A talk with Steve Mickevics, my tutor in 2022

 

 

 

 

 

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 20 years.

  

 

 

 

 

A topic of discussion for December 14, 2022:

It was the same topic last year. Why not try it again. As we are coming to the end of 2022, what was the most memorable event or experience for you during the year?

Steve kicked off the talk by saying, “it may be going to Yamanashi prefecture this year.” To him, it was well worth it traveling with his partner and mom, who was visiting Japan from Australia at that time. Steve mentioned that they stayed at a good hotel having an excellent view and enjoyed scrumptious food including flat noodles, a delicacy of Yamanashi.  

 

Furthermore, Steve said that he is the type of person who “doesn’t look back”, “never reflects back”. So, he’s definitely focused on what will happen to him in the future, no more or no less.

 

Then, it was my turn. Perhaps because of my age, 73, I do look back upon my past life from time to time. It doesn’t mean to indulge myself in the past, but rather to find myself and where I stand now, if I can put it correctly. You cannot live two lives simultaneously, so what I can do is to live well now.

 

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A topic of discussion for November 9, 2022: What were the driving factors for the evolution of the ancient Greek civilization?

As is well known present European civilization owes greatly to the academic feats of the ancient Greek civilization. How did ancient Greece manage to achieve such accomplishments?

 

First of all, Steve mentioned that ancient Greece was remarkable in that they had a strong middle class, highly urbanized society, relatively good standard of living and more. Some of their political systems were based on democratic city states, to which citizens participated as active players. Their agricultural produce such as grapes, olives became important export items, importing wheat among others in return. This led to more exchanges with people outside of Greece, heralding the establishment of colonies in the Mediterranean and beyond. 

 

So, there existed an environment suitable to pursue academic and creative work through learning from others and dialogues with their peers. There was relatively no interference or directives from other higher authorities.

 

Fast forward to now. One might say that today’s society and public in general are relatively free economically and politically. Then, are we in a position to produce academic and creative work comparable to those in ancient Greece? I wonder if we have actually become more creative even with the help of the Internet, smart phones, AI among others.    

 

 

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A topic of discussion for October 12, 2022: No topic specified.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, Steve kicked off the discussion by asking me, “have you been following anything of late?” As I was not prepared for this, I needed to take a moment to ponder what to say. Well, I talked about our local event on November 23. We are preparing for a kid’s event for at a local sports ground. Kids can enjoy yo-yo games, picking up paper fish, shopping for inexpensive toys that kids can buy with their own pocket money, and more. This event is organized by seven communities, each of which will set up a game booth to offer a game event. Actually, this is a new undertaking for the cancelled summer festival due to the Covid concerns this year (third cancellation in a row).  Only concern this time is the weather on November 23, which has happened to be hit and miss in the past. Let’s hope for the best.

 

 

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A topic of discussion for September 15, 2022: Spain and Portugal reached their zenith as world powers in the 16th Century. Why did the two countries decline subsequently?

Both Spain and Portugal took initiatives to seek new trade routes, spices and precious metals. Spain managed to exploit central and south America, while Portugal aggressively set up their trading posts along the African coast, India (notably Goa) and Asia (especially Macau). In this way, the two countries succeeded in accumulating wealth and establishing themselves as world powers during the 16th Century. The king of Spain, Charles I also became the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, expanding his influence to even southern Italy and the Netherlands.

 

The Reformation played an important role not only in the religious world but also in the political world; they were closely interrelated. Being the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, championing Catholic causes, Charles I and his son Philip II found themselves busy fighting against the Protestants all over Europe. On top of that, war with France, with the emerging powers of England and the Netherlands as well as the Ottoman empire to the east took place intermittently. Steve mentioned that these wars were the main reason of Spain’s decline. Portugal became a vassal state of Spain, declining apace with Spain.   

 

Perhaps, the wealth obtained from their colonies was not well utilized in their home lands; instead of accumulating capital for industrial build-up, it was wasted on political and religious matters in Europe.

 

Incidentally, Portugal was the harbinger of European culture to Japan during the 16th Century, bringing in items such as matchlocks, Castilla (a sweet), confeito (sugar candy), temporas (tempura) among others: all household names. At the same time, Christianity was introduced to Japan through a Spanish priest.  

 

 

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A topic of discussion for August 24, 2022: A child taking the father’s surname by default?

 

 

 

 

 

I think this is more or less a common practice. However, a child’s surname depends on his or her parents’ surname/s. In the case of using one surname, a child usually takes their father’s. But what about when different surnames are used by the father and mother? The child in this instance has to choose one or the other. Steve mentioned to “go for one surname after discussing it with their partner”.

 

Unlike many other countries, Japan still insists on single surnames for married couples. Related laws stipulate that a couple must choose one surname, but it isn’t mandatory to use the husband’s. There are increasing desires for separate surnames, culminating into legal battles to seek their rights. On June 23, 2021, the supreme court made the ultimate verdict that single surname for a couple is not unconstitutional. It is interesting to note that some residing supreme court justices expressed contrary remarks that not allowing people’s desire for keeping separate surnames could impair their free will to get married, and therefore be undesirable.

 

Perhaps, it’s time to legalize separate surnames in Japan, on request.    

 

 

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A topic of discussion for July 12, 2022: Which philosophers do you like most?

 

Steve’s choice happened to be Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), an Italian diplomat, philosopher and historian famous for his books, “The Prince” and “Discourses on Livy”. The former talks about how to rule a country that belongs to a monarch. The latter explains how a republic should be governed. In short, Machiavelli gave some essential guidelines for the “incumbent” political institutions at that time. 

 

What Steve tried to highlight was that there are two contradicting approaches applicable to a monarch as well as a republic. One way is to rule one’s country taking good care of its subordinates, who will respect and love their leader. The other is to rule ruthlessly, instigating fear among its people. Which is the best way according to Machiavelli? He advocated that a prince should take the latter approach, which is definitely not recommended from the moral point of view but will succeed subsequently. How did he come to this conclusion? One has to look into the world in which Machiavelli lived.

 

First and foremost, Machiavelli was a diplomat representing the Republic of Florence (1115-1532), a small country amid competing countries in Italy including the Papacy. Also, some powerful European countries, such as the Holy Roman Empire, France and Spain were eager to extend their influence in Italy one way or another at that time. With this background of leading Florence in the right direction, Machiavelli must have developed his diplomatic skill based on realism and pragmatism.

 

Machiavelli’s famous saying from The Prince, “Ends justify the means”, is perhaps more familiar to many people than the book itself. I wonder how this is understood by us today.

 

 

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A topic of discussion for June 15, 2022: The election for upper house members is tentatively set for July 10 and one of the latest issues is obviously related to national security because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  What’s your take on this issue?

 

 

What strikes me most about the Russian invasion of Ukraine is two-fold: The invasion of Crimea in 2014 was done in such a swift way that the western countries were not only taken aback but unable to put up effective support and assistance for Ukraine with the exception of enforcing an economic sanction, which was relatively mild in nature as compared to the new sanctions this year; whereas the recent invasion of Ukraine has raised such support from western countries, both militarily and otherwise, simply because Ukraine has shown a determination to fight against the Russian soldiers for months. The lesson we have learnt is clear that we have to resist any invasion to our country with determination and with whatever we have so that other countries, who are willing to assist and help will actually take such actions.

 

It’s obvious that we have to review and strengthen our defensive capabilities because of what is happening in Ukraine right now. Japan is currently spending about 1% of its GDP on defense. Should we expand it to 2% as proposed by the ruling party? To this, Steve said that he “dislikes investing in military equipment,” though he understands the necessity.  

 

We talked about preemptive strikes against missile launching pads and the like in hostile countries when an attack on Japan is deemed imminent based on various reconnaissance data. This is also on the agenda of the ruling party. Steve takes a definitive stance that this kind of action will be justified even under the current “pacifist” Japanese constitution. But Steve also mentioned that history tells us the difficulties involving the existence of real danger, like Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.                                                                                                                                                                               

Germany’s participation in deploying tactical nukes under the NATO guideline was also discussed. Next year, the G7 Summit will be held in Hiroshima. I hope this will have some impact on the attending guests for the advancement of nuclear disarmament. Why not! Japanese prime minister, Kishida Fumio is from Hiroshima, he has a say.       

 

 

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A topic of talk for May 11, 2022: How did you enjoy Golden Week this year?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What did Steve do and where did he go during Golden Week? For Steve, it was a seven-day holiday from April 29 to May 5. For some lucky people, it could have been a ten-day holiday by taking two days off. “Pretty good” was Steve’s initial comment. But he then mentioned “one hiccup,” because he had food poisoning on day 3 which kept him home for two days. When it was over, Steve resumed going out and went to a beautiful garden near Yokohama’s Zoo and a shopping mall in Machida, Metropolitan Tokyo. Friends came over to his home on Day 6 and played games for 12 hours: unbelievable! Day 7 was for shopping near Yokohama station and eating at a Brazilian restaurant nearby. Well, ups and indeed one down for Steve.

 

For me, it was a rather quiet holiday; I intentionally avoided going to crowded places, instead I went around my neighborhood, walking and taking pictures along the way, went to supermarkets, did gardening and the like. There was a family gathering at my home on the last day: eight adults and six grandchildren altogether.       

 

 

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A topic of talk on April 27, 2022: The Enlightenment in the 17th and the 18th Centuries Europe played an important role in the world, politically, socially and artistically. Could you describe it briefly? 

When we talk about the Enlightenment, it’s always “entertaining”, full of energy, forward looking, confidence in human ability and feats and so on.

It is said that the Renaissance (the 15th~the 16th Centuries) brought about the intellectual and philosophical movement of the Enlightenment, which highlighted “ideas such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state” among others.  Furthermore, it is without doubt that the Enlightenment affected politics, resulting in the US Independence in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789.    

 

Steve mentioned the leading philosophers and scientists of this era. Firstly, it was Rene Descartes (a French philosopher, 1596-1650), whose quote “Cognito, ergo sum.” or “I think, therefore I am” is so famous.  Descartes was one of the founders of rationalism, questioning everything about us. Then, we discussed Sir Francis Bacon (an English philosopher, 1561-1626), the father of empiricism. Bacon advocated for the scientific method of experiment and observation.

 

Here Steve emphasized the importance of the “movable-type printing press,” which was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th Century. During the Enlightenment, printed books played an important role of disseminating and exchanging ideas and knowledge among philosophers, scientists, politicians, and even well-learnt monarchs, like Catherine the Great. So, in this way intellectual communities were formed in Europe and the Americas.  Of course, cheaper books helped enhance education and learning at all levels of society.

 

We talked about Montesquieu (1689-1755), a French judge and political philosopher, who advocated the separation of powers in government. The US Founding Fathers were greatly influenced by Montesquieu’s idea in drafting their constitution. One of the feats during this period was the abolition of slavery in Europe. It was essentially manpower needed for agriculture, but was deemed unjust and wrong. Then, we turned to Voltaire (1694-1778), a French writer, historian and philosopher. Voltaire was noted for his criticism of Christianity, freedom of speech, separation of church and state among others. Interestingly, he showed “admiration for the ethics and government as exemplified by China’s Confucius.” Steve also mentioned Adam Smith (a Scottish economist and philosopher, 1723-1790), the “Father of Economics” as well as the “Father of capitalism”.  

 

So, we have seen the Enlightenment in terms of the feats of its intellectual community. History has witnessed, thereafter, the rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, imperialism, communism and so on in their extreme forms, unfortunately leaving behind the well-being of the masses. Is this the cynical evolution of history?

 

    

 

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A topic of talk for March 9, 2022: How would you assess the historical deeds of the Vikings? 

 

 

The Vikings were not “savage pirates” as once portraited, but were hard working farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, traders and so on, reflecting their complex society and advanced culture. Perhaps this initial image of the Vikings is the result of being described mostly by outsiders rather than by themselves. They did have their own language with an alphabet but left very little of any historical substance.    

Steve kicked off the talk by saying that the word Viking means to “raid” in their language, but they did not call themselves Vikings. They were initially confined to today’s Scandinavian countries. To the south, Charlemagne or Charles the Great (747-814) succeeded in uniting the majority of western and central Europe, subsequently becoming the Emperor of the Romans. So, Charlemagne’s empire acted as a cap to block the Vikings from expanding their influence southwards. When Charlemagne died the door for the Vikings opened wide. This period is called “the Viking Age”, which extended from the late 8th Century to the late 11th Century.

 

 

They were skillful navigators manipulating agile seaworthy longships with the help of “sun stone” navigational tools. New routes to the Mediterranean, North Africa and even to North America were established. The Vikings managed to set up trading posts, which eventually grew into settlements in many places in Europe, including the British Isles, Ireland, Iceland, Normandy, the Baltic coast, the Dnieper and Volga trade routes in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine to name but a few. In terms of raiding, the Vikings favored attacking Christian monasteries, undefended but always with treasure. Slave trade was practiced as both a lucrative and indispensable resource for running their own communities.  

 

One can say that the outward push of the Vikings gradually subsided after reaching its peak. Perhaps, they turned their attention to solidifying what they had gained. With this, the Age of Feudalism began. European kings sought the help of their nobles to build fortresses, castles and gather soldiers to defend their kingdoms. It is interesting to know that the Viking Age nearly overlapped with the “Medieval Warm Period” (950~1250) whereas the Age of Feudalism was with the “Little Ice Age”.

 

 

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A topic of discussion for February 9, 2022: Where would you like to go for a holiday in Japan or in the world as soon as Covid-19 comes under control? 

 

 

 

First of all, Steve mentioned that he is not overly concerned with Covid-19, especially the Omicron variant. So, during the last Christmas and new year’s season, he went to Osaka. He also said that he is going to Gotemba this coming weekend, looking forward to the outlet mall and onsen, hot spring, there. This summer, he is interested in going to Okinawa or Hokaido. Well, well, good for Steve.

 

Not finished yet. Steve is planning to go back to Australia this year for a few weeks during a three-week Christmas and new year’s holiday. This will be much longer than last time, 5 or 6 years ago, which was for a week.

 

As for me, I would like to go to an onsen first and foremost, without any particular places in mind. Maybe, it will be the southern island, Kyushu, as I had once planned to go there around Nagasaki but I had cancelled it because of the Covid-19 outbreak.

 

 

 

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A topic of discussion for January 12, 2022: Do you find any difference in living in Japan, good or bad, when you first came here and now?

 

 

Steve kicked off the discussion by saying that he doesn’t like to compare now and then: putting it another way, he’s more “focused on now”. Having said that he has definitely observed big changes while living in Japan since 1999.

 

What Steve mentioned first was mobile phones. It is astonishing that the usefulness of the mobile phone has extended from simply just a voice communication device to embracing text messages as well as becoming a handy computer or a smart phone as it is called now. For Steve, he literally could not live without it. It makes life easier in Japan as a non-Japanese, providing functions such as a translator or navigational tool while driving and so on.

 

Thirdly, Steve talked about the 2011 earthquake. What we witnessed was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the north-eastern part of Japan that caused a catastrophic tsunami, not only obliterating coastal towns facing the Pacific Ocean, but also shutting down the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power station as a result of an unprecedented reactor melt-down.

 

Then, Steve went on to explain Japanese politics, how they have become more stabilized. From the perspective of political parties, it has been a conservative party presently known as the Liberal Democratic Party that’s been in power for most of the time. But we happen to have had so many prime ministers with only one-year tenures. Can you believe that there were six prime ministers over a period of six years from 2006 to 2012? So, it was a remarkable feat for Abe Shinzo to be prime minister for eight consecutive years from 2012 to 2020.

 

Next Steve has felt a “right wing swing”. He took as an example the movement by some politicians, opinion leaders, mass media among others, which call out for the justification of Japan’s role in the Second World War. This tendency has been observed in what kids are taught at school. It has moreover exacerbated the movement for changing the Japanese constitution, which is based on liberal democracy and pacifism.         

 

 

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