Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

In praise of Draco

Most Honorable commenter Handle said in a recent comment on how he finds Japanese culture superior:

The near-universal level of courtesy, honesty, politeness, pleasantness, efficiency, work-ethic, competence, intelligence, self-motivation, willingness to, “go above and beyond the call of duty,” and genuine consideration for the customer, even for a foreigner to whom they show considerable patience, has been an extremely agreeable experience for me.

This is a very common feeling for all those who stay or live in Japan for any period of time. It happens also to a lesser degree in other Asian countries, such as Taiwan, Singapore, and  South Korea. The reasons for the courtesy, pleasantness, and the simple prevailing sense of order that one feels in Japan are varied. Some are genetic, some are based on long rooted tradition. But some are pretty simple and straightforward.

Perhaps the best time spent while on college was when I went to the library and rented Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs. It’s a huge book, hefty and dense too. I skipped class for a week to read the whole thing. Fascinating stuff, I learned a lot. Much of it is about the history of the Chinese community in Malaya, how they fought the Malays and each other. But the most interesting part was the bits where Lee Kuan Yew confesses his political influences.

Lee had just got into college when Japan invades Singapore in 1942. The invasion was a shock for everyone, Singapore supposedly being an impregnable fortress, symbol of mighty Britain and whatnot. Well the Japanese Army got hold of it in just over a week, and lost no time in making themselves the lords of the place. Lee tells in his memories how after the British Army lost, the colonial population was shocked, but also sort of excited. See, whitey has been defeated. Whites were the epitome of authority, they were so awesome that they seemed to create order semi-magically. But now they lost, and to those Japanese which kinda look like us. What followed was that the most uppity and thuggish of the Chinese, Malay and Indian youths starting looting and wreaking havoc in the place. The Japanese were too busy torturing British soldiers to pay attention to the situation on the streets, but they soon noticed, and didn’t like. Lee Kuan Yew tells how patrols of Japanese soldiers went to the streets, and arrested the strongest, most proud looking youths they saw on the streets. No questions asked. They just singled out the young males who looked like trouble. They took them to a close beach, killed them, decapitated some and put their heads on pikes on the main streets of Singapore.

No more lootings or any kind of disorder.

This, along with other targeted massacres of local donors to the resistance movement in China and other enemy civilians are together called the Sook Ching massacres (meaning Purge in the local dialect). The official narrative is that the Japanese massacres of Singapore civilians gave the locals a sense of nationhood, as they were targeted as a political entity separate from their British rulers. The British inability to protect the civilians made them lose legitimacy to govern them ever again, which paved the way to the independence of Singapore. Kinda sounds like the Mandate of Heaven.

But that’s a load of rationalisation crap, of course. Lee Kuan Yew is so fucking awesome that he had the balls to be honest in his memoirs. He says that the Japanese massacres in Singapore told him a lesson that he would find very useful in his future political life: violence works. And overwhelming violence works faster. The Japanese were harsh, cruel devils. But damn did they impose order. Not a leaf dared to move without permission in occupied Singapore. The young Lee must have felt some admiration for the Japanese way of administration because he spent the rest of the occupation learning Japanese to serve as a translation for his new masters. He later was outspoken in his defence for Deng Xiaoping’s actions in Tiananmen square 1989.

I recalled this episode when reading the Japanese news a while ago. Japan today is fortunately a different place from 1942, but it would be false to say that all has changed. Behind the facade of polite, honest, pleasant people you see, there’s a very unpleasant world of bullying, harassment and unreasonable rules.

A 66 year old man in Osaka was arrested after stealing a 10 yen coin from a nearby temple’s offering box. He was taken to court, and sentenced to 1 year in prison. The judge said that yes, 10 yen is a pittance, but it’s money nonetheless, and theft is a crime, so to jail you go. He had been sentenced in first instance to 20 months, which the appeal reduced to 1 year. The news went viral and netizens all around the country were amused. The most common comment was “1 year for 10 yen, that’s some cheap hotel he found”. Indeed.

Law in Japan can thus be very draconian. Don’t think it’s harsh but fair: there’s plenty of stories of policemen raping underage girls and not even being expelled from the force. Corruption is pervasive, if quite petty (it’s a scandal if you steal 1 million yen), and the yakuza are present to an almost comical extent. Still the argument can be made that compared to law in modern western countries, where muggers, robbers and thugs of every kind aren’t even taken to court because there’s no enough prisons to hold them, Japan is in comparison a more just place. It certainly is more orderly and pleasant, if perhaps not more happy and fun. That’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.

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37 responses to “In praise of Draco

  1. John January 16, 2013 at 23:46

    In this regard, it seems Singapore strikes a better balance. I used to laugh at the way they impose the gum law etc. I thought that they would never pass Hong Kong since they were not part of the major artery between main land China and the rest of the world. They proved me wrong. Now Singapore is a wealthier place than Hong Kong. How much longer can they do this (and eventually without Lee Kuan Yew) is another question. Japan these days seem to have lost much of its former dynamism. They own the auto industry, but the Koreans are coming up. Someday the Chinese will bring in the low end. They basically lost the electronic industry. The high end to the Koreans, the low end to the Tawainese( and by exend, main land China). They pumped a lot of money into the economy in the last three lost decades, with no long lasting positive effect. Now they have the highest public debt /GDP of any major nation on earth with a very low growth rate, not a good combination. The Prime ministers rotate in and out of government on a yearly basis, resulting in paralysis of the government. On the other side, Singapore is opening new industries such as bio science. A mighty little city that continues its march.

    Surely there is a lot to learn from the Japanese way of doing things, but there seems to be something rotten there as well. Hopefully they can get their act together, but I am not holding my breath.

    • spandrell January 17, 2013 at 03:33

      Please, Singapore is a tax haven. Raise taxes to the level of any civilised country and you’ll see what happens with all that industry. As Andy Xie said, Singapore is just a huge bank that lives off the deposits of corrupt politicians from SEA.

      Japan’s politicians don’t rule the country, the ministries are run by the bureaucracy. Politicians are just there to distribute the pork, that’s why they are changed often. And how are they supposed to compete? Minimum wage in South Korea is USD 4.

      • John January 17, 2013 at 08:00

        It is not just about cheap wages, for a company like Samsung to beat Apple at its own game, the speed in which they move is quite unbelievable. There is plenty of money in the smart phone market, the Japanese somehow are unable to crack this. In fact, other company like RIM and Nokia all fall on their swords.

        Come to think of it, how many new companies came out of Japan since the eighties? There are quite a few from the United States, google, facebook, Apple, Ebay, broadcom, cisco, marvel, just a few off the top of my head. The Japanese counterpart to these are either none existent or dying.

        • spandrell January 17, 2013 at 10:45

          Which percentage of profits in the market goes to Apple and what to Samsung? As of 2012?
          I’m not dissing Samsung’s management style, but they have some advantages that nobody else has. First they are 20% of SK’s GDP, meaning they pretty much own the government. China is also very cooperative with them, while Japanese companies get their factories burnt. If Samsung had the cost structure that Japanese companies have to bear, it would be a different story.

          How many new companies came out of Korea since the eighties? Or even China. Asian countries are state planned economies, new companies just don’t happen. What VC does in California is done in the Ministry of Industry. It’s a different dynamic.

          • RS' January 17, 2013 at 15:47

            good heavens, a nation of 70 M? and its 20% cell phones? wow

          • John January 17, 2013 at 20:01

            There are not many new companies that came out of SK, but the ones they have are muscling into new markets. Since the eighties, just my causal observation, they have gotten much better with their cars (Hyundai), appliances (LG and Samsung) competing against China. They have dominated the memory business(Samsung) against Europe, U.S. and Taiwan, Samsung has become so successful in smart phones that they are now threatening Apple, who make their phones in China if you want to talk about low cost. They have taken over the high end of the electronics market from the Japanese. They beat them mainly on quality, not cost. Granted, they are lower cost than Japan and have government backing, but I don’t think their advantage is mainly their lower wages, otherwise, India or even Africa would easily beat them to the game.

            Taiwan made similar progress. TSMC, become the indisputed leader in the foundry business, FoxCon the electronic fab business using China as a manufacturing base, There are other small computer manufacturers
            China is mostly inward focused, but in that respect, they have many “new” companies. They are the only country in the world( I believe Russia had something similar, but much smaller scale) that has the analog of the Amazon, Ebay and Google or even facebook. They are building a military industrial complex to rival the United States. They are building an aerospace industry, not to mention cutting edge companies like Huawei, BGI and BYD.

            In short, I am trying to ask the question, are they continuing to make progress? In the case of Japan, it is a big question mark.

            • spandrell January 18, 2013 at 03:21

              “I don’t think their advantage is mainly their lower wages, otherwise, India or even Africa would easily beat them to the game.”
              You really think that’s an argument? For fuck’s sake. Like India and Africa are even comparable with East Asia? South Korea and Japan are comparable in ethnic stock and government systems. Being that similar, having an advantage like low wages and a government manufactured shit-currency makes a lot of difference. A lot.

              it’s not that hard. CJK are all planned economies in a similar model.
              Japan built it’s industry in the 50s, by the 80s the market was mature.
              South Korea built it’s industry from the 70s, it took some time, by the 2000s they were all there.
              China started in the 80s, so it’s still making some new stuff, but I think most of the megacorporations are here to stay. The car market has been consolidated, the electronics market also pretty much so. Call me when Huawei or Hisense goes out of business and some non state-owned startup becomes big. Not gonna happen.

              Also China having its own facebook is a sign of innovation? Give me a fucking break. China has it’s own facebook and twitter because it blocks the real facebook, twitter, Google et al. and copied the whole fucking thing.

              I’ll give you Taobao, that’s pretty impressive. But BYD is cutting edge? Seriously? Call me when they make a profit.

          • jamesd127 January 18, 2013 at 01:46

            Alibaba.com is very much the silicon valley dynamic – and silicon valley no longer is. These days the Silicon valley VC hopes to sell his venture to Google, while Alibaba.com is an endless list of chinese companies creating new stuff you cannot buy anywhere else.

      • Scott Locklin January 19, 2013 at 07:45

        You’re a fool, and you’ve never been there. Singapore works because it is the best governed country in the world. There are many countries in the world with taxes comparable or lower than those in Singapore (Russia, Latvia, Albania, Bahamas, Uzbekistan, Malta) but they are not well governed, and so, they fail to prosper. For that matter, the second best in the world, Switzerland, has significantly higher taxes, but they’re very well governed.

        • spandrell January 19, 2013 at 07:49

          Wanna see my passport? I think there’s a correlation between commenting with one’s real name and being an ass. Learn some fucking manners.

          Yes, of course Singapore is well governed. Very much so. It also happens to be the only civilised place in SEA, meaning the closest safe place to deposit money for all those SEA overseas Chinese and corrupt politicians. Having that kind of access to foreign capital helps. Of course Temasek has to invest that money efficiently, which it does.
          Being well run is necessary, but not sufficient.

    • Greying Wanderer February 14, 2013 at 19:15

      “Surely there is a lot to learn from the Japanese way of doing things, but there seems to be something rotten there as well.”

      Bear in mind all the pre-existing industrial countries have had to share the consequences of the ruling class in the ex-Anglosphere countries betraying their own population by off-shoring their nation’s industry behind China’s tariff wall for their own personal enrichment. That betrayal made it hard for all the industrial countries to compete not just the ex-Anglosphere ones. German, Japan, Korea etc have all done what they could to weather a storm they didn’t create.

  2. asdf January 17, 2013 at 05:05

    I love Singapore, but in general I think these city state models just aren’t that useful for the big boys. We can talk till we are blue in the face about Singapore, HK, Switzerland, or even a bigger place like Norway. However, all of these countries live off the wealth and protection of the bigger states. And thier models of government, while very admirable, probably wouldn’t transfer to big super power nations for a variety of reasons.

    Japan is a really cool place, but if I thought it was better for me I’d be living there. If you’ve got enough money they will let you stay. I came back here in the end.

  3. Deme January 17, 2013 at 23:39

    Have you read this article:

    “Japan, Refutation of Neoliberalism”
    http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue23/Locke23.htm

    It describes Japan as a “non-socialist centrally planned economy”. It also claims that Japan is sort of like what the Nazis wanted to establish:

    “One way to describe the Japanese achievement is to say that they have achieved what the Nazis wanted to achieve but didn’t, largely of course because they were mad serial killers obsessed with a lot of things other than economics. Ironically, Asiatic Japan comes closer than any nation on earth to what Hitler wanted. It is a socially conservative, hierarchical, technocratic, orderly, pagan, sexist, nationalist, racially pure, anti-communist, non-capitalist and anti-Semitic society.”

    • Handle January 18, 2013 at 02:46

      There’s a lot of truth in that article I think. But I’ll be a fuss-bucket nitpicker and reject that “anti-Semitic” society blip, which, I think you’ll agree, seems a bit out of place. I’ve talked about religion a good deal with a lot of Japanese, some atheists, some Buddhists, some quasi-Zen spiritual, and some Christians of various sects including one who converted into Mormonism.

      It’s strange from a Western perspective, because many of them are more-or-less devout and attached to their particular tradition (as least in terms of tendency to keep to a life routine), but they don’t really exhibit any of the outward behavioral or emotional cues we’d tend to associate with such attachment. They all seem sort of Unitarian too, in an Asian kind of way.

      If the subject of Muslims or Islam comes up – well, their impression is heavily influenced by depictions in world news (not very flattering, obviously) and some unfortunate unpleasantness in their historical interactions with Malays and Indonesians. So – they think they’re pretty much crazy cult fanatic maniacs from whom you should keep your distance.

      But if Jews or Judaism comes up, I get a lot of ignorant, blank stares – even from the Christians! No sense of irony either. The Old Testament is barely read or referenced in their churches. They just don’t know or think or care about Jews except for a general awareness that they are a particularly bright and successful “European” ethnic group, but of which the wider world, Asia included, has many other examples – like them, for instance. Japanese Christians may be the first genuinely post-Semite Christians ever.

    • spandrell January 18, 2013 at 03:28

      Yes I did, long ago. Always found it very insightful.

    • asdf January 18, 2013 at 05:10

      On another blog I commented that what I’d really like is a white Japan. One very Japanese but with the ethnic and cultural flavor of the west.

      It would be very interesting to see what would have happened if the Germans won WWI.

      • spandrell January 18, 2013 at 07:37

        Finland’s quite close.

        Europeans can’t make a Japan. We wouldn’t jail a guy for stealing 10 cents.

        • Candide III January 18, 2013 at 14:49

          Europeans came close in Victorian times. I’m not quite sure whether 10 cents would do it, but Arthur Conan Doyle tells me that 10 shillings was qualified as petty larceny and could be punished with six months in prison. Besides I’m sure this case was not typical even for Japan. First-time petty shoplifters just pay a fine.

          • spandrell January 18, 2013 at 15:14

            At the same time what was Japan doing? Ever seen the torture chambers at Edomura?

            • Candide III January 18, 2013 at 17:02

              What does time have to do with this? asdf probably didn’t want that (pre-Meiji, or even pre-war) Japan.

              • spandrell January 18, 2013 at 17:12

                My point being that Europeans are by definition nicer than Japanese.
                At the same timeframe, if Japan is quite nice, Europe is too nice. Like presently.
                When Europe was quite nice, Japan was pretty nasty.

                Now that I think of it it’s a pretty pointless observation, but I can’t help seeing patterns everywhere.

              • Tim January 19, 2013 at 07:57

                I don’t know about Europe, but jail is worse in the US than Japan though. I’d rather go to jail in Japan than in the US. Homosexual gang rape and violence is rampant in US prisons. It’s well known by both the government and the larger public, but it’s become accepted and commonly joked about, despite it arguably violating the 8th amendment of the Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.

        • KK January 19, 2013 at 00:07

          Finland isn’t structurally different from other Euros in the sense that you’re likely implying, though. We just happened to climb on the suicide train a bit later.

          The benefits of being a backwards nation..

      • Candide III January 18, 2013 at 15:14

        On another blog I commented that what I’d really like is a white Japan. One very Japanese but with the ethnic and cultural flavor of the west.

        Hum. Have you read Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” and “Diamond Age”? Remember Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong?

        • asdf January 18, 2013 at 15:36

          Oh god. Snow Crash is the worst book I ever read. I liked Anathem so I picked it up. I actually set the book on fire to end its existance.

          • Candide III January 18, 2013 at 17:17

            Yes, it does have writing problems, “The Diamond Age” is much better in this respect. But the idea of franchise-organized quasi-national entity (that evolve into tribes in DA) merits consideration.

            • asdf January 19, 2013 at 16:21

              Snow Crash was so bad he’s gone down my priority list for reading.

              The one interesting thing about reading his later book and then a much earlier one is that I noticed all of his flaws as a writer in the later book, but they were covered up and dealt with much better. As if the fundamental weaknesses remained but that over 20 years he had worked as a writer to improve them as best as he could. It was the difference between book I couldn’t put down (Anathem) and book I burned to death (Snow Crash).

  4. RS' January 18, 2013 at 19:47

    > Now that I think of it it’s a pretty pointless observation, but I can’t help seeing patterns everywhere.

    I don’t find it pointless at all. One of the single most important lies about the past was that its cruelty was gratuitous, rather than malthusian. Really, it’s one of the most important deceptions in all the world.

    I try to explain to (normal) people that they would generally themselves almost certainly be in favor of military expansionism, extreme punishments, slavery, and slightly lower burdens of legal proof, if they had to try to live in those times (pre-1750, above all) – but most deny it. Of course I cite the main reason – high, very high risk of your polity being conquered with you and everyone you care about killed, enslaved, raped, tortured – but it makes no difference.

    I even talk about that time when the heralds reached Athens at 3am to tell everyone the top army (people’s kin of course) had been annihilated, and they were all more or less doomed (to plenty of literally groaning tribute, at the very, very best), so everyone came out in the street weeping as one, as if the very world were over. After all, logic never convinced anyone. Still, few yield more than a little.

    • RS' January 18, 2013 at 22:15

      anyway the point is that the past is ergo discredited. oh so im supposed to respect the US Bill of Rights drafted by 54 slave-owners, treasure the european tradition that sacrificed and tortured zillions because of 95 theses, etc

      • KK January 19, 2013 at 00:33

        One of the single most important lies about the past was that its cruelty was gratuitous, rather than malthusian.
        This is one of those great nutshell insights, and it really emphasizes what a difference maker the industrial revolution was. The pre-modern world was much closer to a harsh zero-sum game and it is insane to think it wouldn’t be reflected on the attitudes and social orders that managed to survive on that era. Internal cohesion must be enforced at all costs. External threats must be fought by any possible means.

        Back in our modern post-malthusian land of plenty, I think we’re close to ‘peak niceness’ by now. Unrequited benevolence would seem to have a short self-life before it starts tearing itself apart. Or maybe it’s malthusian populations and individuals taking advantage on the blindness of post-malthusian ones. Nature, vacuum and all that.

  5. RS' January 19, 2013 at 13:13

    > We can talk till we are blue in the face about Singapore, HK, Switzerland, or even a bigger place like Norway. However, all of these countries live off the wealth and protection of the bigger states.

    Yes, it’s fairly true. Before Poland, Denmark was another client of England. And probably some other places. England didn’t really want Denmark, under the circumstances, but surely didn’t want others to have it. And of course their oldest and firmest interest has been in keeping major powers out of Holland.

  6. Alrenous March 24, 2015 at 05:35

    Draco is lower status in England because Angles have the knack of ruling without seeming to rule, keeping the essential order with a light touch, thus much superficial disorder. Japs know they can’t, so don’t even try. USG’s masters seems to have taken it even further. Of course it can be taken too far, as with this very Jap invasion. This is USG’s weakness. If the velvet glove ever needs to come off, if patience ever reaches the end of its utility, USG will not be able to respond fast enough.
    Perhaps this is why Jim can be so confident he roughly knows what’s up with Putin. Without Angles around, who seems to rule will more or less be who actually rules. As is usual with Sophism, what’s wrong isn’t cheating, but getting caught. Much Western approbation of Japanese pols for their pork-related indiscretions, not for the corruption, but that they’re so blatant about it.

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