Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Japan, Social Cohesion, and Book Recommendations

(Images stolen without permission from The Big Picture at, which always has the most dramatic pictures out there. For a more quotidian perspective, go here.)

A friend of mine wrote to ask what I thought of this blog post about the lack of looting in Japan compared to Katrina, Haiti, etc. Since he's also a history dork, I felt free to let loose my full nerdiness. Maybe you're nerdy about culture and politics too! If so, read on. If this seems too bloodlessly intellectual, it could just be that I'm at that particular stage of the grieving process. I appreciate the human spirit on display as much as anyone does, especially from those obachans up there doing their calisthenics.

My first reaction is that he's letting his political biases (which I share!) distort his view of the question. His basic argument is that the Japanese attitude towards government is more positive than the American attitude, and therefore government responsiveness both before and after the disaster was better (i.e. it "hasn't created a massive, impoverished underclass" and the GOJ is well "prepared to respond to this kind of disaster"). Neither of these statements is as true as he thinks it is.

First, economic equality: Japan is good in terms of equality (copy that graph! It's hugely important), and certainly better than the US. But note that it's pretty close to France, whose rioting underclasses are not particularly known for their restraint (not judging!). I also think equality in Japan has been getting worse since the bubble burst (too bad the graph stops in 1990). There are no shortage of stories about poor job prospects for young people, etc. And it way too simplistic to ascribe the equality to government policy. (This is highly recommended on the roots of that equality.)

Second, you have to distinguish how amazingly prepared they were for earthquakes from how unprepared they were for the tsunami. As far as we can tell, pretty much everything was still standing for the 15 minutes between the quake and the tsunami, and of course the nuclear reactors shut down properly after the quake but started overheating when the tsunami knocked out the power to the cooling system. It is so astounding how well they weathered the FIFTH LARGEST EARTHQUAKE IN THE PAST 100 YEARS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. I mean, Christchurch was 6.3, and there have been about 15 AFTERSHOCKS that big in Japan. Also I suck at logarithms, but I'm pretty sure 9.0 is like 800 times bigger than 6.3.

(Further digression: I think I agree with Felix Salmon when he says "don't donate money to Japan." Japan has money. In fact they just created a whole bunch of it in response to the crisis; and the yen is at an all-time high against the dollar. (Why? Can you explain that?) The long-term economic effects may actually be positive--Kan (the PM) has called for a "New Deal," although I'm kind of worried that some global supply chains for electronic goods may be re-routed to China and Korea, etc., maybe permanently thanks to labor costs. Salmon's point is that giving money only to relieve the tugging on your heartstrings is not the best way to do it. Better just to give blood locally. Not that I do that either, but that's the better thing to feel guilty about.)

So how well is the government handling the relief effort? Better than average, from what I can tell. They're airlifting supplies in, too slowly but then these things take time. Most of the criticism they've had has been over lack of information on the nuclear situation. It's pretty typical of the Japanese government to be a bit slow getting information out. (A metaphor: Japanese doctors don't usually tell terminal cancer patients what's wrong with them, because that would just cause anguish.) But it's actually hard to judge how bad the nuclear situation is, or how much the media is reporting it because it's sexy. My twitter feed is a constant stream of "shut up about the nuclear plant, foreign media, the real story is half a million people without food or water or clothes or medicine, and now it's starting to snow." Oh but also "wow I never thought I'd be paying this much attention to Geiger counter readings." So yeah, conflicted. (Also: "Crap, the trains are really crowded, such-and-such a line is only running at 70% capacity.")

I think the point that there's just nothing dry to loot in a tsunami is more relevant, but of course he downplays that because it doesn't support his political point.

So no looting, but there's been hoarding. It's hard to say whether shortages on food staples (rice and bread) and gasoline are caused by hoarding or supply problems (this is the country that invented just-in-time delivery, because real estate is too expensive to keep large inventories), but they appear to be clearing up. Is hoarding evidence of a breakdown of social order that's not as severe as looting? It certainly argues against the idea that "their social dynamics focus on group harmony." On the other hand, the planned rolling blackouts in response to Fukushima-related energy shortages were more limited than expected because people made voluntary cut-backs in energy use. So that's nice.

Anyway, that brings up the question of "group harmony" as a cultural trait, which is the most difficult one to answer. Partly because it's a dumb stereotype and we don't want to be racist--I've seen so many dumb news stories on how the Japanese are so unified in their response, etc. (The dumbest are the ones about how "even in this disaster, the shelters are still separating their recyclables!" This is just AUTOMATIC for Japanese people, since burnable garbage is collected on different days than non-burnable, and goes in the green dumpster instead of the orange one. This is not a sign of social cohesion, it's just habit.) I think the roots of this stereotype are in a version of Orientalism, btw, which has been reinforced by a counter-Orientalism, which accepts the premise that Asians are less individualistic, etc., but claims that this is a good thing. Singapore's ex-president Lee Kwan-Yu is famous for arguing this. The book to avoid on the subject is Confucius Lives Next Door.

In general, Japanese life and Japanese politics are more contentious than they appear from the outside. There is already some muted criticism of the government from the opposition LDP, which before this happened was poised to undo the historic gains made by the DPJ last year, mostly because it (the LDP) has been incredibly obstructionist. Grassroots politics in Japan is fairly strong, which I suppose could account for some "social cohesion" and cooperation in response to the disaster, but this is a different explanation than the one that says it's because Japanese people trust their government. (In the Realm of a Dying Emperor is a good book about this, although a bit dated and very pessimistic, by an ASIJ alumna.)

But even more, the question of whether "group harmony" is cultural is so hard to answer because there are so many variables. Like, you could do game theoretical models that show that group-oriented responses are actually more rational than selfish ones in certain situations--this is how evolutionary biologists explain homosexuality, in case you need an evolutionary explanation for that--and perhaps some of these situations apply in Japan.

More generally, is it fair to say that looting is best described as a form of the moral economy that's been corrupted by the market economy? Or is that an oxymoron? Meaning: in the moral economy you respond extra-legally in order to correct a perceived economic injustice, by redistributing bread. Looting is also a correction of a perceived economic injustice, only instead of bread you do it with stereos or whatever. I'm not sure my thinking is correct on this. I bring it up just to say that I don't accept the idea that looting should be understood as a measure of "social harmony," whatever that means. I also wish I knew what the history of the moral economy is in Japan. I suspect there's an answer in Peasants, Rebels and Outcastes, which is sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. But Embracing Defeat probably comes first.

And while I'm recommending books, I think Underground might be the best introduction to contemporary Japan. It's about the Aum-Shinrikyo subway attacks. It's by Haruki Murakami but it's non-fiction. It deals pretty well with some of these questions (does Japanese social cohesion lead to susceptibility to cults? but on the other hand maybe the attacks show a lack of social cohesion?) without coming to any conclusions.

Friday, December 03, 2010

100 Best Chinese Movies

Hong Kong Film Awards, 2005

1. Spring in a Small Town, Fei Mu (1948)
2. A Better Tomorrow, John Woo (1986)
3. Days of Being Wild, Wong Kar-wai (1990)
4. Yellow Earth, Chen Kaige (1984)
5. City of Sadness, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1989)
6. Long Arm of the Law, Johnny Mak (1984) Sammo Hung
7. Dragon Gate Inn, King Hu (1967)
8. Boat People, Ann Hui (1982)
9. Touch of Zen, King Hu (1971)
10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee (2000)
11. Street Angel, Yuan Muzhi (1937) Zhou Xuan
12. A Brighter Summer Day, Edward Yang (1991)
13. Private Eye, Hui Brothers (1976)
14. The Mission, Johnny To (1999)
15. One Armed Swordsman, Chang Cheh (1967) Shaw Brothers
16. Fist of Fury, Lo Wei (1972) Bruce Lee
17. In the Heat of the Sun, Jiang Wen (1994)
18. In the Face of Demolition (1954) Bruce Lee
19. Chinese Odyssey, Jeffrey Lau (1994)
20. The Arch, Tang Shu Shuen (1970)
21. Rouge, Anita Mui (1988)
22. Chungking Express, Wong Kar-wai (1994)
23. Homecoming, Yim Ho (1984)
24. A Time to Live and a Time to Die, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1985)
25. Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou (1987)
26. Father and Son, Allen Fong (1981)
27. The Spring River Flows East, Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli (1947)
28. Comrades, Almost a Love Story, Peter Chan (1996)
29. The Goddess, Wu Yonggang (1934)
30. The Big Road, Sun Yu (1934)
31. The Secret, Ann Hui (1979)
32. Infernal Affairs, Andrew Lau and Alan Mak (2002)
33. Drunken Master, Yuen Woo-ping (1978)
34. The Butterfly Murders, Tsui Hark (1979)
35. Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-wai (1994)
36. Made in Hong Kong, Fruit Chan (1997)
37. Sorrows of the Forbidden City, Shilin Zhu (1948) Zhou Xuan
38. Butterfly Lovers, Li Han-hsiang (1968)
39. Story of a Discharged Prisoner, Patrick Lung Kong (1967)
40. Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain, Tsui Hark (1983)
41. The Terrorizers, Edward Yang (1986)
42. The Killer, John Woo (1989)
43. Once Upon a Time in China, Tsui Hark (1991)
44. Center Stage, Stanley Kwan (1992)
45. The Story of Qiu Ju, Zhang Yimou (1992)
46. This Life of Mine, Shi Hui (1950)
47. The Kingdom and the Beauty, Li Han-hsiang (1959)
48. The Winter, Li Han-hsiang (1969)
49. An Autumn’s Tale, Mabel Cheung (1987)
50. A Chinese Ghost Story, Ching Siu-tung (1987)
51. The Purple Hairpin, Li Tie (1959)
52. The Orphan, Lee Sun-Fung (1960) Bruce Lee
53. Two Stage Sisters, Xie Jin (1965)
54. City on Fire, Ringo Lam (1987)
55. Farewell My Concubine, Chen Kaige (1993)
56. Yi Yi, Edward Yang (2000)
57. Cold Nights, Lee Sun-Fung (1955)
58. The Break of Dawn, Sung Tsun-shou (1967)
59. Raining in the Mountain, King Hu (1979)
60. Police Story, Jackie Chan (1985)
61. C’est la vie, mon chérie, Derek Yee (1993)
62. The Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee (1993)
63. Platform, Jia Zhangke (2000)
64. The Wild, Wild Rose, Wang Tian-lin (1960)
65. The Great Devotion, Chor Yuen (1960)
66. My Intimate Partner, Chun Kim (1960)
67. Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, Tsui Hark (1980)
68. Ah Ying, Allen Fong (1983)
69. Durian Durian, Fruit Chan (2000)
70. Little Toys, Sun Yu (1933)
71. Sorrows and Joy in Middle Age, Sang Hu (1949)
72. The House of 72 Tenants, Chor Yuen (1973)
73. Nomad, Patrick Tam (1982)
74. Dust in the Wind, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1986)
75. 92 Legendary La Rose Noire, Jeffrey Lau (1992)
76. Shaolin Soccer, Steven Chow (2001)
77. Song at Midnight, Ma-Xu Weibang (1937)
78. China Behind, Tang Shu Shuen (1974)
79. The Spooky Bunch, Ann Hui (1980)
80. Taipei Story, Edward Yang (1985)
81. The Blue Kite, Tian Zhuangzhuang (1993)
82. Long Live the Mistress, Sang Hu (1948)
83. Mambo Girl, Evan Yang (1957)
84. Feast of a Rich Family, Lee Tit, Law Chi-Hung, Lee Sun-Fung, Ng Wui (1959)
85. Execution in Autumn, Hsing Lee (1972)
86. Hibiscus Town, Xie Jin (1986)
87. God of Gamblers, Wong Jing (1989)
88. As Tears Go By, Wong Kar-wai (1989)
89. Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai (1997)
90. In the Mood for Love Wong Kar-wai (2000)
91. Myriad of Lights, Shen Fu (1948)
92. Festival Moon, Shilin Zhu (1959)
93. Parents’ Hearts, Chun Kim (1955)
94. Lin Zexu, Zheng Junli (1959)
95. Dream of the Red Chamber, Fan Cen (1962)
96. Health Warning, Kirk Wong (1983)
97. Shanghai Blues, Tsui Hark (1984)
98. Invincible Pole Fighters, Lau Kar-leung (1983)
99. The Black Cannon Incident, Huang Jianxin (1985)
100. Rebels of a Neon God, Tsai Ming-liang (1992)
101. The Puppetmaster, Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1993)
102. Summer Snow, Ann Hui (1995)
103. Not One Less, Zhang Yimou (1999)

China (pre-communist) 11
PRC 13
Hong Kong 61
Taiwan 16

1930s 5
1940s 6
1950s 10
1960s 12
1970s 11
1980s 30
1990s 22
2000s 7


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Pleasures of Film

"It is occasionally agreeable to gaze upon charming girls, new fashions which will be forgotten tomorrow, or pretty children--but it will be even more agreeable to see them twenty years hence." Robert Brasillach and Maurice Bardèche, The History of Motion Pictures, 1935.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Why Iranian Events are Relevant to Your Life

Interesting short article by Iran specialist Gary Sick. Relevant paragraph:

This is a formula for the kind of militarized and nationalist corporate state under a single controlling ideology that is not dissimilar to fascist rule in an earlier day. Like fascism, it defines itself not only in terms of its own objectives but even moreso by what it opposes: liberalism, individualism, unfettered capitalism, etc. There is no need to push the definition too far, since fascism tended to be specific to a particular time and set of historical circumstances. But the resemblance in nature and practice seems to justify use of the term.

I like that he includes those caveats. I like this as a thought experiment. I don't like that it gives less scrupulous people, some of whom have motives that are more admirable than others', the excuse to start throwing around the f-bomb. But I'm increasingly coming around to this viewpoint, that fascism is specific to a certain time and place (and level of technological development--not to say that Twitter is necessarily teh bomb). I'm not sure if that's just because I'm a historian instead of a political scientist, but it has something to do with it.

Now that Iran coverage is entering the hangover stage, and I'm starting to think about it more philosophically, I think that everyone's interest in these kinds of events is probably structurally similar to that of the neocons: we're all just trying to grasp a moment of global redemption which seems so much closer in revolutions than in ordinary times, and trying to read the signs to see how the final liberating revolution might come about. It's like trying to read the mind of god. Revolution is a spiritual need. It's no accident that the neocons are descended from Jewish Marxists who thought they found salvation in America (or Israel, but let's leave that aside for now). It's also no accident that the Iranian revolution was made by a coalition of Marxists and messianic Islamists. So when an analyst says "this revolution threatens the Islamic Republic," which seems too radical a statement to be merely a prediction that the Islamic Republic will evolve in a more democratic direction, am I supposed to read it instead as a neocon prediction that American-style secular democracy is coming to Iran? This seems unlikely, especially when one notes that the Jewish-American intellectual tradition might be particularly unsuited for analyzing an Islamic revolution--or is it? How else can I read that statement, given the inherent unpredictability of revolutions? This seems to me to be an urgent question, but one that's incredibly distracting when one is trying to write a dissertation. On fascism.

This is all just to say that obviously Walter Benjamin invented the way neocons think about the world, and the way we all think about fascism, and that everyone needs to go back and read the Theses on the Philosophy of History again.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Shopping in Iran

Unconfirmed tweet from persiankiwi, 9am EST 6/23, (that's Tuesday afternoon in Tehran) via Sully:
Mousavi - the objective is to bring Tehran to standstill - millions of people go shopping but NOBODY SHOPPING - #Iranelection RT RT RT
Even if this is rumor or misinformation, I think it's interesting. Has anyone heard of this tactic before? The first thing that comes to mind is that this is a specific détournement of Bush's response to 9-11, when he told the American people that the best response was to go shopping. Here you go shopping without going shopping.

But there is a specific context here which complicates any attempt to see this tactic as anti-capitalist; as I understand it, the bazaars are allied with the clergy and the Revolutionary Guard, so this kind of active boycott looks more like the economic version of the street fighting we've seen the last few days. Falling short of pitched battles, these low-level skirmishes are the way a disorganized movement tests a more coherent, better armed force. Shopping-without-shopping is a similar process of flirtation and probing, where bazaari and customer eye each other the way policeman and rioter do. But the positions are reversed: in the street it is the rioter who coyly tempts the policeman to break out his truncheon, while in the bazaar it is the shopkeeper who tempts the customer to break out the wallet. And although it's hard to see from my vantage point, the gender roles are likely reversed as well. Men traditionally make up the shock troops in street fighting, although we've heard reports that in this case at least women are playing an important role urging them on. Will the women play a more primary role in the shopping conflict? Will men support and protect them in turn? In any case this seems more subversive than reading Lolita. I eagerly await further developments, without knowing what source will be able to adequately report on them.

In the end perhaps the most we can say is that this is an example of the macro shift away from the primacy of the producer to that of the consumer. And a reminder that despite the rumored "end of history" and the supposed importance of religious and tribal rather than economic loyalties, socio-economic realities are still important and perhaps decisive. See the New Yorker's summary of the Iranian economy for background on that.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


This is about a week late, but here's an artist's representation of a pandemic:

From here.

Trying to See Post-Fordism

Note how some cities move beyond the extent of the original instantiation. This is a result of cities holding inertia as they travel towards their destinations. Cities are not aware of their arrival time, so when they reach their destinations, they are traveling too fast to stop, and shoot beyond it. Slowly the cities oscillate and stop precisely at their destinations.

(Click on picture for a minute or so of intriguing confusion. Via.)

Two interesting pieces on what a post-Fordist economy will look like. The shorter one (from Richard Florida at the Atlantic) is a breakdown of some very-hard-to-interpret poll numbers about what appliances and objects Americans think of as necessities. Basically, it seems like a shift away from the "auto-housing industrial complex," but perhaps not moving towards "tech-driven consumption" as quickly as one might expect. The point is that even if we're right that the post-recession economy will have to be more green and more information-centered, it will take a while to get there, and we don't know exactly what it will look like.

The longer article (by new urbanist Ben Adler in the American Prospect) is a contrast between two Washington, DC suburbs, one walkable and one not. Shocking differences, as one would expect. Two ideas were new to me. First, that "traffic is good." Congested roads encourage people to take subways. I'm not sure this is the best way of thinking, and I'm positive that it's not the best way to win over skeptics. Second, that Kentlands, the walkable suburb, was constructed before the public transportation that now serves it--bus lines were added thanks to public demand. It required a leap of faith. As with the "necessary" appliances, trying to forecast a less auto-centric future is difficult.

There is something to be said here about the role of utopian imagery in providing the initial blueprint for a hazy future. I just wish the imagery for new urbanism didn't try to look so traditional.