So we're back in Japan. Nothing has changed; not that I really expected it to. We went to a ramen shop today and ate massive punch-bowls full of the stuff while drinking barley tea and listening to jazz music. (Two of the little-remarked upon features of Tokyo ramen shops are that they always give you as much barley tea as you can drink and always have jazz playing in the background. I have no idea why this is, but the three things - ramen, jazz, barley tea - seem to go together very well.)

Anyway, there was an interesting article in the paper about Masi Oka, the actor who stars in the TV show Heroes as a Japanese geek-cum-superhero type guy. (Why do superheroes always have geeky alter-egos, by the way? Peter Parker, Clark Kent...they're never normal, sensible people, are they?) The writer, a Japanese guy, was complaining about the stereotyping of East Asian men in American cinema and TV; Hiro Nakamura (the character Oka plays in Heroes - yes, he really is called Hiro...oh my aching sides), he says, is just the latest in a long line of geeky, inadequate, submissive, meek and generally naff East Asian men in American cinema, and that's all they're ever portrayed as.

This is partly true, and something I've noticed too, but there are of course other East Asian men in Hollywood. There is the dirty old man, who has an unhealthy interest in junior-high school girls' panties and smokes too much. There is the yakuza-punk-chimpira type, who is surly and menacing and does a lot of monosyllabic grunting. And there is the mystical ninja/samurai/judo master type, who is serene and wise and can also beat people up quicker than you can say 'Mr. Miyagi.'

In fact none of these types have much bearing in reality - and nor indeed do the East Asian female stereotypes we often see on the big or little screen: the dragoness ninja queen, beautiful but deadly; the demure, seductive sex-kitten; the ageing prostitute. What interests me about these stereotypes is actually how sexualised they are - we either seem to see East Asian people as perverted in some way (the submissive weakling man, the filthy old sleaze), or else as hyper-erotic (the cute young temptress; the sword-wielding scampily clad assassin). It's odd, and it reminds me of similar stereotyping of black people in Western movies and literature, whereby black men are always seen as sexually dangerous and black women are sexually promiscuous.

It's funny how you notice these things only when you've stepped away from Western culture and come back. I remember watching Lost in Translation after having spent a year in Japan and being shocked at how absurd and unsympathetic it was in its portrayal of the Japanese. But by all accounts, people in Europe and the US lapped it up, and probably never even noticed how racist it was.

Anyway, maybe one day there'll be an East Asian leading man in a Hollywood film. Denzel Washington and Will Smith have broken that particular barrier for black people; I'm hoping Ken Watanabe will be the first East Asian to win an Oscar for Best Actor - and ideally not as a samurai or army officer or other typical 'Japanese' role. Just as a normal person. That would be refreshing.

Cognitive Blindspot

Another Quote

No great insights today (as if there ever are!); just, on the subject of favourite quotes, I recently came across this one, from the former UN Secretary General, Dag Hammerskjold:

I don't know Who - or What - put the question. I don't even know when it was put. I don't remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone - or Something - and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.

I like that. It strikes me as an extremely elegant description of a 'calling'. I sometimes wish that I had a calling; but then again part of me also likes the idea that I can do whatever I want with my life. I suppose if I did have a calling, I wouldn't regret that loss of freedom - but I'll never really know. Anyway, like I said, no great insights!

Cognitive Blindspot.

Little Black Books

According to the Telegraph, and facebook are to unite in creating a 'Little Black Book' application, whereby users of the madly popular social networking site can search for dates. (I always suspected that the main motivation behind the social networking phenomenon is sex, and I feel that this confims my suspicions.) Apparently internet dating websites are terrified by facebook, because it threatens to be able to do what they do, better, and for free; this is their first move to fight back.

I'm in two minds about internet dating. My initial reaction is always to think, "Get a life." People managed perfectly well to get dates before the internet came along, and at least part of me sees the whole thing as yet another means by which we are coming to rely on technology far too much. I also worry that the whole thing is so deeply alienating and childish: I don't like the idea of being able to refine parameters and perform advanced searches for an 'ideal' partner - for me the whole point of dating is the element of surprise and adventure, and it kind of spoils things to be able to know all about a prospective partner from the get go (and even to be able to dismiss potential dates on the basis of their not meeting some pre-defined conditions when they might in fact be perfect for you). I suppose I see it as yet another example of how 'convenience' and technology just take so much of the fun and magic out of life. I also know that I would never have ended up engaged to Mamiko if I'd left it to internet dating. She's hardly the 'type' of woman I'd search for actively - our interests are completely different, she's four years older than me, and she's a total sadist. (Then again all women are, I suppose.) But we just happened to meet by chance and, hey presto, for some reason we're perfect for each other. By resorting to the internet, aren't people ruining their chances of that sort of meeting?

However, there is something churlish about criticising something that does apparently work for some people. Obviously internet dating has made some men and women really happy, so I shouldn't have such uncharitable thoughts. And I'm lucky enough never to have really been in a position where I've been desparate for a relationship but unable for whatever reason to get one - so who am I to judge?

Life Goes On

Is it really 3 years since the Indian Ocean tsunami? I suppose it is. I mention it because at the moment the cricket world is discussing the test match currently being played between Sri Lanka and England at Galle, a city which was devastated during the disaster and where thousands of people died. This is the first time that the stadium has been used since that day in late 2004 - it has taken that long to make it serviceable again - and it almost didn't happen, because some in the cricketing fraternity thought the pitch might not hold up for the full five days. I'm happy to say that the England cricket team have acknowledged the importance of the event for the people of Galle by refusing to even entertain the notion of postponing or moving the game. This match isn't about winning or losing or even the quality of cricket; it's about bringing back normality to a place that sorely needs it.

It seems like an utterly banal point to make, when you think about it: life goes on. What isn't banal is that it shows an important characteristic of human beings (and indeed life itself) - the refusal to lay down and die, to be a victim. The show must go on. Three years on and ordinary Sri Lankans are still dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami, but they're getting there, slowly but surely. Here's to them. I hope Sri Lanka win the test.

Austrian Writer Says Something Wise

One of my favourite quotes is by Peter Handke, the Austrian writer, who once said: An advertisement tells me that life is beautiful - a personal insult.

I think that what he was getting at was that we shouldn't need advertisements to tell us that life is beautiful. We shouldn't, in fact, need advertisements to tell us anything other than that a certain product is available and it's good. But for some awful reason, advertisements (certainly in Britain, which for some reason I've never understood has the best and most artistic advertising in the world) have begun to take on a greater meaning than just "please buy this". These days the whole industry is about co-opting even the most fundamental emotions - parenthood, love, friendship - and using them to not only sell but also, horribly, to associate. The perfect example is Mastercard, whose advertisements have the brilliant, but terrifying once you think about it, tagline "There are some things in life that money can't buy: for everything else, there's Mastercard." Terrifying because the tagline usually comes at the end of a beautiful thirty-second film about parental love and affection for a child - and how sweet it is to be able to buy that love through fishing trips, new computers, and bigger toys than the other kids in class.

Anyway, I agree with Handke. Life is beautiful, at least most of the time, but to have that explained to me by an ad-man, who is really just hawking something no matter how artistically, is like a slap in the face to my very humanity.

This is part of the reason why I don't buy McDonald's food, and have been to a McDonald's restaurant maybe once in the last five years: it's because of that awful "I'm loving it" ad campaign, which sought to somehow associate hamburgers and fries with being in love, for Christ's sake. That's an even bigger personal insult than an ad man telling me that life is beautiful: an ad man telling me what it is to be in love, and by the way, isn't being in love rather like eating a hamburger with a side order of fries?

It's also the reason why I won't be buying a Playstation 3. (Well, apart from the reason that I can't afford it.) I mean, their latest ad campaign, in the name of all that's holy, has the hook: This is Living. This is Living! It's almost like a sick joke. I mean, I like playing computer games as much as the next man. But I've never once convinced myself that the hours I've spent doing it have been anything other than a grotesque waste of the short time available to me on this earth. And I don't think I'd be able to live with myself if I could convince myself of that. Yet here's Sony, telling me that, by buying a Playstation 3 and having a computer sprite under my control beat another computer sprite to death, I will be really living.

They must think we were born yesterday. What an insult. Now do you see what Handke was getting at?

Cognitive Blindspot.

Desert Island Discs

My favourite radio show is without doubt desert island discs. (It's been on Radio 4 for about three hundred years, but it never gets old.) The premise is, of course, its genius: a 45 minute interview in which the interviewee has to choose eight songs or pieces of music to take with them to a desert island. It can't really fail, and having a sexy presenter right now is just the icing on the cake. Anyway, for no reason other than that I can, here are my current choices:

1. Promised Land by Bruce Springsteen. I love Bruce; I think he's one of the few genuinely honest performers around in that he's quite happy to go in and out of fashion and has no care for being thought of as 'cool'. This is him at his best - angsty, energetic, desperate, passionate, and optimistic, and it would be great to put on in the morning to get me up and ready to go.

2. Jupiter: The Bringer of Joy - Holst, from The Planets. Just because it does exactly that - brings joy. Even though the famous march has been reduced almost to cliche by endless reproduction, in its original context it's still enough to make the hairs stand up on my neck and make me want to stand up and say, "Yes! I'm glad I'm alive!"

3. Cherub Rock - The Smashing Pumpkins. Probably my favourite band, so it's hard to choose just one song by them. I think this is them at their best, and a sort of microcosm of their ouevre. Rocky, proggy, grungy, and you can hear all the elements of what made them the most musically accomplished outfit of their era - Billy Corgan's genius for composition, James Iha's crazy guitar, and Jimmy Chamberlain's brilliance on the drums: so brilliant he makes all other drummers seem like guys just hitting things with sticks.

4. The Rite of Spring - Stravinsky. I've written about this one before. I think it's at the absolute zenith of Western art - the very point at which beauty stopped being the ultimate purpose and it started to become fundamentally about navel-gazing, politics and grandstanding instead. This ballet was just on the right side of that divide.

5. The Hook - Steven Malkmus. Any song that begins with the line at age 19 I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates is a fair bet to be a success with me. I think Steven Malkmus is vastly under-rated. His music manages to be both funny and touching, and his lyrics would stand on their own just as poems. Ever since Pavement split up he's gone from strength to strength.

6. Superunknown - Soundgarden. This just reminds me of being a teenager. I used to listen to songs like this and think, yes, there is more to life than growing up, getting a job, living in suburban boredom, and growing old. Some people out there are trying to create something, and are passionate about it. Of course in this case partly they were being passionate about taking heroin. But mostly it was about good rock music.

7. Flamingo Sketches - Miles Davis. I couldn't overlook Miles Davis. What can you say about music like this? Nothing.

8. Slip Slidin' Away - Paul Simon. Just a great song about what it is to be alive, and I love the ambition of that aim. To try and say something with meaning, a sort of elegy for life.

Even looking back over the list I find myself thinking what a dickhead I am. No Marvin Gaye? No Leonard Cohen? No Smiths? No Beatles? No Bob Dylan? No Supremes? No Temptations? No Ben Folds Five? No Sleater Kinney? No Dinosaur Jr.? Some of my absolute favourites are missing, dammit.

I could rewrite it all over again tomorrow, and every day for the rest of my life, probably.

(no subject)

British people really do love to have a good whinge about America. I was thinking about this today while listening to a radio debate between Shami Chakrabarti, leader of the pro-civil-liberties lobby group Liberty, and an American legal expert, over the question of rendition of suspects. Apparently in a recent case before the Supreme Court, it has been ruled that even if a criminal suspect has been brought to the US illegally from another country (i. e., outside the ordinary extradition procedures), then setting aside the question of the legality of the seizure or otherwise, they can be tried before a US court.

Needless to say, Chakrabarti was vigorously opposed to this decision. She used the hoary old liberal chestnut that, in a democratic society, the rule of law is vitally important and if compromised by the government for any reason in any small manner, then tyranny and dictatorship follow. Most of the people who phoned in afterwards agreed with her. They saw it as yet another example of America riding roughshod over freedom and liberty, bullying the rest of the world, and ignoring international law. (They also mostly completely misinterpreted the whole thing to mean, 'George Bush is now going to go around kidnapping whoever he likes and having them stand trial!' as you would expect.)

As is often the case, I always want to ask Chakrabarti-ist liberals what they would have liked the alternative to have been in a case like that of Eichmann, who as you probably know was kidnapped by Mossad agents in Buenos Aires in 1960 and taken to Israel to face trial. In that case, Israel technically violated a long-established customary rule of international law - that of State sovereignty - but very few people would argue that it wasn't justified. Eichmann was not the type of man the world could continue to allow to escape justice, and even if Israel should technically not have kidnapped him, the fact remained that he ought to have been tried - and would not if he had been allowed to remain in Argentina.

I would submit that 'the rule of law' is often bandied about by liberals as the cornerstone of society, but that the law is in the end only a means by which justice is served. In Eichmann's case justice demanded that a certain law be broken, and if on occasion the US judiciary is faced with the decision of whether or not to try a dangerous criminal based on a possible illegality in his or her seizure, I would applaud its decision to go ahead with a trial. (And the Supreme Court wasn't even advocating kidnap or anything else; it only said that if a court was faced with such a decision, it would be lawful to try a suspect.)

British readers will remember Ronny Biggs, a man involved in one of the most famous crimes in post-war Britain - The Great Train Robbery. Biggs was responsible for the theft of a huge amount of money and was at the very least an accomplice to murder, but because he managed to flee to Brazil he never faced the punishment that he should have. He lived free to a ripe old age. I call that madness - but what is madder still is that, if Ms. Chakrabarti had her way, had Biggs somehow ended up back in the UK circa 1970 without being properly extradited, it would have been wrong to try him. That is liberty at the expense of common sense.

In any case, I sincerely doubt that any court in any country in the world would act in a different way to the US Supreme Court in this matter, so the rest of us can hardly point the finger at Washington. People do, though - because nothing beats a good Thursday lunchtime grip about evil old Uncle Sam.

Cognitive Blindspot.

Ghosts and Ghoulies

I had a conversation about ghosts with my sister the other night. She has this idea, you see, that she has a bit of a sixth sense; she's somehow more attuned to the supernatural than most.

I never know what to say about this topic, because I'm totally conflicted about it: it's the place where, for me, reason and experience collide. That is to say, I'm sure that there are rational explanations for just about every ghost sighting that there has ever been; tricks of the light, flaws of memory, hoaxes and hallucinations can do amazing things to people's credulity. The fact that most supernatural activity seems to happen at night without witnesses always stands it in bad stead. I know all that.

And yet, twice in my life I've been convinced that I've seen, if not ghosts, then things that can't be completely rationally accounted for.

The first time was when Mamiko had this old apartment in Tokyo, which I used to visit every Tuesday night because Wednesday was her only day off. It was a tiny place in a rickety old building, with a long street of dodgy bars, strip clubs and 'hostess' pubs outside, so I always had trouble sleeping in it until the day I started buying 99 yen ear plugs. One night I was lying in bed tossing and turning, listening to drunks singing outside and trying to chat up the hostesses, and sleep was coming even later than usual. It got to 2am, then 3am, then 4am, and every half an hour I'd get up and move about, sometimes trying to sleep on the sofa, sometimes getting a glass of milk, while listening to my girlfriend happily slumbering away. (Can there be any stranger feeling, by the way, than the mixture of emotions you get when you can't sleep but your SO can? Half of you is desparate not to make any movement at all lest it wake them up, but the other half of you is consumed with jealousy that they can be so contented while you're so miserable.)

Anyway, at about 4.30am I was lying on my side facing away from the door, when I felt a hand touch my shoulder. It lay there for a second, then seemed to grab and shake my upper arm. I vividly remember looking up and seeing a grey figure standing next to the bed, looking down at me and lowering its head as if peering into my face. I immediately lashed out with my arm and sat up, and felt a brief flash of coldness in my hand before the figure disappeared - not by vanishing but by dashing out of the room and into the kitchen.

I got up and went into the kitchen and there was nobody there. I then spent the rest of the night checking all the windows and the front door, and waiting for dawn.

The second time was when I had recently arrived in Japan, and was sort-of seeing a girl we'll call T. Together with her friends we went to a large cemetery in Aoyama, a posh part of central Tokyo, to drink under cherry blossom trees. (That isn't as weird as it sounds - Aoyama cemetery is one of the best places in Tokyo for cherry blossoms, and in spring the place fills up with drunken picknickers from noon till midnight.) We stayed there for most of the night, and at one stage T and I sneaked off to fool around a little. We found a place behind a large family grave, but we weren't there for longer than five seconds before we simultaneously noticed that there was something else there with us.

It was a green globe of light, about the size of a football, floating perhaps three metres off the ground above the grave. We watched it for ten minutes, moving this way and that, before T saw others in the distance over other graves, hovering in the moonlight. It was indescribably eerie.

Now, I know that both of these incidents are suspect. In the first, I hadn't slept well and might have been drinking the night before (I can't remember exactly) and that could well have caused my mind to play tricks on me. In the second, T and I were both drunk, it was at night, and there might even be some scientific explanation for what we saw - St Elmo's Fire or Will 'O the Wisps or some such.

I know all that. But still. I know what sleeplessness is, and what hallucinations it can cause, but that grey figure is still so vivid in my mind that it's hard to explain away as a brain fart. And we might have been drinking, but both T and I saw exactly the same things in Aoyama cemetery that night, and T even has some photos she took and which show we weren't hallucinating. So what was it?

As I said, I'm conflicted. My head tells me one thing, but I'm unsure whether to believe it. I suppose sometimes you just can't square experience with logic.

Cognitive Blindspot.

Putting Myself Through Hell

In two weeks time I'm going to ask Mamiko's dad for his daughter's hand in marriage. When I proposed, about a year ago, she thought it would be best to just let him know then, but for some reason I decided it would be best to do it properly, meet the old guy face-to-face, and perform The Ritual. (In Japan, traditionally, a woman's young swain is supposed to approach the father, bow down, and ask if he can marry the daughter. He is then told to, basically, fuck off. He then has to leave the house and come back later, whereupon this time his proposal will be accepted.)

Now part of me is beginning to curse that decision. Why did I think it was a good idea? With each passing day I get more and more terrified. I don't know why, you see, but Mamiko's dad is scary.

Okay, I'm lying, I do know why he's scary. Partly it's because he's the foreman of an entire fishing port, which gives him this sense of authority and confidence which leaves the position of 'alpha male' in no dispute. Partly it's because he barely every speaks, but spends most of the time glaring moodily at people. Partly it's because girlfriends' dads are just innately a little frightening - I always worry that, at any second, they're going to accuse me of being a feckless young layabout who's tempting their darling daughter into a life of penury and unhappiness - before summoning their mates into a lynch mob and running me out of town.

But mostly it's because he has a black belt in judo, and could probably dislocate my spine or something with just a flick of the wrist. That's the kind of guy you shouldn't do anything to piss off.

Cognitive Blindspot.

American Hero

I've just finished reading In the Lake of the Woods, a novel by Tim O'Brien, better known for his Pulitzer-nominated The Things They Carried. It's a great book, by the way - a definite recommend. But incidental to that, I did some research into the My Lai Massacre, an event we studied in GCSE History when I was 15, and which plays an important role in the book. As part of that research I came across the figure of Hugh Thompson Jr., a man I'd never heard of before, but who for one day, in the face of mankind at its most brutal and grotesque, stood out for the qualities of honour, integrity and compassion, and who I think can honestly be labelled a true hero.

Thompson was a helicopter pilot who arrived at My Lai when the massacre was almost over. (For those who don't know about it in detail, the event took place on March 16, 1968, when men of a US Army company collectively murdered somewhere between 300 and 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children.) He immediately began doing what he could to help the victims. From Wikipedia:

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., a 24-year-old helicopter pilot from an aero-scout team, witnessed a large number of dead and dying civilians as he began flying over the village - all of them infants, children, women and old men, with no signs of draft-age men or weapons anywhere. He and his crew witnessed an unarmed passive woman kicked and shot at point-blank range by Captain Medina (Medina later claimed that he thought she had a grenade.) The crew made several attempts to radio for help for the wounded. They landed their helicopter by a ditch, which they noted was full of bodies and in which there was movement. Thompson asked a Sergeant he encountered there if the Sergeant could help get the people out of the ditch, and the Sergeant replied that he would "help them out of their misery". Thompson was shocked and confused but took it as some kind of a joke. The helicopter took off - then one of the crew said "My God, he's firing into the ditch".

Thompson then saw a group of civilians (again consisting of children, women and old men) at a bunker being approached by ground personnel. He landed and told his crew that if the U.S. soldiers shot at the Vietnamese while he was trying to get them out of the bunker that they were to open fire at these soldiers. Thompson later testified that he spoke with a Lieutenant and told him there were women and children in the bunker, and asked if the Lieutenant would help get them out. According to Thompson, "he [the Lieutenant] said the only way to get them out was with a hand grenade". Thompson testified he then told [the man] to "just hold your men right where they are, and I'll get the kids out". He found 12-16 people in the bunker, coaxed them out and led them to the helicopter, standing with them while they were flown out in two groups.

Returning to My Lai, he and other air crew noticed several large groups of bodies. Spotting some survivors in the ditch he landed again and one of the crew entered the ditch and returned with a bloodied but apparently unharmed child who was flown to safety. The child was thought to be a boy, but later investigation found that it was a 4 year old girl. Thompson then reported what he had seen to his company commander, Major Watke, using terms such as "murder" and "needless and unnecessary killings". His reports were confirmed by other pilots and air crew.

One of his crew, Lawrence Colburn, later recalled the dialogue between Thompson and the Lieutenant (sometimes identified as a Mr. Calley, at other times a Mr. Brooks) as follows:

Thompson: Let's get these people out of this bunker and get 'em out of here.

Brooks: We'll get 'em out with hand grenades.

Thompson: I can do better than that. Keep your people in place. My guns are on you.

How perfect a reply - one is tempted to call it noble even: I can do better than that. The measure of the man, you might say. Willing to risk his own life, and to risk being responsible for the killing of men on his own side, in order to save those who were innocent - in order to do better than all the other soldiers around him.

The truly apalling thing, of course, is that it fell to this 24-year-old junior officer (inferior in rank to the Army Lieutenants who were responsible for the massacre) to do anything decent at all that day. We'd all probably like to assume that, put in his position or one similar, we would be brave, sensible and good enough to do the same thing. However, given that he was the only one out of over a hundred perpetrators and witnesses to do anything significant to stop the massacre, the horrible truth is that the chances are not high that any given one of us would.

I know quite a bit about humanitarian law - that is, the laws regulating armed conflict - certainly enough to have an awareness of how rare and heroic people like Thompson are. Men who find themselves caught up in such events most commonly either blindly obey orders or, at best, remain passive bystanders. The annals of war criminal case law are testimony to it. I can do better than that is a motto that I think ought to be more widely followed; the unfortunate fact is that more often people are content with I can't do anything about this or, worse, Best to just go with the flow.

It's a corny way to finish this entry, perhaps, but I'll say it anyway: think about the implications of Thompson's story, and examine how you usually behave when you see something happening that shouldn't be. I certainly have today, while reading about him, and will continue to.

Cognitive Blindspot.