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    Posted by Sean at 08:02, December 6th, 2007

    Friends who don’t live here frequently ask me what it is about Western media reporting about Japan that drives me up the wall. I usually complain that journalists recycle the same scripts over and over, but that in and of itself isn’t really it. Some things said repeatedly because they’re actually happening repeatedly. But The New York Times business section featured an excellent example yesterday of things I sometimes find it hard to put my finger on: skating over the interesting issues a story raises in a way that means there’s little new for people who know Japan and plenty that’s potentially misleading for people who don’t

    Martin Fackler, who wrote the piece, doesn’t make any factual errors that I can see. (Well, the first sentence should probably say, “remote northern coast of Japan’s main island,” since he’s not talking about Hokkaido.) And he tries to give several points of view about a controversial phenomenon. The result is still unenlightening. I assume that one of his editors, not he himself, wrote the headline and subhead. Still, they do pretty aptly sum up the article, which presents a phenomenon with quite a long history with little context:

    Japan’s $4.7 trillion economy has expanded for the last five and a half years. Urban centers like Tokyo and Nagoya, the seat of the Japanese car industry, are thriving, as seen in the building boom decorating Tokyo’s skyline with glittering new high-rises.

    But in regions like Akita, the mountainous northern prefecture that is home to Noshiro, downtowns have emptied and factories have closed, and an exodus to Tokyo of youths seeking jobs has left behind towns that are predominantly for the elderly.

    There is widespread concern here that these changes are turning Japan into a nation divided into winners and losers, split geographically between prosperous cities and the depressed rural areas. Many here attribute this growing disparity to Japan’s embrace of American-style economic liberalization, begun in the 1990s to end the nation’s decade of stagnation.

    The measures to open up markets helped revive cities like Tokyo and lowered prices for Japan’s long-suffering urban middle class. But elsewhere in Japan, they are seen as bringing unwelcome and wrenching change.

    For all of Japan, the question now is whether this sort of reaction will be strong enough to stop or reverse economic liberalization. The central government has already begun to tighten restrictions on large stores, and many in rural areas are calling for more public works.

    But many in Tokyo and regions like Akita say Japan’s soaring fiscal deficits make it impossible to return fully to the old ways, and many advocate opening markets further.

    There’s no indication in this flurry of “some say” explanations of whether any of them have, you know, more evidence than others. No one can gainsay the point that market liberalization has plenty of enemies in Japan. Whether–given the collapse of the Bubble produced by the “old ways,” increased competition from China in the manufacturing and tech sectors, and Japan’s dependency on export markets for its wealth–it has any viable alternative is another matter. Of course, Japan is not going to become Estonia. Japan will continue to make the trade-offs that suit its own culture, which does indeed include a tendency to distribute benefits through the group, even when the group is the entire population of the country.

    But there are, in fact, trade-offs involved, and it’s perilous not to recognize them. Fackler coolly reports that “many in rural areas are calling for more public works” without giving even the slightest hint of the degree to which the post-war “Got a problem? Get a cement mixer” approach to rural economies helped get them into their current pickle. During the era of economic hypergrowth, massive road-building, earthworks, and other construction projects gave people in rural areas something to do besides farming. Cruelly, it also deceived them into believing they were earning their money by producing value for the economy just like the major cities, and it diverted their energy away from building other skills and exploiting local assets. Now that the funding for boondoggles is harder to come by, keeping the egalitarian mask over productivity disparities is more difficult. Residents of rural areas have less income and purchasing power. Keeping out imports and big-box retailers may protect local businesses from “excessive competition,” But there’s a case to be made that it also “protects” cash-strapped consumers from goods they can more easily afford.

    We hear little about their problems in Fackler’s article, but to his credit he displays some awareness that the mom-and-pop retailers he’s writing about are not limitlessly sympathetic characters: “In interviews, local business leaders bemoaned their declining fortunes, but also quickly dismissed suggestions that they seek new opportunities in nearby emerging markets like China or Russia, which sits just across the narrow Sea of Japan from Akita.” Plenty of people in rural Japan were perfectly happy for Tokyo and other major commercial centers to do the hard work of wealth creation when painful adaptation to new economic realities was something expected only of foreign markets when Japan came up with innovations in metal, automotive, or electronics manufacture.

    Fackler might have produced a genuinely illuminating piece if he’d explored in more detail the proposals for economic revitalization that forward-thinking locals are putting forth, exactly who’s moving to scuttle them, and how they’re defending their resistance. It’s too bad that he or his editor decided that the boil-in-bag narrative of how the cities are wicking away young talent from rural areas and leaving them in the dust economically was all that needed serving up. His article ends just as it starts getting interesting.

    Got the sound of you ringin’ in my ears

    Posted by Sean at 23:42, November 29th, 2007

    Been busy of late. Lots of news, though. The best is that Virginia Postrel seems to be doing well with her cancer treatment and is posting again. Best wishes to her.

    Speaking of recovered cancer patients…KYLIE! Of course. Some people seem to be bewildered that her new album doesn’t address all the profound, life-changing experiences she’s had in the last few years, which only makes you wonder whether they’ve ever heard her music before. Kylie is not Madonna, who apparently regards every thought that floats through her head and everything that happens to her as deeply meaningful and worthy of picking over in song. Kylie is an entertainer, and (bless her heart) seems to feel no need to sing about elements of her personal life if she can’t do so in a way that pleases her fans.

    The new album is good, of course. With the glut of super-skilled writer/producers for hire and all the technology at their disposal, no dance diva with a recording budget will ever make a truly bad album again, I suspect. “The One” is a terrific-sounding rip-off of Madonna’s terrific-sounding rip-off of Kylie’s previous terrific-sounding rip-off of Madonna’s previous terrific-sounding rip-off of “I Feel Love.” And so on.

    The thing is, about half the songs on X would, frankly, have better served the strengths of her sister. Dannii Minogue has a deadpan, husky voice that’s emotionally blank but stays immediately recognizable even when processed to death–perfect for imprinting a brand on club songs on which the beat is the point. She goes with the mechanical flow…kind of like an antipodean Britney without the skank factor.

    But Kylie’s gift is for humanizing dance-pop. Fans want to hear her coo, sigh, burble, pout, and wail, and there’s little room for that in the kinds of brittle, boxed-in tracks everyone’s making these days. Stuck, like Madonna’s “Jump,” two thirds of the way through is the most affecting song on the album: “No More Rain.” Looking forward to the remixes, especially if someone actually comes up with a bassline that hasn’t been done to death.

    And please, can we consign “Nu-di-ty” to outer darkness while there’s still time? No Kylie album is complete without one track that totally sucks, but really! These things do have their limits.

    2000 miles

    Posted by Sean at 02:43, November 16th, 2007

    Greg Beato (that rare Reason writer these days who’s nearly as funny as he thinks he is) has a column on that now-traditional holiday topic: killjoy secularization. He approaches it from the opposite direction:

    While anti-bias truffle pigs like Brent Bozell, William Donohue, and Michael Medved insist the entertainment industry is out to crucify faith and traditional values, it somehow manages to produce a new crop of straight-to-Hallmark-Channel holiday weepies each year, and not one of them has ever featured Dolly Parton as an unlikely evolutionary biologist who reunites an estranged family by infusing them with that old-fashioned Darwinist spirit. Such powers, it seems, are reserved solely for angels.

    Similarly, if you go looking for a Madalyn Murray O’Hair action figure at Wal-Mart, you’ll have to settle for a 13-inch Samson doll from the faith-based toymaker One2believe. Christian entrepreneurs are better at providing earthly rewards than the folks who believe earthly rewards are our only salvation. In fact, the Lord has called so many believers to spread the Good News via faith-based salt scrubs and godly poker chips during the last few decades that the annual U.S. market for Christian-themed products, often dismissed as “Jesus junk,” is now $4.6 billion.

    Well, one of the reasons for that is that No-God is not the center of an atheist’s belief system in a way that corresponds to God for Christians (and the faithful of other religions). The only reason I call myself an atheist is that daily interaction with other people is predicated on the assumption that we all have a god to talk about, so the word is useful for answering a question that frequently comes up. But I don’t orient my life around some conspicuous void where God would be for other people, any more than I consider myself, in some defining way, an afairyist, achupacabraist, aboogeymanist, or a-Nessie-ist. (To me, it’s similar, if not perfectly analogous, to the belief that government shouldn’t be responsible for doing everything that needs to be done in society. People who’ve never conceived of things any other way will ask, “Well, then, who’s going to do all that?” It’s as if you simply had to designate a single entity your Keeper of Society, rather than being able to believe that responsibility for different social goods could be attended to in dispersed ways that no Big Brother is orchestrating.)

    Of course, there are people who make a fetish out of their atheism, but there aren’t very many of them, which kind of helps to explain the paucity of (non-existent Lord help us) Madalyn Murray O’Hair action figures.

    I want my dog back!

    Posted by Sean at 05:27, November 15th, 2007

    Remember Suck.com’s list of ten warning signs you should stay away from a movie on the basis of its trailer? My favorite was always this one:


    9. The Ominous Ominousness of Ominosity

    Frequently used in tandem with Number 8, this is the one where you see the hero in various happy-family scenes — enjoying a long kiss with the wife, playing with the kids. You know exactly what’s going to happen to that wife and those kids. So why see the movie? In addition to providing a nearly flawless “Do Not Enter” indicator, the Triple-O effect provides support for the theory that Death Wish is the most influential film in history. So perhaps it’s not completely without value.

    I think it was the graphic.

    Anyway, it was always clear that there were more rules to be added, and Andrea has found one…albeit by actually sitting through the movie:

    [D]ear filmmakers, please think of some other way of getting your characters in trouble that does not necessitate them contravening basic human nature. One tenet of which is people do not stand in the middle of the road, thereby making themselves available to be hit by the next high-speed vehicle that comes along. They just don’t.

    I don’t see movies quite as often as I used to, but though I tend to forget those I do before I get home and have occasion to say anything about them here, they usually make good dinner/drink conversation with my companions afterward.

    Not so that Jodie Foster movie, You Talkin’ to Travice Starling-Bickle?! , which regurged just about every cliché in action-movie history, then sucked back up and swallowed several in order to hurl them at the audience a second time. Foster did an okay job, considering that the whole point of her character was to seethe in that watch-me-pointedly-refrain-from-chewing-the-scenery way that is supposed to pass for subtlety. She’s nothing if not professional. And given that you go in knowing exactly how she’s going to be turned into a vigilante, the movie doesn’t spend too much time building up the happy-couple scenes before the lead pipe finally falls.

    Nevertheless, the dialogue was beyond ridiculous, with Foster delivering an improbably perfect one-liner every single time she was about to blow some baddie away. And yes, there was a scene in which she walked blithely in front of a car with a sicko behind the wheel (while helping along a kidnapped teenaged prostitute!). You know that’s gonna end in tears.

    I don’t think this post has a point. Just, as Andrea says, I think The Brave One is the kind of movie you have to see drunk. That may be why my buddy and I forgot about it almost as soon as we left the theater and turned our attention to more compelling matters, such as where to go for some nice beer and fish & chips.


    Posted by Sean at 00:32, November 14th, 2007

    Joel at Far Outliers usually posts excerpts from books and articles that are not otherwise readily available online. He has a very good eye, so his blog is worth reading just for that.

    However, a few weeks ago when I wasn’t looking, he started posting pieces of his own writing from twenty-odd years ago when he was teaching English in the PRC. It makes for fascinating reading. Back then, despite Deng Xiaoping’s gingerly moves toward liberalization, most Americans didn’t get much information about China. The multi-part documentary The Heart of the Dragon , which aired on PBS in the States, was about as good as it got. (Things were similar with the Soviet Union–anyone else remember watching the “Comrades” series on Frontline?)

    One thing that caught my attention was a passage from this post:

    In China those who have tap water don’t drink it. Almost all the water and tea consumed each day by one billion Chinese goes through a kettle and thermos bottle first.

    There must be at least a billion thermos bottles. If each thermos bottle is emptied twice a day, then four billion liters of water pour out of the mouths of thermoses each day.

    Boiled water is the universal cleanser. Diners in China’s typically grimy eating places often rinse their tableware with hot water or tea before they eat or drink anything. Some roadside eateries reassure their customers by bringing out all the tableware in a large soup bowl full of scalding water. The customers can rinse everything themselves.

    Disposable eating utensils, like disposable medical supplies, are just coming into use in China. A recent China Daily letter to the editor lauded the growing practice of providing disposable chopsticks in restaurants in Beijing.

    How times change. By 2000, disposable chopsticks were ubiquitous in China and had started to draw fire because so many trees were being cut down to make them. Last year, the PRC started putting taxes on them:

    The disposable splints of wood, usually between eight and 10 inches long, have long been a target for Chinese environmentalists.

    In recent years, the government has actually encouraged their use, in a bid to reduce the spread of infectious illnesses by sharing eating utensils.

    A lot of China’s product has been exported here to Japan; I read somewhere years ago that over 90% of the disposable chopsticks consumed here came from the PRC. It’s been proposed that such exports be banned as early as 2008.

    Perhaps China has reached a stage at which the tradeoff involved in not making disposable chopsticks freely available in order to preserve the environment is a good one. It’s worth noting, though, that (as both Joel and the BBC mention) single-use utensils help close one path through which communicable diseases spread, which was no mean consideration in crowded, developing China.

    Be sure to read Joel’s other posts, too.

    Mental gymnastics

    Posted by Sean at 23:26, November 12th, 2007

    Rondi links to this piece by Bruce Bawer on “Norway’s answer to Ayaan Hirsi Ali”:

    Fortuyn’s murder should have put an end to the character assassinations of the advocates of freedom. Nope. Instead they’ve only grown more sophisticated. Nowadays when someone like Ayaan Hirsi Ali assails Islamic fundamentalism, the clever thing to do is call her a fundamentalist–because she’s so uncompromising in her insistence on liberty, get it? In this spirit, a hijab-clad Dagbladet staffer compared Storhaug’s call for Muslim women to “take the hijab off and embrace freedom” to “the rhetoric of the bearded fundamentalists” – thus equating an advocate for the victims of forced marriage and honor killing with the perpetrators of these barbarities.

    As Dagbladet reader Hans-Christian Holm cogently put it, Norway’s media are engaged in “a sick tolerance competition, in which whoever tolerates the most intolerance wins, and the one who suggests that we perhaps should not tolerate so much intolerance is automatically branded as the most intolerant of all.” Storhaug’s own concern, as expressed in an email the other day, is that the relentless demonizing of persons like herself by those who are determined to suppress open liberal debate about these vital issues can only strengthen the hands of both right-wing nativists and Islamists.

    How difficult should it be to recognize that tolerance has to be reciprocal if a free society is to function? You can recognize people’s right to beliefs you find repugnant without recognizing their ability to force other people to bend to them. Or at least you should be able to.

    Like a little child

    Posted by Sean at 21:44, November 12th, 2007

    Eric posted yesterday about a case in southeastern Pennsylvania in which a newly married couple with problems asked successfully to have the marriage invalidated in court:

    In a York County case, a Common Pleas Court judge invalidated a 10-month marriage, finding that a friend of the bride’s who officiated at the wedding didn’t have the power to do so under Pennsylvania law even though he had been ordained online by the Universal Life Church. The judge ruled the friend didn’t qualify as a minister under state law because he had no regular congregation or place of worship.

    By 1885, Pennsylvania had clearly developed two types of marriage licenses. The first required a “minister of the gospel, justice of the peace, or alderman” to officiate. The other let a couple solemnize the marriage themselves (a self-uniting license) and register it with the county.
    Little changed until the legislature amended the law in 1953. While the law still allowed for both types of licenses, a reference to religious ceremonies was added to language describing who could obtain a self-uniting license. The law remains in effect.

    Since the commonwealth government is not the United States congress, I assume it has more leeway to limit freedom of religion; why it would want to do so in this context is beyond me, though. If you succeed in getting a marriage license, it seems to me, you’ve passed such requirements as the government deems fit. (Pennsylvania doesn’t even require a blood test, IIRC from hetero friends who have taken the plunge.) Who officiates, since legal marriage doesn’t require anyone to certify that you’re entering into the union mindedly or that you’re not likely to split up.

    Eric seems to feel the same; I like his idea for a new denomination, too:

    I think the sudden firestorm is grounded in the fact that ordinations can now be obtained online. Big effing deal. What makes one form of communication between humans more suspect than another? Suppose a religious-minded blogger decided to form the Divine Church of the Holy Blog, and decided upon a common set of beliefs, based on articulable principles known and understood and agreed to by all interested joiners. Why wouldn’t their congregation (“Holy Blogroll”) and place of abode be just as valid as any other? What business is it of the government to decide?

    I’ve been thinking about what makes a religion “legitimate” from a different angle over the last week or so, since a friend with whom I went to church growing up contacted me for the first time after a dozen or so years. I posted about this last week. Some consider the Worldwide Church of God a cult; others think it was a genuine Christian sect that got carried away on certain doctrinal points and was poisoned by a cabal of amoral leaders at the very top. (I’m speaking of the church up to about ten years ago; it’s now made numerous doctrinal changes that have brought it into line with mainstream evangelical Protestantism. I think. There’s something about converting to atheism that lessens your attention to theological points, so I may be overstating the case.) I think that this site does a real service in giving former members a place to read up on the inside dirt and share horror stories. The church was supposed to be the center of your life, and it’s perfectly understandable that many people who took that to heart have had real difficulties adjusting since leaving it.

    I do wish, though, that the people who posted were a bit more given to recalling that they freely chose to get involved with the WCG, in countries in which freedom of religion is protected. There’s a page that has a long, long, long list of bullet points for which the ministry ought to apologize—ways the enforcement of church doctrine and culture played havoc with people’s lives. Okay, point taken. But no one was forced at gunpoint to keep attending church, or to refuse to take her children to the doctor, or to fork over twenty percent of his gross income per year to church headquarters. Ministers are responsible for the destructive untruths they peddled, but they can’t be blamed for the unusual eagerness of many members to believe them. Much of the WCG membership comprised, in my experience, people who felt like misfits and were bad at running their own lives. My parents frequently had discussions with friends who were positively relieved to outsource their decision-making about jobs and marriage and childrearing to their pastors and church elders, even when the advice they were given flouted all logic and sense. With the exception of people who were brought up in the church and had been prevented by devout parents from ever knowing any other way of living, I find it difficult to view church teaching as something that was done to sympathetic, pure-of-heart dupes. Being weak-minded may help explain why you’re acting like a ninny, but it doesn’t excuse it.

    The couple in the York County case, similarly, was presumably aware of the difference between an experienced pastor of an established religion and a friend who obtained an ad hoc ordination as a clergyman. It’s ridiculous for them to argue now that they should be legally able to pretend it never happened just because they discovered too late that they weren’t compatible. I hope Eric’s right and that the current decision is “eminently reversible.”

    Added on 15 November: Blogger Ironwolf, who was brought up in the same church as I was, has posted about yet another lectern-thumper who wants us to know we’re all doomed. The specifics of how we’re going to fry aren’t all that interesting–social collapse, big-scary-nightmare empires established by the most populous Asian countries, nuclear holocaust–no one seems to bring much imagination to these things. (Just once, can’t one of these doomsayers jazz things up by predicting that the Satan will launch the End Times from, like, a village in Surinam?) I point it out only to give an indication of the sort of talk that was common coin at church services and among my parents and their friends when I was growing up.

    You make me invisible

    Posted by Sean at 00:45, November 12th, 2007

    Yes, of course, I’m in love (whoo!) with the new Kylie song and video–you had to ask?

    I suppose it does sort of sound like a Gwen Stefani song…or, rather, what a Gwen Stefani song would sound like if she weren’t the second-most ANNOYING PERSON ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH. Personally, I see “2 Hearts” more as accomplishing what she should have years ago with her cover of “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” which turned out murky and a little flat.

    Alice has seen the new Spice Girls video, in which most of the five have their scalpelicious assets on full display, and wonders why women stars in their thirties “all want to dress up as ladies of the night these days”? I don’t know–the inspiration has always looked more like stripping than like streetwalking to me. (I guess “ladies of the night” includes both.) The Flea manages to keep a straight face while proffering the argument that the girls’ message is that “you should be proud of yourself no matter what you look like,” even if you look like a bad boob job wrapped in electrical tape and topped with the head from a Rachel Roberts blow-up doll. Me, I’m not sure whether Baby looks like the spitting image of Bonnie Tyler through nature or art, but the resemblance is so uncanny it’s distracting.

    Anyway, yeah, slutty outfits and dance moves from pop stars. There’s no frisson left, really–witness the perfunctory clip for the lead single from Britney’s new album. You can practically see her thinking, Blah, blah…shake rear, gyrate, slide up and down pole, flip hair…yawn. It may be the single lamest attempt at titillation I’ve seen in my entire life, which is a shame, because the song deserves better. I think the Pussycat Dolls visual tropes will take a while to shake themselves out.

    Veterans Day

    Posted by Sean at 20:51, November 11th, 2007

    I had a busy weekend away from the computer, but I wanted to squeeze in a post before Veterans Day is over. Thanks to all those who have served. We haven’t forgotten.


    Posted by Sean at 04:24, November 9th, 2007

    It’s not just Wini that’s getting cops into trouble lately. A Nara Prefecture police officer worked out some of his on-the-job frustration by posting about it on Mixi (a Friendster-ish SNS):

    He replaced some of the kanji identifying the police station where he is assigned with symbols, but it was still clear that he was a police officer working at a station in Nara Prefecture.

    He reportedly also disclosed his gender, the area where he lives and his birth date.

    According to sources, at 12:22 a.m. on Oct. 2 he posted a message saying, “A certain police station’s special investigation task force finally obtained arrest warrants for a motorcycle gang group and will conduct a crackdown on them tomorrow, so I’m going to sleep soon because I have to go [to the police station] early tomorrow morning to provide backup.”

    In a message posted at 1:57 p.m. on Aug. 24, he wrote: “A rear-end accident occurred on National Highway Route 165!! The person in the car that was hit from behind was injured. The car that rear-ended the other one is reported to be on the run!! This is a hit-and-run…And there was a report that the suspect car was caught shortly after I left the police station in an unmarked patrol car. Damn, I missed out.”

    When the car’s driver was arrested without a warrant, the officer wrote: “Now I’m at a district court seeking a warrant. It’ll take some time to get it, so I’m waiting…Because of this, [I will lose] my consecutive days off…I’m crying.”

    The officer’s messages were accessible to all members, and the police received reports from some who read his messages, the sources said.

    The officer was quoted by the police as saying, “I thought only my friends could read my posts.”

    It’s possible to restrict visibility of journal entries on Mixi, of course, but you have to change your default settings. And anyway, did he really think it was okay to tell his friends about upcoming sting operations?