Saturday, March 6, 2010

Tokyo Revisited

This week I went to Tokyo for a couple of days on business. I was last in Japan in the fall of 2003, but only went to Hiroshima that time. It's probably been fifteen years at least since I've been in downtown Tokyo. I forgot less Japanese than I feared, probably because I watch some Japanese television in Shanghai. But much seemed unfamilar to me---in part because I've forgotten, but also because things have changed.

What struck me most, was not new buildings, subway lines and stops, or shops, or even the signs of decline---the merger of Sumitomo and Mitsui Banks, once proud houses in their own right, or the obvious decline of Japanese department stores, some of which have even gone out of business. It was the change of mood in the country. When I lived in Japan some 30 years ago, it was the era of "Japan as Number One", when troupes of American and European businessmen made pilgrimages to the country to learn about quality and inventory control, problem solving, and kaizen. This was before the rise of China, and Japan was the economic powerhouse that seemed to threaten all.

The Japanese themselves seem bewildered by how fast things have changed. For them, too, all eyes are now on China, and Japan seems to have been passed by. I have to say, even Tokyo did not seem crowded to me--as if half the population had retired and moved to the country. The subway at rush hour was not as packed as Shanghai's, and famous streets like Ginza seemed nearly empty. Seoul has a lot more bustle these days. My memory of Tokyo is of masses of people, rushing everywhere---with order, but haste. Now, the crush of the crowd seems less, and the pace decidedly more desultory as well.

I only went to Japan a few times during the 1990s, which is now referred to as the "lost decade." I met up with some old colleagues (one from 25 years ago), and they said that younger generation in Japan that grew up during the 90s is both disillusioned and without the work ethic of days past. Though a lot of hope was put in the change of power a few months ago when the LDP was defeated after 50 years in power, that hope has pretty much dissipated (sounds familiar, doesn't it?) Just before I went to Japan, I saw a TV program on NHK that was about homeless people in Tokyo. There were homeless even when I was living there many years ago, but they were really on the fringe---now, due to job losses, it is a big problem. Changes in the labor laws in the country in the past few years have also created a much larger contingent workforce, with little to no job security (this is being cited in Japan as one cause of Toyota's recent troubles, since contingent workers are said to have less commitment to quality).

One person said to me that it has been difficult for Japanese to adjust to the fact that there is now truly poverty in the country, as in the days right after World War II. Then, Japan "rose from the ashes" to become an economic superpower, full of drive and ambition and with prosperity for the majority. Now, it seems to be in a fog, with no clear path and its young too disillusioned to lead the way, cowed by the great economic engine to the west, China. Demographics do not favor a second coming, either---by 2025 more than 25% of the population will be over 65.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Over the weekend, I took a tour to Harbin. Harbin is in what used to be Manchuria, in the north of China. In recent years it has become famous for a spectacular ice and snow festival with replicas and statues made of ice, but it has an equally fascinating place in history.

China was quite weak from the late 19th century, and the great powers essentially carved the country up into "special interest" zones. Manchuria was close to both Russia and Japan, and as a resource rich area, was fought over by all three powers in the late 1800s to early 1900s. When I was in graduate school, I wrote my master's thesis about the relations among Japan, the U.S. and China during the 1920's, a time when Japan was consolidating control over Manchuria and a lucrative railroad that ran through this area. Later, Japan annexed the area and formed a puppet state called Manchukuo, putting the last emperor of China, Puyi, as the titular head. Harbin was the site of some horrific Japanese war crimes reminiscent of Nazi Germany in their cruelty and dehumanization--we toured the secret "germ warfare" laboratory and compound masterminded by the Japanese equivalent of Mengele, Shiro Ishii. There, Chinese prisoners from around the country were transported for live human experiments including vivisection, and most perished. The Japanese bombed the site, called block 731, but did not destroy it completely. Local villagers came forward with artifacts from the site, and the Chinese government was able to piece together the story of this atrocity from their accounts and evidence.

During the period leading up to 1920 after the Bolshevik Revolution, many Russians including a large population of Jews fled their war torn country and settled in Harbin--in fact, in 1925 fully a third of the population of Harbin was Russian. The Russian influence can still be seen with restaurants and the famous St. Sophia's church (above). There are also synagogues, though none are supposedly functioning. Some German Jews also relocated to the city during the 1930s, and some further relocated to Kobe, Japan, where they received refuge during the war.

The ice festival is of more recent origin, and is really spectacular--especially the night show. Every year there is a different theme, and this year it is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, so there are replicas of famous Chinese buildings including a rendition of the Great Wall and the Great Hall of the People. Another park, called Sun Island, has sculptures made not only by Chinese, but international ice sculptors as well. Ice is brought from the frozen Songhua River in early December, and sculptors work around the clock until several thousand structures and statues are completed in late December. The ice festival officially opens in early January for local residents, and an onslaught of tourists ensues until late February, when the ice begins to thaw. The structures are then disassembled (the smaller ones are allowed to melt in place) and ice is returned to the river.
Harbin is also home to hundreds of Siberia tigers, a conservation effort designed to blunt China's poor image in harvesting these animals for their bones which are an important ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. The TIger Park also houses Bengal tigers (also an endangered species), ligers (a cross between a female tiger and a male lion), jaguars, white or snow tigers, and a few lions.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Back in Shanghai

After a restful but busy month traveling to the U.S., Panama, and Mexico, I'm back in Shanghai. I moved into a new place downtown, closer to subways and activity, and it also has central heating. Shanghai generally doesn't get that cold, but it has high humidity so it can feel a lot colder than the temperature indicates. I'll still be shuttling back and forth between China and Korea, with a trip to Japan also planned for the end of the month.

Tonight I went to a Chinese masseur to have a foot massage. I have something called a Morton's Neuroma, which is an inflammation--scar tissue actually--on the nerve between the 3rd and 4th toe. It's a fairly common injury, in my case probably from a broken toe several years ago. It doesn't bother me constantly, but on occasion, it can be annoying and painful, and when irritated burns and throbs even when I'm not standing or walking. I got some orthotics to lessen the irritation and I wear sensible shoes, but they don't completely do the job. In the U.S., the "cure" is to have surgery to have the nerve removed, but many people have complications from this surgery that can be worse than the original problem.

I've been reading a lot about Chinese traditional medicine, acupuncture and massage. Although I tried reflexology in the States, it really didn't work very well for me. Deep tissue massage is common here, and after talking to a colleague who had a similar problem, I had a 30 minute session tonight. It's quite painful, and likely I'll have to have more than one session, but I'm hoping that it at least lessens the frequency. Even if not, it won't break the bank---one session was about $9.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


I spent most of the past week in Korea, and part of almost every week since I returned to Asia in October. It's a beautiful country, though I haven't had a chance to do much sightseeing. I have picked up a little Korean, though not as much as Chinese. The Korean language is very similar grammatically to Japanese, and although there a few common words and the inflections/body language are practically identical, the vocabulary is quite different (it shares some roots with Chinese, however). The head of our operation there, who also speaks Japanese, thinks I could pick it up reasonably well if I studied intensively for three months or so. Unlike Japanese, Korean uses a syllabary rather than Chinese characters, so learning to read it is pretty simple, and I can already make out words (even though I don't know what they mean). Koreans also study Chinese characters in school, which helps them if they try to learn Chinese or Japanese, but one person told me that many students don't study the subject with very much focus.

It used to be that speaking Japanese in Korea was almost taboo. The history between the two countries is rocky--in the 20th century, Japan occupied Korea, and Koreans forcibly taken to Japan, as well as their children and succeeding generations-- were long treated as second class citizens. During the occupation of Korea from 1905 (Korea was annexed five years later) to the end of World War II, the Japanese ruled with an iron hand, and essentially tried to obliterate Korean culture (an ironic thing, since Korea has contributed richly to Japanese culture). Koreans were forced to learn Japanese, which certainly explains their later reluctance to use the language. There were many other atrocities, including the well known use of Korean "comfort women" during World War II. Tensions continue, in part because as with China, the Japanese have never really come clean on the atrocities they committed in the name of Imperialism--e.g., they continue to be glossed over in the textbooks studied by Japanese schoolchildren, and Japanese government officials continue to visit the Yasukuni Shrine, a symbol of Japanese military rule. But despite the official chilliness, on a personal level there are other stories that indicate that time has healed some of the wounds. An interpreter I met in Seoul told me that when she studied English in the United States, she roomed with a Japanese girl. They became good friends, and at one point, the Japanese girl broke down and apologized tearfully for all the things her country had done to Korea and its people. The interpreter told me "I could not accept such an apology--it is not mine to accept on behalf of all those who suffered", but that she was moved by the girl's feeling of remorse and her need to express it. They remain good friends and see each other from time to time.

Today many young people study Japanese freely and Japanese tourists in Korea (particularly housewives on shopping trips, since the exchange rate is very favorable) abound. At the airport, English, Korean and Japanese are prominent--it's Chinese that's missing. I interviewed one young man for a job who spoke extremely well. Despite studying for only a year, he was able to pass the Level 1 Proficiency exam offered by the Japanese government (I've passed Level 2, but not yet tackled Level 1). I was a little amused at how he did it, though--he confessed that he had fallen in love with the Japanese instructor, who was quite pretty, and was determined to pass the exam in order to impress her enough to go on a date with him. Sheepishly, he admitted that although he passed the exam, she ultimately rebuffed his advances.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


As in Chennai, I have about an hour drive into work in the morning from Shanghai, and usually an hour and 15 or 20 minutes back in the evening. Though I didn't have my camera with me, here is a word picture of the things that caught my attention recently:

  • Two cars stopped dead in the right hand lane on the service drive (no flashing lights on) with the drivers doing their business in nearby bushes.
  • An old woman of indeterminate age gathering used water bottles for sale--she must have had over 100--at a toll booth; she was collecting them in a hollowed out area of a cement barrier that divided one booth from another
  • Two men in a fishing boat, with nets, in a small pond next to the toll road
I was scheduled for a couple of field trips---one to Beijing and the other, this weekend, to Louyang, where there are some temples and the original home of Buddhism in China. Unfortunately, both of them got cancelled. Now I only have another couple of weeks here before returning to the U.S. until the beginning of next year, so will have to put off much more sightseeing until next year.

Lately, though, I've been missing India a lot. Perhaps it's because this past week I've met some old colleagues, heard from a couple of others, and had some issues to deal with there for work. Coincidentally, Outsourced (the movie) was on cable TV one night as well, bringing back all the images and sounds and people. So far, work has not taken me back there, but I hope it does in 2010.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Shanghai Museum Again

I went back to the Shanghai Museum today. I'd only seen one floor--the one with ceramics--and wanted to check the rest of the museum out. You could easily spend a day here. As the picture at the left shows, each piece is exquisite, and full of detail.

There's a long line to get in, especially on the weekends. But well worth the wait.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Back in Shanghai

Back in Shanghai, I'm done traveling for a while, other than back and forth to Korea. I'm thinking about going to Xi'an before leaving for the States again at the end of November, and have scheduled myself for a weekend retreat at a Buddhist monastery outside of Beijing in a couple of weeks. Other than that, this week's amusement is drivers.

Since I moved into Shanghai, I've had a car and driver service. Since I was gone for a couple of weeks, the driver I had--who I really liked--is now with someone else in the office. The guy who picked me up at the airport and drove me on the weekend was fine, too. As of yesterday I had a new driver who was supposed to be with me until the end of November. But after one day I decided this guy was just too creepy---plus his driving made me nervous---so now I have another one.

Why was he creepy? Well, for one thing he kept scratching himself--on his head, his arms, his stomach-- he even rolled up a pant leg to scratch his legs. Constantly, and while driving, which is the thing that made me nervous. I am not sure if he had a skin disorder, lice or what, but it was creepy and distracting. This morning he didn't do it as much, but it was one of those things where I kept watching him to see if he would start up again. Besides that, he zoned out and almost missed the exit a couple of times, and had to cross over four lanes to swerve onto the ramp, and he kept wandering over to the shoulder and driving there. So I asked for him to be replaced.

The new guy seems to be a bit better, but he too wound up annoying me. On the way home, he kept in the passing lane, but he doesn't drive that fast so everyone went around him. In my admittedly limited Chinese, I finally pointed out that he was going too slow to be in that lane. So what does he do? He speeds up, but switches lanes so he is now passing people who are in the passing lane. Back in Shanghai.