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    So good

    Posted by Sean at 00:44, July 29th, 2006

    I’m kind of hors de combat on this one, but I’m a fan of good-natured lustiness, and Kim du Toit and Mark Alger have been posting about which women singers they think look and sound sexy. (I’m surprised Dolly didn’t pipe up at BTB about her own charms–I’ve always kind of wondered what she sounds like.)

    The topic has also come up recently because of this new R&B honey–is she being touted as the Second Coming in the States, too? I like the song. Really. But the hype is already making me hope she takes her platinum earnings and retires to a South Pacific islet tomorrow so we can go THREE CONSECUTIVE SECONDS without hearing about her.

    I mean, really, PR types…must you keep using the same damned script, with no modification whatever? “She has a voice that sounds wise beyond her years and a Stevie Wonder-like flair for writing tunes that recall the heyday of ’70s soul! Her stunning debut album, Come Away with the Hardline on How Life Is According to Mica Keysizm, causes rooms full of critics to fall to the floor in paroxysms of ecstasy!* It’s set to be the year’s biggest crossover hit! Her singing style recalls Billie Holiday but establishes a modern, youthful point of view that’s all her own! She’s got the passion of Aretha! And the sophistication of Roberta! But, like, the quietly compelling Roberta, not the tastefully boring Roberta she turned into after Feel like Makin’ Love!”

    All right, already. We get it. Observing that a contemporary soul singer owes a debt to Aretha is like observing that gravity pulls lead shot downwards. And it seems somewhat condescending to be frothing over the fact that the newest chick singer you’ve signed actually has a personality.


    * Yeah, I know Terence Trent d’Arby isn’t a woman, but he was put through the same sort of jaws-of-death hype mill as I’m talking about.

    The magic number

    Posted by Sean at 22:47, July 27th, 2006

    Now that former Minister of Foreign Affairs Yasuo Fukuda has bowed out, current Minister of Finance Sadakazu Tanigaki has announced his candidacy for LDP president in the election two months from now:

    His campaign platform consists of pledges that his administration will (1) normalize relations with neighboring nations, (2) rebuild strong ties within the [East Asian] regional community, and (3) begin the first stages of fiscal restructuring–his “three resolutions.” Regarding the current state of Japan-PRC and Japan-ROK relations, he criticized Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi’s approach to diplomacy, stating, “Relations are abnormal. It is undeniable that the reason is the Yasukuni Shrine issue.” He also emphasized that “in terms of foreign relations, it is necessary to conduct ourselves in such a way as not to go stirring up domestic politics or nationalist sentiment in foreign countries.” He called for the establishment of an Asia Hotline that heads of state could use at any time to contact one another.

    His fiscal restructuring plan includes a doubling of the consumption tax. Great.

    Shinzo Abe is still, of course, the front-runner, and there have been no indications that his supporters (or the analysts and talking heads who think they’re speaking for them) see Tanigaki as a particular threat. I do realize that Tanigaki was speaking in a specific context and has the specific task of distinguishing himself from Abe in bold strokes, but in terms of policy, I always worry when a politician has a list of ad hoc prescriptions for dealing with hot-button issues but doesn’t bother to articulate the set of principles from which he derived them. (That means I spend a lot of time being worried.) You don’t have to agree with all of Koizumi’s beliefs to appreciate that he has the vision thing in a way the political operators surrounding him do not.

    Sin of omission

    Posted by Sean at 00:26, July 26th, 2006

    The responses to this post by Steve Miller at IGF are, I think, instructive. The point of contention is this:

    I guess they meant well. But publishing this ad in newspapers, showing that the usual gang of leftwing activists, liberal politicians and big-labor leaders (and some progressive religious folks) support marriage equality made me bristle. In my view, if big labor is for it, then it certainly can’t be good. I think many who aren’t on the liberal left have the same visceral reaction.

    The issue isn’t whether the big-guns unions do good things for their members; it’s how the positions their representatives take as political entities are perceived by voters as part of a pattern. At least, that’s what I thought the point was. But the would-be refutations provided in the comments consist largely of statements that unions are forces of saintliness within the workplace, that gays who have worked within them are heroic warriors for justice, and that any criticism of the reflexive left-ward tendencies of gay advocacy can be lumped in with the most hysterical anti-leftist ranting.

    It’s a shame that Miller doesn’t usually get into the fray in comments threads, because amid all the inter-queen class warfare, his point is being misinterpreted and therefore not dealt with.

    It’s true, as some have pointed out, that most of the signators to the ad have no perceptible political position–assorted elected officials and church leaders of unidentified affiliation. And the rest? Let’s see: We have labor leaders, Kim Gandy of NOW, Norman Lear, and Melissa Etheridge. One signator is also pricelessly identified as the founder of “The Spiritual Spa and Holistic Healing center.” (Wonder what goes into the facials there?)

    The problem isn’t that these people were included. It’s that only these people were included, giving the average reader the perfect excuse for deducing vaguely, before turning the page, that supporters of gay marriage comprise no one who isn’t along the urban/dilettante-celebrity/union/lobbyist liberal axis. We can argue over whether that perception is unfair, but Miller is right to point out that it’s stupid in PR terms to be feeding into it.


    Posted by Sean at 09:47, July 22nd, 2006

    We’re getting toward the second half of summer, though it’s been rainy and relatively cool in Tokyo over the last week and a half or so. When the sun begins beating down mercilessly again, we’ll all feel like Saigyo:



    michinobe ni / shimidzu nagaruru / yanagi kage / shibashitote koso / tachitomaritsure

    Saigyou houshi

    Just off the pathway,
    spring water flowing through the
    shade of the willows–
    if only for a short while
    I will pause and rest

    The priest Saigyo

    This is one of those poems that people scratch their heads when Japanophiles go ga-ga over. While the Japanese (not unjustifiably) have a reputation for aestheticizing obliqueness, if not downright obscurantism, some of their best art is fearlessly limpid. That’s especially true of the poetry of Saigyo, who favored concrete images with a direct appeal to the senses.

    Part of the impact is in the burbling consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel quality of sentences composed entirely of native Japanese words. (Sinitic compounds tend to break up the flow with rounded, drawn-out syllables.) The sibilant shes and hard-aspirated ts can be harsh in some contexts, but in the final two lines of the above waka, there are so many of them that they have a lulling effect–like a brook being channeled through a pile of rocks, or like those unidentifiable gentle snapping sounds you hear around you in the dry grass in late summer. Saigyo gets in both the heat and the respite from it. More poetic, if less effective, than just scooting indoors and turning on the air conditioner.


    Posted by Sean at 03:13, July 20th, 2006

    Like something out of one of those nature-run-amok horror movies from the ’70s, this is:

    A swarm of jellyfish shut down a coolant system at a Japanese nuclear plant, forcing the power company to temporarily lower the output of two reactors, a news report said.

    Chubu Electric Power Co. lowered output at two reactors at its Hamaoka nuclear power plant in central Japan after jellyfish interfered with the filters of a tank used to take water from the sea, Kyodo News agency reported.

    The two reactors ran at about 60-70 percent of capacity for three hours on Wednesday while workers removed the jellyfish, Kyodo said, citing company officials.

    No radiation leaked outside the compound, according to the report.

    That last detail makes a nice change from the usual incident-at-a-nuclear-facility news we get.


    Posted by Sean at 03:09, July 20th, 2006

    Latest safety scandal in Japan: Manufacturer Paloma Industries has produced on-demand water heaters (the usual type in housing here in Japan) that have been linked to several carbon monoxide poisonings over the years. You know the script for these things by now, don’t you?

    In Act I, we learn of a product defect that has endangered multiple users, perhaps even causing multiple deaths. (This report has the latest figures):

    Major appliance maker Paloma Industries Ltd. said Tuesday it found an additional 10 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by its gas-operated water heaters that killed five people.

    The company also said four of the total number of cases were caused by the deterioration of safety devices through long years of use.

    Cases involving the Nagoya-based company’s heaters increased to 27 from the 17 initially revealed by the industry ministry.

    In Act II, the plot thickens as we discover that the company knew about the problem for years:

    Paloma Co. apparently knew that fatal carbon monoxide poisoning caused by its instant water heaters, which killed 15 people between 1985 and 2005, was linked to irregular repair work done by a technical arm of the Paloma group, as early as 1988, contrary to its explanation at a press conference Friday that the company first found out about the poisoning problem in 1991.

    A letter Paloma sent to its offices around Japan on May 24, 1988, stated that “sporadic problems involving imperfect combustion in our gas devices have been reported lately,” and instructed employees to “never conduct” irregular repairs on the safety devices of heating machines.

    The letter, which reveals Paloma knew about the link between CO poisoning and irregular repair work three years before a fatal poisoning occurred in Nagano Prefecture in 1991, was referred to in a Sapporo High Court ruling in February 2002.

    The letter also called on the related offices to “never run short” of safety device replacement stock for the heating machines. The fact that Paloma mentioned inventory shortage in the letter suggests the company was aware that the lack of proper replacement parts had prompted repairers to conduct irregular work on the devices.

    In Act III, we learn that action might have been taken earlier if failures to communicate within and among government bodies hadn’t kept information from flowing from those who held it to those who could have done something about it:

    Two Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry gas divisions failed to consult with each other on the danger of inappropriate modifications to on-demand water heaters made by Paloma Industries Ltd., despite its predecessor, the International, Trade and Industry Ministry, having issued a brochure warning of the danger of such tampering, it was learned Wednesday.

    The ministry created the brochure for liquefied petroleum gas businesses in 1993 after several fatal accidents made clear the possible consequences of such modifications.

    According to METI’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s Liquefied Petroleum Gas Safety Division, which has jurisdiction over liquefied petroleum gas, MITI’s liquefied petroleum gas safety section showed serious concern over a spate of carbon monoxide deaths linked to such modifications in Nara and Kanagawa prefectures in 1991 and 1992.

    Upon discovering liquefied petroleum had been used in each of the incidents, MITI commissioned the government-affiliated High Pressure Gas Safety Institute of Japan in Minato Ward, Tokyo, to produce about 50,000 copies of an informational pamphlet on the topic in March 1993.

    Exeunt? Well, not quite yet. There’s one death for which the statute of limitations for professional negligence hasn’t expired. It’s being investigated now.

    Say what you want

    Posted by Sean at 07:55, July 19th, 2006

    This post by Virginia Postrel contains the second use of the locution “gays qua gays” I’ve encountered in forty-eight hours. (Virginia kindly didn’t deliver it with a flourish of the arm that nearly sloshed her vodka and cranberry on my shirt, however.)


    Here‘s Megan McArdle on how likely it is that Ayn Rand’s vision will come out the other side of the Hollywood machine clear and undistorted when Atlas Shrugged is made into a movie:

    More to the point, how on earth could Hollywood possibly make this movie? Some objectivist bigwig has apparently signed off on the screenplay, but colour me sceptical. I’d offer long odds that by the time Hollywood is done editing the thing, it will represent plucky individuals against . . . a government superficially indistinguishable from the Bush administration. In the summer blockbuster release, the state’s biggest crime will no doubt be stealing all the gay marriage from poor people and stuffing it into private accounts where they can’t get at it.



    To tackle the subject of self-determination more seriously…I’m behind on my reading, but a few weeks ago I (finally) managed to cruise through Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin . Just in case you’re the last person wandering through this end of the political blogosphere who hasn’t heard, it’s great reading. Hirsi Ali’s tone is measured and sober, but her practical, can-do, humane approach is often very stirring:

    Western societies are not dominated by one single ideology, but have several ideologies that exist alongside one another. In a well-functioning democracy, the state constitution is considered more important than God’s holy book, whichever holy book that may be, and God matters only in your private life. Relationships between people and their interactions are governed by laws and rules, which are drawn up by people, not divine forces, and can be changed, adapted, or replaced by new ones. All people are the same in the face of the law, even those whose lifestyles differ from that of the majority. Women have equal opportunities under the law (although in reality this is not always so). Homosexuality is not a sin to be punished with death, nor is it considered a threat to the survival of mankind, but seen as a form of love, normal like that between heterosexuals. Moreover, love and sex are not restricted to marriage, but can be enjoyed between two people by mutual consent. Democracy provides the freedom to avoid or plan a pregnancy and ways to protect against sexually transmitted diseases.

    Now, obviously, not everyone in the West is on board with everything in that passage–when I first read it, I chuckled and said aloud, “Wow, sister–are you seriously Dutch or what!” But in its careful specification of ways and reasons that Western societies liberate the individual from traditional religious strictures, it’s far more meaningfully provocative than, say, Madge Desmond over there climbing a crucifix in yet another attempt recapture her youthful transgressiveness.

    I have no idea whether Hirsi Ali views gay advocacy as comparable to the feminist and civil rights movements–I don’t myself in many respects–but her advice to Muslim women who want to leave oppressive environments contains a lot of wisdom that I wish more gays would take to heart. She does an especially good job of pointing out the necessity of weighing your decisions carefully and then carrying them out resolutely. There will be those who disapprove of your choices, and you have to be willing to live with it. If instead of acting on impulse, you work out your principles beforehand and adhere to them, you may feel lonely sometimes but you’ll never feel adrift. And get your mind off your own problems by involving yourself in making other people happy. None of these is a new idea, but there are plenty of native-born Westerners who have shunted them aside, and it’s a shame.


    Rondi Adamson posts a link to her column on the latest developments in the Middle East. Reactions include this:

    From a guy in Trois-Rivieres: “I assume you are Jewish, sir?” You assume wrong, sir, on both counts! I’m an atheist/Protestant, and while you may not think me a lady, I’m no “sir.” And I have an appointment with my gynecologist this week to prove it!

    It always puzzles me that people will assume you’re Jewish if you support Israel (which is not the same as cheering everything it does–Michael J. Totten has some persuasive arguments that the current strikes are being handled badly). Not everyone, obviously, but a lot of people. I’ve even been asked, “Well, if you’re not Jewish, why should you be so interested in what happens to Israel, which strikes me as a singularly idiotic question.


    Inthestars, proprietor of the invaluable but infrequently updated Awful Plastic Surgery blog, wonders whether Nelly Furtado is actually the ingéher press packs say she is. I’m not so sure a browlift is a sign that she’s more than twenty-eight, though; celebrities (especially those being groomed for a comeback) seem to be getting every procedure at a younger and younger age these days.

    Abnormal situation

    Posted by Sean at 01:36, July 16th, 2006

    Also re. the DPRK missile tests, the Asahi offers this item:

    At least 112 cases of assault, verbal abuse and harassing phone calls have targeted students at Korean schools nationwide in the week since North Korea test-fired seven missiles, officials said Friday.

    The 112 cases were reported by 20 Korean schools as of Thursday, according to officials of the union of Korean school teachers. Several more incidents were reported Friday, they said.

    There’s no excuse for such behavior, obviously. Targeting children for their elders’ perceived political beliefs is barbaric. Besides, there are many points of view represented among ethic Koreans here.

    At the same time, I don’t buy this response:

    The Korean schools are among 71 run by the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun).

    “Our students and parents fear for their safety in this abnormal situation. The harassment is aimed at students across Japan, even elementary school students,” said Ku Dae Sok, principal of the Tokyo Korean Middle and High School in Kita Ward and chairman of the teachers’ union.

    “We cannot help feeling angry at the situation, as Japanese people have been falsely directing their warped anti-North Korea feelings against (long-term) Korean residents here, especially students,” Ku said.

    He said the Japanese government had stirred public anger with its harsh reaction to the missile launches. He urged the public to consider the recent problems between the two countries separately from the presence of Koreans in Japan.

    How’s that again? By all means, let’s expose and punish attacks on children. But Here‘s a very brief run-down on the Chongryun:

    Its organizational structure includes the headquarters in Tokyo, prefectural and regional head offices and branches with eighteen mass propaganda bodies and twenty-three business enterprises. Nearly one-third of the Japanese pachinko [pinball] industry is controlled by Chosen affiliates or supporters. Chosen remittences in hard currencies to Pyongyang have been variously estimated at between $600 million and $1.9 billion each year, with the most likely value in the lower to middle of this range. In recent years the amount has substantially decreased. In 1994, Japanese police testified that some $600 million was being sent to North Korea, though this amount has recently declined to $100 million a year or less.

    The Chosen Soren supports intelligence operations in Japan, assists in the infiltration of agents into South Korea, collects open source information, and diverts advanced technology for use by North Korea. North Korea uses several methods to acquire technology related to nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare and missiles. The Chosen Soren has among other activities an ongoing effort to acquire and export advanced technology to North Korea.

    Note that this does not indicate that these schools are fronts for espionage or anything like that. Who knows? Perhaps some are, but that isn’t my point. My point is that the Chongryun isn’t just an ethnic organization; it’s an ethnic organization that maintains close political and economic ties with the mother country. And the mother country happens to be testing missiles that could reach Japan. For anyone working for a Chongryun institution to call for people to consider Japan-DPRK conflicts “separately from the presence of Koreans in Japan” is ludicrous.


    Posted by Sean at 01:01, July 16th, 2006

    The UN Security Council resolution on the DPRK’s missile tests went along predictable lines:

    The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously on Saturday for a resolution requiring nations to prevent North Korea from getting dangerous weapons and demanding Pyongyang halt its ballistic missile program.

    North Korea immediately “totally rejected” the resolution. Its U.N. Ambassador Pak Gil Yon told the council that Pyongyang’s missile development served “to keep the balance of force and preserving peace and stability in Northeast Asia.”

    Agreement came after Japan and the United States bowed to a veto threat from China and dropped a reference to a provision in the U.N. Charter, usually used to impose mandatory sanctions. In turn, China and Russia accepted stronger language in the resolution than they had first proposed.

    The resolution requires all U.N. member states “in accordance with their national legal authorities” to prevent imports and exports of any material or funds relating to the reclusive Communist nation’s missile programs or weapons of mass destruction.

    It demands North Korea “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program,” and re-establish a moratorium on the launching of missiles.

    The Nikkei report additionally mentions that North Korea has accused Japan of using the missile test issue as a point of departure for “internationalizing” the abductee issue.

    Internally here in Japan, the spin is that the resolution was a good thing for Japan:

    Early on 16 July, Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso spoke to the Foreign Ministry press corps about the unanimous adoption of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the DPRK: “North Korea must see this as a decisive message from the international community. There is no change to the binding power [of the resolution].”

    He’s referring to the compromise on Chapter 7 of the UN charter, the result of which was to water down commitments to sanctions against the DPRK. “There is more power in a unanimous vote” than in allowing Japan’s proposed tougher resolution to fail, said Aso.

    On the morning of 16 July, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe also made a public statement: “This nation sought ‘a resolution powerful enough to bind [member nations] to responses including sanctions,’ and [the version adopted] reflects that position; we were able to articulate the decisive will of the international community.” He also called for action on the abductee issue: “All surviving abductees should be repatriated immediately.”

    So that’s that for now. Fingers have been duly wagged at Pyongyang, but the PRC and Russia haven’t committed even nominally to sticking it to the DPRK. And, as usual, for all the blather about the unified front presented by the international community, the real lesson for the five countries in Northeast Asia is quite the opposite. Each has been pointedly reminded yet again why it doesn’t trust any of the others–both in terms of motivation and in terms of the ability to assess danger accurately. At least no one appears poised to blow anyone else up in the foreseeable future, so, you know, well played overall.

    This and that

    Posted by Sean at 20:33, July 10th, 2006

    Japan and China disagree over more than just how to deal with North Korea, of course. On the disputed East China Sea gas fields, they agreed this weekend to form an investigative committee that might, perhaps, pave the way toward joint development. On the downside (for Japan), China again refused requests to halt development of the Shunkyo field, which straddles the midline between Chinese and Japanese land, which Japan regards as the far boundary of its exclusive economic zone. The Asahi has an English report here.


    It’s not related to Japan-PRC relations, but Monday night it was also exactly fifteen years since Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered on the University of Tsukuba campus. (I didn’t know Japan had a statute of limitations on murder.) Both violent murders in Japan and violence to avenge perceived insults against Islam have become less jolting since then; in 1991, despite the international publicity over the fatwa against Rushdie, Igarashi’s death was a major shock.


    Sometimes, life here is just like being back in the States: At a forum on Monday, the two major parties accused each other of not being serious about small government:

    Democratic Party of Japan Vice President Naoto Kan accused Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of failing to fulfill his pledge to streamline the government into a smaller, more efficient body.

    “Koizumi’s reform has only been psychological in nature,” Kan said, at a discussion forum in Tokyo on Monday.

    The opposition leader engaged in a heated debate with Hidenao Nakagawa, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Policy Research Council, over what the present Cabinet has accomplished with regard to the structural reform initiated by Koizumi.

    “You must first make a drastic psychological reform in order to change things that have been established over a long period of time,” Nakagawa said, adding, “Even [former British Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher took six years before she made substantial progress with her reform.”

    It’s hard not to be disappointed in Koizumi, but Nakagawa certainly does have a point. It’s easy for naive elected officials to be outmaneuvered by unelected bureaucrats in a government such as Japan’s. Koizumi’s strategy–keeping reform initiatives in the public eye, staging a few dramatic showdowns over pet proposals, and quietly negotiating on others or letting them be tabled entirely–at least got through much-needed banking reforms.