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    Posted by Sean at 05:42, January 5th, 2007

    The “suffering passive” is a construction in Japanese that we foreign language students tend to have trouble wrapping our heads around at first. Today’s news brought a ghoulishly apt example of how it’s used:

    At around 7:55 on the evening of 3 January, a man’s voice reported to 110, “I killed my mother,” from the residence of [Ms.] Yaeko Tsukumo of 2 Mizue, Edogawa Ward, Tokyo.

    [Her 53-year-old third son] Minoru was suspected of having strangled her using his hands and socks at about 7 p.m. “She was getting on my case about my not having a job, and I went ballistic” he stated. Yaeko and Minoru lived together.

    The suffering passive is not used to make the direct object the subject and the subject the agent; instead, it’s used to emphasize the way the speaker (usually) was made to suffer by the action. You learn sentences such as 妹にケーキを食べきられてしまった, which doesn’t just mean “the cake was completely eaten by my younger sister” but rather “little bitch hoovered all the cake on me!” The cake is still the direct object; the verb is passive because the speaker feels powerless to do anything about his or her suffering (not an uncharacteristic Japanese attitude by any stretch).

    Mr. Tsukumo did, of course, take matters into…uh…his own hands; but he still used the suffering passive to describe his mother’s scolding. The “getting on my case” part is in the passive voice: 仕事をしていないことをなじられ –> “I was made to suffer by her taking exception to my not having any work.”

    It’s impossible to determine from that preliminary report whether the Tsukumos mère et fils had a history of arguing; however, elder abuse has become a recognized social problem in Japan, despite its image of uncommon respect for the aged. Many elderly people still live with their children–traditionally, it’s the oldest son and his wife–but households are now rarely structured around the clan, with the patriarch and matriarch presiding over several generations under one roof, or at least in one compound. Nowadays, elder care is frequently seen as a burden added onto that of stretching tight post-Bubble incomes. It also involves carving up close quarters in tiny urban apartments. The freestanding houses in major metro areas aren’t much roomier.

    The rules against venting about family problems to friends who aren’t relatives appear to have relaxed a bit, but the sense that seeking professional counseling or assistance is shameful remains strong, perhaps especially among those who would most benefit from it. There’s a major tendency to keep gritting your teeth through your frustrations until you crack. And Japanese society does revere the elderly as repositories of experience and wisdom; but as a shame and not guilt culture, it also makes it relatively easy to do nasty things if no one’s looking and you think you can get away with them.

    Excising the fabulousness gene

    Posted by Sean at 03:34, January 3rd, 2007

    Oh, come on. Michael and Henry Lewis are having a spaz over this statement by James Joyner:

    Is being gay tantamount to being deaf? My instinct is that it is not, since it impacts a much more narrow range of the human experience. At the same time, would I choose for my kids to be gay? Absolutely not. There are plenty of disadvantages that come with it and no obvious upside. If they turned out to be gay, though, they would continue to have my love and support.

    Michael and Henry both say the only downside to being gay stems from other people’s narrow-mindedness. Is that the case for everyone, though? I’ve known a fair number of gay couples who regret that they can’t have a child together. Is it really possible to believe that social pressure alone accounts for the desire to see their combined genetic heritage reflected in their child? You don’t have to be one of those mean-spirited people who think of adopted children as somehow not “real” or who assume every childless person lives a pathetic, unhappy life to recognize the human instinct to procreate and to concede that responding to it is “valid.”

    From a different angle, parents do all sorts of things to ensure happiness by their own definition for their children. The line between encouraging a child to rise to high standards and tamping down his personality isn’t always clear. Still, it’s not uncommon for parents to foist piano lessons on their children, or to pressure them into going to parochial school, or to refuse to pay for college if it’s not Ivy, when the children’s native aptitudes and interests clearly run in different directions. There’s an obvious and direct way in which rejecting an existing child’s core self and trying to substitute another of the parents’ own choosing causes unhappiness.

    Would manipulating genes have a comparable effect? It doesn’t seem to me that it would, though I can only speculate, of course. A child might feel a bit odd if told that Mom underwent some kind of drug regimen to incline him toward engineering rather than painting, but since the only life he would know would (presumably) be that of an inclination toward engineering, I can’t imagine that he’d be haunted by not having been able to live as his “natural” self. Anyway, it’s already natural for people, when they’re feeling down, to wonder whether people living different lives are happy or more productive or what have you.

    And that’s always struck me as what this debate is really about for a lot of gay people: they seem to think that accepting that some people might not want themselves or their children to be gay somehow reflects badly on us. Hence the indignant declarations that we are too happy and that prejudice from hetero-meanies is all that keeps us from being more so. I don’t see why that stance is necessary. Life is about trade-offs for everyone, and part of living in a free society is respecting people who prioritize things differently. Those of us who are out homosexuals should be more aware of that than anyone.


    Posted by Sean at 00:02, January 3rd, 2007

    I’ve just finished former Knight Ridder Tokyo bureau chief Michael Zielenziger’s book Shutting out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation . So many books have now been written about what’s wrong with post-Bubble Japan that I wish I could say that Zielenziger’s is redundant, that the big problems have already been sufficiently teased out and there isn’t much more to add to the discussion. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and one of the virtues of Zielenziger’s book is that he focuses on the patterns that emerge from talking with individual Japanese people about their lives.

    His focus, as his subtitle implies, is on Japanese adults born in the ’60s and ’70s. He’s spoken mostly to men who’ve dropped out of society and rarely leave home and to women who are approaching middle age but unmarried. At this stage in their lives, they would be expected to have their families and careers and, for lack of a better term, life goals established pretty well. Why is it that so many do not, despite living in an affluent, well-educated, democratic society?

    One obvious but clever way he considers the question is by way of comparison: Why is it that Korea, so similar to Japan in so many ways, was specifically able to rebound from the Asian financial crisis a decade ago and is generally more receptive to social and economic reforms? One of Zielenziger’s key answers is something that, while extensively discussed in academic circles, doesn’t get much play in the mass-audience books about East Asia I know of:

    In my somewhat conventional coverage of the political and economic character of these two competing societies while working as a journalist, it had never dawned on me that the role religion played could prove so decisive in altering a people’s attitudes toward self-esteem, individuation, or communal responsibility. Nothing in my background or disposition as an American Jew prepared me to accept that the rise of Western religion–and especially the Protestant Church–had served as a vital force crucial in transforming South Korean society. It may be too simple to argue that exposure to Christianity alone has changed Korean consciousness. Yet the churches have coached the Korean people in forming social networks, building trust among strangers, and accepting universal ethics and individualism in ways that served as powerful antidotes to the autocratic worldview their grandparents–and, indeed, the Japanese–had been taught.

    I happen to think that the Japanese view of nature–as crowded with turbulent, competing and complementary forces that are, on balance, indifferent to human joy and pain–is a much more accurate reflection of reality than Christian theology. But the same imagination that allowed our Western ancestors to conceive of God as an immanent, transcendent, more super-cool version of us (complete with a highly-evolved personality) is what allowed them to conceive of principles above and beyond group-rule and of the possibility of asserting will over nature.

    There’s a danger in extending that explanation too far, of course. Korea, despite having been the Hermit Kingdom, is a peninsula attached to Asia; the neighbors with which it shares borders are huge and frequently pushy. Korea has a long history of dealing with and adapting to external forces, and since the 1950s, the South has had the proximity of the DPRK to maintain a sense of urgent mindfulness of hard reality. So Christian missionaries have not been the only source of difference in outlook between Korea and Japan; nevertheless, Zielenziger is right to pay attention to them.

    On a more amusing note of possible ill portent, the Mainichi reports the following:

    Four people suffered an ominous start to the Year of the Boar when they were attacked in the street–by wild boars.

    Local police suspect that several different wild boars attacked the four, noting that their descriptions of the animals were different.

    It may be that nature is rebelling; it’s more likely that boars are just more newsworthy right about now than they have been since twelve years ago. The New Year danger of choking on sticky rice cakes, by contrast, is an annual thing; in the Tokyo area, eleven elderly people were taken to the hospital, with five still in critical condition. In Japan, even the rice cakes have hidden dangers.

    Happy New Year, everyone.

    More questions about quake resistance

    Posted by Sean at 21:05, December 29th, 2006

    There’s been a lot going on here while I’ve been away from the blog, but some highlights will be especially cheering over the New Year holiday.

    One is that, predictably, increased vigilance spurred by the Hidetsugu Aneha scandal (he was given a five-year sentence this week) has brought some unpleasant things to the surface:

    About 7 percent of new medium-rise apartment complexes are believed to fall below the mandatory quake-resistance strength standard, an infrastructure ministry report showed. Fifteen of 221 buildings checked had a quake-resistance level of less than 0.9 against the benchmark of 1 set under the Building Standards Law, the report released Wednesday showed.

    One of the buildings in question may have a quake-resistance level of only 0.5 or even lower, which means the structure will have to be rebuilt, the report said. Buildings with less than 0.5 quake-resistance strength could collapse in a moderately strong earthquake, while buildings with strengths ranging from 0.5 to 1 can be reinforced to meet the standard, the ministry said.

    Officials said no clear falsifications of structural reports on quake-resistance have been confirmed in the survey. But the findings raised the possibility that many new medium-rise apartment buildings across the nation do not meet the quake-resistance strength standard.

    There are about 7,000 10-story or so condominium buildings that received approval for construction from 2001 through 2005. The ministry randomly picked 389 of them for the survey.

    One comfort here is that it didn’t take the actual collapse of a building to bring on greater scrutiny. (South Korea learned to take a harder line on building code enforcement after the showy Sampoong Department Store in Seoul pancaked, killing five hundred people; subsequent investigations revealed slipshod construction in many other buildings.) One non-comfort is that not even serious scandals such as this one are always sufficient to cause needed change in Japan.

    Can the thirsty stay sane / After what they’ve seen?

    Posted by Sean at 07:40, December 19th, 2006

    Virginia expresses the mild but still unnecessary worry that being nominated for this contest may imply that she’s a Mariah-like diva. Uh, no, dear lady. No way. And a good thing, too.

    I mean, see whether you can tell the difference between these two women in blue:

    mariah.jpg vipdiva.jpg

    Hmmm…. A real toughie, huh? I mean, the sense of unshowy authority just emanates equally from both. Of course, it doesn’t help Mariah that she appears to have taken Virginia’s support for elective plastic surgery to a greater extreme than one might have liked.

    Virginia’s post does raise the droll question of who might, in fact, qualify as a Mariah-like right-wing diva. Let’s see…nugatory technical flourishes…caterwauling tone…valuable sentiments hammered redundantly away at until you want to scream…I’m thinking, unsurprisingly, Ann Coulter. Of course, I don’t think she has a blog.

    One final observation: I don’t see why being a diva in the pop sense has to be worse than being a diva in the opera sense, despite the crass badness with which so many singers, in practice, handle being stars. Virginia’s not Mariah, thankfully, but I could see her as sort of like early Phoebe Snow–sober and unhurried and interested in how city and suburban living affect people.

    Added later: I remember in the late ’80s seeing some Entertainment Tonight-ish show on which a stylist (they weren’t really major public commentators then) said that things had changed to the point that looking as if your hear were all natural was no longer the prime object when wearing hairpieces. This was several years before weaves and extensions took off in a big way even in the suburbs. It was like, “If you’re at a party and no one can tell you’re wearing a hairpiece, that’s fine; and if people know, that’s fine, too. It’s just decoration.” How odd it sounded.

    I can’t imagine that even celebrities think of plastic surgery quite the same way by this point, but they do often come off as if they weren’t even trying. It seems to be pretty much assumed that everyone famous in Hollywood and New York has multiple procedures as a matter of routine, and a lot of it is so obvious that even if it doesn’t look obviously fake, it just looks bad.


    Posted by Sean at 23:42, December 18th, 2006

    Most movies come to Tokyo pretty late. Mega-hype machines such as Casino Royale are generally here while they’re in the States. (It opened on 1 December, and I’m going this weekend.) The Devil Wears Prada, which I’ve been hearing about from friends at home for months, just got here a few weeks ago, and I went on Sunday. I still think Anne Hathaway has the most annoying voice this side of Hillary. Possibly on the far side of Hillary, for that matter. And the satire struck me as kind of muddled.

    What I’d really feared, though, was that it would end up being two hours of strung-together one-liners that could be uttered by any old bitch any old place…you know, the way a lot of sitcoms seem to be now. Good smart-ass remarks are attuned to their context, which is why you have to give five minutes of background exposition before explaining why what your best friend said at brunch last Sunday was so hilarious. The movie got that part right; most of the wisecracks fit the characters and the scene and didn’t feel as if they’d been bought by the pound and sprinkled over the script like pignoli.

    Unfortunately, not everyone who trades on bitchery does a good job at it, and Salon has a decent piece on the terminally tiresome Perez Hilton. It made me feel old in places, as when the writer said things like this:

    In fact, Perez is filling a cultural role first blazed by Steven “Coju” Cojocaru, Carson Kressley and Bobby Trendy: the bitchy gay man who has all the dish. […] In a very real way, he’s a modern-day Stepin Fetchit, cheerfully describing himself as a “media whore” for hire.

    Someone needs to tell the child about Michael Musto…though on second thought, maybe he’s better off not knowing. In any case, while the article’s kind of verbose, I liked the Bruce Vilanch quotation at the end:

    Of Hilton’s argument that he’s helping further gay civil rights, [Vilanch] says, “I don’t understand why we profit from having some bitter miserable person exposed against his will. How does that make a gay teenager happy to be gay? What kind of a role model does that establish? I don’t think it does anything for anybody.” Vilanch also sees the connection between Signorile and Hilton, saying, “It’s the same thing I said when Michelangelo Signorile was doing it: What purpose does it serve? These are professional homosexuals. They are gay people for a living. They have to respect the rights of homosexuals who aren’t professional.”

    “If somebody isn’t going to willingly announce that they are a positive individual, with a positive outlook on life,” Vilanch asks, “why would we want to include them among us?”

    I don’t think it’s every public figure’s responsibility to be a role model, exactly, and Vilanch seems to assume that anyone who’s closeted must be bitter and miserable (though he may not be generalizing the way he appears to be). Nevertheless, he’s right in the main. Who wants to join a “community” with its most shrieky, oafish members always at the ready to broadcast to everyone that you’re gay, as if even they regarded it as some kind of compromising secret, before you’ve decided how best to go about it? (Michelangelo Signorile, who’s so morally obtuse he’s practically a reflex angle, naturally contributes a quotation or two of blurry rhetoric of his own defending outing also.)


    Posted by Sean at 10:43, December 18th, 2006

    Still busy. There’s been a lot going on that I haven’t posted about–the JDA will soon be a full-fledged ministry, the 6-party talks are back on, and everyone’s talking about Abe’s low approval ratings.

    Oh, yeah, and the LDP public policy committee chair reminds us what a real war crime looks like:

    LDP public policy committee chair Shoichi Nakagawa made a statement, during a 17 December evening lecture in Nagasaki, about the United States’s decision to drop the atom bomb on Nagasaki during World War II: “America’s decision to deploy that thing is unforgivable–truly inhumane. Dropping the A-bomb was a crime.”

    Nakagawa stressed that “we must work to our fullest capacity to ensure that no one uses weapons of mass destruction again. Obviously, we will maintain the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).” He also indicated that “Japan’s surroundings are full of nukes. People say they’re there for purposes of deterrence, but a country has recently emerged that appears ready to use them if things don’t go its way,” referring to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons.

    No word on Nakagawa’s view of the relative morality of, say, performing vivisections on prisoners.

    Nakagawa actually said not long ago that Japan should consider developing its own nuclear weapons, so that part about definitely upholding the non-proliferation treaty is, to my knowledge, new coming from him. I’m not sure I worry about a Japan with nukes, but I do think that it’s a poor idea to adopt North Korea’s characteristic put-upon tone when discussing them. The idea that Japan was a victim in World War II plays well to some segments of the Japanese population; it plays less well in the United States and British Commonwealth and way less well in Japan’s co-prosp…er, “surroundings.” The charitable view is that the Abe administration is still finding its footing and establishing its voice; but, of course, to right yourself by building on your policy strengths, you have to have some, and the Abe government hasn’t been covering itself in glory on domestic issues, either.


    Posted by Sean at 08:51, December 5th, 2006

    Thanks to those who have sent gingerly inquiries about whether I’m in some kind of spiral of post-breakup depression that’s keeping me from blogging. Things are fine. Work and play are both busy. Additionally, the Japanese news seems to consist mostly of children’s committing suicide, school officials’ committing suicide out of remorse for having denied that bullying played a part in said children’s committing suicide, and admissions by the Ministry of Education, Et c., that even if the children had declined to commit suicide and continued to attend classes, they wouldn’t have been learning any compulsory subjects anyway. Interesting stuff, to be sure, but not the kind I feel like fixating on just at the moment.

    Speaking of dead students, I somehow managed, while visiting a friend in Kyoto, to encounter an English translation of The Ring, so I picked it up for the bullet train ride back. I’ve been asked several times by Americans what I thought of Lost in Translation and the Ring series as an American in Japan, so I thought I’d write it down, sort of as a stop-gap post. I fear this will be kind of disjointed and not very inspired, but the books and movies themselves are interesting, and if nothing else, the following longueur will put paid to any idea that I’m dead.


    Posted by Sean at 00:47, November 10th, 2006

    The Nikkei editorial about the Rumsfeld resignation was published this morning. American readers may be interested to hear that it pushes the Robert McNamara comparison–the meme has arrived in Japan:

    There has been no two-term president who has had the same Secretary of Defense for all eight years in office. Rumsfeld assumed the post after the Bush administration began in 2001; combined with his year as defense secretary under Ford in the 1970s, that gives him a total of seven years in the position. His only rival [in that regard] is McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense for seven years under Kennedy and Johnson.

    Both men have had experience running private enterprises, and both applied their private-sector administrative methods to policy in the Department of Defense. As a result, both ran into snags–McNamara in Vietnam, and Rumsfeld in Iraq. Rumsfeld, especially, in beginning the war in Iraq, attempted to get results with the lowest possible amount of military force. This move invited opposition from the armed forces and is connected to the current state of confusion.


    Posted by Sean at 22:43, November 8th, 2006

    Predictably, the lead editorial in this morning’s Nikkei is headlined “US Midterm Elections Reflect Iraq Dilemma.” The unwritten subhead is “Does This Mean Japan Is Screwed?”

    In the mid-term elections for United States congress and state governorships and such, held in the off-years between presidential races, it’s usual for the president’s party to lose seats.

    In that sense, the results this time around are not a surprise. However, it seems that they bear witness to a rise in dissatisfaction with the Bush administration revolving around the ongoing circumstances in Iraq–the Democrats have recaptured the majority in the House after twelve years and gained seats in the Senate. The Bush administration has not discovered a way to extricate itself from its dilemma in Iraq.

    Everyone reasons that if the [Iraqi] economy improves public order will also be restored; but the current reality is that because public order hasn’t been restored, the economy has not improved. No method has been found to stop this vicious cycle and reverse the trend.

    The option of restoring stability through a large-scale increase in the deployment of US military personnel has not gained political support within the US; nor has it gained the support of the Iraqi government.

    The argument for complete withdrawal that had been advanced by part of the Democratic Party could result in the abandonment of Iraq, leaving it to become a breeding ground for international terrorists. This is the mistake that has already been made in Afghanistan.

    The argument for phased withdrawal, after strengthening Iraqi infrastructure [to maintain] stability, appears to be rational. But the deepening opposition of Sunni and Shia elements makes prospects difficult to assess.

    A government in which the Republicans hold the White House and the Democrats have taken the leadership of the congress also existed during the Reagan and Bush [I] administrations in the 1980s. It was called “gridlock,” and it prevented efficient decision-making. Will history repeat itself?

    Now, of course, one of the reasons the Nikkei is paying attention to elections in the United States is that they’re important to geopolitics in general. But there’s plenty at stake for Japan specifically, too. The role of the military here is a hot topic, made ever hotter by movements in the PRC and the DPRK. Russia isn’t making many noises at the moment, but it’s never far from the Japanese mind. Japanese politicians have generally perceived the GOP as invested in maintaining close US-Japan security ties. Even those who are not eager to do so are, like most of the global media, interpreting the results of Tuesday’s election as a direct rebuke to the Bush administration on national security and Iraq; it’s not clear how that will affect strategic policy in East Asia, but plenty of people are worried.