Saturday, 31 December 2011

New Year, Japanese Style (from Tokyo Weekender)

New Year in Japan

This article was published in the December issue of the expatriate-oriented magazine Tokyo Weekender, for which I was a regular contributor when I lived in Tokyo. This is my first article for them in two years or so. Enjoy....and Happy New Year!

Anyone seeking to experience Japan at its festive best owes themselves at least one Japanese New Year, or o-shōgatsu (お正月), experience.

Family considerations and homesickness often mean that many expatriates in Japan miss out on o-shōgatsu completely, but those staying in Japan for any length of time owe themselves at least one holiday season in the country.

While Japan has followed the western custom of celebrating New Year’s on January 1 since the late 19th century, all similarities with western New Year’s traditions end with the date.

O-shōgatsu is to Japan what Christmas is to Europe and the Americas—a beguiling mix of ancient solemnity and secular revelry.

Preparations for o-shōgatsu begin in earnest in the middle of December with the penning and delivery of the obligatory nengajō (年賀状) cards in a tradition that goes back to the late 19th century (see box for a modern twist).

These cards are sent to relatives, friends, bosses and coworkers and are deposited in specially marked mailboxes between December 15 and 25, for guaranteed delivery on January 1.

Celebrations typically begin a week ahead of January 1, starting with year-end bōnenkai (忘年会) parties (literally ‘forgetting the year’ parties) typically held at izakayas (pub-restaurants) by companies, groups of students and circles of friends. Those looking to book an izakaya during the last week of the year are advised to do so well ahead of time.

The New Year’s festivities themselves typically get started on the afternoon of December 31, with community members gathering at local shrine or temple grounds to pound mochi (pounded rice balls) with a shallow wooden pestle and a large mallet.

Once prepared, the mochi is then formed into totemic decorations called kagami-mochi (鏡餅), consisting of two balls of mochi with an orange on top, which hearken back to traditional ancestral worship.

The New Year is heralded by the ringing of temple bells all across Japan, which is said to erase the sins of the passing year and make way for the next.

More than anything, o-shōgatsu is about family and centres on the home. Families typically clean their houses from top to bottom during the days before January 1 to welcome in good fortune.

Following the morning temple or shrine visit, families typically return home for a traditional o-sechi ryōri (おせち料理) feast. Once upon a time, housewives made these by hand, but nowadays they are typically ordered from department stores.

Children receive gift money known as o-toshidama (お年玉), which comes in special decorative envelopes, and which some savvier parents use to teach money-management to their children.

O-shōgatsu is a joyous occasion and a celebration of renewal. Japanese people traditionally use it to celebrate various ‘firsts’—the first sunlight, the first laughter, the first dream and so on.

It is an infectious holiday, and should you have the good fortune to be able to celebrate it with a Japanese family, it is likely to be a treasured memory for many years to come.

On New Year's Greetings

The Japanese language has several different ways of saying 'Happy New Year'. Which one you choose depends in part on the level of formality or whether or not it actually is the new year yet. The best known greeting is akemashite omedetou gozaimasu (あけましておめでとうございます), which is typically translated to 'Happy New Year' and usually appears on New Year's cards together with the more formal kinga shinnen (謹賀新年).

However, neither of these greetings should be used prior to New Year's Day, when, for instance, wishing co-workers a happy new year before parting ways for the holidays. In this case, you should use the phrase yoi o-toshi o omukae kudasai (よいお年をお迎えください), which also shortens more casually to yoi o-toshi o. This basically means 'I wish you a joyful welcoming of the new year'. Or something like that.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Deconstructing Niall Ferguson's 6 'Killer Apps'

Taking on a badass historian's argument over how the west gained – and now stands to lose – its edge in the world

Scottish historian Niall Ferguson has always been a provocative figure. Derided by many as a cultural chauvinist and a defender of western imperialism, he is equally praised as a prescient voice of honesty in a cultural realm permeated by political correctness. Over the course of his academic career, he has consistently positioned himself as a bête noire of the academic mainstream, be it by challenging orthodox ‘truths’ about the First World War (specifically that the war was largely the result of British belligerence) or taking unpopular stances such as supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq or being, in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, a “nostalgist for empire.”

Fergie is in typically fighting form in his lecture at the Edinburgh TED Conference in July 2011. The lecture, based on his recent book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, attempt to explain the social and economic factors that set the western world apart from the rest of the world. Admittedly, there is something grating in his “I’m right and you’re not” tone in both the book and his lecture. Nevertheless, his basic assertion that ‘the west’ (specifically Europe, North America and Australasia) achieved its current – albeit now challenged – supremacy in the world by way of six ‘killer applications’ is a remarkably watertight argument.

Where Ferguson clashes with the more ‘politically correct’ scholars in regards to the ascendancy of the west is in his downplaying of the role of imperialism and colonial-era exploitation of the non-western world in achieving its edge. As Ferguson explains in his lecture at the Edinburgh TED Conference, empire cannot have been the primary reason because, in his own words, “empire was the least original thing the west did.” If imperial exploitation had indeed been the deciding factor, then the Ottomans, the Mughals, the Khmers and the Aztecs would have retained their edge into the modern world rather than have been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Secondly, Ferguson notes that the western world achieved its peak level of divergence from the non-western world in the 1960s and 1970s – well after the western powers had shed their colonial possessions. One of the most unsettling realities of post-colonial Africa in particular is the fact that many African countries (although certainly not all) enjoyed higher GDPs and standards of living under European colonialism than they have under self-rule. Were imperialism the primary culprit in the ‘great divergence’, in Ferguson’s words, surely this would not be the case

No, empire is not the cause of western supremacy. If anything, the style of empire patented by Europeans during the industrial era and beyond was a result of these societies’ advancements than a cause thereof. So what, then, gave the west its systematic edge? Ferguson identifies six ‘killer apps’ of western civilization – deceptively simple concepts with complex coding behind them – which he believes set the western world apart from the west. In his defence, he uses non-western as well as western sources in his argument. Moreover, he postulates that these ‘apps’ are very much open source and that the ‘resterners’ are starting to beat the westerners at their own game.

In his TED lecture, Ferguson challenges the listeners to add their own to the list or argue against any of the existing six, adding in his characteristic hubris that “You’ll be wrong.” You’re on, Fergie! But first, let’s look at the six that he proposes.

1)      Competition

This one is straightforward enough. China, for example, held a systematic edge over the west in terms of civilizational development for many centuries, but a lack of forces in any position to compete with the monolithic stats structure of imperial China held it back when trailblazing commerce-driven economies in Europe began flexing their muscle around the world. Similarly, it was a lack of competition in the former Soviet Union and Maoist China that saw these realms continue to stagnate in the post-colonial world. It was not Buckingham Palace that did the grunt work of British expansionism. It was the likes of the East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company that did the job.

Some scholars have suggested that seed of Japan’s successful modernization in late 19th and early 20th century far ahead of China, Korea and other Asian civilizations was sewn with the bifurcation of imperial and political power between Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo) thereby breaking the monopoly of power by the Kyoto aristocracy orbiting the imperial throne. In a similar fashion, the rise of modern China was presaged by the emergence of politically separate and economically dynamic entities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which ended up serving as its post-Mao models.

2)      Scientific Revolution
This one again is a no-brainer. The western scientific revolution was of course made possible by advances in science and mathematics achieved in the non-western world, but by the time the industrial revolution took hold in Western Europe and North America scientific progress had stagnated in much of the rest of the world. In fact, as the scientific revolution began to take hold in Europe in the 16th century, the Islamic world, which had long held the edge, had already begun to take the reverse course, as seen in the destruction of Taqi al-Din’s observatory in Istanbul in 1580 at the behest of Ottoman clerics who considered it immoral to inquire into the mind of God.

Fortunately for the ‘resterners’, this scientific divergence is well on its way to being overcome, particularly in the case of East Asia. At the same time, however, many leading scientists in the west have raised concern about a growing ‘war on science’ in the west. This has largely been viewed as an American phenomenon, where Christian fundamentalism has long been vocal in its mistrust of and distain for the scientific community. However, Richard Dawkins and others contend that phobia of science in western society goes well beyond the American Bible Belt and threatens to stymie scientific progress in places that, like the Islamic world, once held an undisputed edge.

3)      Private Property Rights

It’s not the democracy; it’s private property rights. This, Ferguson argues, is why countries like Canada and the US leapt ahead of Latin America, where land ownership was, and in many places still is, overwhelmingly dominated by a small white minority descended from the conquistadors. Private property rights, he asserts, has the result of magnifying the potential for economic growth by giving individuals greater incentive to develop their lands and engage in the economy. The prevalence of private land ownership in places like post WWII South Korea and Taiwan presaged these countries’ economic ascendancy while command economies like the USSR and China stagnated.

This third app might also offer a window into why so many of Canada’s First Nations have stagnated in the modern world. Under the Indian Act, reserve land ownership is the exclusive domain of band councils, essentially resembling miniature versions of old Soviet republics. Fortunately, hard-won land claim settlements by many First Nations have led to greater economic clout, according them the opportunity to circumvent the lack of this particular app in achieving prosperity and higher quality of life. In this case, private control over resources could well prove tantamount to property rights.

4)      Modern Medicine

Like the scientific revolution, modern ‘western’ medicine evolved out of advances achieved in the non-western world. The largest hospital ever built remains the one constructed a millennium ago in Cairo at a time when western medicine remained mired in the dark ages. Nevertheless, it was the advances achieved in the western world in the 19th and 20th centuries that gave human beings the longevity and robustness they currently enjoy in much of the world, while those society that have resisted it have done so at great detriment to their own people, as demonstrated by the South African government’s mercifully brief flirtation with unscientific ‘cures’ for HIV/AIDS.

Fortunately for humankind as a whole, modern medicine has ceased to be a ‘western’ phenomenon and has become more or less universal, and the result has been staggering improvements in life expectancy and infant mortality rates worldwide. Moreover, innovation in medicine has ceased to be a western monopoly. If anything, the greatest resistance to ‘western’ medicine in the world today is to be found in the western world itself, where a phobia of doctors converges with religious fundamentalism and faddish alternative healing modalities to pose a potential threat to medical progress.

5)      Consumer Society

C'mon! Do we really need this one? Alas, it would seem that we do. Japan was the first non-western country to develop a modern-day consumer society in the early 20th century, which paralleled the country’s economic growth and improvement of living standards, and every society since that has made the jump from underdeveloped to developed status has also embraced various forms of this now largely ubiquitous phenomenon. When it comes down to it, human beings want their creature comforts – and this requires App #5.

The alternative to the consumer society, as Ferguson points out, was what Mohandas K. Gandhi proposed for India, which was essentially to universalize poverty. It scarcely needs saying that while the Mahatma remains a deeply revered figure in present-day India, few – if any – Indians would seriously advocate a return to his economic ideals. Indeed, the most vociferous critics of modern capitalism have generally all been products of their respective country’s economic elites who had already benefited from existing consumer societies. And while App #5 does appear to be out of control in much of the west, deleting it entirely would invariably be have disastrous social consequences.

6)      Work Ethic

This one is without doubt the most problematic of all – and perhaps the most difficult to quantify. Nevertheless, statistics on hours worked and worker productivity speak to an overwhelming correlation between economic clout, standard of living and work ethic. This is not however an assertion that laziness on the part of non-western societies caused them to stagnate, although plenty of westerners have hinted at this. Human beings are extraordinarily industrious when they feel they have something to gain from their labour. The New Economic Policy implemented by Lenin in the USSR in the early 1920s allowed farmers to generate profit from small plots of land, plots which ended up producing far more food than all the collective farms put together.

As Ferguson points out, Max Weber postulated that ‘work ethic’ was a Protestant phenomenon. Needless to say, the ascendancy of the Tiger Economies of East Asia long put this argument to rest, and indeed now Asian statesmen like former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew can be heard equating work ethic with ‘Confucian’ values. However, improved worker productivity has been shown to be universally correlated to the viability of vertical mobility and the capacity of societies to improve working conditions and infrastructure. Work ethic is, in sum, an indicator of the health of a society – not an innate characteristic that some societies lack and others possess.

The verdict?

It’s tough if not impossible to argue against any of these. Ferguson notably does not include democracy on this list, and on this I’m in agreement with him. After all, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and others achieved First World levels of economic clout and material prosperity under authoritarian rule and modern China appears to be well on its way to doing the same, while India stagnated for decades under democratic governance. Democracy, it would seem, facilitates the process. The overall correlation between material affluence, economic stature and democracy is self-evidence and indeed countries like South Korea have seen accelerated since becoming multiparty democracies. Nevertheless, democracy fails to make the cut.

App #7?
If I were to add a seventh ‘app’ to this list, it would be universal primary education and mass literacy - and in particular female literacy. MIT economist Huang Yasheng, who also presented at the Edinburgh TED alongside Ferguson, notes in his comparison of the economic trajectories of modern China and India that during the Cultural Revolution of the late-1960s, when China was at its most dysfunctional, it was still maintaining higher levels of economic growth than India under the democratic rule of Indira Gandhi. Clearly China held a systemic advantage that cannot be explained by Ferguson`s six apps, as all six of them were categorically under siege in China during this time.

The reason, he argues, is human capital, specifically the vast divergence in literacy levels between the two countries, as well as a pronounced imbalance between male and female literacy rates in India. It was this more than anything that paved the way for China`s post-Mao ascendency, and likewise the gains made by India on this front since the 1980s that presaged its now-impressive growth. Virtually every society that has made the jump from have-not to have status has paved the way through prioritizing education. High literacy rates certainly do not guarantee economic growth, as seen in the stagnation of many post-Soviet republics in spite of near-universal literacy, but I would challenge anyone to produce an example of a country that succeeded without it.

Over to you, Niall.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Best and Worst of Government Web Design

What government websites tell you about the places they represent

I've long been fascinated by the way in which countries and other jurisdictions market themselves to the outside world, and how certain governments seem to put more effort in putting their best foot out first to the world. As a graduate student at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies a number of years back I took part in several international culture festivals in which I helped man the 'Canada booth', which gave me a glimpse into how certain governments (through their embassies) put forth more of an effort than others in helping their student ambassadors put on a good show.

In one instance, I was seated next to a Kenyan colleague who had been given what seemed to be half a museum full of beautiful posters and artwork, wood crafts, musical instruments, Maasai beadwork and other assorted treasures. (It also helped that he brought homemade Mombasa-style beef samosas, which were amazing!) By contrast, our embassy gave us a pathetic box full of maple leaf pins and cheesy posters of Banff National Park and whatnot. Even a box of Timbits and a Bryan Adams album would have been better. Totally disheartening!

When I asked my Kenyan friend about the glut of schwag he had received from his embassy, he explained that the staff at the Kenyan embassy in Tokyo was largely new following the end of Joseph arap Moi's long authoritarian rule in Kenya and that the new staff were a fired up, ambitious bunch who were keen to make a good impression. And when I asked him what he thought of my embassy's contribution to our pathetic little booth, his response was something like "Canada already has a great reputation in the world. I guess they feel they don't have to try."

This exchange stuck with me long after my time as an overseas scholar and into my current studies of public relations at Grant MacEwan University. Recently, though, I've become very much interested in another aspect of countries' PR armamentarium, namely their websites. Government websites essentially serve two basic purposes - to help deliver information to their own citizens both within the country and abroad and to serve as cyber-embassies to the world. Like embassy collateral marketing, a great national web presences makes a great impression. A crappy one does the opposite.

O hai. I can has usability.

How does Canada measure up in terms of web design? In typical form, it's a pretty middle-of-the-road affair. Usability-wise, the Government of Canada's official website is pretty intuitive and user-friendly. However, there's certainly no sex appeal to it. (See my November 3 post entitled 'Gross National Sexy', which addresses this issue.) There's no real flavour or style to it, anything you could really call distinctively 'Canadian'. As for the Government of Alberta's official web portal, the site works fine but its incessant adulation of the oil sands starts to get pretty tiresome.

So who are the winners and losers in the global contest for usability and cyber-élan supremacy? From what I've seen, the worst offenders in the web butchery department generally fall into two categories: the very poorest places on earth and the very richest. When it comes to the most disadvantaged and dysfunctional places on earth, it's hard to be critical - after all states that can't feed their people can't rightfully be expected to invest in expensive web design. But there are some for whom there is absolutely no excuse for bad design, and the only reasonable explanation is an pervading sense that they don't need it.

On the flipside, the best government websites seem to come from middle-income countries eager to bolster their reputations (much like Kenya) or countries otherwise sensitive to their international image.

Here are five of the very worst:

1. Zimbabwe

Simply awful, and not helped by the fact that the landing page features a particularly Hitlerian headshot of President Robert Mugabe. Retina-scarring flickering, nausea-inducing colours and a mid-1990s-style banner that moves so fast you can barely read it. The news section appears to be little more than the president's to-do list, including ominous references to 'land reform'. At least there's a 'Feedback Form' which seems to work, although who knows who is in charge of receiving said feedback. Possibly Mugabe himself.

2. Afghanistan

The Taliban may have been removed for power for almost a decade now, but you wouldn't know it from Afghanistan's government website. The harrassed photo of President Karzai with a faceless man in military fatigues standing behind him is not exactly inspiring. The site appears to not have been updated since 2004 with the exception of the 'Afghanistan News' portal, which has the appearance of an entirely different website. (It isn't.) Lastly, what is particularly eyebrow-raising about this site appears to be only available in English. No Dari, Pashtun or Tajik. Remind me again whose government this is. 

3. Tonga

You would think a languid island paradise like Tonga would be able to come up with something better than this nightmare of clashing fonts and colours, cataract-inducing banner displays and dizzying array of indecipherable menus. Definitely the work of a committee, possibly involving the entire population of Tonga. There is some decent photography and design bits here, but the ensemble is so chaotic and so jarring that you can barely tell. With different fonts and an overhauled colour scheme this might actually be a decent website - it's hard to tell - but the designers' total fixation on the national red-and-white colour scheme coupled with the clashing features makes it a total eyesore.

4. Russia

Not the worst offender of all, but a country with this much wealth and clout ought to do better. A bland, dull affair that looks like a relic of the Soviet era (with a particularly nefarious looking Vladimir Putin peering over the banner with a Montgomery Burns-type expression on his face), this site looks like the website equivalent of a regional Russian airline. And yes, it crashes with the same regularity. Add to this the fact that the landing page is basically Putin's filofax and you have a less than inspiring online presence for the government of the Russian Federation.

Really??? Is this the best the terrestrial stand-in for Middle Earth can do? Not an image in sight on the landing page. Nothing whatsoever to rest your eyes on. Just rows and rows of text and links. Extremely disappointing. Mind you, their official tourism website ( is much better, but there's no excuse for a web portal this unattractive from a well-to-do beauty queen of a country like this.

And five of the best:

1. Brazil

Ahhhh.....Brasil! The country's official government website is truly a work of arts, a website whose underlying message is "We're still the sexy country we've always been but now we're also getting our sh*t together - developing the economy, reducing poverty and protecting the environment!" Beautiful colours, embedded videos, photo albums and a rotational banner trumpetting the best of the country's scientists, artists, athletes and other beautiful people. A cyber-stroll down Copacabana Beach.

2. Taiwan

It's hardly surprising that a high-tech nation with a perpetual sense of national identity crisis like this one would want to put its best cyber-foot out first. And they succeed with flying colours. With the visual richness of a National Geographic feature and immaculate design, the site makes the island quasi-nation look like the most alluring place on earth. Note the inclusion of images of Aboriginal Taiwanese on the landing page - a feature very much in keeping with recent Taiwanese government attempts to address this community's longstanding marginalization.

3. Costa Rica

Another Latin American standout, this 'presidential' portal of the government of Costa Rica is a delightfully interactive social media-oriented site that seamlessly blends serious policy papers with Flickr components and embedded videos of Costa Rican school children and town hall meetings discussing rainforest preservation and ecotourism. The only detraction to this site is that it appears to only be available in Spanish, but the design is so intuitive that it is navigable even with the most basic udnerstanding of the language. Current President Laura Chinchilla is said to be a social media maven - and it shows.

4. Poland

While much of the former Eastern Bloc remains mired in drab Soviet-style design, Poland's official web portal is an absolute masterpiece. The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, entitled 'Do You Know Polska?' (, was voted Website of the Year in the 2011 Webstar Festival, and indeed the rest of the government's web network is similarly inspired. From tributes to Polish films to slideshows on traditional glass baubles, every page is a visual feast, and the fact that it's available in nine languages (including Arabic and Mandarin) is quite impressive.

5. Botswana

Zimbabwe and Botswana may be geographic neighbours, but when it comes to web design the two countries couldn't be further apart. While not at all flashy, the Government of Botswana's official web portal is aesthetically pleasing, immaculately organized and easy to navigate. There's no social media optimization here, but when it comes to what a website is above all supposed to do - deliver information as directly and clearly as possible - this site could scarcely be better. And the country's official tourism site ( is beautiful!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Your Rights When Interacting With Police

A New Communications Breakthrough from the BearPaw Legal Education & Resource Centre

My first full-fledged PR/communications job was as Communications Officer with the BearPaw Legal Education & Resource Centre, the legal education department of Native Counselling Services of Alberta. It was here that I had my crash course in web design and in writing content targeted at audiences ranging from legal professionals and academics to people with minimal educational background who typically fall through the cracks of the system - for whom NCSA and BearPaw were set up to assist.

Over the course of my time with the organization, there was always much discussion about police interaction and the best way to inform people of their legal rights when questioned by law enforcement officers. BearPaw Education's latest breakthrough in this department is their new Police Interaction card - designed to fit inside a car windshield visor:

And the flip side.

It doesn't get much clearer than this. What are my rights? Here they are. What are the cops' rights? Here THEY are. Prior to this, the agency's main tool in this respect was a series of small wallet-size cards. While these did prove to be popular, this new tool looks to be rather more user-friendly and easy to read. In the heat of the moment when a person is confronted by a police officer, they are perhaps not likely to rummage through their wallet for a dog-eared credit card-sized card full of fine print. This thing is a different story. Moreover, you're just as likely to be stopped by police when behind the wheel as on foot - if not more so.

BearPaw Legal Education's video production counterpart, BearPaw Media Production, has also produced an educational video on police interaction - specifically targeted at Aboriginal clients. Here is a link to a preview of Just Cause, which is narrated by Aboriginal stand-up comic Howie Miller and is one of the most entertaining 13 minutes of legal education you'll ever see.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

PR History - The Word That Launched 41 Kilotons

Kantarō Suzuki (Source: National Diet Library)
At the best of times, mistranslations are funny. The history of advertising is replete with examples of translation gone horribly and hilariously wrong, such as KFC's mistranslation of its classic slogan 'Finger Lickin' Good' into Chinese as "eat your fingers off" and Parker Pen's botched advertising campaign in Mexico which stated that its product "won't leak in your pocket and impregnate you." (Apparently nobody told them that the Spanish verb 'embarazar' doesn't mean the same thing as its English cognate.) However, mistranslations and cross-cultural misinterpretation can have disastrous consequences, as this classic anecdote in the history of public relations reveals.

Wartime Japanese Prime Minister Kantarō Suzuki never had an easy go of it. The man very narrowly escaped assassination in the thwarted Young Officers' Mutiny of February 26, 1936, from which he would spend the rest of his life with a bullet lodged in him. After a long and tireless naval career he was kicked upstairs to the post of prime minister in April 1945, by which time the Allied forced had landed in Okinawa and the imperial capital was under siege by American B-29 bombers. He was 77 years old and appointed to replace Kuniaki Koiso, a barking mad ultranationalist who was determined to wage war until every single Japanese citizen lay dead.

The level of stress that Suzuki must have been dealing with in his short tenure as prime minister of Japan can only be imagined. It is therefore hardly surprising that when the Allied leaders issued the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945, which called for nothing less than Japan's 'unconditional surrender', the man was at a loss. His cabinet - and presumably the Japanese people at large - favoured as quick a surrender as possible. The top military brass, however, remained hostile to the notion of an 'unconditional' surrender, and with the civilian cabinet at the time serving essentially as a puppet of the military apparatus, Suzuki had no choice but to do his damnest to placate the imperial generals.

When President Truman decided to give Japan one last chance before unleashing the deadliest weapon ever devised on Japan, Prime Minister Suzuki was placed in an impossible situation. When asked by the military press for his response to the Potsdam Declaration, his response - which has since become notorious - was mokusatsu (黙殺). Mokusatsu can literally be translated as something like 'death by silence'. Within the context of a heated news conference, this response could be understood as "I don't have any comment at this time" or "I am maintaining silence" or any other such normal obfuscation. However, the Americans interpreted this as meaning that the prime minister considered the declaration to be beneath contempt. His response was reported in the Asahi Shimbun on July 28, 1945. Barely a week later, the city of Hiroshima was vapourized in a mushroom cloud, with the same fate befalling Nagasaki three days later.

In the decades following the end of the war, the mokusatsu debacle has been analyzed ad nauseum by historians. Even Japanese scholars are unsure of what Prime Minister Suzuki meant by this phrase in this context. Was he trying to appease the generals by seeming hawkish while remaining just vague enough to keep peace talks alive? Was he trying to send a veiled cry for help to the US Army translators (who most likely would have been nisei Japanese-Americans) by way of unorthodox phrasology atypical of a Japanese prime minister? Or was this simply a 'weasel word' devoid of meaning blurted out by a politician at the end of his rope? All are likely enough, but unfortunately we'll never know.

Makes you wonder about the conditions in which government communicators have to work in a state of war. How many PR practitioners are active in their profession in present-day Mogadishu? Probably not many.

For a look at a now-unclassified US military document on mokusatsu, read on.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Writing About Edmonton (for Emirates Airlines)

A month ago I was approached by the editor of Open Skies, the in-flight magazine for Dubai's Emirates Airlines, about a destination piece on Edmonton. Remarkably enough, in the three-plus years that I've been living in Edmonton, this was the first time I had ever been asked to do a "destination piece" on the city. Prior to this, the only other serious article I had written about Edmonton was one that I did a couple of years back for WestJet's Up Magazine, a piece on the African culinary scene on 107 Avenue.

Edmontonians often joke about the city's lack of viable tourist attractions. "A nice place to live but I sure wouldn't want to visit" is an oft-heard quip in a city whose best known tourist attraction is a leviathan shopping mall built along North Korean architectural lines that houses half of the Canadian navy's submarine fleet. However, Open Skies wasn't interested in a traditional destination piece. They specifically requested a rich, descriptive article focused on Edmonton's role as Canada's 'oil capital'.

Each month Open Skies features an 'Our Man In.....' article (sorry, the gendered title isn't mine) focused on a different city within their network - or in Edmonton's case their partner airlines'  networks. (Emirates recently signed a codeshare agreement with Westjet.) Past features have covered the likes of the couture culture of Paris, São Paulo's edgy nightlife and the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh. Set along side that last one, a feature on Oiltown, Alberta makes perfect sense.

Here's what I came up with. And here's the actual article. You can also find it on the Open Skies website.

Our Man In Edmonton

Canada’s oil capital is one of its most paradoxical cities

You can tell a lot about a place from its traffic – and the capital city of Canada’s second westernmost province is no exception. On any given Friday night, Jasper Avenue – Edmonton’s main nightlife artery – is choked with brand-new pickup trucks driven by newly well-to-do blue collar men in their early 20s. Some are there for on a break from the northern oil and gas boomtown of Fort McMurray.

Others work downstream from the oil sands in ‘Refinery Row’ in the eastern suburb of Sherwood Park. All, however, have come to symbolise the ever-growing affluence of Canada’s ‘Oil Capital’ – a laissez-faire city where just about anything goes, provided you don’t criticise the oil sands.

It's all about this stuff here.
Alberta’s oil sands (also known erroneously as the ‘Tar Sands’) are a formidable presence in every sense. Physically, the bitumen deposits situated under Alberta’s northern boreal forests are enormous, occupying a land mass roughly the size of Bangladesh and containing the world’s largest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. In economic terms they have turned Canada into a veritable oil and gas superpower and given Alberta a per-capita GDP higher than all 50 US states.

Unsurprisingly, international criticism of the province’s energy industry has become a decidedly sensitive matter. And nowhere is this truer than in Edmonton, a city whose mercurial economic fortunes have paralleled those of Alberta’s oil industry, and whose growing stature has in large part been made possible by the scarred, oil-rich real estate to the north of the city.

Alberta’s capital city is a paradoxical place. Founded in 1795 as a northern fur trading post, Edmonton emerged as a transportation gateway to northern Canada in the early 20th century, first to the diamond mines of the Northwest Territories and later to Alberta’s burgeoning energyindustry. To this day, Edmonton is seen more as a transit point than a destination in and of itself, overshadowed at every turn by its flashier twin, Calgary, the province’s corporate and tourism hub.

And yet the city surprises. Nestled around a leafy bend in the Saskatchewan River, Edmonton is home to 40 different arts and culture festivals, including its world-renowned Fringe and Folk Festivals. Its population is increasingly diverse, with a recent influx of immigrants from Africa and the country’s fastest growing Aboriginal population giving this once overwhelmingly European city an increasingly multicultural flavour.

Tolerance extends only so far, however. Controversy erupted earlier this year when it transpired that a documentary that criticised the exploitation of the oil sands had been funded in part by the Alberta government, leading the city’s normally mild mannered journalists and citizenry to cry blue murder.

Renowned Canadian humourist and Calgary native Will Ferguson once described his fellow Albertans as “a hospitable bunch as long as you don’t push your luck.” Nowhere does this better apply than to Edmonton – an oddly high-brow yet fundamentally blue collar metropolis where a live-and-let-live spirit prevails, so long as the city’s sacred economic cow is accorded its due respect.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Travel Archives: Ghost Hunting in Waterton Park

My "career" as a newspaper reporter lasted all of three months. It was the middle of 2008 and my wife and I were freshly returned from Japan when I worked for a brief stint as a reporter for the Waterton Boundary, a small summer weekly produced by the Pincher Creek Echo for distribution in Waterton Lakes National Park. If nothing else, it was a lot of fun. I got to photograph mountain goats, interview Parks Canada people and scold tourists for feeding the local deer - not things I get to do very often in my current line of work here in Edmonton. And for three months, I got to spend my working days in one of the most beautiful corners of North America.

Waterton, for those who don't know it, is Alberta's forgotten and most underrated national park. A far smaller park than Banff or Jasper, it nonetheless packs more wilderness per square inch than anywhere else in the country while remaining refreshingly free of the sort of aggressive commercialization you find in the province's better known mountain parks. It also has a fascinating human history, replete with tales of shipwrecks, bootleggers, dance halls, scandals and - yes - ghost lore. Waterton's iconic Prince of Wales Hotel, one of Alberta's grandest lodgings, is also one of the province's most famously haunted buildings, and during my summer in Waterton the hotel's manager was kind enough to give me a personalized guided tour of the place.

Did I see any ghosts, you ask? Alas, any disembodied souls that might have been loitering in the building were nowhere to be seen when I showed up. But the owner did give me plenty of material. Here is the article I wrote for the Boundary following my stroll through Waterton's haunted mansion.

Haunted Hotel: Ghost Stories from the Prince of Wales

(Waterton Boundary, August 29, 2008)

The Prince of Wales Hotel is one of Alberta and the Canadian Rockies’ most celebrated architectural landmarks. Built between 1926 and 1927, the Prince of Wales counts among the grandest of Canada’s grand railway hotels, standing alongside Quebec City’s Château Frontenac, Victoria’s Empress Hotel and the Banff Springs Hotel not far to the north

Sitting atop a windswept hill overlooking Upper Waterton Lake, the 80-year-old edifice is regularly battered by gale-force winds that rattle windows and rock the building back and forth, making creaking and whistling sounds through sliver-sized joints or cracks in the wood and in extreme cases slamming doors shut. This coupled by the rapid changes in cloud cover and occasional thunderstorms that often accompany such conditions can make for a decidedly spooky setting.

Considering the age and iconic stature of the building and its somewhat forbidding setting, it is hardly surprising that the Prince of Wales Hotel has, over the decades, cultivated a few enduring ghost stories. Indeed the Prince of Wales ranks among most famous allegedly haunted locales in a province rich in ghost lore.

While somewhat less famous as a ghostly abode than its northern cousin, the Banff Springs Hotel, the Prince of Wales is reputedly home to a handful of disembodied souls. So synonymous is the hotel with ghosts that the establishment is broken into by poltergeist hunters nearly every year. According to hotel manager Don Budgen, such break-ins normally occur in springtime before the hotel opens for the summer season. The hotel also has a famously haunted room - Room 510 - a room that Budgen asserts has in the past given guests enough of a scare that they have asked to be moved from it, while other guests specifically request the ‘haunted room’.
Prince of Wales hotel, Waterton Lakes National Park. (item 1)
Source: Library and Archives Canada

The hotel’s best-known ghost is that of a chambermaid named Sara, who reputedly worked at the hotel in its early years of existence and, after being spurned by her lover, threw herself off the fourth floor mezzanine to the lobby below. According to the book High on a Windy Hill: The Story of the Prince of Wales Hotel, Sara’s ghost has haunted the hotel ever since, making her presence known by “rattling liquor bottles and exhaling icy sneezes down the necks of wary guests.”

This story bears an eerie resemblance to a later incident, in which a gift shop employee named Mary committed suicide in a similar fashion in the late 1970s after having fallen in love with the hotel’s then famously dashing manager, Clifford Hummel, only to be turned down by him. According to the current manager, Mary leapt to her death from the sixth floor balcony wearing only a sheet, and to this day her spirit makes her presence known by pilfering and rearranging items in the hotel gift shop, something to which numerous employees have apparently attested.

While Sara and Mary are probably the hotel’s best-known ghosts, there are at least two others that allegedly haunt the corridors of the Prince of Wales. According to Budgen, a well-dressed gentleman who bears a strong resemblance to Abraham Lincoln is occasionally seen in the dining room and the basement, a ghost who announces his presence by way of a reflection in the windows and a distinct aroma of pipe tobacco. This is believed to be the ghost of a construction worker who fell to his death from scaffolding during the construction of the building.

Yet another ghost - that of the wife of a former hotel chef - began showing up in the common area of the hotel not long after the chef in question disappeared and was later found in British Columbia mysteriously without a wife. (The chef was apparently consumed with jealousy over his wife’s popularity with the hotel’s male employees.)

When asked about his own belief in the hotel’s famous spirits, Budgen, now in his third year as hotel manager, refuses to rule anything out. “I’m a skeptic at the best of times, but I’ve certainly been creeped out more than once,” he asserts. “There have been a couple of times where I’ve had to go out for a walk because I swear I’ve seen something. Mind you, all the creaks and gasps that this building makes doubtlessly contributes to this, but I’ve definitely smelled that smell of pipe tobacco - and then it disappears.”

Budgen also notes that he is not alone, and that a number of his employees have sworn they’ve seen something. “It happens to a lot of people here that they think they see things in the corner of their eyes,” he explains. “It happens to me, but I never see this sort of stuff anywhere else.”

(For more on the Prince of Wales Hotel, here is a link to an article I wrote on the hotel for the now-defunct Alberta magazine Legacy.)

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Typos and Other Pubic Embarrassments

10 proofreading shortcuts for the lazy copy editor
'Public' relations were never this man's forte.
During my two years as in-house copy editor and proofreader for the Japan Financial Services Agency, I had a vast swath of documents grace my desk. Most of them were deathly boring and totally forgettable, but every now and again I would get something memorable. One such occasion was when I was asked to proofread a series of thank-you letters from the JFSA addressed to the now dead and deposed Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, his then minister of finance and several other members of his government. (I can’t remember exactly what these were for but I think one or another Japanese bank was opening a branch in Tripoli.)

What I do remember very clearly was that one of the letters had an embarrassing misspelling of the word ‘public’. (This wasn’t in the letter to the Colonel himself but to one of his apparatchiks.) For an instant I was seriously tempted to let it pass, thinking that the letter might cause an incident within the Libyan government that might contribute to destabilizing the regime – this was back in 2007, well before the Arab Spring. But in the end I did my job and corrected the mistake. After all, I didn’t really want some innocent government translator with the Libyan government to get shot over something like this.

This wasn’t the first time I had seen ‘pubic’ in a document instead of ‘public’. In fact, in my many years of editing and proofreading I’ve made a habit of doing a word search for ‘pubic’, especially when I’m faced with a large document wherein things like this can easily get lost or overlooked. Spellcheckers have made us all lazier and egregious typos like this that once wouldn’t have stood a chance now escape capture on a regular basis. I was once editing a document for the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Association which made at least one reference to ‘unclear power’. Granted, in light of the Fukushima disaster, ‘unclear’ is a pretty apt description for this particular organization’s PR modus operandi, but as a professional proofer you can’t let that sort of thing pass.

Most of the typos that slip the net are less amusing than these, but no less embarrassing for a client – and the proofreader assigned to catch them. The best way to catch the common ones is through a word search. Here are ten words I often, if not always, search for in a large document before I even start the laborious process of proofreading.

1) Pubic / Public – Seriously, look for it. I’ve seen it more than twice and there’s no more embarrassing a typo in the English language.

2) Than / That – This is, of course, a more common word than ‘pubic’ and will take you more time, but it’s a very common mistake and one that’s easy to glance over. Trust me – I’ve made this mistake before.

3) Form / From – This is a typo in the same category as #2. The word ‘form’ is invariably going to be less common than ‘from’, so it makes sense to look up the former before the latter.

4) World / Word – This is a surprisingly common one. I think it’s because the letter ‘L’ is located right underneath the letter ‘O’ on the keyboard. I’ve seen this mistake go both ways, so both words are worth looking up.

5) An / And / Nad – This one will usually get underlined by your grammar checker, so it’s perhaps not as much of a priority, and it’s going to take you quite a while to sift through all the ‘an’s’ in a long document. Still, I’ve seen it slip the net more than once, so it might be worth your while. And while last time I checked ‘nad’ is not an officially accepted English word (except in the Beavis & Butthead universe), I have seen it in print before, in places where ‘and’ was obviously the intended word.

6) Allot / A lot – Most of us had this one drilled into us by high school English teachers enough that we no longer write 'alot' - and in any case your spellchecker will catch this one. Nevertheless, ‘allot’ with two L’s is a correct English word, and if you’re typing at breakneck speed trying to get through an assignment, it’s easy enough to type that instead of ‘a lot’.

7) Wed / We – Especially when you're tying fast and writing something like 'We did it' you're liable to end up typing 'Wed it it' or something like that. Worth looking for.

8) Tit / It – Yes, this is a fun one that’s definitely up there with ‘pubic’ in the embarrassment category. I’ve been doing word searches for this one ever since a university professor of mine told me a horror story involving this particular word and the introductory chapter of his doctoral thesis.

9) Massage / Message – Not quite as suggestive as ‘tit’ or ‘pubic’ but just as potentially embarrassing – and surprisingly common.

10) Defence / Licence / Centre / Honour etc. – If you’re from the US or any other jurisdiction that opts for American spellings in English, you can disregard this once. But if you’re from Canada or elsewhere in the Commonwealth and using Microsoft Word (which always seems to revert to American English), you’re going to want to look for these, as Word has a nasty habit of switching them automatically.

BONUS: Typo / Type – Trust me, you don't want to misspell the word 'typo'. That's just plane plain embarrassing.

For a look at the far-reaching economic impact of spelling mistakes, read this BBC article.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Ten Essential English Language Books About Japan

Yesterday I got my first writing gig in over two years with a magazine for which I was once a regular contributor – Tokyo Weekender. A monthly magazine produced in Tokyo and geared for the city’s Anglophone expatriate community, Weekender was one of the most fun gigs ever. As a Weekender contributor, I got a chance to write about pretty much everything you can imagine – finance, real estate, health and wellness, travel, sports and the ins and outs of Japanese culture. Weekender helped sharpen my writing skills at a time when I was a whole lot less experienced than I am now and gave me a chance to write about topics that I probably never would have otherwise. It was always a pleasure, and having been away from Japan for over three years now, getting the nod from them to write yet more material about Japanese culture is a real honour.

Japan is a place that has impacted me greatly. I’ve spent a total of six and a half years of my adult life there, including stints as a research scholar, an English teacher and an editor-proofreader-translator for a translation firm in Tokyo. It’s the place where I began my freelance writing career, a place that continually fuelled my creative fires and a place that still occupies a lot of intellectual and psychological real estate in my mind – even after three years back on the terra firma of Canada. It was a great country in which to be a writer, and indeed it took my quite some time to find my stride again as a freelancer after returning to my native country. And it goes without saying that Japan has been even more on my mind since the terrible events of March 11 of this year, making me feel more compelled than ever to write about the place.

I’m also far from the only westerner to have this experience. Somebody once told me that Japan was the world’s most written about country, and while I have my doubts about this (How would you even calculate this?), the amount of writings purporting to explain the place is nothing short of phenomenal. Look up Japan on and you get 324,424 results. That’s a lot of ink. Part of that is that Japan is a big, wealthy and influential country in the world, but there’s definitely more to it than that. Japan’s beautiful and beguiling traditional arts and culture, fascinating and complicated history and always intriguing modern day idiosyncrasies continue make the country an absolute goldmine for the expatriate scribbler. Just when you think the well has been exhausted, another bucket of fresh ink is dredged up from the bowels of the Japanese archipelago.

There are literally thousands of English language books out there that purport to explain Japan to the outside world. Many of them are not particularly good and some are frankly annoying, particularly after you’ve stayed in Japan long enough to realize that many of the west’s stereotypes about the place hold little water in reality. However, there are some truly wonderful books about Japan that I would recommend to anyone planning on spending any time in the country or is otherwise desirous to learn more about this fascinating country. Here are my top ten – in no particular order.

A Lateral View by Donald Richie

Front CoverAt 87, Donald Richie is the granddaddy of ex-pat raconteurs in Japan. A US navy purser and medical officer during the Second World War, Richie first crossed paths with Japan during the postwar occupation, and never really left. He is best known in the west as an expert in Japanese film and is famous for having introduced Akira Kurosawa to western audiences. A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan was published in 1992 and spans several decades of life in Japan’s capital city. While much of the content is a tad dated now, particular as regards gender roles and societal expectations, his shrewd observations of social grammar and captivating snapshots of Tokyo life throughout the decades makes this a must-read.

Embracing Defeat by John Dower

Front CoverIt is rare that an academic treatise is so captivating that you’re compelled to read it from start to finish. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II is one such read. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, MIT historian John Dower tells the story of the short but profoundly transformative six-year period of US occupation following Japan’s defeat in World War II and its political, economic, cultural and psychological legacy on the part of the Japanese people. For anyone looking to understand the lingering ghosts of the war, the unresolved constitutional issues and the cultural insecurities that continue to bedevil Japan, this book is highly recommended reading.

Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma

Front CoverIf the year 1945 was a year of enormous consequence for Japan, the year 1854 was at least as consequential – and perhaps even more so. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s ‘Black Ships’ in Edo (Tokyo) harbor in that fateful year demanding that Japan open its borders for trade, the country was transformed from an isolated, inward-looking pre-industrial domain into a country scrambling to catch up with the western powers. In Inventing Japan, Anglo-Dutch historian Ian Buruma examines that transformation as it played out over the period from 1854 to aftermath of the Second World War and how the forces set in motion by the Black Ships still underpin the country today.

Green Tea To Go by Leza Lowitz

While the canon of western writings on Japan has for the most part been overwhelmingly male-dominated, some of the most offbeat English language writings on the country – particularly in the fiction category – have been written by women. American ex-pat poet and short story author Leza Lowitz is one of the best known contemporary female writers in the ex-pat crowd, and her story collection Green Tea To Go: Stories from Tokyo is an absolute delight. Her stories delve deep into the masks of manners and unspoken truths that characterize Japanese social grammar, which she brings to the fore by way of a motley assortment of frazzled business executives, political extremists, self-conscious yakuza gangsters and lovestruck English teachers. Cultural difference made fun.

For more on Leza Lowitz, who is also a Tokyo-based yoga instructor, check out her website.

Losing Kei by Suzanne Kamata

Bicultural families may be a dime a dozen anymore in Japan’s larger cities, but expatriate parents of bicultural children in Japan still face challenges in a society long characterized by its racial and cultural homogeneity. One such issue is that of child custody following a divorce, wherein Japanese parents are overwhelmingly favoured in such cases and incidents where the foreign parent has effectively been denied access to their child are well known. In her debut novel Losing Kei, ex-pat American author and gaijin supermom Suzanne Kamata tells the poignant tale of an American woman who fights to regain access to her son following her divorce from her Japanese husband.

For more on Suzanne Kamata and bicultural parenting in Japan, check out her wonderful blog, Gaijin Mama.

Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson

Click for larger image.Canadian readers know Will Ferguson as the wise-ass satirist behind such books as Why I Hate Canadians, Bastards and Boneheads and Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw. However, it is little known to most Canadians is that the Calgary author first cut his teeth as a writer during his years in Japan as an English instructor. Originally released under the title Hokkaido Highway Blues, Hitching Rides with Buddha is the hilarious and fascinating diary of Ferguson’s hitchhiking journey from southern Kyushu through Honshu to the far northernmost tip of Hokkaido. Delightfully self-deprecating and refreshingly cliché-free, the book paints a picture of an endlessly quirky country made up of ordinary yet surreal characters plying Japan’s highways.

Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr

Of all the authors on this list, Alex Kerr is arguably the most ‘Japanese’, not only due to his impeccable fluency in Japanese but also for the fact that his writings fit more within the context of Japan’s own cultural commentators and social critics than within the ranks of ex-pat lit. Lost Japan was originally written in Japanese under the title Utsukushii Nihon no Zanzō (美しき日本の残像, "Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan"), with which Kerr became the first foreigner to win the Shincho Gakugei literary prize (the Japanese equivalent of the Booker Prize) in 1994. The book examines in loving detail the traditional art forms for which Japan is renowned, while also lamenting the demise of much of Japan’s cultural and environmental splendour by a development-obsessed elite.

D&D ENG02Lost Japan, however, was to be but a warm-up punch for Kerr’s most provocative book to date, Dogs and Demons (犬と鬼, “Inu to Oni”), a book that amounts to a declaration of war on Japan’s political and business mandarins. Published in 2001 after nearly a decade of research, the book paints a disturbing picture of a country besieged by wasteful pork-barrel projects that rack up debt while destroying the country’s mountain, rivers, coastlines and traditional architecture, at the behest of corrupt bureaucrats in collusion with big business and elected officials.

While the book was slammed by some overseas critics as anti-Japanese, Dogs and Demons proved extremely popular in Japan, where it helped generate a groundswell of opposition to the practices excoriated in the book and a shift toward restoring traditional villages and old urban neighbourhoods, especially in Kerr's beloved Kyoto. Kerr remains an in-demand public speaker in Japan and has become something of an overseas tourism ambassador for the country. You can read the interview I did with Alex Kerr in early 2008 on the author's official website.

The Japan We Never Knew by David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa

Front CoverIn what can only be described as a literary mid-life crisis, renowned Japanese-Canadian biologist and environmental crusader David Suzuki embarked on a journey to the heart of his ancestral homeland in the mid-1990s. Together with cultural anthropologist Keibo Oiwa, Suzuki sets about dismantling the clichéd picture of Japan as a homogenous cookie-cutter society. The Japan We Never Knew examines little known communities within Japan such as the Ainu (Hokkaido’s aboriginal people), the Okinawans, the Burakumin (the descendants of Japan’s former ‘untouchable’ cast), the Zainichi Koreans (Japanese-born ethnic Koreans) and other ethno-cultural groups, as well as a cast of environmental activists, educational reformers and others unafraid to rock the boat in famously conformist Japan.

The Japanese Have A Word For It by Boyé Lafayette De Mente

Front CoverIt is often said that in order to understand a culture you have to have an appreciation for the language that goes with it. And nowhere is this adage truer than in Japan, whose native language is replete with colourful expressions and concepts found nowhere else. The Japanese Have A Word For It explains such quintessentially Japanese concepts as wa (, “harmony”) and the relationship between honne (本音, “deeply held beliefs”) versus tatemae (建前, “publicly stated opinions”), while also delving into some of the language’s more colourful insults and bedroom talk. An excellent introduction into the linguistic underpinnings of Japanese society and culture.