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    Turn on the news

    Posted by Sean at 02:48, July 2nd, 2004

    The negotiations to get Hitomi Soga, one of the now-repatriated Japanese nationals snatched by North Korean agents twenty-five years ago, together with her husband and children, still in Pyongyang, seem to be gelling around setting the meeting in Indonesia. The president (the way it’s phrased, I don’t think it’s Megawati’s personal property) has a country house in a suburb of Jakarta, which is apparently more convenient than another presidential country house she has in Bali.

    There haven’t been many other notable updates on the whole appalling situation. Recurring headlines have tended to be about developments in the Mitsubishi Motors/Mitsubishi Fuso scandal, which that keiretsu has obligingly kept on low-boil since around 1998. If it doesn’t get much play in America, the gist is: Mitsubishi cars and trucks have clutch problems. (I think most of the problems are with the housing, actually, and don’t remember how the defect affects the clutch as it worsens.) I can’t find links to corroborate my memory of the news stories at the time, but basically, a few car owners who were injured when their cars suddenly jumped into reverse sued. They lost (or the suits were dismissed–I don’t remember) based in part on expert testimony from engineers in the employ of…why, yes, Mitsubishi Motors. Evidence since then has piled up, slowly but steadily, that Mitsubishi knew about these defects as early as 1993 and quietly repaired some of the affected vehicles rather than instituting a bad-PR recall. Unfortunately, a trucker was killed a few years ago in Yamaguchi Prefecture when his clutch malfunctioned, and a woman was killed and her children injured in Yokohama. So now we have the usual round of arrests of executives present and erstwhile, release of a decade-long paper trail of coverups and back-door settling, and accountability-dodging. And a recall. Another reason to be glad my man drives a Toyota.

    Turn this crazy bird around

    Posted by Sean at 23:10, June 28th, 2004

    Wow. Imagine being confined to an airliner for 18 hours, and then stepping out and finding yourself at Newark Airport. Of such forebearance is innovation born. I’m not entirely sure I could stand it, though. I take three or so trips out of Japan per year, all but one of which usually involves a flight of 10 to 12 hours. These flights tend to activate what my old boss calls the Rule of Seven: A man can keep himself amused on a passenger jet for 7 hours, tops, before he’s ready to go bananas from cabin fever. Totally true in my case.

    Besides the sheer patience-shredding length of today’s Singapore Airlines flight, the interesting thing is that the Airbus used was configured to hold fewer than 200 passengers. A lot of recent stories about developments in passenger jets have suggested that the future is not in monster 700-seaters but in smaller jets that go longer distances. I suppose one big issue is that any weight occupied by passengers can’t be used for the fuel needed to travel for 18 hours, so once you get above the capacity and distance of a 747, you have to keep making tradeoffs. It will be of interest to see whether and how this new Singapore-New York route affects the way Asian airlines compete for customers.

    Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one

    Posted by Sean at 23:40, June 27th, 2004

    I was rereading a Virginia Postrel article from a decade ago, and it got me thinking. Maybe one of the reasons the American “return to civility” is taking a while to get off the ground–have you noticed?–is that it requires accomplishing two goals that, I’d imagine, seem contradictory to a lot of people. They aren’t in reality, but assessing which value is ascendant in a given situation requires discrimination.

    One thing we need to do is get rid of the idea that using different behavioral patterns in different contexts is somehow ipso facto insincere. Nowadays, behaving formally is something people do if they have to–as when there’s a difficult but lucrative client to deal with–but the assumption seems to be that it wouldn’t be necessary in a world of perfect, just-folks honesty. Different styles for different arenas as a way of life has an image of being suitable only for actors and PR types.

    There are lots and lots of problems with this way of thinking, but one of the most important is one that gets little play: If you don’t establish low-stakes, essentially content-free ways for people to show goodwill and allegiance to the group, you can’t distinguish between friend and foe until you see them react to a real emergency. At that point the knowledge may come too late to be useful. In America, we want to make room for idiosyncrasy, which does make enforcing social custom more difficult than it is in societies that have no qualms about being openly conformist. (Not to mention any names.)

    But is it really that hard? I’m not talking about censorship; I firmly believe that no expression, no matter how repugnant, should be flat-out suppressed–with exceptions for treason or falsehoods that cause immediate danger, obviously. And personally, I like boisterous conversation with lots of four-letter words and smutty jokes as much as anyone. I like Madonna videos. I like pictures of naked men. (Which of those three is my absolute favorite, I will delicately pass over. The point is….) In America, women don’t show their tits in public, and men don’t walk around on the street in leather underwear, because…well, just because. World cultures have a variety of ways of conveying businesslike public modesty, and that’s ours.

    I’ve never found such arbitrary rules to be all that inhibiting, but I’m no choirboy. When they showed the footage from the gay pride parades yesterday, I was craning my neck to see which of the barechested guys were especially hot just like every other queer with a television. I also wasn’t traumatized, a few months ago, at the irrefutable proof that Janet Jackson’s breast is equipped with the standard-issue nipple.

    But the issue isn’t just uptightness or prudery. The issue is also whether people who visibly flout expectations that take minimal effort to fulfill can be trusted with the big responsibilities. If gay guys can’t restrict thong-wearing to the beach or indoor clubs, is it any wonder that people shudder to imagine how we act when we’re actually out of sight? If Justin and Janet can’t find choreography that keeps everyone’s parts covered when they’re performing at a nationwide event watched by millions of families, why wouldn’t some parents decide it’s best to avoid any further surprises by avoiding their output altogether? (A related question, which probably doesn’t trouble, say, Michelle Malkin, but is of great interest to me: Now that twelve-year-old honor students and members of the 4-H club are wearing halter tops and hot pants, how does a bona fide slut distinguish herself as being actually on the make?)

    I’ve been talking about pop culture partially because these events have made for evocative news lately. But the problem of running all of life’s venues together has infected politics and the life of the mind, too. And that leads to the second thing that needs to happen: once we’ve reestablished the boundaries between the public and the private, we have to make free expression the highest priority in the appropriate areas, and then deal with it.

    Willfully offensive speech helps to keep us from solipsism and complacency. The freedom to shock others encourages us to stretch our imaginations, and confronting in-your-face challenges to our own beliefs encourages us to question them. And the ability to blow off steam is a safety valve; using words aggressively helps us calm down before we’re worked up enough to go the whole way and reach for a knife or gun, as Virginia Postrel pointed out. Of course, there are conditions attached. If all you ever do is throw verbal or visual Molotov cocktails, without developing an argument or having a sense of humor about yourself, you just turn people off. This, to me, was the problem with Al Gore’s Brownshirts remark. There are plenty of people who are up in arms about it that don’t seem to have any difficulty tossing around words like feminazi or Gestapo tactics, so how much partisanship is involved in all the condemnations is hard to judge. The problem with Gore is, everything he’s said and done for the last four years makes it all too easy to believe that he wasn’t exaggerating when he said that he thinks of Bush supporters as equivalent to the Brownshirts.

    Isn’t everything I’ve written here so obvious as not to be worth remarking on? I would have thought so. Maybe behavior is slow to change because people just have a hard time resigning themselves to the fact that there’s no way to eliminate misunderstandings. Agreed-on patterns of surface behavior can allow a clever villain to slide through society undetected, and they can put nice but ungainly types at a disadvantage. A rant, even in a forum in which no-holds-barred expression is clearly expected, can alienate even some people who aren’t determined to be offended. But the alternative, to judge from empirical evidence, is a society in which a lot of people feel that their beliefs are stymied while opposing beliefs are enshrined in policy, and in which no one trusts anyone who isn’t already on his team to behave without being coerced into it. Not good. I do think that American good-heartedness and common sense will fix things eventually, but we’re at such a critical juncture right now that I can’t help hoping it happens faster.


    Posted by Sean at 16:46, June 27th, 2004

    A lawyer in Yokohama has had his license (is that the way to refer to what the bar association gives you?) suspended for three months because of a sexual harassment charge:


    According to the [Yokohama] Bar Association, on 3 July 2002 Aoki invited a female client involved in a debt collection case to dinner, then in the course of a drive made sexual conversation and caused the client to fear that he was planning to take her to a hotel.

    Sexual harassment in Japan is a big issue, of course. With more and more women putting off marriage until their early thirties, many offices have a bevy of pert, fresh-faced girls in their twenties…and a senior layer of men in their 50’s who came of age when women only worked until they married. To complicate things, today’s women often meet their future husbands at the office (as opposed to the old method of getting introductions to approved men through parents or other elders), so there is a sense in which many are on the lookout for a man.

    Throw in Japan’s idiosyncratic brand of sexual uninhibitedness, the tension of living in a 30-million-person megalopolis, and an educational system that hammers at people not to make waves, and you get some grossly fascinating varieties of sexual offenses. Example: some of the more crushingly-crowded commuter lines here, though the difference between the worst and the best is minimal in that regard, have instituted women-only train cars during rush hour. The reason is epidemic 痴漢 (chikan): in this case, groping of breasts and buttocks when people are so smashed up against each other that one can be confident of being unobserved or passing it off as unintentional.

    I once spent a horrified 40-minute cab ride back to my old apartment in Yokohama during which the driver casually explained his theory of how to get away with chikan when the train was not quite crowded enough to keep people from lowering their chins and thus seeing what you were doing: You choose a woman in the more crowded section of the car and keep your hand flat. If you cup it, she’ll know what you’re up to and may protest. I swear, he had it all worked out and talked about it as blithely as if he were recommending his favorite ramen place. And he wasn’t particularly at the extreme. While rapes of the knife-wielding-stranger variety are uncommon here, a lot of Japanese women I know admit pretty freely that there’s pressure to feel flattered and respond favorably if a management-level man at the office issues an invitation. Conversely, there’s little pressure to stand up for yourself, since it inevitably involves ruffling feathers higher up the hierarchy.

    Yes, I know: These things are as old as the integrated workplace, and they exist in the States, too. But the attitude toward men’s thinking of women as mindless sex objects is so blasé here that…well, when I read the article above, I wondered what on Earth had caused this particular lawyer to be singled out. Not that he doesn’t deserve it if he took advantage of a client’s trust to get her into an enclosed space and come on to her. But if everyone in his 50’s or 60’s who pulled something similar since July 2002 were punished for it, it’s hard to imagine who’d be left to run the Japanese economy. Maybe the client was one of the few women brave enough to file a formal complaint, or maybe someone has it in for Aoki and decided to make a play.

    Aren’t we the cutest?

    Posted by Sean at 17:10, June 26th, 2004

    Ass kissers.

    The towers

    Posted by Sean at 14:57, June 23rd, 2004

    Most of the time since 9-11, I’ve had to remind myself that we’re up against atavists who will stop at nothing to destroy us all. I don’t take the casualties or questions about mismanagement lightly, but it’s a war, after all. Things are proceeding in fits and starts, but they do seem to be humming along.

    The last few days, my feelings have been more in the vein of, Exactly why are we wasting our citizens trying to fix these people’s problems again? Yes, that’s unfair, and no, I don’t really mean it. But I have been sorely in need of a reminder that the era when Islam and civilization could be mentioned in the same sentence isn’t past.

    So I’ve been thinking about the twin towers. Not the twin towers that were lost three years (!!!!) ago, but these:


    (The photograph is from the official Kuala Lumpur Center City website.)

    Atsushi and I went to KL the December after 9-11. When we landed at the airport, I steeled myself to enter a Civic Development theme park, with shiny public transportation and a few showy skyscrapers awkwardly jabbed into the city center. The Petronas Twin Towers, then the world’s tallest buildings, I expected to be impressed but left cold by.

    But our taxi rounded the last bend before you could see the city, and I got that jolt you get when something is so beautiful it hurts. And then I laughed. The photographs I’d seen had been no preparation at all for what the towers actually looked like in nighttime Kuala Lumpur. They were…adorable. They reminded me of the Martians on Sesame Street. They reminded me more literally of Liberty Place in Philadelphia. Their surfaces were craggy and interesting to look at, like draped cloth. They looked as if they’d risen from the ground, like ice columns through clay, rather than having been dropped on KL from on high. From the observation deck of the older KL Tower, they looked like soft-serve ice cream cones.

    I know I’m getting kind of silly here, but living in Tokyo…I love this place, but outdoor Tokyo has to be one of the most aggressively ugly cities on Earth, and the fact that so much money and crack engineering goes into all the ugliness only makes it worse. It’s as if someone had sprinkled Albert Speer spores over the bay shore. Seeing skyscrapers that looked as if they wanted humans to use them, that alluded to something besides the architect’s own ego and the commissioning company’s expense account, was an experience I hadn’t had for ages. And people in KL really did seem to love the twin towers; they positively beamed with pride when we complimented them, or the city in general. And the ground-level shopping arcade and surrounding park were always jammed with people of all kinds.

    There actually is a point to this. The Petronas towers were designed by an American firm; they’re concrete-framed to minimize vibration, and their shape in cross-section is drawn from Islamic patterns. The construction contract for one tower was awarded to a consortium led by Hazama Construction here in Japan, the other to one led by Samsung Engineering and Construction in Korea. It’s not as if old rivalries were invisible; the Samsung tower went up with far fewer hassles than the Hazama tower, and we heard about it.

    But still, at the end of a century that began with colonization and occupation and world wars, you had Americans, Japanese, and Koreans doing a massive development project for an Islamic country with prominent Buddhist and Hindu minorities. It’s important to feel the proper revulsion toward people who offer to hack off heads and blow things up because they’re still stewing over Andalusia this and Ottoman that, but we also need to remember what it is we do and what’s so great about it. Westernization is not a tradeoff-free proposition, but at its best, it gives you both monumental achievement and human-scale improvements to daily life. And they keep happening.

    Times change II

    Posted by Sean at 11:32, June 22nd, 2004

    So this is what it’s going to be like looking at the morning headlines now: One of the Olsen sisters has an eating disorder, Clinton said something or other about the Lewinsky affair, and another hostage has been beheaded in the Middle East. The South Korean guy was an Evangelical Christian of some kind. I’m no longer a believer myself, obviously, but–I hope this doesn’t sound hypocritical–I hope his last moments were at least made less traumatic by thoughts of meeting his creator.

    Times change

    Posted by Sean at 11:24, June 22nd, 2004

    Holy sh*t! The neighborhood I just moved out of had a shooting this morning:


    At 8:45 on 23 June, in the underground pedestrian walkway near Exit 9 for the Hanzomon-Den’en Toshi lines at Shibuya Station (Dogenzaka 2-1), an employee of the Tokyo Metro subway lines was shot in the right side of the abdomen and seriously injured.

    It’s not that shootings and murders never, ever happen in Japan, of course. But Shibuya Station is the fourth-busiest in the world. That particular arm of the station is less busy than the giant intersection of JR and Tokyu lines at the center, but this couldn’t exactly have taken place without anyone around. That‘s unusual–the broad-daylight aspect, I mean. Hope the guy’s all right; the report doesn’t say anything about what led up to the shooting.

    No word on Korean

    Posted by Sean at 17:08, June 21st, 2004

    Happily, still no word that the organisms that kidnapped Sun-il Kim in Iraq have beheaded him, at least on any of the sites I read. I’m not much more hopeful than others that he’ll be released. Still, in the last few months, some hostages have been, including two Japanese and all but one of the Italians. CNN’s newest posting on the abduction features a picture of protesters agitating for South Korea to pull its soldiers out and says,

    Overnight, hundreds of South Koreans gathered in central Seoul on to condemn the dispatch of South Korean troops to Iraq, but the government is so far not backing away from its decision.

    Hundreds? In a city of 12 million that’s the capital of a country of almost 50 million? That isn’t very many. I think I’ve shared a single Seoul subway car with hundreds of people at one time or another. It’s hard to tell what the mood of the public is, of course, especially since I don’t live there. On the other hand, unlike the Japanese, the Koreans do not hesitate to pour into the streets when they’re angered by the latest corruption scandal or evidence of fiscal mismanagement. (This is Asia, so there’s always some such thing to get het up over.)

    The real shame–besides, that is, the outrageousness of having thugs from willfully backward loser societies strike poses of superiority over a country that used grit and industry to become the twelfth-largest economy in the world (and a free, safe democracy, despite the proximity of the most hostile neighbor imaginable) a mere half-century after it was humiliated by occupation and then ravaged by civil war…[deep breath]…besides that, the shame is that South Korea is one of the best sources of exactly the sort of engineering that a rebuilding country needs, and the government’s pulling its citizens out (while I sure as hell don’t blame it for doing so) means seeking other providers.

    Added at 1:38 a.m.: The Nikkei is reporting that the deadline for Korea to pull out its troops has been extended and that the same intermediary who helped secure the release of the Japanese hostages in April is working with the Korean embassy in Iraq and has had a face-to-face meeting with Kim. Maybe there’s hope after all.

    It’s your honesty

    Posted by Sean at 14:33, June 21st, 2004

    I would like to take this opportunity to announce that, under the guidance of my spiritual mentor, Madge the Fully-Realized Being and Pillar of Modesty, I have decided to adopt the name Vashti. This is not a gesture of disrespect toward the Beatles rhythm section, for whom my parents named me. Rather, I feel a higher-plane identification with Vashti because (1) I’m an insolent queen and (2) my lord is constantly having to say things like, “We were supposed to leave twenty minutes ago, darling. If you don’t get out here this minute, I swear I’m going to kill you!” My hope is that the energy of this new name will help me make people forget that I only became a Jew after I made a pile and tried to take over the world.