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    Secret gardens

    Posted by Sean at 09:29, September 28th, 2005

    Eric and I had an e-mail exchange that I’d like to quote but can’t precisely because it was on the subject that ended up in this recent post of his:

    I think that one of the reasons so many bloggers are drawn to this medium is that in too many ways, America has become a country in which people are afraid to say what they think. Blogging gives a voice (if not a loudspeaker) to those who’d normally be silent, but the downside is that it gives them an opportunity to be heard by the very people who’d normally intimidate them into silence. I think there are people who’ve taken up blogging precisely because thoughts like “I could never say this at work!” or “You just can’t discuss issues like this in public!” ran through their minds.

    Every so often, I’ll get an e-mail to the effect of “Thanks for being so outspoken about [gay/Japan] stuff,” and my reaction is to the effect of “Oh, honey, if you only knew!” Since I write under my own name, I have to use content and tone that are compatible with my job, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s not as if people who try to make their points forcefully but civilly were overrepresented in the public discourse or anything. I also have a few teenaged readers and try to keep my occasional bawdiness mild and good-humored, the better to serve as a thrilling contrast with the latest Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson video.


    Of course, not every e-mail is an overblown compliment. I won’t post things from people who obviously want to remain anonymous, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t address the topic raised:

    The idea that, because I’m happy and in a settled, sustaining relationship at 33, coming out must have been a breeze for me is an extraordinarily naive one. Coming out reorders your whole view of the world and where you belong in it; anyone going through such an experience is bound to have trouble navigating it. I needed people to cut me some slack without giving up on me altogether, and fortunately, I had friends who were willing to do exactly that. Basically honorable people sometimes do pained, impulsive, nasty things in moments of weakness. That’s not to excuse them, only to say that they shouldn’t be summarily written off.

    But for some people, explaining away their bad behavior as the fault of social prejudice gets to be habit-forming, and if they’re going to make self-justifying statements in public, I think those statements deserve to be challenged.


    Posted by Sean at 22:51, September 27th, 2005

    Good news: Japan can stop worrying about the abductee issue, because the UN has totally told North Korea that it needs to cut it out with the human rights abuses and stuff:

    On 27 September, UN Secretary General Annan released a report on humanitarian issues in North Korea and indicated that, in addition to engaging in torture and forced labor, the country was also suffering serious food shortages. About the issue of abducted Japanese nationals, he declared that survivors “must be returned to Japan both swiftly and safely.”

    The report is 22 pages in all and contains 68 items. About the treatment meted out to citizens who are regarded as criminals by the state, it says, “forced labor is practiced on a large scale.” It went on to cite further examples [of problems]: “When a given person is punished for crimes related to politics or ideology, his or her family also becomes a target for punishment.”

    North Korea’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs met with Annan last week, stressing that the food situation has improved; he sought a cessation of humanitarian aid and cooperation in development projects. However, the new UN report states that aid is [still] necessary, and says, regarding the way support is being used, that “effective monitoring that will increase transparency” is vitally important.

    Well, there you go. Problem solved. And some people complain that Japan gets no return on its hefty contributions to the UN!

    Candy everybody wants

    Posted by Sean at 08:37, September 27th, 2005

    This (via Joel) is too funny:

    For the most part, Japanese network television is pretty darn unremarkable. If one were to flip through the channels at any time of day, one would likely find:

    • A variety show featuring a roomful of mindless “talents” who are completely and utterly devoid of any actual talent whatsoever

    • A cooking program
    • A cooking program featuring a roomful of mindless talents who watch food being cooked and then sample it and loudly and repeatedly exclaim “OISHII!!!”
    • Some kind of quiz show
    • A quiz show featuring a roomful of mindless talents demonstrating just how mindless they truly are
    • A sappy documentary about someone somewhere in the world who faces some sort of adversity (e.g., is looking for a job, is living in a brutal war zone, was born without legs, a combination thereof, etc.) and who Tries His/Her Best® to overcome the hardships of their situation
    • A variety show featuring a roomful of mindless talents watching a sappy documentary and providing their horribly forced reactions to the hardships (tears) and the overcoming of the hardships (more tears) for the sake of the television viewers at home who have to be instructed how to react since they have neither souls nor a capacity for empathy

    That last sentence is a little over the line, but overall: No fooling! Japanese television does have interesting historical dramas; shows about the country’s unique geological features; and profiles of famous artworks and artisans. But it does the lowest-common-denominator thing no less, er, adroitly than American television.

    The タレント (tarento: “person who’s famous for being famous,” derived as Jeff notes from the hilariously inappropriate English word talent) phenomenon has to be seen to be believed. You look at some of these people and think, Maybe we don’t need to worry so much about having the US education system outcompeted after all. The guys are unbelievably ditzy–and not in the I-bet-he-makes-up-for-it-by-being-good-with-his-hands way, either. The women, who are encouraged by convention to be slightly flibbertigibbety in public anyway, don’t help things much. I saw one quiz show a few years ago on which contestents were asked to locate a few countries on a map of Europe and the Mediterranean, and only one person knew where Germany was. Dead serious.

    I’m less in agreement with Conbini Bento about Masaki Sumitami:

    Known for his revealing black leather S&M outfit, incessant pelvis-thrusting and frequent exclamations of “WOOO!!!”, Hard Gay made a splash on the talent scene earlier this year and has quickly become the man of the moment on Japanese television. Despite his flamboyant personality and outrageous appearance reminiscent of the biker in the Village People, Hard Gay is not only not an actual homosexual, but his forays on television thus far have primarily been based on the wholesome concept of yonaoshi, or social improvement (although in recent appearances he has begun drifting into other territory involving his newfound celebrity). His TV segments usually feature him walking the streets and attempting to help out those he perceives as being in need whilst making jokes rich with pun and innuendo and thrusting his crotch with abandon, often to the horror and embarrassment of the subject(s) of his attention. While his antics may push the envelope at times, Hard Gay’s controversial moniker and appearance belie his good humor and affability.

    Perhaps I can’t get into Sumitami’s routine because I’ve spent too many years running into men in revealing black leather S&M outfits who are actual homosexuals and think that incessant pelvis-thrusting and frequent exclamations of “WOOO!!!” are great ways to hit on guys.

    You’re the poetry man / You make things all right

    Posted by Sean at 22:58, September 26th, 2005

    I haven’t had many interesting search strings lately, but two have cropped up in the last 24 hours. I tell you–the things people expect Google to help them out with! Someone wanted to know “How do you break it off with a married man?”

    Uh, let’s see. How about “We really shouldn’t be doing this. I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore”? Is that too obvious, or something? It’s wise not to add the part when you burst into tears and go, “Dammit, you PROMISED me you were going to LEAVE her! How could you keep stringing me along like this when you KNOW I can make you happier than she does?” That has a way of interfering with closure. (No, I don’t know this from having dated a married man myself; but this being Japan, I have a few friends who have.)

    The other odd search was “dating: lose the coin purse.” I can only assume this was intended as advice? But then, why enter it as part of a search? One doesn’t go to Yahoo to tell it things, after all. Besides, in my experience, having one is taken as a conversation-starter, prompting opening lines that range from “Beautiful coin purse!” to “I should get one of those myself–Japanese money is so heavy,” which apparently seem less bald than “Come here often?” (though one gets that one a lot, too). Of course, I suppose it depends on the item itself; a lot of coin purses probably look faggy to a fair number of straight women.

    Oh, and for the love of Poseidon, I still don’t know whether Röb M@rciano is a freakin’ homosexual.

    Our instruments have no way of measuring this feeling

    Posted by Sean at 09:31, September 26th, 2005

    Chris Crain has posted on the Washington Blade blog about the problems with gay PR, though he doesn’t exactly put it that way:

    Then remember this: We gay Americans do not have the luxury of intolerance. When it comes to minorities, we are remarkably minor. Kinsey was nice enough to propagate the 10 percent myth, but subsequent surveys place us at even smaller numbers, well under half that amount. And about one-quarter of us — of us! — voted for the election and the re-election of George W. Bush.

    If we cannot tolerate the viewpoint of someone who tries to explain why one-quarter of us like and support the president, then how can we expect the 96 percent of Americans who are heterosexual to listen seriously to our demands for equality?

    The growing polarization of American politics has taken root within gay America as well. The explosion of liberal gay bloggers, many of whom spend about as much time on the “gray” of most issues as Rush Limbaugh and his “dittoheads,” has only exacerbated the proud queer tradition of disdain for gay Republicans (“Nazi Jews”) and the caricature of conservative Christians (“religious right,” “religious political extremists”).

    Whatever the public opinion surveys may say about the growing acceptance of gays, we have lost, and lost badly, every ballot measure to date on marriage, and the numbers haven’t improved since Alaska and Hawaii voted on the issue almost a decade ago.

    Our activists groups have grown quite fond of talking about the “conversations” we need to have with straight America. Well half of that conversation involves listening, not talking. And if we won’t even listen to the heretical views of our own kind, then how can we be open to one of “them”?

    He’s right. I do think that while the subject is open, though, we might make a request of the conservatives, too: some of you have a real chip on your shoulder about what a brave, exclusive little club of dissenters you are. If you don’t knock it off, you’re going to have a hard time winning over rank-and-file gays who despise the shrill left but are wary of Republicans.

    Yes, yes, yes, I know–there are gay enclaves in which you risk vandalization of your property if you’re openly conservative. More commonly you just risk being demonized. (That overused word strikes me as being appropriate here for once.) I’m more than happy to acknowledge that the outrages committed by extreme gay leftists are way worse than the smugness of some of the gay right. But smugness is a turnoff, and as long as the center-right range of gays stays so firmly a minority, it’s going to remain easy for lefty activists to claim to represent gays en masse.

    Fields of black gold

    Posted by Sean at 01:58, September 26th, 2005

    The Japanese government plans to increase its monitoring of the disputed East China Sea oil and gas fields:

    The government will strengthen its surveillance apparatus in the maritime region around the East China Sea boundary (Japan-China) where the PRC is furthering its plan to develop gas fields. It will increase the frequency of flights by the Maritime SDF’s P3C patrol planes. The Maritime Security Agency and Ministry of Trade, Economy, and Industry are communicating closely with other relevant government bodies to bring the PRC’s movements to light down to the last detail. The aim is to preclude China’s establishing natural gas production incrementally.

    China has already completed development of three fields in the vicinity of the boundary: Tengaiten, Shungyo, and Dankyo. It has also constructed a maritime base for exploratory drilling near Heiko. The China National Off-shore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) will begin production of natural gas from the Shungyo field within the month.

    This debate has been brewing for a while. He doesn’t update anymore, but Meaty Fly’s blog still has a great post up here about the background to the Japan-PRC energy conflict. It’s also helpful to bear in mind (via Machiruda a few months ago) that scientists aren’t sure just how much gas the most haggled-over field holds.

    I think I need to create a category for this, because I’m having serious trouble locating things about it in my own archives.

    Let me cover you with velvet kisses

    Posted by Sean at 07:20, September 25th, 2005

    A friend at the office sent me this WaPo article, the latest installment in the seemingly interminable series in which the Western media treat the funkiest aspects of Japanese culture as if they were poised to become the mainstream by next April. I’m not so sure about the general conclusions that are implied, and I also have to wonder about some of the specifics. It’s possible that the reporter, Anthony Faiola, has a lot of experience in Japan, but he doesn’t sound that way. I was especially puzzled by this sequence:

    On busy Tokyo subways these days, it is not unusual to see men fishing for packs of Virginia Slims cigarettes in European-style male purses. They have many models to choose from at Isetan Men’s — the successful 10-story department store in chic west Tokyo that opened two years ago and is now the cathedral of masculine vanity.

    The store sells more than 100 types of male purses, including jade-colored alligator clutches and rhinestone-encrusted knapsacks, along with hats with peacock feathers, pink leather card holders and thousands of pieces of exotic designer clothes. Sales have outpaced Isetan’s other major Tokyo stores, where the emphasis is on women’s apparel, according to company officials.

    “On busy Tokyo subways these days“? When I first arrived a decade ago, one of my first questions was, “What is up with all the guys’ carrying tote bags and little clutches?” The answer, according to every Japanese person I know, is that those shapes simply don’t read as any more femmy than briefcases or backpacks. Plenty of regular, un-fashion-conscious guys with wedding rings carry such bags. The rich ones get them at Vuitton or Coach (or their wives pick them out on their behalf), but they’re usually in un-showy neutral colors. With respect to clothes rather than accessories, by contrast, men wear pastels and jewel tones more readily here than they do in the US–you frequently see construction workers swaggering around in lavender or seafoam-green rubber trousers. But that’s also a long-standing element in the culture and doesn’t signify any new development.

    Furthermore, Isetan Men’s does have a wide variety of outlandishly colored and over-decorated accessories. They’re prominently showcased, which makes every department look as if it catered exclusively to fops, but as someone who shops there, I can tell you that most other guys seem to do what I do: wade through to find the more ordinary stuff. What’s great about Isetan Men’s is that you have almost ten floors devoted to nothing but men’s clothing at your disposal. Like many other high-end stores in Japan, Isetan stocks modestly-priced items along with the sticker-shock brands, so people of a relatively wide range of incomes can shop there. If you want a new jacket, you can look at Brooks Brothers and Ermenegildo Zegna and Theory and Burberrys and a few house labels to be sure you’re getting what most pleases you, and you don’t have to run all over the place. There’s no other store like that for men in Tokyo; there are plenty of stores that cater mostly to women. Therefore, it seems to me that the success of Isetan Men’s says at least as much about its lack of competition–its acute exploitation of a niche market that had been hiding in plain sight all along–as it does about men’s increased dandyism. (Note also that Atsushi and I frequently see a healthy proportion of guys who have clearly been dragged there by their wives or girlfriends, same as in any other men’s department the world over.)

    Oh, one last thing: Isetan Men’s is literally two blocks from Shinjuku 2-chome, the biggest gay district in the city. It’s not at all uncommon for guys to do some shopping before the store closes at 8:00, meet friends for dinner, and then go out for a drink afterward. I’ve done it myself more times than I can count. Do we have a noticeable effect on the store’s total revenue? I don’t know. Could we help to explain why it makes business sense to keep pink ostrich-print wallets with marabou-feather trim in stock? It seems to me we could. “Some gay guys like outlandishly attention-getting clothes” is hardly the stuff of news stories, though.

    The reason I’m going on about this is that it all makes me wonder whether Faiola can be trusted to read cultural signals competently. The underlying issue he’s talking about is certainly real and important: post-War Japan barricaded women in their apartments with the kids and shoved men into the office for twelve-hour days. Now that the national goal of prosperity and respect on the world stage has been achieved, it’s natural for people to want to use the resulting wealth to the end of arranging their lives more to their personal liking. The quotation from Negami Kishi lamenting the feminization of Japanese men is used without putting it in this rather obvious context. Of course, when women get a little breathing room, they’re going to covet the jobs that have always been available to men; men, in turn, don’t want to have to wall themselves off emotionally from everyone including their own children. Since the Japanese have not been socialized to be resilient and resourceful in applying their individual talents and know-how to new situations, the transition has been rocky.

    Still, that doesn’t mean that the popularity of men’s cosmetic surgery and of flamboyantly gay entertainers such as Shogo Kariyazaki means what Faiola seems to think it means. It’s worth bearing in mind that Kariyazaki is safely stereotypable: a gay guy with fussy clothes who arranges flowers. His straight male fans don’t appear to be imitating his personal style, after all.

    And on the subject of cosmetic procedures: hairiness is considered rough and somewhat vulgar by many Japanese. (Sorry, Kyushu and Okinawa boys–I’m just describing other people’s opinions here.) As the cost and inconvenience of cosmetic procedures drops, men are getting more of them, as you’d expect. It’s not surprising that as advances are made in depilation, specifically, Japanese men are taking advantage of them the way Americans have taken to, say, tooth whitening.

    About that whole Koizumi-dancing-with-Richard-Gere thing, I have no comment. I will say that I was shocked that Faiola mentioned Gere and then discussed Dandy House several paragraphs later without mentioning the obvious connection: Gere is featured in the company’s latest ad campaign, the billboards for which are INESCAPABLE in Tokyo lately.

    Added at 20:55: Okay, I changed the first paragraph to make it a bit less mean-spirited. I don’t think most reporters are going around with the intention of making Japan sound like a freakshow. They just don’t seem to be able to avoid doing so.

    Added on 26 September: I changed a few sentences for clarity. Sheesh, my style is turgid when I’m irritated and writing off the cuff.

    Added on 28 September: Thanks to Virginia Postrel for the link. Just to emphasize this again: Faiola is absolutely right to be saying that sex roles are in flux at this historical moment in Japan. In fact, there’s very little he wrote that I would actually say is inaccurate. My complaint is with the (mostly implicit) connections he’s making and the way he characterizes the larger issue. That Isetan Men’s carries shocking pink tote bags doesn’t necessarily say anything about Japanese manhood outside an extremely small circle of Tokyo-dwellers.

    A disgruntled teacher drops a 100-pound anvil onto a calculator from a height of 12 inches…

    Posted by Sean at 04:38, September 25th, 2005

    Via John, whose blog would be a daily read of mine if he posted that often but really no pressure buddy at all seriously none, here’s a great post by Moebius Stripper on…well, I’ll let her tell it:

    I’ve been tutoring a high school kid for the past two months. The kid’s in grade 12; when I met him, he was doing math at a grade two or three level. This is not an exaggeration: he couldn’t add or multiply single-digit numbers without a calculator. And this wasn’t just rustiness, as this inability extended to not being able to compute things like 6+0, 5*1, or 3*0. In other words, he didn’t know what numbers were. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t solve linear equations, add fractions, or make heads or tails of the most simple word problem.

    I met with him every other day, two hours at a time. And, to his credit, what he lacked in mathematical skill, he more than made up for in persistence. He worked diligently, if not terribly successfully, on his homework. We spent a lot of time on the basics – fractions, simple algebra, the meaning of equations. We also spent a lot of time – far, far more than I’d have liked – on how to use the [expletive regretfully deleted] graphing calculator to perform tasks that every student should know how to do with a pencil and paper.

    Numeracy is hugely, hugely important in a very general sense; and somehow the curriculum specialists and teachers seem to have found ways to remove basic, intuitive numeracy from students. Or at least they make it permissible for them to use calculators for so many basic operations that they don’t even realize it’s possible to be good with numbers.

    Recommended Daily Allowance

    Posted by Sean at 02:43, September 25th, 2005

    Just saw Atsushi to the train; he’ll be on the plane back to Kyushu at 4:00. Flights were disrupted yesterday, but the weather’s cleared here now.

    On Thursday, I ended up looking in the refrigerator and seeing that I had corned beef left over that really needed to be used up. That kind of ruled out the French toast plan for Friday–corned beef with French toast? No. So it was buttery scrambled eggs, which themselves were rather nice.

    Speaking of eating–it was the cutest thing–we did Vietnamese for dinner that night. I was dilly-dallying about finishing my pho, trying to get the last few noodle fragments into the same spoonful of broth. Atsushi reached over absentmindedly with his chopsticks and started piling noodles into my spoon–an uncharacteristically intimate public gesture for him. He looked up and saw my bemused look and jerked his hand back a little. Then he recovered himself and gave his conspiratorial smirk. (You communicate in conspiratorial smirks a lot in Tokyo gay life.) Then he pointedly picked up the last noodle and deposited it in my spoon. Best mouthful of pho I’ve ever had.

    It was a good food weekend overall, come to think of it. Last night, we went out with a good buddy of mine. (BTW, C., darling? I love you lots, but I swear–you will find a way to be an hour late for your own bleedin’ funeral.) Italian. Gay Italian: sea bass carpaccio and gnocchi and veal with cracked pepper and green salad and…ooh, can we get something else with pine nuts? We’re into pine nuts today.

    My buddy C., BTW, is an example of the kind of guy who knows how to deal with a failed relationship like a gentleman. In the spring, his boyfriend of two and a half years betrayed him and then broke up with him. He still loves the guy and thinks about him all the time, and–well, I’m his friend, so I listen when he needs to talk. I, being loyal to C., hope his ex gets himself run over by a nice truck sometime soon, but I try to keep my own counsel on the subject.

    Anyway, the good thing about C. is, unlike some people, he knows when he needs not to talk, too. As in, “It’s been 45 minutes of non-stop pining for my ex, so let’s change the subject.” And then he actually changes the subject. Or lets me change the subject. Of course, his frequent reward is to hear me grouse about how much I miss Atsushi; even so, he’s never once played the obvious “How can you complain about your long-distance relationship when I don’t even have a boyfriend?” card. What would you not do for such a friend?

    So from tonight on, back to cooking for one and making my own tea and not encountering a warm, cuddly man when I roll over at 3 a.m. For another few weeks.

    Do you sleep?

    Posted by Sean at 19:58, September 24th, 2005

    Lisa Loeb is in for Paula Zahn on CNN. I didn’t know she had any qualifications as a newscaster.