One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Law school is over

I'm finished. As of today at 4:00 pm, I'm no longer a law student. I handed in my last paper. Usually in these situations when I've been working away furiously for a number of weeks and then stop abruptly, there's an adjustment period lasting a couple of days during which time I am disoriented and moody. I expect those feelings to be particularly strong this time, because I'm not just finishing a term or a project, but rather an entire degree and a chunk of my life.

Once again, I have free time in which to blog and think about my trip. I bought a book about China yesterday - River Town by Peter Hessler. I can't wait to read it. All I've been reading lately are First Amendment and s. 2(b) Charter cases. Blah.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Western venture capitalists in China

I have just this minute completed my paper on the cultural challenges facing Western venture capitalists in China, and this is a post of relief and celebration. It's 3 a.m. and I need to go to bed. I learned a great deal about mianzi and guanxi while researching this paper, not to mention the intricacies of China's 1994 Company Law and the deficiencies of the Shanghai and Shenzen stock exchanges. I think it must be fascinating to work for one of the venture capital or private equity firms active in China: IDG, DCM-Doll, Intel Capital, Carlyle, etc - always looking for the diamond in the rough, the next Amazon, the next eBay.

Of course, there are complex ethical questions associated with investing in China. Are foreign investors propping up a totalitarian state, or easing it toward democracy? Does the legitimacy that foreign investment gives to the government outweigh the creation of wealth that improves the lives of Chinese citizens? How do you factor in human rights? I have no idea what the answers are, having never been to China and never thought about these issues carefully until one week ago. I imagine, however, that most people in the venture capital field are not there because they like the opportunity it gives them for tackling thorny ethical problems.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Oven mitt, part 2

I have blogged previously about the oven mitt purchased by my mother as a thank-you gift for me to give to someone in Mongolia. This weekend I beheld the oven mitt for the first time, and if you're picturing something dowdy and unexciting, you are way off. It is a sleek, high-tech marvel. It is the stealth bomber of oven mitts. It looks like a prop from The Matrix. Some lucky person is going to have the best oven mitt in Central Asia.

Back in business

Well, I still have two papers to write by the 28th, but I have a bit of room to breathe and blog.

I'm hoping to attend this talk tomorrow on Russian law and business at the Munk Centre for International Studies. Here's the CV of the speaker, Kathryn Hendley. (Yow! She hasn't been wasting her time! Look at all the publications!) The Munk Centre is conveniently on the way to U of T's gigantic Robarts Library, where I need to pick up some books on China's transition to a market economy for my paper on foreign venture capitalists operating in China. I read and made notes on a few articles today, but there's an enormous stack to go through tomorrow.

If you've been reading newspapers or watching TV news lately, you're probably aware of the recent protests in China over Japan's bid for membership in an expanded UN Security Council. My understanding is that a lot of people in China object to Japan expanding its role on the world stage without acknowledging fully and compensating for the atrocities its troops committed in China during the 1930s and the Second World War. On the other side of the issue, it seems that many people in Japan feel that Japan has done enough over the past sixty years to make up for its imperialist misdeeds, and that it's time for Japan to return to international prominence as a proud and independent nation. One of the flashpoints of controversy is a history textbook that has just been approved for use in Japanese schools; apparently, the textbook plays down, mischaracterizes, or downright fails to mention some of the war crimes committed against the Chinese population.

If you're saying to yourself, "Yeah, but the People's Republic of China hasn't won a lot of prizes for truth-telling and human rights, either," you have a point, Gentle Reader - you do have a point. I'm not sure how or whether that factors into the protesters' thoughts.

Here's a recent story from the Washington Post on the ongoing trouble. There's also a mini-gallery of photos of the protests here - very interesting stuff. It's hard to know how much of the protesting is stage-managed by the government for its own purposes and how much is coming from the grassroots level, but it looks more and more genuine as the protests go on and Chinese security forces are called out to protect Japanese businesses and diplomatic missions from destruction by the angry crowds.

If you notice me hedging a lot in this post with phrases and terms like "seems like," "looks like," and "apparently," it's because these are complex historical issues, fraught with emotion, and I don't want to hold myself out as grasping them thoroughly or having a firm opinion on them yet.

I wonder what Chinese-Japanese relations will be like by the time I reach that part of the world in September and October.

Hot Docs, Toronto's annual documentary film festival, runs from April 22 to May 1. There are some films I'd love to see - films relevant to my trip. About things Russian: Tree with Severed Branches, The Tunguska Project. About things Chinese: A Decent Factory. At best, I'll make it to one of the three, simply because all the showings take place during the time that I'll be frantically writing my papers. Sigh.

Before closing off for the night, I'll relate one more item. Back in my hometown for the weekend, I ran into an old friend from high school and undergrad - someone I hadn't seen in at least five years. He works here in Canada for a large Japanese corporation, and occasionally travels to headquarters in Japan for training. It turns out that we'll both be in Tokyo in October! I hope I'll be able to go out on one or two evenings with him and his colleagues - it'll be great to see a familiar face after so long on the road, and I'm sure they know some fun places.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Holding pattern

There's a ton to talk about - Japanese school textbooks, business culture in Russia, documentary films, the city of Shanghai, things I learned recently from No-Sword, Gleb's childish need for attention - but these will have to wait for a while. I wrote one exam today and have another one on Friday. After that, I won't be finished, not by a long shot, but my schedule will permit more blogging. Please bear with me.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Morning Musume


Once again I have failed to grasp the basic principles of the Russian steam bath, or "banya." Gleb provided an excellent explanation of the whole process as a comment on my post about tree sap. I reproduce that explanation here so that as many people as possible will see it:
Okay, let me explain it one more time.

(1) Banya is the romanization (or transliteration) of what you call "steam bath". It's not, however, a "steam bath" per se. Rather, it is the middle ground between what Finns call "sauna" and what became know as a "steam bath" (which traces its roots to a Greco-Roman tradition and finds its most accurate modern rendition in the Turkish version of a steam bath). Now, the "sauna" uses only dry heat. I.e. you sit there and sweat, but you don't splash any water on the heated stones and you don't make any steam. A steam bath is a different creature - the whole point of Turkish bath is steam. The "banya", as you may find, uses heated stones (which are pre-heated before the process begins) to head the small shed. However, in Russia, unlike in Finland, we splash water on the stones to add steam to the air. Not nearly as much steam, however, as in a "steam bath."

(2) Once it's nice a steamy, Russian use birch branches, freshly picked, still with green leaves to moderately (or lightly, or harshly, depending on what you like) strike themselves on their back, arms, legs, thighs, etc. This experience, in fact, is thoroughly enjoyable, if done right. Before the branches are used, they are waved a bit in the steamy air and above the steaming stones, so as to gather warm moisture. This stimulates the flow of blood, releases adrenalin and other positive natural stimulants, and utterly cleanses your skin/pores.

(3) Now, the real banya-lovers, will, after the whole process is done, run out of the banya and plunge into cold waters of a nearby river (even, often, into icy-cold waters during winter - they make a hole in the ice in preparation for the bath).

(4) At the end, Russians wash themselves with soap and water that was warmed with the heat of the banya's stove.

(5) After all that is done, you go back to "izba" (which is, essentially, a private village house), put on warm clean clothes and drink lots of tasty tea with sweet breads, etc.

You'll love it!

Tree sap

My Russian friend, Gleb Bazov, took me to task the other day for implying in a previous post that Russian men maim themselves horribly with large tree branches when they emerge from the steam bath. The truth, Gleb says, is that they strike themselves lightly and reasonably with thin sticks made of a suitably non-sappy wood. It would be pointless to have a bath and then spatter oneself with sticky tree sap. The purpose of the whole self-flagellating exercise, I am told, is to encourage circulation of the blood.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Peter Goodspeed in China

The business section of the National Post has been running a series all week on China. On Wednesday, the topic was product piracy - the snowballing crisis of intellectual property theft that has accompanied China's economic growth. Here are a few quotes, ideas, and statistics from the article:
"China is the global capital of intellectual property piracy."

Estimates put China's production of counterfeit products at 19-24 billion USD per year.

It's not just fake Rolexes - it's pirated DVDs and software, billions of counterfeit cigarettes for the export market, cars and motorcycles meant to resemble vehicles manufactured by Honda and GM, and even counterfeit food and medicine.

More than 90% of DVDs, CDs, and software in China are pirated.

"A unique form of Chinese piracy is to use a product name that sounds like a trademark, but is written with different characters to the registered name."

It's not a victimless crime. Intellectual property theft makes businesses go bankrupt, puts people out of work, and in the case of food and medicine, it can even kill.

The Chinese government puts a brave face on things, insisting that it is doing its best, but Goodspeed reports that little progress is being made in terms of enforcement and penalties. It's essentially the Wild West of intellectual property.


Canada sent shipments of wheat as food aid to China for 45 years. It ended yesterday, reports the Globe & Mail, with the docking of one last freighter carrying 43,000 tonnes of the commodity. China will continue to import enormous quantities of Canadian wheat, but on a paying basis. China's place in the world is changing; it is now an aid donor.

Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood recently met with officials of the Japanese government in Tokyo. They asked him to depict respectfully the Japanese soldiers who died on the island of Iwo Jima during the Second World War when he begins shooting his new movie, an adaptation of the book Flags of Our Fathers: Heroes of Iwo Jima by James Bradley and Ron Powers.

A mystery cleared up

Thanks to Matt at No-Sword, we know that the screaming girls in the weird video are members of the popular Japanese singing group Morning Musume. You can see his comments on the original post for more information.

Akira Yoshizawa

Akira Yoshizawa, world-famous origami artist and innovator, died recently at the age of 94. Here's an excerpt from his obituary in the Times of London:

When Yoshizawa folded his models there was a special life in them which few other folders could reproduce. Yoshizawa always refused to sell his models — he said that he considered them to be his children. He wrote some 18 origami books, but only a few hundred of his designs were diagrammed — and in 1989 he estimated that he had created more than 50,000 models.

For the sake of balance, here's the Yoshizawa obituary from the New York Times.

I'm here!

I've got a ton of things to blog about, and would have done so last night but for some well-documented technical difficulties with Blogger. Rest assured that very soon you'll be hearing about tree sap, origami, pop bands, copyright infringement, and a number of other topics that are somehow relevant to the big Eurasia Trip of 2005.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Japanese girls terrified by The Ring

This is one weird piece of video. A bunch of young Japanese girls are sitting in a room watching The Ring. The movie reaches a scary scene. The girls are screaming like crazy, clutching each other, covering their eyes to block out scary sights, even putting fingers in their ears to block out scary sounds. Then all hell really breaks loose.

If I had to guess, I'd say it was some kind of sadistic game show.

I like it

I don't know what it is, but I like it.

Actually, I do have an inkling of what it is - a book cover. For the title of the book, or the author, or the subject matter, you'd have to consult the author of No-Sword, or someone similarly adept with the Japanese language. Incidentally, No-Sword is where I stole this image from in the first place.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

"Factory nuns"

This is the derisive name sometimes given to the young women from China's impoverished, rural interior who have migrated to the highly industrialized Pearl River Delta in search of jobs. These women are jokingly called "nuns" because once they arrive in the industrial zone and find work, they are often forced by circumstances to live in company compounds, eat in company dining halls, and lead a very narrow life focused on work and work alone. They do not integrate smoothly into urban Chinese society. Many of them have never even visited a city before, and receive instruction from their employers in everyday tasks such as using a crosswalk.

I read about this pattern of migration in yesterday's National Post, and was amazed by some of the facts and figures in the article:

In the past twenty years, over thirty million people have left the interior in search of factory jobs and a better life. Two thirds of these have been young women.

The average factory worker in the Pearl River Delta earns $100 per month.

Many workers put in twelve-hour days, seven days a week.

When a worker lives and eats in company facilities, up to one third of her pay is withheld by the company to pay for these services.

Often, the worker will send home half of what money is left to support her family.

China's industrial boom has created cities like Dongguan, which few Westerners have heard of, but which is now bigger than Chicago.

The economy of Guangdong Province has grown by 15-20% per year for the past fifteen years, largely driven by the seemingly endless supply of cheap labour.

The flow of migration is not, however, keeping up with the demand for labour. Government officials and business people are concerned about a looming labour shortage.

I admit that I know very little about China, other than what I've read just lately. It still seems ironic to me that traditional Chinese culture has always valued boys more than girls, with sometimes terrible and even fatal consequences for girls, and now it is the girls who grow up to be the women who enable China's "economic miracle."

The hardest language in the world?

Via Language Hat, I found this article describing how an experienced language learner and language teacher - Roger Pulvers - responds with doubt to the widespread belief in Japan that Japanese is the hardest language in the world to learn. Fascinating stuff, especially when he links it to the broader and more controversial theme of Japanese exceptionalism. There's a political aspect to this kind of belief. Language Hat takes issue with some of Pulvers' technical claims about the Japanese language, which makes for fun reading as well, even if you don't speak Japanese at all, which I don't.

My heart sunk a little when Pulvers suggested that Russian is, on the whole, much harder for an English speaker to master than Japanese. For a moment, this made me feel like I backed the wrong horse, but then I remembered that convenience is not the be-all and end-all. It was one factor among many in the choice of language to focus on for my trip, and anyway, even if it's relatively easy for an anglophone like me to learn some spoken Japanese, I'd get impaled on the written language - the kanji. I do want to learn Japanese at some point in my life, but right now there's only room for Russian and a few key phrases from the other three languages relevant for my trip. Actually, at this moment, there's not even room for Russian. There's only room for the Income Tax Act and the Canadian case law that interprets it.

Monday, April 04, 2005

A legal attack on The Simpsons

I am pleased to report that a Moscow court ruled yesterday against a man who sued a Russian television network for airing programs that allegedly caused his young son to be curious about hard drugs and to insult his mother. The programs in question - The Simpsons and The Family Guy. The St. Petersburg Times reports that [Her Honour], Lyubov Dednyova, watched several episodes of each show in open court before making his decision, and that several people in the courtroom, including government officials involved in the case, had trouble containing themselves. [Author's note: I originally described Lyubov Dednyova as "His Honour." Language Hat pointed out in the comments section that "Lyubov Dednyova" is a woman's name, hence the correction above. The proper honorific for a Russian judge remains a mystery, however.]

The plaintiff argued that The Simpsons promotes unwholesome beliefs and attitudes, citing the acceptance of homosexuality depicted in the episode where a gay man saves Homer from rampaging reindeer and wins Homer's grudging respect.


I've started visiting a blog called No-Sword, written by a person named Matt who lives in Japan and works as a translator. As you might expect, the Japanese language is a major subject of the blog, and this material zooms over my head decisively. In and around the observations about language, however, are insights about living and working as a foreigner in Japan, and also some things that are just funny.

Relations between China and Japan

I'm currently taking a course on Public International Law, so this news item jumped out at me. It seems that people in China are none too pleased at the idea of Japan occupying one of the permanent seats in an expanded UN Security Council.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Because I haven't posted a picture in a while

I didn't realize that the Globe makes entire pages available as jpegs, but I found this one. Here it is, the front page of yesterday's Report on Japan, and a good-looking page it is, too, speaking as a former production assistant (a.k.a. Quark monkey) at a student newspaper. My only concern is that the sun with rays coming out of it is an allusion to the old Japanese imperial flag, and therefore a bit of a faux pas, unless I miss my guess. I'm happy to be corrected on this point.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Report on Japan

Yesterday's special report on Japan in the Globe & Mail was a treasure trove. I read every word of it. Several of the articles had a business or industry focus, including this one on the bureaucratic and cultural challenges faced by foreign firms trying to break into the Japanese market. Among other things, I learned that it's no longer considered cool to be a salaryman, the Nikkei stock exchange is making a modest recovery, Toyota and Honda have much different corporate cultures, and women have a really tough time making it to the upper echelons of management in Japanese companies.

Oven mitt

Some time ago I told my mother what I had learned about the importance of gift-giving in Mongolian nomadic culture, and about my plans to take a bunch of stuff with me to give away. With this in mind, she very kindly bought a special, high-quality oven mitt for me to give to some deserving soul when I'm travelling through the Mongolian countryside. She didn't come up with the oven mitt idea out of the blue - I had mentioned to her that the people at Boojum Expeditions suggested oven mitts as gifts, because the nomad women are always handling hot objects over the fire or stove. Whatever we in the West may think about it, domestic responsibilities in Mongolian nomad communities are sharply divided along gender lines.

Siberian Light

I was excited to come across Siberian Light, a blog about politics and current events in Russia and its neighbouring states. The author is based in London but lived for a year in Irkutsk, so I may well send an email asking for tips on how to use my time in that city.