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    Jenkins interviewed by Time

    Posted by Sean at 22:21, December 9th, 2004

    For a stretch there, I was remarking quite a bit on the repatriation of Hitomi Soga and the attempts to get her husband and daughters to Japan to live with her, largely because the developments weren’t getting much play at home and it wasn’t clear how things would pan out. I haven’t lost interest in the story, but I was kind of wary of reading the Time interview with Charles Jenkins, largely because Nancy Gibbs is often the reporter Time gives big-deal human interest stories to, and for some reason, her approach really tends to annoy me. So I know every man, woman, child, and ficus tree in the Western world has read the thing by now, but for the sake of completism, I’ll link it anyway.

    It doesn’t really contain a whole lot of new information about Jenkins’s life in the DPRK. It was already known that he lived for years in a house with other American defectors and that they were tortured and assigned to beat each other up as punishment for disobedience. It was also known that the Jenkins-Soga family lived well for North Korea but was no more free than anyone else, and that their daughters were enrolled at the country’s most prestigious foreign language institute, where they would probably be trained to do some sort of espionage work.

    The part about how he first got into North Korean hands, however, is new. (At least, I haven’t seen it narrated before.) While Jenkins is not an innocent party, his is a very sympathetic story, and it makes you glad that, at the very least, he and Soga had the comfort of falling in love with each other–I think I speculated a few months ago that theirs may have been a marriage of convenience, but it’s nice to be proved wrong–and starting a family. And that they’ve now been able to come to Japan and bring their daughters with them.


    BTW, there’s a push here in Japan again for sanctions against the DPRK, which has squandered the goodwill it earned by releasing Jenkins and (especially) his daughters by throwing together some bones and purporting that they’re the remains of another abductee, Megumi Yokota. The cabinet is not all of one mind on the matter. A nice detail is that the Minister of the Environment (whose name–dead serious, here–means Lily Littlepond!) was one of those who said essentially, “If we cooperate with the US, we can fry their ass!”

    Folk art

    Posted by Sean at 11:56, December 9th, 2004

    My quilt just came–very exciting. Japanese housing tends to have sketchy insulation, and heating costs (naturally) compound quickly, so a few years ago, when my parents asked what I wanted as a major Christmas present, I suggested one. Since we’re from the edge of Pennsylvania Dutch country, this is not a difficult thing to come by.

    The problem is, of course, that many quilts–cleverly designed and skillfully contrived though they be–look like grown-up versions of some Holly Hobbie nightmare, preciously strewn with tulips, hearts, and (blech! heave!) distelfinks. (I think distelfink literally translates to “thistle finch,” but my understanding is that it’s the German word for goldfinch.) So finding one I’d go for was not easy, and we ended up just making a little family day trip into Berks County to look for one while I was home. Found the perfect specimen at the first farm we visited, and had it shipped here.

    Unfortunately, while our bed is a double (you guys thought you’d get to make a “queen-sized” crack, huh? suckers), it’s a Japanese double. That means that it’s narrower than a US double, so the main panel hangs a little over the edges. But the nice thing about using a good quilt is that it keeps you warm without being heavy, and the delivery guy brought it just in time, since the night temperatures have dipped noticeably since I got back from the States. That, and my hunk of Japanese man is coming home for the weekend tomorrow.


    Posted by Sean at 21:55, December 8th, 2004

    You know, I really am a self-critical guy. It just takes time to get results sometimes. For a while there, I’ve been getting search after search for “white peril” and wondering why the people out of the bunch who were looking for me wouldn’t just use the URL.

    Then the other day, I had to get to a site that was called something like geschlumfelflugenhammerkohl.net, and I thought, Who the hell would choose such a f**king random domain name? I swear, it took a good three hours before I was like, Oh! I wonder whether maybe…. So I went to see whether www.seorookie.net was, in fact, available. It was, so I took it. It’ll take a few days for processing and things, I suppose, but I’ll direct it to this page so I’m not the only one who can find me without Google or the ability to bookmark.

    Bitter Almond

    Posted by Sean at 20:22, December 8th, 2004

    The holiday-time newsletter from the citizen services division of the American Embassy (you can sign up for it if you’re a citizen who lives here and register for it) contains this charming bit of advice for party animals here in Tokyo:

    We note that an American Citizen was murdered in early December in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. The murder occurred in an office building within walking distance of the local police station. We previously advised Americans in our June 2004 newsletter of six reports of western foreigners (including Americans) allegedly overdosing on heroin, resulting in three deaths. The heroin was allegedly purchased in Roppongi. In the July newsletter, we noted that several Americans reported the theft of their purses and wallets, stolen from them while in bars and clubs in Roppongi. A number of Americans have also been arrested over the past year in Roppongi for various offenses. Americans are strongly advised to exercise caution should they choose to visit the Roppongi area.

    I think I’ve been to Roppongi maybe seven or eight times since moving to Japan, and I’ve enjoyed myself there maybe zero times. It’s not that I mind sleaze. I lived in the Dogenzaka section of Shibuya, in one of the two or three apartment buildings there among the love hotels, for five years. Loved every minute of it. Of course, my apartment was clean, quiet, and tucked at the top of a hill. But still, Shibuya is cool because it’s kooky-sleazy. Roppongi is grim-sleazy. (BTW, I love the way the paragraph above seems to come within a hair’s breadth of saying, “If you’re going to buy heroin, at least don’t get it in Roppongi!”)

    I think it’s great that there’s a neighborhood where foreigners who live here can congregate; but living abroad tends to produce a feeling of being off the chain, especially in younger people, and it’s not surprising that when there’s a critical mass of them gathered at a cluster of bars or clubs, they frequently cut somewhat looser than their parents might be back home hoping. That kind of atmosphere is ripe for crime, especially because so many Westerners have been brought up to think of Japan as 100% safe and are not on their guard as they would be in, say, Bangkok, New York or (especially, these days) London. One hopes people will learn to be more careful.

    Added at 21:29: I’ve changed the title, since the way I originally had it struck me as being too on the obnoxious side of snarky. Besides, the new cyanide imagery is more in keeping with the ghoulishness of the newsletter.

    Japanese education statistics drop

    Posted by Sean at 14:11, December 7th, 2004

    The OECD’s figures for its 2003 education survey are out, and Japan’s rankings have fallen. The Mainichi‘s English report is here and is, naturally, not as complete as its original Japanese report here. What’s interesting, as it so often is, is what was omitted from the English version: Japanese students trust their teachers less.

    To what degree do students feel their teachers support them in class? Of 31 countries (including 7 major nations of Europe and the Americas, and also Hong Kong, the rank of which was high this year), Japan had a lower-than-average percentage of students who gave the most affirmative response “Always true” to any of 5 prompts about the degree of support from mathematics teachers, including “[The teacher] takes an interest in students’ individual studies,” and “[The teacher] provides opportunities for students to express individual opinions.” Averaged over these five items, Japan ranked lowest of the 31 countries.

    This is important, given the traditional close relationship students have been expected to form with their teachers. It’s hard to know what to make of it, though–exactly what kinds of opinions do students want to be giving in, of all things, math class? Or is the issue just that lecturing at students is emphasized over student input? But that makes little sense–Japan’s math education is famous for using directed drills to guide students, whenever possible, into discovering the next mathematical principle to be learned. More worrisome is that the article goes on to relate that Japanese students showed comparatively little confidence that their schools were teaching them useful knowledge (59%, 28 percentage points lower than average for the group) and were giving them the confidence to make their own decisions (52%, 18 percentage points below average). It’s not possible to determine from the Mainichi how well-constructed the survey instrument actually was, though the OECD is hardly a piddling organization.

    What is obvious is that the Ministry of Education and Culture’s major concern is with the drop in reading and math scores. The reason I’m not obsessing over them here–besides the fact that those figures are amply sliced and diced in the English article–is that everyone has known for years that there are problems with the tendency to compare Japan’s education statistics so favorably with those of other countries. Japan does not have a history of documenting degrees of literacy, for example. Functional illiteracy is not defined and measured. Are Japanese people better readers on average than citizens of most other countries? Sure, probably. Are they comparatively up in the exosphere? It’s hard to tell. As the Monbusho likes to frame things, either you can’t read at all, or you’re literate. How well you read if you’re in the latter category is not easy to assess, though from experience, I’d have a difficult time believing the Japanese average doesn’t put the American average to shame.

    Even the math scores have always needed more qualification. The level of achievement in computation and problem-solving among average Japanese really is a marvel. But Japan doesn’t appear to do any better at producing math major material–people who can go beyond remembering why the harmonic function doesn’t converge to their own conceptualizing–than other countries do. Now, since most of us don’t need to come up with our own theories of mathematics, that doesn’t matter all that much. It would be nice if American schools could teach students how to add fractions. But the idea that Japan turns all its students into Karl Friedrich Gausses does not obtain.

    Even so, the reaction of the Ministry of Education is encouraging, lacking as it does any American-style references to Carol Gilligan or journaling. Whether the remedial programs that are implemented can quickly address the increased (and highly-publicized) disaffection of students remains to be seen.

    Added on 9 December: Hong Kong’s rankings were higher, but Simon is unimpressed. The reasons he cites are not entirely inapplicable to Japan as well.

    Bang bang

    Posted by Sean at 12:16, December 7th, 2004

    Mr. du Toit has kindly given me a link this morning, and everyone and his grandmother who reads him seems to have followed it. I doubt this is quite the kind of destination his readers are used to clicking through to from him, so I hope no one’s too taken aback. I’m thankful for the mention, though.

    It puts me in mind of a story from last year, when Atsushi came home with me to meet my parents. My mother has a handgun and a well-developed sense of mischief. It was a given that she was going to show both to my boyfriend and see whether she could get a reaction out of him.

    So we’re sitting in the living room, and she gets the gun out, brings it into the room, and deposits it with a flourish on the coffee table in front of him. And Atsushi looks at it–I mean, he didn’t peer; he leaned over and looked straight at it–and says enthusiastically but with perfect Japanese composure, “Wow. Oh, yes. That’s very menacing.” At which point, Mom was all his. Between that and the comfy, unassuming way he played with the cats, I think my parents were ready to ask him to replace me as the elder son.

    Anyhow, speaking of the unexpected, I’ve been getting more links lately from more sites. That’s very gratifying, but it occurs to me that the mixture of topics I write about probably seems kind of random to someone blundering into this place for the first time. When I myself have been in those situations, I’ve found that if there’s a list of “Best Posts” or some such, it’s often helpful to look at as a representative sample of what I’m in for if I start digging into someone’s archives. So I’ve thought of adding one here to help new readers navigate my (ahem) eclecticism, but I’m a terrible judge of my own writing. If anyone reading here has any suggestions for things I might want to include, I’d be grateful to hear. (Suggestions of the “Whatever you do, leave out that ridiculous post titled ‘XYZ'” variety are fine, too, as long as they’re put politely.)

    Pearl Harbor

    Posted by Sean at 09:12, December 7th, 2004

    Yesterday (depending on which time zone your bioclock is thinking in–you’ll forgive mine for not being sure) was the Pearl Harbor anniversary. I was on a plane and so was unable to post, but Eric wasn’t, and as usual, his piece has good links.

    Considering the current Japan-China debates over sources of petroleum, this isn’t a bad time to be reflecting on how the Pacific War began and on the long-term geography-based tensions we have in Asia. Of course, according to intellectual titans such as Noam Chomsky, the world is categorizable into white Westerners and everyone else, so inter-ethnic hostilities along other axes have to be downplayed.

    Most of the tribute sites seem well-intentioned but poorly designed. Probably the best resource is the Navy’s own page.

    From pei to bay

    Posted by Sean at 07:40, December 7th, 2004

    This is only Japan news to the extent that every diplomatic hotspot in Asia affects us here, but the PRC’s Foreign Ministry has enlightened us about what’s really preventing the East from becoming one big, happy family. This is the Vice-Director of its Information Agency:

    The divisive activities of those movements agitating for Taiwanese independence are the undisputable* root of the tense relations between the two sides. They are the single largest threat to peace and prosperity in the Formosa Strait and the Asia-Pacific region.

    Now you know. Of course, mainland China says these things at the drop of a rice-straw hat. What brought this week’s installment on is that Taiwan has indicated that it will begin designating its resident diplomats “representatives of Taiwan,” rather than “representatives of Taipei.” The change is seen, doubtless accurately, as an assertion of Taiwan’s autonomy as an overall entity.

    * I know that’s not what こそ actually means; if anyone has a better way to get the emphasis across, I’d like to hear.

    Mary does Dallas

    Posted by Sean at 06:47, December 7th, 2004

    I would be remiss if I didn’t publicly thank the du Toits for their amazing hospitality over the weekend, which was of the old-fashioned variety: the constant flowing of coffee, the constant passing of treats, the wandering of conversation agreeably from topic to topic. After one particularly wonderful dinner, I picked up a plate to carry it five steps to the kitchen, and the proprietor of Serenity’s Journal practically got me into a hammerhold to wrest it out of my hand and shove me toward one of the living room couches.

    And the children were, of course, wonderful. They were respectful and non-strident but completely at ease in adult conversation around someone they hadn’t met. This is clearly a household of people who regard each other highly. Spending time with them reminded me of everything I love about America, and I can’t thank them enough.

    By contrast, my message for American airlines (including American Airlines) is, “Thanks for nothing.” I mean, the flights were generally smooth, and the flight attendants were generally fine. In the sense of job performance, that is to say, not in the sense of attractiveness. I make it a practice not to make physical evaluations of people who are on-duty.

    Yeah, right, you got me. I noticed. But it’s not the fault of the flight attendants that they age badly, is it? Something to do with all those UV rays at 35000 feet. And working in confined spaces gives them an unfortunate tendency to mince. All that flying did give me yet more occasions to marvel at how TOTALLY HOT American men on average are, though. Even the guys who aren’t hot are hot. Probably part of it is that I’m a sucker for good forearms–you know, the sinewy, hairy, I-am-a-male-mammal kind. The businessman sitting next to me on my flight out of Dallas had his sleeves rolled up, and every time he turned the page of his newspaper, his muscles rippled, and the hair on his wrists spilled over his watchband at a different light-catching angle. I can only hope he thought that what I was staring so acquisitively at was his Rolex. Of course, looking resolutely forward didn’t help, because every time some guy reached up into the light of his reading lamp to close his overhead ventilator, I thought I’d die.

    I wasn’t literally afraid of dying, despite the turbulence over Texas, because our captain did an ace job of skirting around the bad weather almost as soon as we encountered it. While the various excitable parts of my anatomy are getting their appreciative messages in, my stomach would like to thank him–but it would also like to ask, purely out of scientific interest, whether the head of food service at AA (and United, which got me from La Guardia to DFW) was actively trying to give us all a stereotypical airline-meal horror story with which to regale friend and foe alike in the coming weeks. I mean, good grief. In my experience, JAL, ANA, and Thai Airways–even Tiger Economy cellar-dweller Korean Air–have managed to contrive in-flight meals that are about as good as leftover homemade food that you microwave too long so it has a few hard pellet-y bits. Not yummy, but not repellant. The food on United and American was a whole other deal. Holding iced vodka (WTF is up with making people pay for liquor on trans-Pacific flights, BTW?) in the mouth for a good long time to deaden tongue and palate helped a bit, but I’d kind of hoped that, this being a code-share flight with JAL, those involved would be motivated by shame into achieving peak-performance mode for those of us who are used to better. No such luck.

    My fortune improved dramatically on arrival at Narita Terminal 1 (the flight was operated by AA, remember), however. The seatbelt sign was off at the gate at 5:45, I made the 6:13 Narita Express, and I was waiting for a cab in Shibuya by 7:40. It’s probably not the first time such a thing has happened in the history of Japanese commercial aviation, but neither is it the sort of timing any frequent flyer in his right mind would plan on. To achieve it, I had to have uncommon luck at every potential bottleneck point: there was no line at immigration for holders of Japanese passports/reentry permits, my bag was among the first out, the girl at customs waved me through in seconds, and I was in line at the JR counter by 6:10. It’s the kind of exception-that-proves-the-rule that reminds you what a production flying in and out of Tokyo usually is. But at the end of the line was a bath in my own bathtub, a welcome-home call from my audibly happy boyfriend, and sleep in our own bed under our own comforter. Well, until 3 a.m., when jet lag woke me. But that’ll be over in a few days. It’s good to be home. Thanks to every one who helped make this the best 里帰り (satogaeri, “return to the hometown”) ever.

    NGO blues

    Posted by Sean at 22:13, December 3rd, 2004

    There’s a new expat blogger in Germany who’s honored me by putting on what looks to be his very first blogroll. He has a good post up about, among other things, the effects of NGOs, that makes these important points:

    The role of NGOs is especially problematical, since they operate without responsibility. The NGOs go into a country with a problem and try and deal with the problem according to their own priorities and needs. What they end up doing is undermining the authority of the state: whether this is done out of the best of intentions, or deliberately for political purposes, or accidentally plays no role in the effect that it has on the states involved: they are weakened.

    Why is this important? It’s important because if you are going to push for things like an International Court of Justice, treaties like Kyoto, for “obeying international law” – whatever that means* – then you can’t at the same time dismantle the actors that work within this framework.

    And I think that many of the NGOs are pursuing their own special agendas that don’t have all that much to do with providing aid or help and have a lot more to do with ensuring that the problems failed states face don’t go away, since that would mean the NGOs involved would lose their main arguments for fund-raising and that some of those involved might have to drop the pretense of trying to save the world and actually find a real job.

    I think most Americans know all this intellectually, but I also think that you don’t quite realize until you live abroad just how many pies NGOs have their fingers in. There’s an obvious reason for that: America doesn’t need their help, so we don’t have them around in daily life. The Japanese give, rather than get, assistance, also, but there are a lot of countries with close geographical and economic ties to Japan that do, so I think we hear about such organizations and their policy effects more. Germany is probably the same way.

    It may seem odd to have libertarian old me approvingly citing someone who’s complaining about “undermining the authority of the state.” But it’s a problem with regards to these issues for two big reasons, both of which are touched on above. One is that, in countries with corruption problems–and corruption is, naturally, one of the main factors that screw up an economy to the point that it needs outside assistance–NGO personnel end up simply adding another layer to the patronage/approval system. I have no doubt that most of them set out to introduce transparency, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law into the countries they’re working with. But to start getting anything done, they have to operate at least partially within the existing power structures. (The recent Western predilection for prostrating outselves before “local cultural norms” when dealing with less-developed peoples exacerbates this problem.) What start out as temporary concessions can rapidly turn into permanent cooption by the political movers and shakers whose grip the organization was trying to loosen from the economy in the first place. So instead of a country or region that’s moving toward a set of clear, predictable, freely-available rules that are equally enforced on all citizens, you get yet another player (this one with access to a well of foreign cash) whose vagaries of temperament you have to learn in order to get on with your business.

    The second problem is that, sort of the way the most incompetent public schools in America have conventionally gotten the largest amounts of money to help them try again, NGO assistance buffers regimes from the market signals that would normally clobber them. And it is one of the great principles of life–maybe even the great principle–that being insulated from the results of your own screw-ups makes you less likely to change your behavior so you don’t make them again.

    Now, obviously, if either governments or NGOs are staffed with plain old evil, self-serving people, they are not going to care what the market is telling them anyway. But without having taken a poll, I suspect that most aid workers, and even most entrenched local ruling families in their host countries, really think they’re doing the best they can to further the interests of their constituencies. When the path of least resistance is available, though, human nature is capable of going through all manner of ethical arabesques to justify taking it. And it’s a given that it’s easier to play ball with those currently in power, even if they’re causing the problem you’ve undertaken to remedy.

    4 December 07:25 CST

    * This was the line at which I was sure I liked this guy.