Saturday, March 17, 2012

Busan - Busan Until The End of Time

Hour three. What little sense of self I had to begin with has been replaced with a volatile mix of K-pop and processed cheese food. Having found no sustenance in this God-forsaken desert, I have resigned myself to walking the terminal until the heat death of the universe, or until our flight to Siem Reap departs. Whichever comes first.

The man at the top of the jetway had offered us a devil's bargain: leave the airport, strike our for downtown Busan, and come right back as soon as we'd arrived, or set up camp in the terminal for the next several millennia. Posterity will no doubt know by now the sorry course we chose.

I would tell you precisely when the nameless man approached us with the offer of a sandwich - a crustless square of white bread enclosing two limp leaves of lettuce, cheese food, and a thin slice of Spam - but already time had lost all meaning. The look in the man's eyes was almost apologetic, as if he had looked into our futures and knew full well what lay ahead.

There was nothing for us but to eat, and nap, and walk the terminal, wondering how things had come to this. How, in the course of human history, had such a thing become possible? An airport terminal without a restaurant? With two acres of duty-free shopping, but nary a bookstore in sight? Such is the curse of modern living: bearing the weight of history's mistakes on our backs. In the meantime, there is nothing but waiting, and hunger, and the pop stylings of BigBang fading into static in the recesses of our minds.

(Still, seven hours in the Busan airport - well worth the money we saved on our flight.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

National Branding

Yesterday was my first sick day in 3.5 years of teaching, and it definitely irks me to have to take two in a row. But thanks to a a massive stomach flu, I'm now in that really obnoxious phase of recovery in which you feel totally fine and ready to go, and then you try to stand up and have to spend the next hour taking a nap.

So to celebrate my immobility, I have researched a blog post on "national branding" for three places we have recently lived: Japan, Scotland, and South Korea.

What is national branding? Well, people argue about whether or not it's really a thing, or if it is a thing, whether or not it really needs a special term. But overall, it just means what you think of when you think of a country - or even if you think of the country at all. Would you stereotype it as friendly? Unstable? An interesting place to visit? This is a big topic of interest for Korea, and you can read two interesting articles about Korean national branding here (.pdf) and here.

One company makes a business out of attempting to quantify a national brand. The annual Anholt GFK-Roper National Brands Index  collects data from 50 countries about each of the other 50 countries on the list in six key areas: exports (do you like their products?) governance, culture, people, tourism, and immigration and investment. New Zealand has posted its full report online so you can see a sample here. (It's a .pdf, just so you're warned).

This website lets you play around with survey responses on individual questions, and if you're a geek like me, this can keep you entertained for a couple of hours on the sofa while you try to work up the nerve to walk to the bathroom. The data is out of date - I've put the 2009 numbers first and the 2008 numbers in parentheses - so it doesn't reflect recent movement, or for instance anything related to the 2011 Tohoku quake. Here are the indicator rankings for American perceptions of the countries where Justin and I have lived:

US Opinion OfKorea ScotlandJapan
People32 (41)9 (6)18 (12)
Products23 (26)16 (12)2 (2)
Government27 (34)8 (7)19 (16)
Tourism39 (45)11 (6)13 (13)
Culture36 (34)14 (14)7 (3)
Immigration and investment25 (34)12 (11)15 (9)

So what's going on with this?

First, Scotland has high rankings out of proportion to its size or economic impact. I'm going to chalk this one up to good old fashioned narcissism: many many Americans have Scottish heritage. Americans like Scottish accents (see Shrek, Sean Connery.) Americans all know about tartan, and whisky, and Braveheart (even though what they know is probably wrong). Plus, why not rank Scottish people and Scottish culture highly? Indirectly, it might be a pat on the back to yourself!

Second, Korea has low rankings out of proportion to its size or economic impact, although it is making some significant upward movements. I attribute this to the fact that Korea is still not well known internationally, and what it tends to be most famous for (the Korean War) isn't that great. Also, whenever North Korea messes around, the name blurs back onto South Korea.

The obvious thing for me to do next is to give you my own rankings for these countries, but that's quite hard. Please understand that my purpose in this blog is to give some information and to be funny. My experiences are mine and limited, and I don't intend to stereotype. Just to be fair, I'll throw in the US. (I can rank it for Tourism because there are questions like "The country is rich in natural beauty" and "The country is rich in historic buildings and monuments." Similarly, Immigration questions include things like "Good place to study for educational qualifications" and "Quality of life." For full questions see the New Zealand .pdf linked to above.)

Koreans: When you're in, you're so in that they will take you on vacation. When you're out, you're so out that they will run you over with a luggage cart.
Scots: The survey allows you to rank based on "fun." Scots are fun. Sometimes they are a bit too fun. It is the only place in the world where I have seen a businesswoman passed out drunk on the sidewalk at six PM on a Wednesday.
Japanese: Extremely polite but can be very bureaucratic. Whatever you do, do not sign a paper in blue ink.
Americans: Like golden retrievers, all Americans want is to be happy and to do good things. But sometimes we try so hard that we knock over your lamp and you kind of wish we hadn't tried to help in the first place.

On the whole, I think there are fewer things to see in Korea than in some smaller countries. Not necessarily Korea's fault (a civil war will really ruin your historical monuments) but still a fact. I am also biased by the fact that I have a pepper allergy and I just can't get by on Korean food. I enjoyed traveling in Scotland, but it does get pricey and can sometimes be kitschy. Overall, though, I really enjoyed traveling in Scotland, especially in the more unusual areas like Shetland and Orkney. I am still sorry I never made it over to Glasgow. I could travel in Japan for the rest of my time here and still not run out of things I want to do and see. America, like Japan, is so big that it would be hard to get bored. The US has a stronger showing in natural heritage than in historical stuff because of its youth.


Korea and Scotland both suffer from a bit of cultural schizophrenia: there is 19th century "traditional heritage" culture (Korean hanbok, Scottish tartans etc) and then there is today. I think both the Scots and the Koreans struggle with how to be both "modern" and "local." America doesn't have this problem because it doesn't have traditional culture (witness Miss America's struggle every year to come up with national dress) so it's just modern. Japan, on the other hand, fascinates me with its ability to abstract out traditions (proportion, texture, space, etc) and apply them to modern ideas (architecture, fashion, food, etc).

Lastly, immigration:
Korea was the hardest place for us to live, mostly due to health reasons (my pepper allergy and Justin's asthma). Korea is also still quite insular in many ways - there are more foreign food restaurants near us in Fukuoka (pop. 2.5 million) than in Seoul (pop. 10 million). Scotland was surprisingly frustrating. Lease structures are very weighted against foreigners, and the bureaucratic and government structure is willfully inefficient. (Witness the fact that while New Zealand just distributed the original National Brand Index reports, the Scots retyped the entire thing to create a minimally-annotated but much harder to read final version). On the other hand, we didn't have anybody to help us in Scotland (like the assistants provided by international schools) so maybe the other places look artificially easy. Japan is very easy to live in. It is expensive, but everything works. The language barrier is quite difficult and it has much less English-language support, but that may be related to being in a provincial city rather than Seoul. As for America, I'm out of ideas. I did just have a fever. I think I'm doing pretty well to get this far.

Just for fun, here is the self-perception data. Unfortunately, I couldn't separate out Scotland (I suppose the survey data didn't distinguish between UK and Scotland when surveying respondents) so I added the US instead. (According to the Scotland survey above, the Scots ranked themselves 1st in nearly all categories.)

Own opinion of USAKorea Japan
People1 (1)1 (1)1 (1)
Products1 (1)1 (1)1 (1)
Government1 (2)20 (24)5 (7)
Tourism1 (1)3 (5) (France #1)1 (1)
Culture1 (1)5 (5) (France #1)4 (5) (USA #1)
Immigration and investment1 (1)1 (1)1 (1)

Well. I don't think we need to worry about America's self-esteem any time soon, do we? But South Korea and Japan - stereotypically self-effacing - ranked themselves quite highly as well. Apparently all three countries have the best people, the best products, and are the best place to live!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Tohoku Quake Follow-Up: Architecture for Humanity

Last year Justin and I canceled our vacation to Hokkaido over radiation fears. When Japan Airlines refunded our money, we didn't feel quite right about keeping it. We put a poll up here on the blog asking you to choose a quake relief charity for us to donate the money to, and you picked Architecture for Humanity, a charity which focuses on building to sustain communities in need.

So what has Architecture for Humanity been up to in the past year? You can visit their full one-year update here. The general trend is for constructions which improve community togetherness. The citizens of Tohoku are trying to help each other, but they often don't even have a room large enough to hold a meeting. Isolation is a big challenge to psychological recovery.

Some highlights:

- Hikado Marketplace: re-used salvaged timber to create a place for workers to eat together, hosted a festival this summer.  (complete)

- Akahama covered alley: sheltered stairwell to make it possible and safe for residents to move among scattered temporary housing units (Phase 1 complete; Phase 2 in process)

- Shizugawa Fishermen's Workplace: (In progress): facility to support local fishermen as they try to rebuild the local aquaculture industry

- Oshika House Women's Cooperative: (in progress) facility to support women's cooperative industry (bracelet-making and hopefully eventually fish preparation) and provide community gathering space.

There is still a great deal of work to be done here. Many places have nit even finished clean-up, let alone rebuilding. Please consider donating to this other organizations working to help Japan recover.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The 311 Earthquake: One Year Later

One year ago today, the Tohoku region of Japan was hit with the largest recorded earthquake in the country's history. The quake spawned an enormous tsunami, which in turn damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing an eventual meltdown that has left everything within an 18-mile radius abandoned, possibly for decades.

It's hard to overestimate the effect of this disaster, known locally as the 2011 Tohoku Quake or simply as 311, on the Japanese population. Aside from the incredible destruction and the massive loss of life, the events of 311 have shaken the Japanese psyche, with radiation fears plaguing the country's largest metropolitan areas and deepening distrust of the government as their mishandling of the Fukushima crisis becomes clearer every day.

For us, down here in distant Fukuoka, the main effect of the disaster has been a nagging kind of guilt. We felt nothing; we were never at risk of radiation; most of our produce comes from Kyushu and most of our seafood from the Genkai Sea, hundreds of miles away from the Fukushima reactors. There have been only the tiniest hardships: an uptick in food prices and utilities rates, a last-minute change to our spring break travel plans. If anything, Fukuoka has benefited from the disaster, with many foreign companies shifting operations away from Honshu. School enrollment is increasing. The yen is high. Our 311 post from last year is our most popular to date, and led to a permanent gain in readership for the blog.

Thus it's with a mild sense of shame that I look back on the last year and realize how little we've posted about the aftermath of the quake. Part of me feels like it's not really our story to tell, but part of me realizes how many friends and family back home keep up with the our posts, and how easy it may be for them to think, given what we've written, the disaster has passed.

To partly remedy this shortcoming, I've gathered links to some of the best anniversary coverage of the disaster. Much of it comes from the BBC, which was our major source of information while the Fukushima crisis was unfolding. Some of it is hopeful, some of it sad, some of it cynical. But it's all worth a look. The bottom line is that 311 is a disaster that Japan and to some degree the whole world will be dealing with for a long time to come.

(BBC) Japan to mark quake and tsunami anniversary
(BBC) Grief of Japan's tsunami survivors
(BBC) Japan's damaged Fukushima nuclear plant, one year on
(BBC) Global fallout: Did Fukushima scupper nuclear power?
(BoingBoing) Fukushima and mental health
(BoingBoing) Inside the Fukushima exclusion zone

Note: Click Through For Manhole Cover Post!

For reasons unknown, Nana's last post went wonky in e-mail format. If you had a giant pile of HTML code show up at the bottom, please go to the blog for the last part of the post. Sorry!

Falling down the manhole

I love the blog Go Fug Yourself and a week or so ago, they linked to an article on The Atlantic which collected user shots "The World's Coolest Manhole Covers." (Don't get me started on how animating a slideshow of Wikimedia Commons images passes for journalism these days). Six of their top 24 are Japanese, the highest proportion of any one country. Eastern Europe is a surprisingly strong manhole contender, but I think Germany is overrepresented. Slapping your provincial shield on metal does not a manhole cover design make!

Something Justin and I have noticed about Japan is that it is always worth looking down. Or up, or over, or into the corner... the attention to detail here is remarkable. I actually started collecting manhole cover photographs last fall, in anticipation of a post like this (I could work for The Atlantic!) Please note that drainage grades, gas and water access, and all such metallic ground covers shall all be included here under the umbrella term "Manhole." So get your eyeballs warmed up for some of the great manhole covers of our experiences.

Okay, I'm warmed up now. Let's go.

From last fall: Nagasaki. The drainage grates of Nagasaki are decorated with a variety of flowers. I have photos of two, but memory says there were lots more. The official flower of Nagasaki is the hydrangea.

Official foot of Nagasaki is Justin's. Official sandal is Clarks.
There is also a flower called the Nagasaki camellia. I am pretty sure that's what this is:

Nagasaki is also known for its strong historical connection to China. I just noticed in writing this post that I really failed to take care of business on posts from our Nagasaki trip. I haven't mentioned such important things as, oh, the Atomic Bombing sites, let alone the Chinese temple I was going to link you to here. When you have a real job, such are the things which fall by the wayside.

So anyway. Justin really zoomed in on this, to the point that the only giveaway that it's a metal ground cover at all is the hatchwork of texturing behind the image. Here you have a parade of little animals celebrating, I presume, the Chinese New Year in Nagasaki. Nagasaki really gears up for the lunar new year, with parades and a nationally-famous Chinese lantern festival. Some of our coworkers went this year; maybe we'll get there next year.

Too cute to step on!

Then we have Kobe. This complex little blue and yellow guy features some local landmarks like Kobe Port Tower, the Rokko Arima Ropeway, and the foreign residences of the Kitano Ijinkan district. Shown twice for better viewing.

We went to Kobe's Suma district for the Model United Nations conference at Marist Brothers International School. Suma greeted us with this stellar samurai manhole cover:

The official feet of Kobe are mine. Shoes are still Clarks. Clarks are amazing.
With my magic powers, I translate the text on this manhole cover to read:

Tiny red text: 須磨
史 ロマン紀行
"Suma rekishi roman kikou"
"Suma Historical Novel Traveler's Journal" (perhaps a magazine or sponsor of this manhole?)

平の庭"Suma Jinja Gen-Hei Niwa"
"Suma Shrine Gen-Hei Garden"

"Beijing he yaku 900m"
"Beijing to approximately 900m." (I presume the "m" to be "miles" and not meters, since a map check confirms that Beijing is 900 miles from Kobe.)

"Youkoso Suma he"
"Welcome Suma to."

Which clears everything up!

No, just kidding. This is clear as mud. But you may be forgiven for your bewilderment because in Japan, basic comprehension of manhole covers requires a moderate degree of acquaintance with 12th-century epic poetry. (Duh!) As best as I can tell, this refers to a Japanese literary classic called "The Tale of the Heike," which talks about the Genpei war between the Genji and Heike clans, some important battles of which were fought in the Kobe area. "Gen-Hei," in the second line of text, is the abbreviated form of "Genji-Heike."

The best part is that this is not the ONLY manhole cover dedicated to memorializing the Genpei War. No. There is apparently a SERIES of manhole covers, all over Kobe. This blog shows at least eight manhole covers about the fighting Genji and Heike clans.

And by "Genji" and "Heike" clans, I really mean "Minamoto" and "Taira" clans. Because, you see, the kanji 源, the first part of Genji, is also read as "Minamoto," and 平, or Hei, is also read "Taira." Or maybe it's only part of Taira. The Japanese language is basically a two-thousand-year old inside joke.

So what is "Suma Shrine Gen-Hei Garden?" I think, after Googling by cutting and pasting kanji into the search engine, it refers to this: a garden at Suma Shrine which memorializes the events of "The Tale of the Heike." Note this image, which is very similar to the silhouettes on the manhole cover:

NOT MY IMAGE. Link goes to original site.

These statues re-enact an important scene from "The Tale of Heike" in which the fleeing sixteen-year-old scion Taira no Atsumori of the Taira family (the Heikes) is captured by the soldier Kumagai Naozane, who fought for the Minamoto family (the Genji). I should do better than Wikipedia as a source, I know, but I've already spent about 2 hours on this post and I can't be bothered. Apparently, as "The Tale of Heike" tells it, Kumagai captured Taira, whom he was then supposed to behead. Noticing that Taira was so young, and looked a bit like Kumagai's own son, Kumagai hesitated. But with the rest of the army closing in and ready to finish the job, Kumagai regretfully beheaded Taira because at least he knew that he would pray for the boy properly. He discovered a flute in the boy's luggage, and recalled hearing a flute play before the battle. Later, the death of Taira, among others, contributed to Kumagai renouncing war and becoming an influential Buddhist monk.

No word on why we care about how far away Beijing is.