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    Anger, despair and humiliation

    Posted by Sean at 03:45, April 20th, 2006

    Meryl Yourish (via Instapundit) has another post up about suicide bombings–as in, how they work. Even if you’ve already read up on the topic, she’s got some good, if disturbing, reminders of what it means when the news reports “critical injuries” in a suicide bombing in Israel. The comments thread also provides some extremely dark amusement: You will be relieved to hear that while Palestinian terrorists embed nails, nuts, and ball bearings in their bombs to maximize casualties, sometimes use plastic pieces instead because they can’t be detected by X-rays at the hospital, and source their projectiles from “metal shops” that pretend to be dedicated to serving legitimate civilian markets, there is no conclusive evidence that they are soaking bomb components in rat poison to increase hemorrhaging.


    Nice to have your faith in humanity restored, huh?

    I got a similar feeling, as always, from reading through some of the reactions to Monday’s attack on behalf of the Palestinians:

    We have never allowed ourselves to justify any operation that targets civilians, any civilians. But every time Palestinians or Israelis face mass murder as a result of systematic Israeli terrorism, and Palestinians react with anger, despair and humiliation, we hold the Israeli leadership responsible, because it insists on occupying the Palestinian people’s lands and on attacking them every day, killing their children, bringing resident’s houses down on their heads, destroying trees and fields right in front of the eyes of the miserable farmers, closing crossings, destroying the economy and killing the hopes of the Palestinians, big or small.

    I realize it’s easy to talk this way as an American, but still…don’t these people ever get just the tiniest bit embarrassed at the way their leaders and defenders are always playing the pity card? After decades being swaddled in foreign aid and dandled on the UN’s knee, is it unrealistic to expect the Palestinians to be resourceful enough to find some market niche to exploit and build some infrastructure? Even if they only wanted to expand their economy so they could lay up a stock of real weapons for a showdown with Israel, at least they wouldn’t have to use every second of global media airtime they get to talk about how pathetic they are.

    Japan to cease project aid to Hamas government

    Posted by Sean at 13:11, April 18th, 2006

    Japan will freeze some of its aid to the Palestinians as a reaction to the Hamas victory in the elections:

    The government, in a move that aligns it with the US and the EU, which have announced cessations in aid, aims to force a reversal of Hamas’s policy of armed struggle [with Israel].

    The aid cessation will be limited to that which would have gone to new projects to build social capital and infrastructure; the plan is to continue to respond to requests from the Palestinians for humanitarian aid, such as food.

    The article mentions Ministry of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso, who usually has something fabulously undiplomatic to say about this kind of thing. No such luck this time, unfortunately.

    On a related matter (and for those who’ve managed not to see it linked yet), Jonathan Rauch’s latest National Journal column is reproduced in Reason On-line. It’s about what the T in WOT should be understood to mean. His recommendation, which synthesizes approaches in a few new scholarly works:

    Jihadism is not a tactic, like terrorism, or a temperament, like radicalism or extremism. It is not a political pathology like Stalinism, a mental pathology like paranoia, or a social pathology like poverty. Rather, it is a religious ideology, and the religion it is associated with is Islam.

    No single definition prevails, but here is a good one: Jihadism engages in or supports the use of force to expand the rule of Islamic law. In other words, it is violent Islamic imperialism. It stands, as one scholar put it 90 years ago, for “the extension by force of arms of the authority of the Muslim state.”

    Viewing Jihadism as the enemy could make it easier to confront its religious element squarely without seeming to implicate all of Islam. I’m not sure using the word would work quite as Rauch seems to think–even the much-talked-about moderate Muslims could be somewhat miffed by outsiders who try to tell them what one of the central concepts of their faith should mean. But the term certainly gives more focus to our own side of the struggle than “terror.”


    Posted by Sean at 09:09, April 18th, 2006

    It pays to diversify, apparently. Indications are now that Hidetsugu Aneha not only falsified earthquake resistance data for buildings but also fraudulently lent his name and credentials to an unqualified designer…who used them to falsify earthquake resistance data on buildings he designed:

    Investigators believe the designer, who did not have an architect’s license, asked Aneha to lend his name and used Aneha’s seal to stamp construction documents he submitted to the municipal government.

    In return for lending his name, Aneha allegedly received about 20 percent of the design fees paid by the real estate company–about 10 million yen–from the designer, the sources said.

    Using Aneha’s name, the designer drew blueprints for nine buildings, including condos, and five wooden houses. Seismic data for six of them were fabricated, the sources said.

    Aneha wasn’t the only party to branch out into more than one form of fraud, says the Asahi:

    Police on Monday questioned executives of Kimura Construction Co. on suspicion the company, embroiled in the scandal over fake quake-resistance reports, had falsified financial statements for several years.

    Under the construction industry law, companies that undertake public works projects are required to submit documents that objectively show their business conditions, performances and other factors to the central and prefectural governments.

    Those companies are then ranked based on assessments of their financial conditions and other factors. The scale of public works projects those companies can bid on depends on their rankings.

    And let’s not leave out Huser, the other entity that’s seen the greatest gains in infamy since the scandal broke:

    According to police and other sources, Ojima had a meeting Oct. 27 last year with Aneha and the president of the private inspection company, eHomes Ltd., at Huser’s main office in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district.

    The eHomes president said he could not “issue building inspection certificates for four buildings that had yet to be completed.”

    But, according to sources, Ojima argued, “I think we can somehow manage the situation by applying anti-quake reinforcing and vibration-control methods.”

    The day after the meeting, Huser accepted payments from residents who bought units in the Grand Stage Fujisawa and started procedures for them to move in.

    “When I heard from former architect Aneha that he had ‘reduced’ figures, I knew he meant he reduced (the buildings’) resistance against seismic forces,” Ojima told The Asahi Shimbun. “But I never knew that he had reduced those figures by 70 to 80 percent.”

    The Grand Stage Fujisawa has only 15 percent of the quake-resistance strength required under the Building Standards Law, meaning that it could crumble in a moderately strong earthquake.

    The Aneha scandal isn’t the only somewhat-encouraging sign of a new interest in accountability. This Mainichi English report says that Mitsubishi Motors, defective vehicles from which have been implicated in a parade of fatal accidents over the last dozen or so years, has been ordered to pay damages to the mother of a woman who was killed by a wheel that came off a moving truck in 2002. It also, unusually even for English articles in the Japanese press, contains background helpful for those who don’t live here:

    “Mitsubishi Motors can afford to pay 5.5 million yen [US $50 thousand-ish–SRK] without feeling an ounce of pain,” Aoki said in a telephone interview. “The legal system must work to provide preventive measures.”

    Aoki said Japan’s system for keeping companies in check was so outdated victims of such accidents are usually awarded even less than the damages in Tuesday’s ruling.

    Mitsubishi Motors said it will abide by the ruling and apologized to Okamoto’s family.

    “We will do our utmost as a company to regain trust, strengthen compliance measures and vow to prevent any recurrence,” the company said in a statement.

    The ideas of consumer rights and corporate responsibility are still new in Japan, a conformist, harmony-loving society in which conflicts are avoided and often settled behind the scenes.

    Japan’s first product liability law was passed only in 1994, and damage suits are relatively rare. Companies are rarely required to pay more than a token amount. Even when convicted of criminal wrongdoing, executives of companies are generally handed lenient sentences with no prison terms.

    Does it get more obscene than covering up defects in vehicles and houses used by trusting people? Well, how about if your racket is to screw them out of their life savings?

    Excessive lending has pushed an increasing number of borrowers to bankruptcy or forced them to give up their home or other assets to repay their debts.

    The FSA concluded administrative punishments should be imposed against such lending practices after many vicious cases surfaced at Aiful Corp.

    The FSA on Friday ordered the major consumer loan company to suspend operations at all 1,900 of its outlets for three to 25 days as punishment for overly aggressive debt-collection tactics and other problems.

    The lack of lender liability protection has been an ongoing problem in Japan; given the increase in the percent of aging people who need financial services but don’t really understand how they work, the FSA’s sense of mission is not a moment too soon.


    Posted by Sean at 03:55, April 16th, 2006

    Atsushi was coming home this weekend, so Friday I’d planned to turn in early. But a dear friend had suddenly decided to pack up and go back to his home country, so it would be one of my last chances to see him, and work had been pretty intense over the last week; so I ended up out for a little while. It turned out to be a wise decision. For the first time in a few weeks, I spent an entire night out with the boys when it was just fun–no tear-wiping or advice-giving. You know how things seem to go in cycles wherein the lives of all the people you know get way complicated all at once? It’s not that you can blame anyone (except the fickle, duplicitous guys who tend to be involved in many cases); it’s just what happens. Friday night I was able to ramp down from big brother mode a little and just have a matey good time, and it made it much easier not to attack Atsushi with a litany of frustrations the moment he came in the door.

    IKEA is opening a store in the Tokyo area–Funabashi, the first city I stayed in when I arrived in Japan nearly ten years ago, actually. Anyway, for publicity, the company has an exhibit of model rooms in installation boxes along one of the boulevards in Aoyama. Atsushi is a total furniture queen. Not a decorating queen, mind you, just furniture itself. He likes to buy it and then kind of plunk it in the apartment where it seems to make sense and forget about it. I’m one of those people who have to try a new piece in every conceivable position before I leave it sit.

    Additionally, furniture was one of our major flirtation props when we were first getting together. He’d just bought the apartment and was moving out of a furnished company dorm room, so there was a lot to buy and arrange. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to throw lines like “Call me if you need help with anything; I only live a few stops away, and, you know, American guys are good at DIY stuff.” As a literal offer, it was complete malarkey. I’m really not bad with stuff around the house–though living in modular-plastic-box Japan for ten years has made me forget a lot–but he was moving into a brand-new building and having everything delivered and installed by Nippon Express. There wasn’t anything to help out with, and we both knew it. But it served as a demonstration of interest, and looking at home furnishings became a staple date activity for us over the first few months. So yesterday was kind of a sweet reminder of that, even if the rooms themselves were, as one might have expected, ridiculously unlivable-looking.

    And we got to spend Sunday morning eating breakfast and watching the political yak shows and stuff. This morning’s ration of “and stuff” was a fascinating special about public works boondoggles in Hokkaido. It was a Dogs and Demons classic. If none of the information was really new–I mean, I hadn’t been aware of what was happening in those specific villages, but redundant roads and dams are old stories in Japan–it was still entertainingly presented.

    I especially liked the new federal highway planned to run through a village of 5000 in the north-central region of the island. Not only are there already a tangled skein of little-used federal, prefectural, and municipal roadways criss-crossing the area–seriously, this must be the most readily accessible isolated village in human history–but the new road takes the long way around to its coastal destination. The reporter interviewed several truckers, who chuckled that of course they weren’t going to use it because there was already a truck-worthy shortcut to the same city that wasn’t a toll road.

    Residents of, I think, Sapporo next talked about snow-plowing, which is performed by three separate fleets of public teams. You have your federal team for the federal roads, your prefectural team for the prefectural roads, and your municipal team for the municipal roads. I was only listening with one ear at this point, but the problem seems to be that the local roads people actually need to use to get out of their houses are plowed after the federal snow removal teams have sailed through, scrupulously taking care of their territory only. So there are both redundancies and non-performance problems.

    We had to take off when they started talking about the gajillion unnecessary dams and retaining walls that shackle the rivers. The point that was made–again a known one, but presented in detail–was that the Hokkaido prefectural government had submitted to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport a list of projects that should be shifted to local jurisdiction…and was curtly rebuffed (譲渡が困難 was the phrase highlighted in the document, IIRC) because the projects were deemed to be in the national interest. And, the reporter pointed out, it’s in the budgetary interest of the MLIT to keep as many projects under its own management as possible.

    So…bureaucratic self-centeredness: bad. Mischievous, non-nurturing good time with friends: good. Atsushi here for weekend: good. Atsushi having to go back to Kyushu again: bad. I think I made out well on balance, especially since my street is never under three feet of snow. Hope everyone else had a good weekend, too.


    Posted by Sean at 09:14, April 13th, 2006

    Joel at Far Outliers has a post up about the Japanese view of spirituality as mediated through language. As always, it’s an interesting and well-chosen passage.


    Posted by Sean at 07:43, April 13th, 2006

    Around January-ish, there were reports that the ruling coalition was haggling over the definition of patriotism in new education legislation. The two parties have reached an agreement:

    On 12 April, the LDP and Komeito reached a broad agreement in connection with proposed revisions to the Fundamental Law of Education, which determines the basic concepts that frame education. The parties agreed on a course by which the expression of “patriotism,” which had been a focal point [for debate], was that [the educational system] “cultivates an attitude by which, along with loving our nation and homeland, [a student] respects other nations and serves the development of peace for the international community.” After an official decision is made on 13 April, the government is on track to submit the proposal to the Diet as early as mid-April.

    Why so much ink spilled over this particular negotiation? You never want to freight one of these little episodes with too much Significance; nevertheless, I think the above story does encapsulate some of the broad-brush problems Japan has been encountering in the last decade and a half or so. Is there supposed to be a shift in attitude toward Japan’s resident Chinese and Koreans? Would the educational system change in ways that would encourage children not just to “make contact with” other cultures but actually to immerse themselves in them, even at risk of becoming a little less Japanese? And what about the possibility of allowing more immigration? The point here is not to fantasize that thorny issues could be solved or micro-managed through a change of phrasing in a federal education policy. It’s just to point out that people pay attention because they know that the question of patriotism in the public schools touches on issues that go far beyond just what teachers and textbooks say in the classrooms.

    Added five seconds later: It’s also worth noting this part, from the same Nikkei article:

    The Fundamental Education Law currently in effect was ratified in 1947. The government and ruling coalition originally looked into revising it based on indications that “it has not responded to changing times.”

    In this PC era, you respond to changing times by vaguely invoking the “international community,” I guess.


    Posted by Sean at 00:51, April 13th, 2006

    That’s sad. June Pointer has just died of cancer.

    The Pointer Sisters were utterly charming in a way that’s nearly impossible to conceive of now. Just about everything they released had some element of randiness in it, but it was good-natured, sweet-tempered randiness. They delivered the line “Jump for my love” as “Make the effort–I’m worth it,” not as “You’re my slave–now act like it.” Try to imagine that from, say, Destiny’s Child. Pop divas nowadays, especially on the R&B end of the spectrum, have a way of careening between unassailably hard and drippily vulnerable. (And yes, I’m aware that, much as I continue to admire her, Madonna had a lot to do with ushering in that state of affairs–at least the former part.) The Pointer Sisters challenged their men without being cynical or…what’s a good word?…flinty, maybe. They teased, but they never taunted.

    And the outfits! Good grief. Unfortunately, there’s a certain kind of gay man with unresolved woman issues who likes to laugh at women who try to do glam and don’t get it right. Whether the Pointers were wise to that in any explicit way, I don’t know; but they were able to amuse you with their looks without making you want to laugh at them. They were three all-American girls having a good time playing dress-up with as many shiny things as they could throw on at a time. There was no pretension to puncture. Who could resist their sense of fun?

    Especially when the singles it accompanied were so great. (This, dear children, was back when a pleasing melody was considered as important as a catchy rhythm track.) The Pointer Sisters had gusto, they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and they were in on the diva joke without overworking the irony. They were never going to be the most technically accomplished, the most android-beautiful, the best-selling pop stars. But one of the great things about America is that you’re not condemned to the same life as the hometown folks if you’re not born with the best connections or the best talent or the best bone structure. You’re allowed to pack up your very good-ness and see how far it will take you when spiked with aspiration. The Pointer Sisters used their resources to give a lot of people a lot of joy. It’s good to know that June had two of her sisters with her when she died. RIP.

    I stand in front of you / I’ll take the force of the blow

    Posted by Sean at 05:11, April 12th, 2006

    So we’re all abuzz right now with the news of this white paper from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport:

    Roughly 70 percent of Japanese fear for their safety due to the frequency of natural disasters in this country, the possibility of major accidents like aircraft crashes and a growing perception that a terrorist attack could take place, according to a government survey.

    The fiscal 2005 white paper on national land and transport submitted to the Cabinet on Tuesday by Kazuo Kitagawa, minister of land, infrastructure and transport, also shows that 23.8 percent of Japanese regard the country as definitely or moderately safe.

    The survey conducted last December canvassed opinions of 2,000 eligible voters across the nation. There were 1,314 valid responses.

    People feel less safe. The next question is, should they? The rest of the article points to topics that will be familiar to anyone who’s been following Japanese news (or, hell, been reading this blog) over the last few years: the Niigata earthquake, the JR West derailment last year, the Aneha earthquake resistance falsification scandal, the asbestos scandal, and the seemingly daily reprimands handed down to JAL by the transportation authorities. (Dumbfoundingly, the article doesn’t even mention the nuclear power industry. Or the series of high-profile medical screw-ups.) Just today, there was word of yet another unsettling survey, this one performed by the Yomiuri on JR West drivers:

    According to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey, more than 60 percent of the respondents also said they had made greater efforts to improve safety since the accident.

    The results showed that while individual drivers felt they had developed greater safety awareness, they did not feel the company’s safety measures had improved overall.

    The reliability of that survey is a little questionable, since it didn’t include drivers from the largest union. Also, there’s a potential SLOPs issue. The drivers who are most likely to respond to questions about company safety policies are those who have unusually strong feelings about them.

    That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, though. One tends to doubt that real safety levels in Japan have just up and plummeted. What I suspect has happened is that economic dislocations have reduced the number of safety checks systems can perform. After the war, Japanese bureaucracies and companies made room for hordes of redundant workers. Their duplication of effort, like the Space Shuttle’s multiple computer systems, made it possible to plan, check, confirm, check the confirmation, reconfirm the check, and recheck the reconfirmation of the check, and then actually start the engine. One of Japan Inc.’s strategies was also to keep employment and consumption high in the construction industry by replacing equipment and infrastructure way before it was necessary. And the need to rebuild the country after it was flattened by the war also gave everyone a sense of being a cog in an increasingly prosperous machine.

    The end of the era of economic hypergrowth made necessary changes in approach, and Japan has adapted to some of them better than it has to others. I think the transition will ultimately be successful–in most ways, the Japanese are very pragmatic. So, for example, the sheer excess of personnel is essentially gone. When I arrived ten years ago, it was the twilight of the era of elevator girls in every department store and a half-dozen gas station attendants swarming over every car.

    But the essential way of thinking that prizes not making waves and submitting all your documents properly stamped over asking penetrating questions and finding imaginative ways to cut down on paper-pushing–that remains. Additionally, Japanese enterprises don’t seem to have internalized the fact that having fewer eyes on and hands in every operation means that each employee who is involved has to be more watchful and reliable. Everyone realizes that Japanese workers for the new age need a sense of individual responsibility, an ability to improvise, and the confidence to sound the alarm when they discover something is screwy; but no one seems entirely sure how to shift everything in that direction.

    And then there’s the fact that a lot of things that were originally built under the assumption that they’d be replaced by shinier, newer structures in a dozen years have been kept in service. That doesn’t mean the next earthquake is going to bring the whole of Tokyo crashing down, but it does mean that the Japanese are finding it more difficult to retain the image of their country as perfectly safe, clean, and healthy.

    You can’t say no to hope / Can’t say no to happiness

    Posted by Sean at 02:59, April 12th, 2006

    Last week, as those who picked up on the title to this post will have figured out, I had kind of a Bjork moment. And then, as if by magic, Beautiful Atrocities linked to this impossibly hilarious video parody. (How did the Flea not get to this first?) Bjork’s such an easy target, you’d think result would be kind of lame and surprise-free, but no. Totally made my day.

    Speaking of experimental-ly people we listened to in college during the early 90s, the new Massive Attack retrospective made me realize that Blue Lines came out fifteen years ago. Fifteen. Years. Ago. Kids who were conceived to it are, like, finishing junior high school soon. Sheesh.

    Oh, Bjork wasn’t the only funny video-related encounter I had in the last few days. The other night, some Simply Red video–I assume it’s new–was playing, and one of the guys was like, “Sean-chan, everyone else thinks I’m crazy to say this, but doesn’t he look like Kim Jong-il?” My buddy was referring to Mick Hucknall, with his pouffy receding hairline and owl glasses, riding standing up in a car. And he was right. He did look like Kim Jong-il. The resemblance was so unmistakable I almost fell off the stool–seriously, it was spooky. Give Hucknall credit for not having facelifted and hair plugged and Botoxed himself into an animatronic wax figure like many other celebs his age, but the guy seriously needs a new stylist.

    Yes, that’s bitchy, but it was that kind of weekend. Atsushi was supposed to come home, but through no fault of his own ended up having to stay in Kyushu for business. So I was kind of in a mood that my friends took it on themselves to yank me out of. I was entertained the whole weekend, but I think I ended up exhausting my entire ration of gayness for the next six months. No one tell the board of the International Homosexual Conspiracy, or they’ll send their enforcers to keep me in Dockers and Miller Lite until October.

    Not that anything newsworthy happened. In a way, it was the according-to-recipe-ness that made it comforting: The packed club where someone jostled my buddy’s arm and sent half his shot of tequila across the front of my sport jacket. (I had fun explaining that one to the dry cleaner.) The two Japanese guys in their early 20s who, in addition to looking about thirteen, did that junior high school thing where they come up to you and say, “Our friend over there? He’d really like to talk to you? Is it okay if we bring him over?”

    One thing that wasn’t comforting: DJ types? Guys? Seguing from “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” into “Hung up” was a tired idea before you even did it the first time last fall. Enough, already.

    When I went to dinner with a friend–this was the next day–the headwaiter swooped down on him in full service-industry swish mode: “HONEY! Haven’t seen you for ages the sweater is working for you how are you who’s your friend you’ll love today’s fish let’s give you a table with a view I know you want a bottle of Italian white BAY-BEE!” In the silence and stilling of air currents occasioned by his departure, I asked my friend who he was. My friend responded (gay readers will know exactly what’s coming) in his usual confiding Australian drawl: “Sean, I have no idea. I was hoping you‘d remember him.” If you’ve ever wondered why gay guys resort to calling each other “darling” all the time, it’s there in that moment.

    This is a pen

    Posted by Sean at 00:04, April 10th, 2006

    The Nikkei had several good editorials over the last few days while I was busy thinking about other things. One on Friday was about the teaching of English in elementary schools:

    The debate over whether to make English a compulsory subject in elementary schools has heated up. At a meeting at the end of March, the Foreign Languages Division of the Central Education Commission, the advisory body for the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology [actual official English name, kids–SRK], compiled a report approving the move. For Japan to survive in this age of internationalization, we cannot dodge the necessity of perfecting our English education. We must be forward-thinking with regards to making English compulsory in elementary schools.

    Post-war English education has been a disaster. The sad situation is that, despite the long time they spend studying it, English isn’t something the vast majority of people are actually able to use. One option for addressing that is to set up an environment in which students can get to know English from elementary school on.

    However, there are several topics of concern involved in making English compulsory.

    One major concern raised is that putting English into the curriculum could require cutting out time spent studying Japanese language and literature to make room for it. Another is that foreign teachers would have to be brought in in order for students to learn real English. The editors see neither of these as insurmountable, since the time dedicated to English would amount to about an hour a week and electronic media can provide audio stimuli without the presence of a native speaker.

    Oddly for the Nikkei editors–who are usually wonderfully ready to give bureaucracy a good pummeling at any opportunity–they don’t raise what I see as the biggest concern: Given that the Ministry of Education has spent the last half-century non-teaching kids English in junior high and high school, do we really expect it to come up with a program of English for grade school kids that’s efficacious at anything but consuming more of the budget?

    A paragraph I didn’t cite said, “There’s no need to conceive of English and Japanese as opponents.” But one of the problems, of course, is that English education here has been drained of as much possible “foreignness” as possible. Students in Japanese schools learn English the way they learn math–as a set of formulaic rules to be memorized and adapted to situations that fit certain criteria. In its quest to turn children into good Japanese adults, the Ministry of Education has steadfastly avoided impressing upon them that English is a multi-dimensional language and way of thinking about the world that’s different from the Japanese way of thinking. How far the society here should go in cultivating the special Japaneseness of its young is not for me to judge; but the Ministry of Education’s guiding principles to date have clearly been real barriers to effective foreign language learning, and all the talk about “internationalization” will be essentially meaningless until that conflict is faced squarely. It’s odd to see the normally incisive Nikkei glide over that.