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, and is married to a Japanese. There was an addition to his family, his daughter was born in April, 2014.
A talk with Steve on December 13, 2017:
It’s time to look back at 2017, what were the most impressive or remarkable news items of the year for you?
Just prior to our talk on this subject, we touched on Time’s person of the year for 2017. It was “silence breakers” as the person of the year for 2017. With this, Steve went on to mention what he regarded as the major events of 2017: “the empowerment of women to speak up against those that have abused their positions and extended misogynistic behavior.” So, the discovery of what Harvey Weinstein has done quickly exploded into massive revelations of similar abuses. By all means, this will have a prolonged cultural impact worldwide.
Steve also talked about Trump’s “Russian meddling in the US presidential election”, and his overall “poor” performance during the year. You will remember that Trump was the person of the year for 2016. Now it seems that the initial surprise of his becoming a president is turning more and more towards growing concerns.
A talk with Steve on November 8, 2017: What are the similarities and differences between Australia and New Zealand?
Many Japanese seem to be familiar with the popularly known similarities between the two countries: such as being Commonwealth countries, initial immigration was from Britain, stockbreeding and dairy farming have been an important industry and so on. Steve tried to shed further light especially in regards to the differences.
Steve kicked off the discussion by saying that the colonization of the two countries took a remarkably different approach. Australia was first colonized by prisoners sent away from Britain in 1778. On the other hand, among the first settlers to New Zealand were people who advocated missionary principals. Why did Australia become the land for indentured servitude? America, then British colony, was used for this purpose, but because of the American Independence, the process was diverted to Australia.
The subsequent colonization took a different path. Before the colonization of Australia, it was inhabited by Aborigines of many different tribes, so this “multi cultural” society was not capable of confronting new comers to the continent. New Zealand had the Maoris as its indigenous people, who maintained a “monoculture” society. The Maoris were fierce fighters resisting and fighting against the colonists. This resulted in an agreement between the Maoris and the Crown in the 19th Century, in which the Maoris could keep all their land and were granted citizenship under the Crown, with equal rights and opportunities with people from Europe.
Steve went on to point out the differences by referring to English language usage: for example pronouncing “fish and chips”, New Zealanders say a “u” sound instead of an “i” sound. Then, he covered sports; both countries share playing such favorite sports as rugby and cricket, both of which follow British tradition. But here, Australians have also evolved “Aussie rules” (Australian football) based on traditional rugby.
Regarding immigration policy, Australia became a multi cultural society earlier, so it welcomes Asian immigrants in a contrast with New Zealand where it has been slower to catch up with Australia. Lastly, Steve mentioned that the two countries differ greatly in terms of economic strength. For instance, per capita GDP is much higher in Australia (51,737 US dollars in 2016 versus 38,277 US dollars in New Zealand also in the same year). Largely because of this, more New Zealanders are lured to live in Australia; there is a special relationship between the two countries allowing freer movement of their citizens.
Off course, we must not forget that the two countries differ greatly in terms of natural environment: Australia is drier with vast deserts, allowing only greener inhabitable areas along coasts while New Zealand is rich in the natural beauty of high mountains, forests, lakes, and even hot springs. I hope that what Steve has explained regarding the similarities and differences between Australia and New Zealand will now give you a better picture of the two countries.
A talk with Steve on October 11, 2017: There is a scientific dream of exploring Mars, which includes the migration of people there. On the other hand, some people would like to see a more rapid development of the oceans in terms of generating electricity from wave movement or from temperature differences between warm shallow waters and deep cold waters, and the excavation of various minerals from undersea beds among others. What would you like to see developed in both areas?
Steve kicked off the talk by saying that space development involves an astronomical amount of financial investment: for researching and developing space vehicles, finding feasible routes to a destination, making surveys of its terrain, environmental conditions, and among other obstacles that demand solutions. Space development includes finding the means and ways for making a planet suitable for humans to live, even altering the atmosphere or developing underground living spaces.
One big argument for space development, according to Steve, is to be able to
prepare for doomsday when it becomes utterly unsuitable for people to live on the earth due to overpopulation that might become rampant, and perhaps coupled with devastating climate change outcomes. From this perspective, Steve suggested that a possible destination would be the moon which is closer to the earth, rather than Mars, a favorite destination in movies.
Now, turning to ocean development. Steve raised a point that it is also closely related to the problem of overpopulation: how to get more food, to harness more energy, to secure resources, and to seek space for people to live. As compared to outer space, the ocean is probably more familiar or adaptable to human beings. But development in this respect also requires an astronomical amount of money. More importantly, any development must pay utmost care not to cause pollution of any kind.
Having said so, Steve argued that most of the money to be spent for the development of outer space or for the ocean would best be allocated to other urgent and basic needs of people on the earth. For one thing, harnessing renewable energies can alleviate environmental pollution and thus mitigate the effects of climate change.
So, there are opinions for and against these scientific developments. What’s your take? I would like to see these developments continued but hope for a situation where military involvement will be substantially diminished, if not terminated. We have a good example of this perspective, the international cooperation in the exploration of the Antarctic.
A topic for discussion on August 23, 2017: The Vietnam war ended in 1975. What is your take on the war? Was it just an extension of the cold war, fighting between North Vietnam who was backed by then the USSR and South Vietnam, fully supported by the US? Is there a historical judgment, as such?
Steve immediately said that it was an extension of the cold war, citing examples of Cuba, Angola and Nicaragua among others. Let’s take a quick review of Vietnam’s history towards gaining independence from a European power. It was in the late 19th Century that an ancient Vietnamese kingdom became a French colony; and subsequently an independence movement began among some nationalistic intelligentsia who became inclined towards communism. War broke out between the forces loyal to Ho Chi Minh and French colonial forces in 1946; finally in 1954, under the Genève agreement, independence of Vietnam was officially recognized but unfortunately divided into two states, namely North and South Vietnams.
The war in Vietnam did not end there. North Vietnam was intent on unifying Vietnam; it was the USSR who provided military hardware and all-out assistance to North Vietnam in order to spread communism worldwide. South Vietnam was governed by despotic rulers, to whom the US supported militarily and otherwise so that they would act to prevent the spread of communism, the so-called “domino doctrine.” The war escalated when the US augmented its troops to fight in Vietnam and started bombing North Vietnam in 1965. It took another 10 years and casualties of more than 3 million lives from both sides to finally come to the end of the war, in 1975.
So, the Vietnam War showed us that a strong power would not necessarily prevail even when it intervened militarily in a proxy war. Can we draw a parallel in this case? Yes, the USSR intervened in an Afghani civil war on the government side in 1979, but withdrew bitterly after 10 years with heavy casualties on its side.
A topic of discussion on July 12, 2017: How would you like to see Australia in ten years from now? To that end, what actions are required?
Steve’s first comment was “I live in Japan, so I’m not that in touch with Australia now.” Then, he tried to focus on the importance of continuing to evolve Australia by “putting into place a correct system to manage its growth.” I didn’t know that Australia’s population (24 million as of 2011) is increasing by about one million every two years, which makes the country the fastest growing country in the industrialized world.
Steve went into specifics by mentioning an example of bad management related to Australia’s natural gas supply. Did you know that Australia is not only a net exporter of natural gas but will be the number one exporter by overtaking Qatar in 2019? So, where is the problem? It is common practice among natural resource exporters to make long term supply agreements with consuming countries. The problem seems to be the huge volume of natural gas that is destined for overseas customers does not leave enough to meet the growing volume of domestic needs. As a result, gas bills in the country surged causing social and political uproar.
So, Steve advocated for more thoughtful international supply agreements that will take into consideration domestic needs in a flexible way. As it is well known, Australia supplies a large amount of other natural resources, such as gold, zinc, and coal among others. It is said that by 2050, the supply of these resources will become minimal if not terminated. Here again, Australia must be prepared for this.
Now, let’s turn to some other long term concerns. Steve mentioned maintaining the high level of medical and welfare support that is provided to all Australians as the country braces for the population increase, including that of the eldly. Also, a climate change will have substantial impact. By 2050, it is said that temperatures are expected to increase by 4 degrees Celsius. Can you imagine what this affects? Agricultural produce and cattle production will be seriously affected. Well, the impact of climate change will certainly affect lives in Japan as well; what can we do?
A topic of discussion on June 14, 2017: What impresses you most about the ancient Greek civilization?
Surprisingly enough, Steve’s response to this question was not straight forward comments about the “outstanding” features of the ancient Greek civilization as expected. He raised a point that it was not necessarily the ancient Greeks who invented what we tend to regard as their feats, such as democracy (the Rigveda mentions there were democratic societies in ancient India), literature (the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia is regarded as the oldest literature), science (numeral zero was invented in ancient India), medicine among others. So, Steve tried to point out that based on the outcomes of previous civilizations - the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and the Indians – the Greeks benefitted from them one way or another by absorbing and enhancing their depth of knowledge and wisdom.
Having said so, Steve asserted that it was the ancient Greeks who excelled in philosophical thinking. Perhaps the emergence of city states with democratic ways of governing helped foster such wisdom, through in depth discussion on matters of interest with friends or in a group.
The ancient Greek disciplines were well documented and passed on to generation after generation, one country after another, and through subsequent civilizations, such as the ancient Roman Empire, the Islamic dynasties, and the Byzantine Empire. Thus their achievements survived and managed to become the basis of ushering in the Renaissance.
As appropriately pointed out by Steve, the evolution of any civilization took a considerable time, not decades but centuries, with the help of cross-cultural exchanges through trade and even war.
A topic of discussion for May 10, 2017: Article 9 of the Japanese constitution.
First of all, let me explain a hot constitutional debate regarding Article 9. The
Japanese constitution being radically modified after World War II was officially effected on May3, 1947. Under the strong guidance of the allied occupational forces and a desire of the Japanese
people to seek a new path for Japan towards a democratic and pacifist country, Article 9 of the constitution stipulates that, according to the official translation, (1) Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce
war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
A hot constitutional debate emerged during the Korean War, which erupted in 1950. Facing a potential threat, the allied occupational forces decided to re-establish Japanese military forces, which were initially called auxiliary police forces (subsequently became Self Defense Forces). So, those in favor of revising or rewriting the constitution have asserted the necessity to “legalize” Japanese military forces as the cornerstone of their proposed “a genuine Japanese constitution”. This has met strong opposition from those who strongly object to the revision of the constitution as both “undemocratic” and “repressive”.
In light of this prolonged dispute, Prime Minister Abe, himself a strong proponent for constitutional amendments, has recently proposed a “realistic” solution to Article 9: simply to add a third paragraph which will legitimize the Japanese Self Defense Forces somehow. Well, I should stop the prelude here.
Steve started that this issue should be resolved in peace time. Then we went on to talk about the national security environment of Japan taking into account of its geographical location in East Asia. To this, Steve mentioned that Japan, being an island nation coupled with the existence of the Japan-USA security treaty, manages a safe margin from its giant neighbors, such as China and Russia and the volatile Korean Peninsula. From this perspective, Steve candidly questioned “Is there an actual threat to Japan’s security?” He went on to contest whether it is a wise policy to keep spending a substantial amount of money on the military; why not spend less and instead spend more for other essential ends.
When asked about the security environment of Australia, Steve explained that a strong tie with America is an imperative factor to Australia’s defense plan. In the past, Australia sent its troops to Vietnam, Afghanistan and the Middle East in coordinated military operations with the US.
The Japanese constitution has been in effect for more than 70 years now, so it is deeply rooted among the people. It is by all means appropriate to revise the constitution from time to time, reflecting the wishes of the people, including Article 9; rather than adhering to it as “sacred” or provoking a complete re-writing of it as something that had been “forced upon” Japan.
A topic of discussion for April 12, 2017:
Which historical period in Japan are you most interested in?
Steve admitted that he was not very familiar with Japanese history but mentioned that he had an interest in the “modernization” or “westernization” of Japan after the Meiji Restoration. The powerful feudal lords of western Japan finally overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate in the late 19th Century, forming a strong centralized government based on the prerogative power of the Meiji emperor. This Meiji government, which was so fearful of the imperialistic acts of the major powers, immediately embarked upon the modernization of the country by strengthening both military and economic capabilities.
So, Japan managed to emerge as the strongest country in Asia. Democracy in Japan also evolved in time and universal suffrage for men was finally introduced in 1925. Somewhat, Japan followed the suite of other imperialistic powers by expanding its influence in Asia: Taiwan came under Japanese control in 1895, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and northern China or Manchuria became a puppet country under Japanese control in 1932. So, the rising power of Japan finally came face to face with the other major powers by entering WW2 in alliance with Germany and Italy in1941.
After the war, as it is well known, Japan managed to recover from the devastation and once again became a leading country in Asia. It is interesting to know that during the Tokugawa feudalistic period, Japan managed to accumulate both the capital and manpower needed for the rapid expansion thereafter.
A topic for discussion on March 8, 2016: Which historical period and place are you most interested in?
This time, Steve asked me what would be my choice. So, after a few moments, I decided to talk about the Edo period (from the beginning of the 17th Century to the mid-19th Century). This period was, on the one hand, ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate in a typically feudalistic way, nominally prohibiting foreign trade with outside countries: but, on the other hand, managed remarkably well to sustain peace and encourage economic growth for nearly three centuries. As a consequence, learning and arts such as Kabuki, Jyoruri (a puppet performance), Ukiyoe became popular. Interestingly enough, education for lower class kids was widely accessible (a sort of private teaching focused on writing and using abacus).
Then, it was Steve’s turn. He mentioned that he was interested in the evolution of culture through the Stone Age to the Iron Age, covering an archeological time of more than eight millenniums. In particular, Steve focused his talk on Mesopotamia (mostly the Sumer civilization) and Egypt. According to Wikipedia, The Sumer civilization was “the first urban civilization in the region of southern Mesopotamia”, which stretched from today’s Iraq, Kuwait to eastern Syria. It lasted for an astonishingly long period of more than 2.5 millenniums from 4500 to 2000 BCE. Mesopotamia means “land between rivers” (the Tigris and the Euphrates) according to ancient Greek. The area benefitted from rich fertile land suitable for farming, which was undoubtedly the basis for supporting the civilization.
Over a long evolutional time and perhaps with the help of intercrossed cultural influences, it helped develop civilization; “one of the earliest systems of writing was invented by the Sumerians”; amazing architecture, arts, governing system, mathematics and geometry were among other things invented and established.
I raised the possibility of aliens in the creation of ancient civilizations. I explained my own experience of visiting the Cairo Museum, Egypt, where I was overwhelmed by the magnificent artifacts excavated from the tomb of Tutankhamen in Luxor. After seeing them, I was inclined to believe the story of Aliens to “some extent”. To this, Steve pointed out that any ancient civilization took a long time to develop such things. What do you think? One day, a new archeological finding may see a change to our knowledge of ancient civilizations. How exciting that would be!
A topic of discussion on February 8, 2017:
What were the crutial factors in the emergence of the Renaissance?
This time we chose a subject that has had a profound historical impact on the world and hopefully still provides us with lessons today. Steve, who has an in depth knowledge of the topic, kicked off the talk by citing a question raised by the 19th Century scholars who delved into the origin of the Renaissance:
What actually motivated the Medici family in Florence to patronize artists who created such a prodigious quantity of masterpieces, the unquestionable starting phase of the Renaissance. The pundits went on to point out facts such as the decline of feudalism and the rise of the middle-class, which essentially explained impetus for the Renaissance. From here, we looked at these factors more closely.
The Black Death in the mid-14th Century that virtually wiped out as much as one third of the European population exacerbated the decline of the feudal system simply because of the huge depletion to the workforce. As a result, wages rose whereas the prices for food and land dropped. What did this lead to? The rise of the middle class. Merchants also flourished through expanding trade and commerce especially with the east, benefiting from the legacies of Pax Mongolica and the end of the Crusades. As wealth accumulated, people’s interests turned to arts and learning, thus ushering in the Renaissance.
In the mid-15th Century, another important event took place; the fall of Constantinople (The fall of the Byzantine Empire), which saw the exodus of Greek scholars with prolific classical books mainly to Italy. This greatly enhanced the learning of Greek classics.
Well, there is much more to be mentioned, such as the availability of cheaper paper/books and the invention of the mariner’s compass among others, but let me say this as a wrap-up for Donald Trump. The interaction of cultures, the expansion of trade, and encouraging arts will always bring something new and inspiring. Not by building a wall.
A topic of discussion on January 11, 2017:
What are the legacies of Pax Mongolica?
What is Pax Mongolica? The Mongol Empire was founded by Genghis Khan and lasted from the 13th to 14th Century. At the zenith of the empire, it stretched from Korea in the east to central Europe in the west, becoming the largest contiguous empire in history (about twice the size of the ancient Roman empire). The empire managed to bring about peace and stability to its people throughout the empire once the chaos or carnage associated with conquering new territories had subsided. Thus, it was called Pax Mongolica.
Due largely to the fact that the Mongols were essentially nomads with little commercial produce of their own, they relied on acquiring goods from beyond their borders. So, they placed importance on trade and commerce. Safe and efficient trade routes with ingenious relay stations were developed and well maintained; to facilitate commercial transactions, similar to today, notes and banking services were introduced. In this way, Chinese goods and produce, including jade and pearls, were sent to Europe and silverware and other European goods and produce were brought to China.
With goods and produce, new information, technologies, ideas, and thoughts were exchanged within the vast empire. It is interesting to know that the empire allowed religious freedom as long as the various religions did not oppose the Mongol rule. As a conclusion, Pax Mongolica had managed to bring about what we call globalism today, and greatly enhanced the east west relationship.
For the Japanese, the image of the Mongols is overly focused on Khubilai’s invasions, which took place twice during the 13th Century (and in each case they were obliged to retreat thanks largely to mighty typhoons, destroying the Mongolian fleets). This image has to be renewed in light of their historical legacy as explained above.