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    Have I mentioned I was born in 1972?

    Posted by Sean at 14:23, October 3rd, 2004

    If you are the tool of Satan who got “Right Time of the Night” stuck in my head, be warned that when I catch you, you will know my wrath. I hate that song. Smug, coy, wheedling, complacent ’70’s seduction crap that makes me feel as if I were back in my parents’ Mustang hatchback riding to ShopRite, with “I’d Really Love to See you Tonight” next on the playlist. Blech!

    I thought maybe my brain was just in the mood for smug, coy, wheedling, complacent ’70’s seduction crap, so maybe I could get it to latch on to a specimen I actually like. Accordingly, I put on Anne Murray and listened to “Shadows in the Moonlight” (Shut it–the melody is pretty, the lyrics are at least sophisticated enough to have a how-fleeting-is-youth tension flitting through them, and former-gym teacher Anne was big with our lesbian sisters; when you’re dealing with smug, coy, et c., these distinctions matter. Furthermore, I will not listen to anyone who wants to tell me that because Jennifer Warnes did an album of Leonard Cohen covers and blah-blah, she’s a Genuine Artist. Pleh) a few times, but no such luck. I was right back to cleaning the bathroom and swooning, “Aw, you ‘n me, bay-beh, we could thinka someth’n to doooo” to the high-density plastic. I may even have cast my eyes down and blushed. Blushed. I’m not sure I can take much more of this.

    Men in uniform

    Posted by Sean at 23:22, October 1st, 2004

    I don’t know that I have any readers who also live here in Japan, but if you do, it might interest you to read this from the Mainichi:

    Japan’s rank-and-file police officers are calling on the general public to protect themselves as they believe law enforcers alone cannot maintain peace and order, a National Police Agency (NPA) report showed on Friday.

    The 2004 NPA white paper asked 2,000 experienced officers working at local police boxes across Japan about “what is needed to maintain security.”

    A staggering 95 percent of them admitted that they alone could not maintain domestic order, the survey shows.

    Some 80 percent of them said that individuals should try to protect themselves, while 50 percent said citizens should form local crime prevention groups.

    Well, fine. I’m willing to take responsibility for my own protection*, but given that guns are illegal for private citizens here, what am I supposed to do? Rig up pongee sticks? Make sure to take that cleaver to the tinker’s regularly and sleep with it under the pillow?

    The neighborhood crime watch part sounds good, but it has a ways to go:

    When asked about how they have joined hands with local residents to prevent crime, about 50 percent of the polled officers said they had not established sufficient cooperation.

    When asked about what they wanted officers to improve, more than half of the polled citizens said they wanted more patrols.

    At the same time, many said they didn’t want to see police boxes with no officers.

    The white paper also questioned about 1,200 crime-prevention volunteer groups in Japan about the problems they face.

    About 60 percent of the groups said that volunteers were afraid of dangerous situations when they patrol.

    Now, it must be added that there’s almost certainly a SLOPs-like sampling issue here. That is, the places in Japan that actually have citizen crime patrols are likely to be places that have had crimes already. There’s no indication that Tokyo or Osaka is going to turn, wholesale, into London or DC. The social factors that keep crime low in Japan have been well-documented by others, and I’m on record as protesting against the Japan-is-going-to-hell strain in a lot of post-Bubble Western reporting. Nevertheless, the economic disruptions over the last ten years have increased everyday social pressures, and crime is increasing. I’m not just talking about crime committed by resident foreigners, which is the only kind Japanese people like to hear about. I mean also Japanese people turning to crime because they have zero employment prospects or have just gone unhinged. The number of crimes is low. It’s probably going to remain low; that’s one of the many good points of Japanese shame culture.

    But if you’re the victim of a crime, it’s not likely to be much comfort that you’re only one out of a statistical few thousand, or that the national crime rate is still lower than that of Indonesia. And like a lot of post-War American suburbs when violent and property crime began spreading outward from urban cores a few decades ago, most places in Japan are not designed for crime prevention. They were, rather, built under the assumption that things would always be safe.

    Case in point: The building Atsushi and I live in was built in 2000. It’s in one of the most populous wards of Tokyo, albeit in a residential area; but still, there was no security system to speak of until one of the ground-floor units was broken into. The front entrance had a keyboard/intercom system for admitting visitors, and the back doors to the parking garage required keys to enter. But all that separated the front doors to three ground-floor apartments from the parking lot was a four-foot wall with some shrubs in front of it. (And even now, the lobby and elevators are the only places in the building with security cameras.)

    Mark you, we’re among the lucky who live in a new building run by a responsive management company. A lot of apartment buildings in Tokyo have no doors at the entrances; the corridors are essentially open-air or accessible from fire escape-like stairways. And housing here, even a lot of high-end housing, tends to be made of flimsy materials: hollow-core outer doors, sliding picture windows with single panes of the approximate stoutness of sugar glass, uninsulated walls.

    As someone who’s lived in Philadelphia and New York, I’ll be interested to see how things develop. The thinking that citizens go about their business without fear because the government and police are looking after everyone’s safety is very deeply ingrained here. However unfortunate it is that vigilance against crime is becoming more necessary in Japan, it’s a good sign that this white paper has been publicized.

    Added on 3 October: Brian Tiemann is in New York and has posted his impressions. Interesting as always. He doesn’t mention this, but of course, one of the reasons Times Square is clean and safe now is the Giuliani administration’s very controversial “broken windows” approach to crime-fighting. The year I lived in New York was 1995-96; I’d spent a lot of time there before, but not as a resident. It’s fair to say–and even many of his supporters, I think, acknowledge this–that the mayor’s office and police were pretty high-handed in their dealings with citizens and businesses. Questions have also been raised about what some see as the virtual annexing of the Times Square/42nd Street area by Disney. Still, given New York’s reputation in the ’70’s and ’80’s, it’s not hard to see why people thought they had only two choices: ruthlessly stamp out every visible infraction of any law whatever, or live with junkies and streetwalkers in pedestrians’ faces.

    * Well, I would persuade my Japanese-citizen boyfriend to keep a gun in the apartment. I have the distinct feeling that even if guns were legal, foreigners wouldn’t be allowed to carry them.

    Signed, sealed, delivered

    Posted by Sean at 01:48, October 1st, 2004

    I am heartily, utterly, most sensationally, inspirationally, celebrationally, muppetationally sick of the election. Yeah, I know, there’s a line forming for that one, but you see, I could do something about it. My absentee ballot came in the mail this week, and while I was watching the debate this morning, it was driven home to me that I could fill it out right now, send it, and be done with the whole thing. I don’t, after all, expect to change my mind between now and the third week of October, either about the President or about the PA senate seat.

    Regarding the latter, I’ve managed to register, after weeks of responsible-citizen searching, nothing about Joseph Hoeffel except that he’s not a Republican. (Don’t bother crying, “Neither is Arlen Specter!” That line’s been around since I was in junior high. My preference is for strong principled-ness, too; but there’s a reason Pennsylvania is considered a swing state. Specter and Santorum represent 12 million-odd people among whom arch-liberals, arch-conservatives, and all shades on the spectrum in between are found in significant numbers. That Specter sees himself in the role of compromise-striking operator does not seem to me to be out of line with representing his constituency. Hoeffel might fill the same role, but he’d have two decades’ less worth of Rolodex-building to do it with.)

    The debate left me with the reassuring feeling–for the first time in months–that there actually were two serious candidates for President. Kerry sounded thoughtful and grounded. But I still don’t see how voting him in is supposed to improve things. As I say, I don’t expect to change my mind about a single tick-box in the next three weeks.

    I think I’ll just suffer to the bitter end (or as close to the bitter end as I can get while still having my ballot in by the Friday before Election Day) with everyone else, even so. Living on the opposite side of the Pacific, I cherish every opportunity to feel that I’m experiencing something with my fellow American voters in real time, for one thing.

    For another, I haven’t even begun to look into the fascinating candidates for Auditor General.

    The new foreign minister

    Posted by Sean at 01:18, September 30th, 2004

    The Yomiuri reports that new Minister of Foreign Affairs Nobutaka Machimura believes* the constitution should be amended in order for Japan to become a permanent member of the UNSC:

    “The Constitution should be amended to clearly position Japan’s international peace-building activities,” Machimura said at the Foreign Ministry. “The Constitution should be reformed because it is better to ensure that no confusion will arise when Japan fulfills its duties as a permanent member (because of a possible conflict between constitutional principles and the position),” he added.

    Last week, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced Japan would seek a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council. Koizumi said the nation would be able to become a permanent member without amending the Constitution.

    Interesting. It’s hard to tell whether that could be a rift-making issue or Machimura is just giving voice to something Koizumi actually wants, too, behind the soothing public talk. The Nikkei print edition–it may be on the web, but I’m too lazy to look it up and happen to have it on top of the recycling pile–ran parallel front-page interviews last Friday with two business leaders on the hot-button constitutional issues. Kakutaro Kitashiro, the chair of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, said when asked about the amendment issue:

    Having no military power is a policy that doesn’t square with today’s international circumstances. Even a secondary school student must sense the mismatch with Article 9 [the article of the constitution that renounces militarism]. Amending the constitution is preferable to just expanding its interpretation.

    I’m partial–and not just for Japan–to that sort of thinking, too. Simply loosening the interpretation of Article 9 might seem like a more tactful way for Japan to smooth its way toward open super-powerdom, but there is no way in hell the rest of Asia will be convinced not to have a conniption anyway. Koizumi would probably have to bulldoze the Yasukuni Shrine, not just stop visiting it, to mollify the PRC on that one. But a clearly-worded amendment that gives the government leave to participate in ongoing conflicts but not to launch attacks might, conceivably, play well with others who could join together to lean on China a bit. (Nothing changes, but this time, it would be a good cause. I think the petitions of India, Germany, and Brazil make sense, too.)

    Speaking of bargaining with allies, the proposed US troop realignment is still a sticking point (this is from the Yomiuri article again):

    Japan has asked that the United States maintain effective deterrence through the Japan-U.S. security alliance in the area surrounding Japan, while reducing the burden on local governments where U.S. military bases are located.

    It’s not just the non-combat deployment of SDF personnel that has made things touchy with the public; a helicopter crashed in Okinawa two months ago, and the USMC’s clampdown on the wreckage was widely perceived as high-handed. The “burden on local governments” referred to above is a bit elliptical, but it probably refers to that sort of thing–the strained relations between US soldiers and the Japanese who live near their bases, I mean, not our helicopters constantly falling out of the sky. Machimura has plenty to pay attention to.

    * Like all links to the Yomiuri, this one will expire in a few days; if I forget to search for the Google cache and relink it, feel free to e-mail me.

    The latest typhoon

    Posted by Sean at 12:45, September 29th, 2004

    This is not a good year to live in hurricane or typhoon country: The latest typhoon (Number 21) to hit Japan has once again made landfall in Kyushu. Five people are dead and eighteen missing at this time, but it’s expected to have weakened to a temperate zone low-pressure system by tomorrow. Fortunately, there were no big boat accidents; that pushed the death toll to around 40 for one of the storms that hit at the beginning of this month. Atsushi’s fine; we talked on the phone as always between 11:30 and midnight. The storm is moving east-northeast, so from Kyushu it’s basically moved right over Shikoku and the southwest end of Honshu. We had a lot of rain and wind here in Tokyo, too, but nothing dangerous, though I guess the storm will come closest to us overnight.

    Added at 23:55: The final figures are 16 dead and 12 injured, with a great deal of property damage.

    More about Japan Post reform

    Posted by Sean at 23:32, September 28th, 2004

    Asahi has a new poll (here’s the original Japanese version) indicating that voters don’t care about Japan Post reform (which is what I should have called it earlier, rather than “Postal Service reform,” which makes it sound as if only the handling of the mails were involved). That’s interesting, if not all that surprising. It may be that people don’t perceive what’s at stake in the management of Postal Savings accounts–or it may be that they do but just think the “reforms” aren’t going to help and therefore aren’t worth fixating on:

    Those polled were also asked whether they thought Koizumi would be able to exercise his leadership in realizing privatization of postal services, given that many influential members in the Liberal Democratic Party remain opposed to Koizumi’s privatization plan.

    About 39 percent said no, while about 37 percent said yes.

    So people may understand the import of the issue but feel that nothing substantive can be accomplished. The English version leaves out the part specifically about Heizo Takenaka’s new position as head of Japan Post privatization (39% think his appointment was a good idea; 25% do not). Predictably, most people chose pensions/welfare as the most important issues, with more general economic and employment issues next.

    You’re not the kind that needs to tell me / About the birds and the bees

    Posted by Sean at 12:59, September 27th, 2004

    I think that a lot of what Joe Kort says in his latest post at Ex-Gay Watch makes sense. I’m not so sure about this segment, though:

    I believe that most people involved with ex-gay organizations and choose to deny their own homosexuality are turtles [that is, people who duck for cover and minimize themselves when they feel insecure].

    Really? The average ex-gay autobiography I’ve read tends to go something like this: “One morning, after years of drinking, taking drugs, and alternately working as a hustler and being dumped by my latest exploitative boyfriend, I woke up for the hundredth time in a pool of my own vomit and realized my problem was that…homosexuality is sinful!” I’m not the first to notice this, but it’s hard not to read prominent ex-gays’ detailed accounts of their past lives without sensing a kind of thrill and reverse-braggadocio underneath: “I was such a bad mo-fo it took God to straighten me out!” It allows those with loudmouth tendencies to stay loudmouthed in the role of Getting the Message out. (That doesn’t mean I don’t think they’re sincere, by the way.)

    And at the same time, it seems only fair to mention the flip side: I think a lot of the more militant gays haven’t worked through their God issues. By this I mean that they avoid the process of confronting the possibility that the anti-gay religious folks are correct, which would lead to practicing homosexuality only once they were secure in the examined belief that it was the right path for them. Normally, I try not to speculate about what’s going on inside people’s heads, but I can think of no other explanation for the weird touchiness and reflexive dismissiveness of a lot of gays when the subject of religion or transcendence comes up. I wish people (on either side) didn’t feel the need to make themselves feel better about their own choices by deriding those who make the opposite ones, but that problem is probably as old as civilization and doesn’t seem to show any signs of abating.

    Japanese Postal Service reform

    Posted by Sean at 19:41, September 26th, 2004

    One of the big news items here in Japan over the last several months has been the reform and privatization of the Postal Service. I haven’t avoided it for fear of boring you–though it’s not the sort of topic likely to make you a hit at dinner parties. It’s just that there’s been so much back-and-forth. It is, though, a very, very important issue here in Japan, because Postal Savings accounts hold a lot of the wealth of Japanese households and put it at the disposal of Ministry of Finance project managers. This editorial (subscription only–sorry) from last week’s Nikkei English on-line edition delineates pretty well how things have developed:

    The privatization plan will divide Japan Post into four companies respectively operating the mail, savings and insurance services as well as the nationwide network of post offices, but the four operators will remain under the integrated management of a holding company.

    The holding company will sell its shares in the savings and insurance units to turn them into private businesses, but it is not clear what percentage of the stock will actually be sold. Moreover, the government will continue to own at least one-third of the holding company, allowing it to maintain its involvement in the savings and insurance companies, at least to some extent, unless the holding company sells its entire interest in them.

    The mail and network management entities, which will remain under the full ownership of the holding company, will be required to provide uniform services nationwide in exchange for receiving special treatment, including a continued monopoly in the mail delivery business.

    The branch network management company will inherit post offices and workers from Japan Post. The government appears to be intent on ensuring that the other three new postal companies will use the offices and workers of the network firm to protect these politically important jobs. Such forced dependence on the existing post office network will frustrate the new companies’ efforts to refashion themselves into more efficient and profitable players.

    This scheme — creating an entity to take over Japan Post’s infrastructure and virtually forcing the other postal companies to use it — seems to be simply a ploy to avoid radical changes in postal operations while making the reorganization look like a reform, just as the plan adopted to privatize public road corporations based on a two-tier structure was merely a scheme to keep building new roads.

    The envisioned savings and insurance companies are unlikely to achieve management independence as long as they are tethered to the infrastructure operator, which will not be freed completely from government control. This is not a formula that lends itself to independent and transparent accounting at the postal companies.

    The basic design of the privatization will certainly cause this crucial reform initiative to go awry and it will do nothing to further privatization’s primary goal: ending the government’s stranglehold on a big chunk of private savings that is causing serious distortions in the financial markets and undermining fiscal discipline. Achieving this goal requires a swift and complete end to the government’s involvement in the privatized postal companies.

    If you’ve got a sense of déjà vu here, you may be thinking of what happened to California’s energy providers, which taught us all the difference between privatization and deregulation. (And I must note, in fairness, that unlike the USPS, the Japanese Postal Service provides mail handling of pretty much unexceptionable quality.)

    Added an hour later: Because I’m distracted by the Vertigo DVD and am also a scatterbrained idiot, I forgot to note why I’m finally bringing up the Postal Service reform in the first place: It’s what drove the selection of new appointees in the cabinet reshuffle Prime Minister Koizumi announced today. Heizo Takenaka, who’s going to end up with more joint appointments than Stanley Fish soon, will still be in charge of economic policy and fiscal administration, and he’s also been named the head of Postal Service privatization and reform. That’s a new, ad hoc post, of course.

    Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, who has distinguished herself largely by not having a big mouth like her predecessor Makiko Tanaka, is outgoing; she’d been reappointed in the last cabinet change. Her replacement is MP Nobutaka Machimura, who apparently has lots of connections in the US. He was Minister of Education back when (1) that’s what the position was called and (2) there was last a flap over Japan’s government-approved social science textbooks. More directly related to diplomacy, he was State Secretary of Foreign Affairs under…uh…Obuchi? Japanese PM’s sprang up and died like Mayflies in the late ’90’s, so I don’t remember. I wonder whether he was picked not just for his US ties but also because he’s somehow seen as being a good figure to guide the Japanese push for permanent membership on the UN Security Council? I mean, he would almost have to have been, but I haven’t seem him cast in that light in the preliminary reports.

    They eat off of you / You’re a vegetable

    Posted by Sean at 19:07, September 26th, 2004

    Phooey (phoois, phooit…). I saw this FoxNews story on a recent Michael Jackson conference at Yale, but I was still munching over a way to say something useful and funny about it. As always, Alice in Texas proves the simplest ideas are the best:

    FoxNews: panelists discussed how pedophilia allegations have fed into false stereotypes about gays.

    Alice B: Do people no longer have phone directories to read?

    It’s a shame that the people studying pop culture in the academy do such a horrible job at it, because in my experience in college, it was really valuable. In a modern poetry class I took sophomore year, I asked the professor about including Madonna (Erotica had just come out) in my final paper, and his response was, “You may include a section on Madonna, as long as–I don’t know how you anticipate doing this with the work of such a thoroughgoing vulgarian, but I wait with interest to see–you really think you’ve found a way to ground her in the traditions of American poetry.”

    And he meant it. Whenever we conferred about the paper, he took pains to make sure I was focused on the old stuff of proven, lasting value (Dickinson and Eliot) and showing how I thought it illuminated what Madonna was doing. For that matter, we also, in tenth grade, took a break from reading Chaucer and Beowulf and Pepys’s diary to do one of our assigned five-paragraph themes on a work of contemporary fiction. “Good junk,” our teacher called it–Updike, or whatever. The idea was to take the principles we were learning to apply to the foundational or great works and see how talented authors right now were still using them in a lesser but meaningful way. But we did it once, and then it was back to…I don’t know, Party Patches, or wherever we were. On most educational issues, I’m slightly to the right of the average convent school nun, but I do think that it’s good to work artifacts of popular culture into lessons sparingly. The continuity of Western civilization is probably the most valuable lesson of the humanities/social science part of education.

    But of course, that’s not the way researchers approach it. Most of the pop culture studies material you see involves closed readings, with only other pop culture or current events for context. The interpretive framework is almost invariably based in cultural studies, the poison seeds of which were germinating when I was in college. The idea seems to be to reassure students that they can just kind of glance at what’s around them and see everything they need to know to understand art and the mysteries of life. Because, you know, if there’s anything kids in their late teens and early twenties won’t do without being shown how, it’s navel-gazing.

    Just one thing from the article that did make me chuckle:

    Jackson “in many ways is the black male crossover artist of the 20th century,” said Seth Clark Silberman, who teaches about race and gender at Yale. “He has grown up in front of us, so we have a great investment in him, even though some people today may find his image disturbing.”

    Some people may find his image disturbing? Sheesh. You know, if anyone out there has a list of people who are not disturbed by Jackson’s current image, please do me the kindness of forwarding it to me so I can stay the hell away from them.

    More Asian amity

    Posted by Sean at 13:08, September 24th, 2004

    Okay, I am so totally going to go to the office right after I post this, but Meaty Fly is resurfacing occasionally and noted, a week ago, that an advisory panel to PM Koizumi recommended that China be regarded as a potential threat. I can’t imagine who in his right mind would think otherwise, but as MF says, it’s the sort of thing that is guaranteed to get the PRC pissed. President Hu also told a Japanese official this week that visits by Koizumi and his cabinet to the Yasukuni Shrine are an obstacle that must be resolved to improve China-Japan relations.