Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts

21 August 2022

Book Review: The Good German of Nanking (1998) by John Rabe, edited by Erwin Wickert, *****


The personal journals of German businessman John Rabe describe the infamous 1937 Japanese siege of Nanking and his efforts to protect the Chinese from the massacre that followed, an endeavor that may have saved more than 250,000 lives.


An essential reading to understand the tragedy of the Nanking massacre but also how the soul of a man can be divided between allegiance to a murderous dictator and attachment to the values of a most sublime humanity.

Schindler of Hollywood fame saved about 1,200 lives. Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian fascist bureaucrat working in Hungary, saved over 5,000. Rabe saved a number that is two orders of magnitude bigger than Schindler's, up to 200,000 depending on estimates, but died poor and forgotten.


You can watch a documentary on John Rabe here on Youtube.

07 August 2021

Film review: Emperor (2012) by Peter Webber, *****


Brigadier-General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) is sent to Japan as a part of the occupation force. He is tasked with arresting Japanese war criminals, including former Prime Minister Hideki Tojo.

Before he departs, he privately orders his Japanese interpreter, Takahashi, to locate his Japanese girlfriend, Aya Shimada. 

After arresting Tojo, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur asks Fellers, whom he recognizes as a Japan expert, for advice about whether Emperor Hirohito can't be tried as a war criminal. Doing so could lead to a revolt, but the American people want the Emperor to stand trial for Japan's actions. MacArthur gives Fellers ten days to investigate the Emperor. When Takahashi informs Fellers that Aya's Tokyo apartment was bombed, he orders him to investigate her hometown, Shizuoka. 

MacArthur and Hirohito


A well constructed historical drama, very close to actual events, interwoven with a love story that probably is not so realistic but serves the purpose of this film. The film does not answer the million-dollar question, was the Emperor responsible for the war? But it does help to understand he deserves some credit for Japan's decision to surrender and therefore end the war.

02 April 2021

A conversation about China

- Hi I am from Indochina. I'd like to think what you think of China.

- Hi I'm from Europe, I'd be interested in your views too, wanna start? 

- China has traded with Indochina for thousands of years. Several times over those centuries, it was the world’s most powerful empire. Never once they sent troops to take our land. Admiral Zhenghe came to Malacca five times, in gigantic fleets, and a flagship eight times the size of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, Santa Maria. He could have seized Malacca easily, but he did not. 

- True he did not, but not because he was an especially nice guy, it was not his order from the emperor. He was to explore. Many Chinese emperors did not want much contact with the outside world. They wanted isolation.

- In 1511, the Portuguese came. In 1642, the Dutch came. In the 18th century, the British came. We were colonized by each, one after another. When China wanted spices from India, it traded with the Indians. When they wanted gems, they traded with the Persians. They didn’t take lands. 

- True they didn't invade India or Persia but they did at various times invade parts of Siberia (later lost to Russia), Korea, Vietnam, Turkish central Asia, and of course Tibet. The last two they are still holding on to. 

- The only time China expanded beyond its current borders was during the Yuan dynasty, when Genghis and his descendants Ogedei Khan, Guyuk Khan & Kublai Khan conquered China, Mid Asia and Eastern Europe. But Yuan Dynasty, although being based in China, was actually a part of the Mongol Empire. 

- I'm glad you brought up Mongolia. Here either you argue Mongolians are really Chinese, then "China" invaded central Asia and eastern Europe. Or you argue Mongolians are not Chinese, then China is now occupying half the country, which explains why the other half (the independent Republic of Mongolia, called in China "outer Mongolia") is always staunchly pro Russian, whether it's the Soviet Union or capitalist Russia. They want Russian protection against a potential Chinese threat. You can't have your Mongolian cake and eat it too! 

You also forget that The Chinese empire under the Mongols tried to conquer Japan, but failed because their fleet was destroyed by typhoons, the "kamikaze" or divine winds. That saved Japan, but China did try to invade, a couple of times actually.

And now China is slowly occupying the South China Sea on no internationally recognized legal basis. 

- Then came the "Century of Humiliation". Britain smuggled opium into China to dope the population, a strategy to turn the trade deficit around after the British could not find enough silver to pay the Qing Dynasty in their tea and porcelain trades. After the opium warehouses were burned down and ports were closed by the Chinese in ordered to curb opium, the British started the Opium War I, which China lost. Hong Kong was forced to be surrendered to the British in a peace talk (Nanjing Treaty in 1842). The British owned 90% of the opium market in China, during that time, Queen Victoria was the world’s biggest drug baron. The remaining 10% was owned by American merchants from Boston. Many of Boston’s institutions were built with profit from opium. 

- I agree with you on this point completely. The British conquest of Hong Kong and its opium trade was disgraceful and ought to be remembered as such. 

- Eighteen years after the Nanjing Treaty, in 1860, the West started getting really really greedy. The British expected the Qing government: 1. To open the borders of China to allow goods coming in and out freely, and tax-free. 2. To make opium legal in China.

Insane requests, the Qing government said no. The British and French, started Opium War II with China, which again, China lost. The Anglo-French military threatened to burn down the Imperial Palace, the Qing government was forced to pay with ports, free business zones, 300,000 kilograms of silver, and Kowloon was taken. Since then, China’s resources flowed out freely through these business zones and ports. In the subsequent amendment to the treaties, Chinese people were sold overseas to serve as labor. 

- Sadly this is true as well, shame on the French as well as on the British. 

- In 1900, China suffered attacks by the 8-National Alliance(Japan, Russia, Britain, France, USA, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary). Innocent Chinese civilians in Peking (Beijing now) were murdered, buildings were destroyed & women were raped. The Imperial Palace was raided, and treasures ended up in museums like the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. 

- Again I agree and am ashamed my country was part of this shameful attack. 

- In the late 1930s China was occupied by the Japanese. Millions of Chinese died during the occupation. 300,000 Chinese died in Nanjing Massacre alone. 

- Japan's horrific occupation is well known and should be remembered as such. The Nanjing massacre too, though the numbers you mention are probably too high. One sad problem is that Mao and Chiang were too busy fighting each other instead of joining forces against Japan. 

- Mao brought China together again from the shambles. There were peace and unity for some time. But Mao’s later reign saw sufferings and deaths from famine and power struggles. 

- Be serious: yes Mao won the civil war, but then he brought unprecedented misery to China. More innocent people died at his hand than did in Nazi camps and Soviet gulags combined. Mao destroyed the economy, the cultural revolution destroyed more of the country's cultural heritage than all foreign invasions. Luckily Chiang, for all his crimes and corruption, took Some 7000 crates of artifacts to Taiwan, now preserved in a museum in Taipei. 

- Then came Deng Xiaoping and his famous “black-cat and white-cat” story. His preference for pragmatism over ideology has transformed China. This thinking allowed China to evolve all the time to adapt to the actual needs in the country, instead of rigidly bound to ideologies. It also signified the death of Communism in actual practice in China. The current Socialism + Meritocracy + Market Economy model fits the Chinese like gloves, and it propels the rise of China.

- There is no socialism in China except for one-party rule. Education is not free nor is housing or health care. As for meritocracy, yes there are many opportunities for capable people to emerge, but still, China is very corrupted, ask any Chinese in private (they won't say it in public or post it online). 

- Singapore has a similar model and has been arguably more successful than Hong Kong because Hong Kong is the gateway to China, was riding on the economic boom in China, while Singapore had no one to gain from.

- To compare Hong Kong and Singapore is difficult, too many differences. Both have been successful, but Singapore has been free for half a century, Hong Kong was never free: not under the British, not under China. 

A comparison of China and Singapore is even more of a far-fetched proposition. There is minimal corruption in Singapore and much more meritocracy. Hong Kong was successful because of its market economy and free trade, both of which are now in question. 

- In just 30 years, the CCP has moved 800 million people out of poverty. The rate of growth is unprecedented in human history. They have built the biggest mobile network, by far the biggest high-speed rail network in the world, and they have become a behemoth in infrastructure.

- Indeed, when China jettisoned socialism in all but name and embraced capitalism the economy predictably took off. 

- They made a fishing village called Shenzhen into the world’s second-largest technological center after the Silicon Valley. They are growing into a technological powerhouse. It has the most elaborate e-commerce and cashless payment system in the world. They have launched exploration to Mars. 

- Indeed huge progress in all of this, though Shenzhen was more than a fishing village, and I am not sure about the second-in-the-world, still, it is now an amazing XXI century city. 

- The Chinese are living a good life and China has become one of the safest countries in the world. The level of patriotism in the country has reached an unprecedented height.

- Sadly not all Chinese have a good life, far from it, much the countryside is still poor, inequalities are huge and many workers have no holidays, no pension plan, no insurance, in other words: no rights. 

- For all of the achievements, the West has nothing good to say about it. China suffers from intense anti-China propaganda from the West. Western Media used the keyword “Communist” to instill fear and hatred towards China. Everything China does is negatively reported. 

- Obviously, there are different views about China in the west, this is the nature of democracies. Many, like me, admire China's achievements and think we can all learn from them, but that does not hide its faults and shortcomings. 

- Westerners claimed China used slave labor in making iPhones. The truth was, Apple was the most profitable company in the world, it took most of the profit, leaving some to Foxconn (a Taiwanese company) and little for the workers. 

- Indeed it is not difficult to find many western companies which profited from China's labor laws, which give little protection to workers. That western companies make money in China does not make these laws good. I believe things are changing, as Chinese workers claim more rights, the way their colleagues in the west did decades ago.

They claimed China was inhuman with the one-child policy. At the same time, they accused China of polluting the earth with its huge population. The fact is the Chinese consume just 30% of energy per capita compared to the US. 

- The one-child policy was Deng Xiaoping's overreacting response to Mao's push to have as many children as possible. Both policies were wrong. Now China has a demographic time bomb waiting to go off as not enough young people will be there to support an aging population.

- Western countries claim China underwent ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang. The fact is China has a policy that prioritizes ethnic minorities. For a long time, the ethnic minorities were allowed to have two children and the majority Han only allowed one. The minorities are allowed a lower score for university intakes. 

- True indeed that minorities have enjoyed some privileges for a long time, but again that does not mean they are not repressing the Xingjian culture. Some in the West claim it is genocide, which it is not, but it is still a massive form of human rights violation.

- There are 39,000 mosques in China, and 2100 in the US. China has about 3 times more mosques per Muslim than the US. 

- I don't know where you got that number. The point is that in China all religions must submit to the central government, which is why the Vatican still does not recognize Beijing. China argues that its minorities are Chinese and is working to sinify them. 

- When terrorist attacks happened in Xinjiang, China had two choices: 1. Re-educate the Uighur extremists before they turned terrorists. 2. Let them be, after they launch attacks and killed innocent people, bomb their homes. China chose 1 to solve problem from the root and not to do killing. How the US solve terrorism? Fire missiles from battleships, drop bombs from the sky. 

- I agree the American response to Islamic fundamentalism has long been flawed and has failed. But China is trying to erase Turkic culture, not just Islamic extremism. 

- During the pandemic, when China took extreme measures to lock down the people, they were accused of being inhuman. When China recovered swiftly because of the extreme measures, they were accused of lying about the actual numbers. When China’s cases became so low that they could provide medical support to other countries, they were accused of politically motivated. 

- China initially denied there was a virus and repressed whistle-blowing doctors who flagged the problem back in late 2019. Time was lost and the problem got worse before they started doing something about it. 

- Western Media always have reasons to bash China. 

-I agree with you, it is always easier to blame others for one own mistakes. 

- Just like any country, there are irresponsible individuals from China who do bad and dirty things, but the China government overall has done very well. But I hear this comment over and over by people from the West: I like Chinese people, but the CCP is evil. What they really want is the Chinese to change the government, because the current one is too good. 

Fortunately, China is not a multi-party democratic country, otherwise, the opposition party in China will be supported by notorious NGOs (Non-Government Organization) of the USA, like the NED (National Endowment for Democracy), to topple the ruling party. The US and the British couldn’t crack Mainland China, so they work in Hong Kong. Of all the ex-British colonial countries, only the Hong Kongers were offered BNOs by the British. 

 Indeed it is hypocritical of the British to offer BNO just to Hong Kong, but any county is free to offer its citizenship to whoever they want. 

Because the UK would like the Hong Kongers to think they are British citizens, not Chinese. A divide-and-conquer strategy, which they often used in Color Revolutions around the world. 

They resort to low dirty tricks like detaining Huawei’s CFO & banning Huawei. They raised a silly trade war which benefits no one. Trade deficit always exist between a developing and a developed country. USA is like a luxury car seller who asks a farmer: why am I always buying your vegetables and you haven’t bought any of my cars? 

-I agree China is beating the old capitalist world at its own game though there are serious issues with intellectual property theft, cheating on licences, fakes etc. On the other hand I sympathize with China when it is requesting technology transfer from investors. Too many times in the past western multinationals made money in the developing world by localizing only cheap labor-intensive activities there while keeping all the high-tech for themselves.

When the Chinese were making socks for the world 30 years ago, the world let it be. But when the Chinese started to make high technology products, like Huawei and DJI, it caused red-alert. Because when Western and Japanese products are equal to Chinese in technologies, they could never match the Chinese in prices. First-world countries want China to continue in making socks. Instead of stepping up themselves, they want to pull China down. 

The recent movement by the US against China has a very important background. When Libya, Iran, and China decided to ditch the US dollar in oil trades, Gaddafi was killed by the US, Iran was being sanctioned by the US, and now it’s China’s turn. The US has been printing money out of nothing. The only reason why the US Dollar is still widely accepted is that it’s the only currency with which oil is allowed to be traded with. Without the petrol-dollar status, the US dollars will sink, and America will fall. China will soon use a gold-backed crypto-currency, the alarm in the White House go off like mad.

- China is playing this game as I understand it it is the largest holder of USD bonds in the world. Gold-backed cryptocurrency is a joke. But they could make the Renminbi convertible, it would be a strong currency, but the government in Beijing would lose control which is likely not acceptable.  Also, China is developing electronic money, not cryptocurrency, just e-Renminbi, this is a good model for others.

China’s achievement has been by hard work. Not by raiding other countries. 

- I would agree with you and admire post-Mao China a lot because of this.

I have deep sympathy for China for all the suffering, but now I feel happy for them. China is not rising, they are going back to where they belong. Good luck China.

- Yes China was a world leader several times in the past and it looks poised to become one again soon. Indeed good luck to China, it's going to need it. And the world needs a strong stable China integrated into the world economy.

21 May 2020

Film review: Naked Island (1960), by Kaneto Shindo, ****


Filmed on the virtually deserted Setonaikai archipelago in south-east Japan, Naked Island was made in the words of its director "as a 'cinematic poem' to try and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature". Kaneto Shindo, director of Onibaba (MoC #13) and Kuroneko (MoC #14), made the film with his own production company, Kindaï Eiga Kyokai, who were facing financial ruin at the time. Using one-tenth of the average budget, Shindo took one last impassioned risk to make this film. With his small crew, they relocated to an inn on the island of Mihari where, for two months in early 1964, they would make what they considered to be their last film.

Naked Island tells the story of a small family unit and their subsistence as the only inhabitants of an arid, sun-baked island. Daily chores, captured as a series of cyclical events, result in a hypnotizing, moving, and beautiful film harkening back to the silent era. With hardly any dialogue, Shindo combines the stark 'Scope cinematography of Kiyoshi Kuroda with the memorable score of his constant collaborator Hikaru Hayashi, to make a unique cinematic document.

Shindo, who had worked with both Kenji Mizoguchi and Kon Ichikawa, shot to international fame with the astounding Children of Hiroshima (1952). Eight years later, the BAFTA-nominated Naked Island won the Grand Prix at Moscow International Film Festival (where Luchino Visconti was a jury member). It is now considered to be one of Shindo's major works, and its success saved his film company from bankruptcy. The experience of making Naked Island led Shindo to appreciate 'collective film production', and has been his preferred method of making films ever since. The Masters of Cinema Series is proud to release Naked Island for the first time on home video in the UK.


A strange film in many ways: itis not a silent movie but all you hear is background noises and the desperate cry of a woman when she loses her son. Few other words are uttered in the film. The story of a couple and their two sons on an island off the coast of Japan in the immediate post-war years. They have to row their way to the mainland several times a day to fetch fresh water, take the kids to school, buy necessities.

It is a very repetitive film, with scenes of rowing and carrying buckets of water displayed over and over again, but in a way I think it has to be to depict such a lifestyle. Imagine how repetitive it must have been for real people who had to suffer through this. Having said that, it is perhaps a bit too repetitive!

Beautiful photography in black and white.

02 May 2020

Book review: Cixi (2013) by Jung Chang, ***


In this groundbreaking biography, Jung Chang vividly describes how Empress Dowager Cixi - the most important woman in Chinese history - brought a medieval empire into the modern age. Under her, the ancient country attained virtually all the attributes of a modern state and it was she who abolished gruesome punishments like 'death by a thousand cuts' and put an end to foot-binding. Jung Chang comprehensively overturns the conventional view of Cixi as a diehard conservative and cruel despot and also takes the reader into the depths of her splendid Summer Palace and the harem of Beijing's Forbidden City, where she lived surrounded by eunuchs - with one of whom she fell in love, with tragic consequences.

Packed with drama, fast-paced and gripping, it is both a panoramic depiction of the birth of modern China and an intimate portrait of a woman: as the concubine to a monarch, as the absolute ruler of a third of the world's population, and as a unique stateswoman. (inside flap of the book)


Lots of information here, as usual for Chang. She digs deeper than anyone in Chinese sources and is very meticulous in her writing. One learns not only about Cixi but also about much of the troubled history that surrounded her long reign. Often the reader is led by the hand through the lives of the many characters depicted, and one has the impression of living in the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace. A real light on the life of late imperial China.

The major problem of the book is that the author is in love with her protagonist. This produces a hagiography rather than a biography. Cixi is praised for much, too much, and hardly ever criticized. When she is criticized, then immediately follows an excuse for her mistakes (of which there were many) or her shortsightedness.

Cixi did a lot of good, but also a lot of evil, and only the former is described in this book. Perhaps this is because Chang seems to be in love with female figures of Chinese history. Her Wild Swans remains my favorite and I am looking forward to reading her new book on the Soong sisters, hoping that it will be more impartial than this one.

Have a look at my list of books on China reviewed in this blog.

01 March 2020

Film review: Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) by Scott Hicks ****


Scott Hicks' screen adaptation of David Guterson's best-selling novel. On San Pietro Island, shortly after the end of World War Two, local fisherman Kazuo (Rick Yune) is on trial for the murder of another fisherman. The hearings are attended by Ishmael (Ethan Hawke), a local reporter who was also the childhood sweetheart of Kazuo's wife, Hatsue. As the hearings progress, Ishmael gradually begins to realize the extent of anti-Japanese feelings which still remains, and suspects that it could affect the course of the trial.


A gripping historical novel about a lesser-known (unless you are a Japanese-American) aspect of domestic politics in the USA during and after World War II. A dark page in American democracy but a message of hope at the end. Also, it shows how immigrants in the American melting pot do not always, well, melt in the pot but keep cultural, if not political, affiliations to their country of origin.

You can buy the book here

Compra la versione italiana qui

04 February 2019

Peleliu island, Republic of Palau

My third time on this small island whose sand is soaked with history. Today for the first time with my wife. In between dives we took a walk around the pier, where we quickly ate some snacks and took a shower.

No time to do a full tour of the island so we were just taking a short walk ashore when a stocky man driving a pick-up truck approached us and asked how long we were staying on the island. 

I told him no more than a half-hour and he offered to show us the wreck of a Japanese Zero that had been downed nearby and the airstrip for which so many people had died.

500 people live on the island now, but boats of tourists come from Koror every day to restock a couple of minimarkets. Other than that, locals have to boat to the capital for shopping.

We can see a small house, nothing special but the building is proudly announced by signs and photos as the house where the Japanese Emperor and Empress rested during their visit to Palau and Peleliu on 9 April 2015.

The photos of the imperial visit show the couple, meeting local elders and children, and of course paying tribute to the fallen soldiers of both sides, Japanese and American.

There are two mausoleums on the island a Shinto for the Japanese and one for the Americans, though both sides, I am told, retrieved their dead to be buried in their respective homeland.

Peleliu offers better dive sites than Palau, I wish we had spent more time here. But I fear the liveaboard skipper wanted to save fuel...

In the final dive of the day an incredible encounter with a leopard shark.

29 January 2019

Iro wreck dives, Palau

The "Iro" was not a "maru", like most wrecks in the Chuuk lagoon, ie it was not a merchant transport converted to military uses. It was an oil tanker built in 1921-22 expressly for the imperial Japanese navy. Funny she was powered by coal, was a steamer, even though she carried oil for the engines of other ships. One of only 9 oilers in the Japanese navy in WWII, a major weakness.

It participated in most major WWII operations, except Pearl Harbor. During the course of the war, it was hit many times but survived.

It was finally hit by a torpedo in her bow near the Philippines which chopped off a whole bite of the hull at the very front edge. In March 1944 it was limping on her way to Chuuk to be repaired when she learned of operation Desecrate, the American attack on Palau, and she was ordered to Palau, the next maritime line of defense for the imperial navy.

There she was again attacked and finally sunk.

It was salvaged in the 1950s, the Japanese recuperated the bodies and valuable metals but... the boat bringing the remains of the Iro's sailors and any valuables back to Japan sink en route!

The Iro now rests upright, stern sank first and is deep under the sand with prop and rudder clearly visible. A most interesting set of dives.

21 August 2018

Japanese dinner

The most memorable thing from this easy day of work in my hotel (it was mostly raining) is dinner at YAKINIQUEST, a Japanese restaurant on Clarck's Quai that specializes in wagyu beef from Japan.

Two floors: upstairs it is totally empty today, for now at least. I choose to stay downstairs, with the fridge of beef in good view and I am the only patron anyway but at least there are staff to see and talk to.

We are welcomed by a sweet Philipino girl who speaks with a very low voice but works fast and efficiently to set up my table.

The boss tells me he receives about 400-500 kg of meat every month from southern Japan.

He nods repeatedly with conviction: it is true that some farmers massage and give beer to cows to make them relax and eat more and produce better beef.

The sequence went from raw to grilled to marinated and ended up with ice cream. Dessert was a Japanese curry, oddly enough if you are not Japanese.

16 August 2017

Prigioni, sommergibili e pentole di ferro nei dintorni di Dalian

Oggi il nostro amico Dong ci porta in giro per i dintorni di Dalian, andremo a visitare due siti molto speciali, inusuali per un turista: una prigione ed una base della marina militare.

La prigione di Lushan è un sito intriso di storia, un luogo triste ma che deve essere visitato. Non tanto per l'edificio in sé, che è insignificante dal punto di vista architettonico. E neanche per quella che è stata in passato la sua funzione. Ma una visita fornisce strumenti essenziali per capire il punto di vista cinese nei confronti dei due paesi vicini, Russia e Giappone, che hanno gestito la prigione oltre un secolo fa. E, più generalmente, la determinazione cinese a non accettare mai più di essere sottomessi, per non parlare di colonizzati, da potenze straniere che si erano approfittate della debolezza dell'ultimo impero Qing.

Infatti nell'edificio, oggi museo, impariamo come la prigione sia stata creata dai russi, che vennero qui con la forza ai tempi dello zar Nicola II, e ci imprigionavano i cinesi. Poi vennero i giapponesi, che cacciarono via i russi ma continuarono ad imprigionare cinesi. Si visitalo le lugubri celle, si impara degli strumenti di tortura.

Finita la visita ci fermiamo in una farmacia, ho un po’ di mal di testa e vorrei un'aspirina. La farmacia è pulita, ben organizzata e con alcuni cartelli in inglese che spiegano le medicine esposte sugli scaffali. Le medicine cinesi tradizionale e quelle che loro chiamano "moderne" oppure "occidentali" (che vuol dire sviluppate con il metodo scientifico) sono in reparti diversi del negozio. La Cina non solo ha accettato la medicina scientifica, ma contribuisce anche alla ricerca con i suoi modernissimi laboratori. Però resta diffusa la fede nelle medicine tradizionali, erbe ed agopuntura, e tanti cinesi, penso la maggioranza, si affidano all'una e all'altra.

Da quello che mi raccontano amici e parenti i cinesi negli ultimi anni usano troppe medicine. Un motivo potrebbe essere che i medici guadagnano una commissione ogni volta che scrivono una ricetta, quindi hanno un incentivo a prescrivere medicine (cinesi o "moderne") in eccesso rispetto alle reali necessità. 

Dati i miei trascorsi di analista militare e funzionario della NATO, la visita successiva è di grande interesse per me. Una base/museo della marina militare cinese. Il pezzo forte è un sommergibile, ormeggiato ad una banchina, che si può visitare pagando un biglietto. 

L'imbarcazione è stata costruita nel 1982 e solo recentemente radiata dai registri della marina per continuare la sua carriera come museo galleggiante. C'è una lunga fila per entrare, gira tutto intorno al mezzo che sta ormeggiato in una piccola darsena. Pare sia difficile avere i biglietti per oggi, ma il nostro tassista in qualche modo ci dice che può farci entrare, ed anche ad un prezzo scontato: 150 Rmb invece dei 180 del biglietto. Come farà? Però, ci avverte, non avremo un vero e proprio biglietto, di carta, da portare via come souvenir. Paghiamo i 150 Rmb ed abbiamo accesso alla fila. Ho pensato che probabilmente il tassista è amico del controllore dei biglietti, e si sono smezzati i nostri soldi. Non lo posso dire con certezza, so però che dopo due minuti eravamo in fila con tutti gli altri che avevano comprato il biglietto regolare. Va bene così, mai fare troppe domande.

Dopo una mezz'ora di fila, sotto un tendone che girava intorno al molo come un serpentone, salimmo a bordo tramite una piccola passerella posta a prua. Quindi seguì una camminata per tutta la lunghezza del mezzo, per uscire da una porta a poppa.

Potemmo ammirare i tubi di lancio dei siluri, le cuccette dei marinai, e la sala macchine. Interessante notare come, affianco alla cabina del comandante, indicata da una targhetta di ottone, ce ne fosse un'altra, la cui targhetta leggeva, in inglese e cinese: "Commissario Politico". 

Conferma di quello che già sapevo e che cioè in tutte le organizzazioni cinesi, comprese le strutture militari, la gerarchia di comando è sempre affiancata da quella del partito, cui spetta sempre l'ultima parola.

Usciti dal sigaro di ferro siamo indirizzati ad una parte del museo dotata di sistemi audiovisivi. Il più interessante è un simulatore. Ci siamo in circa 30 persone, in maggioranza giovanissimi, nello spazio volutamente angusto, dato che deve simulare come ci si sentirebbe dentro il ponte di comando di sommergibile. Si spengono le luci e negli "oblò" del sommergibile, che son tutto intorno a noi, si accendono le immagini degli schermi ad alta definizione. Parte il filmino...

Il sommergibile molla gli ormeggi e si avvia, in emersione, tra il tripudio della folla che saluta lungo la banchina, verso l'uscita del porto. A questo punto si immerge e nei monitor appaiono sfondi blu, pescecani, relitti di navi. Siamo in immersione.

Passa un minuto, forse due, ed il sommergibile risale a quota periscopio. Nei monitori si vede l’immagine della superficie del mare e poi, in lontananza, i profili di due piccole navi bianchissime con la bandiera giapponese e una scritta nera a caratteri cubitali sulla fiancata "JAPAN COAST GUARD". Chiaramente si sta facento riferimento alla contesa sino-nipponica sulle isole che i cinesi chiamano ... e i giapponesi .... Le isole, in realtà poco più che scogli, e completamente disabitate, 

Parte il video: il comandante del sommergibile cinese impartisce l'ordine di lancio dei siluri e la nave nipponica è prontamente affondata. Il sommergibile fa dietro front e torna in porto dove viene nuovamente accolto dal tripudio della folla fino a che... si riaccendono le luci e noi 30 spettatori usciamo per far posto al gruppo successivo.

Ho trovato questa esperienza istruttiva, non tanto per la dinamica degli eventi, prevedibile e banale, ma per capire cosa viene insegnato ai ragazzi cinesi sul Giappone. Giusto o sbagliato, il vicino del sol levante viene presentato come un nemico. O almeno come un potenziale nemico che viene facilmente sconfitto. Ho qualche dubbio sull'opportunità di questo tipo di approccio pedagogico. Mi chiedo cosa fanno i giapponesi con i loro simulatori.

Ci sarebbe anche un'altra sezione del museo, con molti cannoni ci dicono, ma possono entrare solo i cinesi, gli stranieri non sono ammessi. Peccato, mi sarebbe piaciuto. Il lato positivo di questa rinuncia è che andiamo finalmente a mangiare, Lifang ed io abbiamo una fame da lupi!

Il tardo pranzo è al ristorante Iron Pot Stew, Stufato nella pentola di ferro. Il nome deriva dal fatto che le pietanze sono servite, per l'appunto, in pentole di ferro, anche se c'è molto di più nel menù che stufato.

Al centro del tavolo rotondo c'è un grande buco, sul quale  si sistemano le pentole di ferro. Sotto carbonella accesa per cucinare e tenere in caldo il cibo. Cominciamo con pelle di pesce croccante, seguita da spezzatino di oca. Patate un po’ dovunque e spaghetti di farina di fagiolo. Quindi fagiolini verdi secchi e una specie di polenta. Altre carni e verdure che mi sono dimenticato di annotare completano il pantagruelico pasto. Sapori decisi ma non piccanti come al sud della Cina. 

Side car militare

L'ultima tappa dell'intensa giornata è al villaggio storico di Chuan Guan Folk. In Cina ce ne sono tanti, villaggi tenuti com'erano prima della modernizzazione, restaurati e ripuliti per far vedere ai turisti, e anche ai più giovani, com'era la Cina. Molto ben fatto, ci sono case, uffici, mezzi di trasporto, tra cui il mio preferito è un side-car militare dipinto di verde. C'è anche un rick-shaw a trazione umana, con cui mi diverto a scorrazzare un po’ Lifang per le stradine deserte. Siamo i soli visitatori, strano dato che alla prigione ed al sommergibile era pieno di gente.

casa a Chuan Guan village

18 November 2016

Film review: Tokyo Sonata (2008) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, ****


Kiyoshi Kurosawa the hugely acclaimed Japanese director famous for his groundbreaking, existential horror films such as Cure and Kairo [Pulse] set Cannes alight in 2008 with this highly topical film: an eerie, poignant reflection on the mass uncertainty sweeping the world.

When Ryuhei Sasaki (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) is unceremoniously dumped from his safe company job, his family's happy, humdrum life is put at risk. Unwilling to accept the shame of unemployment, the loyal salaryman decides not to tell anyone, instead leaving home each morning in suit and tie with briefcase, spending his days searching for work and lining up for soup with the homeless. Outstanding performances; serene, elegant direction; and Kurosawa's trademark chills are evident as he ratchets up the unsettling atmosphere and the grim hopelessness of Sasaki's unemployment.

  • Gorgeous 1080p Blu-ray transfer in the original aspect ratio
  • Making Of documentary [61:00]
  • Q&A, Tokyo, September 2008 [12:00]
  • Première footage, Tokyo, September 2008 [15:00]
  • DVD discussion [9:00] UK trailer [3:00]
  • 28-page colour booklet with a new essay by B. Kite


It is a film that took me some time to appreciate. At first it was actually boring. At the end it was riveting! You can see a traditional male-dominated Japanese family where the father is actually more concerned with preserving his wobbling authority, and face, than with the well being of his wife and sons. He loses his job to outsourcing to China, and can not pick himself up again. His elder son is a bit naive and wants to find purpose by joining the US military, only to be sent to the Middle East and change is view of the world after seeing the horrors of war. His house wife tried to make things work in the family but is constantly sidelined by the father.

The only member of the family who turns out to have a clue is the youngest son, who dreams of becoming a pianist and takes lessons in secret when he is forbidden to do so. In the end, his dreams are the only realistic prospects for the family and his success helps the father find his way once again.

The moral: follow your dream with passion and determination and be humble, true and honest to yourself.

04 October 2015

Sake Master Class, Londra

Confesso che mi ero iscritto alla Master Class sul sake organizzata dall’Associazione Italiana Sommelier a Londra con un misto di curiosità e scetticismo. Come la maggior parte dei colleghi sommelier presenti, avevo bevuto sake in numerose occasioni. Ma questo era avvenuto esclusivamente presso ristoranti giapponesi, abbinandolo con soddisfazione a sushi o tempura, ma senza un criterio sistematico. Come se per il sake non valessero i parametri di abbinamento - concordanza e contrasto - che abbiamo imparato ad applicare quando sposiamo un vino ad una pietanza occidentale. Sake dolce o secco, aromatico o fruttato, più fresco o più morbido, servito a quale temperatura? Ci mancavano gli strumenti per prendere le decisioni migliori.

With colleagues during the master class
Al nostro arrivo siamo stati accolti da Andrea, Federica e Armando, gli organizzatori del Club AIS di Londra, nonché da un centinaio di bottiglie di sake perfettamente allineate in ordine progressivo di servizio dietro lo schermo predisposto per la proiezione di Jonathan Beagle, simpatico inglese con lunga esperienza nipponica ed esperto di sake. Il tutto sotto il vigile coordinamento di Akimitsu Takata, responsabile di Japan@UK, un’azienda che si propone di valorizzare i prodotti del sol levante nel Regno Unito.

La frizzante presentazione di Jonathan è stata intervallata dagli assaggi di sake, che a mano a mano ci venivano versati nei bicchieri. La degustazione è molto diversa da quella del vino. In primo luogo non c’è l’analisi visiva: il sake è trasparente. Se non lo è vuol dire che il tempo lo ha leggermente scurito durante un affinamento in bottiglia magari non perfettamente conservata. Ma il sake non deve mai aspettare, è concepito per essere bevuto appena imbottigliato, pochi mesi dopo la produzione. Infatti la data indicata sulle bottiglie è quella dell’imbottigliamento e non del raccolto.

Jonathan Beagle
L’analisi olfattiva è più semplificata rispetto alla cosmologia di sentori che possiamo ricevere da un calice di vino complesso. Infine l’analisi olfattivo-gustativa, l’unica veramente rilevante per il sake. Qui i parametri in gioco sono più numerosi, e si può applicare, con qualche adattamento, la categorizzazione AIS sull’equilibrio tra sensazioni morbide (dolcezza, pseudo-alcolicità e morbidezza) e dure (solo acidità e sapidità, non ci sono tannini). La gamma dei sapori e degli aromi che emerge ad un assaggio attento è sorprendente, anche se non diversificata come quella del vino. Meno complesso del vino dal punto di vista organolettico, il sake presenta però una maggiore gamma di temperature per essere gustato, che può variare dai 5 gradi centigradi fino a 60!

Da notare come il risultato di un buon sake è opera soprattutto del produttore e meno di madre natura. Esistono infatti diverse tipologie di riso (i “vitigni” del sake) e di terroir, ma in entrambi i casi i produttori di sake non possono disporre della panoplia di strumenti a disposizione del vignaiolo e dell’enologo. Elementi fondamentali sono qui il koji, una muffa che serve a produrre zucchero dagli amidi del riso, e poi i lieviti per la trasformazione dello zucchero in alcol. Su questi si fa valere la maestrìa del produttore.

Come il vino, il sake ha una storia plurimillenaria alle spalle ed un futuro radioso davanti, e per entrambi i rispettivi produttori tendono a provilegiare la qualità rispetto alla quantità. Sconosciuto in Occidente fino a poco tempo fa, oggi viene scoperto dai sommelier di tutto il mondo per la sua grande flessibilità negli abbinamenti con il cibo della cucina internazionale. Durante la manifestazione di Londra siamo persino stati stupiti dal felice abbinamento del sake con la bestia nera del vino: il carciofo!

Federica e Andrea della UKSA

Buy your sake sets here.

Grazie ad Armando Pereira per le fotografie.

12 August 2015

Film Review: Alone Across the Pacific (1963) by Kon Ichikawa, *****


A powerful hymn to the human spirit, Alone Across the Pacific by renowned Japanese director Kon Ichikawa (An Actor's Revenge, The Burmese Harp, Tokyo Olympiad) tells the extraordinary real-life story of one man's obsessive quest to break free from the strictures of society. In 1962, Kenichi Horie (Yujiro Ishihara) embarks on a heroic attempt to sail single-handed across the Pacific Ocean.

Leaving Osaka in an ill-prepared vessel, the Mermaid, the young adventurer must overcome the most savage of seas, the psychological torment of cabin fever, and his mental and physical breaking point, if he is ever to reach the fabled destination of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Using Horie's best-selling logbook as his source, Ichikawa portrays the epic struggle of man against nature.

'Scope cinematography with Horie isolated in the oceanic expanse of the frame and a score by celebrated composer Toru Takemitsu, add to the drama of a film for which Ichikawa received a Golden Globe nomination, among other accolades.

New high definition digital transfer, anamorphically encoded, original 2.35:1 aspect ratio
New and improved optional English subtitles
Original Japanese trailer and two teasers newly subtitled
A lavish 24-page booklet featuring a colour reproduction of the original Japanese poster, archival publicity stills, and an essay by Brent Kliewer (professor at the College of Santa Fe)


This is Traveling with a capital T. Traveling for the sake of traveling. The real story of Kenichi Horie's first of many sailing challenges he set for himself. In 1962 he was a young ambitious man in Japan, a country still recuperating from a devastating defeat in WW II. He felt for his country, and said that for a nation with a long maritime tradition it was a shame no one had yet sailed solo across the Pacific. He wanted to do it for Japan.

And yet he wanted to leave Japan, where he suffered because of the cultural and social restrictions that hampered his wandering spirit. He wanted to be free of Japan as much as of his own family, whom he loved but whose interference with his dreams he could no longer put up with. He was fascinated by America, the power that defeated the Japanese Empire and established such a pervasive presence on the islands. He wanted to sail under the Golden Gate bridge of San Francisco. And he did, after ninety-four days of excruciating adventure and hardship.

He did it in a Japanese way: carefully preparing everything, meticulously executing the plan he had drawn, even trying to apply for a passport (he did not manage to get one in time) because he wanted to follow the rules. It is ironic that when he completed his feat his father, instead of being proud, promised to the media that upon return the son would apologize to the nation for having contravened the rules. (It was not allowed at the time for small boats to leave Japan.)

Buy the book here

In the US buy it here

11 August 2015

Film review: Three times (2005) di Hou Hsiao Hsien, ***

Taipei temple

Un film diviso in tre episodi in cui si riflette sulla impossibilita' dell'amore.

1911, Dadaocheng. il tempo della liberta'. il padrone di una piantagione di tè e suo figlio vogliono riscattare il contratto di una giovane cortigiana. avendo capito che la ragazza aspetta un bambino dal figlio, m. chang cerca di accelerare le trattative. la ragazza intanto diventa la concubina del padre e m. chang va in Giappone a raggiungere un rivoluzionario cinese in esilio.

1966, Kaohsiung. il tempo dell'amore. chen incontra may, che lavora in una sala da biliardo che lui frequenta con regolarita'. i due giovani giocano una partita insieme poco prima che lui parta per il servizio militare. durante un permesso, chen torna a trovarla ma lei sembra essere scomparsa.

2005, Taipei. il tempo della giovinezza. Jing e' epilettica e sta perdendo progressivamente la vista dall'occhio destro. abita con la madre e la nonna ed ha un'avventura con una donna, michy. Zhen lavora in un negozio di foto digitali ed abita con blue, la sua ragazza. quando lei scopre che lui la tradisce con Jing, diventa folle di rabbia. che futuro avranno questi quattro giovani? Almeno uno di loro potra' avere una vita serena?

Taipen night market


Non il miglior film del regista di Taiwan Hou Hsiao-Hsien a mio parere. Parte con un ritmo difficile e stenta a decollare. È interessante la sequenza storica: la "prima volta" è il 1966, la seconda è il 1911 (si parla dialetto Hokkien sotto occupazione coloniale giapponese) e la terza nella moderna Taiwan degli anni sessanta del XX secolo (si parla mandarino).

Ho trovato difficile entrare nel film, ma penso sia comunque utile a capire alcuni aspetti della storia di Taiwan, questa isola cinese che da oltre un secolo è separata dalla madrepatria.

04 August 2013

Book review: Ah ku and Karayuki San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940 (1993), by James Francis Warren, *****


Among the many groups of foreign workers whose labor built Singapore in the 20th century, there may be none as marginalized in memory as the women who travelled from China and Japan to work in Singapore as prostitutes.

This definitive study sketches in the trade in women and children in Asia, and -- making innovative use of Coroner's Inquests and other records -- hones in on the details of the prostitutes' lives in the colonial city: the daily brothel routine, crises and violence, social relations, leisure, social mobility for the luckier ones, disease and death.

The result is a powerful historical account of human nature, of human relationships, of pride, prejudice, struggle and spirit. Ordinary people tumble from the pages of the records: they talk about choice of partners, love and betrayal, desperation and alienation, drawing us into their lives.

This social history is a powerful corrective to the romantic image of colonial Singapore as a city of excitement, sophistication, exotic charm and easy sex.

In the years since its original publication in 1992, this book, and its companion Rickshaw Coolie, have become an inspiration to those seeking to come to grips with Singapore's past.

This monograph shows how prostitution flourished in Singapore due to the massive influx of male migrant labourers without a corresponding increase in women immigrants. Another reason was the famine in south-east China and north-west Kyushu, which moved many families to sell their young daughters to traffickers. It describes the two brothel zones set up in Singapore. The VD epidemic that struck following the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Ordinance, as a result of agitation by Victorian moralists in England, is highlighted. As elsewhere, wishing a "problem" away did not solve it, if fact if made it worse. The second part of the text deals with events in the lives of these Chinese and Japanese prostitutes.


Like in his other book on Rickshaw coolies, the author tells us about the history of Singapore around the turn of the XX century as seen by some of the most humble people living there. In particular, we are led through Singapore by the Chinese ah ku (euphemistic Cantonese for lady) and the Japanese karayuki-san (Japanese: the women who went South, to China).

These women were running away from abject poverty at home, and were prepared to take any risk to buy or bribe their way to Singapore in the hope of making a livelihood. But what awaited them in Singapore was not a promised land, but rather violence, hard work, disease, exploitation. Many died violent deaths. Most got VD.

While exploitation was rampant, the exploiters had no easy life. We understand that "to run a good brothel in Singapore around 1900 required courage, shrewd judgement of character, physical stamina on a round-the-clock basis, a decent knowledge of first aid , do-it-yourself gynecology, and skill in self-defense" (p.229)

Some however were able to make a living, pay off their debt and open a brothel of their own. A few lucky or cunning ones were even able to marry one of their clients and become ladies in the Victorian society.

More about prostitution in Singapore today can be read here, including a useful bibliography.

12 June 2013

Film review: Flags of our Fathers (2006) by Clint Eastwood, ****

testo italiano di seguito


The film is about a photograph by James Rosenthal, one of the most famous war pictures of all times. Thematically ambitious and emotionally complex, Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers is an intimate epic with much to say about war and the nature of heroism in America. Based on the non-fiction bestseller by James Bradley (with Ron Powers), and adapted by Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis (Jarhead screenwriter William Broyles Jr. wrote an earlier draft that was abandoned when Eastwood signed on to direct), this isn't so much a conventional war movie as it is a thought-provoking meditation on our collective need for heroes, even at the expense of those we deem heroic.

In telling the story of the six men (five Marines, one Navy medic) who raised the American flag of victory on the battle-ravaged Japanese island of Iwo Jima on February 23rd, 1945, Eastwood takes us deep into the horror of war (in painstakingly authentic Iwo Jima battle scenes) while emphasizing how three of the surviving flag-raisers (played by Adam Beach, Ryan Phillippe, and Jesse Bradford) became reluctant celebrities – and resentful pawns in a wartime publicity campaign – after their flag-raising was immortalized by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal in the most famous photograph in military history.


A typically Eastwood approach. He takes a highly unusual point of view to reveal the lesser known aspects of a very well known subject matter, in this case the flag raising photograph of the battle of Iwo Jima. Of the six men, three were killed in action a few days later. This is not a film meant to show bravery, though there is plenty of it. It is a cynical film to show how the American war propaganda machine manipulated the three survivors of the flag raising to ... raise money for war bonds. We learn how the flag itself was a coveted object of contention among politicians and military leaders. And how in the end those who were less interested in the iconic photograph were the people in it. They were there to do a job, and being in a photograph was not part of it.

Pretty amazing CGI. For example, technicians artificially reproduce the Pacific theather as a background for the rugged terrain in Iceland where the film was actually shot! You can see it's not real, but it's pretty close to look real.

Watch this film together with "Letters from Iwo Jima", also by Clint Eastwood, that tells the story of the battle from a Japanese point of view. I will review this most interesting film soon in this blog.

Region free BD

Buy the book here


Approccio tipicamente Eastwoodiano. Clint affronta l'argomento da un punto di vista molto inusuale per rivelare gli aspetti più nascosti di una vicenda ultranota, in questo caso la celebre foto della bandiera di Iwo Jima. Dei sei uomini nella foto, tre sono morti in combattimento nei giorni successivi. La macchina della propaganda bellica americana ha manipolato gli altri tre allo scopo di raccogliere fondi per finanziare il prosieguo della guerra. (Siamo a Febbraio 1945 ed il Giappone non ha ancora nessuna intenzione di arrendersi.)

Alla fine si capisce come i sei personaggi nella foto erano i meno interessati alla foto stessa: erano a Iwo per uno scopo ben preciso, e posare in una fotografia non rientrava nei loro compiti.

Buoni effetti speciali: i tecnici hanno ricreato lo sfondo dello sbarco e lo hanno inserito dietro le montagne islandesi dove si sono svolte le riprese. Sembra quasi vero.

Consiglio di vedere questo film con "Lettere da Iwo Jima", sempre di Clint Eastwood, che racconta come quella drammatica battaglia fu vissuta dai giapponesi.

BD in italiano

Compra il libro in italiano qui