Roving Reports


Select freelance clips from various publications.
(Click on the logos next to each story to visit their websites.)

The Real Deal:
  • Cape Town, South Africa: Tourist Haven, Homeowner's Paradise (June 2003)

    Japan Select Magazine:
  • "Virtua" Fighters Enlisted in SEGA's Battle Against the Evils of a Menacing Economy (June, 2003)

    Asian Reporter:
  • Great Wave of "Old Japan" is more about Old America (5/13/03)

    Arabies Trends:
  • Saudi--Japan Trade Talks Grow Strained (May, 2003)

    Amsterdam News:
  • Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches Carry the Cross of Conflict (10/14/99)

    Indian Country Today:
  • Indian Children Belong With Their Own People (4/27/98)


    Cape Town, South Africa: Tourist Haven, Homeowner's Paradise

    By Oscar Johnson

    There's much abuzz about Cape Town. Booming tourism, and hosting a recent Cricket World Cup match are not all the picturesque South African Cape is boasting these days. Realtors are virtually shouting "buy, buy, buy" from the rooftops of a bustling housing market.

    Indeed, much of the Western Cape region sports wowing waterfronts with properties ranging from the quaint to the palatial.

    Once a haven for the privileged, carved and set apart from prior and post-apartheid woes, the city seems to have changed as much in the past decade as the nation's currency value has in recent years. Now, the residential market is in the midst of an open house.

    "During the last 12 months the market has experienced unprecedented increase in sales value primarily fueled by overseas buyers," said Bruce Marvin of Cape Homesearch. With offices on the Cape and in the UK, the company finds property for local and overseas buyers. "In the more prestigious suburbs values have in some instances doubled and it remains a sellers' market."

    Buyers, he said, can expect to pay a paltry to per square-foot for apartments on the Atlantic seaboard, while houses in Clifton are averaging at per square-foot.

    Well-to-do Americans, Europeans and not-so-wealthy European retirees make up the bulk of foreign buyers, Marvin said, adding that "With ,000 you can buy a great home, and to live here is cheap."

    Realtors attribute the boom, in part, to fallout from post Sept. 11 fears. Northern Hemisphere vacationers have been looking south for a "safe haven." Cape Town has longstanding reputation as a prime attraction.

    Aggressive marketing by South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism helped catapult the nation to the fourth most popular tourist destination for Americans, with general overseas arrivals up 20.1 percent over 2001, according to the agency.

    The South African Rand's devaluation from roughly 7 ZAR/1$ to nearly 12 ZAR/1$ the ensuing year encouraged foreign property buying. With the Rand now hovering around 8 ZAR/1$, foreign investors who bought when the currency was at it's ebb are likely to agree it's a "sellers's market." The Rand now seems to be on a steady rise.

    "Ever increasing foreign confidence and investment in South Africa--and the Western Cape in particular--is markedly evident through a growing number of property sales to overseas investors," said Gaye de Villers, spokesman for Pam Golding Property Group. The Cape Town-based company has some 400 offices and associates worldwide and boasts nearly million in annual sales last year--up 37 percent from 2001.

    "Overseas buyers have expressed a keen interest in coastal properties in all regions and across all price ranges, from (,000) partments to (.6 million) luxury homes on the Western Cape Atlantic Seaboard," de Villers said.

    If a sure deal that can't go wrong exists then owning property on the Cape's burgeoning tourist Mecca is it, according to Adrian Coetzer of Cape Town TV Property. The innovative company specializes in services ranging from property sales and management to tourism for both high-end and "especially gay" clientele (the company's website touts the city as the fourth largest "gay capital"in the world).

    "The selling value goes up an average 20-30 percent per year," he said. "And letting your property to foreign travelers during season--or when not occupied by the owner--is a huge money spinner."

    While its always best to consult a lawyer when purchasing overseas property, there are no major restrictions on foreign property purchases in South Africa. But there is a high "second property" tax, and a new law stipulates minimum earnings and capital for foreign retirees to ensure they are not a burden to the state, according to realtors.

    Local banks and building societies will loan up to 50 percent of the purchase price to foreign buyers, Marvin said. It's also important to clarify why funds are being transferred into the country to ensure they will be remitted along with any profit when the property is resold.
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    "Virtua" Fighters Enlisted in SEGA's Battle Against the Evils of a Menacing Economy (June, 2003)

    By Oscar Johnson

    Swagger into a popular game arcade and virtual warriors may lie in wait. Caution is advised. Many are veteran players of the game "Virtua Fighter."

    Armed with coin and card, when they select one of 15 characters to play at the gamestart they come alive with genuine martial arts moves and individual distinctions: Dark sunglasses on a burly wrestler or a garish earring dangling from a ninja's profile.

    Amidst the blur and bold blare of music and video effects, players from teens to business suite-clad professionals rapidly slap buttons and skillfully jerk joysticks to kick, chop or slam one another to the ground in virtual bouts.

    The competition is tense. That's just the way game maker SEGA Enterprises likes it.

    In an economic stranglehold like most of Japan's corporate big names, SEGA shows no signs of tapping out of the ring. Instead, it's dodging manufacturing and diving for software and services. SEGA amusement centers, and getting the most from popular franchises such as the "Virtua Fighter" game series, are key to its fighting strategy.

    Amidst consistently declining revenues, the multibillion-yen corporation is seeking to widen and tighten a grip on its most stable and reliable market--dedicated arcade goers. And "Virtua Fighter" shows just how tight that grip is and how dedicated game fans can be.

    Many pump yen into arcade machines daily to hone their skills, also play the game home version on Sony PlayStation 2 consol, and subscribe to increasing mobile and web-based services that draw them deeper into a virtual world of hand-to-hand warfare.

    Players choose and favor game characters ranging from the adroit Shaolin monk Lei and the burly black Australian shark hunter Jeffery, to the French teen fighter Lion and Japan grappling warrior-ess, Aoi. Characters come complete with personal stats, histories and storylines. Some are even related.

    A joystick and three buttons--guard, punch and kick--produce a wealth of combinations unique to each character fighting style. Karate, Jeet Kune Do, Aiki Ju-Jitsu, kickboxing and more are used in a three-round melee against the game computer or, most often, another player on an adjacent machine.

    The game's fictional setting is the annual World Fighting Tournament. It's a theme SEGA capitalizes on with annual and semiannual game tournaments throughout its own arcades and others.

    At a recent regional tournament at Sports Land game center in Shinjuku, scores of players packed a smoke-filled spacious room dominated by a central row of nearly two-dozen paired-off game consoles. The cheering crowd and somber competitors resembled those at a world-class sporting event.

    Members of the three-man team Megane OKuku relished their last victory while awaiting the next match. The team leader used only his ring name,Jackie, (also that of his favorite game character) while professing his love for the game.

    "I've been playing for a year and half, the teen said. "I practice every day, about 2 or 3 hours a day." But the team's nervous laughter about their odds at an overall victory foreshadowed the defeat to come. A joystick-flick and virtual back flip later, and a member from rival team, The Moralists, had forced them out of the tournament.

    For veteran player Jojo, who also holds fast to the tradition of using only his ring name, the of the virtual martial arts is what has kept him devoted to the game since it first emerged a decade ago.

    He favors the character Lau, a middle-aged Kung Fu master with a ponytail, a vicious grin and moves to match. The 28-year-old exporter from Osaka also has a soft spot for the character named Jackie for similar reasons.

    "I like Kung Fu," he said. "The reality is what makes it so good--especially Jackie. His style is just like Bruce Lee's."

    A recent runner-up in the semi-final national competition, Jojo talks of the game's subtleties as if it were real hand-to-hand combat.

    "Osaka style and Tokyo style are very different," he explained earnestly, betraying, perhaps, more than just game rivalry."Osaka fighters are close-in and the action is fast. Tokyo people back up and keep far away."

    His devotion is evident: A special wallet for 18 game cards, his mobile is coded to call up the game's official website with a couple of keystrokes, and he created his own "Virtua Fighter" player website.

    In recent years, SEGA has cultivated a virtual subculture around this game of impeccably choreographed martial arts against a backdrop of state of-the-art graphics. The series reached its zenith when it's fourth generation "Virtua Fighter4" hooked gamers worldwide.

    "For the year of 2001, "'Virtua Fighter4'was the most contributing item not only for SEGA but the arcade industry,SEGA spokeswoman Nana Ishizawa said. "Virtua Fighter" clubs, competition teams--male, female and coed--tournaments, websites and online chat rooms abound.

    Part of the success is the game's technology, and part is high-tech marketing designed to keep players plugged into amusement centers even after they leave."Virtua Fighter" was the first arcade game to introduce so-called IC cards that store the users play data, Ishizawa said.

    Scores are relayed from the arcade game to a main server and accessed via players' cellular phones. In addition to gaining national rank in a virtual community, certain successes earn players characters virtual prizes--a mask, weapon, odd article of clothing and, in some cases, a silly stuffed animal or a pair of butterfly wings strapped to their brave warrior's back.

    SEGA's web and mobile-based services have continued to build on the theme. The company's most recent service for the game, Mobile Friends, ofers cellular coupons for free game plays and other arcade incentives when redeemed at SEGA outlets.

    "There are mini games on the cell phone website in which you can get items such as necklace and wigs with a PIN number, "Ishizawa said. "When you enter your PIN on the machine with your IC card, you can get the new items on your character."The next time gamers plunk in @ and insert the card their character is a little more personalized. But the technology is only half the hold on fans.

    Going where no video arcade game had gone before,"Virtua Fighter" revolutionized the five or 10-minute game experience into an ongoing process of role playing, allowing SEGA to vie for a monopoly on the virtual real estate that lies somewhere between New World online gaming in cyberspace and its Old World predecessor in arcades.

    You can take the player out of the arcade but you can take the arcade out of the player. At least, this is what SEGA's out-of-the-arcade mobile and online services seem to be proving. The company's "Virtua Fighter" web-based service has about 75,000 subscribers nationwide, Ishizawa said.

    SEGA began streamlining its arcades about the time "Virtua Fighter" hit the market. In late 2000, it spun off its amusement center operations division. The division began focusing on regional trends, including entire sections with dozens of busy "Virtua Fighter" machines in its busiest game centers such as those in Ikebukuro, Shibuya and Makuhari.

    The next year, the company stopped its Dreamcast game consol production, signaling its intended long-term shift from manufacturing games to developing game software and providing related services. It sent a ripple of worst case-scenario rumors throughout the gaming world.

    SEGA also started closing lackluster arcades and opening others while breathing new life into existing high potential game centers. As of last year, the company boasts more than 500 mostly medium and large-scale arcades nationwide with a combined floor space of nearly 400,000-square-meters. More closures and new arcades are on the horizon for this year, according to the corporation spokeswoman.
    "For amusement operation, SEGA's newly opened amusement centers went very successfu," Ishizawa said. "Not only to keep the existing players, but SEGA also succeeded to invite new consumers such as families, couples and light users by newly opening centers in shopping centers and cinema complexes."

    To be sure, SEGA could use a boost. It has suffered significant declines in revenue (an average annual net loss of more than billion) since at least 1998, its financial reports show. Ishizawa declined to say just how long the trend has been going on.

    SEGA saw its net sales drop 28 percent and recorded a more than ) billion net loss in profit for 2001, according to its most recent available annual report.

    It's 2002 semi annual report doesn't look much rosier but could indicate a reverse in the trend. SEGA touts nearly  billion in operating income for the period compared to more than billion in the red for the first half of 2001.

    Still, a net loss of $ .9 billion is reported for the first half of last year, which the company attributed largely to a stock market slump and efforts to rid itself of excess property and equipment.

    SEGA's biggest losses have been in sales of its machines to arcades, as well as game hard and software to consumers--down 28.percent and 37.percent respectively in 2001 compared to the previous year.

    Game center sales have also declined in recent years albeit less drastically (down only 9 percent from the previous year in 2001). Arcade operation sales dipped 5.8 percent for the first half of 2002.

    Because fewer centers were operating for that period due to streamlining efforts, however, arcade net sales were actually up 7.3 percent, according to company reports. But arcades remain a significantly small portion of the SEGA pie.

    The move away from manufacturing towards software development and services such as arcades will likely require more innovation and even more cooperation from a dismal economy.

    Fans have shown that they can be fiercely loyal even during a slumping economy, to the kind of innovation the game maker consistently applied in building on its "Virtua Fighter" series franchise.

    When the first hit the market in 1993 it offered one of the first fighting games to use a new "polygon-based" graphics system for unprecedented three-dimensional action. Eventually, it knocked the fighting game title-holder, Street Fighter, out of the ring.

    The second 1995 edition upped fighter character choices from eight to 10 and gave its swelling Japanese fan-base more groundbreaking graphics to ogle. "Vitua Fighter3" was introduced the following year.

    By the time its fourth incarnation took the market by storm a strong U.S. fan-base and many Europeans were playing the game's 13 truly ethnically diverse characters (yet, another gaming revolution). This was all despite sinking national and global economies.

    The latest incarnation,"Virtua Fighter Evolution," added two more to the list of fighters. After running its course in arcades, its PlayStation2 version was released in March for home use.

    With no real new innovations, the game was eclipsed in 2002 by "World Club Champion Football SERIE A," as SEGA's top franchise, with a strong fan-base in Japan and Italy, Ishizawa said.

    The popular soccer video game is built on technology and marketing largely pioneered by its combat predecessor. It does add another small twist. It anticipates the consumer propensity for collecting by promoting the game's IC cards as collectables.

    "A player deals with 'SERIES A'soccer player trading cards on the machine table in which a card-reader is built-in," Ishizawa explains. "A player also enjoys collecting the cards, which have more than 350 kinds available.

    Whether a new addition to the "Virtua Fighter" series is in the works, Ishizawa would not say. And it remains to be seen if its "World Club Champion Football" soccer series can withstand the test of time in gathering and maintaining a large following.

    Diehard virtual fighters such as Jojo admit dabbling with other games. But they know where their loyalties lie.

    "'Virtua Fighter' is the best," he said, adding that the fun is in playing against as many different players as possible. I believe it is more than just a Japanese thing. 'Virtua Fighter' is all over the world. I want more people to play together."
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    Saudi--Japan Trade Talks Grow Strained (May, 2003)

    Arabies Trends, 2003
    By Oscar Johnson

    TOKYO--Saudi Arabian businessmen whisked through Japan's capital last month to find partners and investors for projects back home. The annual summit came 12 days before a forum, which hosted investment experts from a dozen more Middle Eastern nations. About 80 Saudi entrepreneurs made the January 15-16 visit before heading for China to do the same.

    Despite the usual glad-handing, the annual Saudi Japanese Business Council summit had a subtle air of urgency. As Japan's demand for its No. 2 trade partner's oil sags, the Saudi race to diversify exports ranging from dates to phosphate seems increasingly uphill.

    The January 26-28 Investment Promotion Forum hosted representatives from Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Yemen, Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia. After presenting the pros of doing business in their respective countries, Japanese counterparts fielded questions ranging from corporate protection policies to infrastructure. At times, neither the questions nor answers seemed satisfactory.

    Officials on both sides of the trade gap say more ties are needed between the two nations' entrepreneurs. It's a problem last month's calendar of annual events was designed to fix. Both governments have recently renewed old efforts. Despite Japan's reputation for importing only essential raw materials and exporting goods, its manufactured imports nearly doubled to 61 percent between 1985 and 2000. But the change is still too slow for some Saudi businessmen, and growing Japanese interest in exports from other Asian countries doesn't help.

    A bilateral trade tradition steeped in crude, shifting post-Sept. 11 political priorities and universal bureaucracy coupled with stark cultural differences are sometimes cited as the real culprits.

    "There are very few opportunities between the two countries," Abdul Rahman Al-Jeraisy said of current trade relations. The Chairman of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce & Industry's Saudi Japanese Business Council headed the mid-month delegation.

    Al-Jeraisy has been on the council since its inception 15 years ago. Its concerns, some said, include attracting expertise needed to repair Japanese electronic and automobile imports, and stave-off a feared surge in unemployment when the majority of Saudis--now less than 20-years-old--come of age. Saudi Arabia is also the world's No. 1 producer of dates, and it wants Japan as a major importer.

    "We are aiming to increase our exports to Japan," Al-Jeraisy said, echoing the Saudi economic planning minister's call in June for Japan's prime minister to boost trade and investment ties. "At the same time, we are mainly trying to increase the investment in Saudi Arabia."

    The process requires patience, said Abdulmohsen Aldrees of Mohammed S. Aldrees & Sons. His company has been doing business with the Japanese for 35 years, he said, and it is a task with both rewards and challenges.

    "Each country has it's own way of doing business," said Aldrees, who is hoping to drum-up an investor for a new petrochemical plant. "The Japanese are known for their system of behavior in companies--their just-in-time method of making decisions."

    Japanese officials tout, and their Saudi counterparts concede, the success of a recently clinched deal to have an International Methanol Company plant up and running in Jubail Industrial City by 2005. The US million venture includes Saudi International Petrochemical and a consortium of Mitsui & Co., Mitsubishi Corporation, Daicel Chemical Industries and Iino Kaiun Kaisha.
    The island nation's government-funded Japan Cooperation Center for the Middle East (JCCME) has spearheaded much of recent efforts. JCCME investment advisor Yosuke Okazaki said recent successes include Saudi Arabian-Japanese Pharmaceutical in 1999 and Saudi-Japan Textile in 2001.

    While the center was founded largely with crude and other petroleum product ventures in mind, he said it is trying to meet the needs of the changing times. "We are focusing on small-medium enterprise," Okazaki said.

    But beyond crude imports and petroleum-based products, Okazaki speculates that future Japanese interests in Saudi Arabia may extend no further than getting a piece of the power and water pie. Most of the nation's water desalinization plants are decades old and well past their prime.

    "The trend of trade with Saudi Arabia is in the field of petrochemicals and establishing plants to produce water desalinization and power stations," he said. The revelation offers little faith in the Japanese appetite for SMEs or dates.

    This, however, is only one obstacle in the way of the Saudi push for enhanced trade with Japan. Allegations in the last year that private Saudi funds have backed rouge anti-American groups and talks of war in the region may be harder to get around.

    "Since September 11, there are so many people scared to do business in the country," said Yasuharu Tanaka, an investment advisor for the Japan desk at the Riyadh-based Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA).
    Business officials from both countries tread lightly around the issue. Many said they doubt that it impacts investment decisions in Japan. First Secretary for the Saudi Embassy in Tokyo, Abdulrahman Alshaya, disagreed.

    Investors in a country laden with Western news reports and so closely aligned to the United States cannot help but feel the affects of "smear campaign by U.S. media," he said. "People here are generally influenced by what is written in the Western media,"Alshaya said. "Unfortunately, it's not always accurate."

    No doubt, current politics is also finding its way into Saudi trade motives. Dismissing the idea that Japanese investors are skittish, JCCME's Okazaki said it might be Saudi Arabia's renewed fervor, which is politically influenced.

    "Saudi Arabia is moving away from the United States," he said, "and looking to Japan and other countries for partners. That is why (the delegation) went to China next."

    One thing for sure is that Japan's thirst for crude and Saudi Arabia's hunger for foreign investment are staples in the two countries' traditional fair of bilateral trade. And sinking oil prices and economies have had a way of reducing a modest feast to a feared famine.

    Japan lacks oil resources and imports more than 80 percent of its crude from the Middle East. Roughly one-fifth of that comes from Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer and Japan's second largest supplier next to the United Arab Emirates. In return, Japan is Saudi Arabia's No. 2 investor at nearly billion according to SAGIA.

    Trade flourished between the to nations in 1996 when, riding on the waves of high crude demands, its cost and sound economies, both foreign ministers pushed for cooperation on all fronts. This included more Japanese trade and investment, and a share in harvesting and importing Saudi oil back home.

    The lively brokering that ensued--crude and petroleum products for investment capital--began to sour. In four years, only one new Japan-Saudi industrial joint venture had been realized, bringing the total to five, according to JCCME.

    Exports to Japan--consisting largely of crude and petroleum products--recovered from a two-year-dip beginning in 1998 to peak at $ 14.2 billion in 2000, according to Japan External Trade Organization data. But that same year negotiations to renew a 40-yearold drilling contract for Japan's Arabian Oil Company failed. Two other joint oil ventures bottomed out in the wake.

    While Japan was willing to making concessions of public and private funds to boost Saudi manufacturing industries, it refused to shoulder the bulk of a billion Saudi rail project.

    Diplomatic First-Aid ensued. Later that year SAGIA was established to foster foreign investment and be a "one-stop-shopping center," to circumvent Saudi bureaucracy for foreign investors. Incentives and tax breaks soon followed. As Saudi exports tapered to .4 billion in 2001, Japan opened the Riyadh-based agency's first foreign desk, and JCCME began deploying missions to conduct investment feasibility studies in the country.

    Four additional joint industrial ventures have since been realized, and another-- International Methanol--is on its way, according to JCCME.

    Recently, Japan's overall oil demand has continued to drop. Saudi Arabia saw an 18 percent annual decline in crude exports to the country in March. It responded by restricting its supply to Japan and the rest of Asia by 23 percent at he start of the new year. But in January, one day after the Saudi visit and a few days before the Japan-Middle Eastern investment forum, local media reported that the OPEC leading nation would reopen its spigot by 18 percent this month.

    Japan's oil needs are expected to increase, which would likely help such codependent relations become more equitable. But last month's investment forum showed that Saudi and other Middle Eastern entrepreneurs looking for Japanese partners in non-crude ventures have to clear hurdles that are both real and perceived by their counterparts.

    One Japanese investor who had recently toured Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries in search of a partner for his joint venture scheme told the panel of representatives he was no longer optimistic.

    "Honestly speaking, maybe there might not be any realizations that come from these discussion," he said before launching his diatribe on scarce local labor, development and Japanese language skills. It prompted each panel member to respond--specially to the language issue.

    SAGIA's Abdulrahman Al-Selah offered an olive branch-solution with his answer.

    "We have heard this kind of problem--especially from the Japanese," he said. Acknowledging the youth of the region's development, he added that one Saudi project uses 75 percent local labor, then addressed the language concern: "We'd be very eager to grant this gentleman a scholarship to learn Arabic in our university. I hope to have the same opportunity to get a scholarship to learn Japanese.
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    Great Wave of "Old Japan" is more about Old America
    The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan

    By Christopher Benfey
    Random House, May, 2003
    Hardcover, 334 pages, .95

    By Oscar Johnson
    Special to The Asian Reporter
    (May 13, 2003)

    As the subtitle suggests, The Great Wave promises a fresh look at the roughly quarter-century cultural tsunami surrounding the 1854 "opening of Old Japan," and the tide of American fascination which ensued. In part, it delivers.

    Benfey gleans from an array of historical texts, correspondences, and public records to offer a hint at cultural "misfits" and "eccentrics" from east coast America and Japan who by their fates or fortunes rode the crest of this wave.

    While it cannot be said that the book has something for everyone, it does offer history connoisseurs ensconced in the nationalistic sands of either shore food for thought about such characters. It has little to say, however, of the wave itself.

    Benfey's mosaic of historical notes is drab compared to the likes of Eiji Yoshikawa's fact-and-fiction masterpieces on history. But The Great Wave does offer promising sketches of a few--very few--Japanese persons who played pivotal roles during this period.

    One was "John" Manjiro, a fisher who upon spending years in the U.S. after a shipwreck returned home to suffer imprisonment and interrogation before becoming the ideal envoy for new Japanese-American relations. This defacto father of Japan's navy and harbinger of the English language to a nation determined to beat its new antagonist ally at its own game is a book unto himself.

    Similarly, Kakuzo Okakura's work and English books on Japanese aesthetics and philosophy published in the U.S. did much to counter American ethnocentrisms. Benfey's portrayal of the probable psychology of these and other turn-of-the-century Japanese as well as American figures borders on riveting, at times. Yet, for the most part, his wave washes only one shore.

    Benfey's idea of "Old Japan" is based almost entirely on the starry-eyed assumptions of East American cultural elitists looking for greener grass beyond the roots of their puritanical pastures. Their assumptions are understandable. His are not. While noting that America's "Gilded Age" is too shallow to obtain the depth of anything like "golden," he seems unable to extricate himself from the limits of that gold-plated perspective.

    This book is not so much about cross-cultural pollination as it is about those American eccentrics and cultural misfits whose fortuitous and idle lives afforded them the privilege to savor and, most often, "collect" tidbits of "exotic" Asian culture.

    Elites such as Sturgis Bigelow, John La Farge, Isabella Stewart Gardener, and Percival Lowell sample Japanese art, culture, and religion seemingly in an attempt to offset their own bored, depraved, or meaningless lives.

    It's a fair topic for discussion but makes for a real sleeper when applied to nearly 300 pages.

    The narrative moves from observations and experiences that prompt the narrator of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to fancy that the whaling industry of his day would force open "that double-bolted land, Japan," to Theodore Roosevelt's phallic fascination with martial arts from a country he is said to have found far too "effeminate"--to say nothing of Henry Adams--incessant American-tourist-like whining in letters to friends over Japan's lack of familiar comforts.

    A Japanese perspective rarely counters such blatant ethnocentricities. But sometimes, perhaps more intriguingly with regard to the author's context, we get a glimpse of the likes of Lafcadio Hearn and Edward S. Moore. According, maybe unwittingly, to Benfey, such figures exhibited an interest in learning--not just appropriating--from Japan.

    In all, The Great Wave offers a somewhat stale look, not so much at "the opening of Old Japan," but at the close-mindedness of Old America. Perhaps herein lies the book's true value. Those of us living in the new America, or Japan, can only hope that the author would agree.
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    Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches Carry the Cross of Conflict (10/14/99)

    By Oscar Johnson
    Special to the AmNews

    Keepers of one of the world's oldest Christian traditions recently transcended time and place to invoke a timeless custom, celebrating Meskel!, the annual feast of the cross. Yet piercing the veil of this African tradition shows the cross it now bears to transcend a custom of conflict that is catching up with it in Harlem.

    Last month hundreds of impeccably dressed Ethiopian men and women entwined in colorfully fringed white gauze garments met on the fourth floor of palatial Riverside Church. A half-dozen clergy lead by Kes Tsehai Birhan stood regally-clad in robes of orange and gilded blue, officiating an ancient African mass before the image of an Angel-flanked Madonna above a dazzlingly bedecked alter.

    Two hours and less than a mile away, about 70 Eritreans formed a semicircle behind Keshe Areaya Tesfay as he prayed in festive but weathered vestments on West 142nd Street before the cement stoop of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church.

    There was no mass. The chapel donated by the church every other Sunday was not available. Still the modestly dressed crowd seemed satisfied with traditional song, sermon and succulent fare.

    What Eritrean and Ethiopian congregations acknowledged for nearly 2,000 years as the "Ethiopian" Orthodox Tawahedo Church, is now divided.

    With identical histories, doctrine and tradition, and differences as small as the word for an Ethiopian priest (Kes) and his Eritrean counterpart(Keshe), the respective congregations no longer pray with one voice.

    After almost three decades of political and military struggle, the Ethiopian province of Eritrea gained independence in 1992. Last May the conflict once again erupted into full-fledged war.

    Until then, immigrants from these neighboring countries on the horn of Africa were able to stifle differences long enough to drink from the same religious well on Sundays. And many, especially the younger generation, found that similarities far outweighed differences against the backdrop of American life.

    But times have changed.

    A war that has claimed what the United States estimates to be 70,000 lives and the Ethiopian expulsion of what the United Nations says are 60,000 Eritreans--many who have lived there for generations--have strained relations between the two immigrant communities beyond the bounds of church and common culture. Where once they were friends, now they are suspicious.

    "I was born in Ethiopia,"says Thomas Mengistu, a 29-year-old member of St. Gabriel's Eritrean Church. "Until the last couple of years, I used to consider myself an Ethiopian."

    Like other church goers, Mengistu and his sister used to frequent both nearby Madhem Alem Ethiopian Church and St. Gabriel's, seeing little difference between the two. But not anymore. Despite Madhem Alem's claims of inclusiveness, they do not feel truly accepted there.

    "It's like in America" some white people will say, 'you're nice, you're not like other Blacks,'" Mengistu explains. "They will say, 'you're not like other Eritreans.' How would that make you feel?"

    Members of the Ethiopian church, however, are quick to down play differences.

    Sam Daniel, a regular church goer, admits that as an Ethiopian, he feels "a little betrayed" because while claiming to be his brothers, many Eritreans voted for independence and accused Ethiopia of oppression. He said it is natural for each country to have its own national church, and without much thought, lays claim to having many Eritrean friends.

    But when pressed for a count of such friends, he admits, "Well ... right now, none, really." Then he added, "they don't come to our church and we don't go to theirs."

    But others are less diplomatic.

    A 22-year-old Ethiopian who identifies himself only as Girma is anxious to draw connections between Ethiopian church and state. Arguing that Ethiopians as well as Eritreans should have been able to vote for the latter's independence, he describes both governments as "warlords." Yet he finds more fault with Eritreans.

    So much, in fact, that he advocates segregation between the two groups for fear of polluting the purity of Ethiopian nationalism.

    "I don't want to mix with Eritreans," said Girma, who added that he goes to church every Sunday. "I don't want my kids to associate with Eritreans--I want them to be Ethiopian nationalist."

    He said there is no contradiction between his political and religious views because Eritreans are threatening his country and therefore, his church.

    "How can I teach my kids the faith if I don't protect the church?" he asks. Then citing historic church sanctioned wars against encroaching Muslims and Catholics he adds, "the Ethiopian Orthodox church was protected by blood."

    At least one of Girma's fellow church members is appalled by such philosophy. A young Ethiopian woman who has been dating an Eritrean man for the last year accused the nationalist of "teaching hate."

    Wishing to remain anonymous, she said that debates she has had with her boyfriend have helped her see both sides of the issue.

    "I think Ethiopians are both right and wrong and Eritreans are right and wrong," she said.

    Clergy at Madhem Alem refuse to discus the matter.

    "That is politics," a suspicious and annoyed Kes Birhan said. Wearing a crisp black suit, white cleric's collar and a dignified demeanor, he shooed the unpleasant topic away with the wave of a hand. "I do not want to talk about it."

    St. Gabriel's priest, Keshe Tesfay, also agrees there is no place for politics in the church but he believes the church can play an active role in healing the rift here and abroad.

    "There has to be a prayer to God and since we are brothers there will be peace," said the aged priest. His neck craned forward earnestly from the white turtleneck collar jutting above his beige jacket as he waved a boney forefinger to the rhythm of his speech. "I always tell (parishioners) it is between two governments, not the people. We must pray to God that this thing will end in peace."

    He says the heads of both national churches are meeting outside of their respective countries to come up with a peaceful solution to the war. He has great hopes for the outcome.

    Tesfay also speaks favorably of a recent wedding he performed for an Eritrean and Ethiopian couple; members from both communities happily and peaceably attended.

    "I hope all Orthodox believers, regardless of whether they are Ethiopian or Eritrean will work together," Keshe Tesfay said. "I would like for us to visit them and for them to visit us."
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    Indian Children Belong With Their Own People (4/27/98)

    By Oscar Johnson
    Today Correspondent

    Lacey, Wash. -- In 1974 two women, perhaps weary of the doldrums of a long Wisconsin day, hit the hot summer road bound for South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian reservation.

    The two University of Wisconsin professors were not just on the road for adventure. They were shopping for a child, according to 20-year-veteran, Indian child welfare activist, Bertram Hirsch.

    "This little five-year-old Indian girl was playing in front of her house," narrates Mr. Hirsch. "They coaxed her over to the car. She was a playful, trustful little kid so she jumped into the car and these two characters drove back to Wisconsin with her - just like that. Then they applied for custody of the child in the Wisconsin courts."

    The 52-year-old trial lawyer grows indignant as he continues. He says It took several days before the child's distraught father received notice from Wisconsin.

    "That's When I was called by him and by his tribe to represent them in court," Mr. Hirsch said.

    It took Mr. Hirsch two months to get a Wisconsin state court to recognize the father's parental rights. Despite the obvious injustice of the kidnapping, he says the U.S. attorney in Milwaukee refused to prosecute for the crime and both the FBI and the Wisconsin state police "refused to lift a finger."

    "Now this case wasn't the norm," Mr. says Hirsch. But before The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act acknowledged tribal rights in the adoption, foster care and state removal of Indian children -- "It wasn't the only case of its kind either."

    "The whole tenor of the times -- going back a number of years before ICWA was put into law -- was that it was open season on Indian families," explains Mr. Hirsch.

    "The prevailing belief before ICWA was that Tribes should be broken-up and the people should be assimilated into the general population. And one way to do this is to remove their children from them and raise them in more suitable homes that fits within the mainstream of white America."

    Although the federal law passed 20 years ago, Mr. Hirsch, who also helped craft the bill, says the struggle began as early as 1967.

    He and fellow advocates say that by the mid 70s government reports showed the national average for placing Indian children outside of their family home was at 35 percent.

    In order to preserve tribal integrity and the cultural rights of Indian children, ICWA set federal guidelines granting tribes jurisdiction in child custody proceedings involving their own members.

    When determining Adoptive/foster placement for Indian children, courts must now give preference to the child's extended family, tribe or another Indian family. Upon reaching the age of 18 adoptees can also learn their tribal affiliation and the identity of their biological parents from the courts.

    Many, such as National Indian Child Welfare Association Executive Director, Terry Cross say the Act did more than stay a tradition that denied tribes due process in state court custody cases.

    He says ICWA also set the wheels in motion for tribes to start dealing with issues of child abuse and neglect in their own communities.

    "Before the Act there were less than a dozen tribes working in child welfare," Mr. Cross said. "Now there are about 150."

    Last month (April 20-22) Mr. Cross, and others, stressed the importance of taking care of ones own children at NICWA's 16th annual conference in Portland, Ore.

    "There's no aspect of sovereignty more important than being able to determine for your own children," Mr. Cross told hundreds of participants gathered for the event. He added that "those tribes who have taken the responsibility for their children are also the ones most successful in economic development."

    But scarce economic resources are a formidable challenge for those in the field. ICWA proponents continue the up-hill battle for federal funding.

    Tribal governments want the same Title IV - E Foster Care and Adoption funds granted to, and administered by states. Since 1980 when Tittle IV - E was drafted, eligible Indian children have been exempt from funds needed for food, shelter, clothes and basic education.

    The money is also used to help agencies train social workers and foster parents.

    With the exception of a few isolated grants and tribal - state/county agreements, Congress has not come up with the funds it acknowledges these children qualify for. But the lack of federal policy to this effect renders these American Indian children ineligible.

    "We're still struggling to get the money to be able to handle our own cases appropriately," says Eloise King, social worker for the Colville Confederate Tribes in north-central Washington. King has been working in Indian Country for over 20 years.

    Citing a recent NICWA study on Indian needs in Washington state, she says "about million a year is needed just to get our programs on the same level as private and state agencies."

    "Tribes and urban organizations are doing what they can with very minimal staff, funding and programs," King explains. "On the reservations -- just to be able to deal with the families one-on-one is almost a luxury."

    Two amendments were last year submitted to Senate and House Committees with the hopes of being voted into law by the end of last year's congressional session.

    If passed, two amendments (S. 569 and H. R. 1082) last year submitted to the House and Senate would give tribes state-like access to Title IV - E funds and jurisdiction over their children.

    This would include mandatory notice to a tribe by anyone seeking to adopt a member; the right to intervene in the process; and applying criminal sanctions against anyone concealing the Indian identity of a child.

    Proponents of the two bills hoped to put Indian child welfare on par with states by attaching it to the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act which passed last November.

    However, the bills stalled, largely by the efforts of Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). The general consensus on Capitol Hill is that they will not see the light of day until next year because of upcoming elections.

    Once again leaving Indian Children out in the cold.

    There are also concerns that last year's Adoption and Safe Families Act, spurred by concerns over prolonged foster care, could threaten ICWA gains.

    Many say the Act assaults efforts to reunify children with their original families by exempting states from this obligation in extreme cases of neglect or abuse. And by cutting the maximum foster care time from 22 to 15 months before termination of parental rights begins.

    "They're not giving families the time needed to make changes," says Sally Marjorie, social worker for the Mille Lacs Band of Minnesota. She says often families involved in child neglect or abuse are also struggling to overcome substance abuse and poverty. "If people get drug or alcohol treatment they have to have time for sobriety and 15 months is not enough -- especially under duress of losing your kids."

    At last month's NICWA conference many echoed Mr. Hirsch's sentiments regarding the biggest challenges facing Indian Country.
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