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    Completely vanquished

    Posted by Sean at 03:43, January 16th, 2006

    The Minister of Finance has an announcement to make:

    Minister of Finance Sadakazu Tanigaki stated emphatically, in a lecture delivered in Tokyo on the afternoon of 16 January, that the current Japanese economy “has, I think, finally repeated the [recovery] process fifteen years after the Bubble burst and rebounded powerfully.” As factors, he cited “the complete victory over the non-performing bond problem. Also, there’s the fact that from the enterprise side, businesses have brought excesses in personnel, debt, and facilities under control. The resulting process has also been finished by which the robustness of performance in enterprise has come around to [improve] household finance and individual consumption.”

    Whether all those “completely”s deserve to be there could be questioned, and obviously this segment tactfully omits any mention of government spending. And, of course, the new thing to spaz about is that the Japanese population has started, in recorded terms, decreasing faster than was expected. But Tanigaki is right that street-level confidence does seem to be up. One anecdotal and qualitative but interesting measure that I trust I’m not the only one to notice over the last few weeks: end-of-year partying by companies was noticeably more lavish than it had been since 1997 or so. For the first time in years, there was trouble getting a cab in Shinjuku at 2:30 a.m. during the last week and a half of December, and the crowds pouring out of restaurants and bars were much later and livelier.


    Posted by Sean at 22:06, January 15th, 2006

    I normally think it a little unnecessary when bloggers post stuff like “Appointment with podiatrist and then probably stopping to pick up vacuum cleaner bags–posting will be light until about noon or maybe 12:15.” It occurs to me, however, that it might have been a kindness to let everyone know that I was flying to Taiwan on Saturday afternoon and will return to Tokyo tomorrow. I may post a bit later today–Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gave an interview in the Nikkei the other day that had a few things worth mentioning (such as, IIRC, “We don’t want Japan to be a passenger [in the WOT]; we want it in the cockpit with us”). Otherwise, I’ve mostly been away from the computer, not least because the weather here is unseasonably warm and clear. Back later today or tomorrow.

    You say you hunger / For something you can’t name at all

    Posted by Sean at 05:55, January 13th, 2006

    You could subtitle this one “How to Break up with a Friend of Sean’s.”

    I should start by saying that if you’re lucky enough to be with one of my friends, I don’t recommend breaking up with him. My friends are stand-up, interesting, fun guys, and (while this obviously isn’t a characteristic I screen for in establishing friendhood) they’re pretty cute, too.

    Next I should probably say that I have no interest in passing judgment on whether your reasons for breaking up are valid. Most, or at least a lot, of us go through a kind of compressed adolescence after coming out, because we didn’t spend our teenage years gradually growing into our sexuality and the all the possibilities for give-and-take with guys. My friends in their mid-20s tend to have boyfriends of around the same age, and while it’s great to see someone find the love of his life right then, it’s also perfectly natural to be restless. Not a phenomenon I’m unacquainted with.

    So, if I might kind of secretly agree with you that giving my friend the heave is ultimately all for the best, what am I about to get crabby about? Just this: That too many men seem to be looking for a relationship-ender that they don’t have to feel guilty about. They don’t want to be the bad guy. Kind of understandable, maybe, but the thing is, if you’re bent on recapturing the freedom to see what happens with that hottie across the bar who’s giving you The Look by breaking it off with someone who’s been happy with you (and to whom you gave every indication that you were happy with him), I’ve got news for you, honey: YOU. ARE. THE. BAD. GUY. Even if you can’t see any other way and you feel you’re going to lose your mind if you have to spend one more claustrophobic second in this relationship. Deal with it, and act like it.

    I’m not saying you should, like, really sink your teeth into the bad-guy role and steal all of my friend’s CDs and deface his coffee table books. Wrecking property isn’t gentlemanly, and besides, I may have been planning to borrow it later. But you have to leave out all the backing and filling that you perversely think softens the blow, particularly such knife-twists as: “I still love you” and “I never meant for this to happen” and “I can’t tell you how bad this makes me feel” and “It’s your happiness I’m interested in; you deserve someone who can give you 100%.”

    Because you know what happens then? Friend of Sean comes to Sean to unload and says, “Of course, he still loves me” and “He’s got to recognize, soon, that this is all a mistake” and “It’s so obvious how guilty he feels” and “I think he just needs time apart to figure out what I really mean to him,” and spends an hour talking about the pathetic little shards of (utterly baseless) hope he’s managed to pick out of the rubble.

    And then Sean has THE WORST time explaining why no, the relationship actually is clearly kaput, and yes, sweetie, you need to take some down time and then soldier on and look for a new boyfriend. In fact, sometimes it has to be explained every Friday night for several weeks in a row. This is inefficient. If, when breaking up with a friend of mine, you just stopped at “I’m sorry, but I need to do this, and I’ll clear out as soon as I can,” and then matched deed to word, then I would be able to proceed straight to “God, what a perfidious little bitch. Better to be rid of him sooner rather than later. You’ll do much better next time.” Not that that fixes everything, but as Miss Manners (and presumably Dad?) has been trying to tell you for eons, the faster the dumpee realizes the dumping is permanent and non-negotiable, the faster he can move on to the hottie across the bar who’s giving him The Look.

    And after all, it’s his happiness you’re interested in, right?

    Aso on Yasukuni Shrine (again)

    Posted by Sean at 04:44, January 13th, 2006

    I try not to get all neurotic about linking to every article that refers to one of my pet issues, so usually I don’t do anything with the short blurbs of which the Nikkei posts a lot. Sometimes little stories are telling, though:

    Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso addressed a press conference after a 13 January cabinet meeting, stating clearly that “There hasn’t been a single moment when I’ve thought that the Yasukuni Shrine pilgrimage issue should be a point of contention” in relation to the LDP party presidential election in September.

    In response to Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi’s declaration that it “will be a major element in whether [a candidate] can win (the presidential election),” Aso stated, “I don’t think there’s anyone who has quite that much confidence (in the election). What will be a major factor (in the election) is whether [a candidate] has the kind of language that can speak directly to the citizenry.”

    Of course, they could both be right: Yasukuni may not be brought up explicitly often, but its presence as an issue could be felt in the background of debates over how Japan should deal with the friction that arises with its neighbors. Of course, Aso has a few reasons to downplay the Yasukuni issue. For one thing, he’s on record as having dismissed Chinese and Korean protests over the pilgrimages as, essentially, their own odd little hangups. To be fair, as comes out in the interview linked in that last sentence, his reasoning isn’t quite as cavalier as it might seem–his point, that Japan’s offering reasons for continued pilgrimages by politicians only helps keep the discussion going around in circles, is not without basis. At the same time, it also seems reasonable to conjecture that the shrine might not be such a bone of contention were the textbook issue not there to amplify it. For another thing, he himself is one of the top contenders for LDP presidency post-Koizumi. Making a big deal out of the issue on which his pronouncements as foreign minister have been most controversial is hardly in his best interest.


    Posted by Sean at 08:46, January 11th, 2006

    File under: Tell Us Something We Don’t Know:

    Crowded commuter trains would likely be a major contributor to the rapid spread of influenza in the event of an outbreak of a new strain in Japan, researchers have found.

    A simulation performed by researchers from the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Industrial Science and the National Institute of Infectious Diseases found that crowded commuter trains increased the number of infections, and suggested that halting them could decrease the number of infected people by as much as 30 percent.

    Numerous simulations on the spread of new strains of influenza have been conducted, but the latest one is reportedly the first to take commuter trains into account.

    The study found that without taking commuter trains into consideration, it would take about 50 days for the number of infected patients to peak, and more than 400,000 people would be infected.

    However, when commuter trains were added into the equation, at a rate of 5 infections per 100,000 people per day, researchers found that it would take a dozen or so days for the number of infections to peak, with the number of patients increasing to 500,000.

    I’m not an epidemiologist, but WTF? How is it possible to model the spread of a potential epidemic in contemporary Japan and just kind of NEGLECT to take the trains into account? Did they forget? Did they not feel they could map train travel effectively? That doesn’t make sense–presumably civil engineers and railway schedulers have to do that kind of thing all the time. Very strange.

    Added on 17 January: WTF? Where the hell are all these Australians coming from? Not that there’s anything wrong with being Australian. Some of my best friends are Australian. My favorite band is Australian.

    Kylie‘s Australian.

    But normally, I have about five Australian visitors a week, and I know them all by name. Is there a sudden fashion there for American poofs living in Japan?

    Oh, that’s it. Thanks to Tim Blair for the link. Not to take anything away from Gaijin Biker, who has a very good blog, but I do feel compelled to point out that if it’s Greenpeace’s tomfoolery we’re talking about, Ross at Romeo Mike’s posted about this several days earlier.

    The Good Book

    Posted by Sean at 08:27, January 11th, 2006

    One of Virginia Postrel’s latest posts is a great potential discussion starter:

    Some years ago, an editor asked me how he could give his children an appreciation for the English language. He wanted them to write well. Since he’s an evangelical Christian, I told him he should teach them Psalms from the King James translation of the Bible. My mother did that with me as a child, and it gave me an early sense of metaphor and rhythm. It taught me to appreciate, and understand, complex, beautiful English.

    My friend didn’t like my suggestion. After all, nobody reads the KJV anymore. Forget poetry (not to mention sensitivity to the underlying Hebrew), today’s suburban Christianity is all about accessibility. It’s been dumbed down.

    Megachurch Christianity may hone organizational and business skills, but it isn’t teaching believers to think about abstractions or communicate in higher than “everyday” language. No wonder megachurches combine their up-to-date media with fundamentalist doctrine. It fits well on PowerPoint–no paragraphs required. Leaving aside the validity of what they preach, today’s most successful evangelicals are spreading pap.

    When I was growing up, every Bible I ever had was KJV. The sermons–our services were two hours long, and you were expected to take notes after you were around twelve–generally quoted scripture from the KJV, often with explanations about how obscure passages had been rendered. My mother once, on the recommendation of a friend, bought a New KJV Bible. She found it annoying and went back to the old one the next go-round.

    To my knowledge, Virginia converted to Judaism (like 80% of my women friends from college) when she married but, unlike me, isn’t an atheist. I will occasionally run into people who ask how my beliefs have evolved and mistakenly assume that the way to get me back to church is by playing the “But you know, lots of churches now are very user-friendly and focus on making the Word of God relevant to life today.” Yech. I have my life, and what’s relevant to it in the quotidian sense, running pretty well as it is. If I were convinced to go back to worshipping God, it would be because I believed Christianity was accurate about the nature of transcendence.

    The KJV has a sense of the sublime. It’s mostly understandable, but the language is also obviously old, and there are passages that you can’t make your way through without your concordance. It gives a comforting sense of being navigable but containing mysteries. You’re constantly reminded that not everything is explicable, even to theologians with expert knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic. And, if you care about literary history, the KJV is the one that inspired countless writers and speakers over the past few centuries, as Virginia points out. It’s culturally allusive as well as having the feel of a book that’s expansive and meant to take you outside yourself.

    Once or twice I looked at a friend’s New Revised Standard Version (is that what it’s called?) when I was a teenager, and it was dead on the page. Like Dick and Jane Are Fruitful and Multiply and Fill the Earth. No intensity.

    And Power Point presentations in services? Rock music instead of hymns? I know those aren’t really new developments, but sheesh.

    Golden Boy in Middle Kingdom (or not)

    Posted by Sean at 07:03, January 11th, 2006

    Myrick at Asiapundit and Hunter at East Asia Watch note that Kim Jong-Il recently made a state visit to the PRC that may have represented a CCP effort to keep his feathers smoothed over the nukes issue. Hunter says, “On Monday, the DPRK indicated an unwillingness to resume nuclear talks. Was the invitation to China an effort to persuade Kim to stick to a diplomatic path?” The article cited by Myrick indicates that that’s the most likely possibility:

    The secrecy makes it impossible to know what the exact purpose of Kim’s visit is. But a source in Beijing said Kim would spend four or five days in the country and meet with President Hu Jintao to discuss stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and expansion of economic cooperation between the two countries. The talks are in limbo as North Korea has said the U.S. must lift economic sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s alleged counterfeiting activities.

    The Nikkei‘s Beijing correspondent also reports that the PRC has “evaded” giving any confirmation that Kim was visiting, with equivocations along the lines of “China and North Korea are friends that share a border”…and therefore, presumably, their heads of state sometimes wander into proximity like billiard balls…though whether Kim has wandered toward Hu this particular week is not a topic that would be appropriate to discuss just now. We’ll see what comes of it.

    Moi-même meme

    Posted by Sean at 03:45, January 11th, 2006

    It seems to have been Pelt Sean with Memes Day when I wasn’t looking, and since I didn’t arrange to be on an inaccessible island in time, Ghost of a Flea got me.

    Okay. This one is “five weird things about me,” which means we need to get something out of the way right from the get-go: I’m normal; it’s the other 6,499,999,999 of you who are weird.

    Actually, I don’t think there’s much that’s all that interestingly quirky about me. I’ll focus on five things that other people are constantly telling me are weird.

    1. I was named for the Beatles rhythm section. My first name is Sean (Irish form of John; also, it recalls Sean Connery, of whom Mom was a fan) and my middle name Richard (given name of Ringo Starr). My parents met just after high school, when they ended up playing in the same cover band. My mother drums and my father plays bass. I spent my years as a toddler playing around with stray cords and strings and brushes and things while they jammed with friends. It’s a wonder I never strangled or electrocuted myself. Anyway, lots of people born in the early 70s were named after celebrities from the period, so as I say, other people think this is weirder than I do.

    2. My favorite band is the Church . Whenever I say so to a hetero guy who actually knows who the Church is, he invariably–invariably–stares in disbelief and says, “But they’re so STRAIGHT!”
    3. I wear jeans until they basically fall off me in shreds. You would think that in the Shibuya-Shinjuku zone of Tokyo, wearing ripped up jeans would be so unimaginative as to be hardly worth commenting on. And it’s not like I wear them to the office, or to dinner when everyone else is in coat and tie. I have plenty of proper trousers. But when things are cas, people are always like, “Wow! Those are some seriously air-conditioned jeans you’ve got there.” Well, yeah, they’re ten years old, and I’m from a thrifty family. Besides, good stuff ages well, even when it’s threadbare. (One of my buddies responded to this with “I somehow don’t think Granddad meant you to apply that to jeans through which guys can see your boxers when you’re hanging out at gay bars.” Some people just can’t turn off the catty.)
    4. About once every four months or so, I’ll feel like a cigarette when everyone around me is smoking–and in Tokyo, everyone around you is always smoking–so I bum one, smoke it, and then…you know, go back to not smoking. Totally freaks people out. They’re like, “Sean? YOU with a cigarette?” Well, sure. Considering that I live in one of the largest urban agglomerations on the planet, with the air to match, I don’t think that my life expectancy is going to sink like a stone because of three cigarettes a year. I don’t seem to have the addictive personality.
    5. When I write in cursive, I turn the paper sideways. I’m a lefty, and we were away for the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth if you’re Jewish; we were in a Sabbatarian Christian church) the week my third grade teacher starting teaching how to angle the paper, so when I got back and was hastily catching up, I kind of winged it. The way it ended up was, the paper was sideways and I was writing, essentially, vertically. Mr. Davis thought it was odd, but the letters were formed correctly, so he didn’t go ballistic. But other people are constantly doing exaggerated double-takes. Once I was at…uh, Saks, maybe, or Barneys…you know, one of those places where the sales clerks cultivate an air of too-cool-for-you unflappability…and when I signed the credit card statement, the girl got all animated and asked her friend from another counter to come over and get a load of this guy who was writing sideways. What the big deal was, I have no idea. My signature is as illegible as anyone else’s, anyway.

    Now you know.


    Posted by Sean at 00:57, January 11th, 2006

    Today’s lead Nikkei editorial is headlined “Toward small government: Give us serious ministry re-reform.” Being an editorial, it doesn’t stake out any new territory, but it lays out most of the essential problems:

    A movement has appeared from within the government and the LDP, seeking re-reform of the central ministries and agencies. The current system has now passed through exactly five years since the restructuring of January 2001, so this is a good opportunity to examine whether it is functioning in a way that meets the goals first set out for it. There is still no small degree of waste and inefficiency in the central ministries and agencies. Politicians who want [to be key players in] post-Koizumi policy should articulate a bold vision of ministerial re-restructuing oriented toward [achieving] “small government.”

    In autumn of last year, the government settled on an objective of decreasing the raw number of federal civil servants by 5% in the next 5 years. In order to achieve that goal, some rather large-scale reforms are going to be necessary.

    The ruling coalition is taking the tack of submitting its proposal to elevate the Japan Defense Agency to ministry level at this year’s regular Diet session. This change in status is long overdue. Prime Minister Koizumi had already raised the possibility of forming a Ministry of Information and Communications. Consolidating this strategically crucial area–jurisdiction over which is now divided between the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry–is a promising approach.

    To slim down the government, taking reductions in federal subsidies a step further will be indispensable. Through the Koizumi administration’s Trinity Reforms, subsidies have already been reduced by 4 trillion yen, but even with the proportion of federal subsidy money toward compulsory education funding dropped from 1/2 to 1/3, the amount of paper-pushing to be performed by the federal ministries and agencies will not decrease. The second phase of Trinity Reforms must be orchestrated by [someone who] can aim for fearless abolishments of subsidies.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport and the Ministry of Health, Education, and Welfare remain gargantuan entities. By straightening out the subsidy system and structuring work more rationally, it should be possible to slim down even their regional branch offices. It will be necessary to put even the satellite agencies of the central federal ministries–take the Social Insurance Agency–under the knife of clean-up and reconfiguration. At the same time, the organizations and personnel that deal well with an administrative style of checks and verifications must be retained. Before it raises the consumption tax, the role of [a post-Koizumi] government will be to show the public that it has become, in concrete ways, a fine-tuned small government.

    One of the problems is that Japanese post-War social structures, unlike its car and furniture industries, don’t value modularity. People learned little in college, but it didn’t matter because their training rotations when they entered their chosen company or public sector employer lasted a good year or two and gave them the skill sets they needed to negotiate its elaborate and idiosyncratic filigree of procedures. Switching jobs was frowned upon; you stayed with the same company for a lifetime and became an expert in its ways, the way an old tea master amasses an intimate knowledge of the esoteric practices of his school. Buying, selling, lending money, and glad-handing generally took place within one’s own supply chain. Put all of that together, and you have…well, the problems Japan’s grappling with right now. When making knowledge and skills transferrable isn’t a priority, you get duplication of effort and multiple reinventions of the wheel. When you say “Japan,” outsiders think Sony and Toyota, but in reality, efficient organizations that can compete on a global scale are a minority in the economy here, even after the painful downsizings since the bursting of the Bubble.

    It’s understandable that you don’t have legions of minor civil servants standing up to say, “Well, gee, my job’s kinda redundant. I guess I’ll see whether they’ve got any openings at Nippon Lever,” for the good of the state. But it’s also understandable why people at the top, who are supposed to be able to have a more clear-eyed view, have trouble figuring out how to change things effectively. Japan Inc. was engineered to work as one gigantic, archipelago-spanning machine; its systems weren’t supposed to have to be adaptable. Reform, though necessary, is going to continue to be painful as long as the many people who have a stake in keeping things as they are are still entrenched.

    From what shall I wear / To who I have kissed

    Posted by Sean at 06:16, January 10th, 2006

    Gaijin Biker has tagged me with one of the blogosphere’s endless number of variations on the Cosmo quiz. Get ready to, like, totally learn more about the real me.


    I. Seven things to do before I die:

    Figure out how to rein in my class-clown/flirt impulse

    Visit Poland (ancestral homeland on my mother’s side of the family)

    Own a pick-up truck

    Go a week without wearing anything purple (a friend has bet me–handshake and all–that I will never be able to do this)

    Learn Korean

    Find a Soseki novel I enjoy

    Take the Japanese Proficiency Test

    II. Seven things I cannot do:

    Play any instrument really well, though I’ve taken lessons on several

    Follow the words to 「上を向いて歩こう」 (ue wo muite arukou: “I’ll Walk with My Head Up,” a.k.a. “Sukiyaki,” which Japanese people think all Americans can sing) after ten drinks at the karaoke box

    Drive in Japan

    Remember anyone’s birthday on time

    Sleep with a shirt on

    Function on too little sleep

    Inflict blog-meme-things on people

    III. Seven things that attract me to blogging:

    It gives me a vehicle for showing Atsushi my unfiltered, in-English, American personality without subjecting him to endless in-person rants.

    Translating news articles for an audience that includes others who are also proficient in Japanese forces me to make sure I’m understanding what I’m reading and not just doing that fluent-but-shallow skimming thing.

    Reader feedback restores my faith in humanity.

    The sicko search strings that bring some people here send my faith in humanity right back out the window, but they do tend to be good for a nervous chuckle.

    It’s led to several friendships I otherwise wouldn’t have, some of which have now extended off-line.

    I’m not nearly as naturally bold and unflappable as I like to present myself here. Knowing that whatever I write about my principles, my politics, and my sexuality is going to appear on a Google-able archived page with my full name there big as life has forced me to think harder about what I’m willing to commit myself to. I’m both more hesitant to jump to lazy conclusions and less hesitant to voice deeply held beliefs just to avoid ruffling feathers.

    Crap television is much less grating–indeed, downright enjoyable–when 75% of your brain is occupied with composing a post.

    IV. Seven things I say most often:








    V. Seven books that I love:



    A Benjamin Franklin Reader

    The Future and Its Enemies

    Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

    Miss Pym Disposes

    Sexual Personae

    The Story of English

    VI. Seven movies that I watch over and over again [Note to straight folk: If you’re going to tag gay men with these things, you probably want to specify “feature films.” Just for future reference.–SRK]:

    2001: A Space Odyssey


    Auntie Mame

    Desperately Seeking Susan

    Double Indemnity

    The North Avenue Irregulars


    VII. Seven people to whom I pass the meme:

    See II, Item 7, above.