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    Posted by Sean at 01:40, December 3rd, 2005

    The victim of the latest sicko child killer was found yesterday; she’s been identified as the girl who went missing in Tochigi Prefecture on Thursday. (This is, of course, a different sicko child killer from the one who strangled a second grader in Hiroshima and dumped her body in a box on the curb a few weeks ago.) The girl’s father was quoted as reacting with a good deal more rage than parents in these (increasingly frequent) cases tend to be. There appears to be a suspect, but he hasn’t been identified or located yet.

    Every little thing that you say or do

    Posted by Sean at 05:04, December 2nd, 2005

    I was going to post about the Nikkei‘s acid editorial on the latest developments in the “trinity reforms,” but then I came across Camille’s Salon review of the new Madonna album. The restructuring of the Japanese government can wait.

    Paglia’s paradoxical reaction is funny–in effect: “This CD is such a trivial non-event that it’s moved me to write three pages and reexamine my entire collection of dance records on vinyl.” I’ve certainly expended energy over the last few weeks listening to Madonna’s hokey lyrics and her producers’ ripped-off rhythm tracks and thinking, This song should really be annoying me. Why am I not annoyed? Why am I SINGING ALONG? I don’t know that I’d go in the direction Paglia does in this climactic passage, though:

    Last summer, Madonna described her forthcoming CD as “future disco” — which raised the hopes of all die-hard disco fans that “Confessions on a Dance Floor” would be a masterpiece, a return to roots but also a visionary breakthrough.

    That’s not what we got — though you’d never know it from the gushing reviews, which applauded the CD for achieving Madonna’s purported aim of making people dance. My blood boiled at this insulting reduction of dance music to gymnastics — mere recreational aerobics. I for one do not dance to dance music; disco for me is a lofty metaphysical mode that induces contemplation. (Of course, this may partly descend from my Agnes Gooch marginalization in the old bar scene, where I was — as Nora Ephron would say — a wallflower at the orgy.) Giorgio Moroder’s albums, which I listened to obsessively on headphones, were an enormous inspiration to me throughout the writing of “Sexual Personae” in the 1970s and ’80s. Disco at its best is a neurological event, a shamanistic vehicle of space-time travel.

    I’m not sure what Agnes is doing in that paragraph. Her issue was that she needed to pull herself together and stop being a wrung-out ninny. Not a problem I can ever imagine Camille’s having. Anyway, maybe it’s because I’ve never felt marginalized at bars, but I don’t see why dancing at a club is to be dismissed as “mere recreational aerobics” because Camille couldn’t get a date thirty years ago.

    I wish Confessions on a Dance Floor had had more songs that are good just to listen to, too, the way Madonna’s un-remixed classic singles are. Straight-ahead pop melodies do come up, but only in the second half; the album is front-loaded with songs in which the choruses are connected by lots of chopped-up phrases instead of real verses. But whatever. Surely, having done all she’s done for dance pop, Madonna’s entitled to devote one album to giving the fags something to dance to, even if it’s not another Lasting Contribution to art. At least here in Tokyo, “Hung Up,” for all its flaws, is the first song since Kylie’s “Can’t Get You out of My Head” that makes all the guys of every age in a bar look up and react when it comes on. Some of the reactions, granted, are on the order of “This bitch never could sing and I wish she’d finally GO AWAY!” (Kylie got that, too.) But no one’s indifferent. There’s something very winning about Madonna’s sheer ability to keep convincing you you have to listen and watch.

    A few minor points: by the time Teena Marie made “Lover Girl,” her collaboration with Rick James was long over. And in her rush to credit Giorgio Moroder for everything good that Confessions on a Dance Floor rips off, Paglia seems completely unaware of the half-dozen early New Order rhythm tracks that Price has nicked. I can easily imagine her dismissing New Order as not warm and sensual and “visceral” enough to be truly Dionysian, or what have you, but the fact is that they’ve had just about as much influence on dance music over the last twenty years as Madonna has. (Not that they were always original themselves. The drum break at the beginning of “Blue Monday” is stolen directly from Donna Summer’s “Our Love.”) Given all the arm-windmilling Paglia does about Madonna’s lazily snagging ideas from obvious sources, you’d have thought NO would come up somewhere.

    Added on 3 December: Ann Althouse posted about the above passage, too; as always, some of her commenters are hilarious.

    La mode

    Posted by Sean at 01:18, December 1st, 2005

    Virginia Postrel has more about how cheaper, more accessible fashion goods are realigning the way people think about clothes. It’s always nice to read someone who doesn’t see style as a mere stalking horse for status-seeking or in-group formation. In Tokyo, especially along the swath from Shibuya/Harajuku/Shinjuku, everyone acknowledges pretty openly that those elements exist. But no one talks about them as if they made aesthetic pleasure somehow inauthentic.

    I’m not so sure, BTW, that the article she cites is correct in saying that Target was the pioneer in making clothing by high-end designers more accessible. Regular old diffusion lines have been around for ages–though unlike Target, they don’t put the lower-cost products of high-end manufacturers in stores where Americans who aren’t rich are likely to shop often. (Burberry, BTW, took advantage of its late-90s efflorescence in popularity in Asia by creating two more casual youth-targeted lines: Burberry Black Label and Burberry Blue Label. I expect to hear of a tie-in with Johnnie Walker any day now. Let’s plaid and enjoy unique Scotch taste!)

    Iraqi prime minister to visit Japan

    Posted by Sean at 23:19, November 30th, 2005

    The Iraqi Prime Minister will visit Japan on 5 December:

    The Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on 1 December that Prime Minister of Iraq [Ibrahim] al-Jaafari is scheduled for a two-day visit to Japan, beginning 2 December, during which he will meet with Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi. It is al-Jaafari’s first visit to Japan. He is expected to request once again that the deployment of SDF personnel in Iraq be extended. His visit is at Japan’s invitation, and [he and Japanese officials] will exchange views about the status of Iraq’s reconstruction and support [Japan can offer] from here forward.

    This is about the fiftieth time we’ve seen news that the extension of the SDF deployment has somehow become official, so perhaps the request next week will just be a face-to-face formality.


    Posted by Sean at 08:32, November 30th, 2005

    Another important step in the “trinity reform” package:

    On 30 November, the LDP’s policy research committee approved a proposed agreement between the government and the ruling coalition on reform of the tax, financing, and administrative relationship between federal and regional governments (“trinity reform”). In order to decrease the amount Tokyo gives to regional governments in subsidies, the federal government lowered its contribution (in percentage terms) to allocations for children and expenditures on educators who work in public elementary and junior high schools.

    The decrease comes to ¥654 billion. One way the agreement was finally reached was by saying goodbye (that’s the metaphor in Japanese, too–well, it’s more like “seeing off,” but the image is the same) to cuts in livelihood protection expenditures, which the regional governments had viciously opposed.

    For those who don’t know, “livelihood protection” is basically the system that guarantees a minimum standard of living for citizens. Workers pay into it at the same time as they pay into the national pension system; the payouts they receive, by contrast, come from the pension system alone, unless they end up impoverished. Why would federal and regional governments get into a tussle over which kind of funding to cut? Take a look:

    At the NHK Hall in Tokyo’s Shibuya on Monday [14 November], where a meeting to promote the decentralization of power was held, Tamotu Yamade, chairman of the Japan Association of City Mayors and mayor of Kanazawa, criticized the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare for agreeing to even part of the subsidy cut proposal.

    “The problem of livelihood protection costs is merely a transfer of the burden” to local governments, he said.

    “Reforms without ideology will leave the root of the evil behind. We must staunchly fight,” Yamade said, triggering thunderous applause from about 3,000 mayors and local assembly members attending the meeting.

    At a news conference after the meeting, Aso said, “We would like the prime minister to take leadership this year to the last moment, unlike last year.”

    Local governments are opposed to cuts in subsidies for livelihood protection, which [sic] the Finance Ministry is pushing for such cuts. The local governments are willing to accept cuts in subsidies for facilities at public schools, but the ministry is against that.

    From the beginning, the Finance Ministry has been reluctant to subsidy [sic] reductions which do not lead to spending cuts, but is poised to oppose reductions in subsidies for school facilities, whose source is construction national bonds.

    Over the last fifteen years, the number of people drawing on livelihood protection has risen, naturally, at the same time as the economy was frequently slumping. Spinning off repsonsibility for the program could easily stick regional and local governments with new collection and accounting headaches without increasing their discretion over where money and resources go. Note also that it’s about as easy to get the federal government to agree to issue fewer bonds as it is to get Courtney Love to take fewer drugs.

    In separate but not unrelated news, the government plans to restructure out-of-pocket payments for patient care in the National Health system:

    On, 30 November, the government and ruling coalition decided on the broad outlines of two-phase reform for the health care system that would raise the amount patients pay for medical care beginning next year. First, the percent paid by high-income patients 70 and over will increase to 30% from the current 20%; after 2008, the percent paid by middle- and low-income patients between 70 and 74 will as a rule increase to 20% from the current 10%. Conversely, the plan folds in an expansion–from younger than 3 to younger than 6–of the age at which payment for children is slightly decreased to 20%. The goal is to hold down increases in health care costs by keeping an eye on payments exacted from people during their child-rearing years while making those from the aged more appropriate.

    I really don’t know clouds at all

    Posted by Sean at 23:44, November 29th, 2005

    Mark‘s Cloud Observatory doesn’t have comments, and I can’t find a contact address on his site, so I guess I have to post this here and figure he’ll see it.

    I’ve discovered that there are a lot of clouds shaped like the PRC. Not just China, but the whole thing including Xinjiang and (sorry, Richard Gere) Tibet. No joke, I see one at least, I’d say, every few weeks. (There are a lot of clouds shaped like Ireland, too, but the way the island is massed, I don’t find that surprising.) Are there PRC-shaped clouds over the US, too, or just over Tokyo? The latter would sort of freak me out if I were the type to believe in omens and stuff.

    On a more pleasing note, the entryway to our apartment is perfectly positioned for viewing Mars at around midnight right now. It gives you such a cool, primal feeling the way it hovers over all the rooftops and wires.

    Listen, can you hear the distance calling

    Posted by Sean at 23:46, November 28th, 2005

    With holiday travel (including my frenetic trip next week) coming up, your friendly TSA has released its air passenger recommendations.

    Note again that the first and most important contribution you can make the air security of the Republic is NOT TO BRING ANY LIGHTERS IN YOUR CARRY-ON BAGS.

    Also note that you should be getting to the airport “in plenty of time.” (Since the TSA, and not we hapless travelers, is in charge of safety procedures, perhaps it would be the better positioned to judge what “plenty” means. Say, two hours? Four hours? Just one hour if it’s a domestic flight? I guess they figured specifying a time would seem, you know, coercive and arbitrary. Wouldn’t want that.)

    Also, you won’t be required to take off your shoes. Well, unless you are.

    Enjoy your trip!

    Made possible by a grant from Mobil Corporation

    Posted by Sean at 05:42, November 28th, 2005

    There’s a post at Right Reason about gay marriage. I know–the topic has been flogged to death already, but Steve Burton’s post brings the topic back to some of the underlying social-fabric issues that can sometimes get lost as the debate gets pickier. The commenters also don’t suffer fools gladly, so if you can still stand the topic, it’s worth a read.

    There’s also a post that links to this piece about Julia Child as culinary conservative. Interesting, although if all cooks had followed known tradition and authority and been afraid to jump off a few cliffs, we might not have, say fugu in aspic. Or–generalizing beyond cooking–countries, such as ours, populated by venturesome immigrants.

    The Julia Child thing reminds me of when I was growing up. We’d come home from services on Saturday evenings, and Julia Child and Company would be on PBS some time around sunset. Later, there would be Mystery!, which I loved even as a small boy. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was that keen on watching a show where people were murdered all the time, but I maintain that the draw was the restoration of the moral order at the end of every episode.

    Anyway, the Mystery Channel in Japan has just launched and is part of my cable subscription, so I’ve encountered the odd nostalgic rerun–A Touch of Frost and the Joan Hickson Miss Marples and the like. (Not all of them are nostalgic. P.D. James couldn’t plot her way out of a paper bag, so I quickly bail if I realize I’m watching a dramatization of one of her coherence-free Dalgliesh porridges.) The other day, it got me thinking about a Mystery! series–one of the many British imports–that was broadcast when I was in elementary school. Since I had the laptop here open, I decided to see whether that nice Mr. Google could tell me anything.

    Man, there is nothing you can’t find on the Internet now. All I’d remembered was that it was about a writer whose wife’s Mini Cooper crashes, and that she’s taken to a place called the Meadowbank Clinic and held there while her alkie husband tries to figure out what’s happening to her. Looking for it, I came upon this page, which not only described the whole thing in impressive detail (“The Limbo Connection”–that‘s right!) but also reminded me of another series I’d completely forgotten.

    It was called “Quiet as a Nun.” In it, there’s a convent being stalked by a phantom nun who blacks her face out with a fabric mask. The site has a video clip of the climactic moment when the protagonist, your typical girlie but plucky suspense-story heroine, decides to go up into one of the towers looking for the Black Nun. She finds her, all right. shivers Watching it again thrilled every fiber of my gay being.

    House of horrors

    Posted by Sean at 04:51, November 28th, 2005

    So many dropped balls are coming to light in the Aneha scandal that I’m starting to expect Mr. Moose to wander by at any moment. One of the sticking points thus far had been over the degree to which the federal government should be helping out people who’ve been stuck with unsafe condos. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport has come up with a partial plan:

    Residents of housing blocks built on falsified structural integrity data who took out loans with the government’s Housing Loan Corporation to purchase their now unlivable homes, will be allowed to defer their loan payments, Construction and Transport Ministry officials said Sunday.

    This will be the first step the government has taken to help those living in 230 condominiums in question. However, only 14 of the households, or about 6 percent, of them took out loans with the corporation.

    Thus, the ministry is also looking into possibly assisting residents who borrowed from private financial institutions, the officials said.

    The ministry holds that the condominiums’ builders should fulfill the defect liability to rebuild the buildings free of charge before the ministry assists residents, but it is not clear how such firms, including Huser, will handle the problem and whether they have the necessary funds to rebuild the housing blocks.

    The ministry is searching for a way to extend a helping hand, as it will take time for the residents to rebuild their lives and they may be forced to repay their loans at the same time they pay rent on new homes.

    I hope my arch tone over the last week hasn’t made it seem that I regard this story as a joke. While it’s true that we’re very lucky no one was killed here, a lot of people have poured savings into mortgages that are now proving worthless. There’s nothing funny about that.

    There’s also nothing funny about the fact that, as the Asahi reported this morning, it’s beginning to look as if everyone–and I mean everyone–involved in these construction projects failed to be vigilant:

    The reports submitted by Aneha, who is based in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, were supposed to be thoroughly checked by eHomes Inc., a private-sector inspection company.

    At the same time, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport only carried out perfunctory reviews of the work done by eHomes in its annual inspection of the company.

    To compound matters, a number of local governments were also lax in their efforts to unearth irregularities in reports put together by Aneha.

    Land ministry officials searched the offices of eHomes in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward on Thursday and Friday to look into the company’s inspection procedures.

    Sources said that eHomes apparently failed to reconfirm the information included in the structural-strength reports as required by the Building Standards Law.

    The whole point of building redundancy into these sorts of procedures is to put as many pairs of eyes as possible on the same information: what one person doesn’t notice, everyone else will. What actually appears to have happened–all Tragedy of the Commons-like–is that everyone assumed everyone else was being vigilant, so once Aneha had put his fraudulent structural integrity reports into circulation, the falsifications weren’t discovered.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport made an announcement today:

    On 28 November, reacting to the scandal in which Aneha Design falsified the structural calculations for apartment complexes and other buildings, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport firmed up new policies of systemic revision that would require the name of any architectural subcontractor that performed structural calculations to be recorded in any application for a building permit. The intention is to have revisions enacted and implemented in basic construction laws governing application documents by the end of the year.

    Well, okay. I’m sure anyone who sees the name Aneha on a building permit application from here on will be sure to put it in the “Reject” pile. Otherwise, if there’s a way this will help ensure greater vigilance on the part of those in charge of inspection and certification, I’m not sure what it is.

    Like other federal ministries, the MLIT takes the tack that the safety of the public is too important for its operations to be spun off into private hands. Since protecting its citizens is the government’s primary responsibility, I’d be inclined to agree. But the above policy appears to add only a little more paper pushing (never a hard sell on bureaucrats). The fact is that it’s already the job of functionaries in government construction agencies to review structural calculations, and they didn’t do it. Perhaps the rules themselves could use some revision, but the major issue is pretty clearly the mindset. It’s not clear what anyone plans to do to change that.

    If you care to depress or scare yourself, BTW, the Japanese Nikkei now has a handy category page dedicated to the Aneha scandal–certain to be updated frequently for the foreseeable future, if this week is any indication.

    Are you hiding somewhere behind those eyes?

    Posted by Sean at 04:07, November 28th, 2005

    You know how there are pop culture artifacts that jolt you so forcefully back into the past that you physically catch your breath? Last week, for what must have been the first time in at least fifteen years, I heard “Electric Blue” by Icehouse. Not the greatest song in the world, but there are worse things to rip off than late-phase Roxy Music, and I’d liked it as a high school sophomore when it was out. I was listening to it on the train last week after work, on my way to Azabu Juban to meet a guy I know. In the sense that it reminded me of adolescent ways of thinking, it turned out to be a fitting soundtrack.

    A woman S. is in grad school with studies the coffee industry, of all things, and was having a party of some kind at a coffee house there; he’d asked whether I’d go. The place was full of grad students in their mid-twenties, many of them flirting in their characteristic don’t-forget-I’m-brainy way. Being a non-flirting guy ten years older than many of them and still dressed for the office, I kind of stood out.

    Friends greeted him. One of them duly asked S. where we’d met. It was a perfectly natural question, but the response came several very noticeable beats later. “Hmmmmm. It was a while ago. I really don’t remember.” A complete lie. Also an unconvincing one. He looked over at me, pretending to want me to jog his memory. I tried hard not to look amused. This happened once or twice more before the party was over, and as we were walking back toward the station, S. said, “I hate that question. Why should people ask something like that?”

    It was right around that point that I let myself show some unfiltered indignation. “Where did you meet?” I pointed out a little astringently, is probably the very least intrusive question it’s possible to ask when first meeting the friend of a friend. You can’t introduce someone to people without providing context; society and sociability simply don’t work that way.

    Either you bring a gay American guy in his thirties–who very clearly has no connection whatever to any world you’re known to frequent–to a gathering of your friends and expect to have to account for your acquaintance, or you navigate social life with your school friends (including the attendant secrecy) without any help from other gay guys. I cannot for the life of me understand the temerity of people who want to play both ends against the middle–drawing on gay organizations while remaining officially straight to their friends in “real life”–and then complain that they feel isolated or put on the spot.