Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Monthly Archives: October 2013


After refusing for years, I finally yielded to a friends’s insistence that I watch Game of Thrones. And it’s actually pretty good. Quite oversexed, you might say, but not comically so, as the infamous Rome series, which had Augustus fucking his elder sister, out of the blue. I have no trouble believing that a quarter or so of the medieval elite were oversexed whoremongers. We do have an unrealistic image of the Middle Ages as a time of piety and boredom and sheer peasant stagnation. Then again it does nag me to read that the author of the series, George R. R. Martin is an Obama supporter, and a Carter worshiper. Of all people. I wonder what Jimmy Carter would think if he watched the series, with all those naked women and guts spilling out of soldiers.

The fun point of the series is to see how power is grabbed, lost, used and fought about. It’s mostly about petty disputes, personal dislikes and other middle-schoolish personal relations. Revenge as the ultimate human emotion. And if you know something about how Feudalism worked, it all does ring a bell somehow. You read in a book how this lord had this lover, or killed this man or whatever, and well that’s just something you read. Seeing it on a movie though, and quite vividly, gives another impression. Which makes it all so much real. I’ve said before I am a great believer in the dictum that all politics are local. But local not as in town, but as in house. Or castle, or palace, or whatever it is. Politics is about the monkeysphere, or perhaps only the innermost circle of it.

When you think about it, monarchy is a pretty strange system. Why should one guy hold power over vast amounts of people he doesn’t even know? And get to rule for life?  And he gets to do what he pleases, which is generally a bad thing for your character. In  fact many kings suffered of severe bad character. Many even sunk whole kingdoms, with millions of people,  just by being stupid, or greedy, or just an ass. Whatever you say about monarchy, it’s pretty bad risk management.

Which is the economist way of thinking. Thankfully I don’t think like that, I have the habit of thinking like a historian. A good one, that is. So I think of how a system such as monarchy might have come to be. And it’s not that hard really. Lands are conquered through war. Armies need a commander, so when an army conquers a piece of land, the commander becomes king. He rules and collects taxes which he funnels to his war brothers, who become noblemen.

Then the king dies. What happens? Well different peoples had different systems to arrange for succession for a ruler. What would happen in most armies when the commander dies, is that the generals will get together and choose one of them as the successor, if the king didn’t arrange for it himself. And that evolved into elective monarchy. Problem is it’s hard to get people to agree to choose one king. The stakes are too damn high. So what you got was all the contenders gathering their armies in anticipation of the king’s death, and total war among the elite every 10 years or so.

The solution which was most widely adopted was that of hereditary succession. The metaphor for the kingship changed, from that of commander of an army, to that of owner of property. Since time immemorial property of all kind has been inherited in the family; in patriarchal societies it would be inherited by the sons. And so most kingdoms eventually adopted the system of hereditary succession. The king dies, the son takes over.

What if there’s more than one son? Well, the inheritance of property itself has two sorts of arrangements. To this day, some people divide their inheritance more or less equally onto their sons. And some give the whole estate to the eldest son, and screw the others. There are pros and cons to both approaches. Partible inheritance tends to break up the estates, which become ever smaller and smaller, and eventually not very profitable, which is bad for the family name, and makes them prone to be bought up or taken by richer, stronger people with bigger estates. Primogeniture ensures the estate doesn’t shrink, and with it the family honor. But it creates a huge incentive for the younger brothers to kill the eldest.

Partible inheritance was popular in medieval Europe. But it eventually disappeared, for obvious reasons. If there’s only one guy who doesn’t do it, and keeps his big estate, he’ll be able to field a larger army and take the small estates that your oh so egalitarian father left you. And so we see that on most of the world, primogeniture monarchy ended being the most widely adopted system.

But forget all I said. Imagine you don’t have a historical mind, you don’t track things to the beginning to see how they happened. No, you just see things as they are, and you ask yourself: why? Why is that guy over there the king? Because his father was king? How fair is that? His father was a good man, while he is an evil bastard. Why should he rule? It’s not fair.

Of course it’s not fair, but that’s not how human societies are arranged. Human societies are organized over Schelling points. Primogeniture is a Schelling point. Monarchy is a Schelling point. And primogeniture monarchy is another Schelling point. Schelling points happen through trial and error. Lots of error really. And they don’t assure there won’t be any more error. But given the huge and numerous constraints which exist, this was the best arrangement possible.

Schelling points are fixed in place not because of an explicit understanding of their origin and importance. They just stumble upon existence, after which the people involved come up with some bullshit that sounds right. Or may I rephrase, people see Schelling points and come up with elaborated post-rationalizations to justify them. How do you justify that some kid, who has done nothing of merit in his life, who is ugly, dumb, clumsy  and of bad character, becomes king just because his father was? Well I don’t know. But it’s always been like that, so if sons have a right to the kingship… well, it must be about blood. Yes, the bloodline. That’s it. It is of utmost importance that all the kings must be of the same blood as the previous king, as this is the blood of the founder, which was awesome. We can’t afford losing this awesome blood. It doesn’t matter that the lawful heir of this bloodline is ugly, dumb, clumsy and of bad character. That’s… uh… the fault of his teachers. Yes, bad teachers. The kid shares the bloodline so he must be king.

On the face of it the theory is quite stupid. Let’s assume blood alone makes you awesome. Even if you keep the father’s line, sons have mothers too, so the ‘bloodline’ gets diluted each time. By the 5th generation the new king shares very few genes with the great founder. And that’s if you are lucky and you don’t have a slutty queen who fucks someone else and fathers his children. Surely someone must have noticed this fact, but of course the solution to it is even worse. You keep using women from inside the family to avoid diluting the precious bloodline, and what you get is a monster. So you gotta worship the bloodline while doing all you can to dilute it. Hypocrisy is by no means an innovation of our times.

Dynasties in most of the world changed quite often, especially in Europe. So the common rationalization for the legitimacy of kings was not so much the bloodline, as simply the law. There are inheritance laws that say who has titles, and sometimes kings agree to leave the crown to some guy. And law is sacred. Most of the time anyway, European history is full of succession wars where people didn’t quite agree on the sacredness of laws, and everybody with a big army always found a plausible legal claim to the throne they wanted. But the emphasis was still in the law, which is a funny thing to take as sacred. Surely there are more important things that some agreement reached at some point of time, in some state of mind, by some old guy who didn’t really know what he was doing. But hey, another Schelling point, can’t touch that. Perhaps the famous legalism of Europeans, which is quite distinct to other civilizations, comes from the fact that we had no other concept in which to base our politics.

Other places took monarchy more seriously. See for example Japan. The Japanese imperial family has officially ruled Japan for 125 generations. The first emperor was the grandson of the Sun goddess, came to Japan in 660 BC, and ever since, the same bloodline has ruled the Japanese islands. Of course the date, and the number of emperor don’t make any sense; archeology tells us that in 660 BC the Japanese didn’t even have agriculture. Not much is known of the early stages of the Japanese monarchy, but there is reliable historical evidence of a  Yamato clan around the 6th century AD. And again all evidence says that the patrilineal succession has continued, uninterrupted, to this day. That’s still very impressive, and if you count from then, you still get around 100 emperors. From the same family.

How did that happen? How does a family get to rule for 100 generations? That’s some rock-solid Schelling point there. Except it isn’t. The Japanese imperial family didn’t actually rule for that long. Actually it didn’t rule for very long at all. From a very early stage, the big clans of Japan, the Soga, the Fujiwara, etc. fought for influence over the imperial house, and they settled on a very straightforward system. You marry the emperor’s heir to a high rank girl from your clan. Then you get the emperor to appoint you Supreme General in Charge of Everything. If the Emperor disagreed, you kill or exile the bastard, and appoint  yourself Regent until his son, i.e. your grandson comes of age. Still the patrilineal line continued, even if actual power was transmitted through the maternal line. Hey, it’s still blood.

Eventually, around the 12th century the centralized state based on the imperial house collapsed, and Japan fell into Samurai feudalism. Still there was no Odoacer who killed the emperor and took his place. The empire had collapsed, feudal lords were taking land for themselves and fighting each other without regard to imperial edicts, but the emperor was left in his palace, pretty much undisturbed. They even stopped calling him Emperor. He became the “Mikado”, i.e. the holy gate. The gate of the imperial palace, that is. So while a new military based polity grew out of Samurai bands 500 kilometers in the East, the old majestic Emperor was just “that guy in the palace”. Still the Shogun did get out of his way to get the emperor to name him “Great Shogun”.

The old Schelling point that said: “the king must rule because he has royal blood” lost effective power, but not so much that you could go and kill the emperor and take his place. Not like the emperor didn’t ask for it, as he more than once raise an army to battle the Samurais, only to be defeated. But he was never harmed, at worst he was forced to surrender his place to a brother. The imperial blood was still holy, and was the source of legal sovereignty. He had lost power, but he was kept in his place. The Schelling point stood. Quite similar to the way that the Abbasid caliphs were kept in their Baghdad palaces while his Empire fell to every kind of Turk. Or the way European constitutional monarchies left the Kings as sovereignty symbols while stripping them of any legal power. Eventually Hulagu Khan killed the last caliph, and republicans keep trying to abolish the ceremonial monarchies of Europe.

Nothing like that happened in Japan though. The imperial palace in Kyoto kept this sort of august aura, this Schelling charm that made every power holder wanted to be close to it. Of course it has to do with the fact that Japan wasn’t invaded by Hulagu Khan, or Wilsonian State Department apparatchiks. The Schelling point had evolved into saying: whoever gets appointed by the guy in the palace as Great Shogun, wins. And so we get the Ōnin war, and the subsequent Warring States period, where all the warlords in Japan go in a fighting spree to see who’s first to invade Kyoto and force the emperor to say he’s the awesomest Samurai in the world. Kinda ridiculous in the face of it, and it was. Getting to Kyoto didn’t stop Oda Nobunaga from getting killed. And in the end the big winner of the Warring States period, and final reunifier were the Tokugawa, based in the eastern plains where Tokyo is today. He overturned the Schelling point through the old trick of having the biggest army.

Still even the great Tokugawa didn’t go as far as getting rid of the guy in the palace. Again he kept him there, well fed, tightly controlled through a bureaucratic agency setup for the purpose. Tokugawa even went as far as make himself called 大御所 “big holy palace”, which is obviously bigger than the name for the emperor, 御所 “holy palace”. So it’s not like he was full of reverence towards the holy blood of the imperial family. For the most part the Tokugawa’s didn’t give a shit about the emperors, and didn’t even bother to force the emperors to marry their daughters (they tried once at the beginning, didn’t work out).

In doing so the Tokugawa shoguns made a big mistake. You can respect a Schelling point, or you can break a Schelling point, trying to bring a new one into place. But you don’t ignore a Schelling point. You don’t just close your eyes and wait for it to disappear. For chances are it won’t.

The Tokugawa inaugurated the rebirth of the Japanese nation. It reunified the state, closed the borders, promoting native industry and agriculture, and the suppression of Buddhist sects created a new secular popular culture which evolved into most of what we recognize as Japanese today. The Tokugawa shogunate was a strong state, but it wasn’t without enemies. The shogunate run a very peculiar form of territorial control, a sort of finely bureaucratized feudalism. Most of the old Samurai bands of the warring states period were granted a fief, to be ruled at their pleasure. Lords who had been friendly to the Tokugawa during the war, were given big fiefs, hostile lords were given smaller fiefs, far from the center. Taxes were paid according to the rice production of the fiefs, and lords were to spend every other year in the capital, where their wives and children were held hostage permanently.

The big fiefs themselves contained smaller fiefs for junior lords. And this patchwork of feudal fiefdoms was controlled by a central bureaucracy, who could anytime they wanted strip a lord of his title, take away his land or move him to somewhere else. All in all it was a very smart, surprisingly modern system, and clearly the reason why it lasted so long. But while it kept the Samurais peaceful, it didn’t make them happy. In made a lot of them real pissed with the government. With war being out of the question, the opposition started looking for some good rationalization for their hating the government. They needed something to converge upon, a rallying point. Or should I say, a Schelling point. Conveniently there was a guy in a palace in Kyoto who was the perfect candidate. The imperial house had been suffering decline for several centuries already, but something was about to change.

The Tokugawa era, the Great Peace as it was called back then, had produced this very funny society, in which all Samurais, friendly or hostile, had nothing to do. They had their legal status as 武士, warriors, and they could, actually had to carry their fine katanas all the time with them. But there was no war to be fought. Yes there was a lord to defend, but nothing to defend him from. Still they couldn’t just grab a piece of land and grow food, or start a shop in the nearest town; even if they could go stand the thought of downward mobility, there were laws against that. There were 4 castes, warrior, artisan, peasant and merchant, and they had to respect their jobs. So what’s a warrior, millions of them, to do when there’s no war? They did like any other politically-connected class do. They manned the civil service. Oh, and the schools. Sounds familiar? Yes, the Samurais had their own mini Cathedral going on back then. They became a clerk-class, which means literate, and when a lot of people became highly literate, interesting ideas are bound to come out.

The Edo period saw the birth of the Kokugaku, the national studies, which saw many breakthroughs in philology, history and political theory. They deciphered the old classical texts, started to read them, and found that the imperial family actually was pretty damn awesome. Hey, did you know they descend form the Sun Goddess? That’s what this book commissioned by the imperial house in the 8th century says anyway. The knowledge of the ancient past of the country spread quickly, even to the imperial palace, who had forgotten itself. The Kokaku emperor in the 1800s found out that he wasn’t just the Guy in the Palace. He was the Emperor, or in the original Japanese, 天皇 the Heavenly Sovereign. That has a different ring to it. So he restored the title, mostly unused for a whopping 900 years.

The reappraisal of the awesomeness of the Unbroken Imperial Line was of course a loaded weapon in the hands of hostile Samurai fiefs, which found it made a good rallying point for opposition to those perfid Tokugawas in the capital. We should overthrow those bastards, not because they took away half our land in the 1600s. No, it has nothing to do with that. They must be overthrown because they are not nice to the great Emperor in Kyoto, the real sovereign. How’s that for a Schelling point? Suddenly all opposition to the government had a very strong rationale. It didn’t help that the Tokugawas had adopted Neoconfucianism, of the Zhu Xi variety, as their official ideology, taught in the official schools. Confucianism teaching basically tell you to obey to the real King, and it happens that the Tokugawas were nominally just a military commander appointed by the King, and in reality they were just a bunch of stationary bandits which had seized the capital centuries before.

So it’s not surprise that that guy in Kyoto, who had no army, little land, and had wielded no real power for almost a millennium, suddenly found himself being held as the greatest King of all time. The only unbroken line of kings in the world. “Japan is the real Middle Kingdom”, said some overenthusiastic scholar. If legitimacy is about blood, the Japanese Emperor is the most legitimate ruler there has ever been. The Tokugawa regime stood fast, but when the going went tough, after the American pirate Matthew Perry forced the Shogun to open the countries ports to American ships, the opposition very soon started rallying around the emperor and overthrew the shogunate in 1868. The Meiji Restoration. 

Suddenly that poor old family that lived off the ancient capital accumulated by their ancestors in the form of a small, tiny, yet firm Schelling point, was now the effective ruler of the country. Or was he? The Meiji Constitution sure put him as the Lord of the country, commander of the armed forces, son of the Goddess and source of everything fine and nice. Yet we know that the Meiji Emperor, despite his very kingly looks, didn’t have much input at all in the real works of government. And he certainly didn’t lead his army in the wars against China and Russia. Nor he decided to go to war. The actual power dynamics were controlled by the old Samurais from Satsuma and Choshu, who manned the armies which overthrew the Shogunate. It was their armies who put the Emperor in his new Tokyo throne. Sure, the Emperor made a fine Schelling point for the Samurais to rally upon. Much better to say “we are joining this war to restore the Sacred Monarchy” than to say “we are joining this war led by these two peripheral fiefdoms who have held a grudge against the Shogun for 270 years”. But there’s a long way from saying “Hail our King, descendant of the Goddess”, to actually giving command of your armies and your money to that guy from the palace.

I remember reading about an English advisor, or perhaps it was the ambassador of the time, who told the Meiji government people to tone down with the deification of the emperor, that it was a bunch of crap and they know it. And the Japanese minister answered saying basically that oh they know it’s crap, but it gives strength to the masses, and what’s wrong with that? I’d give a leg to find the quote, but I read that before Google, and I just can’t remember the names.

There’s this quote in Game of Thrones, “power resides where people believe it does”. I’m sure the author took it from somewhere else, and there’s quite a point to it. It doesn’t matter if the king is naked if everybody believes he is finely clothed. Mao Zedong had a better quote: power resides in the bottom of a gun barrel. But there’s lots of guns out there, and power resides in the ability to make them do your bid. So in the battle between the pen and the sword? Who wins? Surely it is neither. It is not faith where power resides, but loyalty. And loyalty is much harder to earn than faith. It takes a whole lot of Schelling points to get large scale loyalty. And it takes massive resources to force it into the populace. Faith is orders of magnitude easier to achieve. Christians were many in the 5th century. People loyal to the Roman Emperor… not so many.

In the end yes, Monarchy was restored in Japan. Except that it wasn’t. A broad oligarchy ruled the place, then the military, then the bureaucrats, then McArthur, then the bureaucrats again. The King didn’t do shit, his descendants didn’t do shit, and even though he was a very strong spiritual symbol (the Japanese troops in WW2 are famous for running to their deaths at the shout of “Long Live the Emperor”), His Majesty never had much input in the actual works of government, besides what his advisors found convenient to tell him, which wasn’t much. In the end it was a good thing, for he could avoid taking responsibility for starting WW2, and so USG did not depose the Unbroken Imperial Line, which would have been tragic for the cultural continuity of the country. The Emperor was left where it is, and the new constitution, in a quite unprecedented bout of honesty, names him the “Symbol of the nation”. Not head of state, mind you. Symbol of the nation. Might as well called him Schelling point.

There is an old division in linguistics, older than the field really, between the prescriptivists, who focus on deciding what is correct language, and fix the standard, and the descriptivists, who analyze language as it is actually spoken by the often not very correct speakers. You probably can guess than in the old days prescriptivists were multitude, while today the majority are descriptivists who deride the very concept of ‘correct’. Humans are moral, moreso in the old days, so it’s not surprise that people were more preoccupied with what is right, instead of what is real.

Ironically our political science is still stuck in the old prescriptivist paradigm, where all we care about is what are the right policies, what is good government, what should we do to have better rulers. Compared to that, very little attention is put to describing how power really works, how the powerful get where they are, and what are the mechanisms that make the whole thing work. The prescriptivists are legion, and they disagree with our ideas. It is perhaps the better strategy to go descriptivist for a while. James Goulding promised to do so months ago (never to be seen again). Nydwracu is toying with the idea lately. I shall strive to do my best too.


I’m still reading Christopher Beckwith’s book.

The guy is still as nuts as I remembered him. Just a little example: back in Ancient China, around 300 BC there was a foreign people living in the Tarim Basin, which the Chinese called 月氏. There are good reasons to think those people were the Tocharians, an Indo-European offshoot. These characters are pronounced in MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin) as Yuezhi (sort of /yoo-eh-jrr/ in American English).

Of course the modern pronunciation has nothing to do with the ancient one. As of now we are fairly confident of how Chinese sounded around 700 AD, the Tang Dynasty days, and those characters were pronounced as /ngwat ji/. Well of course there are 1000 years of difference between 700 AD and 300 BC. But Mr. Beckwith insists that the first character, /ngwat/, was pronounced /Tokwar/. Well, 1000 years is a lot of time, but phonetic change does follow some rules, and it’s seldom, not to say never, that radical. Not to say it’s purely impossible. But then Beckwith comes up with another theory of his. Any student of European history knows of Attila and his Huns, called Hunni (singular Hunnus, probably pronunced as Hunno at the time).  Well it happens that in Ancient China, more or less at the same time frame as the Yuezhi, there was a tribe of steppe dwellers on the northern frontier called the 匈奴. These characters are pronounced in MSM as Xiongnu, which doesn’t ring a bell. But in 700 AD Chinese they were pronounced as Hiongno. Hiongno/Huns, steppe dwellers, good fighters… hey maybe they’re the same people! Makes sense, right? Nah, says Beckwith. Not a chance. So the Ngwatji are the Tokwar, but the Hiongno aren’t the Hunno. Right.

Note that the Chinese name has no need at all to sound like the name we know. The Helenes were called Graeci by the Romans. The Chinese call themselves Han, or Hua. But Beckwith has a theory and he wants you to know it.

That’s not to say that the book isn’t interesting. It is, very much so. And it makes a lot of sense in general, leaving Beckwith’s pet theories aside. One of the most interesting themes of the book is the idea that the steppe civilizations run the Silk Road as a worldwide trade network since antiquity, meaning that to some extent the world’s, or at least Eurasia’s economy was pretty much connected during most of history. Which means that technologies, ideologies, and economic cycles were also transmitted worldwide since much earlier than we use to think. He talks of the worldwide transmission of chariot warfare, of the comitatus military system, of the Axial Age, of universalist religions, all of which became popular worldwide at more or less the same time.

This idea of early globalization has a lot of common with S.A.M. Adshead’s approach on World History. Adshead has also written on Central Asian history, but Beckwith doesn’t refer to him so perhaps he’s not aware of his work. I was thinking on the implications of this theory, when I opened my daily feed and found this op-ed by the Chinese Gobal Times.

Populism trends need to be curbed.

Populism has been gaining momentum in Chinese public opinion following several public events. Though an unconsolidated trend of thought, it is easily stimulated and could flare up in the future.

It is generally held that populism can be traced back to mid-19th century Russia, but it is ubiquitous in modern and contemporary times. With its enormous anti-elite sentiment and insufficient tolerance for different opinions, it seeks for absolute equality for all the people in a country. Though an important driving force for social justice and fairness, the concept, full of ideals and passion, lacks rationality. Populism can hardly find a footing in a Western society that often adopts an indifferent attitude toward it, which faces restraint there.

Populism has limited influence upon China but shows overwhelming power on the Internet. Certain members of the web elite take advantage of populism to advocate liberalism and some liberalist lawyers attempt to expand their personal influence. This leads to the awful consequence that inconceivable values and political groups are shaped in China.

A society is unable to campaign against populism even with huge effort because the idea takes on different variations and always appears with specific ideologies or political targets. Therefore, what a mature society should do is to get a lucid picture of the reality and nature of its objective existence, strive to prevent political forces in support of the thought from breaching laws and regulations as well as make its pursuit a disgrace in mainstream society.

If not maliciously utilized, populism is supposed to be “innocent” in itself since it only expresses some people’s sentiments accumulated in a natural way during the unbalanced development of society with no destructive power.

But such an assumption is all too idealistic, so mainstream society and in particular the government must identify targets in order not to fall into direct conflict with populism and get mired in a passive position in public opinion when cracking down on political extremism.

Given its clear-cut political direction, Internet populism has become politicized populism instead of pure sentiment or thought. Therefore, the general public needs to hold politics back from penetrating into this.

It must be noted that society’s call for order will prevail over people’s desire for catharsis with the gradual expansion of the middle class in China. Furthermore, those manipulating populism arbitrarily shall be given corresponding punishments in accordance with relevant laws.

Although populism should in no means be encouraged, the government must be prudent in tackling it to avoid defining such a trend as a complete opposition force. In a society with open public opinion, authorities have to remain resilient to a certain extent regarding populism, which constitutes a complicated topic in the realm of social governance.

Mostly unrelated to this, Hong Kong has already its own Occupy movement, which is growing increasingly important.

Any careful watchers of the US are seeing the trend is towards the death of the middle class, and a new social order where property is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small elite, and government outsources most of its functions to private contractors, while strengthens the surveillance and inquisition apparatus to quell dissent before it reaches critical mass. China has made a great effort to isolate itself from global ideological trends, but the overwhelming power of World History just can’t be fought. We truly are the mimetic ape.

Ghosts and Diplomacy

WRM cheers on the newly found intimacy between USG and Japan. Kerry and Hagel, State and the Pentagon are both now in Japan, where they have signed… something. WRM sees this as proof that USG is putting its weight behind Japan, joining forces against China. And that’s a good thing. Say what you will about WRM, he knows what he likes, he makes it clear, and he says it all over again as many times as he can find excuses for. Pension reform, automation, fuck China, defend Israel, he’s not a single-issue guy, he-s a 5-issue guy. Which doesn’t mean he really has a clue.

I found his article quite surprising, because just yesterday I read in the Japanese press this other article about Kerry and Hagel made a flower offering at the memorial to the unnamed soldier in Chidorigafuchi. Now this is big news for several reasons. First of all no one has ever gone to Chidorigafuchi in decades. It’s a small, inconspicuous place inside the Imperial palace. It was only built in 1959, and the government has given it little attention.

And that’s because Japan already has an official place to pray for the war dead. And that’s Yasukuni shrine. Built in 1869, year of the Restoration, with the explicit purpose of being the holy shrine where those who died for the new regime, i.e. Meiji Japan are enshrined. The Japanese government today considers itself to be the continuation of the Meiji system, e.g. the count of prime ministers starts from 1890, when the Meiji constitution was sanctioned. And thus, all the dead of the many wars that Japan fought since 1868 are enshrined in Yasukuni. And yes, that includes the war dead in WW2. And that includes all of them, i.e. the bad guys too. That evil, evil Tojo guy included.

USG not being known for its imagination and acceptance of actual diversity, after Japan surrendered, a carbon copy of the Nuremberg trials was staged in Tokyo. During the Tokyo trials responsibility for the war was given in different degrees to many individuals, the worst of which were labeled A-class war criminals. Now I’m no expert on WW2, nor the Tokyo trials, and I understand that during the war some soldiers or officers were nastier than others. Still the idea of labeling a few dozen individuals as “super-extra-evil” and leave the others alone sounds quite stupid. And so thought the Japanese, who, after recovering sovereignty back in 1952, proceeded to let them all go one after the other, and one of them, Kishi Nobusuke, was even made prime minister in 1957.

Still, this amusingly Christian idea that some people are declared evil and denied salvation, while the others can go on to heaven, did catch on pretty well. I blame the naming, “A-class war criminals”, which looks quite cool in Chinese characters. Some people on the left soon started to complain about the old ritual where the emperor and high level officials of the government would pay their respects at Yasukuni once a year. That got worse when in 1978, the priests at the shrine decided that the most evil guys of them all, the A-class criminals who didn’t even die in action, but died executed by USG or in prison after the war, also died for the country, and so were to be enshrined too. Now that was a hardcore political statement, a rightist move if there ever was one. The Showa emperor, Hirohito, didn’t like it, and never visited the shrine again, nor have any of his descendants. Since then, visits to Yasukuni have become a political statement, done by prime ministers or other politicians as a way of signaling their right-wing status.

It didn’t create as much domestic controversy, which I think was the aim of the priests, as foreign controversy. When Koizuimi Junichiro started visiting Yasukuni in 2001, after 16 years (with just one exception) with no prime ministers visiting, he did it with the transparent aim of pissing off China. China during the Mao years was distinctly nonchalant about their old war rival, and it’s reported that in 1972, when the Japanese prime minister Tanaka Kakuei went to Beijing and apologized about the war, Mao laughed heartily and said that, on the contrary, the Chinese people are grateful, as without the Japanese invasion, the communists would have never won power. However, after the riots of Tiananmen, the government decided that leftist indoctrination of the youth was counterproductive in the new capitalist environment, and decided to change the fuel of asabiyyah to a nationalist myth based on the Great Victory against Japan. Since the 1990s, all history textbooks have been rewritten to focus on the great Communist Party which deserves power not because of the great profits from agricultural collectivization achieved with Mao’s leadership, but because the Communist Party defeated the evil Japanese Devils. This had the double benefit of leaving open the possibility of rapport with the Kuomintang in Taiwan. The foundation myth of the Communist Party stopped being their victory against the evil capitalists of Chiang Kai-Shek, and became a people’s romance where two friendly factions of noble Chinese fought the foreign invader, and then tragically were deceived by foreign imperialism into fighting each other.

Koizumi’s visits to the fascist shrine produced loud shrieks of condemnation from China, and South Korea. The story of Korea’s hate against Japan is also quite interesting. Obviously Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910, and they will never forgive the ignominy that represented. They will never forgive that Japan delivered them from the almost certain fate of becoming a Russian vassal. They will never forgive that Japan build them railways, dams, schools, industrialized the country and doubled the population in 30 years. They will never forgive that Japan standardized their dear alphabet, Hangul, and created a working writing system for the language for the first time. They will obviously never forgive that, because Japanese were the masters and they were second class citizens. Not de jure of course, but I’m sure the Japanese transplants in Korea weren’t always very nice to them. It sucks that you’re not the boss, even if the boss is feeding you and teaching you a job.

And human nature being what it is, people remember best the most recent events, and the late years of the Japanese Empire were quite horrible indeed. The militarist rampage that started the unwinnable total war against China and the West, spilled over into the colonies with policies of forced assimilation, abolition of local language education, name changes, and forced labor. Koreans have not only not forgiven that, they claim that every single one of them was victimized by force, and not even a single one ever voluntarily thought that maybe assimilation was a good deal.

All this understandable hate kept quiet for a long while. Many decades. First because both Japan and South Korea were American satellites in the Cold War, so they had to be friends. Second, because after the restoration of relations in 1965, South Korea was able to industrialized basically by taking Japanese money and copying Japanese industrial policy and technology. And third because, like Park Chung-Hee, most of the South Korean elite were people who had already been well off during Japanese rule, and didn’t like people to think about that time too much. All that changed after democratization in the golden Reagan era. The democratization was led by student demonstrations and political dissenters who almost to the man were hard-left sympathizers. Which is a funny thing to be when North Korea is across the corner. After the democrats won, communism was not in the cards, so they had to come up with another foundation myth. And what can be better than “we deserve power because we will dispossess all those rick fucks, who owe their money to the evil Japanese”? The SK left found out that accusing people of being Japanese sympathizers was the rough equivalent of calling a modern American racist, and soon a leftist singularity was started, where the whole country eagerly endeavored to dig out even the faintest trace of goodwill towards the occupiers 100 years ago.

That left Japan in a very awkward situation. As you might imagine, the Japanese have little love for the Koreans, now or before. But the Cold War order required that the only US satellites in a dangerous neighborhood had to be friends. Japan had a sizable population of Korean laborers in the country, although most went back to Korea after 1945. Not all of them left though, and those who remained were soon joined by a huge influx of Korean migrants into Japan, many leftists fleeing Jeju after the 1948 communist riots were squashed by the army, and hundreds of thousands also fled the peninsula after the Korean War started in 1950. Soon Japan found itself with around 1 million Koreans in its midst, and didn’t know what to do with them. Rounding them and send them back packing wasn’t an option, Korea was devastated, and the US wouldn’t have been pleased with such treatment among Allies of Freedom. These new Korean migrants soon started to claim that they weren’t recent migrants, they were the laborers enslaved during the war and forcedly brought to Japan to man the mines and factories. As such Japan had a duty to repay their debt and treat them nicely. No talk of leaving such a hateful country and go back to their homeland.

As it is the Korean community organized, mostly in two groups, led respectively by representatives of the governments of North and South Korea, the Chosen Soren and Mindan, respectively. Membership in either North or South Korean organizations has no relation to the actual place of origin of the migrants. Up to 90% of Koreans in Japan come from the South, as it happens to be closer. Still, back in the 50s and 60s, North Korea had some allure as the paradise of the proletariat, and belonging to them was a more in-your-face statement against the once evil, now pussified Japanese. It was, and still is, a political statement. Both North and South Korean organizations have their own schools, where the children are taught Korean, and in the former case, a photo of the Great Leader, Kim Jong-Un these days, presides over every single classroom. That’s in Japanese territory. Koreans also have the legal privilege to take a fake Japanese name to use in their daily lives, so they can hide their Korean identity without having to naturalize and take Japanese citizenship.

The Korean organizations of course had to take care of the livelihood of their people, which before the war were pretty much the underclass in Japan. Soon the Koreans found a profitable niche: Pachinko. Pachinko are a sort of gambling machines, which are wildly popular in the country. Asians in general have a thing both for games (millions of videogame addicts in the region) and numbers; and it’s known that Asians are overrepresented in casinos all over the world.  The funny thing is that gambling is forbidden by law in Japan, with the exception of the state-run horse races. Somehow the pachinko industry, dominated by Koreans of both sides, found a way to go around the prohibition, and Pachinko has a quasi-monopoly of casual gambling in the country. As such it’s massively profitable.

The way the Koreans have kept Pachinko going is by co-opting the police forces. Pachinko machines have to be licensed by a government agency, which is aptly staffed by elder members of the police department. Ex-officers of the police can be found in Pachinko machine manufacturers and pretty much every link in the chain. Pachinko companies are also known to be generous political donors, and give billions in advertising to newspapers and TV. As such they are untouchable, even though Pachinko has ruined millions of lives. It is also widely known that the profits of Pachinko parlors run by North Koreans are sent to the North Korean government, and are a sizable part of the meager state revenue. Yet nothing is or can be done about it.

Still, for all its smart organization and legal privileges, the Korean community in Japan is dwindling. Most Koreans have already been in the country for 3 generations, can’t speak Korean or have ever gone back, and intermarriage rates are soaring. As things stand, in 30 years the Japanese-born Korean community will mostly disappear. That is a dire situation for the thousands upon thousands of ethnic activists who make their living through leftist agitation in the name of the Korean community. Lately they have grown increasingly desperate, and have started importing American terminology, such as “racist” or “hate speech”, both used untranslated, with English pronunciation. The terms didn’t exist just 5 years ago.

The increasing anti-Japanese climate in Korea had also the double benefit of serving to create much goodwill in China, which has become the biggest trading partner of Korea, the biggest receptor of Korean students, and an indispensable industrial partner for Korean industry. The slightest displeasure by China against South Korea could make the Korean economy collapse in weeks. And Koreans know it: more than half of students of Chinese in the world are from South Korea.

Even if you ignore the historical details, it’s only natural that South Korea becomes a Chinese satellite. That’s what it’s been for 2000 years. It is also no surprise that China and Japan are enemies. Japan has a trade surplus with China, the Japanese avoid Chinese products like the plague, and Chinese students who go to Japan seldom come back. There is little benefit for China in being friends with Japan, and much in being enemies. And enemies they are.

My impression is that modern China needs, craves a military victory to crystallize it’s recent economic rise. Japan had it’s great moment in 1895, when an expeditionary force utterly humiliated the great Qing empire, and they got Taiwan, a shitload of money, and the biggest grin ever. It was the best culmination of the 1868 Meiji Restoration, clear proof that the Restoration was a success, and Japan was a mighty nation. That must have felt good. Well China has made great strides lately, but they haven’t done anything that feels good at the gut level. Yeah, the economy is better, people can now eat and clothe themselves, but life is still hard and all the people see is the horrible pollution, and the damn plutocrats showing off their Ferraris and 20 year old mistresses.

Now if China could have a small war against Japan, and win, man that would feel awesome. Orgasmic. The country would stop for a week to party. All opposition to the Party would disappear for a decade at least. Oh man. Screwing with those annoying Japs. What would they not give for that. There’s a problem: the US military is in Japan, and we can’t mess with those guys. As things are, the US has taken an increasingly defiant attitude towards China, and it looks as is the military-industrial complex has pretty much placed China as the new USSR, the big threat against American Freedom used to lobby the government for ever expanding funding. As long as the Pentagon has the upper hand in China policy, there is nothing China can do against Japan. So the obvious strategy is to use diplomacy to try to lure USG into abandoning Japan.

It might seem farfetched, but this strategy actually makes a lot of sense. The People’s Republic of China owes it’s very existence to the goodwill of the US State Department towards the Chinese Communists. It was through the infamous China Hands that the Kuomintang was backstabbed, its supply of weapons and money suddenly cut. And if you go further back, China and the US were allies against Japan during WW2. The Great War Against Fascism! Chinese media has started using the phrase again these year for the first time since Mao’s death. China and US were fellow progressive nations fighting the evil fascists. How can USG defend the evil Japanese militarists today?

And that’s a very good point. During the Cold War, the left-right axis in Japan was obviously defined as being pro-Soviet or pro-American. But of course the Japanese right was also the home of the war apologists, the Yasukuni visitors, the actual descendants of the power structure during the war. Which means that the pro-Americans were also the descendants and apologists of those who fought the US in 1941. After the USSR collapsed, the Japanese left did so too, and foreign policy stopped being a major issue, but recently it has coalesced in a sort of pro-Chinese coalition. Part of the reason that Abe, pretty much the uber-rightist figure these days, won such a massive victory in last year’s elections was the fallout of the September riots, and the real threat that China might declare war.

So Abe had two things to do. One, he had to go to Yasukuni to show his supporters that he’s still on their side. Second, he needed to go to America and make sure he had America’s back. But of course it’s hard to justify to the Cathedral the existence of a shrine devoted to the evil, evil criminals which masterminded Pearl Harbor. Abe disingenuously tried to convince USG by saying that, hey, you guys go to Arlington, and Yasukuni is sort of the same thing. Then came August 15, anniversary of the end of the war, and Abe didn’t go. It’s obvious that USG told him not to, and he had to comply. Then this week, Kerry and Hagel come to Japan, and out of nowhere decide to go to the small Chidorigafuchi cemetery. Which means that USG is making clear that they want Japan to scrap that evil Yasukuni shrine, and go pray to these other places which they prefer.

That’s a huge rebuff from the Cathedral to the Japanese right. Of course USG is not yet considering backstabbing Japan and allying with China. But USG is still boss and they don’t like making friends with fascists. The Cathedral’s bread and butter is ideological submission. And Japan has to date been very, very bad about that.

Ideologically speaking, the Cathedral’s natural allies are China and Korea. They are both countries founded by leftist movements, have a history of victimization, and they send thousands upon thousands of students every year to the empire, where they naturally absorb the Cathedral’s ideology. They also have millions of co-ethnics with US citizenship, and they have recently started to mobilize them in service of their homeland’s foreign policy.

South Korea has been an advanced student of Cathedralism. They understand that you need to become a victim, then pour shitloads of money into local politicians and NGOs to promote your view and denounce your victimizer. Korea and Japan signed a treaty establishing relations in 1965, and it was explicitly remarked that Japan would pay reparations to the South Korean state, in exchange of Korea renouncing the right for its citizens to demand individual compensation. Fast forward today, and the new democracy of South Korea is pushing its citizens to demand compensation for every wrong they can come up with. First it was forced labor, but most of the laborers are dead already. So then they came up with the most brilliant piece of progressive agit-prop in the recent decades, the comfort women.

The Japanese army recruited whores all over the Empire, most of them were Japanese, but of course they bought some from local pimps in Korea, China, or whenever they went. Some brutal commanders were known for taking local women forcibly, as it happened in Indonesia with some Dutch women. But back in those days, there were plenty of men willing to sell their daughters for money or food, and Korea being quite poor at the time, the Army had little need to go house by house to take Korean girls by force.

Of course Koreans won’t admit that, and in their mind, virtuous, chaste, heroic Korean women were kidnapped by force by the evil Japanese, and Korean’s being so incredibly attractive, they were explicitly targeted in comparison with other ethnicities. Transparent bullshit, but it fits the zeitgeist nicely, and women having longer lifespans in average, there are enough old hags from the time to be used as media mouthpieces. South Korea demands individual compensation for each woman, and an official government apology for the “sex-slavery”. As Japan didn’t comply, the government built a bronze statue of a Korean “sex-slave” in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. And if that wasn’t enough, they have been using local Korean communities in the US to bribe state legislatures and city councils to press the issue, and build statues all over the US. The NYT of course loves the idea of poor women enslaved by fascists 70 years ago, and has pressed the issue often.

Japan is of course not amused by any of this, but there is little they can do. Yasukuni shrine is a fascist shrine, the Japanese government does regard itself as continuing the pre-war regime, and China and Korea have massive leverage with the Cathedral to use against them. Seeing not only Kerry, but Hagel too snubbing the government and transparently telling them who and where to pray is a very powerful and worrying move. The USA started with separating church and state, but is now in the business of enforcing its religion over unrelated countries tens of thousands of miles away. 

Abe will probably refuse to play ball and pray at Chidorigafuchi, but if in the next years, the left happens to win an election, it is likely they will dump the official cult at Yasukuni and pledge allegiance to the Cathedral by praying where told. The other question is what will happen with the Japanese military. Right now Abe is pushing hard for a constitutional revision, changing the Self-Defence Forces’s name to “Japanese Military Forces”, and trying to increase independent operability without relying on US power. The nuclear fuel processing plant at Rokkasho in the north is widely rumored to be a nuclear weapon manufacturing plant, and it will start operations later this year. Of course the endgame the Japanese right envisions is obtaining nukes, kicking out the US military and standing on their own. Will the Cathedral let them?

The truth is out there

I first became acquainted with the name of Christopher Beckwith when I borrowed this book on the origins of old Japanese from my college library. It’s a groundbreaking book on a very interesting topic that nonetheless has received little scientific scrutiny. Most Japanese themselves don’t know much, nor seem to care about where their language, and hence their people come from. The book was interesting in part, but also full of wild speculations and non-sequiturs that left on me the impression that Mr. Beckwith is quite the nutter. It’s one thing that Japanese has relatives in old Manchurian Kingdoms. It’s a different one altogether to posit that Burmese and Japanese share common ancestry because they both have a pronoun which starts in /wa/ and have a lot of monosyllabic words.

To be honest I never cared much about the topic, or the man. Until last week Razib at GNXP declared himself a fan of a recent book of his on Central Asia. I recall the guy was an expert on Tibet, so he must know more about Central Asia than Japan. And Central Asia is also a poorly understood region, so there must be lots of low-hanging fruit for the committed scholar to gather. On the same post, Razib links to a paper by Beckwith on his particular theory on the Indo-Europeans. Now, everybody who has even the slightest interest in history has an interest on the Indo-Europeans. Their descendants dominate most of the Earth, so it’s only natural we care about where they came from. I had thought the science was mostly settled on the Indo-Europeans being steppe-dwellers who pretty much domesticated the horse, invented the chariot, and used it to conquer most of the temperate world. Well the science isn’t settled if Dr. Beckwith has anything to say about it. And he’s quite the polemicist. Check out the paper and tell me you’re not intrigued.

I certainly was, especially by this little gem that came out of nowhere:

Duchesne says I “erroneously [assume] that the development of organized warfare in Greece and Rome, and the rise of the polis and the Roman senate, signalled the end of the aristocratic mind set.” I nowhere say anything of the kind, and never even thought it, as far as I can recall. This is an example of Duchesne’s failure to read my book carefully and in full. If anything I support Aristotle’s idea of the superiority—in some respects—of an aristocratic (or anyway, hierarchical or ‘feudal’) system over the deception known as ‘democracy’, and thus agree with Duchesne, in part, on this issue.

Hey, that sounds interesting. So interesting that it led me to buy his Empires of the Silk Road. I haven’t quite started with the book, yet he has this pretty little gem in the preface (my bolding):

With respect to the data and history writing in general, some comment on my own approach is perhaps necessary, especially in view of the recent application of the “Postmodernist” approach to history, the arts, and other fields. According to the Modernist imperative, the old must always, unceas- ingly, be replaced by the new, thus producing permanent revolution. The Postmodernist point of view, the logical development of Modernism, rejects what it calls the positivist, essentially non-Modern practice of evaluating and judging problems or objects according to specific agreed criteria. In- stead, Postmodernists consider all judgments to be relative. “In our post- modern age, we can no longer take recourse to [sic] the myth of ‘objectivity,’ ” it is claimed. “Suspicions are legitimately aroused due to the considerable differences in the opinions of the foremost authorities in this area.” History is only opinion. Therefore, no valid judgments can be made. We cannot know what happened or why, but can only guess at the modern motivations for the modern “construction of identity” of a nation, the nationalistic po- lemics of anti-intellectuals and nonscholars, and so on. All manuscripts are equally valuable, so it is a waste of time to edit them—or worse, they are said to be important mainly for the information they reveal about their scribes and their cultural milieux, so producing critical editions of them eliminates this valuable information. Besides, we cannot know what any author really

intended to say anyway, so there is no point in even trying to find out what he or she actually wrote.6 Art is whatever anyone claims to be art. No rank- ing of it is possible. There is no good art or bad art; all is only opinion. Therefore it is impossible, formally, to improve art; one can only change it.

Unfortunately, obligatory constant change, and the elimination of all criteria, necessarily equals or produces stasis: no real change. The same applies to politics, in which the Modern “democratic” system allows only superficial change and thus produces stasis. Because no valid judgments can be made by humans—all human judgments are opinions only—all data must be equal. (As a consequence, Postmodernists’ judgment about the invalidity of judgments must also be invalid, but the idea of criticizing Postmodernist dogma does not seem to be popular among them.) In accordance with the Postmodernist view, there is only a choice between religious belief in what- ever one is told (i.e., suspension of disbelief) or total skepticism (suspension of both belief and disbelief).

In both cases, the result, if followed resolutely to the logical extreme, is cessation of thought, or at least elimination of even the possibility of critical thought. If the vast majority of people, who are capable only of the former choice (total belief), are joined by intellectuals and artists, all agreeing to abandon reason, the result will be an age of credulity, repression, and terror that will put all earlier ones to shame. I do not think this is ‘good’. I think it is ‘bad’. I reject Modernism and its hyper- Modern mutation, Postmodernism. They are anti-intellectual movements that have wreaked great damage in practically all fields of human endeavor. I hope that a future generation of young people might be inspired to attack these movements and reject them so that one day a new age of fine arts (at least) will dawn.

Damn. This guy is good. Very good. But wait, it gets better:

Viewed from the perspective of Eurasian history over the past four millennia, there does not seem to me to be any significant difference between the default underlying human socio- political structure during this time period—that is, down to the present day—and that of primates in general. The Alpha Male Hierarchy is our system too, regardless of whatever cosmetics have been applied to hide it. To put it another way, in my opinion the Modern political system is in fact simply a disguised primate-type hierarchy, and as such it is not essentially different from any other political system human primates have dreamed up. If recognition of a problem is the first step to a cure, it is long past time for this particular problem to be recognized and a cure for it be found, or at least a medicine for it to be developed, to keep it under control before it is too late for humans and the planet Earth.

The day all historians accept that biology is destiny, I guess we will have won.

Also related (darkly enlightened famous people), see this interview the Guardian did with Neil Bloomkamp:

“You’d literally have to change the human genome to stop wealth discrepancy. But it’s happening now on a globalised level. The outsourcing of whatever you need done, at low cost, can happen in a different country; you don’t even need to know about it any more.” Elysium brings all of this into the multiplex, and the film’s substantial thrills and spills don’t disguise Blomkamp’s glum outlook. “That’s good, that’s what I wanted people to think,” he says. “We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilisation 10,000 years ago. We are literally genetically coded to preserve life, procreate and get food – and that’s not gonna change. The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of that mammalian DNA and try to give some of your money out, try to take your wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.”

Watching Elysium, it’s apparent he thinks the human race is probably buggered, although the solution he’s holding out for is reassuringly Blomkampian. “The only way things will change is if we’re smart enough to develop technology that can think us out of this, meaning augmenting ourselves genetically to be smart enough to change shit,” he says. “Or to have artificial intelligence and programs to help solve the problems.”

It seems to me we are not as alone as we think we are. What we need is to write, to write well, and to write a lot.


Note to self: Short attention spans don’t go well with long series of related posts.

I’ve been quite busy with a certain little person weighing 3100gr.  with a thing for crying (in 3 hour intervals) in the middle of the night. Pure bliss nonetheless.

Until I get some sleep again, a little post I had buried in my drafts folder:

Years ago I read a review on Blade Runner, where the reviewer says the most important point on the movie is: What does the Replicant think? How do they feel about being a Replicant? About being a robot? How can a sentient being come into terms with the realization that they are robots whose thinking is mechanically determined?

That question used to fascinate me. It doesn’t anymore. I think I know how Rachael must feel. Once you achieve a little bit of auto gnosci, who doesn’t feel like a robot? Consciousness is very cool, but in the end, all our behavior is deterministic, and once you get a hold of someones character, individual behavior is predictable to ennui.

Look at these people at the NYT (I know I said I wouldn’t read it again, but Sailer linked to it). How are they not robots? They say exactly the same things, they came up with the same excuses that any of us could have foreseen years ago. They’re programs, and not very complex one at that.

Schopenhauer wrote extensively about character and fate; how once you know a person’s character (or your own) thoroughly enough, you can accurately predict it’s behavior in most cases. We only keep the fiction of autonomy going because of a lack of brainpower, or attention towards other people.