Monday, October 31, 2005

On the second day we were still walking on the edge through the clouds but heading down and the rain and snow had disappeared.

When heading for the first Tanigawa peak, Toma no mimi, a rainbow made the mountains appear nice and friendly

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Over the top

Defenitely the most memorable event of the past two weeks was climbing Tanigawa-Dake, a mountain-ridge north of Tokyo. In the Lonely Planet 'Hiking in Japan' guidebook it said that that climb should be done before the end of october, when the first snow starts to fall. Therefore, I wanted to go there as soon as possible, and because it seemed to be good weather on sunday 23 october, I decided to give it a try. An American girl who's also living in this dormitory and who also went to Mount Fuji with me was happy to accompany me again. Together we left the dormitory around 6.30 in the morning to take the train to Doai-guchi. Because we missed the fastest connection (maybe I should have packed my bag the day before ; ) we only arrived there around 11.30. We headed to the cablecar that would take us higher upon the mountain and when we arrived there it appeared to be packed with Japanese tourists. After standing in the line and taking the cablecar we could finally begin to climb to the first top. Tanigawa-dake is actually a ridge with several peaks. Most people just climb to the first top and then return to the cablecar, but the hike described in the guidebook would take us along the ridge over a few peaks and down to the next trainstation in the valley. It didn't seem that hard and after all: we had already climbed Mount Fuji, so how hard could it be? Getting to the first top wasn't that difficult. It took quite some time though and people coming down warned us that the last cablecar would descent at 17.00 o'clock. Since we weren't planning to go down through there we didn't really pay attention. It seemed to take about as much time to continue to the next station anyway, so it should be ok. When we were at the top, the strong wind filled the sky with clouds. If me and Jaime both had doubts about continueing, we didn't express them and therefore thought that the other one was sure about going on.
So we went on, through a mountain pass that became small, narrow and covered with snow. Instead of keeping on walking over the ridge easily we had to find our way around rocks, over peaks, through snow and along steep slopes. Because we were walking in the clouds we couldn't see much, and I could only guess how far the slopes went down on both sides of us. The nice weather of the midday in the valley had changed into a grey, cold, windy athmosphere that surrounded us at the high ridge. None of the peaks we climbed was higher than 1900 meters, considerable lower than the 3772 meter of Mount Fuji, but because this was much more to the north (close to Nikko) and a few weeks later than our climb of Fuji about seven centimeters of snow now covered the pathway. This made the climbing much more difficult and as the weather conditions worsened we became less and less sure about making it to the other station. Luckily there were some emergency huts where we could seek refuge. However, the first of those that we came across was more like a big half oil-drum with an entrance and no proper door. So we continued and after rain started falling we could only hope for a better emergency hut at the next peak. When we found it it appeared to be a big wooden cabin, much more comfortable than the half oil-drum. Since it had taken us quite some time to come this far and because of the weather we decided to spend the night there and continue the next morning. We had enough food and drinks with us, but the only protection against the cold was a blanket that was there at the cabin. However, it was much better being inside that dry cabin than outside on the cold, rainy mountain.
After the stormy night we continued. The rain had stopped and after a while the sun shone through the clouds. The rain had washed away most of the snow, so it was much easier to walk down now. It still took us three to four hours and once arrived at the station we had to wait two hours until the next train in the right direction. However, it was really nice to see that Japan also has small, deserted trainstations that can't be compared to Shinjuku, Shibuya or any metro/trainstation in Tokyo. We were really atthe countryside, but compared to the lonely mountain-tops even this little station felt hospitible and save - at least there was a vending machine where we could get hot cans of coffee! After the train finally came we still had to change three or four times before we got home maybe four hours later. We had missed all our classes of monday (for me that was just one, for Jaime that were three), our clothes were dirty, our shoes covered in mud and I had caught a cold but we had conquered another mountain, enjoyed (and suffered) nature and experienced an unforgettable adventure.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Developing economic skills

Well, it's about time to talk about what I actually came to Japan for: my studies here at Waseda. Classes started some three weeks ago now, so I start to have an idea of what the several courses will be like.
Next to the obligatory Japanese language courses (of which I'll tell more later), we are supposed to choose some courses that are given in English. The long list of courses of which we could choose comprised a wide arrange of topics like Political Relations in South East Asia, Japanese Modern Litterature, Japanese Poetry (Haiku), The Modernization of Japan, Ancient Egyptian Civilization, Human Biology, Applied linguistics etc. etc.
The first week was a so called "add-and-drop week", during which everybody could follow as many courses as he/she liked, add other courses to his schedule and drop courses that he/she didn't like. This was a good system, because when you register for the courses at the beginning of the year there's just the syllabus with descriptions of the courses and evidently no detailed description of the teacher, while the quality of the courses is largely dependend on the quality of (the english proficiency) of the teacher. I initially registered for the courses Public Policy and Finance, African Developmental Politics and Economy, and Economic Development of Asia. Since I'm really interested in developmental politics/econmics (unfortunately, cash rules the world), I thought these courses would suit me perfectly. However, in the end I dropped two courses and added two new ones: Public Policy and Finance contained mostly public policy and not that much finance and the same goes for the African course. I hoped to get some more economics, because I can study politics and African development in Leiden aswell, while there's no economic department there. So instead I choose Public Economics and US-Japanese fiscal relations. The former actually mostly concerns public developmental economics (in general), so that's perfect for me. The Japanese teacher (Mr. Daimon) has been working as an advisor for the World Bank, assisting developmental countries with shaping their economy (though I don't know in what way exactly - the World Bank doesn't always seem to be giving the best advise) and teaching at other universities before coming to Waseda. Until now we've been reading about some basics of developmental economics, defining poverty, how to measure it etc. I think he'll come with some interesting theories, since Japan generally does have a diverging view on development compared to the Washington-concensus of the World Bank and the International Monetair Fund (they mostly propagate free-market economies without intervention of the state, open borders to allow foreign investors into the market, force local companies to compete with companies in other countries - which is of course impossible for developing countries - and focussing on exports - which doesn't work either because Europe and the US try to keep cheap agricultural- and textile products outside).
The Japanese alternative is also discussed in detail in the class Economic Development of Asia, tought by the Korean Mr. Park who studied in the US (I think in San Diego) and who's mostly specialised in the economic development of South Korea. However, in this class we talk about the Asian Tigers: South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore (all of whom showed remarkable economic growth after WWII) and about Indonesia, Malaysia and of course China. Japan is only touched upon briefly since it developed already before WWII. Still, there are many similarities between the developmental models of these Asian countries, including Japan. At least, that's what we've been reading about until now, but in the end it probably appears that each country followed it's own specific policy. Nevertheless, the seeming similarities are an important counterweight for the Washington consensus: the Asian model is based upon state intervention to develop certain strategic industries (mostly starting with textile, than steel and chemicals and later moving to electronic equipment, cars and computers), protecting these industries from foreign competition and exporting only products that can be produced with a comparative advantage (for example abundant cheap labour supply) and thus at lower costs than in the west.
Well, you might notice that I really love this subject. Probably since I followed the notorious course Canon II in Leiden, tought by the possibly even more notorious Mr. Anil Khosla, about the economic system in Japan and the developmental state theory of Chalmers Johnson I've been wondering if there were any similarities with the Asian Tigers and if the model could be used for the development of other developing countries, for example in Africa. I hope to find out about that during this semester.
And then there's the course about US-Japanese fiscal relations. I was hesitating to take this course because I thought I knew already enough about Voluntary Export Restraints (from Japan to the US) and the manipulation of the exchange rate of the dollar and the yen (after the Nixon shock and the Plaza accord, you can probably look it up on the internet), but in the end I decided to add the course to my schedule anyway. The most important reason was the vigour of the teacher, Mrs. Ferber, a Hungarian woman who studied at the Business and Economics University in Budapest and who's done quite some research about the Japanese economic system. When she explained to me what the course would be about (I ran into her at the elevator), she assured me that 'nothing is what it seems, and even though most people act as if there's nothing wrong, the relations between US and Japan always involved power politics and hidden agenda's'. So I got curious. Until now she's mostly dealing with the Japanese economy of which I know most features by now, but at least that means it's not difficult for me - let's hope she will really come with some shocking revelations later on.
Next to all this economic talk I also took a course with the title 'Religions of East-Asia'. In the syllabus it was described as a course about buddhism being transferred from India to China, Korea and Japan, but it appeared that that was for the second semester. This semester it will mostly deal with pre-buddhist Indian religion (brahmanism), so half of the initial students dropped the course, leaving some 12 students who are still interested. It's really nice to listen to the stories of the teacher, Mr. Iwata, who has studied sanskrit and German, so he also explains links between the languages while dealing with sanskrit words. The German atmen for example (to breathe), comes from the sanskrit atman. This concept refers to the individual holy spirit that is seen as the vital aspect of life - and as a vital condition to live - just as breathing. The course is really about the philosophical ideas of the religion and not about what the ceremonies look like and what kind of holidays they have (like religion-classes at high school), so defenitely some good food for thought.
All the above are the english courses I'm taking. Next to those four I also have Japanese courses on tuesday, thursday and friday morning about grammar, vocabulary and kanji (chinese characters). I'm in level 5b of the 6 levels that they have here but I think I'm somewhere in the lower part of the class. Some students from the University for African and Asian Studies in London are really quite good, but it's a good motivation for me to try hard. It's also interesting to experience a way to learn Japanese different from the University of Leiden. Here they really make us learn every week (every class starts with a test), write essays in Japanese, watch a video and do a speech. To make myself study the language even more I also took the course Japanese Reading, which actually also comprises writing essays and giving speeches. It seems to be quite a lot, but it's all very interesting. I came here to learn Japanese, so I really want to make as much progress as possible, read, write and learn as many kanji as possible so that maybe some day I might actually read Japanese books and write Japanese essays without looking up most of the words in the dictionary.
As for the english courses: I can't study economics at Leiden, so I want to make the most of it here. Until now it seems to work out quite well. I can keep up with the courses and it's mostly what I expected or hoped it to be. But I'm still waiting for the teachers to get a bit more into detail and start dealing with the complicated reality of the world of economics. Things are never what they seem to be!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Akihabara: images of a fleeting world

I should have posted the following story some while ago, for I visited Akihabara about two weeks ago on the last evening Ignas spend in Tokyo. But you know how those things go. Well, I really wanted to tell about this, so now at last...
Maybe the most shocking revelation about Japanese society I experienced until now was in Akihabara. This part of Tokyo is known for two things: electronics and manga(comic books)/anime (the animated version) related products. Maybe innocent at first sight, but especially the second category has more gloomy sides to it than Pokemon and Dragonball Z show. Of course I knew about it: the phenomenon of pornographic manga and anime known as hentai is well known around the world. But how much different is that from all those other sex-magazines that are sold in every country? Well, here the difference between pornographic, erotic and normal (also kid's) anime is not all that clear. While walking through a store with anime-action figures I came across dolls of famous anime series like Naruto and Trigun and dolls displaying sexual activities, including violent bondage/SM like figures. At one display the mechs from futuristic anime-series were standing right next to those explicit figures. It also made me wonder why so many anime-characters have such erotic features like short skirts and tight shirts, even in child's/teenage kid's series. Maybe the target audience of these series is not limited to kids, and the action figures also collected by middle aged salary-man with socially unaccepted sexual preferences. The existence of such an audience was confirmed when I walked into a store that seemed to be selling regular videogames and DVD's. Next to the department of anime DVD's there was lots of erotic material, including DVD's with young children on the cover, their young age clearly indicated to boost sales (between 8 and 12 years old). Apparently this was no explicit sexual material - on a tv in the store they showed one such DVD with a young girl playing in some garden, wearing normal clothes or a school-uniform - but the fact that these DVD's where stacked next to DVD's that were actually explicitly erotic makes their function clear: to satisfy the fantasies of Japanese men. After seeing how many of such DVD's they were selling there me and Ignas walked to the exit of the store - and next to the door there was a staircase leading to the 2nd floor with the indication "adult section". So what do they consider the stuff that was on the first floor?!
We also came along a more innocent, but also very strange anime-phenomenon: at the entrance of a pachinko (gambling) parlor two girls in anime-character outfit were enthousiasticly and synchronicly dancing to some happy song, with some middle aged man standing around watching them and clapping their hands - it just didn't seem right.
Japanese anime is well known for the explicit violent and sexual scenes, but I never expected it to be so openly displayed in combination with more innocent anime (that seems less innocent to me now though). Don't they mind young kids seeing all that stuff? Or don't young kids come there to buy action figures? But then what are the childish (but erotic) dolls doing there? It's really disturbing seeing those genres next to each other, apparently not regarded as so much separated as I liked to see it.
Apart from those anime/manga erotics there are many places where you can watch sexvideo's or rather DVD's all over Tokyo. So not just in quaters with a certain reputation like Kabukicho or Ikebukuro, but also around the corner of Ueno park with all it's museums, and here near the station of Takadanobaba in this student's quarter. I'm wondering whether this is a good, innocent way for men to get rid of their stress and sexual desires or whether it indicates how dirty-minded many Japanese men are, and maybe these anime or movies inspire them to do things they would normally not have thought of. I hope my first assumption is true, but that would mean they don't need those DVD's to be inspired to such twisted thoughts and they already have those desires "naturally". One more evidence of such perverse desires can be seen on the website By the way, it's an article without any explicit material so don't be afraid.
So this is also a part of the society I live in now, one of its darker sides.

Information and Communication Technology

It's been some while since I last put a post on this weblog, but I've been quite busy with university and social life. I think I'll first tell about the latter: how I'm getting along with people here.
Before I went to Japan I was quite worried about wether I would be able to get any Japanese friends to talk Japanese with. I've lived in France for one year and there it was not very easy to get close to french people (save some exceptions of the great guys who might read this ; ) As an exchange student living in an international dormitory and attending classes with mostly other international students it's quite hard to get into contact with local people.
However, some of the international students in France are locals in Tokyo, so I already know a few people here (and in Yokohama). Next to that, there are some student's associations that focus on international contacts. Most Japanese members of these so-called circles (or saakuru in Japanese) can speak some English and are looking for an opportunity to practice that language. Luckily they don't mind talking Japanese when I talk to them in their mother tongue, so I can also practice that language. These saakuru organised several parties so that international and Japanese students had a chance to meet and when sitting at a table with some Japanese students and a few bottles of beer phone numbers are quickly exchanged with many people. They also organised a basketball-match, there seems to be soccer every saturday (but I haven't yet been there) and the university also organised some 'mixer' activities. Clearly, there are enough opportunities to meet Japanese people, and apparently they are all very open, friendly and willing to establish a lasting contact. I must admit that I haven't yet made the most of it, partly because I also wanted to meet some people I still know from when I was in France. Another reason why I haven't yet much participated in student's nightlife here is that I met some other people before who I'm seeing regularly now. The way I met those was quite peculair - Ignas was still in Tokyo and while we were waiting for the underground I was looking up some kanji in a dictionary. Then a girl stepped up to me and asked whether I was studying Japanese. She was with a guy and they seemed to be on their way home after having some drinks in a bar. They invited us to a party a few days later and there I met many other Japanese - all working people, many of them hadn't even studied (just high school) but could speak English quite well. However, I still had enough opportunity to practice my Japanese and combined with some drinks and some food this was a very nice way to study the language. The next week they took me to some place called 'Bob's Lounge', some kind of international bar for foreigners who want to meet Japanese people and Japanese who want to speak English. The bar is run by a Japanese man (in his 60's?) who has lived in Texas for some while (hence his nickname Texan Bob) and makes announcements in English with a southern-american (that is US) accent every once in a while during the evening. At that place I met some more Japanese people who where all nice and relaxed - but maybe not representative for the average Japanese. Just as the average westerner might not be that interested in Japan - and at least not willing to learn Japanese - maybe the average Japanese wouldn't really want to become close friends with some weird foreigners. If that's the case, then I haven't met that many 'average' Japanese yet. Logically, only people interested in foreign countries/people come to those international parties, so for me it's quite easy to establish contacts and get along with them. Concordingly I'll never know what the average Japanese is like, cause I won't have much chance to meet him/her. (note that I consider students not as average Japanese: they are much younger and have a higher level of education). One necessary device to keep in contact here is the mobile phone. Most communication consists of e-mail from and to mobile phones (instead of the Short Message Service used in the Netherlands and France). So next to phone-numbers, e-mail adresses are very important to get through to people.
As far as foreigners are concerned, I naturally meet them at the dormitory and the university. I must say though that my meetings with Japanese people resulted in less contact with other international students. While many people of my dormitory mostly go out together in this neighbouhood, I'm heading for rendez-vous with other people in other parts of Tokyo. But well, I've just been here for some weeks now so I'll still have enough time to get to know everyone around here. For now, another important thing is to concentrate on my studies: classes have really started now, with tests and short papers coming up, lots to read and lots to learn so I think I have to adjust my schedule and spend some more time with books and less time with friends.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

One of the relatively innocent puppets that I found between the countles anime-figures: a small nazi-style officer (resemblance with any historical figure being purely coincidental; ).

My room at the dormitory. It's furnished for two people, so the same furniture is put against the other wall of the room - but instead of another wardrobe (that's what you see at the right) there's a bathroom at the left side of the entrance, without a shower though. In the top-left of the picture you can see the airco/heater that cools the room in the summer and is supposed to heat it in the winter - both essential in Japan because of the abundant summer-heat and the lack of central heating (also during the winter).