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    Posted by Sean at 13:15, May 22nd, 2004

    Everyone seems to be bitching about the return of the cicadas this year; of course, in Japan, the cicada is a major topic of summer-themed traditional poetry, mostly using its voice to evoke solitude or its short life to evoke the 無常 (evanescence, contingency) of This World. Basho Matsuo, the greatest of the haiku poets, wrote several such verses, and one frequently sees them in translation. One of my favorites, though, is this affecting, if less-profound, example, which doesn’t seem to make it into translation often:


    Ide ya / Ware yoki nuno kitari / Semi koromo

    Behold me! I wear
    the finest garments–the robe
    of the cicada

    A sucky translation, but hey, it’s the spur of the moment. I’m as drawn to the serious insights of traditional poetry as anyone, but I like the way the great writers such as Basho and Saigyo were able to find something enlightening about a relaxed, playful moment, too. The summer lightness of his simple, rough clothing makes Basho feel like a cicada with translucent wings. An image to savor now. Soon, most of Japan will be like the inside of a dumpling steamer; not even with the aid of air conditioning will the finest linen and cotton feel like anything but a soaked dishrag.

    Added at some ungodly hour Monday morning: It occurs to me that, since two people who might be reading this are into sewing, the poem above might have more impact if I make it clear that I think the main way Basho is drawing an analogy between his clothing and the wings/shell of the cicada is through their common texture. The summer robe of a priest would have been made of unfaced, loosely-woven raw cotton or silk. The uneven slubs would have created a texture very much like the veined wings of the cicada, and the folds created by the way it draped might have suggested folded wings, too.

    A sort of homecoming

    Posted by Sean at 13:16, May 21st, 2004

    So Prime Minister Koizumi went to Pyongyang, where Kim Jong-il has said he was welcome, most welcome. The meeting apparently ended in less than two hours–perhaps there was a spontaneous city-wide banquet in Kim’s honor that he had to rush off to–but there was plenty to talk about. There’s that little matter of nuclear disarmament, for one thing (the DPRK has been known to file missiles over our heads in Japan–just testing, you know).

    But the focal point was clearly the Japanese abductees. Five have returned to Japan; that leaves eight that the DPRK says are dead (I can’t remember all the cover stories, they’re so lame; one involved graves being washed away in a mudslide and therefore unrecoverable–things like that) and two that it claims never entered North Korea. So from the Japanese viewpoint, there are five abductees repatriated and ten missing, of whom the DPRK acknowledges eight. That’s a total of fifteen, which I’m pretty sure is lower than the number of cabinet ministers and party officials currently implicated in the non-payment-of-pension-premiums scandal, but I could be wrong.

    The Japanese are trying to get abductees’ family members (mostly children) in North Korea to Japan, which is why there’s such a fuss over US Army deserter Charles Jenkins, who defected to North Korea in the ’60’s and is married to abductee Hitomi Soga. The US has indicated that it may, in fact, expect him to be handed over for court martial if he accompanies his daughters to Japan to see their mother. All of this making nice with the DPRK makes me sick, but I guess diplomacy wouldn’t be a delicate business if it always involved dealing with good people.

    Added at 1 a.m.: Predictably, the families of abductees are stomping mad that Koizumi didn’t push more for information about those unaccounted for. One’s heart goes out to them–most of these people were snatched off Japanese soil in their teens or early twenties, remember. But I have a hard time imagining what good a hard-line stance would do in this kind of case. The DPRK is run by whim-driven nut cases, unfortunately. In the meantime, children from two families came from North Korea and were reunited with their repatriated parents near Haneda Airport. It’s been a year and seven months since they’ve seen each other. One of the parents, Kaoru Hasuike (beautiful name, that: Kaoru means “fragrance,” and Hasuike means “lotus pond”), said, “My daughter has become so lovely….and my son has grown tall.” The last sentence in this article reports, “With that, he broke into the smile of a proud father.” Good for them. Let’s hope the rest of the endings are as happy as they can be.

    Live from Europe

    Posted by Sean at 12:40, May 19th, 2004

    I didn’t know whether there’d be more to report about this: アルカイダ幹部が新潟に1年以上潜伏 (Key al Qaeda Member Hid Undetected in Niigata for Over a Year), but it looks as if for now, that’s about what they know. He’s Algerian-French and named Lionel du Mont; he was in Niigata from the end of 2002 through 2003 with his German wife. He went in and out three times (at least once on a false passport); he had a tourist visa, so he probably wanted to avoid crossing paths with the law by overstaying. His business was used cars, but it looks as if they suspect him of moving equipment and funding for al Qaeda.

    I can’t imagine how the government is all that surprised. Yes, the man was wanted, apparently, in connection with an attempted bombing at the G7 Summit in Lyons in 1996 (that’s background in the article, not my encyclopedic knowledge of current events talking). InterPol was looking for him. But still, his passport was French, and people pass through Japan’s international airports from Europe and Malaysia in droves every day. It looks as if they think he was helping to establish part of the network here. Lovely. He was apparently arrested in Germany at the end of last year, so I hope they’re getting some information out of him.

    Lucky takes you out for a ride

    Posted by Sean at 15:51, May 18th, 2004

    I forgot to say anything about this a week ago, but this month is the 25th anniversary of the release of one of my all-time favorite albums:

    Bad Girls by Donna Summer

    Yeah, I know–I’m just a regular old annihilator of stereotypes, huh? Well, before you get too smirky and derisive, just remember that the last few weeks have seen a movie in which Brad Pitt stars as Achilles in an adaptation from Homer become a giant box-office hit in America, so how about having the Standards discussion with a neighbor on your own side of the Pacific, huh? Anyway, I’m not going to get all soi-disant rock critic here, but I will say I adore Bad Girls from beginning to end (yes, including Side 3) and hope that Summer, despite being a born-again Christian, recognizes it as a real accomplishment herself.


    Posted by Sean at 11:08, May 18th, 2004

    So just how badly off are all those welfare states in which wage-earning citizens sacrifice their crass individual goals for the good and harmony of the collective? You’ll have to find out about Sweden from someone else; the situation here in Japan is enough to make anyone my age (32) consider keeping his nest egg as a shoebox full of gold nuggets. It’s not enough that the population is aging. It’s not enough that money paid into the Social Insurancephalopod is mismanaged. (At least it isn’t diverted into a thinly-disguised government slush fund, the way savings accounts through the Postal Service are. Actually, come to think of it, maybe it is. I’m probably better off not knowing). We also have pervasive non-payment of premiums (link to Japanese article as usual–sorry if you’re not Amritas).

    Those of us who work for corporations have the money taken directly out of our wages (like FICA), but the self-employed and students of at least twenty years old have to pay in themselves. Now, of course, most people do work for corporations, so in the grand scheme of things, the amount of money that’s being lost is not as great as the “Non-payment of Social Insurance Pension Premiums Still Near Worst-Ever Level of 37%” headlines make it sound. Even so, I agree with the media that it’s an indication of how little people have come to trust the pension system, for all the hot air about reform.


    Posted by Sean at 23:28, May 17th, 2004

    Are you nice enough to the Asian-Americans in your life? Really? Reallyreally? If not, you still have a week or two to straighten out:

    May is Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month

    The bed’s too big / The fryin’ pan’s too wide

    Posted by Sean at 02:45, May 17th, 2004

    Andrew Sullivan has a new piece out on gay marriage, headlined Integration Day in The New York Times (registration required, as if you needed to be told). Sullivan’s writing meant a lot to me when I was coming out in the mid-’90’s and most gay writers were in the vein of, like, Michelangelo Signorile. But Girlfriend is really starting to annoy me something fierce.

    Get a load (heh-heh) of this:

    I remember the moment I figured out I was gay. Right then, I realized starkly what it meant: there would never be a time when my own family would get together to celebrate a new, future family. I would never have a relationship as valid as my parents’ or my brother’s or my sister’s. It’s hard to describe what this realization does to a young psyche, but it is profound. At that moment, the emotional segregation starts, and all that goes with it: the low self-esteem, the notion of sex as always alien to a stable relationship, the pain of having to choose between the family you were born into and the love you feel.

    One wants to just whisper in his ear that when Margaret Cho said the best reason for gay marriage was that it was inhumane to deny a gay man a bridal registry, it was a joke. But, fine…what he’s saying isn’t that superficial. It’s still, despite his unremitting complaisance as a writer and public personality, offensive.

    I like having people’s respect and approval. Resilient as my ego is, my nerves are not sheathed in titanium, and having my friends and loves and the life we cherish referred to as perversion all over the place gets me down sometimes. But either you claim control over your own life and mean it, or you slaver for people’s approval and give them the ability to define your worth. No fair congratulating yourself about being willing to take an unpopular stand out of moral conviction and then informing people that they will love you for it. That maneuver makes me as nauseated as…as…John Derbyshire in a roomful of Muscle Marys.

    Just to be clear: I’m not downplaying the hardships of being gay, and I give guys and gals who are just coming out quite a bit of leeway in finding their way at first. I have a more privileged life than a lot of people, but coming out was deeply painful. I didn’t think I would make it through; I don’t consider it whiny for anyone at that stage to be having difficulties getting it together and needing a lot of accommodation from supportive people. If I thought there were a policy proposal that would magically make that hurt unnecessary for future gay men and women, I’d be agitating for it in a second. Also, no one is going to stop me from being a thoroughgoing homo: being in love with a man, feeling that thrill when a cute guy comes into my field of vision, hanging out and being queeny with friends, and (what have I missed?…oh, yeah) mind-altering screwing. I know my own mind, and that’s where it’s at. I wish that didn’t present an obstacle in getting along with some people, but reality is, it does. Though I’m grateful that people cut me lots of slack when I needed them to, now that I’ve righted myself and become a sovereign adult, I deal.

    All of this blather about how our need for marriage is connected with [yaks all over freshly-cleaned floor] self-esteem and not making us feel so alienated just reinforces the charge that our real problem is arrested development. To the extent that psychologists can even determine whether self-esteem is a useful concept, my understanding is that their idea of where it comes from is pretty old-fashioned. Encouragement from others is part of it, but most of it is meeting and overcoming obstacles, fulfilling one’s obligations, and paying one’s debts. For that reason–much as it galls, galls, galls me that hetero convicted felons, multiple divorcés, and deadbeat dads are free to indulge in messed-up marriages without interference, while we’re told that we’re going to spell doom for the concept of the family–I don’t trust our own high-profile crew of dissolute, flim-flamming party animals with marriage any more than Rick Santorum does.

    Most of us are not that caricature, including, I presume, Sullivan and the like-minded Jonathan Rauch, whose book Gay Marriage I eagerly pre-ordered and ended up being disappointed by. Like Sullivan’s latest article, Rauch’s book leans heavily on the idea that marriage brings community pressure to be good, which helps keep married couples stable and benefits everyone. Rauch does raise the question of whether this will apply to gay marriages if a lot of people regard them as counterfeit, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t really address it.

    If we’re going to be using marriage as a cure for the low self-esteem and alienation of “emotional segregation,” though, the answer matters. And the answer is: Those who wish us well and want our relationships to sustain us and bind us to the community are already treating us that way; people who see our relationships as illegitimate will keep doing so no matter who has a license for what. That means that even if gay marriage becomes a long-term fact, we’re initially going to have to be strong for each other, through our formal and informal institutions, every bit as much as we are right now. It may never be the case that everyone is brought around to our side, but to the extent that it happens, it will happen because people can see gays taking charge of our own lives and not bleating, two decades into adulthood, about feeling left out.

    I could also say something about DC-based political journalists who, while they may favor small government, still have the irksome habit of seeing the role of what the government does do as the conferring of legitimacy and Making things Real, rather than serving as a vehicle for the will and collected resources of citizens, but I’m too tired to get into that just now.

    Added on lunchbreak, 19 May: Brian Tiemann has a bit more temperate response to Sullivan, raising some of the same points (and including a penis pun) but giving them more context.

    When a flower grows wild / It can always survive

    Posted by Sean at 12:15, May 16th, 2004

    The human soul craves ritual; one of the things I’m doing to keep the sense that Atsushi’s around the apartment is keeping the vase I bought him for his birthday a few years ago filled. I like lushness and riotous color and things, but I can’t decide whether as a general practice, it’s better in this part of the room to go with Attention-Getting:


    or Steadfast and Unassuming:


    The lighting isn’t so hot in either shot (that inept photography thing again), but if anyone wants to weigh in, I’m open to thoughts from a more experienced flower arranger. My taste in the past tended more to houseplants and potted herbs.

    The boat is the namesake of the place

    Posted by Sean at 22:05, May 15th, 2004

    I wonder whether I’m missing something. In today’s edition, the Nikkei stories about the continuing sad Japan-DPRK struggle over the eight Japanese citizens kidnapped to North Korea in the 1970’s quote a prominent Japanese politician:

    On 16 May, Shozo Abe, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), spoke on a Fuji Television program about the expected focus during Prime Minister Koizumi’s next visit to the DPRK on a former member of the US armed forces, named Jenkins, who is the husband of abductee Hitomi Soga. Abe indicated that Jenkins must be brought to Japan even if against his will.

    Abe said, “Had the DPRK been a country that placed any importance on the will of the individual, the issue of abductions wouldn’t have arisen in the first place. It is in frank talks between the two countries, not according to Jenkins’s will, that this must be decided, and we must get him to come to Japan and bring his and Ms. Soga’s daughters.”

    I’ve read this about twelve times, and while I’m not a native speaker of Japanese, I’m pretty certain that’s what it says. (Jenkins is a deserter–Army, I think–who’s lived in North Korea since the mid-’60’s. The issue that has been raised is that he’s afraid of being arrested if he visits US-ally Japan; whether he really wants to stay in the DPRK has not been clear in anything I’ve read. In fact, I think that his refusal to come to Japan is still hypothetical at this stage.) Granted that being forcibly brought to Japan is not like being forcibly brought to the DPRK, in any sane person’s evaluation…and also that the two girls have a lot more adulthood left than their father and might want to spend it here…the reasoning that Jenkins has lived under a dictatorship for almost 40 years, so we may as well dictate to him some more from a different country, makes my head spin. I could almost see it coming from one of Japan’s unelected, society-manipulating ministry officials; but this guy’s the head of a party that actually participates in the part of the Japanese political system that’s responsible to voters. I certainly hope there’s an angle to the story that I’ve just missed in my newsgathering.

    I like the way you cross the street ’cause you’re…precious

    Posted by Sean at 15:53, May 15th, 2004

    All right, then. If both Nathan and Susanna are going to link John Derbyshire’s latest commentary on homosexuality and just kind of vaguely say that they don’t agree with everything in it without specifying what, I guess it falls to me to point out its weak points. I do so hate having to rouse myself from my normal state of serene benevolence toward the world around in order to be crabby and contrarian. The things I do in pursuit of truth.

    The excerpt that Susanna quotes (which Derbyshire himself cited from someone else) is the part I have the biggest problem with. Line-by-line, it’s perfectly accurate; what it lacks is context. It exemplifies an annoying tendency the hard right often exhibits when the talk turns to social policy: When it wants to make America sound like a sick society that has forgotten religion and individual integrity, it rolls leftist feminist, ethnic, and gay activism together into one big nasty juggernaut produced by broad-based cultural changes in the ’60’s and ’70’s. When it wants to make homosexuals seem manipulative and fundamentally anti-society in our thinking, it slices out gay liberation as a cultural development and gay activism as an industry and presents them in isolation.
    I doubt that this is done out of conscious craftiness, you understand, but it does give a distorted picture. Gay activists, tiresome (and frequently downright destructive to their own people’s interests) as they undoubtedly are, did not invent the idea that citizenship consists of goodies and entitlements, that the way to redress previous wrongs is through quotas and brainwashing and diversity retreats and cutesy bureaucratizing and funding grants. Strip that stuff away, and 90% of contemporary American public life disappears–gay, straight, bi, or other.
    I do agree–and have said before–that the problems such an approach to civic participation presents for gays are different and probably worse than they are for women and ethnic minorities. I’m not big on the idea that we need “role models” who are exactly like us in order to set and achieve goals for ourselves. And yet…if you’re gay and come out in late adolescence/early adulthood, sexual awakening tends to come down on you like a ton of bricks. Straight teenagers find sexuality confusing and frightening, too–I know that–but I think that most of them have a chance to sort of ease into it at the same pace as their bodies are developing. They see their desires for love and companionship and sex mirrored in the way their parents and community elders live. Being gay means learning to navigate those things, in many cases, from square one. It’s hard but nowhere near impossible to do responsibly. However, when that initial stage of big-time identity shift hits the spoiled leftovers of ’60’s anti-establishmentism, the results are not pretty.
    But I don’t think they’re intrinsic to homosexuality, either, which (intended or not) is the way the Johnson quote, with its unleashed-monster metaphor, makes them sound. For all the talk about the return to traditional values in America, after all, the divorce rate is still vertiginously high, the rate of births to single mothers has declined but is not exactly negligible, and you still encounter plenty of rude and uncivilized people. That doesn’t mean that the recapturing of wisdom that was thrown away in the last few generations is a figment of the imagination. It just means that lasting change requires time to take root; the important thing to focus on is which direction things are heading. Despite the many troubled aspects of gay life, I think we’re steadily getting our act together.
    And I feel compelled to point out that there are plenty of straight people who are in on the act. When I was coming out, none of my ten or so close friends was gay. The man with whom I had a halting relationship–I was a selfish, cocky, immature little bitch to him and still regret it, BTW–made arguments in favor of accepting my sexuality that I didn’t really find convincing. The support and encouragement that I responded to came from straight friends who didn’t want to see me go through the rest of my life trying to drink away what was obviously a fundamental part of myself. Some of them have exactly the same instinctive revulsion toward homosexuality that Derbyshire describes, and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t bait them, and they don’t make an issue of it. Pointed but good-natured humor is a big help, in my experience, and the enforced humorlessness of so much of the leftist program has, as Derbyshire implies, done nothing but dam up feelings and leave them to fester. I would just add that, in a free society, both gays and straights have to be equally prepared to be dished at when humor is necessary to dissipate tension and make civilized interaction possible.
    Along those lines, while this issue was only taken up by implication in Derbyshire’s article, it seems apposite here: this debate, like that over the role of women in society, that over parental autonomy in child-rearing, and that over cultural assimilation for immigrants, will continue to be contentious–it’s a debate, see?–and sometimes acrimonious. If we want to deal with these things honestly, we all have to be prepared to have our egos bruised and our cherished ideas exploded sometimes.
    That means that when conservatives say that they believe homosexuality should be decriminalized but still think it’s immoral behavior, gays have to quit wringing their every word for evidence that they “really” hate us and want us all lined up and shot. It also means that conservatives have to stop picking over the lives of gays who say they’re happy for evidence of the slightest misgiving or strain of melancholy to prove that we “really” aren’t. There are quite enough genuinely theocratic religious types and drug-addicted, financially insolvent homos running around, but it’s unworthy of free people who have given their own life choices due moral consideration to have to comfort themselves with the belief that no one could ever possibly be happy (at least in the Earthly sense) living any other way.
    The Internet, for all its virtues, tends to aggravate that particular problem. It is way, way too easy to read someone’s one-paragraph comment, or even ten-paragraph post, and assume that it holds the key to the writer’s entire way of thinking. But while posts emerge clean and self-contained, they originate in real life, where bad traffic, a botched account at work, an old injury that’s acting up, or an irritated exchange with the spouse can influence how one treats a topic as seemingly unrelated as whether Will & Grace should be on the air. The way to find out whether you’re interpreting someone correctly is to ask and see whether he explains it satisfactorily or, on the other hand, digs himself in deeper. The only things you have to lose are your assumptions. (Anyone who wants to point out that I don’t always take my own advice here is welcome to do so; we don’t jettison our ideals for the silly reason that we can’t always live up to them.)
    Added at 16:10: I noticed when going back to Susanna’s page that Myria, who writes the It Can’t Rain All the Time (presumably named after the wonderful Jane Siberry’s wonderful song from the soundtrack to The Crow) weblog had also tracked-back with an interesting response. I’ve always liked her posts, though I don’t read her regularly. Good thoughts on this one, and a color scheme to die for, darling.