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Ripe manga

Tokyo

As otaku nerd culture continues its march out of Tokyo’s Akihabara district into mainstream shopping malls, manga have become a multi-billion-euro industry, and everyone is benefiting – publishers, book shops, convenience stores, and even basketball teams. When sales of the 31-volume basketball manga Slam Dunk topped 100 million (in a country with a population of only 130 million), the grateful publisher, Shueisha, established a basketball scholarship to send tall and talented Japanese high-school boys to America. And now the manga virus has spread to the crucible of Japanese civilisation, the ancient capital, Kyoto. (And not to mention the back of this magazine.)

Better known for its temples and Zen gardens, Kyoto has become the centre of comic-book academia. Kyoto Seika University, a college which boasts of its “alternative-minded students”, already has the country’s only Faculty of Manga. Now it has opened the Kyoto International Manga Museum. It holds 200,000 manga-related items. They range from the Ur-manga, the choju jinbutsu giga (literally, “pictures of bird and beast characters”) drawn by Buddhist monks in the 12th and 13th centuries, through the first true manga (which appeared after Japan opened to the West in the mid-19th century), to the latest generation of pulp fiction.

KIMM functions as a museum and also as a research library, where scholarly otaku can access more than 40,000 volumes, free of charge. The corridors of the museum’s three floors feature a vertiginous “Manga Wall” – 140 sq m of comics.

This year’s World Manga Exhibition has been a storming success. In the first fortnight 10,000 otaku pilgrims made their way to Kyoto. The ancient attractions of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the Ryoanji Rock Garden look on nervously.

Fast-track travel

Taiwan and beyond

There are vast transport projects underway all over East Asia. Japan, mother of the high-speed train, is extending its shinkansen (bullet train) network north to the island of Hokkaido, and south to Kyushu. Taiwan launched its own $15bn (€11.6bn) Super Express in January, linking Taipei with the southern port of Kaohsiung and cutting the journey time for the 345km trip from four hours to a mere 90 minutes (though at press time it wasn’t quite on track yet).

China starts work soon on a high-speed 1,300km rail link between Beijing and Shanghai, a multi-billion-euro project due to be completed by 2010. And this is just the most high-profile of a grid of new links across China, among them the China-aSEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) railway, its three lines connecting Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos with China, extending to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore by 2015. Road building is also in full swing. In December, the $67m (€52m) Second Mekong International Bridge opened – paid for with Japanese loans and connecting Laos and Thailand. Suddenly the road journey from Bangkok to Hanoi has been slashed to three days. The Chinese are behind a project to build a north-south highway between Kunming and Bangkok, and there’s talk of a third bridge across the Mekong. Yet another highway, linking Hanoi and the Chinese city of Nanning, is under construction.

But the most ambitious project, almost 50 years in the dreaming, is the Trans-Asian Railway Network (or Iron Silk Road) which would pull all the railways together, creating a network of 50,000 miles of track connecting Asia to Europe. Last year 18 nations, from Turkey to Indonesia, signed an agreement towards its creation. A few problems stand in the way: the enormous cost, estimated at $2.5bn (€1.9bn), plus differences in gauge. And the fact that two countries en route, the dictatorships of Myanmar and North Korea, have not signed up… But when it comes to travel, Asians will continue to dream.

Flak jacket

Iran

Whether it’s Kim Jong-Il’s jumpsuit and pompadour, or Hillary Clinton’s newly conservative power-dressing, today image is all for politicians. In the first of our series decoding power dressing, we look at the semiotics of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s man of the people look.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has emerged as the global leader of the sartorially non-aligned – the club of bad-boy leaders who can call their looks their own. Ahmadinejad’s style is indeed distinctive, if only for its everyman anonymity: cheap loafers and white socks, open-necked shirts and polyester trousers, a five-day beard topped by a head of boyish hair, and all of it iced, most famously of all, with the beige Chinese windcheater.

Given Ahmadinejad’s millenarian spiritual vision and Holocaust denial sympathies, observers might expect something more dramatic from the Iranian president: more black, perhaps, or more leather. But that would be missing the point of the man – and of his look.

Ahmadinejad is an elected politician, and his look expresses the three things that won him office. First, his clothes send a signal to the biggest demographic in Iran. “I am like you,” they say to the country’s non-rural working and lower-middle classes. His jacket and slacks are the off-duty uniform of the small-town teacher, the house-proud bus-driver.

Secondly, there is the matter of what the president is not wearing: the neck tie, which the revolution has deemed the noose by which a free Muslim people hangs itself on the scaffold of western decadence. And the beard is the third element of Ahmadinejad’s style semiotics. The Islamic face is a canvas of politico-spiritual symbolism, and Ahmadinejad works each variable in ways his constituents recognise. He does not shave (which Islam proscribes) but rather clips. Keeping the beard at a one-week length, he expresses solidarity with the Revolutionary Guards (he was once one himself) and neighbourhood militias that form the ground troops of the Islamic Revolution.

Any alternative in terms of facial hair would shock his supporters. In Iran today, a moustache refers back to the days of the Shah and is seen exclusively on secular men over 45. The full beard with shaved cheeks is popular among young Arabs – but it involves a razor, which the Prophet rejects, and has not taken root in Iran. And the last Islamic option, an untrimmed long or full beard, is for a lay Shi’ite the preserve of an enemy far more implacable than Jews or Christians: Sunni fundamentalists.

Educated Iranians, heirs to the oldest and most sophisticated uninterrupted culture on earth, find Ahmadinejad’s common aesthetic and rough features (sometimes mocked as simian) humiliating – as if these things were physical representations of their president’s equally embarrassing doctorate in Traffic Science. When Tehran’s drinking water became salty shortly after the presidential election of 2005, a joke went around by text – that a pair of Ahmadinejad’s socks had fallen into the reservoir. Last year Ahmadinejad himself received a joke about his personal hygiene on his phone, in one of Iran’s many random text-message blasts. (Strangely, his new party is called the Pleasant Scent of Service.)

But for all the noses that it turns up, Ahmadinejad’s physical presentation is undoubtedly intentional. When he surged from the back of the field to win the 2005 election, a large factor in his success was a widely distributed documentary about his modest lifestyle as mayor of Tehran. The film depicts Ahmadinejad driving to work in a 12-year-old Peugeot, living in his own small house, showing off the emptiness of his official residence.

Dress has defined Iranian politics for millennia. The matter of the woman’s hijab is the principal reduction of all domestic political questions in Iran for outsiders. The Revolution finds its iconography in the robes of the mullahs. The Shah’s splendid military uniforms emphasised his essential character as a Ruritanian petty despot. The last of the Iranian dynasties, the Qajars (1795-1925), are still loathed in Iran for blowing so much money in Parisian brothels that they had to pawn huge economic concessions to Europe. Their portraits in Tehran’s Golestan Palace show progression through the 19th century, from true Persian emperors to embarrassing Euro-wannabes. And the first great Persian kings, Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, showed Iran’s power with huge stone inscriptions depicting subject nations defined by their clothes and hairstyles: Syrians in pleated robes, Babylonians in conical caps, Ethiopians with their tightly curled hair.

Ahmadinejad’s trademark jacket is made in China, according to his private office. It is available for between $8 (€6) and $20 (€15) in Tehran’s central bazaar, where he buys it himself, but the Ahmadinejacket is not selling well. Despite officially propagated reports that wearing one can get you better service in government offices, it is almost never seen on the streets of Iranian cities or towns.

This is no surprise. Ahmadinejad’s allies were trounced in the December elections – Iran’s first nationwide referendum on his popularity as president. His look worked well in 2005, on an outsider running against the establishment. But now the blacksmith’s son is president, and the look is selling a future of isolated fanaticism to which Iranians consider themselves ill-suited.

Dire straits

Malaccas

Despite popular opinion to the contrary, piracy on the high seas is still alive – even if the number of attacks is in decline.

The International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre produces an annual report, the litmus test of maritime crime. The latest issue – released late January – strikes a cautiously optimistic tone, though that’s probably cold comfort to the 239 crews who fell prey to pirates in 2006 (down from 279 attacks in 2005, and 329 in 2004).

The decline is attributed to a number of causes, ranging from the success of bodies like the PRC in raising awareness that piracy didn’t die with Blackbeard, to cooperation between navies in troubled regions.

Shipping analysts also underline moves such as Lloyd’s designation of the Malacca Strait as a war-risk zone in 2005, which hiked insurance costs and put the squeeze on shipping companies. This led the industry to lean on the littoral states and threaten to explore alternative shipping lanes, depriving their governments of huge revenue streams. Almost overnight, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore began to take the threat seriously and set up working groups and joint patrols.

The results were striking: attacks in the Strait declined to 11 in 2006, from a high-water-mark of 38 in 2004, and much of the success is due to regional navies. The only country letting the side down is Indonesia; despite investing in a long radar surveillance chain, it still suffers the dubious honour of having the world’s highest number of pirate attacks. A slight glimmer of hope is that these have dropped significantly, down to 50 last year from 123 three years earlier.

Indonesia is closely followed by the other traditional piracy hotspot of Bangladesh, with the Horn of Africa, Brazil and Nigeria all remaining areas of very real concern. Piracy may be on the wane, but there’s a long way to go if it is to be snuffed out completely.

My GNE’s bigger than yours

Our man in Seoul says Korea’s Gross National Ego index is on the rise now that Ban Ki-Moon has taken up UN the Secretary General post.

Mall talk

India

Novelty is in the eye of the beholder. Your average Indian does not baulk at the grotesquely unfortunate beggar, the elastic yogi, or the holy man with mile-long fingernails. Only visitors are startled by such sights. No, what gets Mr Menon and Mrs Mazumdar talking is an exotic creature that North Americans would find completely familiar: the mall rat.

Aditya and Sorokh are typical of the breed. To a foreigner they’re not much to look at: scuffed trainers, baggy jeans billowing around flagpole legs, downy hair on their cheeks. An Indian, however, would clock their Nikes and Levi’s, and the other brands new to the country. He might wonder how they can afford them.

The pair are hanging out in their local mall on a Saturday night. It’s 7pm, which means they’ve been here hours – and they’re not budging for a few more. Nor are they alone. The food court in the City Centre mall in an affluent suburb of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is crammed with around 200 teenagers. Many aren’t eating and only a minority have any shopping bags. So why are they here?

“It’s a hanging-out zone,” shrugs Aditya. “We get to see girls,” chips in Sorokh. You might think this behaviour as old as adolescence itself, and you would probably be right, but you wouldn’t be Indian. Until four years ago, Aditya and Sorokh and all the others here did not “hang out”. They couldn’t: the scarcity of public spaces meant there was nowhere to do so, apart from each other’s houses, which meant parental chaperones and a corresponding cap on fun.

Then came Kolkata’s first shopping mall, Forum – and with it, rattus retailus. Rahul Saraf, who built Forum, says, “Hundreds of people have thanked me and said, ‘Before, we didn’t know what to do with our free time.’” Now they can promenade his mall and buy clothes for their next visit. For the girls, that means low-rise jeans. “We have made it acceptable for girls to show their belly buttons!” says Saraf, and he is only half-joking.

Kolkata is not the only city to have fallen prey to mall mania. At the start of 2000, India had two shopping malls. This year there will be 250, and by 2010 more than 500. The consumer boom is a national phenomenon both nourished by and feeding India’s economic growth.

Just around the corner from Saraf’s mall lives Prasanta Roy, one of India’s most eminent sociologists. He sees in this latest boom a change in aspirations. “When I was young, ballpoints were the new thing and to have one was an achievement,” he says. “Now it’s iPods. The change is huge.”

Banking on it

Thailand

Until seven years ago Korn Chatikavanij chaired JP Morgan Thailand, which had previously bought out his Bangkok securities house. Now the 47-year-old graduate of St John’s College, Oxford, wants to manage the kingdom’s finances.

“Enough is enough with regards to banking and making money. I come from a civil service clan; a sense of public duty was bred into me.” Chatikavanij, deputy secretary-general of the opposition Democrat Party, is erudite, charming and handsome – appearances count with Thai voters. He’s also odds on to become finance minister if the party survives charges of shenanigans during last April’s annulled poll to stand in the next election, which is promised later this year. Democracy was put back on the shelf last September, when generals kicked out prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

High among Korn’s priorities is soothing shell-shocked foreign investors upset by the caretaker government’s proposals barring foreign control in many service sectors.

“In my opinion, we should be aiming for transparent competition that will protect the interests of the Thai consumer, rather than protecting ownership,” said Chatikavanij.

Something similar might be said of politics. Many urban Thais are having second thoughts about the coup they cheered on. “I think the positive out of this is that it might awaken the consciousness of the Thai public that there is no substitute for an elected government,” he says.

Pedal power

North Korea

Since joining the nuclear club with its underground test last October, North Korea has been isolated as never before, with foreign assets being seized, its exports barred and even bottles of leader Kim Jong-Il’s favourite Hennessy cognac being embargoed. But determined businessmen have found a way of keeping the wheels of industry turning by shipping second-hand bicycles. More than 8,500 sailed from the Japanese port of Sakaiminato recently and there was nothing that the authorities could do to stop them. The exporters exploited a loophole by which a ship registered in a third country (in this case, Cambodia) is not susceptible to sanctions – thus sidestepping the ban on North Korean boats. The bike shipment may not be as harmless as it sounds – the profits go to a trading company linked to Pyongyang’s military.

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