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Yakushima: Where I Met the God of the Forest

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 30/07/2022 - 6:49am in

Published in Japan Forward 8/7/2022

“My advice is to turn back right now,” said our guide. “We’re way behind schedule and you’re clearly having difficulty.”

What he said was perfectly true. My knees and ankles were barely functioning. The sole of my left climbing shoe was flapping loose, and one of my middle toes had lost all sensation. Worse, I was finding it hard to move from moss-covered boulder to tiny wooden steps without lurching around like a drunk.

“I’m fine,” I lied. “Never felt better.”

 NW) Into the mountain (photo: NW)

Of course, I felt deeply sorry for the guide, having to deal with someone like me. If I fell and injured myself, it would be his problem. Already this week he had carried an injured young woman on his back for hours. I’d probably be twice her weight.

We were on Yakushima Island, two hours by jetfoil from Kagoshima, which is the southernmost city in Kyushu. I came here to meet Japan’s oldest living thing, the Jomon Cedar.  I was determined not to fail in this mission, no matter the cost in blisters, miscellaneous bruises and damaged pride.

As it happens, luck was already on our side. Yakushima, thanks to its sudden elevation from sea-level, is the rainiest place in Japan. As the locals say, it rains thirty five days a month. Torrential downpours are common, leading to cancelled flights to and from the tiny airport and cancelled hikes for would-be tourists, who cannot access the mountain without a permit.

Our trip took place bang in the middle of the rainy season, yet – miracle of miracles – on the day we had booked for our hike, not a drop of moisture fell from the sky. Deer gambolled. Monkeys chattered. It was like entering the magical world of a Hayao Miyazaki film.

Ashitaka searches for the Princess Ashitaka searches for the Princess

In fact, the resemblance is no coincidence. The great anime creator came to Yakushima in the mid-1990s and used the ancient cedars as inspiration for the mystical forest scenes in his masterpiece, Princess Mononoke.

There are several possible hiking courses to follow, ranging from gentle inclines and well-marked paths to overnight stays on the higher reaches of the mountains, the highest in Kyushu, in order to see the sunrise.

For us, the moment of decision came at the Wilson Stump, named after British “plant-hunter” E.H. Wilson who visited Yakushima in 1914. All that is left of what must have been an enormous tree is a cavernous hollow the size of a sumo ring. The rest was delivered to warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi in 1590 who used it to rebuild a temple in Kyoto.

Inside the stump is a small shrine, a spring and an aperture that, when looked at a certain way, looks like a heart. Gazing through it confers luck in love, or so they say. Would it confer luck in climbing too, I  wondered. It’s from this point onwards that the going gets a lot tougher.

 The view from inside the Wilson Stump
The view from inside the Wilson Stump

Fit people should be able to do the return trip to the Jomon Cedar in ten hours. In the end, we managed it in thirteen and a half.  For the last two hours along the trolley-car track, my feet were acting independently, without any instructions from my brain. Various joints threatened to come apart. I enjoyed every minute.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Being in the presence of the Jomon Cedar is an unforgettable spiritual experience – both humbling and uplifting. That’s why so many people from all backgrounds and walks of life make this pilgrimage – including some like me who are in no shape to do it.

Fortunately, the great tree-god was in a forgiving mood and chose to overlook my rashness.


The Jomon Cedar is so-called because it began its time on the planet in the Jomon era, which stretched from 14,000 BC to 300 BC.  Exactly how old is this tree? You would have to slice through the trunk to find out and that cannot be done until the tree dies of natural causes – which may not happen for a long time to come.

The conservative consensus says it is “over 3,000 years old”, though more aggressive estimates have it at 7,200 years old. In the latter case, it would be older than Stonehenge and older than the oldest pyramids. In the former case, it would have been around before Confucius, Buddha, Socrates and King David walked the earth.

 NW) Ageless (photo: NW)

Like an aged human being, the Jomon cedar bears the marks of its long life. The trunk is gnarled and lumpy and a large branch was torn off in a typhoon a few years ago. It’s not that tall at 25.3 metres, with a trunk circumference of 16.4 metres – the body shape of a rugby prop forward rather than a basketball player. Slimmer, more elegant cedars have fallen victim to the elements and, most dangerous of all, human activity.

Something like 80% of Yakushima’s ancient cedars have been chopped down and converted into furniture and building materials for dwellings, shrines and temples. In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the people of Yakushima submitted their annual tribute to their feudal lord, the Shimadzu clan of Kagoshima, in the form of timber, rather than rice, which was hard to cultivate on the island’s unusual terrain.

Then after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Japanese government prioritized logging in order to build accommodation for the large number of people whose homes had been destroyed. There was a repeat after several of Japan’s cities were bombed flat in the last stages of the Pacific War. The use of modern tools, such as electric saws, meant that tree-felling that would have taken weeks in the Edo Period could be accomplished in a matter of hours.

The government even established a logging village of 500 inhabitants half-way up the mountain, with a school, a post office and a barber. A “torokko” trolley car system connected the tree felling areas with the port, which was eight kilometres of distance and 1200 metres of altitude away. Footage exists of trolley cars hurtling down the mountain to sea level with lumberjacks bestriding mighty logs like cowboys riding bucking broncos.

 NW) The highest peak in Kyushu (Photo: NW)

Logging stopped in the early 1970s. Nothing remains of the village which once rang with young voices singing the stirring words of the school song. The area containing the most ancient trees is now a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.

The lack of any conservation effort until then seems strange from our privileged perspective, but, as our guide put it, in hard times people come before plants. Only when the lower and middle levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have been satisfied does society concern itself with the higher levels.

Ironically, the Jomon cedar survived the two devastating phases of tree-chopping not because it was revered, but because it was considered valueless. Its wood was too old and crooked to support a temple roof or make a smooth table for a shogun’s concubine. The same goes for the other venerable survivors – the hollow-trunked “Great King”, the “Mother and Child” and the “Husband and Wife” cedars, two proximate trees whose branches have gradually fused together over the centuries.

Sometimes being ugly and uncooperative is a winning strategy.

Even so, being a cedar on Yakushima is a tough job. Unlike the nearby Tanegashima, which is mostly flat, the mountainous Yakushima is the product of an undersea eruption. That gives it a highly varied climate – as warm as Okinawa at sea-level, as cold as Hokkaido at 1800 metres. Vegetation is stratified by elevation, with cedar and other trees competing in relatively narrow bands.

 NW) The only ancient cedar allowed to be touched (photo: NW)

The volcanic rock means that trees cannot sink their roots deep into the earth. Instead, roots spread widely but in shallow ground, making the trees vulnerable to landslides, storms and heavy snowfalls. We saw several uprooted trees, like the 2000 year old “Old Man Cedar” that toppled a decade ago and now lies on its side further down the slope with its roots hanging forlornly in the air.

The Jomon Cedar still stands, dominating the area with its girth. It may have lost a bough or two, but there is new growth on its upper branches.

Civilizations have come and gone while the wind troubled its leaves and its thick dark trunk got thicker and darker. Will our civilization be any different? I would bet on the tree every time.

The pilgrims that come this far offer the tree-god ichi rei – a reverent  bow. All will return to their daily lives knowing they have seen something wondrous.

My Favourite Things: Wasabi up your nose

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 29/07/2022 - 8:29pm in



Japonica asked me about my favourite Japanese places, activities, foods, books and so on. The last question was the most difficult.

What do you like about living in Japan?

A maelstrom of images came to mind.

The air, the light, children’s voices, the rattle of trains, the yells of welcome when you enter a shop, persimmons, white gloves on taxi drivers, vivid green mosses, the labels on sake bottles, the Meiji Restoration, Beat Takeshi, wasabi up your nose, kimonos on coming of age day, the Emperor, Golden Gai, the Liberal Democratic Party, bunraku, the rainy season, Shibuya scramble, elaborate envelopes at weddings and funerals, Akira Kurosawa, strings of natto hanging from your chopsticks, the Japan Communist Party, the bing bing bing sound at level crossings, roast ginko nuts hot enough to burn your fingertips, carp streamers on boys’ day, the smell of yakitori in neon-splattered alleyways, the office workers’ competition for witty haiku, the high blue sky in winter, the Edo Period, the glare of a 7/11 open at 4 a.m., Shohei Ohtani, Yukio Mishima, Maki Asakawa, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ryu Murakami, Setsuko Hara, Shuji Terayama etc. etc.

Those are my impressions. Yours will be different.

The entire interview can be found here.







“The Walking Major”: Yujiro, Mifune & Young Sinatra

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/06/2022 - 8:08pm in



“What do you care about humanity? You’re a typical representative of your country, captain. A great benefactor – as long as you get the public acclaim you want. The saviour of the world – as long as the world does what it is told to do. You want peace –  but on your terms. Captain Allen, you are America!

These words are spoken, or rather spat out, by Yujiro Ishihara in a film with the English title of “The Walking Major” and the Japanese title of “Aru Heishi no Kake” (“A Soldier’s Bet”).

The character played by Ishihara is an investigative photojournalist who has witnessed Captain Allen’s killing of unarmed civilians in the Korean War. Now Allen has become a celebrity in Japan, where he is stationed, by embarking on a two week march from Camp Zama, near Yokohama, to Beppu in Kyushu, 870 miles away.


The idea of this gruelling, near-impossible feat is to raise funds for an orphanage in Beppu. The photojournalist is the only person who knows Allen’s dark secret. The confrontation between them takes place in a crematorium where the major and the G.I. who has been “volunteered” to accompany him are bunking down for the night.

The film is set in 1960 but was made in 1970. The photojournalist’s angry denunciation of what he sees as Allen’s hypocrisy reflects the frustration that young Japanese felt about their country’s passive involvement in the Vietnam War. American bases in Japan were crucial staging posts for U.S. military operations, including bombing raids on North Vietnam.

Yet the film was authorized by the US military authorities in Japan, as the credits make clear. The American soldiers we see are good guys. The killing of the Korean family was a tragic mistake, rather than an atrocity. Yes, the Americans are problematic, but what can Japan do without them?

That’s a conundrum that has yet to be solved half a century on – and may well never be.

Yujiro Ishihara, younger brother of Shintaro Ishihara, the writer and politician, was a huge star at the time. Often likened to James Dean, he had set up his own film production company.  A Japanese star of an earlier generation, Toshiro Mifune, had done the same thing. Both men found it hard to translate their acting fame into commercially successful productions and ended up in financial trouble.

So it is no surprise to see Mifune taking a small part in a Ishihara Productions film. In the role of the impetuous photojournalist’s boss, he offers instant alpha male credibility. When his character references the forced marches he experienced during the Pacific War, he conveys a sympathetic understanding of what war does to people through tone of voice and gesture.

Mifune himself was called up into the Imperial Japanese Army. In his four year stint, he didn’t see action but did work on a base where young kamikaze pilots were trained. He could play military men of all kinds in his sleep –  from Admiral Togo, who destroyed the Russian fleet in 1905, to Minister of War Anami, who committed seppuku the day after Japan’s surrender in 1945.

His character in the film has a more nuanced view of the media’s social role than Yujiro’s. “When there’s a beautiful story, if you dig up the roots you often find something dirty. But it’s not necessarily our job to bring that to people’s attention. We should value the straightforward dreams of the public and leave the roots alone.”

So what will Yujiro do? Publish the unvarnished truth and deprive the orphans of their new orphanage?  Or let a killer of innocent civilians be celebrated as a benign “Santa Claus” figure? That is the dilemma on which the drama hangs.

“The Walking Major” was Yujiro Ishihara’s attempt to make an international film. The cast was impressive.  Cliff Robertson, an Oscar winner, played Captain Allen, with his wife of the time, Dina Merrill, playing his wife in the film. Frank Sinatra Jnr. contributed an affable performance as the Captain’s happy-go-lucky marching comrade.

He also demonstrated some of his father’s vocal talent with a rendition of “Re-enlistment Blues.”  The song, originally sung by Merle Travis in the film “From Here to Eternity”, is staged in a Suntory beer factory, with a half-drunk Frank Jnr. surrounded by female factory workers!


On the Japanese side, apart from Ishihara and Mifune, there were big names like Frankie Sakai and Michiyo Aratama in the cast. The story, supposedly based on real events, was written by prolific dramatist James Miki and direction was by Keith Larsen and Koji Chino.

The film was nominated for a Golden Globes award in 1972 but is little talked about today. It’s an interesting piece that mixes war trauma, humour and pathos in an unusual but effective way. Yujiro’s tendency to over-act is occasionally evident, but Sinatra, Robertson and Mifune are very good.

The version available on Amazon Prime Japan is in Japanese with the English dialogue subtitled in Japanese. Surely, a full English language version must exist somewhere. But if you have decent Japanese, it’s worth taking a look.

Original shop doorway

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 07/05/2022 - 9:05am in

Original shop doorway in a building dated 1884. Now an anonymous office. Leichhardt.

The Salesman from Hell: Fujiko A.’s Dark Masterpiece

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 10/04/2022 - 8:10pm in

Are you dissatisfied with your life? Is the stress of the daily grind getting you down?  Do you want a little adventure, or perhaps a full blown romance with a gorgeous, sympathetic other?

Or perhaps you just want to pass the driving test, after failing so many times? Or get rid of a problematic lover who threatens your career? Or simply stop backing losers at the race-track?

Anyway, you don’t want the hand that fate has dealt you. You want something better.

In that case, there is a man who is willing to help you out. He has the unusual name of Fukuzo Moguro, which means something like “Luck Maker Mourning Black”.

Moguro is known as “the laughing salesman” because he chortles when he meets you for the first time and chortles even louder when he’s finished with you.

Quite likely, he’ll take you to his regular bar, called The Enchanted Nest. There are never any other customers, just an aged barman who doesn’t say a word, even if addressed.

What kind of salesman is Moguro? As he explains while handing you his name card, the articles that he deals with are human hearts, particularly those that have an empty space inside waiting to be filled.

He’s a life-counsellor, a matchmaker, a fountain of wisdom – and accepts no money for his services. As he puts it, he is a kind of “volunteer.”

Naturally, there are conditions that have to be observed for his work to be effective. If his customers violate those conditions, as they generally do, they come to a sticky end. Jail, bankruptcy and humiliation awaits – and that’s for the lucky ones.

Moguro-san never lies or tricks them. He never needs to. They do it all to themselves.


The man who created The Laughing Salesman series passed away on April 7th at the age of 88. His real name was Motoo Abiko, but he was  known to everyone by his pen name, Fujiko A. Fujio.

To add some enjoyable confusion, his childhood friend and long-time collaborator,  Hiroshi Fujimoto, used the pen name Fujiko F. Fujio.

Together, they were responsible for some of the best known children’s manga in Japanese history, inventing much-loved characters such as Doraemon and Little Ghost Q-Taro. The partnership broke up in the mid-80s, reflecting diverging artistic approaches, and Fujiko F. died in 1996.

The Laughing Salesman is solely the work of  Fujiko A. and is totally different from the children’s entertainments. Essentially a variation on the Faust story set in the world of office workers and hostess bars, it is definitely for adults.

We witness sexual fetishes, peeping Toms, schoolgirl gangs, prostitution, disfigurement, gangsters, cynical power games at the top of large corporations and backbiting and envy amongst the lower ranks.

The original manga series appeared between 1968 and 1971, and the first anime TV series began in 1989, consisting of 124 episodes of 10 minutes. It doesn’t feel dated at all. Why would it? The technology may have changed, but human nature has not.

The moral is age-old and dark. Don’t try to be the person you are not. Weak people can be as greedy and nasty as the powerful when they get their chance. Your deepest desires can destroy you.

You can watch the Japanese anime on Amazon Prime Japan. Episodes with English subtitles are available on Netflix and Crunchyroll, depending on location, and in various nooks and crannies of the internet.

In the outpouring of tributes to Fujiko A. Fujio, there were many mentions of his sociability. In an interview, he declared that “to create interesting manga, you have to understand people.” He certainly succeeded with The Laughing Salesman, producing a dark masterpiece which is also very funny.


Meanwhile, if you feel that nothing is going right and everyone else is happier, more successful and popular than you are, Mogura-san will be delighted to buy you a drink at his favourite bar and offer you some free advice.

But be careful what you wish for…




Review: Surviving the New Era of Great Power Conflict

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/03/2022 - 10:36am in



Published in Nikkei Asia 12/03/2022

“Pandemics do not put geopolitics on hold… they may even intensify geopolitical competition by distracting states’ leadership.”

Elbridge Colby’s recently published book, The Strategy of Denial, already seems prescient, given recent events in the Ukraine.  His intention was to map out a sustainable long-term strategy for containing the only great power that will rival the United States for the foreseeable future, China.

The term “contain” does not appear in the text – Colby prefers “decent equilibrium” and “decent peace” – but his thinking is in the tradition of geopolitical realists such as George Kennan, originator of the containment doctrine that formed the bedrock of America security policy during the Cold War.

Yet the contours of the 21st century are very different from the era of American supremacy in which Kennan and his successors operated. Colby is highly critical of the hubris of the “neo-con” thinkers who refused to acknowledge the limits on American power. In his view, the U.S. “does not need to make the world democratic or liberal in order to flourish as a free republic, nor does it need to dominate the world in order to be secure.”

The goal he proposes  is more modest — the negative one of denying China hegemony in Asia. And he is clear that the U.S. would have no chance of succeeding on its own. It needs the help of other powers with congruent interests.

The author is not just an observer. Formerly a deputy assistant director of defence, he led the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.

His grandfather, William Colby, was an intelligence officer who operated behind German lines in World War II and eventually headed up the CIA. His great grandfather, also called Elbridge, was an academic-cum-soldier who lived in China for several years. National security appears to be a family business.

Hegemony means much more than influence. It means control, to the extent that subordinate  nations lose the capacity to make independent decisions. Colby believes that China is determined to achieve such a hegemonic status and can only succeed by military means.

The test case, though not necessarily the only case, will be Taiwan. If the U.S. and its allies fail to protect Taiwan from being forcibly annexed, their credibility would collapse. Other Asian states would follow the line of least resistance and kowtow to Beijing.

The scale of the economic activity that would then be placed under China’s control would make it the undisputed global superpower, with the capacity not just to boss the rest of Asia, but also to create an exclusive trading  bloc that would disfavour the U.S. and other “uncooperative” countries.

Over time, the result would be the steady erosion of American economic power and increasing Chinese political leverage, offering much  greater ability to intervene in U.S. internal affairs than is already the case.

It is possible that being “pro-China” or “anti-China” could become the defining domestic political issue, not just in the U.S., but right across the Western world, with media and political parties divided by their sympathies, just as they are divided into “progressives” and “conservatives” today.

In other words, the stakes could hardly be higher.


Putting himself in his opponent’s shoes, Colby sees China’s best strategy as “sequential targeting”, in other words picking off its neighbours one by one. The best tactic is the fait accompli.

Recovering a lost territory, as in the D-day landings or the American advances in the Pacific War, requires overwhelming superiority, which the U.S. and its allies will not have. So their best strategy is effective deterrence – or victory in what Colby calls “imaginary wars,” the ones that are never fought because one side realizes it will lose.

Deterrence worked in the Cold War because America’s overwhelming superiority in nuclear weapons gave it the capability to wreak devastating destruction on the Soviet Union. But, as Colby makes clear, military conflict in East Asia would most likely be a limited affair, with neither side seeing any benefit from “horizontal” (wider geographical) or “vertical” (deadlier in terms of weaponry) escalation.

So how can the U.S., situated far from East Asia and increasingly constrained by financial issues and a sceptical and war-fatigued general public, make deterrence credible? Colby has two answers. The first is reducing American military involvement elsewhere.

“The United States must avoid becoming entangled in peripheral wars that sap American will and power,” he declares. “Americans’ strength and resolve should be husbanded for the primary challenges, above all China in the Western Pacific… Calls to use military force for any but these primary challenges should thus receive a highly sceptical review.”

Apparently, the U.S. has made security pledges to more than 50 countries. Germany alone, he notes, has a far bigger economy than Russia. With its wealthy European allies, it should be doing much more to bolster its own security. Islamic terrorism he sees as an unpleasant irritant, not an existential threat. In Colby’s view, for the U.S. to draw down resources from Europe and the Middle East would raise overall credibility, not undermine it.

The second and more important point is the creation of an “anti-hegemony coalition”, likely to include Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines, with the U.S. acting as the cornerstone member. Put together, these countries would easily outweigh China and its allies (such as North Korea and Cambodia) in terms of economic heft. There would be no need for a formal alliance, just an agreement to act in concert in the case of a Chinese land grab.

Colby is well aware of the problems of collective action in this kind of set-up. “Americans are more likely to turn away from this effort if other coalition members – especially allies… – do not pull their weight… Given Japan’s importance, position and very low levels of defence spending, this issue is especially pointed for Tokyo. Its decisions on this matter are likely to have outsize implications for the entire anti-hegemony coalition.”

As a realist, Colby has no time for the “coalition of democracies” concept promoted by U.S. President Joe Biden. Indeed, he goes as far to say that a democratic China might also pursue hegemony  – just as Russia, once considered quasi-democratic, is doing today. In his view, this is simply how great powers have behaved throughout history.

Yet he is sensitive to psychological factors too. He notes that George Washington against the British and Abraham Lincoln against the Confederacy managed or manufactured scenarios in which the other side fired the first shot.

What he calls “thumotic reactions” (reactions to violation of honour) can have a powerful effect at the state level in building resolve. The fierce Ukrainian response to invasion by Russia is a perfect example.

Thus, Colby has a suggestion that would potentially add to American resolve while inducing apoplexy in Beijing: the stationing of a small number of American troops in Taiwan.

Not a fan of strategic ambiguity, he writes that the anti-hegemonic coalition cannot be “half-pregnant” with regard to Taiwan. It either commits explicitly to Taiwan’s security or it leaves it to the tender mercies of the People’s Liberation Army. Interestingly, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, now an ordinary parliamentarian but still extremely influential, commented a few weeks ago that Japan would defend Taiwan in the case of an attack.

The author ranges widely over global affairs and makes use of many historical references, from the Trojan Wars to America’s failed “nation-building” efforts of this century. Whether you agree with his thesis or not, it makes a valuable contribution to the most important geopolitical issue of the coming decades. And it ends on an optimistic note.

“China could proudly live in a world in which this strategy had succeeded; it would be one of the greatest nations of the world and its preferences and views would command respect. It would not be able to dominate, but neither would the United States or anyone else be able to dominate it… For the peoples of the region, it would mean the autonomy and independence for which they have striven so mightily since freedom from colonial rule.”

A golden scenario. Many would hope that Colby is right. In the meantime, there is this timely reminder to ponder: “Although hard power is not the only form of power, it is dominant if effectively employed; hard power always has the capacity to dominate soft power. Left unaddressed, might trumps right.”

The Strategy of Denial – American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict, by Elbridge A. Colby (Yale University Press, 2021).



Why Can’t We Agree On What’s True?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 20/02/2022 - 1:30am in



This is not as simple as distrust.

Digital platforms and ubiquitous access to these spaces have ushered in a new public mindset that ends in a refusal to accept any mainstream or official account of the world. This also includes being instinctively suspicious of anyone claiming to describe reality in a fair and objective fashion.

This mindset begins with a legitimate curiosity about a story or topic.

There is no real way to validate fake from real anymore. What we previously would identify as “reliable” news outlets pick up bullshit stories and run with them. This is all amplified by social media accounts that amplify these stories. Friends in echo chambers share the same BS across social media and speak to each other about “I saw it on (insert social media account here).”

Most people do not realize or care that a majority of the misinformation is coming from fake accounts, troll accounts, and straight-up bots designed to spread crap. The intent is to spread this misinformation, but more importantly, crowd out other “truths” and flood other misinformation posts to give them ‘likes’.

People put way too much weight on something as useless as a “like”. They treat everything with such a juvenile way of thinking that if something has a ton of likes it couldn’t possibly be wrong.

The masses always have an inability to discern the truth. We can all probably locate ourselves somewhere on this spectrum. Somewhere between the curiosity of the engaged citizen and the corrosive cynicism of the climate denier. Someone that definitely believes aliens exist on other planets and the person that believes the world is flat.

Once doubt descends on public life, people become increasingly dependent on their own experiences and their own beliefs about how the world really works. Facts no longer seem to matter as individuals are increasingly suspicious of the “official” stories they are told and expect to witness things for themselves.

Once we do find a new truth that matches our experiences, we’re taught quickly by others in this new group that our collective truth is the new, real version. Our truth is real and all others are lies. If we read or write certain things, we’re part of this new group. To stay in this group we need to wear certain shirts, put specific bumper stickers on our cars. People are also quickly taught that we do not question this new truth. The questions, curiosity, and mindset that brought us here should now be abandoned.

This inability or lack of desire to employ critical thought is not novel to the Internet. The vast majority of human beings have very little ability for abstract critical thought, the Internet just makes it more easily visible.

As an individual reads, shares, or likes a post online, they give very little thought to how destructive this may be. They indicate that anyone is free to read and write whatever they choose. They have the freedom to think and make choices as they see fit.

They might just be doing it for the lulz.

The question is whether this mentality is doing us any good, either individually or collectively.

Blaming social media or the Internet for what people choose to say is not looking at the root of the problem. It’s like blaming soapboxes for the people standing on them.

In my opinion, this is one of the biggest threats to humanity. With fewer and fewer people getting educated, these mass misinformation and disinformation campaigns easily influence a growing population.

Education is no longer important for individual success, education is critical for the success of society and humanity as a whole.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

The post Why Can’t We Agree On What’s True? first appeared on Dr. Ian O'Byrne.

Sharpening the Saw of the Knowledge Worker

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/02/2022 - 4:28am in


Reflections, Ideas

My information processing workflow stinks. Let me elaborate a bit.

I am a high throughput information worker. Peter Drucker originally articulated the idea of a “knowledge worker” in 1959, he was proposing a classification with the primary goal of describing the work of people who applied knowledge directly and in a unique way, to the tasks assigned to them. 1 An Information Worker is a person who uses the information to assist in making decisions or taking actions or a person who creates information that informs the decisions or actions of others. I think for a living and my primary capital is knowledge. As a result, I think out loud and use my digital spaces a was to show what, where, when, and how I’ve learned.

Throughput is the rate of production or the rate at which something is processed. I need to quickly acquire, evaluate, create, disseminate, and use multiple forms of information streams. I view this as the efficiency of information coming in my system and the content coming out the other end.

My information may come in from multiple formats using multiple tools. These systems need to be platform and device agnostic. I privilege mobile as I have my phone all of the time. I also use a PC at home, a Mac at work, and Chromebooks on the road. I’m slowly trying to work an iPad into my workflow as well.

I am also a social individual and like sharing my ideas and content openly online. This focus on open scholarship allows me to quickly connect with an online audience. I connect with multiple spaces and output content in multiple formats and communities online. I’m inspired by the work of others and use this to formulate my own ideas.

What’s the problem?

I primarily use the Internet and other communication tools, apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, and meld this with formal training to solve complex problems or develop new products or services in my fields of expertise. I study the intersections between literacy and technology and strive to make sense of living in an age of screentime.

I suggested at the start of this post that my workflow stinks. That is because my process, as an information worker, needs to be (IMHO) evaluated based on quality and not quantity. As an open scholar, I’m also rethinking my workflow as I think about the changing nature of the internet and the risk/reward of sharing my ideas openly online.

The good news is that I’m productive. I write a weekly newsletter that is approaching 400 issues. On this blog, I challenge myself to put out about 100 posts a year. I also have a bunch of publications and presentations for various audiences. Lastly, I use these materials as I teach classes, live my life, and parent my kids. All of these frames are interconnected.

To help frame the remainder of this discussion, I’ll focus on inputs and outputs in my work…and identify areas of loss. In a future post, I’ll discuss how I’m going to address these challenges.


I’ve spent many years developing a good stream of information to make sure that garbage in will not result in garbage out.

My inputs begin with websites and RSS feeds. This all is currently controlled by Feedly. If I find a source that I value, I add it to my Feedly reader. It’ll automatically serve me the new content from across all sources that I’ve saved. I work hard to make sure I have a mix of sources to provide viewpoints outside of my own, while also some areas for serendipity (a series of feeds focused on food, music, and art). Please note, I’ve built this RSS feed over a couple of decades and routinely edit the feeds. The tools I use to make this work, also frequently die-off (Google Reader), which tends to be a problem…but also helps me think about future-proofing my workflow.

My inputs also consist of a ton of social media content. This includes Facebook posts, Reddit content, Twitter threads, Slack content, and more.

I also consume a lot of research PDFs (pulled from Google Scholar), podcasts, YouTube videos, epubs (reading on Kindle), and voice notes as I have an “aha” moment (I save these as audio notes using Google Keep).

I also somewhat regularly use Hypothesis to annotate content as I read online. This is primarily for reading and reviewing web content or PDFs for classes. I wish it could mark up videos and/or audio content (podcasts).


As I identify specific sources I want to follow up on or do something with, I save them to a central location. In the past, this was Evernote. A little over a decade ago, I used Evernote to save everything to my “online, multimodal notebook.” The idea was that it was a place to dump everything…and process later.

I moved away from Evernote as the search became clunky and sluggish. The platform wasn’t updating, and I started to not want to be beholden to a company to host all of my content.

I then started building a digital commonplace book and using Pinboard to openly share a trail of content as I work online.

My basic workflow was to take tons of content in save the important stuff to Pinboard and the commonplace book (website) and then once a week sift this all into my weekly newsletter. There were multiple challenges as I openly share some of my output online.


As an Internet researcher, I spend a lot of time researching misinformation, disinformation, and all sorts of interesting corners of online and offline spaces. I’ve written about these in research pubs, blog posts, addressed them in classes and webinars. Strangely, none of this content received any response.

But, my bookmarks and associated blog posts on my commonplace books would result in a slew of individuals that wanted to push back on what they viewed as my thinking or support of some issue. Really, this was just a bookmark of some other website that I was saving for later. It wasn’t my idea, or even my thoughts about an idea.

As the Internet becomes more and more devoid of nuance in thought, I thought it would be better if I clean up my digital streams and not leave behind random tidbits of ideas that people/groups can use to manufacture outrage.

Surface-level analysis

As I stated earlier, information workers gather, process, and analyze information by technological means. Efficient access to useful information should promote information worker productivity by facilitating faster, higher-quality content. I felt like my system was not conducive to deeper, high-quality thinking and content.

Yes, I was still publishing…a lot. But, I felt like something was missing. When I sat down to write, I was trying to pull together the seedlings of ideas I left behind. I felt like there was a lot left behind. Some of the areas I researched in the past were now lost in the flow. My “great ideas” or breakthroughs were lost as new ideas jumped into the fray.

Interestingly, what I felt that I needed (over the last couple of years) was a cross between my use of Evernote as a private space to think and archive, but with the look and feel of a wiki. I investigated a ton of open-source wiki tools that I could use not just to save notes, but also to look for commonalities and connections across spaces and ideas.


Ideas and information are the primary capital of the Knowledge Worker. Continuous learning and keeping myself and my processes updated are what allow me to increase value and authenticity. This requires constant learning but also the routine sharpening of saw as I consider the tools and processes I use.

As the future becomes more transitory and the one constant is change, mastering these skills and processes will hopefully allow for deeper thinking and more cognitive absorption and connections. In a future post, I’ll detail what I’ve been changing.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

The post Sharpening the Saw of the Knowledge Worker first appeared on Dr. Ian O'Byrne.

Why has the World Gone Dotty Over Yayoi Kusama? Ask Mark Zuckerberg and Jay Powell!

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 29/01/2022 - 10:00am in

Published in Japan Forward 21/01/ 2022

It was thanks to Covid that I recently managed to view the Yayoi Kusama exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.

The event, which opened in the summer of 2021, had been fully booked until the closing date in March 2022.  With the Omicron variant ripping through the British population, persistent telephoning was finally rewarded. There had been a cancellation and a mid-afternoon slot was available.

A lucky break! A lucky break!

I’m neither knowledgeable about contemporary art nor particularly enthusiastic. What fascinates me is the Kusama phenomenon itself. How did a ninety two year old woman who has been a virtual recluse in a Tokyo mental hospital since 1975 become “the world’s most popular artist”.

That accolade was bestowed on her by The Art Newspaper in 2014 – and rightly so. Her Infinite Obsession retrospective in South and Central America attracted an exhibition attendance of over two million people.

If anything, her stock has risen even higher since. In 2016, Time Magazine chose her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, alongside Barack Obama, Usain Bolt and Caitlin Jenner.

On a freezing cold day in November 2017, five thousand New Yorkers lined up for several hours to enter two of her “Infinity Rooms” (mirrored spaces illuminated with various light sources). The time given each person to experience each box was thirty seconds. Likewise, the wait time was several hours for All the Eternal Love I Have For The Pumpkins, her 2016 exhibition in London.

At the Tate this January, probably thanks to Covid again, reservations have taken the place of queuing around the block. That is not to say I didn’t have to wait in line. About three quarters of my allotted one hour was spent waiting to be admitted to the glittery darkness of the Infinity Rooms, which are just about large enough to accommodate four people at a time.

Londoners did get a better deal than New Yorkers, though. We were allowed a full two minutes inside the rooms, which were titled Chandelier of Grief and Infinity Mirrored Room – Filled with the Brilliance of Life.

According to the Tate, these were “exemplary of Kusama’s practice as a persistent enquiry into the phenomenological potential of art.”

To my inexpert eye, the Infinity Mirrored Room looked more like a 1970s disco, while the other room was similar to a “hall of mirrors” attraction at a funfair. Indeed, some of my fellow viewers had  brought their young children who seemed to be having a great time. Literally everyone was taking selfies, including the kids.

Obligatory selfie Where’s John Travolta?

In some exhibitions, snapping pictures is not allowed. Here it was encouraged. In fact, you could say it was the main point. Thinking deep metaphysical thoughts was out of the question, despite the cosmic message from Kusama inscribed on a gallery wall.

Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars …when we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.

I wasn’t the only one to be underwhelmed by the experience. Adrian Searle, art critic of The Guardian, wrote that the installation reminded him of his “cheapo garden fairy lights”.  Another critic from The Guardian, Jonathan Jones, described her work in harsher terms: “as fun as a fizzy drink and about as nourishing”.

And yet Kusama was a formidable presence in her New York heyday of the late fifties and sixties. That much was apparent from the photos and film footage also on display in the exhibition.

In those days, her main theme was sexuality. Multiple male organs constructed from clay or cloth adorned the various installations and objets she created.

Kusama smiling (unusual) Kusama smiling

Like Yoko Ono, who appeared in New York avant garde circles at roughly the same time, she was a natural-born provocateur with an endless supply of chutzpah. She staged orgies and a gay wedding in her studio, stripped naked in anti-war demonstrations and painted the bodies of her friends with polka dots.

In an open letter to President Richard Nixon, she promised to “lovingly, soothingly adorn your hard masculine body” if he would only agree to “make this world a new Garden of Eden”.

Some of the conventional works were impressive too, particularly the large scale “Infinity Net” series of abstract paintings which she started in 1959.

Kusama the transgressional outsider was a lot more interesting than Kusama the global brand. Her outrageous “happenings” were more entertaining than her pretentiously titled Infinity Rooms; her phallus-encrusted boat from 1963 more memorable than the enormous polka-dotted pumpkins that have rolled off her production line in recent years.

Phallus boat "aggregation" Phallus boat “aggregation”

At some stage, the art of the deal took over from the art of the heart.

Perhaps that was inevitable. Like Andy Warhol, Kusama never saw artworks as holy creations separate from ordinary reality. At the Venice Biennale in 1966, she exhibited an installation of mirror balls without being invited and then sold them off for two dollars a pop. “Why can’t I sell art like hotdogs or ice cream,” she declared. Now she sells packs of two souvenir mugs for £52 at the Tate and signs up to a collaboration with Louis Vuitton.

In the early years of this century, Kusama’s work was handled overseas by the Gagosian Gallery whose proprietor, Larry Gagosian, was described by Forbes magazine as “the P.T. Barnum of the art world.”  In 2013, she switched to the rival mega-gallery of David Zwirner. Between them, they have powered Kusama to extraordinary commercial success. In 2009, her works grossed $ 9.3 million at auction. In 2019, they grossed $98 million.

No amount of  “eternal love” could save this pumpkin from a 2021 typhoon

It is no coincidence that 2009 also marked the start of the era of unconventional monetary policy, by which central banks drove down interest rates to unprecedentedly low and even negative levels. Elevating asset prices was an explicit policy goal, successfully achieved as prime real estate, tech stocks, crypto currencies and collectables such as art took off for the stratosphere.

Put together the additional wealth that has accrued to the super-rich and the selfie-friendly appeal of Kusama’s recent productions and you have the background to her rise to superstar status. But you need something else too, an ability to satisfy a widespread yearning as transmitted by the herd mind of the internet.

Adrian Searle of The Guardian explains it like this – “Many people are hungry, I suppose, for some kind of transformative, mystical or even transcendental experience, and one that requires neither fasting nor drugs, let alone months or years of mental and physical preparation.”

In other words, it is secular religion. All you need to join the congregation is a cell phone and the willingness to stand in line for a few hours. The Deity of course never appears in person, as is usually the case with deities.

Kusama remains extremely prolific. “I want to paint 1,000 and 2,000 paintings,” she says. “I want to keep painting even after I die.” That is quite possible since her team of Japanese fabricators can create new product from her ideas and her dealers will certainly be happy to sell it.

Polka dotted tentacles... Polka dotted tentacles…

On the day of my visit, the other galleries in the Tate were as silent as a morgue. On the way out, I asked one of the staff why Kusama was so uniquely popular. He answered with a laconic shrug and a single word. “Instagram.”

Meanwhile, the Infinity Mirror Rooms exhibition at the Tate Modern has been extended until June 12th 2022. For hardcore fans, there is an evening viewing that includes a £75 dinner.

Pumpkin pie is not on the menu.

Five Shocking Scenarios for the Year of the Tiger

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 01/01/2022 - 6:50pm in

Published in Japan Forward 1/1/2022

Making predictions is a mug’s game. Who in 2019 would have forecast the state of the world as it is today?   Rather than try to guess what is most likely to happen next, we might benefit more from imagining possible futures that would have a significant impact on the world.

Here are five that that might be lying in wait for us, ready to pounce with a blood-curdling roar. They cover energy, finance, the pandemic, economics and geopolitics. Some are quite plausible. One is highly unlikely, but has the potential to turn our world upside down.

Tail risks should never be dismissed, especially when the tail concerned belongs to a tiger.

Tokyo Stock Market Bargain Sale:  Tesla Eats Honda, Apple Eats Sony

Back in the late 1980s, the Japanese stock market accounted for half of global market capitalization, while Japan’s share of global GDP was a mere 13%. Japanese companies went on a massive shopping spree which included the purchase of the Rockefeller Centre by Mitsubishi Real Estate and Columbia Pictures by Sony, the latter being the subject of a notorious cover picture on Newsweek magazine.


Now the positions are reversed. The US stock market accounts for 56% of world stock market capitalization, but only 21% of world GDP. So far mega takeovers of non-US companies have been few and far between, but there is little doubt that the Godzilla-scale market capitalization of the major US tech companies gives them every opportunity.

No doubt, the Japanese government would be disturbed by the prospect of one of its most prestigious companies being gobbled up by an America giant. However, given the geopolitical realities, which are that Japan needs the U.S. much more than the U.S. needs Japan, it would be hard to refuse.


What could Japan do before Godzilla stomps into in Tokyo Bay? There is one obvious solution – to take companies off the stock market altogether. In fact, this is likely to become an increasingly popular manoeuvre in many countries as managements seek to avoid the ever more stringent demands of ESG (Ethical, Social, Governance) oriented-investors.

If Japanese blue chip companies are bargains in the eyes of foreign managements, why don’t Japanese managements and financiers buy them up first?

Taiwan Emergency: Xi Gambles Big

Geopolitical risk has risen sharply with the rise of a much more assertive and technologically advanced China in the last decade. So far the leadership’s strategy has been to use deception and incremental moves to achieve its goals, as in the brilliantly executed appropriation of the South China Sea and the crackdown on Hong Kong. But in the case of Taiwan, a more drastic and confrontational approach would be necessary.

There are two reasons why the leadership might opt to move sooner rather than later. First, the United States is currently a bitterly divided nation and President Biden is preoccupied by domestic issues. Yet by the middle of the decade there could well be an anti-China alliance and trade bloc stretching from India to Japan, with the Japanese and Taiwanese economies increasingly integrated in the high-tech area.

The second reason is that the Chinese economy’s best days could well be behind it. There might even be Japan-style “lost decade” as real estate prices slump, the finances of regional governments crumble and the working population starts to shrink. History tells that authoritarian governments have sought to overcome economic doldrums by whipping up nationalist sentiments and engaging in aggression.

An invasion of Taiwan would be the largest seaborne operation since D-day. There would be many casualties, but China would certainly prevail without Western military intervention. No doubt, there would be boycotts, sanctions, condemnations in the United Nations, and probably a deep worldwide recession as supply chains collapsed.

The shock value would be equivalent to 9/11, indeed greater in its overall impact on the global balance of power. China would have succeeded in ousting the United States as a dominant actor in East Asia, just as the United States ended Japan’s supremacy by force of arms 75 years ago.

So the key question is what would the West do in the case of a move on Taiwan. Or, rather, what does the Chinese leadership believe the West would do.

The End of Japanification:  Double Digit Inflation

Japanification, shorthand for “becoming more like Japan”, is a concept that originated in the world of finance and economics. After Japan’s asset bubble burst in the early 1990s, economic growth slowed dramatically, deflation set in and interest rates slumped to levels far below what was considered normal elsewhere.

Domestic and foreign media latched onto social problems seemingly related to economic stagnation– young hikikomori recluses, parasite singles who stayed in the parental nest into their late twenties, a fertility rate far below what was needed for replacement. The nadir of such commentary was a 2013 BBC documentary, “No Sex, Please, We’re Japanese”, which claimed that the low birth rate was caused by lack of libido.

As time passed, it became clear that super low interest rates, weak growth and the related social pathologies were far from being exclusively Japanese. The same phenomena could be seen across the developed world.  As of 2019, many believed that worldwide “Japanification” was inevitable; that deflation was our destiny, thanks to structural forces such as demographics, the price transparency of internet shopping and the weak bargaining power of organized labour.

Then along came Covid and the conventional wisdom was turned upside down as inflation suddenly took off, reaching levels not seen since the 1970s in some countries. US consumer price inflation reached 6.8% in November 2021, with the UK equivalent at 5.1% and even inflation-phobic Germany at 5.2%.

Even in disinflationary Japan, there have been price hikes for theme park tickets, “gyudon” beef bowls, mayonnaise and materials like cement and steel. According to the Bank of Japan’s Tankan survey, the number of companies expecting to hike prices is at its highest level in 30 years.

A transient phenomenon, as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jay Powell stated, or the shape of things to come? We don’t have a gold standard these days. We have a political standard. If inflation is perceived as a huge problem by the public, governments will tackle it. If other problems are perceived as much more serious – such as inequality, social fracture and climate change – they will leave inflation on the backburner.

And in the case of any future economic crisis – whether caused by an epidemic or a natural or manmade disaster – cash transfers of money created by the central bank to individuals and companies will be expected. The Covid era precedent cannot be undone.

If an inflation cycle is starting, it will last for years and only when the pain is widely felt will policymakers seek to crush it. In some countries, double digit price rises will have been registered by then.

For Japan, the good news would be that the Bank of Japan might finally hit its 2% inflation target!

Energy Crunch: Triple Digit Oil Price

The COP-26 climate conference in November was, predictably, a failure. The Paramount Leader of China, the world’s largest polluter, did not show up at all, being busy at home greenlighting record levels of coal production to cope with freezing conditions in northern areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, the world’s third largest polluter, did attend and made sure that in the final agreement the words “phasing out” of coal were changed to “phasing down”.

How could it be otherwise? As we reach the point when actions are expected, not just fine sentiments, the more likely that poorer countries in particular will back away from the rich country consensus. Even in the richer countries, some governments may get the jitters as the true cost of the green energy transition becomes increasingly clear to their electorates.

In his book “The New Map”, energy expert Daniel Yergin concludes that “oil will maintain its pre-eminent position as a global commodity, still the primary fuel that makes the world around.”  That is now a minority view, but what if he is right? America shale companies are producing much less than before due to bankruptcies and ESG restrictions on capital availability. For the Western oil majors, years of ESG-driven underinvestment in global capacity makes supply less responsive to price signals.

These are the factors that have driven the oil price up from the absurd “inverse bubble” of minus $37 dollars for a barrel in April 2020 to its current level. But what would happen in the eventuality of a full opening of the world economy, with planes packed with tourists criss-crossing the world and offices and factories buzzing with activity?

We could be heading for the outrageous “Peak Oil” price levels of 2008 in no time at all.

In Praise of Reality: The Tiger Roars in ‘22

We are living in an era of unprecedented change, or so we are told. Personally, I have my doubts. Trains represented dizzying change; for the first time in human history, people were able to travel faster than on the back of a horse. Planes were change. Travelling to the moon was change.

Electric cars, by contrast, have been around for half a century. The Facebook business model of free product in exchange for advertisements is not that different from how commercial TV works. Zoom calls are just a cheaper version of videoconferencing.

Hyping up present day phenomena in comparison to the past is so common that we hardly notice. Such is the case with Covid-19 too.

With the dominant variants declining in virulence, it is possible that 2022 is the year in which we finally learn to live with the disease and restrictions can be lifted. If so, to what extent will our world have changed permanently and to what extent will the “old normal” reassert itself?

Working from home is more convenient and saves commuting costs, but misses out the industry gossip, mentorship and camaraderie that binds an organization together. Remote learning takes away the tension and focus of being stuck in a classroom with your peers and a bad-tempered teacher. Remote conferences lack the one thing that makes conferences worthwhile: networking over drinks in the hotel bar. Remote tourism leaves out the crazed taxi-drivers, smell of the streets and failed attempts to speak the language that make the experience so memorable.

The Covid era has made all of us part-time versions of Japan’s “hikikomori” social recluses. No doubt, some people will have got used to a virtual existence and may choose to move into Mark Zuckerberg’s “metaverse” permanently. Others will want to make up for lost time and party louder and longer than ever before, newly conscious of the unprogrammable pleasure of interacting with real people in the way it has always been done.

That seems to be what happened 100 years ago when the Spanish Flu, a far worse plague on humanity than Covid finally fizzled out. Next up was the Roaring Twenties, a byword for hedonism, technological innovation, free-spirited women and artistic experimentation.

There’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen again. Let’s hope the Year of the Tiger can echo some of that that Jazz Age roar.