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    Posted by Sean at 09:34, May 20th, 2007

    This story was published over a week ago–been busy–but given how much complaining I do about useless bureaucracy, it’s only fair to note that the government also addresses real issues in Japan’s changing society and economy. You know, sometimes:

    Workplace accidents involving temporary workers are increasing rapidly in line with an increasing number of day labor jobs whose workers have little experience, a survey by the Tokyo Labor Bureau has found.

    The bureau’s survey found that the number of workplace accidents in 2006 was nearly 50 percent higher than the previous year’s figure.

    In line with revisions to the law concerning temporary workers, the bureau began conducting surveys on workplace accidents among temporary workers in 2005. It collected data from job placement firms headquartered in Tokyo.

    A total of 99 people died in workplace accidents under the Tokyo Labor Bureau’s jurisdiction in 2006, while 10,078 people were injured. Two of the workers who died and 401 of the people who were injured were temporary workers. The number of injuries to temporary workers was 49.6 percent higher than the figure for the previous year.

    Many of the injuries involved workers getting caught in machines or falling down from high places. 142 people suffered serious injuries that forced them to take a month or more off work. Other accidents involved people injuring their backs when lifting heavy objects and getting their hands caught in presses, indicating a lack of experience and safety instruction.

    “Compared to regular company workers, there’s a tendency to neglect safety instruction for temporary workers, and so we want to warn companies,” a Tokyo Labor Bureau representative said.

    The surveys have only been conducted since 2005, and there’s no indication in the article of whether the bureau has just gotten better at getting reports in the interim. The 49.6% increase may be exaggerated. (The original Japanese story has a pie graph with a further breakdown.)

    Nevertheless, the conclusion that shifting work patterns are causing more injuries as inexperienced, untrained people work with equipment they can’t handle rings true.


    Posted by Sean at 09:23, May 20th, 2007

    Some of the reactions to last week’s hostage standoff have been predictable. As in, “We have to make sure no one can ever do this with a gun again!” It’s not going to be news to anyone what I think of that argument, yeah? Others have been equally predictable but more troubling:

    The hostage standoff in Aichi Prefecture, in which a member of the prefectural police force’s Special Assault Team was fatally shot, has left a number of urgent tasks for police to address.

    The police will have to reconsider what protective gear is needed for officers, how to respond to cases where suspects are armed, and when police should storm locations where perpetrators are holed up.

    The case also has raised a number of questions. Why did this situation lead to the death of one officer and the serious injury of another? Why were the police unable to secure the release of the hostage? And why did Sgt. Akifumi Kimoto, the first police officer who was shot, approach the scene alone where Hisato Obayashi was holed up, armed with a handgun?

    Witnesses said Kimoto, standing on the street in front of the house, began negotiating with Obayashi before walking alone up a path leading to the house.

    A senior official at the prefectural police headquarters said, “Negotiating with a suspect is not the duty of a police officer in charge of a local patrol.” But he added, “It was a tense situation with other people having already been shot, and there was a hostage, so I presume there was some reason he had to get closer to the gunman.”

    The biggest question is why a police officer was left lying on the ground for about five hours before being rescued, the whole time being broadcast on live television.

    Everybody watching the scene unfold must have wondered why police did not immediately rescue him. The Yomiuri Shimbun‘s center for readers received many phone calls asking this very question.

    (What they’ve been saying on the news is that Ohbayashi threatened to shoot anyone who came within range.) I’m not sure that there’s much of a mystery here. The plain and simple fact is that a hostage-taker armed with a gun who’s willing to shoot at police officers from where he’s holed up is something not even Tokyo and Osaka police officers have to deal with frequently, let alone in random places outside Nagoya. The first officer who was shot probably hadn’t registered that he was dealing with much more than a domestic dispute taken to extremes, though we may learn more as the investigation continues. The inquiry into whether special assault teams should be equipped and trained better sounds like a good idea.


    Posted by Sean at 23:35, May 13th, 2007

    Since it’s still (narrowly) Sunday where my own mother is, I think I can scrape by and still not feel late in saying, “Happy Mothers Day, mothers!” She and I just spent a happy half-hour discussing the trials and tribulations of moving into a Tokyo apartment. She reacted with proper Middle-American horror to the information that cold-water kitchen and bathroom sinks were still standard here until a decade or two ago (“Didn’t I ever tell you that before in the last ten years, Mom?”) and was relieved that my new place is hygiene-enabled.

    She was probably slightly worried about the throw pillows–I’m looking for this particular shade of poison-green raw silk, see? Not chartreuse…yellower and a little more intense. Kind of like danger yellow with green highlights…without actually being iridescent. It’s one of those things you can see in your head, and it just maddens you when you’ve gone to every department store and shop you know and no one can give you the poison-green raw silk you want. ERGGGH. The problem has now gone global, with friends in Bangkok, New York, and San Francisco having promised to keep an eye out for me.

    Anyway, hope it a was a good weekend for everyone.

    Domine Dirige Nos

    Posted by Sean at 10:09, May 7th, 2007

    Should we laugh or cry?

    Despite being one of the world’s major financial centers, with large scale securities, foreign exchange and bond markets, the number of subsidiary and branch offices of foreign financial institutions in the city has fallen by almost one-third over the past decade.

    The Urban Renaissance Headquarters, chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the Financial Services Agency will work together to develop a district where overseas businessmen can go about their day-to-day lives speaking English by providing condominiums, day care centers and medical facilities for foreign residents near Tokyo Station.

    The plan also envisages spacious new offices specifically designed for foreign financial institutions, to be offered in high rise buildings.

    According to the sources, the FSA will discuss its proposal with foreign executives to better understand their needs, with a view to starting to draw up plans some time this year.

    Ah, yes–a JAL Pak Tokyo Village for foreigners! (And it’s to be modeled on the City of London. No chance of that turning out kitschy.)

    It’s already an easy task to find housing, medical care, and other services provided in English. Much of it is expensive, but that’s hardly a worry for people here on expat packages. Spacious offices can be difficult to come by, even for big-guns foreign financial institutions, but providing them in yet another gaijin ghetto (there’s one in the Azabu-Hiroo-Roppongi-Aoyama area that seems to do its job perfectly well already) is not going to draw them back to Tokyo. Money flows where there’s a dynamic economy with ascendant opportunities for investment.


    Posted by Sean at 11:48, May 6th, 2007

    Between the move and the Golden Week holiday, I haven’t had much energy to post. One of the things I missed while it was current was the Nikkei‘s series of editorials last week about mergers and acquisitions. The first installment (of three) lays out the justification for all the column inches:

    M&A is increasing–why now? It’s a fact that in March, listed companies are posting record profits for the fourth consecutive month; however, the reality is that operations efficiency is still low compared with that of enterprises in Europe and America.

    According to Nomura Securities, the return on equity, which indicates the ratio of net profit to capital from shareholders, for 2006 is projected to have been a little more than 9%. That’s a little more than half of the 16% figure for United States enterprises. In a study by the Mizuho Research Institute, the return on assets, which expresses the ratio of net profit to gross capital (including debt and liabilities) was found to be 4.7% for the U.S. and 3.1% for Japan for 2005.

    It goes on to talk about worker productivity and other indicators. None of the information is really new, at least in its general import. What’s interesting is the gingerly tone. Remember, the Nikkei is the premiere business and economics newspaper in Japan. Its editorial page leans pretty reliably toward being pro-markets. But even the Nikkei‘s editors seem to feel the need to reassure their readership that it doesn’t need to regard M&A as some kind of scary monster.

    Roller coasters

    Posted by Sean at 11:00, May 6th, 2007

    One of the big news stories this weekend is the fatal accident at an amusement park in Osaka. A car on a roller coaster derailed and listed. One woman collided with a rail and was killed, and a few dozen people were rushed to the hospital. (Well, some of the English stories say “seats,” but it was apparently one of those rides on which you stand and have your torso held in by an overhead harness-type thing.) Not surprisingly, it’s suspected that lax enforcement of safety standards is the culprit:

    In February, the amusement park took the roller coaster apart for inspection. However, it said it did not inspect the integrity of the axle shaft because there was no garage available at the time. The park subsequently postponed the inspection until May 15.

    The police suspect improper safety management may have led to the accident, and are investigating the amusement park on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

    And at a different amusement park, there was another accident–this one a sort of fender-bender with nothing more serious than nausea resulting, luckily, though it still gives one cause for worry:

    Four people were taken to hospital after a roller coaster car carrying a parent and child rear-ended another car carrying a parent and child at about 2:50 p.m. Saturday at Wonderland amusement park in Sakai, Fukui Prefecture. The four complained of feeling nauseous after the collision.

    Local police questioned employees of the amusement park on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in injuries.

    Two accidents in one weekend don’t constitute an epidemic of safety violations, but they do indicate a problem that’s very real with infrastructure, industry, and public accommodations here: No one really knows where the accidents waiting to happen are, because government oversight of safety is erratic. There are some cases in which the evidence is heartening. Transportation authorities have been riding JAL hard over safety violations, for example, and they haven’t needed an airliner crash to motivate them to do so. The Aneha scandal literally hit the Japanese where they live, but it was brought to light before an real, live catastrophic earthquake revealed that all those fraudulently certified buildings weren’t actually safe. But in other sectors–nuclear power, toxic waste disposal, and pharmaceuticals are big ones–one wonders whether things are actually humming along generally well or it’s only a matter of time before luck runs out.


    Posted by Sean at 10:31, May 6th, 2007

    Having returned from his visit to the United States, Prime Minister Abe is pressing forward with what he hopes will be his legacy: constitutional revision. Because it’s the sort of issue that interests foreign readers, the English-side sites of the major Japanese dailies are covering things pretty thoroughly. The Asahi has the major players mapped out:

    Abe has yet to secure support from the opposition camp, notably Minshuto, on this issue. For this reason, there is uncertainty about whether Abe will be able to amend the Constitution under his current Cabinet.

    Akihiro Ota, chairman of New Komeito, the LDP’s junior coalition partner, sounded a warning Thursday to LDP lawmakers who want to start deliberations on constitutional amendments immediately after the national referendum bill passes the Diet.

    The same day, Naoto Kan, acting head of Minshuto, lashed out at Abe’s pro-amendment stance at a symposium in Tokyo.

    Noting that Abe became prime minister through the postwar democratic political system, Kan said it is “extremely contradictory” for him to now seek to “break away from the postwar regime.”

    Kan’s original Japanese words are in the original Japanese article: 「首相は戦後レジーム(体制)の脱却というが、民主主義(の下で)の総理大臣がレジームを変えるのは、極めて論理矛盾だ。」 There’s the upcoming election, so the DPJ needs to come out swinging against the LDP; but I’m still not entirely sure what Kan is swinging at. Abe knows that he has to adhere scrupulously to proper procedure in connection with an undertaking as delicate and controversial as constitutional revision, and the proposed revisions themselves hardly represent a turn away from democracy. The revision of Article 9 will, it is hoped, give Japan a standing army and specify that citizens are responsible for defending their country. Everything else that I’m aware of is a set of blandishments about the essence of Japaneseness and the addition of “environmental rights.” (Given Japan’s generally unprepossessing built environments and current treatment of nature, it’s a good thing that’s not already in the constitution, or we’d have a violation-of-rights crisis of nationwide proportions. See this article about a recent federal study that found that Japan’s shorelines are festooned with about 148,000 cubic meters of washed-up junk, much of it originating inland and disgorged into the sea from Japan’s rivers.) Oh, and I think there’s a vaguely-phrased right-to-privacy provision. The Yomiuri has a little more detail on the major points of debate.

    Those who remember the ’80s may be amused to read that former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has griped that the proposed new preamble lacks euphony, as documents written by committee are wont to do.

    Obara found guilty but not in Blackman case

    Posted by Sean at 06:22, April 24th, 2007

    Joji Obara, accused of murdering hostess Lucie Blackman in 2000, has now been tried and sentenced:

    A Tokyo court on Tuesday sentenced businessman Joji Obara to life in prison for drugging and raping nine women, including an Australian who died, but acquitted him in the death of Briton Lucie Blackman.

    The Tokyo District Court said prosecutors failed to provide evidence that proves Obara, 54, was responsible for the death of the 21-year-old British hostess whose dismembered body was found in Kanagawa Prefecture in 2001.

    Prosecutors used as evidence videotapes seized from Obara’s home that showed him attacking the nine victims.

    But there was no such footage of Blackman on the tapes.

    In fact, prosecutors’ arguments concerning the Blackman case were based largely on circumstantial evidence.

    Even the cause of her death has not been established.

    Prosecutors argued that Obara was seen with Blackman just before she went missing, and that the same type of cement used to encase her head was found in Obara’s room.

    But the judge said these pieces of evidence do not show to what degree Obara was involved in Blackman’s death.

    The judge concluded, “Doubts remain over whether the criminal actions were carried out solely by the defendant.”

    I can see how the Blackman family would be unsatisfied with the verdict, but it doesn’t seem unjustified. Obara’s story (the Mainichi has a Japanese report here) is that an acquaintance of his, now conveniently dead, was the one who assaulted and killed Blackman and disposed of her corpse. I don’t buy it, but it certainly could have happened that way.

    Of course, one can imagine political reasons for the verdict. There were widely-aired accusations that the police had been slow to investigate and, once on the case, slow and slipshod. The court’s decision doesn’t disprove that, but it makes it possible to take a position along the lines of, “See? Even when the police were forced to investigate thoroughly, they didn’t find enough evidence to convict Obara, so perhaps their original judgment calls weren’t so baseless after all.”

    Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

    Posted by Sean at 06:44, April 23rd, 2007

    The walls in my apartment can talk.

    Not in the if-these-walls-could-talk sense. Don’t expect, if you come for a visit, to have the intercom system chat with you about whether I’m usually wearing anything when I eat breakfast. It’s the water heater and ventilation system. Like those in Atsushi’s apartment, they have enough buttons and lights to make you feel, as a friend of mine once put it, afraid you might launch something equipped with a nuclear warhead if you push the wrong part of the touchpad. Unlike those in Atsushi’s apartment, they don’t just beep at you when the fan goes on or the bath has finished filling. Instead, a chirpy woman’s voice tells you, “Power is now turned on!” or “The bath is heated!” I’m sure it’s a great boon for blind people living alone, but I just find it grating. I figured there’d be somewhere to turn it off, but I haven’t found it on any of the (three) control panels. Yeesh.


    Posted by Sean at 02:22, April 20th, 2007

    Michael has caught some flak (so to speak) over his posting about gun control and how to compare the shootings of students at Virginia Tech and of the mayor of Nagasaki here in Japan. I think he’s absolutely right. (Hey, it happens sometimes.)

    If guns were completely illegal in the U.S., and the government did everything possible to collect all of the guns, the VA Tech student would still have found a way to get a gun and shoot up the campus.

    All right, yes, that’s speculative, and it’s phrased a bit sententiously. But it has the ring of truth because we know now that Cho was planning this kind of thing for a long time and was obsessed with the military. Henry Lewis may no more know how to get an illegal gun than I know how to get drugs in Roppongi, in the sense that neither of us is interested or would know where to begin. But people who are interested figure out a way to find out.

    Does gun control work in Japan? Difficult to say, because there are many other factors that make society function as it does. Japan is much more homogeneous and self-policing than immigrant-rich societies such as the United States. Another thing I’ve definitely noticed in talking to Japanese friends is that the idea that citizens might have the right to defend themselves from agents of their own government if they get too high-handed isn’t one that crosses their mind very frequently. They also don’t think often about situations in which the police or other authorities may not be around to help them and they must see to their own defense. Part of that is that Japanese people are acculturated to like being under authority, part of it is that Japanese people tend to be suspicious of an individual who wants to go it alone, and part of it is that the post-war Japanese government did a lot of things the citizenry is rightfully grateful for. Japanese people–this is my narrow individual experience talking, but I don’t think it’s aberrant–are unusually ready to believe that the victim of a crime by a stranger is at fault for getting himself into a sticky situation rather than staying in safe, known spaces.

    And let’s not forget that Japan doesn’t lack for lunatics who kill multiple victims. They tend to be serial killers rather than spree killers–gun control probably does have something to do with that–but their victims are just as dead.

    Added later: Unsurprisingly, Connie has a thing or two to say about this, too.