What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing if you are Japanese and your constitution forbids you from entering into one. Or does it?
Now here's a weird thing. There has been a lot of discussion here in recent weeks as the Government has been mulling over whether to send members of the GSDF (Ground Self Defence Force) over to Iraq, which would be, in any other country, deploying one's army. It is against the constitution, say critics, and therefore we can't do it - although they obviously say it in Japanese with a lot more waffle. But apparently it isn't. Article 9 of the constitution says something along the lines of "the Japanese people forever renounce the use of aggression [in foreign affairs, or possibly gardening, who knows]" . It may come down to semantics and splitting hairs, but it doesn't actually say anywhere in the constitution that Japan can't have an army. Apparently no one noticed this in 1954 when the precursor to the GSDF (and airforce and navy) was set up, makes you wonder where they wrote down the rules, probably on the back of a serviette over a bowl of late night ramen.
So since 1954 Japan has had armed forces that aren't regulated by the Constitution and are, it appears, in sole control of the Prime Minister of the day. Slighty worrying, that. Also, these armed forces have been pretty well equipped by anyone's standards. Doing a bit of research (the things I do to keep you informed), spending on weapons by Japan was, according to the latest figures available was US$39.5billion. Sounds like a lot of money, and it is, especially when, for the purposes of comparison, you discover that the infinitely more war-like UK spent only US$31.7billion and Germany US$38.8billion. Even the much bigger and bellicose China spent only US$55.9billion, which considering the relative sizes, seems low to me. Makes you wonder how a supposedly neutral country with armed forces supposedly only for defence can spend so much on weaponry, although I wonder how much of that 40billion dollars went to American arms manufacturers? (Actually I'm not sure that Japan is a neutral country, but it is one that stays out of fights.)
So anyway, to get around this ambiguity, the PM, Junichiro Koizumi, says 'aha, but we aren't sending our troops to fight, we are sending our troops to a safe bit of Iraq to provide water for the Iraqi citizens'. To which the rest of the world, i.e. America, shook its collective head and asked just which bit of Iraq was safe enough to be considered not a war zone - in fact the Japanese had to use the term 'hi sento chiiki' to describe what they meant by a war free bit of a war zone, unfortunately (or luckily) this expression can't be translated properly in English, so the Japanese can satisfy themselves and say 'you just don't understand' to the foreigners. This happens a lot when the Japanese don't want to explain something to foreigners.
As a result of all this, the Japanese GSDF is off to a war zone for the first time in a long time, maybe even since the end of WW2 (my research doesn't go this far). As has been pointed out, no one is quite sure what will happen if some of the Iraqi 'insurgents' start shooting at the Japanese. The GSDF is going to an area with some Dutch peacekeepers as well [insert own joke about having protection here] and it seems a little optimistic to hope that the 'insurgents' might only shoot at the Dutch - and even if they did, would the Japanese stand and watch?
Naturally the PM decided it far better not to think about this before sending his troops to Iraq - far better to adopt a 'wait and see' approach, or more likely a 'pray that it doesn't' one, although as we all know, the shrine that Koizumi prays at is Yasukuni-jinja in Kudanshita, resting place of the souls of the war dead, including all the war criminals from WW2. Hmmm
And as if Iraq wasn't dangerous enough, we have had 3 reported deaths from eating mochi this new year already! Just in case you thought mochi was the fish that kills you, you'd be wrong. Mochi is a sweet made from rice, which is pounded until it forms a kind of sticky goo, a bit like that white PVA glue you used to get at school. This then hardens a bit until you want to eat it, which you do by either wrapping it in seaweed and grilling it or putting it in hot soup. On doing this is becomes soft and stringy, a bit like warm mozzarella. So if you put a bit lump in your mouth and chew, not a lot really happens, so you try to swallow a bit, but some goes down your throat and some stays in your mouth and it all gets stretched and so you choke. This happens every year to old people who really should know better and the news reports run an on going list of the number of mochi deaths through the oshogatsu period. Crazy country.
And, just in case you come across someone choking to death on mochi, here is how to save them (and I am not making this up). Run to your cupboard, get you vacuum cleaner, switch it on and put the nozzle down the person throat (after taking off the carpet cleaning attachment (if you like the person)) and suck out the mochi. No really. Heaven knows what they used to do in the days before vacuum cleaners, but every year you hear stories about brave 6 year olds who save grandma/pa from death by mochi by judicious use of household cleaning equipment.
NB. for those with Dyson cleaners, I think the cyclone style cleaner would be just as effective, but perhaps use a lower power setting.
Lastly today, as I have to do some study, I have discovered that Dave Barry has a blog. For those that don't know, Dave Barry is an excellently funny American writer in the Bill Bryson mould and so should be read - he was one of the main endorsers of Speak Like a Pirate Day, there's pedigree for you. Anyway, go with the new link on the right - and Julian, make sure you read his Christmas poem as this will be you in a couple of year's time.
PS Defence spending data from the CIA world factbook, available at CIA which even has a CIA Homepage for kids - these guys think of everything.