A talk with Steve Mickevics, my tutor for 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every month, a talk with Steve on various topics will be posted. Steve comes from Adelaide, Australia. He’s been in Japan for more than 10 years.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A topic of discussion on December 9, 2020: How do you enjoy Christmas and new year’s in Australia? Anything in particular?

 

Steve kicked off the talk by saying that Australia is a multi-cultural country and so different kinds of Christmas are observed.  For instance, initial emigrants from England and Ireland follow the typical Christmas in the Christian way. It includes a Christmas family dinner and exchanging presents on Christmas Eve. Some people go to Christmas mass, but Steve is one of the exceptions.

 

On Christmas day, it’s customary to invite guests for dinner or the other way round. Boxing Day is observed on the next day, which is now more a shopping holiday rather than “a holiday to give gifts for the poor”. Off course, there are those who do not nominally observe Christmas like the large Asian communities of Chinese and Vietnamese. “Commercial” Christmas is always welcomed by everybody. As Steve mentioned, Christmas is observed more or less as a family matter like the new year’s celebration in Japan. Incidentally, I have an image of Christmas in Australia where Santa Clause is in a swim suit on the beach.

 

 

New Year’s Eve is more of a lively, noisy celebration: private parties, BBQs, fireworks, count downs and more. Steve said that the school year in Australia starts in January and ends in December. Well, good for Australian kids. They can enjoy Christmas and new year celebrations and a long school holiday in summer.  

 

 

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A topic of discussion on November 11, 2020: How did Spain and Portugal manage to become leading powers during the Age of Discovery?

Steve first mentioned that Portugal and Spain took different paths geographically in their search for new discoveries but there were a lot of similarities. Let’s take a closer look at Portugal first because it embarked on its missions before Spain.

 

Portugal was under Islamic control for nearly five centuries (from the early 8th Century to the mid-13th Century). After successfully pushing them back to Africa and regaining its power, Portugal solidified themselves and started to turn their attention towards over the horizon under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). One after another, various adventurers started discovering “new” lands, such as the Azores, the west coast of Africa, Brazil, around the Cape of Good Hope to India in search of the spice islands by well-known Vasco de Gama in 1498 and more. 

 

How did those adventurers manage to navigate through the open sea? In fact, they used a navigational device used by the Muslims called an astrolabe, a precursor of the sextant, which showed where you were by locating stars. They used a sailing ship called a “caravel”, which was fast, easy to maneuver and could sail even windward by using a “lateen sail.”

 

The location of Portugal on the western side of the Iberian Peninsula directly facing the Atlantic Ocean rendered a geographical advantage to the country in embarking on the discovery initiatives. Also, the church played an important part in that they were eager to Christianize local people in newly found places. So, hand in hand with adventurers they went to these lands and tried to establish themselves.

 

Now turning to Spain’s initiatives. The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 formally made the demarcation of Portugal and Spain in terms of new lands discovered: east of the longitude 46 degrees west would belong to Portugal, west of that to Spain. As is well known, Cristopher Columbus found America in 1492 under the patronage of Spain. The world’s first circumnavigation took place from 1519 to 1522 by Ferdinand Magellan(although he himself was killed along the way by local people in the Philippines) under the support of the Spanish crown. This expedition started from Sevilla, sailed westward, reached Brazil, went around the Cape of Good Hope, finding Guam Island, then to the Philippines and finally back to Spain.

 

As a summary, we have seen that Portugal and Spain became leading powers during the Age of Discovery, firstly through strong patronage of rulers, secondly by adopting technology to navigate in the open sea, thirdly geographical proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, and fourthly the active role of Christian organizations.

 

Lastly, let me touch briefly on the relationship between Japan and the explorers Portugal and Spain at that time. It was Portugal that first came to Japan in 1543 and they introduced matchlocks, which were soon “mass” produced in Japan during the Age of Wars (the 15th to 16th Centuries). Christianity was first brought to Japan by Francisco de Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit priest in 1549. Trade between Japan and these European powers flourished. Do you know what goods were traded? It was interesting indeed that the Portuguese and Spanish merchants brought high quality raw silk from Ming China to Japan and in return received silver ingots as payment. Ming China prohibited direct trade with Japan, so Portugal and Spain acted as middlemen. This relationship lasted until the prohibition of Christianity, which was enforced in the early 17th Century by the Tokugawa Shogunate.    

 

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A topic of discussion for October 14, 2020: What are the differences between the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Empire?

 

 

 

 

When compared with the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire probably lacked the glory, magnificence or vastness of the former, but lasted much longer. We first looked into the Roman empire: how it was run and how it faced the end of its life in the 5th Century. The Roman Empire (27 BC to 476 AD) at its zenith extended from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to the mouth of the Persian Gulf in the east, England in the north to Egypt in the south: covering all the areas around the Mediterranean Sea.

 

This vast empire was comprised of provinces governed by governors who were selected by the Senate in Rome. Basically, the emperor and the Senate controlled the empire in an efficient and centralized way. However, the empire became too large for a single emperor. So, it was Diocletian (being emperor 284-305 AD) who decided to split the empire into two: The Western and The Eastern Roman Empires. The Western Roman Empire fell to the Germanic tribes in the 5th Century.  (As is known, The Eastern Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire continued until the 15th Century)

 

The Germanic tribes one after another managed to hold on to Italy. Then Charlemagne being the king of the Franks became crowned the Emperor in 800 by the Pope of what is to be the Holy Roman Empire. How long did the empire last? Surprisingly, it lasted for a millennium. Was it as strong or influential as the Roman Empire? Not exactly, from the empire of Charlemagne controlling today’s Germany, France and Italy, it gradually shrunk to roughly the size of Germany. Generally speaking, the empire was composed of various kingdoms and feudal lords. There was no senate or a strong centralized governing body as such, and emperor was actually selected by feudal powers. The relationship between the emperors and the Popes underwent ups and downs from time to time but probably it worked to their mutual benefit: a secular power to safeguard the Pope and the church on the one hand, and the very name of “Holy Emperor” to legitimize the other.

 

The Holy Roman empire seemed to be the “successor” to the Roman Empire but in reality, they were so much different as seen here.  

 

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A topic of discussion for September 9, 2020: Could you highlight some German historical figures to whom you have high regards?

This time we focused our talk about Germany. Steve first selected Arminius (BC 17/18 – AD21). At that time there was no such country as Germany but Germania referring to the Germanic tribes as according to the ancient Romans. What made him so outstanding? Arminius was born a prince in one of the Germanic tribes but was taken to Rome as a hostage. There he was well treated, educated and eventually served in a Roman legion like any other Roman youth of nobility.

 

So, he became acquainted with the Roman ways of life, culture and of course military skills. After returning to his tribe, in defiance of the wish of the Romans, he organized an alliance of Germanic tribes and managed to crush the Roman invasion of Germania at the Battle of Tuetoburg in AD 9. As a result of the catastrophic Roman defeat, the Romans decided to set their border with Germania at the Rhine, a natural boundary, which lasted for centuries thereafter. Arminius was the Germanic leader who kept the freedom and integrity of the Germanic people. It was unfortunate that he was assassinated by his opponents subsequently.

 

Next came Charlemagne or Charles the Great (748-814), the King of Franks and subsequently the Emperor of the Carolingian Empire. From the kingdom of Franks, which he inherited from his father, Charlemagne managed to expand and eventually unite the majority of Western and Central Europe; thus, he is often referred to as “the Father of Europe”. Through his campaign to enlarge his realm, he held off the Islamic expansion in Europe pushing them back to today’s Spain. Charlemagne’s feats encompassed education, schools, arts, architecture, religion and more. This is called the “Carolingian Renaissance.” After his death, the Empire was separated into France and Germany in a peaceful way.      

 

Thirdly, it was Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor (912-973), who solidified and expanded the Germanic speaking tribes. Then a few centuries later came Martin Luther (1483-1546), a famous religious reformer who criticized “incumbent” or established Roman Catholics and started a new religious group, which became the Lutherans.

 

Then Steve talked about Fredrick the Great (1712-1786), the king of Prussia.

During his reign he reorganized the Prussian armies and made Prussia an outstanding military power in Europe. It was Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1898) who took the initiative in realizing the unification of Germany in 1871. He was called the “Iron Chancellor.” So much for our talks on German historical figures precluding many world-famous artists, musicians, philosophers, scientists among others especially after the 18th Century.  

          

 

 

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A topic of discussion for August 12, 2020: How would you evaluate the Ottoman Empire? What do you think of their feats on the world scale?

Incredibly the Ottoman Empire lasted for a considerable period; about six centuries from the 14th Century to the first quarter of the 20th Century. At its apex, the empire extended from Mesopotamia in the east to along the Mediterranean Sea in north Africa in the west, from the Balkans in the north to areas along the Red Sea as far down as Aden in the south. The empire was thus a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic and multi-religious entity that included autonomous and vassal states.

 

What is your impression of the Ottoman Empire? Could it be the empire that conquered Constantinople and destroyed the Byzantine Empire?  Or, “the Sick man of Europe” as depicted in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia”?

 

As Steve is well acquainted with military aspects, he started mentioning first of all the empire’s great battles such as the siege of Constantinople, the siege of Vienna, the sea battles to control the Mediterranean Sea and more. Under the leadership of competent and determined Sultans who managed to develop advanced weapons and lead well trained soldiers, the empire succeeded in expanding its territory and its influence.

 

As to the next feat of the Ottoman Empire, Steve mentioned the development of knowledge. It’s well known that the collapse of Constantinople resulted in the exodus of Byzantine scholars with a prolific amount of classic Greek books to Italy thus leading to the birth of the Renaissance. There seem to be other contributions of the Ottoman Empire in the field of academic activity by introducing and expanding the historic achievements of “the Islamic Golden Age”, which extended from the 8th Century to the 14th Century in Baghdad where the knowledge of great civilizations, such as those of Greece, Egypt, India, Persia, China among others was studied, accumulated and expanded on. Baghdad was the center of knowledge in the world at that time.

 

Thirdly, the Ottoman Empire through its geopolitical position “monopolized” trade between the east and the west. Italian nation states, such as Genoa and Venice flourished by trading lucrative spices from the east and handiwork from the west among others. The empire’s dominance of the east-west trade compelled other emerging European nations to seek new trade routes to the east. Portugal developed its trade route to India around the Cape of Good Hope; Spain managed to develop new routes westwards to the New World, ushering in the Age of Discovery.

 

For six centuries the Ottoman Empire was the champion of Islamic religion and culture. As in any empire, decline was inevitable. The Balkan states became independent one after another in the 19th Century as the Ottomans faced aggressions from Tsarist Russia and the Hapsburgs of Austria.

The final blow came when the empire faced defeat at the end of WW1 on the side of Germany and Austria. The empire was finally abolished and the Turkish republic established in 1923.  

 

 

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A topic of discussion for July 8, 2020: Could you highlight some Australian historical figures to whom you have high regards?

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Not a big fan of Australian history,” was Steve’s first remark to my surprise. Having said so, Steve was prepared to mention Australians who were/are well known worldwide in various fields.

 

First of all, Steve mentioned Eddie Mabo (1936-1992), an indigenous Australian, who claimed and gained the legal ownership of his ancestral lands. Eddie Mabo was born in the Torres Strait Islands which are located between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The colonization of these islands by the British colonial rulers took place relatively late in 1862. The lands there therefore became crown land in accordance with “Terra Nullius (Nobody’s land)”, “a principle to justify claims that territory may be acquired by a state’s occupation of it.” To Mabo, it was his strong belief that the lands in the Torres Strait Islands belonged to the islanders. He started a legal battle to realize their ownership and finally in 1992 after ten years of hearings, the High Court of Australia (equivalent to Japan’s Supreme court) “found that the indigenous people owned their land prior to annexation by Queensland” (the British colonial administration). It was unfortunate that Mabo himself did not hear this historical verdict because of his death only a few months beforehand. The High Court decision has been epoch making in that it recognized the ownership rights of indigenous people in other parts of Australia. One should not forget that these people first came to Australia 40,000~45,000 years before the British colonial adventurers.

 

Next came a contemporary figure. Barry Humphries, 86 years old, a comedian, actor, artist, author, and a political satirist. Perhaps best known for playing an on-stage/TV character as Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson. Biographer Anne Pender described Humphries in 2010 as not only “the most significant theatrical figure of our time ……butthe most significant comedian to emerge since Charlie Chaplin.”

 

Now turning to a sportsman. Sir Donald Bradman (1908-2001) was a great cricket player with an incredible batting average of 99.94 (as compared to a typical player’s average of 20-40). “He retained his preeminence in the game by acting as an administrator, selector, and writer for three decades following his retirement.” “His image has appeared on postage stamps and coins.” 

 

Another contemporary figure follows. This time no other than Rupert Murdock who is an Australian-born American media mogul. I don’t think it is necessary to elaborate on his media empire. Let me refer to a remark made by former Australian prime minister Tony Abbot in 2015. “Murdock arguably has had more impact on the wider world than any other Australian.”

 

Coming last is Nellie Melba (1861-1931), an Australian opera soprano. From Wikipedia, “one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era and the early 20th Century. The first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician.” She helped the careers of younger singers. One of her remarks, “In order to sing well, it is necessary to sing easily.”

 

So, Steve talked about these Australian figures of fame of whom I had no knowledge previously. I appreciate it.   

 

 

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A topic of discussion for June 10, 2020: How would you like to spend the coming summer, which will be “unbearably” hot and humid? 

Steve said that this summer will be quite different from previous ones because of the coronavirus. Simply put, there is no summer vacation for him; it will be 5 days-a-week teaching at Bridges English school to supplement more than a month-long closure of the school during the declaration of emergency from April to May.

 

Steve mentioned that he finds “hot and humid” summer in Japan quite bearable, even saying that “perhaps Australians are more tolerant to heat”.

How will he enjoy the summer in his spare time? Playing with his daughter, gaming (his hobby), seeing his friends are among what he will be looking forward to.

 

As for me, this summer will also be quite different in that the summer festival, which usually draws more than four thousand visitors in our neighborhood, is cancelled due to the coronavirus. Then we talked about the development of effective drugs and vaccines: how we are looking forward to an early implementation of them. We know that new medication is being partly aimed at increasing the first developer’s fame and of course profit: usually resulting in high prices. In connection to this, Steve raised the point that development of new medication should be handled by governments, not by private entities, as part of public services. Well, this is a good point to be discussed further.

 

I have just learnt that a new drug, which is called “Remdesivir, has hastily been approved in the US and immediately followed by Japan,” will cost US$ 2,340 for 6 doses. Luckily, it will be free of charge to Covid-19 patients in Japan as this is a medication for infectious disease; in this case the government pays for all, not only medication but also hospital charges. Do you know what is the highest price currently for a new drug? As of 2020, it’s a gene medication for a rare disease costing US$ 2.1 million for one dose (one-time only treatment)!

 

 

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A topic of discussion for May 13, 2020: Because of the coronavirus crisis we all are told to follow strict preventive measures, such as washing your hands whenever appropriate, social distancing, avoid congested places and so forth. Do you do anything in particular to keep yourself fit both physically and mentally?

 

 

The government has announced a state of emergency in the wake of the coronavirus crisis on April 7; as a result, people are told to primarily “stay at home.”  This nationwide restriction has been lifted recently in many parts of Japan except Tokyo, its neighboring Kanagawa and Saitama prefectures, and Hokkaido. Steve seems to be adjusting to the restriction pretty well.

 

Steve mentioned that every morning he starts the day with Yoga while watching You-tube or TV. This is followed by weight training using a bench press, lifting up to 70 kg of weight. To finish up, he goes for a walk of an hour or so while listening to an audio book. Well, it is indeed a good way to keep oneself fit. In order to utilize whatever time, he has, Steve said that he started to tackle Japanese Hiragana and Kana once again. Good for him.   

 

For me, life is not much different than what it used to be. Doing stretches, maybe more thoroughly these days, and finding time to walk. On top of that, I have plenty of time for gardening and growing vegetables in my yard. I say to myself that we are lucky enough to observe “stay at home” on a voluntary basis, which is not as hard as what an enforced lockdown would dictate to us.      

 

 

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A topic of discussion for March 11, 2020: This time we will talk about American historic figures. Could you list three such figures for whom you have high respect?

 

Who would Steve select as the first of the three? It turned out that Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was his choice. He was the 26th president of the US. Perhaps, Roosevelt is best remembered as one of the four figures depicted on Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, alongside George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. What were his feats that justified him being one of the four?

 

Looking at his childhood, we have learned that he was physically not fit to attend school. This did not, however, overshadow him at all. On the contrary, he managed to work himself hard to become strong and fit. Also, he immersed himself in nature. He graduated from Harvard university and in due course served several public positions, such as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President, before becoming president in 1901.

 

During the eight years of his presidency, Roosevelt exerted himself to carry out his ambitious agenda called the “Square Deal”. This was basically comprised of three programs to tackle acute issues facing people on the street at the time. The first centered around the conservation of natural resources, realizing the establishment of national parks. Secondly, the control of big corporations by evoking anti-monopoly laws (the Sherman Antitrust Act). And thirdly, it was consumer protection by enacting relevant laws (the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and drug Act).

 

Regarding his foreign policy, Roosevelt had shown a particular interest in Central America. He was credited with starting the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904 (took ten years to complete). It is interesting to note that Roosevelt took an initiative to broker the end of the Japanese-Russo war in 1905 and this won him a Nobel Peace prize in the following year.

 

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to cover any other historic figures; Steve mentioned only by name George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.   

 

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A topic of discussion for February 12, 2020: Could you list historic figures, say three, for whom you have high respect?

 

I was wondering whom Steve would list first of the three? It was Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) who is well-known perhaps for his political realism as per his work “The Prince”. He was a diplomat and political philosopher in Italy’s Florence at the time of the Renaissance. Florence was then primarily a city state amid powerful neighboring city states and above all the Papal States. Other European powers such as France, Spain, and the Hapsburgs were eager to extend their influence to Italy. Under this political environment, Machiavelli honed his skills as a diplomat through numerous contacts and negotiations with his counterparts. He had advocated that means and ends are to be treated differently when it comes to running a country: in essence “the ends justify the means.” Machiavelli is called “the father of modern political philosophy” and thus had a profound influence on subsequent European politicians and philosophers.

 

Now turning to the second historic figure of Steve’s choice. It was Xenophon of Athens(431-354 BC). He was a historian, philosopher, soldier, mercenary and above all a student of Socrates. As Socrates left no writings of his own, it was his students who were credited with recording his thoughts, like Xenophon’s “Memorabilia”, which is a collection of Socrates’ dialogues. In terms of his military genius, Xenophon as a commander of the “Ten Thousand” excelled particularly in retreating warfare as written in his “Anabasis”. His military legacy is still being studied and learned at leading military academies today.

 

Then Hannibal Barca (247-183 BC) comes third. He was by far a military genius of Ancient Carthage. The period was when Carthage and Rome were competing for supremacy over the Mediterranean. The first Punic War (264-241 BC) resulted in the defeat of Carthage incurring a heavy indemnity. The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) erupted and Hannibal commanded the Carthaginian forces invading and fighting in Italy for a period of 14 years!

Like Xenophon Hannibal’s military legacy is still being studied and learned at leading military academies today.   

 

Do you find anything in common with the three historic figures as listed by Steve?       

 

 

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A topic for discussion for January 8, 2019: How would you like to spend 2020?

 

This time, I specifically selected a broad, general topic so Steve would find it easy to talk. Here is how it went. Steve mentioned that he would like to enjoy the company of his daughter Sakura, seeing his friends, gaming as well as achieving some personal goals. Well, simply put that was about it. I asked him when he talks to his daughter, what language is used. Steve’s answer was that it’s mostly in Japanese because this is what Sakura can understand better. He added that Sakura seems to understand English when he uses it.   

 

 

Then, it was my turn. Steve asked me how I would like to spend the year. For me, this year will be not only memorable but also a once in a lifetime experience in that I will be a volunteer for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. I look forward to the games and would like to enjoy myself. And besides that? Most likely, it will be as usual looking after my extended family including six grandchildren; and I will exert myself taking care of our local community activities.  

 

 

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A talk with Steve Mickevics, my tutor

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