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    Let me cover you with velvet kisses

    Posted by Sean at 07:20, September 25th, 2005

    A friend at the office sent me this WaPo article, the latest installment in the seemingly interminable series in which the Western media treat the funkiest aspects of Japanese culture as if they were poised to become the mainstream by next April. I’m not so sure about the general conclusions that are implied, and I also have to wonder about some of the specifics. It’s possible that the reporter, Anthony Faiola, has a lot of experience in Japan, but he doesn’t sound that way. I was especially puzzled by this sequence:

    On busy Tokyo subways these days, it is not unusual to see men fishing for packs of Virginia Slims cigarettes in European-style male purses. They have many models to choose from at Isetan Men’s — the successful 10-story department store in chic west Tokyo that opened two years ago and is now the cathedral of masculine vanity.

    The store sells more than 100 types of male purses, including jade-colored alligator clutches and rhinestone-encrusted knapsacks, along with hats with peacock feathers, pink leather card holders and thousands of pieces of exotic designer clothes. Sales have outpaced Isetan’s other major Tokyo stores, where the emphasis is on women’s apparel, according to company officials.

    “On busy Tokyo subways these days“? When I first arrived a decade ago, one of my first questions was, “What is up with all the guys’ carrying tote bags and little clutches?” The answer, according to every Japanese person I know, is that those shapes simply don’t read as any more femmy than briefcases or backpacks. Plenty of regular, un-fashion-conscious guys with wedding rings carry such bags. The rich ones get them at Vuitton or Coach (or their wives pick them out on their behalf), but they’re usually in un-showy neutral colors. With respect to clothes rather than accessories, by contrast, men wear pastels and jewel tones more readily here than they do in the US–you frequently see construction workers swaggering around in lavender or seafoam-green rubber trousers. But that’s also a long-standing element in the culture and doesn’t signify any new development.

    Furthermore, Isetan Men’s does have a wide variety of outlandishly colored and over-decorated accessories. They’re prominently showcased, which makes every department look as if it catered exclusively to fops, but as someone who shops there, I can tell you that most other guys seem to do what I do: wade through to find the more ordinary stuff. What’s great about Isetan Men’s is that you have almost ten floors devoted to nothing but men’s clothing at your disposal. Like many other high-end stores in Japan, Isetan stocks modestly-priced items along with the sticker-shock brands, so people of a relatively wide range of incomes can shop there. If you want a new jacket, you can look at Brooks Brothers and Ermenegildo Zegna and Theory and Burberrys and a few house labels to be sure you’re getting what most pleases you, and you don’t have to run all over the place. There’s no other store like that for men in Tokyo; there are plenty of stores that cater mostly to women. Therefore, it seems to me that the success of Isetan Men’s says at least as much about its lack of competition–its acute exploitation of a niche market that had been hiding in plain sight all along–as it does about men’s increased dandyism. (Note also that Atsushi and I frequently see a healthy proportion of guys who have clearly been dragged there by their wives or girlfriends, same as in any other men’s department the world over.)

    Oh, one last thing: Isetan Men’s is literally two blocks from Shinjuku 2-chome, the biggest gay district in the city. It’s not at all uncommon for guys to do some shopping before the store closes at 8:00, meet friends for dinner, and then go out for a drink afterward. I’ve done it myself more times than I can count. Do we have a noticeable effect on the store’s total revenue? I don’t know. Could we help to explain why it makes business sense to keep pink ostrich-print wallets with marabou-feather trim in stock? It seems to me we could. “Some gay guys like outlandishly attention-getting clothes” is hardly the stuff of news stories, though.

    The reason I’m going on about this is that it all makes me wonder whether Faiola can be trusted to read cultural signals competently. The underlying issue he’s talking about is certainly real and important: post-War Japan barricaded women in their apartments with the kids and shoved men into the office for twelve-hour days. Now that the national goal of prosperity and respect on the world stage has been achieved, it’s natural for people to want to use the resulting wealth to the end of arranging their lives more to their personal liking. The quotation from Negami Kishi lamenting the feminization of Japanese men is used without putting it in this rather obvious context. Of course, when women get a little breathing room, they’re going to covet the jobs that have always been available to men; men, in turn, don’t want to have to wall themselves off emotionally from everyone including their own children. Since the Japanese have not been socialized to be resilient and resourceful in applying their individual talents and know-how to new situations, the transition has been rocky.

    Still, that doesn’t mean that the popularity of men’s cosmetic surgery and of flamboyantly gay entertainers such as Shogo Kariyazaki means what Faiola seems to think it means. It’s worth bearing in mind that Kariyazaki is safely stereotypable: a gay guy with fussy clothes who arranges flowers. His straight male fans don’t appear to be imitating his personal style, after all.

    And on the subject of cosmetic procedures: hairiness is considered rough and somewhat vulgar by many Japanese. (Sorry, Kyushu and Okinawa boys–I’m just describing other people’s opinions here.) As the cost and inconvenience of cosmetic procedures drops, men are getting more of them, as you’d expect. It’s not surprising that as advances are made in depilation, specifically, Japanese men are taking advantage of them the way Americans have taken to, say, tooth whitening.

    About that whole Koizumi-dancing-with-Richard-Gere thing, I have no comment. I will say that I was shocked that Faiola mentioned Gere and then discussed Dandy House several paragraphs later without mentioning the obvious connection: Gere is featured in the company’s latest ad campaign, the billboards for which are INESCAPABLE in Tokyo lately.

    Added at 20:55: Okay, I changed the first paragraph to make it a bit less mean-spirited. I don’t think most reporters are going around with the intention of making Japan sound like a freakshow. They just don’t seem to be able to avoid doing so.

    Added on 26 September: I changed a few sentences for clarity. Sheesh, my style is turgid when I’m irritated and writing off the cuff.

    Added on 28 September: Thanks to Virginia Postrel for the link. Just to emphasize this again: Faiola is absolutely right to be saying that sex roles are in flux at this historical moment in Japan. In fact, there’s very little he wrote that I would actually say is inaccurate. My complaint is with the (mostly implicit) connections he’s making and the way he characterizes the larger issue. That Isetan Men’s carries shocking pink tote bags doesn’t necessarily say anything about Japanese manhood outside an extremely small circle of Tokyo-dwellers.

    A disgruntled teacher drops a 100-pound anvil onto a calculator from a height of 12 inches…

    Posted by Sean at 04:38, September 25th, 2005

    Via John, whose blog would be a daily read of mine if he posted that often but really no pressure buddy at all seriously none, here’s a great post by Moebius Stripper on…well, I’ll let her tell it:

    I’ve been tutoring a high school kid for the past two months. The kid’s in grade 12; when I met him, he was doing math at a grade two or three level. This is not an exaggeration: he couldn’t add or multiply single-digit numbers without a calculator. And this wasn’t just rustiness, as this inability extended to not being able to compute things like 6+0, 5*1, or 3*0. In other words, he didn’t know what numbers were. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t solve linear equations, add fractions, or make heads or tails of the most simple word problem.

    I met with him every other day, two hours at a time. And, to his credit, what he lacked in mathematical skill, he more than made up for in persistence. He worked diligently, if not terribly successfully, on his homework. We spent a lot of time on the basics – fractions, simple algebra, the meaning of equations. We also spent a lot of time – far, far more than I’d have liked – on how to use the [expletive regretfully deleted] graphing calculator to perform tasks that every student should know how to do with a pencil and paper.

    Numeracy is hugely, hugely important in a very general sense; and somehow the curriculum specialists and teachers seem to have found ways to remove basic, intuitive numeracy from students. Or at least they make it permissible for them to use calculators for so many basic operations that they don’t even realize it’s possible to be good with numbers.

    Recommended Daily Allowance

    Posted by Sean at 02:43, September 25th, 2005

    Just saw Atsushi to the train; he’ll be on the plane back to Kyushu at 4:00. Flights were disrupted yesterday, but the weather’s cleared here now.

    On Thursday, I ended up looking in the refrigerator and seeing that I had corned beef left over that really needed to be used up. That kind of ruled out the French toast plan for Friday–corned beef with French toast? No. So it was buttery scrambled eggs, which themselves were rather nice.

    Speaking of eating–it was the cutest thing–we did Vietnamese for dinner that night. I was dilly-dallying about finishing my pho, trying to get the last few noodle fragments into the same spoonful of broth. Atsushi reached over absentmindedly with his chopsticks and started piling noodles into my spoon–an uncharacteristically intimate public gesture for him. He looked up and saw my bemused look and jerked his hand back a little. Then he recovered himself and gave his conspiratorial smirk. (You communicate in conspiratorial smirks a lot in Tokyo gay life.) Then he pointedly picked up the last noodle and deposited it in my spoon. Best mouthful of pho I’ve ever had.

    It was a good food weekend overall, come to think of it. Last night, we went out with a good buddy of mine. (BTW, C., darling? I love you lots, but I swear–you will find a way to be an hour late for your own bleedin’ funeral.) Italian. Gay Italian: sea bass carpaccio and gnocchi and veal with cracked pepper and green salad and…ooh, can we get something else with pine nuts? We’re into pine nuts today.

    My buddy C., BTW, is an example of the kind of guy who knows how to deal with a failed relationship like a gentleman. In the spring, his boyfriend of two and a half years betrayed him and then broke up with him. He still loves the guy and thinks about him all the time, and–well, I’m his friend, so I listen when he needs to talk. I, being loyal to C., hope his ex gets himself run over by a nice truck sometime soon, but I try to keep my own counsel on the subject.

    Anyway, the good thing about C. is, unlike some people, he knows when he needs not to talk, too. As in, “It’s been 45 minutes of non-stop pining for my ex, so let’s change the subject.” And then he actually changes the subject. Or lets me change the subject. Of course, his frequent reward is to hear me grouse about how much I miss Atsushi; even so, he’s never once played the obvious “How can you complain about your long-distance relationship when I don’t even have a boyfriend?” card. What would you not do for such a friend?

    So from tonight on, back to cooking for one and making my own tea and not encountering a warm, cuddly man when I roll over at 3 a.m. For another few weeks.

    Do you sleep?

    Posted by Sean at 19:58, September 24th, 2005

    Lisa Loeb is in for Paula Zahn on CNN. I didn’t know she had any qualifications as a newscaster.


    Posted by Sean at 22:49, September 23rd, 2005

    Typhoon 17 is headed toward Kanto (Chiba Prefecture at the moment), and the JMA is warning that we may get heavy rains starting tonight or tomorrow. It’s just off the Izu Islands right now, with top wind speeds of around 90 mph, but the storm itself is running basically parallel to Honshu, so it won’t actually make landfall.

    Of course, that’s nothing compared with what Hurricane Rita is threatening to do to eastern Texas and western Louisiana. CNN’s coverage this go-round is a scene I cannot make, so I’m generally going by on-line sources. Hope everyone stays safe.

    She’s not gonna fix it up too easy

    Posted by Sean at 06:31, September 23rd, 2005

    Why do people insist on asking questions they don’t want to know the answers to? Or, more importantly, why can’t people find someone else to ask questions they don’t want to know the answers to? I don’t give unsolicited advice. I know how to be tactful, and I don’t hold with the tough-love approach to friendship except in cases of extreme self-destructive behavior.

    But there are only so many euphemisms for “The reason your relationship doesn’t seem to be working is that your boyfriend is scum.” I have enough to last for a few months. Once I’ve exhausted them and lost my cool, though, my mewling friend may suddenly find himself on the receiving end of the super-deeuphemized version: “The reason your relationship doesn’t seem to be working is that your boyfriend is scum and YOU are a SUCKER. A sucker, a sucker, A SUCKER. All he has to do when you read him the riot act is adopt that soulful look and tell you he’ll try to do better. Then he’s extra-attentive in the sack for the rest of the week, and you’re all like, ‘Wow! He really loves me after all! I’m so lucky!’ Use your head. Three days of molten, ecstatic reconciliatory screwing are not the kind of thing you can expect a gay man to register as a PUNISHMENT, my pet, even if they’re preceded by a tiresome four-hour argument about feelings. Where’s the incentive to change his behavior?”

    I realize this problem is as old as the hills, but I really don’t get it. Most of the time before Atsushi, I was a Good Learning Experience for the guys I dated. (Didn’t I tell you I was proficient with the euphemisms?) I hope I don’t seem to be giving a ringing defense of bad boyfriends when I say that if your behavior signals that you’re willing to tolerate being undervalued, it’s not illogical for your partner to conclude that he’s actually doing just fine overall and that your complaints just mean you’re in one of your touchy moods.

    That’s especially true in a bicultural relationship, in which one of you will always be communicating in a non-native language and set of cultural signals. People do grow up (hi!), but indulging them doesn’t help them on the way. It also makes the indulger miserable, and have I mentioned that it drives his friends bananas?


    Posted by Sean at 03:49, September 23rd, 2005

    You know, it’s hard to be the DPRK. You send a few test missiles over Japan, you sell some nuke technology on the black market, and all of a sudden, everyone’s branding you an aggressor and crap. Luckily, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs has the set the UN straight about who the real problem in this part of the world is:

    Choe Su-hon, the DPRK Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, addressed the United Nations General Assembly on 22 September, declaring that, because the US is continuing its “policy of hostile regard” and aiming to deliver a nuclear first-strike at North Korea, his country “has no choice but to maintain nuclear deterrance capability for purposes of self-defense, as a method of preserving the dignity and sovereignty of our state.”

    On the other hand, the Deputy Minister argued that the DPRK’s ultimate goal is “the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and that it would become unnecessary to possess “even a single nuclear weapon” if relations with the US were normalized. He appealed for…

    I can’t believe I’m translating this bilge with a straight face.

    …[recognition of] the grave necessity of a doctrine of multilateralism with the UN at its core, [as a way of] mindfully taking refuge from the unilateralism and first strikes of the Bush administration, which had invaded Iraq.

    Regarding Japan’s campaign for permanent membership on the UN Security Council, he emphasized that he sees Japan as refusing to atone for “its past crimes [such as during World War II]” against its neighboring countries, and therefore believes that Japan’s request should definitely not be approved.

    It may interest people to know that this stuff sounds just as wind-up-lefty and content free in Japanese as in English. What’s also interesting is that the word I translated “atone” is 清算 (seisan: “liquidate”), which I’ve never seen used figuratively. Well, I guess “liquidate” is already figurative, because you don’t actually melt assets and pour them away; I’ve never seen it used outside a financial context. Or maybe I just haven’t noticed.

    Added at 16:54: Oh, wait–this was the 次官, not the 副官. I called him the “Vice-Minister,” who’s actually someone else. It’s fixed now.

    Added still later: Okay, I guess if I see a word used in a way I haven’t seen, I could do the normal thing and, like, consult a dictionary. It looks as if 清算 would have been rendered more accurately with something closer to a generalized version of “liquidate,” like “deal with conclusively.”

    Odds and ends

    Posted by Sean at 09:56, September 22nd, 2005

    Koizumi has reappointed everyone from his previous cabinet for the remainder of the Diet’s special session; his predicted reshuffle will be made after the next regular session begins in November.

    On the Japan Post privatization, which is the main order of business after the selection of the Prime Minister, the Mainichi has this article, which contributes little new information but has an interesting point buried in it:

    The main opposition group, the Democratic Party of Japan, expects to come up with its own counterproposal. But that proposal has been delayed by the disarray in the party following a painful defeat in elections and a change in leadership.

    The LDP privatization plan, larded as it is with concessions, has plenty of flaws that the DPJ could be trying to exploit. I doubt that it could somehow come up with arguments powerful enough to counter the Koizumi cabinet’s level of public support, but if it started systematically explaining the plan’s weaknesses now, it might be able to begin establishing credibility that would help it later. Unfortunately, it has bigger things to worry about, such as, you know, continuing to exist.

    Something else that the government has been working on that the Japanese public, if not most international observers, has been paying attention to is the new asbestos victims’ compensation bill:

    The fund will cover the medical costs of those with mesothelioma, lung cancer and other diseases caused by the inhalation of asbestos particles. It will also pay consolation money and cover funeral expenses for family members of those who have died from such diseases.

    The bills stipulate that applications for the fund can come from anyone who thinks that his or her disease was caused by asbestos. Family members of workers at factories that used asbestos or those who live near those plants can also apply.

    Applications will be accepted at labor standards inspection offices or public health centers, the officials said.

    The story has been gaining steam since spring.

    It is to be hoped that the asbestos fund won’t end up being milked by enterprising false claimants. Cf. today’s disclosure about two nuclear power corporations:

    The Japan Nuclear Cycle Development Institute and the Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute were revealed on 22 September to have illegally paid over 120 million yen to employees who were not actually eligible to for benefits for those who work with radiation. There were workplaces in which such illegal disbursement was routine.

    From April 2002 to May of this year, the JNC paid out 119.55 million to 604 employees; the JAERI, 9.41 million yen to 113 employees. The greatest amount to a single employee was 600,000 yen. Both organizations will require the employees involved who have not retired to return all the money.

    The benefits to those who work with radiation are to be paid when the number of days [a worker] has entered into a radiation control zone exceeds a fixed monthly figure. Payments are made based on the work attendance logs employees keep, but those logs were not systematically verified through comparison with sign-in/sign-out sheets at the radiation control zones.

    In this context, the motto displayed on the JNC’s website is darkly (radiantly?) comical. It must be very easy to fake 出勤簿 (shukkinbo: “work attendance log”) at large companies where payroll is handled far from workstations.

    But then a strange fear gripped me / And I just couldn’t ask

    Posted by Sean at 09:10, September 22nd, 2005

    Michael (to whom I’m going to have to start paying finder’s fees–wasn’t there a time long ago when I occasionally found a gay-related media story by myself?) links to this fascinating discussion on Towleroad. The debate is over the NYT article here.

    I’m not sure the reporter is to be faulted for simply observing what’s going on and giving people’s own account of themselves. It does seem, though, that he might have seen fit to question, even in passing, statements such as these:

    “There’s so much loneliness among gay men,” one lot user said. “A lot of guys just want someone to talk to.”

    As for sex, the regulars say that they prefer the parking lot to gay bars since there is little in the way of drugs and alcohol and there is more honesty about sexually transmitted diseases.

    It’s a pity that honesty doesn’t extend to telling their spouses they’re getting screwed by strange men on top of junior’s lacrosse equipment in the back of the Explorer. Or not doing it in the first place.

    And is there no end to the procession of dimwits who think it’s impossible to get an STD from some guy who lives in a 5-bedroom mock-Tudor over on Winding Ivy Lane? Because, like, he says he’s clean, and he’s a lawyer and all?

    And that whole “gays are lonely” thing? What. Eh. Ver, Bitch. I’m not lonely. My boyfriend isn’t lonely. My friends aren’t lonely. I kinda think maybe that’s in part because we have more to say to one another than a furtive, haunted, sibilant, “Hey, whatever-your-name-is, want a blow job?” in a parking lot. People should be free to stay closeted and not to get involved in the urban gay scene, but these jokers aren’t just talking about discretion; they’re talking about deception. Their loneliness strikes me as well-earned, and I can only hope it spurs some of them to long-overdue self-criticism.

    Let’s go outside

    Posted by Sean at 00:16, September 22nd, 2005

    Okay, so yesterday I finally gave in and bought a beard trimmer, which I’d resisted doing before because it meant that I officially have a beard that I do NOT WANT. I am now the proud proprietor of a glorified pet groomer. To use on my face. At least the guy pictured on the box is cute. And I guess I shouldn’t be complaining too much, because if you use it on the lowest setting, you just end up looking as if you hadn’t shaved since yesterday. That I think I can live with, even if it is a little Faith-era George Michael. It’s better than Older-era George Michael.

    In better news, I forgot that the long weekend starts Friday this time around. That means that Atsushi will be home in a little less than 24 hours. I have to work tomorrow, but we’ll have time to have brunch first. I’m thinking of making the baked French toast recipe here. You must understand–people eat like this ALL THE TIME where I grew up. I’m surprised the recipe doesn’t tell you to dump powdered sugar over the finished product, and I’m absolutely floored that the writer says you won’t need syrup.