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    Derailment no damper on merriment

    Posted by Sean at 05:26, May 5th, 2005

    It’s not fiddling while Rome burns, exactly, but it’s not unlike it enough to be very comforting:

    On the same day that the Fukushiyama Line derailment occurred, employees of JR West’s Tennoji Sector (in Tennoji Ward, Osaka) went to a company bowling party. At least 13 of the 43 who attended (including the chief of the Tennoji Sector) were aware that the derailment has caused multiple fatalities and injuries, an internal JR West investigation has revealed. Of those 13, 5 held an after-party at a bar-restaurant near the sector station.

    The last several days of Japanese news reports have been full of top JR West managers expressing sorrow and remorse over the derailment. One scene that was played over and over involved an elderly woman mourner at the makeshift memorial who began to heave and keen with grief; she was comforted by a younger woman who appeared to be her daughter. Immediately after–and I don’t think there was a camera cut–a JR West executive was shown bowing tearfully, his mouth working with apology.

    Of course, tearful remorse is a highly appropriate posture for a company that has just killed over 100 trusting passengers; indeed, it would be highly appropriate for the tearful remorse to go all the way down. Company policies appear to have encouraged the driver, at least tacitly, to endanger his passengers, and it’s possible that those who have been appearing as spokesmen on television are genuinely penitent.

    But there is no way in hell that anyone who had seen any 30 consecutive seconds of domestic news coverage after, say, 11:30 a.m. two Mondays ago could possibly have thought that the derailment was a minor accident that was under control. The body count was rising all day, and the aerial footage made it clear that several cars had been crushed.

    Of course, this is not the first revelation of shocking behavior by JR West personnel the day of the accident. There were two off-duty drivers on the train that derailed who left the scene to go to work:

    The information on the workers’ actions comes on the heels of news that two JR drivers were on the Amagasaki train when it derailed and smashed into an apartment block, but they left the scene to go to work as usual without helping any of the victims.

    It would have been one thing if fire and rescue workers had told them that they would just be in the way, or if their superiors had ordered them to their posts to ensure that no other passengers were endangered on running train lines; in fact, I’m surprised no one thought to cook up that latter excuse, since the cover-up wouldn’t have required anyone outside the company.

    And–wouldn’t you know it?–the derailment appears to have been a signal for employees at other rail companies to work like gangbusters to convince passengers that last week’s accident will not look like a fluke for long. In the past several days, one conductor didn’t open the doors properly and then opened them past the platform, and a driver admits that he sailed 170 meters past the platform because he was daydreaming while he was supposed to be applying the brakes!

    Armed and dangerous (reheated)

    Posted by Sean at 07:07, May 2nd, 2005

    GayPatriot has a post up about a response to a column by Elaine Donnelly, the head of the Center for Military Readiness; Donnelly is, of course, defending the ban on gays’ serving in the military.

    The column is basically a cut and paste version of things that are already posted on the Center for Military Readiness website. It speaks in airy hypotheticals about the need for unit discipline and cohesion, with no specifics about how gays would fatally interfere with them, except for this passage:

    It also respects the normal human desire for sexual modesty. Servicemen and women should not have to expose themselves to persons who might be sexually attracted to them. It would be unfair to force the homosexual agenda on young people whose lives are difficult enough.

    Now we’re catering to “normal human desires” in the armed forces? Okay. I have a normal human desire not to have my workplace superiors burst into my bedchamber and inspect my personal effects. But there are things you give up in order to be in the military, and one of them is the boundaries that govern civilian life. That includes the ability to shower in privacy.

    You could say, of course, that throwing sexual energy into the mix makes things all primal and combustible and stuff; and that’s plausible in theoretical terms. But “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been policy for around a decade. It strains credulity to imagine that if allowing gays to serve were going to cause systemic problems in reality, we wouldn’t be seeing them, and the Center for Military Readiness wouldn’t be collecting them to give concrete support to its arguments. Such problems as exist appear to stem less from some sexual-disturbance force field emanating from specific gays than from garden-variety prejudice. (Donnelly also refers to the integration policy “imposed on Britain by a European court,” doubtless giving anti-EU conservative readers shivers; unmentioned is Israel. Check out this 5-year-old article by Joanne Jacobs, too.)

    California, here we come!

    Posted by Sean at 05:39, May 2nd, 2005

    While my attention has been diverted elsewhere, the Yomiuri has been following the Japan Post privatization proposal through its most recent travails (part 1, part 2, part 3). I’m remiss in not having drawn your attention to it earlier, because it’s a very good, accessible summary of where things are at this point. Predictable problems have been cropping up, since the bills have been submitted but have yet to go through the Diet.

    Part 2 in the series is the one that has the most concrete information about what’s being haggled over. Interestingly, if not exactly surprisingly given the political delicacy of the issue, Heizo Takenaka, who was hand-picked by PM Koizumi to be the minister in charge of orchestrating the Japan Post privatization, has dropped his usual habit of bluntness and bombthrowing and is taking a more oblique line.

    One contentious issue is how long the semi-governmental holding company will retain its shares in the four new companies that actually render services (package handling, savings, insurance, and window services). From Koizumi’s perspective, the idea is that the holding company is supposed to sell all its shares by 2017. The possibility that has now been raised is that it can buy them back the next year:

    LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Kaoru Yosano also said Monday, “The important thing is that the holding company will be a shareholder in 2017 and in 2018 as well.”

    Once the holding company sells all its shares in the postal savings and insurance companies, they will be considered as private entities, with no restrictions on their operations. If the sale is completed during the early years of the privatization process–which begins in 2007–the firms could take up new profitable businesses, such as lending.

    However, such a compromise may have a detrimental impact on existing private operators.

    Yes, they might actually have to compete for customers, and, sakes alive, we would NOT WANT THAT.

    Personally, I’m kind of wondering what reason a holding company that was incorporated for the express purpose of tiding the four new service companies over during the transition would have for existing after the transition was completed. You can tell I’m not a bureaucrat.

    Another, related problem (if you think in terms of free markets) is this:

    Also, the government and the LDP have been divided over a fund to be managed by the holding company with the aim of ensuring the uniform provision of postal savings and life insurance services nationwide.

    As the relevant bill submitted to the Diet stipulates the holding company can establish a fund of up to 1 trillion yen, the amount of the fund is unchanged from the initial government plan. But the government and the LDP agreed that the company could keep up to 2 trillion yen in the fund.

    The fund is intended to allow unprofitable post offices to continue providing financial services. The LDP’s request to increase its size is aimed at protecting the network of post offices by ensuring the universal service obligation applies not only to mail delivery, but also to banking.

    So now we’re going to pony up for banking services in every municipality from Chiyoda Ward to darkest Hokkaido, and we’re going to insulate the providers from feeling the heat for their bad investment decisions. I doubt it’s meant that way, of course; the idea is probably just to help far-flung outlets cover operations costs. But we’re talking about a large pile of government-guaranteed money here. You can bet the urn full of grandma’s ashes that it won’t take long for savvy operators to figure out how to make bad debt and money-pit investments look like the necessary ineffiencies of being the only post office at the top of an underpopulated mountain.

    Takenaka, as noted above, is waving all this away:

    Heizo Takenaka, the minister responsible for postal privatization, reportedly said he had no intention of revising the bill, and the issue of the fund would be a business decision to be made in the future.

    The issue could determine the basic scheme of privatization. Takenaka’s remark that the issue will be a business decision does not seem to reflect his real intention. Instead, he has just postponed dealing with the issue.

    Well, we all know how well it goes when you “privatize” a critical service by creating a soup of government guarantees and nebulous divisions of accountability and just kind of figure that logistics aren’t going to interfere, don’t we?

    DPRK tests short-range missile

    Posted by Sean at 21:12, May 1st, 2005

    This Nikkei headline about the DPRK’s missile test yesterday gives some indication of why English translations of Japanese always seem to double the length of the passage in question:


    That 日中韓ロ part in the middle stands for “Japan, China, the ROK, and Russia.” The whole thing literally reads, “US Chief of Staff with Japan, PRC, ROK, Russia toward warning on DPRK missile test.” Naturalized, it might go, “US to join Japan, PRC, ROK, and Russia in warning DPRK about missile tests, says Chief of Staff.”

    Anyway, I think yesterday’s missile test has been pretty well publicized, and only some fish suffered for it directly. Atsushi thinks the motivation was transferred pain over soccer. He’s only half joking.


    Posted by Sean at 12:31, May 1st, 2005

    This story about Cape May, NJ, which has just repealed its ban on immodest bathing suits on men, would be amusing rather than poignant were it not for this passage:

    Maggie Creighton, 19, who works in a downtown lingerie store, agreed. “The people you want to see in the Speedos, you don’t,” she said.

    You’ll find as you enter your third decade on this Earth, my dear, how much of life is like that.

    Into you like a train

    Posted by Sean at 05:06, April 30th, 2005

    Apparently miffed by all the attention the rail system has gotten this week, the air system has stepped up to the plate. Happily, if merely fortuitously, it hasn’t killed 100 people in the process. Note that this time it wasn’t poor JAL’s fault that it was involved:

    At 9:40 p.m., 29 April, a JAL jet landed, per instructions, on Haneda Airport’s Runway A, which had been closed for inspection and repairs. Another JAL jet was in the middle of descending toward Runway A and was forced to change course when the mistake was realized in the control tower several minutes later. According to the Ministry of Land, Transportation, and Infrastructure, the source of the error was that the controller on duty forgot that the runway was closed and therefore gave incorrect instructions. The Ministry has launched an investigation because of the possibility that the error could have led to a major accident.

    The controller is lucky that he made his screw-up when he did; the construction on the runway was set to begin at 11 p.m., an hour and change later. He’s also lucky that the plane that landed on it, an Airbus 300, was carrying only 51 passengers and crew. The plane that was diverted was a Boeing 777 with 161 aboard; it reascended and landed 10 minutes later.

    Added on 1 May: Good grief.

    The air traffic controller has told the ministry’s Haneda Airport office that he had forgotten that the runway was closed. Another 17 controllers on duty at the time also forgot about the closure of the runway even though all controllers working at the airport had been notified in advance.

    The ministry was apologetic about the incident. “I express my apologies from the bottom of my heart for causing anxiety to the public,” Yoshinori Furukawa, director of the ministry’s Air Traffic Control Division, said at a news conference on Saturday.

    Derailment fatalities top 100

    Posted by Sean at 07:49, April 29th, 2005

    Am I the only one who thinks it’s a little creepy the way NHK is profiling the driver who, it seems to be all but certain, caused Monday’s train derailment? We know that he loved sports, played basketball in junior high school, was kind of a party guy, and seemed to have been excited about being hired by JR West. I don’t get it. If he were a serial killer, or something, I could understand looking for clues in his background to what animated him. Profiling him as if he’d just won some kind of prize, I don’t understand.

    There is one way in which information about Ryutaro Takami’s breezy personality is possibly meaningful. He overran platforms several times–once by 100 meters!–and had been reprimanded and sent to retraining. According to the conductor’s wife, Takami asked him to underreport the extent of Monday’s overrun at the station before the derailment, presumably to avoid being relieved of his duties and receiving a more stern reprimand. And it’s looking as if he decided on Monday that keeping his personnel record clean was worth risking the lives of his passengers by speeding.

    That kind of thing happens all over the world, but it’s a particular problem in appearances-are-everything societies like guess-where. One of Takami’s colleagues also relates that the company’s version of retraining involves mostly scolding by groups of superiors and pointless essay assignments about topics unrelated to railroad work, raising the possibility that JR West is in effect telling employees that avoiding the ire of higher-ups trumps every other priority. It’d be nice if that were more surprising than it is.

    Added on 30 April: In the interest of translating ideas rather than words, I rendered 再教育 (saikyoiku: “re-education”) as “retraining,” since that’s normally the word we would use for what goes on in the workplace. Re-education has totalitarian overtones.

    It turns out that it might have paid to be more literal-minded. This Asahi story expands on the information in the NHK telecasts we’ve been seeing:

    One great fear among train drivers for West Japan Railway Co. is being forced to take a “re-education program” after making a mistake on the job. Drivers are known to skirt safety procedures just to avoid the humiliation and financial loss of taking the program. One driver even committed suicide just after he started the re-education process.

    Re-education of drivers who commit mistakes is a JR West policy. The mistakes include being behind schedule.

    The main component of the re-education process is writing reports about the mistake to reflect on the error and think of ways to prevent a recurrence.

    JR West workers who make mistakes are also assigned menial tasks, such as pulling weeds from gardens at JR West facilities, washing windows or painting company buildings.

    There are one or two things that are important for context here. One is that, in Japan, those who are hired even at management level spend their first year or two going through “rotations,” in which they work alongside people who do sales, clerical work, and other low-level tasks. There are a few reasons for this. One is to give future managers a sense of all the little things that have to get done to keep the organization going. Another is to make them feel a sense of kinship with people at all levels of the hierarchy. Another is to show them the side of the company that customers see. The idea is to keep managers from being out of touch about the practical effects of the policies they set once they’re helping to run the place.

    Against that backdrop, having people pull weeds or wash windows (or clean toilets, which is a job that’s been mentioned on the broadcasts as another common punishment) is not just supposed to shame people into not transgressing again. Rather, it’s also supposed to serve as a reminder that the drivers who do the crucial job of running the trains have a whole organization of people with less visible jobs depending on them.

    I’d be willing to bet that that’s the way the re-education program is officially conceived. There’s evidence, though, that the message of humiliation ends up being so disproportionately emphasized that it drowns out the message that the employee should do his job more responsibly:

    One driver was so upset at being forced to undergo the re-education program that he hanged himself in 2001. The then 44-year-old man was late by about 50 seconds in pulling out from Kyoto Station.

    Bereaved family members sued JR West for compensation. The father claimed that bullying was the cause of his son’s suicide.

    In February, the Osaka District Court rejected the plaintiffs’ request for compensation on the grounds that JR West could not have foreseen that the man would kill himself.

    But the court did state that the re-education program caused the suicide.

    According to the ruling, the man was forced to write up to seven reports a day about his mistake. He was told by the deputy head of his train district that he was being paid to “just study.”

    There’s no mention of any other suicides in the Asahi article, but there is evidence that the desire to avoid re-education causes drivers to push their trains to the speed limit if they feel they’re losing time. Drivers on the Takarazuka Line have apparently developed a practice of charging down the straightaway at full tilt toward Amagasaki Station and then jamming on the brakes so they can make the curve where the derailment happened Monday. It’s likely that Takami was attempting such a maneuver and didn’t make it.

    Putting our own house in order

    Posted by Sean at 04:29, April 29th, 2005

    Ace Pryhill has a beautifully-written post up about gay advocacy:

    I fully understand the psychological conflict that coming to grips with my sexuality has had on me; it’s strong and it’s real. I could have very easily gone down some wrong paths because of it. Almost any gay person will tell you they didn’t choose to be gay, but the element of choice always remains when it comes to actions. You can choose not to cheat, you can choose not to do meth, you can choose to avoid tempting situations, you can choose to talk about a problem before it tears you apart, you can choose to get professional help before you make a decision you’ll later regret. Instead of letting other people fix our problems, let’s do what we can to fix ourselves…the rest will follow.

    You can also choose not to hang out with the kinds of people who encourage you to be dissolute. (That includes straight friends who think it’s gays’ job to add color to their boring, settled lives with stories of sexual adventure and political shenanigans.) Coming out is often an explosive finish to years of carefully-concealed torture; but it simply isn’t possible to make up for that by relying on other people to make adult choices easier for us from then on. Nor is it wise to go overboard on the now-I’m-going-to-live-just-for-me bit, which is a poor long-term strategy for productiveness and happiness.

    Come on, leave me breathless

    Posted by Sean at 10:15, April 28th, 2005

    I tell you–this month! Lots of planning and administrative-document-writing, which I realize is necessary but which tends to make me a little cranky. To top it off, my assistant’s been out sick since Monday. No, I’m not one of those managers who need to ask the receptionist to help him work the fax machine, but my workload went up measurably, of course, and a lot of it was stuff that I haven’t had to do for years. Not a slack minute.

    I did, however, have to shoehorn in time to go to my dermatologist so she could irradiate my chin again. I’d managed to become the proprietor of a rather large wart, probably because I shaved over it for a good week or two before realizing it wasn’t my usual acne. Irradiate is, I presume, the medical term for what she did; to a layman like me, it sounds as if she were going to kill off all the Montezuma’s revenge while leaving me fresh and juicy. In reality, she used some kind of pulsing-laser thing to burn away the virus. She tried to get it all three weeks ago, but, apparently, there’s a danger of scarring if you get too thorough, so she just zapped down as deep as she dared. I had to keep it bandaged and slick it down with an antibiotic ointment of singularly repellant texture.

    Unfortunately, they can’t always extirpate it with the first treatment, and sure enough–damn!–it started growing back in one tiny place, and several new little ones (I have a heavy beard and give myself little nicks a lot) had grown in. Thus I found myself being “irradiated” yet again today, only this time in little places dotted around my chin. Three more weeks of ointment.

    This normally wouldn’t bother me too much–I don’t like looking weird, but it’s not as if I were in the market, or anything, and if Atsushi’s not here, he doesn’t have to deal with it. It’s just that Japan’s big spring bank holiday starts tomorrow, and he’s coming home. He’s had kind of a stressing run at work lately, and we’re going to have an early birthday celebration because we can’t get together on the actual day. So I’d been hoping to be back to normal when he got here, but no such luck. Another three weeks of looking like a sci-fi movie monster. And it’s my chin, of course; there are only one or two places I can imagine that would interfere more with uninhibited amorousness. Guess I’m going to have to be really good with my hands.

    Uh, so, yeah. I don’t have any aspirations to being a one-stop source for news, but I normally do try not to offer up several consecutive days of scattiness. I’ve been kind of distracted, obviously; if it’s shown, I’m sorry. Oh, yeah! And I think we’re giving a dinner party, maybe? Have to check with Atsushi about that, given that I do the cooking.

    Anyway, the weather’s been gorgeous. Puts you in the mood for summer songs and hot-weather food. And Tokyo will be relatively empty for a few days, which is nice. For any Japan-based readers who are traveling for Golden Week, stay safe and have a great time. It’s probable that I’ll actually be back to more regular posting tomorrow-ish. Atsushi has a bunch of errands and will be spending some time with his parents while he’s here, and while we have plans to enjoy the outdoors, I think we’re both going to be tired enough to enjoy sitting at home and lazing plenty, too.

    Members only

    Posted by Sean at 09:30, April 27th, 2005

    If my eyes are shining and my lower lip is trembling, you must believe that it IS NOT out of a desire to guffaw at the Moebius strip of ironies in this story, via Gay News:

    A bar owner in the predominantly gay Castro neighborhood violated numerous city civil rights codes by discriminating against black patrons, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission announced Tuesday.

    The case has been closely watched by the city’s gay community, many of whom said they were incredulous that an establishment in what’s considered one of the country’s most progressive and socially liberal neighborhoods would actively keep black customers out of the popular nightspot Badlands.

    In particular, the commission said club owner Les Natali referred to blacks as “non-Badlands customers” who should be discouraged from patronizing the club.

    “The Castro should be a place of homecoming for gays worldwide and this was a betrayal of everything this community stands for,” said Don Romesburg, organizer for the community group And Castro For All, which filed the complaint. “That’s why it’s so important that we hold them accountable.”

    The part I think is interesting is this: the investigation took 10 months, right? Don’t tell me that in that amount of time, word didn’t spread to every fag in the Bay Area about what was going on. And in that case, why didn’t people stop going there? Or protest outside the place? It’s possible that business has, in fact, dropped off; but the article doesn’t say so, and it seems like the sort of thing that would have been mentioned by the reporter. I myself am not recommending ruining people based on hearsay, but boycotts are the sort of showily self-righteous gesture the left seems to specialize in, and, I mean, it’s racism we’re talking about here. What’s more important than that? Any gay club owner who would set racist policies has clearly internalized his own Otherness in the eyes of society and needs to be educated.

    Maybe the part of the story not told by the SF Gate article makes things clearer. The SF Badlands website (note prominent black guys in photos) is here, and there is an ad hoc website about the charges of racism here. As someone who lives in a city in which not allowing foreigners, allowing Westerners but not Koreans, or not allowing military guys is a pretty common bar policy, I find all this fascinating.