Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Late debate

Though work is very much on the boil, I don't want to miss the opportunities while I'm here to take in a good deal of the area in and around Kyoto. So that's taken up both Saturday and Sunday. Friday night was an extremely enjoyable evening spent chatting over drinks, do-it-yourself sushi and many other fine foods at a local postdoc's house with physicists from a good range of international locations.

Seven hours spent sitting on tatami matting took its toll but it was great to talk about a huge range of subjects and learn a good deal about Japanese history and culture, both ancient and modern. It was particularly interesting to hear views about the present Prime Minister who, it seems, has thoughts on altering the constituation which currently does not allow Japan to have an army (imposed after the second world war).

"Article 9: Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. 2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized."

(The constitution makes for interesting reading in general.)

This absence of army has saved Japan both lives and money and it appears that the money saved may have helped the electronics boom over the past few decades. Though views from the evening seemed very sensible, I've since discussed the issue with others and heard a spectrum of opinions on the subject.

Anyway, the restriction imposes a protectorate relationship between Japan and the US which some would like to get away from, the point being that if relations with the States soured in the future Japan would be forceless except for the defense Army. In fact the defense army did go to Iraq in order to dig wells but, as they are not allowed to carry arms, they were guarded by Dutch soldiers.

It's a thorny issue and in the turbulent climate, while the ideal is clearly for everybody to have only a defense army (which would therefore be needless), many Japanese feel vulnerable. It seems that the current Prime minister may also be more likely to avoid the prickly relations with China and Korea which are ignited every year by going to visit the war memorial at the Yasukuni Shrine (including the spirits of 14 class A war criminals which are remembered there - this is the main controversy).

The relationship between the two nations is one that I often find a difficult subject, though one that I continue to be interested in on the level of individual Chinese sentiment. Almost every Chinese person I've spoken to (though not 100%) has gone from placid to raised hackles at the mention of Japan and strikingly strong language is frequently used. This is not just on a national level but many people I've spoken to have said that they could never be friends with a Japanese person.

A sad state of affairs and one which I initially tried to parallel with Germany's post war relationship with the rest of Europe - these are not appropriate parallels to draw. The continued bad feeling stems mostly from the lessons taught to children in Chinese school and the many films on Chinese television about the cruelty of the war (this is not to trivialise the subject in any way) - it seems they are taught that Japan would enact the same atrocities if given half a chance. The situation is also perpetuated greatly by the continued trips by Japanese politicians to the war memorial and by the publishing of Japanese textbooks with extremely biased discussion of the war - speaking with people and reading around a bit it seems that though the children may be briefly fooled by these books, the general knowledge of the well-educated population is closer to the truth.

(There's a TIME article here on the education of Chinese children on the subject of the war.)

I had the pleasure when my Japanese collaborator came to visit Beijing to introduce him to various friends who afterwards claimed, to their surprise, that in fact some Japanese could perhaps be good people and though true friendship would still be difficult, some of the prejudice had clearly been lifted. Though it's only a small step it was extremely pleasing to be part of this link.

Anyway, so the evening continued and we went from discussing links between Nordic and Asian language structures through Japanese cuisine and whiskey manufacture to the current boom in wine sales in Japan, into European history. It turns out that my knowledge of English common law is pitiful and if I'm tested on the differences between the continental and English judicial systems I'm likely to be left floundering. This was after the others had waxed lyrical about their nation's past, present and future legal systems.

By three o'clock the Euro debate and the price of pizza was being hotly contested and as my legs were beginning to make noises they shouldn't and with a schedule to keep to the next day, I left at just 3 o'clock. It turned out that the drinks kept flowing and the conversation continued on past 7am, and though it would have been enjoyable I would have been even more exhausted than I am now.

Whatever the conversation, it's a lovely change to sit around and chat like this. It's something that for various reasons I haven't had a chance to do as much as I'd like in Beijing.

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