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    A broken frame

    Posted by Sean at 01:37, September 3rd, 2006

    Since the Aneha scandal broke last year, federal officials have manifested a charming capacity for surprise. The latest shock:

    The infrastructure ministry, stunned to learn that builders rarely bother to scrutinize architectural blueprints, will require that they do so for all new wooden homes to make sure the structures are quake-proof, officials said.

    They said builders must study the design plans before construction starts after learning that such procedures are rarely observed these days.

    The ministry was so shocked at the finding that it decided to rescind an exemption put in place 22 years ago to allow builders to skip such checks.

    The move comes on the heels of recent disclosures about a Tokyo company that built and sold nearly 700 wooden homes with substandard earthquake resistance, officials said.

    Even more surprising was a finding by a cooperative association for quake-proof strength on wooden buildings, whose members are mostly medium- and small-sized builders.

    It said that 62 percent of about 24,000 wooden homes it surveyed were not strong enough to withstand an earthquake even though they were put up in or after 1981, when quake-proof standards were tightened.

    Is it really that surprising that construction companies would skip a step they’d been expressly exempted from having to execute? After all, the Aneha scandal demonstrated that not even civil servants whose explicit responsibility was to verify structural calculations roused themselves to do so.

    The wooden building problem is a big deal, of course. Despite the folksy belief that wood-framed buildings are less likely to collapse in earthquakes because their flexible joints and organic materials allow them to flop around in harmony with Gaia until she settles down–seriously, you hear that from people here all the time–the fact is that wooden buildings have to be very well engineered to be safe. And when they do collapse, they’re more likely to tip over than are buildings of rebarred concrete, which makes them more dangerous for the neighbors.

    Vehicles moving in North Korea

    Posted by Sean at 01:13, September 3rd, 2006

    The ROK reports (via the Nikkei ) that the DPRK may be preparing for another missile test in December:

    South Korea’s Yonhap News Service reported on 3 September that there is a possibility that North Korea will launch more missiles in continuation of its 5 July tests. The report is from informed sources in the ROK government, which say that US-Korean information agencies captured [images] of several large transport vehicles moving in the area of the missile base at Gitdaeryeong, Gangwon Province.

    According to the same report, a different information agency official stated, “Since we cannot dismiss the possibility that North Korea will time a missile launch to coincide with talks between the US and the ROK, we are paying close attention to movements in regions of suspected missile bases and nuclear experiments.

    Reuters also reports that the PRC has managed to dig deep and find a little more neighborly feeling than is its wont lately:

    Yonhap also reported China is likely to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to visit this week in an effort to restore their relationship strained after North Korea’s missile tests in July.

    China is the North’s main benefactor. Beijing voted in support of a U.N. Security Council resolution chastising Pyongyang for the missile tests.

    Beijing was expected to convey its formal invitation to Kim early this week when its new ambassador to Pyongyang takes office, Yonhap reported, citing unnamed diplomatic sources in Seoul and Beijing.

    The US is still refusing to meet with the DPRK one-on-one, and the DPRK is still refusing to resume the 6-party talks until economic sanctions are lifted.


    Posted by Sean at 09:50, August 31st, 2006

    A very late thank-you to Rondi Adamson for linking to one of my posts about the atom bombings. Perhaps it’s unfair to take this up when the gentleman concerned can only assume the discussion is over, but I must take exception to the unfortunately common sentiment expressed by one Martin in Rondi’s comments:

    Although a common mythology promoted assumed by many in US and Canada, the bombs were not necessary for Japan’s surrender and were probably not the major provoking factors…they were used to establish the US and the most pwerful nation on earth and to tell the Russians that Japan belonged to the US. see Hasegawa 2005 “Racing with the Enemy” or other serious historians on the subject.

    Thus its use was cynical. It did not save lives; it destroyed lives (the overwhelming majority of them innocent civilians). All wars have many criminals on both sides. War is essentially a criminal activity. The victors get to spout propaganda but we dont have to believe it.

    Where to begin? For starters, I grew up in an all-American town–during the Reagan Era–and we were never told once in my public school system, in any year that World War II was covered, that the atom bombs had been necessary to cause Japan to surrender. We were taught that Hirohito’s leaning toward surrender had produced an eruption of dissent among his military advisors and generals, that there was a real danger that an official surrender from the imperial palace would not stop a significant proportion of citizens from fighting Allied military personnel who then landed, and that the bombs were intended to send a message both within and outside Japan that it had been decisively crushed. Let’s also remember that the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa had happened only months ago and probably affected, a bit, strategists’ calculations of how many enemy lives it was worth risking in order to guarantee surrender and save lives on our side.

    As for showing the Soviet Union that the United States was the most powerful nation on Earth and would, thank you very much, take charge of Japan…yeah, so? Considering what happened to the economies the USSR managed to pull into its orbit (not to mention millions of its own people under Stalin), I’m not entirely sure that was a bad thing for Japan. Within a few decades after the Treaty of San Francisco, Japan was outcompeting its former occupier in many consumer product sectors; by the 1980s, Akio Morita and Shintaro Ishihara were freely arguing, in The Japan That Can Say, “No!”, that Japan had the geopolitical power to play the US and USSR off each other in the nuclear arms race. Just try to imagine China or Korea in a similar position if Japan had won and continued to establish its East Asia [ahem] Co-Prosperity Sphere.

    As for Hasegawa, his contentions are far from universally accepted by “serious historians.” The book caused a stir when it came out and won a prestigious award or two, but Hasegawa has been (pretty conclusively, from what I can tell) shown to have relied on evidence that contradicts his conclusions. Note that we’re not talking about merely failing to deal thoroughly with possible counterarguments or account for contrary evidence; the charge is that his own sources have to be twisted in order to say what he wants them to say.

    There are meaningful debates to be had over how peoples should reflect on their wartime conduct and what lessons they should take from it; the controversy over the Koizumi cabinet’s Yasukuni Shrine visits makes them of particular practical importance now. Unfortunately, they won’t happen if we rely on sludgy statements of morality such as “All wars have many criminals on both sides.”

    [Frighteningly apposite gay moment: I happen to be watching The Manchurian Candidate right now started typing that last paragraph just as the scene in which Angela Lansbury reveals her true loyalties to Laurence Harvey. *shiver*]

    Camp on campus

    Posted by Sean at 09:18, August 30th, 2006

    The Advocate‘s publishing arm is getting into the college rankings act (via Michael):

    Since 1992, the Princeton Review, has ranked the 20 schools that it considers the most and the least “gay community accepted.” [Here’s the list.–SRK] This year, the review ranked New York University as most gay friendly and Notre Dame as most inhospitable.

    Steele points out that the Review’s gay-friendly rankings are based on student opinion, while his guide is based on quantifiable data.

    Harriet Brand, spokeswoman for the Review, said the survey of 115,000 students is more compelling because students offer a more accurate, ground-level gauge of a campus’s climate.

    I have to side with Harriet Brand here–and not just because of company loyalty. Numbers of courses listed in the gay studies department, dollars of funding for gay student organizations, and the like are presumably what The Advocate is quantifying–The Boston Globe doesn’t say–but they only tell part of the story. “Gay-friendly” depends on perception. I’d be willing to bet that there are quite a few public colleges that have funded gay and lesbian programs but where gay students don’t feel particularly comfortable. And there could be institutions at which lots of little identity-politics-driven organizations don’t exist but students of many kinds study comfortably alongside one another. In any case, potential applicants now have at least two resources, compiled using complementary methods, to draw from.

    Insurance rate hikes to fund asbestos payouts

    Posted by Sean at 08:13, August 30th, 2006

    Who decided that it was more important to let corporations continue to use types of asbestos fibers long recognized as unacceptably dangerous elsewhere? The Ministry of Health and Welfare (at it was then). Who gets to pay for it now that it’s a health care nightmare? Everyone. No, really:

    In an unprecedented move, the government will require all registered businesses in Japan to pay a combined 7.38 billion yen annually over four years from fiscal 2007 to help pay redress to people with asbestos-related health problems as well as deceased kin, sources said.

    To accomplish this, the rate of workers’ accident insurance will be raised at the roughly 2.6 million businesses that are being targeted, the vast majority of which have no connection whatsoever to asbestos.

    The funds will be used to cover asbestos-related medical costs for people living near plants that used the cancer-causing substance as well as to provide compensation to bereaved family members, the sources said.

    The government estimates that 76 billion yen will be needed by fiscal 2010. Of that amount, it will earmark about 40 billion yen to cover the huge number of applications for redress filed in late fiscal 2005 and 2006. It said 9.05 billion yen will be needed annually for fiscal 2007 and thereafter.

    An insurance program has to make a major payout, and premiums go up. That’s how it works. There’s nothing really remarkable here in that sense, I know. But this story is yet another sad indication that there were deep systemic problems in the federal government at the very Japan Inc.-era high point when it was being worshipped by so many Western commentators.


    Posted by Sean at 07:35, August 14th, 2006

    Aw, man–so it’s like, this morning, I’m steering the barge as usual, minding my own business, when all of a sudden these power lines jump right out in front of me:

    A massive blackout Monday cut electricity to 1.4 million homes in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, temporarily paralyzing transportation systems and trapping dozens of people in elevators.

    Officials of Tokyo Electric Power Co. said a crane on a barge in the Kyu-Edogawa river hit power lines at the border of Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward and Urayasu in Chiba Prefecture around 7:30 a.m., cutting electricity to 14 of the capital’s 23 wards as well as areas of Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures.

    Power was restored at 10:44 a.m. as temperatures climbed above 30 degrees, according to TEPCO.

    My office is closed Mondays, and Atsushi was here for a pretty busy weekend, so I slept in this morning. I do recall surfacing vaguely at 8:30-ish to wonder whether the two hours for which I’d set the air conditioner to keep running some time after the sun was already bright had elapsed already; but the clock next to my bed is the traditional kind, and I didn’t think to try the lamp. It wasn’t until I came into the living room and noticed all the LED-display clocks blinking at me that I realized the power had gone out. And even then, I figured it had been something local until I opend up the Nikkei and saw this.

    The looks of incredulity on the faces of NHK reporters was a sight to behold, too. Personally, I found my attention drawn by this detail:

    TEPCO said there are two power lines, one of which is supposed to act as a backup in case the other goes down. But both were damaged by the crane.

    I’m no systems engineer–and I can see how they can’t be across town from each other–but doesn’t having the redundant power lines close to the lines they’re backing up kind of maximize the possibility that they’ll both be damaged at once?

    As someone I know through the office pointed out this afternoon, who needs terrorists?

    Long shadows

    Posted by Sean at 23:53, August 5th, 2006

    My thoughts on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing haven’t changed much over the last two years. The number of survivors who remember the end of the war has been gradually decreasing, since the average life expectancy for that age group in Japan is around eighty; but how to think about the war remains, of course, a big sticking point in East Asia.

    Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso has been saying and saying that pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine shouldn’t be a diplomatic or election issue, but he’s aware that the problem isn’t going away. His proposal for lessening the controversy is to make the shrine non-religious:

    Foreign Minister Taro Aso’s personal proposal for a policy to resolve the Yasukuni Issue, to be released on 8 August, has been revealed. The chief recommendation is that the Yasukuni Shrine voluntarily dissolve its religious corporation and make the transition to a special corporation administered by the state. Since it would become then become a non-religious national memorial facility, it would actually drop “shrine” from its name. Without infringing on the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, [the move would] create an environment in which it would be easy for the emperor and prime minister to pay their respects. The goal is also to open a path toward the separate enshrinement of Class A war criminals.

    Of course, Aso isn’t a leading candidate for prime minister in next month’s election. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe is:

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe made a discreet visit to war-related Yasukuni Shrine on April 15, sources said, but the leading contender for prime minister again waffled around the potential election issue.

    They said he arrived at the shrine dressed in a morning coat. He did not use his official car, but signed his name as “Chief Cabinet Secretary, Shinzo Abe” in the shrine’s guest book.

    He used his own money for the offering to the shrine.

    Abe, a hawkish politician who has supported Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni, said Friday that a trip made in such a manner would not be considered an official visit.

    “I pray (at the shrine) for the souls of the war dead who fought and died for the country, and to show my respect,” Abe told reporters. “My feelings remain unchanged.”

    When asked if he would visit the shrine if he became prime minister, Abe said, “I’d like to keep my feelings just as the way they are.”

    As an attempt at euphemism, I think that last part kind of backfires. What gets the Koreas and the PRC exercised is, after all, the sense that those running Tokyo do not really see Japan’s wartime aggression as wrong. That Prime Minister Koizumi visits the shrine in an official capacity adds extra sting, I don’t doubt, but it’s exactly the “real feelings” of politicians that are the chief subject of worry.

    So good

    Posted by Sean at 00:44, July 29th, 2006

    I’m kind of hors de combat on this one, but I’m a fan of good-natured lustiness, and Kim du Toit and Mark Alger have been posting about which women singers they think look and sound sexy. (I’m surprised Dolly didn’t pipe up at BTB about her own charms–I’ve always kind of wondered what she sounds like.)

    The topic has also come up recently because of this new R&B honey–is she being touted as the Second Coming in the States, too? I like the song. Really. But the hype is already making me hope she takes her platinum earnings and retires to a South Pacific islet tomorrow so we can go THREE CONSECUTIVE SECONDS without hearing about her.

    I mean, really, PR types…must you keep using the same damned script, with no modification whatever? “She has a voice that sounds wise beyond her years and a Stevie Wonder-like flair for writing tunes that recall the heyday of ’70s soul! Her stunning debut album, Come Away with the Hardline on How Life Is According to Mica Keysizm, causes rooms full of critics to fall to the floor in paroxysms of ecstasy!* It’s set to be the year’s biggest crossover hit! Her singing style recalls Billie Holiday but establishes a modern, youthful point of view that’s all her own! She’s got the passion of Aretha! And the sophistication of Roberta! But, like, the quietly compelling Roberta, not the tastefully boring Roberta she turned into after Feel like Makin’ Love!”

    All right, already. We get it. Observing that a contemporary soul singer owes a debt to Aretha is like observing that gravity pulls lead shot downwards. And it seems somewhat condescending to be frothing over the fact that the newest chick singer you’ve signed actually has a personality.


    * Yeah, I know Terence Trent d’Arby isn’t a woman, but he was put through the same sort of jaws-of-death hype mill as I’m talking about.

    The magic number

    Posted by Sean at 22:47, July 27th, 2006

    Now that former Minister of Foreign Affairs Yasuo Fukuda has bowed out, current Minister of Finance Sadakazu Tanigaki has announced his candidacy for LDP president in the election two months from now:

    His campaign platform consists of pledges that his administration will (1) normalize relations with neighboring nations, (2) rebuild strong ties within the [East Asian] regional community, and (3) begin the first stages of fiscal restructuring–his “three resolutions.” Regarding the current state of Japan-PRC and Japan-ROK relations, he criticized Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi’s approach to diplomacy, stating, “Relations are abnormal. It is undeniable that the reason is the Yasukuni Shrine issue.” He also emphasized that “in terms of foreign relations, it is necessary to conduct ourselves in such a way as not to go stirring up domestic politics or nationalist sentiment in foreign countries.” He called for the establishment of an Asia Hotline that heads of state could use at any time to contact one another.

    His fiscal restructuring plan includes a doubling of the consumption tax. Great.

    Shinzo Abe is still, of course, the front-runner, and there have been no indications that his supporters (or the analysts and talking heads who think they’re speaking for them) see Tanigaki as a particular threat. I do realize that Tanigaki was speaking in a specific context and has the specific task of distinguishing himself from Abe in bold strokes, but in terms of policy, I always worry when a politician has a list of ad hoc prescriptions for dealing with hot-button issues but doesn’t bother to articulate the set of principles from which he derived them. (That means I spend a lot of time being worried.) You don’t have to agree with all of Koizumi’s beliefs to appreciate that he has the vision thing in a way the political operators surrounding him do not.

    Sin of omission

    Posted by Sean at 00:26, July 26th, 2006

    The responses to this post by Steve Miller at IGF are, I think, instructive. The point of contention is this:

    I guess they meant well. But publishing this ad in newspapers, showing that the usual gang of leftwing activists, liberal politicians and big-labor leaders (and some progressive religious folks) support marriage equality made me bristle. In my view, if big labor is for it, then it certainly can’t be good. I think many who aren’t on the liberal left have the same visceral reaction.

    The issue isn’t whether the big-guns unions do good things for their members; it’s how the positions their representatives take as political entities are perceived by voters as part of a pattern. At least, that’s what I thought the point was. But the would-be refutations provided in the comments consist largely of statements that unions are forces of saintliness within the workplace, that gays who have worked within them are heroic warriors for justice, and that any criticism of the reflexive left-ward tendencies of gay advocacy can be lumped in with the most hysterical anti-leftist ranting.

    It’s a shame that Miller doesn’t usually get into the fray in comments threads, because amid all the inter-queen class warfare, his point is being misinterpreted and therefore not dealt with.

    It’s true, as some have pointed out, that most of the signators to the ad have no perceptible political position–assorted elected officials and church leaders of unidentified affiliation. And the rest? Let’s see: We have labor leaders, Kim Gandy of NOW, Norman Lear, and Melissa Etheridge. One signator is also pricelessly identified as the founder of “The Spiritual Spa and Holistic Healing center.” (Wonder what goes into the facials there?)

    The problem isn’t that these people were included. It’s that only these people were included, giving the average reader the perfect excuse for deducing vaguely, before turning the page, that supporters of gay marriage comprise no one who isn’t along the urban/dilettante-celebrity/union/lobbyist liberal axis. We can argue over whether that perception is unfair, but Miller is right to point out that it’s stupid in PR terms to be feeding into it.