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    More on train derailment

    Posted by Sean at 22:49, April 26th, 2005

    The number of deaths from Monday’s train derailment has reached 91. The Mainichi English edition has a good roundup of the rumors that are flying around about possible causes of the accident. From the very beginning, reports have emphasized that the driver was young (23) and that, having overrun the platform at the previous station and had to back up to let passengers board and get off, he might have been speeding to stay on schedule. Also (I didn’t see this in the Mainichi article), he was driving a relatively old train with an emergency brake system that’s somewhat less sensitive than those on newer models. That doesn’t mean it was substandard, but it could mean that it was part of the combination of factors that made this a disaster rather than a close call.

    As to questions by Western reporters about whether this shakes Japanese people’s faith in the rail system–well, I doubt it. If one of the major airlines had a crash (especially JAL), I think there would be a real hue and cry. Air safety violations have been in the news a lot lately, so there’s an existing sense that there’s something wrong with the system. An accident would validate that.

    The last train crash–actually, it was more like a sideswipe–happened five years ago. There are way, way, way, way more commuter rail departures than airline departures in Japan, and my sense is that people just figure that, even in the best-run systems, there’s going to be an accident some time. Of course, it could come out that JR West was skimping on safety measures in order to keep to schedules. I haven’t heard any evidence of that, mind, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. In that sort of case, there might be something of a fuss raised, though the only way for the market to punish the company would be for lots of people and businesses to move off its rail lines. (Is that the best way to say 沿線?) Such a mass movement seems unlikely.

    My guess is that most people are hoping that the first suggested factor turns out actually to have been the decisive one: the driver, who had a history of overruns and other little problems, tried to catch up with the line schedule by speeding and unfortunately chose exactly the wrong stretch of track to do it. That would let just about everyone off the hook. We’ll have to see.

    Japanese widow returns to North Korea

    Posted by Sean at 14:00, April 25th, 2005

    One of the more well-known Japanese escapees from North Korea has gone to the DPRK embassy in Beijing and asked to return:

    The return to North Korea of a Japanese woman who came back to Japan in 2003 for the first time in 43 years has raised questions over whether her moves were voluntary or part of a political “game” played by North Korean officials.

    The woman, Fudeko Hirashima, 66, appeared at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on April 18 and held a news conference, saying “evil people” had deceived her into going to Japan. She headed back to North Korea, where her grandchildren are, after throwing her hands in the air and saying in a tearful voice, “Long live the great general Kim Jong Il!” referring to the North Korean leader.

    Hirashima said she wanted to be reunited with her children and grandchildren, who are still living in North Korea.

    The Japanese government figures that DPRK agents got to her:

    Hiroshi Kato, secretary-general of the Life Funds for North Korean Refugees said North Korea appeared to be involved in Hirashima’s return.

    “It’s a perfect game by the North Korean side,” he said. “It’s a commonplace method for North Korea to use family love against people. They will probably use Hirashima as an example and say that Japan abducts people, too.”

    That last part is almost a certainty. How much of a push Hirashima needed is debatable, though. You can imagine how bewilderingly different Japan is from when she left in 1959. She may have little family left here (and she may not have departed on the best terms with them–when Japanese marry Koreans, family approval is frequently not forthcoming from either side). Her son has died, her daughter and grandchildren are still in North Korea, and she has little money to live on. Perhaps she decided it was worth proclaiming her love for Kim Jong-il in order to spend her final years where she would be happier.

    Like a lot of North Koreans, she has reason not to like the regime much. The Japanese version of the Mainichi article gives a timeline of her years there with wrenching terseness:

    14 December 1959: Went with husband, a North Korean living in Japan, to North Korea through cooperative repatriation project

    December 1969: Husband taken away by authorities, not heard from since

    May 1970: Domicile moved to village along China-Korea border

    November 2002: Escaped northward into China

    The Japanese version also contains a run-down of what she said at the press conference. She refers to the DPRK as 共和国 (kyouwakoku: “the Republic”).

    God, voters are watching Connecticut lawmakers

    Posted by Sean at 10:22, April 25th, 2005

    I cherish freedom of assembly as much as anyone, but it sure does bring out the lamest in some people, on all parts of the political spectrum. You have puns that not even Dad would stoop to:

    On the Capitol steps, Brian Mock held a sign chastising the governor that read “Truth is not RELL-ative.” He said he had little hope that lawmakers would repeal the civil union statute, but said they need to know voters are watching.

    Especially the majority of Connecticut voters who approved of the idea of civil unions?

    You have self-refuting inanities:

    “Civil unions are merely a stepping stone to redefining marriage,” he said at Sunday’s rally. “Anyone who voted for this bill voted for same-sex marriage.”

    Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill last week after it overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate. The law, which takes effect in October, also defines marriage as being between one man and one woman.

    And you have those tin-eared folks who think satire has unlimited usefulness:

    Meanwhile, about 80 gay rights activists took part in a mock wedding ceremony on the Capitol lawn Sunday, criticizing civil unions as second-class citizenship. Many said they were happy the state approved civil unions but wished lawmakers had given gays and lesbians full marriage rights.

    One thing I’d like to know–the article doesn’t mention, and there may be no way of finding out–is how many of the 3000 protestors against the bill were from Connecticut. I suppose you could say the same about the participants in the mock wedding, but there were only 80 of them.


    Posted by Sean at 01:23, April 25th, 2005

    Kelvin is guest-posting at Simon World and wrote yesterday about how Chinese news sources are discussing Prime Minister Koizumi’s remarks the other day. Kelvin doesn’t want to get into a lengthy discussion about what constitutes a sufficient apology, so I’ll just pause to clarify a single point: Koizumi did not, unlike many past Japanese politicians, use the formulation 遺憾に思う (ikan ni omou: “I regard it as regrettable”), which is a way of saying that something is unfortunate without taking responsibility. The word お詫び refers to an acceptance of responsibility, though it can be debated whether the level of abjectness is fitting.

    As for the whether actions and words are in harmony, this is translated with my customary awkwardness from the Yasukuni Shrine’s official website. There is an English page, too:

    Among the spirits enshrined here are these: Men who fell while standing on the front lines fighting fires ignited by bombings of Japanese cities by enemy planes. Military nurses, who stoutly wore the Red Cross insignia and were adored like mothers and sisters on the battlefields. Sailors who sank to the bottom of the sea on their supply ships while heading toward the battle zones to the south. Reporters and cameramen in the press corps accompanying the armed forces who were felled by enemy fire while gathering information on the battlefield. All these people offered up their lives for their ancestral land of Japan and, because of that, they are enshrined with great reverence as exalted spirits. Also, there are those who, after the Great East Asian War* ended, shouldered all responsibility for the war and gave up their lives. Furthermore, after the war, the Allied Powers that had fought Japan (the US, the UK, the Netherlands, China, and others) unilaterally declared 1068 persons “war criminals” in perfunctory trials and pitilessly executed them on false charges. At the Yasukuni Shrine, they are referred to as “Showa Martyrs” and are all enshrined as spirits. The Yasukuni Shrine is a shrine to which all citizens can make pilgrimages. We hope that you have come to understand here what kinds of spirits are enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine. The spirits at the Yasukuni Shrine offered up their precious lives in battle, seeking for Japan’s independence and peace to continue forever and for Japan’s glorious traditions and history, left to us by our ancestors, to continue until the end of time. The peaceful and prosperous Japan we know today exists thanks to those enshrined at the Yasukuni Shrine and others like them.

    A commenter–another blogger who knows Japan well–put it to me several months ago that it really isn’t the business of the Chinese or Koreans who goes to what shrine in Japan. I agree in principle, but I hope it’s a little more clear from the above why any affiliation with this particular shrine could be seen as provocative.

    Westerners learn that shinto is Japan’s native religion, which is basically true but also kind of misleading. The purification rites and ancestor worship developed by early agrarian Japanese were largely displaced in official life after Buddhism arrived, though the two were practiced side-by-side. During the Meiji Restoration, there was a push for Japan to reclaim its Japaneseness, and a campaign began to dislodge Buddhism and replace it with shinto. Doing so required thinking of shinto as an actual system rather than just a hodge-podge of ancient rituals, and that was, in fact, a change. (This is true of many elements of Japanese culture that we’re taught to think of as parts of its history. The Japanese “warrior code” didn’t really exist in any coherent form until it was retrospectively given one during the Meiji Period, either.) In shinto, everyone who dies becomes a 神 (kami: “spirit”). There are good or bad kami, depending on how the person lived, so calling the kami in general “gods,” as people frequently do in English, fails to translate the idea very well.

    I don’t believe that Koizumi or most other high officials visit the Yasukuni Shrine in the spirit of full agreement with the shrine’s administrators. I can’t read minds, but I imagine that most politicians want an opportunity to honor those who really did sacrifice their lives in good faith and, perhaps, to pray that the bad spirits have been dealt with justly in the next world and have as little chance as possible to influence the affairs of this world from here on.


    Posted by Sean at 23:25, April 24th, 2005

    There was a train derailment in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture (where Kobe is), this morning. A commuter train slammed into an apartment building, and there have been 25 people killed and over 200 injured according to NHK. The driver and some other passengers are still trapped in one of the cars, so there’s a good chance there will be more fatalities. There’s been no information about the cause of the derailment yet.

    Added at 13:00: NHK is now reporting 37 fatalities. The worst train accident since the 60s caused 42 deaths, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that today’s could displace it. (I must have misheard NHK before–there was an accident in Yokohama in 1963 that killed almost 200 people.)

    Added at 17:15: Up to 50 fatalities. One thing that’s good is that the weather is clear and pretty warm today, and the derailment happened at about 9:30 in the morning. Up to just a week or two ago, or on a rainy day, or at night, the rescuers wouldn’t have had a seven-hour cushion of relatively good conditions in which to work. The footage is horrifying; the second car is flattened and wrapped around a corner of the apartment building like tin sheeting, and two of the other cars are on top of each other.

    Sit and spin

    Posted by Sean at 03:23, April 24th, 2005

    New rule! New rule! It’s improper for legislators to vote on any issue that wasn’t an explicit plank in their campaign platform. I don’t think many US congresscritters mentioned military responses to terrorism in the election cycle before 9/11, but you didn’t hear the right squawking when they voted to authorize them, even most of those who represented leftist urban enclaves. Yes, I know–that was an emergency, and it was at the national level. But that’s all the more reason to conclude that Connecticut voters have had ample time to register their opinions on civil unions with Hartford.


    Posted by Sean at 03:01, April 24th, 2005

    What Amritas says and links to in this post about interpreting squares with my understanding from those I know who do it. Coincidentally, I ran into a guy who was still in school learning to interpret when I last saw him five or six years ago. The training sounded absolutely hellish–in the sense of being repetitious, since your brain basically needs to be rewired to think in both languages at once, which is harder than it sounds. That’s especially true, as Amritas notes, of languages such as Japanese and English, in which both word order and the principles that govern expression of thought are often at loggerheads.

    I can only imagine what Amritas’s unfiltered reaction, as a linguist, was to this page on the history of Japanese. In 1500 BC, the only markings the Japanese were making were decorative rope imprints on pottery. The Japanese kana system is a syllabary, not an alphabet; and while there were some spelling simplifications around the end of the nineteenth century (we no longer write よう as やう), kana themselves have existed since the Heian Period. Really a startling display of ineptitude.

    No downsizing here

    Posted by Sean at 02:12, April 24th, 2005

    You have got to be kidding me (Japanese, English):

    Postal workers’ jobs are to be safeguarded in the privatization planned for 2007, with the new postal entities to keep the same employment levels, government sources said.

    After all, that is the point of privatizing an inefficient government organization–improve operations by not changing anything.

    Regarding the establishment of a fund to maintain universal postal savings and postal services in remote areas, the postal services holding company will save a portion of its revenues each fiscal year, as stipulated by an ordinance, until the sum reaches 1 trillion yen.

    The bills state that the fund cannot be tapped, with the exception of a situation in which the revenues alone cannot support the holding company’s universal service obligation, the sources said.

    The six bills are designed to privatize postal services, establish a postal services holding company, a mail delivery company, an over-the-counter service network firm, and an independent administrative organization for postal savings and kampo life insurance, and to pass laws related to the privatization.

    Increasing the number of organizations involved sounds like a great move toward streamlining, too, though that structure’s been part of the proposal forever. Good grief.

    Assume a pyramid with an altitude of x million dollars….

    Posted by Sean at 01:38, April 23rd, 2005

    And that new food pyramid? The USDA has seriously outdone itself in purposeless bureaucratic condescension. Ann Althouse is justifiably irritated at the cutesy site title, but it’s the graphic that does it for me:


    I had to laugh out loud at the irony. The rainbow is so dear to the hearts of I’m-okay-you’re-okay types as a way to say we’re all equally adorable, so it’s no surprise that it recommended itself to the tofu-worshippers at the USDA. But, of course, the whole point of this particular project is to push the value of whole grains while banishing trans-fats to outer darkness, so equal ROYGBIV bands would not have worked.

    The site is pretty snazzy and easy to navigate, but it illustrates the problems with having federal programs for this sort of thing. Read the information and tips and you start to wonder very quickly just who the target audience is. Some samples:

    • To eat more whole grains, substitute a whole-grain product for a refined product – such as eating whole-wheat bread instead of white bread or brown rice instead of white rice. It’s important to substitute the whole-grain product for the refined one, rather than adding the whole-grain product. (link)

    • Freeze leftover cooked brown rice, bulgur, or barley. Heat and serve it later as a quick side dish. (link)
    • Try different textures of fruits. For example, apples are crunchy, bananas are smooth and creamy, and oranges are juicy. (link)

    • Cut-up fruit makes a great snack. Either cut them yourself, or buy pre-cut packages of fruit pieces like pineapples or melons. Or, try whole fresh berries or grapes. (link)

    Most of the advice is like this, so I initially figured MyPyramid was the site geared toward children and that there was another, stuffier one elsewhere. But each page about the food groups (or food EMS bands or whatever they’re to be called now) also has a section at the bottom that’s explicitly directed at kids, and you can get calorie intake recommendations based on your age, so we grown-ups are clearly the main audience.

    In other words, the USDA is looking at adults who don’t know what instead of means, don’t know that their freezer can be used to store leftover rice as well as Lean Cuisine dinners, don’t know that apples and bananas have different textures, and don’t know a whole lot of other perkily-explained things I’d drive myself into the madhouse by quoting. At least we’re still trusted to handle sharp knives.

    None of this stuff is untrue, of course, and those of us who were taught to cook when we were little can fall into thinking that much of it is intuitive when it really isn’t. Why can’t you freeze a lot of vegetables without blanching them? Why should you add the salt at the beginning some times and at the end others? The thing is, despite all the blaring about the latest scientific information and the effort our trusty USDA folks have expended on compiling it, most of what’s on MyPyramid.gov isn’t anything you couldn’t learn from a collection of a half-dozen basic cookbooks and some Julia Child reruns. I do think the standardized nutrition label is a good idea; the Japanese have essentially adopted it, and it makes it easier to avoid foods that are half additives. But all of this huffing and puffing and throwing tax money around like confetti–just to tell us that fresh plant-based foods are healthy, in case we didn’t already hear it from Mom and the home ec teacher–is asinine.

    Gay marriage on the way in Spain

    Posted by Sean at 09:34, April 22nd, 2005

    I can’t read Spanish and haven’t seen the text of the bill, so I can’t determine whether the hilarious spelling mistake in the second paragraph of this Reuters report is accurate:

    Spain’s parliament gave initial approval to a law legalizing gay marriage on Thursday in a move likely to rekindle conflict with a Catholic Church that has just elected a new conservative pope.

    A packed public gallery erupted in cheers and applause as the speaker announced approval of the Socialist government’s proposal, making Spain the third European country to legalese gay marriage.

    “It’s unfair to be a second-class citizen because of love,” Socialist legislator Carmen Monton said. “Spain joins the vanguard of those defending full equality for gays and lesbians.”

    I can’t say I’m entirely impressed by the reasoning used by one quoted activist: “I’m going to get married for the sake of activism, for love, and for a question of dignity.” Getting married to make a point? Lovely. But then, activists of any stripe often do have a serious case of single-issue-itis.

    In any case, the bill has another round or two of approval to go through, but it’s apparently expected to pass. It also appears to have good public support.