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    A learning experience

    Posted by Sean at 00:49, June 29th, 2007

    Life certainly can pour on the dark comedy sometimes. Meat Hope recently received a group of trainees from…China. One is left with the droll question of why, given the PRC’s recent explosion of export-related scandals, they felt the need to come to Japan to learn about fraudulent use of ingredients and product labeling, given how advanced such practices are at home:

    Eighteen Chinese scheduled to work as trainees at the scandal-tainted meat processing company Meat Hope Co. in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, might be forced to return to China if they cannot find alternative companies to sponsor them, it was learned Thursday.

    After irregularities were discovered, the company told all its employees they were to be dismissed because the company was facing bankruptcy.

    A few of the workers are forming a union to fight the dismissals.

    The small town writ large

    Posted by Sean at 00:14, June 29th, 2007

    Bruce Bawer posts (27 June entry) about what looks like the Norwegian version of the Japanese proverb 出る釘は打たれる (deru kugi ha utareru: “The nail that sticks out gets pounded down”):

    Norwegians are brought up on the so-called “Jante Law” — the belief that there’s something morally suspect about excellence, achievement, superior knowledge or skills.

    The response? Sheer outrage. Parents and students walked out in protest at this appalling display of forskjellsbehandling (“differential treatment”). “It was unfair,” one mother thundered. Yes, she admitted, the students with good grades had worked hard — but many of the others had “also worked hard without achieving such good results.”

    Of course, it’s handled a little differently in Japan. Excellent grades in school are generally achieved through rigorous adherence to expectations, so being at the top of one’s class is itself a badge of conformity. Mediocrity in Japan is attained through lots of stressing out and exertion.

    The law of the spirit

    Posted by Sean at 06:27, June 27th, 2007

    There’s apparently nothing that can’t be bureaucratized.

    Crabby libertarians like me are always complaining about how licensing and certification procedures are frequently used by those already in a given business as a smokescreen–a way to keep out new competitors in the guise of assessing competence or quality (e.g., the teachers’ unions).

    James Randi’s latest newsletter has an example that’s almost too absurd to be funny. It seems that soothsayers in Salem, Massachusetts, are worried that the current licensing process needs to be tightened because it doesn’t screen out those who can’t actually predict the future.


    City councilors, hoping to crack down on fraudulent fortunetellers, are trying to define exactly how a psychic can become licensed to set up shop in the Witch City. They want candidates to undergo a criminal background check and to either live or run a business in Salem for at least a year.

    But many psychics want the city to go a step further – make sure they’re actually qualified to predict the future.

    The city took up the issue almost a year ago, mainly to prevent fortunetellers from blatantly ripping off consumers by demanding lucrative payments in return for lifting a curse or removing a “black cloud.”

    One woman paid more than $2,000 for readings at a Salem shop, where she was told she had a black aura around her, according to [psychic Barbara] Szafranski.

    “Then one day she came into my shop crying,” Szafranski told city councilors. “I said, ‘You don’t have a black aura. Sit down and I’ll show you your aura on my machine.’ And it was blue and wonderful.”

    FOX News also reported on the story and quoted Szafranski as being a bit more candid about her likely motivations:

    “Anytime you have a fair put up across the street from your business, it’s going to take business from you, Halloween time does not make up for that by bringing more people in,” Szafranski said. “We had a decline in business last year with the psychic fair.”

    Okay, but that doesn’t demonstrate that her aura readings are any more accurate than anyone else’s, does it?

    Szafranski and Martinez last weekend found dead raccoons when they went to open their shops.

    “People are scared,” Szafranski said. “Having a raccoon put in front of your store with blood all over the place is completely Satanic. It was done as a blood ritual. There is a stain in front of my door where it happened.”

    “It’s cruel, it’s disgusting, and it’s negative for the city and for the raccoon,” Day said. “I believe that the same people that did the cars did the raccoon, too. It’s not someone on one side. It’s just someone that wants to cause trouble.”

    “Negative for the raccoon”–I am in love with that locution.

    There does seem to me to be a legitimate legal issue here. One of the main jobs of the government is defending citizens against others who might do them harm, and those who claim to be able to contact the dead or lift evil mumbo-jumbo clouds in exchange for several thousand dollars are, from any rational perspective, committing fraud. If practitioners are going to be licensed, it seems to me that the certification should go the opposite direction from what Salem has in mind, though: You shouldn’t be allowed to set up shop without displaying a placard that explicitly states that no psychic has ever passed a scientifically sound test and that the reading is reliably useful only for entertainment. (Don’t the ones who advertise on television have to post that somewhere?) Determined ninnies would continue to believe what they wish–adults who think they can get a medium to communicate with the spirit of their dead cat are probably unreachable by science anyway–but at least they couldn’t claim not to have been warned.

    Mystery meat

    Posted by Sean at 07:35, June 26th, 2007

    One of the Nikkei editorials today is about the latest food processing scandal: fraudulent labels on meat. Helpful background can be gleaned from the Asahi English edition:

    Meat Hope Co. routinely committed 13 types of misconduct over 24 years, including mislabeling its products, falsifying use-by dates and mixing intestines into ground meat, the farm ministry said.

    The scandal-ridden meat processor based in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, dismissed all of its employees Tuesday in a sign that the company will soon fold. Meat Hope’s production line was halted last Wednesday, when the company admitted to mixing pork into “100-percent” beef products over seven to eight years.

    But the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries found during an on-site inspection that Meat Hope’s misconduct was much more extensive and went further back.

    The ministry determined that Meat Hope’s wrongdoings had been willfully conducted on a systematic basis on the orders of President Minoru Tanaka and other executives.

    Falsifying use-by dates was another common tactic, according to the ministry.

    On a day-to-day basis, the company falsified the use-by date for products by moving forward their processing date by one day.

    The use-by date shenanigans are a big, big deal in Japan, where many favored dishes use half-raw meat. What the Nikkei understandably wants to know is…

    Why was this misconduct not detected earlier? In February of last year, information that would have [constituted] a charge of misconduct was said to have been gathered, but cooperative action was not taken by agriculture ministry officials and the Hokkaido prefectural government. Without a rapid response, measures to protect (internal) whistleblowers cannot be instituted in order to aid in stopping legal infractions.

    At least one other food processor that was a client of Meat Hope’s has been implicated in the manipulation of sell-by dates, too.  Somewhat more comically for those of us who grew up with frugal meatloaf-making mothers, Meat Hope is also alleged to have stretched its ground beef by adding bread.


    Posted by Sean at 07:16, June 26th, 2007

    I wish this were surprising.

    On 26 June, it was learned from a source connected with the organization that Unimat Realty (Minato Ward, Tokyo), developer for the Shiespa women’s hot spring spa in Shibuya Ward, had received instructions from an inspection firm that had assessed the density of natural gases to the effect of “There exists the possibility that an explosion of methane gas could cause a major disaster” before the facility opened for business.

    I’ll have to ask an architect friend whether “developer” is the best word to use for 建築主, but that appears to be the role under discussion. The Unimat Group is conducting internal investigations, and the police are running their own inquiries, too.

    Hazardous occupations

    Posted by Sean at 11:03, June 25th, 2007

    I called home on Father’s Day only to be told that my father was already at work on night shift. Called again Thursday; no one picked up, so I left a message. Tonight, finally, he was home.

    While we were talking, he mentioned that one of the furnaces at the plant was down because of an explosion. He described all this in his usual unflappable-Dad tone, as if it were the most unremarkable thing in the world, but this is what actually happened. Damn:

    A boiler explosion at an industrial plant in Chester County is under investigation. Three workers were seriously burned in the Saturday night explosion and family members tell CBS 3 one of the victims has died.

    “We knew the dangers and I had just talked to him on Thursday and he said ‘I’m fine,'” injured victim’s mother Janice Solen said.

    The Solens’ fears about their son’s work at the Mittal Steel Company, located at the old Lukens Steel Complex in Coatesville, became a reality. He received second and third degree burns to 30 percent of his body as well as other injures when a huge furnace at the plant exploded. The explosion was so loud that residents nearby said their homes shook.

    “We thank God he’s alive and it may take a long time but he’ll make it,” Solen said.

    According to my father, the worker who died was helped out of the building while still conscious, but his lungs had been scalded by super-heated steam. Both the injured guys have extensive second- and third-degree burns, which fortunately for them and their families are no longer a certain death sentence. Best to them.

    Facts are lazy and facts are late

    Posted by Sean at 00:51, June 22nd, 2007

    Steve Miller at IGF posts about a conservative answer to Wikipedia called (natch) Conservapedia, started by one of Phyllis Schlafly’s sons. The entries on topics such as evolution and homosexuality have some critics up in arms, and Andy Schlafly’s own comments give reason for concern. The following paragraph almost gave me a heart attack:

    “We have certain principles that we adhere to, and we are up-front about them,” Schlafly writes in his mission statement. “Beyond that we welcome the facts.”

    I liked this gem, too:

    But consider the entry on Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton (b. 1947). She “may suffer from a psychological condition that would raise questions about her fitness for office” — namely, “clinical narcissism,” Conservapedia asserts. Evidence of her instability includes her “ever-changing opinion of the Iraq war.” Though Schlafly demands that entries be rigorously footnoted, these sentences are not.

    Schlafly calls the armchair psychology “borderline in acceptability” for his site, but he defends the Clinton article on balance as “an objective, bias-free piece from a conservative perspective.”

    Beyond that we welcome the facts? Good grief. My understanding, both from my own super-conservative Christian upbringing and from commentators, was always that the faithful regarded some beliefs as not susceptible to empirical testing by science–not that certain principles were to be declared off limits to inquiry, with observable reality a secondary consideration. Yes, I’m talking about just one sentence, but Schlafly is a grown-up from a very media-savvy family. I have no doubt that he knows how to choose his words.

    As far as the entry on Clinton goes, it certainly sounds more fun to read than what you’re likely to see on Wikipedia, but I thought conservatives were against the practice of repairing to “psychological conditions” as an explanation for venal behavior? Is it proposed that we start accusing all waffling politicians of being mentally unstable?

    Whatever. No proprietors of websites are obligated to champion the disinterested pursuit of truth, though a little more self-awareness might be seemly for those who don’t. Predictably, there are some gays who are up in arms over Conservapedia’s entries about sexuality, and their solution is to infiltrate the place:

    In recent months, Conservapedia’s articles have been hit frequently by interlopers from RationalWiki and elsewhere. The vandals have inserted errors, pornographic photos and satire… The vandalism aims “to cause people to say, ‘That Conservapedia is just wacko,'” said Brian Macdonald, 45, a Navy veteran in Murfreesboro, Tenn., who puts in several hours a day on the site fending off malicious editing.

    Miller’s take is the right one:

    The cost of living in a free society is to suffer being offended—without trying to silence those you find offensive (another example: campus “progressives” who steal conservative student newspapers from their distribution sites and destroy them). Conservatives have a right to their media; and the answer to arguments we find appalling is to criticize them. After all, it’s not as if gay-supportive information isn’t also easily available online.

    One thing he doesn’t mention is how stupid the RationalWiki people are being in tactical terms. I happen to think the jabber about a “war on Christianity” is overheated and, in many cases, disingenuous. Nevertheless, a lot of well-meaning, ordinary Americans have a sense that anyone who agitates for “gay rights” is trying to impinge on their ability to practice their religion and rear their children as they see fit. Gay advocacy has a few decades of ACT-UP-style demonstrations and public shenanigans at pride parades to counteract, and new rounds of guerrila warfare are hardly helpful.

    Added on 24 June: Thanks to Andrea Harris for the link. She appears to believe it’s wrong for men to think conservative commentators get a bad rap because the women among them are so shrewish. Fortunately, Andrea, is that Conservapedia is here to set you straight!

    Femininity builds a woman’s esteem by enhancing her own interpersonal relationships rather than building confidence through the task-orientation of masculinity. Traditionally feminine traits include being emotional, demure, affectionate, sympathetic, sensitive, soft-spoken, warm, tender, childlike, gentle, pretty, willowy, submissive, understanding and compassionate.

    Clearly, Ann Coulter’s problem is she’s not willowy enough.

    Spa explosion

    Posted by Sean at 06:22, June 21st, 2007

    Yes, to those who’ve asked, the spa that exploded Tuesday was in my area of Tokyo. That is, it wasn’t in my neighborhood, but it was in Shibuya Ward (not far from my old apartment, actually). The spa draws in water from natural underground hot springs and also has the usual array of massage and relaxation therapies. It’s a women-only place, and three people killed in the methane explosion–lots of hot springs give off methane and other noxious gases–were all women employees.

    Predictably, the game of Responsibility Hot Potato has begun:

    Top officials of Unimat Beauty and Spa Inc., the company that manages Shiespa, denied responsibility for the explosion at a press conference held Tuesday night. “We charge an external company with safety management. The company has the relevant qualifications,” company President Harumi Miyata said.

    Shiespa’s manager Yumiko Kimura stressed the firm’s maintenance was not defective. “We never conceived that the facility would explode,” said Kimura.

    Hitachi Building Systems Co. in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, maintains the facility’s water-related areas. A company spokesman said: “We’re not in charge of checking the equipment that separates the gas from the spring water, or the pump that brings the water up. Even if methane gas was the reason for the explosion, our operation has no connection [with the accident].”

    Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, Katsuo Sangu, president of Sangu Co., which conducts several maintenance checkup procedures at the facility, stressed their operations were unconnected to the explosion. “Our contract doesn’t include checking the density of methane gas,” he said.

    A spokesman of Taisei Corp., which designed and constructed the facility, said, “We can’t answer questions about responsibility because we haven’t yet collected enough information.”

    Part of the problem is a lack of legal oversight:

    Prefectural governments have almost no regulations in place to prevent gas explosions at hot springs or spas.

    The popularity of spa facilities that combine hot springs and saunas with relaxation rooms and beauty salons has soared in recent years. However, drilled hot-spring sources at these facilities bring the risk of explosions and fires caused by natural gases, such as methane.

    It’s looking like a real possibility that everyone followed the rules but that there just weren’t any rules governing ventilation and monitoring of methane. At the same time, however much faith it had in the firms it contracted maintenance work out to, the management company is ultimately responsible for the safety and comfort of its clients. It doesn’t speak well of the Unimat officials quoted that they’re so eager to avoid responsibility.

    Suicide law

    Posted by Sean at 05:42, June 21st, 2007

    The Asahi‘s editors approve of the new government anti-suicide laws (English version here):

    Until now, it was common to dismiss suicide as a “problem for the individual.” By contrast, the new basic law clearly designates suicide having “varying social factors” in its background. The policies this time around also situate suicide [in the context of being] a “death to which people are driven” and “a major loss for society as a whole.”

    Fine so far. Given that suicide really is a national problem, a federal program to provide hotlines and crisis centers doesn’t seem like a bad use of money, at least in theory.

    Unfortunately, if hardly atypically, the Asahi wiffs when it comes to confronting the “social factors” that need to be addressed. It goes by age group.

    The guidelines stress the importance of helping young people with their personal development and mental-health management. But in addition, it is vital that they are taught more firmly from an early age to respect life.

    Middle-aged and older men continue to be high suicide risks. This applies not only to men in their 60s with growing health concerns, but also to men in their 40s and 50s who are still in their prime.

    Long working hours should be shortened to relieve stress. There should be help for people who have lost their jobs or filed for bankruptcy. Immediate treatment should be available at the earliest detection of depression. These measures are all in the guidelines, and they certainly are of help to prevent suicides.

    The last sentence of the first paragraph cited above is a model of obtuseness. Rearing children in an environment with firm, reassuringly clear rules that still make room for their personalities to develop is not something you can do by just barking cheerily at them to respect life. Many, if not most, suicides among children in Japan are related to school pressure and bullying. Things are improving somewhat, but it’s still common for teachers and school administrators to condone bullying; the response to complaints by the parents of victims tends to be, in effect, that it’s their kid’s problem for being so weird.

    Once children grow into adults and take their place in the workforce, the pressures simply change form. Long work days in Japan are not associated with high output. (If offices simply learned to use their time more productively–rather than having workers spend their days generating redundant documents, attending meetings that proceed with all the celerity of a glacier gouging out a valley, and chasing down stamps of approval–working hours would shorten themselves.) Most people who commit suicide over work-related stress are probably tired from being at the office too much, yes; but I imagine that for most of them, the the constant feeling of being under observation and attendant pressure to stay in line are probably far greater factors.

    I don’t think Judeo-Christian theology accurately represents where we came from and where we go after death, but it must be said that it does offer individuals meaning and purpose outside themselves and beyond the reach of job and family stresses. That’s not to say that Japan doesn’t have a rich spiritual tradition of its own; it does. But in the post-war effort to regain a sense of national dignity by building up the economy, study and work became ends that seem, for many people, to have eclipsed other concerns. And now that economic growth is no longer a year-by-year given, it’s no surprise that a lot of people are having trouble figuring out how to center themselves psychologically.

    The West has its own problems with conformism, certainly; and plenty of Jewish and nominally Christian people commit suicide. Nevertheless, Japanese children do not really learn that it’s okay to trust their own judgment when it differs from that of the collective, as long as they’re following a reliable set of generally applicable moral principles. I’m not sure whether the mental health system, even with the cooperation of both public and private sectors, is going to be capable of helping individuals invest their lives with meaning.


    Posted by Sean at 05:02, June 13th, 2007

    Hmm…. This sounds oddly familiar:

    The National Police Agency revealed on 13 June that 10,000 files that included police information appear to have been leaked from an employee’s private PC over the Internet via the filesharing software Wini. It is possible that depositions and affidavits regarding police cases were included; the content and nature of the leaked data are being thoroughly investigated.

    According to the current investigation, the employee (26) was a chief patrol officer in a regional division of the Kitazawa office. A PC he was using at home became infected with a virus, and approximately 9000 document files and 1000 photographic files that had been saved on it appear to have been leaked through Wini. The chief patrol officer explained of the leaked data, “I received it from the head of the patrol department of the regional division.”

    If you’re thinking, Uh, gee, hasn’t something like that happened before? the answer is, Why, yes, it has.