Had a good day on Friday. Catching up with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while and shooting a newsworthy protest. Not the usual sort though…
It was a very quiet protest: just one man holding a sign that was curt, with real anger at the unfairness of the situation , but strangely polite; simply asking; “Where is our money?”
There had been two men, even three or four on occasion, as the severity of the Bitcoin crisis at the Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange company, Mt. Gox, became clearer. But according to the Tokyo Police, more than one person is a demonstration and thus needs a licence. To get a licence you need to notify the authorities of the route your demo will take. All Glaswegian bitcoin trader, Kolin Burges, wanted to do however was stand outside Mt. Gox’s offices and hold his sign. Unable to get a license he continued his protest alone.
Mr. Burges arrived in Japan on February 12th, two days after Mt. Gox suspended all trading in bitcoins. A press release given out by the company on that day stated this was due to: “a software flaw that would allow people trading in the virtual currency to defraud the exchange.”
This was not exactly reassuring news to investors like Kolin. Having only started investing in bitcoins last June and then giving up a career in software design to do it full-time from December, finding himself unable to withdraw his assets from his account was quite a shock. So, he came to Tokyo to confront the company directly about its problems and any plans they had to rectify them because the usual customer service approaches had proved unhelpful and uninformative.
“My Funds were stuck in a Mt. Gox account and there was no adequate explanation as to why they were stuck or when I would be able to access them.” He told Channel 4 News in the UK on February 26th. “I decided to go and ask them in person.”
On Friday he was more succinct: “It was a lot of money. I wasn’t going to let them just take it away.”
Kolin seems much too nice a guy to get angrier than that, though it is obvious he is. He has over $260,000 worth of bitcoins whose wherabouts are unknown yet his protest was quiet, meditative even: he merely stood with his sign, ate a sandwich or worked on his computer as passers-by stopped to look, confused for a moment about what a group of journalists and a lone protester were doing here in the grey back-streets of Shibuya.
It would be easy to say it was a peculiarly stage-managed act of ersatz victimhood for the benefit of the press, after all he is a trader who should have known the risks involved in trading generally and especially in a new and relatively un-tested currency. But that negates the very real indifference Mt Gox appears to have treated its customers with when things started to go wrong. In merely trying to get someone from the company to explain the situation to him, you have to admire the fact that he was willing to travel all the way from the UK to try and get an answer that should have been quickly emailed to all concerned investors. When even this direct approach didn’t work it is also easier to understand why you would court media attention to raise the profile of the issue. Especially when the protest was visibly pointless in its original target, demanding, as it was on Friday, answers from an already empty office.
“I’ve been here everyday for two weeks. But I’m arriving later and later each day.” said Kolin as he started another protest late Friday afternoon by checking the internet to get the latest news on the crisis. “If [Mt. Gox] declare bankruptcy today I don’t know if it is worth coming here anymore. I’ll probably just go home.”
He knows he is unlikely to get his money back this time but has not lost his faith in the Bitcoin system, telling Channel 4 news that, “Once Mt. Gox is out of the way, Bitcoin will be stronger.” He also mentioned that even though he has lost a lot of money, he is still ‘up’ on the investments he made.
Later Friday evening the 28-year-old, French CEO of the company, Mark Karpeles, announced at the Tokyo District Court that Mt. Gox was filing for bankruptcy protection. He reiterated that the Bitcoin industry was still strong and growing and blamed the collapse on, “a weakness in our system.” The company’s lawyer stated that nearly all the 850,000 bitcoins in the customers’ accounts had been lost. This is about 7% of the total number of bitcoins in circulation in the world and is worth almost half a billion Dollars.
The year started very differently for Mt. Gox. At the end of last year it had been the largest Bitcoin exchange in the world, handling 80% of the global transactions of this five-year old crypto-currency. Though withdrawals of bitcoins were suspended on February 7th, due to ‘unusual activity’ on the site, no one expected the business to fold as a result and the losses to be quite so large.
There were rumours of course that the problems were because Karpeles had orchestrated a massive swindle: that the ‘unusual activity’ was what the company was doing itself and stories of hacking attempts were just convenient covers for fraud. The internet gossip was aided in these worst-case imaginings by Karpeles and Mt. Gox’s almost total silence on developments, so much so that many people assumed he had already fled the country with his investors’ money.
When asked if he though he had been a victim of a crime though, Kolin Burges was clear: he considered Mt Gox itself to be the victim of an ‘outside theft’ .
Like any internet business there were always going to be issues of security and many academics have argued that some sort of illegal interest in bitcoins was inevitable considering not only the way the value of each coin had increased so dramatically over the last year, making them more attractive and profitable to steal, but also the way the deregulation and anonymity of the Bitcoin business itself had been useful, from its outset, in hiding the commerce of the underworld. When the FBI shut down the SIlk Road website in October 2013 due to the large amount of drug deals and other illegal activity taking place there, they confiscated 3.5 million Dollars worth of bit coins.
Indeed it was the lessening of this air of criminality that had enabled the brand to boom in 2013 and had attracted investors like Kolin: ordinary people who wanted to get a little richer and had an interest in alternative forms of finance (as let’s face it the established banks are hardly any less gangsterish or any less reckless in their approach to trading currencies).
It appears that Bitcoin is fully on the radar for exploitation now. Dell Secure Works analysed computers around the subject recently and found 150 distinct cases of malware designed specifically to steal bitcoins. Coupled with glitches in the system that had enabled users to trick it into thinking a transaction had failed, and allow traders to buy double the amount of bitcoins they had paid for simply by quickly clicking on the buttons, and you had a scandal waiting to happen.
A report in the Daily Beast by Jake Adelstein managed to interview a former employee about the professional and security culture at Mt Gox. the employee, who wished to remain anonymous, called Mt. Gox ‘A dysfunctional organisation’. On the personal honesty of Mark Karpeles the employee is more forgiving though.
“He’s a workaholic and a geek, but a good-hearted geek. He just has very limited management skills, a little hubris, and didn’t pay attention to accounting. He only 27 or 28 years old.“
“It’s his own fault.” Said Kolin about Karpeles. He doesn’t want to get drawn on the details because, like everyone, he is still unsure of them but basically thinks the CEO could have done a lot more to improve the security of the computer systems he was using. He has been contacted by lawyers in the United States, where many investors are already building law-suits against the the company and Karpeles himself, but is unsure if he wants to go down that route. Mt. Gox is also being investigated by the Japanese and US authorities and according to the Wall Street Journal, a small army of bitcoin enthusiasts and hackers are already trying to find the missing coins.
As each day goes past there appears to be a lot of evidence that Kolin’s and others’ suspicions about lax security measures at Mt. Gox are probably true. The company folded with a massive 27.4 million Dollar discrepancy in it accounts and liabilities of 63.67 Million Dollars to 127,000 creditors. A leaked crisis strategy paper (which has not been confirmed as genuine yet) seems to suggest they were discussing how to fix these problems in their operations, some of which seem to have been ignored for years. But was it too little, too late?
“This was an amateurish and incompetently managed company. ” Andreas Antonopoulous, chief security officer at Bitcoin wallet Blockchain.info,” told Forbes Magazine on Feb 28th. “It will be replaced by competent operators who will run better exchanges.”
Indeed Mt. Gox’s many mistakes in their operation appear to have been legendary enough to have even created their own term for incompetence. “To be goxed”, apparently means to be fooled or trolled repeatedly in the language of the Bitcoin treaders.
Kolin was quite adamant that if Bitcoin is to continue and flourish in the way he hopes, it will need to lose some of its maverick character-traits, even though these are, of course, what has made it so attractive to many investors in the first place. In an interview with Asahi Television News he expressed his hope that there will be a ‘forensic investigation’ into the causes and links of the Mt. Gox debacle and changes made to the way companies that facilitate bitcoin trading are managed in the future.
“I think there should be a certain degree of regulation. I think exchanges need to be accountable for their security precautions and have to be able to prove they have the money to repay their customers.”
Perhaps this time he will be one of the unlucky ones and not benefit from the growing pains of the Bitcoin system by getting his own money back. However he is determined he wants to follow-up on the issues this experience has brought to him and write or talk about it.
“I know I am not going to get my money back.” said Kolin as he held up his polite sign outside the empty Mt. Gox office. But perhaps he will use his own loss to make sure others are not similarly mistreated in the future.
Anyway I hope Kolin does get some good news from this. It was a pleasure meeting him and learning about his story and I wish him luck recovering at least some of the money he lost.
Though the sun is shining as I write this, this weekend has been another one of heavy snows and freezing temperatures.
Do hope that Spring is going to arrive soon however.
Tatsuo Suzuki is not the most famous of candidates in the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Tokyo yet he has a long history of battling the establishment and working towards a fairer, society as a left-wing lawyer and union activist. He is standing this time in the hope that the people in Tokyo might actually want a change from the usual collection of self-interested eccentrics and corrupt careerists they usually get. He seems genuine enough: it is not easy being an anti-establishment lawyer and standing against the ideas of the people who expect you to be come one of them when you qualify as a practitioner of law. He has taken on cases that rattle the bars of vested interests like defending political prisoners like Fumiaki Hoshino.
His policies this time include halting the constitutional reforms promised by Prime-Minister, Shinzo Abe and indeed even aim for the complete over-throw of the Abe government itself. He is anti-nuclear of course yet unique among the candidates also believes the Olympics are a vast, wasteful vanity project that is taking away much needed funds from the reconstruction in Tohoku and feels that the city does not deserve this event while ever the Fukushima crisis is most obviously not under the control Abe promised it was.
A principled man, but a very long shot for electoral success I fear.
I photographed him campaigning and giving some short speeches to the anti-nuke faithful protesting outside the Diet Building on Friday night. I was quite impressed that these protests are still able to draw enough of a crowd to raise some noise and inconvenience the police the bit. Far from their popularist heyday of course but the call for a change of direction in Japanese energy policy is still one that resonates with many people despite the government’s attempts to neuter the debate or rewrite the narrative. Suzuki San found a sympathetic crowd for his rather short message but many people there, who you think would be natural issue allies, seemed to have never heard of him.
Anyway I wish him luck.
Very busy, too much to do really. Need more hours in the day.
Covering the elections for latest Tokyo Governor race can cause you to run into some interesting people.
Probably my favourite oddball is the former Chief of Staff at the Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF), General Toshio Tamogama.
The leader of the right-wing group, Ganbare Nippon he is well known as a historical revisionist. His most famous controversy surrounded an essay he wrote in 2008 that questioned the accepted understanding of Japanese military aggression in the lead up to the Second World War.
His modern political ambitions match these prejudices and he is running on a overtly nationalistic platform which has gained the full support of the the popular though similarly controversial ex-Governor, Shintaro Ishihara.
Worrying that opinions like the one these men share are so prevalent these days. I think Tamogami is a very dangerous and deluded man, who is, unfortunately, still likely to win.
More stock images of Toshio Tamogami electioneering in Tokyo at my archive site here:
My sons love this character and, as I have said before, there is something to be said for studying the genre. Certainly the influence of this benevolent alien and his brethren on the lives of Japanese boys is immense. I am surprised my sons haven’t grown out of it yet. Then again though the event was nominally for the kids I noticed quite a few adults got a buzz from watching and meeting their heroes in the flesh. Indeed even I get a little smile on these days when I get to shake hands with Ultraman Zero or Mebius.
Anyway my ongoing project on Japanese heroes has a few more images added to it and my boys had a really good time, that’s them in the bottom right of the top photo shouting at one of the monsters.
I had a pretty good time also.
Have a happy New Year everyone.
Been a very busy Christmas with the kids so not had much chance to shoot or write here.
Out yesterday with my sons at the Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum (Gijutsukan) where they got to fly a helicopter and a jet-liner simulator. Crashing both! They also travelled into space (Sola in the second photo) and under the sea and learnt all about energy saving and generation including some unashamedly pro-nuclear power propaganda. Small museum but quite cheap and fun.
The longest time was spent with Wakamaru a bright yellow communication robot that doesn’t even attempt to cross the “Uncanny Valley” but did again made me forget for a second that it was just a walking-talking tape-recorder and genuinely worry that my sons’ constant questioning must have begun to annoy it. (last photo)
Will be going again, without the kids, as I want a turn flying the helicopter and airliner too.
Anyways as I said busy which will explain the late Christmas wishes: Hope you had a good one!
Will get my New Year‘s message in early at least.
Hope 2014 is a great year for you all. Talk soon.
Been a busy week of protests in Tokyo. The draconian State Secrets Bill has seen some energetic protesting. I will go into this in more detail later when I can use pictures and write more about the massive threat to Japanese democracy this stupid law entails.
In the meantime have a look at some images and an informed and informing write up by Rob Gilhooly here
Today’s protest genuinely seemed like a mix of all those against it. There were the Hokkaido farmers Union leading the march with red jackets and bandanas and artist and activist, Yohei Miyake bringing up the rear with musicians and dancing. many of the people seemed quite ordinary not too many activists or the usual left-wingers and right-wingers. Indeed a facebook group that hopes to educate people about the TPP and create debate had invited many right-wing, LDP voters to express their anger at Shinzo Abe and they marched quite happily alongside people that didn’t share the same politics at all.
Emboldened perhaps by the week long protests against the secrecy laws that could be used to hide the details of this globalising trade pact as well as the troubles at Fukushima Daichi and the re-militarisation of Japan it was demo of resigned passions allowing it to be quite lightly policed. It is still a subject about which I need to understand a lot more however.
Feeling a bit like Christmas there.
Busy as lots happening in the Japanese news lately so talk soon.
Interesting read here in the Japan Times by the William Andrews about the case of Fumiaki Hoshino who was convicted of killing a policeman in a riot in Shibuya in 1971.
Nicely updates something I wrote before yet never quite got around to investigating more. In interviews with Hoshino San’s wife Akiko, we learn more of the petty cruelty of his detention like the 20 day punishment he got for washing his feet without permission after stepping on a cockroach or the lack of adequate heating and air-conditioning to deal with the the extremes of Japan‘s seasons.
The cruelest revelation of all is that Akoko San has never even touched her husband since their marriage in 1986. Conjugal visits have been denied and even a request to have his baby via IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation Treatment) was rejected.
Never mind the fact that his twenty year sentence has been extended indefinitely and numerous appeals refuse to reject the confessions that were used to convict him even though they were withdrawn soon after they were given with claims they were forced. Never mind the appearance of new evidence that casts doubt on the identity of the person responsible for the policeman’s death or the unbelievable fact that the prosecution is allowed to hide that evidence.
It all looks like a huge miscarriage of justice that has got both The United Nations and Amnesty International interested. Even after nearly forty years in prison the most amazing thing we learn in the article is that Fumiaki Hoshino is still optimistic that he will be released one day.
Here’s hoping he is.
Out of shot here were quite a few police too but just liked the detail in the bars of the gate, and the bars and grills, meshes and cages protecting the building especially with the bright blue security guards outside.
Sorting images now and a few other irons in the fire. Busy but loving it.
Anti-nuclear activist, Taro Yamamoto stated his intention to continue as a politician on Tuesday, despite facing censure in the Diet for handing a letter, out-lining the situation in the Fukushima clean-up, to Emperor Akihito at a royal garden party last Thursday. This taboo breaking action has since caused a storm of protest from commentators in the media and politics who found the action arrogant and disrespectful.
By personally giving the 79 year old Emperor such a letter, Yamamoto San ignored several strict protocols against drawing any member of the apolitical monarchy into what is by default a political debate. Calls for harsh punishments from other politicians, especially in the pro-nuclear, ruling LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) and members of the far-right, might now cause problems for the career of this independent lawmaker who was only elected to the House of Councillors in July. Indeed some politicians, that might have been considered natural allies such as Kazuo Shii, leader of the Japanese Communist Party and a noted anti-nuclear campaigner himself, have also questioned the thinking behind Yamamoto’s action with Kazuo San saying that “[Yamamoto] did not understand the constitution.”
The former actor has said, he regrets causing the Emperor any trouble and that he was not sufficiently aware what the consequences of his action would be. For example he says he did not expect the delivery of the letter to be so widely reported and has accused the media of allowing his actions to be used for political purposes that attack him and the anti-nuclear movement. He strongly denied intending to use the Emperor to further his own political purposes however saying he only wished to inform him of the situation affecting Fukushima residents and the health issues of those that are tasked with the clean-up there. Criticising some of the politicians now calling for him to resign he pointed out that many of them saw nothing wrong in using other members of the Japanese Royal Family to help Tokyo secure the 2020 Olympic bid. A fact, he argues, that was much more overtly political and thus unconstitutional.
The letter apparently remains unread as it was passed quickly onto to Grand Chamberlain, who was accompanying the Emperor and Empress as they met some of the 2,140 guests in attendance at the biannual event. If it was a pointless act that crossed boundaries of taste and legality and could effectively end his political career, why, you have to ask, did he do it?
Taro Yamamoto moved into politics when his acting career ended after he made his support for the anti-nuclear movement that grew in Japan after the March 11th nuclear accident in Fukushima public. It was not your usual celebrity band-wagon jumping: in fact, in a industry where famous people do not usually have opinions and certainly not ones that might be considered damaging to companies, like TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company – the operators of the Fukushima plant) that fund the media with their huge advertising budgets, it was a spectacularly reckless move.
Though the first opinions he expressed on Twitter, were perhaps understandable in the aftermath of the events that shocked the whole country; his subsequent treatment by the media seems to have galvanised a more determined and combative approach to the unique issues of nuclear energy and safety faced by an earthquake-prone Japan.
Taro Yamamoto seems always to have followed his own, sometimes reckless, sense of personal morality and appropriateness. An article in the Japan Times earlier this year, profiling his burgeoning political ambitions, showed how his belief in social responsibly was instilled in him at a young age by a strong mother who would force him to donate a percentage of his New Year Money (Otoshidama) to good causes and regularly take him and his sisters away to The Philippines or elsewhere to work with the poor. In the same article he is aware that his celebrity also gives incredible weight to the message and is something he can use to embolden the anti-nuclear agenda, saying: “I really need to do acting work as well, so I can stay in the public eye and continue drawing attention to nuclear issues.”
After failing to win a seat in the Lower House election in late 2012 Yamamoto and an army of 1,200, mostly young volunteers, steeled themselves for a run at a seat in the Upper House elections this summer. The hard work of campaigning in the summer heat and on the internet finally paid off however and he was elected as a Tokyo Councillor on July 21st. Running as an independent he succeeded in securing a seat without having to make any deals or compromises with larger or more established parties and politicians; putting him in a position to take his anti-nuclear message to the heart of government and hopefully have it listened to.
Obviously the realities of politics have proved more exacerbating for Yamamoto than he imagined. The ruling LDP are determined to control the debate on the nuclear energy. The idea is being propagated that the nuclear crisis is under control; the areas affected by contamination are being cleaned and thus Fukushima is ready for re-population and the people to get on with their lives. With a compliant media parroting the party line and the diversions of a successful Olympic bid, where the Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe promised a global audience the crisis was “under control”, the stories of the the 150,000 people that had to evacuate the countryside around the the Daichi plant and the corruption and ineptitude of the operators before the accident and, now, in the clean-up process is slowly disappearing from people’s consciousness.
Taro Yamamoto did not enter politics to get rich or carve out a career in industries that lobby the power people like him gain after election. He would have been more admired and richer if he had remained an actor. He seems to care passionately and genuinely about the situation in Fukushima and appears determined to keep the debate current. But though he declared that he was “no longer alone” when he won the election it is possible that he found his voice much smaller than he had predicted.
There was a moment after the tragedy in March 2011 when the anti-nuclear message resonated widely. But the voices have grown weaker now, the touristing rebellion of many of the older protesters has moved to a grudging acceptance of the inevitable return to routine or even a full embrace of the new, comforting propaganda. Those that still passionately hold the hope they can make a difference can be found outside the diet building almost every Friday; but their numbers are shrinking and their motives and characters are being mercilessly othered in the press.
Questioning the official line is going to become more difficult as the voices against it grow weaker. Soon, new laws, being rushed through by the LDP will limit an already anaemic journalism’s legality in uncovering political secrets and this will further remove the options of arguing against the government’s agenda: that Fukushima will lose its notoriety nationally and ultimately internationally also.
Yet many know the Fukushima clean-up is cosmetic at best and a down-right lie at worst. Many know that the money and motivations to find alternative energies and rebuild the Tohoku coast is instead being diverted to building more nuclear power-stations or into nationalist projects such as Antarctic whaling.
Taro Yamamoto recklessness in breaking a taboo and trying to inform the Emperor of the plight of his people could be judged ill thought-out and punishably impolite; yet it is more likely a brave, calculated risk designed to change the narrative. He has worked too hard to throw away the advantage he has by actually being in power. Of course the demands on his resignation may grow too vociferous to ignore. The notoriety he now has may yet backfire and put an end to a new and promising political movement. But he has at least kept the subject of the problems in Fukushima in the public’s mind a little longer and though the path to this kind of influence over the electorate has been an unconventional one we may be seeing a new kind of politics emerging here, one that needs to challenge and change the normal, acceptable, appropriate and traditional ways of wielding and deferring to power. One can only hope that Emperor Akahito might rattle his own bars a little too someday.
Big typhoon on its way called Wipha apparently whatever that might mean.
Summer now seems an age away though it still quite warm.
Getting busy some very nice possibilities ahead photographically wise.
The memorial is small: a makeshift alter on a tiny oblong of unused ground next to the train tracks; surrounded by plastic construction site fences that are much too cheerfully green. Behind it a couple of rough tin and wood shacks are collapsing in on themselves and the passing commuter trains on the other side wobble the ground like an earthquake. It is an extra-ordinarily ugly location to honour the life of a woman who did an extra-ordinarily brave thing.
On October 1st 2013 Natsue Murata was driving back to her property company office with her 67 year old father, Shigahiro. They had stopped at a level-crossing just outside Nakayama Station, in Yokohama’s Midori Ward, at around 11:30am when she noticed an old man laying on the tracks. They were at the head of the line of waiting cars and she could see clearly that there was something wrong. The crossing barriers had already closed but the man wouldn’t or couldn’t move to the safer side of them. A train was approaching: the crossing signals alarms were incessant with that warning, but forty year old Natsue knew he was in danger and couldn’t just sit there and watch him get run-over by the train.
“I have to help him.” She said as she got out of the car.
“Don’t go. There isn’t enough time!” Her father called after her but against his advice, she crossed the barriers and tried to pull the old man to safety.
The train driver saw her struggling to move the man and applied his emergency brakes but couldn’t stop in time and Natsue was struck by the train and killed. She had managed to move the 74 year old man enough to save his life however. He sustained head and back injuries, including a fractured collar bone, but is expected to make a full recovery.
The old man doesn’t remember anything of the incident and apparently only became aware of his surroundings in the ambulance. Some people have commented that he may have been trying to commit suicide but it is more likely he had a seizure or “senior moment” on the crossing.
“My daughter was someone who could not ignore a person in trouble.” Shigehiro told the Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun.
“I have to console myself with the fact the old man is alive.” He said, adding that he hopes the man lives to a very old age.
The trains that were stopped for several hours by the accident last Tuesday rattle by frequently again now. The crossing signal sounds and the cars, trucks and pedestrians stop and wait at the barriers until it is safe to cross. The routine returns to normal and the heroism and unluckiness of that day become part of the background like the pure white table cloth covering the makeshift alter which is stained now where the rain has washed the colours from the flowers that are piled above it.
The memorial was set up on the October 2nd, the day after the accident by JR (Japan Railways that operate the Yokohama Line), so many people have left flowers and cards that many of them have had to be moved to another location. More people arrive daily to offer prayers for Natsue however. A piece of cardboard lays on the ground in front the alter for people to kneel on when they pray and two security-guards bow and welcome those that come to offer condolences.
Not only locals have been moved by her selfless act. The Japanese government and national Police Agency (NPA) have presented a medal with a red ribbon, the highest civilian honour, and a silver cup to the Murata family to mark their daughter’s courage. The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, also sent a letter of gratitude. Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshida Suga, personally handed the letter to the family on Sunday. In it the PM expressed his condolences and honoured her courage in putting another person’s life before her own.
When politician, especially ones as unscrupulous and stupid as Abe it is easy to be cynical. Perhaps he is coat-tailing an act of unusual courage for political gain: something he can spin into some sense of unique Japanese fortitude that suits his nationalistic agenda. But if so he would need to ask why no-one else there that day thought to help the old man or Natsue as she struggled to move him.
It makes him more human perhaps; more caring in a way his other policies are not but I do not think it so shallow a ploy. Perhaps like many people he has asked himself the question we all do at such events: would I have helped? Would I have been brave enough to do what she did? I’d like to think I would; but with a train baring down and a statically higher risk to my own life as the rescuer, I wonder. I wonder.
All of which makes Natsue Murata’s sacrifice all the more extra-ordianry and maybe that is enough to make all of us, great and small, honour her and we should just leave it at that.
Took the kids out to the Miraikan science museum on Sunday so they could enjoy the Thunderbirds exhibtio that is running there until September 23rd.
Well that’s my story and I’m sticking too it.
Busy at the moment.
The Yasukuni visit on August 15th is a ritual for many photographers in Japan; we go to see a side to Japan that is often hidden but which bubbles below the surface of most interactions. Because on this day, the day that marks the end of the Pacific War and Japan’s defeat, the unique pride of the Japanese in themselves is on full display.
And it is a display for the best part: a strutting peacock in khaki and medals display of historical myopia and stupidity. Patriotism is one thing, and a worthy one at that, but here, on this day, people look to the past to find the cause of their present discomfort, laying their search wrongly and missing the message in remembrance: They see a small Asia country respected through its export of discipline and order not the fear created by the colonial adventurism of its despotic military rulers. They see romantic hopelessness and the divine sacrifice of youth toward a passion of place not the national embarrassment that should be the kamikaze. They see the faces of millions of innocent men branded evil by unwelcome and uncouth enemy lords, without realising that at least 14 of those faces deserve that very description. And they see conspiracies of foreign subjugates to belittle Asia’s natural leader not the collective response of an organic new world order and the beginnings of post-colonialism, Asian or otherwise.
What they do not see enough is the waste of life that was the Pacific War. An easy victimhood can be found in the numbers of dead but they blame he wrong people for those lost souls and put defeat down to diet or bad luck.
Almost every year my photographer friends and I go to see the dichotomy of Japanese nationalism here. There is a superciliousness to it that is laughable when the history is recalled yet it is a sort of pantomime of self-regard that is of course interesting as a photojournalist; with posturing men in uniforms they have not earned and a mania of flags, fights and misplaced anger. The constant question foreigners get asked, when talking to people at Yasukuni on this day, is where we are from. The openness of the relationship that ensues depends on answers stuck in past animosities. Obviously British and American citizens are derided whereas Germans and Italians are treated as brothers and welcomed.
The biggest pantomime is the annual ”will he, won’t he” of politicians’ visits who nominally go to remember the war dead, but actually do so to make political statements and cement their right-wing credentials. This year Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, (who right wing credentials are quite strong) stayed away in a realpolitik attempt to avoid increasing tensions with China and South Korea after territorial disputes and several racist gaffes by senior cabinet members. At least three of his cabinet ministers visited the shrine however and 77 other Liberal Democrat Party lawmakers (LDP) also did. In total 89 politicians paid their respects at Yasukuni on Thursday. I watched some arrive; driving up in their cars and getting out, in formal frock coats, to polite applause. Famous faces got loud cheers and the less famous a mere smattering of sweaty hand claps from the more enthusiastic onlookers, before embarrassment that they didn’t actually know who that person was sent them silent.
Last year only 55 politicians came to Yasukuni on August 15th and indeed the whole place seemed busier this year. A spokesman for the shrine told the press that 175,000 people had come to pay their respects, up from 161,000 last year, and the queue of people waiting to pray stretched back far further than I have ever seen it before.
Maybe the current troubles with its far too critical neighbours is causing this surge in national pride. But these are not your rabid right-wing activists in Uyoku jump-suits. Most of the visitors were mostly ordinary people, living ordinary lives who may never express openly, at any other time,, the feelings they have. They may work, live and study with foreigners every day without their dislikes getting in the way. Perhaps they do not even feel that dislike day in, day out. But is must be there , mustn’t it? For the wish to march with a flag on the street and to express your belief in your nation’s exceptionalism is not normal. Pride I get. Patriotism I understand. Respect for victims of war I agree with. But Yasukuni is not about any of those things, it is about expressing a political opinion that places all other nations below your own and refuting the lessons of history, with an apparent intention of repeating the mistakes of the past. It is about nationalism and xenophobia. The politicians know this; the right-wing ideologues and their foot-soldiers know this. The foreign media know this. Yet a visit to Yasukuni is still reported as an innocent expression of commemoration and hopes of peace. Yet can it ever be that when the shrine so disingenuously ties the unpleasant aspects of Japanese history to the memories of its victims?
Are the Japanese people really so stupid, or do they really feel that dangerous pride again?
Confusing and troubling day as you feel for a moment there that you do not understand this country at all. Men in shirts and ties insult you to your face whereas other men in boiler suits with swastika badges apologise for standing on your foot while they are fighting with riot police in an attempt to cause real physical harm to peace protesters.
Can’t keep away.
More images of the Yasukuni Shrine end of war celebration on August 15th at my archive site here:
Picture from inside a police kettle near Yasukuni shrine yesterday, as they tried to contain the right-wing activists and para-militaries from attacking the peace protesters’ march.
It was a new technique the police are using that I have never experienced here before.
Sitting down in bars and cafes; buying drinks and socialising with the uyoku is also another technique I observed yesterday for the first time.
Funny sort of day. Lots of new experiences.
More to come
Off out with my boys today.
Due to family pressures (it was much more of a beach holiday for the kids!) didn’t actually get to see much of the festival itself but did meet and get interviewed by William Adams himself (bottom image). As the real Will Adams died in 1620 it wasn’t actually him of course. Indeed it wasn’t even an Englishman but a Japanese man in a blond wig and Elizabethan clothes who was very hot in that get-up but also very happy to share the history of Ito and tell me about the blue-eyed samurai who came to Japan 400 years ago and became a friend and advisor to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
I know a thing or two about William Adams as he is from my hometown of Gillingham in Kent. My dad’s interest in history plus his connections to the sea made the name something I grew up with. When James Clavell’s Shogun was shown on the TV in my youth we all watched it religiously. I learnt my first few Japanese words from watching it; indeed it would be true to say that series piqued my initial interest in Japan itself.
There was a touch of home also as the parade, that is the main event of the festival, got ready when I met and briefly spoke to four exchange students from Medway who were leading the parade (third image). The students: two women called Sally Jeffery and Molly Ellwood and two men called Matthew English and Lare Erogbogbo were somewhat hot and flustered and seemed either unimpressed or too tired to react to this chance encounter with a Kentish compatriot.
Japanese people love organising photo calls and poses and all lots of old men and women were fussing around them of them. It seemed everyone had a job and a particular place to be stand and smile to do so our conversation was brief. Though it appears they are over of a few weeks, heading off to various cultural events and having a good time despite the heat. Indeed Lare seemed to be loving the sunshine.
Then it was back to the beach, past the statue of William Adams that commemorates his connection to this town (It is where he oversaw the building of Japan’s first western style sailing ship) and then a sunburnt afternoon with the kids at the beach and fireworks over red wine at night kind of a day.
A mostly good day out to be honest.
Hope to go again next year.
Not content to be led by two cartoonishly accident prone leaders, the Japan Restoration Party enters the Upper House elections today fielding a candidate whose appearance is rather like that of a Batman villain.
Antonio Inoki, is a former wrestler and wrestling promoter. He also has the biggest chin in showbiz!
In a country where fame attracts almost no distractors, the pronouncements of celebrities carry weight and people listen whether he is talking about historical revisionism in front of Shinjuku station, as above, or shopping bargains on daytime TV.
Inoki is one of the most famous and best loved personalities in Japan and a self-made man whose life story has to be respected even if he is not exactly the smartest man around or the hype surrounding him is rather overblown. He is a valued product of the media and as such he always gets an audience.
Opinions in celebrities are not common. In the west his current ideas would also not be popular and rightly ridiculed. The politics of the Japan Restoration Party are extremely unpleasant being a nationalistic, racist party that wishes to return Japan to the hollow pride of the Showa Era empire builders. They equate respect with fear and are in a dangerous game of keeping up with the Joneses regarding China and Korea. But he is allowed these opinions and beliefs because they are “on message” with those that control the media. He still has has a platform to express his views on immigration, patriotism, or the best shampoo, and continues to enjoy his celebrity. Indeed it is his star power that has JRP co-founder and one of the aforementioned leaders, Shintaro Ishihara hoping his presence will undo some of the damage caused by the other leader, Toru Hashimoto‘s comments on the comfort women issues.
“[Inoki is] here to give us new life, and help us fight through this trying time.” Ishihara said at a press conference to announce Antonio Inoki’s candidacy in June.
Contrast the indulgence Inoki’s conscientious stand is given with that of actor, Taro Yamamoto‘s who decided after the Fukushima nuclear accident on March 11th 2011 that he could not agree with nuclear power generation policies in Japan and has had to essentially give up his acting career.
It is not sure if even someone as popular as Inoki can reverse the JRP’s fortunes however. Their support rates have plummeted since the Hashimoto faux pas. Inoki has run and won seats in the Upper House of Japanese politics before and might just be able to give some much needed muscle to the campaign. But the JRP brand, though once quite popular, has become toxic to many.
To me though the machismo of the JRP is also something that really doesn’t need adding to. These dinosaurs of belligerence need to learn that Japan is a very different place to the one they wish want to return it to and its place in the world is not going to be secured by acting-up. Japan is an important country that is widely respected for exactly the reason these paranoid men see ridicule. Yet it is actually politicians like Ishihara, Hashimoto and if he is successful, Inoki that make people not take Japan seriously. As governor of Tokyo, Ishihara insulted almost foreign visitor. Hashimoto re-energised Osaka as its mayor to be true, but Osaka people have a great sense of humour and can swallow most idiocies; on the national stage he has looked seriously provincial and out of his depth. And inoki just has that chin! He also has a wrestler’s skills at debate and rhetoric, i.e. none. The second image is him performing his trademark slap on a young supporter. Basically he is indulged in any argument to win by being stronger so we are really not going to get any useful discussion if he enters politics.
Like the others he confuses having political view and enough power and wealth to run an election campaign with being a politician. There is more skill and nuance to the job than any of these people can muster. Indeed in politics in Japan there are precious few that have those skills that could guide Japan to take its rightful place globally.
Including the current Prime Minister.
UPDATE JULY 22nd
Inoki San won a seat for the Japan Restoration Party in Sunday’s poll. The JRP did badly however losing their widely declared “third force” position after the lower house elections in November to something much lower and less influential.
This very spectacular festival takes place in the middle of July every year and involves about 40 mikoshi or portable shrines winding their way down from shrines all over the areas to Southern Beach in time for sunrise. When they have been blessed in a Shinto ceremony the tired, often rather drunk, carriers take them into the surf to cleanse them.
It is manic fun and not a little dangerous for the camera as the waves come roaring in to break over the mikoshi and their supporters.
This Monday’s sunrise was rather grey and flat to tell the truth and the festival seemed overcrowded and a little lacking in energy due to the close, muggy atmosphere. Not the best one I’ve experienced.
Yet I did do something different for particular this visit. Have got a contact in one of the teams carrying the mikoshi I managed to follow the procession through the night. The best part was in the centre of Chigasaki itself when three mikoshi came together outside the station before crossing the tracks and heading towards the sea. See images above.
I was tired and sweaty but what a great night of mayhem on the streets of this otherwise nondescript Kanagawa town.
Tempted to do it all gain next year too.
More electioneering today along with the beautiful Mitama Matsuri at Yasukuni Shrine.
This election provides so many choices for the man in the top images who is checking the names and faces of the candidates. A total of 433 candidates have registered for 121 open seats in the Japanese House of Councillors election this year.
The ruling LDP led coalition needs sixty-three of those places to gain a majority that could lead the politics of Japan back into the single party dominance of the past. Something they are predicted to do despite the number of other choices available to voters.
This is good news for the Abe’s aims to amend the constitution and resume nuclear power generation. Basically with a commanding majority he can do whatever he wants.
There are a few independents around that could upset the numbers though Of course there is Taru Yamamoto as in my last post. There are smaller parties too and some colourful characters that offer broad degrees of seriousness and otherwise to most of Japan’s political events.
None perhaps more colourful than Yoshiro Nakamatsu however (in the second image.) Known as Doctor Nakamats he is a prolific inventor and TV celebrity well known for entering, and losing, elections. He has stood for the upper house elections before and also run for the Governor of Tokyo twice. The young people coming out of the Mitama matsuri were very happy to see him. It is this sort of star power that attracts votes regardless of his policies. This time he is supported by the powerful, rich and rather scary Happiness Realisation Party though and their broadly nationalistic agenda.
Let’s hope his luck doesn’t change too much this time round.
Though of course Abe is hoping the same thing.
It’s a dilemma.
I photographed him last year when he tried to get elected in the lower house poll in Tokyo. He lost that particular race but having secured 70,000 votes he understands that his message is one that many people perhaps want to hear.
It is a hard job campaigning in the Tokyo summer hear but Yamomoto San has given up a lot more than sweat for his beliefs. His acting career suffered as the media shut its doors to him after publicly stating his opposition to nuclear energy. In Japan celebrities are expected to be passive and not have opinions. Yet Yamamoto san has always stood up for what he believes in: from the dangers of nuclear energy to the rights of teenagers to use hair gel. Having spent some of his childhood travelling and volunteering in The Philippines there were rumours that the lack of future prospects was forcing him to leave Japan and live there. But it appears he is staying now; trying again to keep the anti nuclear message in the forefront of Japanese political debate by running for the Upper House elections this month
He has the same passion as before. He strongly believes that the nuclear policies of the Japanese government, especially under Prime Minister Abe are going to affect the future of the country and the people in it. He called the Ministry of Education’s raising of the limit of acceptable radiation exposure for children from 1 millisievert to 20 millisieverts a year was “an act of murder”.
Those are fighting words and he certainly seemed to be be more professionally taking the fight to the powers that be. Though his supporters are still mostly volunteer and there is an informality to his politics that makes it accessible and attractive. How can you not like a election hopeful that gives a speech in shorts?
I wish him luck
UPDATE JULY 22nd
Taro Yamamoto succeeded in securing a seat in a five seat district of Tokyo. I picked up uover 660,00 votes and was the forth most popular candidate or party in the poll. Upon victory he refused to do the usual “banzai” as a celebration, saying that he had done nothing to celebrate yet.
“I will do a banzai to celebrate the occasion when I really end up helping the victims of the nuclear disaster. A thorny path lies ahead of me. Vested nuclear interests will no doubt try to sabotage my efforts.”
Anyway is is still an amazing result for a man that the media mostly ignored until it became apparent he might win and for an organisation that is not an official party yet and relied on the organisational skills of 1,200, mostly amateur, volunteers. So congratulations Yamamoto San!
Despite being the most advanced robot on the planet it appears not able to interact fully with unpredictable humans yet and mistakes waves for other gestures or gets confused by questions it was not expecting.
Indeed some have called it an expensive toy due to it lack of real-world usefulness. A version of the robot (actually very different and more traditionally mobile on its caterpiller tracks) did work inside the Fukushima nuclear plant to inspect the reactors but this strikes me as more of a PR stunt to redeem the Honda Asimo brand after Asimo and other robots available at the time of the tragedy on March 11th 2011 proved to be completely unsuitable for any of the jobs one might have expected them to be designed for.
I must admit though, having watched Asimo do some of its work at the Miraikan Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation last week, it is quite impressively nimble in the right environment. You have to remind yourself that this is still a lump of heavy metal and plastic when it is running, jumping and interacting mutely with people. There is an unmistakable human quality to it that makes you forget that it is, or at least should be, just be a tool for doing difficult jobs for us. The size is about that of a ten year old and it seems to have some of that juvenile impulsive energy to its actions too.
This creates a definite feeling of empathy for the machine in its current woes. You actually feel sorry for it because it might be tired or sad and you wish it luck in improving its skills and avoiding any future embarrassments, even though it cannot feel any of those emotions.
Asimo may be useless really but I think that is not its point. It is a robot that even twenty years ago was the stuff of Science Fiction only. It looks and moves like a person and in another twenty years the technology will have improved even more and we might well have truly humanoid robots that look and act even more like us so much so that we treat them as humans with rights and less ironic empathy.
We may even fall in love with them. Many people already think fictional robots like Wall-E or real ones like Asimo are cute. Could we actually get to a point where robots are programmed to react to anything our human psyche throws at them, not just the 100 questions Asimo can currently answer when questioned through ag touch-pad? Might there come a time when they would be bale to respond emotionally in ways that are convincing enough to allow us to romantically and even sexually build relationships with them?
I interviewed professor Cheok a few months ago and wrote up a couple of articles. One is quite a long read but very illuminating on the future of augmented reality computing (using our five senses to communicate) and very interesting on the future of human-roboit relationships of which Asimo is the vanguard.
I will present some highlights below. Let me know if you’d like to read the whole thing or perhaps publish it and I’ll send you a copy.
More images of Asimo and other robots at my archive here:
Interview with Professor Professor Adrian Cheok of Keio University about Lovotics and Future Developments in Digital Communications.
The ability to use all our five senses for communication across the internet is something that Professor Adrian Cheok of Keio University Media Labs in Tokyo is passionate about. Born in Adelaide in Australia to Greek and Malaysian parents, Professor Cheok embodies the realities of the modern Diaspora which is perhaps why he is determined to find ways for us to communicate our deeper feelings more widely. At a recent lecture in Seoul’s Media City he predicted that the next stage of the internet will use all five senses to move us from what he calls; “the age of information to the age of experience.” The age of mixed reality.
What will those experiences be? Basically Mixed Reality is the merging of the real and virtual worlds; a kind of augmented existence that moves the virtual experience away from the screen into the three-dimensions we inhabit. This could mean something as simple as finding the information we need about the environment in searchable pop-ups, viewable on a wearable computer like the new Google Glass spectacles. A walk-through Wikipedia if you like. But it could be more immersive; blurring our reality by over-laying it with the virtual worlds of imagination; an idea Professor Cheok brought wonderfully to life in 2005 with his mixed reality Human- Pac Man game that allowed gamers to assume characters and run from ghosts (played by other gamers) in the streets of a real city. Unlike the world of a games console however, the laws of physics apply in mixed reality: gamers cannot fly or jump over buildings even while they can see to monsters, aliens or Pac Mans running through their local neighbourhoods.
Such playful technology does have practical applications also: imagine being able to carry-out such simulations as learning in the classroom, boardroom or army barracks. Or want to now how that new car or sofa set will feel and look before buying it; or how the food will taste before ordering it in a restaurant? How all these sensory forms can be modelled and digitised, and thus communicated remotely, is what the Mixed Reality labs headed by Professor Cheok are all about. What he is clear about is that these new forms of communication are the key to the future internet and will fundamentally adjust our reality. According to Professor Cheok, our reality might already be changing anyway.
“I think we already live in a kind of virtual reality. The first time I saw a lion, I was pretty excited, but now I don’t think my young daughter is so excited [at seeing a lion in the zoo] because she’s already seen a lion 100,000 time on the discovery channel, in HD, in its African environment and so there is just not that excitement there was when we were growing-up.”
Of course all our realities are filtered through our individuality. That old metaphysical conundrum of wondering if we all see the colours the same way is only half the question for Professor Cheok.
“Why do we only see colour, why don’t we hear colour? They’re all electro-magnatic waves. What do we call reality? It’s not so much a blurring between the content we create digitally and the content in the analogue world. Because finally all of it is being seen through a kind of prism of our own senses. Other creature and animals see the world differently.”
“I think that historically, maybe western culture has been more private: they’re more separate with their private life and their, let’s say public life, work life. And this maybe because physically there is more space. Like in America people have a lot of space and privacy became more important. Whereas I think in Asia privacy was not as important. So I think what’s happening is that actually the whole world is becoming more Asian in some respects. We’ve always had examples of cultures that there hasn’t been so much concept of privacy and it’s not just been Asian. In ancient Greece you they didn’t really have any concept of privacy. Basically there was no real separation between public and private life. So I think actually what the internet is doing is definitely changing the new norms but I’m not sure it is something that is totally new because we’ve already had cultures which have relatively little privacy. And if you really go back, real, real far back, like when we’re in the savannah, we’re all walking around naked and we didn’t have any privacy right? So it may be going back to the more natural state of humanity.”
The big question of course is if our personalities can become a collection of data that is secret to no-one and our senses and feelings can be digitised and transferred can they be put into machines that are able act human by copying and reacting to us? And if so should we treat these machines as alive? Professor Cheok is not so sure.
“It is a program fundamentally,  if the robot looks human enough; acts human enough then for almost all intents and purposes we will interact with that as if it’s a human. Because that’s just how we get on with the world. We don’t always logically analyse the situation. We always make rough approximations in life otherwise we just couldn’t live in the real world. It goes back to when you’re in the jungle; if it sounds like a tiger coming up behind, you just run, you don’t logically think it through until it’s clear. We’re programmed to just take rough approximations and that is why we don’t need a really intelligent robot. We can ignore the whole argument about is it really intelligent.
Extract 3: The final word to Professor Cheok
“But I think that is a very important point: things that have the ability to be perfectly reproduced and cannot die; maybe that’s a fundamental barrier for us to feel the true empathy. But I could be proven wrong because I think people adapt over time to technology and maybe our concept of empathy will change.”
Perhaps this change is attitude is part of a process that has been going on for centuries anyway, as professor Cheok points out there may come a time when we think differently about machines that we take for granted at best these days and even fear.
“I think that, if you look at the progression of society, though we have lots of ups and downs, in general I think we’re evolving to much higher level of empathy for each other. All this thing before about how black people used to be sub-human almost. Now we find that terrible. How did we treat people each other like that? It’s inconceivable now. And that’s not really so long ago, that’s only in the mid-twentieth century. Things really change fast but in general society is evolving hopefully up and up. We’ll have variations but [I think] robots will have rights, legal rights like humans have rights, and we will feel empathy for robots. And we may get to the stage when we think, yeah sure the robot can’t die but so what? That’s a kind of discrimination, I mean why do we discriminate against digital beings? So the way we don’t discriminate against the black people now; we may evolve to that point where we feel; why should we discriminate because that robot was not biologically born?”
The cutting edge tech in the organic LED screens that make up Geo-Cosmos globe at the Miraikan museum of emerging sciences says it all really. It is obviously very photogenic also.
Off out again today to Odaiba, I hope. With kids this time. Off to explore the world.
Fun seeing it through their eyes this time.