Negotiating the seas

It has been busy recently for Japan’s three disputed territories.

Early in October China opened a new digital museum about the Senkaku Islands, and China has had coast guard vessels near the Senkakus for a record number of days this year.

Just a few days ago the “Day of Dokdo” in South Korea was to be marked by singer Kim Jang-Hoon by holding an online concert while cruising around the islets.

Two days later Russia deployed a new missile system to the Kuril Islands during military drills.

These and more are just some of the happenings in these longterm disputes that have been drawn out for decades. Luckily there have been no clashes, and the “fighting” has been mostly taking place in the legal realm. If you are looking to get a good foundation on one or more of these conflicts, check out my review Serita Kentaro’s book The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis for BooksOnAsia.net. The review is posted on BooksOnAsia.net, check it out here → Negotiating the seas

Cover for The Territory of Japan: Its History and Legal Basis

This is my first piece for BoA, and I hope to have a couple more before the year is out.

Articulate Noise — Review of Better Living Through Criticism

cover of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

For a book with “how” in the title, there is not much instruction. Better Living Through Criticism is more of a “watch me think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth” which is much more entertaining. If writing described as “pontificating” or “a meditation” does not immediately turn you off, you will probably enjoy A.O. Scott’s reference-filled critique on the practice itself.

Imagine sitting at an outside cafe on a brisk autumn Sunday morning, steam rising from three coffee cups as you look across the cold, green, metal table at your Uncle A and your other Uncle O. They both super smart, well read, and are going through a sort of mid-life crisis, questioning everything. Also, the only way they can communicate is in references, stringing together literary quotations like a pair of (Philadephia-based) conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, they have been meeting here every Sunday for weeks and still haven’t come up with any solution. But there have been lots of conclusions.

To some, this might be the worst kind of excuse-inducing scenario. I would immediate pull up my chair and take an expectant sip of coffee.

Each chapter takes on a fundamental topic (What is criticism? What is the role of the audience? What is the role of the critic? What is the business of criticism?) and is interleaved by conversational asides where Scott interviews himself, revealing more of his thinking in a sort of disarming, conversational way. (Chapter summaries here)

Although at some points the book feels like a drawn out magazine article, I do appreciate the philosophical approach he takes on the topics he covers. Although I do a lot of book and movie reviews, I have never really considered myself a critic. Better Living Through Criticism did make me think more seriously about my approach. I attempt to read every book with a critical eye and engage with the ideas within when I write about it. I want to add value, above and beyond any value judgement. This is the result of the “thinking” that goes both into criticism as into writing. A.O. Scott quotes Elizabeth Hardwick in the inaugural New York Review of Books:

“[T]he great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words.”

H.L. Mencken declared that any good critic was motivated to “make an articulate noise in the world.” This advice I took to heart, but I was struck by Scott’s definition that “a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” Of course this does not mean a critic should “sell” the work. Scott returns often to the “struggle between criticism and publicity” throughout: critics shouldn’t be PR or marketing, nor should they hack down everything. For Scott, if he doesn’t like a work, “the only ethical and honest course of action for me would be to remain silent and leave the discussion to others.” (I have not always followed this advice, but as you can see I read many more books than I review). For the works that are worthy, one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader. Scott describes a budding cineast who “dreams of casting a spell like the one he finds himself under.” Critics are artists too.

Better Living Through Criticism didn’t give me a map, but certainly gave me a destination to strive towards in my own practice of criticism. There are many ideas in the book to grapple with and I have a stack of notes that I will return to. Also, there are many referenced works for me to look up and appreciate next. To better living!

Pure Invention

cover of audiobook for Pure Invention

First of all, this is not really review of Matt Alt’s new book Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. The book is great, it is a fun romp through Japanese history using the lens of some of its most popular products. Go get it, you will love it. What I want to do here is to engage with a specific set of ideas as presented in the book. As a pop history of Japan and a selection of Japanese products, I think this book is wonderful. But there is a (small) aspect of the book that I found jarring, and I think it comes down to the framing — “conquering the world.” The commentary below is pretty in the weeds (not to mention possibly pedantic), and assumes that you are familiar with the content of the book. So, if interested, go read the book, then come back and check this out. I’ll wait. 😉

Continue reading “Pure Invention”

What’s your travel philosophy?

Cover for the book The Meaning of Travel

I have finally finished Emily Thomas’s short book The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad. I started this fun little read in the summer on my last trip to Kyoto, and held off on finishing it until I was back here, as I knew I would be coming to think deeply on why I travel (and why I write about it) — an important topic both for my book project, and an upcoming magazine piece I am working on.

This is not so much a review of the book, but I thought I would share my chapter summaries. Thomas uses each chapter to raise philosophical questions about various aspects of travel. Each chapter is a stimulating jumping off point for thinking about your own reasons for leaving your cozy world behind, or vicariously reading the accounts of others who did. Furthermore, each chapter actually introduces a particular topic or subdomain of academic philosophy. She doesn’t always come right out and label it, so I have included it in square brackets in my chapter summaries below. As an amateur philosopher, these are merely my best guesses. People in the know would be able to categorize these better I expect.

All in all, this is a great read, and if you are interested in travel, well worth it. Beyond asking the deeper questions she opens and closes the book with some excellent “vintage tips” for travelling well from famed philosophers of yore, including such nuggets as label your luggage legibly, do not hurry, or “Have you considered all the dangers… what if some Patagonian Polyphemus [Cyclops] were to tear you to pieces and then straightaway devour the throbbing and still-living parts?” (Joseph Hall, Another World and Yet the Same, 1605); and my favourite: “No young person under forty is ever to be allowed to travel abroad under any circumstances” (Plato, Republic, 380 BCE).

Upon returning home is such pithy advice as “banish ‘all affectations, and apish tricks, and fashions of other nations’” (Thomas ‘The Travailer’ Palmer, An Essay of the Means how to make our Travailes, into forraine Countries, the more profitable and honourable, 1606.) as well as the very good advice of “do not bore people with travel talk.”

Read below for a short description of the content of each chapter, with some of my thoughts thrown in.


Continue reading “What’s your travel philosophy?”

The best of 2019

It has been a couple years since I did a year-end roundup of books and film. This year was one of ups (finally travelled to India) and downs (lost my last living grandparent), of self-reflection (learning about leadership, going on retreat again), and of coming to decisions for closing out the decade and kicking off 2020 (more on that later). In between all those things, I was still able to watch and read some great media that I would like to share with you here.

51 Books

Since I wasn’t teaching this year, I thought I would try and hit a 50 book reading challenge this year. I made it, but just barely. Since I discovered some excellent podcasts my listening time for audiobooks was limited (73% of my books read were in audio). It was probably too frenetic of a pace since there are a few I don’t even remember.

However some had a lasting impact. In fiction, Sadie was the most engaging as an audiobook; I loved finally getting into the lore of the wuxia Condor Heroes; and Lincoln in the Bardo showed me that there is still new ground to break in novel-writing (tip: don’t listen to this one, read it in text it will make more sense).

In non-fic, Another Kyoto was a standout that inspired me to do some “walking and talking” while I am in Japan next year. The Culture Map was a useful business book (review forthcoming), and also in “business” I enjoyed Shoe Dog, which I think is best enjoyed in audio (and which I argue is not really a business book, but tells you a lot about the base mentality of some founders).

I just finished Ibram X. Kendi’s excellent How to Be An Anti-Racist, which I am processing and hope to write a little review of soon.

42 Films

Of the five I rated as 5-stars, only one film wasn’t a rewatch: Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece Tokyo Story. In fact 16 of the 42 films I logged were rewatches (lots of Harry Potter and Ghibli films with my kids. I was even able to see Totoro in the theater this year! So brilliant! 😭).

This year I subscribed to the Criterion Channel for a couple of months and was able to see some brilliant films such as Le Cercle Rouge (I loved Le Samouraï), Chunking Express, The Hidden Fortress, and King Hu’s A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn. That is a really great service.

This was the last year of watching MCU movies in the theatre (I have been waiting to get off that train for a while, but I am a completionist). Also the Skywalker saga came to an end, but I will likely continue seeing Star Wars films in the theatre. It is part of my heritage. 🤷‍


See previous entries:

Walking and talking — a review of Another Kyoto

Another Kyoto by Alex Kerr and Kathy Arlyn Sokol

Alex Kerr’s latest book Another Kyoto is another take on an old city, but in an old sort of way. Those of us who read a lot of historical work are conditioned to diligently check each footnote and to closely examine the bibliography (silently judging the book, even before we read it). Non-scholars too expect sources even when doing the daily task of reading an article on Wikipedia! However, Another Kyoto is an oral history, a conversation with a tour guide of deep knowledge, and not beholden to your scholarly standards. He says it right in the Preface:

Much of what I saw may turn out not even to be true. Although it should have been.

That doesn’t fill one with much confidence so early in the book, but Kerr’s conversational tone and profusion of insights (mundane, holy, and profane) draws the reader in quickly. Another Kyoto is a pleasurable read, bursting with knowledge, and it is best to just go along for the ride.

Continue reading “Walking and talking — a review of Another Kyoto”

Trickle-down ethical leadership — a review of The Just King

cover of the book "The Just King"

The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham

Take a moment to think of the good leaders that you have had in your life and/or career. Think of the qualities they possess, the qualities that you admire and might even emulate. I am sure we could come up with a common list of attributes (good communicator, humble, fair, etc). One key attribute I have seen across a number of sources is self-awareness. This not only translates into a mindfulness of how a leader acts around her people (self control, humbleness), but is the basis on which a leader can improve her skills. Even if you have a map to good leadership, if you don’t know where your starting point is…

Self awareness requires self reflection. Taking time to self reflect is one of the valuable tenets of Buddhism, and it is thus why on this year’s meditation retreat I spent time reflecting on what makes a good leader. To facilitate this internal discussion, I thought I would turn to one of the great thinkers in Buddhist philosophy. During my free time between meditation sessions I read The Just King: The Tibetan Buddhist Classic on Leading an Ethical Life by Jamgön Mipham.

Mipham was an illustrious polymath of 19th century Tibet who wrote on all sorts of topics, from art to science to religion. The politics of 19th century Tibet are fascinating and turbulent (I highly recommend Tibet by Sam Van Schaik to learn more), and when a new king took the throne in the high pressure region between Tibet and China, Mipham was requested to synthesize all best Buddhist teachings on being a good leader.

The breadth and depth of this book is vast. It covers a couple thousand years of writing on ethics, and puts it into a succinct form. A fairly quick read, it is full of pithy advice for people trying to be better leaders… and better people. At some points I felt that this book could be Mipham flattering his audience. This letter was directed at a king of course, so you cannot deny the power imbalance and potential for that to interfere in this enterprise. Like Machiavelli’s book The Prince, how much of this writing is putting “sweet words” into the mouths of those in power merely for ingratiation? I do not know. Still, there is value in reading The Prince despite its historical purpose. Mipham’s work should certainly not be written off either.

Continue reading “Trickle-down ethical leadership — a review of The Just King”

Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time

cover of audio version of The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) contains two essays. The first, a letter to Baldwin’s teenaged nephew, served as inspiration for Between the World and Me which I extolled not only for the content, but for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspirational writing skill. It is like a finger pointing at the moon, and I am glad for Coates directing my attention to all that heavenly glory. “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” written in the early 1960s is still relevant, and not surprisingly, influencing many young Black people today.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, is much longer, and an elegant rumination of the black politics at the time. I particularly enjoyed Baldwin’s visit to the home of Elijah Muhammad — the anxiety of the experience is palpable — and Baldwin’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s approach to the Civil Rights Movement. The book is undeniably an American classic, and Baldwin’s skill as a novelist and playwright shines through.

Near the end of his argument, the following passage particularly stood out to me:

Continue reading “Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time”

Remembering through facsimile

This weekend I finally sat down to watch Shinkai Makoto’s breakout anime hit of 2016 「君の名は。」Your name.. It was an entertaining story with some nice twists, great voice acting, and some cute scenes.

In preparation for this film I watched two other Shinkai films in order to get more familiar with his work. First was his homemade work Voices of a Distant Star which was pretty trippy. Then I watched 5 Centimeters per Second, which, even though it is ten years old, feels like a predecessor to Your name. All three of these films deal with unrequited teenage love, mobile phones, and lense flares.

Setting that aside, what I really want to comment on is Shinkai’s depictions of Japan in his films, especially 5cm and Your name. (Voices was handmade by Shinkai on his Power Mac G4 in 2002, so the quality of visual is not as tight as the other two films). These two films are visually amazing… art imitates life with extremely detailed illustrations of the objects daily life. His camera work makes normal things seem foreign, since he can place the point-of-view in spots that only the sharpest animator’s pen can fit. It is beautiful.

Yet, it is cold. The lines are surgical. I get a very different feeling about Japan when I watch these films compared to when I watch Ghibli films. Pretty much every film Miyazaki and his crew produce makes my eyes fill up with the tears of nostalgia. I can’t put my finger on it… they are so gentle. Even Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle — which aren’t even set in Japan!

Does the lack of fidelity in Miyazaki’s work leave room for my own idealized notions of Japan to creep in? Whereas Shinkai’s photo-realistic facsimile keep any and all emotion at bay?

Or maybe it has to do with relationships. It could be because I didn’t grow up in Japan as a lovesick 15 year old. Pubescent relationships are central to the three Shinkai films. Ghibli films on the other hand tend to focus more on inter-generational stories — on families. Maybe that is why I identify more with them?

Either way, I find it interesting that I don’t have the same natsukashii (懐かしい) feeling watching Shinkai’s hyper-realistic Japan, even though it is much closer to my own experience of that place. I sure hope I am not falling for some sort of idyllic Ghibli Japan. It has already changed so much in the seven years since I left and if ever I move back to Japan, I would hate to be disappointed by my own remembrances.

Infliction of Self — a review of The Burnout Society

Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society is a collection of essays reviewing famous thinkers’ (Deleuze, Freud, Arendt, Ehrenberg, et alia) thinking about the ailments of society in an attempt to diagnose what ails now. Each essay builds towards an argument with a number of subtle nuances. At only 72 pages, this is the perfect book-club book as I am sure it would provoke much discussion despite the linguistic armour that so much German philosophy enshrouds its critical ideas in (an armour that I cannot claim to have pierced, but I still found this book to be very thought-provoking).

The argument centers around Han’s concept of the individual as a “late-modern achievement-subject” that is:

  1. self-deluded into thinking just because they are not dominated by a person or by duty, they are free;
  2. the highest expression of freedom is to produce which is exactly what the capitalist system wants,
  3. therefore people are self-exploiting themselves and thus burning out.

It is a damnation of the hyper-individualization/atomization of society. Some key quotes:

Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it.

The capitalist system is switching from allo-exploitation to auto-exploitation in order to accelerate.

and some zingers:

The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking” does not represent civilizational progress.

In social networks, the function of “friends” is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.

(ahem, follow me on Twitter…)

Most of the book serves to contextualize the factors that lead to such an ill society.

Why I liked this book

Even though this book can be glibly summed up as “late-stage capitalism is bad,” I found the discussion valuable, especially Han’s arguments for boredom and the vita contempliva. His whole discussion about humans being reduced to animal laborans and feeling that they need to “Just do something… anything!” hits me as I come out of a meditation retreat where we were encouraged to “do nothing … really good.” In fact, my years of “mastering” information overload, of being an “efficient” consumer (eg. listening to audiobooks/podcasts while doing other tasks), is a good example of the symptoms that ail burnout society. It is “deadly hyperactivity” as Han puts it. He reminds us that:

We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention.

and:

… deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.

Furthermore, it does not lead to a good life. He uses an Aristotle quote to remind us that the capitalist society is not concerned with the Good Life, that it “absolutes survival” turning you into an animalistic machine, scratching out a mere existence of socially prescriptive productivity. Putting it bluntly he states:

In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside.

Well, I am off to meditate and try and turn that “work camp” into a garden of happiness.