Influential Minds Part 2

This post is about our meeting with Takayuki Mori. I wrote part one about my impressions of our meeting with Hiroaki Koide, it loosely ties into this writing, and can be found here.

A disclaimer at the beginning of this writing that my facts are from memory, and it was a very long day at Mori-san’s house. There isn’t much to be found on the internet in English about Takayuki Mori or his business Aightowa(literally: “the definition of love is” in Japanese), presumably this is the official site, and facts gained from a google translation of it will be dodgy at best.

Takayuki Mori is well known in his local part of the Earth’s surface for being, among other things, really different from the people around him. He is a 74 year old retired local ecologist, living in Arashiyama Kyoto and running a business out of his grandoise(for Japan) energy efficient house and living mostly(entirely?) off of subsistence farming on a very large(for Japan) piece of land. According to the website, it’s 1000 square meters, about a fourth of an acre. His wife is a famous doll maker, creating beautiful traditional-Japanese looking dolls that can sell for as much as two cars, and running regular classes teaching her doll making, with over 60 people drawn to the craft. Mori-san gave us a long lecture in two parts and showed us all the wonderful things around his estate.

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I’ll begin with what he had to say about his home. The first thing that comes to my mind is the solar panels on the roof and a design using sunlight for as much free heat as possible. He had also planted many foreign deciduous trees in his yard, so that leaves would block sunlight in the summer keeping it cooler, and then fall off and allow sunlight in the winter making it warmer. He pointed out a shrub over the stall he built for his car – also there for a similar reason of seasonally affecting the car’s temperature favorably. We gazed in awe at his garden of subsistence farming, he mentioned that they had a planting and harvesting schedule that ensured the foods they liked were available year round. He boasted this was an efficient use of a small amount of land, saying that large machine driven farming with same-crop fields might be efficient for the amount of work done by a single person, but it’s wasting space(space is very precious in Japan, even graveyards are crowded) and preventing the employment of many. We walked around his garden and he showed us an outdoor pizza oven he built.
Every five steps he had some home made ingenious cool thing to show us, all of it having some purpose toward efficiently living easier. His two part lecture, if I can possibly summarize it, was about consumerism back to the beginning of human history, his studies of present day primitive cultures(people making a lot of use out of very little to live), and his idea of a new age of society where we have integrated minimalism and efficiency with science and technology for the sake of sustainability. He took the lecture down many winding directions, describing how people are taught by society to buy, people defining themselves through buying, a “trap of consumerism”, whether to choose hope or despair in the face of today’s society, and on and on.
More than anything I was in awe of a person living their convictions and successfully living life their own way, trying to change the culture through leading by example. It’s something I find beautiful that I don’t see very often. Toward the end of his lecture and through the questions asked he was talking more about the treasure that is art and creativity. He mentioned, in response to a question from another group member about where the money for his place came from, that his wife was originally teaching people to make dolls for free, but the students insisted on paying, and that created the class. It struck a few bells in my head, “hey, I’m an artist living life my own way, maybe I could ask him about my methods and he could give me a thought to take with myself” I thought.
How to phrase it though, what am I even trying to ask? Through Professor Armstrong’s translation, I gave him the following preface and question. I’m a painter that’s been giving my work away for a long time. Sometimes people offer me money for my art, and even without knowing all the information you’ve presented(I was referring to his concept of a trap of consumerism), it hurts my feelings when people offer me money. How do I reconcile?
His answer was straightforward common sense, the conventional wisdom. The same sort of thing my yoga teachers have said in past conversations. The same sort of stuff any adult will say over the counter to me while I’m making them espresso and milk at work. His version was a tad more elegant and elaborate, but the points were the same. “You have to decide for yourself what to do and do what makes you happy. Making money doesn’t mean making happiness, but if you don’t make money you have to deal with not having any.”
It’s the same stuff but it’s different hearing it from someone that’s unique honest and successful, as opposed to it coming from the average passer by that just seems to know everything about someone else’s life. It’s the same stuff anybody else says, just coming from him it seems more like a true story that a person can be successful with this attitude, more like experiential knowledge, empirically proven. Do I have anything about myself to change after that? Not at all, just now the idea of doing what makes oneself happy has even more validation for me.

Influential Minds Part 1

Two of the five academic meetings on the sustainability trip left a very strong impression on me: those with Hiroaki Koide and Takayuki Mori. I’ll be writing about those meetings and the impact they had on myself, in two parts.

Professor Hiroaki Koide

Pictures weren’t allowed in the place that we met Professor Koide, so here’s a shot of how beautiful Japan is.

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Professor Koide’s name can be found, among other places, toward the top of wikipedia’s article “Anti Nuclear Power Movement In Japan“. Before meeting him, Professor Armstrong and Dr Takahashi handed out a pamphlet to the group, by the Christian Council of Japan summarizing the anti-nuclear power facts, with “Hiroaki Koide” listed on the back of it as editorial supervisor. When we met him,  the first thing I noticed about him was his beautiful loose walking posture when he greeted us outside, and his engaging, personal seated posture while he gave us the talk.  These are subtle hints of an honest human, to me. His lecture for us was a beautiful song of doom and gloom. Some of the main points from the pamphlet and his lecture:

  • The volume of radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is vastly understated. Japan’s radioactive power plants have produced fission product equal to 1.2 million Hiroshima bombs. There is no safe way to store or dispose of nuclear waste, what’s done can’t be undone.
  • When I heard the above, I thought I was hearing a measure of proportion deliberately misappropriated for the sake of making alarming headlines. I raised my hand and asked the professor, “But radioactive waste isn’t the same thing as bombs, right?” His answer was that I’m under the mistaken impression that these plants were made to produce energy, and that nuclear plants were first brought into existence for the creation of weapons materials, they produce energy as a side effect. The pamphlet backs this up.
  • This is not green energy at all. The pamphlet has a diagram of how these plants operate using sea water intake and outtake back into the sea, and as a consequence are warming the sea. They kill wildlife, heat the ocean, and contribute to global warming.
  • Nuclear power is less sustainable than fossil fuels. They use uranium to produce energy, and uranium will run out in less time than fossil fuels would.
  • Many scientists and politicians that are for nuclear power are aware of the dangers involved, he said at the meeting. Professor Koide stated in a lecture on youtube, he believes it has to do with a race to military power, and has nothing to do with energy production. It was also stated (at the meeting with him and on the pamphlet) that there is more than enough power in the grid, the energy from these plants are not needed.

I took a few deep breaths. It’s an awfully bad pun that these things are called power “plants”. We’re all very lucky to be alive, and politics is corrupt – two things I always know in the back of my mind, but it’s never a comfortable thing to discuss(I’ll talk about my feelings on the matter more in the next post). Toward the end of his lecture he started reaching for “where to go from here”, regarding the energy crisis. Japan is pushing green power initiatives following the Fukushima disaster, but professor Koide’s feelings on the subject are that no energy is perfect and all energy has drawbacks, and therefore society should strive to use less energy.

I can make a comparison regarding human beings and limitations here: many of my generation get excited to buy more hard drive space, only to find that if we have 5 terabytes of space, we fill 5 terabytes with stuff. We get exponentially larger amounts than we think we’ll ever need, and suddenly we find new ways to use it, and forget what life was like without it. If someone told us that our terabyte harddrives were destroying the world and threatening our lives, could we change ourselves in the reverse direction, arbitrarily limiting ourselves? It’s what Professor Koide is saying we must do.

Giving it some thought, the “energy crisis” doesn’t have to be seen as crisis of science finding a greater power source. The crisis is arbitrary as our society is using so many things we don’t need. The energy crisis could be looked at as a cultural problem and not a technological one. Creating a more efficient, sustainability society was discussed at length at the next day’s meeting with Takayuki Mori.

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Japan really is beautiful.

A Large Crowd of Polite People

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It isn’t as extreme as I’m about to put it but imagine yourself working a busy convenience store and saying to every customer who buys as much as a pen “Thank you so very very much for shopping here we appreciate the business goodbye take care of yourself!” and meaning every word of it. Hold the enthusiasm in place, but reduce it to a normal-sounding amount of words, and you’ll have an impression similar to what I’m getting from people in Japan. Working at Bucknell’s 7th st cafe I often get a sense of how well knit the community is – how the school’s organizations and the students parties seem to be a powerful driver for making as many social connections between them as possible, and how they seem to share a collective mindset. I’ve also seen a group mind at work when working in previous food service jobs. A powerful negativity caused by stress and reciprocal feedback among the employees.

I have never seen before, a culture that has internalized consideration of others so deeply. Crowds, I’ve seen before, but not polite crowds. They apologize, they welcome you to go first, they’ll hold your camera and take your picture for you if you so much as ask. They don’t litter! The massive crowd in the picture above and I saw no trash laying in the street, not even a cigarette butt.

When the group entered the place in the picture above, Sensoji, we agreed to meet at the end of this long row of shops. The crowd was so massive I had lost sight of all the group members halfway through. I’m embarrassed to say I forget the details, I think this was a new years celebration of some sort, the majority of the crowd walking toward the temple at the far end for some ritual of cleansing and prayer, stopping to look in shops along the way. Moving in one direction but they didn’t push or force, and one could move the other direction without being trampled. Often I would stop my feet to let my camera focus and take a picture, and then get bumped from behind and apologized to. A few days and a few more crowds later, I’ve learned to look behind myself before I stop, not because I don’t like being bumped, but because it hurts my feelings being the only rude one.

Many of the places we’ve been I’ve felt myself standing out in the crowd because I don’t know the motions of it(and because I’m tall, white and pointing a camera everywhere). Yesterday when walking onto a train platform after arriving in Osaka, Professor Armstrong was leading the group, which had functioned up to that point by walking in a line and cutting through the train platform crowds, and I saw a gap rapidly form between myself and the group members in front of me. Dr. Takahashi, who was at the rear of the group, quickly provided me the information “Osaka people are more aggressive, these are not Tokyo people”. I suddenly became aware – the people in this crowd, many of them walking on a perpendicular path to the train, were working harder to take the space in front of me. The perception of personal space was different here, a few inches between people was enough to put oneself in it, like interstate drivers who aren’t afraid to tailgate.  I continued observing this as we switched trains and switched trains again. People in Japanese crowds look at me before they walk in front of me, and even these “more aggressive” people will let me walk my path first without hesitation if I simply provide the nonverbal signals of changing my speed or direction to say my intention and make eye contact to ask. Another day and now I’m politely offering to let others go before myself because I see a space I can take behind them. Massive fast moving crowds and somehow everyone is so polite that movement through them feels like a karmic net positive.

I’ve been told before that Japanese people are polite, that they never steal and that the crime rate is really low, that they are very considerate. I’ve read folktales from Japan centered around putting others before the self. I find it very hard to observe much with my drastically limited ability to understand or be understood with speech, and I have to ask myself if there isn’t a degree of confirmation bias in my unconscious collection of information, but what I see is what I feel is what I know, what’s been said is true to me, the people in Japan are overwhelmingly kind.

Oh No I Can’t Read

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There is a list of several things that were my “first impressions” of Japan, and from my perspective of hoping to live in this country someday, I took notice I’m about 5% literate after stepping out of the airport. Some things are written in English, some things are even written in bad English(there’s also a lot of bad French). In Japanese 101, we learned the two Japanese phonetic alphabets and 50-60 of the thousands of Kanji in existence. The things we learned and things I already knew are present – but the vast majority of written communication I’ve seen in the few days I’ve been here relies on the reader’s comprehending of Kanji.  On the sign in the image above, I know roughly seven of the 18 characters, and none of them give me any clue as to what it means. From it’s placement and the arrows, I can guess it’s probably a road sign. So it might be important if I weren’t following a group of students with two teachers that know how to read leading it. It might not be anything important at all, I don’t have any idea.

What this means to me is that if I’m going to continue to hold this goal of living in this country and navigating road signs, restaurant menus or apartment listings on my own I have an elephant to eat first. I’ll add here, I’m not surprised by the prevalence of Kanji usage, I was aware that most writing is done this way and I already had the mindset that learning it would be an absolute necessity. I knew it, now I’m living it. I found myself going to the convenience store when the professor said she was going because on my own I can’t tell which items are vegetarian and which aren’t. The above image is part of a project I started during our first full day here – photographing any kanji that look interesting or like they might be important. In the future this (already humongous) collection of images will serve the purpose of self assessment. After aggressively running many miles of Kanji learning throughout the coming year, I can look through the collection and perhaps read the ingredients and nutrition label on this mysterious thing I bought and drank from the convenience store just now.

Yogurt Drink     Yogurt Drink Ingredient Label