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    More official smoke-filled rooms

    Posted by Sean at 14:21, July 28th, 2004

    The DPJ’s Katsuya Okada has been busy since arriving in Boston. After meeting with Ezra Vogel and Joseph Nye, he seems to have met with Walter Mondale, telling him that the US needs to stay in Iraq until it’s stabilized (actually, the phrasing is the usual “we must humbly receive the favor of your staying…,” the we presumably referring to Japan and the rest of the world) but that Japan itself, despite the end of combat, cannot keep the SDF there because of constitutional strictures. None of that is surprising.

    He also said that US-Japan relations have been relying too much on Armitage personally and that he wonders whether we would still be bestest buddies if Kerry were elected (well, he said “the administration changed to a Democratic one,” but he’s presumably talking about the upcoming election). I was surprised at myself, at first, for not having given that issue much thought. But I think my assumption was that since Japan has socialized medicine, federal initiatives for anything and everything, and a general tradition of ecstatic individual self-abnegation for the good of the collective…sheesh, what’s for the Democrats, all the way to the left fringe, not to love? It’s also a non-white society that always talks about how it loves nature, despite its actual records on ethnic diversity and environmental protection. Also, the people use less energy and throw away less trash per capita than Americans, so even if you have socialist tendencies, you can kind of justify how staggeringly rich the country is.

    In any case, while my experience is that the States-side Democrats/liberals/leftists I know think of Japan as a beacon of the “Third Way,” it’s hard to predict how a Kerry administration might set its Japan policy because we don’t seem to have much indication of who could be his ranking foreign policy advisors. Of course, that policy strategists are kindly disposed toward Japan may not mean that they know how to deal with it effectively; but East Asia specialists tend to study countries they’re attracted to somehow.

    I know you’re feelin’ me ’cause you like it like this

    Posted by Sean at 01:16, July 28th, 2004

    The reactions to Andrew Sullivan’s current pledge drive have been snarkily cute, but I have to say they seem to jump the gun a bit. When I first read his post saying he was starting this year’s pledge drive, I saw the part about the bandwidth and interpreted it completely differently, it appears, from everyone else I read. I didn’t get the impression that he was asking for a few thousand dollars all to cover bandwidth. My understanding was that the money that was left over from last year’s pledge drive had dipped below the point at which he could afford his new bandwidth charges without using his own money–not the same thing.

    Sullivan’s site was never run like most people’s blogs. From the beginning, he had backers who were helping him to set it up as a way to make his archived writings available and make him a web presence as a commentator–remember, he’s been around longer than almost anyone else. The Daily Dish was originally just one element of the whole. Perhaps it still is in conception, though I’d bet that the Dish is the only page that most of his readers look at, except when he has a new article of his linked. From the beginning, andrewsullivan.com was presented almost as a foundation. It had different membership levels for different donated amounts, like a museum or the opera. He made it clear that donations were going to go to wages for his webmaster and editor and…an intern, I think?…and whoever else he was going to hire to help with it. He has also always said, up front, that he does quite a bit of research to keep the Dish up and didn’t feel embarrassed about being modestly compensated personally for it. Looked at that way, I can see how he could go through nearly $100000 in a year; it’s not easy to imagine, but it’s not impossible, either.

    You can say it’s pompous of him to act as if he were PBS. You can say that having a staff for his website is excessive and that it’s cheeky of him to expect people to shell out for it. I’ve sometimes felt that way myself and have never contributed as much to andrewsullivan.com as I have to some other people who were just folks taking time out of their lives to build, for the hell of it, a site people would enjoy and learn from and maybe want to discuss things on. I’m not…well, I was going to say that I’m not very self-aggrandizing, but there’s someone who knows me in person who reads this site, so that won’t fly. I’m not the Gold Circle Donor type–let’s put it that way.

    But if others are, I don’t see why Sullivan is necessarily being dishonest in asking them to kick in. It’s not as if they don’t know what they’re contributing to.

    Once an abductee, always an abductee

    Posted by Sean at 11:26, July 27th, 2004

    Ooh. This I hadn’t heard about the reunion of Hitomi Soga and Charles Jenkins:

    Jenkins told them that he had been set to take Soga to North Korea if they had met in Beijing, according to Japanese sources.

    North Korea authorities had promised a car with a driver and increased food rations if he managed to take Soga to Pyongyang, the sources said.

    But Jenkins didn’t reveal how he planned to take Soga to Pyongyang.

    Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoya said on Tuesday that Jenkins had agreed to meet with a U.S. defense counsel to discuss a possible court martial to settle changes against him.

    That Jenkins was prepared for court martial, as conveyed to a relative who visited Japan last week, was on the news yesterday. What hadn’t been confirmed that was Soga’s instincts had been right about the meeting in Beijing. Good call. (And remind me again why a country that has to ration food is superior to anything?)


    And speaking of betrayals, yesterday, the Tokyo district court ordered a suspension of merger talks between Mitsubishi-Tokyo Financial Group and the UFJ Group (Japanese, English). The merger would involve reneging on an agreement between UFJ and Sumitomo Trust and Banking (why not get all the behemoth financial institutions to join in the fun while we’re at it, huh?) for Sumitomo to buy UFJ’s trust bank. Sumitomo, justifiably unhappy, is suing.

    Official smoke-filled rooms

    Posted by Sean at 11:14, July 27th, 2004

    While everyone’s busy wishing Bill Clinton could run for President again, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has been a quiet attendee at the Democratic Convention and has been making a few interesting contacts. Katsuya Okada, leader of the DPJ, has apparently met with Joseph Nye, one of Clinton’s Assistant Secretaries of Defense now back at Harvard, and Ezra Vogel, the Harvard professor emeritus who’s one of the few people to specialize equally in China and Japan. Naturally, they (the Nikkei article is very brief and doesn’t say whether the three met together or Okada met the others individually) talked about security issues and US-Japan relations. No report of what they specifically discussed.


    Posted by Sean at 18:20, July 25th, 2004

    This is a few days old, and I didn’t know what to make of it because I couldn’t find any quotation of what Armitage had actually said to Nakagawa. The English versions of the Japanese papers are now writing about it, but they still don’t say what his words were:

    Officials in the ruling coalition as well as the opposition camp clearly were caught off-guard by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s remark last week that war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution is becoming an obstacle to strengthening the Japan-U.S. alliance.

    Since it was uttered by a senior Bush administration official known for his deep understanding of Japan, they fear it may negatively affect Japan-U.S. relations and ongoing debate in Japan on revisions to the Constitution.

    Opposition members also were critical of Armitage for pressing Japan to revise the Constitution.

    Hidenao Nakagawa, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Diet Affairs Committee, shook up lawmakers after he relayed the gist of a meeting with Armitage in Washington last Wednesday.

    Armitage also told Nakagawa that while Washington supported Tokyo’s moves to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, any nation with that status must be ready to deploy military force in the interests of the international community. Unless it is prepared to do that, Armitage said it would be difficult for Japan to become a permanent member.

    The revision being discussed would appear to be a rather modest one; it just makes it possible for the SDF to provide combat assistance in defense of an ally. As written, the constitution doesn’t allow Japan to go into combat for anything but defense of Japan itself. Here’s what Article 9 says:

    1. 日本国民は、正義と秩序を基調とする国際平和を誠実に希求し、国権の発動たる戦争と、武力による威嚇又は武力の行使は、国際紛争を解決する手段としては、永久にこれを放棄する。

    2. 前項の目的を達するため、陸海空軍その他の戦力は、これを保持しない。国の交戦権は、これを認めない。

    1. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

    2. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceeding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

    The “means of settling international disputes” is the part that’s interpreted conservatively right now. I haven’t seen anything to indicate what verbal formulation would be used for the amendment, so it may not have been put together yet, but everything the Koizumi administration (which is proposing it) says indicates that it would apply only to common defense agreements with allies. In the course of arguing for such an amendment, he has, naturally, pointed out that US armed forces personnel already defend Japan.

    The PRC has been little mentioned in the most recent discussions on this point–at least, that I’ve seen–but as you may surmise, Beijing isn’t exactly champing at the bit for an opportunity to welcome a Japan with the constitutional permission to project force as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

    So yet again, the War on Terrorism is putting predictable stress on all kinds of tensely-balanced relationships in the Asia-Pacific region. If the push to amend the Japanese constitution remains front and center, we’ll have long-time animosities surfacing in a snaky line from Australia and the Philippines northward through Japan and Russia. It ain’t just vulcanism and plate tectonics making the Pacific Rim hot and frictive anymore.

    Not that it ever was.

    A fruit on fruits

    Posted by Sean at 17:11, July 25th, 2004

    Occasionally, friends from back home will ask me, “So, is Japan really as expensive as they say?” I’m usually guffawing too hard to answer. Of course, there are qualifications to be made: Tokyo is uncommonly expensive for Japan, just as New York is uncommonly expensive for America. I’ve heard people say that the regional cities are more reasonable–Atsushi says so about the mid-sized city he lives in now, and I visited ex-boyfriends in their hometowns of Sendai and Sapporo and saw a noticeable difference. Anyway, Connie and I have been having a back-and-forth about what sorts of behavior are “Pennsylvanian,” and it reminded me of my trip to the grocery store yesterday. Every week, I splurge on something even more overpriced than normal–maybe a little carton of fresh raspberries, or a mango from the Philippines (as soft and sweet as its government’s position on terrorists–don’t let anyone give you that “the Mexican ones are better” jazz), or whatever’s in season–along with the stuff I base my meals on.

    Well, the first rhubarb of the season is coming into the stores, so I decided to go for it. This image tells you a lot about Tokyo life (for the people who do the grocery shopping, that is):


    The large, visible “331” is the tax-included price. It converts to US $2.84.

    A single, slender zucchini will be attentively wrapped the same way and costs about the same–well, it’s usually closer to 310 yen, but same difference. Of course, having grown up in a part of PA that was slowly going from rural to suburban/edge-city, I spent the first twenty years of my life thinking of zucchini and rhubarb as things you paid other people to take off your hands. You know, late summer and early fall are when bags of zucchini play Chinese fire drill. Everyone with a vegetable garden has too many, all the kids in the county are threatening to run away from home if Mom forces one more slice of zucchini bread on them, everyone eats more spaghetti than usual because you can cut the tomato sauce with a lot of zucchini puree before anyone notices. The rhubarb situation is never quite as bad, but every household seems to have at least one resident who flat-out refuses to eat anything with rhubarb, and most people don’t want to eat stewed fruit that often, so it still takes a while to eat down the surplus.

    All of which is to say, I’m sitting here with my rhubarb on household chore day and thinking, Sheesh! $7.50/lb. This had better be a damned good pie…I mean, largish tart, which is what I have enough for.

    And the summer fruits here, while good, don’t measure up to the nectarines, peaches, and plums we got at the farmers’ market when I was little. That doesn’t make the quality worse, necessarily; I just find Japanese peaches a bit on the perfumy side in taste.

    Of course, living in Japan has its compensating pleasures. Figs don’t seem to have caught on much in America, but in season, they’re available at every supermarket and fruit stand here. And Japanese persimmons, while a shock to the palate if you bite into one expecting it to taste like the persimmons of the American South, are one of the joys of fall once your tastes adjust. You see them ripening on the trees, and the wind suddenly feels a bit cooler and lonelier, and you know summer’s ending.

    Given the kiln that is Tokyo during July and August, I’d welcome that feeling right about now, actually. Well, after I thoroughly enjoy my rhubarb.

    Added at 17:40: Of course, you can’t always be sure where your broccoli came from, among other potential pitfalls of produce-buying.

    The curse of living (abroad) in interesting times

    Posted by Sean at 15:03, July 24th, 2004

    CNN’s Atika Schubert is now doing a feature on Democrats Abroad Japan, which appears to be making big-time recruiting efforts among us resident US citizens here. I guess no one told me because I’m already a registered Democrat from a swing state…although, come to think of it, you’d imagine that would make them pretty eager for me to get an absentee ballot and actually vote on party lines. Not that I‘m eager for anyone to come after me, or anything.

    Anyway, Terry McMillan (to whom I know I, like you I’m sure, turn for expert political and moral authority whenever feasible) is here and espousing people power. Some upwardly mobile-looking guy says Bush is going down. Not surprising at a recruiting session for Democrats.

    But all this makes me wonder what the distribution of political affiliations among expats here really is. And then there’s the question of what the Japanese think of the War on Terrorism. My acquaintances are not a scientific sample of the population, and I don’t necessarily see every poll, but I do know that the Japanese I know are divided over the morality of the war in Iraq and, especially, over whether Japan should have sent SDF troops even in a non-combat capacity. However, “divided” means “divided,” not “uniformly outraged at America’s blatant and hubristical empire-building.” In the days after 9/11, I got dozens of messages from Japanese friends expressing deep, formal sympathy for America and saying things like, “You must be ready to kill! I hope your government takes revenge quickly.” Many of those same people are now skeptical of whether the US government is managing the occupation well and preventing abuses of authority in its own ranks. But I know of very few (except some with degrees from major American universities) who take the full-on “America has squandered the goodwill of the world” line.

    In the meantime, the GOP is also, according to CNN, going to be stepping up its recruitment efforts. Wonder which best-selling novelist they‘ll bring to rouse interest!


    Posted by Sean at 14:26, July 24th, 2004

    Someone at work mailed me this story with the subject line “WE’RE STILL NUMBER 1!” (Actually, I’m pretty sure Finland and maybe one of the other Scandinavian countries still have higher rates of suicide, but 34000+ out of 125 million people is still plenty high. The US has around 30000 suicides per year, but of course, we have double Japan’s population.) The AP article touches on some of the reasons for the anomalies in the way suicide is distributed here.

    Like everywhere else, the rate is highest among old people with failing health. But there’s also been a major upswing, since the 1990-ish collapse of the economic bubble, of suicides among people who are hopelessly in debt. Lender liability law is effectively non-existent here, and a lot of people go to retail loan companies that lend at rates to which usury doesn’t do justice. Unless the laws have changed when I wasn’t looking, 40% (that’s not a typo) is the highest legal rate lenders can charge. But, this being Japan, it’s possible to add on courtesy fees, processing fees, and in-out-around-through fees that make the interest rate effectively 100% for the most desperate borrowers. And of course, being the most desperate borrowers, those are the people with the greatest difficulty paying the money back.

    People in such situations who don’t want to end their troubles and save their honor by committing suicide have another option: They can disappear. Through the ’90’s, the number of people who did 夜逃げ (yonige, “overnight escape”) and took new identities in distant cities to escape the gangster collection agents who were harassing them was increasing by a good 50% per year. In each of the last several years, I think the figure has hovered at between 100000 and 150000.

    The recent reforms of the National Pension and Social Insurance may not, to put it mildly, make debt and health issues easier to deal with. Plans to increase premiums and cut back on benefits (including both pension money and health care) will make things more difficult for the elderly and for cash-strapped workers–exactly the adult groups whose suicide rates are causing all the alarm.

    Of course, suicide is not considered an honorable option unless it’s the only way to make amends or discharge one’s responsibilities. Otherwise–this is one of the most inspiring things about the Japanese–they have an amazing ability to persevere stoically through desperate circumstances. By this point, no one entertains the fantasy that the Japanese government is going to undertake the kinds of real reforms that will speed up economic recovery (as, say, South Korea did after the Asian financial crisis in 1997). So what we’re in for, probably for several more decades, is more of the slow, painful, not-quite-catastrophic same. Suicide is unlikely to become epidemic, but there’s little reason to expect rates to drop very quickly.

    Added at 17:25, 26 July: Just so people don’t think it’s a total free-for-all here, I might point out that punishment is meted out to those who run outright scams in the moneylending business. Sometimes. If you click on the link, you have to promise you’ll read to the end to see how the officer of one of the loan companies justifies himself. Unreal.

    I know what boys like

    Posted by Sean at 12:37, July 23rd, 2004

    Ten minutes ago, I was in a great mood, I swear.

    I know I need to stop sniping at Andrew Sullivan. An obscure person who keeps ragging in public on a prominent person is inviting accusations of envy. He wouldn’t know me if he fell over me in the street. I’m being petty. I suck.

    Having acknowledged that, I will humbly receive the permission of my dozen readers to say, I don’t think I can keep reading him much longer. I really don’t. One of his posts from today (your time over there…as in, it’s tomorrow here, but still today for you…oh, whatever) contains this one-two punch of ninnyism that made me want to scream:

    HE SAID IT! The Washington Blade has found a reference by the president to the word “gay.” He said the phrase “gay marriage” in Pennsylvania, referring to someone else’s question. He knows that gay people exist! Now if he could only apply to adjective to actual human beings. But it’s a start. And don’t give me the pablum abhout not treating people as members of a group. Today, at the Urban League, Bush asked: “Is it a good thing for the African-American community to be represented mainly by one political party? Have the traditional solutions of the Democrat Party truly served the African-American people?” That’s the difference between a group of people you respect and want to win over and a group of people you marginalize for political gain.

    EMAIL OF THE DAY II: “Your blog links to an inaccurate statement in a Fox report which claims that wives should be subservient to their husbands, when the word Judge Holmes used was subordinate. Subservient implies obsequiousness or servility while subordinate implies submitting to the authority of another (which can arguably be considered a sign of strength). You use the incorrect word in your blog.” The strength to be subordinate! And this comes from a religious tradition that began with a man who defied almost every social convention of his time and treated women – even single women – as his equals; who never married and broke up the families and marriages of his disciples; who told his own parents as a teenager that they had no final control over him; and whose best friends were a single woman and a single man who is described in the Gospels as resting his head on Jesus’ breast in an act of profound intimacy. How you get the subordination of women and the persecution of homosexuals from all that is beyond me.

    This is what one of our most literate, urbane, even-handed, generous-minded advocates is reduced to? Wagging his tail at the mention of the word gay, once, by the President? I mean, all right, to an extent I get it. Bush probably is dodging the issue as much as he can, and of course he’s probably doing so for the sake of political expediency. We are not–no surprise here–the constituency he needs to court most urgently.

    If the President really thinks homosexuals should be as free to live our private lives and make private contracts as everyone else, but that marriage shouldn’t be redefined just to make us happy, and that as a Christian he can’t approve of that aspect of our lives, I wish he’d just flat-out say it. I know all the reasons it’s not a good idea for him as a politician up for election, but I, for one, would be grateful. Yeah, he’d give some people on both sides of the argument fits of apoplexy, but they’d be well-earned fits of apoplexy.

    In fact, Andrew Sullivan, 2004 version, would be having the biggest fit of all, because apparently the US government is the arbiter of our dignity as citizens (yes, I’m going off on this again–feel free to go read Instapundit if you’re sick of hearing about it), and anything but approval, using the g word, with concrete examples, affronts it. You have to wonder what exactly would satisfy people who think like this. We’re 3% of the population, so does that mean we need to be mentioned in 3% of Bush’s speeches? Or should we constitute 3% of the individuals he refers to by name? Does “relationships between people of the same gender” count for, say, 0.375 times as many points as the actual use of “gay”? And how is anyone supposed to live a full, rich, satisfying life but still have time to obsess over these things?

    I doubt President Bush cares any more than Andrew Sullivan what Sean Kinsell, actual gay human being and voter, thinks. But for the record, there are two important entities I think he should consider while on the job:

    (1) The United States, in which I include its citizens, infrastructure, territory, and interests

    (2) Well-connected industries that are getting clobbered by the competition, and the identity-politicking PAC’s that imitate them in the seeking of entitlements

    President Bush, it’s your sworn duty to do everything you can to protect one of the above. But only one. Do it, already.



    As for the second entry, Andrew Sullivan is entitled to reconcile his Christian faith with his sexuality however he likes…in his own life. If in public he’s going to make cockamamie-ass equivalences between “a single man who is described in the Gospels as resting his head on Jesus’ breast in an act of profound intimacy” and homosexuality, he needs to be answered, lest people think all of us open homosexuals are that obtuse.

    I have no idea what happens chez Sullivan, but I can assure you that in this household, sex involves more than the resting of one partner’s head on the other’s chest, honeychile. Conversely, I have friends from college who, when we’re all gathered for someone’s wedding and catching up or talking politics, think nothing of leaning on me while I play absently with their hair; but I know they’d be confused and repelled if I ever actually came on to them. For that matter, straight men in most places outside America are permitted more physical contact with each other, but that doesn’t make them homosexual, or even gay-friendly.

    All of this is my characteristically roundabout way of saying, any dope knows that matey intimacy (however the local culture defines it) is different from having sex. And while Andrew Sullivan’s not a dope, he’s an incredibly smart person with an increasingly bad case of tunnel vision. He’s been so honest about his sexuality and his HIV status, given the political circles he moves in, that I still haven’t reached the point at which I can just write him off. But lately, for the first time, I’ve felt as if I’m getting there. And there’s no other commentator who’s as all-around good, in the sense of being an advocate for gays without excluding other political and social issues, as he used to be. It’s sad.

    [Added at 16:00: Spoons wonders whether Sullivan is implying that he thinks Jesus was a homosexual. I don’t think that was the point, actually. He seems to be more saying that Jesus hung out in a merry, tolerant bunch of bohemians that included independent women and companionable piles of male buddies, and that therefore we can deduce that he was, you know, mellow about alternative lifestyles and stuff. It’s still malarkey.]


    On a not-entirely-unrelated note: Agenda Bender’s been up for two years. Tom’s one of those people who can post two lines of tossed-off pervy humor and make me giggle for the rest of the day; though he hasn’t written many lately, he can also do those rants that look as if they’re about to careen out of control any second but never do (a talent I manifestly lack; see this site, passim). And he’s been just incredibly kind to me. I have no idea whether he checks in here, but just in case: Happy 2nd…well, I won’t use the word and spoil your Google joy, but the entire staff of the former East Asia office sends regards.

    The latest fugu poisoning

    Posted by Sean at 21:58, July 22nd, 2004

    Several times a year, people in Japan die from eating home-prepared fugu, the blowfish prized as a delicacy here. Its neurotoxin, which causes tingling in the limbs, shortness of breath, paralysis (while you’re still alert and helpless), and finally coma and death, is concentrated in the skin, ovaries, and liver. Guess which part of the fish is considered the greatest epicurean treat? The latest case happened last night in Fukuoka. The story is by the book: a man caught a fugu and brought it home to four friends. They added the liver and flesh to the miso soup with which they started dinner; the symptoms began two hours later. The two men (including the fisherman) are in serious condition and, though the article doesn’t say in so many words, will die. The women, who I imagine left most of the liver for the men, are expected to recover. I wonder, though, not having read up on it much, whether people who recover from fugu poisoning suffer necrosis of the flesh the way a lot of people who recover from snakebites do.

    In case you’re wondering how it’s possible to make the liver edible at all, the answer is: you can purge the poison so there’s just enough left to give the mouth a stimulating little tingle if you hold the cleaned organ under running water for a very long time before serving. No, I’m not kidding. One wonders how many people through the centuries died agonized deaths along the trial-and-error path to that discovery.

    By the way, the character compound for fugu is 河豚: “river” + “pig.” The dolphin is called iruka, and written (if you’re being stuffy) as 海豚: “sea” + “pig.” Somewhat more recognizable, to us native speakers of English who were made to memorize Latin and Greek word roots as schoolchildren, is the compound for hippopotamus: 河馬, pronounced kaba and literally meaning, of course, “river” + “horse.”

    Since I was brought up on the Levitical health laws, my parents reared me not to eat pork because pigs were God’s natural vacuum cleaners and were bad for the body, even though people who ate pork often seemed as healthy as everyone else. Clearly, the river pig of Japan makes its deleterious effects known rather more quickly, as one member of last night’s unfortunate dinner party apparently knew: she ate none of the fugu miso soup, and she’s fine.