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    I have no idea what to call this

    Posted by Sean at 22:20, January 5th, 2005

    It’s interesting that Kim du Toit posted a series of pictures of Janine Turner this weekend, because I’d kind of been thinking about her myself.

    Atsushi brought back with him a tape of an NHK nature special about Mandarin ducks, not just because I like those sorts of programs but also because of a now sort-of-ongoing joke. When I asked him to pick up another video while he was out shopping, he apparently went to the mystery section and found the series Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime . (The episode he chose, BTW, was The Affair of the Pink Pearl. Yeah, if they ever do start rounding up the queers and herding us into camps, this household’ll be the first shoved onto the wagons, baby.)

    At first, I assumed he’d picked one of them up because we’ve already seen all the Miss Marples with the unsurpassable Joan Hickson. Then I looked at the Japanese series title: おしどり探偵 (oshidori tantei: “the Mandarin duck detectives”). This will make sense to those who know the series from twenty years ago on PBS’s Mystery! or who read the (badly plotted) novels on which it was based. Partners in Crime–it started as a book of short stories–centered around a husband-wife detective agency. The fun, of course, was seeing how they played off each other. At least, it was supposed to be. The books, as I said, were lame. The series was not, largely because the role of the wife, nicknamed Tuppence, was played by Francesca Annis.

    Annis has been known at home in England for decades–I think she’s most famous for playing Lady MacBeth. But she also participated in one of the gayest sequences in movie history–at the end of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, as one of the queen’s handmaids. She’s not the one that gets to answer Octavian’s retainer (“Was this well done of your lady?”) with the gay-coronary-inducing line, “Extremely well–as befitting the last of so many noble…rulers,” while sliding poisoned-ly down a polished stone platform. Annis is, rather, the one who hands Elizabeth Taylor the fruit basket, after which there’s a brief but unforgettable shot of the darkly glossy figs being stirred from below by the asp.

    Speaking of darkly glossy, by the time of Partners in Crime, Annis was mature and beautiful rather than pretty. The scripts frequently called upon her to feign innocence while asking a client or suspect some key question, and she did it expertly: the eyes widen and flash with what looks like guilelessness to the person addressed but can be recognized as shrewdness to the television viewer. And unlike today’s flat-voiced starlet types, she could curl her voice up, down, and through syllables very expressively. Wonderfully pert carriage, too. It’s a shame, as I say, that the plots made Charlie’s Angels look intelligent.

    And I realized while watching it this weekend that it was Francesca Annis whom Janine Turner had been reminding me of, which had been driving me crazy because I couldn’t figure it out. One of the cable channels here has been broadcasting, for the last few months, this Lifetime serial about a women’s clinic. It’s called Strong Medicine, and the first time I happened on its opening credits, I noticed that it was produced by Whoopi Goldberg and was set in Philadelphia. So, of course, I was hoping that it would turn out to be some socially-conscious soap with campy, contrived subplots about women put in horrible positions by the Nasty Patriarchy. I mean, I grew up around people in straitened circumstances and do not dismiss real desperation lightly; by contrast, central-casting desperation, when done with sufficient ham-fisted ineptitude, can be a fiendish delight. And, you know, Whoopi Goldberg as executive producer? Very promising.

    My stars, I was not to be disappointed. See, the Rittenhouse Hospital has an OB-GYN for the paying customers who’s a luminously beautiful, kind of fragile white girl (this would be Turner’s character). She gets to help the well-off with their genteel diseases and need for fetus-threatening surgery. She also gets to fence with the doctor who runs the free clinic. The free clinic, which serves The People, is headed by Dr. Chica Sista-Girlfriend, a Latina single mother who had to work her way through med school, fights for patients who are invisible to the system, and is always there for her son but still works her ass off at the clinic because she Really Cares.

    The supporting cast has the unintended-comedy thing down pat, too. There’s a male nurse-midwife–a scruffy, gentle-voiced vegan who prescribes massage therapy and stuff. The joke is that people sometimes think he’s gay, but we viewers in the tribe know he’s not because he quite clearly doesn’t think his penis was made for anything except taking a wee-wee. Oh, yeah, and the hospital receptionist is a reformed hooker. She’s a black woman. Guess what her assigned personality trait is.

    No, really. Guess.

    You lose.
    The correct answer is “shallowness.”
    Kidding! Kidding! Of course, our reformed-hooker receptionist is actually a SASSY black woman. Whoopi Goldberg is looming over this show, after all.
    Now, the great thing about a program on this kind of PC autopilot is that you don’t actually have to watch it to watch it. You can run the vacuum cleaner over the dialogue, go change loads of laundry, and cook in the part of the kitchen from which you can’t see the TV, and as long as you saw today’s subplots being set up at the beginning, you know exactly what will be happening when you come back in 20 minutes. Of course, you may be wondering why I’d bother, anyway.
    There are two reasons. One is that the commedia dell’arte levels of subtlety make many of the scenes irresistibly hilarious–and, as you might imagine, the more manipulatively heart-tugging, the funnier. The other is that, when Turner comes on screen, you can’t look at anything else. She’s given bad hair and make-up, and her chief job is to be thrown into emotional tizzies over her patients’ predicaments, but you get the sense that she’s overplaying because the director is pushing her to. In the scenes that don’t have some kind of sociological point, when she’s allowed to relax, the lower register in her voice comes out–both sexier- and more intelligent-sounding than the shrill “On my count!” breathiness she uses when things get frenetic–her brow unfurrows, and she seems as if she really could be a doctor trying to keep her equilibrium. She doesn’t actually look or sound like Annis, and the personality traits she’s portraying are different. Nevertheless, the effect is similar, because her voice becomes very musical, her eyes look keenly alert, and you get the feeling that she’s graciously pretending to be acting in a better show than she really is.
    Added on 7 January: Revealing the dangerous murder-obsession we all know grips every private gun owner, Jeff at Alphecca also just posted something related to Agatha Christie, listing his favorite books of hers. All good ones. He’s also correct that the movie adaptations of Ten Little Indians are all frightful. Directors just can’t resist changing the setting to a shadowy, creaky old house and slapping on a happy ending in place of Christie’s original very bleak one.
    I do think, though, that besides the abominable Miss Marple movies with Margaret Rutherford, the very worst Christie adaptation is the 1982-ish all-star The Mirror Crack’d . Angela Lansbury plays Jane Marple in lace-trimmed plunge necklines and with incessant, annoying tosses of the head. Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak humiliate themselves in roles as rival has-been actresses; and Rock Hudson walks around clearly thinking that, by comparison, it may not have been so bad to have to pretend to be in love with Doris Day, after all. A complete train wreck, and not a fun one, either.


    Posted by Sean at 13:54, January 4th, 2005

    Simon has a post on something I’d been wondering about myself: China. As in, what has it been doing while the great powers of the world are pouring money and personnel into helping its disaster-stricken neighbors to the south? He also gets at something important in a previous post, also on the tsunami and its aftermath:

    If warnings were given it is also difficult to see how effective they would have been. Certainly lives would have been saved. But in many areas communications are poor; there is no high land to evacuate to; and there are too many people and not enough roads and ways to transport them out.

    The news outlets are right to cover the possibility that a tsunami warning system could have saved lives and the urgency of getting aid disbursed to places that still lack it. But the problems that get repeated mention–lack of coordination on the part of on-the-ground aid providers, little precedent of catastrophic tsunamis in the Indian Ocean–are ultimately less important than the fact that a lot of people outside Westernized population centers are so isolated that it’s nearly impossible to get to them except by helicopter. And to do even that, you have to figure out where they are first and resign yourself to dropping things on them if you can’t land, which means they’ll get supplies but no medical care. The most sophisticated warning system in the world wouldn’t have prevented such people from being screwed, and the best teams of planners in the world are still going to have trouble getting food and potable water to them.

    That doesn’t mean we give up trying to help remote populations, or that we write them off and reserve our compassion for those we feel more similar to. It means that we don’t blame human beings for not being able to do the impossible. Furthermore–yes, I’m late to this party, but it’s a point that apparently needs to be made over and over–anyone who’s followed the real-time development of events right after an earthquake knows that the early reports are close to worthless. If a major facility (shopping center, elevated highway, train station) collapsed, you’ll know immediately that at least a certain number of people are dead or injured, but that’s about it. You will not know the extent of the destruction, and you’ll be getting conflicting and incomplete reports for a good while; thus keeping commitments of funding and labor on the “stingy” side for the time being is perfectly rational for a third party. Now that we’re aware of the scope of the damage in southern Asia, it’s cheering to see people giving unreservedly.

    Give me a story and give me a bed / Give me possessions

    Posted by Sean at 11:21, January 3rd, 2005

    I need something explained to me, maybe because I’m a moron. This (not an American story, but not dissimilar from things that happen in America, either) is from 365Gay:

    Dominique Ripoll-Dausa claims that he and retired millionaire Phillip Middleton considered themselves to be married before Middleton’s death last June following a short battle with cancer.

    They had been together for 15 years. At the time of his death, Middleton and Ripoll-Dausa were sharing a home.

    But, Middleton’s parents claim their son was not gay. James and Joan Middleton claimed the two men were only friends and they say they did not draw any inferences from the fact that the two men appeared to share a bed while the family were on holiday together. [You can convince yourself of anything, huh?–SRK]

    Ripoll-Dausa is asking the Constitutional Court to declare his relationship with Middleton equivalent to that of a married couple. His suit says that the law unconstitutionally discriminates against the rights of gay life partners to inherit their loved one’s estates, particularly when the deceased leaves no will.

    This never came up in 15 years together? The report doesn’t say whether Ripoll-Dausa can live on his own earnings or is a starving-artist type that Middleton was supporting. I can see how you might, if in love with a millionaire, want to avoid too-eager discussions about what’s going to happen to all those lovely assets after he’s gone, because it could make you sound like a gold-digger even if you aren’t one. It’s also possible that Middleton didn’t want to make a will in his partner’s favor because that would make their relationship “official”–someone who’s determined not to think of himself as a homosexual can be a bottomless well of rationalizing ingenuity when it comes to that sort of thing.

    Whatever the case, no matter how good the companionship, sex, and art collection–am I the only one whose first thought is, Ooh! What was in that art collection?–I can’t imagine feeling bonded for life with someone who wasn’t willing to be worried big time about how I’d manage if he died. Ripoll-Dausa and Middleton were free to engage in whatever relationship they wished, and maybe the topic was contentious between them or they just didn’t like to think about their own mortality.

    Never mind. All of this is speculation. What is not speculative is that queers look like jokes when we start bellowing about discrimination to cover our own failures to plan like adults. These two had a decade and a half to have The Talk and write wills–if this guy was a millionaire, you can bet he had a lawyer or five. They had full knowledge that they were not considered married under South African law and therefore had no legal claim on each other’s property. I vigorously support domestic partnerships/civil unions, but the case for them is weakened when dizzy bitches don’t even bother to use the resources that are available, then act as if the bind they end up in is someone else’s fault. Way to underscore that we know how to take charge of our lives, there, guy.

    Japan-related tsunami news

    Posted by Sean at 21:07, January 2nd, 2005

    This is uncharacteristic: the most recent Nikkei headline about the most recent tsunami-related developments says, 成田空港に無言の帰国、スリランカから7遺体 (“A silent homecoming at Narita Airport: 7 bodies of Japanese nationals arrive from Sri Lanka”). Normally, the Nikkei leaves headlines with human-interest hooks to the Mainichi and the news tabloids. The bodies today are all from the same tour group.

    The local story that everyone seems to be following most intently is that of Ryohei Sugimoto, 12, who’s the only member of his family left alive. They were on vacation on Pipi, an island close to Phuket in Thailand. He identified his father’s body by his wristwatch and his little brother by his bathing suit. Mrs. Sugimoto was still missing yesterday, though her body may have been found since then. What’s so hard to watch about Ryohei is that he seems shaken but is still composed, and he knows that what he’s waiting for is his mother to turn up dead.

    That’s a Japan-specific story. In the regional media, the attention that isn’t going to bottlenecks in the aid distribution chain is being spared to ask, in part, whether it’s not just a little weird for people to be going through with their plans to vacation on parts of Phuket that are still intact. One certainly hopes that incoming tourists will not take the opportunity to go across the island and rubberneck, but I can’t see the moral virtue involved in making sure that none of the businesses actually left standing make any revenue. Tourism is just about all there is to Phuket, and it’s a big part of the overall Thai economy. The Thai Prime Minister has said that his country doesn’t need more monetary aid, but that doesn’t mean the economy can afford to stagnate while survivors are treated and rubble is cleared. From the point of view of the tourists, it probably takes more strength of character not to switch destinations to somewhere else, in a sense. There are, after all, many inexpensive tropical beach resorts in the region, and those that are away from the Indian Ocean would be the ideal places for people to forget the tsunami and such compassion fatigue as might interfere with a lighthearted good time in the sun.

    Used to love him

    Posted by Sean at 22:30, December 31st, 2004

    Here’s hoping you all had a better New Year than one Sumio Sugita of Kita-Kyushu:

    A 77-year-old woman was arrested Saturday for fatally attacking her 89-year-old husband with sauce bottles, police said.

    Kiyoko Sugita was arrested for the murder of her husband, Sumio, after allegedly bashing him over the head several times with sauce bottles.

    She admits to the allegations.

    “He did nothing around the home except complain and beat me up,” the old woman told the police.

    I can see how that, especially the second part, could get to you by the time you’re 77. Normally, I don’t post entries whose only significance is to show what weird and wacky things happen in Japan; other blogs have that covered ably and amply. (I’m not looking down on them, either; I read them myself.) What struck me about this story was the way the words “sauce bottles” were repeated over and over and over, to the point that you start getting distracted wondering what kind of sauce. If it’d been soy sauce, the report probably would have said so. Maybe ponzu, then? If so, konbu (kelp) or yuzu (a hard, sour citrus fruit) flavor? You’d think yuzu would sting more…you know, with that astringent lemoniness. Well, assuming there was sauce clinging to the inside, since the report says “sauce bottles” and not “bottles of sauce.”

    Added after searching for original Japanese story with Atsushi: The type of bottle isn’t specified in the Japanese report, but a poignant clause about the woman’s years of suffering appears to have been dropped for the English version:

    Mrs. Sugita is reported to have said, “Not only did he constantly complain at me about my cooking and housekeeping, but I had to sit through endless yakking about his bonsai plants.”

    That’s a more rational reason for murder than some we’ve heard this year.

    From those of us whose hangovers are already gone…

    Posted by Sean at 14:01, December 31st, 2004


    Which is to say, “Happy New Year! I ask your continued favor.” Okay, that’s one of those clunky-literal translations I generally try to avoid–but, see, the thing is, the Japanese have a different expression for “Happy New Year” now that it is the new year. I mean, the one above is the different expression from the anticipatory one you use in December. That’s 良いお年をお迎え下さい (clunky-literal translation: “May you greet a good new year”). In the sentence at the top of this post, the 明けまして part is the verb meaning “has dawned” or “[morning] has broken.” It’s the same kanji as is used to mean “bright,” though, so the New Year greeting has always had a sweet hint of “Good morning, sunshine!” to me.

    And, in Tokyo, at least, the clouds have lifted, yesterday’s snow/sleet/slush/yuck routine is over (for now), and it’s gorgeous out. Perfect weather for the traditional New Year’s cleaning–which explains why I decided to park myself in front of the computer and check the news and my messages and have now ended up composing a blog post. But never you fear. On this day of new beginnings, surfaces will be washed with hot bleach-water, items will be returned to their rightful drawers, electrical cords and lightbulbs will be checked, and bedding will be sun-fluffed. You know, starting in just a minute or so.

    I was looking for a season-appropriate poem to post, but for a dilettante like me, there are problems. The new year according to which the poems of the classical canon were written is in February, so those that are actually appropriate to this point in time have a wistful, year-end feel. Those poems with the sense of a fresh start in the new year are full of references to the beginning of spring, which for obvious reasons feels a bit off.

    However, since the Japanese spring in the Heian Period began before the vernal equinox, anyway, I’m going to take the liberty of repairing yet again to the Shinkokin-shu and enlisting the aid of the Princess Shokushi. Actually, I wish all dilemmas in life could be solved by enlisting the aid of the Princess Shokushi–it would make for a much more aesthetically pleasing existence–but we must content ourselves with capitalizing on such opportunities as present themselves. Anyway:



    yamabukami / haru tomo shiranu / matsu no to ni / tae-dae kakaru / yuki no tamamizu

    Deep in the mountains
    My cabin door of pine planks
    knows nothing of spring
    But melting snow now and then
    slides down with a gem-like flash
    –The Princess Shokushi

    Okay, fine, so there’s actually more cold weather to come in 2005–I told you the poem didn’t fit the solar year. What strikes me as apposite about it (it’s the first of many for the Princess Shokushi in the Shinkokin-shu) is the sense that new beginnings don’t always announce themselves explosively. They creep up on you, the way the year begins with an arc in the sweep of the second hand, just like any other top of the hour.

    Once again, Happy New Year to everyone. Special thanks and good wishes to our troops and to the Japanese SDF for working to keep us safe and help others achieve what we have, and to their families for enduring chaotic lives to help them do it.

    Bureaucracy in action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The worst natural disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Disaster relief and distribution

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

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

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

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


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

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

    It works like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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