• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Places in the heart

    Posted by Sean at 08:05, July 7th, 2005

    One final thought before I really do take off: the reaction of the world’s self-consciously-hip leftists is going to be interesting, in a nasty way. Preening leftists like New York, but it is…well, there’s no getting around it, is there? New York is American. Manhattan is cordoned off from the rest of the country by a few rather narrow rivers, but it’s surrounded by America, and even New York’s working class is mostly very patriotic.

    The left doesn’t have to have such misgivings about London, however, and its love for the place is, in my experience, unreserved. There are lots of little reasons it’s okay to love London more than New York *: London paid its dues by actually being bombed by the Germans. Contemporary UK policy is comfortingly collectivist, but England also has a history of pioneering democracy. England is close to the European Continent that we’re all supposed to bow down to, but being an island nation at the edge, it has its strain of funky non-Euro-conformism. Most lefty types I know think, even if they don’t say so outright, that London is the center of contemporary civilization (in the intellectual and social, if not the aesthetic or culinary, sense).

    The bombing of London is going to hit these people where they live, at least psychologically. If only to distract me from my rage at whoever planned this morning’s attacks, I look forward, in a mirthless sort of way, to seeing them pulled in 50 different directions by their emotions over the next few weeks.

    Once again, best wishes to the people of London for minimal death and damage.

    * I don’t want to give short shrift to the bombings in Bali and Madrid. Of course, they were appalling and they matter. But Bali is a faraway resort island, and Madrid is not a considered an iconic center of progressive thought and policy the way London is.

    Terrorist attacks hit London

    Posted by Sean at 07:02, July 7th, 2005

    I hadn’t looked at the news services for a while; Michael says there’s been a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in London. CNN and Reuters are, naturally, taking forever to load, but the Nikkei already has a translated report up. It looks as if the Underground was the biggest target, though Reuters seems to be saying three buses were blown up, too. (As my English colleague just said, between this and the Olympics, expect the British National ID to attain Big Brother proportions very quickly.) It looks as if there may be 100 dead and injured at Aldgate alone, and those numbers always go up.

    The IRA likes bombs, of course; you don’t have to spend much time in London to get used to the signs that show abandoned bags with stern instructions to notify the authorities at once if you see one. But this looks very big, and London is one of our closest allies and a society that exemplifies everything the Islamist terror groups hate. It won’t be surprising in the slightest if one of them takes…uh…credit. (Yes, there’s the G8 summit, but London seems kind of far afield from Scotland for that to be the irritant.)

    In addition to being a close kin of our American society, England is my grandfather’s homeland. He emigrated as a teenager, and we still have family and friends there whom we visit frequently. I love London. And of course, being a foreigner in Tokyo, I have British friends all over the place here, too. And Japanese friends who live there, for that matter.

    It looks as if all there is to do now is to wait for more news. Condolences to the people of England and to the family and friends of the dead and injured. London being a cosmopolitan city, they’re certain to come from a number of different countries.

    Just went to CNN Japan. A fuller report (in Japanese) is up.

    Added a few minutes later: My prediction–a rather obvious one–is that this is going to be a BIG story in Japan this week. The tenth anniversary of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway was months ago, and being packed into to tight, hard-to-escape spaces on public transport at morning rush hour is part of reality here. (Well, at least in Tokyo, but we are the largest population center and news market.) There will be lots of CGI reenactments on NHK and a great deal of yak-show discussion about what the implications are for Japan. I hope it doesn’t seem callous to say this already, but one of the things I try to do here, when feasible, is to give a sense of how world events are covered in Japan and seen by Japanese people.

    Added a few more minutes later: Dean has a BBC link (in English this time). It gives a map that shows points of attack. It also clarifies something I’d wondered about: the major station in question is Aldgate East (an interchange) and not Aldgate (which is on the circle line but not, I don’t think, any kind of interchange).

    Time to get on my packed commuter train and go home. I’m sure there are continuous developments to come.

    Miscellaneous administrative stuff

    Posted by Sean at 12:47, July 5th, 2005

    I don’t get a lot of comments, but those I do get are always good. Unfortunately, they’re sometimes on older posts that I fear regular readers are no longer scrolling down far enough to see, so I’ve added the “List Recent Comments” code to the left sidebar. I was originally only going to list the last five. Then I remembered that I respond to most of them, so at least 40% of the last five are likely to be by me, so I switched back to ten, which is the default number.

    PowerBlogs is working on a comprehensive internal site stats page. It promises to be very snazzy, but in the interim, I don’t get to see what deranged search terms have led people here. It was posting about those that usually gave me the springboard for thanking everyone for reading, and I realized today that I haven’t done so for a while.

    So thanks for reading, everyone. If anyone had suggested last year when I started posting that I’d have 350 visits a day (excluding search engines and stuff) by now, I’d have told him to stop washing the happy pills down with Asahi Super Dry. Not that this is a popularity contest, or anything, but there’s no denying that it’s nice to reach people.

    Along those lines, I’m occasionally asked for advice about starting a blog. I always feel kind of lame. There are already scads of bullet-pointed lists about how to achieve blog popularity; I don’t have much to add to them. When I feel like posting a lot, I do. When I feel like spending a week of news reading propped up on my elbows on the floor and eating Orange Milanos, then sharing my astringent opinions with no one but Atsushi, I do that. But a few recent exchanges I’ve had have put me in mind of a couple of things that I rarely see mentioned but that are, I think, useful to bear in mind:

    One is, everything you post will be read, even if you wouldn’t know it from the lack of immediate comments and links on a given entry. A few months later, a blogfriend may refer to it, or a site you’re not familiar with may link to it after discovering it by Googling the relevant topic, or you may get an inquiry about it from a reader who decided to dig through your archives.

    The other is, if you post under your full name, everyone you have ever met in your life will know it. You will hear from the last woman you ever dated, the first man you ever dated, the guy who grew up up the street who also turned out gay, someone who was in your second-year Japanese class in college, former clients, and colleagues down the hall at work who have been reading you for months without letting on. I mean, depending on your life story, some of these may not be applicable, but you get the idea. Every time I’ve heard from one of these people, it’s been great. I’ve ended up resuming consistent contact with some of them. But the first e-mail is always a jolt. I had my own reasons for deciding, from the moment I started making mouthy comments on people’s blogs, to use my full name; but I can understand that there are perfectly legitimate reasons not to, and it’s important to think carefully before doing so.


    Posted by Sean at 09:25, July 5th, 2005

    The Japan Post privatization bill passed the lower house today–this was the real deal, the plenary session and not committee. (The vote was 233 to 228.) Now it goes to the upper house. That means the fun is just beginning:

    Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, remarking on the upcoming House of Councillors debate over the Japan Post privatization bill, stated, “There are still gigantic hurdles to get over. I feel as if we were beginning at square one.” He indicated that he plans to exert all his energy to the end of seeing the bill ratified. He denied the possibility that the bill might be revised yet again in order to squelch opposition in the upper house: “We’ve already made our accommodations. There will be no more.” He answered questions at a press conference held at the Prime Minister’s official residence.

    It’s been clear for a while that Koizumi’s strategy is to bellow, “No compromise!” before every confrontation as a way of keeping concessions to a minimum; nevertheless, concessions continue to be made. Of course, there have been problems with the bill from the get-go, at least if you’re actually, you know, pro-privatization. It will be interesting, if perhaps distastefully interesting, to see what the bill looks like when it comes to its final vote.

    [Interlude: Japan Post Cool Biz]

    Posted by Sean at 22:27, July 4th, 2005

    Okay, you know, this Cool Biz stuff? Seriously working on my last nerve. I’ve almost, in a way, gotten used to seeing top-ranking cabinet ministers show up on television looking as if they’d been yanked out of a golf game for an emergency press conference. It doesn’t exactly give you the sense that the government is proceeding with sober, formal, rule-of-law predictability; but I guess it does save on air conditioning, which is good for the Earth and other stuff.

    However, someone (Mrs. Takebe, are you listening?) needs to tell LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe what 半透明 (hantoumei: “translucent”) means. I didn’t need to see that the undergarment he uses to rein in those man-boobs beneath his white-on-white sport shirts is a narrow-strapped tank-top. I really didn’t.

    Pour your misery down on me

    Posted by Sean at 06:21, July 4th, 2005

    When you live in Japan, you get used to thinking of catastrophic natural events as normal. It’s not that villages are wiped out weekly, or anything; but what with the regularity of earthquakes, typhoons, tidal waves, simmering volcanoes, and drenching rains with the attendant mudslides, it’s no surprise that the Japanese latched onto evanescence as a major aesthetic and philosophical principle. The raw, craggy landscape has its effect, too.

    This week, the reminders of our frailty have come from the water department. The rainy season has been pretty dry here in the Kanto region, but places in Western Japan are getting a good pummeling:

    Heavy rain pounded the western Japan regions of Chugoku and Shikoku for the second straight day Saturday, leaving one person missing, 2 slightly injured and more than 300 homes submerged, local officials said.

    Another Kyodo report put the total number of flooded houses at 1000.

    Then today, we had this item from Iwo Jima:

    Ships have been warned to avoid traveling near Iwo Jima after the Japan Coast Guard said Sunday that an underwater volcanic eruption was the cause of the mysterious plume of vapor that shot 1 kilometer into the sky.

    Coast Guard officials found gray mud was rising from beneath the water, which had turned to a reddish color.

    The red water apparently indicates volcanic activity, but no signs of volcanic gases have yet been detected. Smoke billowed into the sky in the area.

    BTW, the name Iwo Jima, known to most Americans as the site of the famous WWII battle, means “sulfur island.”


    Posted by Sean at 05:44, July 4th, 2005

    Wow. This is totally through-the-looking-glass:

    Lowering the cost of public works projects through competitive bidding does not reduce the quality of the work, 10 prefectural governments have concluded.

    The finding was made in a recent Yomiuri Shimbun survey of such projects across the country.

    The result casts doubt on the Construction and Transport Ministry’s assertion that a system of completely open bidding to eliminate bid-rigging would cause a deterioration in the quality of construction work. [Yes, you read that correctly.–SRK]

    The 10 prefectural governments reached the conclusion by analyzing the relationship between the quality of completed work and also actual contract prices compared with local governments’ initial estimates.

    The prefectural governments’ findings indicate that if contract prices fell through open bidding, it would not negatively affect the quality of construction.

    The ministry applies open bidding for only 2 percent of public works contracts, arguing that intensified price-cutting competition may result in shoddy construction work. The remainder have been arranged through bidding by designated companies, sparking criticism that the system is a hotbed for bid-rigging practices.

    Ya’ think? Now, of course, the big-guns companies have an incentive not to do sub-standard work even if they’re awarded jobs through the usual rigged bids. If only because of the resultant bad publicity, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries doesn’t want a bridge with its name on it, big as life, collapsing. (The Yomiuri piece goes on to explain how the quality of work for projects was assessed and compared to cost.) Whether the Ministry of Land, Transport, and Infrastructure is acting on saintly scruples regarding public safety is debatable, to put it mildly. What is not debatable is the flood of bennies that well-placed officials get for playing along with the bid-rigging game, particularly the connections that lead to a plum job after retirement.

    The main practice, in case you haven’t run into it in your previous Japan studies, is called 天下り (ama-kudari: “descent from heaven,” or what we in the States would usually call “the revolving door” between civil service and private sector/lobbying jobs in which one’s Rolodex can be used to advantage). Problems with the incestuous relationships thus produced have grown so visible that the Nippon Keidanren announced this weekend that it was looking into the possibility of suspending its practice of hiring retiring civil servants. The Keidanren is the largest and most influential federation of businesses in Japan, with about 1600 member enterprises. Of course, the body cannot force its members not to hire 天下り officials, but even its “encouragement” sends a message that would have been unimaginable until very recently. The Keidanren’s public statements all endorse private-sector economic development–that’s what the entity exists for–but they’ve also implicitly recognized how the game is played.

    How much of a sea change these new statements represent–on the part of either the Keidanren or the prefectural governments–remains to be seen; but that they’re being made at all is cause for cautious optimism.

    Koizumi sees election as shot in the arm for Japan Post bill

    Posted by Sean at 22:59, July 3rd, 2005

    While Koizumi’s name may not have helped candidates in yesterday’s election to win, it cannot be said that the opposite is true–at least, according to the LDP:

    The LDP is taking the results of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election as a decisive vote of confidence in the policies of the Koizumi cabinet. The LDP Executive Committee is looking to get the Japan Post privatization bill passed by the House of Representatives by 5 July, with plans to exert all its power to suppress opponents of the bill within the party.

    It is possible that the bill will be passed by majority vote in the LDP’s House of Representatives Japan Post Privatization ad hoc committee by the night of 4 July. Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi will leave for the G8 summit at Gleneagles on 6 July, so the party is aiming to be able to send the bill to the House of Councillors before then. The DPJ has submitted a proposal for a no-confidence resolution against the cabinet, and is prepared to meet the bill with unwavering resistance. The vote in the upper house plenary session may end up being delayed until after 11 July.

    Added at 18:05: The bill has been passed by the lower house ad hoc committee. Watanuki naturally voted against it; he was just on NHK looking dour.

    Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election

    Posted by Sean at 22:18, July 3rd, 2005

    One reason Atsushi had to come back this weekend was that yesterday was the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.
    Voter turnout was 43.99%, down from 50.08% in the last Metro election four years ago.

    There were 127 slots up for grabs. The LDP lost three seats, and its coalition partner, the Shin-Komeito, gained two. (It’s a shame the on-line Nikkei doesn’t have the graphs that are in the dead-tree version, which illustrates everything very clearly.) The DPJ more than doubled its number of seats, going from 19 to 35. The Commies lost two. And then there were eight or so other seats divided among minor parties. Prime Minister Koizumi’s take, at least as delivered to LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe for release: “Given what we were up against, everyone did very well. The results are excellent. Very impressive.” DPJ Secretary General Tatsuo Kawabata: “We made a big leap in the direction of changing the administration.” He’s referring to which is the ruling coalition, of course.

    The reason people outside Tokyo care about the election is, of course, that the Metro Assembly is the second-most powerful elected body in Japan after the Diet. There are a lot of Tokyo voters, and how they cast their ballots can give an indication of where the national electorate might be heading in the next round of Diet races. Yesterday, the LDP needed to win as many seats as possible without relying too much on Koizumi’s name for support–he’s too controversial right now. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara did step up and do a bunch of endorsements, smiling out from posters and leaflets everywhere. The DPJ’s strategy was to put up candidates in as many races as possible, and it obviously worked. However, the net number of seats the LDP lost was still very low, indicating that voters are not ready to stampede toward the opposition despite recent crises of confidence.

    When in the Course of human events….

    Posted by Sean at 21:30, July 3rd, 2005

    So, yesterday I did, in fact, make chicken pot pie. What better recipe for a humid day with the constant threat of rain than one that requires you to make an egg-based dough that binds well enough to roll out smoothly, huh? Idiot. Luckily, it came out well, albeit with half the usual amount of water and a good, long chilling period.

    I didn’t have time to make dessert, but Atsushi offered to run to one of the many frou-frou pastry shops around here and pick something up. He came back and put the box on the counter: “Good news! Lavinia had sour cherry tarts.” “Cherry pies? You must have read my mind.” “Um, no, dear–I just read your blog.” Oh. Or that. So it was prim, non-lascivious cherry tarts with whipped cream for dessert, after which Atsushi hummed me a verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before I had to see him off. More than made up for the lack of grilled hamburgers and fireworks.

    Since it’s already 4 July over here, Happy Independence Day!