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    Posted by Sean at 08:57, September 20th, 2005

    Japan has had its second fugu poisoning death for this year:

    The man prepared the puffer fish on Saturday after receiving it from a friend, according to a local public health center. Between about 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Sunday, the man ate sashimi from the liver of the fish. At about 11:30 p.m. that evening, he started showing signs of poisoning, and he died in the predawn hours of Monday.

    The man had prepared puffer fish in the past, and his family did not stop him from eating it, officials said.

    I don’t remember having come across the first, but there was a party of four people last year of whom three were poisoned. I think two of them died.

    Everything but the oink

    Posted by Sean at 23:29, September 19th, 2005

    Eric, who’s a Pennsylvania native like me, has listed some projects that funnel federal pork into the commonwealth. As he says, each one is modest in scope, but together they contribute to government bloat. Besides, even a small amount of wasteful spending is, well, wasteful.

    I’m not sure what the most wasteful federally-funded PA project in recent memory is. Being next door to the domain of Robert “Yes, West Virginia, there is a Santa Clause” Byrd kind of makes you complacent about these things. However, I was impressed by the prodigality and why-is-Washington-involved-in-this? pointlessness of a waterfront redevelopment initiative in Philadelphia, for which then-Representative Joseph Hoeffel secured over $10 million a few years ago. (Note Hoeffel’s statist paranoia over what private control might do to the site.) It’s not an ongoing project, so I don’t think it’s eligible for inclusion in Eric’s list.

    Added later: Perhaps I should point out that if you’re thinking you vaguely recognize Hoeffel’s name, it’s because he was the Democrat who ran against Arlen Specter for the PA US Senate seat that was up for election last year. One of his campaign catch-phrases? “Fiscal restraint,” naturally.


    Posted by Sean at 09:50, September 19th, 2005

    Japan isn’t entirely happy with the results of the 6-party talks, however. The abductee problem was basically tabled:

    On 19 September, the families of Japanese abducted by the DPRK held a Tokyo press conference in reaction to the joint statement adopted at the 6-party talks, voicing dissatisfaction: “The abduction issue was back-burnered.” “This is nothing more than a statement predicated on the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, which is already drained of content.”

    The only part of the joint declaration to touch on the abduction issue was this: “After dealing appropriately, in accordance with the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, with various pending issues, we will implement a normalization of relations.” The vice-representative of the group of families, Shigeo Iizuka (67), made plain his dissatisfaction: “The word abduction doesn’t appear in the declaration, and the abduction issue was back-burnered.” He indicated further concerns: “If the debate over nuclear issues goes on and on, and and there is no progress seen, the resolution of the abduction issue could become a great deal more difficult.”

    If you’re not familiar with the issue: the DPRK sent agents to the Japanese coast in the 1970s to abduct about a dozen Japanese nationals in their late teens and early 20s. They were brought back to North Korea and forced to teach Japanese language and culture to DPRK spies. Of course, those who are alive are all middle-aged now. The most famous, because her husband happened to be US Army deserter Charles Jenkins, is Hitomi Soga. Their ending was happy: they’ve come back to Japan and been able to bring their college-age daughters. Other endings have not been happy. Megumi Yokota’s family has probably been treated the worst, with the DPRK dismissively shoving random piles of bones at the Japanese as her remains. Other stories are in between. Kaoru Hasuike, for instance, was snatched while on vacation in Hokkaido as a college junior. Having been repatriated at 46, he received permission from his university to complete his degree but was having difficulty deciding on how to proceed–and do you wonder? There are, I think, five of the fifteen abductees accounted for.

    For reference, the Ministry of Foreign affairs has the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, from almost exactly two years ago, posted in Japanese and English. The section pertinent to the abduction issue is rendered this way in English:

    With respect to the outstanding issues of concern related to the lives and security of Japanese nationals, the DPRK side confirmed that it would take appropriate measures so that these regrettable [遺憾な!–SRK] incidents, that took place under the abnormal bilateral relationship, would never happen in the future.

    Well, the DPRK doesn’t seem to have abducted anyone lately, but it certainly is maintaining an “abnormal” sense of cooperation. At the same time, it’s not hard to understand why the nuclear issue superseded the abductee issue at the 6-party talks. However much the Japanese citizenry feels for the families of the abductees, the fact is that the nuclear problem could directly affect millions of people. The abductee problem, while an outrage, does not. Bilateral negotiations between Japan and the DPRK don’t seem to fare much better much of the time, unfortunately, so Iizuka’s fears may not be unfounded.

    DPRK agrees to abandon nukes

    Posted by Sean at 07:36, September 19th, 2005

    Okay, we’ll have to see what actually comes of this, but strictly as a gesture, it’s good news:

    In a dramatic turn to six-nation negotiations that have been held since 2003, Pyongyang agreed to abandon the weapons and rejoin international arms treaties in exchange for energy assistance from neighboring nations and sovereignty guarantees from the United States.

    Japan’s envoy to the talks in Beijing, Kenichiro Sasae, said North Korea’s nuclear program poses a serious threat to peace in Asia and welcomed Monday’s outcome for finally settling on common goals. Most of Japan, the world’s second biggest economy and host to about 50,000 U.S. military personnel, lies within range of North Korean missiles.

    Japan’s national broadcaster NHK quoted Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda as calling the agreement a positive step but also saying the nations need to “keep a close eye” on North Korea as negotiations proceed. Hosoda also pressed for a resolution to a dispute about the kidnappings of Japanese nationals by North Korea, calling it a key to improved relations between the countries.

    Having to recognize the DPRK’s “sovereignty” in any formal way is galling, but it’s hardly a change from what we’ve been doing in practice. Of course, the DPRK is famous for reneging on agreements, so I’m with Hosoda on this one. We’ll see.

    You look at me with those brown eyes

    Posted by Sean at 02:57, September 19th, 2005

    I was in kind of a funk last night. I worked yesterday, and it was a satisfying but draining day. And even though it’s officially a three-day weekend, Atsushi’s bank has his department in today, so he couldn’t come up to Tokyo. He’s been working late all the time and not getting enough sleep, and I’m powerless to do anything about it except sound devoted during our ten-minute phone conversation each night. So I went out to one of my hangouts, where the guys behind the bar have all known me for years, to mellow out a little.

    They started drawing my vodka as soon as I stepped in the door, and I reached into my bag for my coin purse. It wasn’t there. So I rummaged around a little. Then I took my Discman and CD case and handkerchief and water purifying straw and space blanket out, and it still wasn’t there. My coin purse is frequently a topic of conversation, because the big joke among the bar guys is that I always pay with exact change. (Don’t ask me why, but in this math-skill-obsessed country, paying with exact change is uncommon. Given that the smallest paper bill denomination is ¥1000, the equivalent of US $9 or so, you’d think people would do whatever possible to minimize the number of coins they carry, but they don’t.) So they were standing there expecting me to give my usual exact ¥600, and then the bar master started chortling, “Sean-chan, that’s the coin purse your honey gave you for your birthday two years ago. The one you never let out of your sight. You don’t mean to say you forgot it. We’re going to have to tell your boyfriend. We’re going to have to report you to Hermès for this one–it’s accessory abuse!” Objectively speaking, I guess it was kind of funny–when you walk into a gay bar, naturally, everyone glances over at you, and I’m sure I looked pretty weird yanking things out of my little camera bag and getting increasingly frustrated. All I had to do was get out my wallet for a ¥1000 bill and be done with it, after all.

    The thing was, the master was right: it’s hokey to say, but having my coin purse with me makes me feel as if Atsushi were close by. It was as if I’d been neglectful and forgotten to bring him along; I was even more unsociable than usual the whole night.

    I feel better now, though–not just because I’ve gotten a grip on myself, but because Atsushi and I will have ready-made in-joke material for tonight’s phone call: Instapundit was not only kind enough to give me another link but also kind enough to use it to the end of giving CNN’s Aaron Brown a good cuffing. It makes me so happy.

    I don’t think it’s possible to convey just HOW MUCH Aaron Brown annoys me. It’s possible that in private life, he’s generous and humble and easy-going; but he has to be the most oozingly self-righteous journo on the planet in his professional life. (Once he and Jane Arraf were on a split screen together, and it was like the irresistible smug force meeting the immovable smirky object. I thought they might merge into some vortex of condescension and suck in the whole universe or something.) CNN is the only English-language news source on our cable subscription–not that I miss BBC World, or anything–so I usually grit my teeth and watch to keep from feeling entirely cut off from televised news. I have my limits, though, and Atsushi knows from long experience that when Brown comes on the air, I can be expected to mutter curses at the TV until I just can’t take anymore and have to switch back to NHK. It’s part of our domestic routine by this point. Suffice it to say, I am delighted to be of modest assistance in deflating that gasbag.

    DPJ casts its lot with Maehara

    Posted by Sean at 07:35, September 18th, 2005

    The Democratic Party of Japan has selected its new top four post-Okada leaders:

    The DPJ’s leader Seiji Maehara decided on 18 September to tap Yukio Hatoyama as Secretary General, Takeaki Matsumoto as chair of the Policy Research Committee, and Yoshihiko Noda as chair of the Diet Affairs Committee. He gathered his new top three men in the evening, planning to confer about responses to the special Diet session called for 21 September.

    Maehara is interesting. It appears that he may do the Clinton-in-1992 thing:

    Seiji Maehara, a young conservative, began reshaping the main opposition bloc on Sunday by appointing new officers and outlining plans for a stronger military and smaller spending in a vision that drew comparisons to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “third-way” government.

    Maehara, a 43-year-old defense expert who wants a more assertive role for Japan’s military overseas, was narrowly elected a day earlier to head the DPJ, edging aside staid party veteran and co-founder Naoto Kan.

    The new leader said Sunday he would re-examine his party’s close ties to labor unions, trim wasteful tax spending and push to amend Japan’s Constitution so the country’s Self Defense Forces would have greater freedom to fight overseas and support its allies. Maehara also wants spending cuts balanced by strong funding for education and other social welfare programs.

    Maehara is strong on defense and says Japan’s Constitution must clearly give the SDF the right to fight back if attacked and include a new article stipulating its role in aiding allies.

    Of course, Clinton wasn’t a defense expert. What I’m referring to is more the idea that Maehara is adopting some positions usually associated with those to his party’s right while sweetening them with talk about spending on social programs dear to those on his left. Maehara’s website has linked, among his writings, this magazine article from November 2001 about Japan’s close defense ties with the US, against the backdrop of 9/11. It’s lengthy, but one thing that stands out is that Maehara doesn’t–or didn’t then–see the Japan-US alliance as arising naturally from our similar societies as Koizumi does:

    [T]he value of offering visible aid, recognized by the American people, when our ally the US is suffering, does not stop at the psychological; rather, it is also necessary from the viewpoint of risk management regarding the allegiance itself.

    It is fine, I believe, for there to be thinking to the effect that we may want to dissolve our relationship as allies, when we take the long-term view. However, at this moment in time, for our allegiance with the US to change character suddenly would most assuredly not work in Japan’s national interest.

    That seems fair enough. Of course, maybe I’m biased in Maehara’s favor because–can I have failed to mention this?–the dude is hot. (He looks better talking than he does in the posed picture on his homepage, but the photo gives you the general idea.) In objective terms, he’s probably not too seriously dreamy, but given the milieu in which he operates, he is very easy on the eyes. The rule seems to be that you’re not allowed to be a middle-aged Japanese politician until you’ve survived a near-fatal whupping with the ugly stick. Right after the election, Gaijin Biker was all crowing about how the LDP had hot women and its opponents were guys who needed paper bags over their heads. Understandably, being hetero, he doesn’t seem to have noticed that all the guys on the LDP side were no better.

    Yes, I can shift in a paragraph from talking about the Japan-US defense partnership to making lustful comments about men. It’s a talent. If you’d like to see me do it in a single clause, I’m sure I can arrange that, too.

    Anyway, politics, blah, blah…Japundit thought, before the DPJ vote, that Maehara looks as if he needs more seasoning before he’s ready to be a serious competitor for Prime Minister:

    Maehara appears at first glance as if he will become a viable leader—in five or 10 years. He is obviously intelligent and talented, but still lacks the gravitas people expect from a prime minister. I got the impression that his candidacy was not for this particular election, but for the next one down the road. With his party in desperate straits, however, he might wind up getting chosen prematurely. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to go on the political version of life support.

    Reasonable enough. On the other hand, we’re all just guessing. Politics in this media age frequently thrusts people into situations that turn out to be trial by fire. We may find out relatively quickly whether Maehara can make his combination of hawkishness, support for increased social welfare spending, talk about small government, and near-unprecedented level of cuteness potentially media-friendly image connect with Japanese voters.


    Posted by Sean at 03:29, September 17th, 2005

    You have to read the latest at Go Fug Yourself [strong language alert]. The girls are surpassing themselves, especially on the Renée Zellweger entry. My sides! Personally, I think the real fraud is that which was perpetrated on the American public by all those fashion writers proclaiming that Zellweger is the new Grace Kelly. (Given which way soon-to-be-annulled hubby allegedly swings, you’d think he’d care about having Grace’s legacy abused that way–but whatever.) Too funny! I would say the Britney one is funny, too, but it would be mean to acknowledge laughing at it, so I won’t.

    Added at 21:30: I like Tom’s take, too.

    It’s so me

    Posted by Sean at 22:41, September 16th, 2005

    May I ask a favor of the people who are doing stuff that makes Japan trendy again? Could you knock it off? ‘Cause, see, if it becomes too fashionable, I’m going to get all grossed out and have to leave.

    I was talking to this guy the other night, and he said something to the effect of, “Well, you certainly chose your specialization well. Japan is hot right now.” I didn’t quite know how to answer. The dude was a stylist from LA, around my age. He probably wouldn’t have found anything odd, bless him, about the idea of choosing a college major in your late teens with the express hope that it would put you at the cutting edge of hip when you were 33.

    But I’m more the preserver/custodian type. I was born and brought up in Pennsylvania (long and noble history of contributing to American liberty, but currently declining in relative population and influence). The heaviest cultural influence on our family was my grandfather, who was from England (glorious imperial past now several steps removed from the shabby-genteel present). In college I studied modern Japanese poetry (nothing more recent than the 1930s). After the bubble burst, Japan’s HAPPENING! HERE! NOW! cachet was lost to South Korea and China, with Japan taking a forceful but unassuming place as an established economic power. I moved here and felt very at home.

    Got it? I like things that are grand and beautiful, but also kind of past-it and mouldering and a bit scuffed up. If other people want to live in thriving boomtowns like…I don’t know…Las Vegas, I think that’s great. I’m a libertarian; innovation makes it easier for a wide variety of people to have richer, better lives and stuff. I really believe that.

    But all this crap about how Gwen Stefani and anime and Beat Takeshi and Koizumi and blah-blah-blah are making Japan cool again is annoying. It is RUINING MY PARTY.

    So remember: Japan is tired. Try Vietnamese food. Or Korean soap stars. Or Chinese liquor. Or Thai martial arts movies. You know, Asia’s a big continent. Lots to choose from. Just stop telling me how fashionable it is to be a Japanophile before I throw up all over you.


    Added on 18 September: Atsushi–who had the rare opportunity not to work until midnight today–pointed out during our phone call tonight that, given Japan’s aging society, excessive hipness is not something I’m likely to have to worry about for long. Point taken.

    That’s just love sneakin’ up on you

    Posted by Sean at 10:26, September 16th, 2005

    Since Michael plugged this guy again, it’s a good time to link this post of his, in which he recounts how seeing the trailer for Brokeback Mountain brought back to him his own ambivalence when coming out:

    Why can’t I quit you. Why can’t I quit these feelings for my teenage friends. Why are my dreams of this. Why can’t I make jokes why can’t I talk dirty why can’t I feel comfortable when the girls walk by us. Why does this feel forced. Why am I apart. Why am I hiding why am I out here looking for secret encounters why am I a cheating lying fool. Why can’t I be more intimate with her. Why can’t I change. Why can’t I figure my way out of this box.

    I think Chris is right when he says that you probably have to have come out in middle age for what he’s talking about to resonate in the specific way it did with him. But one of his commenters is also right when he says that most of us went through the same enraged self-flagellation in whatever way was suited to the age and other circumstances in which we found ourselves coming out.

    The last woman I ever dated was smart, attractive, funny, sarcastic; she and I had similar spiritual views and arty tastes. I worked so hard at trying to make myself fall in love with her you would have thought I was studying for the bar exam. In fact, I felt as if I were studying for the bar exam–without having gone through law school. Nothing was intuitive, it was all complicated, my friends acted as if it made perfect sense but it was all arbitrary to me, and I tried to work it into my brain but nothing would take hold. Getting a summa cum laude degree in Japanese literature? Ha. Cakewalk, compared to trying to make yourself into another person. I hated myself for it and, to my everlasting discredit, took it out on her.

    I treated my first boyfriend like hell, too. No, you’re not imagining things if you see a pattern forming here; and yes, I did grow up eventually. He helped quite a bit with that, actually. He told me once, soon after we’d started tentatively dating, that he’d come out to his mother when he was 13.

    I think I physically dropped my drink. 13, as in, junior high school 13? At this point, he explained quietly that, considering what the generation of gays before us had given up to make it easier for us to be true to what we were, he thought the least he owed them was to be up-front about being gay once he was sure he was. I can’t say I’d recommend that course of action to 13-year-olds, but as a way of thinking, it stuck with me. It’s one of the reasons that, when I started reading blogs, I decided to comment about gay issues using my full name.

    Another helpful conversation I had early on was with a friend. This was in my “I’m probably not even really bisexual; this is just an experimental-type stage I’m going through on the way to finding the right girl” phase. (Believe it or not, that made sense to me at the time.) At one point, he’d had enough of my self-pity routine and snapped. I then got a version of the speech I now find myself having to give to younger guys when called upon to play big brother (though I use less testy tones):

    “The first time you were with a man, did it feel as if the whole world suddenly clicked? As if you were a whole person? As if you could breathe normally for the first time, even though you hadn’t realized you weren’t before? As if the fact that you were alive made sense? Okay, now, having done that, having figured out who you are, you seriously think you’re going to rein it all back in? Go back to being 1000-Repressions Charlie–“

    “My grandfather’s English and I grew up in Pennsylvania; the straight men in my family are repressed, too.”

    “Shut up. It’s like, you have the talent and the natural inclination to be a great statistician, and you’re sitting around bitching because you can’t be a concert pianist. Just knock it off.”

    “Why is everyone so goddamned eager for me to be gay?”

    “No one wants you to be anything, man. We just don’t want you to be a liar who ruins his life.”

    I’m glad I was ready to listen–which is not to be taken as a criticism of men or women who take longer to figure things out for themselves. I just was past the stage in which I felt vaguely unlike my friends and figured that I was kind of an introvert, and pretending otherwise was foolish.

    All of which is a long way of saying, I second Michael’s endorsement. Chris writes beautifully, whether he’s talking about joy or pain. Or both at once.

    Koizumi’s post-election China policy?

    Posted by Sean at 08:32, September 16th, 2005

    Simon links to an interesting article by Yoichi Funabashi, an Asahi senior correspondent who’s now a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution. It asks the question about how the LDP’s landslide relates to China from the opposite direction I’ve been asking it–namely, how will Koizumi’s victory play out in Japan’s China policy, and what will that mean as the two countries evolve economically?

    Curiously enough, foreign policy was almost totally absent from the pre-election debate. Some may perceive this as a sign that Japan is growing increasingly inward-looking, as Koizumi simply wanted to limit the agenda to the single domestic issue of postal privatization. However, this reading would be wrong. Although very difficult to detect since it was discreetly under the radar, I would nevertheless contend that the China factor was actually one of the largest issues in this election, as more than any other factor, a rising China and its direct challenge to Japan set the context for the debate.

    I’m not 100% sure I’m convinced by every jot and tittle that follows, but Funabashi is right in the main. Foreign policy was brought up only by relatively minor opposition parties, and then almost exclusively with reference to the SDF deployment in Iraq and the proposed revisions to the Japanese constitution. Not even specific policy issues that were the subjects of recent flare-ups–such as the disputed fossil fuel fields in the East China Sea–were given attention, let alone the larger question of how Japan intends to maintain its strategic role in a shifting Asia.

    One part I’m not sure about–not that I disagree, mark you; I just think it could go either way–is this:

    Koizumi’s landslide victory may in time prove to be the last gasp of the LDP, as the public likely holds unrealistic expectations of how much Koizumi will be able to accomplish before he steps down next September.

    Given their shocked reactions to their own party’s staggering victory, that was on minds of quite a few LDP members themselves right after the election, too. I wonder, though. Japan is a conformist society, but the Japanese have personal idiosyncrasies like everyone else. Just about everyone here has had multiple experiences with, say, projects at work that failed because protocol and consensus-building were prioritized over practical decision-making. I think it very possible that Koizumi is clever enough to find a way to blame any further stalling of reforms over the next year on, if not hold-outs in the House of Councillors, then federal bureaucrats. In that case, it could be his successor who’s in big trouble and will need to get used to doing a Margaret Thatcher impression.

    Funabashi doesn’t put it this way, but he does by extension raise another very disturbing question: Is it even possible for Japan to fashion a really workable comprehensive China policy, or have conditions gotten to the point that protecting Japan’s interests will mean constantly shifting in response to this week’s constellation of trade and cultural conflicts? Remember that you have to factor in (something else Funabashi doesn’t weigh) that the US and Japan have become even closer military allies over the last several years. The possibilities are endless. It will be very interesting to see what Koizumi does with his momentum over these next few weeks when the sugar high is over.