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    From pei to bay

    Posted by Sean at 07:40, December 7th, 2004

    This is only Japan news to the extent that every diplomatic hotspot in Asia affects us here, but the PRC’s Foreign Ministry has enlightened us about what’s really preventing the East from becoming one big, happy family. This is the Vice-Director of its Information Agency:

    The divisive activities of those movements agitating for Taiwanese independence are the undisputable* root of the tense relations between the two sides. They are the single largest threat to peace and prosperity in the Formosa Strait and the Asia-Pacific region.

    Now you know. Of course, mainland China says these things at the drop of a rice-straw hat. What brought this week’s installment on is that Taiwan has indicated that it will begin designating its resident diplomats “representatives of Taiwan,” rather than “representatives of Taipei.” The change is seen, doubtless accurately, as an assertion of Taiwan’s autonomy as an overall entity.

    * I know that’s not what こそ actually means; if anyone has a better way to get the emphasis across, I’d like to hear.

    Mary does Dallas

    Posted by Sean at 06:47, December 7th, 2004

    I would be remiss if I didn’t publicly thank the du Toits for their amazing hospitality over the weekend, which was of the old-fashioned variety: the constant flowing of coffee, the constant passing of treats, the wandering of conversation agreeably from topic to topic. After one particularly wonderful dinner, I picked up a plate to carry it five steps to the kitchen, and the proprietor of Serenity’s Journal practically got me into a hammerhold to wrest it out of my hand and shove me toward one of the living room couches.

    And the children were, of course, wonderful. They were respectful and non-strident but completely at ease in adult conversation around someone they hadn’t met. This is clearly a household of people who regard each other highly. Spending time with them reminded me of everything I love about America, and I can’t thank them enough.

    By contrast, my message for American airlines (including American Airlines) is, “Thanks for nothing.” I mean, the flights were generally smooth, and the flight attendants were generally fine. In the sense of job performance, that is to say, not in the sense of attractiveness. I make it a practice not to make physical evaluations of people who are on-duty.

    Yeah, right, you got me. I noticed. But it’s not the fault of the flight attendants that they age badly, is it? Something to do with all those UV rays at 35000 feet. And working in confined spaces gives them an unfortunate tendency to mince. All that flying did give me yet more occasions to marvel at how TOTALLY HOT American men on average are, though. Even the guys who aren’t hot are hot. Probably part of it is that I’m a sucker for good forearms–you know, the sinewy, hairy, I-am-a-male-mammal kind. The businessman sitting next to me on my flight out of Dallas had his sleeves rolled up, and every time he turned the page of his newspaper, his muscles rippled, and the hair on his wrists spilled over his watchband at a different light-catching angle. I can only hope he thought that what I was staring so acquisitively at was his Rolex. Of course, looking resolutely forward didn’t help, because every time some guy reached up into the light of his reading lamp to close his overhead ventilator, I thought I’d die.

    I wasn’t literally afraid of dying, despite the turbulence over Texas, because our captain did an ace job of skirting around the bad weather almost as soon as we encountered it. While the various excitable parts of my anatomy are getting their appreciative messages in, my stomach would like to thank him–but it would also like to ask, purely out of scientific interest, whether the head of food service at AA (and United, which got me from La Guardia to DFW) was actively trying to give us all a stereotypical airline-meal horror story with which to regale friend and foe alike in the coming weeks. I mean, good grief. In my experience, JAL, ANA, and Thai Airways–even Tiger Economy cellar-dweller Korean Air–have managed to contrive in-flight meals that are about as good as leftover homemade food that you microwave too long so it has a few hard pellet-y bits. Not yummy, but not repellant. The food on United and American was a whole other deal. Holding iced vodka (WTF is up with making people pay for liquor on trans-Pacific flights, BTW?) in the mouth for a good long time to deaden tongue and palate helped a bit, but I’d kind of hoped that, this being a code-share flight with JAL, those involved would be motivated by shame into achieving peak-performance mode for those of us who are used to better. No such luck.

    My fortune improved dramatically on arrival at Narita Terminal 1 (the flight was operated by AA, remember), however. The seatbelt sign was off at the gate at 5:45, I made the 6:13 Narita Express, and I was waiting for a cab in Shibuya by 7:40. It’s probably not the first time such a thing has happened in the history of Japanese commercial aviation, but neither is it the sort of timing any frequent flyer in his right mind would plan on. To achieve it, I had to have uncommon luck at every potential bottleneck point: there was no line at immigration for holders of Japanese passports/reentry permits, my bag was among the first out, the girl at customs waved me through in seconds, and I was in line at the JR counter by 6:10. It’s the kind of exception-that-proves-the-rule that reminds you what a production flying in and out of Tokyo usually is. But at the end of the line was a bath in my own bathtub, a welcome-home call from my audibly happy boyfriend, and sleep in our own bed under our own comforter. Well, until 3 a.m., when jet lag woke me. But that’ll be over in a few days. It’s good to be home. Thanks to every one who helped make this the best 里帰り (satogaeri, “return to the hometown”) ever.

    NGO blues

    Posted by Sean at 22:13, December 3rd, 2004

    There’s a new expat blogger in Germany who’s honored me by putting on what looks to be his very first blogroll. He has a good post up about, among other things, the effects of NGOs, that makes these important points:

    The role of NGOs is especially problematical, since they operate without responsibility. The NGOs go into a country with a problem and try and deal with the problem according to their own priorities and needs. What they end up doing is undermining the authority of the state: whether this is done out of the best of intentions, or deliberately for political purposes, or accidentally plays no role in the effect that it has on the states involved: they are weakened.

    Why is this important? It’s important because if you are going to push for things like an International Court of Justice, treaties like Kyoto, for “obeying international law” – whatever that means* – then you can’t at the same time dismantle the actors that work within this framework.

    And I think that many of the NGOs are pursuing their own special agendas that don’t have all that much to do with providing aid or help and have a lot more to do with ensuring that the problems failed states face don’t go away, since that would mean the NGOs involved would lose their main arguments for fund-raising and that some of those involved might have to drop the pretense of trying to save the world and actually find a real job.

    I think most Americans know all this intellectually, but I also think that you don’t quite realize until you live abroad just how many pies NGOs have their fingers in. There’s an obvious reason for that: America doesn’t need their help, so we don’t have them around in daily life. The Japanese give, rather than get, assistance, also, but there are a lot of countries with close geographical and economic ties to Japan that do, so I think we hear about such organizations and their policy effects more. Germany is probably the same way.

    It may seem odd to have libertarian old me approvingly citing someone who’s complaining about “undermining the authority of the state.” But it’s a problem with regards to these issues for two big reasons, both of which are touched on above. One is that, in countries with corruption problems–and corruption is, naturally, one of the main factors that screw up an economy to the point that it needs outside assistance–NGO personnel end up simply adding another layer to the patronage/approval system. I have no doubt that most of them set out to introduce transparency, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law into the countries they’re working with. But to start getting anything done, they have to operate at least partially within the existing power structures. (The recent Western predilection for prostrating outselves before “local cultural norms” when dealing with less-developed peoples exacerbates this problem.) What start out as temporary concessions can rapidly turn into permanent cooption by the political movers and shakers whose grip the organization was trying to loosen from the economy in the first place. So instead of a country or region that’s moving toward a set of clear, predictable, freely-available rules that are equally enforced on all citizens, you get yet another player (this one with access to a well of foreign cash) whose vagaries of temperament you have to learn in order to get on with your business.

    The second problem is that, sort of the way the most incompetent public schools in America have conventionally gotten the largest amounts of money to help them try again, NGO assistance buffers regimes from the market signals that would normally clobber them. And it is one of the great principles of life–maybe even the great principle–that being insulated from the results of your own screw-ups makes you less likely to change your behavior so you don’t make them again.

    Now, obviously, if either governments or NGOs are staffed with plain old evil, self-serving people, they are not going to care what the market is telling them anyway. But without having taken a poll, I suspect that most aid workers, and even most entrenched local ruling families in their host countries, really think they’re doing the best they can to further the interests of their constituencies. When the path of least resistance is available, though, human nature is capable of going through all manner of ethical arabesques to justify taking it. And it’s a given that it’s easier to play ball with those currently in power, even if they’re causing the problem you’ve undertaken to remedy.

    4 December 07:25 CST

    * This was the line at which I was sure I liked this guy.

    I just flipped off President George

    Posted by Sean at 13:25, December 2nd, 2004

    Comments were down for a few hours because of spam directed at MT–all those people who seem to think I need Viagra at 32 finally had their effect, though not in the way they imagined, I gather. Sorry if anyone had things to say and couldn’t get through. Oh, yeah! Apropos of nothing: Does anyone else remember “Dizz Knee Land” by Dada, from…’92, it must have been? The friend from college that I’m staying with was messing around with iTunes and downloaded it while his girlfriend and I were cooking, and it was such a throwback it made me shiver. But in a good way. Belly, anyone?

    Tomorrow morning, off to Dallas, where I plan to demonstrate to Mr. and Mrs. du Toit how glaringly apparent my defects of education are when I’m not writing at leisure with the ability to edit. Should be fun!

    2 December 23:25 EST

    Things Eleanor Jorden didn’t prepare you for

    Posted by Sean at 03:37, December 2nd, 2004

    Yesterday, I was waiting for the 7 to take me over to Times Square so I could meet my buddy for lunch (he later referred to me as a “terrific guy,” which I am willing myself to believe was not a calculated attempt to grease our work relationship. Just kidding, K!). There were electronic clocks installed above the platform, which I don’t think were there last year. And then the 2/3 has new cars with electronic displays that are either modeled after the newest Japanese train cars or just made by the same manufacturers. Very nice, though those were there last year (but still a big change, as I remember explaining to my reared-in-Kanto boyfriend, who assumed that train cars in developed countries just sort of all were like that). So anyway, I was thinking yesterday, with Tokyo smugness, Finally, New York! Trains like a real city!

    But then, there’s a backside flip-side to Tokyo’s well-used trains that makes me glad I sometimes get a break from the place. Man alive. I thought the occasional reverse-peristalsis brought on by drunken motion-sickness was bad enough. Actually, it was bad enough, if Lee’s experience is an indication of what sort of physiological soul-cry the salary-man/OL set can come up with when blowing chunks just doesn’t convey enough angst.

    Just five more days, and I’m back!

    2 December 13:37 EST


    Posted by Sean at 23:24, December 1st, 2004

    When I’m back here in the States, people are always asking me this unanswerable question: “So…what’s it like to be gay in Japan?” I never really know what to say. I can describe my gay life there just fine, obviously. But I’m a foreigner, of course, so I don’t have anything like the experience my Japanese friends do. Sometimes, the way people put the question is, “How easy is it to be gay in Japan?” That’s even harder to answer.

    Japan, as you’ve no doubt heard in various contexts, is a shame culture rather than a guilt culture. I love our American forthrightness and sincerity, but (partially on ethical grounds and partially because of plain old temperament) I always feel a sense of release when I’m boarding a plane back to Narita. It comes from the knowledge that I’m returning to a place where every last little turn of phrase or arch of eyebrow isn’t mirthlessly prodded for complex psychological motivations, where you can expect people to be polite and considerate in public, and where no one cares about your private life as long as you don’t force people to reckon with it.

    Of course, not everyone marks private off from public the same way. I would like to be able to establish Atsushi publicly as the person who would speak for my interests if I were incapacitated and with whom I’ve formed a household. I personally have no interest in discussing my sex life with anyone. If people insist on imagining it, anyway, I don’t see how I can stop them; but I also feel no responsibility for preserving their complacencies by pretending not to be gay.

    That sort of balance has not been struck by gay activism in America, but even approaching it would be unthinkable in Japan at this point. Forced arranged marriages are now unconstitutional in Japan, but marriage is still much more a social and economic contract than a meeting of the minds, to an extent that I think would give even the most biological essentialist, far-right American pause. And despite the dramatic rise in the median marriage age for both sexes, you’re a weirdo if you’re not married by your mid-30’s.

    Still and all, there are benefits to Japan’s tradition-mindedness that I think a lot of gays in America have been too willing to cast off. The lack of gay ghettos means that it’s pretty much impossible to wall yourself into a queer-positive echo chamber and start seeing rank-and-file straight people as an enemy arrayed against you. It also means that very few people see their homosexuality as their entire identity, with anti-gayness blamed for every disappointment, setback, depressive episode, and failed relationship. You never hear Japanese gays getting into princessy snits about not being approved of or officially sanctioned exactly like straight people in every last finicking little detail. At ordinary gay bars, you meet brittle, desperate guys who are obviously using a constant stream of sex partners to avoid dealing with their issues much, much less frequently than you do here in the States. (Even here, they’re a minority, of course; their attention-whoring just makes them disproportionately noticeable. But the Japanese in general don’t put the burden of self-definition on sex to the point that we do in the US.)

    The bad side, obviously, is that it can be hard for people coming out to find resources, and that people have to keep their most meaningful relationships hidden. It’s not uncommon for employees at the stodgier companies to be informed that they will not be promoted up the usual management-track escalator until they marry and start producing future contributors to the Social Insurance kitty. So many guys use pseudonyms in their gay lives that I only know the real first and last names of, I’d say, my ten or so closest friends. Japan’s shame culture puts pressure on vulnerable gay kids as much as our guilt culture–there’s no finessing that, and it sucks–but most adults who have come out to themselves seem pretty content.

    So if you’re willing to make the available trade-offs, being gay in Japan doesn’t strike me as all that hard. (I guess I should point out that I live in what’s probably the most gay-friendly part of the whole country, the Shibuya-Shinjuku axis of western Tokyo, though I now live a little outside Shibuya, rather than in the shadow of the 109 Building the way I did until March. Anyway, the point is, I’m talking about urban gay life and not about the provinces, but I don’t think Japan is much different from other developed countries in those terms.) And if, like me, you’re a foreigner and not subject to the full litany of rules Japanese people are, it’s even easier. It’s just an additional weird thing that makes you a typical gaijin. But as I say, my Japanese friends themselves are mindful of the social rules, but I don’t get the sense that they live in fear.

    2 December 09:38 EST

    SDF deployment extension official next week

    Posted by Sean at 12:17, December 1st, 2004

    This isn’t a surprise, but it’s official now: Japan will extend the Iraq deployment of SDF personnel beyond the original end date. The extension will be for a full year, to avoid further arguments between Koizumi’s LDP and its fractious (as least on issues of war) coalition partner, the Shin-Komeito. Discussion over the proposed new amendment to the Japanese constitution, which would allow the SDF to participate in combat missions with allies for purposes of collective self-defense, will of course continue over the same period.

    1 December 10:16 EST

    Axis: Bold as Love

    Posted by Sean at 08:44, December 1st, 2004

    Another on-going issue is Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council (those who like their kanji compounds long and turgid doubtlessly get off on seeing 国連安全保障理事会の常任理事国入り cropping up in news reports lately). In cooperation with other applicants, including Germany and Brazil, Japan has apparently solidified its actual proposal. Of course, Germany and Japan have more than just their increased prominence as world powers to think about:

    Japan’s Takashima welcomed the panel’s recommendation that the so-called “enemy state” clause be removed from the U.N. Charter.

    The clause, dating to World War Two, allows for military action against Japan and Germany, without any endorsement by the Security Council. Japan pays almost as much money as the United States into the United Nations’ coffers.

    Intriguingly, the Reuters article emphasizes the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s push for full veto power for potential new permanent members. By contrast, the Nikkei report is focused more on the slight but perceptible softening of its public stance:


    On the subject of how the veto power of permanent members, which Japan had sought until very recently, will be dealt with, [the Japanese government] has shifted to a way of thinking that will respond more flexibly [to the wishes of the governing body] and away from its hard-line demand that veto power be attached to new permanent membership.

    1 December 18:46 EST

    The rainbow ride will make its arc

    Posted by Sean at 23:50, November 30th, 2004

    Speaking of resignations that fail to make me cry: Gay Orbit reports that Cheryl Jacques is resigning as the head of the Human Rights Campaign, and contends that those who defend her record are misreading it. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that anyone’s considering Michael himself as her successor, since that first post of his is one of the most economical statements of how gay activists need to frame and enact their positions that I’ve read in ages. (He also mentions the tricky what-do-the-‘rents-get-the-boyfriend-for-Christmas problem. Last year, my parents hilariously solved it by getting us, jointly, an all-American Hickory Farms gift set. What made it hilarious was that they decided–I AM NOT making this up–on this one. As soon as I opened the box, I started guffawing so hard I couldn’t inhale, and when I finally calmed down, I was like, “Darling, I would say this is a symbolic gesture of approval, but I don’t think it was intended to have that much subtext.” We kept the little condiment knife as a memento. I value it more than my Wedgwood cups. Where was I?)

    My feeling is that the election will probably, in hindsight, prove to have activated quite a few gays who didn’t go much for politics before–just not in the way leftists have been hoping for. Loud-mouthed activists tend to get little more than eye-rolling from most gays who are just living open-but-unshowy live and don’t think the sky is constantly falling, which has allowed the recent record of intrusive public-school programs and marriage-or-bust campaigning to go relatively unopposed from within gay ranks. The 11 state marriage amendments that passed may, one can only hope, rouse a few quiet types to wonder just what that hell big gay organizations are pushing supposedly on their behalf. It’s a shame that it has to be that way–I’d prefer government intrusion in daily life to be limited to the point that thinking about it all the time was not necessary in order to be an informed and responsible citizen–but the way things work is the way things work. The big-guns organizations need to know that they’re being watched by constituencies beyond their usual urban groupies and yes-men.

    1 December 09:51 EST

    Notes from Japan

    Posted by Sean at 12:29, November 30th, 2004

    My news-gathering has been pretty lite this week, but Asahi has the results of its latest poll up, and they’re interesting as always–particularly this nearly-even split:

    Asked whether Koizumi should continue to visit Yasukuni, 38 percent of those polled said yes, and 39 percent said no.

    Japan’s neighbors have strongly criticized the visits to the Tokyo shrine that honors Japan’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals.

    Asked about China’s stance, about 30 percent of the pollees said it was only natural, while 57 percent did not think so.

    Those polled in their 30s and 40s were more opposed to Koizumi’s visits, while more than 40 percent of those in their 20s or 70s and older said the visits should continue.

    Among those who wanted Koizumi to continue his Yasukuni visits, nearly 60 percent said measures should be taken to win the understanding of the Chinese and South Koreans.

    What, one wonders, did the other 40 percent say? Tell China and Korea to stick it? There’s nothing much surprising about the age breakdown: those in their thirties and forties are the ones whose lives are most directly affected by the economic environment, and trade with China and Korea plays a major, major, major role in the current Japanese economy. People in their seventies remember the War; and people in their twenties, I suspect, just don’t see what the big deal is one way or the other.

    The poll also included questions about the Koizumi administration overall and the deployment of non-combat SDF personnel in Iraq specifically. Support/oppose figures haven’t changed much for those.

    Speaking of the Koizumi administration’s performance in domestic terms, the three-pronged reform package has been finalized, naturally in much less aggressive form than was originally proposed. The amount of tax yen that will ultimately be spun off to regional and local collection is smaller than it appears:

    Under the decentralization plan, the central government will transfer 2.4 trillion yen in tax-collecting authority-and thus spending-decision power-to local governments. But that figure falls short of the 3 trillion yen sought by prefectures and municipalities and includes 650 billion yen that has already been transferred in the current fiscal year.

    As the Asahi mentions further down in the article, Koizumi–no fool, he–did not huff and puff and waste political capital fighting for every last coin, or even every last 10000 yen bill. But I think the changes will have the salutary effect of having framed government spending questions in terms of how much should be entrusted to local authorities, rather than how many hands money can be made to pass through on its U-turn from the provinces to Tokyo and back again.

    30 November 10:29 EST