14 February 2006

Muninn's Recent Japan Travelogue

Catching up on my favorite Asia blog reading, I came across Muninn's post from two weeks ago recounting a few wonderful anecdotes about his latest trip to Japan to present a paper at a conference. It starts off with his encounter with a Swedish-speaking customs official who tests out how similar Norwegian is.
This time, the inspector look at my passport, smiled, and said, “Hei!” I thought he was speaking to me in English and that I was thus being greeted with an exclamation of some kind. I looked around to see what he might be trying to bring my attention to. He then said, “Can I say … Hei!” Then I realized: He is saying “Hei” in Norwegian - that is “Hello.” He said, “In Swedish I can say Hei! Can I say Hei! in Norwegian?” I said, “Yes, it is the same in Norwegian.”

My immigration officer went about continuing to process my visa and after a few seconds he looked up and said, “Norwegian and Swedish is all the same right?” I replied, “Umm…ya Danish, Swedish, Norwegian are all very close, think of it as something like Osaka dialect and Tohoku dialect.”

A few more stamps got issued and mysterious commands entered into his computer as he went back to looking like the stern mechanical immigration officer I have come to expect. Then, suddenly, he asked, “Can I say, ‘Jeg elsker deg.’” I felt a bit weird, looked around to see if there were any laughing Scandinavians nearby but smiled and said, “Yup, in Norwegian ‘I love you’ is also ‘Jeg elsker deg.”
At the conference he attended, one speaker indulged in some uncontested fantasies about Asian values.
Some of these concerns can be seen in the content of the conference’s final talk. At the end of the conference, Iwate University president and former Waseda professor Taniguchi Makoto gave a speech about Asian community in English. I was the only non-Asian at the talk (or at the conference for that matter) and couldn’t help noting the irony that English was the necessary choice of language given that some of the guests from Thailand and Mongolia didn’t speak Japanese (they were also the only participants not to make their presentations in Japanese). Taniguchi speaks fantastic English and his eloquent presentation fit his Cambridge education and long years of experience working for Japan’s foreign ministry, the UN, as deputy head of the OECD, and elsewhere. After an interesting analysis of Japan’s recent failures in negotiations related to the formation of “an Asian community” (indeed, he argued that after losing control of the movement, the foreign ministry is actively trying to torpedo all attempts to make anything meaningful out of the concept), he launched a critique of “Western values”. In passages that remind me of the confidence of the bubble period Japan or Asian leaders before its humbling economic crisis, Taniguchi suggested to the audience that Asia should take pride in its own values and take a more critical stance towards the West.

He offered two pieces of evidence for the inferiority of Western values. He recounted a story of when he was criticized by colleagues in France for having dined with his own chauffeur, thus violating the aristocratic separation of classes. His second anecdote lamented the inhumane behavior of New York City police officers he witnessed rudely expelling the homeless sleeping in Grand Central Station. The message was clear: Asian values have a higher degree of compassion and are less class conscious. The problem, of course, is that this is absolute nonsense. I have indeed accompanied Chinese company managers when they have dined and socialized happily with their chauffeurs in Beijing, but I have also seen Korean executives treat their chauffeurs as barely human slaves on the streets of Seoul. And as for compassion towards the homeless, it is interesting to note that one of Japan’s leading headline stories today (January 31st) is about violent clashes between Japanese police and homeless being evicted from a park in Osaka; their blue tarp tents being torn down.
There's lots more. Read the whole thing.

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