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    Posted by Sean at 22:08, July 15th, 2007

    Strong 6 earthquake in Niigata and Nagano Prefectures, with the focus off Niigata. The strongest surface shaking seems to have been in the luckless Chuetsu region, which got hit badly by a series of quakes in October 2004. We certainly felt this one in Tokyo, too, but I was hoping it was centered offshore in the Pacific. A bunch of nuclear facilities shut down automatically, but there aren’t any reports of damage or injuries yet.

    Added later: For those unfamiliar with the JMA scale, a strong 6 is a big-ass deal–sixth out of seven magnitudes of intensity: “In many buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall. Most unreinforced concrete-block walls collapse.”

    Added at 17:20: NHK is now reporting five deaths and 500 injured. A train derailed with, luckily, no injuries; and as Alan comments below, a transformer at a nuclear reactor caught fire, but it was brought under control by noon.


    Posted by Sean at 05:30, July 15th, 2007

    Last week I got a rare critical link. Very exciting–there are few things I like better than a good argument! And there are few better argument-starters than health care. His post is thoughtful and full of good points. I still don’t think he’s persuasive on his main point, though:

    The health care system in Japan does have it’s problems, just like all systems. But on a whole it’s superior to the States. And that’s based on my anecdotes from living and experiencing the health care here in both countries over a period of many years.

    Well, all right, but plenty of us have anecdotes. There was the dentist here who gave me a root canal (over four visits, of course) and left a live nerve fiber dangling there. It made its presence known with a vengeance a few months later.

    There was the doctor I visited about a sore throat, explaining that I’d already tried aspirin, it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t afford to have my throat feeling raw for a presentation at the office the next day. He gave me powdered Tylenol and Chinese herbs.

    There was the dermatologist at a major research hospital who looked at my skin condition and declared she’d never seen anything like it. The next dermatologist I went to (Japanese but trained in the Netherlands) listened to my story and said, “Huh? This is one of the most common conditions any dermatologist sees!”

    There was my friend who came back from a trip to Thailand with a major fever and a wacked-out white cell count. The doctors told her she might have leukemia. Maybe. Almost certainly. Uh, more tests, maybe? A week later, she suddenly started feeling fine. Oops. Guess it was just one of those infections you sometimes get when you visit Southeast Asia. Our bad, said the hospital.

    I’m not saying that I’ve proved that National Health is awful. I don’t believe that at all. It’s just that we can fling anecdotes back and forth like ping-pong balls without making generalizable points that should drive public policy. My teeth aren’t any less instructive than JST’s.

    He seems to think that Americans should be dissatisfied with our health care system because WHO wants us to be. But there are compromises to be made. The Japanese system guarantees familiarity and stability at the cost of innovation and flexibility. It also, in putting lots of power in the hands of government bureaucrats, creates an incentive system for bribery and back-scratching. I doubt Americans, even those who have had bad experiences themselves, would think that trade-off was a good one. I’m no lover of insurance companies or HMOs, but I’m not convinced that getting Washington involved in managing the system would increase the overall saintliness of the enterprise, while driving costs down and without impeding the implementation of new treatments.

    Earth, wind, fire, and water

    Posted by Sean at 22:38, July 14th, 2007

    This week’s corner-cutting scandal involves elevators:

    Leading elevator manufacturer Fujitec Co. used substandard steel in more than 12,000 elevators, 560 of which could fall short of mandatory strength standards, the infrastructure ministry says.

    Some Fujitec elevators have only 66 percent of the legally required strength.

    When operating under normal conditions, such elevators pose no problem, the ministry said. That is because the Building Standards Law requires elevators to be built to withstand up to three times the load they carry.

    But problems could arise if an elevator were to stop between floors in the event of an earthquake with an intensity of upper 6 or stronger on the Japanese scale of 7. Ministry officials said railings that support the cage could become distorted in such instances, making it impossible for the elevator to restart itself.

    That, in turn, could cause problems for workers rescuing passengers and trying to restore the elevator’s functions.

    One heartening thing, of course, is that the problem has now been discovered, and there’s an excellent probability that reinforcement can be done before the next major earthquake turns potential problems into real disasters. The Nikkei story and others I’ve seen have made it sound as if the Ministry of Land, Transport, and Infrastructure called for fixes and further investigations after being apprised of the problem by Fujitec itself. (The investigation may have been one required by federal safety regulations–I’m not exactly an elevator expert, and the news reports have generally focused on the nature of the problem itself.)

    Of course, sometimes lessons do end up having to be learned through tragedy. Spas and hot spring resorts have been in the spotlight since the methane explosion at a day spa in Shibuya that killed three employees:

    According to the survey, 479 onsen facilities, such as ryokan inns and public baths, draw hot-spring water using an indoor system. Only 22, or 5 percent, have gas detectors.

    The survey showed that 156 facilities, or 33 percent, had checked whether natural gas was present in hot-spring water, and 57 ascertained that it was.

    But 323 facilities, or 67 percent, had never bothered to check.

    Even if natural gas is present, there is no danger of an explosion if the facility is properly ventilated. But only 219 facilities, or 46 percent, were found to have ventilation systems.

    As many as 108 facilities, or 23 percent, are operating in airtight conditions without even natural ventilation.

    I wonder how many of the managers of those facilities were warned, as those at Shiespa were, that ventilation and detection systems were inadequate and haven’t done anything about it.


    Posted by Sean at 08:06, July 8th, 2007

    It’s been a pretty rainless rainy season so far. The weather’s lovely–not always sunny, but mild and warm. I’ve been trying to force myself not to be outdoors too much too soon, without much success. (I burn very easily.) Since it’s officially early summer, and I haven’t posted about poetry for, like, ever, here’s yet another from the Princess Shokushi:



    koe ha shite / kumodji ni musebu / hototogisu / namida ya sosoku / yoi no murasame

    Your voice, I can hear–
    as you cut a sobbing path
    through clouds, O cuckoo,
    are your tears pouring down, too?
    A burst of rain at twilight
    –The Princess Shokushi

    Imagining that the fleeting rainshower is caused by the equally fleeting flight of the cuckoo overhead, the princess wonders whether its crying voice (which she can hear) is accompanied by falling tears (which she can’t see).


    Posted by Sean at 00:18, July 8th, 2007

    Jane Galt wants to spread the word about Sony VAIO customer service, which is apparently as bad in the States as it is in Japan. Actually, I don’t know that Sony customer service is considered all that bad here; it’s just that everyone knows Sony products break down quickly. Hence the expression ソニー時間 (soni jikan: “Sony time”), which is…well, the (unusually low) amount of time it takes your Sony gizmo to conk out. A friend told me the expression started with an urban legend saying that Sony actually rigged its products to break down after a certain period of time, though I don’t know that there’s any way to verify that.

    Of course, reputation doesn’t tell you everything. Toshiba in Japan is known for having surly and unhelpful customer service, but when the CD-ROM drive on my laptop started having seizures, everyone I talked to was great. (And by “everyone,” I’m referring to a half-dozen people. The drive would seem to be fixed at the end of each call and then start going on the blink a few days later. The last guy I talked to finally told me I’d just have to send my machine in.) I hope Jane finally gets some satisfaction out of Sony.

    Tattoo you

    Posted by Sean at 21:04, July 6th, 2007

    A close buddy, an Englishman, just sent me this article, with a note zeroing in, gay-ly, on the best one-liner:

    He once asked Mick Jagger why his face was so wrinkled. “Laughter lines,” the old rocker replied with a grin. Melly quipped: “Nothing’s that funny.”


    Means to an end

    Posted by Sean at 22:56, July 3rd, 2007

    At Pajamas Media, Jules Crittenden reacts to Minister of Defense Kyuma’s resignation:

    Japanese Defense Minister forced to resign for pointing out that Japan was asking for it.

    Quick back story. Fumio Kyuma, native of Nagasaki, was in Chiba the other day addressing university students when he pointed out that the A-bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima “couldn’t be helped” and was “inevitable.” He noted it had the desireable efffect of preventing Japan from suffering the kind of decades-long Soviet nightmare suffered by Germany, Eastern Europe and Korea.

    In my experience, rank-and-file Japanese people acknowledge that, too, when the topic comes up in one-on-one conversation. They don’t affect gratitude at having their countrymen incinerated, no, but they acknowledge that a swift end to the war was probably preferable to a protracted one and that the Allied occupation helped set the stage for Japan’s economic hypergrowth, with its drastic improvements in quality of life for Japanese citizens.

    Several of my Japanese friends do maintain that we Westerners are hypocritical to moralize about the Japanese occupation of Korea and China. The democracies of Western Europe built their economic and geopolitical might through colonization; the United States and Australia, among other Allies, owe their existence to colonization. But when Japan decided that colonization was the way to become a world-class power (my friends argue), the West flipped out and said, “No, you’re not supposed to do that anymore. No more resources for you until you learn to behave!” (Atsushi and Jun’ichiro, if you think I’m misrepresenting you, feel free to let me know here.)

    I don’t think that’s an invalid point. But Japan’s high-minded talk about an “Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” was malarkey–every bit as disingenuous as any Westerner’s contention that colonization was no longer something a nice, civilized people did.

    BTW, along those lines, it may interest readers to know that Prime Minister Tojo’s granddaughter is running for a Diet seat:

    The granddaughter of wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo said Tuesday if she wins election later this month for a seat in the Diet she will push to strengthen the military, rewrite the history of the Rape of Nanking and move to censure the United States for dropping atomic bombs on Japan.

    On Japan’s mobilization of tens to hundreds of thousands of “comfort women” to serve in front-line brothels, Tojo said the government was not directly involved, a commonly held belief among Japanese conservatives despite evidence to the contrary.

    Tojo said the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki went “beyond all the savage acts that occurred in history up until that time,” and accused the United States of being racially motivated. She claimed the U.S. would not have dropped such bombs on other “white” nations.

    Japan, meanwhile, went to war to “liberate people of color from the white nations in the world” who were colonizing Asia at the time, she said.

    Now, before anyone starts bloviating about how this shows what “the Japanese” think of World War II, let me just point out that Ms. Tojo is regarded as a far-right nutcase, albeit one who appears to have learned well the PC locutions that can be used to guilt-trip Westerners. (About that: One must acknowledge that there was plenty of racism abroad in the world back then, though my opinion is that the bombing of Dresden, say, casts considerable doubt on her specific contention about what violence the Allies would have been willing to commit against whom in order to win.) Most Japanese think of World War II what they think of all thorny subjects: they wish it would go away. Why, they wonder, do the Chinese and Koreans and Japan’s own ultra-nationalists have to keep bringing it up when it’s over and done with? I don’t condone that attitude, understand, but it is the prevailing one.

    In any case, Japan went to war to compete for resources. It lost. It had the great good fortune to lose to honorable enemies, ruthlessly committed to victory in wartime but willing to set it on the path to renewed sovereignty and unprecedented economic recovery within a decade after peace had been achieved.

    Happy Independence Day, fellow Americans.


    Posted by Sean at 01:19, July 3rd, 2007

    …and Minister of Defense Fumio Kyuma has had to step down. Not surprising. His remarks the other day about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were not the first that made people wonder whether he remembered which ministry he was leading, and there’s an election coming up in which the LDP cannot afford to have the Abe administration look more vulnerable than it does.

    Odds and ends

    Posted by Sean at 01:26, July 2nd, 2007

    A friend who read the post below about licensing fortunetellers reminded me that the classic protectionist-licensing story remains that of African braiders. For those who haven’t seen it discussed on a news program or in Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies , the Institute for Justice website has a rundown.


    I’m still making my way through Brink Lindsey’s most recent book, but he’s revived his blog and has a bunch of terrific posts about advertisements. For me the standouts are the pre-PC Jello commercial, apparently narrated by Charlie Chan, and the compilation of TV cigarette commercials. I was born in ’72; I don’t remember cigarette advertising on television. But I do remember being a child when lots of people smoked–there were ashtrays everywhere to accommodate them, and it wasn’t regarded as a big deal. Lindsey says, “Also, isn’t there a powerful illicit thrill–in our current age when smoking is the new leprosy–in watching these folks happily taking in big lungfuls of carcinogens?” Yes, there is. From our perspective now, the ads practically feel pornographic.


    Not surprisingly, Minister of Defense Fumio Kyuma has been brought sharply back into line by Prime Minister Abe:

    During a meeting of about ten minutes, the prime minister told Kyuma, “Japan is the only country to suffer a nuclear strike, and we must think of the feelings of the bombing victims in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, who suffered horribly. We mustn’t hurt their feelings.”

    Especially with an election coming up.


    Posted by Sean at 00:36, July 1st, 2007

    You don’t see this very frequently: Minister of Defense Fumio Kyuma gave a talk yesterday:

    Opposition parties unanimously criticized Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma for remarks he made in a lecture on 30 June. Kyuma had stated that the dropping of the atom bomb by the United States during World War II was “unavoidable.”

    Kyuma is the only sitting cabinet member from Nagasaki Prefecture. Reaction to his dissent from orthodoxy has been swift and furious:

    Kyuma said later that his comments had been misinterpreted, telling reporters he meant to say the bombing “could not be helped from the American point of view.”

    “It’s too bad that my comments were interpreted as approving the U.S. bombing,” he said.

    Bombing survivors have developed various illnesses from radiation exposure, including cancer and liver diseases.

    “The U.S. justifies the bombings saying they saved American lives,” said Nobuo Miyake, 78, director-general of a group of victims living in Tokyo. “It’s outrageous for a Japanese politician to voice such thinking. Japan is a victim.”

    Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue was quoted as saying by Kyodo, “The use of nuclear weapons constitutes the indiscriminate massacre of ordinary citizens, and it cannot be justified for any reason.”

    In America, the bombings are widely seen as a weapon of last resort against an enemy that was determined to fight to the death but instead surrendered unconditionally, six days after Nagasaki was attacked.

    There are many things to admire, even love, about Japan; but surely one of its more unpalatable cultural traits is its tendency to look for reasons to feel put-upon and victimized. The way people talk about the A-bomb, one would never know that Japan had tried to take over all of East Asia. (Its invading forces were not known for their scrupulously upright treatment of ordinary citizens.) One would also never know that the Allies had spent the last year enduring the battles on Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa.

    I don’t mean to make a coarse tu quoque argument here. I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that America had geopolitical reasons for using the atom bomb that went beyond the saintly desire to prevent more blood from being spilled in the immediate future. Japan had inserted itself into World War II as our enemy, and we needed to defeat it, and we needed to win. It would be nice if war didn’t work that way, but it does. It’s easy for me to say this as an American, I guess, but I don’t think Kyuma’s acknowledgment that it wasn’t our job to play nice with Japan in 1945 can be construed as “approval.” It’s certainly going to be interesting to see where this goes politically, though.