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    Lame duck

    Posted by Sean at 05:01, May 14th, 2006

    Okay, Jun’ichiro Koizumi isn’t technically a lame duck because he’s leaving his post as head of state by choice, but anyway….

    The news outlets here, naturally, have been keeping close watch on how things are developing within the LDP, given that Prime Minister Koizumi plans to step down in September. Most of the updates are pretty boring, so I haven’t been commenting on them. The Yomiuri has a nice summary of things to date up today, though:

    Even members of the Mori faction, headed by former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, which has managed to maintain a semblance of unity, are having difficulty reaching a consensus on fielding one candidate in the election, indicating that the influence of the faction on their membership is declining.

    At a press conference Friday, LDP General Council Chairman Fumio Kyuma said it was no longer in agreement with the recent trend for factions to choose candidates or take members’ opinions into consideration to field a single candidate, referring to the failure of the Mori faction, the largest in the party, to reach an agreement on fielding a single candidate.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe and former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda of the Mori faction are seen as increasingly likely to run in the LDP presidential election, which could signal a split of the faction. But the Mori faction may not be the only faction that will have two candidates competing for the top LDP post.

    Oddly, the article doesn’t mention that Koizumi himself was once a member of the Mori faction; his relationship with his former mentor has been strained at times. (Mori ticked the Prime Minister off by commenting against the perceived rashness of his threat to dissolve the lower house last year over Japan Post privatization.) Koizumi has been signaling that he wants factional string-pulling to be kept to a minimum in the selection of the next party leader:

    “It’s no longer easy to unify (a factional candidate). The old LDP is gone,” Koizumi told reporters Tuesday night. “There is no way to stop them if they wish to run.”

    The comment was widely viewed as a move to keep former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in check as Mori was moving to select a candidate who will have the unanimous support of his faction.

    Both Abe and Fukuda are members of the Mori faction, to which Koizumi once belonged.

    Mori had apparently wanted to avoid rivalry between Abe and Fukuda as it could split his faction, and thus chip away his clout.

    Whatever you may think of Koizumi’s policies, the man has charisma; few other politicians gunning for the LDP presidency and prime ministership do (though I’ve always liked Fukuda and was disappointed two years ago when scandal forced him to resign as Chief Cabinet Secretary). Many of Koizumi’s brash promises of reform have been abandoned for the sake of political maneuvering, and those that have gone through have usually been watered down. There’s a lot of political time between now and September, and whether Koizumi’s approach will live on after him remains to be seen.


    Posted by Sean at 04:40, May 14th, 2006

    A well-intended proposal was introduced by some concerned citizens yesterday:

    The annual number of persons who commit suicide having topped 30000 for seven years running, some non-profit organizations and families of suicides began on 13 May to collect signatures on a petition seeking the institution of a society-wide suicide prevention law, provisionally called “The Fundamental Measure Against Suicide.” Signatures were collected in seven places nationwide: Akita, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Kyoto, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Saga.

    The plan is to collect 30000 signatures, to match the annual number of suicides, and to submit the proposal to both houses of the Diet next month. Supporters plan to work on Diet members of both ruling and opposition parties to get the fundamental law enacted through the legislative process.

    Tokyo wants to decrease the number of suicides by at least 5000 annually by 2015, and the proposed law would make suicide prevention a federal responsibility.

    Given the Dr. Phil-ization of American culture, this may be hard for some of my compatriots to register, but psychotherapy is seriously underdeveloped in Japan. There are any number of reasons for that. Japanese people learn from a young age to brazen their way through sadness and depression without letting them show. Let alone talking about them directly. Let alone talking about them directly with someone who’s not a family member or teacher. Of course, people will admit to feeling kind of blue or being in a bad mood every now and then, but people aren’t taught to identify signs of serious trouble in either themselves or others.

    Could some kind of federal initiative help with that? Possibly on that last point, in the sense of providing education and maybe more trained counselors in known pressure cookers such as schools. (I don’t know that simply bringing more attention to the issue would help much; Japanese citizens are already plenty aware that they have a high rate of suicide, not all of which can be attributed to noble attempts to save the family or company honor after some massive screw-up happens.) For people to feel okay about seeking help, acculturation probably needs to change at the household and neighborhood level, and those sorts of shifts don’t play to the federal government’s strengths.

    Okinawa governor relents (a bit) on Futenma relocation

    Posted by Sean at 23:27, May 11th, 2006

    The governor of Okinawa has caved, at least provisionally:

    Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine on Thursday gave broad agreement to a government plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station to Camp Schwab’s coastal area as part of plans to realign U.S. bases in Japan.

    Inamine, however, stressed he had yet to fully approve the government plan, saying, “There is no change in the basic stance.” He then said, “I’d like to make efforts to incorporate the prefecture’s concerns in the discussion process with the central government,” indicating the prefecture would again ask the central government to build a temporary heliport at Camp Schwab as a measure to alleviate the dangers connected with the Futenma base until the relocation is completed.

    Inamine initially opposed the government plan, but changed his position as he judged that it would be better to push the prefecture’s demand for government subsidies and development programs ahead of Cabinet approval, sources said.

    Of course: nothing like subsidies to motivate you to play ball, huh? Okinawa being Japan’s least-rich prefecture, it has particular incentive to be pragmatic.


    Posted by Sean at 23:20, May 11th, 2006

    And now, for an exciting change of pace, a data leakage from a Self-Defense Force Internet site. Sheesh.

    Instructional materials related to a surface-to-ship guided missile (the SSM-1) in the possession of the Ground Self-Defense Force were leaded over the Internet, it was learned on 12 April. The leak was reported to have occurred through file-sharing software called Share. The position of the GSDF’s Ground Staff Office is that “no information that would cause security problems to arise was included.”

    Included in the instructional materials were a system summary, information related to launch preparations, and the locations of deployed personnel units. Information with an impact on security, such as the range of the missile, was reported not to have been included.

    The SDF is getting together a plan to prevent the recurrence [of such a leak], having just suffered the leak of classified information through file-sharing software such as Wini in April.

    I feel much better.


    Posted by Sean at 05:13, May 9th, 2006

    Go Fug Yourself is too funny for this world…yet again. Of course, Jessica Simpson’s an easy target. But still, it’s worth reading and guffawing through to the very end.

    I realize that trying to decide which of the music videos of the last few years has been the absolute nadir of stomach-churning, un-provocative sluttiness is pretty futile; but I did think there was something egregiously demeaning about that “These Boots Are Made for Walking” clip, right about the point at which Simpson was shaking her moneymaker in that orange bikini and whooping, “Can I get a ‘Sooooweeeee!’?” Sheesh. I’ll take Veruca Salt any day.

    Speaking of exposure of dubitable shock or aesthetic value, if you’re the last person on Earth who hasn’t ever seen Madonna’s boobies, she’s decided to take ’em out again, this time for W (via Beautiful Atrocities). Is she afraid we’ve forgotten what they look like?

    I don’t see why a middle-aged woman can’t pose for nude photographs. Madonna has a naturally luscious figure–to my mind at peak attractiveness in the “Open Your Heart” video, when she was sculpted through martial self-discipline at the gym but still had a flirty softness to her. Madge is very shrewd about her plastic surgery, and to judge from the Confessions on a Dance Floor videos, she hasn’t made the mistake of getting clearly fake Mariah-style inflata-dugs, if she’s had work done there at all.

    But sexiness is as much about attitude as about skin, and the attitude Madonna’s been projecting lately is desperation. The woman may have the single most well-tended body on the entire planet, but she seems to know less and less what to do with it. But then, that applies to her work in general.

    A few Sundays ago, I was walking toward Shinjuku for a drink or two with friends. Atsushi had just flown back to Kyushu, so while it had been a good weekend, I was in a somewhat melancholy mood. It was cloudy and a little chilly. Perfect for Madonna ballads.

    Remember when she seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of gorgeous, somber slow songs? There are the famous ones like “Crazy for You” and “Live to Tell” and “This Used to Be My Playground” and “Frozen,” but there are plenty of not-so-famous ones, too. She collaborated with Massive Attack on an unexpectedly wonderful version of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” ten years ago. “Look of Love,” from the Who’s That Girl? soundtrack, doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and should, in my view, have been on her ballad retrospective Something to Remember. On her slow songs, she played the role of a self-controlled diva risking herself to extend an offer of love or reveal sentiment. It was a stately but emotive persona that would have been perfect to mature into through her forties.

    It’s not that she should never sing uptempo pop or disco again, but the frantic look-how-fast-I-can-still-dance vibe shuddering through her new songs and videos does not bode well. And I’m sure it’s distorting her work in other media, too. I find it very difficult to believe that she approached the W photo shoot was as a relaxed matron who still knows how to enjoy being playfully naughty…as opposed to an aging party girl who feels the need to prove she still has sex appeal. That sort of thing always seeps into the final product.

    Getting from A to B

    Posted by Sean at 01:46, May 9th, 2006

    This article in the English Asahi is promisingly headlined “Ministry gets tough on transport safety.” Unfortunately, the truth appears to a little less cheering:

    Currently, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport issues suspensions only if transport companies accumulate a certain number of penalty points for employee traffic violations.

    Not only does it take a large number of violations to draw a suspension, the ministry’s shortage of inspectors means that many are not counted.

    In most cases, suspensions are imposed only after serious violations, such as fatal traffic accidents, the sources said.

    I added emphasis to that one clause above because it conveys one of the problems that lead to lax safety enforcement in other sectors (the nuclear power industry springs to mind) also: lots and lots of bureaucrats, very few inspectors out in the field. The Asahi reporter doesn’t do much with it, instead shifting to a discussion of how more market competition after deregulation of transportation industries has encouraged companies to overwork and underprepare their vehicle operators.

    Did deregulation contribute to the increase in the number of accidents? That’s certainly plausible. It’s hard to judge from the statistics provided by the Asahi, though. Restrictions on entrants to the trucking industry were relaxed in 1990; to bus and taxi in 2002. The increase in the numbers of accidents caused by different types of vehicles was measured over the period from 1995 to 2005. What correlates with what is difficult to divine.

    But in any case, one of the main points of having a government at all is to protect citizens–from external enemies and, sadly, from compatriots who want to harm or exploit them. If existing safety regulations are being enforced slackly or arbitrarily, there are systemic problems that instituting tighter regulations probably won’t address. On the other hand, the government may be more willing now to take a firm line in enforcing safety standards precisely because the increase in the number of competitors means it’s not just dealing with established giants that have long-standing connections to a lot of federal agencies. Cozy relationships tend to facilitate cover-ups.

    I run to the future and jump

    Posted by Sean at 14:06, May 7th, 2006

    Our reputation for bitchiness notwithstanding, I’m always touched by the way homos make a welcoming, nurturing, non-judgmental safe space for anyone who’s taking the difficult step of coming out. Ball’s in your court, Nick. 😉


    Posted by Sean at 07:50, May 7th, 2006

    It’s the end of the Golden Week holiday today. Atsushi’s birthday is this week, and he won’t be home for it, so I made dinner for him today. He wanted (can you guess?) broiled chicken with pan gravy. My man is nothing if not reliable. But then, a quiet afternoon at home was almost an exotic undertaking after the last week.

    In addition to the usual getting together with friends, we finally went to see the Tokyo-Berlin/Berlin-Tokyo exhibit. Like a lot of exhibits here, it was pretty well edited (though the continuity was sometimes a little sketchy) but wretchedly designed. When are Japanese curators going to start getting lighting design from people who know what they’re doing? As things are, they may as well hang flashlights from bell wire and be done with it. The effect would be the same. How is it that institutions in New York, London, and Vienna can figure out how to display old, fragile works so that they’re being preserved while you can actually see them well enough to drink them in…but every artwork on display in Tokyo is either begloomed to the point of near- pitch dark or cursed at by light bright enough to perform surgery by? It’s a real shame. So is the omnipresence of little appliances–humidity sensors and the like–plunked openly in corners right under the artworks. Does a lot, don’t you know, to enhance your ability to wrap yourself completely in the world depicted by the pieces on display.

    We also had a wedding present or two to pick up–nothing makes you feel more in touch with your fag self than casting a critical eye over everything in the housewares department. And Atsushi got his birthday iPod early. I’m not sure how much music he’ll be throwing on it, but he’s been looking pretty hungrily at the various news-site podcasts.

    It’s kind of windy and rainy here, so I’m hoping his flight doesn’t get thrown around too badly. I’m figuring I’ll get his “I’m back in Kyushu” e-mail in a half-hour or so. Then it’s back to the usual. Hope everyone else had a great weekend.

    The burden

    Posted by Sean at 07:16, May 7th, 2006

    Michael explains his support for the Fair Tax. (I kind of understand why that choice of name is shrewd, though it seems to me that the old designation National Sales Tax was more transparent and not all that scary. Reason solicited a bunch of opinions about whether the Fair Tax or the Flat Tax was a better replacement for the current Income Tax a decade or so ago. It’s still worth reading.)

    You won’t be surprised to see libertarian me endorse the idea. You also won’t be surprised to see Japan-resident me wonder whether it’s realistic to expect to be able to extirpate a deep-rooted bureaucracy that’s used to exercising a great deal of arbitrary power over citizens’ money and privacy and knows how to play the system (largely because in a significant way it is the system). In that Reason piece, the Cato Institute’s Edward R. Crane articulates the chief worry:

    Critics of a federal retail sales tax who point to the danger of politicians simply adopting the retail sales tax on top of reduced rates for the present system have a very legitimate concern. The last thing we should want would be a sales tax in addition to the taxes we already have. The movement for the sales tax must reject any deal that allows the income tax to survive even at one-half of 1 percent.

    The danger of a monstrous hybrid “reform” is very real, in my opinion. People bitch about income taxes, and everyone hates the IRS, but we’re used to them. A lot of Americans who don’t understand much about math and money could probably be pretty easily scared away by warnings that they’ll end up poorer under the new system. A lot of Americans who are affluent and keep track of their money have a stake in keeping their own constellations of deductions just as they are…and finding ways to get others to pay in more. A lot of tax lawyers and accountants (not exactly groups that lack connections) would not quietly resign themselves to being forced to look for a new line of work.

    Of course, defeatism isn’t part of the American mindset, and as Michael says, gays in particular have reason to bestir ourselves over the income tax issue:

    Much of the discussion surrounding the marriage equality debate has been focused on the more than 1000 tax benefits married couples receive that gay people cannot. And that’s a big point. Not to diminish the debate over marriage equality, but when it comes right down to it, the difference between a married couple and a gay unmarried couple comes largely down to money.

    Those of us with partners who are foreign nationals have issues that come into play a bit before the money part, but Michael’s essentially right.

    Speaking of the federal government and money, am I the only one who LAUGHED OUT LOUD at that proposal to give citizens a $100 rebate for gas money? I mean, people have been saying it’s stupid, but it was so…rube-ish. The legislative branch of the US government looks forward to serving you ($100 that you yourself earned, anyway) again!!!! Sheesh.

    Bedside manner

    Posted by Sean at 09:16, May 5th, 2006

    An interesting window on Japan’s group-over-individual culture as it applies to the practice of medicine–I may have mentioned this before in a post related to health care before, but I don’t remember–is that if you’re gravely ill, they don’t tell you what’s wrong. They tell your family. It then becomes the responsibility of the ranking party (such as your eldest son) to tell you and take the lead in deciding what kind of treatment you should get. The Asahi has a new survey with some figures. Of course, surveys have to be swallowed cautiously, but the results here ring true:

    The survey was conducted by a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare research group in October and November 2004. Questionnaires were sent to 1,000 randomly selected hospitals with between 50 and 300 beds, since many terminal patients die in such hospitals rather than hospices or palliative care units. A total of 145 hospitals responded.

    In only 45.9 percent of the reported cases, hospitals said they informed a terminal patient–generally considered someone with less than six months to live–what disease he or she was suffering from.

    In contrast, they told the patients’ families 95.8 percent of the time.

    Occasionally (and not mentioned in this survey), doctors seem to lurch in the opposite direction and raise the possibility of truly frightening diagnoses without more than iffy information. Several years ago, a friend of mine returned from a trip to Thailand. She was weak and feverish and went in for a blood test. They told her she might have leukemia. She spent a few agonizing days before suddenly returning to her usual hale and hardy outdoorsy self. Must’ve been one of those things you pick up in Thailand. You know, oops.

    Okay, so she was a foreigner, and maybe the doctor figured he was supposed to be as frank as possible. But a few months ago, a friend was told that he might have liver cancer. He was–and do you wonder?–seriously spooked. I couldn’t get anything out of him but that his blood sugar level was elevated, according to the doctor. He went into the hospital for more tests. It turned out to be…well, I’m not sure what it is. He didn’t use the word for “diabetes,” but he definitely said it wasn’t cancer. Given his former drinking habits, the shock may have been for the good; he’s been sober since then. Still, his doctor gave him a real freak-out.