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    I still love you / Je ne sais pas pourquoi

    Posted by Sean at 22:40, August 11th, 2004


    There’s apparently a great deal of self-deception going around over the upcoming election. A few weeks back, Virginia Postrel chided libertarians about citing Bush’s betrayal of free trade principles as a reason to vote for Kerry. Everybody and his grandmother thinks Andrew Sullivan is being soft on Kerry because he feels spurned by Bush.

    Contrariwise, Michael Demmons says Boi from Troy is delusional for comparing Bush-Cheney favorably to other Republican presidential tickets on gay rights. And Dale Carpenter has a piece up at IGF about the nerve-abrading contortions of gay Democrats at and after the convention–a topic that’s been flogged lifeless by others but that Carprenter treats with characteristic point and clarity:

    What to make of the Boston Democrats? They really like gay people, but they’d really rather the American public didn’t know that. And what of gay Democrats? They’re high-minded idealists when they criticize gay Republicans for working within a party that doesn’t much like gays; but they’re sober-minded pragmatists when assessing their own party’s treatment of gays. Yes, they acknowledge, the Boston convention was a retreat from gay visibility at past conventions. But, they quickly add, that’s necessary to defeat the evil Republicans.

    Kerry announced his obligatory respect for diversity in language so general President Bush himself could have used it. He also tried to undermine Republican moralism by claiming to support

    Confucius say, Coddling eggs produce inferior chicken

    Posted by Sean at 22:42, August 10th, 2004

    Amritas has a post up today about Japanese-Americans who are clinging like death to their connection to Japan as a way to feel as if their pampered suburban lives are really records of noble struggle.

    It seems to be a good week to be aggrieved. One Ryan Joseph Kim has an article on advocate.com about some recent gay and Asian references in pop culture:

    A few months ago Details, the metrosexual men

    Child violence in Japan

    Posted by Sean at 21:25, August 10th, 2004

    Susanna Cornett sent me a link to this Instapundit mini-post about the latest spate of violence committed by Japanese children, and she flatteringly asked me for my thoughts on the issue. She also gave me her own interpretation, which I mostly agree with and will discuss below.

    First, though, I’d like to note that, when you’ve lived in Japan for a while, you start to notice that the same stories surface in American news publications periodically. One of these is, “After suffering years of discrimination and sexual harassment, Japanese working women are laying claim to their rights to be promoted on merit, to work even after they have children, not to be considered eye candy for visitors, and not to have to arrive two hours before the men to sweep, dust, and make tea.”

    A second (the writer Alex Kerr had a whole segment on this in his last book) is, “Japanese youths are known for their school uniforms and conservative grooming, but a recent wave of adventurous teenagers is making dyed hair and body art the funky new norm.”

    Another is, “Unlike their antecedents, the latest crop of slatternly female J-pops stars write their own lyrics and can actually sing!”

    Still another is, “Financial analysts have been shocked and horrified to find that XYZ Bank’s bad debts may total several times the figure it released at the end of the last fiscal year, which raises new questions about the viability of the Japanese economic recovery.”

    And yes, yet another is, “The famed obedience culture in Japanese schools appears to be giving way as disturbed pre-teens take up knives to avenge bullying and insults.”

    Now, of course, none of these things is outright untrue or not worth reporting on. The problem is that journalists like to write stories that read like great novels: setup, conflict, technical climax, dramatic climax, resolution. That predisposes them toward pushing the never before seen! angle, even if the same reporter wrote essentially the same story for the same magazine two years ago. It also gives them a tendency to leave out facts and factors that don’t fit the most compelling narrative arc.

    The WaPo article Instapundit linked to is a good compilation of the more grisly child-on-child crimes that have captured national attention here over the last decade. Here’s Susanna’s take on it and on Glenn Reynolds’s wife’s piece:

    The newspapers, as well as the communities

    they’re reporting on, seem to feel that it’s about anomie (a sense of

    disconnectedness from society) resulting from lack of obvious parental

    affection and the violent video games/movies. Glenn’s wife points to

    building frustration and no one to listen, also a facet of anomie. My

    brother (not in a post, in a private conversation) thought that it was the

    influence of Westernization (the bad bits of it). I tend to think it’s a

    crumbling national culture in the face of changes, where traditional social

    controls have lost much of their power but nothing has swept in to replace

    it – which is actually a fairly classic setup for Durkheimian anomie.

    Westernization *is* part of the force that’s crumbling the old ways, but I

    think it’s also from the inside. And I think part of that is the lack of an

    internalized moral code based on belief in a spiritual being (God), so that

    when the exterior culture crumbles there’s nothing inside to offer moral

    guidance – so you see things like the prostitution for new purses mention in

    the WaPo article, as well as the obviously horrific violence.

    I think the closest we can come to a complete explanation is a synthesis of the points Susanna talks about here. (Well, I take exception to one thing. As a Christian, she understandably sees God as the necessary source of an individual’s moral code; as an atheist, I don’t agree with that part, though I think belief in God is more a positive than a negative force in most people’s lives in practice. In any case, Japanese religion doesn’t have the single Creator with a big, benevolent plan for mankind that we’re used to in Judeo-Christianity. You have the various nature deities, and the spirits of the ancestors, and the manifestations of Buddha, and you do what they say because…well, they’re wiser and more powerful than you are.)

    The post-War Japanese educational system developed to go with the employment system developed to go with the regulatory system. After WWII, the Japanese needed a national goal, and economic advancement became it. This served two main purposes: It rebuilt the wrecked infrastructure and gave the returning soldiers something to do. The idea was to turn citizens into interchangeable units by standardizing their behavior and pushing them towards the mean in intelligence and achievement. That way, the country as a whole could move forward by allocating human resources where needed without impediment. So responsibility for childrearing was in many ways ceded to the school system. Children went to regular public school classes and then cram school. Fathers worked long hours of overtime. Mothers took care of the households (often including in-laws). Everyone was overworked and sleep-deprived, but the children could see prosperity increasing around them, and they could see how proud and purposeful their parents were. Students could see themselves as the next generation to score world-class achievements: the textile-metallurgy boom, the single-minute exchange of dies, the Walkman.

    Now that Japan is no longer poised to take over the global economy, the incentives to conform beyond normal limits don’t exist for a lot of kids. But the school system hasn’t adjusted its relentless do-what-you’re-told-do-what-you’re-told message. Children aren’t taught how to be resilient–the practical principles of morals and ethics that they can adapt to different situations with a little imagination and goodwill added. Additionally, many of them aren’t home enough (remember, 2/3 of Japanese students go to cram school, meaning that they may get home at about 9 or 10 every night) for their parents to teach them good behavior through repetition. So when the vulnerable kids start to go off the rails, there isn’t much to brake them. Naturally, even normal children aren’t infinitely malleable, but most of them are pretty sturdy. The Japanese people I know wouldn’t willingly go through their K-12 experiences again; but despite the hazards along the way, they ultimately became lively, centered, responsible adults.

    And yet, to read reports in the Western press, you get the sense that the streets are a hair’s breadth away from being mobbed by hysterical, X-acto knife-brandishing teens. It’s that aspect that I wish they’d rein in a bit. Japan has social problems that I don’t think are going to improve before they get worse for a while, but I don’t see society collapsing. For one thing, the 30% of the economy that’s world-class competitive is still robust enough to make up for the 70% that serves the domestic market and is plagued by duplication of effort, redundant personnel, and red tape. For another thing, families are slowly finding the benefits in not having Dad ready to drop dead from overwork and Mom driving herself nuts over whether the chambray of her jumper will meet the approval of the rest of the neighborhood housewives. (These are not exaggerations, BTW.)

    Which is to say, Japan is still affluent enough to provide the average student incentive to study hard–not to study like a maniac, but to do well–with the prospect of making a decent living when he finishes school. There’s no more direct conveyor belt from college to company to easy retirement, to be sure, but most people know they’re unlikely to end up in tent villages. And families are rediscovering what it’s like to be involved in the rearing of their children. This transition is proceeding in fits and starts, and there are always dangers involved (the economic threat from China is the most obvious), but I do think it’s happening.

    The big issue, again, is that Japan has not set itself up to help the most emotionally vulnerable children deal with pressure, and now that there are more of them, the problem is correspondingly larger. I’d love to have a fix for that one, but I think that what we can realistically expect is for changes to the relationship between schooling and child-rearing–and therefore improvements–to happen very slowly.

    Added at 21:38: The latest crime just happened Sunday. A 15-year-old boy found that the classmate he wanted to stab wasn’t home, so he murdered the classmate’s mother instead.

    Another accident at a nuclear facility

    Posted by Sean at 18:14, August 8th, 2004

    Sheesh. I was just using this revelation the other day as a way to point out, for those who might not have heard, Japan’s history of mismanagement of nuclear facilities and materials. I had no idea the matter would become topical again so soon:


    According to a message received by METI’s Nuclear Power Safety and Security Commission, a steam leak developed (3:30 p.m.) in a turbine in Reactor 3 (82.6 kilowatts…the design is described as being “pressurized water,” which I’m sure has some specialized English term it corresponds to) of Kansai Electric’s Mihama Power Station. According to the Commission, 11 people have been wounded. According to the local Fire Department, of those, the heart and lungs of five have stopped functioning.

    It looks as if the steam contains no radiation, and the Nikkei is reporting that four of the employees mentioned above (all from an outfit called Kiuchi Keisoku, which my cursory search says is, not surprisingly, a machine maintenance service firm) are dead. It’s hard to tell what might have led up to the problem, but one thing is clear: The screens of those monitoring the turbine didn’t pick up any anomalies, and weren’t registering the leak even after the accident. It’s fortunate that the danger to the surrounding community seems non-existent. On the other hand, the number of deaths and injuries is pretty high already, and we still don’t know whether the other seven are okay.

    Added at 18:24: The story’s already on Reuters , which reports that the leak was caused by insufficient coolant.

    Added on 11 August: The pipe that ruptured hadn’t been inspected for 28 years.

    Added on 16 August: J Bowen at No Watermelons Allowed (a sentiment with which I concur heartily) has posted a fuller explanation of the mechanics of the steam pipes and their relation to the reactor at the Mihama plant. It expands on the information in Toren’s comment here.


    Posted by Sean at 23:55, August 6th, 2004

    Well, Japan just won the Asia Cup, 3-1 against China. Let’s hope the players and fans aren’t dismembered on their way to the airport.

    Modesty and Maud

    Posted by Sean at 04:57, August 6th, 2004

    Alice, back in Texas, is writing about the interplay between freedom and decorum again:

    Well, after trawling through enough racks of clothes for people whose attempts to attract the opposite sex are so subtle that they make Britney Spears look like Maria Von Trapp, one might be forgiven for thinking that a few burquas here and there would smarten the place up a bit. But then, one of the liberations of the West is the right to make a total muppet of yourself in shopping malls.

    I’m at the tail end of the part of the life cycle in which I can get away with appearing in public in a saucy (not to say slutty) little T-shirt without looking pathetic, so I’m working it while I can.

    Within reason. Even when I was in my 20’s, I was never a fan of the leave-nothing-to-the-imagination school. It’s not just that I was brought up to dress properly when appearing in public, though that’s part of it. It’s also that running around half-naked makes lasciviousness less fun. (Yes, I know, that lesson is as old as civilization itself. It could stand to be rediscovered.) There are few better ways to drive yourself pleasurably insane than to be talking to a guy in a dress shirt and loosened tie and try to guess, based on the backs of his hands and what you can glimpse of his throat when he leans in to say something over the din, how hairy he is, how solidly he’s built, and whether his skin is creamier where the sun doesn’t normally hit it. A shredded, low-slung tank top–through which you and everyone he’s shared a train car with today have been able to scrutinize, at leisure, everything but the nipples–kind of puts the kibosh on that kind of amusement.

    Of course, what Alice is talking about operates at an entirely different level. When it’s the burqa (or chador or salwar kamiz) under discussion, you lose the ability to feed the senses in ways that have nothing to do with naughtiness.

    Added at 10 a.m.: Susanna has linked to a portfolio of nude photographs and expressed both delight in their aesthetic value and reservations about the fact that there are naked people in them. I can’t help with that issue from a Christian perspective, but I don’t think that just any old nude image adds to the weird fetishization of sex in American culture. If art is considered a special cultural zone in which inspiration is given the purest possible expression, you can distinguish between posing nude in a photographer’s studio (fine) and being half-naked thoughout a day’s errands at the grocery store, post office, and DMV (problematic).

    A chemical, a chemical reaction

    Posted by Sean at 01:14, August 6th, 2004

    Here we go again. It’s been a few years since our last Keystone Kops-ish nuclear power screw-up, so I guess we’re about due for one. At least this time, the problem has been discovered before anything went kablooie:

    A former employee of a supplier of concrete-grade gravel to be used in turbines in Reactor 4 of Chubu Electric’s Hamaoka Nuclear Power Station has made an internal report to the Nuclear Power Safety and Security Commission of METI (the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry), saying that he falsified reactivity test results on alkaline aggregate used to guarantee quality control in the gravel. The commission has begun investigations.

    Okay, I can read that, but I admit that I only took a year of high school chemistry and don’t know what it really means. But you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to understand that “falsified test results” + “guarantee quality control” = uh-oh. The nuclear power industry in Japan is notorious for lax enforcement of safety standards and endless cover-ups. Five years ago, two employees at the Tokaimura uranium processing facility were in a rush and dumped too much enriched uranium solution into a tank, setting off an uncontrolled fission reaction. (As a coworker said to me the day of the accident, you couldn’t trust such jackasses to make Lipton onion soup.) Several hundred people were variously evacuated or imprisoned at home or school. It took hours to locate an appropriate counter to measure how much radiation had escaped. All told, several hundred thousand people may have been endangered to different degrees.

    But the whole thing was played down. My favorite part came several days later when–I’ll never forget this as long as I live–one of the sub-minister types from MITI (it was still the Ministry of International Trade and Industry then) was packed off to Tokaimura to sample the local produce, stagily smacking his lips over how fresh and succulent the melon was. The implication was that, since he didn’t begin glowing immediately, no one had anything to worry about.

    Mind you, this had been the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl. That doesn’t mean it was at the same level as Chernobyl, of course; it wasn’t nearly. But it wasn’t as if two janitors had accidentally mixed ammonia with Clorox in a bucket, either. No one really knows how extensive the safety and accountability problems are in the nuclear industry here. Happily, while Japan has more accidents than most other countries that use nuclear power, they’re still pretty few and far between. One can only hope that controls are firmed up sufficiently before something big-time disastrous happens. It’d be unwise to bank on it, though.

    Thinking pink

    Posted by Sean at 13:08, August 5th, 2004

    The Human Rights Campaign has endorsed Arlen Specter’s Democratic opponent in the contest for his Senate seat, IGF reports. I’ve never been all that hot on Specter, who’s very much a finger-to-the-wind Washington operator. When his breaking ranks with the Republicans is motivated by principled disagreement is hard to get a handle on.

    But come on. If the HRC is going to play single-issue politics–and being a single-issue lobby, it has no reason not to–not endorsing Specter strikes me as plain dumb in strategic terms. It’s possible that Joseph Hoeffel supports a few more HRC wish list items, certainly, but Specter is a four-term senator with connections everywhere. A lot of hard-right types don’t like him (my Representative, Pat Toomey, was his challenger in the primary), but he still has credibility as a pro-gay centrist that most Democrats lack.

    BTW, I’ve been kind of lazy about reading up on Hoeffel as a candidate. His homepage as a Representative is about what you’d expect:

    Now in his third term, Joe has worked hard on promoting fiscal restraint, balancing the federal budget, paying down our national debt, reforming education, improving international relations, protecting the environment and expanding health care.

    I bet he thinks puppies are adorable, too.

    Naturally, his vague desire to balance the federal budget should not obscure his specific accomplishments, which mostly involve making sure that Northeast Philadelphia gets as much of that lovely pork and gravy as possible:

    Joe has worked hard to bring federal money back to Montgomery County, including over $50 million in his first term alone. He brought a public health center to Norristown; secured millions of dollars in SEPTA funding; brought $2 million to regional private colleges to establish a program to train public school teachers; helped establish the Center for Sustainable Development at Temple University-Ambler with a federal grant of $2 million; and helped restore $3 million in Title I education funds to Montgomery County school districts.

    In the most recent appropriations cycle, Joe secured funds for the Schuylkill Valley Metro, development of the Delaware River waterfront in Northeast Philadelphia, Montgomery County Community College, Manor College and the Abington Art Center among others.

    (Slight pause while I suppress my gorge at the casual mention of such a thing as “the most recent appropriations cycle,” in which federal money is poured into waterfront development. Glp. There. We’re good.) Being such a friend of gays and lesbians that it’s worth throwing over one of our strategic Senate allies for him, couldn’t he have worked in a new LGBTXYZPDQ community center complex somewhere in there? Exposed brick, atrium, and restful orchid garden would be welcome features, but I’d settle for the atrium. After all, we’re trying to practice fiscal restraint here.

    Can’t sleep

    Posted by Sean at 03:24, August 5th, 2004

    In about five hours, it will be exactly 59 years since the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Every year, I feel deeply conflicted on 6 and 9 August, but for the most part, my sentiment is as follows:

    I love the Japanese people. When I began studying Japanese freshman year in college, I hadn’t the faintest clue that I’d end up making my life here, but I did. In personal terms, people have been overwhelmingly kind to me. In general terms, Japan, for all its systemic faults, is one of the freest countries in the world. Its citizens come and go as they please, its least bureaucracy-bound manufacturers regularly bring the technology of consumer goods to dizzying new heights, and there is no fear of being carted off by the police for criticizing its politicians on the streets. And with freedom comes prosperity–even after 14 years of economic woes, Japan is dumbfoundingly rich, clean, safe.

    When I think of people immediately after the bombings, their faces obliterated by heat, expending their little remaining energy to bow in gratitude for the water volunteers brought to their lips (one of the most famous A-bomb memorials is inscribed with 水, the character for “water,” because that’s what so many victims cried out for), my heart aches. The same when…you know, bodies of water feature very prominently in Japanese literature, as they do the world over, as sources of refreshment and sustenance. Imagining people set afire, stampeding into rivers and lakes to cool themselves, only to find the water boiling hot, makes me cry. As an American who places the highest value on individuals, I wish we hadn’t had to cause such suffering to anyone at all who wasn’t irredeemably evil.

    But we did have to. Emperor Hirohito was ready to surrender, but he had military leaders who were plotting to intercept his proclamation, and no one on the American side could be sure how long rank-and-file Japanese soldiers and citizens would keep fighting. That there were other, more unsavory motivations for dropping the atom bomb (such as scientific curiosity about its effects) is hard to dispute. There probably isn’t any such thing as a guileless decision during wartime, for that matter. I wish the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs a peaceful eternal rest as much as anyone. But I’m glad America did what it took to win.

    Love’s got the world in motion / And I know what we can do

    Posted by Sean at 11:05, August 4th, 2004

    In a comment to a previous post, someone mentioned a report about displays of anti-Chinese sentiment at Japanese soccer matches. Not surprisingly, two are doing this tango. From a story headlined Anti-Japan feeling evident at Asian Cup:

    After the game, a crowd of people surrounded a Japanese student wearing a Japan team jersey and began to verbally abuse him, telling him, “Go home, now!”

    He was then pelted with sunflower seeds the Chinese had brought with them for a snack.

    I’m glad they didn’t use rocks, trust me. But I have to say that throwing sunflower seeds sounds like something out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Let this shower of trace minerals, cholesterol-fighting lipids, and essential amino acids signify our unutterable contempt for you, you…archipelago-dweller!” And I think the complaint lodged with the Chinese government by the Japanese government sounds kind of silly as rendered by the Mainichi English edition, though the original makes it a little clearer that the goal was to get the PRC to prevent things from escalating into violence, not just to express pique at being booed.

    Sports fans are the same worldwide, of course. I’m not saying they’re all hooligans, just that there’s nothing particularly Chinese or Japanese about passions that run high at soccer matches. Whether this sort of thing helps to defuse hostilities or ratchets them up is an arguable point. It probably depends on the circumstances. In any case, both Chinese and Japanese nationalism have been known to be unpredictable forces in the past. Given the shifting balances of economic and military power here on the Pacific Rim, we can only hope the belligerence stops at fistfuls of salty snacks.

    Added at 19:45: I can’t imagine how I missed it, especially since he pointed the issue out earlier here, but Meaty Fly put up a link-rich post about this issue a few days ago, tying it to the developing Sino-Japanese competition for resources. His update today is also more detailed than what I wrote here. Finally, CNN has posted an article that summarizes the current soccer-related goings-on.

    BTW, I assume most of you know what angers Koreans, Taiwanese, and Chinese when some Japanese politician talks about how “regrettable” something that happened during the War was, but for those who’ve wondered: The specific word translated as “regret” varies from case to case, but 遺憾に思う is the favored expression. If memory serves, that’s the phrasing the mayor of Hiroshima used in his widely-protested speech on the 50th anniversary of the A-bombing of that city.

    The problem with the word is that it expresses free-floating, non-referential regret; it is not an apology. The tone of his speech was something like having someone who kidnapped and tortured your toddler to death tell you, “I’ve done some extreme and ill-advised things, and what happened to your child is a very deplorable thing indeed.” To add insult to injury, there’s still a voluble crew of hard-right Japanese who protest whenever a politician makes a move to apologize to Asia for Japan’s wartime actions, reasoning that Japan was liberating the rest of Asia from Euro-American hegemony. You can imagine how much the former comfort women love that. In any case, that’s how Japanese politicians who express “regret” generally make diplomatic incidents worse.