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    And Muzak filled the air / From Seneca to Cu’hoga Falls

    Posted by Sean at 08:37, April 24th, 2006

    Chrissie Hynde’s one of those people like Madonna for me–I’ve been a swoony fan for over two decades, but never, ever would I want to meet her. What a bitch. But then, she’s a rock star, so she’s supposed to be a bitch and make maddening pronouncements about political issues she doesn’t understand and blow a lot of money on living high.

    Anyway, there’s an interview with her in Billboard on-line that, in two passages, tickled my funny bone big-time. The profanities come thick and fast, naturally, so even though they’re bleeped in the original anyway, I’ll put the citations below the jump.


    Japan agrees to pay 59% of Guam troop transfer

    Posted by Sean at 02:08, April 24th, 2006

    Japan Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga says Japan and the US Department of Defense have come to an agreement on the military restructuring issue:

    Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga told reporters after his three-hour meeting Sunday with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that Japan wanted to have an appropriate sharing of costs in transferring 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the Pacific island of Guam.

    Japan has offered to pay $2.8 billion. It would also finance loans to the United States worth $3.3 billion, the remainder of its $6.1 billion share. Japan would shoulder 59 percent of the realignment cost.

    “We have come to an understanding that we both feel is in the best interests of our two countries,” Rumsfeld said after the meetings.

    Japan and the United States are close allies. On Friday, Japan’s Cabinet approved a six-month extension of its non-combat support for the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, officials said.

    Of course, there are still some hurdles to be cleared, but they’re mostly internal, related to NIMBY and environmental issues raised over proposed new sites for some military facilities to be relocated within Japan. None of the reports I’ve seen indicates that Nukaga gave word of any changes on those.

    The Nikkei, BTW, says that Ambassador Thomas Schieffer was present for part of the negotiations in Washington. No statement from him that I’ve seen, though, which is as per usual. His presence hasn’t really seemed to register much, at least compared to Howard Baker’s. Interestingly–and I can’t believe I didn’t notice this before–the restructuring of US military presence is not listed as one of the “Issues in Focus” on the US Embassy homepage.


    New Yasukuni visit

    Posted by Sean at 09:38, April 23rd, 2006

    And just to drive home that one-big-happy-family feeling….

    Courting the likelihood of another outburst from overseas, 96 members of a suprapartisan lawmakers’ group visited war-related Yasukuni Shrine on Friday, the first day of an annual three-day spring rite.

    The politicians belong to a group called Minnade Yasukunijinja ni Sanpaisuru Kokkaigiin no Kai, which literally means, “A group of Diet members who visit Yasukuni Shrine together.”

    The 96 lawmakers who visited Friday included former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Makoto Koga, who currently serves as the head of Nippon Izokukai, an association for bereaved family members of the nation’s war dead.

    Well, all right, then. (BTW, that name really is a mouthful–皆で靖国神社に参拝する国会議員の会. They must have some eyecatching letterhead.)


    al dente

    Posted by Sean at 08:21, April 23rd, 2006

    Now, I know I have a few readers who cook, and all I can say is, My dears, you are NOT adequately taking care of America while I’m gone.

    On Japanese cable, they tend to air US shows with almost no commercials; that means that a show that’s an hour long at home has fifteen minutes of dead space at the end, and on some channels, they fill up the time with kitchen gadget commercials.

    So it is that I’ve just spent several minutes laughing my ass off at a commercial for something called the Pasta Express. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a parody. Are people seriously that easily gulled? You pour boiling water into a plastic tube full of pasta and let it sit for fifteen minutes? We’re making wallpaper paste, I assume? The commercial is beyond ridiculous, purporting to save the hapless householder from such difficulties as aiming the pot so that the pasta lands in the collander and…uh, I’m not sure what else the point is. You can’t possibly be shortening the cooking time by not having a heat source keeping the water boiling. And even the commercial makes the pasta look clumpy when it comes out of the tube.

    But you can apparently use the thing to make hotdogs or boiled vegetables and other things that are difficult to make with an ordinary stockpot and stovetop, too. Yet another advance in modern life.


    Rough seas

    Posted by Sean at 05:49, April 23rd, 2006

    If Japan pays attention to US-China relations, China also knows to pay attention to Japan-Korea relations. This is from the Nikkei:

    Chinese newspapers such as The China Daily and The Beijing Times reported on 23 April that China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency has evaluated the agreement between Japan and South Korea revolving around maritime exploration in the area around Takeshima (Korean: Tokuto) as “a result that is to Japan’s advantage.”

    Xinhua’s commentary about this round of discussions indicated that, while it appeared that both sides had made concessions, Japan had “snatched up all the rights to take the lead.” It explained that Japan had squeezed Korea by suddenly announcing that it was going to begin maritime exploration and putting its surveying ships on standby, which backed the ROK into a corner.

    East Asian governments never seem to tire of accusing each other of being sly and underhanded. What’s hilarious in this case, of course, is that the PRC itself has just caused more friction with Japan by putting a blockade around one of the disputed natural gas fields in the East China Sea. (To close the information Moebius Strip, let’s cite a Korean news source on that one.) Maybe that’s okay because it wasn’t sudden?

    Anyway, I’ve been very slack about posting about Japan news lately, so I don’t think I mentioned that Tokyo had, indeed, announced that it was going to start seabed exploration around Takeshima. The dispute that, of course, arose with the ROK was resolved last week:

    Japan and South Korea reached an agreement Saturday that says if Tokyo cancels a planned maritime survey near the Takeshima islets, Seoul will not propose naming seafloor topography around the disputed islets at an international conference in June.

    Administrative Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi and Yu Myung Hwan, South Korean first vice minister for foreign affairs and trade, reached the agreement to settle the row over the islets in Seoul after their two-day meeting that started Friday.

    Japan will not conduct, at least for the time being, the planned survey strongly opposed by South Korea. In exchange, Seoul gave up a plan to give Korean-language names to the seafloor topography.

    So we can look forward to yet more mutual recriminations in the future.

    Here‘s how the East China Sea (not to be confused with the East Sea, which is what Koreans call the Sea of J***n) situation stood a week ago:

    China has banned ship traffic around a disputed gas field in the East China Sea that is claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo as Chinese workers lay pipelines and cables to tap its resources, Japanese media reported Sunday.

    The move is certain to spur protests from the Japanese government, which has been deadlocked in negotiations with China over rights to the undersea energy deposits. The Pinghu gas field lies in an area that straddles a median line that Japan considers the border between the two countries’ territorial claims.

    China, however, makes a wider territorial claim that envelopes the entire field.

    Chinese maritime authorities have posted a notice that all unauthorized ship traffic will be banned in the waters around the Pinghu field from March 1 to Sept. 30, Kyodo News agency and Fuji Television Network reported.

    Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both Japan and China have signed, coastal countries can claim an economic zone extending 370 kilometers from their shores. The disputed reserves lie within both countries’ claims, and the United Nations has until May 2009 to rule on the matter.

    Bear in mind that no one really knows whether there’s a bountiful supply of natural gas under there–the major issue is that the country whose exploration and development are more advanced stands a better chance of winning when the UN rules, so it’s in the best interests of each disputant to find out as soon as possible.


    I’m not immune / I love this tune

    Posted by Sean at 07:01, April 22nd, 2006

    I hadn’t gone to Omotesando Hills, the latest gargantuan Mori Building project, until this past weekend. Atsushi likes architecture and always has a memorably arch comment about something or other whenever we visit a new place together, so I wanted the first time I saw the place to be with him.

    I like Roppongi Hills much more than I’d expected to when it opened. It’s kind of confusing at first, and the architecture is on the anonymous upscale-mall side, but that’s part of what makes it adaptable to all its uses. I have a friend or two in the apartments, and they (the apartments, not my friends) are utterly underwhelming in terms of aesthetics or amenities, apart from the views. But the address has major big-time cachet, and it’s certainly a location that’s easy to get around from.

    I haven’t seen the apartments at Omotesando Hills, and the site is smaller and wedged in very tightly among existing buildings, so I don’t think it was conceived of as its own little village as Roppongi Hills was. The main building, which has most of the stores and restaurants, is the kind of structure that architecture critics have spasms of ecstasy over, presumably because they’ll never have to shop there. (And the building was designed by Tadao Ando, so the accolades were probably phoned in even before the groundbreaking ceremony.) The place is claustrophobic and dark; when we got to the top level, I half-expected the ceiling to be dripping with limey water and have sleeping bats hanging from it. And they had this atonal electro-xylophone music playing, loudly, on the PA system–really distracting.

    Otherwise, Tokyo’s been doing a lot to remind me why I love living here lately. The weather over the last week has been completely schizo; there was a wonderful, chilly rainstorm–just coming down in sheets–on Tuesday night. The neon and drably colored midnight buildings always look better with a slick of rainwater, and the mist made the cranes and other construction equipment for the new Meiji Avenue subway line look like dinosaurs. The next day was blindingly clear, but sunny in that spring way, and not in the pummel-you-to-the-sidewalk way it will be four months from now. Since then we’ve had one or two cold nights–I’m betting there are going to be a lot of people getting sick right about now because it’s impossible to know whether you’re dressing properly for the weather right now–but for the most part it’s very comfortable.

    Atsushi will be home for Golden Week (the first week of May), and we’ll have to celebrate his birthday then even though it’s a few days early. He already knows he’s getting an iPod. He seemed kind of lukewarm about having one…until I showed him my photo library. That did it. Atsushi–I’ve mentioned this, right?–takes pictures of anything and everything when we go on vacation. It’s a cute quirk, but it means a WHOLE LOT of image files. I think he’s pretty excited at the prospect of having them all live somewhere portable.

    Of course, I didn’t tell him about the iPod-related annoyances he’ll also be contending with. Seriously, guys at Apple, no seamless play between tracks on albums? Here is what you need to do: Go up to San Francisco. Find yourself a disco queen with an iPod. Ask him how much he likes having gaps between the tracks on, say, Bad Girls.

    Then duck.

    Whenever there’s an update, I hope against hope it’ll include seamless play. But unless I’ve missed something, no such luck. And trying to cheat by using the fade-out-fade-in function does NOT help. Sigh.

    And then there are the remote controls. The suckitude quotient on both of those I’ve owned has been oddly high for a company that’s made its reputation on user-friendliness. The one I used with my old Mini was kind of cool-looking–until you actually pressed any of the buttons, after which the mirror finish was totally smudged and gross. (And that’s my experience as a clean-freak homosexual, mind you. I shudder to think what happened in the hands of the average teenager.) The buttons were also jammed in close together, so it was very easy to misfire and end up jumping forward a track when you were just trying to turn the volume up. The radio remote I have now doesn’t have that problem, but the alligator clip is hinged on the left, which means that when you fasten it to a bag strap, the control pad is angled away from you if you’re right-handed. Kind of awkward. Also, the clip has no gripping power at all. It’s so weak I’ve been thinking about giving it vitamin E supplements. In Tokyo, people are always brushing up against you to get off the train or cut in front of you to a department store entrance or what have you, and the damned thing is constantly sliding off.

    Hmm. Anything else to complain about while I have the floor? I guess not really. The bank holiday means that Atsushi will be coming home for the better (in both senses of the word) part of a week. And later in May, a bunch of us will be getting together in New York for a college buddy’s wedding, including some very close friends I haven’t seen in a few years. (Tomorrow would probably be a good time to start looking for a present, actually.) Hope everyone else is enjoying the weekend.


    Trade

    Posted by Sean at 09:48, April 21st, 2006

    You can bet that when the US and the PRC have a high-level meeting, we hear all about it here in Japan. The top story in the Nikkei‘s evening edition was “Failure to connect on concrete issues at US-China Meeting.” The information about the meeting itself was basically the same as what we’re seeing in the English-language media:

    Hu sat down with President Bush on Thursday for what both sides described as constructive talks despite a lack of movement in differences over the Chinese currency or on how to resolve nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea.

    In a dinner speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, Hu acknowledged “differences and even frictions” in U.S.-China relations. But the Chinese leader said he and Bush agreed to take steps to move forward to a more constructive and cooperative relationship.

    “I certainly look forward to a future China-U.S. relationship that is more stable, more mature and developed on a sounder track,” Hu said in a question-and-answer session after his speech.

    Prime Minister Koizumi’s take has been posted as a quickie:

    Prime Minister Koizumi spoke to the press corps around noon on 21 April about the US-China summit, at which no material progress was made on issues such as DPRK nuclear development and yuan revaluation [the original says “revolution”–SRK]: “Nations have their respective ways of thinking. They will not necessarily agree on everything.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe spoke to a press conference about the valuation of the yuan. “What’s desirable is the kind of flexibility that reflects the fundamentals of the Chinese economy,” he indicated.

    Ooh, speaking of reflecting economic realities, the potential problems with Japan Post privatization are getting more play as the holding company’s operations are gathering steam for real. The FTC is not pleased. Japan Post’s advantages over entrants into its markets have been discussed in more detail before, but the Asahi‘s summary homes in on some of the major problems with mail delivery specifically:

    The Fair Trade Commission took shots at Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s vaunted postal privatization project, saying the plan in its current form will give the behemoth Japan Post an unfair advantage over private-sector rivals.

    In a report released Friday, the anti-monopoly watchdog pointed out a number of items that needed a review, from Japan Post’s vast delivery network to parking spaces.

    But a number of companies that have entered the business are limited to deliveries during certain time frames and at certain fees. That is because companies intending to start regular mail delivery services are required to set up a huge number of postal boxes and ensure uniform services in all corners of the country.

    But many companies cannot afford to do so.

    The FTC’s report said Japan Post will have a huge advantage over private companies if it retains its monopoly over ordinary mail delivery services and enters other fields, such as international deliveries of parcels and other items, as planned.

    Under the watered-down postal privatization bills passed last year, Japan Post can operate postal and financial services under a government-funded holding company. The government is to gradually decrease the level of its funding.

    The FTC’s report said current regulations, such as companies ensuring uniform services all over Japan, must be abolished to allow newcomers to start regular mail deliveries.

    The report also said parcel delivery companies and international distributors should be allowed to use, for a fee, Japan Post’s postal delivery network, which covers all parts of the country, after privatization.


    Anger, despair and humiliation

    Posted by Sean at 03:45, April 20th, 2006

    Meryl Yourish (via Instapundit) has another post up about suicide bombings–as in, how they work. Even if you’ve already read up on the topic, she’s got some good, if disturbing, reminders of what it means when the news reports “critical injuries” in a suicide bombing in Israel. The comments thread also provides some extremely dark amusement: You will be relieved to hear that while Palestinian terrorists embed nails, nuts, and ball bearings in their bombs to maximize casualties, sometimes use plastic pieces instead because they can’t be detected by X-rays at the hospital, and source their projectiles from “metal shops” that pretend to be dedicated to serving legitimate civilian markets, there is no conclusive evidence that they are soaking bomb components in rat poison to increase hemorrhaging.

    Whew.

    Nice to have your faith in humanity restored, huh?

    I got a similar feeling, as always, from reading through some of the reactions to Monday’s attack on behalf of the Palestinians:

    We have never allowed ourselves to justify any operation that targets civilians, any civilians. But every time Palestinians or Israelis face mass murder as a result of systematic Israeli terrorism, and Palestinians react with anger, despair and humiliation, we hold the Israeli leadership responsible, because it insists on occupying the Palestinian people’s lands and on attacking them every day, killing their children, bringing resident’s houses down on their heads, destroying trees and fields right in front of the eyes of the miserable farmers, closing crossings, destroying the economy and killing the hopes of the Palestinians, big or small.

    I realize it’s easy to talk this way as an American, but still…don’t these people ever get just the tiniest bit embarrassed at the way their leaders and defenders are always playing the pity card? After decades being swaddled in foreign aid and dandled on the UN’s knee, is it unrealistic to expect the Palestinians to be resourceful enough to find some market niche to exploit and build some infrastructure? Even if they only wanted to expand their economy so they could lay up a stock of real weapons for a showdown with Israel, at least they wouldn’t have to use every second of global media airtime they get to talk about how pathetic they are.


    Japan to cease project aid to Hamas government

    Posted by Sean at 13:11, April 18th, 2006

    Japan will freeze some of its aid to the Palestinians as a reaction to the Hamas victory in the elections:

    The government, in a move that aligns it with the US and the EU, which have announced cessations in aid, aims to force a reversal of Hamas’s policy of armed struggle [with Israel].

    The aid cessation will be limited to that which would have gone to new projects to build social capital and infrastructure; the plan is to continue to respond to requests from the Palestinians for humanitarian aid, such as food.

    The article mentions Ministry of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso, who usually has something fabulously undiplomatic to say about this kind of thing. No such luck this time, unfortunately.

    On a related matter (and for those who’ve managed not to see it linked yet), Jonathan Rauch’s latest National Journal column is reproduced in Reason On-line. It’s about what the T in WOT should be understood to mean. His recommendation, which synthesizes approaches in a few new scholarly works:

    Jihadism is not a tactic, like terrorism, or a temperament, like radicalism or extremism. It is not a political pathology like Stalinism, a mental pathology like paranoia, or a social pathology like poverty. Rather, it is a religious ideology, and the religion it is associated with is Islam.

    No single definition prevails, but here is a good one: Jihadism engages in or supports the use of force to expand the rule of Islamic law. In other words, it is violent Islamic imperialism. It stands, as one scholar put it 90 years ago, for “the extension by force of arms of the authority of the Muslim state.”

    Viewing Jihadism as the enemy could make it easier to confront its religious element squarely without seeming to implicate all of Islam. I’m not sure using the word would work quite as Rauch seems to think–even the much-talked-about moderate Muslims could be somewhat miffed by outsiders who try to tell them what one of the central concepts of their faith should mean. But the term certainly gives more focus to our own side of the struggle than “terror.”


    Accountability

    Posted by Sean at 09:09, April 18th, 2006

    It pays to diversify, apparently. Indications are now that Hidetsugu Aneha not only falsified earthquake resistance data for buildings but also fraudulently lent his name and credentials to an unqualified designer…who used them to falsify earthquake resistance data on buildings he designed:

    Investigators believe the designer, who did not have an architect’s license, asked Aneha to lend his name and used Aneha’s seal to stamp construction documents he submitted to the municipal government.

    In return for lending his name, Aneha allegedly received about 20 percent of the design fees paid by the real estate company–about 10 million yen–from the designer, the sources said.

    Using Aneha’s name, the designer drew blueprints for nine buildings, including condos, and five wooden houses. Seismic data for six of them were fabricated, the sources said.

    Aneha wasn’t the only party to branch out into more than one form of fraud, says the Asahi:

    Police on Monday questioned executives of Kimura Construction Co. on suspicion the company, embroiled in the scandal over fake quake-resistance reports, had falsified financial statements for several years.

    Under the construction industry law, companies that undertake public works projects are required to submit documents that objectively show their business conditions, performances and other factors to the central and prefectural governments.

    Those companies are then ranked based on assessments of their financial conditions and other factors. The scale of public works projects those companies can bid on depends on their rankings.

    And let’s not leave out Huser, the other entity that’s seen the greatest gains in infamy since the scandal broke:

    According to police and other sources, Ojima had a meeting Oct. 27 last year with Aneha and the president of the private inspection company, eHomes Ltd., at Huser’s main office in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district.

    The eHomes president said he could not “issue building inspection certificates for four buildings that had yet to be completed.”

    But, according to sources, Ojima argued, “I think we can somehow manage the situation by applying anti-quake reinforcing and vibration-control methods.”

    The day after the meeting, Huser accepted payments from residents who bought units in the Grand Stage Fujisawa and started procedures for them to move in.

    “When I heard from former architect Aneha that he had ‘reduced’ figures, I knew he meant he reduced (the buildings’) resistance against seismic forces,” Ojima told The Asahi Shimbun. “But I never knew that he had reduced those figures by 70 to 80 percent.”

    The Grand Stage Fujisawa has only 15 percent of the quake-resistance strength required under the Building Standards Law, meaning that it could crumble in a moderately strong earthquake.

    The Aneha scandal isn’t the only somewhat-encouraging sign of a new interest in accountability. This Mainichi English report says that Mitsubishi Motors, defective vehicles from which have been implicated in a parade of fatal accidents over the last dozen or so years, has been ordered to pay damages to the mother of a woman who was killed by a wheel that came off a moving truck in 2002. It also, unusually even for English articles in the Japanese press, contains background helpful for those who don’t live here:

    “Mitsubishi Motors can afford to pay 5.5 million yen [US $50 thousand-ish–SRK] without feeling an ounce of pain,” Aoki said in a telephone interview. “The legal system must work to provide preventive measures.”

    Aoki said Japan’s system for keeping companies in check was so outdated victims of such accidents are usually awarded even less than the damages in Tuesday’s ruling.

    Mitsubishi Motors said it will abide by the ruling and apologized to Okamoto’s family.

    “We will do our utmost as a company to regain trust, strengthen compliance measures and vow to prevent any recurrence,” the company said in a statement.

    The ideas of consumer rights and corporate responsibility are still new in Japan, a conformist, harmony-loving society in which conflicts are avoided and often settled behind the scenes.

    Japan’s first product liability law was passed only in 1994, and damage suits are relatively rare. Companies are rarely required to pay more than a token amount. Even when convicted of criminal wrongdoing, executives of companies are generally handed lenient sentences with no prison terms.

    Does it get more obscene than covering up defects in vehicles and houses used by trusting people? Well, how about if your racket is to screw them out of their life savings?

    Excessive lending has pushed an increasing number of borrowers to bankruptcy or forced them to give up their home or other assets to repay their debts.

    The FSA concluded administrative punishments should be imposed against such lending practices after many vicious cases surfaced at Aiful Corp.

    The FSA on Friday ordered the major consumer loan company to suspend operations at all 1,900 of its outlets for three to 25 days as punishment for overly aggressive debt-collection tactics and other problems.

    The lack of lender liability protection has been an ongoing problem in Japan; given the increase in the percent of aging people who need financial services but don’t really understand how they work, the FSA’s sense of mission is not a moment too soon.