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    Mama used to tell me / Girl, you better load your gun up right

    Posted by Sean at 06:26, June 3rd, 2005

    Camille has a site–does everyone else already know about this?–to go with her new book. Included are several pages of “Camille’s World,” which is centered around top-ten lists, of which my…uh…favorite, is the following:

    LIST #2: The World’s Top 10 Disco Classics

    1. Irene Cara, “Flashdance” (Giorgio Moroder)
    2. Donna Summer, “Rumour Has It” (Giorgio Moroder)
    3. Jackie Moore, “This Time, Baby”
    4. Sylvester, “Stars”
    5. Lime, “Angel Eyes”
    6. Machine, “There But For the Grace of God”
    7. Evelyn Champagne King, “Shame”
    8. Pamela Stanley, “Coming Out of Hiding”
    9. Gloria Estefan’s cover of Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around”
    10. Madonna, “Deeper and Deeper”

    To which my reaction is: Okay, honey, whatever you say.

    Or on second thought, you know what? Not. NOT whatever you say.

    I mean, “Flashdance”? “Flashdance“?! For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I get the impression that Camille was thinking more of Jennifer Beals’s wet hair, pastel hardhat, and leotarded ass than of, you know, the song itself.

    Wait! I can put my finger on the reason: the song is crap. Not crap that deserves to be expelled from civilization–I’m kind of fond of “Flashdance” myself. But please. Camille identifies disco with African earth cult and dark sexual ambiguity. Listen to “Flashdance” and tell me you find anything whatever dark or ambiguous. Jeez. “A Fifth of Beethoven” has more sexual menace. From Donna’s oeuvre alone, I would pick about 12 different songs over “Flashdance.”

    Speaking of Donna, “Rumour Has It,” full stop? Eh? Better than “Love to Love You Baby,” certainly. Better than “She Works Hard for the Money,” which I’ve never warmed to. But, like, better than “I Feel Love”? “Dim All the Lights”? “Love’s Unkind”? Come on.

    And before anyone points out that I was born in 1972–yeah, I know. But I’m a gay guy; it says right on the ID card that you get to have imperious opinions about disco. I mean, I thought Paglia was pushing it by trying elevate Joni Mitchell to Great Modern Poet status. I should’ve known you can never underestimate her ability to top herself for sheer excess.

    “Flashdance”!


    Mister Kim if you’re nasty

    Posted by Sean at 00:57, June 3rd, 2005

    Miss Manners keeps telling you the little gestures of politeness are important, but do you listen? Of course not. However, President Bush does–at least according to one agency in the DPRK government:

    A spokesperson for the DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs praised US President Bush for having referred to Premier Kim Jong-il with the honorific “Mister” on 31 May, saying, “If what he said puts a full stop on the conflict between hard-liners and moderates, it will contribute toward the building of an atmosphere [congenial to] the 6-party talks.

    It strikes me that, coming from a head of state who’s known for his chumminess, the fussy use of “Mister” could just as easily be an expression of chill distance. (Or maybe that’s just me, since I deliver expressions of chill distance with some regularity.)

    Interestingly, while looking for something about the speech in English, I came across this old CSM article. It’s by a Russian diplomat who traveled with Kim for three weeks the summer before 9/11. The more I look at it, the more I think I remember having read it at the time, although I can’t be sure:

    I was warned that the leader does not approve of the address, “Mister.” We were a bit shocked at first, but we got used to [saying], “Could you tell the Great General….” Now it was natural for me to address the North Korean leader as “Comrade Chairman,” “Chairman Kim Jong Il.”

    Kim Jong Il expressed regret that, since George Bush came to power, the US approach to Korean affairs has changed. The North Korean leader does not like it that the administration of the American president places [North Korea] on the same shelf as countries promoting extremism, violence, and terror.

    If you’d like to nauseate yourself, you can linger over Kim’s fulsome praise of Bill Clinton; an icky, borderline-flirtatious conversation with Madeleine Albright during her famous visit; and an interlude of relaxed mateyness with Vladimir Putin.

    On returning to the present, remember that, “Mister” or no “Mister,” there’s still plenty of room for animosity:

    DPRK Ambassador to the UN Pak Gil-yon, lecturing at the Toronto Center for International Research, sharply criticized the US: “Not only has the US not changed its posture of frank hostility, but it has left the DPRK no choice but to tackle the task of nuclear arms development.” Pak also criticized Japan for its position on historical issues. Asked during the Q&A session after his lecture about [the possibility] of returning to the 6-party talks, he responded, “We are working hard [on a resolution]. We have unlimited time.”


    Social Insurance Administration to remain under government control

    Posted by Sean at 21:03, June 1st, 2005

    What with all the attention the reform of Japan Post has gotten, the woes of Japan’s Social Insurance program–which is even more screwed than its US counterpart–can sometimes go virtually unnoticed. The government’s been thinking about it, though (Japanese, English). The recommendation involves those three little words we all love to hear: “new government entity.”

    As part of the Social Insurance Agency reform, a new government entity will be established to manage public pension programs, but the government will retain complete control over the system.

    The plan was based on similar recommendations made in a final report by an advisory panel on the agency’s reform to Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda and Liberal Democratic Party proposals.

    The government has finally completed a reform plan, prompted by the revelation of a series of scandals involving the agency. But its plan may attract criticism as only creating a different facade rather than implementing an overhaul.

    Unlike the heated discussions of the past, the LDP panel meeting held at the party’s headquarters Tuesday proceeded quietly.

    I’ll bet! Of course, it’s easy to argue airily that having the government in charge will keep things going as smoothly as possible, but when you look at the specifics, there’s plenty to be doubtful about. Non-payment of premiums is already a pervasive problem. Last year right around this time, it was starting to sound as if no bureaucrat in the history of the Japanese government had ever made a single payment into the kitty. Speak of setting a good example, huh? In the meantime, the restructuring of the SIA is supposed to take place in 2008, so there’s plenty of time for things to become even more Byzantine as more and more people with something to lose have their say. Should be fun.


    US on UNSC

    Posted by Sean at 20:26, June 1st, 2005

    Latest word on the expansion of permanent membership to the UN Security Council:

    The contents of US policy on the reform of the United Nations Security Council, to be released this month, have been revealed. The major focal point is how to expand the number of permanent seats, and on that issue, the pillars of the US’s position are (1) the criteria for selection [of new permanent member states] should give more weight to “degree of contribution” to the UN than to regional balance, (2) that new members should not be granted veto power, and (3) that the number of new members should be kept to a minimum.

    Even in the Nikkei article, “degree of contribution” is in quotation marks; presumably, it was not elaborated on. Japan is the second-largest monetary contributor to the UN, but the PRC is a UNSC member that already has veto power.


    A textbook case

    Posted by Sean at 00:24, June 1st, 2005

    If you’re interested something that’ll really shake up your vision of the world, by all means, don’t bother clicking here. Japan’s latest scandal to serve up a tasty stew of collusion, bid-rigging, and the revolving door between government and public or semi-public corporations involves bridge-building:

    A former director of Japan Highway Public Corporation played a pivotal role in fixing contracts for JH bridges, The Yomiuri Shimbun learned Friday.

    He compiled the list [of contracts pre-allocated to various construction firms] following JH’s customary announcement of the list of orders to be placed for the fiscal year. He would then have Takashi Tanaka, the deputy chief of the bridge division of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., distribute his own list of predetermined contractor winners to the companies.

    The arrests are related to a scandal involving bridge projects ordered by the Construction and Transport Ministry under which two cartels divvied up the public works projects amongst member companies.

    The retired JH executive once was a central figure in Kazura-kai (vine society), an association of former JH officials who had landed cushy jobs at bridge building companies in a practice known as amakudari, or descent from heaven. Members of the group met regularly and handled sales at JH on behalf of their new employers.

    The former JH director’s list of predetermined contract allocations covered nearly 100 large projects each year. Sources have pointed out that it would have been difficult for him to do everything on his own, therefore, Kazura-kai members are suspected of involvement in allotting JH orders to specific bridge builders.

    Obviously, as a supporter of free markets, I don’t approve of any of this for one second. I do, however, feel a great deal of sympathy for young and talented Japanese people moving into public-sector jobs. The whole system has been designed so that they spend most of their careers making less money than their schoolmates who moved into private industry, with the express expectation that they’ll be able to cash in on their connections through their post-retirement jobs. Not the sort of work for an idealist.

    This might also be a good time to note that the 2001 reshuffling of the federal ministries does not seem to have occasioned the dawn of efficiency and transparency in federal doings that had been promised. Then, too, these things take time. If there’s one thing bureaucrats know how to do, it’s cling to power with the tenacity of barnacles. Scandals are always depressing, but they at least represent some gains for public accountability. In Japan’s huge and boondoggle-prone construction sector, every little bit helps.


    First strike

    Posted by Sean at 22:29, May 31st, 2005

    Poor southwestern Japan, including the prefecture to which Atsushi’s been transferred, may have to get back into its typhoon mentality. Well, there’s no wind coming, just an early front of 梅雨 (tsuyu: lit., “plum rain,” which sounds precious and refreshing but actually refers to the torturing-hot rainy season that makes up the first half of summer here):

    The Japan Meteorological Agency has issued a general bulletin related to heavy rains and called for precautions against landslide damage and the swelling of rivers in Kyushu, based on fears that an incoming front of rain, expected to hit the area late tonight, may be dumping 30-50 millimeters of precipitation per hour on some areas by tomorrow.

    Some localities are expected to get 80-100 millimeters in the 24 hours leading up to 6 a.m. tomorrow. After that, Kyushu will keep being drenched while Shikoku will join in the fun and be vulnerable to cliffslides and lowland flooding. Of course, my primary concern is that my Atsushi not be washed away, but his city got off rather lightly in last year’s typhoon-fest. Other areas that suffered more have probably dried out by now (a big problem toward the end of the season was the cumulative waterlogging of soil to the point that it liquefied), but their enthusiasm for the first wave of tsuyu is probably minimal. Stay safe, if you’re down there.


    四字熟語

    Posted by Sean at 03:32, May 31st, 2005

    Any of my fellow Anglosphere natives who are ready to put a hammer through their monitor if they see one more headline that says, “French say ‘Non!’ to EU constitution,” may take some comfort in knowing that it was the cliché of the weekend here, too. (And I am aware that that was the way the campaign went in French–it’s still not that hard to use the word reject when you’re writing in English.) This morning’s main editorial in the Nikkei was printed under the line “With French ‘Non,’ European unity rent again.” There was, however, this delicious sentence, which contains a compound I don’t believe I’ve seen:

    仏以上に国民のEU不信が強い英国では、ブレア政権が国民投票を先送りにするはずだ。

    In England, where distrust of the EU among the citizens is stronger than in France, the Blair administration is expected to push back its own referendum.[my emphasis–SRK]

    EU不信, huh? Yes, I know, it’s not really an expression per se; it’s just the compressed style of newspaper writing. Still, pretty catchy. How’d I not notice that one before? To turn it into a legitimate four-character compound, of course, you’d probably have to use the kanji abbreviation of EU: 不信–>欧連不信.


    Memorial Day

    Posted by Sean at 10:07, May 30th, 2005

    Today was a day off for me, but I didn’t do much in the way of celebrating Memorial Day, beyond reflecting a bit. I was reading one of my favorite books, the printed companion to the PBS series The Story of English, which we watched when it was broadcast in the mid-80’s. This particular passage moved me even more than usual:

    Augustine and his monks landed in Kent, a small kingdom which, happily for them, already had a small Christian community. The story of the great missionary’s arrival at the court of King Aethelbert is memorably reported by Bede:

    When, at the king’s command, they had sat down and preached the word of life to the king and his court, the king said: “Your words and promises are fair indeed; they are new and uncertain, and I cannot accept them and abandon the age-old beliefs that I have held together with the whole English nation. But since you have travelled far, and I can see that you are sincere in your desire to impart to us what you believe to be true and excellent, we will not harm you. We will receive you hospitably and take care to supply you with all that you need; nor will we forbid you to preach and win any people you can to your religion.”

    After this, perhaps the earliest recorded example of English tolerance, the liberal-minded king arranged for Augustine to have a house in Canterbury, the capital of his tiny kingdom. He kept his word: Augustine’s mission went ahead unhindered.

    It’s hard to imagine the generosity of character that must have required. The Germanic tribes had gotten to Britain through bloody invasions themselves. They’d begun to build a civilization but were off on a remote island and constantly exposed to the elements; the system of magic and rituals through which their rudimentary understanding of nature was mediated provided their only meager feeling of control over it. It must have had immense psychological importance for them. But here we have the germ of liberty, of the ability of people with fundamentally different beliefs about the way life works to live together. Of course, “English tolerance” has had to take up arms to defend itself a lot since then. But 1400 years later, men are still sacrificing themselves for it, because it’s worth it.

    With gratitude, we remember.


    Solving political problems in Fantasy Land

    Posted by Sean at 01:03, May 30th, 2005

    How’s that Yasukuni Shrine situation? (I really need to create a sub-category for that….) Well, let’s see. The chief of the LDP’s Diet committee gives us this solution:

    On 29 May, the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party issued another in a series of statements calling for the separate enshrinement of class-A war criminals at the Yasukuni Shrine, in response to the controversy over Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi’s pilgrimages to the shrine.

    Hidenao Nakagawa, head of the LDP’s Diet committee, stated on Fuji Television that he is of the opinion that “the administrators of the shrine should meet with the families [of those enshrined], and voluntarily allow for separate enshrinements. Then, China will agree to Japan’s assumption of permanent membership to the UN Security Council.”

    Yes, I’m sure it’ll go just like that. The PRC is not, after all, worried about anything other than Japan’s attitude toward its wartime conduct, such as–and I’m just kinda riffing here–the entire balance of power in East Asia.

    The word I’ve rendered “voluntarily” there is 自発的 (jihatsuteki: “self-” + “emergence” + [adjectival/genitive ending]). It also often means something closer to “spontaneously,” which would perhaps give a better feel for the complete lack of precedent for such a move as Nakagawa is recommending.

    Nakagawa isn’t the only one issuing unfathomables on this issue. The Yomiuri English edition corrals many of the latest soundbites from various government types, including this “huh?” moment from a Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare official:

    Masahiro Morioka, parliamentary secretary of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry criticized the Chinese government for demanding Koizumi stop visiting the shrine. “Class-A war criminals are treated as bad people because of fear of China,” Morioka said. “War criminals were categorized as Class-A, Class-B and Class-C at the Tokyo Tribunal of War Criminals. They were categorized by a one-sided tribunal led by the Occupation forces at which crimes against peace and humanity were created.” [It’s enough to make you wonder whether this guy might actually be affiliated with the shrine itself.–SRK]

    “A war is part of politics, and it is in line with an international law. The Diet unanimously agreed to pay pensions to the families of Class-A war criminals who have died. They’re not seen as criminals in the country,” he said.

    “Saying it’s bad to enshrine Class-A criminals at Yasukuni Shrine is to turn a blind eye to future troubles,” he added.

    It’s certainly true that Japan didn’t regard many convicted war criminals as actual criminals. It released most (all?) of those who weren’t executed; many promptly reentered public service. One, Nobusuke Kishi, became Prime Minister–though it’s important to remember that he wasn’t one of those tried and convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. BTW, you can read at that last link to get a sense of whether inventive approaches to crime began with the Tribunal and whether it’s future troubles to which someone’s turning a blind eye.

    As you might imagine, others in the government have reacted along predictable lines–namely, “Sh*t! I would just like to distance myself from that particular comment”:

    Referring to Morioka’s remarks, Hosoda said later in the day: “Such remarks should never be made by a member of the government. There were some errors in the judgments, but it’s no use to comment on it. Japan accepted [the tribunal’s decision].”

    Koizumi told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office, “It’s meaningless to take note of his remarks. It’s got nothing to do with my visits [to Yasukuni Shrine].”

    Japan paid the reparations that were demanded of it; the government is absolutely right to maintain that it no longer owes official apologies and official acts of redress. But diplomacy is about establishing, if not trust, at least fellow-feeling. It’s not hard to see why China, the Koreas, and Taiwan, suspect there are key members of the Japanese government with no sense of the enormity of their forebears’ conduct.

    Added at 15:00: Japundit links to a tidbit about this Kyodo poll. It was a telephone poll (heh-heh), so you have to take it FWIW. A few other interesting notes:

    Asked about what the Japanese government has done to work toward improvement of Japan-PRC relations, 50.8% of respondents answered, “I don’t think it’s sufficient,” surpassing by a wide margin the 11.5% who answered, “I think it’s sufficient.”

    Regarding the bill to privatize Japan Post, over which debate has begun in the Diet, 47.4% supported it, and 33.3% opposed it. However, regarding explanations from the Prime Minister of why the privatization plan was necessary, the proportion saying, “I don’t think they’re sufficient,” reached 64.1%; by contrast, the percent responding, “I think they’re sufficient,” was 8.2%, so there are still many who feel that not enough explanation has been offered.

    The rate of support for the cabinet has risen 1.5 points since Kyodo’s April survey to 48.4%, with the percent not supporting the cabinet dropping 1.9 points to 36.4%. Among reasons given for support of the cabinet, the most frequent was “There are no other appropriate people [available]” at 48.7%. The most frequent reason given for withholding support was “Nothing can be expected of its economic policies” at 22.5%.

    There was no obvious direct link to Kyodo’s report of the poll, so it’s hard to tell how much the push for UNSC permanent membership has affected people’s attitudes toward China policy.


    JR West to rethink re-education

    Posted by Sean at 04:45, May 28th, 2005

    JR West, having done some deep thinking, is going to reevaluate its re-education camps…uh, program:

    JR West, after last month’s derailment disaster in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, unveiled the full contents of its new “Plan for Improved Safety” on 28 May. The plan serves as notice to the Ministry of Land, Transport, and Infrastructure what JR West’s fundamental policies regarding safety will be from here on. After a comprehensive review of its reeducation program for drivers “Education for Daily Service,” which is regarded as “punitive,” the company devised a plan the main pillars of which include the generation of consistent internal safety criteria, revision of the qualifications required of those who sit for driver certification exams, and improvements to its packed train schedules.

    Alert readers who know the usual line about Japan may be wondering about that “consistent internal safety criteria” part. Japanese corporate culture is highly regimented and group-oriented–doesn’t JR West (and everyone else) already have a company-wide set of standards? The answer is no: the Nikkei article goes on to state that the company plans to create its first such manual as a result of the accident. People identify very strongly with their companies, but often there’s little horizontal communication within them when doing day-to-day business. Rotations for management trainees expose them to different facets of the operations, but once they start in their designated departments, for example, marketing people may nearly never communicate even with the salespeople in order to coordinate strategies and approaches.

    Policy is often set from the details up. You think about all the little things you have to do and problems that might arise and make rules for dealing with them. What it all adds up to kind of becomes the company’s set of basic principles by default. Of course, this avoids the Dilbert-style inanity of meaningless mission statements foisted on the rank and file by out-of-touch top managers. But it also creates massive duplication of effort and the frequent possibility that critical information may escape the notice of people who would know what to do about it. There’s always the possibility that JR West’s new set of standards will end up turning into nothing but an empty gesture, but if the company seriously rethinks how it trains and supports the people running the trains, it will obviously be a good thing.