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    Bush touched by families of abductees

    Posted by Sean at 09:47, April 30th, 2006

    This is kind of old news by now for those who have followed the abductee issue, but President Bush met with the families of several abductees and a few North Korean defectors last week:

    “It is hard to believe that a country would foster abduction. It’s hard for Americans to imagine that a leader of any country would encourage the abduction of a young child,” Bush said about the North Korean regime and its leader, Kim Jong Il.

    Wearing a blue badge on his suit lapel to express solidarity with the families, Bush called on Pyongyang to return abductees, saying, “If North Korea expects to be respected in the world, that country must respect human rights and human dignity and must allow this mother to hug her child again.”

    In her press conference later Friday, Sakie Yokota expressed her hope that the U.S. president’s first meeting with an abductee’s family would encourage other world leaders to unite in pressuring North Korea to resolve the issue.

    “I thanked the president for sharing time with us in his busy schedule. He said he was never too busy to find time to talk about human dignity and freedom. I really wish leaders of all countries would share that thought,” Yokota said.

    Of course, “solidarity” is a rather vague term. To judge by precedent, the abductee issue will be readily backburnered at future meetings with the DPRK once negotiations over nuclear development start getting sticky. That’s not to cast aspersions on Bush’s sincerity or sympathy; it’s just to say that if the Yokotas and others expect a change in diplomatic approach, I’m not so sure they’ll get one.

    Just in case you need your memory jogged about what a vile hellhole North Korea is, Human Rights Watch gives the genteel version here. Note that while I focus on the thirteen Japanese abductees here, the number of South Korean abductees numbers in the thousands:

    According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, a total of 3,790 South Koreans were kidnapped and taken to North Korea between 1953 and 1995, of whom 486 remain detained. Some of the abductees have been used in propaganda broadcasts to South Korea, while others have been used to train North Korean spies. North Korea has rejected repeated requests from families of the South Korean abductees to confirm their existence, to return them, or, in the cases of the dead, to return their remains.

    It’s not clear that having the US play policeman–a role for which it’s usually criticized–will have much effect on the issue. At the same time Washington can hardly prove to be more impotent than, say, the UN:

    The North Korea Human Rights Act, which the U.S. adopted in 2004, opens up the possibility for North Korean refugees to be admitted for resettlement in the United States. Thus far, however, little action has been taken, and it is unclear how many refugees could benefit or when. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution for the third straight year calling on North Korea to respect basic human rights. In November 2005, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution against North Korea, citing “systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.”

    North Korea has largely shunned talks with U.N. human rights experts, except for a few meetings on children’s and women’s rights. It has not responded to repeated requests by Vitit Muntarbhorn, special rapporteur on North Korea, to engage in dialogue.

    Dialogue only works as a problem-solving tool among people who can trust one another to be working from similar principles.


    Posted by Sean at 06:34, April 30th, 2006

    No, guys, I haven’t forgotten about you. Remember in March when I said that it was the end of the Japanese financial year and that things should start to get a little less hectic in April?


    In truth, the busy-ness was only part of it. The ugliness of the debates over, say, immigration and the rape allegations at Duke has not exactly provided an incentive to get right in there and contribute. At least, it hasn’t provided any incentive to me. So despite the DPJ’s much-discussed win last week and the death of urban planning critic Jane Jacobs and other newsworthy stuff, I didn’t feel much like posting. I don’t think I even remembered to mention that I’d been blogging for exactly two years as of mid-April. (Did I?) Anyway, thanks to those who have kept checking back despite the silence.

    The Nikkei lead editorial spot was devoted to a single piece today–no surprise, considering the topic:

    On 1 May, the “Corporate Law,” with its nearly 1000 articles, goes into effect. It is the new fundamental law that has been set up to bundle Section 2 of the Commercial Law with the Limited Company Law, among others, which up to now stipulated how enterprises may be constituted.

    A variety of options have been established to permit companies from start-ups to corporate giants to be created and operated in accordance with their respective statures. That means the large-scale deregulation of entrepreneurial activity. Enterprises will have to take decisive responsibility for themselves and set strategies with a new level of clarity.

    A few notes here: Japanese has a good handful of words that can be translated “corporation,” depending not only on the kind of organization but also on which aspect of corporation-ness is being emphasized. The most literal equivalent to the Latinate sense of embodiedness in our English terms is 法人 (houjin: “law” + “person”). The strictest equivalent of limited, both in terms of meaning and in terms of use in company names, is 有限会社 (yuugen-gaisha: “limited company”), which is the word used in the name of the law referred to above.

    In the era of numerous legal restrictions, they were like so-called “rails” that had been laid down. From here on, [enterprises] will have to decide for themselves which directions to travel. Without being kept in line by government supervision, they will get direct feedback on their business acumen in the results of applying it. Toshitaka Hagiwara, chair of the Nippon Keidanren’s Joint Committee on Economic Regulation and chairman of the board of Komatsu, sees the new law this way: “We won’t be able to exploit our increased number of options if we don’t adopt solid policies based on what will truly profit those with a stake in our organizations, starting with our shareholders.”

    Making money for shareholders was, of course, approximately priority number 953 in the Japan Inc. era. Expansion was the goal, and with the book value of assets (especially property) increasing so rapidly during the Bubble, it was easy to justify.

    Yes, I know that the Bubble burst a decade and a half ago. Unfortunately, the Japan Inc. mindset and ways of doing things still have a hold on too many organizations. Outside a handful of world-famous giants, most companies have only a hazy idea of what competing in global markets would actually require of them. That means that whether the nationwide corporate culture in Japan is really ready to make the most of the its new options is an open question. The new law abolishes minimum capitalizations on public companies and LLCs. It allows terms of up to ten years for directors and allows for the requirement that board members be shareholders. It also eases the dissolution of holding companies and the spinning off of subsidiaries.

    It doesn’t address other factors, such as the financial sector’s continuing poor lending judgment. (Risk assessment and risk management are still underdeveloped here in just about every field. So, for that matter, is the financial sector itself.) And a quite extraordinary number of people–even around my age–still look on their companies as social entities to which they owe loyalty, rather than enterprises to which they contribute productivity. That’s not to say they don’t work hard. But most people, including those who go on to become CEOs, still don’t seem to think in terms of developing their own talents their own way and looking for the organizations (and niches within organizations) where they best fit. The relaxing of regulations on corporate structure is itself a sign of a cultural shift, naturally, but how much of one remains to be seen.

    First anniversary of Amagasaki disaster

    Posted by Sean at 23:09, April 24th, 2006

    The Amagasaki train derailment was exactly one year ago today.

    The representative of the families, Naho Asano (33), whose mother and aunt both died in the accident, was in tears as she appealed to JR West: “There’s nothing more important than people’s lives. I want it etched in the consciousness of JR West that it’s people’s lives that it’s conveying.

    A recent survey suggests a better etching tool is needed.

    And Muzak filled the air / From Seneca to Cu’hoga Falls

    Posted by Sean at 08:37, April 24th, 2006

    Chrissie Hynde’s one of those people like Madonna for me–I’ve been a swoony fan for over two decades, but never, ever would I want to meet her. What a bitch. But then, she’s a rock star, so she’s supposed to be a bitch and make maddening pronouncements about political issues she doesn’t understand and blow a lot of money on living high.

    Anyway, there’s an interview with her in Billboard on-line that, in two passages, tickled my funny bone big-time. The profanities come thick and fast, naturally, so even though they’re bleeped in the original anyway, I’ll put the citations below the jump.

    Japan agrees to pay 59% of Guam troop transfer

    Posted by Sean at 02:08, April 24th, 2006

    Japan Defense Agency chief Fukushiro Nukaga says Japan and the US Department of Defense have come to an agreement on the military restructuring issue:

    Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga told reporters after his three-hour meeting Sunday with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that Japan wanted to have an appropriate sharing of costs in transferring 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to the Pacific island of Guam.

    Japan has offered to pay $2.8 billion. It would also finance loans to the United States worth $3.3 billion, the remainder of its $6.1 billion share. Japan would shoulder 59 percent of the realignment cost.

    “We have come to an understanding that we both feel is in the best interests of our two countries,” Rumsfeld said after the meetings.

    Japan and the United States are close allies. On Friday, Japan’s Cabinet approved a six-month extension of its non-combat support for the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, officials said.

    Of course, there are still some hurdles to be cleared, but they’re mostly internal, related to NIMBY and environmental issues raised over proposed new sites for some military facilities to be relocated within Japan. None of the reports I’ve seen indicates that Nukaga gave word of any changes on those.

    The Nikkei, BTW, says that Ambassador Thomas Schieffer was present for part of the negotiations in Washington. No statement from him that I’ve seen, though, which is as per usual. His presence hasn’t really seemed to register much, at least compared to Howard Baker’s. Interestingly–and I can’t believe I didn’t notice this before–the restructuring of US military presence is not listed as one of the “Issues in Focus” on the US Embassy homepage.

    New Yasukuni visit

    Posted by Sean at 09:38, April 23rd, 2006

    And just to drive home that one-big-happy-family feeling….

    Courting the likelihood of another outburst from overseas, 96 members of a suprapartisan lawmakers’ group visited war-related Yasukuni Shrine on Friday, the first day of an annual three-day spring rite.

    The politicians belong to a group called Minnade Yasukunijinja ni Sanpaisuru Kokkaigiin no Kai, which literally means, “A group of Diet members who visit Yasukuni Shrine together.”

    The 96 lawmakers who visited Friday included former Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Makoto Koga, who currently serves as the head of Nippon Izokukai, an association for bereaved family members of the nation’s war dead.

    Well, all right, then. (BTW, that name really is a mouthful–皆で靖国神社に参拝する国会議員の会. They must have some eyecatching letterhead.)

    al dente

    Posted by Sean at 08:21, April 23rd, 2006

    Now, I know I have a few readers who cook, and all I can say is, My dears, you are NOT adequately taking care of America while I’m gone.

    On Japanese cable, they tend to air US shows with almost no commercials; that means that a show that’s an hour long at home has fifteen minutes of dead space at the end, and on some channels, they fill up the time with kitchen gadget commercials.

    So it is that I’ve just spent several minutes laughing my ass off at a commercial for something called the Pasta Express. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a parody. Are people seriously that easily gulled? You pour boiling water into a plastic tube full of pasta and let it sit for fifteen minutes? We’re making wallpaper paste, I assume? The commercial is beyond ridiculous, purporting to save the hapless householder from such difficulties as aiming the pot so that the pasta lands in the collander and…uh, I’m not sure what else the point is. You can’t possibly be shortening the cooking time by not having a heat source keeping the water boiling. And even the commercial makes the pasta look clumpy when it comes out of the tube.

    But you can apparently use the thing to make hotdogs or boiled vegetables and other things that are difficult to make with an ordinary stockpot and stovetop, too. Yet another advance in modern life.

    Rough seas

    Posted by Sean at 05:49, April 23rd, 2006

    If Japan pays attention to US-China relations, China also knows to pay attention to Japan-Korea relations. This is from the Nikkei:

    Chinese newspapers such as The China Daily and The Beijing Times reported on 23 April that China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency has evaluated the agreement between Japan and South Korea revolving around maritime exploration in the area around Takeshima (Korean: Tokuto) as “a result that is to Japan’s advantage.”

    Xinhua’s commentary about this round of discussions indicated that, while it appeared that both sides had made concessions, Japan had “snatched up all the rights to take the lead.” It explained that Japan had squeezed Korea by suddenly announcing that it was going to begin maritime exploration and putting its surveying ships on standby, which backed the ROK into a corner.

    East Asian governments never seem to tire of accusing each other of being sly and underhanded. What’s hilarious in this case, of course, is that the PRC itself has just caused more friction with Japan by putting a blockade around one of the disputed natural gas fields in the East China Sea. (To close the information Moebius Strip, let’s cite a Korean news source on that one.) Maybe that’s okay because it wasn’t sudden?

    Anyway, I’ve been very slack about posting about Japan news lately, so I don’t think I mentioned that Tokyo had, indeed, announced that it was going to start seabed exploration around Takeshima. The dispute that, of course, arose with the ROK was resolved last week:

    Japan and South Korea reached an agreement Saturday that says if Tokyo cancels a planned maritime survey near the Takeshima islets, Seoul will not propose naming seafloor topography around the disputed islets at an international conference in June.

    Administrative Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi and Yu Myung Hwan, South Korean first vice minister for foreign affairs and trade, reached the agreement to settle the row over the islets in Seoul after their two-day meeting that started Friday.

    Japan will not conduct, at least for the time being, the planned survey strongly opposed by South Korea. In exchange, Seoul gave up a plan to give Korean-language names to the seafloor topography.

    So we can look forward to yet more mutual recriminations in the future.

    Here‘s how the East China Sea (not to be confused with the East Sea, which is what Koreans call the Sea of J***n) situation stood a week ago:

    China has banned ship traffic around a disputed gas field in the East China Sea that is claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo as Chinese workers lay pipelines and cables to tap its resources, Japanese media reported Sunday.

    The move is certain to spur protests from the Japanese government, which has been deadlocked in negotiations with China over rights to the undersea energy deposits. The Pinghu gas field lies in an area that straddles a median line that Japan considers the border between the two countries’ territorial claims.

    China, however, makes a wider territorial claim that envelopes the entire field.

    Chinese maritime authorities have posted a notice that all unauthorized ship traffic will be banned in the waters around the Pinghu field from March 1 to Sept. 30, Kyodo News agency and Fuji Television Network reported.

    Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both Japan and China have signed, coastal countries can claim an economic zone extending 370 kilometers from their shores. The disputed reserves lie within both countries’ claims, and the United Nations has until May 2009 to rule on the matter.

    Bear in mind that no one really knows whether there’s a bountiful supply of natural gas under there–the major issue is that the country whose exploration and development are more advanced stands a better chance of winning when the UN rules, so it’s in the best interests of each disputant to find out as soon as possible.

    I’m not immune / I love this tune

    Posted by Sean at 07:01, April 22nd, 2006

    I hadn’t gone to Omotesando Hills, the latest gargantuan Mori Building project, until this past weekend. Atsushi likes architecture and always has a memorably arch comment about something or other whenever we visit a new place together, so I wanted the first time I saw the place to be with him.

    I like Roppongi Hills much more than I’d expected to when it opened. It’s kind of confusing at first, and the architecture is on the anonymous upscale-mall side, but that’s part of what makes it adaptable to all its uses. I have a friend or two in the apartments, and they (the apartments, not my friends) are utterly underwhelming in terms of aesthetics or amenities, apart from the views. But the address has major big-time cachet, and it’s certainly a location that’s easy to get around from.

    I haven’t seen the apartments at Omotesando Hills, and the site is smaller and wedged in very tightly among existing buildings, so I don’t think it was conceived of as its own little village as Roppongi Hills was. The main building, which has most of the stores and restaurants, is the kind of structure that architecture critics have spasms of ecstasy over, presumably because they’ll never have to shop there. (And the building was designed by Tadao Ando, so the accolades were probably phoned in even before the groundbreaking ceremony.) The place is claustrophobic and dark; when we got to the top level, I half-expected the ceiling to be dripping with limey water and have sleeping bats hanging from it. And they had this atonal electro-xylophone music playing, loudly, on the PA system–really distracting.

    Otherwise, Tokyo’s been doing a lot to remind me why I love living here lately. The weather over the last week has been completely schizo; there was a wonderful, chilly rainstorm–just coming down in sheets–on Tuesday night. The neon and drably colored midnight buildings always look better with a slick of rainwater, and the mist made the cranes and other construction equipment for the new Meiji Avenue subway line look like dinosaurs. The next day was blindingly clear, but sunny in that spring way, and not in the pummel-you-to-the-sidewalk way it will be four months from now. Since then we’ve had one or two cold nights–I’m betting there are going to be a lot of people getting sick right about now because it’s impossible to know whether you’re dressing properly for the weather right now–but for the most part it’s very comfortable.

    Atsushi will be home for Golden Week (the first week of May), and we’ll have to celebrate his birthday then even though it’s a few days early. He already knows he’s getting an iPod. He seemed kind of lukewarm about having one…until I showed him my photo library. That did it. Atsushi–I’ve mentioned this, right?–takes pictures of anything and everything when we go on vacation. It’s a cute quirk, but it means a WHOLE LOT of image files. I think he’s pretty excited at the prospect of having them all live somewhere portable.

    Of course, I didn’t tell him about the iPod-related annoyances he’ll also be contending with. Seriously, guys at Apple, no seamless play between tracks on albums? Here is what you need to do: Go up to San Francisco. Find yourself a disco queen with an iPod. Ask him how much he likes having gaps between the tracks on, say, Bad Girls .

    Then duck.

    Whenever there’s an update, I hope against hope it’ll include seamless play. But unless I’ve missed something, no such luck. And trying to cheat by using the fade-out-fade-in function does NOT help. Sigh.

    And then there are the remote controls. The suckitude quotient on both of those I’ve owned has been oddly high for a company that’s made its reputation on user-friendliness. The one I used with my old Mini was kind of cool-looking–until you actually pressed any of the buttons, after which the mirror finish was totally smudged and gross. (And that’s my experience as a clean-freak homosexual, mind you. I shudder to think what happened in the hands of the average teenager.) The buttons were also jammed in close together, so it was very easy to misfire and end up jumping forward a track when you were just trying to turn the volume up. The radio remote I have now doesn’t have that problem, but the alligator clip is hinged on the left, which means that when you fasten it to a bag strap, the control pad is angled away from you if you’re right-handed. Kind of awkward. Also, the clip has no gripping power at all. It’s so weak I’ve been thinking about giving it vitamin E supplements. In Tokyo, people are always brushing up against you to get off the train or cut in front of you to a department store entrance or what have you, and the damned thing is constantly sliding off.

    Hmm. Anything else to complain about while I have the floor? I guess not really. The bank holiday means that Atsushi will be coming home for the better (in both senses of the word) part of a week. And later in May, a bunch of us will be getting together in New York for a college buddy’s wedding, including some very close friends I haven’t seen in a few years. (Tomorrow would probably be a good time to start looking for a present, actually.) Hope everyone else is enjoying the weekend.


    Posted by Sean at 09:48, April 21st, 2006

    You can bet that when the US and the PRC have a high-level meeting, we hear all about it here in Japan. The top story in the Nikkei‘s evening edition was “Failure to connect on concrete issues at US-China Meeting.” The information about the meeting itself was basically the same as what we’re seeing in the English-language media:

    Hu sat down with President Bush on Thursday for what both sides described as constructive talks despite a lack of movement in differences over the Chinese currency or on how to resolve nuclear disputes with Iran and North Korea.

    In a dinner speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, Hu acknowledged “differences and even frictions” in U.S.-China relations. But the Chinese leader said he and Bush agreed to take steps to move forward to a more constructive and cooperative relationship.

    “I certainly look forward to a future China-U.S. relationship that is more stable, more mature and developed on a sounder track,” Hu said in a question-and-answer session after his speech.

    Prime Minister Koizumi’s take has been posted as a quickie:

    Prime Minister Koizumi spoke to the press corps around noon on 21 April about the US-China summit, at which no material progress was made on issues such as DPRK nuclear development and yuan revaluation [the original says “revolution”–SRK]: “Nations have their respective ways of thinking. They will not necessarily agree on everything.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe spoke to a press conference about the valuation of the yuan. “What’s desirable is the kind of flexibility that reflects the fundamentals of the Chinese economy,” he indicated.

    Ooh, speaking of reflecting economic realities, the potential problems with Japan Post privatization are getting more play as the holding company’s operations are gathering steam for real. The FTC is not pleased. Japan Post’s advantages over entrants into its markets have been discussed in more detail before, but the Asahi‘s summary homes in on some of the major problems with mail delivery specifically:

    The Fair Trade Commission took shots at Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s vaunted postal privatization project, saying the plan in its current form will give the behemoth Japan Post an unfair advantage over private-sector rivals.

    In a report released Friday, the anti-monopoly watchdog pointed out a number of items that needed a review, from Japan Post’s vast delivery network to parking spaces.

    But a number of companies that have entered the business are limited to deliveries during certain time frames and at certain fees. That is because companies intending to start regular mail delivery services are required to set up a huge number of postal boxes and ensure uniform services in all corners of the country.

    But many companies cannot afford to do so.

    The FTC’s report said Japan Post will have a huge advantage over private companies if it retains its monopoly over ordinary mail delivery services and enters other fields, such as international deliveries of parcels and other items, as planned.

    Under the watered-down postal privatization bills passed last year, Japan Post can operate postal and financial services under a government-funded holding company. The government is to gradually decrease the level of its funding.

    The FTC’s report said current regulations, such as companies ensuring uniform services all over Japan, must be abolished to allow newcomers to start regular mail deliveries.

    The report also said parcel delivery companies and international distributors should be allowed to use, for a fee, Japan Post’s postal delivery network, which covers all parts of the country, after privatization.