Print called "Fine Wind, Clear Morning" or "Red Fuji" by Hokusai
Asia, disaster

Mount Fuji In Red, After Fukushima

Among the eight vignettes in Kurosawa’s 1990 film Dreams is “Mount Fuji in Red.” It’s the sixth story, and among the eight dreams, it’s one of the nightmares. It’s a stark, bleak view of a few people discussing——while trying to flee——a nuclear disaster.

Akira Kurosawa: DREAMS (1990) from cinema.antifono on Vimeo.

[Update July 2013: Ugh, someone took down that video. Sorry for the inconvenience. Until I find another version to embed, you can read the relevant script dialogue here.]

I saw this before Japan’s earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, which began just about two years ago. But where the short film might come off as preachy and reflective of some reflexive late-80s anti-nuclear sentiment, it now evokes the anxieties and concerns about nuclear safety that we’ve come to know as Japan’s “safety myth.” That, as the Times summed it up, “Japan’s nuclear power plants were absolutely safe.”*

“They told us that nuclear plants were safe,” says the woman in the dream. “Human accident is the danger, not the nuclear plant itself. No accidents, no dangers. That’s what they told us. What liars!”

*Or, rather, as the Japan Times put it after the government’s report on the disaster, the myth required ignoring the possibility of rare but extreme events.




Quick Note on the Kims

김정일 사망
—South Korean headline, 19 December 2011. “Kim Jong Il Dead”

Two days ago, we learned that Kim Jong Il had died two days earlier.

This morning, I was struck by the photo below of the Kims in a stark, imposing hall, looking at a scale model of a Pyongyang neighborhood. Students of the Kim dynasty, or of totalitarian architecture, or power dynamics, or James Bond films, can find plenty to puzzle over in it. I think it’s remarkable.

North Korean rulers Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung examine a relief map of Changgwang street in Pyongyang.

Where so many images of Kim Il Sung make him seem jolly and benevolent, here he is unsmiling and thoughtful. Where the flood of recent images of Kim Jong Il seem to show him simply going through the motions (viewing a parade, viewing a grocery store) here he looks decisive and driven. I haven’t found a date for this picture, but I’d guess it’s from the early 1980s. The cues—a discussion of matters of governance, the resonance of wearing the same outfit, the omnipresent aides and military attendants—seems to me intended to symbolize Kim Jong Il’s gradual, inevitable inheritance of authority.

Like any government, the Kim regime carefully managed its image. I can recall seeing exactly zero images of some recumbent Kim luxuriating in a comfy, private chamber; but very many images of power and populism, whether they were military parades, official portraits, Mass Games, or factory tours. All that with a good dose of hyodo (효도), the Confucian concept of filial piety that is extremely important in Korea and is arguably exploited in the continued veneration of Kim Il Sung.

A few decades ago, the Kim Dynasty of North Korea had a lot more competition in the dictator department. (Not that the world has ever lacked, including now.) But did Kim Il Sung, in his time, ever really penetrate the American cultural consciousness in quite the same way that other post-World War II leaders did? I’m not sure. I tend to remember Kim the elder in a pale blue or gray suit with a broad smile and pants pulled up high; his image may have been too paternal and jolly, too normal, when it came to the superficial visual language of power and corruption as interpreted by Western eyes. No leopard-skin toque, no laureled uniform, no glowering, beturbaned mien.

The Kims visit Sonsang Soccer Stadium in Pyongyang in 1989.

Kim Il Sung died when I was 14, so I may simply have been oblivious to his place in Western culture. But there’s no denying the celebrity of his son Kim Jong Il. When the father passed away, he left the foundation of a nuclear program in place that his son has grown into a worrying operation. The axis of evil designation added to the currency of Kim as a major player, punching well above his weight. With the spotlight, and the country, and the attention of a whole bunch of other countries, in Kim Jong Il’s grasp, he also gained an odd cultural power. Sunglassed, high-haired, and wearing single-color ensembles, his image and epic weirdness became an internet commodity, transmitted around the world to a global audience hungry for the stories of its rulers’ benighted opulence and indulgence that so contrasted with the deprivation of those they ruled. From that perspective—the one of images and absurdity and iconic camp—the whole thing seemed like a sad caricature of the anti-Communist propaganda (itself a sort of caricature) inculcated in those of us who grew up during the Cold War.

It was easy to point and laugh. Unless you were North Korean.

Addendum: It’s not clear, yet, what we’ll think of Kim Jong Il’s successor, Kim Jong Un. We don’t know if he’ll be a reformer or a conservative, if he’ll be weird or as normal as the head of a nepotistic autocracy can be. This young, Western-educated man supposedly loves basketball and studied computer science. I assume that he has grown up using the internet in some way—the thing that helped make his father a pop-culture figure in the last decade—and thus will be the first in this generation to have his own nuclear arsenal.

[Images via The Atlantic’s In Focus roundup of Kim Jong Il pictures. Well worth a look.]

Asia, politics

More Korean Political Fisticuffs

As an addendum to the previous post, I discovered that the Seoul city council had a brawl of their own over the very school lunches that triggered the latest political turmoil in the country:

And a bonus example of politicians behaving badly from 2009 when opposition were upset at the GNP’s relaxing media ownership rules:

Asia, politics

Could Lunch Derail the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement?

Probably not, but a controversy over mid-day meals makes it a little more complicated for Korea.

Lee and Obama in Detroit.

Earlier this month, the president of South Korea visited the United States. Remember that? They went to a General Motors plant. They had a state dinner featuring Texas rib eye. Harold (of Harold and Kumar) sat across from Barack Obama.

Just before Lee arrived, Congress had ratified the Korean-US Free Trade Agreement, considered the largest such agreement in the US since NAFTA. Korea has not yet approved it and when a Korean reporter asked Obama if he was concerned given the political opposition in Korea, Obama said he had President Lee Myung Bak’s assurances that it would be passed by the National Assembly. (They don’t call Mb “the bulldozer” for nothing.)

The agreement was set in motion by Lee’s predecessor, but Lee has had his eye on this deal for years. His decision to lift South Korea’s ban on American beef (sparked by the discovery of mad cow disease in the US beef supply five years earlier) is believed to have been a strategic move to make the prospects of a trade agreement more appealing to the US. It also led to the great Seoul beef protests of 2008 and the ensuing political and civil rights fallout. You get a sense of the scale of these protests in the photo of candle-carrying demonstrators below (image from WBUR).

Protest at night

But still, the fractured opposition parties, along with labor, environmental, farming, and other groups are steadfastly opposed to the FTA in its current form. And while Lee’s Grand National Party will almost certainly be able to ram the agreement through parliament over their objections, if need be, they might be a little leery of such a move at this moment.

This is where the lunches come in. School lunches, more precisely.

This summer, Seoul was in the grip of a political firestorm over whether or not the city should provide children with free lunches. On one side was the city council and liberal politicians, who had passed a free lunch program to cover every one of the more than 800,000 primary and middle school students in the city. On the other side was Mayor Oh Se Hoon, a member of the conservative Grand National Party (like President Lee), who argued only the neediest students should qualify. It was an issue that played on concerns over class, economics, and social welfare. Mayor Oh tearfully staked his career on the issue, pledging to resign if voters rejected an August referendum to block the larger plan. They rejected it. He resigned.

Seoul contains about a fifth of the entire population of Korea, so running the city is an influential position. Before he was president, Lee was the mayor of Seoul.

The political gamesmanship in the runup to the election centered mainly on three contenders: Na Kyung Won, the Grand National Party and establishment candiate (who would have been Seoul’s first female mayor); Park Won Soon, an independent, liberal candidate who is a civil rights lawyer and community activist; and Ahn Cheol Soo, an MD/PhD physiologist-turned-software tycoon-turned-professor who is basically every Korean parent’s (or aspiring youth’s) dream-vision of professional achievement. Among his 11 books is one titled “My Mother, Who Fostered My Ability.” He would likely have been the leading mayoral candidate and is considered a viable presidential candidate.

But he didn’t run, and instead threw his support behind Park, who then won last Wednesday’s special election. (The main opposition party failed to muster a candidate of its own, suggesting just how fractured and shambolic the non-GNP political spectrum is, and making the Park victory that much more impressive.) The fallout has been interesting. Mayor Oh obviously hurt his chances for higher office due to his miscalculation. Na, the GNP mayoral candidate, had won the endorsement of Park Geun Hye, a politician and daughter of an assassinated president; Na’s loss is viewed as hurting Park’s chances in the 2012 presidential election. The results are viewed as an expression of disapproval of Lee’s current government (Korean presidents only get a single five-year term). The opposition is feeling emboldened. And Ahn’s own status has obviously been boosted even higher for backing the winner. As the JoongAng Daily notes, it has GNP politicians worried:

The Grand National Party’s defeat in the Seoul mayoral by-election has scared the party off from pushing through the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement, and its ratification is more imperiled now than ever.

It’s not clear just how imperiled it is (probably not very much). The opposition itself isn’t new; these groups have been unhappy at the prospects for years, though Park’s victory is a reason to feel recharged. The consensus—among the media, at least—is that passing the FTA is going be a real brawl. Not in some metaphorical way. We’re talking fists, furniture, maybe even fire extinguishers and hammers.

The JoongAng explains:

In Korea, the minority in the assembly resorts to physical brawls when the majority party tries to railroad through bills, using violence as a kind of filibuster. But the brawls are unpopular with the public, which blames the majority party for not trying hard enough to compromise with the opposition.

After losing the mayoral by-election this week, GNP lawmakers are much too fearful of losing their seats in next April’s general election to be seen in a brawl over the FTA.

Reporters are positively rubbing their hands in anticipation. As the lede of a Wall Street Journal blog post says, “The Korean-U.S. free trade agreement started with brawls and protests in the streets in 2006. And it now appears certain it will end with brawls and protests in the National Assembly next week.”

So what does Korea’s physical politics look like? A good example comes from 2008, when the GNP worked on FTA details behind closed doors. Closed doors that they then blocked with furniture:

So we’ll see if any viral video comes out of next week’s Korean National Assembly. As for those school lunches, Mayor Park signed free-lunch funding into law on his first day. And President Lee probably never knew that his visit to America coincided with our own National School Lunch Week.

[Bonus: I just found some old video of Seoul’s city council members pushing each other around over school lunches! I’ve embedded it in the next post, along with video of 2009’s notorious (but unrelated) parliamentary media-law brawl.]

Asia, ideas

Big In Japan

It’s been a while since I got anything into a newspaper. But I helped out a friend at the Asahi Shimbun last week with a little transcription and editing of an interview with Michael Sandel, which appeared in last Sunday’s edition.

Japanese article on Michael Sandel

Sandel is a professor of political philosophy at Harvard. You may have caught his lectures on public television a couple of years ago, a series called Justice with Michael Sandel.

The series was picked up last year by NHK and became a hit in Japan, topping pay-per-view charts, boosting book sales, and prompting Sandel to visit Tokyo to give some of his famous lectures.

His lectures, called “Harvard Hakunetsu Kyoshitu” (translated as “Harvard Heated Discussion Classroom”) have taken on a new life at NHK, with Sandel recently leading a new set of discussions among Japanese, American, and Chinese students.

Asia, China, journalism

Beijing Umbrella

Last week, with June 4 marking the 20th anniversary of the crackdown on the student protests in Tiananmen Square, Chinese officials blocked filming around Tiananmen by physically blocking shots. Below, the experience of BBC’s Beijing correspondent.

Umbrellas are one of the things I remember from Korea, Japan and China. As a boy, I think I was surprised to see people using umbrellas when it wasn’t raining. But some do use them when it’s sunny, so encountering people using umbrellas to shield themselves on a bright day at Tiananmen wouldn’t be so strange. At least, not until they turn out to be plain-clothes security agents.

Illustration by Grady McFerrin of farm animals and model home.
articles, Asia, China, development

Western Promises

Cover of October issue of Dwell magazineDwell Magazine’s October issue is out, and it includes an essay, entitled “Western Promises,” that I wrote about my reporting on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village project.  Huangbaiyu, a small village in northeast China, set to become a leading example of the power of green design in a country that desperately needs it. The architect William McDonough had top billing as a major driver in the project, which was planned according to his “cradle-to-cradle” principles. But the project failed. In retrospect, it seems as if it was destined to fail, given the fundamental flaws that I describe in the piece.

This story started out as an assignment for PBS Frontline/World, and covers the same ground. I’m grateful to Frontline/World and the team of producers and editors there, and to the editors at Dwell for giving me an opportunity to reflect on the story.

The essay hasn’t been posted online, but as soon as it’s available, I will link to it. (In the meantime, check out the magazine in print.) It’s accompanied by some excellent illustrations by Grady McFerrin (see above, for example). And the editors deserve extra credit for coming up with the title.

[Update: It’s online here!]

Asia, history, journalism, lost, video

Panic in Da Nang, 1975.

Before the fall of Saigon, there was the loss of Da Nang, a major port city and host to American military forces during the Vietnam War. As North Vietnamese forces approached the city, residents tried to evacuate.

For a little more information that covers some of the technical details–fuel loss, passenger load, etc.–click on the video (or here) to read the summing up that accompanies the piece on YouTube. Have been thinking about the Vietnam War lately–less because of Iraq than because John Peabody is working on a story about the Hmong community in California. 

P.S.: Sometimes journalists, these days, wonder what the best medium is to tell a story. An event like this can, and probably should, be told many ways. But it’s clear that to get it fast and make it pack a punch, video (or probably film, in those days) is the way to go.

Via Kottke.
Asia, international, irony, journalism, photography

Lost Boyz, Cambodia

Straight Refugeez 21

Photojournalist Stuart Isett will be speaking at Berkeley with author Navy Phim next Monday. Isett has been documenting the lives of young Cambodian men who came to the United States as refugee children, did not officially become citizens, and now are being deported.

Isett does good work; you can see some of it at his web site or his Flickr page.

Last spring he did a good audio slideshow on the palaces of Calcutta for the Times.

Monday, February 4, 2008
4:30 p.m.
IEAS Conference Room, 6F
2223 Fulton St., Berkeley CA 94720

anticipation, Asia, China, international, journalism, multimedia, photography


village boy

So there’s a story related to this picture. Actually, the story I’m telling is about the village where this boy lives. It’s the reason why I’ve embargoed all of my photos from China last August. Check Frontline/World tomorrow (Thursday, the last day of January) and you’ll see what I mean.

Asia, China, competition, education, politics, really?

Please Vote For Me

The good folks at China Digital Times have pointed us to a documentary by Chen Weijun about an experiment in democracy in Chinese grade school. It’s an amazing piece. With all the electioneering and scheming, you eventually forget that you’re watching a bunch of eight-year-olds in a (nominally) Communist country.
Here’s the YouTube intro: 

In an elementary school in the city of Wuhan in central China, three eight-year-old students campaign for the coveted position of class monitor. This is the first election for a class leader to be held in China. The three candidates hold debates, campaign tirelessly and show their intellectual and artistic skills, until one is voted the winner. Their parents, devoted to their only child, take part and start to influence the results. 


The remaining chapters after the jump. Continue reading