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    New Japanese literacy survey

    Posted by Sean at 17:11, January 8th, 2005

    When the OECD education survey was published, indicating lower rankings for Japan than it’s accustomed to, it became clear that the Ministry of Education and Culture was worried.

    We’re now getting an indication how worried: the first national language survey in a half-century may be conducted as early as next year. The OECD isn’t the only factor, though:

    The move is being spurred by rising concern over the linguistic ability of the nation’s youth-or rather, the lack thereof. The initial alarm went off last fall when the government extended its list of kanji characters approved for use in names.

    It became apparent that the younger generation were choosing kanji characters for names more by the way they sounded or the number of strokes (for luck), rather than their meanings.

    I believe that this is a gingerly way of saying that people are trying to give their children names that use kanji that aren’t what you’d normally call auspicious:

    Parents like to make minute adjustments, adding a stroke here and there, by choosing a similar-looking character with an extra radical added to the left hand-unconsciously changing the meaning of the whole character.

    For example, the pretty character for “love” can turn into “dimwit” if an innocent-in-itself radical denoting a person is added to the left. So you get “dimwit” rather than the hoped-for meaning of “people loving.”

    There was a highly-publicized case when I first came to Japan of a couple who wanted to name their son 悪魔 (Akuma: “devil”), kind of like the baby named Satan Speaks in David Sedaris’s hilariously satirical family Christmas letter from the fictional Dunbars. (It’s in this book, which also includes a fantastic short story constructed as review of local children’s Christmas pageants by an embittered old theater critic.) The couple lost their case.

    Literacy problems are not just affecting the naming of newborns. People who arrived in this world long ago suffer, too. Everyone in Japan knows a 聡 (Satoru: “clever [boy]”) who’s sick of being inadvertently addressed in writing as 恥 (Hajiru (?): “shameful [boy]”).

    But, then, it’s understandable why the naming system here gives people a headache. Some names usually come in just one permutation…say, 瑠璃子 (Ruriko: “lapis lazuli” + “child,” which I’ve always thought was lovely). But the very common names are often not so restricted. Japan has scads of women named Yumiko, for instance, but the different kanji create different strings of meaning. The most basic is 弓子 (“bow [as in ‘bow and arrow’] + “child”), which has a nice warrior-culture fierceness to it. You can make it more conventionally girlie by using 有美子 (“has” + “beauty” + “child”) or 優美子 (“outstanding” + “beauty” + “child”) or 由実子 (“source” + “fruit” + “child”). As one of the Asahi articles mentions, people often choose characters or pronunciations based on the advice of their priest.

    BTW, the custom of gay guys’ calling each other by the closest equivalent gals’ name in sarcasm or bemused affection is just as strong here as at home. The other night, someone asked whether we’d see our friend Akihiro that night this way: “Is Akiko coming?” It’s not that Aki (which is what we usually call him) is femme; neither is the friend who asked, for that matter. He was just kind of being mischievous. I didn’t even notice until just now when I was thinking back for an example to use. I’m very used to it, but, oddly, it’s not the sort of thing I usually do in English. Then, too, it’s not always effective: When I’ve written with annoyance about Andrew Sullivan, the main reason I’ve never referred to him as Andrea is that there’s no point–Andrea means “man” in Italian and is originally a guys’ name.

    In any case, it’ll be interesting to see what the new survey turns up when it’s actually conducted.

    Added in yet another fit of free association: Something interesting with 愛 (ai: “love”) and 僾 (honoka, I think, though it doesn’t come up as a possibility when you input those kana: “dim, hazy”) is that the same problem happens in reverse with one of the kanji that are used for names. I mentioned it above as one of the things that come up on the Yumiko slot machine: 優 (yu, in this case: “outstanding”). If you take away the person radical on the left, it becomes 憂 (yu: “apprehensiveness, depressiveness”). Kind of like naming your daughter Dolores, I guess. Actually, since 僾 and 優 look kind of similar, I wonder whether some parents are…not necessarily mixing them up, but looking at the first with the feeling they get from the second.

    Added on 16 January: Okay, as Amritas points out, Andrea isn’t the common noun that means “man” in Italian. I mean, I don’t think it is. It’s just the same male stem as in androgen or androgyny, so it probably means something more like “manful.” If anything, that bolsters my original point. :)

    Age of consent

    Posted by Sean at 14:56, January 8th, 2005

    Among my search keyphrases so far this month:

    “can people ever be berated and bashed into good health?”

    I hope I’m in time to attend to that one for whoever was asking. The answer is:


    Please, please, please, stop trying, please-oh-please. And tell all your friends.

    Added while taking prim but lusty gulps from a very large glass of Coke: I’m aware that my tendency toward parentheticals and long modifiers can sometimes obscure my main point. With that in mind, I would like to make sure the above is absolutely clear.





    What you can do is be charming and warmly appreciative of those around you with all their idiosyncrasies. This will lead them to think that your way of life makes you a secure, happy person and encourage them to emulate it. Or maybe it won’t, but at least you won’t give yourself a stroke worrying about what they’re doing to themselves.

    I woke up with an Australian breeze

    Posted by Sean at 14:11, January 8th, 2005

    Simon World has posted the results of the Asia Blog Awards 2004. The man is a saint for taking on the job, given that he does his Asia by Blog thing twice a week. For people who have blundered into my place here from search engines and don’t know much about other blogs in Asia, the list of finalists (and Simon’s extensive blogroll) is a good intro.

    The sign that leads the way / The path we cannot take

    Posted by Sean at 13:47, January 8th, 2005

    Can we please call a moratorium on asking other adults, “Why are you so quiet?” That kind of question is just–just barely–passable when addressed to a five-year-old you’re trying to encourage not to be shy about joining a conversation with all the adults.

    When the person you’re addressing is 32, it’s inane. I mean, what answer are you expecting, pray tell? “Well, the truth is, I’m painfully shy, and I was just waiting for a big, strong busybody like you to come over here and bring me right out of it”? Maybe next time, I should make my eyes swim dangerously and say, “I’m trying out my Jeffrey Dahmer act,” just to see how that goes over.

    I know I sound obnoxious here. There genuinely are painfully shy gay guys who just wish people would come up to them and flirt when they go out, and here I am bitching that guys are talking to me and asking questions that don’t suit me. But that’s not my point. My point is, if you want to start a conversation, start a conversation. I have no objection to being asked where I’m from, how long I’ve been in Japan, do I like Tokyo. Those are the obvious points of departure, but you’re supposed to use them to depart somewhere. I’m flattered when someone takes an interest in me, but I don’t consider it a proper conversation if I’m just being called upon to hold forth on the details of my personality, particularly when my interlocutor then feels at liberty to pass judgment on whether I’m too this or not enough that.

    Anyway, regarding quietness: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I, for one, am capable of loudly and gratingly monopolizing conversations when I’m in one of my moods. If I’m not doing so, I’m not in one of my moods. Be grateful for lack of bounty. It’s nice of you to reassure me that I don’t need to feel all abashed in front of the grown-ups, but it’s also unnecessary. (The first time, I mean–to say nothing of the next ten repetitions.)


    Posted by Sean at 16:57, January 6th, 2005

    Via Living in Pink, I see that GayPatriot has gotten some trad media attention. Good for its proprietor and his partner. I have my reservations about them, but they’re willing to argue for their political positions in common-sense terms that really could do the needed job of getting more exposure for gay conservatives.

    A consortium of kicked puppies

    Posted by Sean at 11:46, January 6th, 2005

    Mrs. du Toit also said something in a comment on this post that crystallizes a point I’ve been thinking about for a while:

    I don’t think it’s endemic to gays particularly, just any group who have activists who make their living convincing people that potty training isn’t necessary when there is always someone else to wipe your bum for you.

    When people compare the gays rights and civil rights movements, I become very uneasy, because the way they tend to do it is sweeping and lacks (forgive the word choice) nuance. Homosexuality and blackness (or other ethnicity) are not in and of themselves comparable.

    The reason I don’t think we can throw out the comparison entirely is that the dynamic between each group and its sympathizers is the same, and it’s the same in illuminating ways. John McWhorter wrote a few years ago–well, he’s said this multiple times in different wording, but I think this was in a review of a book on depictions of blacks on television–that it’s a cruel fact that, however horrible racism has been historically and still is in places, black Americans cannot expect to live cushioned lives as a way of making up for it. You work to fix the problems, but you can’t expect any kind of cosmic payback.

    The failure to understand this is the main problem with gay, feminist, and minority activism. It’s one thing to sympathize with people who suffer–I probably had an easier time coming out than most people, but it sure did suck, and I have no objection to people’s feeling sorry for me about it–but another thing to let sympathy be the engine that forever drives how you treat them. My experience fits Connie’s: gay people aren’t any more or less naturally self-pitying than anyone else. There is, however, a part of coming out that involves acknowledging that it was wrong for people imply that you’re sick and evil, and when you’re not encouraged to move beyond it, it’s easy to freeze there and think all your problems come from other people’s nastiness. Too many of those who sympathize with gays don’t know when to be warmly supportive and when to knock it off and let us learn necessary lessons through bruising experience.

    And now that our own crew of activists has made itself an industry in most urban areas, the problem has become self-perpetuating. In order to avoid driving myself crazy, I persist in thinking that no one is willfully trying to turn us all into a bunch of dependent ninnies. Nevertheless, the overall effect of gay advocacy is to tell people they can always think in “How can you fix this for me?” terms and still be regarded as sovereign adults. And, however different the issues addressed by feminist or minority advocacy may in fact be, it does the same damned thing.

    Japan to contribute bells and whistles to early warning system

    Posted by Sean at 10:55, January 6th, 2005

    All this talk about warning systems for the Indian Ocean is no longer theoretical, apparently:

    A government-envisioned system to help Asian nations facing the Indian Ocean construct a tsunami early warning system will utilize around-the-clock satellite monitoring of water pressure in the sea, government sources said Wednesday.

    Any abnormal changes in water pressure would be relayed to an alert center to be set up in the region. On receipt of an alert, the center would inform regional governments of the threat, enabling them to issue evacuation orders.

    …to those well-to-do people in a position to hear them. Don’t misunderstand–I have nothing against affluence or the affluent. It must also be said that the planners seem to understand that the method of transmission is going to have to be basic and low-tech:

    The evacuation advisory would be passed on at the local level by radio-linked loudspeaker systems similar to those used in Japan by local governments for public announcements.

    Now everyone around the Indian Ocean gets to be constantly harangued by Japanese-style public service loudspeakers. This is called “development.” (I’m assuming the local authorities won’t take long to catch on to possibilities beyond the once-every-500-years imminence of a tidal wave. In Japan, at least, there isn’t any greeting or caution too trivial to be blasted at you from municipal loudspeakers.)

    Mrs. du Toit’s new essay (it’s bizarre that I almost never link to posts by the people I read most assiduously) covers an important element of this kind of thinking and why it’s a problem. Nature does what it likes, and we can’t get the pretty, rousing, life-affirming parts without also taking the cataclysms. People who haven’t internalized that are thinking about the tsunami in ways that run together a lot of things that aren’t comparable.

    Or, if I’m going to be blunt, a lot of people who aren’t comparable. Before a new reader ruptures an artery, let me hasten to say that I do believe we’re all comparable in intrinsic human worth and that, in societies in which we have choices, it’s our choices that distinguish us. I suspect, though, that when people envision a shiny new early warning system, they have visions of people living subsistence-level lives in remote fishing hamlets being saved from the next tsunami, and that’s just not going to happen. Indonesia is one of the five most-populous countries in the world; it and the other countries of the Indian Ocean have thousands upon thousands of little islands where people are tucked away. A lot of these places haven’t yet benefited from the extensive progress of receiving reliable plumbing and electricity; how likely is it that they’ll all be kitted out with a relative luxury like a tsunami warning system?

    What will actually happen is that population centers like coastal cities and resorts will get the loudspeakers, which means that we’ll just be making it more likely that their relatively rich inhabitants can escape. Once again, my point is not that it’s bad to help the well-to-do escape disaster; it’s that people seem to be seeking a way to help the truly destitute, and this sort of thing simply is not going to do it. Economic development, in which villages find a way to provide something marketable and use the resulting income to upgrade their standard of living, will do it. But that has to be a thousand local projects, not a single gesture of international mega-magnanimity. In order to think in those terms, you have to have realistic hope for people, not just wishes.

    I have no idea what to call this

    Posted by Sean at 22:20, January 5th, 2005

    It’s interesting that Kim du Toit posted a series of pictures of Janine Turner this weekend, because I’d kind of been thinking about her myself.

    Atsushi brought back with him a tape of an NHK nature special about Mandarin ducks, not just because I like those sorts of programs but also because of a now sort-of-ongoing joke. When I asked him to pick up another video while he was out shopping, he apparently went to the mystery section and found the series Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime. (The episode he chose, BTW, was The Affair of the Pink Pearl. Yeah, if they ever do start rounding up the queers and herding us into camps, this household’ll be the first shoved onto the wagons, baby.)

    At first, I assumed he’d picked one of them up because we’ve already seen all the Miss Marples with the unsurpassable Joan Hickson. Then I looked at the Japanese series title: おしどり探偵 (oshidori tantei: “the Mandarin duck detectives”). This will make sense to those who know the series from twenty years ago on PBS’s Mystery! or who read the (badly plotted) novels on which it was based. Partners in Crime–it started as a book of short stories–centered around a husband-wife detective agency. The fun, of course, was seeing how they played off each other. At least, it was supposed to be. The books, as I said, were lame. The series was not, largely because the role of the wife, nicknamed Tuppence, was played by Francesca Annis.

    Annis has been known at home in England for decades–I think she’s most famous for playing Lady MacBeth. But she also participated in one of the gayest sequences in movie history–at the end of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, as one of the queen’s handmaids. She’s not the one that gets to answer Octavian’s retainer (“Was this well done of your lady?”) with the gay-coronary-inducing line, “Extremely well–as befitting the last of so many noble…rulers,” while sliding poisoned-ly down a polished stone platform. Annis is, rather, the one who hands Elizabeth Taylor the fruit basket, after which there’s a brief but unforgettable shot of the darkly glossy figs being stirred from below by the asp.

    Speaking of darkly glossy, by the time of Partners in Crime, Annis was mature and beautiful rather than pretty. The scripts frequently called upon her to feign innocence while asking a client or suspect some key question, and she did it expertly: the eyes widen and flash with what looks like guilelessness to the person addressed but can be recognized as shrewdness to the television viewer. And unlike today’s flat-voiced starlet types, she could curl her voice up, down, and through syllables very expressively. Wonderfully pert carriage, too. It’s a shame, as I say, that the plots made Charlie’s Angels look intelligent.

    And I realized while watching it this weekend that it was Francesca Annis whom Janine Turner had been reminding me of, which had been driving me crazy because I couldn’t figure it out. One of the cable channels here has been broadcasting, for the last few months, this Lifetime serial about a women’s clinic. It’s called Strong Medicine, and the first time I happened on its opening credits, I noticed that it was produced by Whoopi Goldberg and was set in Philadelphia. So, of course, I was hoping that it would turn out to be some socially-conscious soap with campy, contrived subplots about women put in horrible positions by the Nasty Patriarchy. I mean, I grew up around people in straitened circumstances and do not dismiss real desperation lightly; by contrast, central-casting desperation, when done with sufficient ham-fisted ineptitude, can be a fiendish delight. And, you know, Whoopi Goldberg as executive producer? Very promising.

    My stars, I was not to be disappointed. See, the Rittenhouse Hospital has an OB-GYN for the paying customers who’s a luminously beautiful, kind of fragile white girl (this would be Turner’s character). She gets to help the well-off with their genteel diseases and need for fetus-threatening surgery. She also gets to fence with the doctor who runs the free clinic. The free clinic, which serves The People, is headed by Dr. Chica Sista-Girlfriend, a Latina single mother who had to work her way through med school, fights for patients who are invisible to the system, and is always there for her son but still works her ass off at the clinic because she Really Cares.

    The supporting cast has the unintended-comedy thing down pat, too. There’s a male nurse-midwife–a scruffy, gentle-voiced vegan who prescribes massage therapy and stuff. The joke is that people sometimes think he’s gay, but we viewers in the tribe know he’s not because he quite clearly doesn’t think his penis was made for anything except taking a wee-wee. Oh, yeah, and the hospital receptionist is a reformed hooker. She’s a black woman. Guess what her assigned personality trait is.

    No, really. Guess.

    You lose.
    The correct answer is “shallowness.”
    Kidding! Kidding! Of course, our reformed-hooker receptionist is actually a SASSY black woman. Whoopi Goldberg is looming over this show, after all.
    Now, the great thing about a program on this kind of PC autopilot is that you don’t actually have to watch it to watch it. You can run the vacuum cleaner over the dialogue, go change loads of laundry, and cook in the part of the kitchen from which you can’t see the TV, and as long as you saw today’s subplots being set up at the beginning, you know exactly what will be happening when you come back in 20 minutes. Of course, you may be wondering why I’d bother, anyway.
    There are two reasons. One is that the commedia dell’arte levels of subtlety make many of the scenes irresistibly hilarious–and, as you might imagine, the more manipulatively heart-tugging, the funnier. The other is that, when Turner comes on screen, you can’t look at anything else. She’s given bad hair and make-up, and her chief job is to be thrown into emotional tizzies over her patients’ predicaments, but you get the sense that she’s overplaying because the director is pushing her to. In the scenes that don’t have some kind of sociological point, when she’s allowed to relax, the lower register in her voice comes out–both sexier- and more intelligent-sounding than the shrill “On my count!” breathiness she uses when things get frenetic–her brow unfurrows, and she seems as if she really could be a doctor trying to keep her equilibrium. She doesn’t actually look or sound like Annis, and the personality traits she’s portraying are different. Nevertheless, the effect is similar, because her voice becomes very musical, her eyes look keenly alert, and you get the feeling that she’s graciously pretending to be acting in a better show than she really is.
    Added on 7 January: Revealing the dangerous murder-obsession we all know grips every private gun owner, Jeff at Alphecca also just posted something related to Agatha Christie, listing his favorite books of hers. All good ones. He’s also correct that the movie adaptations of Ten Little Indians are all frightful. Directors just can’t resist changing the setting to a shadowy, creaky old house and slapping on a happy ending in place of Christie’s original very bleak one.
    I do think, though, that besides the abominable Miss Marple movies with Margaret Rutherford, the very worst Christie adaptation is the 1982-ish all-star The Mirror Crack’d. Angela Lansbury plays Jane Marple in lace-trimmed plunge necklines and with incessant, annoying tosses of the head. Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak humiliate themselves in roles as rival has-been actresses; and Rock Hudson walks around clearly thinking that, by comparison, it may not have been so bad to have to pretend to be in love with Doris Day, after all. A complete train wreck, and not a fun one, either.


    Posted by Sean at 13:54, January 4th, 2005

    Simon has a post on something I’d been wondering about myself: China. As in, what has it been doing while the great powers of the world are pouring money and personnel into helping its disaster-stricken neighbors to the south? He also gets at something important in a previous post, also on the tsunami and its aftermath:

    If warnings were given it is also difficult to see how effective they would have been. Certainly lives would have been saved. But in many areas communications are poor; there is no high land to evacuate to; and there are too many people and not enough roads and ways to transport them out.

    The news outlets are right to cover the possibility that a tsunami warning system could have saved lives and the urgency of getting aid disbursed to places that still lack it. But the problems that get repeated mention–lack of coordination on the part of on-the-ground aid providers, little precedent of catastrophic tsunamis in the Indian Ocean–are ultimately less important than the fact that a lot of people outside Westernized population centers are so isolated that it’s nearly impossible to get to them except by helicopter. And to do even that, you have to figure out where they are first and resign yourself to dropping things on them if you can’t land, which means they’ll get supplies but no medical care. The most sophisticated warning system in the world wouldn’t have prevented such people from being screwed, and the best teams of planners in the world are still going to have trouble getting food and potable water to them.

    That doesn’t mean we give up trying to help remote populations, or that we write them off and reserve our compassion for those we feel more similar to. It means that we don’t blame human beings for not being able to do the impossible. Furthermore–yes, I’m late to this party, but it’s a point that apparently needs to be made over and over–anyone who’s followed the real-time development of events right after an earthquake knows that the early reports are close to worthless. If a major facility (shopping center, elevated highway, train station) collapsed, you’ll know immediately that at least a certain number of people are dead or injured, but that’s about it. You will not know the extent of the destruction, and you’ll be getting conflicting and incomplete reports for a good while; thus keeping commitments of funding and labor on the “stingy” side for the time being is perfectly rational for a third party. Now that we’re aware of the scope of the damage in southern Asia, it’s cheering to see people giving unreservedly.

    Give me a story and give me a bed / Give me possessions

    Posted by Sean at 11:21, January 3rd, 2005

    I need something explained to me, maybe because I’m a moron. This (not an American story, but not dissimilar from things that happen in America, either) is from 365Gay:

    Dominique Ripoll-Dausa claims that he and retired millionaire Phillip Middleton considered themselves to be married before Middleton’s death last June following a short battle with cancer.

    They had been together for 15 years. At the time of his death, Middleton and Ripoll-Dausa were sharing a home.

    But, Middleton’s parents claim their son was not gay. James and Joan Middleton claimed the two men were only friends and they say they did not draw any inferences from the fact that the two men appeared to share a bed while the family were on holiday together. [You can convince yourself of anything, huh?–SRK]

    Ripoll-Dausa is asking the Constitutional Court to declare his relationship with Middleton equivalent to that of a married couple. His suit says that the law unconstitutionally discriminates against the rights of gay life partners to inherit their loved one’s estates, particularly when the deceased leaves no will.

    This never came up in 15 years together? The report doesn’t say whether Ripoll-Dausa can live on his own earnings or is a starving-artist type that Middleton was supporting. I can see how you might, if in love with a millionaire, want to avoid too-eager discussions about what’s going to happen to all those lovely assets after he’s gone, because it could make you sound like a gold-digger even if you aren’t one. It’s also possible that Middleton didn’t want to make a will in his partner’s favor because that would make their relationship “official”–someone who’s determined not to think of himself as a homosexual can be a bottomless well of rationalizing ingenuity when it comes to that sort of thing.

    Whatever the case, no matter how good the companionship, sex, and art collection–am I the only one whose first thought is, Ooh! What was in that art collection?–I can’t imagine feeling bonded for life with someone who wasn’t willing to be worried big time about how I’d manage if he died. Ripoll-Dausa and Middleton were free to engage in whatever relationship they wished, and maybe the topic was contentious between them or they just didn’t like to think about their own mortality.

    Never mind. All of this is speculation. What is not speculative is that queers look like jokes when we start bellowing about discrimination to cover our own failures to plan like adults. These two had a decade and a half to have The Talk and write wills–if this guy was a millionaire, you can bet he had a lawyer or five. They had full knowledge that they were not considered married under South African law and therefore had no legal claim on each other’s property. I vigorously support domestic partnerships/civil unions, but the case for them is weakened when dizzy bitches don’t even bother to use the resources that are available, then act as if the bind they end up in is someone else’s fault. Way to underscore that we know how to take charge of our lives, there, guy.