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    London hit again?

    Posted by Sean at 08:51, July 21st, 2005

    More evacuations on the London Underground. Let’s hope no one’s been hurt.


    Heartbreaker

    Posted by Sean at 00:29, July 21st, 2005

    I’m not sure whether it’s the most depressing song ever, but Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover” is one of those country songs that play on the emotions very cunningly. From the very first verse, you know exactly what’s going to happen:

    I know this dress I’m wearing doesn’t hide the secret I have tried concealing
    When he left he promised me that he’d be back by the time it was revealing
    The sun behind a cloud just casts a crawling shadow o’er the fields of clover
    And time is running out for me–I wish that he would hurry down from Dover

    It’s not just that the story is as old as time–it’s that Parton sets it in the autumn, when things begin to chill and die. Of course, real babies are born in fall all the time, but within the universe of symbols in the song, Parton’s choice of season is significant.

    He’s been gone so long–when he left the snow was deep upon the ground
    And I have seen a spring and summer pass, and now the leaves are turning brown
    And any time a tiny face will show itself ’cause waiting’s almost over
    But I won’t have a name to give it if he doesn’t hurry down from Dover

    My folks weren’t understanding–when they found out they sent me from the home place
    My daddy said if folks found out he’d be ashamed to ever show his face
    My mamma said I was a fool, and she did not believe it when I told her
    That everything would be all right ’cause soon he would be coming down from Dover

    I found a place to stay out on a farm taking care of an old lady
    She never asked me nothing, so I never talked to her about my baby
    I sent a message to my mom with a name and address of Miss Elvah Grover
    And to make sure he got that information when he came down from Dover

    I loved him more than anything, and I could not refuse him when he needed me
    He was the only one I’d loved, and I just can’t believe that he was using me
    He couldn’t leave me here like this–I know it can’t be so, it can’t be over
    He wouldn’t make me go through this alone, oh, he’ll be coming down from Dover

    My body aches, the time is here, it’s lonely in this place where I’m lying
    Our baby has been born, but something’s wrong–it’s much too still–I hear no crying
    I guess in some strange way she knew she’d never have a father’s arms to hold her
    And dying was her way of telling me he wasn’t coming down from Dover

    Look me dead in the pixels and tell me you’re not depressed. The fourth verse was omitted from the original version on The Fairest of Them All, but Parton reinserted it on her wonderful remake a few years ago on Little Sparrow. She changed the phrasing in places, too. In either version, the story is beautifully paced–each step at which the protagonist is further isolated from people and still doesn’t get what’s going on positively hurts to listen to. Dramatic irony at its most devastating. And unlike many of the old ballads from which Parton (among a lot of other country songwriters, of course) drew inspiration, the poor girl doesn’t end up dead and at least out of her misery.


    I hear no one ever dies there

    Posted by Sean at 21:01, July 20th, 2005

    This is one of the many reasons I love Susanna:

    I just don’t think they’re [leftists, of course] being very realistic about the threat, which is not the same as questioning their honesty, morality or intelligence. I know a lot of people who I consider exemplary on all three counts who disagree with me on the WOT, both liberals and conservatives. So it’s not that either. But there are a lot of liberals and leftists who do give cover – just consider any of your garden-variety pseudo-intellectual Hollywood types like, oh, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, etc. And consider the leadership of the Democratic party as well as the nattering leftists in the US and Europe, whose primary solidarity is built on anti-Americanism arising from their own sick envy. I consider them the rankest hypocrites, demanding the freedoms and excesses of the West while succoring the fascists of radical Islam whose first activity on taking over any country would be to end the freedoms and excesses Western civilization provides. And finally, I’m not parroting a party line – I’m a lot harsher than the party line tends to be.

    Yeah, we only wish the party line were that uncompromising. Susanna quotes Peter Tatchell’s statement on Unite Against Terror. In my opinion, Tatchell is one of the few lefty gay voices consistently worth listening to. He may stage wacko demonstrations and support “international socialism” [shiver], but he knows how to make arguments applicable to Earth and not Planet Clare.


    Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Canberra anymore

    Posted by Sean at 20:39, July 20th, 2005

    Re. US-Japan security ties, the Yomiuri reports that the Department of Defense has asked Japan to give us a heads-up if, say, the DPRK fires a missile at us:

    The United States, as part of its missile defense program, has asked the government to share any information obtained by advanced radar systems in Japan as soon as they detect a U.S.-targeted ballistic missile attack launched from such countries as North Korea, government sources said Tuesday.

    Any such missile launch would probably first be detected in Japan by an advanced early warning radar system known as FPS-XX.

    The next-generation high-performance radar system, which is in its final stage of development by the Defense Agency’s Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI), will be a pivotal component of the nation’s missile defense system scheduled to be deployed 2007.

    The government is set to accept the U.S. requests for assistance saying there would be no problem in sharing information in the event of a missile attack on the United States, the sources said.

    The pattern for new gizmos with “next generation” attached to them is one of delayed roll-outs and lots of debugging after release, in my experience. Nevertheless, despite its trouble launching rockets and satellites, Japan’s ground-based surveillance is very good.

    Ambassador Thomas Schieffer has also asked Japan to extend the deployment of SDF personnel in Iraq again:

    Schieffer told reporters at the National Press Club of Japan that it is Tokyo’s decision, but countries in the multinational force are expected to make tough choices to help establish democracy in Iraq.

    “We know that that was a threshold to cross for the Japanese government and the Japanese people. It is not an easy thing for them to be there,” Schieffer said.

    “But we think that their contribution is making a difference, and it is a contribution that they can proudly say they are making on behalf of the international community, and not because the United States is there,” he said.

    “All of us have to do things that we would prefer not to do from time to time,” he added.

    Schieffer’s comments came as Tokyo and Washington have begun working quietly on how to interpret U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 to allow an extension beyond the Dec. 14 expiry stipulated under the basic dispatch plan approved last year by the Cabinet.

    With the brouhaha over Japan Post reform, other issues before the Diet and cabinet aren’t really getting much play in the news here. It seems unlikely that Koizumi will be inclined to pull out early.

    I still don’t really know what to make of Schieffer. He’s far less a media presence here than Howard Baker was. Not that the old ambassador was all over the society pages, or anything, but he was quoted very regularly in news reports. Schieffer is much quieter. Perhaps he’s getting his bearings–he’s not a really seasoned politician as Baker was. Or perhaps he simply finds it politic to shut up, given the topics there are to opine on lately: anti-Japan sentiment in China, friction over politicans’ pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine, Japan’s push for permanent UN Security Council membership. These aren’t exactly easy shoals to navigate, and Schieffer has only been on duty here since April.


    I have run you down into the ground

    Posted by Sean at 20:18, July 20th, 2005

    Hmmm…. Morning…. Cup of strong tea, scrambled eggs with way too much butter…. Classical Values…. WHAT?! [splutter]

    Does this sick phenomenon called “outing” know no bounds? I mean, it’s bad enough to go after a politician for “hypocrisy” when his personal life runs afoul of his stated political views. But to go after a family member? This was the kneejerk reaction of certain Daily Kos regulars, who wasted no time in calling for an investigation to determine whether John Roberts’ son is gay.

    This is now being dismissed as absurd because, of course, the son happens to be four years old.

    Disgraceful. In fairness, two Kos commenters did have the decency to point out that going after Roberts’s son was at least ignorant. (I would have preferred to see them point out that it was outrageous, but you can’t have everything.)


    One and one and one make five

    Posted by Sean at 05:23, July 20th, 2005

    Frequent commenter John has had his own blog for a few months–it’s very good stuff.

    There have been a lot of posts about math education floating around lately. His two (here and here) are great additions to the pool. Something that he says that more people need to understand (and that is pertinent to comparisons of American and Japanese educational systems):

    So being Americans, and enamored of the idea that everyone can become a genius, we came out with systems that emphasized creativity over memorization, forgetting that in order to be creative you need at least a few facts in your head, otherwise you live in a world of make-believe.

    Somehow, the conviction that your progress in life needn’t be limited by the circumstances you were born into has changed into the belief that you can bluff your way through anything. (That actually doesn’t work much better in literary study than it does in math, BTW, as anyone who’s lost hours of life to an assigned “critical theory” reading of zero meaning can attest. It’s just less noticeable because there’s at least some fudge room in interpretation and criticism. And misinterpreting a poem doesn’t make bridges fall down.)


    USSC nominee

    Posted by Sean at 22:38, July 19th, 2005

    Bush’s nominee for the US Supreme Court seems to have surprised everyone. For those of us who don’t believe the Constitution is a mirror, he sounds like a great choice. The Washington Blade cites this AP report:

    “The court’s conclusion in Roe that there is a fundamental right to an abortion … finds no support in the text, structure or history of the Constitution,” the brief [from Roberts] said.

    In his defense, Roberts told senators during his 2003 confirmation hearing that he would be guided by legal precedent. “Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land. … There is nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent.”

    Of course, the usual spokespersons are saying the usual things, and they’ll all be paraded across the news channels for the foreseeable future–I know some people like that aspect of politics, but I frankly find it wearying. One thing I would like to see, though, that I haven’t come across in the news reports yet: Arlen Specter’s reaction. He’s a triangulating moderate himself, and he was fond of Sandra Day O’Connor. I mean, obviously, he’s going to say something politic. When does he not? Still, Roberts looks more consistently conservative than he’d hoped for.


    Big in Japan

    Posted by Sean at 10:01, July 19th, 2005

    What’s the latest trend in Japan? Class consciousness, according to Time:

    Japan, a country that prides itself on social harmony, homogeneity and an equitable distribution of wealth, is bifurcating along geographic and social lines into camps of permanent winners and perpetual losers—the former a highly educated and trained core of élite employees and entrepreneurs working for internationally competitive companies, the latter an increasingly marginalized yet growing sector of society comprising primarily elderly rural poor and despairing urban youths like Ijiri. “In the past, people believed that the whole nation was getting wealthier, and the rich were simply the people who got there quicker,” says Toshiki Satou, a sociologist at the University of Tokyo (U.T.). “But that is changing. People are becoming more aware of class.”

    It’s funny that the writer, Jim Frederick, who happens to be Time Asia‘s Tokyo bureau chief, should say that. Long-term Asia residents may remember the puff piece from a few years ago in which he fawned over Japan and its resilience with embarrassing sycophancy:

    In the wreckage of Japan’s increasing inability to compete against the lower labor costs and rekindled ambitions of its rivals, however, a number of observers both inside the country and out are turning to the nation’s creative and cultural enterprises as a source of potential salvation. For this has been one of the greatest Japanese ironies: even as Japan’s economic leadership has been slipping for more than a decade, its cultural hegemony has only swelled. “Japan has changed from being a corporate manufacturing and industrial society to a pop-culture society,” says Ichiya Nakamura, a visiting scholar at Stanford Japan Center and M.I.T. Media Lab. Pokémon has supplanted Astroboy in the hearts of schoolkids in more than 65 countries, and 60% of the world’s animated-cartoon series are made in Japan. Games running on PlayStation 2 and (to a lesser degree) Nintendo’s Game Cube rule the video-game universe just as tightly as before, despite a frontal attack from none other than Microsoft and its sinister-looking black Xbox. And high-end Japanese fashion designers such as Hanae Mori, Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake are not only as vital as they once were; they have also been joined by a generation of young turks such as A Bathing Ape, Jun Takahashi and Naoki Takizawa who set the style for hipsters from Berlin to Bangkok and beyond. Japanese films, TV series, music acts and lifestyle magazines, meanwhile, routinely spark fads all over Asia. (Turn on MTV in Singapore or Hong Kong and you are just as likely to see Ayumi Hamasaki as J. Lo.) According to Tsutomu Sugiura, director of the Marubeni Research Institute, an economic think tank, Japanese cultural exports—such as from the media, licensing, entertainment and other related industries—have tripled over the past 10 years to $12.5 billion, while manufacturing exports have increased by only 20%. Granted, $12.5 billion seems like a rounding error in Japan’s $4 trillion economy (Toyota alone hauls in nearly $11 billion in sales every month), but it’s still the result of a growth rate almost unheard of anywhere else.

    Note that in the article from this past week, it is exactly the imaginative/arty fields that he’s pointing to as unable to take up the slack of Japan’s domestic conventional industry. Of course, smart people discard prior assumptions as reality refutes them; I’m not finding fault with Frederick for changing his mind. The obnoxious part is the flat learning curve. His succession of articles over the past few years, each pushing the latest funky-news-from-Japan-of-the-week line, shows little to no ability to judge, based on long-term patterns in Japanese society, which trends are likely to last and why.

    He also fails to ask some glaringly obvious questions:

    Even if he could find work, Ijiri says he feels unprepared to join the winner-takes-all rat race of postindustrial Japan. He longs for his father’s era, the heyday of Japan Inc., when young adults were whisked directly from college into a womblike corporate career, where they would be sheltered by a paternalistic business culture for life. “People like me who aren’t particularly talented at anything are happier with the old system of lifetime employment and seniority-based salaries,” he says. “The supposed ‘chances and opportunities’ that a competitive economy offers is for those who are already steps ahead.” Ijiri later found work as a security guard, hardly the future he once envisioned for himself.

    Frederick lets these observations pass without comment, but they are hardly self-evidently true. The most uncharitable interpretation is that, now that Japanese workers are being assigned their true market value, many of them are discovering that they were meant to be security guards rather than engineers. But even that isn’t necessarily the case. Someone who wrote so rapturously about Issey Miyake and Hanae Mori and their successors must be aware that the post-War Japan, Inc., system worked by squeezing everyone into the mediocre middle. That meant that uninspired low achievers were lifted up, but it also meant that imaginatively brilliant oddballs were tamped mercilessly down. It may be, in fact, that Ijiri has talents that the educational system, bent on making him a good, noiseless cog, didn’t help him to discover, much less develop.

    A related point:

    To get a glimpse of the wealth gap, travel 400 km from prosperous Tokyo to the Shimane prefecture town of Ohda, a listless burg struggling to support its aging population of 33,000. Along an incongruously wide, modern superhighway linking Ohda with the nearest train station, the only signs of economic activity are abandoned construction sites. Shimane is one of the poorest and least populated regions in Japan and has no industry to speak of save public-works projects; one out of eight residents is tied to the construction industry. But because of fiscal austerity measures implemented by the Shimane prefectural government, even public-works jobs are under threat.

    Note the way a bottomless supply of public works jobs, even those that involve building unnecessary superhighways and other construction boondoggles, is considered normal, with any throttling back deemed a mark of “austerity.” In fact, the river of concrete that washed over Japan’s rural areas simply disguised what’s been true for decades: Japanese citizens have urbanized and to a great extent abandoned the remote countryside. They’ve taken with them the need for most public works projects; facilities built in outlying areas have mostly served pork-barrel politicians and helped the LDP to mobilize its important rural supporters.

    The 12.5% of Shimane residents in construction were laboring under an illusion long before the bubble burst. Taking the sensible abandonment of white elephants as a sign of some new “wealth gap” is just wacko.

    I think my, uh, favorite part is here, however:

    Yet, while the poor get poorer, the rich are getting richer. Last month, the national tax agency released its annual list of the country’s top 100 taxpayers. Tatsuro Kiyohara, a 46-year-old fund manager at Tower Investment Management, ranked No. 1, with a tax bill that suggested a personal income of approximately $100 million. This marked the first time a wage earner had captured the top spot, an occasion that many writers and talk-show hosts alternately hailed and lamented as a signature moment in the new, more Darwinian society—for Kiyohara’s pay is almost entirely performance-based. The Nikkei Weekly business newspaper opined: “This new era is one in which individuals can have a significant impact on a company and its image, as demonstrated by the enormous compensation paid to this one person for creating new revenue streams.”

    Yes, it’s a sure sign of doom when people start earning money at a level commensurate with their productivity, huh? What’s amazing about Frederick’s article is that, except for a glancing quotation from someone else about the social-democratic system, no one ever gets around to pointing out the obvious: Japan’s social and economic policy have painted it into a corner.

    The effects are exacerbated by but were not caused by that chic bogeyman the global economy. Post-War Japan built a society in which globally competitive manufacturers accounted for about 30% of the economy; their staggering success allowed the other 70% to operate inefficiently without much notice. The school system trained students to think of themselves as interchangeable team members who would be taken care of for life and would not have to use their individual resourcefulness and imagination to solve their own problems.

    But bills eventually come due. I feel very sorry for people like Ijiri–his elders assured him for his first two decades on this Earth that the world would work a certain way, and he has every right to feel betrayed now that he’s learned it does not. One can only hope that he and others in his position are eventually galvanized into action by the experience. What Time casts as the unfortunate intrusion of class consciousness onto Japanese society is simply the realization that a major economic power cannot afford, indefinitely, to pay millions of workers to stamp papers all day and pretend they’re actually getting something done.


    Leave your worries behind

    Posted by Sean at 23:45, July 18th, 2005

    Good weekend. It was sunny Saturday (it’s supposed to be the rainy season, remember), so the view from the mountaintop restaurant we went to was fantastic. We’d had lunch at a lakeside cafe not far from the airport. At one very Japanese moment, we were looking out at the (many) dragonflies buzzing around the window. The flightpath to the airport was in the middle distance, and suddenly, a landing airliner glided into view so that it looked the same size as the dragonflies flitting around inches away. They seemed to be playing together for a moment. It was beautiful.

    Sunday we went to the hot spring, stopping at an old aqueduct along the way. Water is released in a big, frothy arc for 15 minutes at noon; along with a lot of other tourists, we were there to take pictures and stuff. From there to the inn, Atsushi decided to follow the GPS map program’s suggested route. Apparently, the suggestions were made by dryads. We found ourselves on a one-lane road snaking over a mountain, with leaves growing in so closely the car touched them on both sides. (They were great for visibility, too. Poor Atsushi took a deep breath before every hairpin turn.) Most of the way there was no shoulder–and I don’t mean they didn’t bother to pave anything beyond the white line; I mean the vertical dropoff began at the white line. At one point, where the forest canopy converged what seemed like inches above the car roof, I said, “I keep expecting to see a witch’s cottage around every bend,” at which point my much-tried man muttered, “No self-respecting witch would be caught dead living back here.”

    The inn was worth it, though. It was new, so there were more man-made materials and obvious machines around than one might have liked for a hot spring, but you can’t get away from that. All the guest huts were named for flowering plants. We unfortunately didn’t get the one called after the flower of Atsushi’s family crest, but ours was on a high point with a great view of the valley and fields (and ubiquitous electrical-line tower–which wasn’t nearly as endearing juxtaposed with nature as the passenger jet had been). We were in one of the baths when the lashing rains and lightning drew near. When I was no longer able to count “1-one thousand” between the flash and the boom, we decided bath time was over for now.

    The drive back into the city was relatively uneventful. There’s a national park with flower gardens at the edge of Oita Prefecture, so we stopped there. It’s lavender season, so the fields were grey with it. It looked like purplish steel in the sun. We had lavender-flavored ice cream at one of the stands before heading back.

    Needless to say, all of this butching it up took a lot out of me. I’m back in Tokyo and headed to the office and may or may not feel up to posting tonight. On the other hand, there was an article about Japan in Atsushi’s latest Time Asia that got my blood boiling–Isn’t July a little early for such a big turkey? I thought while reading it. I may be banging something out about it before bed. Few comments I want to respond to, too.

    For now, I leave you with a summer poem by Princess Shokushi:

    かへり来ぬ昔を今と思ひ寝の夢の枕ににほふ橘

    式子内親王

    kaerikonu / mukashi wo ima to / omohi ne no / yume no makura ni / nihofu tachibana

    Shokushi Naishinnô

    I float into sleep,
    a past that will come no more
    made now in my thoughts–
    at the pillow of that dream
    the scent of orange blossoms

    The Princess Shokushi

    The fragrance of orange blossoms is said to excite the memory. When the princess awakes, the scent makes her feel the more keenly that some nostalgic memory, which she knows she will never live through again, had actually returned to life in her dream. It’s a little late in the summer for this poem, I think, and it’s not one of those with 500 fascinating allusions you can write a thesis on. Lovely, though.

    Hope everyone else had a wonderful weekend.

    Added on 20 July: I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I inserted that caesura above. Many Japanese waka are, in fact, constructed so that the first three lines (5-7-5 syllables) conjure up a feeling or reaction and the last two lines (7-7 syllables) give the concrete sensory stimulus for it. They can be difficult to translate because putting the caesura in the same place, in order to preserve the dramatic pause of the original as faithfully as possible, gives you less leeway in rendering each of the two parts.

    Princess Shokushi’s poem above is different. It’s one of those that come out in a long rush. The m and n consonants that dominate give the description a heady feel, when the images are actually rather plain. The whole poem is a long prenominal modifier for the final word, 橘 (tachibana: “orange tree,” which refers to a variety of citrus that’s a little different, of course, from those that produce the baseballs you buy with “Sunkist” stamped on them). If you translated it directly and in English word order, you’d get something like this (I’d like to apologize in advance to the Princess’s kami for the act of violence I’m about to commit):

    The orange tree wafts its scent at the pillow of the dream in which I’ve gone to sleep thinking that the past that will not return is now.

    Obviously, this was an occasion for compromise, and I figured that maybe making each line kind of self-contained and billowy would compensate for not being able to reproduce the liquidity of the original. It seemed most important to keep the orange tree at the end, where it supplies the moment of sensual awareness. I’m afraid the result was a little precious, though.


    Es-ca-pade

    Posted by Sean at 12:49, July 15th, 2005

    Today was one of those days when I really loved my job. I mean, I always love my job, but not every day comes together so beautifully. And tomorrow morning, to continue the theme of joy, I take off to see Atsushi for the three-day weekend in Kyushu. (I hope the hot spring we’re going to hasn’t been washed away.) If I’m feeling especially ambitious at 5:30 when I get up to go to the airport, I might look at the computer. Otherwise, there may be a post or two from Atsushi’s place (we think of it as our country villa) but I probably won’t be bloviating much until Tuesday. Have a great weekend, everyone.