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    Koizumi’s latest on the Yasukuni Shrine and Japan Post

    Posted by Sean at 01:00, May 16th, 2005

    Prime Minister Koizumi delivered a few soundbites at a special meeting of the Lower House budgetary committee this morning. (I think he said these things this morning; the meeting is on NHK now, and I think it’s a simulcast.)

    About Chinese and Korean criticism of visits by Japanese officials to the Yasukuni Shrine, he said, “Any nation will feel the desire to pay respects to its war dead. Other nations should not be interfering based on whether they believe our ways of doing so are desirable.”

    Also, regarding the enshrinement of Class A war criminals at the shrine, Koizumi indicated that his view is that there is no problem because “‘one abhores the offense; one does not abhore the person’ are the words of China’s own Confucius.”

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard him trot out that one before. It’ll be interesting to hear the PRC’s reaction.

    Other remarks revolved around the proposal to privatize Japan Post. Koizumi stressed that “if the bill is rejected, it is impossible to know what will happen.” Regarding who would be held politically responsible if the bill were shot down, he remarked, “Is there any reason that (the cabinet) should resign en bloc? We will fulfill our responsibilities by seeing the bill through to approval; we have no expectation of its rejection.”

    So that’s that, for now. One reason questions about the privatization bill may carry something of a sting right now is that Koizumi has been criticized for giving the heave to two high-ranking bureaucrats who oppose it:

    Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision to remove two top bureaucrats who are vocal opponents of his postal services privatization plan has met with criticism from within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Friday, with party members accusing Koizumi of acting like a tyrant.

    Koizumi, according to the sources, instructed Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Taro Aso to remove Hiroshi Matsui, the ministry’s vice minister for policy coordination, and Hideo Shimizu, director of the postal services policy planning bureau.

    Another source revealed an incident in winter that foreshadowed the two officials’ removal.

    “Mr. Matsui, Mr. Shimizu, I’m counting on you both,” Koizumi told the two men, who were summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office on Feb. 18. The prime minister’s exhortation, while sounding like a request for cooperation, was actually a warning that meant “Don’t dare stand in my way, you guys,” according to an interpretation by a government source.

    One LDP member, a former official in the erstwhile Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, which is now part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, reacted strongly: “This is a reign of terror. Does anybody have the right to throw people out because they weren’t 100 percent behind their master?”

    Well, it’s true that one doesn’t want heads of state in democratic countries ramming through their pet little proposals against the will of the people. But let’s not forget that these two are bureaucrats–that is, appointees, and not elected officials. Enforcing accountability on bureaucrats in the various federal ministries and their entourage of semi-public corporations has been one of the biggest problems for reform-minded politicians, let alone their long-suffering constituents.

    Whether and how to privatize Japan Post have been debated up, down, around, and through by this point. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that, now that a proposal has gelled, two administrators who are staunchly against it should be told that there’s no role for them in implementing it. I understand the questions about morale, but I don’t think it’s possible to take control of a set of wide-ranging and lucrative services away from an organization without making it feel somewhat unloved.

    By the way, don’t feel too sorry for the two demoted men:

    Matsui is expected to remain a vice ministerial-level official, with his former post allocated to Kozo Takahara, vice minister for policy coordination and director of the international affairs department.

    Meanwhile, Shimizu will be demoted to director general for policy planning in charge of communications. Yasuo Suzuki, director general for policy planning, will take over the post.

    This will not help either’s career, of course, but given the power of bureaucrats in Japan–still, for all the noises about reform–both of them have decades of connections and influence to capitalize on.

    Potpourri II

    Posted by Sean at 10:10, May 15th, 2005

    Speaking of olfaction, a reader kindly sent me the link to this study, and I thanked him by…uh, waiting until everyone else posted about it and then figuring there was no point in my mentioning it.

    There’s no better way to get long blog discussions going than to mention homosexuality, though. Regarding the study, Eric doesn’t entirely agree with Rosemary’s take on it. I agree, though I think there’s at least a partial answer to his comments about the choice element. (Virginia Postrel wrote an article several years ago that was along the same lines, by the way.) Eric writes:

    No “rule” is right all the time. I’ve known gay men who I’m sure were born that way, but I’ve known others who’ve simply enjoyed homosexual acts because they’ve wanted to. The element of choice and the word “choice” are so over-invoked that I almost hesitate to use the word, but I’d like to ask a rather cynical question along the “what if” line.

    There are several reasons that a lot of us bristle at the pat “homosexuality is a choice” formulation, even if we don’t adhere to the opposite extreme of “homosexuality is genetic.” For one thing, many of us spent years working overtime to avoid even considering the possibility that we might be gay. I had my problems with the super-conservative Christian sect in which I was brought up in terms of administration, but I really believed the doctrines (up until I became an atheist, that is) and tried hard to make any seeming interest in a girl germinate. It didn’t work.

    I realize that at this point, I’m setting myself up for responses on the order of, “Well, okay, but you could have talked to your pastor and asked for more prayers, or you could have sought reparative therapy on the off chance that you’re one of the low percentage of subjects it appears to work for, or you could have chosen a life of noble celibacy.”

    Fine, fine, fine. My point is not that my homosexuality is some kind of mind-control beam. I know I’m responsible for the actions I take based on it. My point is that people who say that homosexuality is a choice present it as if, you know, you figured out you’re gay by waking up one morning in college and thinking, Uh, let’s see: breakfast. Cold pizza, or vodka and Apple Jacks? The blue shirt or the red shirt? Oh, and, I guess today I could start dealing with my lack of interest in women by trying to figure out whether it represents some kind of deeper issue or something. But women are kind of scary. And anyway, guys are interested in getting off all the time, just like me! Okay, so that takes care of that. Where’s my econ book?… For most gays, coming out is the product of brutal self-knowledge and hard decisions. It’s the way the world and our place in it makes sense to us.

    In Rosemary’s comments, the Artist Formerly Known as Wince takes down the idea that no one would choose to be an outcast. He’s right, but what I think most gay people are trying to get at when they use such formulations is that we’re not gay for the purposes of getting a rise out of our families or pissing off the larger society. (Of course, there are cases of people with identity issues doing so. There are people who convert to Buddhism out of a desire to be funky, too.) Striking out on your own as an adult, living the best life you can based on your knowledge of your own talents and bents and the needs of others, involves the possibility that you’re going to alienate some people. You can acknowledge that without relishing the prospect.


    Posted by Sean at 10:06, May 15th, 2005

    Yesterday, I went to get my hair cut, and the nice assistant girl told me she was going to massage my scalp with oil. My eyebrows rose slightly, and I said, “Uh, I just wanted the usual cut–have I mistakenly ordered the King Xerxes Package?” I had not. My hair place has converted to Avedaism, which also helped to explain the glass of rose-hip tea and lavender-scented hot towel I’d been offered on entering. I’d just figured they were placating me because my hair guy was running late. But it’s apparently part of their routine now.

    I don’t know about you, but nothing makes me edgier than the promiscuous sloshing about of soothing essences. I’m not one of those guys whose hygiene consists of a rough white washcloth and a bar of Ivory soap, but I don’t do anything that requires more than fifteen minutes from turning on the shower to being ready to get dressed. I don’t even wear cologne.

    By the time I was halfway through my haircut, I nearly leapt from the chair and was like, “Okay, this is way too gay even for me.” In addition to rose-hips and lavender, there were bergamot and some other stuff in the massage oil, mint-type-things in the shampoo, and something that smelled like cut grass in the styling wax. (No, I don’t use styling wax, but my hair guy seems to think I’m not getting my money’s worth if he doesn’t gunk up my head before sending me off into the great, wide world.) I had so many plant extracts on me, I was afraid someone would tie me up in a tulle bag and toss me into the sweater drawer.


    Posted by Sean at 01:29, May 14th, 2005

    The Pentagon made some of its recommendations for the restructuring of military installations yesterday:

    The Pentagon on Friday recommended closing 33 major domestic U.S. military bases and restructuring 29 others, dealing a hard economic blow to many communities across the country.

    New England was the hardest hit region and the South was the biggest gainer. States among the biggest losers were Maine, Connecticut, New Jersey and South Dakota. Winners included Texas, Maryland and Georgia, although the Atlanta area was hit hard.

    The bases are vital economic engines in many communities, which mounted frantic lobbying efforts to save their local bases, and will now try to convince the commission that the Pentagon erred and to spare ones scheduled to close.

    This was the expected reaction, of course; and understandable it is, too. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to restructure without reallocating resources (though Japanese companies and government bodies give it the old college try).

    Speaking of Japan–do I ever not?–its part in the restructuring is taking shape, also:

    Japan and the United States have agreed to step up efforts on joint operations and cooperation in the event of a military emergency in Japan. This would include allowing some Japanese facilities, such as harbors and airports, to be used by the U.S. military.

    In doing so, Tokyo hopes to strike a deal with Washington to reduce U.S. bases here, sources said.

    The plan is part of continuing discussions on the global transformation of the U.S. military.

    Japanese and U.S. officials are discussing how to divide the roles and duties of the U.S. military and the Self-Defense Forces.

    Military emergencies would include a flare-up between China and Taiwan.

    In the event of such a crisis, the government believes that allowing U.S. forces to use civilian facilities would ensure closer mutual cooperation, the sources said.

    Under this scenario, Tokyo would offer the use of certain airports and harbors to U.S. forces.

    With this offer, Tokyo hopes the Pentagon will become more receptive to eliminating certain U.S. facilities in Japan.

    In discussions on cutting the U.S. base presence, Japanese officials have asked that those not in active use be returned to Japan. However, U.S. officials insist the facilities are needed in a military emergency.

    Notice, toward the bottom of the article, an indication that one of the problems with this agreement has been the failure of the federal government to coordinate effectively with local governments here in Japan. That sort of thing happens very frequently–it’s also been a hilarious coda to the fanfare surrounding the Kyoto Protocols. I point this out not to rag on Japan–every social system of 125 million people is going to have its weak points. It’s just that people frequently seem to have the impression that Japanese conformism and the post-War success of Japan, Inc., mean that the government functions like one gigantic well-oiled machine. But you get dissent in the ranks and stonewalling by locals here, too.

    On a related note, the joint missile defense system is progressing, but, then, I think it only requires the cooperation of the Defense Agency.

    Little new information on abductee

    Posted by Sean at 08:48, May 12th, 2005

    Not many updates on Akihiko Saito, the presumed Japanese abductee in Iraq. The latest Nikkei report I’ve seen was posted this morning; it contributes no new information other than that his company believes, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, he may actually have been fatally wounded in the original attack on his convoy. The Mainichi‘s English version is here.

    The ability to compartmentalize

    Posted by Sean at 13:33, May 11th, 2005

    This whole thing about the Mayor of Spokane just keeps getting weirder. The Washington Blade points to this article that says West has now stated that he is, in fact, gay. West’s emotionalism makes him, on the surface, more sympathetic than that smarmy smoothie James McGreevey. But then you get to parts like this:

    The mayor also referred to a story in Saturday’s paper in which a man named “Scott” said he was sexually molested by [West crony] Hahn and reported the conduct to West during a 50-mile Boy Scout hike around Mount Rainier in 1980.

    Smith said West “couldn’t remember the kid. He doesn’t recall the incident.”

    West said another adult on the trip, whom he didn’t identify, “told him not to worry about it, that we didn’t know about sexual abuse in 1980,” Smith said in relating the mayor’s comments.

    But West also said, “It may be possible that the kid said something, maybe about being fondled, and maybe I just didn’t recognize how important that might have been.”

    We didn’t know about sexual abuse in 1980? WTF? It’s certainly true that people weren’t parading allegations on Oprah in 1980. I was only eight then, but I’m pretty sure that it was generally recognized that it was a bad thing for a Boy Scout leader to be fondling his troop members. Of course, it’s always possible that Hahn was just showing the kid how to hold the bow properly during archery practice. There’s no way of knowing. But West’s dismissive, hand-washing obtuseness doesn’t sit well.

    The allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment* against West himself are graver, though it’s possible that he is, in fact, innocent of all of them. What’s clear is that he was trying to play both ends against the middle:

    It was that young man’s story about allegedly meeting the mayor in the online chat room that led the newspaper to hire a forensic computer expert to verify the teenager’s claims that the man he met online was West – a process that took six months to complete and involved creating a fictional teenager known as “Moto-Brock.”

    On April 9, West sent his photo and City Hall Web site biography to Moto-Brock, asking him to keep the secret. “Please don’t tell anyone at all,” the 54-year-old mayor told Moto-Brock, who he thought was a gay teenager. “It’s a part of my life I don’t share at all,” he said.

    “Someday I may run for governor and this would be bad, if you know what I mean,” West told the teenager.

    We do now, honey. More even than the ethical concerns here, which are bad enough, the idiocy is breathtaking. I don’t think West comes off as necessarily anti-gay in terms of his policy positions–it would be fine for him to say that his conservatism makes him come down against special protections. But come on. If you’re going to play close to the edge–keeping your sexuality a secret to get ahead in politics and pursuing barely-legal hotties on the Internet and using the alpha-male impressiveness of your real-life job and identity to reel ’em in–what kind of numbskull do you have to be, in 2005, not to think it’s going to blow up in your face eventually?

    How to read Japanese newspapers

    Posted by Sean at 11:39, May 11th, 2005

    I got an interesting question from a reader and occasional commenter the other day, asking me to give him the low-down on the political slants of the major Japanese newspapers. What follows is a longer version of the answer I sent him.

    Bear in mind that this is my answer based on day-to-day experience, as a non-specialist who’s interested in being informed and who talks politics with Japanese friends and hears how they read the same stories I do. I realize that there is more specialized and systematic commentary available on how the Japanese news media function. (The Japan Media Review is typical.) The problem, if you’re a general reader, is that they rarely indicate how you can work around the problems.

    So this is my workaround. If anyone else with Japan experience thinks I’m full of baloney, I’d be interested to hear.


    The straightforward, by-the-book answer to my reader’s question is relatively easy. The Nikkei , being concerned with economics/business practicalities, is most politically neutral. The Asahi is leftist (which is handily made easy to remember by the color scheme of its on-line edition). The Sankei is controlled by LDP supporters and tends to parrot the government–one of the interesting backstories behind the controversy over Livedoor’s attempt to get a foothold in Fuji Television, which is part of the same conglomerate. The Yomiuri and Mainichi are populist.

    I don’t think that Japanese journalists are any less able, inquisitive, and intelligent than Western journalists. Most of them probably get into their jobs because they want to tell the public important things and help keep large organizations honest. There are plenty of jobs available in this country for born yes-men; choosing a job that means hiking all over the place and tracking interview subjects down genuinely indicates, I think, a desire to serve the public.

    But, of course, politicians and businessmen recognize that the media filter their public image, and they are naturally going to exert all the pressure they can to make sure that image is as sympathetic as it can be. Also, one of the highest values in Japanese culture generally is the avoidance of open conflict; it would be unrealistic to expect journalism to find a magical way of operating outside that.

    Put those factors together, and you get cartel-like press clubs and chummy glad-handing with the people whose actions reporters are supposed to be portraying objectively. Young reporters quickly discover that the only thing you make for yourself by being openly skeptical and exposing scandals is trouble. Does this mean that reporters for prestige publications never, ever, ever report the real dirt? Not exactly. What it does mean is this:

    The articles in all the major dailies will say almost exactly the same things in their coverage of a political or business controversy. Often, the articles will be so similar as to seem practically interchangeable, because they consist largely of talking points the reporters have been spoon-fed.

    You still need to read articles in more than one of the dailies to get a sense of what’s going on. Why would that be, if they say the same things? Because they only say almost the same things, and the tiny differences are often the most instructive parts of the articles.

    Here’s where you need a good eye. They’ll agree on the 5 w‘s + 1 h, and they’ll present the same approved line about motivations and goals.

    But now look closely. Is there an item that’s mentioned, in passing but without development, in only one or two of the articles? That could imply that one particular reporter has managed to ferret out something interesting that’s not part of the PR spin. Alternatively, is there an item mentioned in all the articles but, again, in passing and without development? If so, pay attention.

    An item that’s mentioned glancingly without elaboration may be important later. Japanese news departments don’t waste column inches any more than American news departments do. If an item is included without being fleshed out, that usually means that (1) it was important enough to include and (2) the reporter didn’t feel free to flesh it out. It will generally be something suggestive–a hint that the MP supporting the new bill has past ties to business interests that would benefit from it, or the barest intimation that someone somewhere is looking into the safety record of the company whose product just caused an accident. Sometimes, it’s hardly more than a modifying phrase, but it will be something that makes the skeptical newshound in you say, “Ooh, I wish they’d told me more about that.”

    You will, in fact, hear more about it. The reporter knows his audience; they read like Japanese people, in full knowledge that surface content is often not to be trusted to express deep truth. For that matter, there may be a veiled message to the figure who’s about to be exposed, too: “Be warned that more unsavory types than I are looking into these connections, pal–have the face-saving story ready for your inevitable press conference.”

    But the major dailies have to retain their prestige, so they almost never feel free to actually break scandals. They have to wait until one of the tabloid weeklies does it, after which talking about the story is no longer taboo, though lots of bet-hedging phrases such as “allegedly” and “it has been speculated” will still be tossed around.

    I wish I had a good example of what I’m talking about here–all this is very abstract, and once you get used to it, you don’t even realize you’re doing it: filing away little clauses that don’t fit the tenor of the rest of an article because, in the back of your mind, you know that they could be the stuff of next month’s headlines. But the thing is, unless you know more reporters more intimately than most of us do, your only choice is to get what you can from the available, on-the-record media. And, in my experience, this is the way it works.

    New Japanese abductee in Iraq

    Posted by Sean at 22:36, May 9th, 2005

    A Japanese national has been abducted in Iraq, as the Yomiuri‘s Cairo bureau appears to have found out from Reuters (whose current story on the subject is here). The Asahi gives his name as Akihito Saito.

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs received word at 5:30 a.m. today from the British security firm Hart Security, Ltd., that Akihiko Saito (44), who was working as a consultant at its Iraq office, has been attacked and that his whereabouts are unknown.

    The article says that the report was specifically received by the 対策本部 (taisaku-honbu: “measures [taken in response to a situation]” + “head office”), which is the division of Foreign Ministry headquarters that deals with reports of attacks on Japanese citizens abroad. It’s chaired directly by Nobutaka Machimura, the Foreign Minister. Machimura and the Ministry of Defense have stated that they have received no demands from the abductors and that there are no plans to change Japan’s Iraq policy in response.

    The Asahi reports that the terrorist (“militant” if you’re just coming back from the Reuters link and need a minute to adjust) group Ansar al-Sunna has posted an image of Saito’s passport on its website and stated that he was seriously injured in an ambush on a vehicle that had just left the Assad US Army Base. Of the 17 people captured, including 12 Iraqis, all but Saito have been killed. (The way it’s phrase, it looks as if they were executed after capture, not killed in the attack on the vehicles itself.)

    Not so hot

    Posted by Sean at 06:59, May 8th, 2005

    To the guy who used the Contact screen to ask probing socio-political questions about travel to Osaka: I’ve answered you, but Hotmail is saying your account is unavailable. I haven’t encountered that error before–maybe you haven’t checked your mail in over 90 days? Anyway, if you have another account you know you can receive mail at reliably, you can send me another message.

    When I get that crazy feeling, I know I’m in trouble again

    Posted by Sean at 01:42, May 7th, 2005

    Yet another song you shouldn’t listen to on a crowded Tokyo commuter train. It was raining yesterday, the sort of chilly rain that reminds you how open to the elements you are as an organism, and in combination with Atsushi’s having gone back home on Thursday night, it probably made me a little more downcast and emotionally susceptible than usual. That wasn’t all of it, though. Tokyo isn’t populated by self-centered rock stars with celebrity doctors attending to them, but it is the sort of place where people frequently feel as if they’re being prodded from all sides to bury what they really think and perform, perform, perform for their handlers.

    I know that that’s a reductive picture. In the same way that “America is an individualistic society” doesn’t mean that we don’t have social rules and conformism, Japan is a free country with a lot of personalities on display. But last night, everyone looked unusually tired and spaced-out (first day back at work after a week-long holiday) and the rain and dark made the train feel like its own little isolated world. Hearing Roger Waters sing, “There is no pain / You are receding,” made me ache; it was so oppressively fitting. (Well, except that for most on the train, the show was over for the week and not about to begin again until Monday.)

    Despite its specific resonance for me, I don’t believe that I would try to argue that “Comfortably Numb” is a great modern poem, though. I was thinking that wry thought on the walk home from the station because my copy of Camille Paglia’s all-new book finally arrived a few days ago. I don’t know what took it so long to get here–amazon.co.jp can be weird that way. Anyway, it feels like another throwback to college, since the last time we had a whole new book of essays by Camille to read, I was a junior. Most of it is great. Even when she’s reading very familiar poems, she brings something new to them: I’m a big, bad Dickinson fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as chilled by “Because I could not stop for Death–” as I was when reading Paglia’s essay on it the other night. Her (Camille’s, not Emily’s) pushy, idiosyncratic voice has an odd way of making her readings universal. You get the feeling that you, too, with all your quirks, could find deep reserves of beauty and meaning in the same artifact, even if the actual points she makes sometimes seem a bit overworked.

    But, I’m sorry, not even Camille can brandish enough libidinousness and cosmic-geological history to make Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” a great poem, much less “possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy.'” I am fully convinced that there are two pages’ worth of Significance in the sixteen words of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” But the six pages (!) devoted to “Woodstock” are the only passage in the book when you get the sense that Paglia yearns for literary value that just isn’t there. (I’m not the first to think this, as you might imagine.) And, while Camille almost always surprises you somewhere, about Joni Mitchell’s piece she says exactly what you expect her to say and no more: Flower power was a beautiful but incomplete dream; the Sixties visualized men and women as equal partners in civilization but underestimated aggression and sex differences; those fighter jets turning into butterflies are, like, totally trippy symbols of melting back into nature; and so on, and so forth.

    All good points, yes, but there’s another problem. When you finish reading her essay and go back to the lyrics, you find something you don’t with Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens: you have to keep consciously reminding yourself what Paglia said about this or that line in order to feel its importance. Despite Mitchell’s clear and mostly timeless images, the poem doesn’t reveal more about itself unless freighted with Paglia’s nostalgic interpretation. It’s an oddly satisfying way to end the book nonetheless. She’s so touchingly eager to make readers feel the vibrancy of the visions of the Sixties, even in the face of what four succeeding decades have done to them, that it makes you feel almost protective of her. And how often do you get the chance to feel protective of Camille Paglia?