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    Japanese education statistics drop

    Posted by Sean at 14:11, December 7th, 2004

    The OECD’s figures for its 2003 education survey are out, and Japan’s rankings have fallen. The Mainichi‘s English report is here and is, naturally, not as complete as its original Japanese report here. What’s interesting, as it so often is, is what was omitted from the English version: Japanese students trust their teachers less.


    To what degree do students feel their teachers support them in class? Of 31 countries (including 7 major nations of Europe and the Americas, and also Hong Kong, the rank of which was high this year), Japan had a lower-than-average percentage of students who gave the most affirmative response “Always true” to any of 5 prompts about the degree of support from mathematics teachers, including “[The teacher] takes an interest in students’ individual studies,” and “[The teacher] provides opportunities for students to express individual opinions.” Averaged over these five items, Japan ranked lowest of the 31 countries.





    This is important, given the traditional close relationship students have been expected to form with their teachers. It’s hard to know what to make of it, though–exactly what kinds of opinions do students want to be giving in, of all things, math class? Or is the issue just that lecturing at students is emphasized over student input? But that makes little sense–Japan’s math education is famous for using directed drills to guide students, whenever possible, into discovering the next mathematical principle to be learned. More worrisome is that the article goes on to relate that Japanese students showed comparatively little confidence that their schools were teaching them useful knowledge (59%, 28 percentage points lower than average for the group) and were giving them the confidence to make their own decisions (52%, 18 percentage points below average). It’s not possible to determine from the Mainichi how well-constructed the survey instrument actually was, though the OECD is hardly a piddling organization.



    What is obvious is that the Ministry of Education and Culture’s major concern is with the drop in reading and math scores. The reason I’m not obsessing over them here–besides the fact that those figures are amply sliced and diced in the English article–is that everyone has known for years that there are problems with the tendency to compare Japan’s education statistics so favorably with those of other countries. Japan does not have a history of documenting degrees of literacy, for example. Functional illiteracy is not defined and measured. Are Japanese people better readers on average than citizens of most other countries? Sure, probably. Are they comparatively up in the exosphere? It’s hard to tell. As the Monbusho likes to frame things, either you can’t read at all, or you’re literate. How well you read if you’re in the latter category is not easy to assess, though from experience, I’d have a difficult time believing the Japanese average doesn’t put the American average to shame.



    Even the math scores have always needed more qualification. The level of achievement in computation and problem-solving among average Japanese really is a marvel. But Japan doesn’t appear to do any better at producing math major material–people who can go beyond remembering why the harmonic function doesn’t converge to their own conceptualizing–than other countries do. Now, since most of us don’t need to come up with our own theories of mathematics, that doesn’t matter all that much. It would be nice if American schools could teach students how to add fractions. But the idea that Japan turns all its students into Karl Friedrich Gausses does not obtain.



    Even so, the reaction of the Ministry of Education is encouraging, lacking as it does any American-style references to Carol Gilligan or journaling. Whether the remedial programs that are implemented can quickly address the increased (and highly-publicized) disaffection of students remains to be seen.



    Added on 9 December: Hong Kong’s rankings were higher, but Simon is unimpressed. The reasons he cites are not entirely inapplicable to Japan as well.


    Bang bang

    Posted by Sean at 12:16, December 7th, 2004

    Mr. du Toit has kindly given me a link this morning, and everyone and his grandmother who reads him seems to have followed it. I doubt this is quite the kind of destination his readers are used to clicking through to from him, so I hope no one’s too taken aback. I’m thankful for the mention, though.



    It puts me in mind of a story from last year, when Atsushi came home with me to meet my parents. My mother has a handgun and a well-developed sense of mischief. It was a given that she was going to show both to my boyfriend and see whether she could get a reaction out of him.



    So we’re sitting in the living room, and she gets the gun out, brings it into the room, and deposits it with a flourish on the coffee table in front of him. And Atsushi looks at it–I mean, he didn’t peer; he leaned over and looked straight at it–and says enthusiastically but with perfect Japanese composure, “Wow. Oh, yes. That’s very menacing.” At which point, Mom was all his. Between that and the comfy, unassuming way he played with the cats, I think my parents were ready to ask him to replace me as the elder son.



    Anyhow, speaking of the unexpected, I’ve been getting more links lately from more sites. That’s very gratifying, but it occurs to me that the mixture of topics I write about probably seems kind of random to someone blundering into this place for the first time. When I myself have been in those situations, I’ve found that if there’s a list of “Best Posts” or some such, it’s often helpful to look at as a representative sample of what I’m in for if I start digging into someone’s archives. So I’ve thought of adding one here to help new readers navigate my (ahem) eclecticism, but I’m a terrible judge of my own writing. If anyone reading here has any suggestions for things I might want to include, I’d be grateful to hear. (Suggestions of the “Whatever you do, leave out that ridiculous post titled ‘XYZ'” variety are fine, too, as long as they’re put politely.)


    Pearl Harbor

    Posted by Sean at 09:12, December 7th, 2004

    Yesterday (depending on which time zone your bioclock is thinking in–you’ll forgive mine for not being sure) was the Pearl Harbor anniversary. I was on a plane and so was unable to post, but Eric wasn’t, and as usual, his piece has good links.



    Considering the current Japan-China debates over sources of petroleum, this isn’t a bad time to be reflecting on how the Pacific War began and on the long-term geography-based tensions we have in Asia. Of course, according to intellectual titans such as Noam Chomsky, the world is categorizable into white Westerners and everyone else, so inter-ethnic hostilities along other axes have to be downplayed.



    Most of the tribute sites seem well-intentioned but poorly designed. Probably the best resource is the Navy’s own page.


    From pei to bay

    Posted by Sean at 07:40, December 7th, 2004

    This is only Japan news to the extent that every diplomatic hotspot in Asia affects us here, but the PRC’s Foreign Ministry has enlightened us about what’s really preventing the East from becoming one big, happy family. This is the Vice-Director of its Information Agency:


    The divisive activities of those movements agitating for Taiwanese independence are the undisputable* root of the tense relations between the two sides. They are the single largest threat to peace and prosperity in the Formosa Strait and the Asia-Pacific region.





    Now you know. Of course, mainland China says these things at the drop of a rice-straw hat. What brought this week’s installment on is that Taiwan has indicated that it will begin designating its resident diplomats “representatives of Taiwan,” rather than “representatives of Taipei.” The change is seen, doubtless accurately, as an assertion of Taiwan’s autonomy as an overall entity.

    * I know that’s not what こそ actually means; if anyone has a better way to get the emphasis across, I’d like to hear.


    Mary does Dallas

    Posted by Sean at 06:47, December 7th, 2004

    I would be remiss if I didn’t publicly thank the du Toits for their amazing hospitality over the weekend, which was of the old-fashioned variety: the constant flowing of coffee, the constant passing of treats, the wandering of conversation agreeably from topic to topic. After one particularly wonderful dinner, I picked up a plate to carry it five steps to the kitchen, and the proprietor of Serenity’s Journal practically got me into a hammerhold to wrest it out of my hand and shove me toward one of the living room couches.



    And the children were, of course, wonderful. They were respectful and non-strident but completely at ease in adult conversation around someone they hadn’t met. This is clearly a household of people who regard each other highly. Spending time with them reminded me of everything I love about America, and I can’t thank them enough.



    By contrast, my message for American airlines (including American Airlines) is, “Thanks for nothing.” I mean, the flights were generally smooth, and the flight attendants were generally fine. In the sense of job performance, that is to say, not in the sense of attractiveness. I make it a practice not to make physical evaluations of people who are on-duty.



    Yeah, right, you got me. I noticed. But it’s not the fault of the flight attendants that they age badly, is it? Something to do with all those UV rays at 35000 feet. And working in confined spaces gives them an unfortunate tendency to mince. All that flying did give me yet more occasions to marvel at how TOTALLY HOT American men on average are, though. Even the guys who aren’t hot are hot. Probably part of it is that I’m a sucker for good forearms–you know, the sinewy, hairy, I-am-a-male-mammal kind. The businessman sitting next to me on my flight out of Dallas had his sleeves rolled up, and every time he turned the page of his newspaper, his muscles rippled, and the hair on his wrists spilled over his watchband at a different light-catching angle. I can only hope he thought that what I was staring so acquisitively at was his Rolex. Of course, looking resolutely forward didn’t help, because every time some guy reached up into the light of his reading lamp to close his overhead ventilator, I thought I’d die.



    I wasn’t literally afraid of dying, despite the turbulence over Texas, because our captain did an ace job of skirting around the bad weather almost as soon as we encountered it. While the various excitable parts of my anatomy are getting their appreciative messages in, my stomach would like to thank him–but it would also like to ask, purely out of scientific interest, whether the head of food service at AA (and United, which got me from La Guardia to DFW) was actively trying to give us all a stereotypical airline-meal horror story with which to regale friend and foe alike in the coming weeks. I mean, good grief. In my experience, JAL, ANA, and Thai Airways–even Tiger Economy cellar-dweller Korean Air–have managed to contrive in-flight meals that are about as good as leftover homemade food that you microwave too long so it has a few hard pellet-y bits. Not yummy, but not repellant. The food on United and American was a whole other deal. Holding iced vodka (WTF is up with making people pay for liquor on trans-Pacific flights, BTW?) in the mouth for a good long time to deaden tongue and palate helped a bit, but I’d kind of hoped that, this being a code-share flight with JAL, those involved would be motivated by shame into achieving peak-performance mode for those of us who are used to better. No such luck.



    My fortune improved dramatically on arrival at Narita Terminal 1 (the flight was operated by AA, remember), however. The seatbelt sign was off at the gate at 5:45, I made the 6:13 Narita Express, and I was waiting for a cab in Shibuya by 7:40. It’s probably not the first time such a thing has happened in the history of Japanese commercial aviation, but neither is it the sort of timing any frequent flyer in his right mind would plan on. To achieve it, I had to have uncommon luck at every potential bottleneck point: there was no line at immigration for holders of Japanese passports/reentry permits, my bag was among the first out, the girl at customs waved me through in seconds, and I was in line at the JR counter by 6:10. It’s the kind of exception-that-proves-the-rule that reminds you what a production flying in and out of Tokyo usually is. But at the end of the line was a bath in my own bathtub, a welcome-home call from my audibly happy boyfriend, and sleep in our own bed under our own comforter. Well, until 3 a.m., when jet lag woke me. But that’ll be over in a few days. It’s good to be home. Thanks to everyone who helped make this the best 里帰り (satogaeri, “return to the hometown”) ever.


    NGO blues

    Posted by Sean at 22:13, December 3rd, 2004

    There’s a new expat blogger in Germany who’s honored me by putting on what looks to be his very first blogroll. He has a good post up about, among other things, the effects of NGOs, that makes these important points:


    The role of NGOs is especially problematical, since they operate without responsibility. The NGOs go into a country with a problem and try and deal with the problem according to their own priorities and needs. What they end up doing is undermining the authority of the state: whether this is done out of the best of intentions, or deliberately for political purposes, or accidentally plays no role in the effect that it has on the states involved: they are weakened.



    Why is this important? It’s important because if you are going to push for things like an International Court of Justice, treaties like Kyoto, for “obeying international law” – whatever that means* – then you can’t at the same time dismantle the actors that work within this framework.



    And I think that many of the NGOs are pursuing their own special agendas that don’t have all that much to do with providing aid or help and have a lot more to do with ensuring that the problems failed states face don’t go away, since that would mean the NGOs involved would lose their main arguments for fund-raising and that some of those involved might have to drop the pretense of trying to save the world and actually find a real job.





    I think most Americans know all this intellectually, but I also think that you don’t quite realize until you live abroad just how many pies NGOs have their fingers in. There’s an obvious reason for that: America doesn’t need their help, so we don’t have them around in daily life. The Japanese give, rather than get, assistance, also, but there are a lot of countries with close geographical and economic ties to Japan that do, so I think we hear about such organizations and their policy effects more. Germany is probably the same way.



    It may seem odd to have libertarian old me approvingly citing someone who’s complaining about “undermining the authority of the state.” But it’s a problem with regards to these issues for two big reasons, both of which are touched on above. One is that, in countries with corruption problems–and corruption is, naturally, one of the main factors that screw up an economy to the point that it needs outside assistance–NGO personnel end up simply adding another layer to the patronage/approval system. I have no doubt that most of them set out to introduce transparency, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law into the countries they’re working with. But to start getting anything done, they have to operate at least partially within the existing power structures. (The recent Western predilection for prostrating outselves before “local cultural norms” when dealing with less-developed peoples exacerbates this problem.) What start out as temporary concessions can rapidly turn into permanent cooption by the political movers and shakers whose grip the organization was trying to loosen from the economy in the first place. So instead of a country or region that’s moving toward a set of clear, predictable, freely-available rules that are equally enforced on all citizens, you get yet another player (this one with access to a well of foreign cash) whose vagaries of temperament you have to learn in order to get on with your business.



    The second problem is that, sort of the way the most incompetent public schools in America have conventionally gotten the largest amounts of money to help them try again, NGO assistance buffers regimes from the market signals that would normally clobber them. And it is one of the great principles of life–maybe even the great principle–that being insulated from the results of your own screw-ups makes you less likely to change your behavior so you don’t make them again.



    Now, obviously, if either governments or NGOs are staffed with plain old evil, self-serving people, they are not going to care what the market is telling them anyway. But without having taken a poll, I suspect that most aid workers, and even most entrenched local ruling families in their host countries, really think they’re doing the best they can to further the interests of their constituencies. When the path of least resistance is available, though, human nature is capable of going through all manner of ethical arabesques to justify taking it. And it’s a given that it’s easier to play ball with those currently in power, even if they’re causing the problem you’ve undertaken to remedy.



    4 December 07:25 CST

    * This was the line at which I was sure I liked this guy.


    I just flipped off President George

    Posted by Sean at 13:25, December 2nd, 2004

    Comments were down for a few hours because of spam directed at MT–all those people who seem to think I need Viagra at 32 finally had their effect, though not in the way they imagined, I gather. Sorry if anyone had things to say and couldn’t get through. Oh, yeah! Apropos of nothing: Does anyone else remember “Dizz Knee Land” by Dada, from…’92, it must have been? The friend from college that I’m staying with was messing around with iTunes and downloaded it while his girlfriend and I were cooking, and it was such a throwback it made me shiver. But in a good way. Belly, anyone?



    Tomorrow morning, off to Dallas, where I plan to demonstrate to Mr. and Mrs. du Toit how glaringly apparent my defects of education are when I’m not writing at leisure with the ability to edit. Should be fun!



    2 December 23:25 EST


    Things Eleanor Jorden didn’t prepare you for

    Posted by Sean at 03:37, December 2nd, 2004

    Yesterday, I was waiting for the 7 to take me over to Times Square so I could meet my buddy for lunch (he later referred to me as a “terrific guy,” which I am willing myself to believe was not a calculated attempt to grease our work relationship. Just kidding, K!). There were electronic clocks installed above the platform, which I don’t think were there last year. And then the 2/3 has new cars with electronic displays that are either modeled after the newest Japanese train cars or just made by the same manufacturers. Very nice, though those were there last year (but still a big change, as I remember explaining to my reared-in-Kanto boyfriend, who assumed that train cars in developed countries just sort of all were like that). So anyway, I was thinking yesterday, with Tokyo smugness, Finally, New York! Trains like a real city!



    But then, there’s a backside flip-side to Tokyo’s well-used trains that makes me glad I sometimes get a break from the place. Man alive. I thought the occasional reverse-peristalsis brought on by drunken motion-sickness was bad enough. Actually, it was bad enough, if Lee’s experience is an indication of what sort of physiological soul-cry the salary-man/OL set can come up with when blowing chunks just doesn’t convey enough angst.



    Just five more days, and I’m back!



    2 December 13:37 EST


    尋問

    Posted by Sean at 23:24, December 1st, 2004

    When I’m back here in the States, people are always asking me this unanswerable question: “So…what’s it like to be gay in Japan?” I never really know what to say. I can describe my gay life there just fine, obviously. But I’m a foreigner, of course, so I don’t have anything like the experience my Japanese friends do. Sometimes, the way people put the question is, “How easy is it to be gay in Japan?” That’s even harder to answer.



    Japan, as you’ve no doubt heard in various contexts, is a shame culture rather than a guilt culture. I love our American forthrightness and sincerity, but (partially on ethical grounds and partially because of plain old temperament) I always feel a sense of release when I’m boarding a plane back to Narita. It comes from the knowledge that I’m returning to a place where every last little turn of phrase or arch of eyebrow isn’t mirthlessly prodded for complex psychological motivations, where you can expect people to be polite and considerate in public, and where no one cares about your private life as long as you don’t force people to reckon with it.



    Of course, not everyone marks private off from public the same way. I would like to be able to establish Atsushi publicly as the person who would speak for my interests if I were incapacitated and with whom I’ve formed a household. I personally have no interest in discussing my sex life with anyone. If people insist on imagining it, anyway, I don’t see how I can stop them; but I also feel no responsibility for preserving their complacencies by pretending not to be gay.



    That sort of balance has not been struck by gay activism in America, but even approaching it would be unthinkable in Japan at this point. Forced arranged marriages are now unconstitutional in Japan, but marriage is still much more a social and economic contract than a meeting of the minds, to an extent that I think would give even the most biological essentialist, far-right American pause. And despite the dramatic rise in the median marriage age for both sexes, you’re a weirdo if you’re not married by your mid-30’s.



    Still and all, there are benefits to Japan’s tradition-mindedness that I think a lot of gays in America have been too willing to cast off. The lack of gay ghettos means that it’s pretty much impossible to wall yourself into a queer-positive echo chamber and start seeing rank-and-file straight people as an enemy arrayed against you. It also means that very few people see their homosexuality as their entire identity, with anti-gayness blamed for every disappointment, setback, depressive episode, and failed relationship. You never hear Japanese gays getting into princessy snits about not being approved of or officially sanctioned exactly like straight people in every last finicking little detail. At ordinary gay bars, you meet brittle, desperate guys who are obviously using a constant stream of sex partners to avoid dealing with their issues much, much less frequently than you do here in the States. (Even here, they’re a minority, of course; their attention-whoring just makes them disproportionately noticeable. But the Japanese in general don’t put the burden of self-definition on sex to the point that we do in the US.)



    The bad side, obviously, is that it can be hard for people coming out to find resources, and that people have to keep their most meaningful relationships hidden. It’s not uncommon for employees at the stodgier companies to be informed that they will not be promoted up the usual management-track escalator until they marry and start producing future contributors to the Social Insurance kitty. So many guys use pseudonyms in their gay lives that I only know the real first and last names of, I’d say, my ten or so closest friends. Japan’s shame culture puts pressure on vulnerable gay kids as much as our guilt culture–there’s no finessing that, and it sucks–but most adults who have come out to themselves seem pretty content.



    So if you’re willing to make the available trade-offs, being gay in Japan doesn’t strike me as all that hard. (I guess I should point out that I live in what’s probably the most gay-friendly part of the whole country, the Shibuya-Shinjuku axis of western Tokyo, though I now live a little outside Shibuya, rather than in the shadow of the 109 Building the way I did until March. Anyway, the point is, I’m talking about urban gay life and not about the provinces, but I don’t think Japan is much different from other developed countries in those terms.) And if, like me, you’re a foreigner and not subject to the full litany of rules Japanese people are, it’s even easier. It’s just an additional weird thing that makes you a typical gaijin. But as I say, my Japanese friends themselves are mindful of the social rules, but I don’t get the sense that they live in fear.



    2 December 09:38 EST


    SDF deployment extension official next week

    Posted by Sean at 12:17, December 1st, 2004

    This isn’t a surprise, but it’s official now: Japan will extend the Iraq deployment of SDF personnel beyond the original end date. The extension will be for a full year, to avoid further arguments between Koizumi’s LDP and its fractious (as least on issues of war) coalition partner, the Shin-Komeito. Discussion over the proposed new amendment to the Japanese constitution, which would allow the SDF to participate in combat missions with allies for purposes of collective self-defense, will of course continue over the same period.



    1 December 10:16 EST