Articles blogged on Yosha's Crying Wall
The Lost Samurai
2009-08 Polling time | Rites of passage | Garbage watch | Mumbly peg
2009-07 Reflected glory | Internet hunting | Lost in translation | Race across Pacific | Dreams of happiness | Social cybernetics
Every human born becomes a member of ir^(hr-1) races -- in which
ir = imaginary races -- all the races a person thinks he or she is, and
hr = human races = 1 -- the number of human races.
By William Wetherall
Racialist countries have laws that classify people according to one or another official "race" -- usually for the purpose of treating people of one putative race differently from those of other races. The United States was such a country until fairly recently -- and is still, today, a "race box" state in which "race" matters in law and politics.
Even in countries with raceless laws, like Japan, most people socially view themselves and others "racially" -- and such racialism can result in discriminatory behavior. And in Japan, like the United States and most countries, people speak of being "half" this or "a quarter" or "an eighth" that -- and "mixed" marriages are common and controversial.
Everywhere in the world, there are discussions of whether children of "mixed" or "interracial" marriages are "half" one parent and "half" the other parent -- or whether they are "whole" as humans or "double" in terms of parental "heritage" or "culture". Never mind that the parents themselves could be "mixed" in various ways that may or may not be reflected as "heritage" or "culture".
In Tokyo, on 19 September 2009, there is an event called "Nibun-no-ni" -- meaning "2/2". The two halves reduce to one. This is progress -- but only to a point.
The event features two speakers. One is described as "a kuota ('quarter American') and transgender" writer. The other is called "a fellow hafu with British and Japanese lineage". The last time I read my elementary school primer on fractions, 1/4 was only half of 1/2 -- though they could be said to share a certain fellowship as ratios.
The Japanese words are actually "haafu" and "kuootaa" -- and, strictly speaking, they describe quanta of putatively "non-Japanese blood" in which "Japanese" is taken to be a standard of purity. "Hachibun no ichi" means "one-eighth".
Mathematically, "half" and "quarter" and "one-eighth" and "one-sixteenth" are evaluations of 2^-g at g=1, g=2, g=3, and g=4 -- where "g" is a person's generational distance from the g=0 progenitor of impure genes. The progenitor of impurity is a "full" (2^-0 = 1) alien, and a child of a "full Japanese" and the alien is one generation removed from the alien -- hence "half" (2^-1 = 1/2). The Japanese progression is comparable with mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, and quintroon (hexadecaroon = 1/16) in English measures of "black" impurity in "white" blood.
Akihito -- Japan's present "emperor" -- is not pure by Yamatoist standards of purity. As he himself publicly stated in 2001, the mother of Emperor Kanmu (r. 781-806) was a descendant of Prince Sunta, a son of the Paekche King Muryong (501-523).
Many people had migrated from the Korean peninsula and amalgamated with the mainstream -- as did all manner of non-Yamato people already in early Japan. So Akihito's veins undoubtedly contain several kinds of blood, all of them red.
Even if his lineal descendants were able to find and marry only "pure Japanese", it would take an infinite number of generations for the imperial family gene pool to purify. But there is not a single "pure Japanese" on the islands.
All Japanese are to some degree blends of the people who -- over the millennia, centuries, and decades -- have migrated from various parts of the world to what is today Japan. "Culturally", too, Japan is "homogeneous" only if one ignores regional, communal, familial, and personal variations.
The "Nibun-no-ni" event is organized by the same people behind the "Hafu Japanese" project -- a photographic and social "exploration" of "hafu or half Japanese". Check out their website, in English or Japanese, at www.hafujapanese.org. It is full of things to ponder.
The website does not equate "mixed heritage" with "mixed race" -- but the visuals suggest that "race" is perhaps the "defining" part of its "race, culture and nationality" concern. "Heritage" -- like "culture" and "nationality" in the minds of some people -- is a slippery word that is very fashionably used today with nuances of "race" and "racioethnicity".
The idea of "'nibun-no-ni' (2/2)" is, however, a good start toward achieving the goal expressed by one of the "Hafu Japanese" project organizers. According to a 28 February 2009 review of the project in The Japan Times -- titled "'Hafu' focuses on whole individual" -- the project is predicated on "the need to discuss and analyze it [the word "hafu"] as a classification before it can be removed from society."
I wonder about this -- because social history teaches that, in the process of classifying anything for publicity or research purposes, labels tend to spread and gather momentum. The momentum of an object increases if either its mass or velocity increases. Changing the direction of movement requires force. Stopping or reversing the spread of a label requires as much or more force than was expended to create and apply it.
Racial labels have the habit of becoming indelible and multiplying. The momentous continuation and proliferation of legally-mandated "race boxes" in the United States is a case in point. Japan has no race boxes, but labels abound. "Zainichi" -- of fairly recent invention -- is increasingly used in mass media and academia as a racioethnic epithet for anyone in Japan who claims to have -- or is thought to have -- a drop of "Korean" blood.
One reason I demur at "2/2" is because it implies "1/2 + 1/2" -- which implies a "mixture" of "one half" of each of "two worlds". Despite the "multi-" this and "multi-" that rhetoric which crops up in discussions of "haafu" -- and of "hapa", a popular tag in the United States for "multiracial Asian Americans" -- the "two-halves=one" formula reinforces the stereotype that offspring of racially or otherwise "mixed" unions are somehow bipolar.
Both my mother and father were products of "multiple worlds" -- yet I, as their offspring, had to contend more with their distinct, different, and complex personalities than with their multiple, and equally complex, familial and social heritages. My father and mother are both called "white" on my San Francisco birth certificate. Maybe they were. Who knows. Certainly I had nothing to do with it. I don't believe they did either.
n imaginary races to the zero power
"In-ichi ga ichi" in Japanese -- which mean "1x1=1" -- might be a truer statement, since the product of one parent's whole gene pool and another parent's whole gene pool is one child -- leaving aside identical and fraternal twins and other multiple births.
Yet 1x1=1 -- though not as elegant in its simplicity as 2/2 -- shares with 2/2 the flaw that it does not accommodate the freedom all individuals should have to "identify" in any manner they like. Both formulae work fine for nondescript mongrels like myself -- who constitute the vast majority of the population in any country you name, including Japan -- and for self-styled bipolar mixtures. But people like Tiger Woods -- who once called himself "Cablinasian", a portmanteau of caucasian, black, american indian, and asian -- might like to arrive at the conclusion that they are at once both "one" and "whole" through a different formulation.
Hence I prefer to compute raciality as the value of n imaginary races to the zero power or n^0. No matter how many races or ethnicities or cultures or heritages or nationalities an individual might choose -- or not -- to string out, ad infinitum, with or without hyphens -- this equation will always evaluate as exactly one. No more, no less. For no individual can be more or less than one human being -- leaving aside those with multiple or fractional personalities.
In any event, "mixture" is a fundamentally shared quality of being human. Anyone who claims not to be a mixture of various human ingredients is delusional.
18 September 2009
They begin with reflections in social and personal mirrors.
They end somewhere between chips on shoulders and narcissism.
By William Wetherall
Some of my stigmas caused me considerable anxiety. In time my social shoulders became strong enough to bear the burden of humoring people who seemed concerned about who they thought I was merely by seeing my eyes or nose, or hearing the way I spoke.
It took a few years, but eventually I realized that it was unfair of me to blame others for having the same fault I had -- a normal mix of natural human curiosity, with passively acquired attitudes and behaviors toward people according to how I reflexively attached ready-made labels to their being.
Beautiful, ugly, tall, short, black, white, coordinated, awkward, able, crippled, bright, dumb -- and countless other boxes I had built in my mind as I learned -- at home, in school, from media, and by ample example -- to differentiate foods I liked and didn't, good snakes from bad, friends from foes.
Most people want to be noticed -- but not necessarily for the reasons that other people may notice them.
My shortness and cuteness, before adolescence turned me into a male chauvinist pig of average height, got my toothless grin front-and-center in more than one elementary school class picture -- usually between the cutest girls. Had I had stayed that short -- would I now be wearing elevated shoes, and daring the guy on the next bar stool to call me Shorty?
I went through a spell of wondering why some of my mother's friends made such a fuss over me. Did they really see her beautiful eyes in mine? Hopefully the genes I got from her drew everyone's attention away from those I inherited from my father's nose, nostrils, and upper lip. In time, though, pimples commanded my share of the mirror time I had to divide with my brother and sister.
I also had to wonder why some kids giggled or snickered. Because they understood why, after gym classes began from the 7th grade, the boys who had seen my developing inguinal hernia in the locker room had started calling me Balls? In the halls? In front of the girls? I left that nickname, along with part of my heart, in San Francisco when moving to Grass Valley near the end of the 8th grade.
Or because I stammered? When I was in college half a century ago, someone etched "The Talking Seal" under my name on the leather case of my sliderule. Then, because I could not hide the sliderule, I hid my feelings by joining the laughter of those who noticed the remark.
Much later, in Japan, I found myself somewhat self-conspicuous because of my putative race. People looked at me in ways I had never been looked at in the United States. Only then did I begin to wonder how some people must feel about my probing eyes.
Until then I had grown accustomed to all manner of official forms, in the United States, which called for me to write or check "Caucasian" or "White" in a race box. The racial classifications in my own mind were habits acquired purely through social osmosis. I had never before then given much thought to racialism.
Military race boxes
My DA FORM 214 "Report of Transfer or Discharge" -- which honorably released me, in 1966, from my 3-year enlistment in the United States Army in 1963 -- has a race box called "7a. RACE". On the form, "RACE" has been replaced by a black bar and "NA" is typed in the box. "b. SEX" says "MALE" and c, d, e, and f are COLOR HAIR, COLOR EYES, HEIGHT, and WEIGHT. Race, in other words, had been the highest order of physical trait on this form.
The standalone box called "7. RACE" on my DA FORM 20 "Enlisted Qualification Record" says "CAU" -- as contemporary Army regulations required that one "Enter the first three letters of one of the following: Caucasian, Negroid, Mongolian, Indian (American), or Malayan. Example: Caucasian will be entered as Cau."
An American friend has a 1965 "U.S. Forces Permit For Civilian Vehicle" with "C" in the race box. I asked him what it meant. He said "Chutzpah". I thought it meant "Clown". For me, at birth, it could have meant "Clubfoot" -- because I had one.
By the time I was old enough to look at old baby pictures and ask about the cast on my foot, the deformity had been corrected. One of my earliest memories is of my mother taking me to the store on Irving Street where she always bought my shoes. I clearly remember the time the man said I no longer needed a wedge on one of my heels.
In 2008, an American woman who had served in the Women's Army Corps between 1958 and 1960 applied to the Army Board for Correction of Military Record to change the racial classification on her military records from "Malayan" to Hawaiian". She argued that she was "Hawaiian-born" and her family was "all Hawaiian" -- and alleged that the recruiter had probably changed her classification.
The board reviewed the woman's request despite the decades which had passed since the lapse of the 3-year statute of limitation that usually applies to corrections of military records. It found that "Malayan" had consistently appeared on a long list of forms, from enlistment to discharge, which the woman had partly completed and/or signed. Moreover, she was unable to document her claim that she was "Hawaiian".
The board determined that "The evidence presented does not demonstrate the existence of a probable error or injustice." It therefore declined to accept her request.
Governments that have legalized race boxes are bound by their own bureaucratic obsessions with racial classifications -- as well as by legal procedures related to changing information in old records. The board was not free to say -- "You want to be Hawaiian? No problem. You're Hawaiian." Nor, apparently, was it free to say -- "The only thing we can do is strike out 'Race' and change the entry to 'NA'."
"NA" means "not applicable". I would prefer "NOYB" -- "none of your business". Army regs would have reduced this to "NOY" or "NON" -- and not "N", which had long been reserved for something else.
Had I been the board, I would have amended the woman's record as she had requested. And I would have told her -- "If you want to be something else next week or next year, just make another request."
Despite my cynicism about racial classification, I believe that people should be free to be what they want. If someone wants to be "Hawaiian" rather than "Malayan" -- or just "human" or "animal" -- or "Martian" or "Nothing" -- that's fine with me.
My crayon box will accept any pigment of the imaginary racial rainbow, visible or invisible. But anyone who shoves a race box in my face -- today -- will get a smile and a polite "No thanks."
I cannot control what other people think I am. My only choices are to get upset or not care. I have found all manner of ways to parry sticks and dodge stones -- but names now hurt only if I choose to feel offended. And I choose not to be defensive.
Ends of the spectrum
The pathologies of racialism -- to return to the underlying cause of a truly global and worrisome stigma -- are everywhere. I see the extremes of racial stigma, both in the United States, where race boxes are proliferating like superweeds -- and in Japan, where some people want to import American-style race boxes.
At one end of the stigma spectrum are people who are doomed to suffer delusions of reference in public until they die. They feel glances that are not there. They become upset by glances they take to be stares. Glances that linger long enough to be stares, linger in their thoughts all day and the next.
Not everyone at this extreme becomes clinically sociophobic. Many, though, suffer anxiety just thinking about stepping out the door, and have difficulty truly relaxing in public. And those who have trouble containing anger risk venting their hostility on others.
At the other end of the stigma spectrum in Japan -- which has no race boxes -- are some people who dream of having a race box all their own. "Zainichi" t-shirts. "Hapa Power!" buttons. "Naturalized Citizen" bumper stickers.
Some publicists for such "communities" claim their intention is to destroy racial boundaries. In my view, though, they merely define new political territories that end up being defended with the same sort of prideful narcissism that created race boxes in the first place.
10 September 2009
Postscript 1 I no longer worry about my nostrils. Their main disadvantage is their capacity for collecting pollen. Much bigger, for me, is the pleasure they bring the babies I now and then cuddle, whose fingers find them utterly irresistible.
Postscript 2 My clubfoot never had a chance to nurture a stigma. Now and then I recall it -- either in nostalgic thoughts about my mother, and how anxious she must have felt about my foot and stammer -- or when wondering what my life would have been like had I been born where people had no idea how to straighten a foot that got twisted in a womb.
Postscript 3 I still have the sliderule, and now and then I take it from a drawer to make sure it, and my brain, still work. Today, though, the remark on the case draws a smile -- at the thought that someone went to the trouble to notice that, despite my stammer, which has all but entirely vanished, I liked to talk. And still do.
The Lost Samurai
First they served their masters and themselves.
Then they served their constructors.
Now they serve their deconstructors and reconstructors.
By William Wetherall
the battles being fought in their name are supremely ideological -- which is nothing new in public exhibits of "cultural" artifacts.
Samurai are now featured in Lords of the Samurai, an exhibit running from 12 June to 20 September 2009 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
The principal exhibition publication is Lords of the Samurai: The Legacy of a Daimyo Family, by Yoko Woodson and others. The work is prefaced by Hosokawa Morikawa and features an extended essay by Thomas Cleary.
Hosokawa wrote the preface because the "family" and its "legacy" are his own. The exhibit and book feature over 160 items from Hosokawa family collections on loan from Tokyo and Kumamoto museums.
Hosokawa Morihiro was Japan's prime minister from August 1993 to April 1994. He began his political career as a member of the House of Councilors from Kumamoto, served two terms as governor of Kumamoto, left the Liberal Democratic Part to join a new party, returned to the Diet as a House of Representatives member from a Kumamoto constituency, and found himself the head of a coalition government. He retired from politics as a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, which is now positioned to effect a "regime change" in the country.
A succession of Hosokawa's ancestors were daimyo of the Kumamoto domain and then governors of Kumamoto prefecture. He became the head of the main branch of the family in 2005 when his father died.
Any bookstore in Japan is likely to have from one to several works by or about Hosokawa, including glossy mooks of him at work at a potter's wheel on the family estate in Kumamoto and examples of his wares. He is a study of the demeanor and manners that were expected of the nobility, which daimyo and other higher-ranking members of the buge caste became when they lost their "bu" after the start of the Meiji era in 1868 -- not so long ago.
That Hosokawa participated in the making of his family history the theme of a major exhibit by a museum like the Asian is a mark of his character as a diplomat and artist whose works have been widely exhibited in Japan and also in Europe. In the delicate world of museum politics, there is no room for ideological provocation in the telling of his family history.
Being in Japan, I have not been able to take in the real, non-virtual samurai exhibition. My impression, though, is that it is studiously low-key.
The Asian survives in a field that is strewn with high-societal and low-political landmines. While capable of being very trendy in its public presentations of art and art history, it leaves the more provocative agendas to its critics -- such as the person or people behind an underground website that is mocking the Asian.
What's in a name?
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is the name of the website that mounts the exhibit called Lord of the Samurai. The URL of its website is www.asianart.org.
Asians Art Museum of San Francisco is the name of a counter-museum which emulates the Asian while presenting an alternative exhibit called Lord It's the Samurai. The URL of its website is www.asiansart.org.
The counter-museum's slogans speak for themselves.
Where Asian Still Means Oriental
Your Oriental Fantasies, Our Bottom Line
Orientalisms 'R Us
This is both tongue-in-cheek winking by devoted Saidists at the Asian's stately and staid Hosokawa exhibition -- and a dead serious critique of the overt and covert Orientalism they feel continues to thrive in mainstream museums.
The "asianart.org" domain was created on 10 May 2001 and expires on 1 July 2017 -- by which time the museum will renew its registration. The domain's owner and administrator are fully disclosed on the website of its registrar.
The contact name is James Horio, the Asian's Director of Information Technology. The domain's name server is affiliated with pbi.net of the Pacific Bell Internet family.
The Asian was originally in a wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. It closed there on 7 October 2001, and reopened on 20 March 2003 at its present home -- the retrofitted and renovated building that, until then, had housed the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library -- prime real estate in the city's highly accessible Civic Center.
San Francisco acquired the Avery Brundage collection of Asian art on the condition that it build a museum to house it. The city issued a bond in 1960 and the museum was opened on 10 June 1966 as a wing of the de Young. The Center for Asian Art and Culture was renamed the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 1973.
I was last there to see the "Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People's Republic of China" in 1975, which opened a month before I came to Japan to begin my doctoral research, which embraced the theme of "following in death" in early Japan, Korea, China, and elsewhere. The exhibit celebrated the progress in US-PRC relations after the Nixon-Mao detente in 1972.
A few years ago, on a family visit to the city of my birth, during which we explored City Hall, I found myself in the secretarial office next to the mayor's chambers. Anyone who gets through ground floor security can walk into the room. Its windows directly overlook Civic Center Park and offer a clear view of the Asian, and the Dining Terrace outside its Cafe Asian on the sunnier south side of the building -- which faces the new public library.
I wanted to go through the Asian, but we had spent too much time in the library so I managed only to peak in its lobby. I did, however, imagine a short story that began with someone laying binoculars on the mayor's window while sipping a latte on the cafe terrace.
Cloaks and daggers
The "asiansart.org" domain is registered to an administrator with a PO box address in Cocoa, Florida. The only contact name revealed on the website of its registrar is "c/o RespectMyPrivacy, LLC" -- which means the registrant is cloaking his or her identity using the services of this third-party "limited liability company".
The domain was created on 9 August 2009 and will expire in one year if the owner decides not to renew its registration. Its name servers are affiliated with nearlyfreespeech.net (NFSN).
Asian Art Museum hopes to draw walk-in visitors who will pay the price of admission and patronize its store and cafe. Its main catchment is the larger San Francisco area. Its secondary catchments include North American metropolises from which the wealthier can jaunt into the City by the Bay for two or three days of extra-planetary experience -- and the world at large, which feeds the city a constant flow of tourists.
Asians Art Museum targets only net denizens, and pitches its content mainly to visitors who will appreciate its satirical, lampoonish, parodic, totally funky multiculturalist and postcolonial critique.
Both websites reach out to the FaceBook, Twitter, and YouTube worlds in hopes of getting as many hits as possible. The gadget-savvy, wireless, un-united social-networkers of the world seem doomed to inherit the earth.
Oriental, Asian, Asians
Obama said a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Some people laughed. Others were enraged.
"Asian" is no better than "Oriental" if it represents the same mindset. "Asians" may appear to champion diversity, but a box is still a box.
The day may come when "Asians" and "Westerners" will fall by the wayside as something more fashionable comes charging down the yellow brick road.
2 September 2009
I can't go to the polls but I have the right to be polled.
By William Wetherall
Tomorrow's election day and the phone's been ringing more than usual. Half the time it's not for me.
"Is your wife there?" I'm often asked by a voice I recognize as that of a telemarketer.
It's almost always a woman. No man has ever asked me if my wife was home. Wives are supposed to be home and husbands at work. No one hires men to make calls and ask women who pick up, "Is your husband there?"
"Not that I know of," is my usual reply.
Which is not to say I don't have a wife, or didn't have one, or wouldn't want one. Simply that, if I did have one, and if she was home, I wasn't aware of her presence -- which might qualify her as a model wife.
Most telemarketers say goodbye at this point. A few ask more questions and get similar answers. The most persistent eventually give up. Hopefully they check the "Nut case" box and delete my number from their list.
Other callers are ordinary people who have punched the wrong numbers. One such call resulted in this conversation.
"Is Yoshie there?" a man said after some hesitation.
"No," I said. The same guy had called just a few minutes before. Then he had said "Oh, I'm sorry" and cut the line after I said "Hello."
"You sure?" he said.
"No Yoshie here. What number are you calling?"
He told me. I told him mine was 2, not 3. He needed to stretch his right thumb a bit more to reach the 3.
"I thought you might be a rival," he joked, then twice apologized and cut the line. I never heard from him again.
I was tempted to call Yoshie. Instead I wrote a short story about a guy who almost got himself killed finding a wife that way.
I've gotten several calls from pollsters over the years, but this is the first time I've been hit by election pollsters. Two have called this month, on the eve of what may be the most important election in Japanese history this year.
The first pollster said she was calling on behalf of the Mainichi, a national paper. Could she ask my views of the parties, candidates, and issues? Sure, I said. Did I intend to vote? No. Why not? I'm an alien and didn't have the right to vote.
She said she was truly sorry about that and cut the line. I felt sorry for her. The next person could be a woman who tells her she's only nineteen. And the next a man who says "What election?"
The second pollster represented NHK, the "public" broadcast corporation that thinks it has the right to force payment of a monthly viewer fee for every TV set in every home, office, hospital, hotel, or corrugated cardboard shack.
Her not-unpleasant voice kept flowing despite my efforts to jump in as soon as I heard the word "election". I thought for a moment it might be a recording, but no, there was something human about the affect. Finally I said something that caused her to stop midstream.
"Yes?" she said.
"I'm not qualified to vote."
"You're too young?"
"Nope. I turned twenty 48 years ago."
"Are you a, a . . ."
"Or in a . . ."
"Mental hospital? No."
"Then you must be a . . ."
"Really! Do you speak English?"
"A little," I said, affecting as much modesty as I could.
We talked for half a minute -- a long time when you count out thirty seconds. She'd spent a week in California. Where? Disneyland, Universal Studios. Never been there. Really! I'm from San Francisco and don't know much about the south. She had spent two nights there, ridden a cable car, been to Fisherman's Wharf. That's nice. So had I.
She had work to do, an hourly quota to make, a supervisor monitoring her calls. I too had other things to do, not necessarily more interesting than talking to her.
The election tomorrow may change who sits where in the chambers of the Diet, and who speaks for Japan at daily press conferences. Whether the government itself changes awaits to be seen.
I'm waiting for a post-election pollster to call.
"What do you think of the new government?"
"What new government?"
29 August 2009
Rites of passage
Some you go through everyday in your life without knowing.
Then comes the day you get the results.
By William Wetherall
"You've got a couple of blockages that bear watching." Or "It's shot up to 23."
Someone with a Japanese dream opened the Nepal/Indian restaurant called Kumari in the shell of a cast-off gas station a ten-minute walk from Toride station in Ibaraki prefecture. That's not as far from Tokyo as it sounds, but it's a long ways from India and Nepal.
The place is open only for lunch and dinner. Sorry, no breakfasts, which is too bad, because it was a quarter to eight in the morning and drizzling when I walked by the place on my way to a local hospital. It's a 30-minute walk, but to wait for the next bus would have made me late for the blood draw. Besides, my heart needs the exercise.
There's parking for six vehicles, a variety of dishes, a drink-all-you want deal, it's okay to bring kids, and a variety of credit cards are accepted. The meat, boiled in spices, is soft enough to cut with a fork, you can have your curry as hot as you like, and the Nepalese and Japanese staff are cheerful.
In all these respects it is a fairly ordinary restaurant, with different lunch and evening menus. Size wise too it's par for the course.
The Toride operation -- there's a twin in Asagaya in Suginami ward in Tokyo, which is on the other side of the world from Toride -- seats 26. So if your party has 27, someone will have to stand. The person who is standing can sit when someone goes to the toilet. And the person who goes to the toilet can stand until the next person has to pee.
But no will stand for long if everyone's chugging mugs of authentic Himalayan Gorkha Beer. The standing time will be even shorter if the party consists mostly of people with prostatic hyperplasia like me.
That's "enlarged prostate" in English. I was on my way to the hospital for a semiannual PSA test to determine if the proliferation of cells that are causing my prostate to swell is benign or malignant. That's "prostate-specific antigen" in doctorspeak.
Three years ago, my PSA shot up to 23 from around 2. Doctors were puzzled. I was shocked -- until two weeks later it was down to 10. And six months later it was 7. In another half year it was around 5, and for the next two years it hovered between 4 and 7. What would it be today?
Two hours later I was in the doctor's office. Fine, thanks, and you? Had anything changed in my general condition? He pursued that line of questioning for a few minutes. Any new medications? Now that you mention it, two months ago my heart doctor put me on XYZ instead of ABC. The urologist made note, but nothing else, of this fact.
"Well," he said, "your PSA has dropped again. It's now between 2 and 3. And there's nothing to suggest that it might be a false low."
We talked about the implications and he said I could go a year without another test. That was fine with me.
I took the bus back, as by then the sun was out and high, and the temperature and humidity were soaring. I gazed at the Kumari as the bus lumbered by it in the late-morning traffic.
I have it on the authority of several web sources that a kumari is a prepubescent girl who embodies the spirit of a certain goddess. Such girls are worshiped in a number of South Asian countries, but particularly in Nepal, by royalty and commoners alike.
Apparently the word means "virgin" in Sanskrit, Nepali, and a few other languages in the region. The goddess vacates the girl's body at the onset of menstruation. My anthropological muse tells me such celebrations of a girl's divine possession are communal rites of passage. Who am I to disagree?
I was circumcised a couple of days after my birth. It was something done, then, to practically all boys born in practically all American hospitals. I probably tripped over the C word in Bible school, but was well into my teens before I knew what it meant.
Someday I may have to submit to a prostate biopsy. It's been a few years since I read Bruno Bettelheim's "Symbolic Wounds: Puberty Rites and the Envious Male". Perhaps it's time to give it another look.
16 August 2009
Rights and duties of citizenship come in various bags.
By William Wetherall
My main duty, this hottest time of year, has been to protect kitchen garbage from crows, stray dogs and cats, and homeless people too weak to lift the plastic net I have had to put out three times a week for the past couple of weeks. The net is no barrier for critters small enough to crawl or fly through its holes.
My main right has been to vote on a garbage referendum in the neighborhood association which embraces my address -- and which puts me, with my approval, on its garbage watch roster.
I am, albeit an alien, a registered resident of the city -- a "citizen" if you will. My status as a municipal resident permits me to participate in the national health insurance and pension schemes, and obliges me to pay national and local taxes. I can't vote for National Diet representatives, or for municipal or prefectural assembly members. But I can cast a ballot for how to manage neighborhood garbage.
Some neighborhood associations are involved in public safety, crime prevention, fire prevention, youth counseling, elderly care, child care, disaster preparation and relief, and local festivals. But most associations today, while passively circulating bulletins about municipal facilities and notices of recent burglaries, are mainly concerned about keeping their streets and parks clean and safe for kids, and with garbage collection.
Garbage collection is the main activity of my association. In most neighborhoods, pick-up points are established at a central corner that is also convenient for the garbage trucks. Newcomers to my neighborhood are surprised to find that pick-up points rotate from house to house every couple of months.
A couple of houses are not used because they lack adequate frontage on the street -- mine, for one, because my lot is at the end of a narrow 20-meter approach. Or they have suitable frontage but are located in places that would hamper the movements of garbage trucks. Practically all households, though, share weekly garbage duties.
Kinds of garbage
On burnable (kitchen and garden) garbage days, the household on watch sets out the net that protects bags of garbage from birds, dogs, and cats. On recycled garbage days the same household sets out the net for bags of plastic garbage (mostly plastic packaging), various bags, a box for batteries, and a vat for cooking oil.
One bag is for plastic bottles. Another is for cans. Three others are for clear, amber, and green bottles and jars. Yet another is for miscellaneous unburnable garbage (including broken glass and ceramic pots). Textiles, metal, and several kinds of paper and cardboard are also separated before setting them out. Each household separates its own garbage, with the help of elaborate charts that show various classifications and how waste should be bagged, cut and bundled, whatever.
There is only one truck on burnable garbage days but several on recycled garbage days. There is one truck for plastic garbage, another for plastic bottles, another for glass containers, another for cans, another for miscellaneous non-burnable garbage, batteries and light bulbs, and cooking oil, another for metal, another for cloth, another for paper including magazines and books, light cardboard, and waxed cartons (torn or cut open, not just flattened), and another for heavy corrugated cardboard.
The specialization makes sense, as there are lots of neighborhoods, and pick-up stations every three or four blocks.
What holds us together
In the ten years I have lived in my present neighborhood, the only controversy has been the garbage collection system. The pressing issue now is whether to continue to manage our garbage pick-up site ourselves -- or consign its management to the Clean Center -- the municipal organization that oversees garbage collection, dumping, waste management, and resource recycling.
The debate is over the comparative merits and demerits of keeping a hand in the management of our own garbage, versus contracting the Clean Center to do everything except separate the garbage and carry it to the collection site. Participation brings the neighborhood association a nominal income as its share of the value the company now realizes from selling recycled resources. Consignment would result in forfeiting this income.
The problem is not the money, since there is nothing to use it for.
One problem is that, as in many neighborhoods, the number of single-resident homes is increasing, including elderly people who live alone and who may themselves need assistance. The other is that, if the association leaves everything to the company, there is nothing left to keep the neighbors rubbing elbows with each other.
Supporters of the status quo argue that, while fewer households may be willing, ready, and able to participate in the garbage system, and while this will impose an increasing burden on those who volunteer for garbage watch, the present system will still provide an opportunity for neighbors to get to know each other in the process of cooperating on managing their garbage site.
As one neighbor put it, "Garbage collection is the only thing that holds us together." Well, yes and no.
My closest neighbors
Garbage site preparation and cleanup is almost always the job of the housewives who are at home most of the time. While the duties are assigned to a household, they are usually performed by the women who stay at home. You rarely see men, or kids, congregate at the garbage site.
I have met many of my neighbors but see and talk to some more than others. Sheer proximity, followed by common interests, seem more important than, say, who is in what neighborhood association and where they deposit their garbage.
I have still not met the father of the family that lives closest to me. I have met his wife and four children. I have met his parents, who live with them. And now and then I have heard what I take to be his voice. But I have never, to my knowledge, seen him.
Our homes are separated by about two meters, and there is no fence between them, which is rather unusual. The main entrance of their home, though, is on its other side. And their household is in a different neighborhood association. Borders, which have to be drawn somewhere, inevitably separate closest neighbors.
I regularly see the two women of the house when they come out their kitchen door, at the back of their house, which faces what used to be the front of my house. That is where they keep their garbage until pick-up days in their neighborhood. It is also between our houses that I have given them fresh black berries and tomatoes from my garden, and where they have given me potatoes and boxes of cakes they have picked up on weekend excursions somewhere.
Recycled-garbage management questionnaire
But back to my adventures in garbage citizenship.
The recent ballot on what to do offered three choices: (1) Continue to manage the garbage site locally, (2) Consign its management to the Clean Center, or (3) Either. The information provided with (2) stated that, at present, some 70 neighborhood associations among about 250 in the city have chosen to consign everything to the Clean Center. That appears to be the trend.
You could optionally check a reason for your choice.
- Because at present there are no problems.
- There are measures for helping each other, including exemption from participation.
- It helps the nourishment of harmony, and the mutual mixing of residents, in the area.
- Because it's a source of precious revenue.
- Because it's useful in raising awareness about separation [of garbage].
- A manager/owner/consignment-company [system] would be implemented.
- Because its troublesome to put out and bring in the collection apparatus [net, bags, etc.].
I lay awake, these sweltering August nights, not wondering if there really is a Dog, for I know there are many. I hear them barking on one battleground or another throughout the known universe.
Rather I dwell on a more fundamental question.
Is the regionalization and globalization of garbage collection tearing apart my community?
12 August 2009
There was a time when you couldn't be a boy without a pocket knife.
By William Wetherall
I still have the Case knife I carried around in high school. Its two identical blades, one on each end, fold out from the middle. Each is about 6.5 centimeters or roughly 2.5 inches. Their edges will cut small limbs, and their points will stick in trees and of course sod.
The knife now sits in a small black lacquer tray in a recess in the wall of the vestibule of my home, where you step up into the hall after taking off your shoes. Sharing the tray are a pair of glasses, two screw drivers, needlenose pliers, the chop I use on receipts for registered mail and packages, and a pedometer with a chronometer.
I now use the knife mostly in the garden when I'm too lazy to get out the pruning scissors. At one time it was mainly used to cut the thick plastic straps that sealed the mail sacks of books that no longer come from the United States. I would whip it out and have the sacks open before the postman could unholster his cutter.
I also have a fairly modest Swiss Army knife. It has a large blade, a smaller blade, a can opener with a small screwdriver, a bottle opener with a large screwdriver and a wire stripper, a saw, a reamer, a corkscrew, scissors, tweezers, a toothpick, and a lifetime warranty that doesn't say which or whose life.
The saw could fell a tree or amputate a leg. Even the tweezers could be turned into a weapon of mass destruction.
The Swiss Army knife does not have a USB memory stick, but it does have a keyring to which I have anchored a thick lanyard. I used to tie the lanyard to a belt loop on my jeans when carrying the knife in my pocket, but no more.
The knife, with the lanyard, now rides in the bottom of the pouch on the back of my pack sack with a flashlight, radio, chopsticks, bronchodilator spray, and a zillion other things that will come in handy when the Big One comes, the train derails, and I have to break my way out of the wreckage and hoof it through the urban and suburban rubble and ford a couple of rivers and cross fields and hills back to what remains of my home, where a one-month supply of All Bran, trail mix, and bottled water awaits me.
One time, on my way in Narita airport to board a Malaysia Airlines flight to Los Angeles, the Swiss Army knife, in the pack sack where I had carried it on a number of previous flights, caused a commotion among the security staff. The man in charge decided I could not carry the knife on board. Someone put it in a bag, filled out a form, gave me a copy, said I could pick up the knife in LA, and advised that in the future I put it in my check-in baggage.
That was a decade before 9/11. Now it's hard to carry even yourself on board.
My pocket knives have been only marginally legal in Japan. Possessing them is not a problem. Their longest blades slightly exceed the legal length limit for double-edged blades, but they are single-edged.
The problem is carrying them around in public, unless you are going fishing or hiking. And you don't want to argue finer points of law, even with your local koban officers, however friendly, however well they may know you from previous offenses like roadside pissing and grinning to yourself.
My son also has a Swiss Army knife and he, too, is careful not to carry his in public. He is thinking of buying one of the new gadgets that has all manner of foldout tools but nothing that would cut or pierce. It too would be illegal on a plane but he could carry it around and flash it at the cops.
One time, when I was teaching, I brought my double-blade Case to school. We were having an outing that day in a nearby park. Everyone had to do a show-and-tell, and mine was about the knife. I said I had brought it because there were snakes, and when the girls stop shrieking, I showed them how to do mumbly peg.
That day on a spot of grass, the sun flashing on parts that had not rusted, I put my trusty Case through its paces. I showed them all the feats I could remember of the game I had played countless afternoons on neighborhood lawns in the Sunset District of San Francisco.
They were more amused by my shouts of joy when the blade stuck at least two fingers off the grass, than by my flips of the knife. They could not believe that I and most of my friends had carried pocket knives from the time we were in elementary school, when many of us were Cub Scouts. To class. In the play yard.
Human civilization lost its innocence many millennia ago. But children, boys and girls, have lost their innocence within my lifetime -- at least regarding knives.
The main complaint of older adults in Japan is that children no longer learn to shave pencils and skin apples. My complaint is that no one is learning to play mumbly peg.
1 September 2009
The other day I stumbled across my name
on a BBS for social and political issues.
By William Wetherall
Some threads of the forum were dominated by activists who follow the needles of one or another ideological compass in their pursuit of happiness. Posters to the thread in which my name appeared were engaged in speculation about contributors to the scandalized (now gone) WaiWai feature of the (now mostly gone) Daily Mainichi News.
One poster linked my name with some lawsuits concerning my children and Japan's Nationality Law between 1978 and 1988. The writer was under the impression the cases were related to revisions that became effective from 1985. I contended, even then, that the law was being revised despite the litigation.
Another poster connected me with a translation of Oe Kenzaburo's A Quiet Life, and also profiled the person with whom I collaborated on the translation. The poster, who appears to have traced our backgrounds on Google, failed to say I had previously published a translation of one of Oe's short stories and an essay about Oe -- and that the principal translator of the novel is a good friend of Oe's.
I was also tied with Doi Takako. A House of Representatives parliamentarian when the nationality cases were in court, she staunchly argued that a child born to a Japanese woman married to an alien should have the same right to acquire Japanese nationality as one fathered by a Japanese man whatever the mother's nationality. Apparently the poster had not discovered that a newspaper columnist at the time had mentioned my name in the same front-page article in which he dropped Doi's name.
The connection of stale dots in the thread was not, however, about me but others I was alleged to know. Thanks to the manner in which the thread publicized the Google-retrieved revelation that we had crossed paths, they too may be said to have crossed paths with the likes of Doi and Oe, neither of whom I have ever met -- but neither have I met Will Smith except on the big screen.
Now imagine all the people that Oe and Doi -- he a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, she arguably the best-known woman in late 20th-century Japanese politics -- have met somewhere. Imagine all the people -- famous, notorious, anonymous -- whose sweaty palms these two celebrities have pressed in the course of their public and private travels and travails. Did I mention that my dad got Babe Ruth's autograph?
I might complain that Internet wolves have too much time on their hands. But they could say the same about me as I write this blog. My dad also has a doubly signed color portrait of Barak and Michelle on his bathroom counter.
The Internet has become a village square, a community well, a public bath (and, let's face it, latrine). Everyone gathers there to spread the latest rumors about local and world affairs. Before I forget, I ought to confess that I spotted Adlai Stevenson II (1900-1965) from my dad's shoulders one afternoon in Golden Gate Park.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) -- the man to read in the 1960s when I published a couple of essays called "What Shall We Do With Andromeda?" (1965) and "Cybernetics and Semantics" (1966) -- had that much right, among a few other predictions that have turned out to be mostly true.
"Six degrees of separation" is also turning out to be more urban than myth. May everyone caught in the webs of gossipy Internet threads take a deep breath and bask in their fifteen nanoseconds of fame.
28 July 2009
Disclosure 1 I wrote a few articles for WaiWai. They have been posted for many years, and remain entirely public, on my Yosha Research website.
Disclosure 2 My dad is pushing 100. He still drives, shops, cooks, tends large flower and vegetable gardens, walks in the woods, writes inspirational stories, practices law -- and mentions Ruth and Stevenson during the interludes in his praise for the Obamas.
The wild woolly web is a cornucopia of forums
that appeal to the gamut of human interests.
By William Wetherall
Internet bulletin boards existed long before the high-powered servers, terminals, and software that now link everyone with a personal computer or mobile phone -- at speeds imaginable only to sci fi fanatics in the dial-up modem days.
In the good ol' days, the boards may have been tamer -- if only because so much emotional energy was expended just typing the commands it took to get on line, stay there, and say your two-bits worth in as few costly metered seconds as possible.
All manner of forums, mild and vulgar, thrive today -- despite the spread of social networking and messaging sites like Facebook and Twitter. Not a few people continue to be interested in -- or obsessed with -- the themes they define in a thread in a string in a rope in a choking hawser. Some bulletin boards are labyrinths in which a casual visitor will quickly get lost in the tangle of twine.
Older, colder threads get bumped to make more memory and bandwidth available to newer, hotter threads. Search site archives are stuffed with dated and even deleted threads.
Some boards permit total anonymity in order to encourage virtually risk-less participation. This may invite abuse, but it also allows some people to get downer and dirtier than they would if they thought a reader might know who they were.
Communities formed around such virtual anonymity nonetheless constitute actual social entities which gather the mass and velocity that define the vectors of one or another version of truth, urban legend, conspiracy theory, or defamation movement. Strategically directed, the collective momentum can have considerable impact.
Bulletin boarders with hunting instincts, on the same or different boards, are known to pack like wolves and coyotes when going after a bison or deer. The self-appointed hunters do not carry, much less fire, their own rifles with laser scopes. They get others -- politicians and corporations -- to do the wet work.
Internet hunters work like a team in the Combat Information Center of a warship. They spot other vessels and aircraft with their search radars and sonars and identify them as friend or foe. If an enemy they will decide its threat and whether it should be killed.
If the enemy is to be killed, its coordinates and movements will be fed to a weapons system. When the target has been engaged, someone will order others to push the buttons that fire the rounds, torpedoes, or missiles that destroy it.
Internet hunters stalk their prey in Google, track down every bit and byte of information they can find, the more damaging the better, and publicize it, with their allegations, on the highest profile boards. Covering their digital footprints every step of the way, they will send the data to organizations and individuals they think will have both the motivation and power to kill the prey in their stead.
Having put the wolves on the scent of their prey, the hunters will wait, listen, and watch. They will hear media reports of the wolves howling. On the news one night, they will catch a clip showing the wolves chase, tire, and strike the prey.
The scandal will precipitate an apology, a firing, a resignation, a divorce, a suicide.
As their main object was to see their prey destroyed, most Internet hunters will abandon its carcass and spend the rest of their life telling tales of the great hunt on the boards and to their grandkids. A few will download and save files of their postings as trophies of their bravery.
Boards are generally just soapboxes. Some are stages for flaming or outing. Others are venues for postings that blatantly overstep the line between fair criticism and libelous ad hominem slander.
Victims are lining up to file lawsuits. More attorneys are specializing in claims against Internet service providers. Some courts have awarded plaintiffs damages and ordered offensive content deleted.
Internet forums are tantamount to bulletin boards in laundromats. What you post can get you negative attention from law enforcement officers.
Advocating that someone should be assassinated -- or expressing "hate" against any group, even in the form of, say, denying or doubting the German "Holocaust" of Jews in Europe or the Japanese "Rape" of Nanjing in China -- are causes, in some jurisdictions, for investigation, arrest, prosecution, and punishment if found guilty.
Many website administrators now monitor, or filter, content that might invite unwanted public outcry or legal action. Mostly, though, the World Wide Web has become an unmonitored, unfiltered forum for free speech, like or not what others say.
The Internet facilitated the mass contribution of funds and other forms of support that brought Barack Obama to the White House. It will undoubtedly also foil China's attempt to protect itself behind a Bamboo Firewall.
24 July 2009
Lost in translation
A menage a trois between bureaucrats, scholars, and lawyers
defines a lower standard of language policing.
By William Wetherall
The movement to standardize translations of Japanese laws began with a government task force in 2004. Version 1.0 of Standard Bilingual Dictionary (SBD) was released in 2005. Government agencies began cooperating in the development of a foundation for promoting standardization of foreign language translations in 2006. The Ministry of Justice took over the project in 2009.
Since 1 April 2009, the Ministry of Justice has been responsible for continuing to develop the dictionary and for overseeing the translation of Japanese laws in accordance with its standards of usage. The government's aim is to improve the quality of legal information it globally disseminates in other languages.
The Nationality Law, as revised in 2008 effective from 2009, was translated with version 3.0 of SBD in May and posted in July 2009. It is a disaster, as are some of the other translations now available through the "Japanese Law Translation Database System" (JLTDS).
Japanese Law Translation Database System
JLT website disclaimers
The "Japanese Law Translation" (JLT) website appropriately reminds visitors that its translations are "unofficial" and only original Japanese texts of the laws have authority. It also makes these disclaimers. I use the plural because the Japanese and English versions are significantly different (retrieved 8 July 2009, emphasis added).
The Government of Japan shall not be responsible for the accuracy, reliability or currency of the legislative material provided in this website, or for any consequence resulting from use of the information in this website. For all purposes of interpreting and applying law to any legal issue or dispute, users should consult the original Japanese texts published in the Official Gazette.
So much for the government's pretense of wanting to improve quality and understanding through the "standardization" of legal translation.
The Government of Japan, represented here by the Ministry of Justice, will spend tax money developing its elaborate dictionaries and databases -- and crank out translations as fast as its technocrats can run the software -- yet baldly refuse to be accountable for "the accuracy, reliability, or currency" of its work.
The Japanese version of the disclaimer says nothing about the government not taking responsibility for "the accuracy, reliability or currency of the legislative material provided in this website."
But since the disclaimers are legal statements -- and since both declare that only Japanese versions of laws are authoritative -- it would appear that the government could, in fact, be held accountable for its irresponsible linguistics standards.
20 July 2009
Race across Pacific
My latest nightmare begins
on one of those cattle car flights
from Tokyo to San Francisco.
By William Wetherall
I'm with my two kids, and we're on our way to their grandfolks' home in the Sierras. The plane goes down in the bay, and the three of us end up on autopsy tables to be IDed.
A medical examiner looks at my daughter and writes "Asian" in the race box. My son's post mortem officer decides he's "White". I'm declared "African American" by a coroner who thinks I look like Ed Bradley.
As I'm gurneyed back to the fridge, I smile. What would they have said about Tiger Woods? Then I laugh at the thought of a panel of government demographers, educators, criminologists, and health officials defending the accuracy of race statistics.
A few years back, a Seattle couple actually called one of their racially mixed children "Asian" and the other "Caucasian", in order to satisfy race quotas at the schools of their choice. "Situational identity" I call it. But what else are racially ambiguous people to do when faced with the rigidities of identity politics?
Two years back, a man at San Francisco International Airport did, in fact, do a double take on me and ask, "Aren't you on sixty minutes?" His grammar puzzled me, but he seemed sober, so I smiled and said, "The Sacramento flight's been delayed an hour." His face flushed as he said, "I'm sorry, I thought you were someone I saw on TV."
When I told my folks about this encounter my dad laughed and said, "You do look like Ed Bradley." "Ed who?" I said. Cultural literacy is the first thing to go when you live abroad as long as I have. My dad told me about "60 Minutes" and we watched it that night. I felt honored.
"So we've been passing?" I said. "Not that I know of," my dad said. "You played Pocahontas once," my mom interjected. It was long ago when I was a boy. Everyone thought I looked the part.
Much later in life, I happened to remark to a professor of Asian American Studies that my mother was born and raised on Nez Perce lands in Idaho. "Are you a Native American?", she asked, her face lighting up. "They were homesteaders," I said. Her smile vanished.
The absurdities of racializing human beings, past or present, are not always funny. In the end, one has to question the moral sanity of a government that has become increasing obsessed with racial compartmentalization and labels.
The "white"/"non-white" dichotomy of yesteryear was bad enough. The elaboration of "colored" into half a dozen or more other arbitrary categories has added trendy insult to historical injury.
My problem with race stems from the debates I have had defending the need for racial and ethnic data in medical research. I am, after all, a social scientist of sorts, with an impulse to quantify the human condition. I recognize the genetic and cultural diversity of the human species, and I acknowledge the role that genes and even culture can play in disease.
Yet I keenly feel the moral dilemma of racializing individuals as a matter of public policy. I was glad to see the religion boxes go before I left the United States. And I have come to appreciate not seeing a single race box in nearly thirty years of life in Japan.
Though I grew up taking race boxes for granted, now I find myself disgusted by the sort of questions my children have to face when in the United States. Beyond voluntary participation in research that requires disclosure of family ancestry, I can find no justification for differentiating people on the basis of their genes or culture.
The race box choices are "so weird" as my daughter once put it.
"What's this, Dad?" she asked on a visit to California, tapping her pen on the "Race and Ethnicity" section of an application form.
"Just cross it out," I said, not wanting to talk about it.
"But what's it mean?" my son, beside her, persisted.
"They want to know what you are. Your race, your culture, things like that."
"That's what some people call you, yes. But what are you? Really?"
"In Japan I'm Japanese. Here I'm an American."
"Because you're a citizen of both. What else are you?"
My daughter thought a moment and said, "I'm just me."
"Do you see a 'Just me' on the form?"
"Then cross it out."
"Can you do that?"
"Watch" I said. I drew a big X through the whole section and smiled when my son went "Wow!"
My kids get a kick out of some of my antics, but they worry. They've been well trained in Japan to follow bureaucratic instructions -- whereas their old man has a history of civil disobedience on both Pacific shores.
The next time they see a race box, though, I'm betting they'll make me proud.
As submitted to the San Francisco Chronicle for its "Guest Forum" column, and acknowledged, on 7 June 2002. It was not published.
15 July 2009
Dreams of happiness
Neither the United States nor Japan
guarantees their people happiness.
Nor could they.
By William Wetherall
The Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 holds that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Too bad for the fishes in the deep blue sea.
The American scientist, diplomat, and publisher Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), one of the originators and signers of the declaration, is supposed to have remarked that the U.S. Constitution guarantees only the pursuit of happiness. Individuals have to catch up with it themselves. William Channing (1780-1842), a Unitarian minister and social critic, similarly maintained that "The office of government is not to confer happiness, but to give men opportunity to work out happiness for themselves."
"Created equal" is taken in context to mean that all people were born with what Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) more often called "natural rights". Apparently he preferred "inalienable" to "unalienable", but his style sheet was trumped by a typesetter who was inperturbed by unalienable. It could not have a typo of the kind made today on a qwertyui keyboard.
Japanese equivalents of the word "happiness" do not appear in the 604 "Constitution in Seventeen Articles"（十七条憲法）by Sh?toku Taishi (573-621). Nor do any show up in the 1890 Meiji Constitution. The English version of the 1947 Constitution of Japan, though, embodies verbatim the famous phrasing of the Declaration of Independence.
All of the people shall be respected as individuals. Their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and in other governmental affairs.
Japan's postwar Constitution was based on a draft in English submitted to the Japanese government by the Allied Powers represented by Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), then a general, now a god. The Allies didn't get everything they wanted, but the Imperial Diet found the guarantee of a "right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" harmless enough. The dignity of the individual had, after all, been subordinated to "public welfare".
Besides, people in Japan past and present, like people in all places at all times, have always been free to pursue happiness to the extent that no one in a position of authority has found reason to stop them. Essentially, then, nothing has changed. If you're not happy, it's your own fault. If you're not where you want to be, it's up to you to get there. Or try to get there. Or be content with a dream of getting there.
I said as much to a friend who insists on crying once or twice a day mostly out of self-pity. I tell her, if she's not doing what she wants to do, then do it. Maybe she can't "Just do it" as the Nike ad urges. Perhaps she will need to do a little preparation -- study, train, practice, save money, whatever. Nothing, though, is going to change unless she strives to make things change. Since she can't afford to hire palanquin bearers or a helicopter, the only way she's going to get to the top of Mt. Fuji is to hike there on her own two feet.
Still, you may go through life, working and struggling to make your dreams come true, and never get close to reaching your goals. Would this mean that happiness has evaded you? Not if you accept the dictum that happiness is in the pursuit, not the arrival.
Of course you may feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment when at last you reach the top of Mt. Fuji and look down on the rest of the world. Yet you might stumble all the way to the summit and find yourself shrouded in a fog so thick you can't even see into the crater. While you could not be blamed for feeling disappointed, you have every right to take joy in the fact that you not only dreamed of climbing Fuji, but actually did.
Life is a marathon. Only one person is going to win. A few others will place. Many, but not all starters, will finish. Many times more people will be content to mingle along the route and just root. The vast majority of humankind won't even know about the event, or care if they do.
As long as you have the legs to carry you down whichever road in the wood you choose to take, there will be nothing to stop you except an occasional tree across your way, or a perhaps a mountain lion. Barriers and dangers are there to discover ways around. At times you may encounter an obstacle so high, wide, and deep, or so terrifying, that you simply have to admit you've reached a limit. Accepting a limitation is not giving up. It is merely a recognition of the difference between a possible and an impossible dream.
Some people without legs find ways to run. Many people with legs entertain an intent but never make an attempt. The unfortunate are those who have no dreams. The most fortunate are those who cherish both impossible and possible dreams. The possible dreams are for achieving. The impossible dreams are for embracing in your heart, from which they will nourish the sparkle in your eyes that others will see as your soul.
One way or other, we all cross the finish line of life. But how will we get there? Running? Crawling? Lying on a gurney? Or slumping in a catatonic state before a boob tube we didn't turn on and can't turn off?
Now and then you read about a man or a woman dying on the slopes of Mt. Fuji from a heart attack. Some people climb even knowing the risks. They are among the lucky few who realize that happiness and comfort are not the same thing -- and that "inalienable rights" do not exist except as we imagine and earn them.
3 January 1999
All this talk about how corporations are hooking kids
on gadgets and gimmicks
By William Wetherall
I had similar thoughts when my son began spending most of his time with a home video game he had to have because all his friends had one. My dad felt this way about my generation, which seemed to be watching too much TV and reading too many comics for its own good, to say nothing of rock'n'roll.
It all began with the ancestors of the shamans, medicine men, and priests. Vocationally specialized fish-hook, blow-dart, and arrow-head makers also share the blame. Then came itinerant snake-oil vendors and local shoe salesmen (where I got my introduction in the art of selling people something they don't need and may not really want) and redundant engineers peddling the latest Star Wars weapons systems.
Today the masters of "friendly persuasion" are simply a few degrees removed from the neighborhood and town. Their pitches have become "sophisticated" by behavioral psychology applied to the design, manufacture, and distribution of addictive consumer goods. The theory, knowhow, and tools needed to market the "stuff" that globally courses the veins of human vanity are so elaborate that only a handful of people understand how they really work. The rest of us, as passive participants in the slow but gradual industrial slogging and social blogging of the earth, are the meek who shall inherit its ruins.
A lot of writers in the late 1800s and early 1900s forecast the Brave New World doom of humankind with the coming of telegraphy, telephony, radio, and television. Rooms full of vacuum tubes and gear trains shrunk to pinhead nanosecond microprocessors in the span of half a century. In the meantime, Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders), Norbert Weiner (God and Golem), Arthur Koestler (The Ghost in the Machine), and a host of other such writers saw where it was going after it had become impossible to deny that it had begun. Today the ideological drive is toward the globalization of everything from machine-readable passport standards to local ballots.
Still, the advances in electronics, and in the materials science that has made today's virtually unbreakable wireless technology possible -- not to mention the programming that instantly gratifies HAL's appetite for more complex code and content control -- have been startling.
Just the other day a friend called my conventional cordless phone from his conventional cordless phone on the other side of the planet. Or at least I took the mere stream of electrons exciting the wafer of plastic replicating his speech in the air outside my ear for his living voice.
He reiterated his chronic fears about the quality of life in this age of cells, telecommuting, and virtual pets, fast food and junk politics. And immediately after he ended this thread of critique, just before he rang off -- or did he hang up or press off? -- he, a music lover, complained he had lost his terabyte iPod on which he carried every cacophonic symphony ever composed.
23 March 2009