I have always been a sporadic journal writer, only regularly documenting daily experiences while traveling, winding down during the end-of-day decompression in my room. Many years ago I made it 1/5 the way through a 5-Year Journal. This year, I’m giving journaling a serious try, and have found it to be like a delayed mindfulness practice. Each day you set aside time to self-reflect after the fact. In just one month I have already learned a lot about my regular day-to-day self. Here are some things I have learned about the practice in general, and how I am applying it.Continue reading “Getting started with a journal”
Often on Twitter I will mention hearing about some local happening on the island like new coronavirus cases or massive snowfall stalling bus service. These updates come across the emergency broadcast system, or 告知放送 kokuchi hōsō. We are all familiar with speakers mounted on towers and buildings in every neighbourhood in Japan. But this is the first time I have ever had one in my house!
Mounted on the wall in my kitchen is a wireless radio that beams messages from the city directly into my home. Day to day, this includes a simple time alarm: a chime played at 7am, noon, and 5pm every day (including Sundays!). Islander children are told by teachers and parents that they should always hear the 5 o’clock chime from home.
I recorded a sampling of each so you could hear:
The songs are:
- 07:00 恋は水色 Koi ha mizuiro or “L’amour est bleu”
- 12:00 壱岐市民歌 Iki City Song
- 17:00 夕焼け小焼け Yūyake Koyake
The last one is particularly famous, and used as a time alarm in many places in Japan.
It has been kind of strange to have this receiver in my house. Apparently they are in every house in Iki. There are no fees associated and they are maintained by the city Crisis Management Department (危機管理課) as part of Iki’s disaster plan. They have a manual you can read. The system has been in place for a while, since on the other wall there is an older version that doesn’t work anymore:
It is up near the ceiling by my fridge. The new one was installed in 2010, but that might have been when this house was built.
They have a manual posted online for operating the device. You can even get FM radio on it. There is a volume control, and you can turn them completely off, but that would defeat the purpose.
The reason for these home receivers is for public service announcements, especially in emergencies. Common ones I have heard include:
- natural disasters: typhoon, wind, freezing warnings (pipes)
- emergencies: fires (when they start, the location, and when they are put out), missing persons, coronavirus updates
- marketing: events run by various city-related organizations (eg. Museum lectures), cancellations of events (eg. due to coronavirus)
I believe these are linked to the J-Alert network so we should get earthquake warnings. I would also expect we would get nuclear disaster warnings since there is a reactor nearby. I don’t know if we would get any type of air raid warning in case of a North Korean missile. 🤷♂️
On almost our first day I was shocked to hear a broadcast from the Iki police directly into my house! It was only a reminder to everyone to wear their seatbelt, but it felt a little Orwellian (I don’t think these things have a mic on them, believe me, I checked right away).
On the city website you can request a broadcast. It must use a specific template and be filed at least three days in advance. Broadcasts can be to one or more of the four towns on Iki, or the entire island. I am not sure who clears these messages, but I seriously doubt they will let me send an island-wide Happy Anniversary! to my wife next month. 😂
Emergency broadcast systems are extremely common in Japan, but this is the first time I have seen them inside of a house. Is this common on other islands, or rural areas? If you have seen this before, comment below!
During the first wave of coronavirus cases in Japan we moved to Iki island thinking it would be safer than waiting out the pandemic wave in Kyoto. It was a good move. Since we came here last May, we have been lucky to lead a very normal life. The kids go to school, we ate out, visited beaches, made new friends.
Life has ground to a halt since the New Year’s holiday. Our kids have not left the house to play with friends since a new case of coronavirus, the first for months, was discovered on Iki on December 28th.
A ferry boat worker, and resident of Fukuoka, felt a little sick but still went to work. On the way to Tsushima he collapsed in the mess while eating a meal. The crew dropped him off in Ashibe, here on Iki before going on to Tsushima. He was taken to the hospital and tested positive. Four other crew members he interacted with also tested positive. But it didn’t stop there. A group of city officials had a year end party with out-of-towners: six out of twenty attendees came down with coronavirus. Then another case amongst ship workers. In a matter of days, we went from historically 7 cases to 57.
Are remote islands havens from pandemics?
Rural areas are natural places to avoid the 3 C’s:
- Closed spaces
- Crowded places
- Close-contact settings
It is very easy to social distance out here, and most of our daily life outside the home is conducted in a private vehicle. There are lots of natural places to hike and get outdoors without being around people.
Being on an island, travel here is restricted to boat or plane, both of which require temperature checks to board. Also, since you have to register to board either, it makes contact tracing a little easier if a breakout happens. And if a breakout does happen, it is easier to contain the population of a small island and wait it out.
So, islands are a pretty good place to isolate oneself from a pandemic raging on the mainland. Of course, if the virus makes it to the island, it can get pretty scary.
Rural areas like Iki have been depopulating over the past few decades. We have 26,000 people here, half of what was here at the island’s peak in the late 1950s. Depopulation does not affect all population groups equally. Usually it is the younger, college-aged people leaving for the city to find education and job opportunities. Thus, rural areas have a lot of elderly, people who are particularly vulnerable to a virus like COVID-19.
What’s more, we have a small population. Even just a few cases can be a serious problem. Back in Kyoto there are about 1300 active cases. For Iki to have the same caseload for our amount of population we need just 13 sick. We are currently at 45, hence why our situation has been upgraded to Phase 4. This makes one wonder if it is safer to go back to the city.
Rural areas tend not to have large medical capacity. Iki only has 20 beds for coronavirus patients at the hospital. There are two facilities with 25 rooms for people to quarantine.
Rural areas usually also have limited shopping options. For example, we only have two FamilyMarts on the island, and people travel from all over to come to the Aeon shopping center near my house. These can act as bottlenecks, potential nodes for virus transmission.
Speaking of bottlenecks, if you do want to get off the island to a “safer” city, you have to either a boat or a plane. The boats have already been the source of a number of cases.
Despite being densely populated, cities do spread out the risk to individuals, as long as they are being responsible.
The curve on Iki seems to be flattening, so we aren’t going to risk moving just yet. Many public facilities have been closed. The hospital is closed to non-emergencies until the 15th. The city cancelled the annual Coming of Age ceremony (成人式). My kids’ Judo club quickly shut down for all of January. It was announced earlier today over the island broadcast system that the first day of school is being pushed back. We have been holed up and taking extra precautions on our own and will continue to do so as we watch the numbers.
Yesterday Nagasaki upgraded the prefectural emergency status to Stage 4, matching that of Iki, and requested residents not to eat in large groups or travel out of the prefecture. The central government will initiate another “soft lockdown” today, but limited only to Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures. But the situation is a lot more serious on small islands like ours. Japan has 257 inhabited remote islands, but their situations won’t make the nightly news.
We turned in at about 1AM after watching 紅白 and ゆく年くる年 I roused the kids out of bed at 6am so we could drive to a spot for a view of the first sunrise of 2021. Shivering in the car we ended up at the cliffs by Sakyōbana, the crumbling heavenly pillar and well-known “power spot” on Iki. From high up on the cliff about 20 people were spread out watching across the sea to see the sun rise from behind the taller mountains of the Kyushu mainland. It was pretty cloudy, so we could only see a blotch of pink. But as the morning light brightened up we watched the wind lash waves against the rock formation known as Sakyōbana.
Shrine of the Moon God
Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun, and divine ancestor of the Emperor of Japan. We greeted her last year on a visit to Ise. She has many famous stories about her and her jerk brother Susano’o, the god of the wind. She also has a lesser known brother, who has been kind of written out of the old stories: Tsukiyomi, the moon god. Between Japan and Korea, the island of Tsushima is known as the “Sun” and Iki as the “Moon.” There are not a lot of shrines to Tsukiyomi in Japan, but Iki has an important one. In fact, the Tsukiyomi Shrine here has a sub-shrine on the grounds of Matsuo-taisha in Kyoto. We climbed the stairs to the shrine and were the only ones there as we hammered a wooden plaque number of times of our age for good luck in 2021. Here we dropped off all of our older charms from last year for burning, and bought new fuda for the kamidana in our house.
On the way back home we stopped by Sumiyoshi Shrine, our ujigami to pick up a fuda from there too. You have to have the full set stacked in the right order to protect your household. I also picked up an omikuji and got a wonderful fortune for 2021! I also got a little daruma charm for my wallet (nice mixing of Buddhism there!). Up at Tsukiyomi a few bits of snow and hail fell. While at Sumiyoshi it really started coming down!
Back home we set up the house shrine for 2021, busted open the money envelopes with the kids, and then sat down for some osechi. Originally we had planned on being in Kyoto for New Years. As coronavirus cases started to explode, we cancelled all of our plans and just stuck to the island. Too late to make an order, my wife decided to try and make osechi from scratch. She is too embarrassed to let me show pics of the inside, but I think she did an amazing job.
I reflected on the year using Pat Kua’s End of Year Retrospective Template. I won’t share all my results here, just a bit of a roundup below, but the questions from that document I really appreciated were:
- What brought you joy this year?
- What made you sad this year?
- What are you grateful for this year?
These three questions sure help in building out goals for next year. If you are looking for a handy framework for reflection, I think Pat’s is a great place to start.
The Last Year
2020 was an extreme year for all. We moved to Japan during a pandemic and my wife lost her mother. My kids endured Japanese elementary school and we evacuated during a typhoon. There was lots to overcome (some of it still going on!). I am certainly grateful for the financial stability to do so. This foundation, and a stable family life, allows me to pursue my joy of reading, writing, and engaging with ideas. Looking at the numbers below you can see how much I put out into the world this year, a marked increase on years past. 2019 was a year of figuring what I wanted to do with my life, and 2020 was actually going out and doing it.
Being outside the rat race of corporate life also gave me more room to engage with art. I spent time assessing how writers put together words, rather than just examining their arguments (cue Bruce Lee’s “don’t think, feel!”). I discovered André Alexis and still think about This Is How You Lose the Time War. Books, film, music, performance, ceramics… even sunrises and sunsets, puffy clouds crossing the sky. Maybe recognizing beauty everywhere is a feature of getting older? This year I definitely spent more time appreciating skills and craft. Thinking about the day in and day out of a writer’s craft is probably what made reading How to Take Smart Notes was so radical for me.
Without setting out to do so, I gravitated towards stories about amazing people. I finally read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and watched Ghandi. I gave my daughter a copy of Greta’s book and read more on the Dalai Lama. Even fictional geniuses found their way into my media diet: The Queen’s Gambit inspired a Christmas chessboard (I was about their age when I got my first chessboard, I told myself).
In 2020, since leaving my job, I spent a lot more time with my kids watching them grow and trying to figure out their passions. We are all trying to find out own way. 2020 to me was one of searching and growth a amongst a seemingly chaotic and changing world.
The Last Decade
Ten years is a long time. I entered the decade a very different person than when I came out (who hasn’t?). I moved to Canada with Apple in 2010, and spent the next ten years working with startups and tech companies. I had a second child and built up a wonderful new network of friends and community in Kelowna.
Reflecting on this period one the thing I am happy about is all the self-reflection I did during that time. I grew a lot as a human, shifting my thinking on a lot of topics, and even took action by making changes to how I live my life (eg. downsizing, vegetarianism, anti-racism, technology ethics). At the same time, looking back I feel it was sort of a decade of loss. My Japanese language suffered and my knowledge of Japanese politics and history grew stale. That feeling might be due to recency bias. Since moving back to Japan in March I feel so left behind by all my friends who stayed here. No need to compare, I know, but I cannot help thinking I could have kept up a bit better. Now, well into middle age, I have a better sense of myself and what I find truly important. I will take this feeling into the next decade.
For now, goodbye 2020, goodbye 2010s. And goodbye to all you readers! I will see you bright and early next year. May you be happy, healthy, safe, and free-from suffering.
Previous Best Of’s and roundups
The latest edition of the quarterly Kyoto Journal just dropped with a new article by yours truly. travel, revisited is KJ’s 99th issue. The magazine has long been a staple in the English language media on Japan. I was asked to consider the topic of travel writing as it pertains to my book project. While on writing retreat in Kyoto earlier this year, alone in our apartment there, taking daily walks and runs, I reflected on the question of “why I travel.” It turns out, this is a very heavy question, and had me questioning my own being. Anyways, I tried to encapsulate my approach to travel literature in a couple thousand words and some photos taken from around Kyushu. You can see some select pages from my piece titled “on location” below.
I am very honoured to be included in the pages of Kyoto Journal with such famous writers as Natalie Goldberg, Pico Iyer, and others. You can purchase the magazine digitally for about 5 bucks here. Check out some of their other issues. This is a really high quality magazine.
While working on my book this year I thought I would try to keep my skills sharp by writing more essays for various publications. These short pieces for different outlets gives me a chance to work with a variety of editors, something I really appreciate. So far I have been lucky to have had only good experiences. I come away from each with some valuable (and practical) lessons. I feel like I have been improving my writing craft these past few months, and am very hungry for more!
Other than Kyoto Journal, I have been fortunate to contribute again to the Literary Review of Canada. My third piece for them — titled Shifting Gears: Toward a car-free future — is a review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? by James Wilt. In this essay I lean on my experience working on technology ethics, a theme for all of my contributions to the magazine to date.
This year I have returned to writing more on Asia, especially coastal Asia: from Japan down to Southeast Asia. This reflects my research interests (for the book and beyond) and ties back to my graduate work on shipping lanes through the South China Sea. I read quite a bit in the areas of Japanese Foreign Policy and regional international relations, and thus started contributing reviews to Books On Asia, a site I had been following for a while. Currently I have three pieces up there, reviews of:
- From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra (a reprint of what I wrote on this blog last week)
- Japan in Asia: Post-Cold-War Diplomacy by Tanaka Akihiko
- The Territory of Japan by Serita Kentaro
BoA reviews are very tight, unlike some of my more (ahem) “expansive” reviews posted here. Doing different kinds of pieces is helping me to grow. Check out Books on Asia, they have lots of fiction and non-fiction recommendations for Japan and all over Asia. You could start with the best books we read on Asia this year.
Speaking of writing different kinds of pieces, I had one other essay go up on an external site this year. Hōjōki is a classic Japanese text written about a hermit and his three-meter square hut. I first read this book a few years ago. This year a new translation was released by Professor Matthew Stavros, an engaging fellow very knowledgeable about Kyoto. Writers in Kyoto, a group I am a member of, asked me for a review. Rather than writing a very technical review, I decided to take a different approach inspired by my recent reading of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott. As I noted in my review of that book:
one task of the critic is to re-create their experience of the work to the reader
So, in the piece A physical space for your inner self — reading a new translation of Hōjōki by Matthew Stavros I spent time exploring the kinds of historical and philosophical connections sparked inside of me while reading Stavros’s translation. One of the challenges I face in my writing is turning down the level of analysis, and putting more of myself into my pieces.
This year was successful in terms of connecting with other writers and editors. I have a couple more pieces in the hands of editors right now which should appear in the first couple months of 2021. I also plan on pitching some more publications in 2021. If you, dear readers, have any suggestions on what stories I should tell or where you think I would be a good fit, I would be grateful for any advice.
Books On Asia asked reviewers to pick their top books for 2020. I submitted my four along with the other contributors and gave a short comment. Below is a more fleshed out review. For more reviews, check out booksonasia.net
Pankaj Mishra delivers a sweeping account of the intellectual history of anti-colonial thought in the early years of Western colonialism. He builds this narrative through mini-biographies of two lesser-known intellectuals: Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Liang Qichao. These early thinkers diagnosed the challenge of Western imperialism faced by Asia. The evolution of their thought is influenced by historical milestones such as the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a failed uprising to gain independence from the West, and the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, where an Asian nation defeated a Western military power for the first time. Japan’s victory was a turning point for optimism in the oppressed Asian psyche, celebrated by anti-colonialists like Gandhi, Ataturk, and Tagore. Here was an Asian country beating the West at its own game.
This part of the nineteenth century was a cosmopolitan moment for Asia. The subjects of Mishra’s work were inveterate travellers, moving throughout the Islamic, Indian and East Asian worlds. This is in contrast to Western political intellectuals at the time who philosophized about Asia almost exclusively from the comfort of their comfy overstuffed chairs. From the Ruins of Empire follows both Asian intellectuals on their travels where they meet with and influence one another as well as a new generation of activists like Sun Yat Sen. The author also traces how their thinking on Pan-Asianism transforms, from initially advocating for Asian nations to modernize by mimicking the West and adopting its scientific and industrial advancements, to their horror at the First World War, which turned them away from so-called “Western progress.” This frames the ultimate dilemma facing Asia in the book: to be more like the West (which is what Tsushima teaches) or to progress with Eastern alternatives which are more suited to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious reality of Asia—modernization sans Westernization.
Despite the successful anti-colonial movements in the post-World War II era, the story Mishra tells is ultimately a tragic one. Asian nations may have won out over political colonialism, but lost against intellectual colonialism. India and China are very adeptly wielding the power of centralized nation-states, effectively replacing the role previously occupied by Western imperial overseers. The “South to South” dialogues by the intellectual network described by Mishra did go on to inspire later revolutionaries. Mishra makes these connections, showing for example how the ideas of al-Afghānī have been twisted into the narrative of political Islam.
This book originally came out in 2012 amidst the Arab Spring and Colour Revolutions. That time also saw a surge of revisionist histories of empire by writers like Niall Ferguson which helped to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the Ruins of Empire demonstrates how people can be motivated by humiliation, and in it you can see the seeds of Mishra’s later book Age of Anger (2017) centering on the politics of ressentiment, so prevalent in our era.
Reading From the Ruins in Empire in 2020 I was amazed at some of the nearly 200-year-old critiques of the West. You could copy-and-paste them directly into today’s media. Mishra has done a brilliant job excavating these perspectives and tying them together with his usual smooth writing skill. The authour offers no specific solutions, but reading about such intellectual journeys outside the standard one of Western progress with everywhere else trying to catch up, is fascinating. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. With the waning of liberalism and democracy described by Luce and others, it feels like we are at another turning point. Discussions of what happens next are occurring worldwide, but what does the fall of liberal internationalism mean for Asia? What are the indigenous intellectual legacies that might fill the void? From the Ruins of Empire shows that there can be imagination outside the box of Western political thought, alternatives rooted in history, that are possibly more viable than completely new and alien systems.
This NY Times piece on a 1,020 year old shop in Kyoto has been making the rounds online. It got me thinking about other examples of products or skills that have traversed centuries, and a random discovery we made at a shopping stall: a paperless ceramic coffee filter.
Last October we travelled to Imari and Arita, in the prefecture of Saga on the Kyushu mainland. This region of Japan is famous for its porcelain. In the 17th century, as the Ming dynasty collapsed, Chinese porcelain became a rare commodity. Around the same time a kaolinite mine was discovered in this region of Japan. The lords of the region, the Nabeshima Clan, had participated in the invasion of Korea in the late 16th century. Many Koreans were “brought over” to Japan, and the Nabeshimas found some who had the skills to make high quality ceramics competitive with mainland Asia. The Nabeshima Clan hid the potters up in a secluded valley in Arita to “protect the intellectual property” of this new money-maker, shipping finished product downriver to the port at Imari where they could be loaded onto bigger ships bound for Nagasaki and then on to the palaces of Europe.
This legacy of ceramic-work was put to use in a new way a couple of centuries later. In the late 1800s, when Japan started its process of modernization, the British came to advise on all sorts of things. They helped the Japanese engineer bridges, railways, and other infrastructure, and are the reason why cars are driven on the left in Japan. The British were also responsible for Japan’s new communication network, stringing telegraph cables throughout the country. At the time, the Brits used insulators made of glass. When it came time to replace these with newer and better ceramic insulators, the potters of Arita were called upon for their expertise.
While in Imari and Arita we visited the Kyushu Ceramic Museum and wandered the pottery stores looking at some amazing pieces of art. We even tried our hand at making some vases and painting some mugs. Getting your hands dirty trying to do pottery sure gives you a healthy respect for what the pros can accomplish!
Ceramic technology is of course being still used in all sorts of high tech materials applications like rocket nozzles and 3D printing. I am not sure if that is going on in Arita, but what we did discover are these cool molded ceramic coffee filters that use micro-perforations to allow the water to pass through. We bought this filter and have been using it every day for the past two months. It works a lot better than metal filters — there is very little coffee grit at the bottom of my mug when it is done — and it is more eco friendly. Plus, it looks really cool! Check out the video below. You can see the texture is kind of like volcanic rock, it feels like it is made of sandpaper.
I am sure there are many different examples of traditional skills like this transforming through the ages. If you can think of more examples from Japan or other countries, please add them in the comments!
According to the old stories, Iki was one of the first islands of Japan, made by the creator gods themselves. It is the island of the Moon, with Tsushima across the strait being the island of the Sun. The gods had to raise up heavenly pillars to keep the island in place. Iki is said to be home to 1200 shrines despite being only 17 km long and 14 km wide.
But gods are not the only ones that tread here.
According to different old stories, Iki was a Demon Island (鬼ヶ島). Not the one from the Momotaro story, a different one. Demons ran rampant in old Japan, and you can see the evidence today here on Iki: there is the famous Devil’s Footprint and many shrines have demon-shaped wooden dolls to keep away evil (and Mongols). But where did all the demons go? The answer to that question can be found in the traditional kites of Iki.
The ondako (鬼凧) or “demon kite” is one of the symbols of the island. You can see them on the backs of tour buses, at the entrance to the museum, and they sell little versions of them as souvenirs. They are ubiquitous.
There is a kite flying festival in April, but on windy days, if you go down to Sakyobana, the north-facing cliffs, there is a group of older gentleman that fly the kites. They are quite large, and when they go up into the strong winds, they make a sort of buzzing sound that is loud. It is like one of those murder hornets, a warning.
The ondako depicts a fierce looking warrior, with upturned moustache, wearing an ornate helmet. The warrior is looking upwards, because perched on top of the helmet is the head of a demon. The story goes like this:
The hero Yuriwaka came to Iki and killed most of the demons, finally facing down their Poison King. The evil demon king attacked Yuriwaka with his massive golden club, but Yuriwaka was able to decapitate the king. The demon king’s head then flew up into the heavens to get some medicine that would help re-attach his head to his body. Meanwhile Yuriwaka hid the body, and waited for the demon head to finally die. When the Head of Poison King returned and could not find his body, the demon attacked Yuriwaka by chomping on his head! The helmet protected Yuriwaka, and soon the demon head died. Since then the people fly kites celebrating Yuriwaka’s deeds high up into the heavens as a warning to any demons who might be thinking about coming down.
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
This is my first piece for BoA, and I hope to have a couple more before the year is out.