Remote Year Month Six: We Out Here Backwards in the Future in Japan. Thoughts From Over Year Later in Ailing America

I started writing this last year a little over a year ago in my time living out of a suitcase trapezing through the world. I meant to write each month to reflect on the year past, but my brain has not been operating at full capacity with the pandemic last month.

Today marks 46 days of not talking to anyone in person other than saying hi to building staff and store clerks. I’m certainly not being able to fly anywhere I want. The lesson I learned that month feels urgently relevant.

I wrote…

Japan evokes complex and more personal feelings than any other Remote Year destination. My first international trip was to Japan when I was kindergarten or so, following that my first trip to Taiwan. My own story in a larger historical context involves Japan’s colonization of Taiwan and pillage of China and Asia. 

What I learned is how some places can be advanced but backwards at the same time. Development factors are not longer linear. Societies can be glittering but stacked rotten moribund layers, even if they have the resources to change them. I really feel that living in COVID-19 overrun America now.

As I moved through the world, I could feel that gaps between the so-called developing and developed world closing rapidly. In some aspects, countries we consider less resourced or advanced are able to do some things better than the so-called rich developed West. The US and Europe feel a lot less special. Latin America feels more like United States and vice versa. Asia feels like the future. Well except for Japan, where it used to feel that way.

That paragraph I wrote a year ago feels so prescient given how COVID-19 called America’s bluff, and Japan, the world with the oldest population, has been vacillating in terrifying denial.

I learned Places Can Be Advanced But Backwards. The world no longer consists of a dichotomy of First World Superpowers or Third world Banana Republics. All places now have spaces in between. In a way, you can look at COVID-19 as the natural result of places that have Third World wet markets literal blocks from affordable First World Global transit. Medellin has one of the world’s most innovate public transit systems. Vietnam, a competent public health infrastructure. I actually got vaccines and needed medical treatment while in Vietnam, and while the buildings felt a bit dilapidated and communist era, it has a competent, courteous, and efficient staff. I felt completely safe and taken care of. Both places look like what we’d in the US consider Third World, but I wouldn’t give gold stars to America for public transit or public health. This is the world we live in now.

But back to me in Japan 2019. For so long, we Taiwanese looked down at ourselves through colonialist lens and inferiority complex, especially to Japan. I’ve been on trips with Taiwanese people who look at the clean streets and organized crisp lines in beautiful Japanese cities and say “well we lost to them here.” I have a very distinct memory of that one beautiful summer in the 2009 walking along in Hokkaido hearing those remarks from older Taiwanese travelers.

I feel different now. Japan feels less impressive. It’s still impeccably clean, with a refined hospitality, and a perpetual obsessive eye for craftsmanship. But the neon glow doesn’t feel that impressive, even in Tokyo. Shanghai and Seoul feel more energetic and creative now. Japan shows its age.

Japan still is what I’d consider the only place in Asia that truly feels first world to American eyes, and it feels a lot of a lot more first world than the US – safety, on-time trains, and the like, but the mentality is what I consider truly backwards. The treatment of women, the work culture, and the unanswered questions of war crimes and colonialism still haunt Asia. I’ve spent a lot of time in Germany, and the contrast could not be more apparent.

I remember reading about how when Riz Ahmed stares at the grandeur of London, he remarks “My blood is in these bricks.” When my mother came to visit, we walked by a temple and she pointed out how they took people from Korea and Taiwan during the colonial era to build these temples. Now, tourists all over the world go to Kyoto to admire them. Hiroshima has a monument to Koreans killed by the bomb and vague references to the “Chinese sacrifice” in the war devoid of some important context. 

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For too long we have felt inferior to them, and no. Not anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I really love going to Japan and as a Taiwanese-American, I feel an undeniable connection to the culture because of history for better or worse. I’m grateful for the generous hospitality I’ve experienced in Japan and look forward to visiting again. Sushi is always on the menu for Thanksgiving Dinner at my house. But Taiwan has a female President and is an exemplar of tech innovation handling COVID-19.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent the last several weeks in shutdown NY, listening to sirens that have thankfully slowed down. More than 13 thousand people have died here, four times the number on 9/11. I literally live two blocks from the 9/11 memorial, so this is palpable for me. 

I’ve talked often about how I love working in the US, but I’d love to live in Asia. America is the land of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, the NBA, and scrappy immigrant dreams. People from all over the world flock to work here to build dreams and empires. Here you can get the highest salaries, live how you want, and be embraced for it. The cost is the risk of living in a decling empire. But I’m used to American salaries and perks, a bit too Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman. I’m a fat American, an Asian woman who literally can’t fit in Asia. Ironically though, Taiwan has become kind of this progressive wonderland run by competent people at a societal level even though I can’t live there.

To me, what it feels like the US has lost a collective confidence and a willingness to yield to the extreme voices rather than bold ideas for the future. We’re a rich country that feels like a poor country, the World’s First Rich Poor Country. I remember pre-9/11 America and miss it. 

I’m watching what I learned about Japan now mirrored. The country of my parents’ birth and where I still hold a passport feels like a nice place to go now. But I love New York, and have chosen to stay. I love the good things about America, especially the opportunity to live shoulder to shoulder with multitudes of restless ambitious people from around the world who have chosen to make this place home and dreams come true. I lament the things that are so backwards: the healthcare system, gun violence, and repetitive cycles of racism. 

Inequities have grown more extreme within countries and globally. I felt that viscerally in Japan and in this moment now in the US. This is not a lesson I wanted to live through again this way at the other end of it. Countries can be progressive and advanced but backwards and regressive at the same time, and unfortunately it depends where you sit in society whether you’re in the good or the bad of it. 

The Perfect Combo of Udon Curry and Gently Fried Veggies at Kuon in Kyoto

I’d see people lined up as if Kuon was the hottest club in town when I’ve leave my hotel (Intergate Kyoto – highly recommended with great food, coffee, and tea) to go do work at my to the hipster workspace. I’d be bummed and curious because I had to get my day started. Turns out the place had just opened and been featured on Japanese TV so people wanted to check it out.

Kuon specializes in udon noodles with Japanese style curry, which is more sweet than spicy, and various, mostly veggie, tempura skewers.

I ended up getting a table for two with no issue right as they opened for dinner. Come here in the evening if you’re on vacation so you’re not competing with the office lunch crowd, bored housewives, and retirees during the day. I ended up going here multiple times during my stay in Kyoto despite it being one of the pricier choices for a casual meal.

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Udon has what we Taiwanese term that QQ flavor, 嚼勁, or that rich al dente texture but still with that softness inherent to udon. Really high quality noodles paired with sauces and curry. It’s one of those places where the ingredients are such a cut above the rest and why people come back after waiting in line. They boast that their curry consists of over twenty spices and udon carefully sourced. Even the side dish of rice with egg tasted exceptional.

I’m a meat eater, but I have to say the vegetable dishes and those versions of the set meals are a standout. Get the avocado tempura, seriously. As a tourist, I haven’t found Japanese cuisine vegetarian friendly so I recommend it for the veggie-inclined.

The interiors have those beautiful warm wood hues and feels like a bit of a rustic oasis in a bustling part of Kyoto characteristic of so many of the small shops running in traditional Kyoto townhouses around the Kurasama neighborhood, which I highly recommend staying in if Kyoto. One of those rare places that can be good for a solo diner at the bar or a nice date.

Service is friendly, and they have English and Chinese menus. Highly recommended and worth going out of your way to eat at in Kyoto.

  • Website
  • 京都四条 くをん / KUON 420 Komusubidanacho, Nakagyo Ward, Kyoto, 604-8223, Japan/ 〒604-8223 京都府京都市中京区小結棚町420
  • $8-15 USD 

Awkward Post-Colonialisms and Contemporary Friends Between Taiwan and Japan

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Living in NYC, I am all about taking advantage of the cultural institutions and opportunities around me.  Being Taiwanese-American, I’m more than generally supportive of Taiwan’s new fledging efforts at cultural diplomacy rather than dollar diplomacy.  I believe that the future is in investing in soft power, to build up Taiwan as a brand and identity with recognition the way French, Italian, Japanese, and and now South Korean culture have been successfully exported the world over.  All the ingredients are there, it’s all in the investing resources and execution at this point.

Shameless plug – I once did a brief study on this conceptually in grad school.  

All this is why I was delighted to go to several Tea Ceremony events this weekend in NYC by Taipei Cultural Center, one of which is springboarding these thoughts here.  I’m also just a aficionado of tea and tea cultures and art(茶藝 for you Chinese reading folks) in general.  

I went to the Tenri Culture Center, “a non-profit organization with a mission to promote the study of Japanese language and the appreciation of international art forms,” where they showcased a traditional Japanese and Taiwanese Tea Ceremonies.

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This is me realizing I’m terribly underdressed, sweaty, and out-of-place.

My life being a consistent crash into different worlds and identities would of course this weekend involved me walking into this place after hanging out earlier in the West Village buying The Fire This Time and then walking in neon adidas with my hipster backpack in a crowd of impeccably dressed Japanese people and Upper East Side types.  Out-of-place as usual, but dgaf as usual, sat on them tatami mats to participate in the Japanese ceremony.  I’d seen the Taiwanese tea ceremony and have done it myself many times, but it was cool to see Lin Ceramics Studio out, true craftsman brand that Taiwan is rightfully proud of.  

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Taiwanese Tea Set from Lin Ceramics

They did a demo of both, the Japanese in full beautiful kimono regalia and explaining the symbolism.  The Taiwanese representatives did something similarly except we have no long-standing agreed upon national dress for such things, so we basically are just minimalist craftsman hipsters everywhere forever now.  The Taiwanese speaker, Rita, explained that Taiwanese tea ceremony is about being chill and enjoying the company of others more informally after the relativeness formality of the Japanese one, which totally vibed with me.  

It seemed like the event it was a huge hit to a relatively diverse crowd, good amount of Japanese, Taiwanese, and the kind of white people in dresses and hats who come to these events “oh look at this exotic eastern delicacy” to which I made sarcastic remarks to because I got no chill like that.  There’s one thing to appreciate another culture, it’s another to cross into creepy orientalism.  

(Man, I should totally just film videos of myself in Europe or something acting like the way ignorant White people do with Asian culture or being an Anthony Bourdian type archetype, who is not ignorant and snarky as a fuck about it, that would be a hoot, except I’d be both angry woman of color and ugly fat American at the same time.)

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Group photo between Japanese and Taiwanese representatives and tea masters.

Of course, I couldn’t help but think of the strange relationship now between Japan and Taiwan.  Former colonial master, now political ally, and strange bedfellows all around.  I won’t get into this so much here, there are much better writers who’ve articulated this issue.  Taiwan and China problems aren’t going way.  I’m more reflecting on my own thoughts about the contemporary relationship and the complexity it took to get to this cultural moment.   

Taiwan has largely crossed the tensions of the Japanese colonial era to post-WW2 martial law into years of a vibrant multi-party liberal democracy, but it is still in the early chapters of defining its modern self now, with much difference between the generations and demographics.  One of these fault lines of course is the relationship to Japan.  First, it’s really hard to deny the continuing relationship and closeness of that relationship as time has gone on.  Many of Taiwan’s modernization efforts, like many Asian countries, followed the line of Japan’s, down to the shopping experience department stores and industrial operational procedures.  There’s general genuine affection and understanding.  It’s complex.  

Do we have to have forgiveness and how to we articulate questions of power?  

It’s hard and weird thing.  I personally see no contradiction in support efforts for proper apologies and reparation for World War II crimes (eg. I’m really supportive of the film The Apology), not forgetting, and not letting go of that fact that Japan tries to whitewash its history.  At the same time, I don’t see it as a part of my identity to hate Japanese people, especially people born in our time period.  Don’t get me wrong though, while they while not directly responsible for their ancestors crimes, they have the responsibility to remember.  The contrast to modern day Germany’s reckoning with its past is astounding.  For the record though, I feel similarly both about the United States lack of reparative justice for slavery and for crimes commited by the KMT.

However, that oppositional identity has been part of a nation building project and even a distraction to field away domestic problems, one that politicians from both the east and west would no doubt pull the strings on its people like puppets for depending on the situation.  There are plenty who still talk of an inevitable war again with Japan.  Unlike many (and perhaps like many Taiwanese of my generation), I don’t feel any level of bloodlust towards modern Japanese people and find it appalling and dangerous that so many do.  I will admit I do have more of a psychological distance from it as someone who spent most of her life in the West.

There’s also the awkward question of how you feel about Japan depending on what section of Taiwanese society you come from but also the practical concerns of now.  49er Taiwanese fought suffered dramatic losses against the Japanese.  There is still crazy deep blue talk radio in Taiwan lamenting about Japan’s influence on Taiwanese people.  Then there are those who remember the Japanese era fondly as an era of relative refinements compared the brutal suppression by the KMT that followed.  Then again, I’ve met indigenous people in Taiwan who have pointed out footbridges to me in the valleys and gorges in central Taiwan, saying that the Japanese forced them, “our Taiwanese ancestors” to build them, but really it was the indigenous people that paid the great cost in deaths.  Then there are the years that followed, where Taiwan modernized together, with Japan being the modern Asian that all Asian countries followed the model of to some degree, especially when you speak of the four Asian tigers.  

When I think of my own family, who fought tooth and nail with the Japanese.  The 49er Taiwanese members of my family suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese. Dead and tortured broken bodies.  In Taiwan, they worked closely with Japanese people in efforts to modernize Taiwan.  Our family homes are full of Japanese finery.  My mother would talk about tea sets and wrappings at an Isetan department store as ones she recognized from her childhood when my grandparent’s Japanese friends would come to visit.  I spent a lot of time playing as a child in LA’s Little Tokyo because of the familiarity with that culture.  We still go to certain stores we know there to buy certain things.  Yet there’s also a distrust and subtle hatred.  It’s also no secret that some Japanese tourists and Japanese people still have an attitude of colonial superiority to Taiwan and vis a vis a Taiwanese inferiority complex some have to Japan.  My mother said once when we were on a trip in Japan “we look at each other with complicated feelings.”  The interpretation of Japan and our history is deeply complex.  

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I grow up admiring beautiful Japanese finery like this.

All that aside to give some color again, China is growing in power in Asia to the fear of all of its neighbors and against a Taiwanese identity that continues to grow stronger.  

I’ll say this now, I maybe a waishengren/”49er Taiwanese”, but I’m probably basically the last of my kind.  Being Taiwanese in a modern sense – identifying with values, customs, and history – overrides my Americaness or not being able to speak Taiwanese.  

Common enmity can make strange bedfollows.  China and South Korea’s articulations of modern identity and even levers pulled for social cohesion have to do with its struggle and crimes against the Japanese.  Others also suffered horribly, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, numerous pacific islands in Oceania, and on and on, but their identities ultimately were more defined in their postcolonial struggles.  I have wonder if Taiwan’s identity would have been very different and the Japanese regarded less favorably if the KMT had not be so violently repressive or simply if they weren’t the last conquerers.

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The characters mean “giving tea” as a manner of communicating hospitality.  You’ll find pots of tea on the side of the road in the Taiwanese countryside for people passing by with these characters.

I find that as we forward now as friends, we can’t deny these complex relationships of power and history.  If we don’t talk about them in a thoughtful if not totally imperfect and critical way, there is no real way to move on and have transformative justice and a better future for all of us.

In the meantime though, I’m happy to break bread and drink tea with our former enemies as friends moving forward, as long we we move forward together more as equals with mutual interest and respect.  I’d pull up a chair for China too should they decide to be peaceful about it, but maybe that’s why Japan and Taiwan are at the table together at all.

With fondness.