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    Hayabusa headed home

    Posted by Sean at 23:53, November 26th, 2005

    While Atsushi and I were spending the weekend shopping, eating, and otherwise amusing ourselves, the news cycle kept going. The Hayabusa landed successfully on Itokawa (its second attempt) and gathered its samples; the project manager was apparently elated at the press conference, as well he should be. This article from the English Yomiuri gives more information about the mission itself and its significance.

    West End Girl

    Posted by Sean at 06:32, November 25th, 2005

    If you (1) majored in poetry and (2) are a Madonna fan, life can be very cruel. It’s not just that she sometimes produces lines that could have been written while she was waiting for a bus. (Imagine Madonna waiting for a bus! I’ll wait for your peals of laughter to die down.) I actually don’t mind the sort of time-honored placeholders that rhyme “burning fire” with “my desire” and the like. They’ve become conventions, and every art or craft form needs conventions.

    Thing with Madge is, she’s often ten times worse when she actually seems to want to say something of importance. I think my favorite thing on the new album is “Jump,” which is one of her always-charming songs about navigating through life with pluck and determination. There’s one on every Madonna album somewhere, and she always pours feeling into it.

    This is the second verse of this year’s model:

    We learned our lesson from the start
    My sisters and me
    The only thing you can depend on
    Is your family
    Life’s gonna drop you down
    Like the limbs of a tree
    It sways and it swings and it bends
    until it makes you see

    The top four lines are fine. Unimaginative, but sincere-sounding.

    The bottom four? I just…I don’t…I have this thing, okay? I can’t read a poem or listen to lyrics without trying to interpret them, and I am getting a serious cognitive short circuit here. It sounds as if “life” is what’s supposed to be parallel with “the limbs of a tree,” but it could be “you” instead. Is she comparing you to dead limbs being dropped by the tree? Dead leaves? The latter would be nicely seasonal, but they don’t have a whole lot of the life force she’s obviously trying to project. Maybe she’s telling her fans we’re all fruits (as if we didn’t already know)?

    Or maybe we’re supposed to be kitty cats who have climed up the tree and have to take the risk of jumping off even though the…uh…wind is blowing? That would make sense given the chorus–but what would the tree be making you see by swaying, of all things? Does swaying make trees more instructive, somehow? You’d think that would have stuck in the memory during life science class in eighth grade. And how much bending around does the poor tree have to do until you see whatever it is you’re supposed to see? I guess the other possibility is that the verse is supposed to work as a whole, so it’s a family tree we’re dealing with. Do family trees sway? I thought she just said family was the only thing that was stable.

    This song is going to be so much easier to handle in a disco while surrounded by cute boys, fueled by a vodka or two, and moving it under seizure-inducing colored lights.

    Neither safe nor dangerous

    Posted by Sean at 20:25, November 24th, 2005

    The friends I went out with last night are architects, BTW, so you can imagine that the Aneha scandal was one of our topics of conversation. New revelations include an admission that the firm falsified earthquake resistance certification for more buildings than we already knew about. Another problem:

    But officials still have not managed to identify all of the buildings in question. Since the investigation by the Chiba Prefectural Government was limited to structures listed in Aneha’s notes, officials have been able to identify only about one-third of all buildings, and the location of 20 buildings is unknown.

    In Wakayama, where one hotel came under suspicion, city officials said an inspection failed to find any problems. However, officials added that Aneha’s name had not come up in any of the city’s own data, leaving doubt over whether the firm was involved in the construction of any other buildings in the city.

    Another building was located in Gifu Prefecture. Officials said there was no evidence to suggest that data had been falsified, but added that they could neither regard the building as safe nor dangerous.

    I’ll bet that last bit of PR-speak is of significant comfort to people are wondering whether their house or hotel room could come crashing down on their heads. Of the buildings that are known to be unsafe, there are already plans to demolish some:

    Three contractors involved in the construction of 22 metropolitan buildings built using falsified structural-integrity data have decided to demolish 13 housing blocks the government fears may collapse if hit by a temblor registering upper 5 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of seven.

    At press conferences held in Fukuoka and Tokyo on Tuesday, Hideaki Shinohara, 40, president of Hakata Ward, Fukuoka-based real estate company Shinoken Co. and Susumu Kojima, 52, president of Huser Management Ltd., said they would reimburse costs incurred by those who had to be evacuated, but were divided on the idea of buying back the condominiums.

    On Wednesday, Sun Chuo Home Co. of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, said it would demolish two 10-story buildings and a nine-story building–a total of 177 units in the city.

    Managing Director Keiji Kudo of the real estate company made the announcement during a briefing in Funabashi to the residents, during which he also offered his apologies to them.

    He told the meeting, organized by the Funabashi municipal government, that his company had thought of reinforcing the three condominiums but that emergency inspections of their earthquake-resistance had led to the conclusion that they needed to be pulled down.

    Not being an engineer, I’m not sure how weak a building has to be before you’re better off tearing it down than trying to retrofit it. It doesn’t sound good. It’s been determined that one building, inspected by a team of architects from the Funabashi municipal government, has only 31% of the level of earthquake resistance required by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. That sounds even worse.

    The rating scale, BTW, apparently works like this:

    On Tuesday, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said it will compile a unified set of standards to be applied when local municipalities order buildings that are at risk from temblors to be demolished or repaired.

    The ministry decided on the step because standards differ from one municipality to another. Officials reasoned that residents in the apartments at risk should not be worried further.

    A benchmark of 1 describes strength that will withstand a temblor of upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7. Structures will be graded in proportion to the benchmark. A reading of 0.5 means that there is a danger the structure will collapse in an earthquake of upper 5 on the seismic scale.

    Those classified as between 0.3 and 0.2 in quake resistance will be ordered torn down.

    Of the 14 completed buildings in which Aneha, 48, was involved, the ministry said Monday that 12 were rated at 0.5 or less in quake-resistance levels. One was classified with a 0.56 reading.

    As my friends and I were remarking yet again last night, an upper 5 is a significant quake, but it’s not really what you’d call major. Nor is it a rare occurrence if you take Japan as a whole. As Taro Akasaka commented here the other day, the good news is that a scandal like this rivets the attention and could help prevent such fraud in the future. The Japanese will gamely put up with all kinds of discomfort, but tell them their houses aren’t safe in earthquakes, and you will know their wrath.


    Posted by Sean at 19:58, November 24th, 2005

    Well, we didn’t end up doing Japanese last night. There was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant-bar in the neighborhood, whose decorative scheme involved a chair rail with back-lit Superballs, that we decided to cast our lot with. Vaguely Italian, with good salad and rather nice chicken. (The wine, unfortunately, was apparently a throwback to the mid-90s here, when the red in all but a handful of very expensive places was vinegary and served ice-cold. Having been chastened by years of bad experience, I opted for white.) Not exactly traditional, but companionable and moving for me, since the friends I went out with were the couple who hosted the Thanksgiving dinner we had during my first year in Japan, when we were in language school.

    The American element was supplied after dinner, when we decided to go to Starbucks. In 2005, it doesn’t get much more all-American than a triple-shot latte and cranberry bliss bar, huh? Of course, it’s not a holiday weekend here, so I’m back at the office today. (Later, I mean.) Hope everyone else had a great holiday.

    Taiwanese self-defense

    Posted by Sean at 00:20, November 24th, 2005

    When discussing the possibility of an attack by the PRC on Taiwan, people don’t seem to say a whole lot about Taiwan’s own army. Usually, the discussion is framed in terms of whether the US or Japan would have to enter the fray and what that would mean. This (via Simon) isn’t a blog I’m familiar with, but the writer seems to know what he’s talking about, and what he discusses is, precisely, how ready is Taiwan to defend itself against the PRC? His conclusions ring true based on the societies he’s describing. The PRC army is run the way you’d expect it to be: corruptly, nepotistically, back-scratchingly, and patronage-ly. The ROC army has morale problems because it’s conscription-based and, apparently, plagued by a sense that it would lose in a war with the mainland:

    The primary difference between the two forces is the quality of training. The training of the Chinese military has been described as ranging “from spotty to poor.” Taiwan’s forces, on the other hand, train to Western standards under a cadre of American educated and trained officers and NCOs. They are generally considered to be proficient at the application of military force with the exceptions noted above.

    I wonder whether Taiwan has ever asked Israel for guidance on these things. Israelis serve mandatory IDF stints, and they’re surrounded by enemies who think the land is rightfully theirs. Maybe commitment is better in Israel precisely because it is attacked regularly? In any case, MeiZhongTai (spelled 米中台, says the author, for obvious reasons) has provided an interesting read on the topic.

    Hayabusa may yet land on asteroid

    Posted by Sean at 23:36, November 23rd, 2005

    Ooh! This is cool:

    A Japanese space probe successfully landed and then departed from the surface of an asteroid 290 million kilometers (180 million miles) from Earth, despite an initial announcement that the attempt had failed, Japan’s space agency said.

    JAXA officials had said on Sunday that the Hayabusa probe, on a mission to briefly land on the asteroid Itokawa, collect material, and then bring it back to Earth, had failed to touch down after maneuvering within meters (yards) of the asteroid’s surface.

    However, on Wednesday JAXA said that data sent from Hayabusa confirmed that it had landed on the asteroid on Sunday for about half an hour. However, the probe failed to collect material, JAXA said.

    The Hayabusa is making a go-round and will attempt a second landing.


    Posted by Sean at 22:13, November 23rd, 2005

    Thanksgiving is one of those things I have a hard time explaining to Japanese people. Occasionally, someone here will very frankly say that he doesn’t see how the United States can think of itself as a unified culture and country–we’ve only existed for two hundred years and are of mixed ethnicities. Only once, to a particularly obnoxious interlocutor, have I ever mischievously replied, “Well, your ancestors arrived here on boats at some point in the past, even if it was quite a bit longer ago. They were from Korea, by the way, weren’t they? Ethnography is so fascinating, though I’m afraid I don’t have the head for it.”

    Mostly, I just try to explain that America was a set of ideas about individuals before it was a country. (Japan has a lot of ideas about what it means to be Japanese, too, of course; but the sense of uniqueness springs from the genetic heritage.) How you can read things from the Bible, things people were writing in ancient Greece and Rome, and things people were writing later in Western Europe–and you can see the formation of the United States as picking up these threads of the ideals of personal liberty throughout Western history and weaving them together. How we’re taught, from the time we’re very young, that people risked death to get to the Americas, risked death to stay there and establish hard-scrabble settlements, and later risked death to separate themselves from a motherland that was mistreating them. We actually have their written records, often thin but still there. Nowadays, it’s hard to drive around the East Coast and believe that anyone once thought it, of all things, impenetrable or uninhabitable. (If the first settlers could see New Jersey now, huh!) But that was before central air and GPS navigation.

    Today, by the unexpected favor of the elements, I’m going to be able to have Thanksgiving dinner not only with other Americans but with Americans who are dear, long-time friends. We were in language school together a decade ago, and they returned to San Francisco in 2001 or so. They’ve just come back to Tokyo now. We haven’t decided on a restaurant yet–this Thanksgiving may be light on turkey and cranberries and heavy on raw fish and shiso; but I plan to make something more conventional when Atsushi and I have our dinner on Saturday.

    So I get two Thanksgiving celebrations, which is good because we have so many riches to think about. I’m thankful for our forebears’ long-ago perseverance. I’m thankful for our soldiers’ current perseverance. I’m thankful that the new Madonna album didn’t suck. I’m thankful that my family’s in good health. I’m thankful that, of the thousands of available men in Tokyo, I was the one Atsushi asked out five years ago.

    Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


    Posted by Sean at 04:33, November 23rd, 2005

    Repercussions from the Aneha scandal are still being felt. Just about the only bright side here so far is that it’s given rise to one of those super-long kanji compound strings that can be such fun: 耐震強度偽造問題 (taishin kyoudo gizou mondai: lit., “earthquake-resistance strength falsification scandal”). It’s not a whole lot of comfort:

    The Mie Transport (Sanco) Corporation (Tsu City) announced on 23 November that it was halting operation of two hotels managed by its Sanco Real Estate subsidiary, the Sanco Inn Kuwana Station (Kuwana City, Mie Prefecture) and the Sanco Inn Shizuoka (Shizuoka City), until their safety and earthquake resistance could be confirmed. The design office at Aneha had participated in planning the structures.

    Additionally, the Nagoya Rail (Meitetsu) Group’s Meitetsu Real Estate (Nagoya City) similarly halted operations of its Meitetsu Inn Kariya (Kariya City, Aichi Prefecture) because Aneha had handled calculations for its construction.

    When Atsushi called from Kyushu yesterday, he related that one of the construction firms for whose buildings Aneha had produced the inspection reports known to be falsified, Kimura Construction (Yashiro City, Kumamoto Prefecture) has already essentially gone bankrupt. Yesterday morning, the shutters were closed over the windows and a note was posted in one of them stating that it was unable to pay its bills and was consulting with attorneys.

    It’s hard to explain just how chilling this is. It’s not just that the Kanto Plain is an earthquake zone. In Tokyo, we’re also right next to the ocean. Parts of the city are below sea level or built on filled-in creekbeds and such. Our houses are shoehorned in close together. We also have perceptible little tremors here every few weeks or so–constant reminders that the ground is unstable.

    People don’t sit around having morbid discussions about earthquakes all the time. At least, the people I know don’t. But you do think about it when you’re deciding how close you want that new bookcase to be to your sleeping head at night, or whether it’s okay to have your emergency supplies several steps from the bed and the sofa where you spend the most time. Things like that. Word is that some of the buildings Aneha certified might collapse in earthquakes at a strong 5 on the JMA scale of surface vibration. That’s strong, but a quake at that level isn’t exactly unlikely to occur at some point soon, and the instruction that you get about earthquake preparation usually explicitly tells you to factor in the age and certified earthquake resistance of your building, for obvious reasons.

    LDP at 50

    Posted by Sean at 22:48, November 22nd, 2005

    The Liberal Democratic Party celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding yesterday:

    The Liberal Democratic Party marked the 50th anniversary of its founding Tuesday and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told a celebratory convention the party’s mission now is to implement structural reforms on a par with the Meiji Restoration and the postwar economic miracle to cope with a changing world.

    “In Japan’s modern political history, two big reforms can be called ‘miracles.’ One was the Meiji Restoration of 1867-68, and the other is the reform that came 60 years ago after the defeat in World War II,” said Koizumi, who is also LDP president, at the convention in Tokyo.

    The Meiji Restoration marked the transfer of power from the feudalistic Tokugawa shogunate to a new central government, ushering in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and forcing the country out of three centuries of isolation.

    Koizumi noted that the two reforms were achieved after many people were killed.

    “How can we, in a peaceful way, implement reforms to deal with ongoing change around the globe?” he asked. “That is the duty of this governing party as it marks the 50th anniversary of its founding.”

    The party also publicized some of its new platform, including one that’s been both controversial and anticipated:

    Secretary General Takebe officially unveiled the new party platform, the goals of which are a new ideology that embraces “contributing to the realization of world peace,” “passage of constitutional revisions,” “revision of fundamental education law,” and “achieving small government.”

    Former Prime Minister Mori, chair of the party’s drafting committee for constitutional revisions, announced proposed revisions that stipulate that Japan maintains a “self-defense army” and add new rights related to privacy and the environment.

    I haven’t seen anything about phrasing that would give Japan the right to participate in “collective defense” missions, which was the other big military matter under discussion in the drafting committee.

    Chosen time

    Posted by Sean at 09:25, November 22nd, 2005

    What I love most about Madonna as a lyricist is her inventiveness with language, the way she’s constantly stretching her idiolect to accommodate new contours in her idiosyncratic inner world.

    For example, this is the chorus to “I Love New York” from the new album:

    Other cities always make me mad
    Other places always make me sad
    No other city ever made me glad
    Except New York
    I love New York

    It’s like you’re privy to her most private thoughts, huh?

    Okay, enough with the deadpanning. WTF? I could have written that. In fact, I think I did write it–in first grade when Miss Cramer gave us an assignment that was, like, “Write a poem describing where you’ll live after you grow up and decide you’re too fabulous for the Lehigh Valley.” Maybe Lourdes was helping Mommy at work that day?

    Madonna’s intelligence is generally, uh, of the non-verbal variety, and that’s okay–she’s a musician and dancer primarily. Her lyrics are almost never graceful–she likes clunky metaphors and lines that scan dicily–but when she’s at her best, they’re punchy and immediate. Frequently (as above), she’s at both her best and her worst in the space of the same song. Of course, maddeningly enough, I love “I Love New York” to death. It’s just, I swear I can feel that chorus making me dumber every time I hear it.