Better Know A Holiday: Showa Day

Formerly: The Emperor’s Birthday, Greenery Day

When? April 29

Public holiday in: Japan

Part of: Japan’s Golden Week, a series of four public holidays in the span of a week that sees offices closed, trains and planes packed and a mass exodus from the major cities like Tokyo.

Who died? Former Japanese Emperor Hirohito, posthumously referred to as Emperor Showa.

They changed his name? Showa refers to the era of Hirohito’s reign. After death, Japanese emperors were referred to by the name of the era during which they ruled. The Showa Emperor’s reign lasted from 1926 to 1989, the longest era in Japanese history. Showa can be translated as “enlightened peace.”

… wasn’t he the ruler during WWII? Hirohito chose the name “showa” for his era after returning from the post-WWI battlefields in France and witnessing the devastation there. His anti-war sentiment seems to have been legitimate, but he ended up reigning over a period of unprecedented military brutality. However, he also reigned over a period of unprecedented economic growth in the years after the war.

How is the holiday celebrated now? Officially it’s a time to reflect on the era of Hirohito’s reign, Japan’s turbulent past and subsequent recovery, and where the country is headed. In reality, as the start of Golden Week, it’s when most Japanese take off for a vacation.

Other ways to celebrate: Public lectures talking about Japan’s participation in the war, to pass on the memories to future generations.Why was it Greenery Day before? Until 1989, the April 29 holiday was still referred to as the Emperor’s Birthday. But when Hirohito died, the Emperor’s Birthday was necessarily moved to December, when his son and successor Akihito was born. Hirohito loved nature, so April 29 became Greenery Day, which allowed people to acknowledge Hirohito without expressly using his name. This actually isn’t the first time this has happened in Japan. The Meiji Emperor’s birthday was celebrated on November 3 until his death in 1912, and after November 3 became Culture Day.

What happened to Greenery Day then? In 2005, Japan passed a bill that turned April 29 into Showa Day. Greenery Day was moved to May 4.

This pissed off: China, South Korea, North Korea

Why? They see the holiday as honoring Hirohito, who reigned during an era of Japanese war crimes and occupation of their countries. Japan argues it that the holiday is a time to reflect on those turbulent times, not celebrate them.

What else is going on during Golden Week? Besides Greenery Day, there is also Constitution Memorial Day on May 3, which is meant to have people reflect on the Japanese government. May 5 is Children’s Day, a day to celebrate the happiness of being a kid. Traditionally, families fly carp-shaped flags to bring good luck to their boys. Girls don’t get any flags, fish-shaped or otherwise.

These aren’t really “party time” holidays, are they? Last time, we covered Songkran, Southeast Asia’s annual drunken water fight. This time, we have a series of holidays that encourage reflection on, chronologically, a nation’s past and future, man’s place in nature, the meaning of democracy, and the innocence of children. They are decidedly not party time holidays, but that’s hardly a bad thing. You can have a party anytime. But when’s the last time you thought about the importance of effective governance and the dictates of post-war economic recovery? That’s what I thought.

Check out more holidays around the world here

[Photo Credit: Flick user Summon Baka]

Syria unrest: will there be another massacre in Hama?

Syria, Hama, Syria unrestSyrian army tanks ‘moving towards Hama’.

Just another headline about unrest in the Middle East. I’ve read so many, but this one made me shudder. One thing travel does for you is make the world more than just a headline. I’ve been to Hama.

I visited Syria back in 1994 as a young college graduate with a backpack, a bit of Arabic, and no responsibilities. I spent a month exploring archaeological sites, chatting in smoky cafes, and debating religion in the cool shade of mosque courtyards. Syria is a fascinating and welcoming place, and if the regime of Bashar al-Assad gets ousted and peace returns, I highly recommend you go.

I marveled at the beautiful Umayyad Mosque in Damascus before going to a nearby cafe to listen to a hakawati, a traditional storyteller, recite his tales to a rapt audience. I looked out over the green hills of Lebanon from the turrets of Crac des Chevaliers castle and took a dusty bus ride to the oasis of Palmyra. And for two days I stayed in Hama to see the famous noria, or waterwheels, as seen here in this Wikimedia Commons photo.

There was something strange about Hama. It was supposed to be an old city yet most of the buildings looked new. Plus the tourist map on the wall of my hotel lobby was wrong. I’d copied parts of it into my notebook to help me get around but soon found the names of the streets had changed. Even their layout had changed. It was like a map of a different city.

Then I saw the same map in the lobby of another hotel, and in an antique shop. One night I asked the manager what was going on. He looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot and whispered, “This map shows Hama before the massacre.”I’d heard of that. The Muslim Brotherhood had been fighting against the Syrian government for several years and Hama was their main base. They attacked government targets and the government hauled away anyone who seemed suspicious. Most victims were innocent people caught in the crossfire.

One night in 1982 a Syrian army patrol discovered the local Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and a firefight broke out. The Brotherhood called for a general uprising. Fighting flared up all over the city. Hafez al-Assad, then Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister, ordered the armed forces to surround Hama. The air force dropped bombs while tanks and artillery shelled the city. Then the troops went in, shooting anything that moved. Nobody knows how many people died. Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000, and all sources agree that most were civilians.

Now the Syrian army is moving towards Hama again. The son is continuing the work of his father.

This morning I flipped through my old travel diary, reliving the time I spent in Hama and Syria: the conversations, the hikes, the sense of wonder of a young man on his first year-long travel adventure. One thing that struck me was that of all the Syrians that diary mentions, none of them have entirely faded from my memory.

I remember the kindly old man who nursed me back to health after my first bad case of food poisoning. And the artist who drew a sketch of me that I still have. Then there was that wisecracking tailor who changed money at black market rates, building a nest egg of hard currency for reasons he’d never divulge. And the metalheads who introduced me to Syria’s underground music scene. It’s strange to think of those headbangers as forty-something fathers, but I suppose, like me, they are.

Or maybe they’ve been slaughtered.

None of those people liked the regime. The business owners hung a picture of Hafez al-Assad on the walls, just like they have a picture of Bashar nowadays. In a dictatorship that’s the price of doing business. But once the customers left and it was just us in a back room chatting over tea, their voices would lower and they’d complain about how the al-Assad family had a stranglehold on power.

The metalheads were louder in their protests and suffered regular police harassment. Since even their concerts were illegal they felt they had nothing to lose. They wanted to live life the way they chose. A few beatings and nights in jail was the price of a few hours of freedom.

I traveled all over the Middle East back then–Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Iran–and heard the same stories of frustration and anger in dozens of cities. The only thing that surprised me about the so-called Arab Revolution of 2011 was that it took so long.

In some places it’s succeeded; in Syria it looks like it will fail. Syria doesn’t have much oil so besides a few feeble sanctions, it’s doubtful the West will do much. Bashar al-Assad will imprison or kill anyone who speaks out against him and the protests will be suppressed.

Hama may be leveled again. Thousands may die–they may already be dying–and the city destroyed. After a time new shops and new hotels will open. Their owners will grit their teeth and hang a photo of Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad behind the counter. Then, I hope, they’ll pull out a worn old map of Hama the way it looked before 1982, and hang it right next to him.

The Arab revolution: the reaction of one Muslim community

arab revolution, Arab RevolutionFor the past few weeks, headlines all over the world have been dominated by the so-called Arab Revolution, a wave of anti-government protests across the Middle East. I’m living in the Ethiopian Muslim community of Harar and locals here are absorbed in the events. Sitting in living rooms or cafes to escape the heat of the day, all eyes are glued to the satellite channels and conversation revolves around the rapidly changing events.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive tempered by caution. They’re happy to see a strong pro-democracy movement in Egypt but say that since the army is the real power, democracy is still in danger. While the West worries about the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, one recent university graduate told me, “They only use Islam for political gain. Deal with them in economic terms and there will be no problem.”

The main talk right now, of course, is about Libya. Descriptions of Gaddafi range from “crazy” to “stupid” to “evil”. Some Hararis even say Gaddafi is a heroin addict. “He has an injured back and started taking it for the pain. He has a Russian nurse who follows him everywhere and gives him injections,” one friend told me. I’ve never heard that before, but it would explain the bizarre interviews and why he wears sunglasses indoors. Everyone thinks he’ll go down fighting rather than give up control.

Most people here watch Al-Jazeera. That station has taken definite sides in the Libyan revolution. When Gaddafi’s government blocked the Internet, Al Jazeera started running the addresses for proxy sites to access Gmail and Twitter.

Mazzika 1, an Egyptian music video station, is now running a video about the uprising, showing the protests in Tahrir Square, the faces of some of the dead, and the final joyous victory, all set to inspiring music. It makes an interesting contrast to their usual fare of Arab starlets gyrating in front of the camera.Ethiopians have no love of dictators. When the Derg regime under Colonel Mengistu Haile Miriam assassinated Haile Selassie in 1974, it started a brutal repression across the country that killed 500,000 people in its first year. Nobody knows the total number of victims. A bloody civil war finally toppled the regime and Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, where he still lives in comfort. Ethiopia now enjoys a democracy. It isn’t perfect, but mechanisms are in place to perfect it. Ethiopians want to see the same for the Arab world. “They need it,” one Harari said, “or they’ll never be free.”

One friend put it in Marxist terms. “The French had the first bourgeois revolution in 1780. We had ours starting in 1966 and now finally the Arabs are having theirs.” He feels it’s the next step to creating an egalitarian state.

The Hararis I spoke with are surprised and cautiously optimistic by the protests in Saudi Arabia. That nation has a huge influence in Ethiopia because of its sponsorship of Wahhabi mosques and madrasas. Wahhabism is a strict form of Islam that in strong contrast to the tolerant, easygoing Islam practiced by most Ethiopians. It encourages Ethiopian women to wear the niqab and denouces the Harari reverence for Muslim saints as unislamic. The face veil is alien to Ethiopian culture, and Harar’s many Islamic saints are a cornerstone of their religious practice. One Harari friend called the Wahhabis “poisonous snakes.”

I won’t be like many journalists and pretend the dozen or so people I spoke to are representative of the feelings of the entire population, only a huge opinion poll could claim that, but the daily conversations I’ve been having about the Arab Revolution provide a viewpoint I couldn’t get anywhere else.

And that’s one of the best things travel can give us.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Homestays in Harar!

Thoughts on Myanmar, travel and change

On Sunday, citizens of the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar voted for the first time in 20 years. This week also marks the one-year anniversary of my own visit to Myanmar in 2009. At the surface level, these two events have nothing to do with one another. But as I struggle to make sense of what I saw and learned during my visit inside this cloistered country, I find that today’s historic vote is more meaningful than I expected.

I don’t claim to be an expert in the politics and history of Myanmar. I’m a traveler first and foremost, and the three weeks of my visit was barely enough time to give me a fleeting glimpse of the country’s fascinating history, warm people and awe-inspiring sights, let alone understand its complex political situation. But often travel has a way of forcing you to confront the issues you don’t want to see, and you find yourself drawn into them in ways you wouldn’t expect. In Myanmar, my window was through its people – their stories have stayed with me and touched me in ways I never expected.I remember the two enthusiastic young monks who accompanied me up the thousands of stairs that flank Mandalay Hill. They had left their families behind to take up a life of devotion and study. Then there was “Mikey,” the Burmese man I sat smashed next to in the front seat of a pickup for 10 agonizing hours as we bobbed and weaved along the treacherous dirt roads towards Kalaw. His broken-English banter and jokes sustained me through that exhausting ride. And Nain, who followed me all day across the sweltering, chaotic streets of Yangon, helping me buy train tickets and showing me around. He refused to take any money from me for his help.

There is much that could be said about the state of affairs in Myanmar. The lack of political freedoms and poverty echo the problems seen in developing countries around the world. But what has stuck with me the most from my experience in Myanmar is the stories of these ordinary individuals. These interactions brought the hard realities of life into focus in a place few travelers visit. As I think now about the election, I find myself seeing this event through their eyes and hoping, on their behalf, that some good will come of it.

Will the election create any meaningful change for the people I met in Myanmar? I’m not sure, but it looks doubtful. What about my visit? Did it have any affect on their plight? No, I don’t think so either. But what I believe has changed is my awareness. Myanmar is no longer just another news story for me on the BBC website. It’s a land inhabited by real people I met, affected by real issues. Change is possible. But often that change doesn’t occur in obvious ways like elections. It’s the accumulation of seemingly insignificant interactions, day-by-day and year-by-year that, over time, ultimately add up to something much larger.

Dim Sum Dialogues: HKSAR Establishment Day

Growing up in America, I’ve been accustomed to celebrating the 4th of July with the typical afternoon barbecues, long days at the beach, and nights of firework displays. When I found out that July 1st was Hong Kong’s equivalent holiday, I guess I imagined similar celebrations – with seafood replacing the dogs & burgers and maybe a few more firecrackers set off in the streets. I was wrong.

I quickly learned that the laid back barbecues have been overlooked for good old fashioned demonstrations of free speech.

For those out there that might not know, Hong Kong was a territory of the United Kingdom since 1842, chosen for it’s prime location as a trading port. In 1898, the UK received a 99-year lease of the New Territories, which is a large area of land that surrounds the existing downtown hub. As the lease was approaching expiration in 1997, British officials realized that it would be impractical to hand back only the New Territories. So, on July 1st, 1997 the entire region of Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China, under the conditions that China would treat HK as a special democratic region.

The handover date has since been marked by annual demonstrations led by the Civil Human Rights Front. It started as part of an event organized by The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China – a group that largely protested the Tiananmen Square shootings of 1989, and actively seeks to support democratic movements in mainland China. The protests were moderately well attended for the first few years, but became significantly recognized in 2003 when 500,000 marchers filled the streets in opposition to legislation that would have jeopardized Hong Kong’s freedom of speech rights.

Since 2003 there have been several big turnouts, prompting the HK Government to sponsor counter-protests that are in essence, pro-Beijing parades. This year’s counter-protests were the most successful yet, with roughly 40,000 Beijing loyalists competing with an estimated 76,000 protestors (and a few scattered Canadians shouting something about Canada Day…). The streets were filled with drums, bright colors and curious spectators of all ages. Of the people that I chatted with, many were happy that Hong Kong has retained it’s democracy and were proud to be a part of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle that China agreed to at the handover.

As I talked with some of the older people – a few who had immigrated from the mainland years ago, it struck me that there couldn’t have been a better way to celebrate the holiday. In America we often take our liberties for granted, because we haven’t had them threatened in recent years. But here in Hong Kong, the people on the streets have lived through fears that they might lose this valuable right – on more than one occasion. Was everyone on the streets? No. (Trust me, the beach was just as crowded.) But there were plenty of people that were passionate about their country, their rights, and their future.

With that in mind, I hope everyone out there gets to enjoy their 4th of July. And if you don’t have plans yet, perhaps consider holding a friendly protest – just because you can.

%Gallery-67265%