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    Notes on America

    Posted by Sean at 09:43, December 15th, 2005


    Didn’t Dannon’s low-cal brand of yogurt use to be called Light ‘n Lively? The stuff my mother brought home from the supermarket the other day was labeled Light ‘n Fit–which is okay, I guess, but it was kind of disappointing because, while I have no trouble staying fit, I could’ve used the energy.


    I’m having serious trouble not running out and buying all the cordless power tools you can now get. We have a spare room in the apartment that would be fine for a workshop…except for the noise. I’d like to be able to build a bookcase or two, but it’s not worth being the Noisy Foreigner on the Third Floor Who Now That I Think of It Has Kind of a Strange Relationship with That Nice Mr. Yoneda He Rooms With.


    Asian flavors and things are everywhere now. General Foods International Coffees had some kind of Chai Latte concoction; I almost fainted. Fruit-flavored things all come in mango, too, in addition to the de rigueur peach and apple and strawberry.


    Martha Stewart is totally our gift to the ages. Three thousand years from now, anthropologists will be examining her television show and commercial appearances as artifacts and writing theses like “This goddess united the cult of domesticity with the cult of the questing hero; her final sanctification came after she had weathered the archetypal passage from downfall to redemption.” I was flipping through the channels and landed on her Martha show just as it was starting. The opening theme was–does this woman’s brass go all the way down, or what?–the Swing Out Sister version of “Am I the Same Girl?” I almost died. When one of her ads came on, and she smiled that wide-cheeked, generous Polish smile and fixed us with her flinty death-ray eyes and bellowed, “Christmas is about giving [your credit card to the salesgirl when you’re buying Martha Stewart Living cookie sheets]!” I smirked inwardly and thought, Islamofascism doesn’t stand a chance.


    Can we get a pool together and maybe pay off everyone involved in the CSI series–all the way from Las Vegas to, like, Pigeon Forge, or wherever the latest incarnation is set–to make it GO AWAY? Or at least to hire some scriptwriters who occasionally know how to resist the obvious cliché one-liner? Just once in a while? You know, so that you could happen upon a rerun from a few years ago and expect Katherine to say, “Why did the SUV cross the road?” without Grissom’s doing that fake-contemplative look and answering, “To get to the other side”? It’d be nice to be able to keep my Orange-Mango Light ‘n Fit down, yeah?


    I love Fig Newtons with a passion that’s probably not quite salutary. When you see me, on this site, rhapsodizing about America, I’m not thinking of personal liberty or free speech or our crackerjack soldiers or any of that stuff–it’s the Fig Newtons.

    I wonder, though, whether food manufacturers could do us all a favor? When labeling one of your brand’s epigone versions, could you, like, be more clear about it? Yesterday, every time I grabbed at a food package, it took all my energy to dodge the Splenda/reduced-carb version, the fat-free version, and the low-sodium version. I think it’s wonderful that those choices exist. They warm my heart. Really. But if they’re only labeled with those penny-sized sunbursts that usually contain safely-ignored messages like “Now with even more buttery flavor!” it’s deeply confusing. I don’t see why I should have to work that hard for a box of Cheez-Its.


    Low-carb spaghetti?!?!


    I only get to observe from afar what the political and social climate is like here most of the time. It’s very heartening to see all the “Support our troops” signs and things. Many of them (like the bumper stickers) are obviously well-worn, but a good number are also very clearly well-maintained by their proprietors.


    Maybe if I just bought a cordless drill with a few power-screwdriver attachments included, Atsushi wouldn’t get upset? I could probably get pre-cut lumber somewhere–DIY stuff is popular in Japan nowadays, and that’s the only way I can imagine Japanese people’s being able to do it. But then I don’t get to have saws. My favorite part of Dad’s workshop was always the big, scary sharp tools, though it was probably wise of him not to let me “help” with, say, the table saw when I was, like, five. Maybe I should write Stanley and suggest they develop a range of noiseless saws, the way they have noiseless dishwashers now. Then I could probably fit a circular saw in one of my checked bags. (Nice surprise for the TSA bag searchers and all.)


    Posted by Sean at 12:42, December 14th, 2005

    The Aneha scandal has continued to ripen nicely:

    In the earthquake resistance falsification scandal, the House of Representatives Land, Transport, and Infrastructure committee held a meeting to receive testimony that lasted through the day. Akira Shinotsuka (45), the former head of the Tokyo branch of Kimura Construction (Yashiro City, Kumamoto Prefecture; currently in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings), gave testimony concerning the rebar used in construction, normally 80-100 kilograms per square meter. “The idea in our company was to shoot below that quantity, to 70 kilograms [per square meter],” he stated. He acknowledged that this cap on the quantity of rebar had become the company’s standard practice.

    Hidetsugu Aneha (48), former first-class architect, testified, “I was under very specific* pressure (from Mr. Shinotsuka), having received suggestions that I reduce the normal 80-100 kilogram figure to 60 kilograms.” Shinotsuka defended himself by saying, “Some reductions were within legal bounds. My perception is not that I applied heavy pressure [on Mr. Aneha].”

    The English Asahi has a bit more fun with this latest round of hot potato. Note the droll near-zeugma in the second paragraph here:

    Aneha, citing health reasons, had declined two previous requests to appear before the committee. But he was practically forced to appear Wednesday after being summoned as a sworn witness.

    His testimony was filled with remorse, admissions and the name of Akira Shinozuka, former Tokyo branch chief of Kimura Construction Co.

    Aneha quoted Shinozuka as saying in 1998, “We won’t give you any work if you don’t reduce the volume of reinforcing steel to be used.”

    At that time, Aneha said about 90 percent of his work came from Kimura Construction. “If I refused, my income would have fallen close to zero. So I did it even though I knew it was wrong,” Aneha said.

    Aneha also said he felt Shinozuka understood the illegality of what he was asking the architect to do.

    The Mainichi adds a few more dimensions:

    Hidetsugu Aneha also cast suspicion on inspection agencies who failed to spot his misdeeds, saying such falsified records — which masked potentially catastrophic defects in hotels and condominiums — should be easy to detect.

    The uproar has hit a sensitive nerve in Japan, calling into question building safety in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries. Authorities say that at least 71 Aneha-linked structures could collapse even in a moderate tremor.

    Confirming the fears of many, a contrite Aneha described a construction industry in which developers eager for profits browbeat architects into cutting corners — or risk losing business. Safety fears, he said, never entered the equation. [!!!!!!!!!!!!–SRK]

    “I was under heavy pressure, but initially I refused partly because of my pride as first-class certified architect,” the soft-spoken witness said. “But I had a sick wife who was in and out of a hospital, and refusing meant zero income.”

    Apparently, anyone with an ill family member is justified in making deals with the devil to maintain his income. I’ll have to remember that.

    BTW, while the people actually living in the unsafe buildings deserve most of the sympathy, let’s not forget that others were screwed, too:

    Independent hotel operators who have stopped business after their premises were found to have been built using falsified earthquake resistance data will be unable to receive financial support from the government–unlike owners of defective condominium units.

    The 70-year-old owner of the Hotel Senpia in Ina, Nagano Prefecture, was introduced to Kimura Construction Co. in 1999 by a local building contractor. The contractor told him that “the company knows how to keep costs down.”

    He demolished a rice milling plant and a warehouse he had been running for many years, and Kimura Construction, a Kumamoto Prefecture-based company now filing for bankruptcy, took charge of building the 110-room, eight-story hotel.

    However, as the man was recovering from the shock of hearing that Aneha had falsified the earthquake-resistance data of his hotel, Kimura Construction filed for bankruptcy, seeking refuge in the courts. His chances of getting compensation from the company have all but disappeared.

    The government decided to help condo owners by offering public money. But hotel owners were not included in the scheme because they are different from condo owners, who were unable to choose the construction companies involved, according to the Construction and Transport Ministry.

    One hotel owner, who borrowed heavily from a bank, said, “We’re suffering just as much as apartment owners.”

    I wouldn’t necessarily throw myself into a full-scale pity party for these people–if you’re told a construction company, of all enterprises, has a reputation for keeping costs down, the obvious thing to ask next is which corners are being cut. That’s just common sense. On the other hand, the government supplied multiple confirmations that each of these buildings had passed certification and inspection procedures. It’s not unreasonable for the elderly–whose work life was active when Japan Inc. had a reputation for uncompromising manufacturing competence that made it the envy of the world–to figure that a building couldn’t pass certification by multiple government functionaries without having any possible problems discovered somewhere along the way.

    I’m also not sure I buy the government’s convenient dividing line between condo owners and hotel owners. People choose residential buildings by developers all the time in Japan; the different companies have distinct reputations, possibly the product of PR rather than substance, but still real to Japanese consumers. I’m frequently told, when people hear the name of our building, that Atsushi made a wise decision by going with reliable Mistubishi Estate. Even in the Japanese post-Bubble economy, new apartment buildings go up all the time. I suppose it may be true that condominium buyers are somehow more constrained in their choice of developers than landowners who want to build hotels, but the reason is not immediately obvious.

    * Not even my sense of humor is black enough to permit me to translate 具体的 as “concrete” here.

    End of ASEAN summit

    Posted by Sean at 12:03, December 14th, 2005

    What novel trouble have those rascals in East Asia found to get themselves into while I’m sleeping on the opposite side of the globe? Not much, it appears–the trouble is pretty much as per usual. Of course, ASEAN meetings have a way, by means of throwing enemies into close quarters, of exacerbating friction:

    [The recent] series of international meetings, conceived with an eye toward designing a future East Asian cooperative entity, the issues that have become obstacles to regional collaboration between Japan and the PRC, which face off as the area’s two major powers, were thrown into sharp relief. After the 14 December closing of the ASEAN Summit session, Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi held a press coference in the city of Kuala Lumpur and protested against the refusal of the PRC and ROK to hold official [head-of-state] meetings with Japan because of the Prime Minister’s pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine. No mending of relations appears to be in sight.

    “Our prayers for peace and our respects for those who fell during wartime are matters of the heart, an issue of psychological liberty. I cannot understand the criticism of our pilgrimages.” The Prime Minister’s choice of words was nearly the same as it would be inside Japan, but in the context of close observation by journalists from the assembled nations of Asia, he uncharacteristically expanded on “criticism from the PRC.”

    “I have from the start argued for PRC-Japanese friendship. Even if we’re at swords-point on one or two items, that does not affect our ability to continue moving forward in developing our relations,” he said, but he betrayed discomfort in his facial expression.

    Nothing in the above is particularly new; it just serves to highlight the unwillingness of either Japan or its critics to budge on the Yasukuni issue.

    I’ve been stretching my mouth / To let those big words come right out

    Posted by Sean at 10:22, December 13th, 2005

    It’s morning in America.

    No, I’m serious; I’m actually writing this in PA, so the timestamp will be the same for me as it is for my stateside readers. Yesterday was insane with farewell drinks and flights and things, but I got to JFK around 11 p.m. and arrived at my parents’ place at 2-ish, I think. Having convinced their two Siamese cats to concede my superior fabulousness–why that always takes such a long time, I do not know–and thus my right to occupy the room I lend to them during the other 51 weeks of the year, I crashed. Hard.

    I don’t remember how I got Japanese pages to encode properly on my mother’s machine, so until I do (or unless I take my laptop somewhere with WiFi), I don’t really have any access to Japanese news, which is a weird feeling. A less-weird feeling is that of being back in my hometown without being seriously disoriented.

    I love visiting my parents, who are great people to be around and have a very comfortable house. My hometown…well, I discovered very early along that I’m a city person. I expend a great deal of energy defending the suburbs and car commutes and things because it’s the right thing to do–either you believe people should have the liberty to choose how they live, or you don’t and you think they should be cajoled, coerced, engineered, and harangued into making your pet trade-offs–so I hope confirmed small-town types won’t take offense when I say that being home exhausts me. Most of the time when I come back, I have to use a few days in New York as a buffer between Japan and here, since the City is way less brittly frenetic and stressful than Tokyo but way more dense and kinetic than Emmaus. It’s a good way station. This time, of course, I was in the Caribbean in one of those self-contained resorts that give you the spooky sense that you’re in a biosphere. Or on board the Nostromo. The Lehigh Valley feels positively megalopolitan by comparison.

    So I’ll be back after running errands and figuring out how to get JIS encoding here and eating more molasses cake than is probably strictly necessary for one’s first day home.


    Posted by Sean at 13:11, December 11th, 2005

    I just heard from Eric that Steven Malcolm Anderson, much-loved proprietor of Up with Beauty and commenter at Classical Values and Dean’s World, among other places, died suddenly a few weekends ago. I’m afraid I’m on a short break between meetings and am too shocked to post much now except that I wish him an eternity of pho, lesbians, and good loving from his pantheon of goddesses. RIP, big guy.

    Cats and dogs playing together

    Posted by Sean at 11:02, December 10th, 2005

    Prime Minister Koizumi and DPJ leader Maehara are nearing an agreement on constitutional revision, kind of:

    On 9 December, Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi indicated a desire cooperate with the Democratic Party of Japan on constitutional revision. Concerning his continued active pursuit of dicsussion about [the need to] approve collective self-defense with DPJ leader Seiji Maehara, he related, “Mr. Maehara has been an advocate of constitutional revision from a while back. From here on, I think that there are points on which he will be able to cooperate with the LDP.”

    Maehara positioned himself as notably more hawkish than other existing DPJ leaders–certainly including the colorless Katsuya Okada. (Remember him?)


    Posted by Sean at 00:32, December 10th, 2005

    Joel at Far Outliers links to a discussion that compares Japanese kamikaze pilots with today’s suicide bombers. He notes a strange inconsistency:

    Notice how the Japanese are presented as the victims, and those winning the war as their “oppressors”? Exactly when, during the half-century between 1895 and 1945 did Japan switch from being oppressor to victim? In 1895? In 1904? 1910? In 1931? 1937? In 1941? 1942? 1943? Yes, that’s it, at precisely the moment when they began to lose they became the victims, despite the appalling number of casualties they continued to inflict on themselves and others by not conceding defeat.

    Yeah. Funny how that works.

    We had a little money once / They were pushing through a four-lane highway

    Posted by Sean at 23:38, December 9th, 2005

    I would just like to thank all you generous taxpayers for giving money to my Lehigh Valley hometown for expenditures vital to the continued viability of national transportation. This is from an e-newsletter from my congressman, Charlie Dent:

    Also in Emmaus, I presented a check for $440,000 from the Highway Bill that will upgrade signals at two railroad crossings in the borough. I also presented officials from the Borough of Catasauqua $880,000 from the Highway Bill to fund a long-needed extension of Second Street, replacing the dangerous intersections at Race and Lehigh streets. This project is vitally important to the transportation needs of the entire Lehigh Valley.

    I grew up in the Borough of Emmaus blocks from the railroad crossings in question. I can assure you that neither of them is on an interstate, or even a particularly major PA state highway. It’s hard to imagine anything more properly local than railroad crossings on two-lane residential streets in municipalities of under 15,000. The Catasauqua part, related as it is to transportation around the airport, could affect traffic patterns with a somewhat wider scope, but again, I don’t think it has anything to do with I-78. The 15th District got a total of $56.1 million dollars from the highway bill this year.

    SDF deployment extension approved by cabinet

    Posted by Sean at 10:55, December 9th, 2005

    The cabinet has officially voted to extend the SDF deployment in Iraq:

    The Cabinet on Thursday approved the extension of the Self-Defense Forces’ mission to assist reconstruction in Iraq for a year beyond next Wednesday’s deadline.

    “We decided to extend the mission for two reasons: Iraq is on its way toward establishing a democratic government, and the U.N. [Security Council] has unanimously decided to extend the deployment of multilateral forces there,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told a news conference after the Cabinet meeting.

    The new basic plan for the SDF’s Iraq mission states that the troops’ mandate will expire on Dec. 14, 2006. But it also indicates the deployment can be shortened should Australian and British forces providing the Japanese personnel with a security umbrella decide to pull out.

    Prior to the Cabinet meeting Thursday, Koizumi had a series of meetings with leaders of coalition partner New Komeito and opposition parties to obtain their understanding in extending the Iraqi mission.


    Posted by Sean at 10:49, December 9th, 2005

    Radiation is not the only thing Japanese power companies release when they’re feeling all oops!-ish, apparently:

    Kansai Electric (KEPCO) revealed on 9 December that an administrative-level employee at its nuclear operations headquarters (Mihama, Fukui Prefecture) leaked to the Internet documents related to earthquake resistance at nuclear plants. The documents had been saved on his personal computer and were uploaded through file-sharing software called Winny. The company stated that no information in the documents would cause security problems related to nuclear materials. The same day, Kenkichi Hirose, chair of the security committee at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, summoned KEPCO president Yosuke Mori and issued the company a stern face-to-face warning [to avoid such screw-ups in the future].

    If you’ve seen the Mihama facility mentioned before, you’re probably recalling the accident last year when an under-maintained pipe ruptured and blasted a dozen or so unfortunate plant workers with super-hot steam. Five of them died. This weeks information leak appears to have been unimportant in terms of the content of the documents, but given the track record we’re looking at here, it could very well be indicative of more serious and wide-ranging organization problems in KEPCO’s nuclear division.