Japan: Much Love and Thanks

I cannot believe that our semester together at Sophia University is coming to an end.  I very much look forward to your final papers.  As you know, they are due Wednesday, August 1, 2012.  I’ve asked you to create something new out of your imagination.  Your paper is a blueprint for your own self-designed organization to tell America’s cultural story to the world.  (In the politics and policy class, you must tell America’s foreign policy story to the world.)

I am making you the architect, the visionary, and CEO of this new agency.  What is your main theme? What organizational divisions will you have, e.g., exchanges, international broadcasting, arts, online?  How is it different from the way I describe the United States Information Agency in Propaganda, Inc.?  Would you include celebrities in your public diplomacy?  Why or why not?

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with you these past three months.  The time flew by, as it always does when one is having a ball, as I have been.  I love your culture, your manners, and your commitment to learning.  I hope that some of you will consider study abroad in the United States.  I hope you all will never stop learning.  I am your sensei, but always your student, as there is so much left for me to learn about Japan, its politics, culture, people, and yes, as “Lights of Japan” put it, its resilience.  Our time together has inspired me to learn some Japanese.  I’ll never reach a level of fluency but I plan to learn enough Japanese to show my respect for your culture.  (I’ve already ordered flash cards and three books!)

I don’t wish to get too overly sentimental about what this time together has meant to my life.  Why don’t I have Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders explain what I mean.  Thank you for helping to show me the meaning of the word.

Tokyo Waka: A City Poem

  Tokyo Waka: A City Poem

The following text is from a movie review by J.P. Devine for The Morning Sentinel
Tokyo, Japan, and the surrounding cities in this year of 2012 truly have to be seen to be believed.

It is a futuristic lightning bolt, a city of glass and light, colors, real and imagined, sounds and smells that seem to be a Ray Bradbury sweet dream. It is at once a crystal ball that shows the future and a complex city that embraces and honors the past — and prepares to take it and package it up for a flight to outer space.

Tokyo is the epitome of cool.

Does a film about crows against the backdrop of Tokyo interest you?  Can such a film be good for Japan’s rebranding after 3.11?

America: No Guilt about Green

When I was a little girl my favorite color was green, including all its variations, forest green, green yellow, and yellow green, that might be found in the Crayola crayons 64-count box.  I loved nature, playing regularly outside in the sandbox or in my tree house.  I loved animals, not just home pets, but those animals whose natural habitat needed protecting.  My first letter-to-the editor in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper was at the age of 10 and I still remember the subject: my support for Earth Day.

My dream at about the age of 12 was to be an environmental rights lawyer or veterinarian.  My plans changed over time but I’ve always associated the color green with the natural environment.  Today going green, living green, or being green-conscious is automatically associated with having an environmentally sensitive outlook and attitude, but also acting in a manner that tries to minimize harm and reduces waste.

It disturbs me how much I waste on a regular basis, how much my modern, American consumerist lifestyle disproportionately impacts the global footprint.  Put simply, I feel guilty about the choices I make on a daily basis.  I’m not the perfect, eco-conscious consumer.  I don’t eat all organic. I don’t buy exclusively cruelty-free products. I eat meat occasionally.  I do recycle, especially here in Japan where recycling is more commonplace than in America.  When I’m in the U.S., I drive a compact vehicle, one I’ve had since 1998 (Honda Civic), that gets good gas mileage and is relatively less polluting than other cars.  So I guess I’m like the average American–not a superhero on the environment–but also not a superficially indifferent jerk.  This National Geographic report on American attitudes toward the environment reaches a shocking conclusion.  Americans don’t feel particularly guilty about the consumerist choices they make related to the environment.  My country ’tis of me, the United States of America, which consumes more material and creates more waste per capita than any other country in the world, has a population that is slow to change its behavior toward the environment.  Perhaps this is one reason why many global citizens are not looking to the U.S. as the ideal model for modern living.  We are not setting the best example to our global peers about how to live smarter with less.  Organic food for thought, you might say.

So do you feel guilty about not being as green as you could be?  If so, then what are you doing to make positive changes?

Japan Falling Out of Love with America

Well the truth is out.  The U.S. is no longer “cool” to many Japanese.  The Japanese language newspaper, Tokyo Shimbun, reported these conclusions in a late May edition.  The following is an English translation of the original article that was sent to me by Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer Sara Harriger of the US Embassy Japan.  Sara will speak in our American Culture class on July 11, 2012.  The article quotes my friend, Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University, whom I like to call the “Joseph Nye” of Japan.  Nye is the originator of the concept of soft power.

I believe that the U.S. materialism and consumerist model is losing appeal in a post-3.11 Japan.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own ancestry that includes American Indian Mohawk and Creek tribes.  The Native American philosophy is counter to modern American values of waste and excess.  As the former advertising executive and author Jerry Mander points out here, the Judeo-Christian model of culture has a lack of sustainability built into it that competes with the models offered by Indians:

Judeo–Christian religions are a model of hierarchical structure: one God above all, certain humans above other humans, and humans over nature. Political and economic systems are similarly arranged: Organized along rigid hierarchical lines, all of nature’s resources are regarded only in terms of how they serve the one god–the god of growth and expansion. In this way, all of these systems are missionary; they are into dominance. And through their mutual collusion, they form a seamless web around our lives. They are the creators and enforcers of our beliefs. We live inside these forms, are imbued with them, and they justify our behaviors. In turn, we believe in their viability and superiority largely because they prove effective: They bring us power.

But is power the ultimate evolutionary value? We shall see. The results are not yet in. Survival of the fittest as a standard of measure may require a much longer time scale than the scant 200 years’ existence of the United States or the century since the industrial revolution or the two decades since the advent of high technology. Even in Darwinian terms, most species become unfit over tens of thousands of years. Our culture is using its machinery to drive species into extinction in one generation, not because the species are maladaptive but because pure force wins out. However, there is reason to doubt the ultimate success of our behavior. In the end, a model closer to that of the Indians, living lightly on the planet, observing its natural rules and modes of organization, may prove more fit and may survive us after all. Until that day, however, we will continue to use Darwinian theories to support the assertion that our mechanistic victory over the primitives is not only God’s plan but nature’s.

Have you lost interest in the American culture? Is America more uncool than cool?

Japanese losing interest in U.S. culture Tokyo Shimbun
May 21, 2012, pp. 24, 25
By Yasuyuki Oguri

A shift away from American culture is taking place in Japan. Hollywood movies are no longer popular. American music is not creating any sensations and there has been a sharp decline in the number of students going to the U.S. to study. The U.S.’s “soft power” in Japan has weakened and experts point out that this has never happened before in history. Why has American culture stopped reaching the Japanese people?

Film journalist Hiroo Otaka points out: “American movies are not selling at all. They are doing particularly poorly this year. Not one movie has grossed over 2 billion yen, which is the benchmark for a blockbuster. This has never happened before. Japanese people even think that American movies are uncool these days.”

In the past, there were times when the list of the top grossing films consisted only of American movies. It can be said that the era when the term “movie” basically referred only to Hollywood movies has definitely ended.

Japanese movies have been doing better than foreign movies (also including movies from countries other than the U.S.) at the box office. Proceeds from Japanese films made up 53.6% of total box office revenues in 2010, with foreign films contributing 46.3%. In 2011, the ratio was 54.9% Japanese and 45.1% foreign. Otaka predicts that the gap “will grow wider” in 2012. Films from the “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” series were certainly big hits, but overall, foreign movies have performed poorly at the box office.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Japanese movies produced by the TV stations can count on a lot of publicity through TV programs. Right now, there are also no Hollywood stars who are immensely popular. Otaka also says that “people are tired of entertainment-oriented American films that tend to feature spectacular special effects or fighting scenes.”

This situation is not only true for movies. The same goes for the music world. Compared to the period up to the 1980s, when every new song released by Madonna or Michael Jackson became an instant megahit, “made in the U.S.A.” has long lost its former allure.

According to data from the Recording Industry Association of Japan, in 2002, total production of CDs and other audio recording media consisted of 75% Japanese music and 25% foreign music. Last year, the ratio was 82% Japanese and 18% foreign. Lady Gaga, who was awarded the “Japan Gold Disc Award Artist of the Year” for foreign artists for two consecutive years, is just about the only foreign artist left who is really successful in Japan. It is therefore understandable that foreign music sections in CD shops, which were dominated mostly by American music until recently, have now been driven into a corner by Japanese pop music and other genres.

Keio University Professor (of American literature) Takayuki Tatsumi says that American novels are doing even worse. “Mystery novels and other popular literature are still doing okay, but serious American literature is not selling. For example, heroes like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger used to be very popular. There are no writers like that anymore.”

Sharp drop in students going to study in the U.S.

The decline in the number of students going to study in the U.S. has continued unabated. Tatsumi points out that “even students majoring in American literature are not eager to go to the U.S. to study.” According to a U.S. research institute, the number of students going to the U.S. had stayed flat at about 45,000 until the second half of the 1990s, but this has dropped to 24,000 at present. While the declining birth rate and deteriorating economic conditions are certainly contributing factors, the desire to go to the U.S. is still weak. Even in terms of the nationality of foreign students studying in the U.S., Japan has been overtaken by China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries.

Of course Apple products are selling like hot cakes and technology originating from the U.S., such as Google and Facebook, is very popular. Still, “the status of American culture, which has consistently been popular in Japan” in the postwar period, “has declined unmistakably,” according to Tatsumi.

Popularity unchanged in China, other countries

Is this phenomenon also occurring in countries moving toward economic development? According to Otaka, Hollywood movies remain very popular in China and Russia.

Why have the Japanese shifted away from American culture?

Commentator Saburo Kawamoto offers the analysis that the main reason is that “the Japanese people have changed.”

“The Japanese sense of value has changed particularly after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. They have come to have doubts and abhor the American society of competition and materialism. The Japanese people are now moving toward a more moderate direction.”

Soon after World War II when Japan was still poor, big houses and cars and large refrigerators stocked with plenty of food used to fascinate the Japanese, and this partly explained the popularity of American culture. Kawamoto thinks that the Japanese are beginning to feel that such material affluence is not the most important value.

He has a harsh opinion of American films. “Since Hollywood targets the world market, it sacrifices quality. They are so childish and not suitable for viewing by Japanese adults.”

Professor Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University’s Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, author of “Bunka to Gaiko [Culture and Diplomacy]” and several other books who is an expert on the U.S.’s soft power, stresses that “the Japanese are no longer that fascinated with America and this has never happened before after Japan opened itself up to the outside world, except for a short period during World War II.”

Wars, disparity undermine the U.S.’s image

Soft power refers to a country’s appeal and influence not through its military or economic power but through its values, culture, and so forth. “U.S. soft power” is declining in Japan.

It used to be that not only the bright side of America, such as its technology, democracy, and equal relationships between husbands and wives, but even its counterculture, such as the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, fascinated the Japanese. However, one event after another eventually gave the Japanese a negative image of the U.S. American “arbitrariness,” as manifested in the Iraq War, for instance, the disparity between rich and poor, the Lehman Shock, and so forth made the Japanese “think twice about regarding the U.S. as its model,” observes Watanabe.

He emphasizes, however, that the decline of soft power or the weakening of the “fascination” “does not mean that the bilateral relationship will go awry.”

It is hard to imagine the Japanese turning away rapidly from the U.S. in terms of economic ties or the security relationship. As a matter of fact, the Cabinet Office’s survey shows that the Japanese people retain strong positive feelings for the American people. As a result of “Operation Tomodachi” after the quake disaster last year, a record high of 82% said they had a “feeling of affinity” toward the Americans. It appears that the Japanese are unlikely to come to dislike America.

Kawamoto suggests that the phenomenon of Japanese shifting away from American culture may indicate that they have stopped looking at the U.S. as a model or viewing it with fascination, but have come to think of the bilateral relationship “as a natural relationship like the U.S.-UK relationship.” He goes on to say: “This may also signify that the Japanese people are in the process of searching for new values that are different from American-style material affluence.”

Saving Aesha, Saving Afghanistan

Watch this inspiring story about Aesha, the young woman from Afghanistan, who became the “face” of Taliban brutality in Afghanistan when her disfigured face was displayed on the cover of an August 2010 issue of Time magazine.

The CNN video is about Aesha’s life with an Afghan-American family in Frederick, Maryland.  Her caregivers consider her a daughter but as they point out in the piece, she has a very long journey of recovery.  She is enthusiastically learning English and has the well wishes of everyone around the world who see her as a symbol of overcoming the worst brutality and doing so in such a public forum.  I hope that Aesha can handle all the media scrutiny and not get lost in her celebrity.  She has now begun reconstructive surgery, a difficult process that will likely take the next two years.  You can read about her progress here.

I bring this video to you as a source of inspiration for a country that continues to occupy the world’s attention.  On July 8, 2012, the Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan promised $16 billion in ODA (official development assistance) for Afghanistan.  The aid package for Afghanistan was announced as yet another horrific news story emerged this week of a 22-year-old woman shot in public for an accusation of adultery.  Her life was ended in less than an hour as a result of a dispute between two Taliban commanders who claim that she was sexually involved with both of them.  To settle the dispute, they decided to execute her in front of hundreds of cheering Taliban fighters.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this about the Tokyo conference aid package:

Let me emphasize that the United States believes strongly that no nation can achieve sustainable peace, reconciliation, stability, and economic growth if half the population is not empowered.  All citizens need to have the chance to benefit from and contribute to Afghanistan’s progress, and the United States will continue to stand strongly by the women of Afghanistan.

As a public speaker I love words, but words alone will not save Afghanistan.  I wonder if these billions of dollars in aid to Afghanistan will improve the status of women and girls in a country where they continue to be singled out for discrimination at best and public execution at worst.  My faith is not in the Afghanistan government but rather the collective efforts of human rights workers and global citizens who demand action against the Taliban and their supporters who continue to terrorize their own people.

Pandamonium 2012: From China to Japan

Shin Shin with cub

I cannot disguise my excitement with the birth of the Giant Panda cub born this week at Ueno Zoo.  The new cub, whose sex is still unknown, was born to the very happy (well, let’s assume) parents, Shin Shin, the momma, and Ri Ri, the papa.  Now let’s think about this event from both a political and cultural perspective.  I first jumped to the conclusion that the Chinese government would want us to reach.  A Chinese spokesperson said, “The giant pandas are messengers of friendship. We hope that people-to-people sentiment and overall relations between China and Japan can be promoted because of the birth of the cub.” My immediate reaction was an enthusiastic yes.  Further, Shin Shin and Ri Ri were delivered to Tokyo just one month before 3.11.  What a powerful symbol of Japan’s renewal and rebirth with the first Giant Panda cub born at Ueno Zoo since 1988.  I do know that this birth will be a crowd pleaser and a tourist boon for Tokyo.

Ri Ri, new papa

On the other hand, when I use my more jaundiced political eye, this birth marks yet another achievement for China in its worldwide program of Rent-a-Panda.  According to my professor friend Gary Rawnsley of the University of Leeds, these panda “gifts” come at a high price, especially after cubs are born.  Dr. Rawnsley says that to rent a panda it costs a zoo up to 1 million dollars per Giant Panda and $500,000 for any cubs born to the rented pandas which automatically belong to China + the infrastructure costs. He adds, “It is a very expensive message of friendship.”  That said, Gary quickly realized my great enthusiasm for the birth of the baby cub and he added to my Facebook wall: “But they are still cute, and I still queued to see the pandas in Taipei zoo the last time I was there :).”

So do you have pandamonium?  Would you stand in a long line to congratulate the new parents?

If At First You Don’t Succeed

In the spirit of America’s Independence week, I present to you this citizenship test.  Write down these ten questions from the U.S. citizenship test and answer them before you click on the answers.

In order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, a person must correctly answer six of 10 randomly selected questions. Can you pass the test?

1. What are the colors of our flag?

2. How many stripes are there in the flag?

3. What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?

4. What are the three branches of our government?

5. Can you name the original thirteen states?

6. What are the 49th and 50th states of the Union?

7. Who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner?”

8. Who signs bills into law?

9. What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called?

10. In what month do we vote for the president?

How did you do?

If you didn’t do that well, you are not alone.  It seems many Americans are not too aware of our history, much less our current government leaders.  Consider this quote:

However, the names of some of our current leaders slipped the minds of a few, for example, the leader of the executive branch (President Barack Obama) and his second-in-command (Vice President Joe Biden) seemed even harder for some.

Not to worry, however.  These types of press reports regularly appear to remind us of our ignorance.  They perpetuate the stereotype that Americans are either (a) oblivious to what’s going on in the world and at home or (b) oblivious to what’s going on in the world and at home.  (The choices are the same on purpose.)  While it is true that many Americans may miss a lot of these basic questions, I don’t believe that we should jump to the most negative of conclusions.  After all, it’s hard to keep up with the knowledge that Barack Obama is the leader of the executive branch of government and Joe Biden is his second-in-command when we have to keep up with the Joneses and the Kardashians. (Yes, that is the sound of sar hitting casm.)

Question: Why do I still love America?

Answer: Our potential.