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    Iraqi prime minister to visit Japan

    Posted by Sean at 23:19, November 30th, 2005

    The Iraqi Prime Minister will visit Japan on 5 December:

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on 1 December that Prime Minister of Iraq [Ibrahim] al-Jaafari is scheduled for a two-day visit to Japan, beginning 2 December, during which he will meet with Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi. It is al-Jaafari’s first visit to Japan. He is expected to request once again that the deployment of SDF personnel in Iraq be extended. His visit is at Japan’s invitation, and [he and Japanese officials] will exchange views about the status of Iraq’s reconstruction and support [Japan can offer] from here forward.

    This is about the fiftieth time we’ve seen news that the extension of the SDF deployment has somehow become official, so perhaps the request next week will just be a face-to-face formality.


    Posted by Sean at 08:32, November 30th, 2005

    Another important step in the “trinity reform” package:

    On 30 November, the LDP’s policy research committee approved a proposed agreement between the government and the ruling coalition on reform of the tax, financing, and administrative relationship between federal and regional governments (“trinity reform”). In order to decrease the amount Tokyo gives to regional governments in subsidies, the federal government lowered its contribution (in percentage terms) to allocations for children and expenditures on educators who work in public elementary and junior high schools.

    The decrease comes to ¥654 billion. One way the agreement was finally reached was by saying goodbye (that’s the metaphor in Japanese, too–well, it’s more like “seeing off,” but the image is the same) to cuts in livelihood protection expenditures, which the regional governments had viciously opposed.

    For those who don’t know, “livelihood protection” is basically the system that guarantees a minimum standard of living for citizens. Workers pay into it at the same time as they pay into the national pension system; the payouts they receive, by contrast, come from the pension system alone, unless they end up impoverished. Why would federal and regional governments get into a tussle over which kind of funding to cut? Take a look:

    At the NHK Hall in Tokyo’s Shibuya on Monday [14 November], where a meeting to promote the decentralization of power was held, Tamotu Yamade, chairman of the Japan Association of City Mayors and mayor of Kanazawa, criticized the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for agreeing to even part of the subsidy cut proposal.

    “The problem of livelihood protection costs is merely a transfer of the burden” to local governments, he said.

    “Reforms without ideology will leave the root of the evil behind. We must staunchly fight,” Yamade said, triggering thunderous applause from about 3,000 mayors and local assembly members attending the meeting.

    At a news conference after the meeting, Aso said, “We would like the prime minister to take leadership this year to the last moment, unlike last year.”

    Local governments are opposed to cuts in subsidies for livelihood protection, which [sic] the Finance Ministry is pushing for such cuts. The local governments are willing to accept cuts in subsidies for facilities at public schools, but the ministry is against that.

    From the beginning, the Finance Ministry has been reluctant to subsidy [sic] reductions which do not lead to spending cuts, but is poised to oppose reductions in subsidies for school facilities, whose source is construction national bonds.

    Over the last fifteen years, the number of people drawing on livelihood protection has risen, naturally, at the same time as the economy was frequently slumping. Spinning off repsonsibility for the program could easily stick regional and local governments with new collection and accounting headaches without increasing their discretion over where money and resources go. Note also that it’s about as easy to get the federal government to agree to issue fewer bonds as it is to get Courtney Love to take fewer drugs.

    In separate but not unrelated news, the government plans to restructure out-of-pocket payments for patient care in the National Health system:

    On, 30 November, the government and ruling coalition decided on the broad outlines of two-phase reform for the health care system that would raise the amount patients pay for medical care beginning next year. First, the percent paid by high-income patients 70 and over will increase to 30% from the current 20%; after 2008, the percent paid by middle- and low-income patients between 70 and 74 will as a rule increase to 20% from the current 10%. Conversely, the plan folds in an expansion–from younger than 3 to younger than 6–of the age at which payment for children is slightly decreased to 20%. The goal is to hold down increases in health care costs by keeping an eye on payments exacted from people during their child-rearing years while making those from the aged more appropriate.

    I really don’t know clouds at all

    Posted by Sean at 23:44, November 29th, 2005

    Mark‘s Cloud Observatory doesn’t have comments, and I can’t find a contact address on his site, so I guess I have to post this here and figure he’ll see it.

    I’ve discovered that there are a lot of clouds shaped like the PRC. Not just China, but the whole thing including Xinjiang and (sorry, Richard Gere) Tibet. No joke, I see one at least, I’d say, every few weeks. (There are a lot of clouds shaped like Ireland, too, but the way the island is massed, I don’t find that surprising.) Are there PRC-shaped clouds over the US, too, or just over Tokyo? The latter would sort of freak me out if I were the type to believe in omens and stuff.

    On a more pleasing note, the entryway to our apartment is perfectly positioned for viewing Mars at around midnight right now. It gives you such a cool, primal feeling the way it hovers over all the rooftops and wires.

    Listen, can you hear the distance calling

    Posted by Sean at 23:46, November 28th, 2005

    With holiday travel (including my frenetic trip next week) coming up, your friendly TSA has released its air passenger recommendations.

    Note again that the first and most important contribution you can make the air security of the Republic is NOT TO BRING ANY LIGHTERS IN YOUR CARRY-ON BAGS.

    Also note that you should be getting to the airport “in plenty of time.” (Since the TSA, and not we hapless travelers, is in charge of safety procedures, perhaps it would be the better positioned to judge what “plenty” means. Say, two hours? Four hours? Just one hour if it’s a domestic flight? I guess they figured specifying a time would seem, you know, coercive and arbitrary. Wouldn’t want that.)

    Also, you won’t be required to take off your shoes. Well, unless you are.

    Enjoy your trip!

    Made possible by a grant from Mobil Corporation

    Posted by Sean at 05:42, November 28th, 2005

    There’s a post at Right Reason about gay marriage. I know–the topic has been flogged to death already, but Steve Burton’s post brings the topic back to some of the underlying social-fabric issues that can sometimes get lost as the debate gets pickier. The commenters also don’t suffer fools gladly, so if you can still stand the topic, it’s worth a read.

    There’s also a post that links to this piece about Julia Child as culinary conservative. Interesting, although if all cooks had followed known tradition and authority and been afraid to jump off a few cliffs, we might not have, say fugu in aspic. Or–generalizing beyond cooking–countries, such as ours, populated by venturesome immigrants.

    The Julia Child thing reminds me of when I was growing up. We’d come home from services on Saturday evenings, and Julia Child and Company would be on PBS some time around sunset. Later, there would be Mystery!, which I loved even as a small boy. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was that keen on watching a show where people were murdered all the time, but I maintain that the draw was the restoration of the moral order at the end of every episode.

    Anyway, the Mystery Channel in Japan has just launched and is part of my cable subscription, so I’ve encountered the odd nostalgic rerun–A Touch of Frost and the Joan Hickson Miss Marples and the like. (Not all of them are nostalgic. P.D. James couldn’t plot her way out of a paper bag, so I quickly bail if I realize I’m watching a dramatization of one of her coherence-free Dalgliesh porridges.) The other day, it got me thinking about a Mystery! series–one of the many British imports–that was broadcast when I was in elementary school. Since I had the laptop here open, I decided to see whether that nice Mr. Google could tell me anything.

    Man, there is nothing you can’t find on the Internet now. All I’d remembered was that it was about a writer whose wife’s Mini Cooper crashes, and that she’s taken to a place called the Meadowbank Clinic and held there while her alkie husband tries to figure out what’s happening to her. Looking for it, I came upon this page, which not only described the whole thing in impressive detail (“The Limbo Connection”–that‘s right!) but also reminded me of another series I’d completely forgotten.

    It was called “Quiet as a Nun.” In it, there’s a convent being stalked by a phantom nun who blacks her face out with a fabric mask. The site has a video clip of the climactic moment when the protagonist, your typical girlie but plucky suspense-story heroine, decides to go up into one of the towers looking for the Black Nun. She finds her, all right. shivers Watching it again thrilled every fiber of my gay being.

    House of horrors

    Posted by Sean at 04:51, November 28th, 2005

    So many dropped balls are coming to light in the Aneha scandal that I’m starting to expect Mr. Moose to wander by at any moment. One of the sticking points thus far had been over the degree to which the federal government should be helping out people who’ve been stuck with unsafe condos. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport has come up with a partial plan:

    Residents of housing blocks built on falsified structural integrity data who took out loans with the government’s Housing Loan Corporation to purchase their now unlivable homes, will be allowed to defer their loan payments, Construction and Transport Ministry officials said Sunday.

    This will be the first step the government has taken to help those living in 230 condominiums in question. However, only 14 of the households, or about 6 percent, of them took out loans with the corporation.

    Thus, the ministry is also looking into possibly assisting residents who borrowed from private financial institutions, the officials said.

    The ministry holds that the condominiums’ builders should fulfill the defect liability to rebuild the buildings free of charge before the ministry assists residents, but it is not clear how such firms, including Huser, will handle the problem and whether they have the necessary funds to rebuild the housing blocks.

    The ministry is searching for a way to extend a helping hand, as it will take time for the residents to rebuild their lives and they may be forced to repay their loans at the same time they pay rent on new homes.

    I hope my arch tone over the last week hasn’t made it seem that I regard this story as a joke. While it’s true that we’re very lucky no one was killed here, a lot of people have poured savings into mortgages that are now proving worthless. There’s nothing funny about that.

    There’s also nothing funny about the fact that, as the Asahi reported this morning, it’s beginning to look as if everyone–and I mean everyone–involved in these construction projects failed to be vigilant:

    The reports submitted by Aneha, who is based in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, were supposed to be thoroughly checked by eHomes Inc., a private-sector inspection company.

    At the same time, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport only carried out perfunctory reviews of the work done by eHomes in its annual inspection of the company.

    To compound matters, a number of local governments were also lax in their efforts to unearth irregularities in reports put together by Aneha.

    Land ministry officials searched the offices of eHomes in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward on Thursday and Friday to look into the company’s inspection procedures.

    Sources said that eHomes apparently failed to reconfirm the information included in the structural-strength reports as required by the Building Standards Law.

    The whole point of building redundancy into these sorts of procedures is to put as many pairs of eyes as possible on the same information: what one person doesn’t notice, everyone else will. What actually appears to have happened–all Tragedy of the Commons-like–is that everyone assumed everyone else was being vigilant, so once Aneha had put his fraudulent structural integrity reports into circulation, the falsifications weren’t discovered.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport made an announcement today:

    On 28 November, reacting to the scandal in which Aneha Design falsified the structural calculations for apartment complexes and other buildings, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport firmed up new policies of systemic revision that would require the name of any architectural subcontractor that performed structural calculations to be recorded in any application for a building permit. The intention is to have revisions enacted and implemented in basic construction laws governing application documents by the end of the year.

    Well, okay. I’m sure anyone who sees the name Aneha on a building permit application from here on will be sure to put it in the “Reject” pile. Otherwise, if there’s a way this will help ensure greater vigilance on the part of those in charge of inspection and certification, I’m not sure what it is.

    Like other federal ministries, the MLIT takes the tack that the safety of the public is too important for its operations to be spun off into private hands. Since protecting its citizens is the government’s primary responsibility, I’d be inclined to agree. But the above policy appears to add only a little more paper pushing (never a hard sell on bureaucrats). The fact is that it’s already the job of functionaries in government construction agencies to review structural calculations, and they didn’t do it. Perhaps the rules themselves could use some revision, but the major issue is pretty clearly the mindset. It’s not clear what anyone plans to do to change that.

    If you care to depress or scare yourself, BTW, the Japanese Nikkei now has a handy category page dedicated to the Aneha scandal–certain to be updated frequently for the foreseeable future, if this week is any indication.

    Are you hiding somewhere behind those eyes?

    Posted by Sean at 04:07, November 28th, 2005

    You know how there are pop culture artifacts that jolt you so forcefully back into the past that you physically catch your breath? Last week, for what must have been the first time in at least fifteen years, I heard “Electric Blue” by Icehouse. Not the greatest song in the world, but there are worse things to rip off than late-phase Roxy Music, and I’d liked it as a high school sophomore when it was out. I was listening to it on the train last week after work, on my way to Azabu Juban to meet a guy I know. In the sense that it reminded me of adolescent ways of thinking, it turned out to be a fitting soundtrack.

    A woman S. is in grad school with studies the coffee industry, of all things, and was having a party of some kind at a coffee house there; he’d asked whether I’d go. The place was full of grad students in their mid-twenties, many of them flirting in their characteristic don’t-forget-I’m-brainy way. Being a non-flirting guy ten years older than many of them and still dressed for the office, I kind of stood out.

    Friends greeted him. One of them duly asked S. where we’d met. It was a perfectly natural question, but the response came several very noticeable beats later. “Hmmmmm. It was a while ago. I really don’t remember.” A complete lie. Also an unconvincing one. He looked over at me, pretending to want me to jog his memory. I tried hard not to look amused. This happened once or twice more before the party was over, and as we were walking back toward the station, S. said, “I hate that question. Why should people ask something like that?”

    It was right around that point that I let myself show some unfiltered indignation. “Where did you meet?” I pointed out a little astringently, is probably the very least intrusive question it’s possible to ask when first meeting the friend of a friend. You can’t introduce someone to people without providing context; society and sociability simply don’t work that way.

    Either you bring a gay American guy in his thirties–who very clearly has no connection whatever to any world you’re known to frequent–to a gathering of your friends and expect to have to account for your acquaintance, or you navigate social life with your school friends (including the attendant secrecy) without any help from other gay guys. I cannot for the life of me understand the temerity of people who want to play both ends against the middle–drawing on gay organizations while remaining officially straight to their friends in “real life”–and then complain that they feel isolated or put on the spot.

    Upholding the law

    Posted by Sean at 00:09, November 28th, 2005

    They’ve arrested Shingo Nishimura. I don’t see much in the Nikkei report that adds to what we’ve heard over the last week, up to this anticipatory report from a few hours ago:

    Opposition lawmaker [lower house, DPJ–SRK] Shingo Nishimura will likely be arrested today in connection with allegations he allowed a former employee to pose as a lawyer to work on out-of-court settlements, sources close to Osaka prosecutors and police said.

    They said two of the Lower House member’s aides likely will also be arrested.

    Police believe the aides introduced Nishimura, a member of Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), to 52-year-old Koji Suzuki in 1998.

    Suzuki, who formerly worked in Nishimura’s law firm in Osaka Prefecture, was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of mediating insurance settlements for traffic-related cases even though he is not a member of the bar.

    The sources said police suspect Nishimura permitted Suzuki to mediate in 40 or so settlements, all of which took place after December 2002.

    Plenty of fraud to go around these days. It’s alleged that Nishimura falsely claimed for tax purposes that Suzuki was a salaried employee of the firm but instead put the designated amount into an off-the-books fund.

    Are you ready to jump?

    Posted by Sean at 08:40, November 27th, 2005

    When people say, “A long-distance relationship? I could never do that!” they usually don’t mean it any more literally you would when saying, like, “Call me any time.” It’s an exaggeration. An exaggeration of an abstraction meant as a compliment. I take it that way and respond in kind.

    Not infrequently, though, someone makes it clear that he means it literally, and that I do not get. I understand not starting a relationship with someone who lives too far away. Or if, say, your relationship has been rocky, a move away by one partner could be a convenient excuse for breaking up with no hard feelings before hard feelings break you up–I understand that, too. If it’s all working, though, the whole point of a relationship is to support each other through difficulties. What would I have said? “Well, Kyushu’s awfully far. And when I go out, I get a half-dozen numbers without even trying, so I’m thinking now might be a good time to explore some other possibilities”? I did enough exploring of possibilities in my twenties.

    I knew how Japanese companies worked before Atsushi and I met. People are transferred frequently, and at some point, even married couples with children often find themselves living apart, with the wife in the family house in Tokyo and the husband in a little company-provided cell near a branch office in the provinces. This isn’t some kind of unforeseen disruption. He’s the one who’s marooned in a boring city working a job that can often be dull. If he can bear it with a good grace, I don’t see why I can’t.

    Besides, he comes home often. Last night, we ran into a couple–friends of ours since we got together–who commented, affectionately if somewhat drily, that given how often they run into Atsushi and me at our usual haunts on Saturdays, you’d never know he supposedly lives in another city. He was here yesterday and today both because he wanted to have Thanksgiving with me and because, with my conference and subsequent trip home, we won’t be seeing each other for a month. Good, if brief, weekend.


    Posted by Sean at 00:19, November 27th, 2005

    This weekend’s earthquake in China not only is sad in and of itself, but is especially sobering for those following what’s happening with Japan’s beleaguered construction industry and government bodies.

    News is pouring in. The city of Hiratsuka in Kanagawa Prefecture (near Yokohama and the ancient capital of Kamakura) has acknowledged that it failed to check Aneha’s structural strength report:

    Municipal officials in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, failed to detect an architect’s lies about the quake-resistance of a hotel, saying his structural-strength report was simply too big to be checked in time.

    Hidetsugu Aneha, the Chiba Prefecture-based architect at the center of the growing scandal involving unsafe buildings, compiled the report for Park Inn Hiratsuka.

    “The structural strength report was a very thick one measuring about 10 centimeters, and it was very difficult to check it thoroughly in three weeks,” Hiratsuka Mayor Ritsuko Okura said Thursday.

    The oversight came to light after officials of the city’s urban policy department reviewed the report.

    The 14 columns on the first floor of the hotel had between 60 and 70 percent the required strength, sources said.

    Sounds like responsibility-dodging, huh? It may be worse than you think. In the week-and-change over which this story has been unfolding, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that at least some of Aneha’s falsifications should have been caught a long time ago. An on-site manager for the construction firm that built Sun Chuo Home # 15 in Funabashi apparently alerted the company as it was being built that it had too few girders. I’m quoting this at length so I can inflict on my Japan-based readers the full, creeping sense of horror I experienced when first reading it:

    An expert analysis has revealed that structural integrity data on two apartment buildings submitted by architect Hidetsugu Aneha had less than half the required earthquake resistance, with overly small pillars and girders used in the calculations.

    The analysis was provided by a first-class architect asked by The Yomiuri Shimbun to evaluate the plans of Aneha, who has admitted falsifying structural strength certificates for 22 buildings in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

    The expert said the structural data were an outright falsification, with various data combined to reduce material costs, and it was hard to imagine how the inspection agency involved failed to notice.

    Concerning the structural integrity data for Sun Chuo Home No. 15, an apartment building in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, the architect said, “I had an uncomfortable feeling looking at it at first glance.”

    The 10-story ferroconcrete building was designed by Aneha Architect Design Office in Ichikawa in the same prefecture, and constructed and sold by Sun Chuo Home Co. The Construction and Transport Ministry’s recalculation found the building has only 31 percent of the necessary strength.

    Bear in mind that these two condominium complexes were in Chiba Prefecture; they are not the same hotel that Hiratsuka is admitting it rushed through, and maybe Aneha was more careful to cover his tracks there. For his part, Aneha is accusing three of the construction firms with which he contracted of pressuring him to allow them to cut corners on structural strength.

    Several hotels have been closed. A few days ago, the city of Yokohama ordered a condominium evacuated, and now the federal government has stepped in, with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport taking the unusual step of threatening to invoke the building standards law to force people out of condos designated unsafe if they refuse to evacuate. It’s also proposing, naturally more stringent inspection procedures:

    Checks will be tightened on construction authorization procedures in the wake of a scandal that has uncovered dozens of apartment blocks and large buildings built using falsified structural integrity data, the government said Saturday.

    The Construction and Transport Ministry plans to introduce a manual on how to check the structural integrity data of building designs, as well as a random survey of government-designated private inspection companies.

    The ministry will submit the draft reform plan to the Panel on Infrastructure Development, an advisory body to the construction and transport minister, at a meeting to be held next month.

    Reviewing the checking system is one of the most important tasks to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

    “Until now, the system was based on trust in the inspectors,” a ministry official said. “But we must base it on the view that human nature is inherently evil.”

    Those who want to see the original of that last dramatic sentence can find it here: “これまでは設計者や、建築確認を行う民間機関、自治体などへの信頼が前提だったが、今後は性悪説に基づいた制度に変える。”

    I didn’t mention the China earthquake just because of its fatalities, BTW. Its magnitude was 5.7. That’s the Richter scale for released energy, not the JMA scale for surface vibration–still, by all accounts, the quake and aftershocks were strong but not major. I assume they were of about the intensity at which Aneha’s falsely certified buildings are expected to be at risk of failing.

    One of the things commentators have been saying since yesterday is that Jiangxi Province was lucky in a sense: most of the houses that are falling down are only one or two stories, so injuries and fatalities have been minimal. The hotels and apartments we’re talking about here in Japan are all, to my knowledge, multi-story structures. (At least one mentioned above is ten.) If, in the worst-case scenario, one of them collapsed, dozens of people could be buried in moments.

    Fortunately, counts of deaths and injuries in eastern China don’t seem to have ballooned overnight, so resources can probably be devoted to assisting those who have been displaced. It’s cold at night now, so keeping people out of the elements will be the first priority.