Don's Diary

March 9, 2001

A long weekend in Japan - the ultimate weekend destination. Perhaps this is the future for academics in a globalised world? The Japanese government is hosting the United Nations World Congress on child sexual exploitation and has flown the six authors of the congress's reports to Kyoto to discuss work in progress.

There is only one other woman in the business section. She also has that tired up-late-doing-last-minute-amendments-to-the-paper look that characterises the 21st-century scholar. As we disembark, I ask: "Are you here for the sexual exploitation?" Fortunately she is.

Met by foreign ministry car and are presented with a packet of paper tissues - it is impolite to sneeze in public. Arrive at the hotel, which the guidebook informs us is the most expensive in Japan.

Up early to meet with Mofa (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and interpreters. The War Crimes Tribunal recently ruled that sexual slavery is a crime against humanity. It emphasises the urgency in combating the sexual exploitation of children. International law is seeking better enforcement and more child-centred legal proceedings.

In a number of countries, including Japan, the possession of child pornography is not an offence. Countries are split. In the evening, after a lavish diplomatic reception, we take the subway to Gion, one of the traditional geisha areas. Geishas flutter in and out of the old wooden houses, but their image significantly alters when we learn that their average age is 63.

Meet early to discuss the papers for December. The conference centre is a modern steel interpretation of a traditional Zen building, its lines conveying a sense of energy and harmony. It has an added touch - when the airconditioning is switched on there is the sound of birds in full summer song.

All our papers dovetail nicely into each other, from the sociologist Julia O'Connell Davidson's critique of the definition of the "Sex exploiter" to Canadian Mark Hecht's investigation of the role and involvement of the private sector. This is how staff seminars should be - everyone is constructive, warm and polite. The multidisciplinary, multicultural approach is invaluable.

After a traditional Japanese box lunch (wonderful for conferences -none of the stupor induced by heavy western dining) we are taken on a tour of Kyoto. The Golden Pavilion -gold leaf painted on lacquer - shimmers on the lake and the lake shimmers onto the gold. On to another Unesco heritage site, the Zen gardens. Meditating in the sunshine in its 5th-century rock garden is a perfect antidote to research assessment exercise blues.

Back on the plane. We have flown for more than 24 hours and coped with a time difference of nine hours - all to have been on Japanese soil for less than two and a half days.

Geraldine Van Bueren is professor of international human rights law and director of Pirch (the Programme on International Rights of the Child), Queen Mary College, University of London.

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