Love Is in the Air: Vladimir Putin, the World's Greenest Politician?

An unexpected actor has more positive impact on the world's climate than Mr. Obama and the EU combined: Vladimir Putin.

Cutting Emissions in India

A look at the construction sector

Why Coal is Worse than Nuclear

Many people would prefer coal power generation over nuclear. Is this preference justified?

Energy: Empowering the Consumer?

A talk by MP Laura Sandys

Dieter Helm: The Carbon Crunch

My review of Dr. Dieter Helm's latest book on climate change.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lights, Temples, Speeches, and Holidays

As the nights get longer and the days shorter, people of every country that I have visited in my life attempt to brighten their moods by lighting streets, trees, churches, cathedrals, houses, and such with beautiful colorful lights. As you may guess, the Japanese are no exception to this rule; they light up their houses, streets, and everything else. And, instead of lighting churches and cathedrals, which Japan mostly lacks, they light their Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Lately I had the chance to witness a few of these light-ups, and given how stunning they were, I will tell you more about them.

So as not to forget to look in the shade below the candle, I will start with the closest lit-up thing around me, the Christmas tree at Doshisha’s Imadegawa campus where I go to school. It is a living evergreen, probably a cedar, which stands majestically in the middle of the road near Doshisha’s gate. Its roots are completely covered by asphalt and, because I have been seeing it every day, I never really noticed that it was there. Until they lit it up, that is. It has been shining since the 20th of November or so, making the cold nights at school a little warmer. There is also a similar tree at Doshisha’s Kyotanabe campus, which I get to see every week when I go there for Hiking Club running practices. Both big, and both unnoticed until they were lit up, these two magnificent trees were shadows below the candle which now became the candle itself.

The Christams tree at Doshisha. It is there always, but only now I noticed.

The lighting of Kyoto’s countless beautiful temples and shrines in another example of the many light-ups which I witnessed lately. Because the Japanese visit temples and shrines mainly in the fall season to see the splendid colored maples, and in the spring to enjoy Japan’s famous blooming cherry trees, the light-ups are a great way for shrines and temples to make some last-minute buck. After they are over, the dry season comes for most Japanese religious establishments with the one exception of New Year’s Day. Thus every temple and shrine is trying to make profit out of this last opportunity of the year. With my \500 ready, I went to see the illumination of the Kiyomizu Temple, one of Kyoto’s symbols. Standing in the mountains East of Kyoto, the Kiyomizu temple provides a great view of the city during any season. But what I saw that one December night was quite unique and spectacular. The red maples gave off an orangey glow as they were lit up by yellow lights, and the view of the temple and the city of Kyoto was just unforgettable. Of course the temple was packed as always, but compared to the lighting up of the city of Kobe it was almost empty.

The lit-up Kiyomizu Temple and the view of Kyoto.
The lighting up of the city of Kobe, known as the Kobe Luminarie, is one of the most important winter events in the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, and Nara). Kobe is located just west of Osaka, about two hours by train from Kyoto and three hours from Nara where I live. The purpose of the Kobe Luminarie is surprisingly not to make money; it serves as a reminder of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake which killed over 6400 people and destroyed most of the city. A set part of the city is closed off from traffic every night for two weeks, and the streets are marvelously decorated with light arches and castles, and a mystical, calming tune is playing to enhance the already magical experience. Luminarie, which happens every year, was designed by an Italian artist, and the lights were donated by the Italian government as a sign of compassion for those who died in the earthquake (that’s where the name Luminarie comes from). All kinds of foods, including the famous Kobe beef, are sold in the streets during the event. As I mentioned above, the streets were immensely crowded; after all, according to Wikipedia, 2-5 million people visit the Luminarie every year! To manage such enormous crowds, the police make their presence more than obvious. Policemen and policewomen are everywhere and shout into loudspeakers instructions to the river participants. They tell them to follow the person before them slowly, not stop for too long to take pictures, and always finish their sentences with Keigo: Gokyoryoku kudasai, please honorably comply. To make it even more obvious that the police mean what they are saying, there are prison buses on almost every corner, ready to take hundreds of non-complying citizens to the nearest police station. But given how complying the Japanese are, there was no need for the police to use the prison buses that night. Thank god we’re not in Greece. All in all, Kobe Luminarie was magically beautiful and totally worth spending the six hours on trains that Friday night to see it.

A light castle at Kobe Luminarie.

 Kobe Luminarie.

Prison buses at  Kobe Luminarie.
The last event I am going to talk about, the German Christmas market in Osaka, has less to do with illumination and more to do with entertainment. It happens every year under the famous Umeda Sky Building and offers all kinds of German foods, drinks, and crafts. I went with a bunch of my Japanese friends and one Swiss friend and enjoyed the atmosphere under the huge Christmas tree in the middle. Though everything was expensive as hell, we bought delicious Bratwursts, gingerbread hearts, and mulled wine, and climbed to the top of the Sky Building above us. There we were presented with a breathtaking night view of the city of Osaka, all lit up and colorful.

Me and my friends on top of the Sky Building, Osaka.

View from the Sky Building.
On another note, my winter break just started about two hours ago when I finished my last Japanese exam. Today we have a potluck party at a Japanese friend’s house, and on the night of the 25th, me and Masa are going snowboarding for two days to Akarura, a beautiful ski resort north of Nagano. After that I will probably spend the New Year’s in Kyoto with my host family, and then I am hoping to visit Yuki, a Colby friend from Tokyo. School starts again on Jan 6th.

One final thing worth mentioning is that this Sunday I took part in a Japanese language speech contest in my hometown, Seika-cho. Out of the nine participants, I won the third prize for my speech about over-development of Japanese mountaintops. If you are interested and can read Japanese, here is the link to a report about the event, with photos of me: 

Me speaking at the speech contest.

I Hope you all have a great winter break (or a nice summer for those on the southern hemisphere)! Merry Christmas!

PS: Currently I am in the middle of preparing an end-of-the-year special post, so stay tuned!

Monday, December 13, 2010


Honorific expression syndrome. The two characters read Keigo.
Before I came to Japan, I was aware that the Japanese have a heightened sense of respect for their elders and superiors, which they express by bowing to them. When I started taking Japanese classes at Colby, I learned that in addition to simple bowing are three levels of Japanese. First there is the regular Japanese which one uses when speaking to friends, family, and people of equal status. Then there are Keigo and Kenjougo. Keigo consists of different vocabulary and grammar and is used for addressing people of higher status, such as your boss, client, etc. For example, you wouldn't ask your Japanese boss whether he likes to play golf using regular Japanese. Instead, you would use Keigo to ask him the question, which would then sound more like "Do you honorably enjoy playing golf?" (Keigo has a different word for play as well as for enjoy). The same applies for Kenjougo; it consists of different vocabulary and grammar, and you use it while talking to people of higher status, with the exception that you use it show your subordination to the person you are speaking to. So for example when asked by your boss whether you like to play golf (which he asks you using regular Japanese), you will answer using Kenjougo: you humbly like to play golf, but are not very good at it (even if you were the world champion). To me, the use of Keigo and Kenjougo itself is not surprising. After all, many other languages use different grammar and vocabulary to express distinctions in hierarchy: French with its vous, Spanish with usted, German with Sie, Czech with Vy, and others, all of which also come with their special grammar, conjugation, declination, and such. The surprising thing about Keigo and Kenjougo is that the Japanese use them in situations where their quasi-equivalents in French etc. would be way too formal. I will give you an example from my own life in Kyoto.

As you may know if you have been reading my blog carefully, I have joined the Hiking Club here at Doshisha. The active members of the club, as of many other Doshisha clubs, only comprise of first and second year students. As they reach their third year at school, most of Doshisha students start the process of so called "job hunting", which apparently keeps them so busy that they no longer have time to take part in their club's activities. They only meet with the active members a few times per year for so called nomikai, or drinking parties (which are different from what a westerner would call a party and comprise quite an interesting part of Japanese social and work life and deserve a separate entry). As a result of this absence of older students, I am the only third year student who is also an active member of the club, and as such I get to be addressed by most of the club's members in Keigo. I get asked questions such as "how long are you honorably going to be in Japan?", "would you honorably help me with my lowly concern?", and others. Similarly, at a nomikai which I was recently invited to, the first and second years treated their retired seniors with the same respect. Moreover, they only addressed them by their last names, as they would address me if I had told them what it is. Some of the first and second years even address each other by their last names. Also, at the nomikai, the seniors were the first to choose their drinks, and when a group picture was to be taken, all of the seniors went to the front, their rightful place in any picture.

Although, being a foreigner, I am surely not the one who should be judging this aspect of Japanese culture, I certainly do have an opinion about it. And, being one who receives the honor of being talked to in Keigo, I believe that I am in the position to share it with you. In my opinion, using Keigo among fellow friends and students creates a weird sense of estrangement from others as well as an odd sort of shyness, both of which I have found to be typical Japanese personality traits. It is interesting to see how the relationships between people as well as their personalities are shaped by the language they speak. Is perhaps the French stereotype of Americans as being loud and rude a result of the English language lacking any sort of respectful language found in French? I am sure many have written about this before me; maybe I should read up a bit about the issue when my finals are over.

To conclude this entry, I will list a few more examples of situations in which I observed the Japanese showing their respect by bowing or using Keigo.

  1. Train and station attendants bow upon entering and leaving the train car.
  2. Airport attendants bow upon entering and leaving the check-in counter.
  3. Japanese call every doctor, scientist, and some elderly sensei, or professor. Also, calling your professors by their first name like in America is a first-class insult.
  4. Guides always bow. Always. And always use Keigo. Always.
  5. When picking up the phone, and especially when making a call themselves, many Japanese raise the tone of their voice so as to sound polite. Interestingly, they don’t do it when they talk to their family.
  6. When giving gifts, some Japanese say, using Kenjougo: “this gift sucks, but here you go”, even if they were giving you a million dollars.
  7. Announcements at train stations, especially those which require you to do something, always use the most polite Keigo, and always end with gokyouryoku kudasai, or “please honorably comply”.
  8. While walking on the streets, you can often hear shop owners shouting in a high-pitched voice “would you honorably like buy x”? To me, this actually has the opposite effect; when I hear it, I leave, because the high-pitched voice is extremely annoying.
  9. Keigo can also be misused to actually insult people. When you overuse it, it means that you are mocking the person who you are speaking to. So even to Japanese politeness, there is an acceptable maximum.
  10. There are Japanese who are aware of the occasional overuse of Keigo. Some call it the "Honorific Expression Syndrome", or Keigo Syndrome (see picture above).

Thursday, December 2, 2010


An army of scooters waiting for the light in Taipei.

From Monday Nov 22 to Monday Nov 29 I took a break from everything that is Japanese and went to visit Glen, a Czech high school friend of mine who is currently studying in Taipei, Taiwan. We spent one day sightseeing in Taipei, then went up north for a day to the Yehliu National Park full of interesting stone shapes, and finally left for a four day long road trip of the island's east coast. As you may well imagine, we wasted not a single minute of our time and did and experienced a great lot of things. In addition, visiting Taiwan was interesting for me because I spent one semester studying about Taiwan's politics at Colby. As a result, there are great many things that I can tell you about Taiwan, both political and human in nature. But given that our time is limited, I will only give you a brief lesson in Taiwan's political history and then I will present you with a series of randomly ordered bullet points containing the most important things I experienced and/or think you should know about Taiwan. But first, please, turn up your sound as loud as it gets click to play the song below, and listen to it again and again, and again, and again. You will soon understand why.

Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, or ROC, is an island off the east coast of the People's Republic of China, the PRC. In the international community, Taiwan has a very special status because of its political history: it is not recognized by most of the world's countries as a sovereign state but neither is it seen as a part of the PRC. Here is Taiwan's long (his)story short. In 1544, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover the island and gave it the name Ilha Formosa, or Beautiful Island. The first foreigners to rule the island were the Dutch about a hundred years later. Not too long after that Formosa became a part of China which administered it until 1895, when the weakening empire lost to the newly industrialized Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese occupied the island starting then until 1945 when they ceded it back to China, which was by that time not an empire anymore but a Republic with Chiang-Kai Shek as president. However, four years later Chiang lost the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communists led by Mao Zedong and retreated from the then-capital of China, Nanjing, to Taiwan. Because the communists had enough trouble administering their newly-won mainland, and because Chiang's occupation of Taiwan was backed by the communist-fearing Americans, the communists never attacked the island. Hence there were two Chinas: the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland. Gradually, the PRC grew in power and prestige, and became known as the "real" China. Finally, in 1971 it took ROC's permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Given the growing political and economic importance of the PRC in the world, most countries eventually cut diplomatic relations with the ROC in favor of those with the PRC. Now there are only a handful of countries which recognize the ROC as a sovereign state, which among other things means that Taiwanese embassies in most countries are called Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office. PRC calls Taiwan a "rebellious province" and Taiwan cannot call itself an independent nation because otherwise PRC would attack it (though there are many Taiwanese who do not want Taiwan to be independent but rather a part of China). This creates a dangerous situation in the Taiwan Strait: when Taiwan's president Lee Teng-hui talked about Taiwan's independence in 1995, the PRC reacted by conducting missile tests and amphibious assault exercises in the Taiwan Strait. If a conflict were to happen, it would definitely also involve the US and possibly Japan as well, causing a war we don't want to imagine, with deep global economic consequences. There is much more to Taiwan's politics than this, so if you are interested, please send me an email and I will point you to some good sources. But for now, let's see how life on Taiwan actually looks like.
  1. Garbage trucks on Taiwan drive all day long and play the same tune VERY LOUDLY ALL THE TIME: the same tune which you are listening to right now. I wonder how the garbage truck workers cope with this. Do they turn mad or do they just start ignoring it, or both? Garbage trucks in Japan also play music, but far not as loud and do not drive as chaotically all over the place.
  2. There are millions of scooters everywhere in Taiwan. Literally, they take over the streets as well as the sidewalks. There even are special lanes set up for them on the roads and they get to go first on the lights, and they park on every sidewalk.
  3. You can smell Stinky Tofu on every street in every city. I did not grow to be a big fan of it though.
  4. There are earthquakes in Taiwan almost daily. Most happen on the east coast and are small, but from time to time one causes cracks in the earth, landslides, etc. We bore witness to the landslides on many roads in the island's east.
  5. Taiwan has everything one might need: huge mountains (over 3000m), tropical forests, as well as awesome beaches. Chiang Kai-Shek indeed picked a good place to escape to.
  6. A specialty called Bethel Nuts is sold by scarcely-clad women everywhere on Taiwan. You chew on it and it is supposed to give you a high and red, "bloody" saliva. It didn't give me the high, but I definitely got the bloody saliva. The taste is something between liquorice and ginger, and is not so bad.
  7. All kinds of foods are sold in Taiwan's night markets. These markets only start living at night and sell anything from Bethel nuts to chopped goose heads and fried chicken talons.
  8. Except for the mountains, Taiwan's roads are exceptionally wide (and the speed limits exceptionally low).
  9. The waves on the east coast are enormous and surfers love them. The swimmers not so much I imagine.
  10. Taiwanese beer actually tastes very decently, though they usually only sell it in bottles, and not on tap.
  11. Local elections took place during the time when I was in Taiwan. Election posters, flyers, and flags were everywhere, and large processions of cars were driving even in the most remote, mountainous regions, playing propaganda songs in huge amplifiers. Amusing as it was, this is how Taiwan's relationship with the PRC gets to be decided. This time the pro-China party won, which will likely lead to more linking of Taiwan's economy with the PRC (
  12. Prices in Taiwan are about one third of what they are in Japan. For example, a decent restaurant meal can easily be bought for under US$5.
  13. There are beautiful red temples everywhere.
  14. After hearing the music, I hope you now understand the plight of Taiwan's garbage men!
Goose heads sold at a night market.
A woman chewing and preparing Bethel Nuts.
A view of the mountainous east coast.
The mountains in the center of the island. Notice the fog in the back.
A Sunset at a beach in Kenting, southern Taiwan.