Monday, 7 April 2014

Introduction to Japanese Philosophy, Part 1: Background

In my last post, I shared my experiences of presenting at my first-ever academic conference, where I spoke about Japanese philosophy. This time, I'm going to try to recreate my presentation. In fact, since I don't have the same time constraints here, I'm actually going to expand a bit. But I'll still be mainly drawing on the handful of philosophy courses I took as an international student in Kyouto, one of which dealt specifically with Japanese philosophy. Oddly, though, it wasn't called “Japanese Philosophy.” Instead, it was called “History of Japanese Thought.” I think I have an idea why now, but to get it, you need to understand the Japanese conception of philosophy, and in order to understand that, you need to know a little bit about Japanese history.

Historical Background

Made by myself in MS Paint, hence why it looks so shitty
I've put up all these dates for those of you are interested in that sort of thing, but the main one to pay attention to is the 1603 one. If you study Japanese history in its entirety, I think you'll start to notice two main trends that tend to dominate it. One is “War and Peace;” the other is “Generals and Emperors.”

The first is exactly what it sounds like: Very long periods of bloodshed and carnage broken up by very long periods of relative peace. I do say “relative peace” because it's measured by the standards of the time. Heike Monogatari, a semi-historical period piece that takes place during the Heian Jidai (平安時代、the “Era of Peace and Safety,” 794-1185), at one point notes that its main character is a very strong leader because he's subjected his constituents to only two major wars over a period of ten years. The Heian Jidai was preceded by widespread civil war, and it dissolved into one as well.

The other factor concerns the intermittent struggles of the Emperor and the Shougun. When all is functioning as intended, the Emperor is the unquestionable autocrat, the Son of Heaven and lord of all he surveys, and the Shougun is his top general guy. But every once in a while, the military loses confidence in the Emperor for one reason or another, and stages a coup. When this happens they can't very well up and murder the Emperor, who is a direct descendant of Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, and still an embodiment of holiness even when deposed. So he goes into semi-exile and becomes kind of a figurehead, and the Shougun rules for a while as head of a kratocracy or military junta type deal. But the Imperial bloodline is still around, and eventually somebody decides it needs to be reintroduced to power.

This exchange happened a few times, notably in the aftermath of the Heian Jidai, which led into the 戦国時代 Sengoku Jidai or Warring States Period. Basically, the Fujiwara ended up acquiring so much power in the Imperial Court that they became bloated and fat, until finally the provincial warlords they were supposed to control got so pissed off that Japan just went and completely balkanized itself. So we ended up with several centuries of really gritty, State of Nature-type stuff, with constant rolling, local conflicts. It would be like if Manhattan went to war with the Bronx but then got sneak-attacked by Queens and was forced to forge a tenuous alliance with Brooklyn to overcome its enemies.

Oda Nobunaga
After a couple centuries of this, Oda Nobunaga finally came into the picture, and decided he'd had enough of this bullshit and was going to unify the country. And he came damn close, until he was betrayed by one of his lieutenants and overrun. So his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, finished the job, and then promptly died, so his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, stood up and said “Hey guys! Check it out! I totally just unified Japan!” So in 1603, he opened the Edo Jidai (Edo 江戸 being the old name for Toukyou, and which became the national seat of power and culture), which for the length of its run was ruled entirely under the aegis of the Tokugawa Bakufu (or “Shogunate,” if you're a fan of dumb, made-up words.) I'm hard on Tokugawa Ieyasu because he did a lot of idiotic things, like trying to conquer Korea, just for the hell of it, despite all of his best advisors explaining that he wouldn't be able to. But even I have to admit that he did, at least, bring a good three hundred years of relative peace to Japan, which was particularly valuable after what had come directly before.

Tokugawa Ieyasu
Unfortunately for his legacy, there were two serious problems with the regime he put in place. The first was that it used a system of patrilineal succession, so, simply put, the reigning Shougun wasn't always the best man for the job. And without any serious pressures on them for much of the Edo Jidai, the Shougun and their Bakufu became increasingly complacent and ineffective, quite understandably arousing popular ire. The other big problem was that Japan then decided to totally close off the country and thereby preserve its pure, unique Japaneseness. This really came back to bite everybody in the ass when Admiral Perry rolled in with his Black Ships in 1858. He was all, “Hey, Japan! Open up or we rip you open!” And Japan was all, “Oh, yeah? You and whose army?” So Perry said, “Not so much an army as these ships and their shiny new cannon, which are capable of drowning your entire country in a sea of fire.” Then he fired a warning volley into the harbour to prove his point and Japan said “oh ok then.” And the Japanese never did anything xenophobic ever again.

So Japan opened up for trade, which, actually, was good for them, because they were at this point years and years and years behind the times. But it also demonstrated to the Japanese people that the Bakufu really was not doing its job anymore, if it couldn't even protect them from the foreign dogs, so there was a surprisingly brief civil war, which ended in 15-year-old Emperor Meiji (明治) being installed as formal ruler. It was a fascinating little spell that included the Shinsengumi, and one day I swear I'm doing a whole post on them, but not today. The main point is that in 1868, the Meiji Jidai began.

Meiji Jidai

Emperor Meiji. Man had concubines
Emperor Meiji is one of my favourite Japanese Emperors, not for his warmongering, but definitely for a lot of the other stuff he did for Japan (certainly more than Emperor Shouwa, who was basically a puppet of Shougun Toujo, but anyway). The Meiji government recognized that Japan had been left behind and immediately set about trying to rectify their predecessors' lack of foresight and worldliness, so scholars began to voraciously consume every foreign book, scroll, and handwritten note they could get their hands on. If it was from abroad, they wanted it, especially if it was from the West, which had so decisively demonstrated its technological superiority just recently.

So they started to bring in new ideas on all manner of topics. New ideas about, say, architecture, which is why so many Japanese buildings from this period look like they've been plucked directly out of Victorian England. Some Japanese began regularly wearing Western clothing – still mostly limited to the political and business elite, but it was starting. They began to implement new ideas about governance, and economic policy. Modern medicine was a huge revelation. And they also stated importing more academic, intellectual topics as well, including Western philosophy.

The Japanese word for philosophy is 哲学 tetsugaku. The gaku means “studying,” and is similar to the -logy in biology or psychology. The tetsu means “clarity” (or nowadays can just mean “philosophy” by itself), so if you want to think of “tetsugaku” as meaning “the study of clarity,” you can see how this tracks with our Western understanding of philosophy or the “love of wisdom” as being a search for truth. This word tetsugaku didn't exist until the Meiji Jidai, when a guy came up with it to describe this new Western idea. In fact, he wasn't sure there was even such a thing as “Japanese philosophy,” because anything that resembles it falls more under the category of religion. Personally, I think this misses the point. Not only do plenty of Western philosophers come from a heavily religious perspective (Descartes, Locke) or deal with religious topics (Pascal, Aquinas), but there's a lot of overlap between the two; metaphysics and morality, for example. He's right about at least one thing, though: Most of Japanese philosophy is based in religion.

Shintou and Buddhism

Japan, I'm assuming most of you know, has two main religions. The cool part, to me, is how they interact; that is, they are completely compatible. The majority of Japanese are utter atheists, but they nominally participate in both Shintou and Buddhist activities as the mood strikes them. Most festivals are in honour of the local deity, for instance (and are also awesome). The saying in Japan is that your birth rites are performed at a Shintou shrine, your marriage rites are performed at a Christian church, and your funeral rites are performed at a Buddhist temple. And all the while, most don't actually believe in any of it, so that should tell you something about the unusual relationship the Japanese have with religion.

Shintou 神道 or the Way of the Gods is Japan's native religion, and, like testugaku, didn't even have a name until a foreign influence necessitated one. The core of Shintou is that the world is inhabited by many many many many many many many many gods, called kami. Here's a picture of the pantheon of the most powerful, all gazing upon Amaterasu, who was the greatest of all and maybe a lesbian. Also, she may have been based on Queen Himiko and had the legend distorted over the millennia. Underneath the big dogs we have somewhat lesser gods, like the ones who govern the cosmos and natural forces, many of whom have been mixed up with what were originally Buddhist figures because of that continual cross-pollination. And then there are gods who live in immense ancient trees, or in rivers, or are enshrined. Particularly great human beings can even become gods; the Emperor does upon his death. And inanimate objects can eventually take on gods over time, gaining character and personality. So if you've ever had like a really old, shitty car, and it refuses to start when you're late for work, and you say, “Gah, my car hates me!” - well, yeah! Maybe! Or if you, you know, like to hurl verbal abuse at your computer? Like, “Come oooon! Work, you piece of junk!” You know, like it could work anytime it wanted to, it's just a little lacking in motivation? Then you might make a good Shintou.

Buddhism (仏教 bukkyou), like so many things, arrived in Japan from elsewhere and was repurposed for Japanese palates. This is just my own observation, but as far as I can tell, the Japanese understanding is that Buddhism was born in India; developed in China; and then finally perfected in Japan. So only once we're in Japan are we getting the real, true and best incarnation of Buddhism. In fact there's a particular sect that basically says, “We are the truest and most pure form of Buddhism because we are the only sect that uses the wisdom of this particular scroll, which was written by this one Buddhist master. All those other versions of Buddhism are ok, they're not wrong, but they're not quite as good as ours, because we have harvested and implemented this important knowledge.” And that always kind of makes me laugh when I think about it, because it's not like Buddha himself came down from on high and personally imparted all this shit he'd forgotten to mention earlier! Buddha had already been dead for thousands of years by the time your guy even put pen to paper! But those are their beliefs, and I have to say that it's kind of very Japanese.

To me, Shintou is the much more fun of the two religions. Its places of worship are colourful rather than austere; it's all about living, partying, fucking. Buddhism is about tragedy and asceticism. But for some reason, Shintou philosophy just hasn't gotten the traction that Buddhism has. There are Shintou philosophers, their works are extant, and they've written on topics both secular and specifically relating to Shintou issues, but they're just not anywhere near as read as their Buddhist counterparts. If I were to hazard a guess as to why, I would say it might have to do with the nature of their thought. Buddhism encourages interpretation and consideration, while Shintou is more doctrinaire and dictatorial. Shintou, after all, is the Way of the Gods; you don't question that shit. But much of Buddhism requires you to look inward and find answers for yourself. That's much more conducive to the study of philosophy. Either way, most of the stuff I'm going to talk about in the next post is going to be dealing with Buddhist philosophy in particular. Please look forward to it.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

My first academic conference

“Good morning everyone,” I say, “and thank you all for being here. My name is Rude Boy Abroad, I'm a fourth year Philosophy student, and I just spent last year studying abroad to Japan, where I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to not only study some Philosophy in Japanese, but also some Japanese Philosophy, as well. And today, I'd like to share with you a little bit of what I learned.”

I'm about to present at an annual academic conference, a challenge I decided to take for the noble and sophisticated reason that it might look good on a resumee or grad school application, though being able to tell people that I was “presenting at a conference” was a nice bonus. The turnout isn't great, but about what I expected given the time of morning. I'm wearing my brand new suit – a $400 black check – with a blue-striped silk tie and a pair of work shoes that I bought when I was hired at the grocery store seven years ago and which were until recently flecked with fish entrails.

I'd considered a moral defence of authoritarianism, but ended up going with a little introduction to Japanese Philosophy just on the off-chance that this might impress old Saburou in Finance or whatever. Plus, all kinds of people might know Republic or even Buddhism better than me, but nobody in the room was likely to have a firmer grasp of Japanese Philosophy in particular, so at least I wouldn't get shredded.

As the fated date drew near, my encroaching presentation rapidly came to dominate my thoughts. I was constantly revising and editing, scrutinizing just what would make it into the scant 15 minutes I'd been given, and in what order. How much background was necessary? Could I safely assume that the audience would know anything about Japan or Philosophy? And should I go for depth, or breadth? I spent many late nights lying awake in the dark, rehearsing in my mind, refining my phrasing, spicing up the slow parts, thinking of what jokes I might use.

Ideally, I wanted to be on the first day of presentations, but before lunch – giving me enough time to get acclimated, but still strike hard and fast. When the programme was finally published, I was dismayed to see that my session was grouped among the very first, bright and early at 9:00 sharp. But then again, this would free me up to enjoy the rest of the conference without distraction, and, you know, give people more of a chance to come up and gush, get my autograph, sexually proposition me, etc.

And quelle surprise, the committee actually managed to put me with another couple of Asia-related presentations. Given the gross underrepresentation of Eastern teachings in the formal study of Philosophy – which was another reason for my choice of topic – I'd expected to get tossed into one of the “miscellaneous” sessions, but they'd actually managed to find a common thread between three of us. Good show. The first presentation of the session was about yoga and misconceptions committed by the West in its appropriation of it, and the second tackled 60s counterculture and the Beatles' disillusionment with Indian spirituality when they actually travelled to India. Now it's my turn.

I plant my feet, place my hands on the lectern, and rock the house.

I feel eminently confident and knowledgeable. Words spill fluidly from my face. People seem to like it. The Study Abroad coordinator will say that she's seen over 50 presenters at this conference over the years, and that I was “by far one of the best.” I do the entire thing from memory, which is kinda my thing, allowing me to speak naturally and maintain eye contact with the audience, and this rumour spreads over the next two days. And at no point do I forget what I'm talking about or find that I've accidentally inserted pornography into any of my slides.

Following this, we form a panel and invite questions. The very first one is, “Given that all of these religions offer such tranquility, why haven't we achieved world peace?” So much for gradual introduction. The whole thing spirals into increasingly abstract and complex territory from there, but yields a really interesting discussion about faith, inclusiveness, and the modern world.

And with that, I'm cut loose. I spend the next two days communing with randoms (some presenters, some not) and attending others' sessions. The most compelling presentation, to me, is about self-concept and female masturbation, of which I harbour a deep fascination. I notice that while about 98.7% of ordinary conversations on campus open with a declaration of how drunk the speaker was last night, which is great, casual encounters in this environment quickly turn to phrases like “Well, considering the socioeconomic factors ingrained in that paradigm...” My new suit garners good reviews. President thinks I'm “spiffy as fuck.” A guy friend tells me I “look like a sexy businessman.” 

The first day concludes with a Wine and Cheese but I'm driving, so I give the bartender my free drink tickets and tell her the next two are on me. I happen to strike up a conversation with one of the committee members, and when I tell him I'd like to go to the banquet tomorrow but lack the cash, he quietly hooks me up with a ticket. Great guy.

When the second day's presentations end, I drive President back to her house and we hang out in her room for a while as I watch her do her makeup, which is goddamn fascinating.

“I missed you so much,” I tell her. Earlier this week we'd stopped by the campus pub and had a few beers, which definitely made class more interesting after, but more to the point it was the first chance she and I'd had to really sit down and hang out in a year and a half. Back in the cowboy days when it was just the two of us trying to run a student club with next to no help, we saw each other constantly. These days I barely know what's going on in her life. So it's really, powerfully good to spend some quality time with her for once, and now as much as ever.

At the hotel banquet hall, the food is good, the atmosphere is jovial, the music is...ok, although the DJ takes a little too long to cotton on that college-educated partiers don't take well to Blurred Lines. The keynote is about epistemical injustice, and President wonders what the waitresses think of us as we sit and listen, riveted.

Also, the drinks flow freely. I'm driving, but President is having fun imbibing, which is the important thing, and I'm certainly still enjoying the night so whatever. President gets pretty trashed but doesn't show it much, which is disappointing. The profs get it on it a little too. Actually, the profs take it to new levels. We dance for like four hours. Female flesh is everywhere, arms and chests and shoulders and legs, all swaying sexily.

Some guy wanders in from stage left. He doesn't seem terribly out of place, but readily admits that he's not part of the conference, and just came in when he saw the party. This would be fine, honestly...except that he starts making the girls uncomfortable. In the course of about five minutes, he tells me that President is “super into” him, me, one of the committee members, one of the out-of-towners, some guy across the room, everybody, really. What a slut. He promises to hook me up with whatever girl I want so I try to turn it back on him, but he tells me that he's in Trades and “the girls in this crowd want a guy with an IQ higher than a hundred.”

President shuts him down pretty capably but he doesn't take the hint, so when she goes back to dance she has me watch her drink. Within moments of her leaving he tries to take it from me, but I'm too quick and manage to keep it out of his grasp. I glare at him and point aggressively in his chest and ask what the fuck he's doing, and he laughs, says something I can't hear, and walks off to bother somebody else.

I sidebar with a waitress, who doesn't see the danger but says they're watching him. He sits by himself and gives me the evil eye from across the room, and when we finally leave at 1 am two waitresses are talking to him. My main fear was that he'd try to follow us out, but we make good our escape and head for President's house, carting two of her friends and a guy that one of them has been all over all night. Frustratingly, nothing comes of that.

Legally, my Class 7 only allows me to carry one passenger, meaning I don't have much practise carrying this much weight in the car, which starkly affects my acceleration and braking. We're pushing over 3000 revs just to keep from standing still. The fuel gauge needle plummets at an alarming rate. We run by somebody's house to grab more alcohol and when we try to set off again, the combined influence of a hill, ice, four passengers, and four tires in the trunk proves too much for my mighty four-cylinder, 20-year-old Toyota Camry to overcome, and two people have to get out for a minute just so we can get turned around. It's kind of embarrassing.

At President's, the others have drunkenness to keep them going, so I just lie down on the couch and listen to them chatter. I think back to the banquet hall, where President and I sat together and reflected on our relationship. We've known each other for an extremely eventful four years now. We recall some of the formative moments: me convincing a half-Japanese girl to make out with her; me convincing a Japanese girl to make out with her; her coming back from the bathroom at a bar to find me making out with a Japanese girl; me then convincing that Japanese girl to make out with her; all kinds of stuff. I can't help but smile. After so much time, I'd almost forgotten how much I love her.

A few months later we'll have another, very interesting, adventure, but that's another story.

Monday, 10 March 2014

I want to ride my bicycle

Mother Russia caught a bad break within a week of arriving in Japan: After heading downtown and spending a couple of hours shopping, she returned to where she'd parked her bicycle only to find it gone. Uncharacteristically, she burst into tears. A young Japanese chap, spotting a winsome hottie in distress, swooped in, ascertained the cause of the problem, and assured her that he would search for it on her behalf. When she came home and related this story to me, I pictured him delving into seedy bars throughout Sanjou-Shijou like Rorschach in Watchmen, demanding information, cracking skulls when he failed to get the reception he desired, tirelessly striving to repatriate the errant machine.

In reality, he probably asked around at the local police huts, perhaps on nearby Kiyamachi. Bicycle theft, though a popular activity when the opportunity presents itself, is quite difficult in Japan due to a lock placed on the rear wheel of every unit. More likely, hers had been collected because she'd parked it illegally, not a big deal throughout much of the city but a potentially serious nuisance in the downtown area. They take them away in big trucks, hoisting them up through sheer muscular fortitude. At bigger stores, it's also somebody's job to go outside and redress the ranks every so often, to conserve space; once again, the locks leave them no choice but to pick them up and heave them to their new resting spot.

In return for a modest fine, her bicycle was returned to her with no further complications, and as if that wasn't enough, the guy lent her his bicycle in the meantime, claiming that he lived and worked close enough that it didn't really matter. In fact he tried to just give it to her, and it was she who demanded his contact information so that she could return it later. The following weekend she went to a barbecue at his house, so I'm not entirely convinced he wasn't making a play, but if he wasn't, well isn't that just Japanese kindness for you!

Had this helpful stranger not appeared, she would have been in a bit of a jam, because bicycle is by far one of the most common methods of transportation in Japan. Coming from Canada, I have a lot of trouble thinking of it as anything other than a child's toy, but in Japan, there is absolutely nothing undignified or stupid-looking about it. Schoolgirls ride to school. Suited businessmen ride to work. Stylish young people ride between engagements. It's even common to carry a passenger, regardless of whether or not your particular model was built to carry a passenger, their feet flapping in the wind, seemingly ever in danger of toppling straight off onto the cement but somehow never doing so.

Now you might want to wax poetic and spew speculation as to why Japan's unique culture has driven it to adopt the bicycle as such a prevalent means of transportation (and maybe throw in something about how the trains are so quiet, which you will believe to eternity unless you're avant-garde enough to venture anywhere outside Kantou). Actually though, we sort of know the answer. As I had it explained to me in my Japanese Foreign Policy class, the first few economic movements of postwar Japan can be examined by their top three most desirable commodities:

The early years, 1945-1950, and the Korean boom, 1950-1953: radio, bicycle, sewing machine
Jinmu boom, 1954-1957: refrigerator, washing machine, television set
Izanagi boom, 1965-1970: aircon, car, colour TV

You can see how this reflects changing markets and a gradual return to prosperity, as we progress from basic mechanical necessities to modern luxuries. But for our purposes here, you can see how the bicycle was established early on as a must-have item. Still is today.

(Another historical footnote for you: My mother tells me that when she was a ryuugakusei herself (completely coincidental to my own Japanese aspirations), it was quite usual to buy a dilapidated bike, ditch it at the train station, and grab another abandoned one when you arrived at your destination station. When you were finished whatever you'd come to do, you would toss your new friend, train back to your original station, and then grab a bicycle with which to head home, possibly even the same one you'd bought. This sounds like a very interesting system with startling implications for the principles of Touka Koukan, but unfortunately I can neither confirm nor deny it, as I have never lived in Toukyou during the 1980s.)

So despite my protestations, bicycles are pretty entrenched into the daily reality of Japan, where they are not just discreetly convenient but actually own the sidewalk. As you will discover if you spend more than two minutes in the country, Japanese bicycles are all equipped with a bell, whose distinctive cry carries over the roiling chaos of life to seize attention and scatter crowds. It's a pretty demanding little sound, in fact, of which cyclists are unafraid to make liberal use, and it was some time before I was able to start interpreting it as “Excuse me, pardon me,” rather than “Hey, dumbass, out of the way!”

Though it helps that nobody in Japan wears helmets (as there is no law mandating it), I can't quite shake the impression that a bicycle automatically makes any rider look like a ponce. I never did give in, partially also because I secretly find them kind of terrifying, so instead I preferred to ride the train, which is much more fun and interesting anyway. However, nearly everyone else at my dorm bought one as soon as they could. They rode them to Cologne's mom's house. They rode them to Sanjou-Shijou. They even rode them to class, which always puzzled me, because the university was so close it seemed to save no time whatsoever. I would often depart at the same time as a rider began fiddling with locks and navigating bike-unfriendly paths, be overtaken halfway through, and then once more assume the lead in the final stretch as they stood waiting to cross the road to the bicycle parking lot, or searched feverishly for a vacant spot.

That said, I wasn't completely left bereft of two-wheeled temptation. I always thought that Sorachi Hideaki gave Gintama protagonist Gintoki a scooter because they're so unconscionably goofy, but then I arrived and found out that no, that is just considered a legitimate form of transportation here, especially among starving students. At my university, they even had their own parking lot, filled with rows upon rows upon rows of the little machines; when fourth block ended, their owners would leap astride them and take off in roaring crowds of a hundred at a time.  And, lacking a car, I came to badly want one of my own. Because, you know, I was too cool to ride a bicycle, but there's real dignity in a scooter.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Thanks, Yuna

Rude Boy: My father thinks liking figure skating is “gay.”
President: Watching hot girls in skimpy costumes is gay?

I touched recently on how I'm kind of a huge fan of Kim Yuna (or Yu-na, or YeonA), undoubtedly my very favourite athlete. I don't really care about the rest of the sport; I just like Kim Yuna. This is because she's fucking adorable, and – almost as importantly – because she's an amazing figure skater. Drinking with President at a small bar last night, I outlined my opinions.

Rude Boy: She is perhaps the second most attractive female Korean athlete. Glad you asked! Ee Seul-bi, the third from the Korean Women's Curling team.

Although it's close!

When I was a full pitcher and two pints deep, President pointed out that her short program had come on the TV behind the bar and I kind of lost my shit. Then she told me to calm down, because she didn't want people to think we were weirdos.

And then tonight I watched her long program. Holy. Fuck. Her adorably made-up face. Her beautiful costume, perfectly tailored to show off her smooth, muscular back. And, you know, her performance itself! I'm no sports writer and I lack the vocabulary to explain it, but I thought it was fucking rad. Like, seriously, is there any art form that matches the combination of elegance and excitement of figure skating? Or, for that matter, any figure skater who matches the elegance and excitement of Kim Yuna.

Not for my money. Not for the commentators', either, as after the Russian girl went (I forget her name because she's dead to me), one of them explicitly said, “Well, she's not on the level of Yuna, but that was a great performance.” The judges agreed, at least about it having been a great performance. In fact, they thought it was better than Yuna's.

Which it very well was fucking not. Not even close. I watched the Russian girl's long program and it was really just ok. The commentators were like “wtf.” I was like “President, I just...this is...gwarrrrghuhhhh???????!!!!” exactly like that, because it was a text message. Seriously, you've gotta be fucking me. SILVER? Bullshit. This was the one thing I'd been waiting all Olympics for and I'd been kinda assuming Yuna just had it, and after watching her skate I assumed it twice as hard as I had been already. And then this happens. Fucking robbed. [UPDATE: If you disagree or don't know what I'm talking about, here's an analysis by The Korean at Ask a Korean! explaining.]

Asada had kind of a disappointing finish, although she managed to bring herself up from 16th after the short program to I think 8th in the end by putting out what I heard was a fairly excellent long program, so I was hoping she and Yuna might square off again in a media-manufactured rivalry kind of a way, and then place a distant second. But I'm happy she was able to at least partially redeem herself. This is a Japan blog, so this paragraph satisfies the quorum for requisite Japan-related content per post. Because mostly, Kim Yuna.

And now I'm hearing that she's retiring from competitive figure skating? Terrible. But I guess I understand. Next winter Olympics, she'll be 27, and so probably not in any serious contention for a medal. At least, that's what President thinks. I want to believe she could have one more gold in her. And that she could have other things in her, as well.

Sigh. What is it with Russian figure skating judges and cheating all the time? First Jamie Soleil and David Pelletier, and now this shit. It's like they've misunderstood the Olympics and think that it's supposed to be a competition amongst judges, to see who can be the most corrupt.

Whatever. She's first in my heart.

Monday, 17 February 2014

This weird old guy I met

I don't blog every single story, obviously. Some just aren't that interesting, like the farewell party with my Doushisha friends, which, while fun and maybe suitable for a Tumblr mention, was too uneventful to lend itself well to a spirited Blogspot retelling. Others I feel it would be too crass to post publicly, so I excise details or hold my tongue entirely. In this case, I felt like it was kind of ongoing, and I didn't want to psych myself out about it too much, so I let it sit. Obviously it's now progressed as far as it's gonna go for the time being, so let's have at it: my last big story from last year.

It starts, in a way, the night I first met Udon. You'll recall that she was there with three other people – I didn't explain this part? I'm telling you now. One was a guy in his early 50's, with a short grey mohawk and what I remember as a Hawaiian shirt, although it probably was not, but it fits his character so let's go with that. He got my LINE and the promise to hang out again. At first I thought he was kind of a pest, as he repeatedly asked me to introduce him to some other ryuugakusei so he could expand his social network, though at least he was transparent.

But I quite quickly grew to like him, as, I believe, do most of the people who meet him. Udon says he's “like her father” and sends her LINEPOP hearts every day. And every morning, he sends the message 「今日もいい一日を」 to every single person he knows. Sometimes pictures of things he finds interesting, too, usually bridges or potted plants. He's a weird one. Anyway, within a few days he'd invited me to a party at his house. I envisioned uncomfortably sitting on a couch in a smoky, poorly lit living room, drinking tea and politely refusing endless slimy delicacies while making awkward conversation with various quintogenarians. I hummed and hawed for a few days, trying to find an elegant way to beg off, but in the end I decided to give it a chance. Maybe it would be fun. Besides, I could cite my busy schedule and duck out halfway if it sucked.

It did not suck. In the car ride over (he picked me up from downtown), Jin-san, as he liked to be called, explained that in all the world he wanted nothing more than to bring people together, and so from time to time he held parties like this one as a low-stress meeting place. This is why he wanted me to introduce him to ryuugakusei, as, unsurprisingly, those in his regular circle were all Japanese and almost exclusively shakaijin. He lived in a fairly big mansion near Karasuma Oike. The first thing I saw when I walked in was two women working in the kitchen, one of whom, I knew, would be Jin-san's fiancee/wife/girlfriend-type-deal; he had referred to her as all three on various occasions. And I really hoped she was the one stirring soup, because although both were extremely attractive, the one making salad was downright smokin'.

I was led into the attached dining room and was relieved to find that, although I was indeed the youngest there, there were two other young guys as well, one my same age and one a year our senior. Also in attendance was one of the other old guys from the night I met Udon, as well as a stranger, and, arriving later, a couple in their thirties. It turned out that, with a handful of exceptions, everyone there was only just meeting each other for the first time – Jin-san was for many the only common connection. Meanwhile, the entire apartment was sleek, professional, and clean. It was an unusual situation, but there wasn't a thing suspicious about it. Jin-san mainly sat back and let friendship happen, gently guiding conversations and providing details where need-be, and what started as hesitant, very formal discussions gradually evolved into a lively, boisterous party over the course of the night.

Of the couple, it had been organized partly in the guy's honour, as he was leaving for Australia the following week – to walk across it. For fun. He'd already done the Philippines, and he told me that he was planning to do Canada next. Which suggested to me that he might not realise how big Canada actually was, but I casually suggested that if he came near me, I could probably get him into the newspaper and if was interested maybe meet my university's Japanese Club, of which I was formerly Vice President. He frowned with gratitude.

“Ah, that would really save me!” he exclaimed. “I can collect donations for my trip!” Ask university students for donations for your world travels? Yeah no, that's not going to be a thing. Especially after we've graciously invited you onto our campus. Some people, I swear.

There emerged comparisons between me and the same-age guy. He was loud and spoke without thinking; I was thoughtful and chose my words carefully. He, they said, was immature; I was sophisticated. In truth, I was on my best behaviour. Surrounded by a bunch of elders, none of whom I had ever met before, and also definitely wanting to be invited back at some point, I was listening carefully, nodding along deferentially, and bringing out my very shiniest of keigo. Which is, all things considered, not especially shiny, but although I'm much more comfortable banging on like an Oosaka gutter rat, speaking politely in Japanese, as in English, has the effect of making me seem more intelligent, even when the ideas expressed are exactly the same. Certain people like me a bit better when I try to speak keigo, is what I'm trying to say. And tonight I was really turning on the charm.

The smokin' girl turned out to be Not Jin-san's Wife, as I had hoped, and, I'm not exactly sure how this happened, but somehow me and the older young guy got moved to the seats beside her, competing for her affections. And...well, what can I say? It was a blowout.

For me, I mean.

I sort of wish I knew what I said, but I at least remember that I was complimentary, politely confident, and genuine, which sounds like an obvious strategy but I guess I was doing it in a particular way that I can't often pull off. She asked for my LINE and everyone cheered, because somehow this had become the main event of the night and the entire rest of the table was spectating. “Appeal Time” was over; the other guy hadn't even gotten to try. Ha!

It wasn't long before I was asked to guess her age, and I thought, well, isn't that always a fun question. She looked about 25, but what if she turned out to be younger? That would certainly be points against me. So, thinking quickly, I said that she had the cuteness of a 20-year-old, but the prettiness of a 25-year-old. Nice one, Rude Boy!

Her actual age? 31.


To be completely honest, for about five seconds, this really threw me, and everyone saw it. I mean, I can go a few years older, but I don't know if I can surmount a gap that wide! But then I recovered and just kept laying it on. 31? Sure! With everyone around us prodding, we jokingly declared that we were now dating.

Rude Boy: You know, the sooner we get married, the sooner I can get my citizenship.
Nuna: Oh, great, I can have mixed kids!

Oh, I named her Nuna because we were discussing the Korean language and I taught her a couple of words. You tired of nicknames yet? I'm not.

By the time I left, it was four in the morning and I'd been there for over eight hours, just chatting with Other Old Guy, Jin-san, and his shy, beautiful, feminine woman. As for Nuna, joking aside, I'm pretty sure there was some mutual attraction in there, but I didn't actually expect to ever see her again. I was therefore quite surprised and rather pleased to hear from Jin-san that she would, in fact, very much like to see me again. Unfortunately, her work schedule transpired to be quite rigorous, but she did offer that although she would not be attending the bowling tournament the following week, she could at least drop by the nijikai. Well, ok then! I'll take it!

The bowling “tournament,” such as it was, was pretty fun, except for the huge delay at the end. I'm not comfortable saying this is an entirely Japanese thing, but, well, every big bowling event I've ever been to in Japan has had this problem. There seems to be this inexplicable belief that there must be prizes, and that the doling out of them must be undertaken with great solemnity and thorough scrutineering. When this collides with poor organization, you get excruciating results. I know some people don't have a lot of experience in event planning, but come on.

First the scores of over a hundred people were tallied by a team of only three, while the organizers desperately attempted to keep us entertained with increasingly boring and nonsensical monologues about not really anything. Then they finally announced the results – of every single team. All of them. One by one. The number of the team, their members, the scores they got in each game, their total score for all three games, and finally, where they placed. And then all members had to come up, take a commemorative photograph, and then individually high-five the captains of all other teams. My fingers brushed my chin and I realised I'd grown a beard – and it was white! Then a Morlok wandered in and a man flew by on a jetpack and killed it with a laser gun.

Luckily we were off to eat, drink and be merry, and, in my case, hopefully meet Nuna again. The restaurant was Vox, which I'd always assumed was a girls' bar or maybe a skeezy but legitimate club, but which turned out to actually be a fairly nice spot to sit down and dine. I was a little distracted, of course, and couldn't keep myself from constantly looking at the door, as if she might walk in just as I craned my head around, or that my staring might somehow hasten her arrival. No dice; she couldn't get away from work, and I never saw her before leaving Japan.

In a way, this did at least simplify things for me somewhat. See, this is right where I was really starting to talk with Udon, and to be perfectly honest with you I had (and still kind of have) every intention of pursuing them both, since both seemed open to persuasion. Which is an excellent problem, but at the time it was a source of great distress for me, like, really? Why NOW, right as I was set to leave, and not in, say, November? I seriously felt like I was being trolled by life. So once I knew that Nuna was at least temporarily out of the equation, I was able to focus on Udon, whom I still message from time to time, trying to keep the oven warm in the hopes that I'll be able to make it home relatively quickly. Though, assuming she even remembers me, I won't entirely discount Nuna just that lame? Oh, let me have my fun.

I guess the takeaway here is, the next time you meet some weird old guy in a shady dive bar at 3 am and he invites you back to his place, you should totally go.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Kanadajin Tales!

Just because I'm not a gaijin at the moment doesn't mean that the people around me have stopped saying hilarious things.


President: I don't really go to that bar much anymore. Not since my one friend got knocked up with twins and the other one moved to PoCo to be a stripper.


President: You gonna walk me all the way to my class again?
Rude Boy: Yeah, I always have plenty of time to make it all the way over there and then get back to mine.
President: “Plenty of time” meaning “less than five minutes late?”
Rude Boy: Sometimes ten.


Rude Boy: Magma is beneath the earth, lava has already surfaced. Though I don't know why you need two words. I mean what the fuck do you call water when it's still underground?
Friend: Groundwater.
Rude Boy: Um, ok, what do you call gold when it—
Friend: Groundgold.


Rude Boy: How's Valentino?
Jugs: He's being detained under the Mental Health Act in a hospital in Salmon Arm.
Rude Boy: Why Salmon Arm?


Rude Boy: I really badly want to learn more Korean.
Jugs: Maybe you need a Korean girlfriend.
Rude Boy: Maybe. There's a pretty hot K-girl that I see around campus sometimes.
Jugs: Well, get on that! (beat) Literally!


Jugs: The Chinese girl at Subway made me a terrible sub and I'm really upset about it! Lol
Rude Boy: Yeah? Cause id really like to...“eat her sandwich.”


President's ex-boyfriend: The job market's pretty much shit everywhere. Like my friend in Kentucky, he says, “I theoretically know how to manufacture bioweapons, and I'm working in a cafeteria! Serving bioweapons!”


Driving down a long, straight, four-lane stretch of road at 1 am, I saw a few teenagers standing around. One was crouched next to the curb, but I assumed he was just readying himself for a fast-action jaywalk when I passed – until, that is, he ran straight at my car, actually leading me a little. I swerved away and sharply accelerated, then loosed a blast from the horn, which, unfortunately, was probably very much to their satisfaction, but felt kind of necessary, since I was now hurtling through an uncontrolled intersection going the wrong way.

The game, I surmise, was to try and touch me as I passed, which struck me as an exceptionally stupid pastime. Setting aside how much it would hurt to touch 1000 pounds of metal travelling at 60+ kph, what if, you know, I had run him the fuck over? I tried to decide if I'd have played such a game when I was in high school. Yeah I totally would have. But you know what. Bullfighting, BASE jumping, driving at face-melting speeds, doing face-melting amounts of heroin – I totally identify with the need to slap death on the ass. Go out and do what you have to. But for God's sake, if you're going to risk your life for the thrill of it, don't implicate anybody else! I love driving, don't fucking ruin that for me.

Although, I'm sure they weren't doing this to push themselves to the limit and conquer the last enemy that shall be destroyed. They were probably just idiots.


Rude Boy: Damn, looks like the hot Chinese girl from Subway has a boyfriend! Better think of a way to break them up.
Jugs: That should NOT be your first reaction.
Rude Boy: What, like I'm going to sleep with her while they're still dating?! That would just be immoral!
President: You're a terrible person.


Rude Boy's father: Do you charge your phone every night? Or whenever it is you sleep?


Rude Boy: They're razing the doutonnbori bridge to make way for an outdoor swimming pool ARE YOU ACTUALLY KIDDING ME HASHIMOTO WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK
President: Umm k?
President: Outdoor pool = Osaka girls in bikins tho? Lol
Rude Boy: ...down with the doutonbori bridge
President: Lol


Rude Boy: I'm putting all my stuff together on top of the fridge. So don't try to set things on fire with the beer or drink the butane.


President: Hey, sup.
Rude Boy: Hey Sugartits.
President and friend: (blink)
President: I guess that's my new nickname. I'm not even going to question it.


Classmate: (hands Rude Boy a printout)
Rude Boy: Thanks. You should be a quarterback.
Classmate: ...because of my pass?
Other classmate: That joke was bad and you should feel bad.


Politics major girl: She and I had a prior class together.
Rude Boy: You had a pirate class together?!
Politics major girl: A prior class.
Rude Boy: Oh, I got excited for a minute there. I thought maybe this was a new program they were offering this year, like you could get your Major in Piracy or something.
Politics major girl: I think you can, it's called “Business.”


Jugs: Is it still cold as tits out?
Rude Boy: Nah, it warmed up.
Jugs: Hm. I'll take two jackets anyway, it might be cold as tits again later.


Jugs: Valentino's a straight gay man. He's completely straight, but he dates dudes. It's weird.


Driving home one day, doing about 90 down a long straight stretch, a deer jumped out at me. Like a moron I hit my brakes and swerved too hard (luckily the animal immediately went “Nope, fuck this” and bounded away), and unfortunately it turned out I was on black ice, you know, just for good measure. 

 completely lost control and was pretty much just along for the ride from here on in. My entire vehicle swung around 270 degrees, so that I was now perpendicular to the road, with still going what had to have been at least 70 or higher, which is generally faster than you want to be going when you're travelling straight sideways. My rear wheels carved a huge scar through the snow as I slid but, incredibly, I didn't hit anything other than a few withered weeds. And this is going to sound like posturing, but at no point during this did I feel at all alarmed or frightened, but just like, well, nothing to do now but wait until we stop. It was interesting.

Once I finally slid to a halt, a looong way down the road, I sort of sat there for a moment to see if anything else was going to happen, then, when I realised it wasn't, I set the car into gear, eased back onto the road, and continued on my way, except ratcheting things down to 60.

Coincidentally, a mechanic later looked over my winter tires and was like “lolno” – still good tread left, but grown hard as tits. To recap, deer, black ice, bad tires – so, completely my fault, but also kind of not. I am kind of glad I had the experience though, as I now know what it feels like to spin around and to slide like that. But perhaps more to the point, it was a goddamn miracle that it happened on a straight stretch.


Jugs: I have three boyfriends and two girlfriends...except one of my boyfriends broke up with me because I wouldn't stop sleeping with his ex-boyfriend...and one of my girlfriends has a Japanese boyfriend who doesn't know about me.
Rude Boy: I'm going to quote that in Kandajin Tales and provide no context whatsoever.


Jugs's coworker: My hair today is ri-dyke-ulous! (beat) It's funny because I'm a dyke.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Philosophy of Fullmetal Alchemist, Part 3

Appendix: Japanese interpretations

Before starting this series I googled “philosophy of fullmetal alchemist,” but I didn't come up with much, so my previous two parts in this series may very well comrpise the fullest philosophical treatment of this series in English. However, there's a lot more material available in Japanese. After writing the main body of this post – to keep my interpretation original – I gave 「鋼の錬金術師 哲学」a try. Here's some of the top results.

Kira Alicetear says that she (?) feels an affinity for the military characters, specifically those in Mustang's crew. “I particularly like that the Flame Alchemist is cold on the outside but burns with passion on the inside, and I like Hughes too, but that might just be because I've always had a thing for men of action.” She's not sure how she feels about Hawkeye because, except for her romance plotline, there's little connecting her to the main story. “Oh, and I like Scar and Izumi too.”

“But I think the real reason I came to like Fullmetal Alchemist...was its world.” She explains the principles of touka koukan, using, as I do, the example of a chemical equation. She makes the additional point that for a chemical reaction to occur, some kind of energy is required, speculating that it may come from living organisms. When watching the anime, she thought that the concept was similar to something she'd heard of before, but only remembered when she went to read the tankoubon.

“It was similar to the essence of the Study of Logical Philosophy.” Oh for fuck's sake, now she's talking about Wittgenstein. I guess that means I was onto something when I was ranting about him earlier, but on the other hand, Wittgenstein. Go away, Wittgenstein, go away. “Although I've never actually read Wittgenstein's book 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.'” You're better off, sweetheart. Next part's hard to translate – I think it says that in Wittgenstein, the interaction of language and the world form the figurative “map?” And that the one-to-one correspondence of language and events is similar to the system of alchemy. Another example:

“Language (the internal structure of a proposition) → (Wittgenstein's logical method) → the World (the internal structure of events)”

“The first example [of the chemical equation] and the second example can have a (logical) one-to-one correspondence, and Wittgenstein's logical method corresponds to military drilling. Thus you can conclude that alchemy exists currently (logical philosophy), and that so do alchemists (Wittgenstein). Lol.”

“In Wittgenstein's logical method, you can say that the world and language are of equal value. If you put this to practical use, it means that if the internal structure of the world changes, the internal structure of language changes along with it.” Sure. If language exists to describe the world, then naturally it must change to suit the times. “However, if the internal structure of language changes, the internal structure of the world that it indicates changes with it as well.” I can dig that, too. As far as I can tell language both drives and reflects culture. However, Kira seems to say that the relationship is not quite the same, because in Wittgenstein, “'there is only one interaction between the real world and language,' that is, an equivalent value that goes in only one direction.”

Having said all this, Kira still believes that we can “smash” Wittgenstein's philosophy. “That is to say, there exists a society that can only be seen as a glimpsed fantasy of 'if the internal structure of language changes, the internal structure of the world changes.' It's Japan. A society that satisfies this theory existed 1000 years before Wittgenstein. The so-called 'belief in the soul of language,' and societies with taboos, are certainly fantasies, at the very least it is thought that songs and words have influenced Japanese culture.” OK, you grabbed my attention with the bold, no-frills declaration of “it's Japan,” but are you going to at least justify how this is specific to Japan and not just world cultures in general? “I've strayed from my main point.” I guess not.

“Touka koukan is not the only resemblance between the world of Hagaren and the logic of Wittgen.” Now she explains the taboo of human resurrection and its impossibility. This is because of the law of touka koukan, which prevented the brothers' mother from actually returning to the world of the living in spite of their successfully creating a human body. “In the logic of the world (Truth) that cannot be reached simply through the one-to-one correspondence of language and the world, the frustration of these two alchemists (Ed and Wittgenstein) is very similar.” I think I know what she's referencing. Wittgenstein believes that words are insufficient means for describing/understanding the world, saying that once you have understood something you must discard the linguistic steps you took to get there or as he puts it “[he] must so to speak throw away the ladder after he has climbed up on it.”

She also mentions that some of Wittgenstein's ideas seem to be contradicted by Goedel's incompleteness theorem, “though it was written in Goedel's book that Wittgenstein actually misunderstood the incompleteness theorem,” but that this allowed Wittgenstein to move closer to his “language game” concept – much as Ed and Al were able to use their mistake to move closer to the Door of Truth.

The first respondent identifies the theme of karmic retribution, represented in the rules of touka koukan. There is a conflict between absolute rules and morality, and the morals of the main characters usually win out. Kimblee seems to be a mouthpiece for Arakawa. He preaches that humanity should own up to its failings and not avert its eyes from the dirty things it has done. In his last moments, Kimblee allows the brothers to succeed. You could look at this as either opportunism, or an interesting conclusion. However, she seems not to have put any hidden meaning in Hagaren, and it is probably just as it appears (though I, Rude Boy, hasten to note that this is different from there being no meaning).

The second respondent finds it interesting that all attempts at human resurrection fail without exception. This view of death must have been something Arakawa wanted to get across. Also, “zen to ichi” seems to have been inspired from the ideas of the ancient Hellenistic societies.

“Alchemy comes up often in discussions of the history of engineering.” I would not have guessed that. “The worldview of alchemy explains the achievements of classical mechanics and Newton.” Wait, people study the history of engineering? “The 'touka koukan' idea from Hagane no Renkinjutsushi explains the viewpoint of engineers.”

“Like, the 'touka koukan' idea from Hagane no Renkinjutsushi, you know?
“Basically touka koukan = you have to have something of equal value to exchange, you know?
“To obtain, something of equal value must be lost, you know? < Anime.
“People cannot obtain anything without first giving something up, you know? < manga. That is, 'logic = the path that people must protect.' It's wonderful!”

“I wonder if Philsophy is required material for Engineering?”

“Philosophy and Biology are kind of the same, aren't they. Both desire to understand the roots of the world. Likewise, the alchemists of Hagaren attempt to understand the truth of the world. I'm sure our teacher must have felt something from Hagaren, to have written such a textbook. Ahh, I'd really like to hear what our teacher thinks of the philosophical themes in Hagaren if s/he were to read it...!”

Oh, here's a relatively recent analysis, from just this last year. Motoharu tells us that she – let's just say she unless I hear otherwise – greatly enjoyed the manga, but that there were a few points she just couldn't accept. Her first question has to do with Ed and Al's activities from the middle of the story to the end, when they confront Homunculus, and Hohenheim. The second question is Ed's reasons for destroying his alchemical knowledge in the climax.

There are two main differences between Hohenheim's alchemy and Homunculus's. First, Hohenheim's seems more similar to Eastern Alchemy, whereas Homunculus leans more towards Western Alchemy. Second, and more importantly, in Hohenheim, and only in Hohenheim, the sacrificed Xerxesians seem to accept his actions, and join the fight. “In other words, Homunculus does not acknowledge that his (supposedly) unlimited power comes from human sacrifice, but Hohenheim gains their approval by asking for permission? You can think of Hohenheim's gaining consent through dialogue as deception on his part.” Because at the end of the day, he's still using their stolen lives.

Motoharu surprises me by suddenly announcing that you can look at Hagaren through a Marxist analysis. I think I kind of see where this is going, if we're taking the touka koukan angle. Oh, yeah, we're taking the touka koukan angle. If Person A wants something, and Person B has it, Person A must have something of equal value to offer to Person A in order to get it. “These are the absolute basics of economic theory.” Ha! Now she's using the Youswell example, just like I did. She makes the interesting point that there is some degree of arbitrariness in attempting to come to a consensus when making a trade, which is certainly true, since individuals place varying worth on the same things; you or I would probably look on Hagaren merchandise as quite valuable, but Great Aunt Gertrude might not feel the same way.

Similarly, there's clearly a huge difference in value between coal-mining rights and one night's lodging at an inn, demonstrating that time is not valuable in the sense that other things (like money) are valuable. “Let's call this 'the timeless exchange paradigm.'” I think this might be referencing the Marxist point that labour is implicitly (and thus unequally, and perhaps unfairly) assigned a value based on the value of the goods being produced. “This means that based on the concept of time in relation to the timeless paradigm, the concept of 'the accumulation of capital' does not exist.”

“Incidentally, this paradigm changes in the middle of the story.” While at first Philosopher's Stones appear to “ignore (or overcome)” the law of equivalent exchange, we eventually learn that they are actually just a store of power, “like a bank.” Even the seven homunculi are beholden to the limitations of this seemingly inexhaustible power, as is Hohenheim and, for that matter, even Homunculus himself. “At this point, the 'timeless exchange paradigm' becomes the 'within-time exchange paradigm.'” I'm having trouble following her myself, so it's probably even harder trying to do it secondhand and in translation. I'm sorry. I'm trying. Ah! Here we go: Homunculus and Hohenheim are huge stores of power, to the point that they seem to have actually escaped the constraints of touka koukan, but, in reality, are still bound by them. So, if I'm reading this right, she's trying to tell us that Hohenheim and Homunculus represent bigwig capitalists, who are still, no matter how much capital they may accumulate, bound by the rules of economics?

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the two: Homunculus views his accumulated souls as tools to be used, and Hohenheim looks at them as individuals (Kantian ethics!!). Oh, but in the end she says that she finds the story of Hohenheim and the brothers managing to overcome the practically omnipotent Homunculus to be a stale and hackneyed development. Well, I'm not sure what else she thought might happen. Whatever other surprises the series held for me, I was always always pretty sure that the heroes would pull through in the end somehow. She concludes the post with some mentions of “violence” and how she finds it vexing that Homunculus is able to succeed in reaching the moon by using it as a tool, and something about parental abandonment vis-a-vis Homunculus/Hohenheim and Hohenheim/Ed and Al, but it's less coherent than the rest of the post. She also doesn't address her second question of why Ed destroyed his Door of Truth and I can't find a Part 2 anywhere, so I'm not sure what's up with that.

This site here contains three densely academic pieces containing a lot of stuff I had to look up, so my explanations may not be up to par, and also we won't go into as much depth because they're kind of hard for me to translate. All three deal with Hermeticism, a brand of philosophy I've heard of but never studied. As the one user noted earlier, referring to God as the All or the One, as in Hagaren, is very Hermetic. It's not dissimilar to Tillich's God, in that He is neither a single all-powerful God nor manifested in a pantheon of lesser gods but rather is all over the damn place all the time. Among other things, it also has a stance on alchemy, which it views in the wider context of chemical reactions – again, like Hagaren. More importantly, it reveals the truths of life and death, and is one of the trinity of disciplines essential for understanding the world, the other being astrology and theurgy (magic). Theurgy is the gods, astrology is the stars, and alchemy is the sun, which recalls the scene in Xerxes when Edward explains the symbolism of the stone slab to the military guys.

Fulcanelli - a guy who wrote a bunch of stuff in the 1920s. According to the article, he was a 20th, alchemist. K...ay. And the final Hermetic philosopher of that era as well. One of his extant works deals with alchemy and Kabbalah, the true secrets of which are hidden in Notre Dame, a seat of power for the Freemasons. Really just kind of losing credibility with every sentence here, aren't we. It throws out a bunch of other names too, ask in the comments if you want to know what they are. It concludes with a story of a doctor he once knew suddenly approaching Fulcanelli on the street, in 1954, when that doctor should have been 113 years old, but “certainly didn't look it.”

Jakob Bohme - a Lutheran theologian. I don't know, I'm looking over this stuff, and a lot of it – like that humans have fallen from a state of grace to a state of pain thanks to original sin, and that demons are fallen angels – I mean I just thought that stuff wasn't Bohmean thinking but more just, you know, the Bible. But that's why I undertook this little exercise. Also, though the author does claim that Bohme is a totally Hermetic kind of a guy, this whole entry is mostly just a long story with no discernible connection to either Hagaren or alchemy, so let's move on.

Isaac Newton - noted mostly for things like revolutionizing the discipline of physics and inventing calculus, but for whom these pursuits were really just diversions in the path of his true goal: learning to transmute lead into gold, despite the fact that this had been pretty conclusively proven impossible decades earlier. There's mention of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, which – I mean, seriously, first the Freemasons, now this? What's going on with all this conspiracy theory stuff? Newton wrote something called “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.” Ah, guys, if I could interject, I know “natural philosophy” has “philosophy” in the name, but come on now, please let's be serious.

So here's a guy named Tatsuya. The site layout is extremely pink and his banner is a cute fluffy bunny. I'm not even going to going to question it.

He explains the manga quote that gave birth to the monologue that opens each episode of the 2003 anime, and restates it as “People cannot mature without pain,” or, no pain, no gain, as we would say in English. “And you can say the same thing in business,” because you have to learn from your mistakes in order to advance. Well, I'm not sure that that's a principle that's specific to business exactly, but true enough. In other words, “you can overcome difficulty if you're prepared to face up to it,” which seems kind of obvious, but you know.

Claims that the heart of alchemy is self-transformation more than anything, which you could certainly make an argument for given the events of Hagaren. It also mentions that you can separate a human being's daily life into the separate components of the morning, afternoon, and night, which are classified as “niguredo,” “arubedo,” and “rubedo,” respectively. I don't know what those are in English (they're obviously Japanized from another language entirely), but they seemed kind of important, so let me know if you have any ideas.

UPDATE: An Anonymous commenter clued me in: The words are "translated for the Latin words nigredo, albedo, and rubedo. They along with citrinitas are the 4 stages of alchemy. They roughly translate into English as the blacking (nigredo), the whitening (albedo), the yellowing (citrinitas), and the redding (rubedo)." They correspond to decomposition, purification, transmutation, and success. (There's some stuff in there about Jung as well, but I don't think that exactly concerns our philosophical enquiries.) During his kerfuffle with Scar, Armstrong lays out a very similar, but slightly simplified sequence of understanding -> decomposition -> recomposition, so Arakawa's sort of showing her work here. I gather that this site is contending that the stages it identifies are intended as analogues to the progression of a person's internal transformation, or, more generally, to the progress of a work of creativity or labour. So, even in something fantastic and fictional like alchemy, we can still find something thought-provoking and relevant to our own lives.


That's it for my philosophical analysis of Fullmetal Alchemist. I originally intended it to be, like, maybe 2000 words, all in one post, but then somehow I got going and it just turned into this monster. My most popular post ever, week in, week out, has been that stupid fucking Evangelion analysis that I wrote in ten minutes and then vomited onto the Internet, so in all likelihood this three-part series will now ensure that four of my top five posts will be anime-related, forever. I guess that's all right, especially if a few visitors end up staying. Point is, I hope you enjoyed this short series, and see you again.