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

Pre-trip thoughts

We are on the eve of our departure.  We are packing our bags, thinking about the schedule, anticipating the long flight and what awaits us when we arrive at our destination in Japan.  Thanks to Amjad, we have a photo of us at our last orientation meeting.  This is the first of what I hope will be many more memorable group pictures as we proceed with our trip.  I, for one, am truly looking forward to it.

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