• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Spa explosion

    Posted by Sean at 06:22, June 21st, 2007

    Yes, to those who’ve asked, the spa that exploded Tuesday was in my area of Tokyo. That is, it wasn’t in my neighborhood, but it was in Shibuya Ward (not far from my old apartment, actually). The spa draws in water from natural underground hot springs and also has the usual array of massage and relaxation therapies. It’s a women-only place, and three people killed in the methane explosion–lots of hot springs give off methane and other noxious gases–were all women employees.

    Predictably, the game of Responsibility Hot Potato has begun:

    Top officials of Unimat Beauty and Spa Inc., the company that manages Shiespa, denied responsibility for the explosion at a press conference held Tuesday night. “We charge an external company with safety management. The company has the relevant qualifications,” company President Harumi Miyata said.

    Shiespa’s manager Yumiko Kimura stressed the firm’s maintenance was not defective. “We never conceived that the facility would explode,” said Kimura.

    Hitachi Building Systems Co. in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, maintains the facility’s water-related areas. A company spokesman said: “We’re not in charge of checking the equipment that separates the gas from the spring water, or the pump that brings the water up. Even if methane gas was the reason for the explosion, our operation has no connection [with the accident].”

    Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, Katsuo Sangu, president of Sangu Co., which conducts several maintenance checkup procedures at the facility, stressed their operations were unconnected to the explosion. “Our contract doesn’t include checking the density of methane gas,” he said.

    A spokesman of Taisei Corp., which designed and constructed the facility, said, “We can’t answer questions about responsibility because we haven’t yet collected enough information.”

    Part of the problem is a lack of legal oversight:

    Prefectural governments have almost no regulations in place to prevent gas explosions at hot springs or spas.

    The popularity of spa facilities that combine hot springs and saunas with relaxation rooms and beauty salons has soared in recent years. However, drilled hot-spring sources at these facilities bring the risk of explosions and fires caused by natural gases, such as methane.

    It’s looking like a real possibility that everyone followed the rules but that there just weren’t any rules governing ventilation and monitoring of methane. At the same time, however much faith it had in the firms it contracted maintenance work out to, the management company is ultimately responsible for the safety and comfort of its clients. It doesn’t speak well of the Unimat officials quoted that they’re so eager to avoid responsibility.

    Suicide law

    Posted by Sean at 05:42, June 21st, 2007

    The Asahi‘s editors approve of the new government anti-suicide laws (English version here):

    Until now, it was common to dismiss suicide as a “problem for the individual.” By contrast, the new basic law clearly designates suicide having “varying social factors” in its background. The policies this time around also situate suicide [in the context of being] a “death to which people are driven” and “a major loss for society as a whole.”

    Fine so far. Given that suicide really is a national problem, a federal program to provide hotlines and crisis centers doesn’t seem like a bad use of money, at least in theory.

    Unfortunately, if hardly atypically, the Asahi wiffs when it comes to confronting the “social factors” that need to be addressed. It goes by age group.

    The guidelines stress the importance of helping young people with their personal development and mental-health management. But in addition, it is vital that they are taught more firmly from an early age to respect life.

    Middle-aged and older men continue to be high suicide risks. This applies not only to men in their 60s with growing health concerns, but also to men in their 40s and 50s who are still in their prime.

    Long working hours should be shortened to relieve stress. There should be help for people who have lost their jobs or filed for bankruptcy. Immediate treatment should be available at the earliest detection of depression. These measures are all in the guidelines, and they certainly are of help to prevent suicides.

    The last sentence of the first paragraph cited above is a model of obtuseness. Rearing children in an environment with firm, reassuringly clear rules that still make room for their personalities to develop is not something you can do by just barking cheerily at them to respect life. Many, if not most, suicides among children in Japan are related to school pressure and bullying. Things are improving somewhat, but it’s still common for teachers and school administrators to condone bullying; the response to complaints by the parents of victims tends to be, in effect, that it’s their kid’s problem for being so weird.

    Once children grow into adults and take their place in the workforce, the pressures simply change form. Long work days in Japan are not associated with high output. (If offices simply learned to use their time more productively–rather than having workers spend their days generating redundant documents, attending meetings that proceed with all the celerity of a glacier gouging out a valley, and chasing down stamps of approval–working hours would shorten themselves.) Most people who commit suicide over work-related stress are probably tired from being at the office too much, yes; but I imagine that for most of them, the the constant feeling of being under observation and attendant pressure to stay in line are probably far greater factors.

    I don’t think Judeo-Christian theology accurately represents where we came from and where we go after death, but it must be said that it does offer individuals meaning and purpose outside themselves and beyond the reach of job and family stresses. That’s not to say that Japan doesn’t have a rich spiritual tradition of its own; it does. But in the post-war effort to regain a sense of national dignity by building up the economy, study and work became ends that seem, for many people, to have eclipsed other concerns. And now that economic growth is no longer a year-by-year given, it’s no surprise that a lot of people are having trouble figuring out how to center themselves psychologically.

    The West has its own problems with conformism, certainly; and plenty of Jewish and nominally Christian people commit suicide. Nevertheless, Japanese children do not really learn that it’s okay to trust their own judgment when it differs from that of the collective, as long as they’re following a reliable set of generally applicable moral principles. I’m not sure whether the mental health system, even with the cooperation of both public and private sectors, is going to be capable of helping individuals invest their lives with meaning.


    Posted by Sean at 05:02, June 13th, 2007

    Hmm…. This sounds oddly familiar:

    The National Police Agency revealed on 13 June that 10,000 files that included police information appear to have been leaked from an employee’s private PC over the Internet via the filesharing software Wini. It is possible that depositions and affidavits regarding police cases were included; the content and nature of the leaked data are being thoroughly investigated.

    According to the current investigation, the employee (26) was a chief patrol officer in a regional division of the Kitazawa office. A PC he was using at home became infected with a virus, and approximately 9000 document files and 1000 photographic files that had been saved on it appear to have been leaked through Wini. The chief patrol officer explained of the leaked data, “I received it from the head of the patrol department of the regional division.”

    If you’re thinking, Uh, gee, hasn’t something like that happened before? the answer is, Why, yes, it has.


    Posted by Sean at 00:12, June 13th, 2007

    Some friends just sent me this link with the observation that the story seems to be right up my alley. The article sure as hell looks like a parody to me–and given the number of typos, a parody by non-native speakers of English–but I can’t find anything to indicate that it isn’t legitimate. Given that the timestamp is five days ago, I’m going to assume that every other gay blogger has covered this already, but if you haven’t seen it….

    As part of a military effort to develop non-lethal weapons, the proposal suggested, “One distasteful but completely non-lethal example would be strong aphrodisiacs, especially if the chemical also caused homosexual behavior.”

    The documents show the Air Force lab asked for $7.5 million to develop such a chemical weapon.

    “The Ohio Air Force lab proposed that a bomb be developed that contained a chemical that would cause enemy soldiers to become gay, and to have their units break down because all their soldiers became irresistably [sic] attractive to one another,” Hammond said after reviewing the documents.

    “The notion was that a chemical that would probably be pleasant [sic, iterum] in the human body in low quantities could be identified, and by virtue of either breathing or having their skin exposed to this chemical, the notion was that soliders [sic! For the love of Pete, when discussing the gays, can you at least show a token respect for our noted punctiliousness? Sheesh!–SRK]would become gay,” explained Hammond.

    Morons. Haven’t you been listening to James Dobson? Unless you’re looking at a unit full of soldiers who bonded incompletely with their same-sex parent and thus had the direction of their sex drive distorted, you’re pretty much out of luck.

    Besides, it’s perfectly possible for a gay guy to be in a confined space with a few dozen other homos in butch attire and not be attracted to any of them. This is an experience I have almost weekly, though I’m usually holding a drink rather than a weapon.

    Sugar never was so sweet

    Posted by Sean at 01:49, June 9th, 2007

    Virginia Postrel blogs that MIT engineers are figuring out how to transmit electricity wirelessly. No more inconvenient lamp cords. Very exciting.

    I nearly went insane trying to figure out how to task-light (new verb!) my kitchen work space. Hiding the cords wasn’t going to be a problem, but I liked the uninterrupted expanse of cobalt-blue acrylic I’d used as a backsplash and didn’t want to wreck it with a bunch of clip lights or floor lamps. Then I ran across a display of these at Tokyu Hands.


    That picture is not all that far from actual size. Each light has a diameter of 3.2 centimeters at its widest point, and the whole thing is 7-ish centimeters long if you extend the lamp fully. You can hardly see it unless it’s turned on. And the light is powerful. Worked perfectly. Of course, I thought it was nice that the thing is supposed to save on energy and stuff, but it was the design that hooked me. (And no, I did not pay the full suggested list price given on the Kokuyo site. I probably am gay enough to spend the equivalent of US$200 on a light the size of an artichoke heart just because it won a design award, but I didn’t have to.)

    Suicide solution

    Posted by Sean at 04:31, June 8th, 2007

    This story on The Onion isn’t quite a classic–some of the adjective-choked phrasing makes it a little too clear the writer’s trying to be funny, when a topic such as this requires that earnest Sam-the-Eagle deadpan. But the collision between two therapeutic impulses is still hilarious:

    A report published Monday in The New England Journal of Medicine warns that the nation’s obesity epidemic has reached a new level of crisis, with many overweight Americans’ increased girth rendering them physically unable to end their own, fat lives.

    “We’ve known for some time that obesity can cause heart disease, diabetes, strokes, and other potentially life-threatening illnesses,” said report author Dr. Marjorie Reese, director of UCLA’s Obesity Pathology Clinic. “But the fact that obesity impedes suicide is truly troubling. It appears that the more reason people have to die, the less capable they are of doing so. They are literally trapped in their grotesque, blubbery bodies.”

    Given all the propaganda about how fat people are unidisciplined and ignorant and short-lived and…for the love of Pete, how many times do we have to tell you to put down that Big Mac and eat a fistful of carrot sticks?!–given all that, it almost makes sense that some actual “public-health” scold would point out the inability to off yourself as yet another risk of obesity, if only to score points by adding to the list.

    By contrast, there’s no jest involved in Japan’s latest got-a-problem-get-a-program initiative to lower the suicide rate:

    The measures call for comprehensive efforts, including stepping up measures to tackle unemployment and bankruptcy, as well as early detection and treatment of depression.

    The measures include mental health support services such as counseling at workplaces, a network of community psychiatrists, and public campaigns to raise awareness of the problem and to reduce prejudice against mental illnesses.

    They also call for more support for suicide survivors and victims’ families. Students and the elderly were the two groups that had the fastest-growing suicide rates.

    Most of the measures are to be funded by the government, though the Cabinet did not release figures on how much money was available.

    Nearly half of those who committed suicide last year were unemployed, the police said in their report published Thursday.

    Given its track record, I’m not sure I’m going to put much faith in the federal government’s ability to tackle unemployment and bankruptcy. The support programs and things don’t sound like a bad idea; the Japanese are very, very slowly coming to accept the idea that professional counseling is a way for respectable people to deal with intractable emotional problems. It’s going to be difficult for health care providers to address the big acculturation problem, though: Japanese workers are taught to invest most of their adult identity into their jobs, but they aren’t taught to view skills and experience as assets that would transferrable from workplace to workplace. A lot of people, even sixteen years after the Bubble burst, simply have no idea what to do when they become unemployed. That’s especially true of the middle-aged; the free-lancing phenomenon is probably not as common among youths as it’s hyped up to be, but I imagine that most young people at least have a sense of how to be resourceful in patching together a living from temp work as they plot their next move.

    I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools

    Posted by Sean at 10:30, June 4th, 2007

    Ann Althouse is getting some criticism for for making playful fun of Al Gore’s tone in this article:

    “… I haven’t ruled out for all time thinking about politics again. It’s just that the way it works now, I don’t think that the skills I have are the ones that are most likely to be rewarded within this system. It’s like a washing machine that is permanently set on the spin cycle. It doesn’t stop spinning. That creates real problems for a politics based on reason.”

    Friends have urged him to run for president again, but he wants to see a “transformation of this conversation of democracy” that de-emphasizes imagery and spin-doctoring.

    Althouse says:

    What?! You think this is spinning? You’re spinning. You’re always spinning. You’re like a washing machine. Al Gore is grateful to those who have a good opinion of him, but you… you don’t seem ready for reason, you know, reason, that process that yields a good opinion of Al Gore. Why don’t you help him transform the conversation of democracy. De-emphasize imagery! You washing machine.

    You can bet he’s not referring to one of those new energy-efficient washing machines, either.

    Gore’s way of expressing himself is pompous and self-flattering as always, and Althouse is justified in poking fun at it. Nevertheless, the essential point seems to me a reasonable one. Maybe it’s time for Gore to resign himself to never being in a position to use federal power to realize all of his nanny-state dreams and to work as he can to bring them to pass through other means. Who knows? He might discover along the way a few useful truths about humility and compromise.


    Posted by Sean at 09:36, June 4th, 2007

    I’m surprised we haven’t heard this sort of thing much more frequently before now:

    The decision by four apparent North Korean defectors to brave 900 kilometers of open water in a small wooden boat to reach Japan suggests a level of desperation not seen before.

    And it may signal that North Koreans are seeking out new routes to escape from the repressive regime in Pyongyang.

    China traditionally was the route of choice. But after Beijing began to crack down out of consideration for its ties with North Korea, defectors started turning up all over Asia.

    The arrival Saturday of four defectors at Fukaura port in Aomori Prefecture could well be an isolated case.

    “It may just be random occurrence rather than an entirely new route,” said a South Korean government official.

    Possibly. But it wouldn’t be difficult to believe that the PRC’s tightening of border controls has convinced many would-be defectors that almost any alternative is better. There was that widely-linked Times Online story last year, detailing at least one “repatriation” of a refugee:

    The [PRC] soldiers, who later told family members of the incident, marched the woman, who was about 30, to the mid-point of the bridge. North Korean guards were waiting. They signed papers for receipt of the woman, who kept her dignity until that moment. Then, in front of the Chinese troops, one seized her and another speared her hand — the soft part between thumb and forefinger — with the point of a sharpened steel cable, which he twisted into a leash.

    ‘She screamed just like a pig when we kill it at home in the village,’ the soldier later told his relative. ‘Then they dragged her away.’

    Of course, that’s a third-hand account, so it’s not certain whether every detail is accurate. It’s certainly not hard to believe that the DPRK is making an extra effort to make an example of those who are returned after trying to escape.

    Gunpowder and lead

    Posted by Sean at 08:52, June 4th, 2007

    I gather it’s a straight-guy fantasy here in Japan to find out what it’s like to ride on one of the women-only commuter train cars, which were instituted a few years ago by rail companies looking to offer women protection from, among other things, rush-hour groping.

    Well, as of today, I can tell you, though the experience was wasted on me, naturally.

    I got on the train around 6:30 on the way to getting a haircut. I suppose that, when I used to live along the Toyoko Line, I knew that trains heading out of Shibuya had the women-only car in effect during evening rush hour, but I didn’t think much about it. My commute was during off-hours, when anyone can ride any car. The floral-patterned pink decals designating which car is women-only are still there, but the rule isn’t in effect during the afternoon. I wasn’t used to having to pay attention, and I guess I just always figured that any man who inadvertently stepped onto the wrong car would be promptly informed by one of its occupants that he belonged elsewhere. Or maybe that the nearest station attendant would chase you off. (Yes, Japanese women are brought up not to make a fuss, and yes, I’m a foreigner; still, it’s not uncommon to have someone crisply inform you when you’re committing a serious transgression in a public space–say, smoking where it’s not allowed, or what have you.)

    Instead, I rode through five express stops before I figured it out. I’d had a vague sense that there were several women around me wearing quite a bit of perfume, maybe. I didn’t notice anyone looking askance at me. No furtive whispering. (You get that as a foreigner here, even if you’re not doing anything to violate decorum.) I was mostly lost in my iPod anyway. Perhaps the passengers around me heard Miranda Lambert leaking through my headphones and figured I was a fan of sassy women and unlikely to cause problems?

    Anyway, it’s funny how the mind works. The moment I realized my mistake and began plotting to maneuver to the door at the next stop, the woman scent, which I hadn’t really noticed until then, became overpowering. I had a stronger-than-usual urge to bury my face in Hugh Jackman’s gym shorts. There didn’t seem to be any harm done, but I toyed with the idea of apologizing to the woman in front of me. (Her rear was pushed against my fists, which were innocently clenched around my little Hermès bag. I doubt the pressure felt anything like a touch of the more untoward kind; still, I assume her whole intention in getting on that car had been to avoid worrying about what the guy next to her was doing with his hands.)

    Anyway, sorry, ladies. Trust me, it was no better for me than it was for you, and I’ll be paying more attention in the future.


    Posted by Sean at 23:26, May 31st, 2007

    Rondi has spotted an interesting report on IMDB:

    Martin Scorsese has disclosed that he is planning to direct a movie, set in 17th-century Japan, that may have implications related to the war in Iraq.

    “It raises a lot of questions about foreign cultures coming in and imposing their way of thinking on another culture they know nothing about,” Scorsese told the A.P.

    I’m used to celebrities being vapid morons, and tackling issues way out of their depth, but I expected better from Scorsese. I mean, I assumed he was anti-war but I figured even he would see the silliness in comparing missionaries in 17th-century Japan with Americans in 21st-century Iraq. Apparently not. The Americans aren’t imposing “their way of thinking.” In fact, the Iraqis have freely elected their own government, an administration with which, I suspect, Washington is not thrilled.

    Like Rondi, I must admit that the parallels aren’t entirely obvious to me. The Portuguese didn’t invade Japan, take it over, and see to the installation of a new government. Indeed, when the Tokugawa Shogunate began to see the increasing influence of the Portuguese over its nobles (who liked the access to trade they got from converting to Christianity and being in well with the seafaring foreigners), it confined them to an island off Nagasaki and eventually expelled them entirely.

    Of course, missionary work intrinsically involves trying to persuade people to change culturally coded ways of thinking. In Japan Studies departments, the arrival of the Portuguese is treated as the beginning of an archetypal clash between polytheistic, of-this-world Japan and the monotheistic, transcendence-minded West. I can see Scorcese making an interesting movie out of Silence that limns those conflicts, but I doubt it’s going to happen if he’s busy pursuing Political Relevance. (Why on Earth would Martin Scorcese think he needs to make like Oliver Stone, by the way?)

    If an anti-war director really wanted to undertake a bold, risky project about Japan that would raise questions about justifications for war and efforts by one culture to impose its thinking on others, he might elect to focus on Japan’s attempts to create an “Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” in Korea, China, and on down in the decades leading up to World War II. I can’t think of a novel that could be readily adapted for a screenplay, but certainly there’s enough in the historical record for a good writer to come up with high drama and big moral issues.