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    My city was gone

    Posted by Sean at 13:51, December 22nd, 2005

    The flight today was a real throwback. Narita was–surprise!–congested, so we circled a good twenty minutes before getting clearance to land. They’d warned us it was going to be turbulent, and it was. There weren’t any scary drops or bone-jarring shakes; the plane just kind of swayed and swished its way down. It was like a water slide. A nauseating water slide. I could feel myself turning green (which at least coordinated with my light-purple sweater). The girl next to me threw up. I think it had been a good decade or so since I’d seen someone use a barf bag or been on a plane that had to circle before landing. Whether that’s because I’m lucky or because technology and know-how have improved steadily, I don’t know.

    Our landing was not like the one described in the introduction to Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl , which I picked up to read on the flight (Virginia Postrel’s been posting about it) and enjoyed immensely. Well, actually, I’m not the whole way through yet: the book isn’t what you’d call dense, but if you’re interested in the ways individual decision-making adds up to create society, there’s a fact or stat in just about every paragraph that sends your imagination shooting off in several suggestive directions. Bruegmann had me by approximately paragraph two:

    When the plane banks sharply to the left about an hour and a half into the flight from Chicago, I know that we are starting our long descent into New York’s LaGuardia airport. Looking down, I can see long, wooded ridges running diagnoaly from the southwest to the northeast, alternating with wide stream valleys between them. This part of Western New Jersey is beautiful from the air. In summer the deep green of the oaks and maples on the ridge tops forms a striking contrast with the lighter greens that make up the patchwork quilt of fields in the valleys. At first glance, this landscape of cropland, farmhouses, roads, and streams seems timeless, little changed over the centuries.

    It is difficult, at least at first glance, to imagine what all the people living in these houses do, where they work, shop, and play since there are not office buildings, shopping centers, or movie theaters in sight. It is possible that some of them work from their home, relying heavily on the phone, Internet, and express delivery services to keep them connected to the urban world, and it is possible that others drive to jobs in small towns nearby. The substantial number of houses, however, suggests that the majority must commute some distance to work, perhaps to nearby corporate centers tucked discreetly into the rolling hills or, further afield, to large business centers along highways like the Route 1 strip near Princeton. Others probably make their way daily into downtown Trenton or Center City Philadelphia, twenty and forty miles to the southwest, respectively, or into downtown New Brunswick, Newark, or even Manhattan, thirty, forty, and sixty miles, respectively, to the northeast. In virtually every case, however, no matter how rural the view from the living room window, these residents are more closely tied economically and socially to the urban world than they are to the apparently rural one they can see out their windows.

    And, Bruegmann implies, that’s okay. People make the trade-offs they need to maximize what’s most important to them, and often that means they have to spend some non-negligible time commuting, and they have to do it by car. You would think that such a non-judgmental point of view wouldn’t be so jarring, but after years of reading about how people need to be pistol-whipped by zoning boards and transport authorities into living on top of each other and not driving, it’s nice to see. Bruegmann’s historical overview of urban development, which indicates that “sprawl” is far from a new phenomenon, was fascinating, too.

    Of course, this was all amusing to think about as the Narita Express barreled along toward central Tokyo; within a few minutes, I was moving through shoals of evening rush-hour commuters at Shibuya Station, then waiting in a long taxi line, then finally collapsing with a sigh on the bed in my third floor apartment. I love this life, but I recognize that most other people are not bookish, childless city types. Bruegmann seems to be doing a good job of arguing that the main reasons so many commentators want them to live as if they were are cultural rather than conservationist. I’m looking forward to finishing the book, assuming I ever get back to a normal sleep schedule. I’ll be damned if I can tell you what time my body thinks it is right now.

    Added on 24 December: Darn–I used to know a Peter Bergmann, so without thinking I changed the author of the book’s name. It’s fixed now.


    Posted by Sean at 11:20, December 21st, 2005

    Given the strike, it seemed prudent to ask the car service to leave extra time to get to JFK from Murray Hill–not that it needed extra prodding–and, naturally, traffic ended up being none too bad. It was rather touching to have taxis slide up to the curb (I waited outside with my stuff to make sure the drive didn’t waste time buzzing for me) and be asked by the passenger riding shotgun whether I needed to carpool to the airport. Just try getting a cab in Manhattan if you look as if you’re going to the airport at any other time! No glitches getting here and through emigration, though my thoughts as always ran along the lines of Why is it so easy for airport authorities in Asia to figure out how to set up enough tables for you to put your stuff back together after being scanned, while US airports make you take off your jackets and shoes and belt and take out your laptop…and then expect five people to reassemble themselves with a single 3’*3′ slab of formica to lean on at the end of the line? Sheesh.

    The problems I’m worried about, actually, are at the other end: Japan is expecting to be hammered by snow in Hokkaido and along the Pacific coast, so Atsushi’s flight out of Kyushu on Friday could be delayed or canceled. We’ll just have to wait and see. In other Japan news, the Building Contractors’ Society of Japan is writing a manual to help people spot falsified structural strength calculations. That’s nice, but I thought the whole scary point was the that falsifications were transparent and that it was a surprise no one had caught them. (BTW, here‘s yet more evidence that one of the construction companies, Huser, was warned ahead of time of Aneha’s bogus figures. Residents of condominiums it built are asking to have the company declared bankrupt.) And there’s more information about Kosuke Ito, the LDP Diet member who went to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport and asked for Huser to be treated gently:

    Ito, who once served as director general of the National Land Agency, visited the director of the ministry’s construction supervision division with Huser Management Ltd. President Susumu Kojima on Nov. 15, two days before the ministry disclosed the scandal.

    “It’d be a problem if the company had to dismantle buildings (constructed based on falsified quake-resistance data),” the bureaucrat quoted President Kojima as telling him.

    “Would you please consider his request?” Ito then told the division director.

    The director said he rejected the request. “The safety of the residents is the top priority.”

    Ito denied having asked the bureaucrat for leniency for the Tokyo-based Huser. “People were already living in the condominiums, so the top priority was to ensure safety of the residents as soon as possible. I thought we had no time to lose, so I took him to the ministry on the same day.”

    In September last year, Kojima bought 50 tickets, each priced at 20,000 yen, to a fund-raising party for Ito’s political fund-raising organization. Kojima has paid a 160,000 yen membership fee annually to the organization over the past four years.

    Speaking of tense relations between government bodies, the Japan and PRC foreign ministers may meet. Or, if precedent is any indication, not.

    Can’t wait to get back home.

    I’m breakin’ it down / I’m not the same

    Posted by Sean at 18:56, December 20th, 2005

    One sign of an advanced society is the TLC with which it treats artifacts of profound cultural significance.


    Posted by Sean at 09:24, December 20th, 2005

    Virginia Postrel has one of her interesting posts about sprawl up. Fun fact from my part of the world: New York is more densely populated than Tokyo. Of course, that’s from official measurements, but it’s really not so hard to believe. Simply dividing the total population by the total land area gives a nice, rough point of departure, but as Virginia points out about New York and LA, it doesn’t tell the whole story by half.

    If you visit Tokyo, as opposed to living in it, you may never really see much outside the major interchange stations on the Yamanote Line; but just a few stops beyond that inner ring, the landscape is completely different. When I lived in Shibuya, my apartment building was the only residential structure within a good five or six contiguous blocks. Where we live now, just four stations outside Shibuya in Setagaya Ward, just about everything is residential. The storefronts, even along major thoroughfares such as Komazawa Avenue, mostly have apartments above them. Zoning in Japan is kind of weird to many Westerners–there really is a lot of mixed construction–but as an overall pattern, Tokyo is one of those cities in which nighttime and daytime populations cluster in visibly different places, which means that the crushing density tends to follow people around–or, more accurately, that they create it by all moving together.

    And like just about any other city, Tokyo doesn’t stop at Tokyo. Urban-level average population density continues southwest through Kawasaki (1.3 million), Yokohama (3.5 million), and the smaller cities in Kanagawa Prefecture, including Atsushi’s hometown of Kamakura (a comparative hamlet at 170,000). It also goes east through Chiba Prefecture, north through Saitama Prefecture, and west through the municipalities that have been annexed by the Tokyo Metropolitan District but aren’t part of the original twenty-three wards. None of these places is in the mindspace that you’d think of as Tokyo, but they’re definitely part of the metro area. By contrast, some land (such as hiking places deep in the mountains in Ome City, to which you have to take an old single-track train) is so unpopulated that even calling it rural seems a stretch, but it lies inside Tokyo Metro, so it’s counted for a lot of statistics.

    Speaking of malfeasance related to public transport….

    Posted by Sean at 08:24, December 20th, 2005

    I’m trying hard not to shrug my shoulders and say, “That’s what you get, scumbag” in reacting to this little story:

    A middle-aged man died after being overpowered by train passengers at a station here for molesting a woman on a train on Tuesday morning, police said.

    Local police are questioning the passengers who captured the man over details about the incident, and are trying to identify the man believed to be a 40-year-old company employee from Nishi-ku, Osaka.

    After the man began to run away, four male passengers, including two police officers who were on their way to work, chased him for some 50 meters before tackling him on the platform. He fell unconscious shortly afterwards, and later died.

    Assuming the accusation of chikan wasn’t mistaken, and assuming the four guys who ran him down didn’t keep whaling the hell out of him long after he’d capitulated–Aside: Why don’t I ever get chased down train platforms by off-duty police officers who want to wrestle? Probably because I’d have to start grabbing boobies to get ’em heated up–I’m thinking we should chalk this one up to the occupational hazards of groping strange women on trains. If you’re going to assault people, you’re implicitly taking on the risk that they (or others) will come to the decisive defense of their persons. Same deal with breaking into someone’s house or car.

    I can’t drive [beyond] 55

    Posted by Sean at 07:59, December 20th, 2005

    Great. MTA strike. Luckily, I’m in Midtown and don’t have business at far-flung points in the city before I leave tomorrow; the strike may interfere with my lunch plans, but that’s about it. For people with little income and a lot of odd jobs to do to support themselves, however, this really sucks.

    My father’s a steelworker–unionized, started in the early 70s just before competition from the Japanese and Big Steel’s own slow reflexes made life hell for a lot of the plant workers. I’m sure MTA workers are “underappreciated and disrespected.” Isn’t everyone? But the benefits (and retirement age) MTA is asking for exist practically nowhere on land or sea anymore:

    “It’s a pain in the neck,” [a foreign currency analyst] said. “I’m very anti-union, especially this time of year. It’s ridiculous. If you look what they’re asking for, that’s 50 years ago. Pensions don’t work like that anymore. I’d kill for what they’re asking for.”


    Posted by Sean at 07:40, December 20th, 2005

    The patronage system in Japan is such that this is basically the first we’re hearing of this:

    Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizum held an end-of-year party on 20 December, inviting all Diet members newly elected to the lower house in September to the Prime Minister’s residence. However, those legislators who are already members of factions that are opposed to the administration’s policies were not invited. Within the LDP, some took this as the “flag hoisting for the Koizumi faction”; it is not inconceivable that in the movements of these “Koizumi Kids” will determine where September’s general election goes.

    Koizumi was originally a member of the Mori faction, then its de facto head, but he withdrew from it in 2001 when he was gearing up for real to run for Prime Minister. His former mentor has frequently expressed shock in public at Koizumi’s political tactics–but then, given Mori’s record of non-achievement as PM, I don’t know that his opinions carry much substantive weight. However, he did, despite his general lack of popularity, play the connections game. Koizumi famously has not (except on certain occasions when his opportunism was blatant), and his ability to form a viable faction of his own has been dubitable. As always with early moves like this, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

    I like fags

    Posted by Sean at 18:14, December 19th, 2005

    Okay, just one more Brokeback Mountain post.

    Actually, not even a Brokeback Mountain post, but a link to Tom being hilarious about it:

    It’s not fair of me to discount Cocksuck Canyon sight unseen, scent unsmelled, feel unfelt, ticket unbought, and cheap of me to not even respect its proper christian name. But really, why would any gay guy with any kind of sexual history need big screen affirmation of the varieties of homosexual experience, the cruelties of heterosexual ignorance, and the deep love and great thrills that can be found in that nexus? Or in that Lexus.

    I have pre-judged incorrectly before. Angels in America always seemed to hold out the promise to me of everything I hated about angels, prepositions and America. But when I saw the first half a few weeks ago, unhappy with my lot in entertainment and ready to bolt at every commercial break, I found myself remaining. I’m not sure yet if the play is good, but I know the performances were great. I don’t who that chick is who played the mormon’s wife, but she’s terrific. As is Mr. Pacino (“I’m sooooo ashamed”) and pretty much all the others. I will gladly watch the second half when mischance allows.

    Mickey Kaus has it exactly wrong when he insists that Brokeback M. is a gay movie and protests to the contrary only make it gayer. This really is a movie for straights, and Mickey K. has been viral marketed into a slavish delirium, “I’ll go see it, but I don’t want to go see it.” That kind of mid-brow, pop-cult robotics shames all free-thinking replicants everywhere.

    It gets better from there.


    Posted by Sean at 01:05, December 19th, 2005

    I’ve toyed for years with the idea of getting a Japanese driver’s license and maybe a junky car. For some reason, I’ve never gotten around to it. Part of it is that I can get everywhere on foot, by cab, or by train without really feeling inconvenienced; and part of it is that I think Atsushi likes doing the driving because it means I’m letting him do something for me. So we have a claim on a parking space in our building (probably worth more per square meter than our apartment) that’s empty while he has the Toyota in Kyushu.

    The result is that my need to be at the controls of a motor vehicle gets saved up for eleven months of the year and only has an outlet while I’m home. Luckily for me, eastern PA has a lot of variety in the driving, so I get a good workout here. Within fifteen minutes of my parents’ house–have I mentioned that they not only have giant creche out front but also one of those fan-inflated light-up snowmen just outside my bedroom window?–you can go from back roads to a tractor-trailer-heavy interstate to downtown. But the most fun to be had is around Philadelphia.

    For those who haven’t had the pleasure, four of the interstates through metro Philadelphia are 76 (the Schuylkill Expressway), 276 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike), 476 (the Northeast Extension of the Turnpike, which runs up by my hometown), and 676 (the Vine Street Expressway in Philly and then through to New Jersey). I assume that the number assignments were patriotic in origin, but figuring out which is which must drive non-locals insane.

    And that, of course, is before they actually start driving on them. Today, I hit the Schuylkill Expressway at the perfect time to experience all its electrifying glory: it was crowded enough that you were hemmed in on all sides but empty enough that it was possible for everyone to do 70. The sun was low enough to get in your eyes at inopportune moments. Also, the Schuylkill is one of those roads with on and off ramps on both left and right, so quite a few people find it necessary to cross three lanes of traffic at some point along the way from A to B. You just have to settle in and treat it like a real-life video game.

    I smiled a little as I shot past the University City exit. When I was in college and coming back from a few days home in Emmaus, my father and I would slow to get off there, and at that point my muscles would unclench and I’d think, I’m back–thank God! This was when I was still getting up at 7:30 to go to church every Saturday, so I meant that last part literally. It was also when Philadelphia seemed blissfully far away from the Lehigh Valley, though compared to Tokyo, of course, it’s right there. I think I might still have been entertaining the idea of becoming a writer then, before I realized that I’m perfectly content to play out my imagination inside my own little mental world and am much better, in the external sense, at explicating other people’s original writings than contriving my own.

    Things have changed for my college friends, too, which is why today I was headed not for Center City but for Haddonfield, NJ, where two of them–married, with two little girls–moved from Rittenhouse Square when their family started growing. We ate Old El Paso tacos and seedless grapes and ice cream. The girls are clearly going to be brainy like their parents, and in years past, I’ve brought them age-appropriate books and read them aloud. You know, Make Way for Ducklings and stuff. But some four- or five-year-olds suddenly pull way ahead of their age group in terms of reading level, so I figured I’d overshoot widely this time around and give them one Hardy Boys and one Nancy Drew mystery. That way, if they get bored with children’s books in a few years’ time, Mom and Dad have something longer and a little more complicated to read to them.

    It would have been nice to have time to see more people, but I’m feeling ready to go back to New York tomorrow and then Tokyo on Wednesday. Long ago in college, before I came out, I was afraid that a decade down the line all my friends would have settled into happiness and I’d still be terminally pissy and resentful without having figured out what I was resenting. That’s over, fortunately. I can enjoy spending time with my parents and visit my hometown without its feeling like a noose tightening around me. I can visit my friends and feel the familiar feeling of being back in the group kick in. But I’ll be pleasurably relieved to turn the key in the lock when I get home to Tokyo and start planning what to make for breakfast when Atsushi’s flight comes in the next morning.

    Can’t take me home

    Posted by Sean at 08:34, December 18th, 2005

    Eric, Tom, and I had our second (what looks to be) annual Philadelphia Phags blog meet-up last night. (Tom’s comment: “I like that the 4000 mile away guy always brings the 15 mile away guys together.” That’s always the way of it, huh?) I was probably fine to drive home, but I was nodding off somewhat, so I ended up staying in what can only be described as Eric’s guesthouse. After showing me where the bathroom light switch and stuff were, he pointed out that there was a computer in the bedroom “in case you feel like blogging.” At the suggestion that I might not want to let a single night go without posting something, I just smiled–Eric, honey, I think you’re just the tiniest bit more into blogging than I am.

    Of course, this morning, I woke up and realized I didn’t have a book with me, and I don’t want to go making noises in Eric’s living room in case he’s still asleep. So here I am logged on, though I can’t say I’m quite in the mood to be trawling the Japanese media for interesting stories.

    So then, just to keep the gay theme of the day going….

    We met Tom on-site at his new venture, the Philadelphia AIDS Thrift (PAT for short). Like many crossword puzzles, it has an aerie. Like many gay-friendly thrift stores, it has an entertaining selection of books, housewares, and fashion-victim clothes. Mindful of the weight of my luggage, I confined myself to picking up a few paperbacks; but if you’re in the area, it’s worth checking out. (Unless you’re around twenty-three, my advice is to walk resolutely past the leather pants, BTW.)

    Mary at Gay Orbit has a message for straight people: Gay people en masse don’t care whether you see, like, dislike, swoon for, or find major socio-politico portent in Brokeback Mountain. To coin a phrase, it’s only a movie.

    Uh, I can’t think of anything else gay to say except maybe that Atsushi sounds even sexier than usual when he’s half-asleep, and I’m almost sorry that when I get back to Tokyo, our nightly phone call will go back to taking place when he’s still up. Speaking of being awake, this might be a good time to see whether my host is ambulatory. Enjoy the rest of the weekend, everyone.

    Added at 11:50: Eric has posted about the visit, complete with way too many pictures of my un-photogenic self. It’s worth clicking through to see the great pic of Tom in front of the poster, though. Notice that he and the shark have the same untrustworthy smile.