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    Bureaucracy in action

    Posted by Sean at 19:04, December 30th, 2004

    Japanese language and culture, as you’ve probably heard many times, are full of nuances as impossible to grasp as the wisps of smoke that curl toward heaven from a bowl of incense in a darkened room. Therefore, it may interest you to know that some concepts translate into and from English with no loss of meaning at all.

    Consider, as an example, the reform of government programs undertaken by the Koizumi adminstration and the ruling coalition that supports it. The idea is to deregulate and even privatize certain operations in certain spheres–Japan Post reform has gotten the most attention, but the health-care behemoth is on the list, too:

    Ministers attending a Cabinet meeting Tuesday agreed to give the report, presented Friday by the Council for Promotion of Regulatory Reform, an advisory body to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, serious consideration.

    In another gesture supporting easing government regulations, one of the prime minister’s key structural reform initiatives, the Cabinet approved a plan to revise in March the three-year deregulation promotion program that has been in force since April.

    In line with Koizumi’s public pledge to push forward with deregulation as an integral part of his reform agenda, in May the government established the Headquarters for Promotion of Regulatory Reform, made up of all Cabinet members.

    One of the top discussions in the regulatory reform council was on the idea of lifting the ban on providing mixed medical services, enabling patients to receive a combination of medical treatment covered by government-backed health insurance plans and medical treatment not so covered.

    The mixed medical service system currently is limited to hospitals designated by the government as medical institutions with specially advanced medical technology.

    The ban, of course, prevents some patients from having access to the best combination of treatments for whatever ails them. Westerners who have swallowed the entire media diet of stories about the self-abnegating Japanese, and thus think of the place as populated by 125 million potential kamikaze pilots, seem to imagine that everything federal employees do is attuned to the greater good. If you’re one such trusting soul, it may interest you to know that Japanese bureaucrats act like…well, bureaucrats:

    Objecting strongly to the council’s argument was the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, bureaucrats of which were anxious about a decline in the role of government-backed health insurance plans that come under the ministry’s jurisdiction.

    In defending its position, the ministry claimed that a mixed medical service system would deprive patients of the right to equal treatment.

    Major university hospitals, including those attached to Tokyo University and Kyoto University, meanwhile, pushed for a complete lifting of the ban, arguing that progress in advanced medical technology was being hindered by too many regulations around the government-backed health insurance plans.

    This resulted in a compromise being hammered out that ensured the ban remained, in return for a ministry promise to expand the current system to extend government-backed insurance coverage to exceptional cases currently not covered, such as heart transplants from brain-dead donors.

    It’s the sort of thing that belongs in a textbook, huh? Unelected officials find their authority (and thus their source of influence) threatened, and they justify their opposition by claiming that what they’re worried about is, of course, that reforms will infringe on the rights of citizens. Being career civil servants, they’re much better at strategy than their opponents, who, as the people who have to deal with the day-to-day problem being addressed, don’t make their livelihoods by maneuvering. Then, somehow, their territory is actually expanded by the plan ultimately extruded by the chain of committees, compromise proposals, and negotiations.

    I think it’s fair to say that most of the people who go into civil service here are as patriotic and idealistic as their counterparts. The problem isn’t really that Japanese bureaucrats are worse than bureaucrats elsewhere; it’s that the system disproportionately favors them. They get used to having their way as a matter of course, but they still get to see themselves as sacrificing personal gain because of the revolving-door system (that is, you take lower-than-private-sector pay through your normal working life, then get a cushy job in a private or semi-public company on retirement so you can spend the next 20 years making good on the connections you’ve built up). The recent economic troubles have made that system shakier, and the various bureaucracies have, understandably, therefore been clinging all the more to the power they’ve got. Reform is, needless to say, difficult in such an environment. Even a slight loosening of restrictions on treatments people can get is a good thing, though.

    The worst natural disaster?

    Posted by Sean at 11:25, December 30th, 2004

    I’m glad to see, finally, a news report that mentions that this may not be the deadliest disaster to hit Asia in recent memory:

    Rescue workers pressed on into isolated villages devastated by a disaster that could yet eclipse a cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1991, killing 138,000 people.

    I tried looking it up a few days ago, but “bangladesh ‘100,000 deaths'” produces a string of links to general infant mortality rates, so I wasn’t entirely sure my memory was serving me well. (BTW, the cyclone there is the word used for the Indian Ocean equivalent of a hurricane; it’s not like the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz.)

    It’s not surprising that people wouldn’t make the connection, of course. We can sincerely believe that all men are created equal, but that doesn’t stop us from identifying more with those whose particulars we share. And there are lots of particulars. Video cameras have become better and cheaper, and the tsunamis struck in many places where tourists (who tend to have their cameras handy when they leave their hotels) were plentiful. The sheer number of people who were able to film the waves as they hit is astonishing.

    Speaking of numbers, it may seem odd to read that there could be 1000 Swedish nationals–just Swedish nationals–killed. But it makes more sense when you consider not just people traveling directly from home but also the expats in Asia. It takes much less time (about 7 hours from Japan, Korea, or northern China) to fly to Southeast Asia than it does to fly home; costs are also low; and, if further incentive is needed, it’s wet and cold up here.

    Fortunately for surviving tourists, vacation spots tend to be easy to get in and out of–if not because they’re that way naturally, then because governments that know the value of tourist income have taken pains to furnish them with superhighways and airports. The places least accessible to transportation are where the populations of locals with the poorest infrastructure in other ways is, too. Hearteningly, those omnipresent video cameras are now being used during flyovers to assess damage and find lone survivors. The scope of the damage is horrifying, but it’s beginning to look as if it could have been a lot worse.

    Disaster relief and distribution

    Posted by Sean at 14:05, December 29th, 2004

    Interestingly, if predictably, the major problem that’s being reported with getting aid to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami involves distribution. Part of that is no one’s fault: while they’re obliterating villages, earthquakes and tidal waves aren’t gallant enough to leave passable roads and runways behind for the survivors after all.

    At the same time, it’s not just the physical infrastructure for the transportation of goods that’s a problem. It’s also information coordination, though even tenuously-unified countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka seem to be making amazing efforts. Developed countries would clearly have the infrastructure to do a lot better, but this sort of issue is not unknown to us, either. It affected the Kobe earthquake and Hurricane Andrew relief efforts. And even in business, which has time for the trial-and-error development of information management systems without thousands of dehydrating people to worry about, ruthlessly efficient distribution models of the WalMart style are…well, only as old as WalMart.

    I only wonder aloud about this because the talk has now, naturally, turned from how we could have warned people to how we could be getting supplies where they’re needed more quickly. There are clearly improvements that could be made, but there’s a huge amount of information to process on the fly, and much of it to be shared among groups that, shall we say, are not used to cooperating. Attention needs to be focused on helping people in exigent circumstances right now, but it will be interesting to see what we eventually learn that helps make our responses more resilient in the future.


    Posted by Sean at 20:02, December 28th, 2004

    A long-running story in Japan this year has been the so-called “It’s me” scam. It’s become such a fixture of the news, in fact, that its Wikipedia entry is already posted; the latest victim surfaced last week.

    It works like this:

    A large number of people, especially the elderly, have fallen victim to the so-called “It’s me, send money” scam in which swindlers posing as the victims’ children or grandchildren call and ask them to send money.

    Such swindlers typically call victims posing as their children saying, “It’s me.” They then lie that they had been abducted or caused a traffic accident, and ask the victims to remit money into designated accounts as ransom or compensation.

    The victims believe that they are actually talking to their children or grandchildren and remit the money. After contacting their children or grandchildren, they realize they had been tricked. By the time they contact the financial institutions or police, the money has been withdrawn from the account.

    The more sophisticated criminals will play recordings of sirens in the background to simulate an accident scene. If they know the cell number of the person they’re impersonating, they’ll repeat dial the number until the phone goes dead; that way they can explain to the victim that they’ll be out of contact until the money is remitted. In one of the more recent cases, a man was swindled out of the equivalent of over US $400,000. Yes, I checked the number of zeros.

    To American (and many other foreign) observers, this whole thing is incomprehensible. And by this point in time, the scam has been so incessantly publicized that it’s hard to believe people are still being taken in by it. While it’s true that criminals have changed their MO somewhat–often impersonating lawyers, police officers, or bank employees “on behalf” of close relatives–it boggles the mind that anyone is still remitting money to a strange bank account at the request of someone whose identity has not been confirmed.

    The initial mistakes were, however, understandable. I suspect that many of the victims were hard-of-hearing and didn’t talk to their children and grandchildren all that frequently, and strangeness of voice and idiolect could have been put down to agitation over the alleged emergency.

    Additionally, it just isn’t hard to believe in today’s Japan that a relative has taken out a loan and is about to get into big trouble for being unable to pay it back, which is the story frequently used. Many of us Americans can still imagine our parents’ or grandparents’ demanding to know, “Just how did you get yourself into this jam in the first place? And why on earth didn’t you tell me sooner?” Japan still teaches youngsters to depend on their elders a lot more than most Western countries do, though; in turn, it encourages those elders to see themselves as stewards of the family honor. Both of these are fine things that it would be nice to see America relearn. But Japan can take them to an extreme that can all but exclude personal responsibility, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were part of the reason that people have been squelching their native caution–in the most recent case, even after a helpful taxi driver got the police to warn the victim before she made the deposit–and forking over the money.

    Side effects of the Sumatra earthquake

    Posted by Sean at 13:38, December 28th, 2004

    One of the nasty things about a natural disaster such as this weekend’s earthquake + tsunami is that the danger doesn’t disappear with the waves. Sanitation and hygiene aren’t at the highest levels in South and Southeast Asia at the best of times; with decaying organic matter lying around all over the place and iffy access to food, water, and shelter, people in afflicted areas are at much greater-than-normal risk of serious infections. According to WHO projections, the number of deaths from malaria and Dengue fever, among other stock tropical menaces, could be twice as high as normal in the aftermath of the tidal wave. In some places, the figure could rival the death toll from the tsunami itself.

    Of course, these are projections. If the immediate effect of this sort of disaster is to show how physically fragile civilization is in the face of nature, the long-term effect is often to demonstrate how resilient people can be in the most appalling circumstances. At the same time, as the Nikkei report notes, Aceh Province in Indonesia was already famous for its recent violent infighting. That’s not the sort of environment in which efficient, need-based distribution of aid is going to be easy. In comparison, Sri Lanka, itself known until very recently as the site of one of the fiercest civil wars going, looks like a cakewalk. Fortunately, the greatest risks are right now, in the first few weeks after the tsunami, when the situation will still have the world’s attention.


    Posted by Sean at 13:13, December 28th, 2004

    Ooh, Tokyo is getting its yearly day of schnee. Of course, it’s just fluffy, wet stuff that disappears on contact with the (non-frozen) ground. The nice thing about a third-floor apartment, though, is that if you stand back a bit from the window, you just see the snow falling, not meeting its premature end. Atsushi comes in tomorrow. Unlike me, he hasn’t just gotten back from 2.5 weeks of lolling at the homes of parents and various friends; and banks are, of course, the sorts of environments in which the end-of-year crunch is especially intense. He apparently hasn’t even had time to write his New Year’s cards.

    The New Year is a big deal in Japan, in a way that sort of combines the meanings of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations at home. You’re supposed to pay your debts (a dark joke in this economy of massive household debt, but charming as a traditional ideal nonetheless), right wrongs you’ve committed and seek forgiveness, and reflect on your good fortune. To my very American palate, the festival foods–a select group of crustaceans, mollusks, and piles of fish eggs–are somewhat less yummy than Thanksgiving dinner; but the symbolism of good fortune and longevity is nice. And I like the oranges and glutinous rice.

    Ornate expressions of gratitude are woven through all Japanese social forms; but around this time of year, things get positively orgiastic, with gifts of beer and tea and cakes and other goodies to be sent to and received from clients and suppliers. The Japanese have not forgotten that their country’s staggering riches are of recent vintage, and the last 15 years of economic shake-up have reminded them that prosperity is fragile; the formal expressions of goodwill that can feel merely dutiful at other times of the year have extra power now.

    This is a good time to thank everyone once again for visiting here. When I asked Dean to set this site up in the spring, I was primarily looking for something to play with as a distraction from self-pity over Atsushi’s being transferred to Kyushu. I’d enjoyed commenting on other people’s blogs–yes, I’m aware that this is getting to be an old story–but frankly, I wasn’t eager to set up my own because of trolls. The decline in American civility gets me down enough so as it is. 200 visitors a day is a very modest amount of traffic, but it’s certainly enough to be trolled. The courtesy people have shown in their comments here and e-mails to me has reassured me a lot. I mean it. Thank you. And once again, Happy New Year.

    Niigata earthquake resurrection

    Posted by Sean at 20:54, December 27th, 2004

    Apparently jealous of all the attention those fault lines in the Indian Ocean are getting, the ground below Niigata decided to twitch at its beleaguered inhabitants this evening. It wasn’t really all that dangerous: 4.9 M, and a weak 5 on the JMA scale. But that’s the kind of shaking you definitely feel, and the disaster a few months ago involved multiple strong quakes and weeks of aftershocks. This morning’s quake was also strong enough to cause delays in the bullet train schedule, not because there were accidents but in order to conduct inspections. Just the sort of thing to get everyone back on edge just as things were returning to normal.

    Not quite government’s end

    Posted by Sean at 12:01, December 27th, 2004

    I was disappointed by Jonathan Rauch’s book Gay Marriage, which I thought made uncharacteristically spotty arguments. (Uncharacteristically for him, I mean–not, more’s the pity, for gay marriage advocates.) Being a sensible person, he knows how to confront reality, though; and with his new op-ed, he ends the year much better than he began it. Well, you have to roll yours eyes and move quickly past the loan shark analogy near the beginning. Part of his main point is this:

    The consensus has shifted rapidly, meanwhile, toward civil unions. The 2004 exit polls showed 35% of voters supporting them (and another 25% for same-sex marriage). Particularly after the Nov. 2 debacle, civil unions look to many gay-rights advocates like the more attainable goal. It is not lost on them that Vermont’s civil-unions law and California’s partnership program have proved surprisingly uncontroversial. For their part, social conservatives increasingly, if grudgingly, accept civil unions as deflecting what they regard as an attack on marriage. John Kerry endorsed civil unions, and in October Mr. Bush accepted them, saying, “I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that’s what a state chooses to do.”

    This year may be remembered as the time when civil unions established themselves as the compromise of choice. For an indicator, watch whether there is an outcry if state courts narrow the scope of the new amendments to allow civil unions and other partner programs. My guess is that few people will fuss.

    It’s been put to me that even civil unions wouldn’t be possible if activists hadn’t first gone the whole way and demanded “marriage rights” and then fallen back to what would then look like a more reasonable position. Maybe. It’s not possible to know. I myself think the collateral damage, as it were, has to be factored in: the fixing in the minds of Americans of an image of gay public figures as, yet again, screechy single-issue activists who think of nothing but themselves. It’s not fair to lay an equal share of the blame on moderate thinkers such as Rauch, but neither is it unfair to acknowledge that his influence was not always as salutary as it might have been. He’s still one of the best advocates we have, especially with Andrew Sullivan still off in Cloud-Cuckoo Land, and it’s a holiday treat (no one’s going to jump down my throat for not explicitly calling it “Christmas” now that it’s 28 December, yeah?) to see him coming around.

    (Via IGF)


    Posted by Sean at 11:25, December 27th, 2004

    I didn’t know this: the use of organs from brain-dead infants for transplants is not legal (I can only assume that’s what “not approved” effectively means). A Japanese national who works in Chile therefore had to send his 10-month-old son to Miami to get a multiple-organ transplant. It looks as if the surgery was successful.

    I heard you, but what did you say?

    Posted by Sean at 17:46, December 26th, 2004

    I’d prefer to keep my plans for self-improvement in the New Year private, but I’m perfectly happy to share the things I’d like you all to resolve to do for me. Since I like people with interesting vices, I’m not going to tell you to stop overeating, drinking, or smoking. What I would like everyone to stop over-indulging in are words–just three little ones that have rapidly become a public menace through their overuse by gays and our sympathizers.

    hate (used as n.) Oh, children, when your dotty gay Uncle Sean was in college ten years ago, we had many, many ways to accuse people of being intolerant. You could call someone “misogynist” or “sexist” if you thought he was keeping women down, “racist” if he questioned affirmative action, or “heterosexist” if he expressed any discomfort with homosexuality. If you wanted to imply that he was not only intolerant but pathological, you could call him “homophobic.” These pronouncements were shrieky and sententious, but rotating through the different charges at least preserved some variety of phrasing and subject matter.

    But, being busy people, we’ve dispensed with all that. Now hate is the word that slices, dices, peels, juliennes, and transforms ordinary radishes into professional-looking rose garnishes at the touch of a button. Just designate someone as “motivated by hate” and move on. The problem, of course, is that calling moral opposition (however misplaced we believe it is) an emotional reaction doesn’t make it one; Right Side of the Rainbow explained this beautifully.

    Fascinatingly, the venerable noun hatred is not abused this way. When you see someone mention “hatred of gays” or “hatred of women” or the like, you can normally trust him to confine his characterizations to people who really do want to infringe on our rights to self-determination without giving rational reasons. It’s a rare instance of more syllables = less airy pretension.

    second-class citizen (compound n., usually plu.) My objection to this one is less fundamental than my objections to the other two, so I have less to say about it. If second-class citizens were actually used in the process of making a thorough argument that marriage to the partner of one’s choosing is a basic human right, I wouldn’t mind so much; and occasionally, very occasionally, it is. Most of the time, though, it comes off as shorthand for, “Why don’t you love me?” It also tends to accompany coarse, overarching comparisons to the Civil Rights movement that, in my opinion, only hold up in very limited ways. The term has mutated into a buzzword rather than a concept useful for explicating one’s logic.

    self-respecting (adj., used esp. in negative construction “no self-respecting gay could possibly…”) I used to think I’d be overjoyed when the locution self-loathing dropped out of the queer public discourse. What a naif I was. The wording is gone, but it’s been replaced by a longer, more convoluted construction that is, if anything, more annoying. If I had a nickel for every time I read or heard the sentence, “No self-respecting gay could possibly vote for George Bush this year,” I’d be retired to a château with guys in loincloths dropping peeled, seeded grapes into my mouth by now.

    It was always obnoxious for one gay to call another “self-loathing” for deviating from the activist-approved list of political positions and life choices, but it was almost touching, in a weird way, in its suggestion that the addressee was just stuck in that denial stage on the way through coming out and it was making him behave like a jerk. Accusing someone of not being “self-respecting” goes the whole way and asserts that he’s a willful, reasoned-out jerk–in addition to implying that his sense of dignity is properly arbitrated by others.

    If I wanted to dwell on things that annoy me, I have no doubt that I could lengthen the above list without much exertion. If our commentators can start avoiding these terms, however–or at least being certain they’re using them to build and not substitute for argumentation–it will be a good thing for gay issues and for civility in general, neither of which has benefited from many of this year’s installments in the public discourse.

    Happy New Year.