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    CNN tells all (ニコニコ!)

    Posted by Sean at 13:55, December 11th, 2004

    Atsushi told me about this last week, but I forgot until I just saw the ads for it: CNN has sent Bill Hemmer here to Tokyo, from which he’ll be broadcasting for the first half of the week, giving a rare inside view of this most enigmatic of East Asian cultures! Are you excited? I’m excited. We’ll learn about the latest controversies within the royal family, we’ll talk with US Ambassador Howard Baker, and we’ll see all those futuristic gizmos with which Japan has touched off a worldwide youth craze! This is great. I’ve always wanted to know more about Japan.

    Pfft! Look, I know that not everyone lives here and that, given limited time, even a resource-rich network such as CNN is going to have to focus on familiar themes of interest to a broad audience. But do we really have to come here and say the exact same damned things for the home-folks every dad-blamed time? I suppose the Baker interview might be somewhat illuminating, but I’ll probably need to take my Dramamine before I can confront the rest. Expect more bile than usual; Atsushi is already chuckling in anticipation.

    Of course, CNN doesn’t have to dispatch one of its Ken dolls here to be annoying; the Atlanta-based Barbie contingent isn’t exactly acquitting itself admirably, either. I don’t want to pick on Colleen McEdwards personally, since her sins are the same as those of just about every other news network anchor, but can we please remember that it’s okay not to show off our telegenic smile occasionally? She interviewed some toxicologist about an hour ago about the poisoning of Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko, and I swear, it went something like this, “So, [twinkle, twinkle] how could such a large amount of dioxin get into Yuschenko’s body? Would it really [beam] be possible to put that much in a serving of soup?…Now, he has these acute symptoms [moue, twinkle]–how long will it take, you know, until it’s out of his system?” When I was little, newscasters were notorious for pasting on a look of inauthentic gravity all the time, but at least that showed some awareness of the nature of the topic at hand. I guess it’s possible that Colleen et al‘s frown muscles aren’t working anymore, but they seem too young for Botox.

    And while I’m wound up, can all those with-it hair stylists please find some fad to replace the fake-split ends thing? I know they needed something to do after the Friends shag got old, and the sleek crown + egg-beatered ends routine was it. But that was years ago. Time for something new. If we’re supposed to be looking at these people for minutes at a time while they tell us what’s going on [twinkle, twinkle] in the world of politics and artificial Christmas trees, they could summon enough effort to be distinguishable by something more than the colors of their Escada suits. Christiane Amanpour’s hair may look like a fright wig, but at least it’s her idiosyncratic fright wig.

    Added on 16 December: Too funny! Rachel Lucas, in her new guise, has noticed this abominable hair abuse, too. Only she actually had it perpetrated on her, the poor thing.


    Posted by Sean at 01:15, December 10th, 2004

    The search string gods are favoring me early this month.

    Someone wants to know the “duration of 2004 niigata quake.” To which one can only respond, “Which one?”

    Someone’s inner Whitney Houston needs soothing: “how can you know boys if had a feeling with you.” Do I know where you’re coming from, or what, honey! But, you know, there is one way to tell. You could get a broken nose rather than an answer to your prayers, but what is this life without some risk?

    I’m hoping “koda shosei kill sean” is a product of unfortunate syntax and not a minded use of the imperative mood.

    Some poor soul just can’t quite remember what song goes like this: “i like the way you cross the street cause you’re…precious.” It’s the first song on Pretenders, and trust me, you need to buy the album, and don’t just skip through to “Brass in Pocket.” The whole damned thing will rock your world.

    I know I’ve got at least one would-be comedian of a reader who tries obnoxious search terms to see whether he can get me going. If “homosexual inferior trash” is not from him, I will have you know, whoever you are, that my garbage is always put out on the right day–properly separated and in city-approved bags. Well, except the newspapers, which are stacked at exact right angles (I check with a T-square) and tied off, gift-style, with whimsical blue twine. I defy Shintaro Ishihara himself to find a reason to kvetch about it.

    Finally, we have “alex kerr homosexual.” Hmmm. Wouldn’t surprise me. Art collector, lives in Bangkok with partner of unidentified gender. Cute and well-preserved, too. Even if he’s a het, we’ll make him an honorary. The guy hangs around kabuki actors; I doubt he’ll mind.

    All right, little more cleaning to do so the place is ready for tomorrow morning. I was a bit casual about my unpacking this time.

    Doesn’t this strike you as an extraordinarily stupid idea?

    Posted by Sean at 23:03, December 9th, 2004

    From the Mainichi:

    Schoolboy attacks gun shop employee with golf club in failed robbery bid

    * I know, I know. Since only hunting guns are sold in Japan, I guess they weren’t likely to be loaded, and the shop clerk probably would’ve gotten into big trouble for brandishing one, anyway.

    Jenkins interviewed by Time

    Posted by Sean at 22:21, December 9th, 2004

    For a stretch there, I was remarking quite a bit on the repatriation of Hitomi Soga and the attempts to get her husband and daughters to Japan to live with her, largely because the developments weren’t getting much play at home and it wasn’t clear how things would pan out. I haven’t lost interest in the story, but I was kind of wary of reading the Time interview with Charles Jenkins, largely because Nancy Gibbs is often the reporter Time gives big-deal human interest stories to, and for some reason, her approach really tends to annoy me. So I know every man, woman, child, and ficus tree in the Western world has read the thing by now, but for the sake of completism, I’ll link it anyway.

    It doesn’t really contain a whole lot of new information about Jenkins’s life in the DPRK. It was already known that he lived for years in a house with other American defectors and that they were tortured and assigned to beat each other up as punishment for disobedience. It was also known that the Jenkins-Soga family lived well for North Korea but was no more free than anyone else, and that their daughters were enrolled at the country’s most prestigious foreign language institute, where they would probably be trained to do some sort of espionage work.

    The part about how he first got into North Korean hands, however, is new. (At least, I haven’t seen it narrated before.) While Jenkins is not an innocent party, his is a very sympathetic story, and it makes you glad that, at the very least, he and Soga had the comfort of falling in love with each other–I think I speculated a few months ago that theirs may have been a marriage of convenience, but it’s nice to be proved wrong–and starting a family. And that they’ve now been able to come to Japan and bring their daughters with them.


    BTW, there’s a push here in Japan again for sanctions against the DPRK, which has squandered the goodwill it earned by releasing Jenkins and (especially) his daughters by throwing together some bones and purporting that they’re the remains of another abductee, Megumi Yokota. The cabinet is not all of one mind on the matter. A nice detail is that the Minister of the Environment (whose name–dead serious, here–means Lily Littlepond!) was one of those who said essentially, “If we cooperate with the US, we can fry their ass!”

    Folk art

    Posted by Sean at 11:56, December 9th, 2004

    My quilt just came–very exciting. Japanese housing tends to have sketchy insulation, and heating costs (naturally) compound quickly, so a few years ago, when my parents asked what I wanted as a major Christmas present, I suggested one. Since we’re from the edge of Pennsylvania Dutch country, this is not a difficult thing to come by.

    The problem is, of course, that many quilts–cleverly designed and skillfully contrived though they be–look like grown-up versions of some Holly Hobbie nightmare, preciously strewn with tulips, hearts, and (blech! heave!) distelfinks. (I think distelfink literally translates to “thistle finch,” but my understanding is that it’s the German word for goldfinch.) So finding one I’d go for was not easy, and we ended up just making a little family day trip into Berks County to look for one while I was home. Found the perfect specimen at the first farm we visited, and had it shipped here.

    Unfortunately, while our bed is a double (you guys thought you’d get to make a “queen-sized” crack, huh? suckers), it’s a Japanese double. That means that it’s narrower than a US double, so the main panel hangs a little over the edges. But the nice thing about using a good quilt is that it keeps you warm without being heavy, and the delivery guy brought it just in time, since the night temperatures have dipped noticeably since I got back from the States. That, and my hunk of Japanese man is coming home for the weekend tomorrow.


    Posted by Sean at 21:55, December 8th, 2004

    You know, I really am a self-critical guy. It just takes time to get results sometimes. For a while there, I’ve been getting search after search for “white peril” and wondering why the people out of the bunch who were looking for me wouldn’t just use the URL.

    Then the other day, I had to get to a site that was called something like geschlumfelflugenhammerkohl.net, and I thought, Who the hell would choose such a f**king random domain name? I swear, it took a good three hours before I was like, Oh! I wonder whether maybe…. So I went to see whether www.seorookie.net was, in fact, available. It was, so I took it. It’ll take a few days for processing and things, I suppose, but I’ll direct it to this page so I’m not the only one who can find me without Google or the ability to bookmark.

    Bitter Almond

    Posted by Sean at 20:22, December 8th, 2004

    The holiday-time newsletter from the citizen services division of the American Embassy (you can sign up for it if you’re a citizen who lives here and register for it) contains this charming bit of advice for party animals here in Tokyo:

    We note that an American Citizen was murdered in early December in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. The murder occurred in an office building within walking distance of the local police station. We previously advised Americans in our June 2004 newsletter of six reports of western foreigners (including Americans) allegedly overdosing on heroin, resulting in three deaths. The heroin was allegedly purchased in Roppongi. In the July newsletter, we noted that several Americans reported the theft of their purses and wallets, stolen from them while in bars and clubs in Roppongi. A number of Americans have also been arrested over the past year in Roppongi for various offenses. Americans are strongly advised to exercise caution should they choose to visit the Roppongi area.

    I think I’ve been to Roppongi maybe seven or eight times since moving to Japan, and I’ve enjoyed myself there maybe zero times. It’s not that I mind sleaze. I lived in the Dogenzaka section of Shibuya, in one of the two or three apartment buildings there among the love hotels, for five years. Loved every minute of it. Of course, my apartment was clean, quiet, and tucked at the top of a hill. But still, Shibuya is cool because it’s kooky-sleazy. Roppongi is grim-sleazy. (BTW, I love the way the paragraph above seems to come within a hair’s breadth of saying, “If you’re going to buy heroin, at least don’t get it in Roppongi!”)

    I think it’s great that there’s a neighborhood where foreigners who live here can congregate; but living abroad tends to produce a feeling of being off the chain, especially in younger people, and it’s not surprising that when there’s a critical mass of them gathered at a cluster of bars or clubs, they frequently cut somewhat looser than their parents might be back home hoping. That kind of atmosphere is ripe for crime, especially because so many Westerners have been brought up to think of Japan as 100% safe and are not on their guard as they would be in, say, Bangkok, New York or (especially, these days) London. One hopes people will learn to be more careful.

    Added at 21:29: I’ve changed the title, since the way I originally had it struck me as being too on the obnoxious side of snarky. Besides, the new cyanide imagery is more in keeping with the ghoulishness of the newsletter.

    Japanese education statistics drop

    Posted by Sean at 14:11, December 7th, 2004

    The OECD’s figures for its 2003 education survey are out, and Japan’s rankings have fallen. The Mainichi‘s English report is here and is, naturally, not as complete as its original Japanese report here. What’s interesting, as it so often is, is what was omitted from the English version: Japanese students trust their teachers less.

    To what degree do students feel their teachers support them in class? Of 31 countries (including 7 major nations of Europe and the Americas, and also Hong Kong, the rank of which was high this year), Japan had a lower-than-average percentage of students who gave the most affirmative response “Always true” to any of 5 prompts about the degree of support from mathematics teachers, including “[The teacher] takes an interest in students’ individual studies,” and “[The teacher] provides opportunities for students to express individual opinions.” Averaged over these five items, Japan ranked lowest of the 31 countries.

    This is important, given the traditional close relationship students have been expected to form with their teachers. It’s hard to know what to make of it, though–exactly what kinds of opinions do students want to be giving in, of all things, math class? Or is the issue just that lecturing at students is emphasized over student input? But that makes little sense–Japan’s math education is famous for using directed drills to guide students, whenever possible, into discovering the next mathematical principle to be learned. More worrisome is that the article goes on to relate that Japanese students showed comparatively little confidence that their schools were teaching them useful knowledge (59%, 28 percentage points lower than average for the group) and were giving them the confidence to make their own decisions (52%, 18 percentage points below average). It’s not possible to determine from the Mainichi how well-constructed the survey instrument actually was, though the OECD is hardly a piddling organization.

    What is obvious is that the Ministry of Education and Culture’s major concern is with the drop in reading and math scores. The reason I’m not obsessing over them here–besides the fact that those figures are amply sliced and diced in the English article–is that everyone has known for years that there are problems with the tendency to compare Japan’s education statistics so favorably with those of other countries. Japan does not have a history of documenting degrees of literacy, for example. Functional illiteracy is not defined and measured. Are Japanese people better readers on average than citizens of most other countries? Sure, probably. Are they comparatively up in the exosphere? It’s hard to tell. As the Monbusho likes to frame things, either you can’t read at all, or you’re literate. How well you read if you’re in the latter category is not easy to assess, though from experience, I’d have a difficult time believing the Japanese average doesn’t put the American average to shame.

    Even the math scores have always needed more qualification. The level of achievement in computation and problem-solving among average Japanese really is a marvel. But Japan doesn’t appear to do any better at producing math major material–people who can go beyond remembering why the harmonic function doesn’t converge to their own conceptualizing–than other countries do. Now, since most of us don’t need to come up with our own theories of mathematics, that doesn’t matter all that much. It would be nice if American schools could teach students how to add fractions. But the idea that Japan turns all its students into Karl Friedrich Gausses does not obtain.

    Even so, the reaction of the Ministry of Education is encouraging, lacking as it does any American-style references to Carol Gilligan or journaling. Whether the remedial programs that are implemented can quickly address the increased (and highly-publicized) disaffection of students remains to be seen.

    Added on 9 December: Hong Kong’s rankings were higher, but Simon is unimpressed. The reasons he cites are not entirely inapplicable to Japan as well.

    Bang bang

    Posted by Sean at 12:16, December 7th, 2004

    Mr. du Toit has kindly given me a link this morning, and everyone and his grandmother who reads him seems to have followed it. I doubt this is quite the kind of destination his readers are used to clicking through to from him, so I hope no one’s too taken aback. I’m thankful for the mention, though.

    It puts me in mind of a story from last year, when Atsushi came home with me to meet my parents. My mother has a handgun and a well-developed sense of mischief. It was a given that she was going to show both to my boyfriend and see whether she could get a reaction out of him.

    So we’re sitting in the living room, and she gets the gun out, brings it into the room, and deposits it with a flourish on the coffee table in front of him. And Atsushi looks at it–I mean, he didn’t peer; he leaned over and looked straight at it–and says enthusiastically but with perfect Japanese composure, “Wow. Oh, yes. That’s very menacing.” At which point, Mom was all his. Between that and the comfy, unassuming way he played with the cats, I think my parents were ready to ask him to replace me as the elder son.

    Anyhow, speaking of the unexpected, I’ve been getting more links lately from more sites. That’s very gratifying, but it occurs to me that the mixture of topics I write about probably seems kind of random to someone blundering into this place for the first time. When I myself have been in those situations, I’ve found that if there’s a list of “Best Posts” or some such, it’s often helpful to look at as a representative sample of what I’m in for if I start digging into someone’s archives. So I’ve thought of adding one here to help new readers navigate my (ahem) eclecticism, but I’m a terrible judge of my own writing. If anyone reading here has any suggestions for things I might want to include, I’d be grateful to hear. (Suggestions of the “Whatever you do, leave out that ridiculous post titled ‘XYZ'” variety are fine, too, as long as they’re put politely.)

    Pearl Harbor

    Posted by Sean at 09:12, December 7th, 2004

    Yesterday (depending on which time zone your bioclock is thinking in–you’ll forgive mine for not being sure) was the Pearl Harbor anniversary. I was on a plane and so was unable to post, but Eric wasn’t, and as usual, his piece has good links.

    Considering the current Japan-China debates over sources of petroleum, this isn’t a bad time to be reflecting on how the Pacific War began and on the long-term geography-based tensions we have in Asia. Of course, according to intellectual titans such as Noam Chomsky, the world is categorizable into white Westerners and everyone else, so inter-ethnic hostilities along other axes have to be downplayed.

    Most of the tribute sites seem well-intentioned but poorly designed. Probably the best resource is the Navy’s own page.