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    A guarantee

    Posted by Sean at 10:31, May 26th, 2004

    More about the very brief Japan-DPRK meeting last weekend (this may have been available from other news outlets earlier this week, but I tend to read the Nikkei thoroughly and half-pay attention to NHK on television while cooking, so this is the first I’ve seen it): Koizumi actually met with Charles Jenkins. Were the whole situation (“Hi! Your wife was kidnapped from her free, prosperous home country to teach its culture to spies in a bankrupt and eventually starving hell-hole of a dystopia, and now that she’s finally home after two decades, she’d kind of like to have her children with her, so we’ll do our damnedest to keep your country from prosecuting you as an Army deserter!”) not so appalling, it would be like a spy thriller. And even as it is, it can be darkly amusing. The report is that, to underscore the message that Japan would “make its utmost efforts” to assure that the US doesn’t push for extradition–meaning that Jenkins can live with his wife and daughters in Japan–a Foreign Ministry official with Koizumi wrote, “I guarantee it [私が保証する is the way the story renders it; paradoxically enough, that means I can’t be sure what the English wording was]” on a slip of paper and passed it across the table. Make a great movie scene.

    Jenkins has, of course, ultimately agreed to meet in Beijing. Beijing is friendly to the DPRK, so Japan initially indicated that it wouldn’t accept a reunion between Jenkins and Soga there, but it’s changed its mind and is now pushing in that direction. Soga expressed anxiety about meeting in Beijing and averred that there’s no way in hell she’s going back to North Korea (I should say not!). So we’ll see who moves. I imagine the first meeting probably will, ultimately, be in China. This is an Asian mother with two unmarried daughters in their late teens and early 20’s, so odds are she’ll decide it’s worth putting aside her concerns about traveling to a DPRK ally and do what needs to be done to get her family back together. My pruriently-curious side (is there any other?) wonders what the first night of pillow talk is going to be like in that reformed household.


    Posted by Sean at 22:07, May 24th, 2004

    Which of you wiseasses hid the receipt/claim check-thing I need to pick up my passport at the Embassy this Friday? This is not funny….

    Let me into your temple

    Posted by Sean at 12:54, May 24th, 2004

    Paul Varnell’s newest article at IGF notes something I was kind of wondering about, too: People are taking longer than I expected to freak the hell out over gay marriage in Massachusetts. Not that I’m relishing the prospect, or anything. I trust it’s not surprising that, while I’m troubled by the methods that are being used to bring these changes about and not at all confident in the motives of some of their loudest proponents…well, seeing the pictures and reading the accounts from Massachusetts makes my heart leap. How could it not? My deepest hope (read: it’s the Lagavulin talking) is that obsessive activists on our team will see this as a sign that, while we still face a lot of opposition, there’s a real fund of goodwill out there that we don’t have to get hysterical to tap into, and that anti-gay types will at least recognize something familiar and human in seeing people want to make the relationships that sustain them official. Then maybe (wait–there’s a little Scotch left…not anymore!) we could start talking in terms of how we’re going to treat behaviors as a society and not screeching past each other about what constitutes “approval” of this or that.

    I was vaguely bemused, though, by this paragraph in Varnell’s article:

    And not just legally wed, but welcomed with religious marriage ceremonies by the venerable and influential Unitarian church, whose ministers almost to a man � and woman � have made themselves available to same-sex couples wishing a blessing in the religious tradition.

    Oh, my. In the sense that today’s Unitarianism evolved from challenges to the concept that God is a trinity, sure, it’s…um…old. But I have to say, my first boyfriend took me to a service in Lower Manhattan ten years ago, and I just didn’t get it. My idea of a religion is the church I was brought up in: two-hour services every week, during which you looked up every cited scripture and took notes, no work allowed on the Sabbath, and a kind, accessible Christ balanced by a God the Father whose attitude ran more toward, ARE YOU PEOPLE GOING TO LISTEN TO ME ALREADY OR DO I HAVE TO SMITE YOU WITH A BLEEDING CURSE?!

    The idea at the Unitarian place–and I understand that it may have been somewhat extreme in this regard, but from what I’ve read of Unitarian beliefs it wasn’t way, way on the fringes–seemed to be that you do whatever you felt like doing anyway, and God loves you for it. In fact, the atmosphere of strident, you’re-special! good cheer was so irritating that by the time I left the building, I just wanted to go kick puppies. This is America, and people are, of course, fundamentally free to worship whatever God they choose. I also understand why gays who don’t believe our lives are sinful don’t have a whole lot of choices of denomination. I just can’t help thinking that it doesn’t profit us much to be leaning on a sect with (what appears to me to be–I’d love to be proven wrong) quite that degree of an I’m-okay-you’re-okay approach to life.


    Posted by Sean at 13:15, May 22nd, 2004

    Everyone seems to be bitching about the return of the cicadas this year; of course, in Japan, the cicada is a major topic of summer-themed traditional poetry, mostly using its voice to evoke solitude or its short life to evoke the 無常 (evanescence, contingency) of This World. Basho Matsuo, the greatest of the haiku poets, wrote several such verses, and one frequently sees them in translation. One of my favorites, though, is this affecting, if less-profound, example, which doesn’t seem to make it into translation often:


    Ide ya / Ware yoki nuno kitari / Semi koromo

    Behold me! I wear
    the finest garments–the robe
    of the cicada

    A sucky translation, but hey, it’s the spur of the moment. I’m as drawn to the serious insights of traditional poetry as anyone, but I like the way the great writers such as Basho and Saigyo were able to find something enlightening about a relaxed, playful moment, too. The summer lightness of his simple, rough clothing makes Basho feel like a cicada with translucent wings. An image to savor now. Soon, most of Japan will be like the inside of a dumpling steamer; not even with the aid of air conditioning will the finest linen and cotton feel like anything but a soaked dishrag.

    Added at some ungodly hour Monday morning: It occurs to me that, since two people who might be reading this are into sewing, the poem above might have more impact if I make it clear that I think the main way Basho is drawing an analogy between his clothing and the wings/shell of the cicada is through their common texture. The summer robe of a priest would have been made of unfaced, loosely-woven raw cotton or silk. The uneven slubs would have created a texture very much like the veined wings of the cicada, and the folds created by the way it draped might have suggested folded wings, too.

    A sort of homecoming

    Posted by Sean at 13:16, May 21st, 2004

    So Prime Minister Koizumi went to Pyongyang, where Kim Jong-il has said he was welcome, most welcome. The meeting apparently ended in less than two hours–perhaps there was a spontaneous city-wide banquet in Kim’s honor that he had to rush off to–but there was plenty to talk about. There’s that little matter of nuclear disarmament, for one thing (the DPRK has been known to file missiles over our heads in Japan–just testing, you know).

    But the focal point was clearly the Japanese abductees. Five have returned to Japan; that leaves eight that the DPRK says are dead (I can’t remember all the cover stories, they’re so lame; one involved graves being washed away in a mudslide and therefore unrecoverable–things like that) and two that it claims never entered North Korea. So from the Japanese viewpoint, there are five abductees repatriated and ten missing, of whom the DPRK acknowledges eight. That’s a total of fifteen, which I’m pretty sure is lower than the number of cabinet ministers and party officials currently implicated in the non-payment-of-pension-premiums scandal, but I could be wrong.

    The Japanese are trying to get abductees’ family members (mostly children) in North Korea to Japan, which is why there’s such a fuss over US Army deserter Charles Jenkins, who defected to North Korea in the ’60’s and is married to abductee Hitomi Soga. The US has indicated that it may, in fact, expect him to be handed over for court martial if he accompanies his daughters to Japan to see their mother. All of this making nice with the DPRK makes me sick, but I guess diplomacy wouldn’t be a delicate business if it always involved dealing with good people.

    Added at 1 a.m.: Predictably, the families of abductees are stomping mad that Koizumi didn’t push more for information about those unaccounted for. One’s heart goes out to them–most of these people were snatched off Japanese soil in their teens or early twenties, remember. But I have a hard time imagining what good a hard-line stance would do in this kind of case. The DPRK is run by whim-driven nut cases, unfortunately. In the meantime, children from two families came from North Korea and were reunited with their repatriated parents near Haneda Airport. It’s been a year and seven months since they’ve seen each other. One of the parents, Kaoru Hasuike (beautiful name, that: Kaoru means “fragrance,” and Hasuike means “lotus pond”), said, “My daughter has become so lovely….and my son has grown tall.” The last sentence in this article reports, “With that, he broke into the smile of a proud father.” Good for them. Let’s hope the rest of the endings are as happy as they can be.

    Live from Europe

    Posted by Sean at 12:40, May 19th, 2004

    I didn’t know whether there’d be more to report about this: アルカイダ幹部が新潟に1年以上潜伏 (Key al Qaeda Member Hid Undetected in Niigata for Over a Year), but it looks as if for now, that’s about what they know. He’s Algerian-French and named Lionel du Mont; he was in Niigata from the end of 2002 through 2003 with his German wife. He went in and out three times (at least once on a false passport); he had a tourist visa, so he probably wanted to avoid crossing paths with the law by overstaying. His business was used cars, but it looks as if they suspect him of moving equipment and funding for al Qaeda.

    I can’t imagine how the government is all that surprised. Yes, the man was wanted, apparently, in connection with an attempted bombing at the G7 Summit in Lyons in 1996 (that’s background in the article, not my encyclopedic knowledge of current events talking). InterPol was looking for him. But still, his passport was French, and people pass through Japan’s international airports from Europe and Malaysia in droves every day. It looks as if they think he was helping to establish part of the network here. Lovely. He was apparently arrested in Germany at the end of last year, so I hope they’re getting some information out of him.

    Lucky takes you out for a ride

    Posted by Sean at 15:51, May 18th, 2004

    I forgot to say anything about this a week ago, but this month is the 25th anniversary of the release of one of my all-time favorite albums:

    Bad Girls by Donna Summer

    Yeah, I know–I’m just a regular old annihilator of stereotypes, huh? Well, before you get too smirky and derisive, just remember that the last few weeks have seen a movie in which Brad Pitt stars as Achilles in an adaptation from Homer become a giant box-office hit in America, so how about having the Standards discussion with a neighbor on your own side of the Pacific, huh? Anyway, I’m not going to get all soi-disant rock critic here, but I will say I adore Bad Girls from beginning to end (yes, including Side 3) and hope that Summer, despite being a born-again Christian, recognizes it as a real accomplishment herself.


    Posted by Sean at 11:08, May 18th, 2004

    So just how badly off are all those welfare states in which wage-earning citizens sacrifice their crass individual goals for the good and harmony of the collective? You’ll have to find out about Sweden from someone else; the situation here in Japan is enough to make anyone my age (32) consider keeping his nest egg as a shoebox full of gold nuggets. It’s not enough that the population is aging. It’s not enough that money paid into the Social Insurancephalopod is mismanaged. (At least it isn’t diverted into a thinly-disguised government slush fund, the way savings accounts through the Postal Service are. Actually, come to think of it, maybe it is. I’m probably better off not knowing). We also have pervasive non-payment of premiums (link to Japanese article as usual–sorry if you’re not Amritas).

    Those of us who work for corporations have the money taken directly out of our wages (like FICA), but the self-employed and students of at least twenty years old have to pay in themselves. Now, of course, most people do work for corporations, so in the grand scheme of things, the amount of money that’s being lost is not as great as the “Non-payment of Social Insurance Pension Premiums Still Near Worst-Ever Level of 37%” headlines make it sound. Even so, I agree with the media that it’s an indication of how little people have come to trust the pension system, for all the hot air about reform.


    Posted by Sean at 23:28, May 17th, 2004

    Are you nice enough to the Asian-Americans in your life? Really? Reallyreally? If not, you still have a week or two to straighten out:

    May is Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month

    The bed’s too big / The fryin’ pan’s too wide

    Posted by Sean at 02:45, May 17th, 2004

    Andrew Sullivan has a new piece out on gay marriage, headlined Integration Day in The New York Times (registration required, as if you needed to be told). Sullivan’s writing meant a lot to me when I was coming out in the mid-’90’s and most gay writers were in the vein of, like, Michelangelo Signorile. But Girlfriend is really starting to annoy me something fierce.

    Get a load (heh-heh) of this:

    I remember the moment I figured out I was gay. Right then, I realized starkly what it meant: there would never be a time when my own family would get together to celebrate a new, future family. I would never have a relationship as valid as my parents’ or my brother’s or my sister’s. It’s hard to describe what this realization does to a young psyche, but it is profound. At that moment, the emotional segregation starts, and all that goes with it: the low self-esteem, the notion of sex as always alien to a stable relationship, the pain of having to choose between the family you were born into and the love you feel.

    One wants to just whisper in his ear that when Margaret Cho said the best reason for gay marriage was that it was inhumane to deny a gay man a bridal registry, it was a joke. But, fine…what he’s saying isn’t that superficial. It’s still, despite his unremitting complaisance as a writer and public personality, offensive.

    I like having people’s respect and approval. Resilient as my ego is, my nerves are not sheathed in titanium, and having my friends and loves and the life we cherish referred to as perversion all over the place gets me down sometimes. But either you claim control over your own life and mean it, or you slaver for people’s approval and give them the ability to define your worth. No fair congratulating yourself about being willing to take an unpopular stand out of moral conviction and then informing people that they will love you for it. That maneuver makes me as nauseated as…as…John Derbyshire in a roomful of Muscle Marys.

    Just to be clear: I’m not downplaying the hardships of being gay, and I give guys and gals who are just coming out quite a bit of leeway in finding their way at first. I have a more privileged life than a lot of people, but coming out was deeply painful. I didn’t think I would make it through; I don’t consider it whiny for anyone at that stage to be having difficulties getting it together and needing a lot of accommodation from supportive people. If I thought there were a policy proposal that would magically make that hurt unnecessary for future gay men and women, I’d be agitating for it in a second. Also, no one is going to stop me from being a thoroughgoing homo: being in love with a man, feeling that thrill when a cute guy comes into my field of vision, hanging out and being queeny with friends, and (what have I missed?…oh, yeah) mind-altering screwing. I know my own mind, and that’s where it’s at. I wish that didn’t present an obstacle in getting along with some people, but reality is, it does. Though I’m grateful that people cut me lots of slack when I needed them to, now that I’ve righted myself and become a sovereign adult, I deal.

    All of this blather about how our need for marriage is connected with [yaks all over freshly-cleaned floor] self-esteem and not making us feel so alienated just reinforces the charge that our real problem is arrested development. To the extent that psychologists can even determine whether self-esteem is a useful concept, my understanding is that their idea of where it comes from is pretty old-fashioned. Encouragement from others is part of it, but most of it is meeting and overcoming obstacles, fulfilling one’s obligations, and paying one’s debts. For that reason–much as it galls, galls, galls me that hetero convicted felons, multiple divorcés, and deadbeat dads are free to indulge in messed-up marriages without interference, while we’re told that we’re going to spell doom for the concept of the family–I don’t trust our own high-profile crew of dissolute, flim-flamming party animals with marriage any more than Rick Santorum does.

    Most of us are not that caricature, including, I presume, Sullivan and the like-minded Jonathan Rauch, whose book Gay Marriage I eagerly pre-ordered and ended up being disappointed by. Like Sullivan’s latest article, Rauch’s book leans heavily on the idea that marriage brings community pressure to be good, which helps keep married couples stable and benefits everyone. Rauch does raise the question of whether this will apply to gay marriages if a lot of people regard them as counterfeit, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t really address it.

    If we’re going to be using marriage as a cure for the low self-esteem and alienation of “emotional segregation,” though, the answer matters. And the answer is: Those who wish us well and want our relationships to sustain us and bind us to the community are already treating us that way; people who see our relationships as illegitimate will keep doing so no matter who has a license for what. That means that even if gay marriage becomes a long-term fact, we’re initially going to have to be strong for each other, through our formal and informal institutions, every bit as much as we are right now. It may never be the case that everyone is brought around to our side, but to the extent that it happens, it will happen because people can see gays taking charge of our own lives and not bleating, two decades into adulthood, about feeling left out.

    I could also say something about DC-based political journalists who, while they may favor small government, still have the irksome habit of seeing the role of what the government does do as the conferring of legitimacy and Making things Real, rather than serving as a vehicle for the will and collected resources of citizens, but I’m too tired to get into that just now.

    Added on lunchbreak, 19 May: Brian Tiemann has a bit more temperate response to Sullivan, raising some of the same points (and including a penis pun) but giving them more context.