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    It’s everything but party time

    Posted by Sean at 10:44, May 6th, 2005

    Not all the JR West employees who partied the day of the derailment were so downmarket as to go bowling:

    On 6 May, JR West released information that the number of its employees known to have been mindedly involved in inappropriate behavior since the Fukuchiyama Line derailment on 25 April has increased to 185, with approximately 18 new incidents including banquets with liquor and the continuing of golf competitions.

    Last night, one of the news programs–I don’t even remember which one I was watching, since I was kind of mopey the way I always am when Atsushi takes off–showed some JR West employee around my age apologizing for the bowling party. Presumably, he’d organized it; I didn’t catch that part. Having him out front was an interesting gambit, but someone should have prepped him in PR. (Well, he needed some prep in simple morals and ethics, too, but I think the PR problem could have been fixed more quickly.) What he said was, in effect, “We had 35 people invited whose convenience [I think he actually used the word 都合, though I couldn’t swear to it] we had to consider.” That’s great, huh? Picture the headlines the next day: “JR West: Convenience of 35 revelling employees more valuable than lives of 100 dead passengers.” They practically write themselves.

    The reason I say it was an interesting gambit is that a lot of Japanese people are expressing sympathy with the driver who caused the accident. Sound odd? I think most readers with Japan experience will get it. Look at this from the Mainichi:

    Residents and friends of people who died in the horrific JR West train derailment on April 25 that claimed 107 lives have reacted with anger over the train operator’s response to the disaster.

    Although speed was found to be the deciding cause of the fatal accident, JR West officials initially suggested that the placement of stones on the railway tracks could have caused the collision.

    Several people who visited a memorial near the accident scene where people lay flowers expressed anger at the railway firm.

    “I want JR to become conscious of the ‘crime’ that it committed. It has done nothing but make excuses,” said one 32-year-old woman who was acquainted with a 34-year-old person killed in the accident. “Going bowling is unforgivable. It’s inconceivable. I suspect it wasn’t the driver, but the people above him who are rotten.”

    Another 29-year-old resident who was friends with a victim the same age also blasted JR West.

    “The driver (of the train that derailed) was also a victim, and it was JR (West) that created those conditions (for the accident to occur),” he said. “Who were they trying to blame with the placement of stones? It’s a pathetic company, a really pathetic company.”

    The Japanese love their country and, in my experience, believe that the cultural tradeoffs their society requires are worth it.

    But the strange dance in which a superior orders an inferior to cut corners on quality for the sake of procedure–but covers his own ass and remains unaccountable by not actually spelling out the request–is a familiar one to many workers. “If we all refrain from talking about it, it’s not actually happening” is one of the governing rules here. The public is weary from coverups (Mitsubishi Motors, the nuclear power industry) and safety risks (the air system). It’s not really surprising that many people are seeing last month’s derailment in terms of self-serving, out-of-touch managers squeezing workers on the ground.

    NJ hasn’t given up on McGreevey

    Posted by Sean at 22:01, May 5th, 2005

    This is just what we need (via Gay Orbit):

    This morning’s Newark Star-Ledger reports on a new Zogby poll the paper headlines as a “shock”: it shows that nearly half the residents of the Garden State would consider voting again for former N.J. Gov. Jim McGreevey for some other office, like Congress or the legislature (and 30% of those saying so were Republicans).

    Still wonder why the rest of the Mid-Atlantic looks down on New Jersey? Anyway, it’s important to note that this poll was of NJ residents, not just gay voters; I wonder whether they liked McGreevey’s policy platform despite his corruption? Or maybe standards for politicians are low in this post-Lautenberg world?

    Whatever the case, Doug Ireland and Michael are right: even if you’re the most amorally opportunistic gay advocate imaginable, sheer pragmatism should tell you that making McGreevey into a hero is a monumentally bad idea. Of course, it’s hard not to sympathize in gut terms with someone who’s been closeted for decades–even Jonathan Rauch couldn’t resist half-playing the pity card (though I think this guy takes the cigar band). But life tests everyone’s character; it’s not as if gays were the only Americans who had ever experienced hardship. It’s beyond comprehension why every gay man and woman who’s made a practice of living honestly isn’t mad as a hornet at McGreevey’s manipulativeness.

    One final note about Ireland’s post: I’m not sure that someone who tacks on a story about a woman’s execution as a parenthetical in the title and a by-the-by add-on in the body is really in the position to be getting all uptight about whether other people are treating Afghan women’s rights with sufficient gravity. I don’t think anyone had any delusions that bringing the rule of law to every last ravine of Afghanistan was going to be easy. With the new constitution, civil rights as we see them in the West are at least partially codified; the task of changing minds in the hinterlands–even Bibi Amena’s parents said she deserved death for being in the company of an unrelated man–will take longer than writing a document in the capital. In a world in which we can’t prevent every injustice, it’s the direction of change that has to matter.

    I think it’s strange you never knew

    Posted by Sean at 09:14, May 5th, 2005

    Apparently, the elements are VERY EAGER to make sure I keep thinking about my ten-year college reunion this coming week. There have been a few exchanges on our mailing list that reminded me of why I love my college friends enough to stay in constant contact even though I’ve been across the Pacific for nearly a decade. One of them was initiated by my (straight, married) sophomore-year roommate:

    Less than two months to the Pride Parade, and I’m stuck without the final two lines for my marching song. The goal is to associate patriotism with tolerance, so the last line can’t start with “Keep your eye on…” which would be kind of fear-mongering rather than joy-exclaiming. Ideas?


    He’s a grand old fag, he’s a high-flying fag,
    and I’m trying to say that he’s gay
    He gets-it-on, with men-in-thongs,
    he makes love in both night and day
    He just wants to screw, just like you, you and you
    and of that I can say nothing bad
    [missing line #1]
    [missing line #2]

    The intended choreography at “you, you and you” is to point to random people in the audience, suggesting unity. I suppose additional verses could be good.

    The only thing that offended me was the the thong part; guys look gross in thongs, and I bristle at having it assumed that I don’t know that. In fact, I’m almost more offended at the implication that I think guys in thongs are irresistible than at the implication that I’m a promiscuous ho. Of course, a few friends of ours did pounce on the sex-only part, for which I was grateful. It must be said, though, that Pride events tend to be so sex-centered that my buddy’s suggested lyrics here would be relatively tame in context. Anyway, there was also some give-and-take over whether it was okay for him, as an outsider, to use the word fag. Then I got an e-mail from another, equally close, friend from the same group referring to this post and claiming that I’ve been doing very little to add color to his settled life with risqué stories.

    So for a few daydreamy minutes, I thought it might have been kind of cool to go to homecoming. There are a handful of professors and advisors that I didn’t have time to see the last time I was in Philadelphia, though we keep in contact. And who knows? There could be some people that I don’t even remember I’d like to see, loner that I am.

    On the other hand, I don’t know whether I really need the thrill of, say, walking into Smoke’s and knowing that there’s no way the bouncer’s going to feel the need to make me state my name and birthdate for the microphone. Or staying up all night talking politics with the full prior realization that, even by the time it’s 5 a.m. and someone’s Mazzy Star album has played through four times, we won’t have solved all the world’s problems.

    So I figured I’d make a donation–I’m a satisfied, if not yet nostalgic, alum–and then forget about college until the two or three friends who went had their reports.

    Today, I’m reading Eric, minding my own business, and I see he has posted that the Carnival of the Vanities is up. I don’t really get into the blog carnivals, but this one happens to be hosted by a blog that’s run…where?

    Naturally, where I went to college.

    So, okay. Uncle! Uncle! I am clearly not going to get away without some sort of ritual cosmic nostalgia wallow. I will spend the appropriate weekend wearing only red and blue, listening to Last Splash and Republic and The Rhythm of the Saints and In Utero and maybe watching Singles. It’s not the time or place for throwing toast, but I’ll do that, too (with a fresh towel laid out on the kitchen floor–can’t abide crumbs, you know), in the hopes that the ghost of Ben Franklin will be propitiated.

    Derailment no damper on merriment

    Posted by Sean at 05:26, May 5th, 2005

    It’s not fiddling while Rome burns, exactly, but it’s not unlike it enough to be very comforting:

    On the same day that the Fukushiyama Line derailment occurred, employees of JR West’s Tennoji Sector (in Tennoji Ward, Osaka) went to a company bowling party. At least 13 of the 43 who attended (including the chief of the Tennoji Sector) were aware that the derailment has caused multiple fatalities and injuries, an internal JR West investigation has revealed. Of those 13, 5 held an after-party at a bar-restaurant near the sector station.

    The last several days of Japanese news reports have been full of top JR West managers expressing sorrow and remorse over the derailment. One scene that was played over and over involved an elderly woman mourner at the makeshift memorial who began to heave and keen with grief; she was comforted by a younger woman who appeared to be her daughter. Immediately after–and I don’t think there was a camera cut–a JR West executive was shown bowing tearfully, his mouth working with apology.

    Of course, tearful remorse is a highly appropriate posture for a company that has just killed over 100 trusting passengers; indeed, it would be highly appropriate for the tearful remorse to go all the way down. Company policies appear to have encouraged the driver, at least tacitly, to endanger his passengers, and it’s possible that those who have been appearing as spokesmen on television are genuinely penitent.

    But there is no way in hell that anyone who had seen any 30 consecutive seconds of domestic news coverage after, say, 11:30 a.m. two Mondays ago could possibly have thought that the derailment was a minor accident that was under control. The body count was rising all day, and the aerial footage made it clear that several cars had been crushed.

    Of course, this is not the first revelation of shocking behavior by JR West personnel the day of the accident. There were two off-duty drivers on the train that derailed who left the scene to go to work:

    The information on the workers’ actions comes on the heels of news that two JR drivers were on the Amagasaki train when it derailed and smashed into an apartment block, but they left the scene to go to work as usual without helping any of the victims.

    It would have been one thing if fire and rescue workers had told them that they would just be in the way, or if their superiors had ordered them to their posts to ensure that no other passengers were endangered on running train lines; in fact, I’m surprised no one thought to cook up that latter excuse, since the cover-up wouldn’t have required anyone outside the company.

    And–wouldn’t you know it?–the derailment appears to have been a signal for employees at other rail companies to work like gangbusters to convince passengers that last week’s accident will not look like a fluke for long. In the past several days, one conductor didn’t open the doors properly and then opened them past the platform, and a driver admits that he sailed 170 meters past the platform because he was daydreaming while he was supposed to be applying the brakes!

    Armed and dangerous (reheated)

    Posted by Sean at 07:07, May 2nd, 2005

    GayPatriot has a post up about a response to a column by Elaine Donnelly, the head of the Center for Military Readiness; Donnelly is, of course, defending the ban on gays’ serving in the military.

    The column is basically a cut and paste version of things that are already posted on the Center for Military Readiness website. It speaks in airy hypotheticals about the need for unit discipline and cohesion, with no specifics about how gays would fatally interfere with them, except for this passage:

    It also respects the normal human desire for sexual modesty. Servicemen and women should not have to expose themselves to persons who might be sexually attracted to them. It would be unfair to force the homosexual agenda on young people whose lives are difficult enough.

    Now we’re catering to “normal human desires” in the armed forces? Okay. I have a normal human desire not to have my workplace superiors burst into my bedchamber and inspect my personal effects. But there are things you give up in order to be in the military, and one of them is the boundaries that govern civilian life. That includes the ability to shower in privacy.

    You could say, of course, that throwing sexual energy into the mix makes things all primal and combustible and stuff; and that’s plausible in theoretical terms. But “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been policy for around a decade. It strains credulity to imagine that if allowing gays to serve were going to cause systemic problems in reality, we wouldn’t be seeing them, and the Center for Military Readiness wouldn’t be collecting them to give concrete support to its arguments. Such problems as exist appear to stem less from some sexual-disturbance force field emanating from specific gays than from garden-variety prejudice. (Donnelly also refers to the integration policy “imposed on Britain by a European court,” doubtless giving anti-EU conservative readers shivers; unmentioned is Israel. Check out this 5-year-old article by Joanne Jacobs, too.)

    California, here we come!

    Posted by Sean at 05:39, May 2nd, 2005

    While my attention has been diverted elsewhere, the Yomiuri has been following the Japan Post privatization proposal through its most recent travails (part 1, part 2, part 3). I’m remiss in not having drawn your attention to it earlier, because it’s a very good, accessible summary of where things are at this point. Predictable problems have been cropping up, since the bills have been submitted but have yet to go through the Diet.

    Part 2 in the series is the one that has the most concrete information about what’s being haggled over. Interestingly, if not exactly surprisingly given the political delicacy of the issue, Heizo Takenaka, who was hand-picked by PM Koizumi to be the minister in charge of orchestrating the Japan Post privatization, has dropped his usual habit of bluntness and bombthrowing and is taking a more oblique line.

    One contentious issue is how long the semi-governmental holding company will retain its shares in the four new companies that actually render services (package handling, savings, insurance, and window services). From Koizumi’s perspective, the idea is that the holding company is supposed to sell all its shares by 2017. The possibility that has now been raised is that it can buy them back the next year:

    LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Kaoru Yosano also said Monday, “The important thing is that the holding company will be a shareholder in 2017 and in 2018 as well.”

    Once the holding company sells all its shares in the postal savings and insurance companies, they will be considered as private entities, with no restrictions on their operations. If the sale is completed during the early years of the privatization process–which begins in 2007–the firms could take up new profitable businesses, such as lending.

    However, such a compromise may have a detrimental impact on existing private operators.

    Yes, they might actually have to compete for customers, and, sakes alive, we would NOT WANT THAT.

    Personally, I’m kind of wondering what reason a holding company that was incorporated for the express purpose of tiding the four new service companies over during the transition would have for existing after the transition was completed. You can tell I’m not a bureaucrat.

    Another, related problem (if you think in terms of free markets) is this:

    Also, the government and the LDP have been divided over a fund to be managed by the holding company with the aim of ensuring the uniform provision of postal savings and life insurance services nationwide.

    As the relevant bill submitted to the Diet stipulates the holding company can establish a fund of up to 1 trillion yen, the amount of the fund is unchanged from the initial government plan. But the government and the LDP agreed that the company could keep up to 2 trillion yen in the fund.

    The fund is intended to allow unprofitable post offices to continue providing financial services. The LDP’s request to increase its size is aimed at protecting the network of post offices by ensuring the universal service obligation applies not only to mail delivery, but also to banking.

    So now we’re going to pony up for banking services in every municipality from Chiyoda Ward to darkest Hokkaido, and we’re going to insulate the providers from feeling the heat for their bad investment decisions. I doubt it’s meant that way, of course; the idea is probably just to help far-flung outlets cover operations costs. But we’re talking about a large pile of government-guaranteed money here. You can bet the urn full of grandma’s ashes that it won’t take long for savvy operators to figure out how to make bad debt and money-pit investments look like the necessary ineffiencies of being the only post office at the top of an underpopulated mountain.

    Takenaka, as noted above, is waving all this away:

    Heizo Takenaka, the minister responsible for postal privatization, reportedly said he had no intention of revising the bill, and the issue of the fund would be a business decision to be made in the future.

    The issue could determine the basic scheme of privatization. Takenaka’s remark that the issue will be a business decision does not seem to reflect his real intention. Instead, he has just postponed dealing with the issue.

    Well, we all know how well it goes when you “privatize” a critical service by creating a soup of government guarantees and nebulous divisions of accountability and just kind of figure that logistics aren’t going to interfere, don’t we?

    DPRK tests short-range missile

    Posted by Sean at 21:12, May 1st, 2005

    This Nikkei headline about the DPRK’s missile test yesterday gives some indication of why English translations of Japanese always seem to double the length of the passage in question:


    That 日中韓ロ part in the middle stands for “Japan, China, the ROK, and Russia.” The whole thing literally reads, “US Chief of Staff with Japan, PRC, ROK, Russia toward warning on DPRK missile test.” Naturalized, it might go, “US to join Japan, PRC, ROK, and Russia in warning DPRK about missile tests, says Chief of Staff.”

    Anyway, I think yesterday’s missile test has been pretty well publicized, and only some fish suffered for it directly. Atsushi thinks the motivation was transferred pain over soccer. He’s only half joking.


    Posted by Sean at 12:31, May 1st, 2005

    This story about Cape May, NJ, which has just repealed its ban on immodest bathing suits on men, would be amusing rather than poignant were it not for this passage:

    Maggie Creighton, 19, who works in a downtown lingerie store, agreed. “The people you want to see in the Speedos, you don’t,” she said.

    You’ll find as you enter your third decade on this Earth, my dear, how much of life is like that.

    Into you like a train

    Posted by Sean at 05:06, April 30th, 2005

    Apparently miffed by all the attention the rail system has gotten this week, the air system has stepped up to the plate. Happily, if merely fortuitously, it hasn’t killed 100 people in the process. Note that this time it wasn’t poor JAL’s fault that it was involved:

    At 9:40 p.m., 29 April, a JAL jet landed, per instructions, on Haneda Airport’s Runway A, which had been closed for inspection and repairs. Another JAL jet was in the middle of descending toward Runway A and was forced to change course when the mistake was realized in the control tower several minutes later. According to the Ministry of Land, Transportation, and Infrastructure, the source of the error was that the controller on duty forgot that the runway was closed and therefore gave incorrect instructions. The Ministry has launched an investigation because of the possibility that the error could have led to a major accident.

    The controller is lucky that he made his screw-up when he did; the construction on the runway was set to begin at 11 p.m., an hour and change later. He’s also lucky that the plane that landed on it, an Airbus 300, was carrying only 51 passengers and crew. The plane that was diverted was a Boeing 777 with 161 aboard; it reascended and landed 10 minutes later.

    Added on 1 May: Good grief.

    The air traffic controller has told the ministry’s Haneda Airport office that he had forgotten that the runway was closed. Another 17 controllers on duty at the time also forgot about the closure of the runway even though all controllers working at the airport had been notified in advance.

    The ministry was apologetic about the incident. “I express my apologies from the bottom of my heart for causing anxiety to the public,” Yoshinori Furukawa, director of the ministry’s Air Traffic Control Division, said at a news conference on Saturday.

    Derailment fatalities top 100

    Posted by Sean at 07:49, April 29th, 2005

    Am I the only one who thinks it’s a little creepy the way NHK is profiling the driver who, it seems to be all but certain, caused Monday’s train derailment? We know that he loved sports, played basketball in junior high school, was kind of a party guy, and seemed to have been excited about being hired by JR West. I don’t get it. If he were a serial killer, or something, I could understand looking for clues in his background to what animated him. Profiling him as if he’d just won some kind of prize, I don’t understand.

    There is one way in which information about Ryutaro Takami’s breezy personality is possibly meaningful. He overran platforms several times–once by 100 meters!–and had been reprimanded and sent to retraining. According to the conductor’s wife, Takami asked him to underreport the extent of Monday’s overrun at the station before the derailment, presumably to avoid being relieved of his duties and receiving a more stern reprimand. And it’s looking as if he decided on Monday that keeping his personnel record clean was worth risking the lives of his passengers by speeding.

    That kind of thing happens all over the world, but it’s a particular problem in appearances-are-everything societies like guess-where. One of Takami’s colleagues also relates that the company’s version of retraining involves mostly scolding by groups of superiors and pointless essay assignments about topics unrelated to railroad work, raising the possibility that JR West is in effect telling employees that avoiding the ire of higher-ups trumps every other priority. It’d be nice if that were more surprising than it is.

    Added on 30 April: In the interest of translating ideas rather than words, I rendered 再教育 (saikyoiku: “re-education”) as “retraining,” since that’s normally the word we would use for what goes on in the workplace. Re-education has totalitarian overtones.

    It turns out that it might have paid to be more literal-minded. This Asahi story expands on the information in the NHK telecasts we’ve been seeing:

    One great fear among train drivers for West Japan Railway Co. is being forced to take a “re-education program” after making a mistake on the job. Drivers are known to skirt safety procedures just to avoid the humiliation and financial loss of taking the program. One driver even committed suicide just after he started the re-education process.

    Re-education of drivers who commit mistakes is a JR West policy. The mistakes include being behind schedule.

    The main component of the re-education process is writing reports about the mistake to reflect on the error and think of ways to prevent a recurrence.

    JR West workers who make mistakes are also assigned menial tasks, such as pulling weeds from gardens at JR West facilities, washing windows or painting company buildings.

    There are one or two things that are important for context here. One is that, in Japan, those who are hired even at management level spend their first year or two going through “rotations,” in which they work alongside people who do sales, clerical work, and other low-level tasks. There are a few reasons for this. One is to give future managers a sense of all the little things that have to get done to keep the organization going. Another is to make them feel a sense of kinship with people at all levels of the hierarchy. Another is to show them the side of the company that customers see. The idea is to keep managers from being out of touch about the practical effects of the policies they set once they’re helping to run the place.

    Against that backdrop, having people pull weeds or wash windows (or clean toilets, which is a job that’s been mentioned on the broadcasts as another common punishment) is not just supposed to shame people into not transgressing again. Rather, it’s also supposed to serve as a reminder that the drivers who do the crucial job of running the trains have a whole organization of people with less visible jobs depending on them.

    I’d be willing to bet that that’s the way the re-education program is officially conceived. There’s evidence, though, that the message of humiliation ends up being so disproportionately emphasized that it drowns out the message that the employee should do his job more responsibly:

    One driver was so upset at being forced to undergo the re-education program that he hanged himself in 2001. The then 44-year-old man was late by about 50 seconds in pulling out from Kyoto Station.

    Bereaved family members sued JR West for compensation. The father claimed that bullying was the cause of his son’s suicide.

    In February, the Osaka District Court rejected the plaintiffs’ request for compensation on the grounds that JR West could not have foreseen that the man would kill himself.

    But the court did state that the re-education program caused the suicide.

    According to the ruling, the man was forced to write up to seven reports a day about his mistake. He was told by the deputy head of his train district that he was being paid to “just study.”

    There’s no mention of any other suicides in the Asahi article, but there is evidence that the desire to avoid re-education causes drivers to push their trains to the speed limit if they feel they’re losing time. Drivers on the Takarazuka Line have apparently developed a practice of charging down the straightaway at full tilt toward Amagasaki Station and then jamming on the brakes so they can make the curve where the derailment happened Monday. It’s likely that Takami was attempting such a maneuver and didn’t make it.