Arguing with the neighbours

The lead headline in the front page of the January 29th edition of the English-language newspaper, The Korean Times, said “Korea slams Japan over Dokdo”, with a subheading that quoted a Korean Ministry for Foreign Affairs spokesman as saying “Japan will face untold consequences”.

On the same day, The Korea Herald, another English-language newspaper, had the lead headline “Tokyo revises textbook guidance on Dokdo claim”.

what_the_papers_say2Moving on to 3rd February, The Korea Herald ran the front-page headline shown in the photo above, next to a photo of the U.S. chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee paying respects to a “comfort women” statue in California. The caption goes on to say “The statue was erected last year to honor the Asian women and girls who were forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during World War II”.


You have to go to the editorial in the China Daily newspaper to read the “Japan brainwashing kids” headline shown above.

The headlines, together with the text underneath, show that there’s real anger in Korea and China. It’s all about the revision of school text books in Japan to say that the Dokdo islets (i.e. too small even to be called islands), claimed by Korea, and Diaoyu Islands (claimed by China) will be described as an integral part of Japanese territory.

Let me quote from the China Daily, representative of the articles beneath all the headlines:

“The media in Japan reported on Tuesday that the Japanese education ministry will revise its teaching materials so that the Diaoyu islands – an integral part of Chinese territories, will be described as an integral part of Japan’s under the name of Senkaku.

“The fact-twisting textbooks for schools will teach Japanese students a false version of history, which risks breeding generations of confrontation, says a Xinhua News Agency commentary.

“Japan’s revisionists have for a long time attempted to whitewash Japan’s wartime past in its school history books, hurting and outraging its Asian neighbours whose sufferings as a result of Japan’s brutal wartime aggression is never mentioned.”

To be fair, the Chinese and Koreans are pretty good at teaching their own versions of history – the text in the newspapers is pretty inflexible and doesn’t show much evidence of reflection.

Whatever the importance of Dokdo/Takeshima or Diaoyu/Senkaku, the current spat is indicative of greater underlying problems. Whereas in Europe there’s real trust between old enemies of World War II, that trust hasn’t been achieved in Asia. That trust is nothing to do with how much money has been paid, but by the will of all parties to learn from the past in order to avoid repeating it. Japan may believe that they have paid their dues since the end of the war, but their neighbours don’t see that at all. I’m a great admirer of all things Japanese, but it’s not surprising that the actions of Prime Minister Abe and other right-wing politicians will make their neighbours nervous and angry.

Korea seems to be caught in the middle – literally. While Korea argues with Japan to the east, China flexes its muscles to the west as it gains increasing power and influence on the world stage.

A good soak


I’ve seen photos of the monkeys (Japanese Macaques) in the onsen often enough before, so caught a bus at Nagano station to see them for myself. The bus ride was worth it just to get into the snow-covered hills and to be able to walk in the winter landscape.

You take a snow-covered path along the side of a steep-sided valley for half an hour or so to arrive at the onsen. It doesn’t take any stroke of luck to see the monkeys, or any patience to get photos; other than the fact that there are dozens of other visitors trying to get the best shot, it’s easy. There are scores of monkeys in the immediate area and perhaps a dozen in the water at any one time. They largely ignore the people and the cameras.

Monkeys2The monkeys sit in the water, steam rising into the cold air in clouds. They preen each other with a lazy, blissful look on their faces. The notice in the ticket office said that they don’t get cold when they get out because they don’t sweat, but I don’t feel convinced by that. You can imagine how bedraggled they look when they get out of the water, and how quickly they cool down in the freezing temperatures out of the water.


Matsumoto Castle


After Kusatsu I travelled to Nagano and decided to take a train to the nearby Matsumoto Castle.

It looks quite different from a castle in the UK, of course, with its wooden construction and black and white exterior. The black is lacquer and the white is plaster and they give a striking, imposing, effect.

What the photos don’t show is how cold it was. To make it worse, visitors are asked to take their shoes off as they enter the castle and (in my case) shuffle around in a pair of ill-fitting slippers. It’s quite right that visitors have to remove their shoes on entry – you can imagine what thousands of pairs of inappropriately shod feet would do to the wooden floors.

Oh, how the cold wind blew through the castle; interesting though the displays may have been, I didn’t spend time browsing in detail. I was more concerned with the feeling in my fingers and toes.


Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture

Kusatsu2I enjoy Yokohama and Tokyo, but it was a relief to take the bus to Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture. Kusatsu is a world away from the high-rise, neon-light, relentless city. There are no multi-level highways, railways and subway; there are no commuters going to work in the morning in crowded trains, or making their way home late in the evening; there are no crowded department stores.


Kusatsu is an onsen town in the hills. Steam rises from water courses throughout the little town, and there’s a smell of sulphur in the air. I explored the town (which takes barely an hour to do) and the little temples, drank tea in style, and relaxed.


I stayed in a Japanese-style ryokan and had a delicious supper. I know this is becoming a bit of a theme of my time in Japan, but maybe this will be the last picture of food for a while.


The Asian century

The 21st century has often been quoted as the century in which the balance of world power will shift from the west to the east. There’s good reason to believe it, too. But it’s also clear that there are huge fracture lines that threaten stability in the region; from where I’m sitting in Jeju, I have a ring-side seat from which to watch the posturings and manoeuvrings of the countries on this edge of the pacific.

So, China has declared an extended air defence zone which has caused neighbouring countries to object, and caused South Korea to extend its own zone so that it overlaps the Chinese one; China is in conflict with various countries over the rights to areas of the South China Sea; South Korea and Japan have a long-standing and deeply-felt dispute over the islands of Dokdo/Takeshima (depending on your point of view) and the name of the East Sea/Sea of Japan (again, depending on your point of view).

And now there are some extra ingredients to be added to the mix.

Firstly, The Guardian reports that China have just completed sea trials of their first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. The trials included an incident in which there was a near collision between a US warship and one of the ships accompanying the Liaoning. Naturally, both sides blamed the other.

Next, the English-language Korea Herald newspaper reports that North Korea is struggling to stem the flow of defectors, trying to escape “chronic food shortages and harsh political oppression”, following the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle. The only route out of the country is into China, and thence to a South-east Asian country. Given that the Chinese authorities cooperate with North Korea in returning refugees, it seems like a desperate gamble for anyone to take.

In the context of local tensions and instability, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, decided to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine on Boxing Day. This is the place where 14 Class-A war criminals are honoured.

That looks like madness to me. Whatever Prime Minister Abe’s reasons, the strong condemnation from Japan’s neighbours and the rest of the world is completely predictable, isn’t it? Given the inability of the region to put the horrors of the 20th century behind it, and the fact that this seems to be one of the underlying reasons for the poor international relationships here, why oh why did he think that visiting the shrine was appropriate?

I wonder if there’s something in a report by the BBC that gives a clue? It suggests that Prime Minister Abe believes that the “peace constitution” put in place in Japan after the war was imposed by the US and is a humiliation; Prime Minister Abe hopes that his actions will advance his goal of reforming the constitution.

Prime Minister Abe is leading his country at a time in which the economic and military status quo is shifting. He needs to respond to the actions of his neighbours in an appropriate way. I just don’t think his visit to Yasukuni is at all helpful.

Tsukiji sushi

TzukijiHere’s another post about Japanese food; I went to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and had sushi at one of the tiny restaurants there. I didn’t get there early enough to see the fish market in operation, but I did get there early enough to join a queue at one of the most popular places.

Queuing – they say it’s a British trait but the Japanese have their own take on it. Unwilling to accept second best, it’s common to see queues outside one restaurant when there’s an empty one next door. Similarly, I passed a long queue in Yokohama one day at 9:55 AM only to realise that everyone was waiting for a Pokemon store to open.

So, I joined a queue outside a restaurant that was no more than a couple of metres wide, with a single counter at which customers sat and ate their meal. Once inside, I sat at the counter with the other diners with barely enough room to put my bag down. The chef prepared the sushi and placed it on the wooden board in front of each diner, adding more as the diners ate what was already there.

It was worth it, 100%. The tastes and textures are so good, with fish fresh from the biggest wholesale fish market in the world. The only thing that takes some getting used to is the Sea Urchin, on the right in the top picture; it’s the soft and squidgy texture that doesn’t seem right.


Landmark Tower at dusk


I’ve been to the top of Yokohama’s Landmark Tower before, as I know some readers of my blog have. This is the first time I’ve been up late in the afternoon, catching the views as the sun sets.

I wasn’t the only one with a camera and, like many others, I spent most of my time on the west side, watching the sun disappear behind low clouds and looking out over to Mt Fuji. It’s easy to see why Fuji is so iconic, with its symmetrical outline and standing as it does at some distance from other mountains.

Eastwards, the view (complete with reflections from the glass windows in the photo below) was over the harbour. The lights were just coming on in the city, including the big wheel and the other rides in the amusement park.


Japan’s intangible cultural heritage

Japanese_food4I’ve just arrived back on Jeju from ten days in Japan; I’ve got some catching up to do on my blog.  I’m not going to start by posting about of the sights of Tokyo or Yokohama, or the mountains, castles or onsen-bathing Monkeys of Gunma and Nagano – that’ll come later. Instead, here are some photos of my lunch. OK, so they’re not from the same meal but that’s a mere detail.


I was accused by a colleague (ex-colleague, I should say) of being like a Japanese woman when I got my camera out to take photos of the food that was served. I can understand why it’s such a common thing in Japan; not only are the tastes so good but the presentation is an art in itself. Indeed, Japanese cuisine has just been added to the UNESCO ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list, so I feel justified in posting some of the results in my first blog entry for almost two weeks.


There’s even a word for it, “washoku”. Long may it last, in spite of the threats from fast food chains and the increased popularity of Western dishes.