My first trip to China

While China has been in the center of business news with its falling stock market and yuan, I had an opportunity to spend several days in Beijing, the capital of this Asian giant. Although China is a neighboring country for Japan, somehow I’d never had a chance to visit before.

Prior to my departure, I was a bit concerned because I thought August is not a particularly ideal month to visit China as a Japanese. As preparation begins for ‘Victory Day’, marking the end of WWII, anti-Japanese sentiment tends to run high at this time of the year. Needless to say, that’s a result of the aggression committed by Japanese soldiers during the war.

Despite my concern, I didn’t encounter any negative experiences and had a great time although the stay was far too short and I could only glimpse the city.

I feel my experience was too limited to mention anything about the country but decided to write a few notes anyway –

(1) There are still very few people who speak English. Even in the five-star hotel I was staying (lucky for me I had a good client!), some waitresses at the restaurant had very limited English. But forget about the housekeeping staff. I had to write to communicate with them. Japanese use ‘kanji’ – Chinese alphabet – so it was easier to communicate with them by writing. I had no clue what they were saying and many Chinese didn’t understand even the simplest English like “You”, “I” or “good” and “big”.

(2) Buildings are huge. They weren’t necessary tall but 2-3 times wider and bigger than the ones in Japan or the U.S. I could really feel the scale of this gigantic country through this coercive-looking architecture.

(3) No more mass-bicycles on the road. The familiar scene of a sea of bicycles filling the road is gone. You see electric bikes are more popular, and the middle class can afford a car these days. I was shocked by how many fancy cars, like Mercedez, BMW, Audi are on the road, pretty much everywhere. I even saw a Lamborghini twice in four days. It’s a good reflection of growing wealth – China’s new rich, I suppose. I was standing outside a new boutique hotel/shopping center one evening and I saw many youngsters getting in and out of high-end imported vehicles.

(4) Exploding domestic tourism. When I visited the must-see Forbidden City (Palace), I tried to beat the crowd and got there by 7:30am but there were already thousands people there even it’s half an hour before the ticket windows open. They were mostly domestic tour groups from different parts of the country. People sit on the ground congregating everywhere. The scene reminded me of India. Like India, the mass tourism is the result of explosively increased middle-class population.

(5) As a photographer, I didn’t particularly enjoy the assignment because of the many restrictions I had to deal with. It was a reminder that the government still has a tight grip on the media.

(6) Yes, they are loud. I knew it and I was mentally prepared for it but it doesn’t matter men or women, young or old, they speak very loud. I still don’t understand the necessity of raising your voice so much when you’re talking to the person right next to you or on the phone. Can anyone explain the historical background of this?

About speaking English, I had an unusual experience. Ten out of ten locals spoke to me in Mandarin. Not a single person thought I was a foreigner. It’s understandable because I look like them and they look like me but it was kind of a strange experience to me. I realized that this was the first time I traveled to a country in which the absolute majority population has my-kind-of face. I was always an obvious foreigner in the countries I lived in or visited before, except the U.S, which is a melting pot. It was nice to be seen as one of them and not standing out but every time they spoke to me, I had to apologize saying “Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese”. However, they didn’t even understand what I’d just said and just stared at my face.

Overall, I had a good time and I only wish that I had had more days to see and feel the city. Well, I should be happy that at least I was able to visit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. It was a moving experience to stand on the ground of the square, facing the picture of Chairman Mao on the familiar red wall. I have seen this place so many times on TV, in newspapers and magazines but actually being there and seeing it with my own eyes was special and almost gave me a chill down my spine. One of the most iconic photographs of 1989 – a man standing in front of column of tanks following a crackdown of Tiananmen protests – was brought back to life in my mind.




(1)思っていたより、英語を話す人がまだまだ少ない。宿泊していた5つ星ホテル(いいクライアントをもつとラッキーだ!)のレストランでも、英語をあまり解さないウェイトレスがいたのには驚かされた。ハウス・キーピングのスタッフはもう論外。もっとも初歩的な「I」や「 You」、「 Big 」とか「Small」といった単語さえ通じないので、会話が全く成り立たない。不完全であっても、漢字での筆談のほうがよほど意思疎通ができる。






言葉に関して、僕にとっては珍しい経験をさせてもらった。機内のエアーホステスから、ホテルのレセプション、 吉野家のおばちゃんまで、10人中10人、例外なく中国語で話しかけられたのだ。僕は中国でよく見かける短髪だし、顔も平均的東洋人なのでもっともな話ではあるのだけれど、考えてみたら、「人種の坩堝」である米国を除いては、これまで住んだり訪れた国では、僕は明らかな「外国人」だったのだなあと実感。何処にいっても「中国人」として目立たずにいられるのは嬉しかったが、話しかけられる度に「すいません。中国語できないんです」と弁明するのがそのうち億劫にはなった。


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Hidden agenda behind Yoga Day?

This Sunday is ‘International Yoga Day’. Not many people may know about this because the day was just established this year for the first time as result of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal at the United Nations. Despite the brand-new status, it’s reported that 177 countries will be celebrating it in various way and it sounds impressive. Needless to say, India, as the birthplace of yoga, was making a lot of effort to plan a mass yoga session, which 35,000 people are expected to participate in. Unfortunately, I will be leaving India tomorrow and I’m sadly missing the chance to photograph the event.

Mr. Modi seems to take this event as a kick-starter for raising the popularity of yoga especially among young people. His government is even talking about making yoga compulsory at schools. As this ‘yoga fever’ grows bigger, many debates have begun taking place, speculating about Mr. Modi’s ‘hidden agenda’.

Yoga is generally seen as physical and mental exercise for health in western counties or even Japan and it isn’t considered as religious. But in India, yoga is strongly associated with Sanskrit and it’s hard to separate from Hinduism. Many Indians tend to see yoga as a Hindu practice. So Muslims began raising voices against the government’s recent promotion of yoga.

When he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat state, Mr. Modi was labeled as a Hindu nationalist for neglecting the massacres of Muslims during riots in 2002. Although Mr. Modi seems to try to wipe out the negative image by carefully keeping a distance from the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization, RSS which greatly contributed during Mr. Modi’s campaign, it’s not an easy task. Considering his background, it’s quite understandable that Muslims are suspicious over the recent yoga fever.

Well, is Mr. Modi revealing his hidden face or is it just over-concern by Muslims? It probably takes several years before we find out.












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Censored ’Anti-Japan’ Hollywood movie

Last night, I watched ‘Unbroken’, a movie directed by Angelina Jolie. The movie, made last year, has not been released in Japan because of threats made to theatres by right-wing conservatives claiming that it is ‘anti-Japan’.

The story is about an American prisoner of war, Louis Zamperini, who was captured by the Japanese and tortured in POW camps during WWII. The man, an Olympic athlete, drifted on the ocean for 47 days after his bomber jet went down, before being captured. His ‘unbroken’ spirit allowed him to survive unimaginable hardships and finally he is freed at the end of war. Despite the hostile and violent treatment in the camp, he eventually forgives the Japanese and returns to Japan to run as a flame bearer for Nagano Olympics in 1998. It’s not a documentary but the movie is pretty faithful to his real-life experience. Zamperini passed away last year at the age of 97.

It’s obvious that the people who accuse the movie of being ‘anti-Japan’ have not even watched it. It seems so clear that this is an ‘anti-war’ movie, not ‘anti-Japan’. Also, this movie makes you think about the meaning of ‘forgiveness’. Compared to the brutal killing, torturing and rape committed by Japanese soldiers in China and other Asian countries during the war, the violent scenes in the movie are nothing.  It’s not even close enough to make it ‘anti-Japan’ if it’s intended that way, I would say.

My worries are not about the right wingers making the fuss of the movie on the internet but about the current Japanese government lead by Prime Minister Abe, a super right winger although he is carefully not showing his true colors to the outside world. I strongly suspect Abe’s influence behind the decision not to release ‘Unbroken’

The movie has the potential to revitalize anti-war sentiment among the Japanese as they slowly forget the significance of their nation’s pacifist constitution – the result of Japan’s own trauma from the war, which culminated in the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Abe is slowly eroding that by pushing revision to allow Japan to participate in armed conflicts and to recruit more youth into the armed forces.

It’s already said that Abe is interfering with the Japanese media to keep them under his control. It’s quite scary but now this ‘Unbroken’ incident can be seen as censorship of a foreign movie.

We, as Japanese, really need to keep an eye on what Abe is doing and take necessary action to stop his nationalist agenda and authoritarian tendencies. It will be too late to realize when we become a ‘prisoner of war’ like the American soldier in the movie. I don’t have ‘unbroken’ spirit to survive 47 days on the ocean and torture in prison…

(Photo: An Iraqi man detained by a U.S soldier in Baghdad on Sep 5, 2007, during a raid. Photo by Kuni Takahashi)






冷静な目で見れば、これは「反日」ではなく「反戦」映画だということがすぐわかるはず。そして、47日間もの漂流と収容所での拷問の数々にも屈しなかった一人の男の人生をとおして、「許すこと」の意味を問うた作品でもある。 だいたい実際に日本兵が中・韓をはじめとしたアジアの国々でおこなった拷問、殺人やレイプにくらべれば、ここで描かれる殴る蹴る程度の暴力など、ショッキングでもなんでもない。反日を意図したものなら、甘すぎるでしょう。







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Natalia It’s a plerause to find someone who can think so clearly

The world’s largest animal sacrifice

Gadhimai festival is held every five years at a Hindu temple in Bariyapur, a rural village in southern Nepal, located about 20km from the Indian border. Hundreds of thousands well wishers visit the temple during the month-long festival to pray to Gadhimai, a Hindu goddess of power. I visited the festival during the busiest days of sacrifice.

At the beginning, it was a peaceful scene of several thousands of water buffaloes walking around a field surrounded by a high brick wall. Then suddenly a couple hundred men, holding long butcher knives, walked in and started beheading the buffaloes – one after another. The headless bodies collapsed down to the ground and blood sprayed out of their necks. It didn’t even take two hours before the field was filled with black corpses. It was a horrific scene what I have never seen before. Water buffaloes are not the only animals to be sacrificed. Pigeons, rats, hens, goats and pigs are also brutally killed to please the goddess. It’s said that over 200,000 animals were sacrificed during the festival by people who believe the power of goddess which can cure an illness or bring a good harvest.

The ritual at the temple is believed to have started in the 18th century. It’s facing increasing criticism in recent years. Despite campaigns held by local and international animal rights organizations to stop the merciless sacrifice, the temple has turned a deaf ear, saying “it’s tradition and we can’t stop it”.  However, many believe that financial profit is a big reason. The event is lucrative, attracting tourists and generating profits from selling the carcasses to meat and hide contractors. Also, for the rural villagers who have nothing to attract outsiders, the festival is something many locals feel proud of.

The number of buffaloes went down by almost half to around 4,000 since the last festival in 2009. It was somewhat of a victory of the tireless efforts of animal welfare organizations whose goal is to completely stop the animal sacrifice.

I don’t know whether it’s possible to have a Gadhimai festival without animal sacrifice but let’s hope that we may see it in the next festival in 2019.




ガディマイ寺院の生贄の伝統は18世紀にはじまったといわれるが、この残酷ともいえる大量殺戮に対して、近年は批判が高まってきた。 生贄の中止を求めて欧米でもデモがひらかれるようになったが、寺院側は「これは伝統。やめることはできない」と、聞く耳をもたない。しかし、伝統だけではなく、経済的利益も大きな理由との声もある。



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The Spread of ISIS threat

Recruitment of radical militant Islamic group, ISIS, has been spreading out all over the world. In Japan last month, a university student was investigated as he tried to travel to Syria to join ISIS. It’s said that thousands have already joined the ISIS from outside, including western countries, to fight.

India, which is home to over 180 million Muslims, is not an exception. I began noticing news reports several months ago about young Indian men fighting in Iraq or Syria with ISIS.

A little while ago, I visited Kalyan, a town on the outskirts of Mumbai with population of 1.2 million, which is the hometown of four of these youths who ran away to join ISIS. It was confirmed by their phone calls to the family in July that they were in fact fighting in Iraq.

“Why are you taking pictures? “,“Delete the images!” Because of lots of negative coverage already done by the local media, people in the town were not particularly friendly to me and many questions were thrown at to me while taking pictures on the street.

Typically, it’s assumed that uneducated youth from poor families get brainwashed into joining radical Islamic groups. But the four men from Kalyan were from middle-class and well-educated and included an engineer and the son of a doctor.

The grand ambition of the ISIS, which is to create a new Islamic caliphate across the Middle East, may be a big attraction to naïve young Muslims regardless of their education or social class.

In September, there was a report about two Indian Muslims who were working as ISIS recruiters on the Afghan-Pakistan border and somewhere in the Gulf states. It was revealed after testimonies by eight men who were detained as they were leaving Kolkata and Jaipur to join the group. It’s said that both recruiters used Facebook and Twitter to approach the youths.

The Indian government has been on high alert but it’s not an easy task to block the influence of growing international Islamic militancy in this borderless world connected through the internet. Unfortunately, we may have to see more waves of young people get manipulated and end up being on the desert with a gun.










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Simone Good to find an expert who knows what he’s talknig about!