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    But I’m quite sure that you’ll tell me / Just how I should feel today

    Posted by Sean at 22:26, June 17th, 2004

    You know, most days I wake up and go about my business and come home and turn in and think, You know, the world has plenty of problems, and they take a while to sort out, but most people are really pretty decent and on the ball.

    Days like today, however, I think, My, but people are stupid. Erin O’Connor reports that a student in a San Diego high school decided not to go along with the administrator-approved lesson in loving us fragile, downtrodden queers and was suspended. Her summary of the story she links to (As Joanne Jacobs is wont to say, Is your blood pressure too low?):

    Chase Harper, a sophomore in the Poway Unified School district, was offended when his school recently participated in the “Day of Silence,” a national event sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. GLSEN describes Day of Silence as

    It takes a long time to get over there / Nearly seven hours in the air

    Posted by Sean at 01:44, June 16th, 2004

    Japan’s latest close shave with air travel disaster: two passenger jets (a KLM Boeing 777 and an Asiana Airlines A321) ending up facing each other from opposite ends of a runway at Narita Airport. The KLM plane was just landing, and the Asiana plane was about to take off. Takeoff was aborted, naturally, and the runway shut down for a while. A few years ago, air traffic controllers engaged in a comedy of errors (a comedy because there was no accident, but 700 people’s lives hung in the balance), mistakenly guiding a JAL 747 and a JAL DC9 closer together, rather than farther apart, so that they passed each other at a midair distance of 30 feet. Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo and famed xenophobe, blamed the air traffic patterns necessitated by US military presence in the area. And hey, that could be a factor.

    But it’s also true that Narita Airport is old, tiny, unwieldy, and in the middle of bloody nowhere. It takes an hour and a half to get there by express train from central Tokyo. If you’re coming in by air, landing requires all kinds of corkscrewish turn-while-descending maneuvers, especially fun during the summer, when the heat and humidity make turbulence a given. The waits for takeoff are ages long, even if you fly most-favored carriers JAL (mine) or ANA (Funny thing about that name: it stands for the English All Nippon Airways. The Japanese pronounce it “Ay-En-Ay,” but of course, to a native English speaker it looks like Ana, pronounced like the Spanish form of Anne. The funny thing is that ana 穴 in Japanese means “hole,” which when plastered on the tail fin of an airliner has a subtle but unsettling suggestion of augering in hard. Not exactly the image of effortless loft you’d think an airline would want to project, but no one seems to mind. The fact that ANA hasn’t had a crash for thirty years probably helps). Like every other public facility in Japan–especially those that show its transportation system to foreign visitors–the Narita Airport Authority gets cash by the tankerful, so the place is always being resurfaced, repainted, and retiled. But the routing problems remain, so it seems likely that we’re going to keep having these nail-biting near-misses and eventually–though I hope I’m wrong–a real disaster when luck runs out.

    There’s not much here that’s gonna hold you down

    Posted by Sean at 18:29, June 11th, 2004

    I was shocked by President Reagan’s death, needless to say; we were so busy getting ready to go to the airport that I didn’t really have time to think about it. The first time I cried was on the plane, when we were over the Equator and I was listening to True Blue–a document of the optimistic, Americana-loving Reagan Era if ever there was one. It was going from “La Isla Bonita” into “Jimmy Jimmy” that got me, the shift from yearning for a utopia in the inaccessible past to affectionately speeding a dreamer on his way to better things. I wasn’t heaving and keening, or anything, but I was glad that most people around me were sleeping with their reading lights off.

    The heaving only started in the last few days, when the state funeral and later the arrival at the Reagan Library were broadcast. I’m never ashamed to be an American, but I’m sometimes embarrassed at the way our forthrightness makes us indifferent to formality or symbolism when it matters. This time it mattered, and things came off beautifully. It may have seemed different for people who were there, but the funeral was perfectly done from the standpoint of television. That’s not a slam: TV is the way public figures communicate with the people now, both at home and abroad. The secondary colors are my favorites, but the red, white, and blue of the American flag have both real dignity and real vitality. Tucked over the casket, all they needed was the field of concentric stone circles to be memorable to the imagination.

    They were also the perfect background for mourners to convey real heartbreak. The Japanese know this: when ceremonial composure is deployed well, you don’t need to go bananas to convey utterly devastating emotion. (Alex Kerr has called this the “flash to the heart” that one gets when an old-school Japanese person uses a turn of phrase, like the sun breaking momentarily through clouds, that exposes his true feelings.) There’s something to be said for the way more hot-blooded cultures wail and toss flowers on coffins, and I’m a great believer in florid displays of emotion. But I broke down when Margaret Thatcher, herself widowed not long ago, stared at the casket as if she’d just lost the last person who Remembered and quietly laid her hand on it. And I didn’t think I would ever stop crying when Mrs. Reagan, in her black clothes and the chunky gold jewelry we all remember on prominent women through the ’80’s, just laid her cheek on the casket and shook. I know she appreciates the people’s love for her husband, but it must have cost her dearly to have to postpone her private grieving for this whole week, even down to the last moment before he was buried.

    I wonder what the rest of the world will see in these broadcasts. Even BBC World, which we had at the hotel, seemed to be limiting itself to saying that Reagan’s policies had been controversial–Aside: Has anyone ever been able to deal with viciously-debated issues in a way that was not “divisive”?–and that he and Thatcher had mostly agreed (its viewers will presumably know what’s implied by that). Since we’ve been back in Japan, coverage of his transport to California and burial has nostalgically emphasized the presence of so many retired foreign leaders at the DC service (Yasuhiro Nakasone was there) and has recounted his role in the end of the Soviet Bloc. That’s understandable. Also not surprisingly, the idea that he restored hope in America is getting less play here, where such things are of less immediate interest. But it might be a better idea for people to pay attention, considering that Americans are questioning the state of the War on Terrorism and could be effected in unpredictable ways by this week-long reminder of the last time they needed buoying.


    Posted by Sean at 09:29, June 5th, 2004

    Wow. Last night, they just said Ronald Reagan was failing rapidly and had weeks to months. I was surprised that his death wasn’t one of the main headlines on the Nikkei at first, in the moment before I remembered that a US President who went out of office a decade and a half ago will not make the most important story abroad. Now, it’s been moved up the page. Maybe someone tipped them off that the last standing superpower won’t be able to think about anything else today?

    The article does mention something that’s not coming up in the American press much amid the stories about his interactions with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev: In the ’80’s, the Japanese economic bubble was still expanding, and trade negotiations were very, very dicey. Reagan’s rapport with Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was known in the press here as the “Ron-Yasu Relationship.” I’m sure the phrase was used in a somewhat bemused tone back then; it’s as informal-sounding in Japanese as in English. Today, it sounds rather tender.

    And while I know it’s not intentional, leave it to CNN to be interrupting its retrospective on Reagan with commercials for a biopic of Che Guevara. Cht!

    Turn my brown body white

    Posted by Sean at 11:01, June 4th, 2004

    In t – 5 hours, the boyfriend will be back within molesting distance. Tomorrow we leave for Bali (the mountains, not the beach). I don’t think I’ve ever needed a vacation so much in my life. If anything interesting happens in Japan today, I might post something quick about it; otherwise, see you in a week!

    And if I decide / to step aside

    Posted by Sean at 21:13, June 3rd, 2004

    So I’ve kind of had a post brewing for the last week or so. I keep seeing people writing about similar things and then wondering whether the topic has already been attended to: Connie du Toit wrote about giving children guidance rather than being a dictator, which is part of it. Today, Boi from Troy has been involved in a back-and-forth about what qualifies as oversensitivity–it called to mind a priceless post of Agenda Bender’s a while back. Rosemary Esmay’s patience finally ran out on a particularly long-winded troll, with predictable results. I myself recently linked to news about a school killing here in Japan this week. And Baldilocks responded to a thread at Dean’s World about single parenthood among black women.

    Maybe the connection isn’t obvious here–in fact, it’s not obvious to me, but I sense one, and it’s like an itch at the back of my mind, so I’m running with it. What I think most Americans want is a society in which several things are in the best possible balance:

    (1) People whose idea of pursuing happiness is non-conformist are free to act on it to the extent that they aren’t demonstrably infringing on the rights of others.

    (2) The accumulated wisdom of the ages that some non-conformist behaviors have less benign possible consequences than others needs to be signaled to the young and inexperienced so that they don’t make irreversible choices before they know what they’re getting into.

    (3) The society full of strong-minded, free people that results from (1) and (2) has a shared set of signals that allows everyone to, as accurately as possible, distinguish respectful people with opposing arguments from those of plain old ill-will.

    (4) The society full of strong-minded, free people that results from (1) and (2) has a shared set of signals that allows everyone to live in overall peace with other citizens without forcing him into postures of approval that he cannot make in good conscience.

    Obviously, if these problems were truly solvable, they’d have already been taken care of by a greater mind than the one that belongs to this little white boy. It does seem that we could do somewhat better than we are, though. One thing that springs to mind is that in this transition period back to civility, jumping to conclusions is even less useful than it would otherwise be. Who knows anymore what someone means when he uses the word homophobia or disrespect. Contexts for social interactions having been mashed together over the last several decades, it often takes quite a few exchanges to be sure where someone is coming from.
    Along those lines, there’s a lot of amnesia about the last several decades of American social history going around, and I wish people would knock it off. The cultural upheavals of the ’60’s did not begin because two students at Wesleyan suddenly woke up one 1963 morning in an innocent world and said, “Hey! Suppose we just, like, threw all the rules away!” The stigma on children born out of wedlock punished them for behavior they did not have a say in and worked against the American belief that you can achieve things beyond what the circumstances of your birth dictate. Adulterous men were often dealt with severely by others in the community, but it was also frequently the case that wives got the message that marital problems were always their fault and theirs to fix. Gays were given to believe that their attractions could not rise above the level of carnality. The ’50’s were an understandable and psychologically necessary breather after two world wars and the Depression, but they couldn’t have lasted in existing form. Attitudes did need to be changed.
    The problem was the way they were transformed. It’s one thing not to shut non-conformists out of society, and quite another to encourage everyone to believe that non-conformity is the solution to life’s problems. Now everyone is free to take the Zsa Zsa approach to marriage, many young women do not believe you need to be particularly strong-minded to rear a child out of wedlock, large numbers of ethnic minorities see systemic racism as the major impediment to their progress, and gay men of my age hear older buddies talk about countless colorful friends that we’ll never get to meet. (Aside: I know that many people don’t see liberty for women or racial minorities as analogous to liberty for homosexuals. That’s a topic worth debating, though it’s more specific than what I’m talking about here. I might mention, though, one way that those groups are related in practice if not in theory: Whatever the loudest, dumbest feminist or minority activist is saying today, the loudest, dumbest queer activist will be saying tomorrow. So very disheartening. Anyway….)
    For quite a while, I’ve wanted to write something about what I think America should and should not learn from Japan. I still don’t have a fully worked-out answer, but I really don’t think it comes down to much more than two things. One is that people here assume that you are going to treat them respectfully and will work overtime to interpret your behavior that way unless you cross the line in a big, bad way. The second is that, for all the mutual dependence and 甘え encoded in Japanese social forms, people go out of their way not to burden others unnecessarily. Each of these takes work, but in my experience, neither is all that hard for people in normal circumstances. While we Americans are sorting out what we want to retain and what we want to leave behind from the last forty or so years, I hope we find a way to start thinking in that vein again.

    I realize that this post is disjointed, even for me, but it’s not coming together any better right now. If the usual suspects have any input, I’d be glad to hear it.

    No wisecracks about the state of Japanese society today….

    Posted by Sean at 01:54, June 1st, 2004

    The latest Japanese child-on-child killing took place in Nagasaki Prefecture today. One sixth-grade girl lured a classmate into one of the study rooms, then slashed her in the face and neck with an Exact-o knife; she died of massive bleeding. The victim’s father is a bureau chief for one of the major newspapers here (the Mainichi Shimbun), so I’m guessing the school was pretty exclusive. The poor guy’s wife died of cancer a few years ago, too. Wow. Apparently, the attacker was in tears and apologizing, and she was lucid enough to answer questions.

    Most Japanese people turn out just fine, obviously; nevertheless, the risk in having such a conformist society is that when people crack from the pressure, they’re likely to lose their shit completely. It’s too soon to know, but I wonder whether that’s what happened here; a petty grievance became magnified, and she flipped out. How very sad.


    Don’t send me no doctor

    Posted by Sean at 13:17, May 29th, 2004

    Here we go. This is hardly the beginning–there’s been news like it at regular intervals for years–but the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (note the British u in that fourth word–this is a class-act, civilized country, you know) bean crunchers and number counters have estimated that total health expenditures in 2025 will be more than double what they are now: 69 trillion yen (about US $630 billion). That includes out-of-pocket payments by users but, naturally, mostly consists of Social Insurance premiums and taxes. The most quickly increasing sector is geriatric care, of course; it’s projected to be half the total by then.

    When people ask me what the health care system is really like over here, I never quite know what to say. Care for minor stuff is great; so is care for catastrophic illness. I’ve had friends who had heart bypasses and treatments for cancer that were, to judge from the results, first-rate. No, it isn’t the Nirvana a lot of collectivists in America think it is: care for things that are significant but not life-threatening is seriously hit-or-miss. You have to work hard to find a good dentist. It’s common to tell a GP that you’ve already tried aspirin for your fever and still walk out of his office with powdered acetaminophen. Treatments are often drawn out into short segments given over weeks or months. Part of this is because the traditional Asian view of how to restore health involves slowly and naturally prodding the life processes back into normal alignment.

    But part of it is also that more visits help maximize revenue from patients who don’t have many other options. Despite the long average life span here, the lack of transparency in operations (and deemphasis on personal responsibility and initiative) that create drag on the Japanese domestic economy are bad for the health care system, too. This article is out-of-date, but it compiles several of the cases that got the most publicity in the first few years I lived here. Since then, you get similar stories regularly: a sociopathic nurse in Sendai killed his patients by giving them heavy doses of muscle relaxant. Even though the frequency with which his patients worsened was such that his colleagues called him “Nosedive Mori,” and he was using unprescribed doses of muscle relaxant that were missing from inventory, he seems to have kept this up for years. And then there’s the “thank-you money” that people routinely give their surgeons in addition to the set fee.

    None of this is to be interpreted as meaning that people are lying or incorrect when they say that Japan has good health care. It’s just that you can’t point to Japan and say that having a national health care system improves things over private insurance by ensuring better control and an orientation toward service rather than profit. Everyone knows that as the population ages, caps on care will change; it will be unpleasantly interesting to see how the revised MHLW rules play out as they move through the medical system in real time and on real terms.

    Never one to roam / I took the first bus home / and I haven’t changed

    Posted by Sean at 20:46, May 28th, 2004

    It’s this sort of story that makes me glad I live in a country in which people will just say straight out that they believe Koreans are congenitally lazy and stupid and Chinese people are treacherous. You can then disagree, with reason and example, and actually get somewhere.

    But where…how do you…is it even…WTF can you possibly say to this?

    The city of Chicago will continue to set aside a portion of its construction contracts for firms owned by blacks, Hispanics and women — but not Asian-Americans.

    The revised ordinance, approved Wednesday night by the City Council, lists the groups that statistical evidence shows are socially disadvantaged.

    Under the law, Asian-Americans can still apply for city work if they do so as individuals and document that they have been discriminated against.

    The changes upset Asian-American leaders as well as some aldermen who said the city was opening itself up to a return to discriminatory practices.

    The City of Chicago is “opening itself up to a return to discriminatory practices,” by airily judging who’s downtrodden enough to compete for clubby set-aside municipal contracts? Good Lord. Imagine what might happen if they pull out all the stops and start discriminating for real.

    It gets better. There seem to have been warning signs from a few months ago on that Asian-Americans would be excluded. At least one affected party is clearly not one to let anything so trivial as self-respect get in the way of a good gravy train:

    Nakachi is concerned that Asian business owners are being defined too narrowly. He noted one line in Moran’s decision about the disparity of people eligible under the program: “A third-generation Japanese-American from a wealthy family, and with a graduate degree from MIT, qualifies.”

    “We have polled our membership and we can’t find any MIT graduates,” Nakachi said. “It’s kind of a stereotype that all Asians are highly educated and highly successful.”

    I know that’s what I look for in people in charge of public works projects: the conviction that they and their kind are as capable of being mediocre as anyone else is.

    Okay, fine–he didn’t say they were stupid or incompetent, only that their degrees might not have brand value and they might not have achieved prominent reputations. And I realize that I’m falling into the Gotcha! routine that Camille Paglia complained about in discussing blogs with Salon. (Well, she didn’t elaborate, but I assume she was referring to the practice of linking to an article, quoting its dumbest paragraph, appending some snarky put-down, and signing off.) But I find few things more infuriating than encountering people who are frankly anti-aspirational.

    Goring the Good Book

    Posted by Sean at 01:16, May 27th, 2004

    I know that at least one of you has guns in the house. Do me a favor, please? If I ever, ever, ever put a time-honored metaphor through the wringer like this, shoot me dead?

    “He planted the seeds of war. He harvested a whirlwind,” Gore added. “And now the corrupt tree of a war waged on false premises has brought us the evil fruit of Americans torturing and sexually humiliating prisoners who are helpless in their care.”