September 17, 2016

QotD: Historical clangers in The Last Samurai

Filed under: Japan, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… the movie is seriously anti-historical in one respect; we are supposed to believe that traditionalist Samurai would disdain the use of firearms. In fact, traditional samurai loved firearms and found them a natural extension of their traditional role as horse archers. Samurai invented rolling volley fire three decades before Gustavus Adolphus, and improved the musket designs they imported from the Portuguese so effectively that for most of the 1600s they were actually making better guns than European armorers could produce.

But, of course, today’s Hollywood left thinks firearms are intrinsically eeeevil (especially firearms in the hands of anyone other than police and soldiers) so the virtuous rebel samurai had to eschew them. Besides being politically correct, this choice thickened the atmosphere of romantic doom around our heroes.

Another minor clanger in the depiction of samurai fighting: We are given scenes of samurai training to fight empty-hand and unarmored using modern martial-arts moves. In fact, in 1877 it is about a generation too early for this. Unarmed combat did not become a separate discipline with its own forms and schools until the very end of the nineteenth century. And when it did, it was based not on samurai disciplines but on peasant fighting methods from Okinawa and elsewhere that were used against samurai (this is why most exotic martial-arts weapons are actually agricultural tools).

In 1877, most samurai still would have thought unarmed-combat training a distraction from learning how to use the swords, muskets and bows that were their primary weapons systems. Only after the swords they preferred for close combat were finally banned did this attitude really change. But, hey, most moviegoers are unaware of these subtleties, so there had to be some chop-socky in the script to meet their expectations.

One other rewriting of martial history: we see samurai ceremoniously stabbing fallen opponents to death with a two-hand sword-thrust. In fact, this is not how it was done; real samurai delivered the coup de grace by decapitating their opponents, and then taking the head as a trophy.

No joke. Head-taking was such an important practice that there was a special term in Japanese for the art of properly dressing the hair on a severed head so that the little paper tag showing the deceased’s name and rank would be displayed to best advantage.

While the filmmakers were willing to show samurai killing the wounded, in other important respects they softened and Westernized the behavior of these people somewhat. Algren learned, correctly, that ‘samurai’ derives from a verb meaning “to serve”, but we are misled when the rebel leader speaks of “protecting the people”. In fact, noblesse oblige was not part of the Japanese worldview; samurai served not ‘the people’ but a particular daimyo, and the daimyo served the Emperor in theory and nobody but themselves in normal practice.

Eric S. Raymond, “The Last Samurai”, Armed and Dangerous, 2003-12-15.

June 23, 2016

Kitaro – Theme from Silk Road (live in Tokyo – 2009)

Filed under: Japan, Media — Tags: — Nicholas @ 02:00

Uploaded on 18 Jan 2010

Song: Theme from Silk Road
Live in Tokyo Orchard Hall
September 26th 2009.

Love and Peace Planet Music Tour 2009 in Tokyo

May 30, 2016

WW2: The Resource War – III: The Engines of War – Extra History

Filed under: Economics, Europe, History, Japan — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 19 Apr 2016

*Sponsored* Hearts of Iron IV comes out on June 6!

The armies and technology of World War II required a vast supply of resources. A close look at Germany and Japan shows how the need to secure those resources played a significent role in determining strategy throughout the war.

The armies of World War II needed a vast supply and variety of resources. The Allies had many of those resources on their side, but the Axis powers did not. Germany imported many of its resources from countries it would soon be fighting, and needed their war strategy to account for the acquisition of those resources. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed with the USSR set up a trade agreement to bring them oil from Russia for a while, in addition to establishing temporary non-aggression with the Soviets. When the war began in earnest, Germany targeted Norway with its supply of aluminum and iron as well as its access to the even more resource-rich Sweden. Conquering France also gave them access to rich farmland to feed the troops. But even though they had gained control of the oil fields in Romania, it wasn’t enough to power their war machine. Many Nazi generals wanted to target North Africa for this, but Hitler had his sights set on the Soviet Union and wound up squandering much of Germany’s reserves in a fruitless effort there. Meanwhile, Japan’s entrance into the war had cost them their primary trading partner: the United States. The Japanese army wanted to pursue the Northern Expansion Doctrine (Hokushin-Ron) and push through China into Siberia, wounding the USSR in the process. They attempted this strategy, but the Soviets met them in Mongolia and pushed them back in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. So they turned to the Southern Expansion Doctrine (Nanshin-Ron) advocated by the navy, and began to sweep up islands in the Pacific. They planned to strip the European colonial powers of their holdings, and they succeeded in capturing 90% of the world’s rubber production. But the US responded by synthesizing rubber, and built an industry so large that even today, more rubber is synthesized than harvested. If World War I was the first industrial war, marked by mass production and industrial capacity, then World War II was the first scientific war, marked by advancements like synthesis, radar, and jet engines.

May 24, 2016

The Age Of Warlords – China in WW1 I THE GREAT WAR Special

Filed under: China, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:21

Published on 23 May 2016

China was in a constant period of unrest and turmoil after the Opium Wars and the Boxer Rebellion. None of the new leaders and presidents could really consolidate their power in China and a struggle between the different warlords. broke out. At the same time, China was eyeing a more prominent role within the international community and sent 150,000 workers to the Western Front as part of the Chinese Labour Corps.

April 11, 2016

Clarkson’s Car Years – How Japan Took Over The World… And Then Lost It.

Filed under: Business, Japan — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

December 10, 2015

Korea: Admiral Yi – Lies – Extra History

Filed under: Asia, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 7 Nov 2015

Yi’s life has been turned into a Confucian parable: a highly competent person who bore betrayal stoically and stayed loyal to the king. Since there was no record of his early life, that pattern is reflected in the way his early life is described. That pattern of thinking clearly influenced the historians who did cover Yi’s life, but while it stands out as unusual to those of us who aren’t familiar with that tradition, it has a subconscious impact on the people who were raised with Confucian thinking and wrote this history from it. If we looked at Western history from a foreign perspective, we would likely notice similar patterns being overlaid onto Western ways of telling history as well.

December 3, 2015

Korea: Admiral Yi – V: Martial Lord of Loyalty – Extra History

Filed under: Asia, China, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 24 Oct 2015

After his success at Myeongnyang, Yi began rebuilding the Korean navy and strengthening his partnership with the Chinese. But then, Toyotomi Hideyoshi died. Japan’s new leaders had no interest in continuing the war, but although they sued for peace, Korea now held the upper hand and was determined to punish the people who had committed so many massacres against their people. Yi and the Chinese fleet bottled up the Japanese at the fort in Suncheon. When the Japanese called for reinforcements, Yi interrupted them in Noryang Strait. Again they were outnumbered, 500 to 150, but the Chinese commander did not yet understand Yi’s long range style of warfare and immediately closed for close combat. Yi ordered his flagship to rescue their allies, and as soon as the Japanese recognized him, they focused fire on him. This allowed the Chinese, suddenly forgotten, to fire freely on them. The Japanese realized their error and tried to flee, but Yi would have none of it. Beating the war drum himself, he urged his ships to chase the Japanese – to punish them for all the slaughter they brought to Korea. It was then that he was struck by a fatal gunshot. Before he died, he ordered his son and nephew to command the battle for him. They dressed in his armor to hide his death from the troops and continued beating the dream. Together, they carried the day – only for Yi’s tragic death to be revealed at the moment of victory. But although Yi did not live to see it, 300 Japanese ships were captured and destroyed that day and the rest of their invading force was rounded up soon after. For his tireless service, his brilliant leadership, and his unwavering devotion to Korea, Yi was given the posthumous title of Chungmugong, the Martial Lord of Loyalty.

November 26, 2015

Korea: Admiral Yi – IV: Those Who Seek Death Shall Live – Extra History

Filed under: Asia, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 17 Oct 2015

Yi’s success had forced the Japanese to give up offensive naval operations, but their huge fleet remained entrenched in Busan harbor. While Yi pinned them down, reinforcements from the Chinese army had finally arrived and helped the Korean army take back the country on land. Yi petitioned for marines to take Busan back from the Japanese, but his requests were ignored. Instead, he focused on making his base on Hansando self-sufficient: he promised protection to refugees in exchange for them working the island, building his equipment, and even researching military technology. But a truce was called with Japan, one that dragged on for years until Hideyoshi broke it by ordering a second invasion. An informant brought word of secret, unprotected Japanese fleet movements, but Yi recognized it as a trap and refused to go. However, his friend Ryu’s enemies at court seized on this as an opportunity to put Yi on trial for treason. They demoted him again, and gave his fleet to Won Kyon. Won Kyon fell into the trap Yi had refused, and a coordinated surprise attack from the Japanese resulted in the destruction of all but 12 ships. Yi was quickly re-instated, but ordered to disband the navy. He refused, and planned his counterattack carefully: he would fight at Myeongnyang Strait, where he hoped the natural currents would do what his numbers could not. His plan worked: the reversing tide caught the Japanese by surprise and flung their ships against each other right as he pressed the attack. With 13 ships versus 133, he once again drove back Japan with zero losses to his own navy. Word of his success brought other ships out of hiding and convinced the Chinese navy to ally with him at last.

November 19, 2015

Korea: Admiral Yi – III: The Bright Moonlight of Hansando – Extra History

Filed under: Asia, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 10 Oct 2015

While Yi found success at sea, the Korean land army suffered terrible losses. Yi Il, the man who once accused Yi of negligence, lost one battle after another, until finally the regular forces were annihilated at Chungju. The Joseon court that ruled to Korea fled to Pyongyang, on the verge of being pushed out of their own country. But that same day, Admiral Yi tore through a Japanese fleet at Okpo. He moved on to Sacheon, where he baited the Japanese commander into a trap and debuted his turtle ship. The unstoppable turtle ship carried the day, so he used this tactic again and again he destroyed a Japanese fleet while suffering no losses of his own. Finally, Hideyoshi ordered his naval commanders to take Jeolla, Yi’s headquarters. Sadly for him, his general Wakisaka Yasaharu grew too eager and engaged Yi without backup at Gyeonnaeryang Strait, only to find himself lured into an even more sophisticated version of Yi’s bait-and-retreat strategy: a “Crane’s Wing” of ships that collapsed on the overextended target from all sides. In one of the largest naval battles in history, Yi scored a decisive win and again didn’t lose a single ship. He headed to Angolpo to attack Hideyoshi’s two remaining generals and seal his victory, but they refused to be baited. He had to settle for a long range exchange of cannon fire, which worked at the cost of many injuries to his own men. In the end, he destroyed all but a few Japanese ships, and those he only spared to give the Japanese some means to escape and stop raiding in Korea. But he had accomplished his goal: Hideyoshi ordered a halt to all naval operations except guarding Busan, and without this control of the sea, Japan could not re-supply their troops nor hope to resume the assault that would have finally pushed Korea’s leaders out of Korea.

November 12, 2015

Korea: Admiral Yi – II: Be Like a Mountain – Extra History

Filed under: Asia, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 3 Oct 2015

Japan invaded Korea after a series of long civil wars that had finally culminated in Toyotomi Hideyoshi leading a unified Japanese army. Their martial society had trained extensively with weapons like the arquebus, early guns, and the civil war had given them tremendous experience with siegecraft. By contrast, Korea had not been at war for hundreds of years: they were mostly troubled by raiders from without and corrupt government officials from within. However, their unique situation meant that they had great cannons for fighting off pirates and secure if minimal hill-top forts. As a tributary ally of the Chinese, the Koreans were startled and confused when Japan asked permission to march through their territory and make war on China. Many officials thought the Japanese were only bluffing, but Ryu Seong-ryong recognized the threat and made sure his friend Yi was moved to naval service to help defend the country. Yi trained his men and commissioned a new ironside ship design called the Turtle Ship. Unfortunately, other commanders did not take the threat seriously: even when Japanese ships appeared on the horizon, the southern commander convinced himself it was a trade fleet and took no action while the ships docked, then unloaded their soldiers onto Korean soil. The well-trained Japanese army crushed the Korean army and quickly advanced to Seoul. Meanwhile, Yi organized his small fleet of warships and launched quick strikes against the Japanese navy, catching them off-guard and on-patrol. He destroyed 43 enemy ships without losing a single one of his own, and was promoted accordingly to become the new Southern Commander of the Korean navy.

November 5, 2015

Korea: Admiral Yi – I: Keep Beating the Drum – Extra History

Filed under: Asia, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 26 Sep 2015

Admiral Yi Sun-sin of Korea began his legendary career with a series of disasters. Fate (and corrupt officials) conspired against him to have him repeatedly knocked down from the success he had earned, often because his insistence on strict military codes and refusal to ignore corruption made enemies of his fellow officers. Even when his superior had him tortured and blamed after a loss to the Jurchen raiders from the north, Yi persevered. Stripped of his rank and now reduced to a common enlisted man, Yi nevertheless served Korea with distinction. Meanwhile his childhood friend, Ryu Seong-ryong, had risen to become the prime minister of Korea. Ryu recognized the threat of war from Japan looming on the horizon, so when Yi asked to retire in 1588, Ryu convinced him to stay.

October 14, 2015

Toyota’s ISIS problem

Filed under: Japan, Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In The Diplomat, Franz-Stefan Gady looks at the problem for Toyota because their vehicles have become the favourites of ISIS and other terrorist groups:

The United States has launched an investigation to determine how the terror group ISIS was able to acquire a large number of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs ABC News reported this week.

Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, the world’s second-largest auto maker, has pledged full cooperation with U.S. authorities and is “supporting” the inquiry led by the Terror Financing division of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

“We briefed Treasury on Toyota’s supply chains in the Middle East and the procedures that Toyota has in place to protect supply chain integrity,” according to a D.C.-based spokesperson of Toyota. However, “it is impossible for Toyota to completely control indirect or illegal channels through which our vehicles could be misappropriated,” he added.

According to Toyota sales data, the number of Hilux and Land Cruisers sold tripled from 6,000 in Iraq in 2011 to 18,000 sold in 2013. However, sales dropped to 13,000 in 2014.

Toyota Hilux pickup trucks – a lightweight virtually indestructible vehicle – have been prominently featured in various ISIS propaganda videos and played an important role in ISIS’ conquests of large stretches of Iraqi territory last summer by acting as a force multiplier.

Armed with a .50 caliber machine gun the Hilux truck’s maneuverability provided insurgents quickly with close-range fire support during their attacks. Back in 2010, the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen referred to the Hilux as “a modern version of light cavalry. They move weapons into positions to fire, and can also shift people around very quickly, with a quick dismount.”

Full disclosure: I’m currently driving a ten-year-old Toyota pickup truck (a Tacoma, which I think is the North American version of the Hilux). My next vehicle is likely to be another Toyota pickup truck. They may not be technically indestructible, but I’ve been very impressed with the performance and durability of my particular vehicle.

July 13, 2015

Japan’s cross-dressing WW2 spy in China

Filed under: China, History, Japan — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In The Diplomat, Stephen Joyce reviews Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, a recent book by Phyllis Birnbaum:

Divisive figures often make the most compelling biographical subjects; and Kawashima Yoshiko is no exception. During her life and in death opinions have varied markedly. Loathed by the Chinese as a traitor, extolled by the Japanese for her talents as a spy, more recently she has even become a heroine to the LGBT community.

In Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army, Phyllis Birnbaum provides a measured assessment of the fascinating rise and fall of this erratic, narcissistic, cross-dressing, bisexual princess.

Born in 1907 as Aisin Gioro Xianyu, Kawashima Yoshiko was the 14th daughter of Prince Su of the Qing imperial family. Soon after the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, she was unwillingly sent to Japan to be adopted by family friend Kawashima Naniwa.

Her formative teenage years were spent in Matsumoto being educated in Japanese language and culture. It was not the happiest of upbringings. An attempted suicide and sexual assault by her new father are noted as potentially life-defining events but are hard to verify. Whatever the root cause of her discontent, in 1925 she shaved her head and started wearing men’s clothes.

In 1927 she married a Mongolian prince in a politically convenient union that quickly failed and Yoshiko soon travelled to China to pursue her dream of a honorable return to power for the Qing dynasty, beginning with Manchuria and Outer Mongolia.

With Japan increasingly active in China she soon found herself a raison d’etre: a spy in the service of the Japanese. Several incidents define her status as a spy; all are shrouded in mystery.


Although it would be hard to argue that she had a major influence over the key events of her time, Kawashima Yoshiko is a superb subject for biography and should interest all lovers of Asian history. And despite living her life in the public and media glare her essential mysteriousness remains—even in death. Did the Chinese Nationalist government execute her (as Kim Bai Fai) in 1948 or, as some would have it, did she escape and live out her last days quiet obscurity? Birnbaum concludes that the latter outcome is questionable, to say the least. Assuming she was indeed executed, her memoirs reveal a wry acceptance of her ultimate fate, despite her life aims lying in tatters.

The sheer wealth of material — autobiographies, Yoshiko’s letters, interviews, press reports, sensationalist magazine articles and official documents — with which to write a biography to some extent serves to cloud rather than illuminate the life of Yoshiko Kawashima. Much like her futile efforts to restore the Qing dynasty in China, any attempt to firmly pin down her real life story and true character seems destined to fail.

May 17, 2015

The Yasukuni Shrine is part of the reason Japan can’t apologize for their historical aggressions

Filed under: Asia, History, Japan, Pacific — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Diplomat, J. Kevin Baird looks at Japan’s continued resistance to examining their own military and diplomatic history after the First World War:

Japan faces the expectations of its friends and neighbors to express itself on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will formulate and express those words. In doing so, he faces a dilemma. The focus of that dilemma is Yasukuni Shrine and what it speaks to regarding Japan’s view of the Pacific War. Will Japan demonstrate contrition in seeking atonement, or does it aim for exoneration by rehabilitating its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere motivations for the Pacific War? Histories yet to be may hinge on that choice.


In 2014, Shinzo Abe rejected the idea of Japan emulating Germany’s actions, citing differing political contexts for postwar Europe versus Asia. He implied the quest for European unification somehow mandated the German approach. A divided and adversarial East Asia, it seems, made Japanese attempts at atonement futile or counterproductive. That argument may be made, but it skirts the core issue of Japan’s stance, more deeply dividing the region and entrenching adversarial national relationships. Abe and his advisors surely understand this. Japan’s ability to shape regional and world affairs, as it is fully capable of doing and aspires to do, hinges upon how it is perceived by the community of nations, especially those of East Asia. Abandoning the ideal of reconciliation over its wartime actions cannot be an option on the Japan table. What strategy for realizing their ambition is at work? It may not be contrition and atonement.

German artist Hans Haacke wrote, “Museums are managers of consciousness. They give us an interpretation of history, of how we view the world and locate ourselves in it. They are, if you want to put it in positive terms, great educational institutions. If you want to put it in negative terms, they are propaganda machines.” A museum and shrine in Tokyo may bring Abe’s strategic posture on reconciliation into sharper focus. Yushukan Museum stands on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine. Therein is locomotive C5631, identified as the first to trundle down the Thai-Burma rail line, where more than 100,000 forced laborers and prisoners of war died in its construction.

A memorial to Indian jurist Radhabinod Pal also stands on the grounds of Yasukuni Shrine – a member of the International War Tribunal for the Far East panel of judges, he wrote of the Class A war criminals, “I would hold that every one of the accused must be found not guilty of every one of the charges in the indictment and should be acquitted on all those charges.” Pal considered the Pacific War provoked by the Americans and the war tribunals a sham. He stood utterly alone in this dissent among his 11 peer judges, but Japanese nationalists hold his views as authoritative and see Pal as a heroic figure. In 1968, Japan secretly enshrined 1,068 executed war criminals at Yasukuni as divine martyrs. Like those who did not survive the war, the executed soldiers had nobly sacrificed their lives in defense of the Japanese motherland against European Imperialism. The museum explains this defensive nature of the Pacific War. Abe and many other prominent Japanese statesmen regularly pay homage to those men.

April 20, 2015

QotD: Mezcal and other “downmarket” drinks

Filed under: Asia, Humour, Japan, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I think the nastiest drink I’ve ever drunk in my life was some stuff called mezcal in a Mexican market town. It’s made, I find, from the same aloe-like plant that gives us tequila, of which mezcal is a kind of downmarket version, if you can imagine such a thing. When I bought my bottle at the grocer’s it had a small packet tied to the neck. Inside was what looked like a shrimp in talcum powder. “What’s that?” I asked my American friend. “That’s the worm,” he said, “the best part. You can try it without.” I tried it without. My head filled with a taste of garage or repair shop — hot rubber and plastic, burnt oil and a whiff of hydrochloric-acid vapour from the charging engine. When I sold Mack the rest of the bottle he emptied in the pounded-up worm, recapped, shook, and poured himself a tumbler of greyish liquid with little pink shreds in it. Give me Tizer any day.

I haven’t yet sampled Ruou Tiet De, a North Vietnamese mixture of rice alcohol and goat’s blood, or Central Asian koumis, fermented from mare’s and camel’s milk. Sake, a sweetish rice beer from Japan, goes well with Japanese food, so if you happen to like eating raw fish and seaweed this is obviously your tipple. You drink it warm. I may say that when I heated some on the stove recently to check that it was as horrible as I remembered, it took all the deposit off the lining of the saucepan.

You needn’t go as far afield as that to find a drink offensive to any person of culture and discrimination, especially if mixes are on the agenda. In South Wales you’re likely to find them throwing down Guinness with Lucozade and Ribena, or Mackeson and orange squash — not in the more refined areas, true. In Scotland they put fizzy lemonade in their whisky. Yes, in respectable places in the Highlands there are quart bottles of the stuff on the bar alongside the Malvern water and the siphon. The objection is not that it’s vulgar, but that, of course, it kills the Scotch and tastes frightful.

Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.

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