate from its own outsized tentacles. By analogy, he suggested, Western societies, where Judeo-Christian values had taken hold, or the Chinese culture, where Confucianism remains central, more resembled the sort of whisk broom used in a traditional tea ceremony, in which a sturdy, unitary wooden base splays itself into a finely separated tip, with space for each long and articulated tine of bamboo fiber to stand free and apart from the others….

As I got to understand it better, I saw that, rather than a vibrant free market, Japan actually functions more like a highly controlled, quasi-socialist system where bureaucrats feel they know best how to organize the system of production, and have the power to make life unpleasant for those who don't agree….

Predictably, the book has stimulated as many howls of outrage as it has nods of understanding. Which is a good thing.

Polite society these days enforces an unspoken code of never criticizing other cultures. You wouldn't want to be accused of cultural imperialism, or Orientalism, or condescension, or any of the other mortal sins of orthodox politically-correct sensitivity. But these taboos do what taboos always do: reduce everything to mush.

Some cultures are just more successful at certain things than others. In fact, some cultures are more successful at almost everything than others (here's lookin' at you, Scandinavia!). Everyone who's lived abroad understands this. And a bracing, well-informed critique is more honest and useful than a bunch of feel-good pabulum. The book was published in Japan. Many of his interviewees told him, they would never have spoken to a Japanese journalist, since they would be ashamed to discuss embarrassing secrets with someone who shared the same complex social codes.

It's not the be-all and end-all, but is a refreshingly blunt and lively book. Perhaps one day I'll write something similar about Germany. Germany, I love you, but I know just about all of your dirty secrets….

Iceland is a Prosperous American Suburb

If there is one thing the world has enough of, it's "why can't we all be like Iceland?" articles. Here's the latest:

I wanted to know about the kind of society Iceland had cultivated and- what its outlooks were. How did women and men see each other and themselves? What was their character like compared to other countries I had lived in? Were women more confident, men more open-minded, children better cared for? Was life there, in any way, more balanced?

I suspected I would find enlightened ideas that benefit society, not just business, although I found that the two weren’t mutually exclusive. I spoke to innovators across genders in education, health, industry, science and the arts whose ideas exceeded my imagination.

And guess what? The author's gee-whiz tour of Iceland finds all sorts of wonderfully progressive policies. Paid family leave for daddies! Mandatory quotas for women! The world's first openly gay female head of state! Great schools filled with sensitive, caring social-pedagogues! And so on, and so on.

Many will remember probably the most stomach-turning piece of virtue-signaling the world has ever seen — the Facebook campaign in which 11,000 Icelanders volunteered their homes to Syrian refugees, under the founder's motto: "They are our future spouses, best friends, the next soul mate, a drummer for our children's band, the next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finishes the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, a fireman, a television host. People of whom we'll never be able to say in the future: 'Your life is worth less than my life.'"

Are you dabbing the second tear of kitsch from your eyes yet?

But guess what? None of those 11,000 virtue-signalers ever had to make good on their promise, and of course they knew that full well, since the government has a cap of a whopping 500 refugees a year.

Whoops! Did I just write 500? Sorry, the actual number is 50. Fifty. Per year.

But the empty promises of all those smug Icelanders earned Iceland yet another round of fawning publicity. The article continues the typical litany of the nauseatingly goody-two-shoes oh-so-gentle progressive paradise:

Icelandic society is proactively striving for gender equality, which sits at the centre of progress, and there are policies in place to promote gender equality in all spheres of society. Many stepping stones have led to the current gender equality legislation, including the use of gender quotas. As proven by the need for affirmative action policies in the USA, we are not yet evolved enough to choose fairly of our own volition.

After this rather sinister aside, the author does point to some of the more gloomy facts about Iceland, including this: "Iceland recently outranked the US in adult obesity (67.1 percent of Icelandic adults are overweight or obese compared to 66.3 percent of US adults)." Ha! Take that, Icelandic self-image!

You know what Iceland is? Iceland is a rich American suburb. (Or a German suburb, for that matter.) The population of Iceland is a laughably miniscule 330,000 people. And Iceland is 93% Icelandic, and 98% Northern European. Further, Iceland's median national IQ is 101, placing it 6th in the world. If you go to any large well-off suburb of the United States, you will see Icelandic living conditions: orderly homes, quiet evenings, honest officials, clean schools, smart students, modern gender roles, almost no violence, nice people, organic food, wooden toys, recycling, wine importers, futuristic espresso machines, tasteful earth-toned natural-fiber clothing, clean-lined architecture, yoga studios, women earning more than men, soccer, the whole nine yards. The one difference will be that the American suburb, although majority white, will still be more ethnically diverse than the Nordic purist's fantasy of Iceland.

Iceland is a fine place. I plan to visit one day, and I'm sure I'll be as enchanted as everyone else seems to be. But the world should stop looking at Iceland for lessons, because Iceland is a suburb, not a model society than can be replicated at will anywhere else.

Every European Tourist Should See This Map

Before any visit to the United States, Europeans should be shown the map below, which accurately shows the relative position of the US and Europe on the earth:

Where the US is latitude

This is why it will be much hotter than you expected. This is why there will be air-conditioning everywhere. It's because just about everywhere in the US is a hell of a lot hotter than where you come from, for a much longer during the year. And because the US is rich enough to afford air-conditioning.

Simply accept these facts, and you'll have a fine old time!

The Grotesque Mystery of Train Masturbators

Here's a recent police press release from Erfurt (g, my translation):

Yesterday, shortly before midnight, a 21-year-old female traveler spoke to a member of the federal police in the Erfurt central station. She seemed frightened, and told the officer that she had been harassed by a man in the train from Kassel. After he had stared at her for long time, she moved to a different seat. The man followed her, sat on the seat opposite, and began manipulating his penis. He did not open his pants.

After she got out in Erfurt to change trains, the man followed her. For this reason, she approached the police officer, who located the suspect in the train station. The suspect is a 31-year-old Iranian national. Because he could not prove his identity, the officer detained him. It is also suspected that the Iranian is in the country illegally.

And here's a picture of another alleged train masturbator from Cologne, whom the police are actively seeking: 

536497953

This guy is suspected of staring at, and masturbating in front of (g), a group of children from 6 to 8 years old in a Cologne streetcar. The children were engaged in Sternsingen ('star-singing') the German version of Christmas caroling. This involves dressing up as the Three Wise Men, singing traditional tunes, and collecting for charity. This guy apparently found this activity sexually stimulating, so he began touching himself in full view of the children, their minders, everyone else on the train, and the apparently the surveillance camera (actually, this probably isn't a picture of him in the act of jerking off in front of small children. But then again, given the facial expression, I'm not so sure).

No word on whether he unzipped his pants. I assume I speak for everyone when I say I hope he didn't.

And these are not isolated incidents. Well, in one sense they are. We have to keep a sense of proportion here, your chance of being the object of some horny foreign man's intense staring and jerking off on your next train voyage is probably very small. But there have been literally thousands of these incidents by now in Germany. Almost without exception, they involve foreign males.*

When it comes to train masturbators, I am genuinely puzzled. I have taken trains in lots of developing countries, and have never seen this behavior there. Nor have I ever seen German males doing this in Germany. I've seen them get drunk and be rowdy, but never masturbate in public. 

Another puzzling thing is that these foreign train masturbators often don't seem to worry about getting caught. Most of the time, the woman who was the focus complains to police, and they often find the guy sitting in the train seat, as if nothing had happened. Many of these train masturbators seem unaware that anything they were doing was wrong, or that the woman they were jacking off in front of would complain about that. I am sure another factor is that Germans are a confrontation-avoiding lot who would rather complain to cops than confront train masturbators. I doubt a train masturbator who jacked off in front of a girl in Egypt would reach his destination uninjured.

I surmise there's often alcohol involved here. Most of our new fellow citizens come from countries in which alcohol is hard to come by. And then they land in Germany, where you can buy a bottle of rotgut which will get you pie-eyed for 5 Euros. I sometimes see them tottering along the streets of my own neighborhood, clutching half-empty bottles of cheap 80-proof booze, talking to themselves. But then again, I see Germans doing that, too.

Yet many of these incident reports don't mention alcohol (which police reports usually do when it's in play). Which implies that these men, while completely sober, decided to take their erect penises out of their pants in public and jack off while staring at females. Sometimes while staring at children

This is why I am convinced that there are an unusually high number of young males with mental problems among the recent migrants. Public masturbation is the quintessential sign of what psychologists call disinhibition and hypersexuality. I worked for almost 4 years in a public mental hospital, and one of the things we had to teach our acutely schizophrenic clients was the necessity of not masturbating in public (they were obviously allowed to masturbate, but in private only).

We don't have reliable stats yet, but I will be happy to bet any amount of money that if we ever get them, we will find very high rates of mental illness among these young lads.  

* I have yet to see any masturbators myself, but I have seen two incidents already of foreign males behaving in a bizarre and demanding fashion on German trains since mid-2015. One was evidently drunk, carrying a bunch of soiled clothing in plastic shopping bags, and sat down right across from myself and a seatmate, and began drunkenly demanding we tell him the German words for things in the train. As I pretended to get up to leave the train, I heard him retching behind me. I only hope my seat-mate escaped in time.

Begin Japanology with Peter Barakan

I went to Japan last Christmas and loved it. Everywhere is clean, the people are courteous, street life is lively and safe, free public restrooms everywhere, spectacular shrines temples and gardens, handmade things made of natural materials. The entire country seems to be curated by people with discreetly minimalist good taste mixed with a bit of wabi-sabi aesthetic. I just scratched the surface, but it's quite a surface. 

While surfing around for things Japanese, I came across the oddly-named TV series Begin Japanology, produced by Japan's national television channel. The understated host, longtime Japan resident and fluent English speaker Peter Barakan (apparently he's half Burmese and half English) presents half-hour shows dedicated to everything from Kyudo to festivals to incense to fireworks to shopping streets to sake to masks to swords to folding fans to Western Japanophiles to pickles, plums, sushi, and calligraphy. Here's one on incense, which, it turns out, has its own highly formalized ceremony: 

By now there seem to be hundreds of episodes — a long but not exhaustive Youtube playlist is here.  The production values are reasonably high, without being ostentatious. There's often a slight twist: the episode on kendo features an in-depth profile of a young kendo master with one arm who routinely beats two-armed opponents without being given any advantages. Barakan profiles many fascinating Japanese, from retired managers who carve masks in their spare time to famous tea masters, actors, puppeteers and architects. Barakan, a congenial, low-key host, also has a weakness for ordinary Japanese who are trying to maintain some of the many traditions which teeter on the verge of extinction. As with many Japanese shows, there's a lot of pleasantly burbling background music, some of it a bit incongruous.

The shows focus on traditional, non-controversial topics, so I don't think we're going to see a episode on soaplands anytime soon. But within their limited scope, these shows are well-done, with thoughtful scripts, interesting subject choices, and a few modest surprises here and there. Highly recommended.

More Peppy/Doom-Drenched Japanese Signage

First of all, a huge thank-you to all the people who responded to the last post. Whenever I think 'blogging is so 2007, why bother anymore?', something like that last comment thread happens. Although I have to say, I do a lot more on Facebook than I do here. You can always sign up with a fake name and follow me without becoming my 'friend'.

In any case, like most travelers to Japan, I found the omnipresent signs more than amusing. Of course, Germany is also full of signs telling you what to do and not do, but they're always generic and uniform. Japan boasts an artisanal underground of graphic designers hired to make instruction of the populace as amusing as possible, generally by creating yet another animated mascot (yuru-chara). They often come with poetic English translations: 'An Important Thing is Protected.' 'No! Drug!' 'Water Can Not Drink'.

So here's a whole contingent of other signs, slogans and mascots from Japan. My attempts at an explanation are in the hover text, but feel free to correct me. The first is actually a poem, posted at Saisho-in temple. Anyone know who wrote and/or translated it?

Saisho in summer poem Woman on tracks signGinza Woman Holding Christian Repent PlacardHardened Japanese CriminalsKyoto main station sign with terrified salarymanMr Funtime and Mr BadassNanzen ji warning sign someone stole my fucking bikeNanzenji fire control yuru-chara (animal mascots)
Nara sign with deer and disabled childrenNo Depositing Carefully Wrapped Packages on StreetShelter for People Who Cannot Go Back HomeShibuya an important thing is protectedShibuya drunken salarymen about to dieShibuya italian slow food lifeShibuya whale meat restaurantTokyo rainbow kitchen special night for boozeYanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovelYanaka no smoking gingko leavesYanaka no smoking signYanaka no! drug! sign
Yanaka cemetery dog with tiny shovel Arashiyama water can not drink Harajuku maple lake vfw girl Kyoto main station what you cannot store in lockers Shibuya donky boulange-001 Shibuya twits the americana hat Yanaka body identification poster outside police station Yanaka stagecoach western 'pub' yeehaw

Blegs: Japanese Readers, I Want Your Help

Over Christmas I visited Japan. Highly recommended and, thanks to the weak Yen, not at all expensive. I've posted some travel shots on my Flickr account for those who are into that sort of thing.

I thought I'd ask the cultured, worldly readers of this blog to help me with a translation or two. First, I bought a ceramic plate at a Nitten shop. Nitten is a nationwide arts and crafts exhibition that, as far as I can gather, is mainly aimed at lesser-known or amateur artists working in traditional Japanese pursuits such as ceramics, calligraphy, etc. People from all over Japan can submit works to be judged by the notoriously conservative panels, and winners are exhibited and some of their works sold in shops.

I bought this dish:

Ceramic Dish

The two women in the rather dusty shop were really excited that I'd chosen this dish, and pressed a piece of paper with the artists' biography into my hands. The only English they could speak was to point at a row of symbols and say 'famous Japanese art school!'

This is the piece of paper, first an overall view, then a detail of what appears to be the artists' biography. If anybody could give me the gist of it — especially a transliteration of the artist's name — I would be grateful.

Ceramic Artist Description Page

Ceramic Artist Description Page Detail

Baffling Signs and Posters

1. Schoolchildrens' Superhero or Demon? Japan is also renowned for its amusing/terrifying warning signs. Most of them are pretty self-explanatory because of the pictures, but this one still baffles me. I found it posted outside a school:

Yanaka poster with odd supervillian outside school

Yanaka poster with odd supervillian outside school detail

2. Uniformed People Kicking Ordinary Japanese For Some Reason. This was on the side of a nondescript building. My secret hope is that it's Japanese Communist Party propaganda:

Kyoto poster uniformed men kicking civilians

 3. Red Sash Women Marching. Finally, here is large poster on a wall near a florists' shop that depicts a large number of middle-aged women wearing red sashes marching. First a general view, then a closeup. Pardon the crappy quality, the poster was pretty soiled.

Tokyo red sash women marching-001

Tokyo red sash women marching detail

Any help interpreting these signs is gratefully accepted. I also have less-baffling Japanese signs which I will post in the next couple of days.

Bleg: Nice Remote Cabin in Finland?

This summer, I'd kind of like to spend a few weeks in rural Scandinavia. I've never been to Finland and need to make a pilgrimage to Ainola, so I thought I might as well choose Finland. I'm looking for a cabin somewhere, preferably by a lake. Just for one person. I'd like electricity, but Internet is optional, in fact I don't want it. I would stay 2-3 weeks, in late August-early September. I'll probably rent a car, so the location probably isn't too important — the scenicer the better. The listings on Airbnb look quite interesting, but a lot of the places have no running / drinkable water or flush toilets. I'm not sure how much of a drag that would be in real life.

If anyone has tips about what I should be looking for, or has been somewhere they'd like to recommend, I'd love to hear from ya.

Public Defecation, Religion, and IQ In India

IQAveragebyCountry-954x442

(World map by average IQ, from here).

In the new atheism debates, you sometimes see two people — most prominently, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair — sparring on the subject of whether religion does more harm than good. I'm not going to weigh in on this question, except to note that a recent study of sanitation in India delivers ammunition for the does-harm side: scientific proof that religion (in this case, Hinduism) literally makes people stupid.

The mechanism is public defecation. Anyone who has been to India has seen this happening routinely, and it's impossible to get used to. Large urban areas in India are literally covered in a thin film of human waste, which is dangerous. It gets on crops at their origins, and flies deposit it on food all over the country, which is why Delhi belly is an all-too-horrifying reality for any visitor. (The irony is that all the Green/lefty friends of mine who accompanied me on my India trip ate everything so as to respect the cultural heritage blah blah blah, and stayed healthy. I politely refused to drink the water, ate practically nothing but crackers, and got a mild case of DB anyway.)

But I digress. It turns out the consequences are much farther-reaching than a few inconvenienced tourists:

As a result [of public defecation], children are exposed to a bacterial brew that often sickens them, leaving them unable to attain a healthy body weight no matter how much food they eat.

“These children’s bodies divert energy and nutrients away from growth and brain development to prioritize infection-fighting survival,” said Jean Humphrey, a professor of human nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When this happens during the first two years of life, children become stunted. What’s particularly disturbing is that the lost height and intelligence are permanent.”

…This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting affects 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families.This disconnect between wealth and malnutrition is so striking that economists have concluded that economic growth does almost nothing to reduce malnutrition.

And why is public defecation so prevalent? The Economist explains:

Hindu tradition, seen for example in the “Laws of Manu”, a Hindu text some 2,000 years old, encourages defecation in the open, far from home, to avoid ritual impurity. Caste division is another factor, as by tradition it was only the lowliest in society, “untouchables” (now Dalits), who cleared human waste. Many people, notably in the Hindu-dominated Gangetic plains, today still show a preference for going in the open—even if they have latrines at home.

So there you have it: a religiously-based custom causes profound developmental problems in children, leading to stunting and irreversible losses in intelligence. Christopher Hitchens, call your office! Oh wait…

Off to Scandinavia for Two Weeks

Tomorrow I'll be off to Scandinavia for a few weeks. First Copenhagen, then Oslo, then Stockholm, then perhaps somewhere else. I've never been north of Denmark before, so the first trip is just hitting the capitals.

Needless to say, there will be lighter-than-usual blogging, and recommendations are welcome.