Summer Break

It is the last day of summer break. The kids’ school here on Iki had a 3 week summer holiday, shortened by the school missed in April due to coronavirus measures. Although our break was shorted by a couple of weeks, we are lucky. Some schools only got 9 days. We are also lucky to be going back to school. In my home province in Canada, some kids have not physically been at school for more than six months!

Leaving the island for some mainland adventures

We travelled back to Kyoto for Obon during the break. We visited the family grave, I picked up a charm I needed from the 10th century occultist Abe no Seimei (photos), and I also did my first “anime pilgrimage” to Omi-jingu inspired by the show Chihayafuru (photos). Other than Kyoto we spent a day in Fukuoka (photos), took a couple trips to the local beaches on Iki, and got shocked by the biggest live jumbo shrimp ever (photos and video). We had an eventful summer holiday.

Which of course meant I did almost no work…

At the beginning I was really beating myself up for not hitting my daily reading/writing goals… not checking off the chapters and watching the inbox of papers pile up. I had a good number of blog posts right up until school let out. I tried getting up extra early, and doing things before the kids got out of bed — but I was so tired out from the 42 degree heat and travel throughout the day that I needed my sleep. Plus, it was summer holidays! I realized that even though I “work from home” and keep my own hours, I am still allowed to take time off.

So I let go… played with the kids, helped them with their summer homework, painted with them, and watched some movies (including Knives Out which freaked them out a little, but it was all I had on my iPad and we had limited internet access), and made memories with them. I also got to read some books just for fun, without taking notes in my zettelkasten!

And the great thing is, while I was not stuck in the details, buried up to my eyeballs in footnotes during my daily research, my brain was still working.

Before break I was having trouble with the progress of the book. Finding the right narrative for a travelogue is tough when everyone is isolating and you cannot follow the serendipitous lifepaths of strangers you meet on the roads. In Iran it was chance meetings that allowed me to meet a both a self-declared “Islamic terrorist” and an Armenian Christian who taught me an important lesson about being a religious minority. These kinds of random encounters have somewhat dried up during the pandemic. Before the break I was struggling with the dryness of the manuscript. It was reading more like a white paper from the OECD. During the summer break I had a chance to get some distance which lead to some insight and somewhat of a breakthrough. I am excited to get back to writing, and I have learned the lesson of taking summer breaks seriously even while having lots of fun cavorting about the countryside, splashing in the ocean, making dumb jokes and laughing with my kids!

Me getting mildly sunburned on the ocean this summer
Me getting mildly sunburned on the ocean this summer

The statues of Koganemaru Ikuhisa

In 1971 a surprising archeological discovery was made on Iki island: the remains of a stegadon (in fact, the remains of two). While mammoths and mastodons have shaggy hair, stegadons have hide like modern elephants and their tusks go outward, which also is apparently different than other prehistoric elephants. Here is a picture of me hanging out with one… well a statue of one:

Me chillin’ with the local stegadon

It’s a fun statue for visitors to take pics in front of. But right beside the stegadon is an art museum dedicated to a famous artist born on Iki: Koganemaru Ikuhisa (小金丸幾久). Born in 1915, Koganemaru has pieces all over Japan. You might be familiar with the “Oath of Peace” outside of Ōimachi St in Shinagawa (Tokyo). Or if you have been to Sasebo on Kyushu, you might have seen the massive statue at the Urakami Repatriation Peace Park (here are some Google Images of it… it is very much in Koganemaru’s style of abstract women). I haven’t been to that repatriation site but I have visited the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum where 6.6M Japanese landed from Manchuria and Soviet improsonment after WWII. Anyways, a couple of months ago I was in Omura city and stopped to see a statue depicting the first Japanese embassy to Europe, a group of 12 year old boys who went over in the late 16th C. Turns out this piece too was a Koganemaru! I didn’t know that until I walked into his memorial hall on Iki, close to that stegadon. Prehistorically predetermined?

Below are some samples of his work on display in the hall. (These pics are all on Flickr as well if you want to see them bigger.)

All the above are life-size, except the Meiji emperor who is 2x. As you can see Koganemaru primarily worked in metal. It is quite stunning to see these in person, and not being a connoisseur, I have no idea how he made them. There are quite a few effects showing off his different techniques.

Koganemaru’s last statue, erected in 1997, is just across the bay from my house. It is of Shōni Suketoki, a local hero who saw his first battle against invading Mongols at the age of 12. In the second Mongol invasion at Iki, at the age of 18, he led a force to once again defend Japan. This time was killed in battle. A local park is named after him, and his epic statue is right at the front of the Ashibe ferry terminal.

Statue of young samurai on a rearing horse
Shōni Suketoki statue in front of Ashibe Ferry Terminal

Statues in Japan actually have a very interesting history. If you want to learn a little more about public history and monuments, check out this podcast on the politics of public statues and monuments in Japan with Dr. Sven Saaler →

75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki

The 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bomb was a couple of days ago. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki 75 years ago today, on 9 August 1945 at 11:02.

I was in Nagasaki a couple of weeks ago and stopped at the hypocenter monument pictured above. The black monolith points up where at 500 meters the bomb exploded, killing a third (75,000 people) of the city and injuring another third. At least 182k deaths have been attributed to the bomb.

There are a number of displays at the hypocenter, including this heart-rending statue:

Statue of woman carrying baby

She looks out onto a plaza that is covered in chalk scribbles — like what you would see on an EKG readout. The lines cover the whole plaza, all leading towards the hypocenter. Here and there a small section has a chalk frame and a number.

White scribbles on bricks

Turns out this is an AR art installation by Shinpei Takeda. You download the app and point it at those special markers and you can hear the stories and see pictures of the aftermath. Take a look at this video to see a quick demonstration.

Further up the hill is the Nagasaki Peace Park, filled with statues made by local artists and gifted from countries around the world in sorrow and solidarity.

They call Hiroshima “The City of Monuments”, but Nagasaki has its fair share. On this 75th anniversary, spare a thought for the second and last city in all of human history to be the victim of an atomic weapon.

Remote island logistics: getting on and off Iki

The term ritō means “remote island.” Japan has lots of remote islands. When living on islands like this there are some things you need to take account of such as transportation to and from the island. Iki Island has three main ways to get on and off the island:

  1. Jetfoil: this is the high speed hydrofoil that leaves from two of the ports on the island, and connects us to Fukuoka, the biggest city on Kyushu (1.5MM population). Time: about 1 hour
  2. Ferry: there are a few ferries that operate from all three ports. Two routes go to Fukuoka, and one to Karatsu, in Saga prefecture. Time: about 2 hours
  3. Air: Twice daily are flights from Iki to Nagasaki Airport. Time: about 20 minutes

In the other direction, you can catch a ferry or a jetfoil to Tsushima Island from which you can head on to Korea. The boats that go to Tsushima from Fukuoka have a stopover on Iki.

Of course, if you had a boat yourself you could probably make the trip to the Kyushu mainland, but these three modes of transportation are the usual way people and products go to and fro.

Jetfoil docking at Ashibe Port

The jetfoil is pretty quick so people take it on day trips to Fukuoka all the time. Some islands are very remote, but Iki is lucky to be so close to the biggest city in Kyushu. It is like a bus from the suburbs: you jump on and in an hour you are in the big city for shopping and good eats. You can catch the afternoon jetfoil back, or even catch the late night ferry back if you want to stay out a little longer. The parking lots at the terminals are free for locals, so people just park their car for the day, or for a few days, or even a week or more while they are away on the mainland.

Locals also get the benefit of something called the “Islander Card” (島民カード), or more literally the “Frontier Remote Island Islander Discount Card”. This is a residency card that gives you all sorts of benefits, the best being travel to and from the island at about half price. A flight to Nagasaki is normally about $100 but only $50 for me.

My "Islander Card"
My “Islander Card”

The Islander Card system is run by the prefecture of Nagasaki, which Iki is part of. It is one of the ways that islanders benefit from all the development money that flows from the national government to support the remote islands (more on that in the future). Another thing we get from the Nagasaki prefectural government that connects us to civilization is access to the interlibrary loan system. I can use the amazing Mirai On prefectural library and get books shipped over to one of our small libraries on the island for pickup.

So, hydrofoil, ferry, and plane, those are your options. Of course, weather being weather, these often get interrupted. It was my first time here when I learned the term 欠航 kekkou, which is “flight cancellation” but is also used for ships. When we first came to the island back in January the seas were too rough due to wind, and our jetfoil was redirected to a southern port. Then on the way back, our jetfoil was cancelled completely, and we had to take the ferry. The ferry being bigger and heavier, can withstand a lot more weather wise. But even then it can be cancelled. When it does, the island doesn’t get that days newspaper, and a bread shortage will happen.

Ferry pulling into Ashibe Port and unloading people

Out here on the ocean fog and mist can be a big deal, and this causes flight cancellations all the time. A few weeks back, when I was to take my first flight to Nagasaki, the plane was cancelled due to visibility concerns. I had to postpone for a few days.

The planes that service Iki are Dash 8s, operated by ORC — Oriental Air Bridge — which has a codeshare with ANA. The Dash 8 can only haul just under 40 people, so they are quite small, and I don’t think there is a ton of instrumentation.

Dash 8 on the ground with ORC markings

The flight to Nagasaki is just 20 minutes, and the route is Nagasaki to Iki and back. Even if there is iffy weather they load up all the passengers and cargo in Nagasaki, then take off, then come over to Iki, fly around for a bit and wait and see if there is an opportunity to land, and if not, head back to Nagasaki. I was waiting in the lounge, having passed security and everything, when they cancelled my flight. It was a bit annoying, but probably not as bad as the poor people who were stuck in the plane and had to go back to their starting point!

With cancellations being pretty common, all of these travel agencies, and even the hotels on the mainland are pretty forgiving in terms of refunding or rescheduling. I don’t have a ton of experience, but so far every time it has happened to me, all the companies involved have been very understanding.

Iki Island is a great place because it is self reliant: fish, rice, beef, freshwater, and electricity are all produced on the island — great for emergency preparedness (knock-on-wood for the coronapocalypse). However, with such a small population (26k) it can be a little inconvenient for getting certain products. There are no malls here… not even a McDonalds or a Starbucks… never mind an Apple Store. Having a few daily ferries, jetfoils, and planes each day means that you can get products shipped pretty easily and quickly, you just have to watch out for the ritō price — a lot of places will charge you extra to ship here. Luckily, Amazon Prime actually includes Iki so we tend to order things from there if possible.

When the Japanese became “yellow”

Inspired by his recent interview in Japan on the Record I sought out some of Professor John G. Russell’s work on race in Japan. In his analysis on the Nissin whitewash scandal last year, this extraordinary paragraph:

Even though the Japanese have been seen to whitewash themselves, it hasn’t been simply a matter of skin color and that is why the term “whitewashing,” at least in the Japanese context, is inadequate and misleading. After all, the Japanese have traditionally viewed their own skin color as white, as did early European missionaries and merchants to the country, whose accounts of the Japanese they encountered were otherwise devoid of descriptions of their physical appearance. Indeed, according to University of Haifa professor Rotem Kowner in “From White to Yellow” (2014), it was not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the Japanese came to be seen — and eventually came to see themselves, at least rhetorically — as members of “the yellow race.”

Hence in lightening Naomi Osaka’s countenance, Nissin was not trying to minimize her blackness but possibly trying to emphasize her Japanese-ness. Ironic.

In fact, Russell refers to anthropologists Hiroshi Wagatsuma and Toshinao Yoneyama who point out:

Japanese have not only traditionally viewed their skin as white but that they view the texture and color of their skin, smooth and unblemished with freckles, as purer and more aesthetically appealing than Caucasian whiteness.

This might sound wacky to Westerners, but only proves (once again) how race is a social construct, not a fixed reality. For example, “whiteness” has gone through many iterations. From my review of The History of White People:

The ranking and re-ranking of people by those at the top of society is highly dependant on the prevailing political winds and threats to the position of the elite. During the first World War, the Germans were down-ranked out of whitehood, and soon Americans were to worry about “Soviets” and “the feebleminded Juke-Kallikak-Polish-Russian-Jewish-French-Canadian-mongrelized-Alpine Under-Man.” Later, as America faced immigration “crises” from Asia and Eastern Europe, the Irish and Italians, previously outsiders, were invited into whiteness. The race to whiteness is competitive and relativistic.

John G. Russell’s piece shows how as the Japanese were introduced to Western race theory, they were constructing themselves, and also how the result was unique and independent from the West. Racial constructs are not universal (though they are universally wrong).

Japan on the Record: Japan and Blackness

Cover for the podcast JAPAN ON THE RECORD

Last year I discovered the excellent UBC Meiji at 150 Podcast. I was late to the discovery, but enjoyed working through the 120 episode backlog. Since then the host of the show, Dr. Tristan Grunow of Yale University, has gone on to create Japan On the Record, a show where scholars of Japan can share insight into the news of the day. I really love this as an idea, and I think these kinds of podcasts are probably the best thing that universities can do to for public engagement. But I digress. Today I wanted merely to celebrate Dr. Grunow’s recent efforts on the podcast in light of the death of George Floyd and the most recent wave of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which has had a great turnout in Japan.

Starting with his powerful 8 minute 46 second “silence” episode, Dr. Grunow has recently been featuring a series of Black scholars of Japan, and just like with the Meiji 150 podcast, JOTR is introducing me to all sorts of different research that I would not be aware of if I stayed merely within my own narrow interests.

Long ago, as a student in Japan, living in an international dorm and being othered for the first time, it didn’t take me long to see where I as a white guy was on the racial hierarchy in Japan when compared to my classmates of Black, East or Southeast Asian, or Filipino heritage. (Which in turn, helped me to better see the racial hierarchy in Canada. What is that famous quote about travel teaching you more about own country?). Take a listen to some of the following episodes below that dig much deeper into Japan’s relationship to Blackness, and subscribe to Japan on the Record1 for future episodes to widen your perspective about this country.

Please take a listen to the following episodes (and subscribe for future ones!) to learn more about Japan’s relationship to Blackness:

  • Dr. John G. Russell gives historical perspective on how the Japanese were introduced to Black people, and also a very enlightening interpretation of that Nissin commercial with Naomi Osaka. Link →
  • A roundtable of Black scholars on Japan, and their experiences studying Japan differ in Japan compared to the US, where Japan studies is oft-considered a “white space.” Link →
  • Dr. Reginald Jackson breaks down that NHK video, Japanese depictions of Black people, and discussing Japanese adoption of Black culture. Link →
  • Black Okinawan biracial communities, and how oppressed Okinawans showed solidarity with Black Americans, with Dr. Mitzi Uehara Carter Link →
  • Dr. Marvin Sterling talks about minority communities in Japan, and how they use Reggae as an expression of identity. Link →

  1. Non-disclaimer: I am not affiliated with this podcast or Dr. Grunow. I am just a fan who wants to share this show far and wide!

Kyushu’s economic contribution to Japan

Kyushu is one of the 5 major regions of Japan consisting of 7 prefectures making up about 10% of the Japanese population. It is known as being a much more relaxed place than Tokyo, with great weather and more space. This attracts people who are looking for more worklife balance. Natives of Kyushu that go to the big city and return later, say to raise kids, do what is called a U-Turn. For non-natives that come here, they do what is called an I-Turn — just a straight line.

Due to its relatively lower land prices, a lot of manufacturing base has built up here over the years. Of course, Nagasaki was where Japan’s industrial revolution began in the late 1800s, and was the site where Mitsubishi really got started (at the Takashima Coal Mine). Nowadays there are many car manufacturers such as Nissan, Toyota, and Daihatsu, with factories in Kyushu. Steel production is important here and about 40% of Japan’s IC chip production is based in Kyushu. Other than manufacturing, Kyushu provides the rest of Japan with 20% of its food, and medical is another strong industry here.

To put Kyushu in context with the rest of the country, at least in economic terms, I compared Kyushu’s 7 prefectures with the top 7 prefectures in terms of GDP, which turned out to be convenient because those top 7 prefectures were the cut-off, accounting for half of Japan’s total GDP.

Map of Japan with the following prefectures highlighted alongside their rank:

1	Tokyo
2	Aichi
3	Osaka
4	Kanagawa
5	Saitama
6	Hyogo
7	Chiba
8	Fukuoka
25	Kumamoto
26	Kagoshima
32	Nagasaki
33	Oita
37	Miyazaki
44	Saga

All this data is from the OECD and is in 2015-adjusted Yen. I am showing 2016 data here, but the trends tend to hold since 2000. Here is the breakdown in a table, showing the relative share of GDP for each of the prefectures compared:

Table showing the following data. Each row is Prefecture, GDP rank, GDP share


The top 7 prefectures make up 51.19% of Japanese GDP, and the Kyushu prefectures make up 8.35%.

Looking at population you can see, at least for Kyushu, size of population aligns with GDP rank. The Top 7 have 6X the GDP and 4.5X the population of the Kyushu 7

Table showing the following data. Each row is Prefecture, GDP rank, Population share, Working age population %


I added in the percentage of Working Age (15-64) population to see if the number of retired people in the countryside has an effect. For Japanese prefectures, the average percentage of the population of working age is 58.5%. You can see that for the top performing prefectures, their working age populations are higher than the national average. Tokyo is the top in the country at 65.83% (the lowest is Shimane at 54.49%). Of Kyushu prefectures, only Fukuoka is over the average. This demonstrates the pull of economic centres, and the migration of jobs to urban areas.

Fukuoka is far and away the economic hub of Kyushu. In the past 20 years it has always been in the top 10 as you can see from the chart below (lower is HIGHER rank). Miyazaki has moved up to 37 from a low of 42 in 2006, but other than that, things are pretty stable.

Chart showing the GDP ranking of each Kyushu prefecture from 2001 to 2016. There is little variation.

Not to say there isn’t growth, but it is mostly concentrated in Fukuoka Prefecture as you can see below.

Line chart showing GDP growth for each prefecture from 2001 to 2016.

Looking at the bottom 23 prefectures, the bottom half of the table where six of Kyushu’s prefectures fall, the average prefectural share of GDP is 0.71% and the median 0.69%. Only 2 of Kyushu’s prefectures don’t beat those numbers (Miyazaki and Saga). As you can see from below, Japan’s GDP is like a power law, with Tokyo providing almost a fifth on its own! Kyushu prefectures are spread out, with representation near the top, middle and bottom.

Share of national GDP by prefecture, 2016. Top 7 performing prefectures, and Kyushu prefectures highlighted.

These are some simple stats to give you a sense of Kyushu within the context of Japan. I am still digging around, and will soon turn my attention to ExIm flows, which I am particularly curious about. Any little tidbits I find I will be sure to share!

Keychron K2

I bought my first computer in the spring of 2002. I had come late to personal computers. It was a Fujitsu laptop that I bought from a big box electronics store near Enmachi in Kyoto. It took a few months before it was even connected to the internet!

A couple of years later, I made the switch to Apple and bought a 17 inch iMac G4 off of a friend who was getting the 20 inch. The flat-panel G4 was iconic because of its lampshade design. I loved it, and it was partly on that machine that I learned design. I have owned many computers in the intervening years, but to this day I still think about the keyboard that came with that old iMac — the JIS version of the A1048. It had big chunky keys that clacked (a bit) when you typed. It felt great.

Since then I have experimented a bit with mechanical keyboards, some split style ones and even some straight columnar ones, all courtesy of some real keyboard-freak friends. I agree that something you spend 8-12 hours touching all day, should be optimized for you. However, I spent a lot of time rushing from meeting to meeting with a laptop, and it didn’t seem that optimal to be switching external keyboards all the time.

Now I am in my home office, and spend most of my time on my 27″ iMac. I do go out occasionally, but take my iPad Pro with its little keyboard when I am on the road. Since most of my time is here at my standing desk at home, beside my window that looks out over the port, I decided to take the opportunity and get a big, chunky, loud THERE IS A WRITER AT WORK, CAN YOU NOT HEAR!? keyboard.

I looked around quite a bit, and asked some friends, and ended up getting the Keychron K2 with white backlight and brown switches. It checked off most of my boxes:

The only thing I couldn’t get was a Japanese layout. There is a really good Japanese mechanical keyboard outfit, but they only make keyboards for Windows computers, and I wanted something I could use out of the box without any key-surgery.

So after a bunch of deliberation, I went for the K2, a reasonably priced keyboard with a good rep. It arrived today. Take a look!


I have been clacking away at it all morning. I am going to need a few days to get used to it. I totally prefer the arrow key config compared the Apple Magic Keyboard, but having the Backspace and Return buttons not at the edge of the keyboard means I cannot be so wild with my typing.

Here it is on my desk. (The woody looking thing is my iPhone charger… I was using my phone to take this picture.)

iMac with new keyboard and Apple Mouse sitting on a desk. To the left is a GoPro on a mini tripod.

Sakyōbana, crumbling pillar of Heaven

In my last post I explained about the “Pillars of Heaven”, the eight objects sent down by the gods to prevent Iki island from floating around the Sea of Japan at its own free will. Other than Saruiwa the Monkey Rock, most have crumbled into the sea. Of the remaining pillars, my favourite is Sakyōbana, a lava rock formation that looks like a massive, stubby finger pointing up to the sky. You can just imagine this as the remains of a “heavenly pillar.”

Sakyōbana sits just off the coast on the Easternmost part of the island. The cliffs are about 20 meters high, and covered in stiff vegetation, clinging to the rocks as the ocean winds whip at the rock face. It is spectacular seascape viewing at this part of the island. There is not much civilization, and the road runs right along the cliffs so you get amazing views. Also, these cliffs are where these cool sea cows hang out.

At Sakyōbana is a wide grassy field atop the cliff with a memorial sign, a gazebo for windy picnicking, and a shrine overlooking the sea. Here is a 4K video of Sakyobana from the top of the cliffs:

I climbed down the cliff to take some shots of the waves close up. All the rocks are igneous and dangerous. I was on the lookout for snakes, imagining if they popped out and caused me to fall, the lava rocks would tear my flesh before I fell into the big waves crashing into the rocks. It was very dramatic. My wife looked down upon me from the cliff tops, impassive as a stone statue.

The tide was starting to come in, so I didn’t spend that long taking footage of the waves, as the water began lapping at my feet. Here is a 4K video at the water level:

Below is a bit of a gallery. It is just one of the stunning natural spots that Ikijima offers.

Monkey Rock, a pillar of heaven

On the eastern side of Iki, jutting 45 meters out of the ocean is a giant rock formation, somewhat covered in moss-like greenery. From a certain angle the rocks look uncannily like a massive gorilla, solemnly looking out over a nearby cliff. This is the treasure of Ikijima: Saruiwa 猿岩 or “Monkey Rock.”

The Kojiki, or the “Record of Ancient Matters”, describes the creation of Japan by the gods Izanagi and Izanami (the parents of the Sun Goddess). With their jewelled spear they originally created 8 islands, not all are part of modern day Japan. The fifth island created was Iki… but there was a problem. Iki was a “living island” and apparently floated around the sea at its own whim. This was inconvenient for the gods, who preferred that islands stay put. So they cast down eight massive pillars to pin the island, and hold it in place upon the sea. Saruiwa is one of those “heavenly pillars.”

The other seven are not so spectacular — most have crumbled into the sea (I will cover one of the better ones in a future post). But Saruiwa is extremely striking. I wish I had a 50mm lens to give you a sense of how massive the thing is.

Below is a mini gallery from the rock. You can check out a few more photos and short videos, including some from the evening and from the cliff beside the giant Monkey Rock on Flickr.

Sounds of the Monkey Rock

It had been raining for days, so when I went up there the grasses were full of all sorts of life. I decided to take a quick recording. Listen to this while you look at the photos, and maybe you will get a feeling of being there. It was very windy, so I pointed the mic away from the ocean, but you can hear the waves in the background.