Denouement 2019: Books

denouement Dec 22, 2019

This year, I read quite the number of books, comics (errr…graphic novels) and articles.

Why do I read?

For fun of course, but I have noticed over the past two years I have noticed a trend towards books and articles that help me explain the world I was born into. Especially the easier-to-grasp topics such as economics, cultural & societal change, technology, and politics.

You could argue that it’s the way I learn best, but truthfully, there isn’t any objectively better method. However, there are objectively better ways to present certain types of content: such as seeing a visual representation of a food recipe as opposed to plain text.

As a quick aside, let me show you my reading statistics from Pocket this year:

pocket2019

So…I guess another reason I read is in the hopes of becoming an expert generalist. A buzzword to be sure, but the simplest way to explain it. There isn’t a singular path to it, and even this very website is part of the steps towards it. BUT…I have heavily digressed.


I Was Impressed By

dawnofx
Dawn of X by Various People (headed by Jonathan Hickman)

I have a love-hate relationship with Marvel Comics, but I think the X-Men are the most interesting set of characters they have. After a bunch of missteps recently, the company decided to relaunch the entire series under the stewardship of Jonathan Hickman. For three months, I feverishly waited for every Wednesday to get my hands on a copy of the next installment. It is something I had never done before in all the years I had read comics.

In Dawn of X, mutants have a completely new status quo: their own language, culture, societal structure, government (laws), and export. Hickman has even added interesting elements of sci-fi and cosmic horror without it seeming hokey.

These twelve issues cover the establishment of the aforementioned and how the difficulties mutants have in maintaining cordial relations with a world that hates and/or fears them. It’s not perfect and the X-Men world has always been difficult to fit into the greater Marvel Universe, but this is a story well worth of your time.

dogsanddemons
Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr

This book was recommended by a good friend of mine. When I approached it, I was wary of bias due to my own experiences in Kyoto where I:

  • Experienced culture, academics and business in an almost equal measure;
  • I dated a half Japanese-half Ethiopian woman for a while;
  • Did all this from mostly Anglo-American worldview mixed in with elements of /lusophonia/ and Mozambique.

That out of the way, Dogs and Demons is a fascinating, but by no means perfect read. While dated in parts by now, many of the underlying aspects that are talked about are still relevant today (even if it is written by a non-Japanese national).

A number of the thoughts laid out here have begun to be echoed by Japanese nationals. Though mostly those who find themselves outside the usual system, whether it’s voluntary or not. In the case of my…ex-girlfriend, she’s very Japanese in her behavior (IMO) but there is enough difference in it and enough melanin in her skin that she often found herself as the one on the outside looking in. Which made it extremely interesting to learn about Japan from someone with one foot in and another out.

Economically, I suppose it [Japan] skates by. Consumption is the name of the game, usually driven by large companies or the ever-looming keiretsus. Back in 2001, Alex Kerr said that startups were not really a thing in Japan. Today, the culture is taking off, albeit slowly. This is interesting considering that a significant amount of patents are developed in Japan on a yearly basis. My guess is that the present situation is a direct result of intrapreneurship (without the usual rewards) and not entrepreneurship.

Recently, JETRO has opened a section on the site where companies interested in hiring foreign employees. At the time of this writing, a grand total of 18 companies are listed. Which isn’t much…but it’s a start.

Japan is a remarkable country that is facing something of an identity crisis. A crisis that tends to be ignored in lieu of harmony (read: obedience). Dogs and Demons provides substantial evidence as to why this is the case, and this is backed up (mind you, anecdotally). Perhaps this is confirmation bias, and a result of my own experience with an identity crisis and brushes with anthropology and psychology in my personal, professional and academic lives. Being a third culture individual only served to exacerbate this.

As an expat, reading this made me doubly concerned about the direction the country is heading in and the relative indifference that the general folk has regarding its future. Or just plain nihilism. Internally, you can see the strain caused by a number of different things. And externally, Japan has to interact in a sociopolitical climate that is very dynamic and often places it on a pedestal. It is this pedestal that allows it to continue exercising its soft power in myriad ways. But that is only part of the answer.

The soft power includes but is not limited to anime, video games, (apparent) recycling, (apparent) extreme productivity, and all the vehicle spare parts that less industrialized nations have to purchase from them. Language and its interpretation are used as barriers to discourage outsiders from learning too much about how things really work. On the flip side, their lack of foreign language skills sometimes bites them in the ass. The Olympics next year will be interesting, as even emergency respondents hardly speak English: a microcosm of a larger issue.

Of course, Japan isn’t alone in doing some pseudo cloak and dagger warfare. America, Russia, and China come to mind. But it is certainly given some sort of free pass that isn’t bestowed on the others for some reason or another. Especially since its position on the Press Freedom Index has slid dramatically over the past few years.

Don’t get me wrong, Japan has slowly made headway in terms of being more aware of internal problems and in some cases, being more proactive. Some of the industries have had new life breathed into them either by design or by chance. But in my opinion, these changes are happening too slowly - if at all).

Dogs and Demons isn’t the be-all-end-all body of text that will educate you on all the finer points on how and why Japan is today. But it’s a substantial enough starting point that will allow you to think a bit more critically about one of the greatest and (one of the most misunderstood) nation-states on the planet.

With all the criticism, I found myself moving back to Japan. Better the demon you know, right?

I welcome a discussion on any and all of what I’ve covered here. It will be an opportunity for all of us to learn and fine-tune (or correct) our thoughts on Japan and its people. Our world views may clash, but hopefully, we’ll come out of it with more information and more wisdom to build a…harmonious world. Harmony as acceptance of differences, and not as “a denial of differences and an embrace of sameness. Sameness in interpersonal relationships means a reflection of the other, the basic concept of which derives from narcissism”.

I also recommend that you watch the documentary Shusenjo - The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue. It’s a harrowing, but essential watch.

divide
The Divide by Jason Hickel

Perfect? No. But an eye-opening read that covers some of the global policies and actions that have contributed severe economic disparities across nations and individuals.

“If you have ever found yourself wondering what is responsible for global poverty, this is your answer. We in the West caused the underdevelopment, poverty and hunger. We got rich doing it. We continue to do it. We couldn’t care less."

The solutions presented are at odds with the state of the planet, but I completely understand where he is coming from.


I Was Disappointed By

identity
Identity by Francis Fukuyama

Much has been said about Francis Fukuyama’s earlier works, and thus I dipped into his most recent body of work. Compared to my parents, I was less exposed to philosophy and the study of society in general throughout my school years. So…reading a heavily summarized version of this was a great window into a new world. But the last few chapters were quite disappointing. I didn’t expect answers, but as a person who has struggled with identity and his place in the world: it was far less than I expected. Maybe the problem is me?

dk3
Dark Knight III: The Master Race by Frank Miller

Ah, Frank Miller.

Known for Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, and 300. All have had their impact on pop culture in different ways. It was clearly a period of super-competence. Because THIS IS TRASH. It is one of the worst things I have ever had the displeasure of reading.


Best of the Rest

  • Doomsday Clock by Geoff Johns - A standalone story that examines the dichotomy of Dr. Manhattan and Superman. An interesting tale that is worth a read.
  • Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson - Forced me to reanalyze my last relationship and how I was a poor communicator, even though I thought I was a good one…
  • Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything by Kelly & Zach Weinersmith - A brief and sometimes comical read on technologies that could have the potential to be game-changing.
  • That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea by Marc Randolph - Of course, these stories almost always use the best / worst parts of the story. But there are some useful lessons here for both professional and personal use.

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