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    Posted by Sean at 09:25, July 5th, 2005

    The Japan Post privatization bill passed the lower house today–this was the real deal, the plenary session and not committee. (The vote was 233 to 228.) Now it goes to the upper house. That means the fun is just beginning:

    Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi, remarking on the upcoming House of Councillors debate over the Japan Post privatization bill, stated, “There are still gigantic hurdles to get over. I feel as if we were beginning at square one.” He indicated that he plans to exert all his energy to the end of seeing the bill ratified. He denied the possibility that the bill might be revised yet again in order to squelch opposition in the upper house: “We’ve already made our accommodations. There will be no more.” He answered questions at a press conference held at the Prime Minister’s official residence.

    It’s been clear for a while that Koizumi’s strategy is to bellow, “No compromise!” before every confrontation as a way of keeping concessions to a minimum; nevertheless, concessions continue to be made. Of course, there have been problems with the bill from the get-go, at least if you’re actually, you know, pro-privatization. It will be interesting, if perhaps distastefully interesting, to see what the bill looks like when it comes to its final vote.

    [Interlude: Japan Post Cool Biz]

    Posted by Sean at 22:27, July 4th, 2005

    Okay, you know, this Cool Biz stuff? Seriously working on my last nerve. I’ve almost, in a way, gotten used to seeing top-ranking cabinet ministers show up on television looking as if they’d been yanked out of a golf game for an emergency press conference. It doesn’t exactly give you the sense that the government is proceeding with sober, formal, rule-of-law predictability; but I guess it does save on air conditioning, which is good for the Earth and other stuff.

    However, someone (Mrs. Takebe, are you listening?) needs to tell LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe what 半透明 (hantoumei: “translucent”) means. I didn’t need to see that the undergarment he uses to rein in those man-boobs beneath his white-on-white sport shirts is a narrow-strapped tank-top. I really didn’t.

    Pour your misery down on me

    Posted by Sean at 06:21, July 4th, 2005

    When you live in Japan, you get used to thinking of catastrophic natural events as normal. It’s not that villages are wiped out weekly, or anything; but what with the regularity of earthquakes, typhoons, tidal waves, simmering volcanoes, and drenching rains with the attendant mudslides, it’s no surprise that the Japanese latched onto evanescence as a major aesthetic and philosophical principle. The raw, craggy landscape has its effect, too.

    This week, the reminders of our frailty have come from the water department. The rainy season has been pretty dry here in the Kanto region, but places in Western Japan are getting a good pummeling:

    Heavy rain pounded the western Japan regions of Chugoku and Shikoku for the second straight day Saturday, leaving one person missing, 2 slightly injured and more than 300 homes submerged, local officials said.

    Another Kyodo report put the total number of flooded houses at 1000.

    Then today, we had this item from Iwo Jima:

    Ships have been warned to avoid traveling near Iwo Jima after the Japan Coast Guard said Sunday that an underwater volcanic eruption was the cause of the mysterious plume of vapor that shot 1 kilometer into the sky.

    Coast Guard officials found gray mud was rising from beneath the water, which had turned to a reddish color.

    The red water apparently indicates volcanic activity, but no signs of volcanic gases have yet been detected. Smoke billowed into the sky in the area.

    BTW, the name Iwo Jima, known to most Americans as the site of the famous WWII battle, means “sulfur island.”


    Posted by Sean at 05:44, July 4th, 2005

    Wow. This is totally through-the-looking-glass:

    Lowering the cost of public works projects through competitive bidding does not reduce the quality of the work, 10 prefectural governments have concluded.

    The finding was made in a recent Yomiuri Shimbun survey of such projects across the country.

    The result casts doubt on the Construction and Transport Ministry’s assertion that a system of completely open bidding to eliminate bid-rigging would cause a deterioration in the quality of construction work. [Yes, you read that correctly.–SRK]

    The 10 prefectural governments reached the conclusion by analyzing the relationship between the quality of completed work and also actual contract prices compared with local governments’ initial estimates.

    The prefectural governments’ findings indicate that if contract prices fell through open bidding, it would not negatively affect the quality of construction.

    The ministry applies open bidding for only 2 percent of public works contracts, arguing that intensified price-cutting competition may result in shoddy construction work. The remainder have been arranged through bidding by designated companies, sparking criticism that the system is a hotbed for bid-rigging practices.

    Ya’ think? Now, of course, the big-guns companies have an incentive not to do sub-standard work even if they’re awarded jobs through the usual rigged bids. If only because of the resultant bad publicity, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries doesn’t want a bridge with its name on it, big as life, collapsing. (The Yomiuri piece goes on to explain how the quality of work for projects was assessed and compared to cost.) Whether the Ministry of Land, Transport, and Infrastructure is acting on saintly scruples regarding public safety is debatable, to put it mildly. What is not debatable is the flood of bennies that well-placed officials get for playing along with the bid-rigging game, particularly the connections that lead to a plum job after retirement.

    The main practice, in case you haven’t run into it in your previous Japan studies, is called 天下り (ama-kudari: “descent from heaven,” or what we in the States would usually call “the revolving door” between civil service and private sector/lobbying jobs in which one’s Rolodex can be used to advantage). Problems with the incestuous relationships thus produced have grown so visible that the Nippon Keidanren announced this weekend that it was looking into the possibility of suspending its practice of hiring retiring civil servants. The Keidanren is the largest and most influential federation of businesses in Japan, with about 1600 member enterprises. Of course, the body cannot force its members not to hire 天下り officials, but even its “encouragement” sends a message that would have been unimaginable until very recently. The Keidanren’s public statements all endorse private-sector economic development–that’s what the entity exists for–but they’ve also implicitly recognized how the game is played.

    How much of a sea change these new statements represent–on the part of either the Keidanren or the prefectural governments–remains to be seen; but that they’re being made at all is cause for cautious optimism.

    Koizumi sees election as shot in the arm for Japan Post bill

    Posted by Sean at 22:59, July 3rd, 2005

    While Koizumi’s name may not have helped candidates in yesterday’s election to win, it cannot be said that the opposite is true–at least, according to the LDP:

    The LDP is taking the results of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election as a decisive vote of confidence in the policies of the Koizumi cabinet. The LDP Executive Committee is looking to get the Japan Post privatization bill passed by the House of Representatives by 5 July, with plans to exert all its power to suppress opponents of the bill within the party.

    It is possible that the bill will be passed by majority vote in the LDP’s House of Representatives Japan Post Privatization ad hoc committee by the night of 4 July. Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi will leave for the G8 summit at Gleneagles on 6 July, so the party is aiming to be able to send the bill to the House of Councillors before then. The DPJ has submitted a proposal for a no-confidence resolution against the cabinet, and is prepared to meet the bill with unwavering resistance. The vote in the upper house plenary session may end up being delayed until after 11 July.

    Added at 18:05: The bill has been passed by the lower house ad hoc committee. Watanuki naturally voted against it; he was just on NHK looking dour.

    Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election

    Posted by Sean at 22:18, July 3rd, 2005

    One reason Atsushi had to come back this weekend was that yesterday was the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election.
    Voter turnout was 43.99%, down from 50.08% in the last Metro election four years ago.

    There were 127 slots up for grabs. The LDP lost three seats, and its coalition partner, the Shin-Komeito, gained two. (It’s a shame the on-line Nikkei doesn’t have the graphs that are in the dead-tree version, which illustrates everything very clearly.) The DPJ more than doubled its number of seats, going from 19 to 35. The Commies lost two. And then there were eight or so other seats divided among minor parties. Prime Minister Koizumi’s take, at least as delivered to LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe for release: “Given what we were up against, everyone did very well. The results are excellent. Very impressive.” DPJ Secretary General Tatsuo Kawabata: “We made a big leap in the direction of changing the administration.” He’s referring to which is the ruling coalition, of course.

    The reason people outside Tokyo care about the election is, of course, that the Metro Assembly is the second-most powerful elected body in Japan after the Diet. There are a lot of Tokyo voters, and how they cast their ballots can give an indication of where the national electorate might be heading in the next round of Diet races. Yesterday, the LDP needed to win as many seats as possible without relying too much on Koizumi’s name for support–he’s too controversial right now. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara did step up and do a bunch of endorsements, smiling out from posters and leaflets everywhere. The DPJ’s strategy was to put up candidates in as many races as possible, and it obviously worked. However, the net number of seats the LDP lost was still very low, indicating that voters are not ready to stampede toward the opposition despite recent crises of confidence.

    When in the Course of human events….

    Posted by Sean at 21:30, July 3rd, 2005

    So, yesterday I did, in fact, make chicken pot pie. What better recipe for a humid day with the constant threat of rain than one that requires you to make an egg-based dough that binds well enough to roll out smoothly, huh? Idiot. Luckily, it came out well, albeit with half the usual amount of water and a good, long chilling period.

    I didn’t have time to make dessert, but Atsushi offered to run to one of the many frou-frou pastry shops around here and pick something up. He came back and put the box on the counter: “Good news! Lavinia had sour cherry tarts.” “Cherry pies? You must have read my mind.” “Um, no, dear–I just read your blog.” Oh. Or that. So it was prim, non-lascivious cherry tarts with whipped cream for dessert, after which Atsushi hummed me a verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before I had to see him off. More than made up for the lack of grilled hamburgers and fireworks.

    Since it’s already 4 July over here, Happy Independence Day!

    The usual

    Posted by Sean at 21:26, July 1st, 2005

    Atsushi’s plane should be landing in the next half-hour, and since it’s not a three-day weekend, he’ll only be here until tomorrow. That means we have to celebrate the Fourth of July tomorrow, and planning to do anything picnicky is probably a bad idea. (It’s the rainy season right now, and even though it’s been uncharacteristically rainless, the weather’s supposed to be iffy over the weekend.) There’s no question of a cookout, so I’m thinking something from my upbringing. The Pennsylvania Dutch are big on the kinds of meaty, fatty, sugary foods that serve as a constant reminder that they’ve prospered after emigrating from the old country, which is always a nice all-American sort of message. I’ve nearly settled on chicken pot pie, which would have the additional resonance of being what my mother made for dinner the first night I brought Atsushi home to meet the family.

    I don’t have access to a wet-bottom shoo-fly pie for dessert–you should see what molasses costs here, and I actually think the little Mennonite bakeries make them better than you usually can at home. Of course, summer fruits are starting to come in, so we’ll be covered. Cherry pie, maybe? There’s always something satisfyingly lascivious about sharing a plate of that with your sweetie.

    I also have to go to the office today, so I don’t think there will be much posting until Monday. Fortunately, Japan seems to be in its usual groove:

    • Emerging facts in the bridge-building scandal indicate that not only bid-rigging but also unlawful revolving-door employment is a pervasive problem at Japan Highway Public Corporation.

    • A man who murdered five members of his family has explained that he only really wanted his mother dead, but, of course, he couldn’t let the rest of the family live with the shame of being a matricide’s relatives. That an expedient way to avoid such a problem would have been to refrain from murdering his mother in the first place doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.
    • An enterprising Sapporo man has been charged with stealing women’s underwear so he could sell it door-to-door, with the ultimate intention of launching a web-based retailer. In an interesting twist, this was new, unused underwear shoplifted from stores–the idea was to sell it to women to wear, not whatever else you may have been (understandably) expecting. Wonders never cease.
    • The government plans to introduce biometric scanning of foreigners at immigration to help deal with the problem of visa overstays and crime. The WOT, interestingly, hasn’t really been mentioned.

    And Atsushi’s flight was delayed, though he’s on the train from Haneda as I write. Have a good weekend, everyone.


    Posted by Sean at 20:38, July 1st, 2005

    Happy anniversary, Michael and Robert. (Touching picture, too.)


    Posted by Sean at 13:56, July 1st, 2005

    I don’t want to give anyone a heart attack, but I think Andrew Sullivan’s post about gay marriage yesterday was pretty temperate and mostly well-reasoned.

    There, I’ve said it.

    Christianist Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said of the Canadian decision, supported by a majority in the polls: “Similar to tactics here in the U.S., the move for gay ‘marriage’ in Canada was driven by a small minority and liberal activist judges.” And a parliamentary and popular majority, Mr Perkins. And please refrain from those scare quotes around the term “marriage.” Whether Perkins likes it or not, there are now no differences between gay and straight marriages in Spain, Canada, Holland, Belgium and Massachusetts. His scare quotes – and those routinely used by the Washington Times – apply to heterosexual couples as well. Are their marriages now phony, according to the religious right?

    In Canada (where the bill still needs Senate approval) and in Spain, gay citizens and their sympathizers have been able to get a majority of legislators on their side to effect changes in legislation. Who was originally “driving” the movement doesn’t alter that. And as for “activist judges,” I believe the decision that was reached a few months ago was that gay marriage would not itself violate the Canadian constitution–not that denying marriage to gay couples was unconstitutional. The part about scare quotes is shakier, but the point that the law routinely and legitimately defines words in ways that are different from their ordinary usage is a good one.

    I’m still skeptical about gay marriage as policy–for reasons that include those Sullivan raises at the end of his post, which are never far from my mind because of the kind of household I live in. But I’m unreservedly happy that barriers to our being able to form enforceable bonds with our partners are being removed. Neither piece of legislation affects Atsushi and me, of course, but they make a nice lead-in to the weekend. (He’s coming home tomorrow morning.)

    I get the sense that I have few readers who are interested in both gay stuff and Japan stuff, but for those interested in the brief Nikkei article on the Spain vote, it’s here. The Yomiuri‘s is here, and it also has a report up about the Canada vote. Congratulations on Canada Day, BTW.