Saturday, March 20, 2010

Nowadays, with the advent of the internet, every place has become a center.

I came to the city of Kan-Onji on the Shikoku island to meet with Dr. Michiyo Okada, who is a specialist on teaching children with special backgrounds and nees.

The city of Kan-Onji is a tranquil place on the Setonaikai sea. When I came to this kind of place before, I used to think that I am now far from the center. Nowadays, with the advent of the internet, every place has become a center.

Dr. Okada is making some remarkable observations and discoveries while teaching the students. In that sense, Kan-Onji is the center. I came to learn valuable things all the way from Tokyo to this center of humanistic learning.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Asking oneself what one really wanted to do with one's life in the first place.

March is the graduation time in Japan. Many school hold the graduation ceremony, where students receive the certificates and sing special songs.

The fact that March signifies the end of something, while the anticipations arise for things to come, has taken a deep root in the Japanese psyche.

Spring is in the air. The cherry blossoms are not in bloom yet, but the expectancies are ripening. The combination of these emotional elements have would lead to a poignant mood which can only be experienced at this time of the year.

For this writer, this particular March signifies the end of many things, as well as the prospects for others. It is a time of transition. In such a period of change, one reviews what has been essential in one's life, checking this fact and re-evaluating that, asking oneself what one really wanted to do with one's life in the first place.

In winter many things in nature perish, and thrive again with the advent of spring. I wonder if life is not like that. From the ashes, green leaves shoot up, bearing flowers unknown and exotic in the prime of summer.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

There had to be substitutes for the real thing.

The Mount Fuji is an easily recognizable volcano mountain, and its shape is recognized by people in Japan.

The other day I went to a restaurant in Sapporo, the northern capital of Hokkaido, and discovered a wooden engraving of the famous mountain. Even a very simplistic representation of the mountain outline can suggest the rich cultural connotations surrounding the now dormant volcano.

In many places, a mock-up of mount Fuji would be made to worship its image. In the rural town where I was brought up, there was an artificial mount Fuji, on top of which one could find a stone monument. In the old days it was difficult for people to travel, and there had to be substitutes for the real thing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

As I witnessed the black insects walk about among the microcosmos of Persian speedwells

A human brain likes surprises, and mine is no exception. Every year, in spring, I used to be surprised as a kid to see the first signs of spring. The blue flowers of Persian speedwell (Veronica persica Poiret) would often be the very first manifestations of the beautiful in life to be brought to my attention in early spring.

The other day, walking along Tokyo streets, I suddenly remembered how I used to be joyous when I witnessed these lovely blue flowers. It was always perceived as quite unexpected. One year would have passed since last spring, and you simply have forgotten that there were such things as the Persian speedwells. So it always came as a pleasant shock to observe the tiny flower petals again.

The absence of these spring ephemerals from my consciousness signaled a change in the way I go about in my life. I used to walk along the bare earth quite a lot, stooping to the sides from time to time. It was an every day ritual to wander around and observe the changes in nature. Nowadays, I just speed through the pavements and stairs without even stopping to look around, a poor soul ever trapped in the list of things to do.

Due to the negligences, the elegant blue of the Persian speedwells has disappeared from my life. Yesterday I wanted to rectify that.

On the way to NHK, I sidestepped into the Yoyogi park. I was in search of my past. Persian speedwells were something quite common in my childhood. The only question was whether I could time travel.

The blessing came in an instant. There they were, just under the trees, those tiny blue flowers of the Persian speedwells. They must have been there all these years, without me noticing them.

I sat down, took out my amazon kindle, and then thought better of it. It was not time to delve into the universe of tiny letters, which I could do at any time anyway. It was time to observe the environment, with all its grandeur and nuances.

The ants were there. Those small, hard-working creatures. As I witnessed the black insects walk about among the microcosmos of Persian speedwells, something in me melted away to reveal a long-forgotten core of the unchanging.

The Persian speedwell flower found on the Yoyogi park slope yesterday.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The free system would gradually outgrow the controlled system.

At least a part of human history can be regarded as a competition between different systems based on different philosophies and sets of values. The competition between the "free" and "market economy" countries and the "communist" or "socialist" ones leading to and during the cold war era and beyond was one typical example.

For some periods, it can appear that the tightly regulated systems have an edge. In the years around the Great Depression, for example, it seemed that the "free world" was in shambles, and the socialist system, i.e. the Soviet Union at that time, had an edge. But trends at one period can be deceiving. We all know what actually happened after that.

In today's world, a new type of competition is emerging. At one end, we have a more or less free system where different ideas and opinions compete in the economical and political context. At the other end, we have a social system where things are tightly controlled, without a democratic election, and limited access to the internet.

At one period, it may appear that the controlled system is economically thriving. People might succumb to the allurements of control at one time, as it is certainly easier for the politicians (those in the power, that is), and superficially benevolent for the "stability" of society. In the long run, however, it is my bet that the free system would gradually outgrow the controlled system. And I have no intention of approving or even advocating the control approach.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Symbols are very powerful, and can reach the very bottom of your soul.

I happened to see a clip from the old Godzilla series yesterday ("Mothra vs. Godzilla"). Originally, the film was released in 1964, when I was 2. I remember seeing the film in a theatre just before I entered the primary school. It must have been one of the re-runs.

Godzilla appeared to be something of primordial brutality when I watched it as a kid. The way the monster was depicted, it was clear that there was no way of establishing a means of communication with it. Of course, as the Godzilla theme developed over many films, the monster "evolved" to display some comical features. It even played baseball in a film co-featuring some sea monsters. In the beginning, however, Godzilla was portrayed as a leviathan moving about on its own instincts, where nothing is negotiable. And it is in this primitive context that Godzilla impressed the young child.

As many point out, Godzilla has something to do with the collective trauma of the Japanese people in the post-war era, especially as regards the atomic weapons.

It is interesting to consider, even as I was not aware of the detailed history of my mother land in the years preceding my birth, I was somehow unconsciously affected by the implications, in the reception of the way Godzilla was portrayed when it destroyed the landscapes of contemporary Japan. Symbols are very powerful, and can reach the very bottom of your soul without knowing it.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

It is priceless to be thus taken unawares by surprise, in a ritual of life repeated every year.

During the winter, all biological forms enter a kind of dormant phase. Human beings are no exceptions. While we go about busily along the streets, a part of our sensitivities are closed, becoming oblivious of the possibilities of existence. For example, we forget that there are such things as flowers.

Every year, from February to March, it therefore comes as a pleasant surprise to observe the arrival of spring ephemerals, in the form of plum blossoms. You know from experience that there are these tiny and lovely blooms in early spring. And yet, you have forgotten about it, and it is with a shock to observe the manifestations of life on the seemingly lifeless boughs of plum trees.
It is priceless to be thus taken unawares by surprise, in a ritual of life repeated every year, celebrating the continuation of the world as we know it.

Plum blossoms, red and white, in the Yugawara district. Beginning of March, 2010.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

What a great job Socrates did in ancient Greek

One of the greatest disappointments in life is that there are so many intolerant people. It hurts me deeply, when I see somebody carelessly emitting remarks of discrimination, inconsideration, and of lacking understanding. It hurts me still, when I discover that somebody in question is quite sure of his or her own opinion, never doubting the truth of the extreme view that he or she holds.

It is at such a time that I seriously consider the limits of human intellect and imagination, and what a great job Socrates did in ancient Greek. Socrates stressed the importance of the awareness of his own ignorance. How more intelligent could a human being be rather than to know that he or she does not know everything? Even if one makes a judgment about something, since he or she needs to make a judgment from time to time, a person of wisdom would take the own judgment with a grain of salt.


Friday, March 12, 2010

I rather enjoyed the experience of being sick in bed.

I used to take some days off when I was a pupil. When I had cold, I would say to my mother, "mom, I have fever", and lie in bed the whole day.

I would listen to the radio, and read my favorite books. I would ask my mother to bring my favorite foods, such as a pudding, and eat them straight away beside the bed.

You guessed it right. I rather enjoyed the experience of being sick in bed.

Nowadays, I seldom spend the day in bed even if I feel not so well. Yesterday, according to my own standards in childhood, I would have been classified as sick. I sneezed, and felt feverish. Despite the deterioration, I stalked the streets of Tokyo all right, and worked diligently once at desk.

When I look back on the carefree pupil days when I could take the day off just like that, my heart is filled with a strange and sweet nostalgia.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The emerging global village makes it necessary to think of the liberal arts within a correspondingly global context.

The liberal arts education and learning remains important at any age. However, it is important to realize that what it signifies to be learned in the liberal arts changes over time.

To be sure, there are some unchanging classics. The canonical philosophical and literary works should be read and appreciated. Trainings in some fundamental scientific and mathematical methods and systems of thoughts would be essential. The ability to think logically, and to test one's ideas against empirical evidences should be acquired.

In the contemporary era, on top of that, one would need to get acquainted with many additional things which were not existent when the term "liberal arts" were invented and implemented in the higher education. Most noticeable is the advent of the internet. A certain set of basic skills, knowledge, modes of conduct, and ethics is needed to make most of the opportunities offered by the internet. There is a new "common sense" in its use, and failure to capture it would result in the user being trapped in the "local minimum".

Most importantly, as the societies on the earth become more and more interconnected, one needs to nurture a set of sensitivities and modes of conduct which were not necessarily when one was quite comfortably well within a nation state. The emerging global village makes it necessary to think of the liberal arts within a correspondingly global context.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The brain has a great ability to betray you.

The brain has a great ability to betray you. Betraying you in the positive sense, that is.

At some stages of life, when you are entering a new domain, you would sometimes feel as if you are not quite up to it. For example, when you start to learn a new subject, it might seem that it is too difficult for you. You simply cannot imagine the you who would be capable of doing that incredible thing. Like speaking a foreign language. Like riding a bicycle.

But then, your brain has this truly remarkable ability to reconfigure itself. You cannot supervise the details of the process consciously. The brain's network, by modifying the synaptic connections between the billions of neurons in the cortex and other areas, does it automatically for you. All you need to have is the courage to risk the new, and the insensitivity to failures.

The brain betrays you in beautiful ways. You may be unable to conduct a specific task no matter how hard you try. You may fail 99 times, and yet, no the 100th trial, success might come to you like a miracle. The change might seem quite abrupt for you. In fact, the brain has been reconfiguring itself by bits all the while. It is that the internal change does not become manifest until it reaches the threshold by accumulation.

A wonderful life is one in which the brain keeps betraying you every day, in a quite unexpected and rewarding way. The only thing you need to do is keep trying.

Peace Shadow

My artist friend Tatsuo Miyajima has started a new project called Peace Shadow. It is a petition for peace, made by burning your shadow. Please take a moment to visit the website below and burn your shadow.

(When you go through the URL below with the suffix of /?id=60, you can witness my own entry into the poject. )

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Mr. Internet should be the most appropriate candidate.

When I was studying physics as an undergraduate at the university, I wrote an essay arguing for the necessity of reducing the cost of international phone calls. The argument was that the borders of nations could be defined in terms of the "connectivity" of the graphs representing information flow. Within the borders of a nation state a dense connection of information exchange was to be found, whereas there was less information flow across the border.

I did not take the borders of nations as an a priori entity. By making more information flow over the national borders, I hoped to dissolve the difference and conflicts between the nation states. A dramatic reduction in the cost of phone bills seemed to be a good strategy to that end. I even argued for the involvement of international organization such as the united nations to bring about that change.

What I did not anticipate at that time was, of course, the advent of the internet. The 20 years old I was arguing to introduce a "flat rate" system for domestic and international calls, as a moral requirement in the global age. The flat rate for information flow has been more or less actualized. Using the internet, it is now possible for us to communicate without necessarily being aware of the national borders.

If there is to be a single nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, Mr. Internet should be the most appropriate candidate.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Would-be wild animals.

When Soseki Natsume was offered doctorate degree from the Japanese government in the Meiji era, he declined, saying that he has been living as an anonymous Natsume somebody, and wanted to keep living as Natsume somebody. When the government official insisted on receiving the degree, Soseki firmly rejected, saying that "seeing the circumstances in this country, the presence of the degree of doctorate is doing only harm to the progress of academic studies, I must conclude"

As I live on, and experience various ups and downs of life, I start to appreciate the depth and perceptions of Soseki. Humans are weak, and many people fall victim to worshipping the merits and degrees bestowed upon them, while the real substance suffers. Soseki saw clearly, that the social honours enjoyed by his contemporary "cultural dignitaries" only worked to diminish their sensitivity as creators and appreciators of artistic and academic establishments.

One has to remain wild, untamed, in order to be creatively interesting. That was Soseki's instinct, and the Meiji era Japan was rapidly going into the opposite direction. Almost 100 years later, the "important people" who enjoyed prestige as "doctorate" holders are long forgotten, while the works of Soseki, who remained a wild animal, keep being read and appreciated by would-be wild animals.

Soseki Natsume. An cultural wild beast to the end.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The food was excellent, and the worries of the day melted away.

I had an interesting public dialogue with the mystery writer Ms. Shizuko Natsuki.

After the lively conversation, I went to a book shop (Kinokuniya) in Fukuoka for a book signing. My latest book on the history of human civilization has just been released.

Ken Mogi "The stellar time of civiliation" ("Bunmei no Hoshijikan"). 2010.

After the book signing, we went to a restaurant to celebrate the day. As we were six in all, we took two taxis.

Our destination was a cozily small restaurant in the middle of a residential area. I was in the first taxi. Soon after we got on, it started to rain. The driver of the second taxi has been asked to follow the first one. Due to the rainfall and deepening darkness of night, and because of traffic, it was not easy to continue driving after the guiding taxi.

At such a time, I typically become worried. I get anxious if the second taxi is rightly following us. The driver of our taxi, who was apparently a professional in these matters, repeatedly assured us that it would be OK. Despite that, I was so worried that I closed my eyes and tried to wrap me in the warmth of the unknowing.

After several minutes we were at the door of the promised land. The second taxi came along just fine, and we were joined together at the table, smiling and hungry. The food was excellent, and the worries of the day melted away.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Ponder the existence of yourself before your father and mother was born.

Later in the evening, I came to Hakata, the central city in my mother's native area of northern Kyushu.

Although I am a frequent visitor to the city, I feel as if I have never been able to have enough of it. I am always in search of something, unconsciously and consciously, and yet do not know what it is that I am actually searching for. It can be vaguely described as the scent of something distant, soft, warm, which embraces me gently, and takes me back to my infant days, or even before that.

The great writer Soseki Natsume once attended a Zen session at a temple. During his stay, he was presented with a Zen enigma: Ponder the existence of yourself before your father and mother was born. Soseki was very impressed by this enigma and writes about it in one of his novels.

Visiting Hakata, I might have always been in search of something akin to this famous Zen Enigma. Ponder the existence of yourself before your father and mother was born. Since the question is an intractable one, I am ever wandering, looking for the answer in vain.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The trick was just to focus on the next step, in order not to despair unduly.

When I was a kid, I used to climb mountains a lot. Japan is a very mountainous country, and it is not difficult to find a mountain nearby anywhere in the nation.

It was not that I particularly liked the experience of climbing. It was hard to uplift your body against the gravity, even though at those times I was not that heavy. However, I did like to follow the paths in hours of sweating and increased heart beats.

It was rewarding to be able to view the scenery once you were at the top. From up there, everything became open and visible all at once. In the course of the upward journey, things remain very invisible and intractable. It was hard to tell where you were exactly, and whether you were approaching the destination at all. Sometimes the path went down, and then up, and you felt that your energy was being wasted. Once you had the commanding view of the peak, you have a fairly good idea of where you have been all these times. And then you start the downward journey in which you find yourself lost all over again.

When I look back, I guess I rather liked the long and sometimes boring ritual of climbing. The trick was just to focus on the next step, in order not to despair unduly. It was remarkable how some elements of the famous Myth of Sisyphus was to be found in my humble trial.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Memoir about dolls crackers

Yesterday was the girls' day (Hina-Matsuri) in Japan. When I was a boy, because boys will be boys, and I wanted to follow suit, I pretended that I did not care about the girls' day at all. However, I actually did care for these things.

As my sister and mother prepared the Hina dolls towards the girls' day, (see the picture from wikipedia below), I would hang around, trying to appear not interested, but actually very very interested.

The white faces of the dolls allured me into a strange kingdom of eternity. The fact that I was able to see the dolls only once in a year added to my enthusiasm. However, I tried my best to conceal my feverish interests, naturally.

The thing to do on the girls' day was to eat "hina arare", or dolls crackers. These were specially prepared rice crackers and sweets to be eaten on and around the girls' day.

Now, it was quite legitimate for a "rough" boy to be interested and consume a dolls cracker. However, even then, it was socially dangerous to appear to eager about it, especially when your fellow boys were around.

It was therefore quite a relief when you could have loads of hina arare without anyone watching it. I still hold it to be one of the most enjoyable pastimes to sit on the sofa with a pack of hina arare, and read my favorite books. Nowadays, of course, I don't care that much who may be watching me doing that. It is interesting how in your childhood peer pressures play such a crucial and sometimes devastating role in forming your state of mind.

A typical Hina Matsuri dolls display.

Typical Hina-Arare rice crackers

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

They will go out, including this writer, weather permitting.

The Japanese are famously crazy about the cherry blossoms. When the season comes (usually from the end of March to the beginning of April, depending on the location and the weather of the year), people go outdoors, place mats on the ground, and conduct a ritual of sake drinking and lively conversation ("hanami", literally "flower admiring").

Although some quite justifiably criticize the supposed "purpose" of this custom, that of admiring the cherry blossoms, as just a "pretext" to drink, the criticism is always a light-hearted one. When the time comes again for the Japanese people to go out, they will go out, including this writer, weather permitting.

As more reserved and quieter forerunners to the more outgoing cherry blossoms, the plums have been blooming for the past few weeks. Used to be that Japanese people admired the plums rather than the cherries, in the short poems and essays. It is interesting to consider what brought the change of sensitivities. Maybe it is easier to have a sake drinking session during the cherry blooming time, when it is noticeably warmer.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Moichi collage

My best friend and great producer Moichi Kuwahara has kindly put my tweet alongside a nice photo.