Monday 04 August 2003

How it really happened

A dead body lying in the middle of a country road with a superimposed title in German (ALLES IST SO GEWESEN. NICHTS WAR GENAU SO.) and an English subtitle (EVERYTHING HAPPENED LIKE THIS. NOTHING WAS EXACTLY LIKE THIS.)
Final scene in Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Stille nach dem Schuß

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Wednesday 06 August 2003

Comment policy

I caught up on the controversy about annotating comments left on on one’s blog by reading the arguments for and against, which are canvassed thoroughly in these posts and their accompanying comments:

I've always had an extremely liberal policy regarding comments about posts on this weblog: in 16 months of blogging I've removed one off-topic comment (though I should probably have removed a few more), a couple of abusive comments, and perhaps 30 spam comments. I doubt that having a comment policy will change things significantly. So why have one at all? Because the most cogent criticism leveled against Sam Ruby--I found the accusations of "censorship" unpersuasive--was that he implemented the policy without prior warning.

Here's my comment policy, which is based (very loosely) on Mark Pilgrim's but without the strikethrough annotation pioneered by Sam Ruby:

  • Wildly off-topic comments will be removed.
  • Spam (i.e. comments containing irrelevant links to commercial sites) will be removed.
  • Abusive comments will be removed.

Although Mark Pilgrim regards trackbacks as remote comments and subjects them to the same rules, like James Snell I'm inclined to be less stringent about trackbacks (it remains to be seen whether trackback spam becomes a problem).

In the interests of openness and transparency, material that has been removed will be identified thus:

  • [Removed (off-topic)]
  • [Removed (spam)]
  • [Removed (abusive)]

Links to spammer's sites will be deleted, their email addresses changed to, and their names truncated to four letters.

(I may implement Phil Ringalda's hack for /lib/MT/App/ that rejects comments from scumbag-z*

Comments may not be enabled for some posts and might be closed for others at my discretion. TrackBacks are now listed above comments on the individual archive pages.

In essence, nothing much has changed, rather some unstated practices have been made explicit. I'll sum up by quoting the request that Tom Coates includes at the beginning of the comments section of each of his posts:

Please remember to try and keep your comments on-topic, informative and polite. Unpopular viewpoints are welcome as long as they're pertinent. Some posts may be deleted if they would have been better sent as e-mails...

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Weblog Ethics

Although I found out about the accountability (Winer Watch) controversy long after it had concluded, I was triply interested since:

  • I’ve been the subject of one of Dave Winer’s (deleted) inflammatory posts;
  • I invented the term Doing a Dave (“substantially editing or removing content after having posted it to the web”); and
  • I once believed that changes to weblog entries should be clearly identified (using the <edit></edit> and <edit/> syntax suggested by Burningbird).

My brush with Dave Winer came just three days after I'd started blogging when, late one night, I noticed that I was zooming towards the top of "Wow," I thought to myself, "my blog's become really popular in just a few days." Actually, I'd copped a serve from Dave over a post about disappearing content, titled Did I hear someone mention integrity? I wrote a conciliatory follow-up and went to sleep. When I woke up, the flame had been replaced by a complimentary post about my (newly-designed) Radio weblog.

The end result? The "disagreement" drove an enormous amount of traffic to my new site, I met some terrific people (Burningbird recalled "I also met Jonathon Delacour in my first year, meeting him over a phrase, no less -- Doing a Dave. What a way to meet another person -- over doing a Dave."), and I discovered a corner of Blogaria worth settling down in. Actions always have consequences; but the consequences aren't always those we anticipate.

I still have strong reservations about removing entries but I've changed my mind about pretty much everything else. And while I can understand the impulse to encourage "accountability", I find I've crossed over to Dave Winer's side of the fence as regards "substantially editing (although not removing) content after having posted it to the web." For me, since writing is rewriting, the idea of tracking changes to a text is inimical to the essence of writing. But then I don't define weblogging in terms of journalism, which is Rebecca Blood's frame of reference for the rules she suggests in her essay Weblog Ethics, rules that she believes "form a basis of ethical behavior for online publishers of all kinds."

Any weblogger who expects to be accorded the privileges and protections of a professional journalist will need to go further than these principles. Rights have associated responsibilities; in the end it is an individual's professionalism and meticulous observance of recognized ethical standards that determines her status in the eyes of society and the law. For the rest of us, I believe the following standards are sufficient:

  1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true.
  2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.
  3. Publicly correct any misinformation.
  4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
  5. Disclose any conflict of interest.
  6. Note questionable and biased sources.

More importantly, I instinctively mistrust attempts like this to impose rules or standards, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. I agree with Dave Rogers when he says:

In my opinion, "accountability" is misused to impart some patina of authority to an agency that has none. I am accountable to the laws of my nation, state and city. I am accountable to the mother of my children as my children's father. I'm accountable to my employer within the context of my employment. I may or may not be accountable to an entity commonly known as God. That's an issue that we need not go into here. But I am not accountable to Mark Pilgrim or Dave Winer or any "community" that wishes to exercise some authority over me. I recognize my choices have consequences, but I do not recognize the authority of vaguely defined groups of others over my choices and actions.

This "community" of webloggers is trying to exercise some authority over other webloggers over how they choose to write and what they choose to post or take down. Screw them, I say.

That said, the simplest way for me to define my own weblog "ethics," and thereby to avoid any misunderstandings, is to explain how my practice departs from Rebecca Blood's rules.

1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true. The problem here is the assumption that facts and truth are equivalent. They're not, necessarily, for me. I'm more concerned with emotional truth. As in:

I don’t know if Jonathon ever dated a woman named Ikuko for real, but I know that I believe the stories he tells about her. (One Pot Meal)

2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it. No problem with this one--I'm meticulous about linking to material I quote.

3. Publicly correct any misinformation. According to my New Oxford Dictionary of English, misinformation is:

false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive

while fiction is:

literature in the form of prose, especially novels, that describes imaginary events and people

invention or fabrication as opposed to fact

a belief or statement which is false, but is often held to be true because it is expedient to do so.

Given that some of my weblog entries contain fictional elements--perhaps the people exist (or existed) but an event didn't happen exactly as I describe it or the event happened exactly as I describe it but to someone who never existed--I can't "publically correct any misinformation" without negating the truth of the story.

I've never set out to "deceive" anyone, though in retrospect it would have been infinitely better to have made it explicit much earlier that my interests (and my writing) were shifting from writing conventional weblog entries to telling stories. I regret that I didn't. Take this, then, as a belated announcement.

4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry. This rule exemplifies how Rebecca Blood's enterprise is based on the rules and practices of traditional media: the book has been printed, the newspaper has been published, the television or radio program has been broadcast (but remains available on tape), the prints of the movie have been struck. The expectation is that the information is immutable, that it has been inscribed on a stone tablet.

I find this difficult to accept. Rather I'd prefer to rewrite entries as many times as I choose, in the interests of improving the writing and getting closer to the emotional and intellectual truth of the story. I'm not writing a book, or a magazine article; and I'm not writing journalism.

But I'll need to tread carefully here. Rebecca Blood may have a point when she argues that:

Changing or deleting entries destroys the integrity of the network. The Web is designed to be connected; indeed, the weblog permalink is an invitation for others to link. Anyone who comments on or cites a document on the Web relies on that document (or entry) to remain unchanged...

The network of shared knowledge we are building will never be more than a novelty unless we protect its integrity by creating permanent records of our publications. The network benefits when even entries that are rendered irrelevant by changing circumstance are left as a historical record...

History can be rewritten, but it cannot be undone. Changing or deleting words is possible on the Web, but possibility does not always make good policy. Think before you publish and stand behind what you write. If you later decide you were wrong about something, make a note of it and move on.

So, although I won't promise not to rewrite any of my entries, I'll ensure that any subsequent editing does not negate the essence of the original post. Ultimately, however, my loyalty is to the writing and to the story.

As regards deleting entries, I did delete 19 entries about the technicalities of Radio UserLand when I switched to Movable Type (were I doing it again, I may well leave them there). And recently, because I wanted to reshape my weblog to reflect my current interests, I changed the status of a large number of entries from Publish to Draft--removing those entries from the navigation but--through the magic of Movable Type--leaving the archive pages intact, thus preserving the permalinks.

I may revisit the subject of deleting entries when Burningbird publishes Part 4 of her series on Weblog Links, to be called "Start fresh by sweeping out the old webs."

Sometimes you may want to break the permalinks, and sometimes you may want to deliberately throw out archive pages. This last section challenges the premise behind persistent archives, and the myth of the permalink.

5. Disclose any conflict of interest. No problem with this--on the few occasions when it was appropriate, I've been "quite transparent about [my] jobs and professional interests." When I received a book to review, I disclosed the circumstances. In the unlikely event that "any monetary (or other potentially conflicting) interests" arise, I'll disclose those too.

6. Note questionable and biased sources. With this rule, Rebecca Blood seeks to distinguish between questionable articles produced by "highly biased organizations or by seemingly fanatical individuals" and reliable stories produced by trustworthy professional organizations (The New York Times and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News spring immediately to mind).

It is reasonable to expect that expert foragers have the knowledge and motivation to assess the nature of these sources; it is not reasonable to assume that all readers do. Readers depend on weblogs, to some extent, for guidance in navigating the Web.

Well yes, as long as we acknowledge the fine line between providing guidance and insulting the reader's intelligence. When I write again about David Irving's book on the bombing of Dresden, I doubt I'll need to point out that Irving is a Holocaust-denier whose credentials as a historian have been comprehensively discredited. It should be enough to quote Richard J. Evans's assertion in Lying About Hitler that Irving's account of the Dresden raid was based on "fantasy, invention, speculation, the suppression of reliable evidence, the use of unreliable sources or, most shockingly, the repeated deployment of a document that he knew to be a forgery."

I've laid my cards on the table, making clear as best I can how I try to negotiate what Steve Himmer called, in his post titled Learning to read, "those issues of voice and trust are at the center of so much of the weblogging enterprise."

Obliqueness, to me, is inextricably bound up with that 'play of time' I mentioned: there's no need to tell everything all at once, because the text isn't asked to be complete all at once. Readers, over time, can assemble their own picture of who the author is, and what oblique references may or may not refer to, and that's the richness of reading weblogs, frankly. Even if you use, as in the famous Oblivio example a 'false' center for your obliqueness, the reader still has the opportunity to suss out over time the parameters and position of the author—the blogger may be a fictional character (as I said the other day, between the real me and the me I write here, one of us drinks more, but it could easily be that one of us is more confident, or actually says the things the other only imagines saying), but they're a fictional character existing in more dimensions than Oliver Twist or Leopold Bloom.

To sum up, I do occasionally use a "false"' center for my obliqueness and I may write about "fictional" characters (including myself), but only as a strategy for disclosing the "real me."

Addendum. In a comment on this entry, Dave Winer asked that I point to his disclaimer about integrity, which says (in part):

A while ago I wrote down two rules about integrity in public writing. It doesn't matter whether you're a pro or amateur. I think these two rules are necessary and sufficient.

1. Disclose all pertinent information about your interests.

2. Never state as fact something you know not to be true.

In a separate During-the-Day Edits Disclaimer, Dave explains that:

I edit my weblog as the day goes by. At 10PM Pacific, the contents of Scripting News is sent via email to people who subscribe. At that point, unless something exceptional happens, I don't edit any further. This policy has been in place since the by-mail-subscription feature was installed.

Though this process of editing "as the day goes by" precipitated the "accountability" war, it must be said that Dave has a policy that he's followed consistently. However, I suspect it's also true that the controversy is focused more on deleting than rewriting entries. And, apart from those few posts I deleted when switching to MT, I haven't really changed my mind about that.

Still, it can be seen as bitterly ironic (from Dave Winer's point of view), that having been critical of his editing until 10PM Pacific, I now claim the right to edit "as the weeks, months, and years go by."

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Thursday 07 August 2003

Did you miss me?

I’m blogging again. As I told a friend the other night, I realized how much—just like Ray Davis—I love the form. Not the link+quote+comment, time-stamped in reverse-chronological order form, but Steve Himmer’s changing and shifting over time, trying out new positions, refuting them, reclaiming them; trying on voices and faces form as well as the crossbreeding fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form (Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), which is how I see what I’m doing here.

During my two month hiatus from blogging I didn’t look at weblogs at all—until a trackback notification email from Burningbird alerted me to the controversy about annotating someone else’s comments on your blog, which led me to the fracas about rewriting or deleting weblog entries (aka accountability and the Winer Watch).

Since I’ve been troubled by the steady rise of spam in my comments, I thought it might be useful to implement a comment policy. Given that Burningbird has broached the subject of removing weblog archives entirely, and given that I have no qualms about rewriting entries nor the slightest commitment to notions of journalistic truth in weblog entries, I thought it would be helpful to explain my position regarding weblog ethics. I could then link to each of these posts in the “About” section of the navigation bar and get back to writing autobiographical essays with fictional traces.

Since the posts about comments and ethics are lengthy, here’s the executive summary:

  • Comments
    • Comments will not be edited or annotated.
    • Spam and wildly off-topic or abusive comments will be removed.
    • Comments may not be enabled for some entries and might be closed after a period of time for other entries.
    • Trackbacks will be subject to a more relaxed interpretation of the comment rules.
  • Weblog entries
    • Entries will be truthful although they may not always be factual.
    • Entries may be added to and rewritten at my discretion, whilst preserving the essence of the original version.
    • Entries will not be deleted (so that permalinks are preserved) although they may be removed from the site navigation.

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Friday 08 August 2003

True person table performance

Though I haven’t been to a strip club in a long time, I’ve been watching movies about stripping lately: Dancing at the Blue Iguana, shot by Michael Radford from a script “improvised” by the actors, with a stunning performance by Sandra Oh; Strip Notes, Daryl Hannah’s shapeless “video journal,” based on her research for the character she played in Blue Iguana; and Live Nude Girls Unite, a sharp, funny documentary by Julia Query and Vicky Funari about Ms Query’s campaign to unionize the dancers at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco.

Strip club neon sign, saying Live Show in English and Live  Performance in Chinese Late last week, on my way to visit a friend at St Luke’s hospital near Kings Cross, I noticed this neon sign at the entrance of a Darlinghurst Road strip club and was immediately curious about the Chinese characters (the sign on the other side of the entrance was in Korean and Japanese, the latter in katakana saying raibu shoh).

zhenren biaoyan, live performanceI’m not good at recognizing stylized characters but the second character is easy—hito (person)—and I was sure I’d quickly figure out the rest from one or other of my kanji dictionaries. After an hour or so of frustration I gave up and emailed Trevor Hill (, sending him the photo on the left.

Trevor’s reply arrived promptly. “It’s zhenren biaoyan,” he told me, “or ‘live performance/show,’ just like the English to the left.”

I’d guessed that there were two compounds but I’d never have got them in a million years because although the Japanese equivalent is shinjin hyouen, there are no such words in Japanese. The four characters are (in Japanese):

  •  makoto (true)
  •  hito (person)
  •  omote (table, surface)
  •  enjiru (to perform)

I got stuck on makoto because in the neon sign it has nine strokes but in Japanese it has ten. The bottom two characters had me totally baffled, though they were immediately obvious once Trevor had given me the answer. I guess the moral of the story is that I should take a break from my Japanese texts and spend more time walking around Chinatown.

[If the characters in the bulleted list above don’t appear correctly, you might want to enable Japanese support in your OS. Here’s how to do it.]

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You like me… you really like me!

adjective astonished; flabbergasted.

What a marvellous word, gobsmacked, although it underestimates how I feel about the warm and generous welcome back I’ve received. For all your comments, trackbacks, and emails—thank you. And yes, I do count myself a lucky man.


Sunday 10 August 2003

As We May Incinerate

“Ah. They destroyed all the napalm in 2001, you see,” writes Jill Walker. “What they dropped on Iraq wasn’t napalm, it was Mark 77. Well, yes, it does has the same effect but the chemical structure is slightly different. Really!”

Reading Jill’s entry—after I’d read the Sydney Morning Herald article to which she refers—and knowing that Jill is a hypertext theorist, I couldn’t help reflecting on the connection between hypertext and napalm, via Vannevar Bush, whose seminal essay As We May Think was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945.

Vannevar BushIn an article by Torill Mortensen & Jill Walker titled Blogging Thoughts, the co-authors summarize Bush’s ideas:

Computers were deliberately designed to reflect and augment our thinking. Vannevar Bush, a prominent developer of analogue computers, argued for mechanical, non-hierarchical ways of organising information which would be more suited to the associative thought patterns of our brains. In a 1949 article tellingly titled ‘As We May Think’, Bush sketches designs for a device he called the memex. Though never realised, Bush’s descriptions and thoughts about the memex are commonly seen as direct ancestors of today’s digital hypertext.

And connect Bush’s memex with blogging:

A blogger can be seen as a modern version of Vannevar Bush’s trail blazers: a person who links separate documents together, creating a trail or a path through them for others to follow.

In addition to being the prototypical “hypertext theorist,” Vannevar Bush was the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the US government agency responsible for coordinating R&D for most of the new American weapons developed during World War II, including the proximity fuze, the bazooka, the DUKW amphibious vehicle, the atomic bomb, and napalm.

In his biography of Vannevar Bush, Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the Twentieth Century, G. Pascal Zachary describes a conversation between Bush and General “Hap” Arnold, the head of the United States Army Air Force:

Bush… had piqued Arnold’s curiosity about firebombing in the first place by telling him about a new incendiary jelly called napalm. After hearing about the jelly, Arnold imagined the terrifying power of firebombs, fixated on one chilling image of napalm thrown in all directions and burning with such intensity that if dropped near the entrance to a cave or a building, they caused all the air to rush out and anyone inside died from lack of oxygen.

Since napalm was invented in 1942 by Dr. Louis Fieser and his team at Harvard, it is quite probable that Vannevar Bush was the first person to tell General Arnold about the new incendiary. It is, however, highly unlikely that Bush had “piqued Arnold’s curiosity about firebombing in the first place” nor that it was the first time Arnold had “imagined the the terrifying power of firebombs.” The possibility of subjecting vulnerable Japanese cities to attack by fire had arisen in the 1920s and 1930s, when American strategic bombing theorists were trying to imagine how a war with Japan might be conducted.

According to Kenneth P. Werrell’s Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II,

The bombing of Japan was very much in the public’s mind on both sides of the Pacific. Knowledgeable Americans and all Japanese knew that the latter’s cities were extremely vulnerable to fire, as demonstrated by the numerous earthquakes Japan had suffered throughout its history, particularly the earthquake of 1923. The fires from that monster quake raged for three days and in Tokyo cost the lives of about 110,000 and destroyed about 20 percent of the buildings. To the Japanese “the disaster was really the most horrible ever known since authentic history began.” The impact of the 1923 earthquake was the basis for much of the speculation concerning the potential of air attack, particularly fire raids, against Japan.

During the 1920s, according to Werrell, the leading American proponent of strategic bombing, General Billy Mitchell, “often asserted that the congested and flammable Japanese cities were especially vulnerable to air attack. He prophesied that bombers would lay waste to these cities from bases in the Aleutians, Kuriles, eastern Siberia, or Kamchatka.”

And Werrell quotes the top army airman, Oscar Westover as saying in 1937 that:

Japan was menaced by air bases in Siberia and “may expect a ruthless bombardment of her tinderbox cities. She [Japan] has not forgotten the terrible fire which followed the earthquake.” Incendiary attack, Westover surmised, would equal many such earthquakes.

The Japanese were equally worried, with many experts predicting that an air attack on Tokyo would result in destruction and casualties comparable to the 1923 earthquake or the other great fire that ravaged Edo (as Tokyo was called then): the Meireki Fire of 1657, which killed at least 100,000 people, though some estimates run as high as 200,000. Fire was “the greatest fear of all Japanese” and yet the Japanese firefighting service was poorly trained and ill-equipped to deal with fire on the scale being contemplated by bombing theorists.

In early 1940 General Claire Chennault also suggested the firebombing of Japanese cities:

Chennault wrote Hap Arnold concerning the potential of small incendiaries against oriental cities. The United States, Arnold responded, was only interested in the precision bombing of military targets, and the “use of incendiaries against cities was contrary to our national policy of attacking military objectives.” Chennault countered that, with 500 aircraft built, crewed, and maintained by Americans, [his Chinese airforce] would be able to “burn out the industrial heart of the [Japanese] Empire with fire-bomb attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps of Honshu and Kyushu.” Whereas Arnold and the airmen rejected the idea, Roosevelt was delighted by the proposal and ordered his top cabinet officials to work on the project.

General Arnold’s refusal to countenance the firebombing of Japanese cities was an unambiguous expression of the USAAF’s tactical doctrine of precision bombing: in Werrell’s words, “the destruction of vital physical objectives, not the killing or the terrorizing of populations.” As late as 1939, one of the USAAF Tactical School lecturers

objected to the concept of the direct attack of civilians with bombs and gas, even though “most of the European nations are definitely contemplating such a method of attack.” Such action, he continued, is “repugnant to our humanitarian principles, and is certainly a method of warfare that we would adopt only with great reluctance and regret.”

Yet on 15 November 1941 Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall gave a secret briefing to seven Washington journalists in which he told them that the US was on the brink of war with Japan and “intended to fight a merciless war, with B-17s being ‘dispatched immediately to set the paper cities of Japan on fire. There won’t be any hesitation about bombing civilians—it will be all out.’”

Most of General Marshall’s subordinates in the Army Air Force did not agree, believing instead that precision bombing could be achieved with the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers, each fitted with up to ten .50-caliber machine guns and equipped with the Norden bombsight. They were confident that by dispatching 300 bombers or more at a time, the heavily-armed formation could fight its way to the target and back without the fighter escort that the British and Germans had already discovered was essential for any kind of daylight bombing. Once over the target, the highly accurate Norden bombsight would ensure that no bombs would go astray and cause civilian casualties.

According to Werrell, tests of bombing accuracy conducted in the late thirties showed that the bombers could get their bombs “within 270 feet of the aiming point from altitudes below 10,000 feet—extrapolated to 20,000 feet, this was equal to less than 460 feet.” The airmen called this “pickle-barrel” bombing, failing to realize that a theory “proven” under clear American skies with no enemy opposition would count for little when applied to the real situation in Europe where dense cloud was common, the flak (anti-aircraft fire) was concentrated and accurate, and the German fighter pilots were well-trained, resolute, and courageous.

Under the optimum conditions—clear weather, light flak, and few or no fighters—precision bombing was indeed possible, as shown by the raid on the Messerschmitt aircraft factory at Regensberg on 17 August 1943. Colonel Curtis LeMay’s force bombed so precisely that, according to Martin Middlebrook’s The Schweinfurt-Regensberg Mission:

The people of Regensberg were full of admiration and respect for the accuracy of the American bomber crews. One [German] lady made me promise to record her comment: “Everyone in the town was surprised that the Barmherzigebrüder Hospital was untouched when almost every building in the factory was hit. We all said that it was a perfect example of precision bombing.

But under the conditions that frequently prevailed over Germany, the Eighth Air Force was forced to bomb “blind” using radar during the day, as the British did at night. As late as January 1945, it was accepted by USAAF bomber commanders that “the average bombing error using instruments was still about two miles and that to hit the target involved drenching an area with bombs to achieve any results.”

In that respect, although the American aircrew regarded precision bombing as morally superior to the British methods, the results of many USAAF raids were hardly different to those of the RAF’s area attacks, which used incendiary bombs to burn out the workers’ housing in the center of many German industrial cities. Ironically, LeMay had to resort to area bombing when the unpredictable weather and the high-altitude jetstream made precision bombing against Japanese targets virtually impossible.

By March 1945, when (the now) General LeMay was under pressure to achieve results in the air war over Japan, the USAAF had a variety of available incendiary munitions, most of them developed after the US had entered the war. Werrell explains that the US airmen “recognized that incendiary conditions in Japan differed from those in Germany”:

80 percent of Japanese cities were built with wood and paper, whereas 95 percent of German cities were constructed of brick and stone. Roof construction was most important, as the incendiary had to penetrate into the building’s interior to be effective, which was easier to do in the straw or thatch roofs of many of Japan’s structures. In addition, Japanese cities were much more crowded, with the result that fires would be more difficult to control. And although German fire-fighting capabilities were perhaps the best in the world, Japanese firefighters were few in number and their equipment was sparse.

By 1941, the AAF had two incendiary bombs: the 73 pound M-47 (for penetrating roofs) and the four pound M-50, based on a British design, which easily ignited wooden buildings. The M-50 was dropped in a cluster of 34 bombs, which separated a few thousand feet over the target, ensuring that the firebombs were “distributed for maximum effect.”

However, as Werrell explains, “a third incendiary bomb… became the AAF fire starter of choice:”

In September 1941 Arnold wrote that U.S. airmen required an incendiary bomb and urged that a substitute be found for magnesium, which was in short supply. Jellied gasoline, or napalm, was one of the fillers developed and has been the standard ever since. The end product was small (3 inches in diameter and 20 inches long) and light (weighing only 6.2 pounds). It was first tested in early 1942 and proved superior to all other small bombs under development. (The advantage of small bombs was that they could start many fires and overwhelm firefighters.) One of its negative characteristics, however, was that it tumbled as it fell, which proved a major problem since it had to hit a target with its nose to ignite the fuse. In 1943 the bomb was fitted with a three-foot cloth streamer—a stabilizing fin would have been too bulky for the small device—and it solved the problem. Initially, this bomb was called [the] M-56, and then was redesignated the M-69.

Diagrams of M-69 incendiary bomb
M-19 Aimable Cluster containing 38 M-69 incendiary bombs
Nihon kūshū: beigun ga kiroku shita
(An Account of the Air Raids on Japan—Based on US Military Records)

The first napalm bomb was used in the invasion of Tinian which commenced on 23 July 1944—after nearby Saipan had been captured. These islands in the Marianas, once taken, would provide sites for airfields from which B-29s could attack Japan. (The 509th Composite Group, which dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was based on Tinian.)

By the time the B-29s of LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command took off from Guam, Saipan, and Tinian on the evening of 9 March 1945, the M-69 had been thoroughly trialled:

To provide more realistic tests of incendiary devices, U.S. military authorities built replicas of both a German and Japanese village at two locations. They went to great lengths to duplicate conditions as closely as possible. The Japanese “village” at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, consisted of a dozen two-family houses complete with wood, tatami (straw floor covering), and furniture simulating Japanese construction. Tests began there in May and lasted through September 1943. Four types of bombs were used, with the M-69 proving to be the most effective. When the results of these tests were challenged by the British, who had been running their own incendiary tests, the tests were reassessed. Experts concluded that the Dugway tests were done under conditions that were drier than those of Japan, while British conditions had been too wet, since the climate of Japan is more like that of eastern North Carolina than that of either Utah or Great Britain. In further tests at Elgin Field [Florida] in April 1944, B-17s dropped incendiaries on surrogate Japanese houses. Firefighters reached the fires three and a half minutes after the incendiaries ignited and found five or six fires burning that could not be handled by anything except the major fire equipment of large city fire departments. All of the buildings were destroyed.

German housing at the Dugway Proving Ground(Though the Japanese village at Dugway was completely annihilated, an article by Jonathan Glancey describes the “single block of high-gabled, prewar Berlin working-class housing” that remains in the Utah desert. “It is accurate in every respect. And it should be: commissioned by the chemical warfare corps of the US army, it was designed by Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), the German architect who settled in the US in 1941 after a spell in England.” Even more bizarre is the fact that “German-emigré set designers from Hollywood’s RKO studio” used their expertise to design “the proletarian Berlin interiors down to the last detail.” Recently the remaining building in the German village has been repurposed as “a training center for tactical offense against domestic terrorism.”)

“Sixteen square miles of the city [of Tokyo] was destroyed,” writes Robin Neillands in The Bomber War, about the March 9/10 raid on Tokyo:

18 per cent industrial, 63 per cent commercial, and the entire working-class residential zone, amounting to around 250,000 houses. The US Strategic Bombing Survey estimated that 87,792 people lost their lives, 40,918 suffered injuries, and over 1 million lost their homes on that one mission. And yet this raid on Tokyo is virtually unknown outside Japan. It is a fair assumption that every reader of this book will know about Dresden but that not one in a hundred—at a generous estimate—will know what happened to Tokyo on 10 March 1945, just three weeks later.

In the ABC radio documentary, Tokyo’s Burning, B-29 pilot Chester Marshall recalled the experience of bombing Tokyo that night:

You know, you didn’t know whether you were killing a lot of women and children or what. But I do know one thing, you could at 5,000 feet you could smell the flesh burning. I couldn’t eat anything for two or three days. You know it was nauseating, really. We just said “What is that I smell?” And it’s a kind of a sweet smell, and somebody said, “Well that’s flesh burning, had to be.”

As for Vannevar Bush, “the father of hypertext,” it seems he never forgot either napalm or Tokyo. In his biography of Bush, G. Pascal Zachary writes that Merle Tuve, whose team developed the proximity fuze under Bush’s direction, believed

that Bush suffered from war guilt. Not from the atomic bomb, but from his role in aiding the ghastly firebomb raids against Japan. “For years after the war Van Bush would wake up screaming in the night because… he burned Tokyo,” Tuve later recalled. “The proximity fuze didn’t bother him badly… even the atomic bomb didn’t bother him as much as jellied gasoline [napalm].”

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Wednesday 13 August 2003

Thunderbird is go!

Once I discovered the wonder of UniCode, I realized I needed a new email client. Eudora is my everyday email client but it’s not Unicode-aware so for the past few years I’ve been using Rimarts Becky! to send and read Japanese email. I had no trouble creating and reading Chinese messages in Becky! (not that I understand Chinese but I’ve developed an interest how kanji are written differently in Chinese and Japanese). However, despite my best efforts, I’ve had no success with Korean (not that I understand Korean either but I suspect the WonderChicken will come up with a reason). So I went hunting for another email client. A Google search on “unicode email client” yielded a Multilingual Browsers & Email Clients page, with recommendations for Outlook Express, Netscape, Mozilla, and Opera plus several standalone email clients:

  • Scribe
  • TabMail
  • The Bat
  • Becky!
  • LingoMAIL

I’d rather give up email than use Outlook Express and I don’t like browser-based email clients. I gave Scribe a spin but couldn’t even get it to work with Japanese, let alone Chinese or Korean.

Then I recalled Phil Ringnalda saying something about Thunderbird. Who in our neighborhood, apart from Phil, wouldn’t be wary about installing a 0.1 version of an application? But I dived in and, fifteen minutes later, had sent and received a series of test messages in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. And ten of those fifteen minutes were spent locating my Berlitz Korean for Travellers Phrase Book then figuring out how to get the Korean IME to work.

I’m used to simply typing romaji to enter Japanese (and it took ten seconds or so to suss out pinyin) so I thought I’d be able to type ch’an maek⋅chu⋅rŭl chu⋅se⋅yo (“I’d like a cold beer, please”) on my English keyboard—just as I’d type bīru o itadakitai’n desu ga in romaji—and that the IME would convert the hanglish to Hangul. But the only way I could enter Korean was by referring to this keyboard map. Maybe someone can tell me where I’m going astray.

Anyway, if you’re looking for a CJK email client, look no further. The 0.1 version of Thunderbird is better than anything else I’ve tried.

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Saturday 16 August 2003

A quotation for all seasons

Victor Klemperer's diaries: book coversI started to read—at Language Hat’s suggestion—Victor Klemperer’s diaries, a remarkable account of the everyday life of a Jew living in Hitler’s Germany from 1933 to 1945.

In early February 1945, Klemperer was one of 198 registered Jews in Dresden, having thus far escaped being deported to Riga, Auschwitz, or Theresienstadt because, like all the remaining Jews in the city, he had a non-Jewish spouse. If his wife, Eva, had died or had divorced him, Klemperer’s name would have been instantly placed on the list for deportation. In fact, on Tuesday 13 February 1945, all physically fit Jews were ordered to report on the following Friday. Klemperer was headed for a death camp.

But on the night of Tuesday 13 February 1945, RAF Bomber Command launched a twin attack on Dresden: an initial raid, which marked the target area and set it alight, was followed by a much heavier raid three hours later, when the German fighter defence had run out of fuel and the firefighters and rescue workers were struggling to contain the fires that had already taken hold in the center of the city. The resulting firestorm was responsible for most of the estimated 35,000 fatalities. On the following two days the US Eighth Air Force launched further attacks on the beleaguered city and in the ensuring confusion Victor Klemperer and his wife fled across Germany for the next three months “until finally the village they had reached in southern Bavaria was overrun by American forces.”

A couple of months ago, in an post titled Provocation and Retribution, I wrote:

As I continue to read books and watch films about the persecution and extermination of the Jews and the annihilation of German civilians in the Allied bombing raids, it’s difficult not to imagine one as retribution for the other.

The cover photographs of the two volumes of Klemperer’s diaries illustrate this cause and effect relationship with great economy: firstly, the enforcement of a boycott against Jewish shops; and then, two women moving rubble in the ruins of Dresden’s Frauenkirche.

I’d read less than a hundred pages of the first volume before realizing that I know too little of the history of the Third Reich to understand many of Klemperer’s references. So I went back to a book I’d bought around the same time, Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler. I’ve already quoted a conversation Klemperer had with two of his students who, despite being anti-Nazi, had no sympathy for two young women executed for allegedly spying for Poland:

They saw no fault in the procedures of the secret trial, nor were they troubled in the least that the accused had been denied essential legal rights.

Klemperer’s first diary entry is for 14 January 1933. Hitler became Chancellor on 30 January 1933. Two months later to the day, on March 30, Klemperer writes:

Frau Dember related the case of the ill-treatment of a Communist prisoner which had leaked out: torture, with castor oil, beatings, fear—attempted suicide. Dr Salzburg’s second son, a medical student, has been arrested—letters from him had been found in the home of a Communist.

The same entry ends:

In a toyshop a children’s ball with a swastika.

Gellately describes the ease with which the German people relinquished their civil liberties:

Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on 30 January 1933 was followed next day by the dissolution of the Reichstag. His slogan for the elections called for 5 March, “Attack on Marxism”, was bound to appeal to solid citizens and property owners. Hermann Göring, one of the few Nazis in Hitler’s Cabinet, took immediate steps to introduce emergency police measures. Over the next weeks the Nazis did not need to use the kind of massive violence associated with modern takeovers like the Russian Revolution. There was little or no organized opposition, and historian Golo Mann said of those times that “it was the feeling that Hitler was historically right which made a large part of the nation ignore the horrors of the Nazi takeover…. People were ready for it.” To the extent that terror was used, it was selective, and it was initially aimed mainly at Communists and other (loosely defined) opposition individuals who were portrayed as the “enemies of the people”.

By mid-February 1933, Göring had replaced numerous police chiefs throughout Prussia because they belonged to the Social Democratic party.

Reading about the tacit complicity of ordinary Germans in Hitler’s rise to power, one is inevitably reminded of Martin Niemöller’s warning about the consequences of capitulation in the face of tyranny:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing.
Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing.
Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist.
And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little.
Then when they came for me, there was no one left to stand up for me.

Until I went searching for the correct wording on the Web—at first I thought that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had made the famous statement—I wasn’t aware that this quotation has, in Gerry Cordon’s words, “a life of its own”, that there is no “master” version.

The version above—the one quoted by Gerry Cordon—mentions Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, Jews, and me (Niemöller himself), in that order. A similar version is cited by the Jewish Virtual Library, with the explanation that the “exact phrasing was supplied by Sibylle Sarah Niemöller von Sell, Martin Niemöller’s wife”.

But, as Gerry Cordon points out, different people “use the quotation to imply different meanings—even altering it to suit their purpose”:

  • When Time magazine used the quotation, they moved the Jews to the first place, added Roman Catholics, and dropped both the Communists and the Social Democrats—Jews, trade unionists, Catholics, me.
  • Former Vice-President Al Gore also added the Catholics, but dropped the trade unionists—Communists, Social Democrats, Catholics, Jews, me.
  • In the quotation inscribed on the Holocaust memorial in the heavily Catholic city of Boston, Catholics were added, Social Democrats removed, and Jews moved into second place—Communists, Jews, trade unionists, Catholics, me.
  • The US Holocaust Museum includes the Social Democrats but drops the Communists—Social Democrats, trade unionists, Jews, me.
  • omits the Social Democrats and moves the Jews to first place—Jews, Communists, trade unionists, me.
  • The version read into the Congressional Record by Congressman Henry Reuss of Wisconsin (14 October 1968, page 31636) omits the Communists, moves Jews to first place, and adds Catholics and industrialists—Jews, Catholics, unions, industrialists, me (and the Protestant church).

Harold Marcuse, a UCSB historian and author of Legacies of Dachau, has extensively researched the famous quotation—his Niemöller page addresses the questions:

  • What did Niemöller really say?
  • Which groups did he name?
  • In what order?

Martin NiemollerProfessor Marcuse describes Martin Niemöller as a Lutheran pastor in a wealthy Berlin suburb—someone who, at least until the mid-1930s, was “a typical Christian antisemite who openly professed his belief that the Jews had been punished through the ages because they had ‘brought the Christ of God to the cross.’” Initially a supporter of Hitler, he became an opponent of the Nazis when they started to interfere in church affairs. As a consequence of his outspoken sermons Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then moved in 1941 to Dachau where he was confined until the war’s end.

Marcuse suggests that the quotation arose from a visit by Niemöller and his wife to Dachau:

Shortly after the end of the war Niemöller became convinced that the German people had a collective responsibility (he often used the word Schuld, guilt) for the Nazi atrocities. In October 1945 Niemöller was the the prime mover behind the German Protestant Church’s “Confession of Guilt” (“Stuttgarter Schuldbekenntnis”). In later speeches Niemöller claimed that a November 1945 visit to Dachau, where the crematorium was being kept as a memorial site, began that process of recognition.

I think that it was in this context that Niemöller’s most quoted saying evolved. This early statement implies that he may have thought first of the Communists, then the disabled, then Jews, and finally countries conquered by Germany. However, it is also likely that he modified what he said for different audiences, perhaps including other groups, or changing the order depending on his goals. (I am suggesting that there may not be ONE SINGLE master quotation, but several versions used by MN himself.)

In the earliest texts that Harold Marcuse has been able to locate, Niemöller “spoke of the Communists, the disabled, and the Jews, in that order. He also mentioned Jehovah’s Witnesses”. Thus, despite the ambiguity, it seems certain that the Communists were named first—as suggested by Klemperer’s report of the Communist who was arrested and tortured in March 1933.

What is most interesting is not that Niemöller used different versions himself but rather the self-serving way the quotation has been “reworked” by others to suit their own ends: the version in the US Congressional Record being clearly the most egregious example of such distortion, since it replaces “Communists” with “industrialists”.

Ironically, it is just this kind of manipulation and subversion of language that Victor Klemperer exposed in his book The Language of the Third Reich, which describes how “the existing social culture was manipulated and subverted as the German people had their ethical values and their thoughts about politics, history and daily life recast in a new language.”

Happily, that is all in the past. As I recently heard George W. Bush say on television: “These are good days in the history of freedom”.

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Tuesday 19 August 2003

Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi

It was probably silly and unfair to watch Richard Linklater’s Waking Life immediately after seeing Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away. I’d been looking forward to Linklater’s “animated-live-action” movie for a couple of years, ever since reading the Stephanie Zacharek’s Salon review.

The picture, which Linklater both wrote and directed, is a collagelike meditation on the nature of dreams, on the ways in which we proceed through our lives with varying levels of awareness (or a complete lack of it), and on the degree to which we’re influenced by random elements like art or physics or language.

What’s not to like? Art and language absorb most of my attention. And, it’s not just that I have intense, engrossing dreams almost every night—I’ve long been convinced that life is a yume no ukihashi (“a floating bridge of dreams”), in the words of Ivan Morris, “a flimsy, dreamlike structure which we cross in our journey from one state of existence to another”.

There’s no point in trying to explain why I didn’t persist with Waking Life; under different circumstances I might have loved it. The real surprise was the degree to which I was spirited away by Miyazaki’s film. My interest in Japanese language and culture—intense as it is—has never encompassed anime. I’ve seen and enjoyed some of the classics such as Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, The Castle of Cagliostro, Akira, Wings of Honneamise, Neon Genesis Evangelion plus a few hentai titles. Earlier in the year I even waited in line for a special screening of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, only to be turned away when they sold the last tickets to a couple just ahead of me. Still, that hardly qualifies me as a anime fan—you’d cover all the movies I’ve mentioned and more in the first week of Anime 101.

To be honest, I’d been put off by the hype surrounding Spirited Away. But on Thursday nights it’s only AU$2.95 per three-day rental so I grabbed Spirited Away, Waking Life, and a Henry Jaglom movie, Festival in Cannes, which turned out to be a disappointment too. (I’ve admired Henry Jaglom ever since his first feature, the magical A Safe Place, with Orson Welles, Jack Nicholson, and Tuesday Weld but I wrongly assumed that Anouk Aimée would more than compensate for the irksome Gretta Scacchi.)

Poster for Spirited Away (Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi)Though I expected to watch a different movie each night, on Thursday night I didn’t even get half-way through Spirited Away. I kept rewinding (do you rewind a DVD?) and watching scenes over and over again—partly to savor the dialog, mainly because the movie is so densely packed with intriguing characters, gorgeous animation, and nostalgic details of everyday Japanese life. On Friday night I managed to get to the end. At which point, even though it was late, I started to watch Spirited Away a second time.

On Saturday morning I spent some time at, where I was astonished to learn that the Japanese title is 千と千尋の神隠し (Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi) which is (literally) “Sen and Chihiro’s spiriting away” or “Sen and Chihiro’s (experience of) being spirited away”.

神隠し (kamikakushi) is derived from (kami: god) and 隠す (kakusu: hide/conceal). One of my dictionaries offers the following example sentence:

Mukashi, kodomo ga yukuefumei ni naru to kamikakushi ni atta to itta mono da.
Formerly, when children were missing, people used to say they had been spirited away (by a fairy [ghost]).

Sen and chi are alternate pronunciations for the character , meaning “one thousand”, while hiro, , means “fathom” (1.8 meters or six feet). Jim Breen’s Enamdict dictionary of Japanese names, offers the meanings “one thousand fathoms”, “great depth”, and “bottomless” for Chihiro though the second meaning, “great depth”, is probably closest.

I’m sure that 99.99% of a Western audience would think of 10 year-old Chihiro as the protagonist of Spirited Away. Chihiro and her parents wander into an invisible parallel world populated by gods and monsters, a hot spring town where “eight million gods come to rest their weary bones”. Her parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro’s only chance of surviving long enough to set them free is to work for Yubaba, the greedy witch who runs the bath house where most of the action takes place. Yubaba deprives Chihiro of her name, saying that it’s too complicated, and that from now on she’ll be known as Sen.

Thus, from a Western perspective, a timid, querulous little girl Chihiro is “turned into” Sen and discovers through the course of the story that she is resourceful, loyal, and courageous whereupon, at the end, she “turns back into herself” (Chihiro) again. Not only does the English title, Spirited Away, infer that the story is about Chihiro alone but the French and Spanish titles are completely unambiguous: Le Voyage de Chihiro and El viaje de Chihiro respectively. The Russian version is called Unesenniye prizrakami (I trust a Russian speaker will reveal the meaning in a comment) whereas the Chinese title is Shen Yin Shao Niu (The Missing Girl).

But the original Japanese title, Sen to chihiro no kamikakushi (“Sen and Chihiro’s spiriting away”) implies that Sen was always present within Chihiro and one of the story’s themes is Chihiro’s discovering a lost or unacknowledged part of her identity. I’m not suggesting that a Western audience won’t understand the story at this level; I’m simply pointing out that the Western translations of the title fail to communicate something that—from the Japanese perspective—lies at the heart of the story. Sen always understands that her “real” name is Chihiro and that if she forgets her name she has no chance of freeing herself and her parents. In that sense, another theme of the film is the need to value words, including one’s name. As Miyazaki Hayao explains:

A word has power. In the world into which Chihiro has wandered, to say a word out of one’s mouth has a grave importance. At Yuya, which is ruled by Yubaba, if Chihiro says one word like “No” or “I wanna go home,” the witch would quickly throw Chihiro out. She would have no choice but to keep aimlessly wandering until she vanishes, or is changed into a chicken to keep laying eggs until she is eaten. In turn, if Chihiro says “I will work here,” even the witch cannot ignore her. Today, words are considered very lightly, as something like bubbles. It is just a reflection of reality being empty. It is still true that a word has power. It’s just that the world is filled with empty and powerless words.

The act of depriving (a person) of one’s name is not just changing how one (person) calls the other. It is a way to rule the other (person) completely. Sen becomes horrified when she realizes that she is losing the memory of her name, Chihiro. And every time she visits her parents at the pigsty, she becomes (more) accustomed to her parents as pigs. In the world of Yubaba, you should always live in the danger of being eaten up.

In this difficult world, Chihiro becomes lively. The sullen, listless character would have a surprisingly attractive expression in the end of the film. The essence of the world has not changed a bit. This film will persuade one of the fact that a word is one’s will, oneself, and one’s power.

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Monday 25 August 2003


Over the next two months, the Art Gallery of New South Wales is staging an exhibition entitled Seasons: The Beauty of Transience in Japanese Art, co-organized with Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Japan Foundation and consisting of 94 works, covering the 15th to early 20th centuries. Because of the fragility of many of the works, the exhibition changes halfway through. Currently, the seasonal focus is on spring and summer, with the theme switching to autumn and winter during the second month. Yesterday I attended a tour, organized by the Australia-Japan Society, in which the curator of the exhibition, Dr Chiaki Ajioka, acted as a guide to the works.

I went without high expectations since so many overseas exhibitions that come to Australia consist of a few major pieces along with dozens of minor works to make up the numbers. Not in this case: almost every work was first-rate, making me aware of how little I’ve seen in Japan and elsewhere, despite all the museums I’ve visited. Consequently, there is simply too much to take in at a single viewing. (Who was it that suggested you should only look at one or two works when visiting an art museum?) But, since a ticket for both exhibitions only costs AU$10 (US$6.50), I can afford to go once a week.

In addition to the traditional screens, scrolls, lacquerware, and ceramics (and a few “modern” paintings), a variety of kimono were displayed. My interest in kimono is comparatively recent—when I was younger I would have foolishly dismissed kimono as “craft” rather than “real art”. But a 1998 exhibition of ukiyo-e and kimono at the National Gallery of Australia—titled Beauty and Desire in Edo Period Japan—cured my ignorance.

Kosode with moon and chestnut treeMost of the kimono in the current exhibition are kosode (小袖), the traditional name for what is regarded nowadays as a typical kimono. The kosode, whose name comprises the characters for “small” () and “sleeve” (), is more practical than the long-sleeved furisode (振り袖).

This 19th centurykosode uses paste-resist dyeing and embroidery on purple and yellow silk crepe to depict a chestnut tree with the moon behind the clouds on the left shoulder and bush clovers and chrysanthemums on the ground below the tree.

The kimono illustrated on this page devoted to an exhibition held at the Suntory Building a few years ago, titled Edo á la Mode: Aesthetic Lineages Seen in Kosode Kimono Motifs, demonstrate the elaborate tie-dyeing, embroidery, and paste-resist dyeing techniques used in decorating both kosode and furisode.

Furisode with tea-picking scenesMy favorite from the Seasons exhibition is a relatively simple 19th century furisode, in which paste-resist dyeing has been employed on glossy gray silk to depict a variety of tea-picking activities. According to the catalog, “no other designs of tea-picking scenes in kimono are known, making this an unusual piece.” It’s the austerity rather than the rarity, as well as the explicit connection to everyday life, that I find appealing.

The furi () in furisode primarily means “wave, oscillate, swing” but the character has a range of secondary meanings including “dress, personal appearance”, “make-believe, pretence”, and “posture, gesture”. It is the numeric counter for Japanese swords (as in sanburi, three swords) and—using its on reading, shin—can refer to a baseball swing so that sanshin, 三振, (three + swing) means “strikeout”.

As a suffix, -bu(ri), it can mean “after a lapse of” and is used in the common expression 久し振りですね (hisashiburi desu ne), “I haven’t seen you for a long time”. It can also mean “manner” or “style”, as in 飲みっ振りが良いね (nomippuri ga ii ne), “You can really down it [alcohol], eh!” (which I’ll be able to say to the WonderChicken when we eventually get together).

Historically, the furisode is associated with the disastrous Meireki Fire of March 1657, which broke out in the Honmyōji temple in the Hongo district of Edo (now Tokyo) and swept through the city for two days, killing more than 100,000 people.

Woodblock illustration depicting the Meireki fire of 1657

In the woodblock illustration, people plunge into a canal in an attempt to escape the flames, just as they did nearly 400 years later during the firebombing raid of March 1945.

The Meireki Fire is also known as the Furisode Fire since, according to my Illustrated Japanese Encyclopedia, it is believed to have been “caused by sparks from a kimono being burned in an exorcism ceremony” (although I always imagined it occurred when one of the female attendants accidentally brushed the long sleeve of her kimono against a lit brazier). Whatever the actual cause, this may be another example of blaming women for disasters, whether natural or man-made.

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Saturday 30 August 2003

You can put your god over there…

Years ago, while waiting at a bus stop outside a Hungry Jack’s hamburger outlet in downtown Sydney, I found myself standing next to a young Asian woman holding a thick Bible and wearing a badge on which was inscribed, in white letters on a black background:


I’d seen hundreds of young Mormon men over the years, in their short-sleeved white shirts and black trousers, with identical Bibles and similar badges—particularly around the entertainment district where I was waiting for the bus—but Sister Nakajima was the first Japanese Christian I’d ever encountered. I’ve often wished I had overcome my reticence and asked about her religious faith. My feeling of being in the presence of a freak (in the sense of “an eccentric, peculiar, or unorthodox person”) was nothing more than an expression of the widely-held belief in the incompatibility between Christianity and the Japanese Weltanschauung.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “worldview” as:

  1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.
  2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.
    In both senses also called Weltanschauung.

I chose the original German word rather than its English equivalent because its “weight” seems to better express the idea that the Japanese do see and interpret certain aspects of the world differently. (So do the Kurds and the Peruvians, you might say, and I agree—but we’re discussing religion and the Japanese willingness to accept different religious traditions is unusual, if not unique.)

I thought of Sister Nakajima of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when I read Burningbird’s essay, Shinto Commandments, itself a response to Joi Ito’s entry, The whole “there is only one God and my God is the best” thing…, in which Joi wrote:

As we Shintos like to say, you can put your god over there next to our other gods. While you’re at it, why don’t you get off your high horse and quit defining Good and Evil as Us and Them.

Burningbird concluded her discussion of Chief Justice Roy Moore’s granite statue of the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court building by saying:

All in all, I like Joi’s Shinto beliefs, with the concept of there being room for all gods. Yeah, hard to fight about that one.

I like Joi’s Shinto beliefs too, as does my friend Natsuko who, as she was eating the last of her pancake stack in my garden this morning, said: “I’m not religious, that wasn’t part of my upbringing, but I do believe in supernatural beings. And it suits me to know that there are gods everywhere—in these plants and stones, in this pancake and that unko.” (The unko in question being a lump of dried cat shit that Reimi had neglected to cover with soil.)

But it’s not just the animist belief that there are gods everywhere that I like. It’s the fact that Japanese “religious” belief encompasses Buddhism and Confucianism as well as Shinto. As Edwin O. Reischauer explains:

Since Shinto was unconcerned with the problem of the afterlife that dominated Buddhist thought, and Mahayana was no exclusive, jealous religion but throughout its spread easily accommodated itself to local faiths, Buddhism and Shinto settled into a comfortable coexistence, with Shinto shrines often becoming administratively linked with Buddhist monasteries. The Japanese never developed the idea, so prevalent in South and West Asia as well as the West, that a person had to adhere exclusively to one religion or another. Premodern Japanese were usually both Buddhists and Shintoists at the same time and often enough Confucianists as well.

“Hard to fight about that one”, said Burningbird, which is precisely the point. For me, the defining characteristic of Christian and Islamic religious belief is sectarianism, not just the bigoted conviction that “there is only one God and my God is the best” but “although we both believe in the same God, my way of expressing that belief is superior to yours.” When I was a child, this kind of partisan adherence to one Christian denomination or another was still common, although not as deeply entrenched as it was before World War II when it was impossible if you were a Catholic to get a job in certain department stores or Government departments.

Whatever the faults of the Japanese—as Charlie Whipple correctly points out in Joi Ito’s comments, “If ever anyone defined things in terms of ‘us and them,’ it’s the Japanese”—religious bigotry isn’t high on the list. (Christianity was ruthlessly suppressed by the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 16th and early 17th century only because the imported religion was seen as a grave political threat.)

When I was 14 or 15 I incurred my father’s disapproval by suggesting at the dinner table that one religion was as good as another, that the only important issue was whether or not one behaved honorably. A few years later I might have added that, since the religions of the book appear to exacerbate and alleviate human suffering in roughly equal proportions, the best idea might be to have no religions at all. But since that is unrealistic, the Japanese solution—of believing in multiple gods and allowing Buddhism and Shinto to peacefully coexist—is a fine alternative, particularly since it also subtly underscores the arbitrary nature of religious belief.

I occasionally wonder whether Sister Nakajima remained a Christian, or whether she came to accept, as literary critic Katō Shuichi says of other Japanese Christians who eventually fled the faith, “that Christianity was incompatible with the traditional Japanese sensibilty and world-view”. If so, perhaps she transferred her allegiance to one of the “new religions” that, in Reischauer’s words, “do not cater to the typical Western religious need for individual strength through the establishment of a personal bond with God, but rather to the typical Japanese need for a supportive social environment”.

(Although it’s difficult to take these religions seriously once you’ve seen Itami Juzo’s mordant satire, A Taxing Woman’s Return, in which investigator Itakura Ryoko sets out to prove that the Chief Elder of the Heaven’s Path religion is evading tax on the billions of yen he’s making from donations and land scams.)

Most of the “new religions” are based mainly on Shinto though the biggest, Soka Gakkai, is associated with the Buddhist Nichiren sect. (I wasn’t at all surprised that Joi Ito’s entry about meeting Kenji Yoshigo, the Vice President and Executive Director of the Soka Gakkai Office of International Affairs provoked an avalanche of hostile comments.)

The third volume of Katō’s A History of Japanese Literature offers an extensive treatment of the influence of Christianity on Japanese novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Katō describes how, in the years following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (which replaced the feudal system with a modern unified state), Christian missionaries at the Kumamoto Western School and the Sapporo Agricultural School were able to convert a number of their Japanese students:

Many of the converts that the American Protestant missionaries made were from samurai families, particularly ones who had served the Bakufu or pro-Bakufu domains and resisted the forces of Chōshu and Satsuma. Thus their acceptance of Episcopalianism, the doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church or another creed was not completely unconnected with their critical feelings towards the new regime. This was not the only reason however. Protestantism must have seemed to provide ‘a window on the West’, not only on western learning and technology but on a system of values that would be effective in the destruction of the values of Tokugawa feudalism. The missionaries emphasized the significance of the allegiance of Japanese to their nation in a period when one of the main problems facing the samurai class was the transfer of allegiance from domain to nation, and thus without being fully aware of it touched upon one of the most sensitive spots of their hearers. Moreover the missionaries, or at least some of them, were dearly men of integrity, dedication and courage. The attraction that their characters had for the young warriors can only have been strengthened by the fact that some of them had experienced combat in the American Civil War.

According to Katō, many of the intellectuals who had converted to Christianity left the church without any great internal drama “quite soon after being baptized”. A few made some considerable efforts to justify their apostasy:

The doctrines of Christianity and the kind of faith it required basically could not coexist with the Japanese world-view. If potential converts did not destroy the latter they could not accept the former. If however it was simply a matter of appreciating the characters of the missionaries or being attracted by western things the ‘converts’ would not have found it necessary to deny the traditional world-view.

Apart from a minority, best represented by Uchimura Kanzō, who lived his entire life according to (his interpretation of) the Christian doctrine, most Japanese writers “converted” to Christianity as a means of furthering their literary careers. Many of these, including Shimazaki Tōson, Masamune Hakuchō, Kunikida Doppo, Tayama Katai and Iwano Hōmei, were associated with Japanese naturalism. Coming from either rural or minor samurai families, they moved to Tokyo where they were soon attracted to the Protestant church, “the organization directly connected with western language (English in their case), thought and literature.” Whereas government officials and state university graduates such as Natsume Sōseki and Mori Ōgai received scholarships to study in England and Germany for four and five years respectively, Tōson and Hakuchō spent similar periods as members of the Protestant church:

Doppo, Tōson, Hakuchō and Hōmei were all baptized before they were twenty but none of them remained in the church for more than five years. The church opened a window on the West but it is probable that the essential parts of the faith—righteousness defined through a relationship with a transcendent absolute and salvation through Christ—would not have been convincing for these young writers whose ambition it was to be true to themselves.

Katō suggests that the Christian religion, in addition to providing an introduction to English and western culture, also offered the young writers a sense of community which relieved them from the isolation of Tokyo whilst providing an alternative to the bureaucratic advancement from which they were excluded.

They had to seek their own identity either within themselves or as part of a group which was neither the family they had left nor the power structure of the state. The Protestant church, preaching as it did the salvation of the individual, must have seemed to offer them a basis for their search for identity as independent personalities.

Eventually, however, they were disappointed by “all the ceremonies and forms” of the church which expected them to carry out God’s will whereas they “had hoped that it would give them the means to express themselves”.

It did not take them long to find that their hopes were misplaced and that they could also avoid isolation by becoming members of another group, made up of writers. Thus it is not surprising that Tōson and Hakuchō began to write seriously and vigorously at the same time as they left the church and that as soon as they began to write they gathered colleagues to form literary groups.

While the samurai converts in the previous generation had seen Christianity as providing a theoretical rationale for their political objectives, the naturalist group converted (temporarily) for utilitarian reasons. As I have already noted, four of the five writers left the church within five years. The other, Masamune Hakuchō, had originally converted because of a dangerous illness, as he explained in his book Ikiru to iu koto (To Be Alive):

When people are gravely ill they are in a mood to appeal to any god or buddha; at that time I had come into contact with Christianity so I was in the mood to pray to the Christian God.

Towards the end of his life Hakuchō wrote: “I imagine that at the hour of my death I will either chant [the Buddhist invocation] Namu amida butsu or murmur the name of Christ”.

In fact, he died “with the name of Christ on his lips” but, as Katō explains:

The motivation for his return to Christianity was primarily his desire to appeal to “any god or buddha” and the choice of god was secondary.This attitude is basically the same as the Japanese of ancient times who would pray to a range of Shinto and Buddhist deities when they faced danger. From Nihon ryōiki to Shasekishū and Shingaku the ordinary Japanese has not felt any need to make a choice between Buddhism and Shinto; both were accepted. When Hakuchō returned to Christianity it was not with the expectation of being judged by a transcendent power but rather with the hope of salvation, not looking for an ultimate manifestation of righteousness but ‘a place of freedom from care’ and a Christ whose mercy would be not unlike that of Amida. Hakuchō was perhaps closer than any other author since the Restoration to the traditional world-view of the Japanese masses. Christianity did not change Hakucho; Hakucho modified Christianity.

There is nothing new in this—the Japanese willingness to absorb and modify foreign cultural influences started in the third century AD with the adoption of Korean agricultural practices and intensified in the sixth century AD when the Japanese began a sustained borrowing of Chinese technology and institutional values that lasted for nearly two hundred years. A similar process occurred after the Meiji Restoration when the Japanese government “dispatched students abroad to acquire new skills and hired Western experts at great expense to come to Japan”. The Japanese created a bicameral government with a House of Peers similar to the British House of Lords and a House of Representatives elected by a tiny group of male taxpayers. They adopted a system of medicine based on German practice as well as a court and legal system based first on French then later on German models. The Japanese Navy was modeled on the Royal Navy, the Army followed the Prussian example. In 1894-95 Japanese forces easily defeated China in a war over the control of Korea and ten years later inflicted a humiliating defeat on Russia, again over who would control Korea. In a period of only fifty years, Japan had transformed itself from a feudal backwater to a modern industrial state.

Thus, in extracting what they needed from Christianity then casting the religion aside, the Japanese naturalist writers were following long-established and successful precedents.

I once asked Natsuko why she thought that Japan, alone amongst all the countries of Asia, had been able to industrialize so quickly and with relatively little internal disruption. She thought for a while and answered, “I think it’s because we Japanese don’t really believe in anything.”

She wasn’t actually saying that the Japanese don’t have strongly held beliefs since that clearly isn’t true. Like everyone else, the Japanese believe in many things. Rather I think she was suggesting that the Japanese have a more flexible attitude towards belief, that they are the kind of people who say: “You can put your god over there next to our other gods. And if we think your god might be useful, we’ll adopt that god too—but only after we’ve transformed it into something quintessentially Japanese.”

It’s this flexibility (or pragmatism) that is, I suspect—at least for those of us who are not fundamentalists—extremely appealing.

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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour