Thursday 22 March 2007

Spring is here...just about...

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

From the Rabaiyat of Omar Khayyan (trans. Edward Fitzgerald)

As the cherry-blossom buds prepare to burst, bloom and die, I thought this bit of verse particularly fitting!

R J F Villar

Tuesday 20 March 2007

Kaiyo Gakuen: Breeding little leaders...

I recently visited Kaiyo Gakuen, a brave new "adventure" into the turbulent world of Japanese educational reform.

Kaiyo is an all boys, all boarding-style school. The focus is on sports, academic excellence and leadership training; as the school's blurb puts it, "Kaiyo Gakuen nurtures the personal skills and academic prowess necessary for leaders." Praised by aficionados of British boarding-school education--indeed, much of Kaiyo's influence was drawn from England's Eton College, and a member of Eton's teaching staff currently works as an 'advisor'--the school has also come under fire from the Japan Communist Party (JCP) and leftist members of the Japanese Teachers' Union, who maintain it is elitist and unrepresentative. Which of course it is. And proud of it.

The school is bursting with business donors, JR and Toyota among them, and has a campus with state-of-the-art facilities and its own special train station nearby. Students work hard by day, and return to 'Houses' (hausu) in the evening and at weekends, where they enter a whole new world of 'rounded' training to be the country's next leaders. On Sunday students are whisked off by their Housemasters and 'Floormasters' (staffed by mid-level managers from some of Kaiyo's sponsors) to do anything from planting rice in local paddies to yachting in the sea beside the school. Social-awareness projects, giving students exposure to all walks of life, are planned for the future.

Yet despite all the fanfare about leadership, there are fears that Kaiyo may have missed a trick.

Some quarters have argued that the regimentation of daily life, and the equipping of every student with a trackable PDA device, is not exactly conducive to lateral thinking and leadership. Others claim that an enclosed all-boy environment, where the only exposure to women is the kitchen staff, gives Kaiyo's students a distorted view of reality. Yet, in my view, more potentially disastrous than either of these factors are the educational limits of the Kaiyo world.

The attraction of 'Public Schools' like Eton College are the intellectual freedoms they offer their students. Science labs, soccer fields, drama theatres, or art studios; by and large students can choose what they individually excel at, and pursue their own academic (or not-so-academic)course. Kaiyo, however, does not have a theatre. The bigwigs in management seemed surprised that this was an issue at all: "...But we have science labs and sports facilities..." the Headmaster replied to my questioning, obviously oblivious that leadership could take any form other than scientific or physical excellence.

But is not an element of drama essential for leadership? To observe the Diet's poor excuses for debates, or to listen to political speeches, is a saddening experience. Performance and charisma are absent 99% of the time. A theatre, which Kaiyo students could use to perform whatever they wanted--be it drama, music, or anything else--would be an invaluable preparation for a future life of leadership.

Another mistake was the failure to inject Kaiyo with any sense of history or culture. This may perhaps be the fault of the main architects of the project, who are almost exclusively characters from business and industrial backgrounds. As Japanese parliamentarian, Motohisa Furukawa, exclaimed upon being explained the school's facilities, "What? You don't have a tea-house? But how can students learn about Japanese culture?"

A sense of history is essential for the leaders of tomorrow. Take the current US administration, for example. A brief look at the history books--at the disastrous British occupation of Iraq in the inter-war era--would have given a scarily accurate prediction of the rivers of blood that are currently soaking into the desert sands. A mere wikipedic knowledge of world civilizations might have warned leaders that a universalist, paradigm-led invasion and occupation in the Middle East, in all its ugly hubris, would ultimately end in failure.

The absence of a tea-house in Kaiyo goes beyond slimming down choices on offer to students; it is a failure to connect Kaiyo to Japanese history and culture. As a student at Eton, in the UK, you are injected straight into over 500 years of history, and it is hard to ignore the past when lists of Old Boys killed in Britain's colonial expeditions line the walls. All boys are required to play the 'Field Game', an antique predecessor to soccer and a game only played at Eton; they wander around the school in waistcoats and tailcoats; and communicate in a bizarre form of code, its words formed over hundreds of Eton years. Eton provides a set of traditions for students in their formative years, which they can ultimately learn from, kick against or ignore completely. But they are there nevertheless.
A tea-house--and a tea-ceremony teacher--would perhaps be a token gesture towards infusing Kaiyo's boys with a sense of their own tradition and heritage. "In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquncy of Laotse, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself." So there!!!

R J F Villar

Keep on slowly slithering up Mt. Fuji, Mr. Snail!


soro soro nobore
fuji no yama

Keep on slowly slithering up Mt. Fuji, Mr. Snail!
Issa Kobayashi (1763-1828); trans. R J F Villar

I faltered mid-way through a recent speech supporting a candidate in the local elections, and instead of my scripted banalities decided to expound why I find the poem above to be so wonderful. I am not sure whether the politician I was supporting, Kentaro Hibi (see post here), was pleased with being associated with a slowly slithering snail--Issa's gastropod does not naturally have the energy and spice that most candidates seem to want for their personal PR--but for an opposition politician in a country where the status quo is rarely booted from power, I thought it particularly apt.

That little squishy slug-with-house is a vision of hope. The snail is dwarfed by Japan's highest peak (3,776m), yet still it battles against adversity and pushes for the summit. The going may be tough, but anything is possible; progress--change--is inevitable. For Hibi, who has the slogan "Learning every day, Striving every day", and for the Democratic Party (DPJ) which needs to topple the firmly entrenched Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in this summer's Upper House elections, perhaps Issa's snail can be an inspiration.

At the 4th anniversary of the start of the disastrous Iraq War (officially on 17th March), the little snail reminds me that there is hope for the future, no matter how morally corrupt British foreign policy appears to be at present. Governments will change and criminals will be brought to justice--but slowly, oh so slowly.

R J F Villar

Go Go Underdog! 判官びいき

In sporting events, I am always more interested in the underdog--the forlorn hope battling against the odds--than the side that has the clear advantage. Perhaps it comes from being brought up under the indoctrination of my Scottish mother, and always having backed the 'Tartan Army' in their passionate, but generally unsuccessful, soccer, rugby or (heaven forbid) cricket matches. From a young age I found the stronger opponents boring, and would will on the weaker side--cheering the Scots against the English, or the Japanese against Brazil.

In Japanese, there is a phrase for this: 判官びいき (hangan biiki). It means, literally, 'to favour the Hangan', referring to the position held by the tragic Japanese hero, Minamoto Yoshitsune (1159-1189). Yoshitsune was a military genius and reknowned hero; and his strategic intellect led to the defeat of his family's political opponents, the Heike. However, he eventually fell out with his elder brother, Yoritomo, found himself cornered in the East of Japan, and was killed in a dramatic--and especially tragic--battle, his closest retainer riddled with arrows and his wife and daughter dead beside him.

The love of tragic heroism is something the Scots feel keenly. In 1746, the last battle fought on the British mainland, an army of mainly Highland (Northern) Scots fought--and lost to--the English for the last time at the battle of Culloden.

I have walked the fields of Culloden many, many times, and there are monuments dotted over the moors commerating the slaughter that took place. On the battlefields of Culloden, near the Highland Scottish town of Nairn, an eerie mist seems to hang in the air, and you can imagine that at any moment a ghostly army of Scottish men might come marching from the shadows, perpetually charging through the Highland winds.

On April 16th 1746, an army of more than 5000 Scots--most men in their tartan kilts, armed with only swords or spears--faced an English army twice its size with far superior firepower and organisation.

The battle was a massacre. In around 60 minutes the Scottish troops, exhausted, starving and cold, were butchered. As the Scottish army lay bleeding on the heather, survivors were put to death where they lay on the orders of the Duke of Cumberland, commander of the English army. In the chaos that followed, the Scottish leader, Prince Charles Edward Stuart, only just escaped with his life to France, part of the way disguised as a woman.

Although for many Scots the Battle of Culloden symbolises the eternal oppression of Scottish culture by the English, Culloden is also a symbol of Scottish identity. In the heroism of tragic defeat--the hangan biiki--the Scots see their national courage and bravery. The English may have won on the battlefield, many say, but they can never match the Scottish spirit.

R J F Villar

New DPJ Commercial Out Now!

Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) leader, Ichiro Ozawa, and his PR team have come up with a new, excuciatingly low-impact commercial about the 'wealth divisions in society' (kakusa shakai), bolstering Ozawa's campaign for a 'full-scale restoration of people's lives'. The commercial, or 'CM', can be viewed here. At least it is not as crazeeee as the previous DPJ attempt to get in touch with the people (see previous posts here, here and here).

R J F Villar

Saturday 17 March 2007

ELECTION SPECIAL (Part 4): A 'spring stream' in your step

"The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has backed Ogawa, Toshiyuki Ogawa. Spring Ogawa is recruiting supporters now!!!"

That was the 50th time and my throat was beginning to feel dry. By 100 I was the mirage side of parched. If it had been all in English it would have been fine, but wrestling with Japanese syllables over the loudspeaker for two straight hours had taken its toll.

On the spur of the moment I had volunteered to be the itinerant voice of Toshiyuki Ogawa's campaign, zipping around the backstreets of the district in the campaign minibus (gaisensha), proclaiming the good word from large speakers attached to the roof. In the background played the theme-tune for Ogawa's campaign, "Spring Stream", a popular children's' ditty which in Japanese is pronounced and written identically to "Spring Ogawa".
Ogawa (31) is a candidate in the Moriyama Ward City Council Elections, and his campaign has adopted a spring motif. His office, leaflets and PR truck are plastered with cherry-blossom; and the "Team Spring Ogawa" can be found traveling on bicycles with large flowery flags and music-players attached to them, traveling en masse (often led by Ogawa himself) around the neighbourhood.

At first I was highly sceptical of this overdose of 'cutesy', but in the first sunny birth-pangs of spring, it seems to be working incredibly well. Schoolchildren, old grannies and generally dour salarymen seem to be won over by Ogawa's enthusiasm and sprightly brand of direct, grass-roots campaigning.

And it is just as well Ogawa is putting in the man-hours because he is set upon on all sides. Three Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) men are up for election, and Ogawa has to persuade the electorate he is as good--or better--than either of the other two candidates in Moriyama Ward who have DPJ backing.

R J F Villar

Friday 16 March 2007

ELECTION SPECIAL (Part 3): Learning every day...striving every day...cycling every day...

Kentaro Hibi (on the right of the picture) certainly gets full marks for effort. At 26, he is the youngest candidate up for election to the City Council in the area, and is determined to prove it with manic cycling, leafleting--each flyer plastered with the slogan (whipping out his slogan "learning every day, striving every day"--and overt displays of 'wakai chikara'-- the power of youth.

7.40am. Kamiyashiro Station, Meito Ward. Mornings are not my forte and I'm late for the planned 7.30 session of station-side leafleteering. I burst from the ticket-barriers in a flustered rush and search for any signs of Hibi, but I needn't have worried. His voice carries across from the far side of the station--one perky good-morning "ohayo gozaimasu" after another--and I find him easily. I could have stayed in bed; he is a one-man pamphleting machine.

Kentaro Hibi is always clean-shaven, energetic and scarily full of life. But what else would you expect from a young politician-in-the-making? Mornings--every day, early--are spent delivering news to his potential constituents outside station entrances, while evenings find him cycling through the streets cementing the personal relationships that are so essential in Japan's Local Election campaigns (see previous post here). Keen to display youth as an energetic plus, rather than an inexperienced minus, Hibi is attempting to woo the electorate with speedy pedalling and cheerful greetings, and has the backing of local Dietman, Motohisa Furukawa (centre of the picture), to supplement it.

Yet, are buckets-full of 'youth' enough? As the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) found to their peril, the public were not moved by the promise of sprightly green leaders; the "power of youth" was not quite enough to cut the cake.

Although there are five places available and only six candidates--by no means bad odds--many are asking what exactly a vote for Hibi would be for.

The current political set-up in Meito Ward followed a by-election after the resignation of a previous Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Councillor on corruption charges. That election allowed Masayuki Chikazawa (on the left of the picture) to win his first term as a City Councillor. Only 36, Chikazawa is young, capable, running on a DPJ ticket, and, most importantly, tried. In other words, a Hibi and more. Chikazawa even has the backing of the current popular Member of the House of Representatives, Motohisa Furukawa, so it is doubtful whether Hibi's own links to Furukawa will prove to be a winning element in his election campaign.

The decision to put up another DPJ-linked candidate came after Chikazawa's solid victory in local by-elections. But, this too may be a miscalculation. Although Chikazawa romped home with overwhelming support, his adversaries were from the more ideological (or religious) political parties--the Communist Party (JCP), Komeito and Social Democratic Party (SDP)--which do not tend to attract moderate voters. With a middle-aged, inoffensive LDP candidate standing in the current election, the two DPJ candidates may not only find their own supporters split, but also a large slice gobbled up by the moderate LDP man.

However, as mentioned in a previous article, political parties, at least outside the more ideologically-driven in the line-up, make little difference to voter choice when compared to individual ties and personalities. The ballot paper, after all, does not mention party affiliations. But again, with Chikazawa already ticking the 'youth' box and possessing a strong local support base, does Hibi really have anything to contribute to the debate?

The Chikazawa campaign HQ certainly seems to think so. Listening to the mumbling and grumbling, it is clear that worries of a split vote and a successful reborn LDP campaign are growing, and there are fears that both of the DPJ-sponsored candidates may ultimately be left worse off. Either way, Hibi needs to up the tempo. A mad bicycle ride may not be quite enough.

R J F Villar