• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Happy birthday

    Posted by Sean at 08:53, March 21st, 2006

    I have no objections to getting older–I’ve frequently been told numerous times that my level of crotchetiness will take me a good twenty years to grow into, and I find people get more interesting as they age, anyway. So turning thirty-four the other week didn’t bother me at all.

    It’s funny what makes the passage of time hit you, though. Today is my father’s and brother’s birthday. My little brother is twenty-eight, which means I appear to have been distracted since a few moments ago when he was in his bassinet (home birth–it was the 70s) and I was reading him his first story.

    Also, Dad is fifty-five, and for some weird reason I don’t pretend to understand, having two parents who are now the conventional retirement age makes me feel kinda near the crest of the hill, if you know what I mean.

    I may have to scale back tomorrow’s workout from the usual. Wouldn’t want to break my hip, or anything.

    Anyway, happy birthday, guys.


    Posted by Sean at 05:27, March 21st, 2006

    The arguments over the relocation of US military facilities now housed in Futenma are still developing. Prime Minister Koizumi met with Japan Defense Agency head Fukushiro Nukaga this morning, and talks with the US are slated to begin the day after tomorrow:

    The main focus of the talks will be the issue of who will pay for the relocation of Marines currently stationed in Okinawa to Guam. The US has asked Japan to pay 75% of the US $10 billion tab. Japan, the relevant cabinet ministers having agreed that they “cannot accept” such a burden, plans to negotiate for a lower percentage.

    Of course, the price tag may be the focus of Thursday’s talks, but it’s not the only bone of contention:

    Yoshikazu Shimabukuro, Mayor of Nago City in Okinawa Prefecture, the planned site to which certain US military installations are to be relocated from Futenma [USMC] Air Station as part of negotiations over restructuring, held a meeting in Naha with Okinawa Governor Keiichi Inamine on 21 March. The Mayor expressed his intention to oppose a new, slightly tweaked proposal by LDP Policy Committee Chairman Hidenao Nakagawa; the new plan would move the facilities to the shoreline of Camp Schwab.

    Governor Inamine affirmed his own rejection of the tweaked proposal and his support for the Mayor’s stance: “We will persevere together.”

    At the meeting, the Mayor emphasized that he would not consider negotiations unless there was a large-scale shift of the planned site of relocation offshore in the “shoreline proposal”: “(Area residents have) acceded to (an existing plan, which would create a facility off the Henoko district of Nago), a variation on the ‘offshore proposal.'”

    A few months back, residents weren’t keen about any plan at all. The federal government continues to state that it will not accommodate more than minor adjustments to the plan and will keep talking to residents until it gets them to accept it.


    Posted by Sean at 03:54, March 21st, 2006

    The Nikkei had an uncharacteristically squishy editorial about China-Japan relations the other day–squishy in that its recommendations were airy and unspecific:

    Japan-PRC relations have been deteriorating for a while, but one can’t help feeling especially anxious over the “war of condemnations” between the two governments since last month. On 8 February, Chinese State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan told a visiting group from the Japan-China Society, “We have no no more hopes for Prime Minister Koizumi.”

    On 7 March, PRC Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing harshly criticized Prime Minister Koizumi’s pilgimages to the Yasukuni Shrine as “an imbecilic and immoral thing” at a National People’s Congress press conference. Li’s indignant manner was not characteristic of him. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe countered, “It is inappropriate to criticize the leaders of other nations in terms so lacking in dignity.” Quite so.

    But on the other hand, on the Japanese side, Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso has provoked the Chinese by repeatedly referring to Taiwan as a “country” (4 February, 9 March). Aso emended his statement on 9 March, stating, “Well, it’s accurate to call it a ‘territory,'” but there are reports in China that there are doubts there about whether the slip of the tongue was really unintentional. It’s aberrant for those responsible for diplomatic relations between the two countries to repeatedly express themselves in ways that betray loss of a sense of good citizenship. [Our leaders] must not lose their reason and decorum in dealing with each other.

    In the midst of all this, PRC Premier Wen Jiabao held a press conference for domestic and foreign journalists at which he tersely indicated what China’s provisional Japan policy is. Of relations between the two countries while Prime Minister Koizumi, who continues to make pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine, is in office, Wen stated, “Smooth progress has hit extraordinary obstacles, but the responsibility lies with the leaders of Japan,” thereby differentiating between the public and its leaders.

    What makes it so squishy is the way it the way it focuses paragraph after paragraph on failures of nice-making and then gives its most concrete policy recommendation in a single blink-and-you-miss-it sentence later on: “Through expansion of exchange and economic cooperation between our peoples, we can prevent the deterioration of political relations from having a deleterious influence on economics and trade.”

    Well, sure. Liberalized trade is likely to strengthen bonds between China and Japan and make occasional diplomatic eruptions of their ancient enmity less damaging. But Japan still needs to draw lines about what it is and is not willing to concede. Could it make things easier on itself if Koizumi were less obstinate about the Yasukuni Shrine pilgrimages and Aso occasionally learned to rein it in about…well, anything? It’s reasonable to think so. At the same time, the CCP is not populated by idiots. China knows how useful it is to be able to divert its citizens’ dissatisfaction with their own rulers in the direction of Japan. (Remember last year’s demonstrations.)

    But let’s not forget that Koizumi is no dummy himself. The course he’s steering doesn’t look so wise right now, given that things have gone from a cessation of meetings between heads of state to an open expression by the PRC that it doesn’t think it can deal with Japan while he’s running the government. After all, despite the PRC’s operatic gestures of woundedness over Japan’s bad faith, it’s difficult to assess how much regional friction would actually be lessened if Japan decided to keep its own counsel about Taiwan and to stop the Yasukuni pilgrimages. China could very easily channel more of its animosity into the issue of development of East China Sea gas fields, or Japan’s ongoing joint military programs with the US. Both of those are in and of themselves issues of material, and not just symbolic, significance. Perhaps Koizumi thinks he can smooth the way for more concessions from China on things that matter come this autumn if he’s combative enough to make his successors look accommodating by comparison.

    Got a short little span of attention

    Posted by Sean at 09:20, March 18th, 2006

    I would just like it to be known that I’m all topped out on Alans. My best friend is named Alan. There’s a reader and commenter here with whom I sometimes correspond named Alan. There’s another Alan–from the same city in the UK as my friend, no less–whom I’ve now met enough times that it’s going to be considered rude pretty soon if I don’t remember his name. And a few nights ago I met yet another Alan who’s here in Tokyo indefinitely who will also, presumably, tire quickly of being told, “Sorry, man, I forgot your name again.”

    Major cognitive dissonance here.

    I mean, when you’re an American my age, you expect to know 90 Michaels (of whom, if you’re gay and hang out with people in the Tribe a lot, only 15 will go by Mike), 80 Brians (bonus points for being able to remember who’s an i and who’s a y), 60 Jasons, and 50 Stephens (including the Stevens and Steves, naturally). You never start to greet someone you know casually and think, Wait a minute–this can’t be Brian; I already saw Brian an hour ago. If you don’t know multiple Brians, you don’t get out much.

    Also, if you live in Japan…well, the language only has forty-odd syllables, so you quickly become accustomed to not referring to Shinji or Jun or Taka in a conversation without making it clear whom you’re talking about before proceeding.

    Alan, however? Perfectly nice name. I’ve come to associate “Hey, Alan” with a feeling of “Am I ever glad to see you, honey!” and warm greeting back of “Hiya, darlin’.” But I have trouble remembering names so as it is, and even though I’m aware that there can be clustering in perfectly random statistical samples, who knows four Alans? Anyway, the Alan-storage synapses in my brain are now officially full.

    So if you’re a gay guy called Alan and plan to be running into me in the near future, please distinguish yourself by changing your name to, say, Fred first. Or, if that seems like too much trouble, go hetero.

    Much obliged.


    Posted by Sean at 09:25, March 16th, 2006

    The Japan Meteorological Agency has announced that the cherry blossoms are probably going to open early this year–prepare for falling-down-drunkness and inescapable karaoke in t – 6 days:

    The JMA announced the dates that cherry (Prunus serrulata) blossoms are expected to open from Kyushu through the Tohoku region on 15 March. For the first time, this year’s blossoms are predicted to open between 1 and 4 days earlier than the average in Tohoku.

    The projected date for blossoms to open in Tokyo and Yokohama is 22 March.

    There are scores of classic poems about cherry blossoms–in the seasonal-devotion sense. But of course, they’re so woven into Japanese culture in March and April that they can become aesthetic placeholders for poems with other themes.

    The following is the first poem I ever read and understood (at least lexically) in Japanese:





    Lemon Elegy

    You had waited so for the lemon.
    In your sad, white, bright deathbed,
    you took from my hand a single lemon
    and plunged your pretty teeth into it.
    Those few drops of heaven-sent lemon juice
    from which a topaz-colored fragrance rose
    snapped your consciousness back to normal.
    Your blue, unclouded eyes laughed a bit
    Your power so robust as you grasped my hand.
    There was a storm in your throat,
    and just at last possible second,
    Chieko became the old Chieko,
    and the love of a lifetime tipped into a single moment.
    And in the next instant,
    you took a deep breath as you had long ago at the top of a mountain,
    and with that your machinery shut down.
    In the shadow of the cherry sprig standing in front of your photograph,
    I will put a cool, glistening lemon today.

    Kotaro Takamura

    Kotaro Takamura and Chieko Naganuma had one of the most famous artistic marriages in Japan in the last century. Kotaro considered himself a sculptor more than a poet; Chieko was a painter. They had twin studios and shared household duties. Chieko had always been unconventional in dress and demeanor, but decade and a half after their marriage, she began to have delusions. She tried to commit suicide in the early 1930s. Of course, artists are famous for their erratic temperaments, but Chieko’s episodes developed into full-blown schizophrenia. Despite her tendency to break out of the house and harangue the neighbors, Kotaro kept her at home and took care of her for three years until it became too flat-out dangerous. She died another three years after he had her hospitalized.

    智恵子抄 (Chieko-sho: “Winnowings [of poems about] Chieko”), the book of poetry Kotaro published three years after her death, contains the above poem and others about their life together. I wrote my undergrad senior research project about it. That was the time I was coming out, of course–and though it might not seem like the greatest idea to be studying poetry about such an unstable person right about then, it was something of a kooky comfort to think that you could be completely falling apart and still have someone who would remain so tirelessly devoted to you.

    It’s known that many of the poems are idealizations–or rather, that they couldn’t possibly represent what their life was like in day-to-day terms. “Lemon Elegy” was composed in February, weeks before a cherry bough would have had swelling buds, let along blossoms, on it. Kotaro might have put a particularly shapely bare bough in a vase on the Buddhist altar with Chieko’s photograph on it, or he may just have written the poem as a projection into a time later in the spring. (Perhaps there’s some kind of critical consensus on that, but I’ve never seen it in any annotations.)

    Added on 17 March: I remembered last night after posting this that my college language partner, who’d returned with her husband to Japan by the time I was coming here in 1996 and let me stay with them my first week here, had a video tape of a television special about Kotaro Takamura. We watched it the first night I ever spent in Japan.

    Part of it was a dramatization of certain poems as they were read in voice-over. In the segment for “Lemon Elegy,” when the actress playing Chieko Naganuma died, the lemon dropped from her hand, landed on the floor with a meaningful thud, sat there for one dramatically fleeting second, and then wobbled dolorously away.

    I. LAUGHED. SO. HARD. It could hardly have been more campily entertaining if it had been performed in drag.

    While television dramas with naturalistic acting have become more common here, it’s non-mimetic theater, of course, that’s traditional. Scenes of emotional intensity are frequently stylized or exaggerated. (When Chieko returned momentarily to sanity, the look that flashed across the actress’s face was, like, Damn! I think I locked my keys in the car!) It’s a credit to Kotaro’s limpid, direct style that despite having those images in my head, I can still take the poems in question seriously.


    Posted by Sean at 07:49, March 16th, 2006

    Thomas Schieffer, who appears to keep a low profile as US Ambassador to Japan, is in the news today for having visited the beach from which Megumi Yokota was abducted by DPRK agents in 1977:

    The ambassador was accompanied on the visit by Yokota’s 73-year-old father Shigeru and others, who explained the kidnapping to him. It was the first abduction scene visit by a high-ranking U.S. government official.

    In a news conference after the visit, Schieffer said he was moved by the experience, and that the injustice of the abductions should be solved no matter how many years it took. He added he intended to discuss the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush when he next met him.

    The visit is seen as lending support to Japan’s stance of seeking a solution to the abductions, following the failure of comprehensive talks between Japan and North Korea in February.

    The abductee issue is a big one for Japan (both the government and the public). When there are talks between the DPRK and the US in which Japan is involved, it tends to get backburnered in favor of more attention to, you know, nuclear development and stuff. And Japan and North Korea certainly haven’t solved it between themselves.

    Megumi Yokota, BTW, is the abductee whose unknown whereabouts have been reported on most frequently since the issue really gained steam several years ago. The DPRK gave Japan a pile of bones that turned out not to be hers.

    Somewhere deep within / Hear the creak that lets the tale begin

    Posted by Sean at 04:10, March 14th, 2006

    What would you think if you read something like this from a professional psychologist (via Eric Scheie)?

    Personally, I’m skeptical about turning gay people straight. But shouldn’t the client be the one to choose, not the APA? The APA has decided that the answer is no.

    Not only did the APA deny CE (Continuing Education) credit to professionals attending the annual NARTH conference in November, stating that “The program content is not consistent with APA policy” but the APA is attempting to declare therapy to modify sexual orientation unethical (National Psychologist, March,April 2006). Nicholas Cummings and Rogers Wright, authors of Destructive Trends in Mental Health,talk about the APA’s attempt to silence those who disagree with their positions.

    There are plenty of possible responses to Dr. Helen here. For example, despite the APA’s generally liberal political bent, perhaps it has honestly noticed that “reparative” therapists don’t seem to be able to produce much beyond Carol Gilligan-level anecdotal evidence that their conclusions are grounded in reality. At the same time, she is clearly taking the position that people should be free to pursue happiness their own way without paternalistic interference. Bully for her for championing individual self-determination and raising thorny questions about a subject a lot of people reflexively avoid, right?

    Well, not if you’re downtownlad. If you’re downtownlad, Dr. Helen should be named in a class action suit. She’s a closed-minded conservative. She should also have another heart attack. And everyone who agrees with her is not only a moron but a stupid moron. There are probably a few more gems in his avalanche of comments there, but you get the general idea.

    I’ve had downtownlad blogrolled for a while; I miss New York, and his posts about the City are often good reads.

    Not so his stuff about gay issues.

    His coming out was pretty recent and, by his own very moving account, rocky. As far as I’m concerned, people who haven’t been out long get some leeway if they’re a little touchy and extra-combative about gay stuff. But no one in his mid-30s gets enough leeway to accommodate looking forward to someone’s next heart attack. I don’t care whether you just came out ten minutes ago and were driven from your parents’ house by your entire knife-brandishing extended family–if you’ve been an adult for over a decade, you are supposed to know how to handle yourself in public, and if you’re not up to it, you keep still until you’ve regained your equanimity. When you cross a line or two–I’ve certainly been known to–you apologize and discipline yourself not to do it again.

    Would that it were only his tone that was objectionable, but the content doesn’t entirely wash, either. There are few beliefs propagated by some of my fellow homos that drive me up the wall more than the idea that the pain and isolation we experience up until we come out exhausts our full lifetime ration of misery and that, therefore, it’s society’s job to make us feel good about ourselves from that point on. No, no one ever actually puts it that way, but the implicit belief that any questions raised about gay life are in and of themselves anti-gay or [yawn] homophobic seems to govern a lot of the public debate.

    But life doesn’t work like that for ANYONE. Fat people, Mormons, and folks with Appalachian accents who move to the big city come in for their share of callous judgments, and they’re expected to deal. If they decide they’d like to change, no one goes bananas trying to prevent them, even in cases in which it seems they’d probably be happier just accepting themselves.

    Homosexual behavior only began to be decriminalized very recently. No one should be bowled over by the fact that a lot of people still have strong positions against it. Or by the fact that some people are unhappy being homosexual themselves. Or by the fact that parents who wish their kids weren’t homosexual will try everything they can to remold them–the same way pushy parents who want their artistic kids to become lawyers or want their bookish kids to play on the football team do. One need not like such situations to acknowledge that bureaucratic fiat is a bad way to try to address them, especially when it’s alloyed with identity politics. As Eric sensibly says:

    The issue was once whether there’s a right to be gay. Over the years that has morphed into the crazy idea that if you are gay, you must always remain gay because it is your identity, and that the slightest disagreement with this idea constitutes the direst threat, and actually causes harm. This makes no sense, and I think it’s a form of intolerance motivated by a type of insecurity similar to (although not as extreme as) what we’ve been seeing in the case of people who went ballistic over the Muhammad cartoons.

    A settled mind is generally a resilient one. People who have chosen their way of life by working candidly through their own inner conflicts and making peace with the elements do not, as a rule, get all edgy at the very idea that someone else might find happiness by making the opposite choice. As gays, we’re a population that’s almost impossible to study without sampling biases, so people have to do the best they can with fragmentary information. That’s life. It is infantilizing to try to insulate people from reality rather than encourage them to meet it head-on. Is this what our elder brothers and sisters broke their heads against convention for three decades ago?


    Posted by Sean at 23:55, March 12th, 2006

    Citizens in Iwakuni voted against the relocation of USMC facilities there:

    An overwhelming majority of residents of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Sunday said “no” to the planned relocation of 57 carrier-based aircraft to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Iwakuni Air Base, casting a shadow over plans to realign of U.S. forces in Japan.

    According to the Iwakuni municipal election administration commission, 43,433 citizens voted against the plan while 5,369 approved it.

    The voter turnout was 58.68 percent, exceeding the 50 percent required for the votes to be counted.

    Japan and U.S. governments are scheduled to make a final report on the realignment plan by the end of March. The central government is unlikely to change the relocation plan due to the Sunday’s results because the plebiscite is not legally binding.

    On March 20, eight days after the referendum, Iwakuni will be merged with six towns and a village. Six of these municipalities have already notified the central government of their general agreement with the plan.

    This morning Shinzo Abe says:

    [Abe] stated emphatically, “I’d like to be mindful of the result as we move forward and explain things to the residents in good faith.” At the same time, “We’re at the stage at which our negotiations with the US have basically gelled; that’s our conclusion,” he related, indicating that his view was that the relocation plans would not change.

    The US agreed last week to return three facilities in Okinawa to Japan.

    …with Alabama in between

    Posted by Sean at 11:00, March 10th, 2006

    Here‘s Eric with more about the political strangeness of our shared state of birth:

    One of the things I hate about the damned “red state”/”blue state” argument [with you there, honey!–SRK] is that I live in a red state that’s blue.

    Or is that a blue state that’s red?

    He has graphics. My home county (still my place of residence for electoral and tax purposes) is Lehigh, which is at the northwest tip of the blue region to the southeast of the state, where metropolitan Philadelphia shades upward into the Lehigh Valley.

    I realize that the vast majority of us live in places which are varying shades of purple. But that’s not sexy. Nor does it appeal to the us-versus-them, energize-the-base party activists. This is not to deny that there is real geographical (at least demographical) tension in this country. But it’s more along the lines of “Big Cities” versus “The Rest.” It is not the country which is blue; it is the cities which are blue. For the most part, the cities aren’t even purple, the way the rest of the country is; Philadelphia is about as blue as it’s possible to be.

    Right. A lot of the red counties are solidly conservative, but they have more elk than people. (Yes, that’s a mischievous joke, but I’m not being derisive. I’m a city person through and through, but there are plenty of times–morning rush hour on Monday, usually–when I understand why a lot of people aren’t.) The cities, where most of the reliable voters are concentrated, may be heavily Democratic, but they’re still parts of different population and cultural belts.

    Philadelphia, Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, and Wilkes Barre-Scranton–despite their differences–are all BOS-WASH metro areas. They’re part of the Northeast Corridor, oriented toward New York and DC. Pittsburgh and Erie are CHI-PITTS cities, more Midwestern in outlook. To people from the big Western states, Pennsylvania is pretty tiny, but the divide is real. The eastern and western halves of the commonwealth don’t spend all their time throwing water balloons at each other over Penn State at University Park, or anything; but there really does seem to be a tacit feeling that the number of pols from each half should be roughly equal. And yes, obviously, part of that is because of the symmetrical tug of big contributors in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but it’s also the way a lot of friends and neighbors will report voting.


    Posted by Sean at 09:23, March 10th, 2006

    As if just in time to illustrate why cracking down on loan sharks is a good idea, this story appeared in the Mainichi today:

    Two former employees of a loan shark have admitted during questioning that they intimidated a debtor, who later killed herself with two relatives, in a bid to force her to repay her debts, police said.

    Seven employees of the loan shark, including the two, extended a total of around 32,000 yen in loans to the woman who lived in Yao, Osaka Prefecture, between April and June 2003. They then threatened her into paying about 167,000 yen in interest, approximately 225 times the legal limit, police said.

    32,000 yen is around US $300; we’re not talking about a loan for big money here. Of course, you don’t need to know that to realize that 167,000 yen is over 500% interest–and that someone who needs to go to a loan shark for $300 at past retirement age is hardly likely to be able to cough up over $1000 within a few years from then.

    After obtaining the loans, the woman received phone calls from the loan sharks almost every day, saying, “You borrowed the money so repay it. Otherwise, I’ll kill you.” The victim recorded the threatening calls on tape.

    In June, the woman, her 61-year-old husband and her 81-year-old brother killed themselves by jumping in front of a train on the JR Kansai Line. She left a suicide note saying, “I’m scared by the phone calls every night.”