There used to be a joke (conspiracy theory) called “Li’s Field” in Hong Kong whereby typhoons would conveniently pass by the city overnight or over the weekend, so people wouldn’t get their day off from work or school.
But climate change is real, and Li Ka-shing has since retired. Japan is now no stranger to typhoons from the Pacific passing by overnight and on the weekends (in addition to active volcanoes and earthquakes, oh dear), while Hong Kong has had a pretty nice and stable summer, weather-wise. Save and except for all the tear gas in the air. And Li Ka-shing’s businesses have pretty much divested from Hong Kong.
Unlike Hong Kong, however, typhoon employment protections aren’t as strong in Japan:
Apparently, people on Twitter are complaining that employers still want you to show up to work on Saturday by leaving early, trying your best to go to work even if you end up arriving late, and if the trains aren’t running, your boss will pick you up using the company car (is that even safe)?
These companies probably won’t be around for much longer.
So what is Hong Kong’s endgame? In between Brexit, Trump/Ukraine, the brutal protests in Iraq, and anything else on the news cycle conveyor belt, such is the question many people outside of Hong Kong ask. Or, more realistically, the question people in Hong Kong would like those outside Hong Kong to ask.
The tragedy is that, as I have written about earlier, all Hong Kong people can do is try to get people outside of Hong Kong to care. This week, I stumbled upon an Instagram account, maintained by a Japanese-speaking Hong Kong person, curating, in lucid Japanese, a digital Lennon Wall of police brutality and executive stupidity. This account also calls out people on the Japanese Internet for what it thinks are mis-interpretations of what protestors are doing.
In the rapidly changing Cantonese vernacular, the Instagram account is a form of 文宣 (man syun), a term once used to describe Communist Chinese propaganda, but now borrowed to describe the rainbow sticky note wallpapers that have blossomed throughout the city. But I would think that it is a mental eruption of the pain, a shout in the darkness for those who are willing to listen, in whatever language, and wherever in the world––and not many people do. After all, in the past four months, this is all people have looked at on their phones, whether at home and in their daily hour-long commutes. The Lennon Walls are a collective, desperate search to rationalize the unthinkable and the unforgivable, a prayer circle to meditate on their fears, and to marinate on their vexations.
Genki Sushi, Ippudo Ramen, Starbucks, and Shake Shack are all run by a “Hong Kong” company. Genki Sushi is not run by a Japanese company.
The daughter of [the founder of] Maxims says that she is part of the faction that supports China and is suffering under the unending protests.
As million-man marches and placards gave way to Molotov cocktails and rubber bullets, we would like to believe that we still direct our rage with surgical precision. We mess up Genki Sushi, but leave everything else alone, because we believe the company behind discount conveyor belt sushi is symptomatic of the big business plutocracy that has aided and abetted the taxpayer-funded tyranny that we live in. Or that’s what we would like people outside Hong Kong to believe in.
But people might tune into TBS News in Tokyo and see this:
Moving pictures of shattered glass and jet-black spray paint speak louder than hundred-thousand word dissertations about being born in a famous city on the edge of empires. People could sit in lecture halls and reading rooms all day about whether one’s net asset worth is directly proportional to the level of antagonism one holds about Carrie Lam, how pro-government political parties systematically engineer elections to return a majority of seats despite holding only a minority level of popular support, and how an impossible postcolonial bargain made between the United Kingdom and great and almighty People’s Republic has systematically deprived an entire generation of millennials in the city––those without wealth and connections to leave for good if they could––of any hope for their futures. But no one has the time to learn.
Indeed, pictures of burning shopfronts, however unrepresentative those environments are about Hong Kong, make for dramatic headlines. There are only twenty-four hours in a day and so many pixels on a screen, so news outlets do what they can to keep you not necessarily informed, but definitely entertained. And so people watch the mass media cover the Hong Kong protests, and they are scared.
Last week, a Japanese friend I met at Georgetown messaged me. She was going up to Mainland China for a leisure trip, and was transiting through Hong Kong to get on a high speed train up north. And she seemed relieved to see me. It’s always good to have a local friend to guide you around, she said. Which is true. I had a great time with her and some other Waseda friends eating yakitori in Shinjuku when I visited her last summer. But it was her first time going to a place where she didn’t speak the language, and she was concerned that the metro system would close down at any time. “Is it safe for normal travelers to wander around?” she asked. I said she would be fine. Just take the Airport Express to the high speed rail station and we can grab lunch.
The day after a police officer almost murdered an 18 year old boy, we met up in Elements, a luxury mall atop the Airport Express station. The sun was shining, the shops were open, and we made our way to lunch. We snuck in our cups of bubble tea into a crowded branch of Tim Ho Wan, and I ordered some shrimp dumplings and a bowl of preserved egg and pork congee, among other things, to share. She said that she needed to exchange some renminbi, but the rates at the train station were awful. I said I knew a place that had great exchange rates by Chungking Mansions, and said it would be a 10 minute taxi ride away. She said it was okay. She had a train to catch, and the money she was losing to the currency exchange cum highway robbery shop was, she said, her own anyway. Perhaps staying in Hong Kong scared her, and she was too kind to tell me.
This is the anxiety that Carrie Lam is hoping to cultivate among people outside of Hong Kong. They ask: is Hong Kong still good enough of a place to park my money without anyone asking me weird questions? To mingle with the lost expatriate nomads of the world? To place to wine and dine in luxurious skyscrapers? It is these questions that Carrie Lam wishes to present to the city’s youth: why do you wish to wilfully and recklessly fail to “treasure” the things that make you rich? But I would believe that most Hong Kong millennials care little for their material concerns. After all, they never benefited from an oligarchic system that privileged so few.
At what cost should Hong Kong’s protest movement convince the world that they should not be on Carrie Lam’s side? A few weeks ago, I heard about people folding senbazuru––a thousand origami cranes in hope of peace––inside shopping malls. I searched on Twitter to see if anyone was tweeting about it. You can do a search too, and you’ll find that not many people on Japanese Twitter care. But this person called Suzuko Hirano does:
Who is Suzuko Hirano? Her Instagram account shows her bravely lecturing people in Tokyo about Hong Kong in a kimono. Her photos are awash her comments from Hong Kong thanking her for her support. As Hirano told a website called Japan Forward, which describes her as a “Yamato nadeshiko (the personification of an idealized Japanese woman)” (the brackets are part and parcel of the website’s description):
The world is currently at a turning point. Are we going to live in a peaceful, free world, or one in which freedom of expression is lost?
Now is the time for me to stand up and fight. I will continue to fight for Hong Kong in Japan. Because I love Hong Kong, because I love Japan. I will not hide my face or name, and I will give my all to defending this country.
To everyone in the world: stand up and fight, for freedom, for the next generation.
I hope you will be courageous and brave. We will stand and defend Hong Kong together.
Hold on. What has being an idealized Japanese woman got to do with supporting protests for Hong Kong? Whose freedom of expression is being attacked? If one loves Japan, must one love Hong Kong, and vice versa? Why does Hirano care so much?
Pull the wool from our eyes and you’ll see that Japan Forward is run by the Sankei Shimbun, whose raison d’etre is to whitewash Japan’s WWII military aggression and military prostitution in a better light. Scroll down a bit further on Hirano’s Instagram account and you’ll find creeping signs of her political affiliation: a show of gratitude to the souls who sacrificed their lives for peace in Yasukuni Shrine; a book recommendation on how great Japan is, which she says no Japanese person is no longer willing to appreciate because of GHQ’s “War Guilt Information Program” after Japan surrendered. As Au Loong-yu writes in Ming Pao:
Support of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement from people like Hirano only serves to support their imperialist and militaristic interpretation of history, as well as their propagandic rhetoric concerning China’s imminent invasion of Japan. If you’re not on the far-right, and yet uncritically share the news that Hirano supports Hong Kong, it is possible that you’ve cultivated a relationship with the wrong ally.
(Translated from the Chinese by Lausan.)
So who can we find as allies? Probably not Shinzo Abe, who desperately wants a fresh start to Sino-Japanese relations, and was a world leader who expressed his congratulations to Xi Jinping on the 70th anniversary of the vindication of Mao’s China. And probably not Hirano, whose support for Hong Kong is aligned with the slimiest elements of Japan’s conservative establishment. Our allies are, sadly, our own selves.
All things good and bad come to an end. These protests will end someday, somehow. And just as we come crying out of vaginas, so too do we meet our deaths, eventually, and alone. When that days comes for the Chief Executive, Jesus Christ will remind her what she did that hot and humid summer. Drunk on the forbidden fruit of power, she did something wrong, refused to admit that she did so, and then proceeded to summarily punish each and every person who had the right to, and indeed was correct to, call her out on what she did wrong.
At least that’s what TV Asahi makes you think when you watch its news programs. Here are some choice still frames from their broadcasts this week.
This woman brought her items to the cashier at a convenience store and the clerk started to ring her up just before the the stroke of midnight on October 1, so she got a receipt dated October 1, but was still charged the old consumption tax rate of 8 percent.
She says she’s going to keep the receipt.
The restaurant chain Sushiro wasn’t able to charge anyone consumption tax in 197 branches. This man in Fukuoka was proud to show TV Asahi his receipt, which says that he didn’t pay any consumption tax for his meal.
“How many plates of sushi did you eat?” the reporter asks. 45 plates, the man laughs. What a steal. Quite literally.
This group of friends from Osaka ordered a round of beers past midnight, which meant that the new tax rate would be charged on those beers. They taste like a heavier tax burden, unfortunately.
For some reason, the Japanese government decided to keep the 8 percent rate for takeaways at restaurants, but apply the new rate if you eat the food inside the ‘eat-in’ areas of convenience stores. Which tax rate applies to you depends on an honors system. So there are now people (mostly balding men, according to TV Asahi) called segi-man (i.e. men of justice) who have way too much time on their hands lurk around in convenience stores calling out on people who tell the store clerks that they’re going to take their bentos home, but they end up eating them anyway inside the store.
What happens when someone sees a customer who consumes the food and drink he bought inside the store without declaring that he would do so for tax purposes, and reports it to an employee? FamilyMart said that it would be difficult ascertain the evidence even when someone who isn’t the customer himself reports it, and that the store will not say anything if the customer doesn’t declare for himself how he’s going to consume the food and drink. Lawson similarly said that currently, consumption tax is calculated based on a self-declaration system, and did not envision for situations where they would do anything after receiving a report from a third party. In other words, even if one bravely reports to the store in pursuit of fairness about the consumption tax, there is a high possibility that the store will overlook what happened.
An ambitious documentary about people who are proud to live beyond social norms in contemporary Japan. Community is a big focus––otherwise, Graham Kolbeins, the film’s director, wouldn’t have been able to make the film without creating a network of contacts and cold calling people: or so he told us at a Q&A with him at Broadway Cinematheque last week after the film screened in at the HKLGFF.
Civil partnership recognition is spreading across dozens of cities and municipalities across Japan, and mainstream book and comic publishers are starting to market LGBTQ+ authors and themes (actually, mostly cis-gendered gay male authors for now, but hopefully that will change). So what can Queer Japan offer in this media space? A lot, actually. I learned about Grammy Tokyo and thought about the language dynamics that a transgender man would face, and about Aya Kamikawa on how no one from the Liberal Democratic Party cared about her until she won a seat in the Setagaya Ward Council in 2003. (She has since been re-elected four more times.) I recognized Tac’s Knot, the cocktail bar in Shinjuku Ni-chome which hosts Yo Katami’s Loneliness Books on Wednesdays. I saw Leslie Kee photograph his 1000th interviewee for the Out in Japan project. I definitely appreciated the large amount of transgender representation on screen. Also, all the interviewees knew each other, or at least grew to know each other. That’s community.
I missed Tokyo Rainbow Pride when I was in Tokyo in 2016, but the film was there. It was the fifth time that the parade was happening. The Embassy of Israel was giving out food, an Android mascot from the Google booth waddled around with a rainbow cape, and Caroline Kennedy was on stage expressing her satisfaction at the large amount of American companies there. But the film turned its attention to an anonymous interviewee holding placards on the sidelines. They hated how commercialized the parade had become. Pride, they said, was about individuals, not corporate social responsibility. Was this the inevitable trajectory of all societies that seemingly grow to embrace public displays of queerness?
At the post-screening Q&A, I asked Mr. Kolbeins about his choice to juxtapose the parade with these protestors. It was a conscious choice to include voices from both sides, he said. One had to hold these organizations accountable. So while ANA extends mileage scheme benefits to same-sex partners, is ANA doing the same for employees with same-sex partners? Is the United States still welcome at pride events around the world while its Education Secretary launches unprecedented attacks on transgender students? (These are my examples, by the way.)
Update on 3 October 2019: Variety has an insightful review of this film published earlier this summer.
I didn’t watch this film because it was sold out very early on, but here’s the synopsis from the film festival website:
Kohei is a handsome and masculine former athlete, with a regular family life. He is unhappy but doesn’t know what it is that’s bothering him – until the day his wife leaves him. He escapes with alcohol and finds himself in Tokyo’s gay district. In a drunken haze, Kohei meets Yutaka, a beautiful twink who makes a living from live sex webcams with men. Yutaka takes Kohei home and an unlikely friendship begins when they somehow find comfort in each other’s company. An urban love story set in the bright lights of Tokyo, Athlete paints a beautiful portrait of the loneliness in modern city life.
Lots of people are doing last-minute shopping to get 2 percent savings before the tax hike takes effect tomorrow. I also ordered a few second-hand books online, but my consumption logic is at best questionable: why would I spend more money in hopes on saving on tax?
The smart thing the Japanese government has done is to link the tax hike with encouraging businesses to offer consumers points as a ‘rebate’ to get people to stop paying with cash. The evening news programs have provided unending coverage of housewives and househusbands making full use of these payment apps and (theoretically) saving tens of thousands of yen a month (assuming these rebate campaigns continue to be unsustainably generous, of course). The Ata Distance blog makes this interesting observation:
Regardless of whether the CASHLESS rebate is ‘a success’ or not, it will be a tipping point. Already I notice a shift in public perception: if a store is cash only, it definitely looks behind the times in the minds of customers.
By the way, you can intern to be a parent now. That’s what this university student from Chiba did, as he imagines a future family where both parents have to work (共働き世代 vs 専業主婦世代). He literally spent the normal working hours inside this family’s house playing with a baby. What an internship.
I wanted to order some green tea from Ippodo’s online shop for a friend’s birthday, but found out that Ippodo’s online shop was closed for “maintenance” for the entire weekend. So you had to dial in to order the old-fashioned way. I know nothing about how websites have to deal with the tax hike, but does this seem a little excessive?
Eslite Spectrum opened in the COREDO Muromachi complex just north of Nihombashi, Tokyo, this week. This is Eslite’s first store outside China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan––and Japan is a country that makes the most sense to open in, since half the stuff they sell is Japanese, or Japanese-inspired. Given that Eslite is, in essence, a real estate empire with seriously good taste in independent literature and craftmanship, here’s hoping this little Taiwanese beachhead in central Tokyo can grow to challenge Tsutaya’s culture curating business. It’s no longer enough to just have backnumbers of Brutus Casa on polished wood bookshelves in Daikanyama.
My only pet peeve is that this store was absolutely a missed opportunity to introduce Tenren to Tokyo. It is a bubble tea crime to associate The Alley with Eslite. Also, judging from the comments written in Traditional Chinese on this YouTube video from which I stole the above screencap, apparently it’s not that great to have your grubby bbt hands all over the shiny new books on display.
Finally, witness the pomp and circumstance in Tokyo station when the Emperor and Empress (Consort) of Japan board their royal train for the first time in the Reiwa era. Notice how the metal handles that the (impeccably uniformed) conductors use to help themselves get down to the track level (to unfurl the Japanese flags in the front of the train) are built onto the train body.
CPG Grey once said that people like to visiting Britain’s castles is different from visiting most other castles in Europe, because there’s still a living monarch sprinkling royal pixie dust everywhere. I guess Tokyo station is one of the few places in Japan where you can legitimately feel good old-fashioned imperial power on a weekday morning. Here’s a paparazzi photo of the former Empress of Japan going into a low-key entrance in Tokyo station back in August 2019:
I was scrolling through Instagram last week and the algorithms served me this ad:
After doing some research, I found out that I could get these “Umai Crates” for an attractive subscription price of US$30 per month. All I needed to do was to give up my credit card details and this business venture will happily ship a box (for free!) of instant noodles that they consider hard to find outside of Japan. They even curate recipe cards so you can make your late-night impulsive styrofoam snack into a gourmet meal that rivals the romantic suggestions that Buzzfeed’s Tasty suggests.
To be fair, Nissin is great at making you want to eat instant noodles. I subscribe to its YouTube channel, which is just a hodgepodge of slick TV commercials that each have hundreds of thousands of views. It has cup noodle museums in Osaka and Yokohama, where the company breaches the gospel of Ando Momofuku, the Taiwanese-Japanese reincarnation of Jesus Christ who turned deep-fried noodles into chicken ramen magic packs. Its matsutake mushroom cream sauce cup noodles were probably as heavenly as the bread and wine of the Last Supper (and since Nissin doesn’t sell them anymore, they are truly the stuff of New Testament legend).
But why would you want to subscribe to a box of nasty processed shit ‘curated’ by some sucker who probably went to the basement floor of Don Quijote, picked out whatever seemed exotic enough, and literally stuff the empty spaces with random selections from the spice rack? How do you even justify the US$30 cost from that? Printing on laminated color cards is expensive, probably—but is there any research value in knowing that you could add instant katsuobushi or a poached egg into soggy non-fried wheat curls in boiling dihydrogen monoxide? YouTube can probably teach you that better.
And how would you personally get through 8 to 10 servings of cup noodles per month? That’s like eating one every three nights—nights where you sit around a dim kitchen table, where the cats are asleep, scrolling through your credit card statement, wondering why you have to pay off this silly venture capital parasite from Tokyo when your blood-earned cash could be applied somewhere else. Like saving up for your mortgage payments. Or your student loans.
2. “Welcome Japan” Suica cards
An IC card is an invaluable tool to get around all of Japan. Get one of these mean green things at a JR East ticket machine in Tokyo, and you’ll be able to get on almost any train or bus or buy anything at a convenience store or supermarket without fidgeting for change. (I think the Suica card has the most interoperability out of all the systems in Japan but I’m not sure.)
[The card] can only be used for a period of up to 28 days after which the card holders will receive an error when trying to proceed with e-money payment transactions.
It may not be possible to use automated gates to exit at the destination station if the cards have been used for a journey that straddles different rail service areas.
Money charged onto the cards will not be refunded, and the cards can’t be reissued. But according to the operators, travelers will be able to keep the cards as souvenirs. The campaign is limited to travelers.
So, for the price of foregoing the 500 yen deposit, you get:
To lose any and all of the remaining money you’ve loaded onto your card after 28 days, and there is no way to get any of that money back
No cute penguin on your card (which forms part of the card’s etymology)
An ugly shade of blood red in your wallet that is not the color of the cherry blossom imagery the cards are meant to invoke
A lazily designed smattering of cherry blossoms designed to appeal to your nascent NIPPON love
In any case, a forgettable piece of junk plastic that you can’t use after 28 days, the time limit of which doesn’t even make sense to me, since a temporary visitor’s visa to Japan generally lasts up to 90 days; and in any case it shows that every trip you make to Japan is supposed to be your first and your last. You’re not supposed to come back after sampling the junk in Asakusa and the airport sushi at Narita!
This is a present a person received from their parents when they turned 20. (Twenty is (was) the age of majority in Japan.) It’s a letter asking the recipient for 20,000 yen to cover rent, board, and utilities if they want to continue living in the house, and that interest will accrue on any loans made from parents.
The letter ends with, “Please enjoy the rest of your life”.
In Japan, every bottle of the familiar Ito-en green tea comes with a haiku. (Ito-en has even published a book. This haiku says that Ayakata (a competing green tea product by Coca-Cola Japan) and Sokenbicha (also another tea product by Coca-Cola Japan) tastes like river water. So Ito-en really wants to fight with Coca-Cola.
Notice what the melon farmers care about when a bunch of melons is arrested. The full translation of the newspaper article is this:
The Asahi City Police in Chiba Prefecture announced on the 20th that they had arrested 6 Vietnamese men suspected of stealing 112 melons from a field.
Among those arrested were Tran Kuan Kai [an approximation based on the katakana available], 29, apparently unemployed, of Yotsukaidō City. Kai denied the charges. The other 5 admitted to the theft, saying that they “stole the melons because [they] wanted to eat them.”
According to the police, the 6 suspects are accused of stealing 112 of the famous Iioka Melons that Asahi City is famous for from a field. The melons are worth approximately 67,000 yen in total.
A spokesperson for the Iioka Melon Division of JA Chiba Midori said, “The melons aren’t ripe enough yet for eating.”
The 6 people had to have carried around 18 to 19 melons each. That’s quite a feat.
This is a screenshot of a doctor’s appointment where a boy seems to have injured his shoulder. The conversation goes something like this:
Doctor: what sports do you do? Boy: I do Beyblade.
I have tried countless times to find the original clip (and judging from the YouTube search suggestions, so have many others) but I don’t actually know if this dialogue actually exists. It’s kind of too funny to be real.
When I saw the thick, blue bunkobon on her office bookshelf, the Japanese professor with whom I was going to work with said: “You know, I’m not a Hong Kong freak (香港フリーク). I just wanted to get out of Japan for better career opportunities.”
The blue book she was referring to was a fat nonfiction paperback called 転がる香港に苔は生えない (Rolling Hong Kong Gathers No Moss, based on the Japanese translation of the English idiom) by Hiromi Hoshino, who returned to Hong Kong to witness the 1997 handover after studying at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the 1980s.
In my professor’s eyes, Hoshino was a Hong Kong freak. In her book, she reminisces about the people that she met. The first person Hoshino writes about is Ah Bun, whom she met in the depths of Kowloon Walled City, an infamous slum that has captured the minds of Japanese photographers, Japanese video games, and Japanese arcade owners. Ah Bun was a refugee from Mainland China. He fled in 1975 to start a new life in Hong Kong. And he was happy to share some roast duck and stir-fried vegetables with Hoshino and some of Ah Bun’s other factory buddies. They took a picture together.
When Hoshino returned to Hong Kong in late 1996, the first thing she did, with Ah Bun’s picture in hand, was to find Ah Bun in Kowloon Walled City. Later, she would find out that Ah Bun had passed away three years ago. So did the Walled City, which the colonial government decided to demolish in 1989. The photograph she has of herself, Ah Bun, and four other sweaty men huddled in a dark room over plates of meat and vegetables, became, inadvertently, the connection she had to Hong Kong. A connection that Hong Kong decided to sever by deliberately choosing to forget about the Kowloon Walled City (香港は、本気で記憶喪失になることを選んだのだ。).
I picked up Hoshino’s book, and a few others on Hong Kong, in second-hand bookstores throughout the seven-odd months I stayed in Tokyo as a student in 2016. At first, I didn’t like Hoshino’s decision to begin her 600-page Hong Kong omnibus on the Kowloon Walled City. I never felt a connection to that place, partly because it was gone before I was born. Also, what was there to love about an ungoverned slum? What difference was there between the lust of Kowloon Walled City’s cyberpunk mystique, and the fact that people all over the world travel to Hong Kong just to dress up and pose in front of public housing estates to add their own lick of poverty porn on their Instagram accounts?
This short blog post is not enough to do justice to Hoshino’s book. But the point I want to bring home is that Hong Kong freaks like Hoshino excel in a skill that most people, including yours truly, lack: observation. They see what they think makes Hong Kong special. The people, the products, the buildings, the neon signs, the food that is born from the struggle of refugees from Communist China, the hustle of South Asian descendants in Chungking Mansions, and the colonial decadence of the Anglo-European elite two blocks down in The Peninsula.
Hot-blooded Chinese Communist Party lovers love to accuse Hong Kong millennials of romanticizing Hong Kong’s colonial past (戀殖). Fuminori Yamaguchi’s book, 香港旅の雑学ノート (Hong Kong Travel Journal), would be perfect for these colonial history lovers. For Yamaguchi too is a Hong Kong freak: preserved in her book are meticulous details about everything in 1980s Hong Kong that far surpasses any level of detail you can find in the Hong Kong History Museum: how bamboo scaffolding is tied up; what the most popular men’s haircuts are; what Hong Kong triads do; what identity cards and bus stops look like; what color combinations are most common in neon signs (red and yellow and red and green are the most common; while blue and green and red and blue do not exist); what utensils people use to eat dim sum; what Chinese-language translations of Hollywood movies are; what’s in the handbag of a 20-year old Hong Kong female office worker (apparently, a HSBC pocketbook, a hair salon coupon, an address book, and an classifieds ad from an English-language newspaper).
Most of what’s contained in Yamaguchi’s book do not exist in Hong Kong anymore. The city’s rising GDP per capita, and Gini coefficient, made the city’s people lose sight of what makes the city special. Historical monuments in the downtown core demolished for subway and land reclamation projects. Hawkers and decades-old restauranteurs banished from the streets and from public housing estates. In lieu of the simple, middle-class life that people lived in the 1980s, to live in Hong Kong is to survive in an unending Glass Menagerie nightmare. Babies compete for spaces in English-language kindergartens the moment they are born. University graduates compete to overwork in faceless consulting firms. Families compete to buy tiny apartments with gaudy names from property developers. Immigrants from Mainland China compete for public housing spaces. The senile and the elderly compete for hospice beds. And when you die, your next of kin compete for a place to store your ashes. No wonder the city burns with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation. No wonder the city’s young long for the past, exemplified by the Union Jack-embossed colonial flag.
The cost of Hong Kong’s struggle in the margins is that it was a neoliberal beachhead for international business investment. Japanese companies were no exception. Hong Kong is, by far, the biggest importer of Japanese agricultural products in the world. Every Japanese prefecture is dying to get the attention of Hong Kong consumers. The Hong Kong Government loves to tell people that international brands like Ichiran Ramen use Hong Kong as a testing ground before expanding their business to Mainland China.
Indeed, despite the cries of some protestors—and the occasional sympathetic stranger I meet during my travels—that “Hong Kong is not China”, the fact is that Hong Kong has always existed in China’s shadow. After all, a city populated mostly by Chinese refugees and their descendants inevitably takes on layers of traditional Chinese culture from wherever the refugees came from. Without the despicable uncertainty of a totalitarian dictatorship, Chinese culture in Hong Kong became endowed with a natural soft power that still eludes Xi Jinping’s Chinese dreams. More often than not, Jackie Chan is the first thing people say when I tell middle-aged adults in Tokyo that I’m from Hong Kong. In November 2017, when two of my best Japanese friends from Keio University came to visit, they demanded photos in front of the windows of roast duck restaurants (and the lobby of The Peninsula) and ate take-out dim sum from Tim Ho Wan. In retrospect, eating a carb and saturated fat-heavy diet on uncomfortable wooden stools were rubber gloved angry women carried huge red buckets of water behind your back was probably a little overwhelming for people who were more used to the refined polish of Tokyo’s urban environment, but I showed my friends what people sought Hong Kong for: perhaps not the images of Queen Elizabeth II that Hong Kong millennials now seek, but a safe place, as with Taiwan, to experience and enjoy Chinese culture. A place that was free of the insecurity and uncertainty of a Communist dictatorship.
Japan’s perception of Hong Kong has changed, perhaps irreversibly, since widespread protests began against Carrie Lam’s government in June 2019. In response to Chief Executive Lam’s unending reckless ineptitude, what began as peaceful protests against an unnecessary and foolish legislative amendment to allow extraditions to Mainland China has mutated into violent clashes with police, round robin style, at the airport and at various commercial districts across Hong Kong every weekend.
Violence, gore, calamity, terror, and distress drive our media. So while people in Hong Kong watch nightly livestreams of wanton police brutality, photographers and writers from all over the world have descended into the city to send clips of the most savage moments to broadcast in their home countries.
Japan is no exception. Once the Japanese news media deem something to be worthy of your time, it becomes the talk of the nation. So, my Japanese friends ask me on Instagram, is Hong Kong daijobu? Are you safe? No, probably not, I tell them. But I am fine. Hong Kong is safe if, and only if, you avoid the protest areas. When I was on vacation in Japan last month, from an izakaya in Shibuya to a Shinto shrine by Lake Towada in Aomori, people told me the same thing about Hong Kong. The situation is taihen, they tell me with sympathetic eyes. Yep, it’s taihen alright, I tell them.
The Japanese news shows report the Hong Kong protests with astonishing detail and clarity. Infographics are made. Panels of commentators are hired. Headlines on screens fear a second Tiananmen is coming. The hourly NHK news digests tell people what’s going on, down to Hong Kong reporters confronting the press credentials of Mainland Chinese reporters at the daily police media briefings.
A few weeks ago, World Business Satellite made a valiant effort to give a different perspective by interviewing a 10 year old primary school student who went to Hong Kong International Airport to do her summer vacation independent project. The student said that she wanted to see for herself whether the protestors were indeed violent. On Twitter, however, people have anonymously criticized the student’s parents for putting the student in danger. Why put her in the crosshairs of the People’s Liberation Army, they say. Military vehicles are poised to strike at any moment across the border.
Why do the Japanese media care about Hong Kong? I can only speculate. Perhaps what’s happening in Hong Kong reminds people of SEALDs, an anti-war and anti-Shinzo Abe student movement that fizzled out in 2016. Perhaps Hong Kong’s dissenting youth are world-famous. Although he does not lead today’s protests, Joshua Wong has a Netflix documentary and, now, an unending schedule of interviews with media from all over the world. Agnes Chow can speak Japanese and has talked at length to reporters about the extradition bill at the National Press Club.
In any case, people in Japan no longer see Hong Kong the place it was. A few months ago, we were a pretty cool city: a weekend getaway, easily accessible with cheap airline tickets, that offered traditional crafts, cutting edge contemporary arts and design, and a stable business environment for foreign direct investment. Today, we are a segment on the evening news, the police barbarity on the streets laid bare for the stoic audiences all over the world to see.
A modern Hong Kong freak might give us a hint. A few years back, Kumiko Ohara, who has spent 30 years in Hong Kong, published a book called 週末香港 いいもの探し (Finding Good Things on a Weekend in Hong Kong). Pushing past our collective despair about the state of Hong Kong culture and our collective fantasies about British emigration, Ohara finds the things that we have forgotten in our pursuit of wealth, property, and stability. The Chinese teahouses in Kennedy Town. The craftsmen in Yuen Long who sell rooster ceramic bowls. An independent art bookstore, tucked away on the 14th floor of a building on Hennessy Road. The kitchenware stores on Shanghai Street. Hidden in the pages of Ohara’s book are the embers of Hong Kong’s soft power: the magic that drew Hoshino and Yamaguchi to tell their own stories twenty years ago. But Ohara’s book is only a hint. Nothing more.
Tonight, Reuters published a leaked audio recording from Carrie Lam. She doesn’t know how to stop the protests, she says. Beijing won’t let her offer any answers. Neither does the international community know what to do. We can crowdfund millions of dollars countless times to purchase award-winning newspaper advertisements all over the world to get people to care about Hong Kong. But all these ads can do is to get people to care. The onus is on ourselves to pick up the pieces. As Wilfred Chan writes, and I wholeheartedly agree: “To pull through, Hong Kong’s people must find a way to reclaim their historical agency and develop a positive vision for their own home.”
For a detailed history of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region since 1997 in the Japanese language, I recommend Kazuo Yukawa’s 香港返還20年の相克, an extremely detailed treatment of Hong Kong’s political, economic, and legal developments in one concise volume.
Hong Kong Airlines chose to use Jackie Chan to advertise its Tokyo-Hong Kong flights. Ironically, Hong Kong Airlines is owned by a financially struggling conglomerate based in Hainan, and Jackie Chan no longer stars in any Hong Kong films, having moved his career to Hollywood long ago, and aligned his political views to match with Beijing’s.
As this blog has mentioned before, Hong Kong lives in perilous times. At the annual Ani-Com convention in Hong Kong last weekend, I found this Sign of the Times taped to a pillar in the main exhibition hall.
When I left, I eagerly played detective on my phone to find out more about this poster. The quote is from Lesson 526 of Gintama, where the protagonist, Sakura Gintoki says:
It’s the darkest before dawn. だが目をつぶるなよ
But don’t close your eyes. 闇から目ェそらした奴には 明日に刺す光も見えねェ
Because those who turn their eyes away from the darkness won’t be able to see the light shining on them tomorrow. たとえこの先 どんなに深い夜が待っていてもな
No matter how deep a night waits in front of us.
Fiction is most powerful when it holds a mirror to us and asks us to account for our vices and sins. I can only hope that Hong Kong can see the light soon.
The incubator sounds interesting, has a cool website, and appears to host interesting meetups. What Richard Morgan did, however, was to decide to add a thick, unwanted layer of Orientalist gloss into what otherwise would have been a pretty interesting puff piece about Japanese startup culture.
The article starts off with the customary horror story about Japan’s Marunouchi men:
Despite behemoth native power players including Honda,Mitsubishi, Nintendo, SoftBank, Sony, andToyota, its corporate salaryman circles are full of squares, by design. Nearly every member of the Japanese workforce is a de facto senior vice president of rules and regulations. Japan’s national sport is protocol.
Is Japan’s national sport protocol? I thought it was baseball. And is it really fair to generalize every member of the Japanese workforce, from part-time convenience store housewives, expatriate English-language teachers, NGO co-founders, gay bartenders, to cross-dressing theater troupe members “de factor senior vice presidents of rules and regulations”? As an aside, I know more Japanese friends who want to avoid corporate Japan, rather than to actively seek to be a part of it. But that’s beside the point.
Facebook is now an Evil Force in 2019, but Richard Morgan wants to tell us that Japanese startup culture is nothing like the bros in Silicon Valley. He says that people in the Far East don’t want to break things, because it’s part and parcel of the culture:
But what if the lack of Silicon Valley-style disruption is a cultural asset? Consider the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired by filling the hibi, or cracks, with gold. What if “move fast and break things” — the early Facebook motto adopted by brogrammers everywhere — isn’t lost in translation as much as it’s discarded in translation? Why break when you can beautify?
I’m not trained well enough about business to say whether “move fast and break things” is a thing in Japan. When I discussed this article with Kiki, I brought up a Financial Times feature on cashless technology in Japan, which I thought had a much lighter dose of gloom and doom about the pitfalls of Japanese business culture. (I was wrong.)
In any case, Morgan later contradicts his own self-professed prowess on Japanese pottery by also saying that in Fukuoka there are
Large populations of American, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Indonesian, Korean, Nepalese, Portuguese, Thai, and Vietnamese immigrants were bolstered by relaxed labor laws in March.
It’s great that Fukuoka is welcoming immigrants from all over the world as it reinvents itself as a regional tech hub. But surely these immigrants (who are hopefully integrating and being treated well) move to Fukuoka ostensibly because of the opportunities there, and not because entrepreneurs spend their waking hours daydreaming about strained analogies between traditional craft and, well, actual entrepreneurship?
The more I continue to read Watson’s article, the more I believe that he went to Fukuoka with a set of rose-tinted weeabo lenses. He literally describes his main interviewee like this:
Yuichiro Uchida, FGN’s executive director, throws his arms into a human emoticon: ¯(ツ)/¯.
I think Uchida is trying to explain that Fukuoka has a creator-friendly environment (as all tech hubs should, presumably?). So of course it should welcome people from all backgrounds. But Watson decides to unnecessarily contextualize a quote from Uchida in a heaping pile of bushido shit, as if Uchida’s spirit is inherently linked to the souls of the samurai of generations past, whose musings about the solitude of the tea ceremony will become key to Fukuoka’s future:
His is a train of thought born of wabisabi, the Japanese notion that imperfection is often better than perfection. As Tomita puts it: “I value diversity. You can’t embrace diversity and expect perfection.”
What the flying fuck has whatever Uchida said got to do with wabi and sabi?
In 2011, Saturday Night Lifesatirized Americans fans of anime in a segment called “J-Pop America Fun Time Now.” Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer put on a hyperactive display of affection for Japanese culture as two Michigan State college students with their own show on the campus television network. They woo, pretend to be shy, and in one episode, accept “a very Japanese figure of Yao Ming” from the empress of the Hello Kitty Appreciation Club (played by Katy Perry). (I also wrote about this sketch while in college in 2016.) The crux of this very ambitious, very funny skit was to show how certain fans of Japanese culture exoticize what they profess to love.
So life imitates art. Perhaps Watson really wanted to show Fukuoka’s new face for the upcoming decade. I don’t question his intentions, but I do question his method. I’m sad to see that for a business report on Japanese startup culture to get clicks, Fortune magazine’s editors had to resort to approving these awful orientalist stereotypes about the Japanese mind.