Friday, April 02, 2010

Liberty Call

This was definitely something I could get used to. High atop the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo, I was eating dinner with two of my fellow aviators. Surrounding us was a panoramic view of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and the points of light beaming from every direction left no doubt as to the statistic’s truth.

The place called itself “The New York Grille,” and while it styled itself after a very upscale western establishment, the characteristics were undeniably Japanese. My friend Fu had invited myself and Chainsaw to accompany him on this excursion (the names are real…), and since I had wanted to see the sights, I readily accepted. Plus, as a single guy with no financial obligations at home and nothing else to spend my money on, a lavish dinner was becoming more of a tradition than anything in port. Some guys liked to drink beers by the pool – a small cadre of us chose the opposite route.

Tasting menus, wine pairings for each course (to be fair, I just let Fu do the choosing – I’m far from a wine bon viviant), white linen tables while a jazz trio hummed in the background. Confident men and their well dressed ladies, business being conducted, celebrations being celebrated. After nearly a month aboard ship, with grease everywhere on the white walls, fried food being the norm, and the same flightsuits worn day in and day out, the contrast was stark. The bare necessities of shipboard life suddenly transitioning into the literal lap of luxury.

Our hotel was in the trendy Roppongi district, surrounded by gaudy displays of the elite of society: Prada, Gucci, Tiffany’s, Rolex. We had an American celebrity at our hotel passing through the lobby when we checked in, to be seen quite a few times during the four day adventure. Ferrari’s, Aston Martin’s, and even the occasional Rolls Royce greeted us in the hotel’s parking each evening.

That aside, it was relaxing and comforting to be in a place where life was normal. From my vantage point near the center of the restaurant, I spied a young couple on some sort of date – they had a table on the edge of floor-to-ceiling windows with a drop of nearly 75 stories. I was intrigued to watch this Japanese pairing – the late twenty something man accepted the check, and with a shy smile and near whisper, his female companion gave the thank you repeated universally throughout the world after an unforgettable evening. Across cultures and languages, it gave me pause to consider the emotions that are unwavering across the human race.

Tokyo was our first stop outside the United States, and perhaps an appropriate one for the mission we are on our way to undertake. The United States military still has a significant presence on the island nation, over sixty years after Japan’s defeat during World War II. I’ve been reading David Halberstam’s “The Fifties,” and I found it interesting that in the aftermath of that war, in what all elements of our society now believe to be effective techniques in nation building, there was significant political opposition to our now heralded saints President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall.

It seems that both sides of the aisle blamed them for “winning the war, but losing the peace.” The War was supposed to end the tyranny of fascism and bring about the democratization of Japanese society. And yet it didn’t go according to plan – at first. It would be hard to argue that Japan ever emulated the American version of democracy. For over fifty years, and until the watershed elections of the past month, the Japanese people were ruled by one party. But they prospered nonetheless, and have charted their own course under our benign occupation.

(As an aside, we arrived days before this momentous vote, and I noticed nothing that would indicate an election was happening. This may have been due my acute foreignness and lack of understanding of the language, but there were no signs, no overt advertisements, nothing like an American race. Perhaps that is the nature of Parliamentary elections, but I think it also was a reflection of the Japanese people themselves, and the subtleness with which they carry on with their society.)

I don’t really believe history repeats itself in an absolute sense, but there are certainly lessons to be learned that can generally be applied. The first and foremost of which is that it takes decades to truly discover the effect of foreign policy decisions, especially those that involve tens of thousands of troops in far off places. I think it would be safe to say that Truman’s stubbornness in the face of shortsighted political opponents paid off in the long run. And had far reaching consequences, both for good and ill, that we are seeing to this day.

The enlightening thing about being removed from your native land is that it provides a degree of perspective, and a wave of possibilities that open up if the traveler is willing to just observe. Moving on from the heady subject of Democracy with Japanese Characteristics, let talk about something a bit more entertaining: Baseball with Japanese Characteristics.

I’ve seen some fanatical sports fans in my life – but nothing compares to the Japanese. Most baseball games in the United States are pretty subdued affairs from the standpoint of fan interaction, except for maybe the World Series. In Japan, every game is like a college football game on steroids.

The first thing that caught our attention was that we could bring beer and food into the stadium. Wally the Beer Man was actually Yukio the cute brunette in a skirt (tasteful…), which was obviously a big hit. As soon as we took our seats, we noticed that the stadium was starkly divided: The Yellow and Black of the Hanshin Tigers along the third base side through left field, and the Blue and Black of the Yokohama BayStars (the home team) from the first base line to right field.

Pandemonium is the best word to describe every half inning. The fans of the team in the field, from the first pitch to the third out, chanted their team slogans at the top of their lungs. Everything was somehow coordinated, and the tens of thousands of fans knew exactly what to shout when. Each team sported a pep band (loud!) and huge flags that were flown in their section of the outfield stands. This went on for nine innings – constant noise and colorful displays. An amazing display of endurance if I’ve ever seen one. And there were cheerleaders. Our XO mentioned in passing that an enterprising junior officer should find out where they went after the games to hang out, but to my knowledge, we never found out…

It was a fascinating microcosm of their culture. Absolute devotion to a particular cause, individualism suppressed to support the common goal. Even amidst the chaos, politeness ruled – there were no violent outbreaks or vulgar feuds between the opposing fans. A culture built on hierarchy and honor. It was somewhat embarrassing as we Americans walked away from our section: littered throughout were the remnants of our evening while the surrounding sections previously occupied by locals were as if no one had even been there.

Tokyo was eclipsed not less than two weeks later, however, by Singapore. There is an old joke comparing Air Force and Navy fighter pilots. It goes on for some time, but the last line has something about Zoomies spending time at home with their wife and kids, while the single Naval aviator picks up the hottest girl in the bar – that bar, of course, being in Singapore. I understand the joke now.

Since I am by nature a political being, I’ll begin from that angle. Singapore is a benign dictatorship with a democratic process that is one of the most economically open and successful countries in the world. Utterly remarkable. I previously mentioned Democracy with Japanese Characteristics – Singapore has its own.

While America rages over health care and every other imaginable issue under the sun, the Singaporean people are apathetic – a native’s word, not mine. I met up with a very close friend of mine from college who I hadn’t seen in over two years, and since he now lives there, was able to see the city from a very unique perspective.

Its economic openness is reflected in the people that inhabit it and the languages it considers official: Chinese, Indian, Malayian and English. Immigration is highly encouraged, although the application process can be somewhat strict and drawn out. The market seems to rule everything, to great effect. Even the lower classes seem to be quite prosperous when compared to the rest of the world, and even American poor. It doesn’t hurt that Singaporeans save at a prodigious rate, and their adversity to risky investments has allowed their economy to miss most of the worldwide financial meltdown.

One party states are able to make decisions that are unpopular, but ultimately good for the society – in Singapore’s case free trade. They are also able to invoke unity that in adversarial democracies like America would never stand – the element that most stood out to me was a poster invoking “national unity to defeat terrorism” on many of the bus stops. Even after having never been attacked! Especially for one who loves the give and take of political discussion, it was interesting to see this single party government produce results without debate.

But autocracy does come with a cost. Laws and punishments that are, to put it bluntly, draconian by Western standards. Death by Public Hanging for drug distribution, caning for various relatively minor offenses. A press that is hardly free, and a society for which libel is frequently invoked by the government. The Wall Street Journal was recently successfully sued for defaming the government when it ran an editorial in its Asian edition critical of the ruling regime. Elections are held, and although there is an opposition, they are routinely routed – albeit fairly it must be said.

In discussing this one party system with my friend while walking down the very affluent shopping district – once again, with the Gucci’s and Prada’s and Tiffany’s and Rolex’s – we ran through the democratic Asian countries that this seems to be the case with. South Korea, up until the late 1980s, was basically an autocracy. So too was Taiwan and the Philippines. We’ve already discussed Japan. China and Vietnam have become increasingly capitalistic, increasing the wealth and prosperity of their peoples remarkably (with admittedly mixed human rights results), while maintaining the single-party grip on power. Prosperity, more than anything else, seems to prevent the inevitable uprising that would occur in America towards a ruling party.

The inclination towards engineering over politics is ever present as well. It was a sight to behold within the central library to see it packed with patrons reading in all corners and along every wall. I was most intrigued by their transportation infrastructure and method of attempting to keep traffic somewhat manageable – clearly with mixed results. To own a car, you must pay an annual fee that is set through an auction system. X number of permits are allocated, and the top X bidders get them for a set time frame. This greatly drives up the price of new autos, but there seems to be no lack of desire to possess them.

Additionally, much like the much publicized London system, there are various corridors throughout the city that cost a given amount of money at particular times of the day. So, for instance, a main thoroughfare may cost $1.00 to transit between 4pm and 8pm, but be free after that. This fee is deducted from a machine on each car that basically operates like a transportation debit card, and is also linked with the parking garage system. Many of the garages have sensors over each spot, letting potential parkers know which garages are full, and signs are posted throughout the city so you have an idea of where to go. All the garages are fully automated, and the debit system tracks when you enter and leave, deducting the appropriate (and remarkably inexpensive) amount.

Their housing plan is also quite intriguing. Public housing makes up a large percentage of living units, but instead of merely subsidizing rentals, the government forces its inhabitants to actually buy their property (subsidized based on income). After five years, they are able to sell it with no capital gains taxes. With the required ownership, public housing, at least what I saw, was remarkably clean and well kept – nothing like the projects that have beset American urban centers. To be sure, there are those that game the system, and make it work to their advantage, but for the most part, it seems to both incentivize responsibility effectively and provide housing to everybody who needs it. Real estate is such a hot commodity, that instead of asking a woman to marry them, a suitor may instead ask “will you buy an apartment with me?” (If you are under 35, only married couples can own real estate). Romantic.

The political, economic and transportation situations being what they are however, Singapore is a must see for any international traveler. The Night Safari, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, was spectacular – lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, rhino’s, and all the nocturnal animals from around the world you never get to see awake and active in most Zoo’s. Plus there was something sensual about the Indian woman in the precise British accent who narrated the tram tour that brought everything to life.

Clarke Quay is a mesmerizing array of clubs and shops semi-enclosed by a unique glass roof and boardwalk of the Singapore River. Lots of very late evening were spent exploring this and Boat Quay. The Raffles Hotel, a vestige of British imperialism, stands proudly in the center of the city at a mere three stories, but with a history as rich as any hotel in Europe. For a nation whose self proclaimed pastimes are merely shopping and eating (half the downtown district seemed to be one huge above and below ground interconnected mall), there is certainly a lot to experience.

Soon enough though, it was time to leave and continue on our way. Days within re-embarking, we were informed that our deployment has been extended by two months. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the rumor mill was in full force prior to the official announcement, but still gave us a bit of pause.

No doubt more ports will be experienced, but for now we have a new and pressing focus: our first combat missions are mere days away. With that, I bid you all farewell until next time.

God Bless,


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