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    Posted by Sean at 12:07, August 6th, 2005

    Hello, earthquake! Seems to be dying down…yup. Atsushi hasn’t bolted out of the shower, so I guess we’re okay in Tokyo. Hope it wasn’t higher magnitude elsewhere.

    Just go away

    Posted by Sean at 19:19, August 5th, 2005

    Okay, we all knew this was coming and how it was going to be pitched. That doesn’t make it any less vile:

    A tell-all book by the nation’s first openly gay governor is in the works, a New York publisher said Thursday.
    The as-yet-untitled memoir by former New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey will be published by ReganBooks, an imprint of publishing house HarperCollins.

    “Jim McGreevey has a rare opportunity, and the courage, to tell the whole truth about his life,” Regan wrote. “In this deeply honest and revealing book, he will describe how he wrestled with his sexuality and his faith–from the expectations he faced as a young man to the divided persona he created in order to meet them.”

    Courage, my white faggot ass! For one thing, calling McGreevey “the nation’s first openly gay governor” is misleading, since he announced his sexuality as a lead-in to announcing his resignation. He didn’t serve a single openly gay day that he wasn’t already committed to leaving office (when it was most convenient for his party) and thus never risked taking political hits for his homosexuality when it might have mattered. And give me a break–gays serving in Iraq under “Don’t ask, don’t tell” are showing courage. Gays who are willing to go on talk radio and defend our way of life to callers who tell them they’re a pox on society are showing courage. McGreevey isn’t showing the slightest bit of courage by adding to the already bloated genre of gay coming-of-age stories.

    He could, however, do so by being up-front about how his mishandling of his own sexuality affected his performance as governor. As a lifelong Pennsylvanian, I blithely make New Jersey jokes all the time, but that’s all in jest. The fact is that 10 million Americans were depending on his administration to protect them against terrorism as best it could, and he went and hired an incompetent cutie as security head who, being an Israeli citizen, apparently couldn’t even get adequate security clearance to do his job. And that’s not the only act of corruption of which McGreevey’s of. I’d gladly pay money–I’d pre-order–a book in which he decided to get all “deeply honest and revealing” about that.

    Japan Post really at t – 3

    Posted by Sean at 10:07, August 5th, 2005

    The Japan Post privatization bill has made it through committee in the House of Councillors and will go to the floor at the Monday plenary meeting. Every legislator and his grandmother has been interviewed on NHK today; no one said anything enlightening or new.

    It’s helpful to remember, BTW, that the bill that the upper house is getting is different in a lot of significant ways from the original proposal–and from what you’d normally think of as privatization. There will be a semi-governmental holding company (essentially the existing Japan Post central organization) and four individual companies for counter services, actual mail transport and delivery, savings accounts, and insurance.

    The government will not be required to sell its shares in the provider companies by 2017 as had originally been proposed, which allows plenty of time for chummy relationships between officials and top managers to form. In fact, they’ll be there from the get-go. Additionally, the ability for companies to engage in mutual shareholding has not been precluded.

    There’s also a government fund of ¥2 trillion that’s to be used to insulate the service providers against losses from the providing of deliveries and financial services to rural areas. The official line is that it can only be used to bail out local providers that are going under, and that probably is the intention; but critics say it could be used to allow Japan Post spinoff companies to undercut private providers. (Is it time for a reference to the California energy fiasco? I think it is.)

    Furthermore, the idea that Ministry of Finance officials who have depended on the money in postal savings–all ¥250 trillion of it–as part of the shadow budget are just going to sit back and watch while it disappears is hard to swallow; and then there’s the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which more directly controls the post-ier part of Japan Post.

    Of course, the privatization bill has meaning as a symbolic gesture as well as a concrete move to reform a given set of public services. We’ll have to wait and see whether it ends up being more symbolic than concrete. Well, we’ll have to wait and see whether the bill passes at all.

    Hiroshima bombing anniversary

    Posted by Sean at 09:55, August 5th, 2005

    Tomorrow morning is the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. I can’t really think of anything better to say about the attack itself than what I said last year. I’m not big on self-quoting, but if you don’t feel like clicking through:

    When I think of people immediately after the bombings, their faces obliterated by heat, expending their little remaining energy to bow in gratitude for the water volunteers brought to their lips (one of the most famous A-bomb memorials is inscribed with 水, the character for “water,” because that’s what so many victims cried out for), my heart aches. The same when…you know, bodies of water feature very prominently in Japanese literature, as they do the world over, as sources of refreshment and sustenance. Imagining people set afire, stampeding into rivers and lakes to cool themselves, only to find the water boiling hot, makes me cry. As an American who places the highest value on individuals, I wish we hadn’t had to cause such suffering to anyone at all who wasn’t irredeemably evil.

    But we did have to. Emperor Hirohito was ready to surrender, but he had military leaders who were plotting to intercept his proclamation, and no one on the American side could be sure how long rank-and-file Japanese soldiers and citizens would keep fighting. That there were other, more unsavory motivations for dropping the atom bomb (such as scientific curiosity about its effects) is hard to dispute. There probably isn’t any such thing as a guileless decision during wartime, for that matter. I wish the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs a peaceful eternal rest as much as anyone. But I’m glad America did what it took to win.

    I do think that, given the political controversies over Japan’s attitudes toward its wartime conduct, there are one or two additional general points that might be made. Dean links to a post by Riding Sun about the history textbook debate that presents a good overview of the teaching content and the back-and-forth of the debate. Something that’s worth bearing in mind, though, is this: the teachers’ unions, especially the Japan Teachers’ Union, are leftist. While their rank-and-file members tend to be not so extreme as the labor leadership, the average public school teacher is hardly a raving nationalist. When it’s the teachers who express political views, you often get stories like this one.

    It’s those teachers through whom whatever is said in the textbook is mediated in the classroom. Among the Japanese friends with whom I frequently have frank political discussions, many (including Atsushi) say that their teachers tended to skip the chapters in their history books about the period after the Russo-Japanese War. I mean, you figure, it would have been discussed at the end of the year, and it shouldn’t be hard to pace the class so that it runs out of time before uncomfortable subjects come up. I’m not sure how cram schools treat World War II; it seems unlikely that the entrance exams contain many questions about the period. The Japanese way of dealing with awkwardness is to ignore it, after all.

    I certainly do not condone this. A balanced view of one’s culture must include the bad with the good, and the way a civilization becomes world-class is by doing extreme things on a grand scale, so there’s going to be plenty of bad to discuss. That’s no less true of Japan than of any other country, including the former colonial powers of the West. I think, however, that when only the nationalist textbooks are discussed, there’s a danger of leaving the impression that millions of students across Japan are actually sitting in rows being harangued: “How did our troops get into Manchuria, class?” “By advancing into it, Sensei!” The missing part of that picture is that the lefties in the JTU favored the hard-pacifist line pretty uncritically for years–including not only acceptance of responsibility for wrong-doing doing the occupation of Asia but also the advocating of monetary restitution for individual Asian war victims. I’m not happy to see ultra-nationalists clamoring to swing the pendulum all the way to the opposite side, but it’s not as if they’d just awakened one morning and decided to do so unprovoked. Unfortunately, people with more moderate views and a pride in their country tempered by realism tend to keep silent when the topic comes up in public.

    Added on 6 August: I edited the above a bit for clarity–I’d originally not planned to post it before this morning, but I clicked on the button before I realized what I was doing.

    While I’m at it, one more point about liberal arts education: it isn’t the goal of the Japanese educational system. While I’m happy to join Riding Sun in saying that’s a problem, I don’t think that the nature of the problem is that the Japanese public education machine is aiming for an American-style liberal arts system and misfiring because the far right is getting in the way. Just about everyone wants to tell the students what to think–not just the nationalists but also the teachers’ unions and the Ministry of Education. (Well, now it’s the Ministry of [deep breath] Culture, Education, Sports, Science and Technology. Plans to have a partridge in a pear tree added remain unconfirmed as I post this, perhaps because they’re already under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.) There are education researchers and policy makers who favor a liberal arts curriculum as we would understand it, but the majority only disagree on what the students should be fed, not whether they should be force-fed ideas at all. The education establishment has mouthed things about liberal arts models because of the US occupation after the war, but like everything else that gets imported, they have been transformed according to the perceived needs of Japanese society.

    Added at 7 a.m.: Okay, one more thought. This is a passage from the end of Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword , written soon after the end of the war:

    What the United States cannot do–what no outside nation could do–is to create by fiat a free, democratic Japan. It has never worked in any dominated country. No foreigner can decree, for a people who have not his own habits and assumptions, a manner of life after his own image. The Japanese cannot be legislated into accepting the authority of elected persons and ignoring ‘proper station’ as it is set up in their hierarchical system. They cannot be legislated into adopting the free and easy human contacts to which we are accustomed in the United States, the imperative demand to be independent, the passion each individual has to choose his own mate, his own job, the house he will live in and the obligations he will assume. The Japanese themselves, however, are quite articulate about changes in this direction which they regard as necessary. Their public men have said since V-J-Day that Japan must encourage its men and women to live their own lives and to trust their own consciences. They do not say so, of course, but any Japanese understands that they are questioning the role of ‘shame’ (haji) in Japan, and that they hope for a new growth of freedom among their countrymen: freedom from fear of the criticism and ostracism of ‘the world.’

    Benedict has taken a drubbing in succeeding decades, often justifiably, for her generalizations about the rigidity of Japanese society, which were excessive even then. But she was right about a great deal, too. We bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki because we had to, but once Japan knew it had been crushed, it responded as it always does by adapting. Like any living civilization, Japan is a work in progress, but the overall progression over the last 60 years has been toward more liberty, and it has mostly been the Japanese themselves who have accomplished that.

    Once I had a love / And it was a gas

    Posted by Sean at 23:54, August 3rd, 2005

    Is there some kind of rule that, now that the word ass is permitted on network television, you have to have characters say it all the time? Like, there’s a backlog from all that “ass” that went unsaid until the 90s, and it has to be cleared out? I mean, look–I’m a man who just loves ass, even in expletive form. It’s just that it seems so forced.

    In a more wide-ranging discussion, Dean has himself and a few others worked into a froth over naughty words. It’s interesting to read, but his own take on the issue (that people who chafe at hearing them are just being self-righteous) shows a surprising lack of imagination.

    Sophisticated cultures need arbitrary boundaries. In a society in which people move about freely and make agreements by contract rather than blood ties, we need as many ways to establish trust as possible; and it’s important that some of them be content-free, or at least symbolic. You can’t operate if you have to wait until after you’ve entrusted your life or property to someone to find out whether he’s reliable. The risk is too great.

    That’s one of the reasons we have all kinds of little rules about how to serve and eat food, how to format certain kinds of letters, and how to express yourself in public. The behaviors themselves don’t matter. What matters is that you’re showing respect for the prevailing customs of your own culture, which indicates that you can be expected to respect weightier rules when they’re operative.

    Now, of course, it isn’t necessarily true that he who is faithful in little will also be faithful in much. There are plenty of swindlers and sluts with impeccable manners socially. Etiquette has to be supplemented by reputation and credentials if we actually want to draw conclusions, as certainly as we can, about what kinds of people we’re dealing with. But I maintain that it’s a valuable starting point. A willingness to avoid vulgar expression in public is a signal that you understand the difference between public and private spheres and that you are capable of at least a modicum of self-discipline. Neither quality is to be taken for granted these days.

    BTW, my upbringing was as working-class as Dean’s was, and there was no cursing allowed in my parents’ house. There was no self-righteousness about it–my mother never tsk-tsked over the neighbors’ language or anything–and most of it was for religious reasons. I suspect they still matter to more people than Dean thinks. And conversely, if he thinks class-conscious types are the ones who avoid cursing, he hasn’t spent any time with social-climby lawyers or bankers in their off hours.

    One final point: you won’t see me use extreme swear words here, but (as Dean himself…and Connie, and Michael, and a few others who’ve become friends through the blog here…can attest) I deploy them freely and unblushingly in private correspondence. One of the pleasures of having friends is being able to let your guard down around and say what you think in raw form, and it gets lost if you talk the same way all the time. That may not be the most important consideration related to the issue, but I don’t think it’s a negligible one.

    I’m gonna do my best to hook ya / After all is said and done

    Posted by Sean at 22:50, August 2nd, 2005

    A conversation I had a few days ago reminded me that it must have been pretty close to exactly five years ago this week that Atsushi and I met for the first time. Sounds like an excuse for a celebration when he’s home this weekend. (You knew he was coming home by the fact that there was just an air-traffic screw-up this week, right? Happens every time. Of course, as Atsushi points out, it’s probably just that there’s an air-traffic screw-up every few weeks lately.)

    You are from another part of the world

    Posted by Sean at 22:43, August 2nd, 2005

    How many times do people need to be told to check batteries periodically? This time, the problem wasn’t a dead remote for the VCR, it was the air traffic control system at Haneda Airport:

    A power failure in the air traffic control tower at Haneda Airport in Tokyo forced the cancellations or delays of more than 300 flights Tuesday, affecting 60,000 passengers.

    All takeoffs and landings were halted for about an hour from 11:33 a.m.

    The blackout was caused by dead batteries in two emergency power sources within the transport ministry’s airport office building and the control tower.

    It took down the entire system, cutting off all power to the air traffic control system, including the landing guidance system and flight data processor, which sends data on flight routes to other airports.

    I happen to have spent Monday night having dinner and a drink or seven with a fellow blogger–he’s not very forthcoming about himself on his blog, so I don’t know whether he wants to be named here. We spent part of the time in a 40th-floor bar, looking out over the vast field of skyscrapers and elevated highways and other artifacts of civilization that make up central Tokyo–and we were lucky enough to have a view of trains and boats and planes coming in toward that part of the bay. (A combination Ayn Rand and Dionne Warwick moment–superb!) Watching planes coming in on the flight path for landing at Haneda really brings it home to you just how unbelievably congested it is. Haneda handles most domestic flights to and from the city. Unreal.

    Japan Post vote at t – 2

    Posted by Sean at 22:31, August 2nd, 2005

    You know you’re in Japan when a news report contains this passage:

    Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yoji Nagaoka was found hanged at his home in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, on Monday, police said.

    Nagaoka’s wife found the 54-year-old House of Representatives member just after 10 a.m. He was taken to a hospital in Mitaka, Tokyo, but was pronounced dead at 12:16 p.m., the Metropolitan Police Department said.

    The MPD suspects Nagaoka committed suicide, and is investigating whether he left a suicide note.

    As Nagaoka is only the sixth Diet member to have committed suicide since the end of World War II, there has been considerable speculation about why he chose to take his own life, with some suspecting the split inside the LDP over the postal privatization vote was a factor.

    Wow. Only the sixth Diet member to commit suicide since WWII, huh? Those Diet members really deserve a commendation for their spectacular suicide-avoidance program!

    Why is it that the Japan Post privatization may have pushed Nagaoka over the edge? Several reasons. Koizumi and his cabinet have staked a lot of political capital on Japan Post privatization, and they’ve been leaning on legislators any way they can. In the opposite direction, unelected officials have a lot of pull, and rural postal workers are very important to the LDP in elections. (That’s something that’s rarely commented on at length, even in discussions of this particular bill, but one of the major dailies had a very good article about it the other day. Wouldn’t you know it, I can’t find the link, but when I do, I’ll post it.) NHK reported last week that postal workers have been lobbying legislators so forcefully that the head of the union had to tell them to lay off before they started spooking people too much. In rural areas, the post offices help to mobilize voters for LDP candidates; many Diet members feel directly beholden to Japan Post workers in their districts. Most Diet members from the ruling coalition say they plan to vote in line with the party, but there are, at least according to the Asahi, 12 who firmly oppose the bill. (That’s up from 8 a few weeks ago.) Given that just about everyone else basically plans to vote against, and that 18 LDP votes against is the magic number that will deep six the bill, the 6 who say they’re undecided are having a rough time of it. Koizumi is still aiming to have the bill voted on in the House of Councillors plenary session the day after tomorrow.


    Posted by Sean at 07:57, July 31st, 2005

    So, is it the United Nations International Week of the Cad and no one told me? Am I the only one who didn’t get his coloring book with “Well, honey, I’m here and your boyfriend’s not” and “Why must you be such a stuck-up bitch?” translated into Swahili, Hindi, Maori, and other world languages? Did I miss the CNN broadcast of the kick-off statement by the chairman of the World Health Organization? ‘Cause I swear, I had my own run-in a few days ago, Michael had one this morning, and in between, I heard from two or three friends on various major land masses that they’d practically had to punch guys out to get ’em to knock it off with the won’t-take-no-for-an-answer come-ons. No, there’s never a horndog shortage in urban gay life, but it really isn’t the case (at least among people I know) that you have so many colorful encounters to dish about all at once. Cheese and crackers.

    I have a few younger readers, so I think–if I don’t sound too obnoxiously avuncular here–it’s worth pointing out that there’s a much more general lesson here. There’s a little technique we fusty types call PAYING ATTENTION TO SIGNALS, and people who don’t know how to do it end up getting themselves into all kinds of trouble, whether they’re trying to make friends, establish business contacts, or realize whatever other designs they may have on people.

    If your approach is failing, you need to change it. The number of people who don’t get this is truly startling, and you can tell they don’t get it because they keep repeating the same unsuccessful tactic, only more loudly/emphatically/insistently. Not everyone likes to give his phone number out to someone he’s just met, or have rousing political discussions with strangers at dinner parties, or participate in impromptu sing-alongs. People who don’t are unlikely to warm to you if you try to force such things on them, but they may be perfectly willing to get to know you if you settle for an e-mail address or talk about non-controversial interests the first few times you meet them. (I can’t think of a good substitute for the sing-along except getting the hell out of there.)

    Along with that, you have to make sure your opening gambit allows you to retreat gracefully if it doesn’t succeed. If you launch into a political tirade under the assumption that your partner in conversation’s views coincide with yours, you’ll have a terrible time trying to backpedal into giving him a respectful hearing if they do not. Or (this example may drive the point home more memorably–thanks, Michael’s neighbor!) if you show up on someone’s doorstep drunk, naked, and tumescent, you’ll find it difficult to save face with the pretense that you were just seeking a nice chat and some warm evening air.


    Posted by Sean at 08:57, July 30th, 2005

    More cracks showing in Japan’s post-bubble educational system. (For once, the English article isn’t much thinner than the original Japanese.)

    The survey, conducted in November and December last year, covered professors, assistant professors and lecturers at universities and junior colleges belonging to the association.

    About 28,000 full-time teachers, or 36 percent of those at all of the nation’s private universities and junior colleges, responded.

    Inadequate academic ability was cited as a problem by 60.1 percent of teachers at four-year course universities and 66 percent of those at junior colleges.

    They were 24.8 and 22.1 percentage points, respectively, higher than the responses in the same survey in fiscal 1998.

    The sense of crisis was especially deep among teachers of science and technology.

    Many university lecturers said some of their students could not solve linear simultaneous equations that are taught in middle school, and some medical students did not take biology as a subject in high school.

    Japan may be heading where the US is now: substandard high school instruction will have to be redressed at the level of community college equivalents such as the junior colleges and trade schools. Of course, it’s important to note that only 36% of instructors responded; there’s a SLOPs issue here. Also, only instructors at private colleges were included. That leaves out the public colleges, which include the super-exclusive Universities of Tokyo and Kyoto, along with many of the other top institutions.

    At the same time, most Japanese students don’t get to go to 東大, so the experiences of instructors at modest tech colleges who are desperate to help their students catch up to high-school level proficiency may be more representative than the 36% figure would make it seem.

    BTW, there’s been quite a bit of interesting discussion of math teaching going on. Joanne Jacobs, as always, points to several good links, especially this post by Moebius Stripper about what skill and knowledge set should be required for high school graduation.

    Joanne also posted about a boneheaded theory a few weeks back that math learning is extra-hard because of the way words are used. Though I was a literature major and expended quite a bit of energy memorizing the names of various seasonal plants and birds in Japanese, I have to say that math vocabulary is one of the more fun aspects of the language to learn. Many terms you can basically translate directly. Some of the more fun ones you can’t, but they make sense once you get used to them: 負の数 (fu no suu: “owed number” –> “negative number”), 数珠順列 (juzu junretsu: “Buddhist rosary” + “order” + “line-up” –> “key ring permutation”), 放物線 (houbutsusen: “release/throw” + “object” + “line” –> “parabola”). Okay, fine, I only think they’re fun because I’m a big dork. They still aren’t that hard if you’re also learning Japanese as an everyday language.

    Added on 31 July: People sometimes ask me about the fabled Japanese math education system, whereby, it is assumed, a mystical blend of Zen and Euclid are employed to produce a new cohort of Karl Friedrich Gausses every year.

    Don’t you believe it. The Japanese (and Korean and Singaporean) systems are successful because they don’t proceed until the kids know what they’re doing. [Earthquake! Feelable but mild. I hope as always that it wasn’t feelable and non-mild a few hundred miles away.] Two articles about a New Jersey school in deep trouble that used textbooks from Singapore and structural approaches from Japan to revamp their math classes show what I mean. If you’re an American who sailed through a good school system and got a 5 on the AP Calc AB or BC test for your trouble, you’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. Of course, the teacher introduces a concept by giving you a problem to solve and seeing whether you can figure out a profitable approach. Of course, you work alone or in groups so that, through trial and error, you can figure out the bone and sinew of what you’re doing and why some plans of attack are bad or waste time. Of course, the lesson in the textbook is a point of departure and not a script.

    But those aren’t of courses anymore. The sad irony is that a lot of American public schools teach math the way Japan teaches other subjects: as an exercise in memorization with minimal imagination.

    Added later: A while back I posted about one of the ads on my train line–from a cram school, not a public school–that was indicative of one of the ways the Japanese reinforce numeracy.

    Added on 1 August: So AXN is showing this here Canadian movie from about ten years ago called Cube . I have no idea how popular it was; I do know that it assumes no one in the audience knows the first thing about math. The math genius chick keeps looking at three-digit numbers and trying to determine whether they’re prime. Understandable for some numbers, but she lingers over every single one. You know, like, 548. Hmm…that would be an even number greater than two. I WONDER whether it’s prime. Oh, the SUSPENSE. [pause…pause…gears turning in math genius chick’s brain] Oh, it’s not prime. Goody! No trap in that room! Next one: 153. Uh, 15 seconds for math genius chick to go 1 + 5 + 3 = 9? Pretty slow genius if you ask me. Especially now that it’s toward the end and they’re running out of time–why are we asking the autistic-savant how many factors the even numbers have? Who cares? 512 is the highest power of 2 with three digits, and if you haven’t memorized all the values up to 2^9, what kind of math genius chick are you, anyway?