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    Got a short little span of attention

    Posted by Sean at 09:20, March 18th, 2006

    I would just like it to be known that I’m all topped out on Alans. My best friend is named Alan. There’s a reader and commenter here with whom I sometimes correspond named Alan. There’s another Alan–from the same city in the UK as my friend, no less–whom I’ve now met enough times that it’s going to be considered rude pretty soon if I don’t remember his name. And a few nights ago I met yet another Alan who’s here in Tokyo indefinitely who will also, presumably, tire quickly of being told, “Sorry, man, I forgot your name again.”

    Major cognitive dissonance here.

    I mean, when you’re an American my age, you expect to know 90 Michaels (of whom, if you’re gay and hang out with people in the Tribe a lot, only 15 will go by Mike), 80 Brians (bonus points for being able to remember who’s an i and who’s a y), 60 Jasons, and 50 Stephens (including the Stevens and Steves, naturally). You never start to greet someone you know casually and think, Wait a minute–this can’t be Brian; I already saw Brian an hour ago. If you don’t know multiple Brians, you don’t get out much.

    Also, if you live in Japan…well, the language only has forty-odd syllables, so you quickly become accustomed to not referring to Shinji or Jun or Taka in a conversation without making it clear whom you’re talking about before proceeding.

    Alan, however? Perfectly nice name. I’ve come to associate “Hey, Alan” with a feeling of “Am I ever glad to see you, honey!” and warm greeting back of “Hiya, darlin’.” But I have trouble remembering names so as it is, and even though I’m aware that there can be clustering in perfectly random statistical samples, who knows four Alans? Anyway, the Alan-storage synapses in my brain are now officially full.

    So if you’re a gay guy called Alan and plan to be running into me in the near future, please distinguish yourself by changing your name to, say, Fred first. Or, if that seems like too much trouble, go hetero.

    Much obliged.


    Posted by Sean at 09:25, March 16th, 2006

    The Japan Meteorological Agency has announced that the cherry blossoms are probably going to open early this year–prepare for falling-down-drunkness and inescapable karaoke in t – 6 days:

    The JMA announced the dates that cherry (Prunus serrulata) blossoms are expected to open from Kyushu through the Tohoku region on 15 March. For the first time, this year’s blossoms are predicted to open between 1 and 4 days earlier than the average in Tohoku.

    The projected date for blossoms to open in Tokyo and Yokohama is 22 March.

    There are scores of classic poems about cherry blossoms–in the seasonal-devotion sense. But of course, they’re so woven into Japanese culture in March and April that they can become aesthetic placeholders for poems with other themes.

    The following is the first poem I ever read and understood (at least lexically) in Japanese:





    Lemon Elegy

    You had waited so for the lemon.
    In your sad, white, bright deathbed,
    you took from my hand a single lemon
    and plunged your pretty teeth into it.
    Those few drops of heaven-sent lemon juice
    from which a topaz-colored fragrance rose
    snapped your consciousness back to normal.
    Your blue, unclouded eyes laughed a bit
    Your power so robust as you grasped my hand.
    There was a storm in your throat,
    and just at last possible second,
    Chieko became the old Chieko,
    and the love of a lifetime tipped into a single moment.
    And in the next instant,
    you took a deep breath as you had long ago at the top of a mountain,
    and with that your machinery shut down.
    In the shadow of the cherry sprig standing in front of your photograph,
    I will put a cool, glistening lemon today.

    Kotaro Takamura

    Kotaro Takamura and Chieko Naganuma had one of the most famous artistic marriages in Japan in the last century. Kotaro considered himself a sculptor more than a poet; Chieko was a painter. They had twin studios and shared household duties. Chieko had always been unconventional in dress and demeanor, but decade and a half after their marriage, she began to have delusions. She tried to commit suicide in the early 1930s. Of course, artists are famous for their erratic temperaments, but Chieko’s episodes developed into full-blown schizophrenia. Despite her tendency to break out of the house and harangue the neighbors, Kotaro kept her at home and took care of her for three years until it became too flat-out dangerous. She died another three years after he had her hospitalized.

    智恵子抄 (Chieko-sho: “Winnowings [of poems about] Chieko”), the book of poetry Kotaro published three years after her death, contains the above poem and others about their life together. I wrote my undergrad senior research project about it. That was the time I was coming out, of course–and though it might not seem like the greatest idea to be studying poetry about such an unstable person right about then, it was something of a kooky comfort to think that you could be completely falling apart and still have someone who would remain so tirelessly devoted to you.

    It’s known that many of the poems are idealizations–or rather, that they couldn’t possibly represent what their life was like in day-to-day terms. “Lemon Elegy” was composed in February, weeks before a cherry bough would have had swelling buds, let along blossoms, on it. Kotaro might have put a particularly shapely bare bough in a vase on the Buddhist altar with Chieko’s photograph on it, or he may just have written the poem as a projection into a time later in the spring. (Perhaps there’s some kind of critical consensus on that, but I’ve never seen it in any annotations.)

    Added on 17 March: I remembered last night after posting this that my college language partner, who’d returned with her husband to Japan by the time I was coming here in 1996 and let me stay with them my first week here, had a video tape of a television special about Kotaro Takamura. We watched it the first night I ever spent in Japan.

    Part of it was a dramatization of certain poems as they were read in voice-over. In the segment for “Lemon Elegy,” when the actress playing Chieko Naganuma died, the lemon dropped from her hand, landed on the floor with a meaningful thud, sat there for one dramatically fleeting second, and then wobbled dolorously away.

    I. LAUGHED. SO. HARD. It could hardly have been more campily entertaining if it had been performed in drag.

    While television dramas with naturalistic acting have become more common here, it’s non-mimetic theater, of course, that’s traditional. Scenes of emotional intensity are frequently stylized or exaggerated. (When Chieko returned momentarily to sanity, the look that flashed across the actress’s face was, like, Damn! I think I locked my keys in the car!) It’s a credit to Kotaro’s limpid, direct style that despite having those images in my head, I can still take the poems in question seriously.


    Posted by Sean at 07:49, March 16th, 2006

    Thomas Schieffer, who appears to keep a low profile as US Ambassador to Japan, is in the news today for having visited the beach from which Megumi Yokota was abducted by DPRK agents in 1977:

    The ambassador was accompanied on the visit by Yokota’s 73-year-old father Shigeru and others, who explained the kidnapping to him. It was the first abduction scene visit by a high-ranking U.S. government official.

    In a news conference after the visit, Schieffer said he was moved by the experience, and that the injustice of the abductions should be solved no matter how many years it took. He added he intended to discuss the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush when he next met him.

    The visit is seen as lending support to Japan’s stance of seeking a solution to the abductions, following the failure of comprehensive talks between Japan and North Korea in February.

    The abductee issue is a big one for Japan (both the government and the public). When there are talks between the DPRK and the US in which Japan is involved, it tends to get backburnered in favor of more attention to, you know, nuclear development and stuff. And Japan and North Korea certainly haven’t solved it between themselves.

    Megumi Yokota, BTW, is the abductee whose unknown whereabouts have been reported on most frequently since the issue really gained steam several years ago. The DPRK gave Japan a pile of bones that turned out not to be hers.

    Somewhere deep within / Hear the creak that lets the tale begin

    Posted by Sean at 04:10, March 14th, 2006

    What would you think if you read something like this from a professional psychologist (via Eric Scheie)?

    Personally, I’m skeptical about turning gay people straight. But shouldn’t the client be the one to choose, not the APA? The APA has decided that the answer is no.

    Not only did the APA deny CE (Continuing Education) credit to professionals attending the annual NARTH conference in November, stating that “The program content is not consistent with APA policy” but the APA is attempting to declare therapy to modify sexual orientation unethical (National Psychologist, March,April 2006). Nicholas Cummings and Rogers Wright, authors of Destructive Trends in Mental Health,talk about the APA’s attempt to silence those who disagree with their positions.

    There are plenty of possible responses to Dr. Helen here. For example, despite the APA’s generally liberal political bent, perhaps it has honestly noticed that “reparative” therapists don’t seem to be able to produce much beyond Carol Gilligan-level anecdotal evidence that their conclusions are grounded in reality. At the same time, she is clearly taking the position that people should be free to pursue happiness their own way without paternalistic interference. Bully for her for championing individual self-determination and raising thorny questions about a subject a lot of people reflexively avoid, right?

    Well, not if you’re downtownlad. If you’re downtownlad, Dr. Helen should be named in a class action suit. She’s a closed-minded conservative. She should also have another heart attack. And everyone who agrees with her is not only a moron but a stupid moron. There are probably a few more gems in his avalanche of comments there, but you get the general idea.

    I’ve had downtownlad blogrolled for a while; I miss New York, and his posts about the City are often good reads.

    Not so his stuff about gay issues.

    His coming out was pretty recent and, by his own very moving account, rocky. As far as I’m concerned, people who haven’t been out long get some leeway if they’re a little touchy and extra-combative about gay stuff. But no one in his mid-30s gets enough leeway to accommodate looking forward to someone’s next heart attack. I don’t care whether you just came out ten minutes ago and were driven from your parents’ house by your entire knife-brandishing extended family–if you’ve been an adult for over a decade, you are supposed to know how to handle yourself in public, and if you’re not up to it, you keep still until you’ve regained your equanimity. When you cross a line or two–I’ve certainly been known to–you apologize and discipline yourself not to do it again.

    Would that it were only his tone that was objectionable, but the content doesn’t entirely wash, either. There are few beliefs propagated by some of my fellow homos that drive me up the wall more than the idea that the pain and isolation we experience up until we come out exhausts our full lifetime ration of misery and that, therefore, it’s society’s job to make us feel good about ourselves from that point on. No, no one ever actually puts it that way, but the implicit belief that any questions raised about gay life are in and of themselves anti-gay or [yawn] homophobic seems to govern a lot of the public debate.

    But life doesn’t work like that for ANYONE. Fat people, Mormons, and folks with Appalachian accents who move to the big city come in for their share of callous judgments, and they’re expected to deal. If they decide they’d like to change, no one goes bananas trying to prevent them, even in cases in which it seems they’d probably be happier just accepting themselves.

    Homosexual behavior only began to be decriminalized very recently. No one should be bowled over by the fact that a lot of people still have strong positions against it. Or by the fact that some people are unhappy being homosexual themselves. Or by the fact that parents who wish their kids weren’t homosexual will try everything they can to remold them–the same way pushy parents who want their artistic kids to become lawyers or want their bookish kids to play on the football team do. One need not like such situations to acknowledge that bureaucratic fiat is a bad way to try to address them, especially when it’s alloyed with identity politics. As Eric sensibly says:

    The issue was once whether there’s a right to be gay. Over the years that has morphed into the crazy idea that if you are gay, you must always remain gay because it is your identity, and that the slightest disagreement with this idea constitutes the direst threat, and actually causes harm. This makes no sense, and I think it’s a form of intolerance motivated by a type of insecurity similar to (although not as extreme as) what we’ve been seeing in the case of people who went ballistic over the Muhammad cartoons.

    A settled mind is generally a resilient one. People who have chosen their way of life by working candidly through their own inner conflicts and making peace with the elements do not, as a rule, get all edgy at the very idea that someone else might find happiness by making the opposite choice. As gays, we’re a population that’s almost impossible to study without sampling biases, so people have to do the best they can with fragmentary information. That’s life. It is infantilizing to try to insulate people from reality rather than encourage them to meet it head-on. Is this what our elder brothers and sisters broke their heads against convention for three decades ago?


    Posted by Sean at 23:55, March 12th, 2006

    Citizens in Iwakuni voted against the relocation of USMC facilities there:

    An overwhelming majority of residents of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Sunday said “no” to the planned relocation of 57 carrier-based aircraft to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Iwakuni Air Base, casting a shadow over plans to realign of U.S. forces in Japan.

    According to the Iwakuni municipal election administration commission, 43,433 citizens voted against the plan while 5,369 approved it.

    The voter turnout was 58.68 percent, exceeding the 50 percent required for the votes to be counted.

    Japan and U.S. governments are scheduled to make a final report on the realignment plan by the end of March. The central government is unlikely to change the relocation plan due to the Sunday’s results because the plebiscite is not legally binding.

    On March 20, eight days after the referendum, Iwakuni will be merged with six towns and a village. Six of these municipalities have already notified the central government of their general agreement with the plan.

    This morning Shinzo Abe says:

    [Abe] stated emphatically, “I’d like to be mindful of the result as we move forward and explain things to the residents in good faith.” At the same time, “We’re at the stage at which our negotiations with the US have basically gelled; that’s our conclusion,” he related, indicating that his view was that the relocation plans would not change.

    The US agreed last week to return three facilities in Okinawa to Japan.

    …with Alabama in between

    Posted by Sean at 11:00, March 10th, 2006

    Here‘s Eric with more about the political strangeness of our shared state of birth:

    One of the things I hate about the damned “red state”/”blue state” argument [with you there, honey!–SRK] is that I live in a red state that’s blue.

    Or is that a blue state that’s red?

    He has graphics. My home county (still my place of residence for electoral and tax purposes) is Lehigh, which is at the northwest tip of the blue region to the southeast of the state, where metropolitan Philadelphia shades upward into the Lehigh Valley.

    I realize that the vast majority of us live in places which are varying shades of purple. But that’s not sexy. Nor does it appeal to the us-versus-them, energize-the-base party activists. This is not to deny that there is real geographical (at least demographical) tension in this country. But it’s more along the lines of “Big Cities” versus “The Rest.” It is not the country which is blue; it is the cities which are blue. For the most part, the cities aren’t even purple, the way the rest of the country is; Philadelphia is about as blue as it’s possible to be.

    Right. A lot of the red counties are solidly conservative, but they have more elk than people. (Yes, that’s a mischievous joke, but I’m not being derisive. I’m a city person through and through, but there are plenty of times–morning rush hour on Monday, usually–when I understand why a lot of people aren’t.) The cities, where most of the reliable voters are concentrated, may be heavily Democratic, but they’re still parts of different population and cultural belts.

    Philadelphia, Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton, and Wilkes Barre-Scranton–despite their differences–are all BOS-WASH metro areas. They’re part of the Northeast Corridor, oriented toward New York and DC. Pittsburgh and Erie are CHI-PITTS cities, more Midwestern in outlook. To people from the big Western states, Pennsylvania is pretty tiny, but the divide is real. The eastern and western halves of the commonwealth don’t spend all their time throwing water balloons at each other over Penn State at University Park, or anything; but there really does seem to be a tacit feeling that the number of pols from each half should be roughly equal. And yes, obviously, part of that is because of the symmetrical tug of big contributors in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but it’s also the way a lot of friends and neighbors will report voting.


    Posted by Sean at 09:23, March 10th, 2006

    As if just in time to illustrate why cracking down on loan sharks is a good idea, this story appeared in the Mainichi today:

    Two former employees of a loan shark have admitted during questioning that they intimidated a debtor, who later killed herself with two relatives, in a bid to force her to repay her debts, police said.

    Seven employees of the loan shark, including the two, extended a total of around 32,000 yen in loans to the woman who lived in Yao, Osaka Prefecture, between April and June 2003. They then threatened her into paying about 167,000 yen in interest, approximately 225 times the legal limit, police said.

    32,000 yen is around US $300; we’re not talking about a loan for big money here. Of course, you don’t need to know that to realize that 167,000 yen is over 500% interest–and that someone who needs to go to a loan shark for $300 at past retirement age is hardly likely to be able to cough up over $1000 within a few years from then.

    After obtaining the loans, the woman received phone calls from the loan sharks almost every day, saying, “You borrowed the money so repay it. Otherwise, I’ll kill you.” The victim recorded the threatening calls on tape.

    In June, the woman, her 61-year-old husband and her 81-year-old brother killed themselves by jumping in front of a train on the JR Kansai Line. She left a suicide note saying, “I’m scared by the phone calls every night.”


    Posted by Sean at 21:23, March 9th, 2006

    This is from the Yomiuri:

    Japan and the United States successfully conducted the first test of a jointly developed ballistic missile defense system off Hawaii on Wednesday, the U.S. Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency said.

    The U.S. Standard Missile-3 vehicle, which incorporates a new nose cone developed by Japan, was launched at 10:45 a.m., local time, on Wednesday by the USS Lake Erie, an Aegis-equipped cruiser, near Kauai Island, the agency said.

    Within one minute of launching, the new nose cone opened, without the missile having to maneuver, releasing a kinetic warhead targeting an “enemy” missile, according to the agency.

    The conventional SM-3 required maneuvering to eject the nose cone before releasing the warhead to hit its target, raising concern the missiles could go off course during such a procedure.

    Cool. Japan’s track record with high-profile launchables has been rather spotty over the last several years–and yes, I know that missiles and rockets aren’t the same thing–so the recent successes should be good morale, uh, boosters. (I can’t find it now, but there was a report somewhere the other day that the DPRK had test-fired a short-range missile or two this week.)

    Even now I’m all alone / Behind a wall that’s made of stone

    Posted by Sean at 21:13, March 9th, 2006

    This is par for the course in my adopted corner of the world:

    “It’s a law-abiding state that has a mature democratic system and, in economic terms, espouses liberal economic policies. It’s a country whose values Japan shares.” So saying, Minister of Foreign Affaird Taro Aso, at a lower house budgetary committee meeting on 9 March, called Taiwan a “state.” Immediately thereafter, he corrected himself: “Well, I’m speaking on the premise that China is recognized as one unified legal government. Fundamentally, it would be accurate to say, ‘territory.'” However, there are those who are discomfited by such repeated “off-message” expressions, which are at odds with the official position taken within the government.

    The LDP’s Naoki Okada responded to Aso’s backpedaling with “How do we get a handle on Taiwan strategically?”

    The question is not an idle one, given the state of economics and diplomacy in the region. Naturally, the PRC was spitting nickels:

    Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called on Japan to honor its commitments made to China over the status of Taiwan, reiterating Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China.

    “China strongly protests this crude interference in its internal affairs,” Qin said, expressing “surprise that a high-ranking Japanese diplomat would make such remarks.”

    Aso has ruffled Chinese feathers repeatedly in recent months, most recently by accusing Beijing of using female spies to seduce Japanese diplomats and later blackmail them for classified information.

    He also triggered protests from Beijing by calling China a significant threat in Asia, and suggesting that Taiwan’s high educational standards were a legacy of Tokyo’s 1895-1945 colonial rule over the island.

    Japan, you may recall, plays the “interference in internal affairs” card about the Yasukuni Shrine pilgrimage issue frequently.

    I don’t think I ever posted about Aso’s honey of a comment about Taiwan’s education standards, BTW. The Nikkei cites part of it in the above article: “Taiwan has kept up with the times because it is a country with an extremely high level of education, thanks to improvements in literacy rates [during the occupation].” (In that bit, he called Taiwan a 国, which can be and usually is translated “country” but can also mean “province,” but unlike yesterday didn’t use the word 国家, which very explicitly denotes a “state” or “nation.”) It doesn’t seem to me unreasonable to point out that some of Japan’s policies benefited the Taiwanese in some ways–though perhaps part of that is due to my American public education, in which a good half of the time spent on social science seems to be devoted to the complex legacies of colonial rule.

    As the foreign minister, though, you’d think Aso would be diplomatic enough to have put in something along the lines of “our forebears did many things for both better and worse in Taiwan, but surely one accomplishment for which we can safely honor them is….” And given that a half-century has passed since Japan left Taiwan, it’s rather odd not to acknowledge that the Taiwanese educational system wouldn’t be of the high caliber it is were it not for the diligence of the Taiwanese themselves in keeping it up since then. The PRC accused Aso of “glamourizing colonization” in that case, BTW.

    Can’t fight fate

    Posted by Sean at 09:25, March 8th, 2006

    What would you do without your friends, right?

    Yesterday I turned thirty-four. Dinner was arranged by the manager at a favorite bar of mine. I grew up in a religious sect in which you didn’t celebrate people’s birthdays–if we’re not going to celebrate Christ’s, we’re not going to celebrate yours, right?–so I’m always a little uncomfortable with the idea of having attention lavished on me just because I happened to emerge from the womb the same day on the calendar as Taylor Dayne.

    At the same time, you don’t tell people you value that you don’t feel like having the party they want to give you. So we went out for Thai food. Morning glory stems, and chicken satay, and green papaya salad, and chicken green curry, and all that. Yummy as always. Predictably but hilariously bitchy present from my friend A. Some incense–proper incense and no scented candle crapola–and some sweets. Made out like a homosexual bandit.

    And then we went to GB. Cake. For me? Thanks, guys. Really. It’s great. Very prettily covered with strawberries.

    Very prettily.

    You all know I’m allergic to strawberries, right?

    Or I probably am. A few years ago, I ate a fruit salad, and my throat swelled up, and I had to go to the emergency room and they had to shoot me up with adrenaline. The doctors gave me the interrogation about what I’d consumed immediately before getting hives. Judging by what I was used to eating and, I can only assume, by what kinds of fruits tend to be responsible for allergies, the dermatologist on overnight duty told me that it must have been the strawberries or the star fruit. Or it might have been a one-time reaction brought on by stress. I’d lived in Japan for five years by that point, so I was used to hearing doctors make pronouncements along the lines of, “Maybe next time you eat strawberries, you’ll be fine. Or you could go into anaphylactic shock and die. Do you really need to eat strawberries and find out?” Clearly not, especially since the sight of them now makes me vaguely nauseated.

    Pretty much everyone I know knows this. I’m known for it. In fact, I mentioned it again a week or so ago when the guys asked whether I had any of those weirdo foreigner-type food preferences. Then they must have forgotten, which is perfectly understandable.

    So last night the strawberry cake appeared. I smiled (sincerely) in gratitude and cut the cake for everyone (sincerely) and said it looked delicious (sincerely–I mean, they were very ripe, luscious-looking strawberries…that nauseated me, but I was editing that part out). I then, sotto voce, asked my friends sitting next to me to change plates with me and hork my slice so I didn’t look as if I’d not eaten my share. One problem: the guy who’d gotten the cake–I’ve known him for years and he kind of has a soft spot for me–was tending bar right in front of us. Consternation. Pushing cake around on plate a bit, beaming with what I hoped looked like the anticipation of pleasure. Ooh, spied a friend on the opposite side of the bar. It would be rude to eat up my cake before going over and greeting him, especially since he’s making a-toast-to-you-on-your-birthday signals at me. (His version of “Happy birthday!” consisted of “You don’t look a day over thirty-six, baby!” These queers, I tell ya.)

    Finally! An opening. The guy who’d been in charge of getting the cake went to the bathroom.

    It was like one of Lucille Ball’s sitcom machinations, only it actually worked. I shoved my plate in front of Friend 1, who inhaled the strawberries arrayed thereon. Friend 2–A. himself, who comes to my rescue way too often–was on lookout. When the toilet door opened, I was ready: sitting all calm-like with my fork idly mashing the remaining bits of cake. Since we’d all been complaining about how full we were from dinner, I figure it didn’t sound strange for me to say, “Thanks a lot, man–it was beautiful” and push away my not-quite-clean paper plate.

    I wasn’t lying. It had been beautiful.

    Added on 9 March: I seem to have done the forget-how-PowerBlogs-works thing again and revised this post from a window I reached through the Back button and not by choosing the Edit function the right way. I think I’ve caught everything redundant or fragmentary.