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    Big in Japan

    Posted by Sean at 10:01, July 19th, 2005

    What’s the latest trend in Japan? Class consciousness, according to Time:

    Japan, a country that prides itself on social harmony, homogeneity and an equitable distribution of wealth, is bifurcating along geographic and social lines into camps of permanent winners and perpetual losers—the former a highly educated and trained core of élite employees and entrepreneurs working for internationally competitive companies, the latter an increasingly marginalized yet growing sector of society comprising primarily elderly rural poor and despairing urban youths like Ijiri. “In the past, people believed that the whole nation was getting wealthier, and the rich were simply the people who got there quicker,” says Toshiki Satou, a sociologist at the University of Tokyo (U.T.). “But that is changing. People are becoming more aware of class.”

    It’s funny that the writer, Jim Frederick, who happens to be Time Asia‘s Tokyo bureau chief, should say that. Long-term Asia residents may remember the puff piece from a few years ago in which he fawned over Japan and its resilience with embarrassing sycophancy:

    In the wreckage of Japan’s increasing inability to compete against the lower labor costs and rekindled ambitions of its rivals, however, a number of observers both inside the country and out are turning to the nation’s creative and cultural enterprises as a source of potential salvation. For this has been one of the greatest Japanese ironies: even as Japan’s economic leadership has been slipping for more than a decade, its cultural hegemony has only swelled. “Japan has changed from being a corporate manufacturing and industrial society to a pop-culture society,” says Ichiya Nakamura, a visiting scholar at Stanford Japan Center and M.I.T. Media Lab. Pokémon has supplanted Astroboy in the hearts of schoolkids in more than 65 countries, and 60% of the world’s animated-cartoon series are made in Japan. Games running on PlayStation 2 and (to a lesser degree) Nintendo’s Game Cube rule the video-game universe just as tightly as before, despite a frontal attack from none other than Microsoft and its sinister-looking black Xbox. And high-end Japanese fashion designers such as Hanae Mori, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake are not only as vital as they once were; they have also been joined by a generation of young turks such as A Bathing Ape, Jun Takahashi and Naoki Takizawa who set the style for hipsters from Berlin to Bangkok and beyond. Japanese films, TV series, music acts and lifestyle magazines, meanwhile, routinely spark fads all over Asia. (Turn on MTV in Singapore or Hong Kong and you are just as likely to see Ayumi Hamasaki as J. Lo.) According to Tsutomu Sugiura, director of the Marubeni Research Institute, an economic think tank, Japanese cultural exports—such as from the media, licensing, entertainment and other related industries—have tripled over the past 10 years to $12.5 billion, while manufacturing exports have increased by only 20%. Granted, $12.5 billion seems like a rounding error in Japan’s $4 trillion economy (Toyota alone hauls in nearly $11 billion in sales every month), but it’s still the result of a growth rate almost unheard of anywhere else.

    Note that in the article from this past week, it is exactly the imaginative/arty fields that he’s pointing to as unable to take up the slack of Japan’s domestic conventional industry. Of course, smart people discard prior assumptions as reality refutes them; I’m not finding fault with Frederick for changing his mind. The obnoxious part is the flat learning curve. His succession of articles over the past few years, each pushing the latest funky-news-from-Japan-of-the-week line, shows little to no ability to judge, based on long-term patterns in Japanese society, which trends are likely to last and why.

    He also fails to ask some glaringly obvious questions:

    Even if he could find work, Ijiri says he feels unprepared to join the winner-takes-all rat race of postindustrial Japan. He longs for his father’s era, the heyday of Japan Inc., when young adults were whisked directly from college into a womblike corporate career, where they would be sheltered by a paternalistic business culture for life. “People like me who aren’t particularly talented at anything are happier with the old system of lifetime employment and seniority-based salaries,” he says. “The supposed ‘chances and opportunities’ that a competitive economy offers is for those who are already steps ahead.” Ijiri later found work as a security guard, hardly the future he once envisioned for himself.

    Frederick lets these observations pass without comment, but they are hardly self-evidently true. The most uncharitable interpretation is that, now that Japanese workers are being assigned their true market value, many of them are discovering that they were meant to be security guards rather than engineers. But even that isn’t necessarily the case. Someone who wrote so rapturously about Issey Miyake and Hanae Mori and their successors must be aware that the post-War Japan, Inc., system worked by squeezing everyone into the mediocre middle. That meant that uninspired low achievers were lifted up, but it also meant that imaginatively brilliant oddballs were tamped mercilessly down. It may be, in fact, that Ijiri has talents that the educational system, bent on making him a good, noiseless cog, didn’t help him to discover, much less develop.

    A related point:

    To get a glimpse of the wealth gap, travel 400 km from prosperous Tokyo to the Shimane prefecture town of Ohda, a listless burg struggling to support its aging population of 33,000. Along an incongruously wide, modern superhighway linking Ohda with the nearest train station, the only signs of economic activity are abandoned construction sites. Shimane is one of the poorest and least populated regions in Japan and has no industry to speak of save public-works projects; one out of eight residents is tied to the construction industry. But because of fiscal austerity measures implemented by the Shimane prefectural government, even public-works jobs are under threat.

    Note the way a bottomless supply of public works jobs, even those that involve building unnecessary superhighways and other construction boondoggles, is considered normal, with any throttling back deemed a mark of “austerity.” In fact, the river of concrete that washed over Japan’s rural areas simply disguised what’s been true for decades: Japanese citizens have urbanized and to a great extent abandoned the remote countryside. They’ve taken with them the need for most public works projects; facilities built in outlying areas have mostly served pork-barrel politicians and helped the LDP to mobilize its important rural supporters.

    The 12.5% of Shimane residents in construction were laboring under an illusion long before the bubble burst. Taking the sensible abandonment of white elephants as a sign of some new “wealth gap” is just wacko.

    I think my, uh, favorite part is here, however:

    Yet, while the poor get poorer, the rich are getting richer. Last month, the national tax agency released its annual list of the country’s top 100 taxpayers. Tatsuro Kiyohara, a 46-year-old fund manager at Tower Investment Management, ranked No. 1, with a tax bill that suggested a personal income of approximately $100 million. This marked the first time a wage earner had captured the top spot, an occasion that many writers and talk-show hosts alternately hailed and lamented as a signature moment in the new, more Darwinian society—for Kiyohara’s pay is almost entirely performance-based. The Nikkei Weekly business newspaper opined: “This new era is one in which individuals can have a significant impact on a company and its image, as demonstrated by the enormous compensation paid to this one person for creating new revenue streams.”

    Yes, it’s a sure sign of doom when people start earning money at a level commensurate with their productivity, huh? What’s amazing about Frederick’s article is that, except for a glancing quotation from someone else about the social-democratic system, no one ever gets around to pointing out the obvious: Japan’s social and economic policy have painted it into a corner.

    The effects are exacerbated by but were not caused by that chic bogeyman the global economy. Post-War Japan built a society in which globally competitive manufacturers accounted for about 30% of the economy; their staggering success allowed the other 70% to operate inefficiently without much notice. The school system trained students to think of themselves as interchangeable team members who would be taken care of for life and would not have to use their individual resourcefulness and imagination to solve their own problems.

    But bills eventually come due. I feel very sorry for people like Ijiri–his elders assured him for his first two decades on this Earth that the world would work a certain way, and he has every right to feel betrayed now that he’s learned it does not. One can only hope that he and others in his position are eventually galvanized into action by the experience. What Time casts as the unfortunate intrusion of class consciousness onto Japanese society is simply the realization that a major economic power cannot afford, indefinitely, to pay millions of workers to stamp papers all day and pretend they’re actually getting something done.

    Leave your worries behind

    Posted by Sean at 23:45, July 18th, 2005

    Good weekend. It was sunny Saturday (it’s supposed to be the rainy season, remember), so the view from the mountaintop restaurant we went to was fantastic. We’d had lunch at a lakeside cafe not far from the airport. At one very Japanese moment, we were looking out at the (many) dragonflies buzzing around the window. The flightpath to the airport was in the middle distance, and suddenly, a landing airliner glided into view so that it looked the same size as the dragonflies flitting around inches away. They seemed to be playing together for a moment. It was beautiful.

    Sunday we went to the hot spring, stopping at an old aqueduct along the way. Water is released in a big, frothy arc for 15 minutes at noon; along with a lot of other tourists, we were there to take pictures and stuff. From there to the inn, Atsushi decided to follow the GPS map program’s suggested route. Apparently, the suggestions were made by dryads. We found ourselves on a one-lane road snaking over a mountain, with leaves growing in so closely the car touched them on both sides. (They were great for visibility, too. Poor Atsushi took a deep breath before every hairpin turn.) Most of the way there was no shoulder–and I don’t mean they didn’t bother to pave anything beyond the white line; I mean the vertical dropoff began at the white line. At one point, where the forest canopy converged what seemed like inches above the car roof, I said, “I keep expecting to see a witch’s cottage around every bend,” at which point my much-tried man muttered, “No self-respecting witch would be caught dead living back here.”

    The inn was worth it, though. It was new, so there were more man-made materials and obvious machines around than one might have liked for a hot spring, but you can’t get away from that. All the guest huts were named for flowering plants. We unfortunately didn’t get the one called after the flower of Atsushi’s family crest, but ours was on a high point with a great view of the valley and fields (and ubiquitous electrical-line tower–which wasn’t nearly as endearing juxtaposed with nature as the passenger jet had been). We were in one of the baths when the lashing rains and lightning drew near. When I was no longer able to count “1-one thousand” between the flash and the boom, we decided bath time was over for now.

    The drive back into the city was relatively uneventful. There’s a national park with flower gardens at the edge of Oita Prefecture, so we stopped there. It’s lavender season, so the fields were grey with it. It looked like purplish steel in the sun. We had lavender-flavored ice cream at one of the stands before heading back.

    Needless to say, all of this butching it up took a lot out of me. I’m back in Tokyo and headed to the office and may or may not feel up to posting tonight. On the other hand, there was an article about Japan in Atsushi’s latest Time Asia that got my blood boiling–Isn’t July a little early for such a big turkey? I thought while reading it. I may be banging something out about it before bed. Few comments I want to respond to, too.

    For now, I leave you with a summer poem by Princess Shokushi:



    kaerikonu / mukashi wo ima to / omohi ne no / yume no makura ni / nihofu tachibana

    Shokushi Naishinnô

    I float into sleep,
    a past that will come no more
    made now in my thoughts–
    at the pillow of that dream
    the scent of orange blossoms

    The Princess Shokushi

    The fragrance of orange blossoms is said to excite the memory. When the princess awakes, the scent makes her feel the more keenly that some nostalgic memory, which she knows she will never live through again, had actually returned to life in her dream. It’s a little late in the summer for this poem, I think, and it’s not one of those with 500 fascinating allusions you can write a thesis on. Lovely, though.

    Hope everyone else had a wonderful weekend.

    Added on 20 July: I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I inserted that caesura above. Many Japanese waka are, in fact, constructed so that the first three lines (5-7-5 syllables) conjure up a feeling or reaction and the last two lines (7-7 syllables) give the concrete sensory stimulus for it. They can be difficult to translate because putting the caesura in the same place, in order to preserve the dramatic pause of the original as faithfully as possible, gives you less leeway in rendering each of the two parts.

    Princess Shokushi’s poem above is different. It’s one of those that come out in a long rush. The m and n consonants that dominate give the description a heady feel, when the images are actually rather plain. The whole poem is a long prenominal modifier for the final word, 橘 (tachibana: “orange tree,” which refers to a variety of citrus that’s a little different, of course, from those that produce the baseballs you buy with “Sunkist” stamped on them). If you translated it directly and in English word order, you’d get something like this (I’d like to apologize in advance to the Princess’s kami for the act of violence I’m about to commit):

    The orange tree wafts its scent at the pillow of the dream in which I’ve gone to sleep thinking that the past that will not return is now.

    Obviously, this was an occasion for compromise, and I figured that maybe making each line kind of self-contained and billowy would compensate for not being able to reproduce the liquidity of the original. It seemed most important to keep the orange tree at the end, where it supplies the moment of sensual awareness. I’m afraid the result was a little precious, though.


    Posted by Sean at 12:49, July 15th, 2005

    Today was one of those days when I really loved my job. I mean, I always love my job, but not every day comes together so beautifully. And tomorrow morning, to continue the theme of joy, I take off to see Atsushi for the three-day weekend in Kyushu. (I hope the hot spring we’re going to hasn’t been washed away.) If I’m feeling especially ambitious at 5:30 when I get up to go to the airport, I might look at the computer. Otherwise, there may be a post or two from Atsushi’s place (we think of it as our country villa) but I probably won’t be bloviating much until Tuesday. Have a great weekend, everyone.

    Watching Scotty grow Fixing Scotty and good

    Posted by Sean at 02:09, July 15th, 2005

    Joe Stark, father of Zach of Love in Action fame, has spoken to the press (or at least CBN):

    The father of a gay teenager who wrote in a Web log that he was being sent against his will to a camp run by a group called “Love in Action International” to “cure” him of his homosexuality is defending his actions.

    In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network Joe Stark says he did the right thing when he sent his 16 year old son Zach to the camp near Memphis, Tennessee.

    “We felt very good about Zach coming here because… to let him see for himself the destructive lifestyle, what he has to face in the future, and to give him some options that society doesn’t give him today,” Stark told CBN. “Knowing that your son… statistics say that by the age of 30 he could either have AIDS or be dead.”

    Stark also said that he did nothing wrong in sending the teen to the camp against his will.

    “But until he turns 18 and he’s an adult in the state of Tennessee, I’m responsible for him. And I’m going to see to it that he has all options available to him.”

    Stark told CBN that when Zack is an adult he can make his own life choices.

    Fair enough on that last part. I won’t pretend to like it one bit, but we can’t call in CFS for every parenting decision some of us don’t like.

    At the same time, anti-gays, can you please stop yanking statistics out of your asses? Of course a gay guy could be dead by 30. Anyone could be dead by 30, from a variety of diseases and misadventures. I’m trying to think of gay bloggers I read–just bloggers–who aren’t over 30, and I can’t dredge up anyone but Law Dork. And even he may have turned 30 when I wasn’t looking. Let alone that most of my friends are over 30, in America as well as here. By all means, rail against promiscuity and the attendant physical and psychological costs. But don’t insult people’s intelligence to score cheap points.

    Of course, Stark sounds like a PFLAG chapter chairman compared to this miscreant:

    Ronnie Paris Jr. went on trial for his own life this week in a Tampa courtroom. The toddler’s mother, Nysheerah Paris, testified that her husband thought the boy might be gay and would force him to box.

    Nysheerah Paris told the court that Paris would make the boy fight with him, slapping the child in the head until he cried or wet himself. She said that on one occasion Paris slammed the child against a wall because he was vomiting.

    The court was told there had been a history of abuse by Paris. Prosecutor Jalal Harb said that in 2002, the Florida Department of Children & Families placed the child in protective custody after he had been admitted to the hospital several times for vomiting.

    He was returned to his parents Dec. 14. A month later he went into a coma and was rushed to hospital. Six days later he was removed from life support and died. An autopsy showed there was swelling on both sides of his brain.

    Who knows whether the child had a predisposition toward homosexuality or was already gay? Gay, straight, or whatever, he won’t have a chance to blossom into it, thanks to Dad.

    Added later: Mike at Ex-Gay Watch has commented. He notes a few interesting things. One is that CBN’s report cagily excises part of Zach’s blog entry. The other is that, of course, this is not about “see[ing] to it that he has all options available to him” (Zach’s father’s words). A program that attempts to erase your existing expressions of self and replace them with different ones is shoving you down one path, not showing you options. As Mike says on a different topic, I wonder whether he’s mouthing phrases he was told by Love in Action people to use or he just can’t bring himself to articulate, in direct terms, what he’s actually signed his own son up for.

    Post haste

    Posted by Sean at 00:46, July 15th, 2005

    For anyone who’s wondering, of course I noticed that Prime Minister Koizumi has done a 180 on the revisions to the Japan Post reform bill. The line now is: “Revisions? I love revisions. Why, some of my best friends are revisions!”

    I like Koizumi’s support for the WOT, which I think demonstrates real vision and a keen sense of what civilization is up against. I also understand that putting reforms through in Japan is very tough. Even with the voters behind Koizumi’s overall housecleaning program, he’s had to deal with the multitudes of well-connected federal bureaucrats who know exactly how to press elected officials and party leaders to maintain their power.

    But that doesn’t mean that Koizumi has been handling things well. Japan Post reform is a hopelessly unsexy topic, and Koizumi has lost chance after chance to explain to the citizenry, in basic and lucid terms, why privatizing it is so important. (¥¥¥!) And it’s really bad in strategic terms to set a pattern of coming on all tough and implacable and then blinking at a critical moment (cf. the selling down the river of Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka a few years ago) or going mealymouthed when the world is watching (cf. his non-explanation of why he continues to visit the Yasukuni Shrine).

    The result is not surprising: there’s a real chance that the opposition has made enough headway to keep the bill from passing in the House of Councillors:

    Yomiuri Shimbun interviews with all 114 LDP upper house members revealed that opposition is mounting in reaction to Koizumi’s high-handed manner in deliberation as much as on the substance of the bills.

    “I’m upset about the fact that Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe and others in the leadership aren’t even trying to tame the prime minister so that he won’t use the threat,” said an upper house member who wished to be identified only as a former cabinet minister. The former minister was referring to Koizumi’s threat to dissolve the lower house if the bills are killed.

    Even a member of the Mori faction, most of whose members are backing the postal bills, said he was not happy about Koizumi’s style.

    “He’s only inviting more opposition. In the upper house deliberation he must adopt an extremely humble manner in answering questions and all that. Otherwise we can’t improve the rough atmosphere,” the member said of Koizumi.

    Koizumi is still saying that people shouldn’t fixate on his threat to dissolve the House or Representatives because, naturally, the bill will pass. Ten upper house members attended the strategy session for LDP opponents of the bill last night, however. All it will take is 18 LDP votes against for the bill to fail, and there are more than 8 Councillors still on the fence. We’ll see.

    Leave me alone / I’m a family man

    Posted by Sean at 22:35, July 14th, 2005

    Shocking news: there’s a gay guy working in PR.

    Well, okay, the shock is that he’s Rick Santorum’s communications director. Michael says he must be getting paid very well. I don’t know; not being a supporter of the current campaign for gay marriage myself, I can certainly imagine that he might support Santorum’s policy position. (Just to be clear, I don’t. That is, I don’t support the FMA.) You do have to wonder what he thinks of Santorum’s remarks that, in essence, decriminalizing homosexuality logically commits you to decriminalizing bestiality and polygamy.

    I understand that PR people are responsible for representing their employers. In that sense, you can’t fault Robert Traynham for staying on-message. It would be nice, though, if these gays working for anti-gay politicians were willing to explain, with clarity and point, why they don’t think there’s any conflict there. Surely if you have the courage of your convictions, you should be able to articulate them. But Traynham wiffs:

    When asked how a gay man could speak for one of the nation’s most notorious homophobes, Traynham, left, protested that has “been with the Senator for eight years.” Traynham went on to say “Senator Santorum is a man of principle, he is a man who sticks up for what he believes in, I strongly do support Senator Santorum.”

    When pressed on whether he supported the Senator’s stands on lesbian and gay issues, Mr. Traynham abruptly ended the phone call by saying “Senator Santorum is a family man with “I have been with Senator Santorum for eight years and I am very proud to be with him.”

    An attempt to follow-up with a question was met with Mr. Traynham hanging up the phone.

    Uh, honey? As his bleedin’ communications director, surely you know that Senator Santorum himself is not afraid to discuss his stance on homosexuality. “I support the senator’s positions on gay and lesbian issues” is not a sentence that should be all that hard to choke out if it’s what you believe.

    I think it’s great that conservative gays can thrive in jobs with conservative politicians. I’m against outing them or declaring them a priori traitorous to other gays. But it’s worth noting that always being able to respond to sticky questions with “I’m representing my boss’s opinion, not my own” and other I’m-just-doing-my-job vagaries is a very convenient way to avoid taking your own stand.

    Guarding against logic

    Posted by Sean at 01:40, July 14th, 2005

    Ghost of a Flea is driving himself crazy trying to get The Guardian‘s coverage of the London bombings to make some kind of sense. Looks like he’s doomed to failure, but he has lots of links, and his own comments are good as always.

    What was I just saying about ethnic superiority?

    Posted by Sean at 09:55, July 13th, 2005

    Master diplomat Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan District, has spread more of his trademark brotherhood among men. I still think that suing in response is silly:

    Twenty-one people including the head of a French Language school in Tokyo have filed a damages lawsuit against Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara over his comment that “French fails as an international language.”

    The group of plaintiffs, which also includes French language researchers, is demanding that Ishihara publish newspaper advertisements apologizing for the remark and pay compensation of 10 million yen.

    “I have a feeling it is aptly said that French fails as an international language because it is a language that can’t count numbers,” he said.

    The governor apparently made the comment on the basis that French counts “80” as “four twenties.” The lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday, objects to his remark.

    “French can count numbers and it is used as an official language in international organizations and many countries,” the lawsuit says. “(The governor’s) false comments stain the reputation of people who are researching French and speaking it as their native language, and they obstruct the business of language schools by diminishing the desire of learners of the language.

    Now, as anyone who speaks Japanese knows, if there is anything AT ALL that no Japanese speaker should be getting all smug about, it’s counting. I love the Japanese language to death, but please! It has native Japanese numbers, imported Chinese numbers, and about five zillion different counters for different kinds of things. The math scores of Japanese citizens? Rational reason for national pride. The numerical facility of the Japanese language? No. I hardly think Ishihara’s remarks affected language school enrollment, but…just, no.

    Get ethnic

    Posted by Sean at 09:31, July 13th, 2005

    Jon Rowe has an interesting post up about Japanese racism and cultural relativism. It strikes me as somewhat dodging the most fascinating and important question, though: is there a critical mass of institutionalized racism in Japanese society–that is, an amount sufficient to make it morally inferior to ours despite our important similarities as democratic allies?

    Rowe cites a speech by Allan Bloom:

    But the family is exclusive. For in it there is an iron wall separating insiders from outsiders, and its members feel contrary sentiments toward the two. So it is in Japanese society, which is intransigently homogeneous, barring the diversity which is the great pride of the United States today. To put it brutally, the Japanese seem to be racists. They consider themselves superior; they firmly resist immigration; they exclude even Koreans who have lived for generations among them. They have difficulty restraining cabinet officers from explaining that America’s failing economy is due to blacks.

    I hate to disagree with someone as estimable as Bloom. (And hey, he was a gay white guy with an Asian love-muffin, too–we share so much!) Nevertheless, it is exactly the “intransigence” of Japan’s rigid homogeneity that I think is the key issue here.

    Added on 15 July: That’s weird–Dean and I both use PowerBlogs, and trackback pinging is automatic. Odd that it didn’t go through. Since his post is, of course, good, here it is. (And thanks for linking, Dean.)

    Of course, I’ll call you

    Posted by Sean at 23:04, July 12th, 2005

    Via Ace via Michael, yet another baffled soul whose reasoning goes something like, “Homosexuality must be a choice; after all, the guys who were hitting on me in college thought so.” Ace takes care of things ably and politely, but let me just add for those who’ve managed not to figure this out: We males are goal-oriented. A horny guy who’s hitting on you will say anything if he thinks it will get you into bed. ANYTHING. “You’re gay and just haven’t figured it out yet (ergo, you should sleep with me).” “I want you, I need you, I love you (ergo, you should sleep with me).” “Fascinating! We’re both at the same bar drinking the same brand of beer (ergo, you should sleep with me).” “The moon is made of green cheese (ergo, you should sleep with me).” The idea that the line some aroused guy feeds you in order to get into your pants can be taken as his sincere, fully-worked-out belief about the nature of his own sexuality is a very naive one.

    Added later: Okay, so I thought better of the wording above and changed it. The writer of the original article probably isn’t a garden-variety dum-dum; there are a lot of otherwise smart people who think that logic isn’t really necessary when arguing against homosexuality.