• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    Civilization reaches a new peak

    Posted by Sean at 21:31, February 1st, 2005

    Many’s the time I’ve sat on our toilet, patted its little control arm, and sighed, “O faithful ultramodern Washlet, you spray and dry and warm me faithfully at my command, and yet I feel among the world’s poor because you never play me soothing music.” Apparently, all that could change. This is one of the Mainichi‘s photo essay thingies, so I’m not sure whether the link will last, but clicking on the following graphic should get you to the original:


    I think kitsch devotees have pretty much told the world about Japanese electronic toilet seats, but if you’ve not heard: a lot of private houses and more upscale office buildings have them. There’s a seat heater (most Japanese bathrooms are unheated, so this is very useful in winter), a bidet, a butt-cleaning spray (warmed to your specifications), and a warmed-air drier. Many of the newer ones also have an air freshener. Toto is, to my knowledge, the market leader, if it does not, in fact, have a monopoly.

    One of the ironies of our apartment–from my American perspective–is that you can set the toilet seat’s jets to expel water at your tenderer membranes that’s hot enough to seriously scald them…but the sink at which you’re supposed to wash your hands afterward gives you only cold water. On the other hand, as a lover of baths (the English genes, maybe?), I am completely smitten by the bathroom. The control panel for the tub looks like something you’d find in a cockpit. To run a bath, you put the drain plug in and push the “On” button; if you keep the plug in out of habit, and you have the water level and temperature settings to your liking, you can turn it on from the kitchen. Either way, it fills and beeps when it’s done.

    This kind of system is designed, of course, to go with the traditional Japanese practice of taking baths at night, family member by family member from grandfather on down to the baby, using the same water. Everyone showers and lathers and rinses clean, then just uses the (wonderfully hot) bathwater to soak in for a while. Except in the middle of summer, when the slightest bit of standing water turns scummy practically overnight, the water is kept for a few days and reheated. Accordingly, there’s another setting you use for 追い焚き (oidaki: “lighting the subsequent fire [under the cauldron]”).

    It’s funny how you get used to these things, to the point that going back to the way you grew up is a shock. Whenever I’m at my parents’ place, I have to remind myself that I can’t just walk away from the whooshing taps and expect them to shut off when the tub is full. And that if I leave the water in when I’m done, my little brother will ask me just what I think I’m doing. (Well, I think his actual comment was, “What, are you thinking of buying a turtle, or something?” Everybody’s a comedian.)

    Returning to Toto’s new technological gift to civilization, I suppose I don’t mind that it can expel scents at you–by this point, one is all too accustomed to using bathrooms that have been contrived to smell like scratch-and-sniff stickers. That “soothing music” worries me, though, given Japan’s track record. It’s very common here to, for example, call a major corporation, be put on hold, and have a toy-synth version of “The Entertainer” or “Hungarian Dance No. 5″ played at you. I can only hope that the “Off” button for the music is easily recognizable for those of us who prefer to commune with ourselves silently.

    Added on 3 February: Eric also has tubs on the brain, largely because he no longer has one on his deck. In his case, of course, the subject is a hot tub, which strict Mid-Atlantic parents like mine regarded, in the Love Boat era, as a frothing symbol of hedonistic California excess.

    I didn’t mention in the original post here, of course, anything about Japan’s famed devotion to hot springs, which aren’t hot tubs but serve the same sort of purpose (assuming you just want to bathe). I like hot-spring bathing in the winter, with the cold air and stars above while most of your body is submerged in sulfurating heat. Mostly, though, I prefer the bath at home, which has a glass of white wine and Dusty Springfield playing. You can’t really get away with sinking in languidly and sighing, “Oh, Mary Catherine, it’s true–the others have no idea what you and I suffer” in public, even if you have a folded towel on your head.


    Posted by Sean at 02:30, February 1st, 2005

    Faced with one of the highest suicide rates even in Japan, Aomori Prefecture has at least one town that isn’t just going to roll over and play dead. The government of Rokunohemachi is introducing a new “Save our reputation–stay alive!” program. Well, no, because they weren’t savvy enough to hire me as their PR director, that’s not their tag line. They decided to go with the old give-away ploy:

    Alarmed, Rokunohemachi town office decided to provide each household within its jurisdiction with a “mental health card” appealing to anyone in emotional distress to visit one of five counseling offices.

    Cardholders can seek help free of charge at any of the centers, located at three hospitals, a dental clinic and a home-care support center.

    A dental clinic? Considering what a lot of dentists here dispense as care, you’d think visiting one would be likely, if anything, to send the unstable right over the edge. But here it is again:

    Town officials hope that the project, which will begin Tuesday, will help detect the early signs of depression.

    If depression is suspected, staff at the centers can refer the victim to a psychiatrist.

    The five centers are staffed with a total of 16 nurses and dental hygienists.

    They were registered as “mental care nurses” in November after completing a training seminar.

    A training seminar is all you need to be certified as a mental care nurse? I have no professional knowledge of this, and the translation may not say the same thing as the original, but isn’t dealing with depressed people who are thinking of offing themselves kind of…tricky? I suppose the “training seminar” could have covered a lot of material, and it’s got to be better than the preparation the nurses had before. (As you might imagine, seeking professional help for mental and emotional problems is frowned on in Japan, and stimulus for the development of psychotherapy is correspondingly low.) If the idea is simply to prepare nurses to assess who needs referring to a psychiatrist who can make a real diagnosis, it might be a good investment.


    Posted by Sean at 12:12, January 31st, 2005

    All right, already. I’m not going to start writing to other people’s specifications, but if the post titles are looking self-consciously cryptic, I’ll knock it off. It’s not as if I were aiming to drive people crazy. : )

    I wish I were able to come up with succinct and germane headings the way everyone else is, but…see, I’ve only got, like, three subjects, and I can’t very well start calling things “Japan Post privatization, Part the 1045th,” right? The problem is, whenever I try to squeeze in a little distinguishing information, I end up with something unwieldy: “Koizumi says Japan Post privatization must proceed despite old-guard ninnyism he’s been up against since taking office.” Yes, we learned to write snappy headlines in journalism class in high school. No, the lessons clearly didn’t take. Besides, what I’m doing here isn’t journalism. I also toyed with the idea of using random but faux-profound Japanophile stuff (“A lone crane cries in silhouette against a midnight sky”) to see whether people would get the joke, but there’s no point in getting a joke that’s not very funny, anyway.

    So if I feel stuck, I go with whatever comes into my head that I’ll be able to recognize when I’m looking at an MT list later; usually, what comes into my head is some line from a pop song, contrived as they are to stick in the memory.

    Oh, yeah, on a different but related issue: I do understand that not everyone reads Japanese. I have a few readers who are studying it, though. When I put a post title in Japanese (always an uninteresting reference to the main topic), it’s usually in the hope that they’ll look up the meaning and reading and then be able to associate it with the post content in their memory. When you’re studying Japanese, every little bit of memory aid helps, trust you me. Anyway, no one has written to say that that‘s getting on his nerves, but if it’s helpful, I can…I don’t know, put the English in a roll-over link, or something. I’m not going out of my way to be obscurantist.

    Added in the early hours of 2 February: It seems I can’t even leave the title off a post in a way that makes people happy. (Just kidding, Amritas. Glad you’ve got your energy back.)

    Your hairdo is full of diamonds and lice

    Posted by Sean at 16:39, January 30th, 2005

    This just in: Irreverence seen in costuming at Hallowe’en party:

    Despite a public outcry from gay, Jewish and African American civil rights groups, Virginia Military Institute will allow its own students to investigate a party at which some cadets dressed in drag while others wore Nazi uniforms and still others were in black face.

    Pictures of the Halloween party only came to light on weekend when it was learned they had been posted on the Internet.

    One picture shows three cadets in VMI uniform shirts giving the Nazi salute to the camera. Two of the students are wearing swastika armbands and one had a Hitler-style mustache.

    Another photo shows a cadet was dressed as “a starving African”. Other pictures show two men in tiaras, wigs and eye shadow. Both are wearing underpants and tank tops that read, “I [heart] a man in uniform.”

    There is also a picture of a man in a loincloth wearing dark makeup, and one of a man with a bull’s-eye drawn on the rear of his pants.

    Ooh, tell me more about that one! Was he hot? Did he have a bubble butt to do it justice?

    Unfortunately, the article takes off in a different direction:

    Advocacy groups called the pictures disturbing.

    “There’s nothing funny about gay men and lesbians in uniform right now risking their lives in Iraq,” Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia told the Roanoke Times.

    “As future leaders in the military, they [cadets] have to understand you can’t make of fun of people at their expense.”

    I agree. It’s too bad the rest of America doesn’t take a cue from us gays, who wouldn’t think of showing up at a Hallowe’en party ironically dressed as a nun (bonus points for studded leather underwear that can be flashed with a lift of the habit), a priest (bp’s for bringing a friend dressed as a corruptible altar boy), a naval officer (Tom of Finland-style, with too-tight and too-unbuttoned uniform), or a rich Reagan-era Republican (who entertains all with cheery banalities about trickle-down economics).

    Is it too much to ask that our flacks remember that there are straight folks out there who have actually…um…met homosexuals? A queer activist who lectures at people about being more poker-faced and pious is asking to be laughed off-stage.

    Added on 1 February: Thanks to Chris and Michael for the links. Since they mean that someone I don’t know might read this, I suppose I should clarify something. (I cut this out of the original post in a doubtless short-lived nod to conciseness):

    I don’t think that it’s possible, even in photographs, to read people’s thinking very well. Those wearing swastikas could have been viciously parodying the Nazis, after the fashion of Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes. Those who gave the Sieg heil! salute could have been taking a rare opportunity to chafe at the hyperdisciplined atmosphere imposed by their instructors by satirizing it. It’s possible that the “starving African” and drag queens are polite and easygoing around individuals of all kinds but are sick to death of PC coercive compassion (to use Camille Paglia’s term) and identity politicking.

    The point that people who enroll at a military academy are signing on to more rigorous standards of behavior, and that they’re going to represent America in official ways that most of us don’t have to worry about, is a good one. But, for pity’s sake, it’s a bleedin’ Hallowe’en party for a bunch of guys in their late teens and early 20s, off the chain for some well-earned carousing. Do we expect them to come as their favorite Mother Goose characters? I could certainly see their superiors’ advising them to err in the direction of avoiding the appearance of evil…by having the kind of party they like off-time and being sure not to–hello?!–post pictures of it on the Internet.

    Ooh, who’s been teachin’ you?

    Posted by Sean at 12:17, January 30th, 2005

    Weird week. Atsushi was here for a belated anniversary celebration, which was the highlight; of course, it meant I was keyed up before that. Friend’s birthday last Sunday…Monday? Anyway, uncharacteristic work-night carousing. Made for some odd communing between self and current project. Probably odd posts, too.

    Somewhere in there, a friend–not a birthday boy–asked me what he was doing wrong. You know, to find a boyfriend worth making a life with. It’s not the sort of question you can respond to with, “Just about everything,” even if that’s pretty much the answer. This is one of those guys who…his way of showing a man he’s interested is to be all effusive and touchy. Not touchy in a caddish way, where you have to glare at him and be like, “Sorry, bro, that’s my knee”–just with the flirtatious-hand-on-shoulder thing. And he giggles and blushes. A lot.

    Now, there’s nothing wrong with being jolly and boyish, but if you’re too jolly and boyish…and you go for big Australian guys…and you have a tendency to act shocked and affronted when they get the idea they’re going to score with you, you are asking for trouble. Talking to my friend about this stuff reminds me of those dead-end discussions we had in college about whether a woman is being “provocative” if she goes around in an eyelet camisole and micromini and can’t talk to a man without flipping her hair.

    [CNN-related aside: Speaking of clothing choices, who the hell told Dianne Feinstein that the pale-green jade beads were a good idea with the black jacket? She looks as if she were about to show Princess Aurora something in the way of a nice, new spinning wheel.]

    My friend fails, in the by-the-book way, to see where the problem might lie. I mean that he hasn’t made the basic connection between, on the one hand, behavior that attracts men and gives you the thrill of being admired and, on the other, behavior that signals you’re eager to provide a different kind of thrill in return later. You don’t have to subscribe to the revolting belief that you owe a guy sex if you let him buy you a drink in order to believe that it’s dishonest and manipulative to push his buttons to shore up your ego. My friend is well-intentioned and really doesn’t seem to see it that way, and (at least where I usually run into him) the guys behind the bar as well as his buddies know how to keep an eye on him. It’s just frustrating when someone asks you something important and doesn’t want to hear the answer.

    [Is Jane Harman the most annoying person in the world, or what? Sweetie, it’s okay to choke out a single sentence without taking a dig at the President, sometimes. No, really–we’ll be able to remember you hate him even if we go 30 seconds without hearing about it.]

    In better news, since Atsushi was home for the weekend, I was able to pass along my parents’ Christmas present to him, which arrived in the mail after he’d gone home from the New Year. He’d given them a figurine for the Year of the Rooster, so they gave him one back: a cat, probably because he played so easily with my parents’ two (real ones, not figurines) when I brought him home two years ago. They’re Siamese, so suffering themselves to be played with is not a habit.

    The weather is supposed to turn cold today in his part of Japan–actually, along the Sea of Japan coast overall, I think. It’s windier and colder than last week here in Tokyo, too, but it’s still clear. I probably ought to air the rugs while I can. Now that Aaron Brown is on television, I probably ought to change the channel, too. Criminy.

    Elections in Iraq

    Posted by Sean at 09:53, January 29th, 2005

    I only comment on the stories that move me to do so, but it would be madness to let today pass without mentioning the Iraqi elections, even though I usually leave general WOT commentary to people who are better qualified. Reuters understandably, being a news organization, is stressing the attention-grabbing element of conflict in its lead story:

    Insurgents threatened a bloodbath on Sunday when Iraqis go to the polls in an election intended to unite the country and quell violence but which could instead foment sectarian strife.

    Does anyone seriously intend today’s voting to unite the country in the tidy, cut-and-dried way that sentence makes it sound? I haven’t heard anyone talk as if the thrushes will warble with joy and crocuses will bloom tomorrow just because there’s been an election. Of course, the insurgents (you’re catching me intone that word the way I might refer to myself as a “confirmed bachelor,” yeah?) are going to go literally ballistic. Even if the new native Iraqi government is more symbolic than substantive at first, what it symbolizes is change in a direction reactionaries have to resist at all costs. It won’t turn into Malaysia overnight, but here’s hoping that the attacks today are contained and minimized as much as possible. Congratulations to the Iraqis.

    It’s hard to get good help these days

    Posted by Sean at 09:09, January 29th, 2005

    How very strange. Look at this Yomiuri story. The headline says, “Pakistan opposes UNSC seat for Japan,” which makes sense. This is a Japanese newspaper reporting things from the vantage point of local importance. The beginning is fine:

    Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said in an interview with The Daily Yomiuri and other English-language newspapers in Asia on Thursday night that his government would not support the envisioned permanent membership of Japan on the U.N. Security Council.

    [There are two reform proposals. Under Model A, more UNSC permanent memberships would be created for countries such as Japan. Under Model B, permanent membership would not be expanded.]

    “(With Model B), nobody gets on (the Security Council) permanently, but everybody has a chance to represent its own region,” he said. “It is very clear that the Security Council does need reform…but we oppose anything being done to create another permanent class of countries…It has to be done on the basis of equity, justice and in a democratic way.”

    That sounds nice. Who knows? Maybe Aziz even means it, even if Pakistan itself is not a world-class beacon of democratic transparency in government. It’s interesting, though, to note a word that the Yomiuri reporter fails to mention even once: India.

    Nice work if you can get it

    Posted by Sean at 22:07, January 27th, 2005

    Cheese and crackers! The “It’s me” scam–which has now taken so many forms that it’s referred to more elegantly as 振り込め詐欺 (furikome-sagi: “the ‘Pay up!’ scam”*)–caused losses of 28,400,000,000 yen in 2004. (That’s about US $258,000,000.) The figure is nearly four times what it had been in 2003–the phenomenon really took off last year. The Mainichi ran an article a few days ago about one of the rings from which some members have been caught:

    The ring was divided into 10 groups, each of which comprised of some 10 “shops.” Each shop was headed by a “manager” and staffed by approximately 10 “employees.”

    Each shop was required to net at least 10 million yen a month from such frauds. Employees who showed outstanding performances were invited to participate in tours of Okinawa and dine at hotels. While those who failed to fulfill their quota were beat by their bosses.

    Managers received about 500,000 yen in fixed monthly salary and employees got 250,000 to 300,000 yen, plus additional pay in proportion to the money they earned. One manager received 5 million yen as a monthly wage, police said.

    You know, kind of like Fuller Brush, only with kneecappings and not a single satisfied customer. Of course, the efflorescence of this particular swindle only seems sudden; in fact, it’s been gradually becoming more common over the last few years, and there’s nothing surprising in the way more miscreants have been drawn to it.
    * Before Amritas gets over his cold and points it out: 振り込め isn’t the imperative of the verb usually translated “pay.” It’s more like “make the bank transfer” (or, if we’re being literal, “sprinkle it in” or “wave it in”). I was taking license, poetic or otherwise.

    Yasukuni Shrine visits not grounds for civil suit

    Posted by Sean at 20:52, January 27th, 2005

    Something else from the Japanese courts, this time on a recurring topic here:

    The Naha District Court on Friday rejected a lawsuit against the government and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that was filed by almost 100 people seeking damages over Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

    The ruling dismissed claims from the 94 plaintiffs, who experienced or lost relatives in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, that Koizumi’s visits to the shine had caused them to suffer, and rejected their demand for 100,000 yen each in compensation.

    In handing down the ruling, Presiding Judge Kazuto Nishii refrained from saying whether or not Koizumi’s visits to the shrine, which enshrines class-A war criminals, violated the Constitution or if they were made in an official role.

    Of course, Judge Nishii refrained from saying so–that’s the million-dollar question. But he didn’t have to; the reason behind the dismissal was “that the legal right to strictly request the separation of religion and state was not a benefit for residents and that that they could therefore not demand compensation if this right was violated.” Okinawans are Japanese citizens, so the issue is not the same as it is with comfort women; they do frequently get the country-cousins treatment, though.


    Posted by Sean at 06:55, January 27th, 2005

    One of the big stories this week is that the Supreme Court of Japan ruled that it was not unconstitutional for the government of Tokyo Metro (an entity equal in status to a prefecture, though I realize I’ve just made it sound like a tram line) to refuse to consider foreign nationals as candidates for management positions. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the same top story at all three English-version Japanese newspapers I read on-line (the Asahi , the Mainichi , and the Yomiuri ), though of course it was in the Nikkei and elsewhere, too.

    Those familiar with Japan will understand the issue here, but for those who are not: we’re not talking about immigrants. The controversy is over ethnic Koreans and Chinese born and brought up in Japan–many of whom have no real ties to Korea or China–who nevertheless do not have Japanese passports and are considered resident aliens. This is from the Yomiuri report:

    The Supreme Court said the metropolitan government’s preventing its foreign workers from taking promotion exams therefore did not violate Article 3 of the Labor Standards Law, which bans discriminating against workers on the ground of nationality, and Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees “equality before the law.”

    Meanwhile, Justices Shigeo Takii and Tokuji Izumi said in their dissenting opinions that the metropolitan government’s refusal to let the second-generation Korean resident sit the promotion examination just because she is not Japanese was “an illegal act of discrimination,” and that rejection of the plaintiff who has special permanent resident status from the first round of promotion exams was “unconstitutional.”

    Japan’s treatment of its resident non-Japanese Asians causes a great deal of strain, especially because of the restrictions on civil service jobs (which can include public health, the field of nursing in which the plaintiff in this case practiced, and public education). For some reason, I can’t seem to find a report on it, but there was a case last year in which the parents of a family of illegal aliens died. They were, I think, Thai and had been living in Japan for years. The government decided to grant the teenaged daughter citizenship and send the younger children back to Thailand. The reasoning was that the girl had never really known any life but that in Japan and was old enough to have formed her personality around her life here, while the younger children still had time to return to their native country and adapt to it without trauma. There’s a case of an orphan like that every few years, and citizenship is, if my memory serves correctly, often granted.

    Second- and third-generation children of intact non-Japanese families are another matter, but it’s worth remembering that pity for them must be carefully qualified. Japan-Korea ill-feeling goes both ways, even if there can be no debate over which side got the short end of the stick over the last century or so. A lot of permanent residents seem to be perfectly happy to retain their special permanent residency while working to expand the rights attached to it. And, well, while the mistreatment of non-Japanese here is real, you can’t ignore the fact that desiring the rights of a Japanese citizen while maintaining one’s identity (and presumably loyalty of some kind?) as a Korean means wanting to have it both ways.

    I have no idea what the plaintiff in this case thinks on the subject. By all accounts, she was encouraged by her superior to take the qualifying exam for promotion; she didn’t go looking for trouble to make a grand point, and she doesn’t seem like a chronic rabble-rouser. The Supreme Court decision, which simply affirms that it’s not unconstitutional for a local government to preserve positions of authority for Japanese citizens, is hard to fault. The court cannot, after all, fix long-standing animosity and divided loyalties.

    Added at 18:00: Man, can I be retarded sometimes. I looked at today’s “Asia by Blog” installment over at Simon’s and didn’t see that he’d linked to anyone’s coverage of this story–as I say, it was big here. It’s sort of odd that I missed it, because it’s the FIRST LINE of the Korea/Japan section. Anyway, his first link was to Joi Ito’s post, which mentions that the nurse in question is, in fact, genetically half-Japanese. I take the point that Japan is bringing many of these problems on itself, though it’s not as if it had a monopoly on xenophobia. I still can’t dismiss the idea of requiring citizenship as a qualification for ranking posts in the government as a trumped-up issue.

    Added on 29 January: Maybe I’m losing my mind. I’m still looking for the story about that Thai girl, but the only one I keep running into is the (far, far more famous case) of the girl who’s applying for permanent residency because her grandmother’s Japanese husband has adopted her. Her parents are dead. But she doesn’t have any siblings, and she didn’t grow up here. I wouldn’t be surprised if I weren’t correctly remembering all the facts of the case I’m thinking of, but I’m usually not quite that much of a space cadet.