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    Posted by Sean at 09:29, June 5th, 2004

    Wow. Last night, they just said Ronald Reagan was failing rapidly and had weeks to months. I was surprised that his death wasn’t one of the main headlines on the Nikkei at first, in the moment before I remembered that a US President who went out of office a decade and a half ago will not make the most important story abroad. Now, it’s been moved up the page. Maybe someone tipped them off that the last standing superpower won’t be able to think about anything else today?

    The article does mention something that’s not coming up in the American press much amid the stories about his interactions with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev: In the ’80’s, the Japanese economic bubble was still expanding, and trade negotiations were very, very dicey. Reagan’s rapport with Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was known in the press here as the “Ron-Yasu Relationship.” I’m sure the phrase was used in a somewhat bemused tone back then; it’s as informal-sounding in Japanese as in English. Today, it sounds rather tender.

    And while I know it’s not intentional, leave it to CNN to be interrupting its retrospective on Reagan with commercials for a biopic of Che Guevara. Cht!

    Turn my brown body white

    Posted by Sean at 11:01, June 4th, 2004

    In t – 5 hours, the boyfriend will be back within molesting distance. Tomorrow we leave for Bali (the mountains, not the beach). I don’t think I’ve ever needed a vacation so much in my life. If anything interesting happens in Japan today, I might post something quick about it; otherwise, see you in a week!

    And if I decide / to step aside

    Posted by Sean at 21:13, June 3rd, 2004

    So I’ve kind of had a post brewing for the last week or so. I keep seeing people writing about similar things and then wondering whether the topic has already been attended to: Connie du Toit wrote about giving children guidance rather than being a dictator, which is part of it. Today, Boi from Troy has been involved in a back-and-forth about what qualifies as oversensitivity–it called to mind a priceless post of Agenda Bender’s a while back. Rosemary Esmay’s patience finally ran out on a particularly long-winded troll, with predictable results. I myself recently linked to news about a school killing here in Japan this week. And Baldilocks responded to a thread at Dean’s World about single parenthood among black women.

    Maybe the connection isn’t obvious here–in fact, it’s not obvious to me, but I sense one, and it’s like an itch at the back of my mind, so I’m running with it. What I think most Americans want is a society in which several things are in the best possible balance:

    (1) People whose idea of pursuing happiness is non-conformist are free to act on it to the extent that they aren’t demonstrably infringing on the rights of others.

    (2) The accumulated wisdom of the ages that some non-conformist behaviors have less benign possible consequences than others needs to be signaled to the young and inexperienced so that they don’t make irreversible choices before they know what they’re getting into.

    (3) The society full of strong-minded, free people that results from (1) and (2) has a shared set of signals that allows everyone to, as accurately as possible, distinguish respectful people with opposing arguments from those of plain old ill-will.

    (4) The society full of strong-minded, free people that results from (1) and (2) has a shared set of signals that allows everyone to live in overall peace with other citizens without forcing him into postures of approval that he cannot make in good conscience.

    Obviously, if these problems were truly solvable, they’d have already been taken care of by a greater mind than the one that belongs to this little white boy. It does seem that we could do somewhat better than we are, though. One thing that springs to mind is that in this transition period back to civility, jumping to conclusions is even less useful than it would otherwise be. Who knows anymore what someone means when he uses the word homophobia or disrespect. Contexts for social interactions having been mashed together over the last several decades, it often takes quite a few exchanges to be sure where someone is coming from.
    Along those lines, there’s a lot of amnesia about the last several decades of American social history going around, and I wish people would knock it off. The cultural upheavals of the ’60’s did not begin because two students at Wesleyan suddenly woke up one 1963 morning in an innocent world and said, “Hey! Suppose we just, like, threw all the rules away!” The stigma on children born out of wedlock punished them for behavior they did not have a say in and worked against the American belief that you can achieve things beyond what the circumstances of your birth dictate. Adulterous men were often dealt with severely by others in the community, but it was also frequently the case that wives got the message that marital problems were always their fault and theirs to fix. Gays were given to believe that their attractions could not rise above the level of carnality. The ’50’s were an understandable and psychologically necessary breather after two world wars and the Depression, but they couldn’t have lasted in existing form. Attitudes did need to be changed.
    The problem was the way they were transformed. It’s one thing not to shut non-conformists out of society, and quite another to encourage everyone to believe that non-conformity is the solution to life’s problems. Now everyone is free to take the Zsa Zsa approach to marriage, many young women do not believe you need to be particularly strong-minded to rear a child out of wedlock, large numbers of ethnic minorities see systemic racism as the major impediment to their progress, and gay men of my age hear older buddies talk about countless colorful friends that we’ll never get to meet. (Aside: I know that many people don’t see liberty for women or racial minorities as analogous to liberty for homosexuals. That’s a topic worth debating, though it’s more specific than what I’m talking about here. I might mention, though, one way that those groups are related in practice if not in theory: Whatever the loudest, dumbest feminist or minority activist is saying today, the loudest, dumbest queer activist will be saying tomorrow. So very disheartening. Anyway….)
    For quite a while, I’ve wanted to write something about what I think America should and should not learn from Japan. I still don’t have a fully worked-out answer, but I really don’t think it comes down to much more than two things. One is that people here assume that you are going to treat them respectfully and will work overtime to interpret your behavior that way unless you cross the line in a big, bad way. The second is that, for all the mutual dependence and 甘え encoded in Japanese social forms, people go out of their way not to burden others unnecessarily. Each of these takes work, but in my experience, neither is all that hard for people in normal circumstances. While we Americans are sorting out what we want to retain and what we want to leave behind from the last forty or so years, I hope we find a way to start thinking in that vein again.

    I realize that this post is disjointed, even for me, but it’s not coming together any better right now. If the usual suspects have any input, I’d be glad to hear it.

    No wisecracks about the state of Japanese society today….

    Posted by Sean at 01:54, June 1st, 2004

    The latest Japanese child-on-child killing took place in Nagasaki Prefecture today. One sixth-grade girl lured a classmate into one of the study rooms, then slashed her in the face and neck with an Exact-o knife; she died of massive bleeding. The victim’s father is a bureau chief for one of the major newspapers here (the Mainichi Shimbun), so I’m guessing the school was pretty exclusive. The poor guy’s wife died of cancer a few years ago, too. Wow. Apparently, the attacker was in tears and apologizing, and she was lucid enough to answer questions.

    Most Japanese people turn out just fine, obviously; nevertheless, the risk in having such a conformist society is that when people crack from the pressure, they’re likely to lose their shit completely. It’s too soon to know, but I wonder whether that’s what happened here; a petty grievance became magnified, and she flipped out. How very sad.


    Don’t send me no doctor

    Posted by Sean at 13:17, May 29th, 2004

    Here we go. This is hardly the beginning–there’s been news like it at regular intervals for years–but the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare (note the British u in that fourth word–this is a class-act, civilized country, you know) bean crunchers and number counters have estimated that total health expenditures in 2025 will be more than double what they are now: 69 trillion yen (about US $630 billion). That includes out-of-pocket payments by users but, naturally, mostly consists of Social Insurance premiums and taxes. The most quickly increasing sector is geriatric care, of course; it’s projected to be half the total by then.

    When people ask me what the health care system is really like over here, I never quite know what to say. Care for minor stuff is great; so is care for catastrophic illness. I’ve had friends who had heart bypasses and treatments for cancer that were, to judge from the results, first-rate. No, it isn’t the Nirvana a lot of collectivists in America think it is: care for things that are significant but not life-threatening is seriously hit-or-miss. You have to work hard to find a good dentist. It’s common to tell a GP that you’ve already tried aspirin for your fever and still walk out of his office with powdered acetaminophen. Treatments are often drawn out into short segments given over weeks or months. Part of this is because the traditional Asian view of how to restore health involves slowly and naturally prodding the life processes back into normal alignment.

    But part of it is also that more visits help maximize revenue from patients who don’t have many other options. Despite the long average life span here, the lack of transparency in operations (and deemphasis on personal responsibility and initiative) that create drag on the Japanese domestic economy are bad for the health care system, too. This article is out-of-date, but it compiles several of the cases that got the most publicity in the first few years I lived here. Since then, you get similar stories regularly: a sociopathic nurse in Sendai killed his patients by giving them heavy doses of muscle relaxant. Even though the frequency with which his patients worsened was such that his colleagues called him “Nosedive Mori,” and he was using unprescribed doses of muscle relaxant that were missing from inventory, he seems to have kept this up for years. And then there’s the “thank-you money” that people routinely give their surgeons in addition to the set fee.

    None of this is to be interpreted as meaning that people are lying or incorrect when they say that Japan has good health care. It’s just that you can’t point to Japan and say that having a national health care system improves things over private insurance by ensuring better control and an orientation toward service rather than profit. Everyone knows that as the population ages, caps on care will change; it will be unpleasantly interesting to see how the revised MHLW rules play out as they move through the medical system in real time and on real terms.

    Never one to roam / I took the first bus home / and I haven’t changed

    Posted by Sean at 20:46, May 28th, 2004

    It’s this sort of story that makes me glad I live in a country in which people will just say straight out that they believe Koreans are congenitally lazy and stupid and Chinese people are treacherous. You can then disagree, with reason and example, and actually get somewhere.

    But where…how do you…is it even…WTF can you possibly say to this?

    The city of Chicago will continue to set aside a portion of its construction contracts for firms owned by blacks, Hispanics and women — but not Asian-Americans.

    The revised ordinance, approved Wednesday night by the City Council, lists the groups that statistical evidence shows are socially disadvantaged.

    Under the law, Asian-Americans can still apply for city work if they do so as individuals and document that they have been discriminated against.

    The changes upset Asian-American leaders as well as some aldermen who said the city was opening itself up to a return to discriminatory practices.

    The City of Chicago is “opening itself up to a return to discriminatory practices,” by airily judging who’s downtrodden enough to compete for clubby set-aside municipal contracts? Good Lord. Imagine what might happen if they pull out all the stops and start discriminating for real.

    It gets better. There seem to have been warning signs from a few months ago on that Asian-Americans would be excluded. At least one affected party is clearly not one to let anything so trivial as self-respect get in the way of a good gravy train:

    Nakachi is concerned that Asian business owners are being defined too narrowly. He noted one line in Moran’s decision about the disparity of people eligible under the program: “A third-generation Japanese-American from a wealthy family, and with a graduate degree from MIT, qualifies.”

    “We have polled our membership and we can’t find any MIT graduates,” Nakachi said. “It’s kind of a stereotype that all Asians are highly educated and highly successful.”

    I know that’s what I look for in people in charge of public works projects: the conviction that they and their kind are as capable of being mediocre as anyone else is.

    Okay, fine–he didn’t say they were stupid or incompetent, only that their degrees might not have brand value and they might not have achieved prominent reputations. And I realize that I’m falling into the Gotcha! routine that Camille Paglia complained about in discussing blogs with Salon. (Well, she didn’t elaborate, but I assume she was referring to the practice of linking to an article, quoting its dumbest paragraph, appending some snarky put-down, and signing off.) But I find few things more infuriating than encountering people who are frankly anti-aspirational.

    Goring the Good Book

    Posted by Sean at 01:16, May 27th, 2004

    I know that at least one of you has guns in the house. Do me a favor, please? If I ever, ever, ever put a time-honored metaphor through the wringer like this, shoot me dead?

    “He planted the seeds of war. He harvested a whirlwind,” Gore added. “And now the corrupt tree of a war waged on false premises has brought us the evil fruit of Americans torturing and sexually humiliating prisoners who are helpless in their care.”

    A guarantee

    Posted by Sean at 10:31, May 26th, 2004

    More about the very brief Japan-DPRK meeting last weekend (this may have been available from other news outlets earlier this week, but I tend to read the Nikkei thoroughly and half-pay attention to NHK on television while cooking, so this is the first I’ve seen it): Koizumi actually met with Charles Jenkins. Were the whole situation (“Hi! Your wife was kidnapped from her free, prosperous home country to teach its culture to spies in a bankrupt and eventually starving hell-hole of a dystopia, and now that she’s finally home after two decades, she’d kind of like to have her children with her, so we’ll do our damnedest to keep your country from prosecuting you as an Army deserter!”) not so appalling, it would be like a spy thriller. And even as it is, it can be darkly amusing. The report is that, to underscore the message that Japan would “make its utmost efforts” to assure that the US doesn’t push for extradition–meaning that Jenkins can live with his wife and daughters in Japan–a Foreign Ministry official with Koizumi wrote, “I guarantee it [私が保証する is the way the story renders it; paradoxically enough, that means I can’t be sure what the English wording was]” on a slip of paper and passed it across the table. Make a great movie scene.

    Jenkins has, of course, ultimately agreed to meet in Beijing. Beijing is friendly to the DPRK, so Japan initially indicated that it wouldn’t accept a reunion between Jenkins and Soga there, but it’s changed its mind and is now pushing in that direction. Soga expressed anxiety about meeting in Beijing and averred that there’s no way in hell she’s going back to North Korea (I should say not!). So we’ll see who moves. I imagine the first meeting probably will, ultimately, be in China. This is an Asian mother with two unmarried daughters in their late teens and early 20’s, so odds are she’ll decide it’s worth putting aside her concerns about traveling to a DPRK ally and do what needs to be done to get her family back together. My pruriently-curious side (is there any other?) wonders what the first night of pillow talk is going to be like in that reformed household.


    Posted by Sean at 22:07, May 24th, 2004

    Which of you wiseasses hid the receipt/claim check-thing I need to pick up my passport at the Embassy this Friday? This is not funny….

    Let me into your temple

    Posted by Sean at 12:54, May 24th, 2004

    Paul Varnell’s newest article at IGF notes something I was kind of wondering about, too: People are taking longer than I expected to freak the hell out over gay marriage in Massachusetts. Not that I’m relishing the prospect, or anything. I trust it’s not surprising that, while I’m troubled by the methods that are being used to bring these changes about and not at all confident in the motives of some of their loudest proponents…well, seeing the pictures and reading the accounts from Massachusetts makes my heart leap. How could it not? My deepest hope (read: it’s the Lagavulin talking) is that obsessive activists on our team will see this as a sign that, while we still face a lot of opposition, there’s a real fund of goodwill out there that we don’t have to get hysterical to tap into, and that anti-gay types will at least recognize something familiar and human in seeing people want to make the relationships that sustain them official. Then maybe (wait–there’s a little Scotch left…not anymore!) we could start talking in terms of how we’re going to treat behaviors as a society and not screeching past each other about what constitutes “approval” of this or that.

    I was vaguely bemused, though, by this paragraph in Varnell’s article:

    And not just legally wed, but welcomed with religious marriage ceremonies by the venerable and influential Unitarian church, whose ministers almost to a man � and woman � have made themselves available to same-sex couples wishing a blessing in the religious tradition.

    Oh, my. In the sense that today’s Unitarianism evolved from challenges to the concept that God is a trinity, sure, it’s…um…old. But I have to say, my first boyfriend took me to a service in Lower Manhattan ten years ago, and I just didn’t get it. My idea of a religion is the church I was brought up in: two-hour services every week, during which you looked up every cited scripture and took notes, no work allowed on the Sabbath, and a kind, accessible Christ balanced by a God the Father whose attitude ran more toward, ARE YOU PEOPLE GOING TO LISTEN TO ME ALREADY OR DO I HAVE TO SMITE YOU WITH A BLEEDING CURSE?!

    The idea at the Unitarian place–and I understand that it may have been somewhat extreme in this regard, but from what I’ve read of Unitarian beliefs it wasn’t way, way on the fringes–seemed to be that you do whatever you felt like doing anyway, and God loves you for it. In fact, the atmosphere of strident, you’re-special! good cheer was so irritating that by the time I left the building, I just wanted to go kick puppies. This is America, and people are, of course, fundamentally free to worship whatever God they choose. I also understand why gays who don’t believe our lives are sinful don’t have a whole lot of choices of denomination. I just can’t help thinking that it doesn’t profit us much to be leaning on a sect with (what appears to me to be–I’d love to be proven wrong) quite that degree of an I’m-okay-you’re-okay approach to life.