Posts Tagged Japanese

The Thrill Of It All

“Won’t you help me Mr. Jesus, won’t you tell me if you can? When you see this world we live in, do you still believe in Man?”

(The Thrill Of It All, Black Sabbath, from the album “Sabotage”)

I have now finished Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”, a thoroughly disturbing and unsettling, albeit excellently written and constructed, book. With a grinding hopelessness, Flanagan describes the atrocities and deprivations endured by Australian POWs at the hands of their Japanese captors, while working on the Thai-Burma railway during World War II. Reading about the astonishing acts of cruelty humans appear to be able to direct towards each other, peaking with accounts of the vivisection of American servicemen while still alive and fully conscious, left me depressed and despairing of the entire collective lot of us.

Obviously this is hardly an isolated case. Having a German heritage, I have spent a lifetime grappling with the fact that members of the same nation that read me bedtime stories, sang me whimsical songs, and developed wonderful Christmas traditions also murdered millions of Jews in some of the most horrible ways imaginable.

Unfortunately it is not something we can shrug off and tell ourselves that it was all in the past. There seems to have been a steady progression from Cambodia to Rwanda to present day Syria to remind us that nothing has really changed, and we are just as barbaric now as we always were. And it is not just “other countries” or “other people” who do these things. Every nation on earth has plenty of blood on its hands. Australians managed to kill enough Aborigines to completely exterminate the Tasmanian race.

And then someone turns around, runs into a burning building and pulls out a complete stranger. Is it possible that the capacity for acts of great courage and sacrifice can only exist because of our capacity for great cruelty? Why should this be so? How can both of these attributes exist within one person? And yet, I have read stories of Nazis who were devoted husbands and fathers.

I have certainly experienced enough firsthand examples of humanity’s amazing ability to display kindness and selfless courage to drag me out of the depths of despair, but I do not think I will ever understand our capacity to inflict pain and presumably derive enjoyment from doing so.

Now I am going to try and find something uplifting to read. Unfortunately positivity does not sell very well.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Kokoda!

Having lost the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 the Japanese attempted to capture New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, by landing on the north coast at Gona and then marching over the Owen Stanley Ranges along a steep, narrow and muddy mail route through the jungle: the Kokoda Track.

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However, the Australian army, fearing what would happen should Port Moresby fall to the Japanese, wandered up the track from the south to discuss this with them. Despite being heavily outnumbered the Australians were able to slow the Japanese advance for long enough to force them to reconsider the wisdom of dragging men and heavy artillery through the New Guinea mud. They ended up fleeing the island altogether, with the Australians in hot pursuit.

These days it is possible to follow in the footsteps of these soldiers and walk the Kokoda Track from its origin at the village of the same name to its finish, some 96 km away at Ower’s Corner. This trip took my son and I (along with four more Australians and a host of indigenous carriers who lead the way, cooked for us and carried our tents) eight days to complete and was certainly the most physically challenging thing I have ever done.

Being New Guinea the weather was tropical: warm and humid, but we were fortunate that rain fell only at night. The vegetation was incredibly lush and looked like it would have been at home in the Cretaceous Period. I would have been only mildly surprised if a velociraptor had bounded past.

We were woken each morning at 5.30 and started trekking around 7.00. Distances covered ranged from 7 to 18 km per day, depending on the ruggedness of the terrain and the enthusiasm of the trekkers. We were all tucked up tightly in our sleeping bags, exhausted but content by 8.00 each night.

The track itself consisted of incredibly steep hill climbs and descents over mud soaked ground covered in tangles of tree roots and rocks. I actually preferred the ascents as they were extremely taxing from a cardiovascular perspective, but not nearly as treacherous as the descents. The large amounts of mud made the slopes extremely slippery with one misstep potentially catapulting the victim off the edge of the track or, as one of our party discovered, causing them to roll an ankle. The indigenous carriers were truly astonishing the way they cavorted up and down the slopes, 15+ kg packs on their backs, work boots or running shoes on their feet (except for one fellow who covered the entire 96 km barefoot!).

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Streams were forded via some rather rudimentary and highly dubious bridges.

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The low hanging cloud formed a truly eerie backdrop to some of our walks through the villages en route.

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Day 2 found us at the Isurava war memorial, a site almost as iconic to Australians as Gallipoli. The four pillars are carved with the words “Courage”, “Endurance”, “Mateship”, “Sacrifice” and were a moving testament to the men who fought and died here, set against an astonishingly beautiful mountain backdrop.

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Amazingly the jungle is still full of unexploded mortars and hand grenades, this cache being unearthed in February by a group of locals looking for brush turkey eggs.

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It was a magnificent and emotional experience. After all nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without effort. Still, tough as it was for us, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like to live for weeks in this environment suffering malnutrition, disease and the constant threat of being shot at or having a mortar land in your lunch. Much as I detest war the courage of the men involved is truly inspirational.

There are a bewildering number of companies offering to help you drag your carcase over the Kokoda Track. We selected Adventure Kokoda (http://www.kokodatreks.com/). While their off track organisation left a bit to be desired they looked after us extremely well on the track, although my son did complain of being perpetually hungry. However, it is quite difficult to fill the bottomless stomach of an active 19 year old at the best of times and even I managed to drop 2.5 kg.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Turning Japanese II

I am not necessarily a fan of everything Japanese, although I did enjoy their concept of punctuality as a mark of respect. I was told that the Japanese consider the other person’s time as valuable as their own, so it is only natural that they would not want to waste it by turning up late. Considering the dearth of rubbish bins it was also impressive how much cleaner their cities were compared with Melbourne.

In some areas, however, they do tend to lag behind. The concept of eating is one such example. Why persist in using two thin pieces of wood to handle your food when much of the rest of the world has moved on to metal cutlery? Admittedly chopsticks are quite useful for picking up sashimi or sushi but try eating meat or the okonomiyaki omelettes with them. As I have a tendency to inhale my food they did have the beneficial effect of slowing my food consumption down to the speed of the other diners, which probably helped my digestion. Being wood, chopsticks are not reused resulting in 24 billion pairs being discarded by the Japanese each year. A lot of trees could be saved by using washable metal implements. Depending on your source, Japan is either the most heavily forested country in the world or it falls second behind Finland, with over 60% of its land still covered in trees. They are good at preserving these forests too, importing most of their chopsticks from China. I do suspect, however, that chopsticks may cause some Japanese as much frustration as us, as I saw a shop selling magic chopsticks. To my untrained eye these looked amazingly like forks.

Much has been written about Japanese toilets, and deservedly so. They are true masterpieces of engineering. Beside the actual toilet are a bewildering array of buttons that, when pressed, will deliver a jet or spray of water with uncanny accuracy at your bottom. It took a while to find the off button, as there are also dials to adjust the intensity and temperature of the water as well as one to heat the seat. Even more impressive, however, were some of the urinals, which had video screens above them and contained a small target to aim at. If your aim was successful the video screen came to life and an animated gentleman raced across the screen carrying a can. The more you peed the more the can filled up. I managed to fill two and a half cans. Not bad for a first attempt. While this may sound absurd the floor was not awash with the litres of stale urine I usually stand in at public urinals. Anything that improves men’s aims must be applauded.

The Japanese are, on the whole, extremely well dressed, sporting a wide assortment of new, clean, designer clothes. Unfortunately they don’t appear to get it quite right. Parisians are the other group of people I’ve seen who take great pride in their appearance. However, while the Parisians are also co-ordinated in what they wear, the Japanese appear to have thrown a completely random assortment of clothes together, some of which are downright weird. I saw quite a few girls wearing stockings with some sort of writing on them, either in French or English, running up and down their legs. And those legendary shirts sporting complete nonsense in English are not hard to spot either. It makes me wonder if the people who have Japanese or Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies really know what they mean. In an episode of the Big Bang Theory Sheldon asks Penny why she has the Chinese symbol for soup tattooed on her buttock. Outraged, she tells him it is the symbol for courage. Presumably the shirt people believe they are sporting similarly edgy, insightful or humorous (certainly humorous) messages.

It would also seem prudent to employ a native English speaker to check their sign translations. That way the sign at our sake tasting would not tell us to “Please take grass home.” I did also wonder why a blue platypus was chosen my Japan Rail to tell people not to smoke.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Turning Japanese

I have just returned from two fantastic weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun. This being my first trip I was struck by the country’s unique ability to embrace both the old and the new. The people were all incredibly friendly, polite, law abiding and helpful. Compared with Australia, Japanese society seemed very structured with a long list of social conventions that regulate people’s daily lives. While this may appear restrictive once I had deciphered the system I found knowing what was expected in various situations to be oddly relaxing. It was probably just my German background enjoying the predictability of it all. The old joke about why the German crossed the road (The little man is green now. It’s allowed) is equally applicable to the Japanese. People formed orderly queues on railway platforms to board the trains, the doors of which always lined up with the carriage numbers marked on the ground. The trains were insanely punctual and reliable. People did not eat in public. Shoes were removed before entering temples, restaurants, homes, castles and sumo rings, which is a very common sense way of not tracking dirt everywhere. If you do decide to visit Japan do not, under any circumstances, wear a pair of lace up hiking boots.

Given that the majority of Japanese claim no personal religion they have presumably decided on their social conventions all by themselves, producing a set of guidelines that work for them. Considering their extremely low crime rate, compared with many devoutly religious countries, it certainly seems to be working for them. Japan does, however, have two major religions and, interestingly, most people profess to follow both.

Shintoism is Japan’s own home grown religion. It has no major prophet and no all-consuming deity. In fact there are eight million deities or spirits as all animate and inanimate objects contain a kami or spiritual essence. It is not necessary to swear allegiance and forsake all others to be Shinto. Anyone who practices Shinto rituals is counted as belonging to the religion. The Japanese have also imported Buddhism and see no contradiction in following both this religion and Shintoism, picking the best bits from each. It is refreshing to see religion working for the people instead of the other way round. Most people celebrate birth events according to the Shinto way but use Buddhist rituals for funeral arrangements. According to what one Japanese person told me the Shinto afterlife is not as appealing as the Buddhist nirvana. There are no Shinto cemeteries. Cremation is a Buddhist ritual. I was told that Shintoists believe the spirit returns to the earth and bodies were either thrown in the river or left on a hillside, presumably for scavengers to dispose of. I can feel myself becoming more Shinto all the time.

As a member of one of the world’s fattest countries it struck me how few overweight Japanese there are. This should come as no surprise as the Japanese consume virtually no bread products and no chocolate. In fact almost none of the places we ate at featured a dessert menu. Dairy products were also all but absent from the diet, which is probably sensible too as we appear to be the only species that drinks the milk of another well into adulthood (apart from my wife’s border collie who used to zip into the milking shed of any farm she visited, in order to clean up the spilled milk). Foods are minimally processed with a strong emphasis on raw foods including fish. I did enjoy my sashimi but I will be worming myself as soon as I get the chance. We cooked many of our restaurant meals ourselves much to my son’s indignation who felt that, as we were having a night out, the least the restaurant staff could do was to cook it for us. We made our own sukiyaki, which featured melt in the mouth Hida beef, that I’m sure was not particularly healthy given the reason for the meat’s flavour and tenderness was its intense marbling. We also concocted our own chankonabe, a stew containing seafood, chicken, vegetables, rice and egg designed to bulk up the sumos, and our own okonomiyaki, a type of savoury pancake filled with whatever takes your fancy. It was also good to see the Japanese making the most of local produce consuming a wide variety of unrecognisable mountain vegetables, as they called them. I found the fern to be quite tasty but I don’t think I will miss the lotus root. Our diet does not seem to be nearly as varied as theirs. All of this no doubt contributes to the fact that the Japanese now have the highest life expectancy in the world.

And the best part? Tips are neither given nor expected. Politeness and good service are an expected part of the culture.

Dr. F. Bunny

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