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    Posted by Sean at 00:09, October 28th, 2007

    Major news among foreigners in Japan this weekend is that NOVA, the largest chain of English conversation schools, has filed for bankruptcy and is in receivership:

    The company had been reeling from an administrative punishment issued in June over illegal practices, including deceiving would-be students with misleading advertisements.

    One focus of attention will be whether Nova’s estimated 300,000 students will be able to receive refunds for the lesson fees they paid in advance.

    The prepaid fees account for about 20 billion yen of the company’s liabilities.

    Another question concerns the wages in arrears to many of about 4,000 instructors and 2,000 other employees.

    The money owed to the employees and some other types of debts have a higher priority than the prepaid lesson fees in repayment from the outstanding company assets secured by court-appointed bankruptcy administrators.

    English conversation schools such as NOVA are low on the food chain. Their lessons aren’t so much methodical instruction in English as a way to pick up some phrases while having structured contact with foreigners. Teaching jobs there tend to attract kids just out of college who want an easy way to live abroad for an adventurous year or two and then make the transition into something else.

    That means that there are a lot of teachers in their early twenties who haven’t been paid for a month or two, don’t know any Japanese, and are feeling seriously screwed at the moment. The Asahi reports that at least one job placement center in Shinjuku has set up a window to help NOVA employees, and the Australian government is cooperating with Qantas Airlines to help Australian teachers get back home without having to pay full airfare.

    Of course, the Japanese administrative staff have been suffering, too, since they’ve been fielding questions from both students and foreign teachers over refunds and wages that weren’t forthcoming:

    Employees, mainly in their 20s, remained at their workplaces until the last moment, while many teachers had already stopped reporting to work over delays in salary payments. Lesson fees were also refunded to students who canceled their contracts with Nova. An employee in her 20s, who was manager of a branch in an office district in the Tokyo metropolitan area, said she began working for Nova after graduating from university as she wished to help people who wanted to learn English.

    She heard that the police had to be called to another branch because a student had become angry to the point of violence, apparently over a lesson contract dispute, but the headquarters offered no assistance in the matter. “I still told myself that I should hang on as long as I was getting paid,” she said.

    Foreign teachers started not showing up for lessons in mid-September when their salary payments were delayed. Consequently, dozens of complaints poured in, creating chaos for the company’s inexperienced receptionists. One staff member complained of not being able to afford food, while another had been reduced to tears every day before she finally collapsed and stopped coming to the office.

    It will be interesting to see whether the brand can be rehabilitated. More even than any of the other giant English conversation chains, NOVA has a McDonald’s-ish image of being available everywhere at reliable quality. The last several months of bad publicity have certainly done damage, but if new management can reopen offices within a month or so, it may do a decent job of mollifying wound-up customers.

    I’m not so sure what I think of the foreign teachers who stopped showing up for work. On the one hand, the responsible thing to do is to honor your commitments and expect payment when the company irons out its financial affairs. On the other, companies such as NOVA have a history of making it very clear to foreign teachers that they’re not a permanent part of the team and are valued chiefly as interchangeable cogs. The fear of permanently getting the shaft from headquarters was probably very real to a lot of them, even in cases in which their local managers were doing their best to be helpful.


    Posted by Sean at 07:01, October 22nd, 2007

    I just got the latest shakedown e-mail from my college. That’s fine. They’re doing they’re first fund drive in twenty years. That’s fine, too. What isn’t fine is the purple overblownness of the enterprise—is it really assumed we’ll only cough up money if we’re come on to like this?

    What we celebrated this evening was the beginning of what will be a five-year endeavor that will require the ongoing, thoughtful participation of our entire community. I promise you this: When we achieve our goal in 2012, we will hold the keys to an eminent and consummately interdisciplinary Penn that will have a vast, transformative impact on humanity.

    Oh, my. That’s some fundraiser.

    More Penn-related stuff: Erin O’Connor links to a wonderfully crabby review of Alice Sebold’s newly-disgorged novel. Sebold is a good example of why I rarely read fiction published after, like, 1950. I’m perfectly happy to listen to current music and watch current television and movies, but every time a friend whose taste I trust recommends a recent novel or short story, I end up giving up on the thing. I finished The Lovely Bones. Ick.

    Lee Siegel says of Sebold’s latest:

    If you welcome the unreal disjunction between killing your mother and reflecting afterward how lucky you are compared with the children of the dead, “uncared for” mothers in Rwanda and Afghanistan, then this book will make you clap your hands with joy. If you find the idea that mothers shape their children’s “whole” lives original rather than simultaneously banal and puerilely overstated, then Barnes & Noble, here you come! This novel is so morally, emotionally and intellectually incoherent that it’s bound to become a best seller.

    O’Connor charitably observes that writing in the first person makes it difficult to give the reader a sense of critical distance on the protagonist, and that (though she doesn’t put it this way) Sebold just isn’t a good enough thinker or writer to do so. Anyway, the whole review is hilarious. As O’Connor says, Siegel writes with real anger, not the airy contempt reviewers usually employ to dump on books they dislike.

    Speaking of art that doesn’t make good on its shock potential, a good friend and I went to see Death of a President this weekend. (It’s a year old, of course, but just made it to Japan.) She and I have known each other for a decade; she’s a very liberal history professor who’s always ready for a good argument. I looked forward to tangling over the issues raised in the movie.

    Unfortunately, there wasn’t much meat to it. The assassination itself isn’t presented in ghoulish graphic detail, and while the filmmakers’ sympathies are rather clearly not with the Bush administration, no one comes off any more cartoonish than actual interviewees on Frontline. But the moral problems that flow from the response to the assassination are rushed through and not developed very well. A Muslim Syrian-American is prosecuted for the crime based on circumstantial evidence, now-President Cheney flirts with attacking Syria for not cooperating in the investigation, and a Patriot III act is passed to increase powers of surveillance even further. But it’s hard to sink your teeth into anything because it’s all rushed through. It’s certainly possible to imagine a Muslim’s being railroaded–prosecutors can get overzealous and develop fixations on suspects that fit their expectations, especially when they’re under intense pressure from above to produce a case. It’s also possible to imagine that a lead with genuine promise could be lost among the thousands of tips that would inundate the FBI during its investigation. But the misjudgments that come after the assassination aren’t as fleshed out at those that lead up to it. The result is a nice lefty horror flick, presumably, but not all that hard-hitting about miscarriages of justice.

    Not necessarily the news

    Posted by Sean at 03:52, October 19th, 2007

    Reason has an entertaining interview with fark.com founder Drew Curtis about how the site developed and what it says about the future of the Internet. Like other commentators I’ve seen, he thinks that some sort of personal-shopper model is what’s next up, since we’re all swamped by the amount of information available.

    I like Fark. My only problem is that frequently the funniest tag lines lead to the least interesting articles. My favorite example from this week:


    The link takes you to a decent but decidedly non-fabulous piece arguing that presenting a well-groomed, pulled-together image is good for your career. Yawn.

    Reason also–I assume this month is some sort of media issue, but I’m too lazy to look–has this piece defending The Onion in terms I very much agree with:

    Most dailies, especially those in monopoly or near-monopoly markets, operate as if they’re focused more on not offending readers (or advertisers) than on expressing a worldview of any kind.

    The Onion takes the opposite approach. It delights in crapping on pieties and regularly publishes stories guaranteed to upset someone: “Christ Kills Two, Injures Seven In Abortion-Clinic Attack.” “Heroic PETA Commandos Kill 49, Save Rabbit.” “Gay Pride Parade Sets Mainstream Acceptance of Gays Back 50 Years.” There’s no predictable ideology running through those headlines, just a desire to express some rude, blunt truth about the world.

    One common complaint about newspapers is that they’re too negative, too focused on bad news, too obsessed with the most unpleasant aspects of life. The Onion shows how wrong this characterization is, how gingerly most newspapers dance around the unrelenting awfulness of life and refuse to acknowledge the limits of our tolerance and compassion. The perfunctory coverage that traditional newspapers give disasters in countries cursed with relatability issues is reduced to its bare, dismal essence: “15,000 Brown People Dead Somewhere.” [The unforgettable dateline for that one was “OOGA-BOOGA LAND OR WHEREVER.”–SRK] Beggars aren’t grist for Pulitzers, just punch lines: “Man Can’t Decide Whether to Give Sandwich to Homeless or Ducks.” Triumphs of the human spirit are as rare as vegans at an NRA barbecue: “Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer.”

    A lot of what passes for irreverent satire is little more than sub-adult pushing of the obvious buttons. But skewering the tendency of journalists to airbrush any story into a palatable human interest feature, or to invest any story they write or broadcast about with selections from a tired laundry list of Deeper Human Significance it may not have, is a real service. And it’s encouraging that it’s so popular. Some satire is funny enough to stand alone, but most isn’t. That people keep clicking on stories in The Onion and sending them to friends is a reasonable indication that they understand the news and issues that they’re twisting into humorous new shapes, despite all the gnashing of teeth about how ignorant everyone is nowadays.

    At least it wasn’t Norma Rae

    Posted by Sean at 00:44, October 19th, 2007

    Perhaps this is even more disturbing than the result of that serial killer test, though I did answer the questions as accurately as possible (via Internet Ronin):

    What Classic Movie Are You?
    personality tests by similarminds.com

    I didn’t know I even had a shadow self.

    Added later: “Emaciated do-gooder”? WTF?

    What Famous Leader Are You?
    personality tests by similarminds.com

    Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today

    Posted by Sean at 23:05, October 18th, 2007

    You know what’s really annoying? All you silly people out there who think you’re in the best position to make decisions about your own lives. What gives you the right to make your own trade-offs when planners–people with credentials–have figured out the one true way to live?

    Well, don’t expect to win. The latest from here in Japan is a litany of targets for achieving the perfect national balance of work and family life. Just look at all these numbers, each the glorious result of expert cogitation:

    The government has come up with a long list of numerical targets to let men in their 30s to 40s work less and spend more time with their families.

    One target is to halve in 10 years the percentage of workers who put in 60 hours or more a week from 10.8 percent in 2006.

    Another goal is to raise the percentage of male workers who take child-care leave to 10 percent, up from the current 0.5 percent.

    The draft guidelines were presented Thursday to a task force under a high-level council working on the issue. The council consists of representatives from labor and management, Cabinet ministers and other experts.

    The government will consider measures to achieve the targets included in the guidelines and seek cooperation from business organizations and labor unions.

    The draft charter emphasizes that it is essential to review the nation’s working style to maintain the vitality of society.

    The numerical targets are aimed primarily at lightening the workload of men in their 30s and 40s.

    To make up for the reduced work, the government has set employment-rate targets for women and elderly people.

    For example, the government aims to have 69-72 percent of women between 25 and 44 in the work force in 10 years, up from the current 65 percent.

    For people in the age bracket between 60 and 64, the employment-rate targets, also in 10 years, are 79-80 percent for men and 41-43 percent for women, up, respectively, from the current 67 percent and 39 percent.

    The government also aims to raise the rate of women in employment after their first childbirth to 55 percent in 10 years, up from the current 38 percent.

    In 2006, men with a child under 6 years old spent an average of one hour a day on child care and household chores.

    The government’s target in 10 years is 2 1/2 hours.

    Of course, most of these things will not be legislated directly. No prefectural governor is going to be taken out and shot if his or her jurisdiction doesn’t reach the approved average of 2.5 hours’ worth of male domesticity by 2017. But what happens with these things is that they expand from high-level technocratic committees into offices, community programs, and ad hoc task forces that suck up money without demonstrably serving citizens. (Also, while Japanese men spend more time with their families than they used to, I suspect that plenty of them would use the extra time off from work to heft golf clubs rather than toddlers.)

    Japan’s not the only island country to exhibit such impulses. Perry de Havilland of Samizdata linked indignantly to BBC coverage of a new government report that essentially tells each Briton, “You’re a porker, but it’s not your fault.”

    The largest ever UK study into obesity, backed by government and compiled by 250 experts, said excess weight was now the norm in our “obesogenic” society. [Don’t let’s be spoilsports and point out that we’re otherwise hearing how rail-thin models and actresses are setting unrealistic beauty standards and causing an epidemic of eating disorders–that was last Wednesday’s problem.–SRK]

    Dramatic and comprehensive action was required to stop the majority of us becoming obese by 2050, they said.

    The government pledged to draw up a strategy to address the issue.

    But the report authors admitted proof that any anti-obesity policy worked “was scant”.

    Details, details. The experts haven’t figured out exactly how they’re going to force you to be healthier, it might be noted, though they’re full of consciousness-raising ideas:

    From planning our towns to encourage more physical activity to placing more pressure on mothers to breast feed – believed to slow down infant weight gain – the report highlighted a range of policy options without making any concrete recommendations.

    “The emphasis on cross-governmental initiatives is particularly welcome, as is the importance of addressing issues across society whilst avoiding blame,” said its president, Professor Ian Gilmore.

    Perhaps Professor Gilmore is a Japanophile. He’s certainly got the ability to settle blame everywhere and accountability nowhere down pat.

    And the result in the UK will probably be similar to what we see here in Japan: distortions of economic decision-making with the attendant unintended consequences. Those consequences will, it goes without saying, be interpreted as yet more evidence that individuals are incompetent to make their own decisions without “guidance.”

    Added later: Okay, the only connection between this and the above is Catherine Tate, but Michael mentioned yesterday that Larry Craig is still going on television to make pathetic attempts at damage control. Am I the only one who’s spent the last few months thinking, “Who, dear? Me, dear? Gay, dear? No, dear” whenever his name comes up?

    Added still later, after a glass of Coke that was large enough to be satisfying but not so large as to compromise health–so there: Kim has, naturally, already weighed in on the obesity report. He leads into it with a discussion of restaurant eating habits:

    I remember seeing a lady once go up to the salad bar at a restaurant, and my initial reaction was, “Ohh, good—she’s going to eat something healthy.” Then I watched her coming back to the table, and I was nearly sick. It looked as though someone had put a brick on her plate, and covered it with salad—and drenched the whole thing with about two cups of salad dressing. Then I watched her eat all of it.

    And then she went back for seconds.

    I worked at Golden Corral in high school, back when very few restaurants had all-you-can-eat troughs salad bar/buffets. The experience was very instructive about human nature, though it was nearly enough to put me off food for the rest of my life.

    One of the things I’ve trained myself to do when back in the States is to eat at a normal pace no matter how much food is Matterhorned onto my plate. When you have a lot of food in front of you, instinct tells you to start hoovering it up because there’s so much to get through, which means you end up both failing to enjoy the sensual experience of eating and feeling excessively full when you’re done. (And in that case, why not just stay home and fortify yourself with cold oatmeal?)

    I’ll give Connie the last word:

    Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.

    And to add yet another of my pet peeves….

    I did not suggest that there should be a law in what we should do. We can talk about the way things should be without bringing the law into it.

    Too much true-crime TV

    Posted by Sean at 00:25, October 17th, 2007

    What does it say about me that I knew every answer on the first clue (via Rondi)?

    NameThatSerialKiller.com – Test your serial killer knowledge

    (Just to be pedantic, I think it should be pointed out that Cho Seung-hui was a spree killer, not a serial killer.)

    Wake me when it’s over

    Posted by Sean at 03:42, October 14th, 2007

    I noticed Rondi had added some election-related application on Facebook, so I clicked through to look at it. The text at the right said something like, “The 2008 election is almost here.” I didn’t do a double-take until a few seconds later–that’s how accustomed I am to the idea that we’re already in the run-up to the election.

    The good citizen in me is not looking forward to the coming year. Following politics can be good, wicked fun sometimes, but I mostly do it because I consider it a duty. I will listen to the debates and read up on candidates’ records as legislators and seek out the opinions of commentators whose judgment I find helpful. But I am expecting this to be the least fun election season of my adult life.

    A lot of that has to do with Hillary. My sainted aunt, I am so sick of hearing about Hillary. I’m not referring to her relentless spotlight-seeking in and of itself–what else do you expect an ambitious politician with designs on the Oval Office to do? She’s actually become much less grating to watch and listen to over the years. As an old-fashioned celebrity-loving gay guy, I’ve taken some pleasure in watching her develop a more bankable image. Work it, Hills, I say.

    Unfortunately, there’s a flip side, which is that everything she says or does is examined to death, by friend and foe alike, for what it might indicate about her emergent Hillaryness. Of course, every politician makes tossed-off comments or clothing choices that get overworked in the media, but with Hillary the enterprise reaches a whole new level. Some sources speculate that Clinton’s newest shade from Clairol suggests her commitment to the reconstruction of Iraq is less than sincere…. I understand that there are reasons for it–she may lack Bill’s charisma, but in her own weird way, she may be just as compelling a figure. A lot of her fans seem to think she’s some kind of saint, and a lot of her detractors seem to hate her more than they do Satan.

    [Added on 15 October: Thanks to Eric for the link. He uses the obvious word in this context: “cult [of personality].” The reason I didn’t myself is that I think it really bothers Hillary that that’s what she has. However ruthlessly loyalty may be enforced in the Clinton inner circle, I think that with respect to the electorate, Hillary clearly wants to be the natural, rational choice for thinking people. Not that she’ll refuse the votes of blind partisans, of course.]

    You can imagine what I think of her politics. Hillary represents just about everything I detest about arrogant, technocrat-in-group statism. Since she’s such an inveterate triangulator, I’m not sure how many of her overweening policy points she would actually work to push through in their purest illiberal form, but I’d prefer not to find out.

    I will say that in one sense I sympathize with her: She clearly wants to be a natural at winning over voters. She works and works and works at it, all to little effect. It must be frustrating to want so much to be good at something for which you have no talent, especially when you’re married to someone who could charm the spots off a leopard. She always reminds me of Tom Cruise, who refuses to settle into being a movie star with a presence a lot of people will pay to see. He struggles mightily to be an Actor, and it doesn’t work because you can always see the gears turning. Same with Hillary. The more “on” she is with her gestures and her speech patterns in technical terms, the more she comes off as an animatronic Anna Lindh doll. It would be nice to see her just cut the crap and be the steely, high-handed bitch she clearly wants to be. (And America needs a steely, high-handed bitch or two, now that Madonna’s been domesticated and run through the Brit-erator.) She would be utterly fabulous at that. But it would obviously cost her the election, so it’s not going to happen.

    Instead, we’re going to spend the next year in the spin cycle perfected when Bill was in the White House, only with a senate term and a grown-up Chelsea (“See? At least one person in this family is normal!”) sloshing around in it. Eric has two posts up about Control of the Narrative. While they don’t address the election explicitly, they’re pertinent here. Apropos of something else, he says, “I think media culture and hypersensitivity tend to fuel each other, and the result is a latent hysteria constantly lurking in the background, and ready to break out upon the slightest provocation.” We’re so used to hearing that every bracelet Hillary wears may say something about what’s going on in that calculating head of hers that I think a lot of people have started to buy it without realizing they’re doing it. We’re in for an annoying year.

    [Added on 15 October: Thanks to Eric for the other link, too. If you haven’t read that post of his, BTW, you really must. The situation he’s discussing is absolutely hilarious. Of course, if there were serious threats issued or an injury that drew blood, that’s not funny. But the indignant haggling over which type of identity-political aggrievement is warranted on the part of which involved party is like something out of Through the Looking Glass. Eric’s final comment: “You’d almost think they were trying to avoid getting on the wrong side of Cotton Mather.”]

    Gimme an…

    Posted by Sean at 03:17, October 12th, 2007

    This guy‘s brother, who comments on Gay Orbit sometimes, sent me a link to an ad campaign that’s apparently appearing on some McDonald’s tray inserts in Kyoto, where his wife’s visiting. He wonders WTF (ahem) is going on.

    I doubt there’s any subliminal message there, despite the artfully revealing shots of women’s underclothes–that’s what they’re mostly selling, after all. The people who devised the campaign were thinking in Japanese, for a Japanese audience, and it probably didn’t occur to them to consider that they might be using an expression that’s considered coarse in English. That kind of thing happens all the time. A buddy of mine works for a company that once linked to one of its web products with the come-on “Let’s Flash!” The accompanying image was…well, it wasn’t a schlumpy guy in sunglasses and a trench coat, but it wasn’t as far off as one might like. Foreign staff here and people from overseas offices tried to tell management that this was a problem. No one listened. Sometimes Japlish is harmlessly silly; sometimes it wanders into not-so-harmlessly silly. That’s just the way it is.

    Added on 14 October: Interesting how straight-boy commenters who haven’t shown up for weeks will suddenly materialize to opine on a post about Japanese women’s underwear.


    Posted by Sean at 21:55, October 11th, 2007

    So I get to the office this morning, and a colleague of mine says, “Did you hear about that thing with the turnstiles?” Since I don’t take the train to work, I hadn’t. But wow:

    Trouble arose in over 400 stations on JR, subway, and private rail lines first thing in the morning on 12 October when electronic ticket gates failed to function after being turned on. To avoid massive headaches, nearly every station adopted the measure of allowing passengers to pass through the gates without checking tickets. This is the first time such large-scale trouble with automatic ticket gates has spread to multiple rail carriers. For a time, some private rail lines had no functioning ticket gates at any station, but they gradually began restoring service. Trains themselves have been running normally.

    According to one private rail source, the trouble was confined to ticket gates manufactured by a single maker. All affected companies are scrambling to restore service while investigating the details and origins of the problem.

    As you’ve no doubt seen in stock news footage designed to show how crowded Tokyo is, a LOT of people use the trains here on weekday mornings. I’m not sure how much revenue the rail companies lost–most people who are commuting to work use some kind of rail pass, usually paid up for a period of months rather than on a per-ride basis. But the manufacturer of the electronic turnstiles may have some explaining to do.


    Posted by Sean at 00:06, October 11th, 2007

    A Japanese tourist–he appears to be a backpacker type–has been abducted in an unstable part of Iran after crossing over from Pakistan:

    According to a message received by the Ministry of Foreign affairs on 10 October, a 23-year-old Japanese university student was abducted by unspecified persons while traveling in southeastern Iran during the first ten days of the month. The abductors are thought to be members of a militant group that is demanding ransom. The ministry established an emergency task force, headed by Vice-Minister Itsunori Onodera, that is investigating in detail the circumstances in which the student was abducted.

    According to the ministry, the Japanese embassy in Tehran received a midnight telephone call on 8 October saying that the student “had been abducted by a militant group while traveling through the southeast of Iran.” The student also stated that “the group looks as if it has some other demands in addition to ransom.”

    Haven’t heard much more.