Thursday, August 31, 2017


Losers of lost wars looking for rewrite history


Japanese Prime Minister Abe famously rushed to New York in November 2016 to obtain an “audience” with the gilded man in the golden tower.  Shinzo Abe took some heat for this seemingly desperate and unstatesmanlike hustle, well before Trump’s inauguration and move to the White House, but for better or worse his odd courtship of  “The Donald” has blossomed.

On the one hand, Japan has wedged itself closer to the US center of power than China could ever hope to do, not that truculent, nationalistic China under the face-conscious Xi Jinping has shown any great desire to supplicate and suck up to Washington. In this sense, the lean-on-Washington policy outcome was easily achievable even without the special hush and rush visit to Trump Tower. It’s true that previous US administrations have methodically passed over Japan, treating the US-China relationship as the most important bilateral link, bar none, but given that fact that dragon slayers outnumber panda-huggers in Trump’s top coterie of advisors, a hugfest with China is not in the cards.

The new “special” US-Japan relationship, with echoes of the “Ron-Yasu” bonding of the Reagan era (a special relationship that was undone by Japan rising too fast for America to comfortably adjust to) is buttressed by shared concerns with containing the rise of China.

Enter North Korea stage left. The unpredictable plump kid from Pyongyang is a demonic joker; the wild card in any reasoned and measured foreign policy game. But he has a role to play for both sides, because Japan's hardcore rightists require an enemy to rile up and unnerve its peace-minded people to the point of no longer being peaceable.

Kim Jung-un fits the bill, a snarky personification of the bogeyman required to justify extreme measures at home: ditching the peace constitution and arming Japan to the hilt.

More than anything else, North Korea puts the Abe-Trump relationship to the test, because Trump is on record as saying that Japan should do more to defend itself, even in nuclear terms, while Abe has made a career of shredding Japan’s intolerably peaceful image in his bid to re-arm and re-ignite the passions of past nationalism. Will the US continue to commit itself to protecting Japan or shall Japan go it alone and protect itself?

Although Abe and his cabinet kept a prudent distance from the annual ritual show of fealty at Yasukuni Shrine in mid-August this year, Abe has made a career of glorifying the last war so that Japan might one day go to war again. If and when it does, the munitions business, guided by his grandfather Kishi in the last war, will boom again.

The huge bronze torii at Yasukuni Shrine is Japan’s ground zero for belligerent recidivists who lament losing the war that put them on the wrong side of history. In this sense it is not unlike the summation in a single piece of bronze the many sorry bronze statues of US confederate war heroes who similarly glorify a lost war.

After the eruption of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump has come under fire for tolerating, if not dog-whistling and tossing red meat to irate losers on the white nationalist side.  Abe, too, could come under fire very quickly if he misjudges the national mood in favor of his narrow and somewhat odious base; hence the tactical retreat from Yasukuni.

Unlike Trump, who prefers tweets to Teleprompters and seems to relish upending common sense, Abe and his beleaguered team judged this was not the time to be reviving bitter, hardcore memories that serve to divide rather than unite.

What Japan’s right-wing Hinomaru-waving sound truck commanders and the torch-bearing neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates in the US do have in common is an aggrieved, narcissistic sense of loss. They glorify lost wars, no matter the human cost, and lost “heroes” of lost causes, no matter how time-blackened their names. 

It’s no coincidence that the disciples of these losers are losers from the get-go, reared on the wrong side of history,socially ill adept, politically tone-deaf and hard-pressed to win at life in a stable, orderly peacetime economy. They feel wronged, but are in the wrong, yet, no matter how deplorable, they are ignored at society’s peril.

It is no coincidence that Abe and his core following of right-wing misfits share with Trump and his core following of right-wing misfits a bent for fanaticism. They thrive on offending common decency and good taste. At considerable risk to their political careers, both Abe and Trump have sought to bolster their strongman status by stirring primeval urges in primeval men: blood, soil and bronze.

This down and dirty political grounding is at odds with the fast-lane life of fine tailored suits and fashionable circles of money and prestige, yet both men, for reasons of strategy and temperament, rely on rabble as well as reason. As cold-hearted contrarians, they express themselves most revealingly when revising history, revising reality, trampling on rights and skewering social taboos.

In Japan the most critical taboos deal with the renunciation of war, while in the US (which does not flinch from war regardless of which party is in power) renunciation of racism is sacrosanct.

Both men are high-flyers who have ridden high on flaunting refined values and upsetting the deeply-held pieties of their respective societies.

In this sense, Abe’s eager courtship of Trump, with its backroom backslapping in hidden towers and chumming around on the golf course, goes beyond the dictates of national policy photo-ops and speaks to the meeting of a kindred clan of hardliners.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017




John Joyce leans over the railing, staring at the slosh and swirl of the flow below. He doesn't want to jump but he's drawn to the repressed fury of the sinuous river as it  slices with menacing calm through the night city.
Clumps of weeds and water hyacinth tumble and rotate, tangle and untangle in the sea-bent surge. The foamy waters bear the residue of upstream refuse as the northern highlands flush south, carrying the runoff of muddy fields to this paved over junction below the Central Plains. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the boundaries between land and water have begun to blur. Even now, under a calm night sky with nary a cloud or star in sight, the waters continue rise to in response to unseen upstream storms. As the water accumulates, puddles will swell into ponds, swollen canals will overflow their banks and low-lying roads will be navigable only by boat.

Drunk enough not to realize quite how drunk he was, John had plodded down congested streets from the monument all the way to the river in a desperate search for something. Fresh air? Open space? Oblivion? A return to nature?

A baleful tune wafts over the turbulent waters, lifted by a musty breeze. Gripping the weathered railing until his knuckles go white, he scans the far shore. The twinkling lights of a ramshackle riverside beer garden catch his eye. A sequined singer on a brightly lit stage can be seen regaling the empty tables under the canopy of coconut fronds with breezy aplomb. She is not without talent, nor easily discouraged, moving smoothly from one number to the next without waiting for applause--indeed there is none. Her voice travels clear across the water as she warbles on. If her heart was half as broken as the sad songs she sang seemed to suggest, perhaps performing for the river was audience enough. 

Backed by the twang of an electric guitar and a drum box, the soaring soprano range of the songstress is amplified and validated by a powerful reverb microphone. There is something soulful about her tonal echoes, even if no one is listening, especially because no one is listening. The plaintive tale of lost upcountry love stirs something deep within John's being, speaking to something lost within. The upcountry tunes remind him of the first time he toured the countryside with Sombat, and the folly of youthful recklessness that went with it. Self-esteem eroded by failure, self-control weakened by drink, his desire to keep the past at bay is upended by the siren call of the night, bringing to mind the very thing he was trying not to think about.

He no longer could pretend that bygones were bygones, nor could he cavalierly chalk off past errors to the callowness of youth. Lost between the irretrievable receding of the past and the unknowable course of the future, he is stuck at an impasse in the here and now. If his present existence should come to an abrupt end, what of it? Would it matter? 
The taxis and trucks speeding over the bridge won't see a thing, and if those unkempt drunks fishing from the crest of the bridge were to notice anything at all, it would be too little, too late: a bewildering splash in the dark.
Farang tok nam! Foreigner fall in  water! 
The sight of a tugboat plowing beneath the bridge mercifully diverts him from further dark musings. The tug's powerful engine sputters and wheezes as it churns the choppy water, emitting a trail of silvery exhaust. And, then, whoosh! a whale-sized barge emerges from underneath the bridge, shaped like Noah's Ark but carrying nothing but sand. It glides placidly behind the tugboat at a steady clip, linked by a semi-submerged length of cable. Another ark-like barge follows, and then another in train, lined up like ducks in the wake of the mother tug. There's a half-naked man napping comfortably on one of the gliding dunes, oblivious to the wash of waves lapping the edge of his low-riding hull. John reckons that if he jumped at the right instant he could land squarely on the moist, absorbent sand and be transported away into the night as the barge floated through Bangkok on its way to the sea.
The taut sinews of the illuminated suspension bridge glow like the strings of a high-tension harp strung across the dark waters. Another tug sounds its horn and yet another ensemble of barges follows in the wake of the first. 
John glances at his bare wrist, forgetting he had left his watch at home. He straightens up and resumes his doleful march, as unsure of his destination as he was of the unknown hour.  It was by no means early, the beer garden was all but empty, but judging from the steady flow of traffic it wasn't that late yet, either. Wet wheels lick the pavement as whining automotive motors whip by. A heavy truck hurtling by blows a shock wave of hot air. Blinded by the glare of oncoming headlights, he doesn’t realize he is being watched. 
A short distance ahead, the footpath is blocked by a group of men enjoying the libations of a shared bottle. The sight of grimy, downtrodden men, whiskered and going gray, sitting on their haunches, hunkered down sipping booze on the soot-stained curb just inches from the flow of hot, heavy traffic was far from unusual in a city where man and motor lived in tight proximity. 
But there's a young woman in their midst, sassy, bright and fresh, and that takes him by surprise. It's hard to tell who's teasing who but the banter is playful as the men hold their bottles aloft and press her to join them in drink. The fishermen seem to be testing their luck, trying to catch her attention with the same resigned spirit that has them improbably dangling homespun lines from  railing, hoping beyond hope to hook a bite from below.
The pretty girl is holding her own, not shrinking away and not at all put out, either. She's engaged in playful repartee, giving them some lip. There's something musical in the lilt of her voice, something sensual in the way she carries herself. She flexes with sinuous energy, and there's a gentle sway to her hip as she rocks back and forth from one foot to the other. In the fitful illumination of passing headlights, she looks elfin and sprite-like, almost a vision. She has high, broad cheekbones and a button nose; her hair is bobbed and tinted with golden streaks. Her skimpy halter-top exposes bare shoulders and a generous expanse of belly, her short denim shorts reveal comely thighs.
Pooh-ying. Down to earth, fun-loving and lovable. In a way she was what he'd been looking for all these years, was she not?
So--what’s her story? A sassy passerby? What was she to the men she was with? A relative? A niece? A neighbor? A nobody?

Thursday, August 3, 2017



There is something repugnant about China subjecting people to a party-line 'history test'


Ruling authorities in China are constantly scouring and scrubbing the past in order to control the future. Poor old Confucius has seen his reputation bounce up and down to a dizzying degree, going from emblem of everything that was wrong with the old society to mascot of neo-communist “Confucian Centers” abroad. Moscow has been best friend and bitter enemy. Ditto for Washington. Even Tokyo enjoyed a respite from recrimination in the “Silk Road” days of the 1980s. Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) party has swung from public enemy number one to the best hope for reunification with the mainland. Tycoons and landlords, cast as parasitic leeches deserving to be shot in the revolutionary era, have now been rehabilitated as heroic captains of commerce in newly affluent China.
So it’s no surprise that a megastar such as Justin Bieber should see his reputation soar and crash. The Canadian singer was warmly welcomed when he toured China in 2013, though his skateboarding antics in Beijing and horsing around on the Great Wall offended some. In China as elsewhere, drunken escapades and careless comments contribute to a “bad boy” reputation, but the Rolling Stones played in China (albeit with an edited playlist) so raunchy pop star behavior is rarely the last straw.
In China it is politics, or the perception of such, that is the surest route to getting stamped “banned by Beijing.” Lady Gaga had the door slammed in her face for meeting with the Dalai Lama. Likewise Oasis found itself banned after a forensic “friend of China” search revealed a concert in support of Tibet 12 years earlier. Local artists like Cui Jian get banned for faintly expressed political views, not raucous rock star behavior.
That’s why there is no more cogent explanation for Bieber’s recent case of being rejected by Chinese authorities than his ill-considered photo op at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine in April 2014. To say it was an “ill-considered” visit is not to say he had no right to visit the shrine, for, as noxious and repugnant a symbol as the shrine has become, people in Japan, like America, are accustomed to freedoms still unknown in China. But with Beijing nationalists on the lookout for even the faintest affronts to China’s dignity, real and imagined, there is something very noxious and repugnant about China subjecting individuals, at home and abroad, to a party-line “history test.”
Bieber’s got a lot of history for a young man, and not all of it good, but sometimes bad is good, or at least extremely bankable. Pop singers like Madonna and Lady Gaga set a template for Bieber and others who would discover that there’s no news worse than no news. Better to provoke and tease and reinvent oneself on a monthly basis than to slide into oblivion.
So while Bieber may get the memory hole treatment in China, he is far from oblivion elsewhere. The 23-year-old global star is sweeping the world on tour while racking up billions of downloads of his latest catchy remix “Despacito.”
The suggestive if not illicit lyrics and the highly danceable tune of “Despacito” are catnip for social-networked youth. Teaming up with Puerto Rican songwriter Luis Fonsi, Bieber struck gold with a catchy tune that at once celebrates the Spanish language and transcends it. In fact, Beiber’s bungling use of “burrito” and “Dorito” when he forgets the lyrics transcends the language so much that his fans were slow to realize that “Despacito,” meaning “slow” is about slow sex:
“Let me surpass your danger zones / Until I provoke your screams …”
Skirting danger zones can enhance a reputation because bankable controversy keeps one in the spotlight and gets screaming fans squealing with delight. But it’s not all calculated and some of his lapses, like that at Yasukuni, seem just plain impulsive.
There’s the infamous Instagram photo of the star at Yasukuni standing with hands pressed together. Surely this is more of a touristy gesture than a nod to war criminals, though the “controversial” nature of the shrine may have appealed to his inner rebel. The offending photo rocketed across China and got tweeted around the world, after which he tried to amend for his apparent indiscretion by declaring:
“I love you China and I love you Japan.”
Words are cheap and perhaps this constitutes nothing more than insincere word play, but there’s a profound side to such a statement. Given the divisive history and almost intractable tensions inherent in the Sino-Japanese relationship, the pop star’s simplistic declaration, saying in effect that I refuse to chose sides, is a stubborn but principled stance.
To embrace both Japan and China with the same word hug in today’s world is outright utopian, reminiscent of John Lennon, because nationalists on both sides want to make a zero-sum game of it; if you love China, you can’t possibly love Japan, and vice versa.
Bieber’s lucrative fan base in China is disappointed and in disarray. The singer is learning, as war-haunted politicians in China and Japan have long known, that no apology is good enough when you don’t really mean it, and the “offended” party isn’t interested in forgiving you.
A Beijing government spokesman responding to questions about the ban took a measured tone, acknowledging Bieber’s talent: “We hope … he can improve his words and actions and truly become a singer beloved by the public.”
But given China’s recent descent into shrill nationalism and its concerted repudiation of Western values, to express “hope” that someone will “improve” has eerie and ominous overtones. It means following the party line. It means “we’re watching you” and taking note of where you stand.
Meanwhile, being banned from a place that is finicky about its image and obsessed with its own righteousness is not new for Bieber; fans report he was once banned from Disneyland for socking it to Mickey Mouse. The Asian leg of Bieber’s world tour will take him to Tokyo in September where he may belatedly be allowed to visit Disneyland, but despite his wishful win-win statement to the contrary, he won’t be crooning in China any time soon.