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Kallie Szczepanski

Asian History


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When a Fad Becomes Life or Death

Wednesday April 16, 2014

Statue of Hachiko, the famously loyal Akita dog from Japan.

During the late 19th century in Japan, after the country opened to foreign trade and the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed, there was a craze for all things foreign.  This included pets - local dogs were out, and everyone wanted a St. Bernard, German Shepherd, or other European breed as a status symbol.

As a result, indigenous dogs like the Akita, which had roots in Japan's earliest history, nearly went extinct as a distinct genetic line.  They were mixed with more exotic types, or abandoned altogether because they weren't considered desirable pets.  In the end, it was the rise of Japanese nationalism and a new appreciation for all things Japanese that brought the Akita back from the brink of extinction.

Photo of a statue of Hachiko, the famously loyal Akita, by Mark Harris / Image Bank.

Yasukuni Shrine Controversy Flaring Once More

Saturday April 12, 2014

The controversial Shinto shrine, Yasukuni, which stands in Tokyo, Japan

Japan's internal affairs minister has visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to honor the country's war dead, much to the irritation of South Korea and China. Minister Yoshitaka Shindo, who visits the shrine often, is the grandson of Tadamichi Kuribayashi who commanded Japanese forces on Iwo Jima during World War II.

Shindo asserts that his visits are a private, family matter, not a topic for international discussion.  However, it is sure to spark ire in neighboring countries that suffered from Imperial Japan's aggression in the 20th century.  As the Korea Herald notes, Yasukuni stands "as a symbol of Japan's past militarism." This is particularly touchy at the moment, when Japan is rebuilding its military capabilities to counter Chinese and North Korean moves in the East China Sea.

Photo by Yakinik on Flickr.com.

Tambora's 1815 Eruption Linked to Opium, Cholera

Friday April 11, 2014

Mt. Sinabung in Sumatra, Indonesia erupts in 2013.

Mt. Tambora's super-colossal eruption (really, that's the scientific term) in 1815 is famous for causing the "Year Without a Summer" all around the northern hemisphere.  A recent article in Slate, however, points out a couple of the massive eruption's lesser known effects.

For one, the cataclysmic eruption in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) cooled the waters of the Bay of Bengal, off British India's coast, where the deadly cholera bacterium flourished. Under these new conditions, a novel strain of cholera emerged - one that people in India and across Asia had no resistance to. For the rest of the 19th century, medical science around the world struggled to contain a global cholera that would kill tens of millions of people. The bug wiped out 15,000 pilgrims to Mecca in 1846, 200,000 people in Mexico in 1849, and US President James K. Polk, also in 1849, among millions of others.

The second surprising effect of the Tambora eruption was the development of the famous "Golden Triangle" opium producing region in mainland Southeast Asia. Farmers in the Yunnan Province of southwestern China suffered rice crop failures for three years straight after the eruption; a terrible famine left people eating clay just to fill their stomachs.  Rather than rely on rice, which had let them down so badly, farmers there turned to a hardier cash crop - opium poppies.  Opium cultivation and processing then spread south into the mountains of Burma, Laos, and Thailand, and the region became known as the Golden Triangle.  Today, it is second only to Afghanistan in opium and heroin production, despite concerted efforts by local governments to crack down on the illicit trade.

The lesson we can take from the amazing effects of Mt. Tambora's eruption is that a temperature change of just a few degrees around the world will cause organisms - from bacteria to rice to people - to react, and the knock-on effects are completely unpredictable.

Photo of the 2013 Mt. Sinabung eruption on Sumatra (obviously a much smaller event) by Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images.

Sunken Portuguese Carrack Full of Stolen Gold Found?

Wednesday April 9, 2014

A treasure chest surrounded by gold

Legend holds that she is the richest shipwreck anywhere in the world. In November of 1511, the Portuguese carrack Flor de la Mar ("Flower of the Sea") sank off the coast of Sumatra, now in Indonesia. The ship was reputedly loaded with 60 tons of gold plundered from the Malacca Sultanate of what is now Malaysia. In addition, it bore exotic marvels like two life-sized brass lions with precious jewel inlays, and a magical bracelet taken from the Maharaja of Shahbandar, a Sindhi port city in present-day Pakistan.

Portuguese captain Alfonso de Albuquerque was trying to bring the creaky old ship back to Portugal in order to present the treasure to the court. The ship ran into a storm, however, and quickly sank, taking more than 400 sailors and the treasure to the depths. Albuquerque himself managed to make it to shore on a make-shift raft.

For hundreds of years since that fateful day, treasure hunters have been trying to locate the Flor de la Mar and her precious cargo. American Robert Marx announced in 1992 that he had found it, but then retracted that statement. On Monday, Malaysia's Star newspaper reported that the ship has been found by a drone, operated by some unnamed underwater exploration entity. If the Flor has indeed been located, prepare for major legal battles over the treasure, between the divers who bring it up, the Indonesian government within whose seas it rests, the Malaysians who were robbed of it in the first place, and the Portuguese, who owned the ship and did the robbing.

Photo by Image Bank via Getty Images.

Historic Afghan Elections Underway

Wednesday April 9, 2014

Afghan National Army soldier votes on April 5, 2014

On Saturday, Afghanistan held a historic presidential election to determine who will replace out-going president Hamid Karzai, who has been in office for twelve years. Despite threats of violence from the Taliban, a record 60% of eligible voters turned out to participate in their nascent democracy.

No single candidate is likely to have a clear majority, once the votes are tallied. Afghanistan likely will have to make it through a runoff election next month, perhaps between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. In any case, this relatively free, fair, and peaceful election may prove to be a turning point in Afghan history. It might be the beginning of an era of reconciliation and rebuilding after decades of war and chaos, beginning with the Soviet Invasion in 1979.

However, if the history of Afghanistan teaches us anything, it's that we cannot predict the future of that harsh and difficult land.

Photo of Afghan National Army soldier after voting by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The Amazingly Long History of Nintendo

Thursday March 20, 2014

Handmade hanafuda playing cards were Nintendo's original product

Wait, Nintendo is how old?

I confess, if you had asked me this question a month ago, I would have guessed that the video game giant Nintendo was probably founded around... 1982? And I would have been way, way off. Did you know that Nintendo actually got its start in Kyoto, Japan back in 1889?  That's right, Nintendo is from the Meiji Era.

The company, founded by Fusajiro Yamauchi, began as a playing card company. It specialized in handmade hanafuda cards, which are beautiful playing cards decorated with flowers, birds, and deer. The cards can be used to play a number of different games, much like western decks, including gambling games. That explains Nintendo's name, which roughly translates as "leave luck to heaven."

Nintendo launched its first video game console in 1983. In 2013, its annual profits were over $70 million US. It is the world's largest video game company. Not bad for a firm that started out hand-painting beautiful flower cards in Kyoto!

Photo from Photodisc via Getty Images.

Did Myanmar's 8888 Uprising Finally Succeed?

Wednesday March 19, 2014

Young fans of the National League for Democracy at a 2012 election rally in Myanmar

More than 25 years ago, students and other pro-democracy activists in Myanmar (Burma) put their lives on the line to protest against the military rulers of that country.  Their movement, called the 8888 Uprising since nationwide strikes started on August 8, 1988, ended up being crushed by the government, and the activist leaders were jailed.

The protests did bring Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence. She spoke at a large rally in Yangon during the demonstrations, and became the opposition candidate in presidential elections held two years later. When she won, the government invalidated the results and threw her in prison.

It seemed like the military rulers had well and truly defeated the people and their pro-democracy yearnings. However, today, there have been relatively free and fair elections, most of the jailed activists have been freed, and Aung San Suu Kyi is not only free but also a member of parliament. It seems as though the 8888 Uprising finally did succeed, a quarter of a century later. I suppose each individual participant would have to decide now whether it was all worth it.

Photo of 2012 election rally by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images.

Crimean Tatars Oppose Russian Seizure of Crimea

Tuesday March 4, 2014

Russia's seizure this week of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine has been welcomed by some of the ethnic Russian majority in the area. However, it is vigorously opposed by the large Crimean Tatar population.

The Crimean Tatars, descended from the Golden Horde of Mongols, were once the majority population in Crimea. However, Joseph Stalin charged them all with collaborating with the Nazis during World War II, and deported them to the parts of the Soviet Union that are now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Many Tatars have returned to Crimea since the fall of the Soviet Union - and they are not at all interested in coming under Russian rule once more.

Amazing Photos of 1950s South Korea

Tuesday February 25, 2014

South Korea in 1910, 1953, and 2005

A reader who worked as a civilian for the U.S. Army in South Korea just sent me a link to some of her pictures from that time, taken between 1956 and 1959. These amazing images look much more similar to Korea in the early 1900s than South Korea today. It's amazing how quickly the country has changed!

Collage photo, left to right: 1910 photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection, 1952 photo from Homini:) on Flickr.com, 2005 photo by Chung Sung-Jun on Getty Images.

Where Is Suleiman the Magnificent's Heart?

Monday February 24, 2014

Suleiman the Magnificent, as painted by Titian

The great Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, died on the battlefield at the age of 71 in 1566. His troops were fighting the Hapsburgs in Hungary, and they went on to win the Battle of Sziget, unaware that their leader had passed away from a heart attack.

And here is where the story gets a bit mysterious. For some reason, likely to preserve the body for its trip back to Constantinople, Suleiman's attendants removed his heart and intestines, and buried them on the site. Several later maps purport to show where the heart was buried, but they are not considered reliable.

Now, researchers are searching for the burial site, although theirs may be a quixotic quest. After all, organs decay, and Suleiman's heart likely would have been buried in a simple wooden box in accordance with Muslim burial practices. Local officials hold out hope that the sultan's heart will be found, however, so that they can advertise the site as a tourist attraction.

In the meantime, the search for Sulieman's heart has yielded one large and surprising find. Archaeologists discovered a previously forgotten Ottoman town, which stood on the site from about 1573 to the 1680s, when the Hapsburgs wiped it off the map.

Painting of Suleiman by Titian (?) via Wikipedia.

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