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During the last 18 months I have participated in intensive discussions with policymakers, scholars and students in London, Melbourne, Munich, Abu Dhabi, Toronto, Tokyo and countless American cities, especially Austin. (Austin is, perhaps, the most exotic place on this list.) Other than the consternation this “jet-setting” has elicited from my wife, these trips highlight for me two outstanding characteristics of our current world.

First, the spread of higher education and knowledge economies is creating a wide, diverse and deeply connected cohort of international elites. It is not just that smart and powerful people in all of these places communicate comfortably in English, but that they all use the same vocabulary, as they never have before. The global elites recognize the same educational credentials (from a small number of prestigious institutions), they measure wealth in similar ways (in dollars accumulated and consumed) and they identify common lifestyles (urban, secular and highly mobile.) Simply stated, global elites build productive working relationships across cultural boundaries because they attended the same schools, spend money in the same ways and travel frequently through the same airports. They are somewhat interchangeable as they sit next to one another in meetings, seminars and airline lounges, reading the same online news sources and following the same international financial and geopolitical issues. They know the up-to-date numbers for the major stock markets and they closely analyze various crises around China, Russia and Iran. They know more about these topics than many developments within their own societies.

Second, the global elites that I describe are large in number and diverse in background, but they are a distinct and segregated minority. They are educated cosmopolitans in societies, including the United States, that remain local in their common points of reference and limited in their educational horizons. The average German, Japanese or Canadian citizen does not attend a prestigious university, access large wealth resources or move from city to city. Most “ordinary” people live close to where they were born, work with individuals like themselves and distrust those who look and sound different. Most people care little about stock markets or international crises; they focus, as they always have, on their immediate surroundings and their personal needs.

Local citizens are, of course, dependent on international markets and geopolitical decisions that determine food and energy costs, as well as overall security and prosperity. Few people, however, think that way. If anything, the growing complexity of the world motivates disoriented individuals to crave the simplicity of the local experiences they can readily understand. Control for citizens who do not have the opportunities of global elites means localizing debates about taxation, security and social welfare. In a global age, politics are intensely local.

Online communications have, curiously, contributed to localization. No longer do elites dominate the flow of news and opinion. Now citizens from diverse locales can share their stories, their hopes and their grievances. Across societies, they inspire one another to stand up against elitism and reaffirm “true” and “authentic” local life choices. That discourse dominates many segments on social media. Those threatened by globalization are themselves global in their local expressions.

These observations are not intended to condemn local thinkers or defend global elites, but to explain that this divide is a major contributor to partisanship, incivility and stalemate in so many societies today. Global elites are more connected, powerful and self-confident than ever before, but local thinkers are increasingly mobilized, resentful and resistant. This explains the simultaneous growth of elite multiculturalism and local ethnocentrism as well as elite materialism and local religious devotion. Drivers of BMWs stuffed with organic groceries share the road with drivers of pickup trucks carrying guns and bibles, but they are pursuing very different destinations.

Arguments about party and ideology are really covers for the sociological divergences that are pulling knowledge professionals apart from less privileged hard-working men and women. The challenge of our time is to break out of our bubbles, recognize this division and do something about it. Traveling abroad to find other people like ourselves is not a solution, nor is clinging to a nostalgic image of a simpler local society from the past. Our problem is sociological because most of what we do on campus, at work, at home and on the Internet reinforces our separation from those whose lives are almost incomprehensibly different.

Perhaps we can begin to think about new bridges between the global and the local. These bridges must be personal, and they must show respect for differences in experiences. They must involve a self-conscious effort to move beyond one’s comfort zone.

Those of us who are a part of the global elite — and that includes most people on campus — have an obligation to reach out. We should not diminish our global goals, but we must anchor ourselves better in the local communities we often ignore. From London and Munich to Tokyo and Austin, elites must get out of their offices and walk the streets. This applies to students who need to take their learning outside the classroom and outside the campus.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.

Movie Review: 'Big in Japan' is small in impact

"Big in Japan" is a borderline experimental chronicle of an American band in Tokyo. Middle-aged friends Sean, David and Phil are in Tennis Pro, a Seattle-based rock band that never gained any traction of the years of playing in bars. After a chance meeting with a bizarre traveler, the band decides to try their luck in Tokyo to see if they can make a name for themselves before quitting for good. The three musicians leave behind their jobs and families for one last shot at being a successful rock trio. 

That's about the extent of the film's plot. The rest of "Big in Japan" comprises of loosely connected sequences of the trio's experiences in Tokyo. Hijinks and life lessons abound, all set amid a series of concerts that grow larger and larger with each gig.

Unfortunately, despite director John Jeffcoat's devotion to creating an authentic feel of the Tokyo music scene, “Big in Japan" fails in the fundamentals. The dialogue is as simple as can be, with most interactions between characters serving to inform the audience of exactly what is happening or what someone is feeling rather than functioning as actual human conversations. Expounding this are the three main actors, who are never able to sell the idea that this is a group of life-long friends. The end result is an interesting plot that’s hard to care about because of the lack of connection with the main characters. 

"Big in Japan" is listed as a loosely based on true events, and actors David Durry, Philip Peterson and Sean Lowry all play themselves as the members of Tennis Pro. Whether Jeffcoat could have made a better experience by either casting experienced actors and making the film a fiction narrative or gone full documentary is unknown, but the mesh of both styles the "Big in Japan" adopted to tell its story results in a fragmented story that quickly proves to be unworthy of its premise. 

TOKYO — Concrete rubble litters streets lined with shuttered shops and dark windows. A collapsed roof juts from the ground. A ship sits stranded on a stretch of dirt flattened when the tsunami roared across the coastline. There isn’t a person in sight.

Google Street View is giving the world a rare glimpse into one of Japan’s eerie ghost towns, created when the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami sparked a nuclear disaster that has left the area uninhabitable.

The technology pieces together digital images captured by Google’s fleet of camera-equipped vehicles and allows viewers to take virtual tours of locations around the world, including faraway spots like the South Pole and fantastic landscapes like the Grand Canyon.

TOKYO — Japan’s two biggest airlines grounded all their Boeing 787 aircraft for safety checks Wednesday after one was forced to make an emergency landing in the latest blow for the new jet.

All Nippon Airways said a cockpit message showed battery problems and a burning smell was detected in the cockpit and the cabin, forcing the 787 on a domestic flight to land at Takamatsu airport in western Japan.

It said a later inspection of the plane found leaking electrolyte and burn marks around the main battery, located in an electrical room below the cockpit.

The 787, known as the Dreamliner, is Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced jet, and the company is counting heavily on its success. Since its launch, which came after delays of more than three years, the plane has been plagued by a series of problems including a battery fire and fuel leaks. Japan’s ANA and Japan Airlines are major customers for the jet and among the first to fly it.

Japan’s transport ministry said it received notices from ANA, which operates 17 of the jets, and Japan Airlines, which has seven, that all their 787s would not be flying. The grounding was done voluntarily by the airlines.

ANA executives apologized, bowing deeply at a hastily called news conference in Tokyo.

Over the past century, Japanese photographers and artists have captured the devastation caused by earthquakes to their country and the responses elicited by its people.

Gennifer Weisenfeld, an associate professor at Duke University, spoke about the earthquake that struck Tokyo in 1923 and the resulting depictions in Japanese artwork and mass media in a lecture on campus Friday called “Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923.”

Weisenfeld said she believes images of the earthquake in 1923 do not only depict the disaster, but they communicate the demeanor of Japan and its people at the time.

“In examining artwork illustrating the earthquake you can see physical damage and psychological trauma, but also moments of reflection and renewal,” Weisenfeld said.

Weisenfeld said artwork and imagery are highly representative of a culture, especially in times of crisis.

“The images of the earthquake’s aftermath had a chillingly conflicting effect,” Weisenfeld said. “They simultaneously represented feelings of tragedy and thrill. Many [images] displayed many peoples’ doubt in modernity after seeing almost half of Tokyo decimated, while others celebrated the solidarity [of the country].”

When the images were transmitted around the world, they spurred a worldwide response,
Weisenfeld said.

“People throughout the nation and the world were able to live out vicariously the plight of Japan’s catastrophe,” she said.

This spurred relief organizations globally, including in the United States, to mobilize and provide aid, Weisenfeld said. Images of individuals had similar effects too, she said.

“Many photographs depicted the heroism and resilience of earthquake survivors and the nation,”
she said.

According to Weisenfeld, images served a similar role in depicting the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011.

“In examining past images, their effects are very relevant to the recent events that took place,” she said.

Tamami Motoike, marketing senior and secretary of the Japanese Association at UT, said she agrees with Weisenfeld’s analysis of the images.

“Artwork has definitely been a big part of the Japanese culture,” Motoike said. “It is one of the ways we learn about our history.”

Motoike said her family was directly affected by last year’s earthquake, although they fortunately lived far away from where the majority of the damage occurred. However, she said her father was close to where the earthquake struck while on a business trip.

Motoike said she found out about the earthquake through images and posts on Facebook.

“My initial reaction was, ‘no way,’” Motoike said. “I didn’t want to believe the posts I saw but of course they were all true.”

Advertising sophomore Rebecca Neu said she agreed with Weisenfield’s view on the power of images and believes they can deeply touch people and say things that cannot be said otherwise.

“If someone is watching the news and is informed of an unfortunate event in the world, it’s easy for them to disregard it as not having a personal bearing,” she said. “However, if you see a picture of a mother and her child running from danger, it changes things completely.”

After the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, sports management senior and Japanese native Itsuki Shibakiri wondered what would become of his home. Over the past two weeks, he has only seen and heard the situation unfold through Japanese news publications and phone calls to his parents in Chiba, Japan. What he’s heard differs from Western news coverage, he said. Shibakiri used to surf on the beaches of Chiba, located 24 miles east of Tokyo, where his parents still reside. He said the beaches are now barely recognizable after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake caused trembles within the city and the tsunami, as tall as a four-story building in some places, that hit the Pacific coast. The damage in Chiba pales in comparison to that in Northern regions that were hit the hardest. Nevertheless, electricity blackouts, food shortages and questions about radiation have created an uneasy atmosphere in Shibakiri’s hometown of about 950,000 people. “The areas that are supposed to have their electricity cut still have electricity, and the ones that are supposed to have electricity, don’t,” Shibakiri said. “It makes people confused. My mom said, ‘I don’t know how to prepare for this.’” After three days of phone calls that wouldn’t get through, Shibakiri got in touch with his mother who confirmed his family and friends are safe. “My dad got really frustrated because when he got back from work [in Tokyo] he had to pass 10 trains to walk back to our home,” Shibakiri said, adding it took his dad 12 hours to walk to his house in Chiba. Tatsuya Imai, communications international graduate student, was initially introduced to recent events through a vague email from his father in Tokyo, which read: “Everything is fine.” “I was like, ‘Everyone is fine? Of course, everyone should be fine.’ I didn’t get it,” Imai said. Since the quake, both students have been relying on Japanese news sites for their information. Shibakiri said he also reads English news sources, but primarily reads MSN Japan, Yahoo! Japan and watches NHK-news. He said in contrast to Western coverage, Japanese journalists focus their efforts on keeping citizens calm. Many Western news outlets have sensationalized recent events, painting a picture that Shibakiri and Imai said is different from stories they heard from family and Japanese news. “Japan nuke disaster, Panic!” screamed the front cover of Wednesday’s NY Daily News. The large font, all-caps headline was complimented by a picture of a man wearing a gas mask, with no explanation. The publication wasn’t alone in making such bold claims. Fox News mistakenly placed a Shibuya, Tokyo, night club on its map of Japan’s nuclear power plants that made it appear as if one existed in the capital city. Other news outlets, such as CNN, have drawn comparisons to the bombing of Hiroshima: a nuclear attack that resulted in a death toll 16 times the tsunami’s current count of about 9,000 deaths. Imai said Western coverage implies the entire island is in danger. He added that Westerners concerned about a specific region of Japan “don’t have as much information on how safe or dangerous the place is.” Shibakiri said Japanese news coverage has its own problems of not being as hard on the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the private nuclear plant that was damaged, leading to radioactive leaks. The company has been reluctant to share information on the plants and scheduled blackouts, implemented in order to allow regions an equal amount of time with electricity and running trains, despite limited power resources. As an officer of the Japanese Association and a member for three years, Shibakiri will be a part of their efforts around campus, spending the upcoming weeks raising money for the American Red Cross. The organization has raised $2,327 since Monday; their goal is $5,000. Imai, on the other hand, is traveling back home to Tokyo the first week of April for his sister’s wedding. He said he doesn’t feel there is anything to fear in returning to Tokyo, where the effects of radiation are minimal.