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    Wake me when it’s over

    Posted by Sean at 03:42, October 14th, 2007

    I noticed Rondi had added some election-related application on Facebook, so I clicked through to look at it. The text at the right said something like, “The 2008 election is almost here.” I didn’t do a double-take until a few seconds later–that’s how accustomed I am to the idea that we’re already in the run-up to the election.

    The good citizen in me is not looking forward to the coming year. Following politics can be good, wicked fun sometimes, but I mostly do it because I consider it a duty. I will listen to the debates and read up on candidates’ records as legislators and seek out the opinions of commentators whose judgment I find helpful. But I am expecting this to be the least fun election season of my adult life.

    A lot of that has to do with Hillary. My sainted aunt, I am so sick of hearing about Hillary. I’m not referring to her relentless spotlight-seeking in and of itself–what else do you expect an ambitious politician with designs on the Oval Office to do? She’s actually become much less grating to watch and listen to over the years. As an old-fashioned celebrity-loving gay guy, I’ve taken some pleasure in watching her develop a more bankable image. Work it, Hills, I say.

    Unfortunately, there’s a flip side, which is that everything she says or does is examined to death, by friend and foe alike, for what it might indicate about her emergent Hillaryness. Of course, every politician makes tossed-off comments or clothing choices that get overworked in the media, but with Hillary the enterprise reaches a whole new level. Some sources speculate that Clinton’s newest shade from Clairol suggests her commitment to the reconstruction of Iraq is less than sincere…. I understand that there are reasons for it–she may lack Bill’s charisma, but in her own weird way, she may be just as compelling a figure. A lot of her fans seem to think she’s some kind of saint, and a lot of her detractors seem to hate her more than they do Satan.

    [Added on 15 October: Thanks to Eric for the link. He uses the obvious word in this context: “cult [of personality].” The reason I didn’t myself is that I think it really bothers Hillary that that’s what she has. However ruthlessly loyalty may be enforced in the Clinton inner circle, I think that with respect to the electorate, Hillary clearly wants to be the natural, rational choice for thinking people. Not that she’ll refuse the votes of blind partisans, of course.]

    You can imagine what I think of her politics. Hillary represents just about everything I detest about arrogant, technocrat-in-group statism. Since she’s such an inveterate triangulator, I’m not sure how many of her overweening policy points she would actually work to push through in their purest illiberal form, but I’d prefer not to find out.

    I will say that in one sense I sympathize with her: She clearly wants to be a natural at winning over voters. She works and works and works at it, all to little effect. It must be frustrating to want so much to be good at something for which you have no talent, especially when you’re married to someone who could charm the spots off a leopard. She always reminds me of Tom Cruise, who refuses to settle into being a movie star with a presence a lot of people will pay to see. He struggles mightily to be an Actor, and it doesn’t work because you can always see the gears turning. Same with Hillary. The more “on” she is with her gestures and her speech patterns in technical terms, the more she comes off as an animatronic Anna Lindh doll. It would be nice to see her just cut the crap and be the steely, high-handed bitch she clearly wants to be. (And America needs a steely, high-handed bitch or two, now that Madonna’s been domesticated and run through the Brit-erator.) She would be utterly fabulous at that. But it would obviously cost her the election, so it’s not going to happen.

    Instead, we’re going to spend the next year in the spin cycle perfected when Bill was in the White House, only with a senate term and a grown-up Chelsea (“See? At least one person in this family is normal!”) sloshing around in it. Eric has two posts up about Control of the Narrative. While they don’t address the election explicitly, they’re pertinent here. Apropos of something else, he says, “I think media culture and hypersensitivity tend to fuel each other, and the result is a latent hysteria constantly lurking in the background, and ready to break out upon the slightest provocation.” We’re so used to hearing that every bracelet Hillary wears may say something about what’s going on in that calculating head of hers that I think a lot of people have started to buy it without realizing they’re doing it. We’re in for an annoying year.

    [Added on 15 October: Thanks to Eric for the other link, too. If you haven’t read that post of his, BTW, you really must. The situation he’s discussing is absolutely hilarious. Of course, if there were serious threats issued or an injury that drew blood, that’s not funny. But the indignant haggling over which type of identity-political aggrievement is warranted on the part of which involved party is like something out of Through the Looking Glass. Eric’s final comment: “You’d almost think they were trying to avoid getting on the wrong side of Cotton Mather.”]

    Gimme an…

    Posted by Sean at 03:17, October 12th, 2007

    This guy‘s brother, who comments on Gay Orbit sometimes, sent me a link to an ad campaign that’s apparently appearing on some McDonald’s tray inserts in Kyoto, where his wife’s visiting. He wonders WTF (ahem) is going on.

    I doubt there’s any subliminal message there, despite the artfully revealing shots of women’s underclothes–that’s what they’re mostly selling, after all. The people who devised the campaign were thinking in Japanese, for a Japanese audience, and it probably didn’t occur to them to consider that they might be using an expression that’s considered coarse in English. That kind of thing happens all the time. A buddy of mine works for a company that once linked to one of its web products with the come-on “Let’s Flash!” The accompanying image was…well, it wasn’t a schlumpy guy in sunglasses and a trench coat, but it wasn’t as far off as one might like. Foreign staff here and people from overseas offices tried to tell management that this was a problem. No one listened. Sometimes Japlish is harmlessly silly; sometimes it wanders into not-so-harmlessly silly. That’s just the way it is.

    Added on 14 October: Interesting how straight-boy commenters who haven’t shown up for weeks will suddenly materialize to opine on a post about Japanese women’s underwear.


    Posted by Sean at 21:55, October 11th, 2007

    So I get to the office this morning, and a colleague of mine says, “Did you hear about that thing with the turnstiles?” Since I don’t take the train to work, I hadn’t. But wow:

    Trouble arose in over 400 stations on JR, subway, and private rail lines first thing in the morning on 12 October when electronic ticket gates failed to function after being turned on. To avoid massive headaches, nearly every station adopted the measure of allowing passengers to pass through the gates without checking tickets. This is the first time such large-scale trouble with automatic ticket gates has spread to multiple rail carriers. For a time, some private rail lines had no functioning ticket gates at any station, but they gradually began restoring service. Trains themselves have been running normally.

    According to one private rail source, the trouble was confined to ticket gates manufactured by a single maker. All affected companies are scrambling to restore service while investigating the details and origins of the problem.

    As you’ve no doubt seen in stock news footage designed to show how crowded Tokyo is, a LOT of people use the trains here on weekday mornings. I’m not sure how much revenue the rail companies lost–most people who are commuting to work use some kind of rail pass, usually paid up for a period of months rather than on a per-ride basis. But the manufacturer of the electronic turnstiles may have some explaining to do.


    Posted by Sean at 00:06, October 11th, 2007

    A Japanese tourist–he appears to be a backpacker type–has been abducted in an unstable part of Iran after crossing over from Pakistan:

    According to a message received by the Ministry of Foreign affairs on 10 October, a 23-year-old Japanese university student was abducted by unspecified persons while traveling in southeastern Iran during the first ten days of the month. The abductors are thought to be members of a militant group that is demanding ransom. The ministry established an emergency task force, headed by Vice-Minister Itsunori Onodera, that is investigating in detail the circumstances in which the student was abducted.

    According to the ministry, the Japanese embassy in Tehran received a midnight telephone call on 8 October saying that the student “had been abducted by a militant group while traveling through the southeast of Iran.” The student also stated that “the group looks as if it has some other demands in addition to ransom.”

    Haven’t heard much more.

    Fukuda cabinet yet to squander public support

    Posted by Sean at 23:54, October 9th, 2007

    The Fukuda administration’s approval figures remain respectable, according to a Yomiuri poll. The figures seem plausible, as do the reasons offered:

    Compared with 85.5 percent approval for former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Cabinet, 71.9 percent for former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa’s Cabinet, and 70 percent for the Cabinet of Fukuda’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, the approval rating was the fourth highest since the interview surveys–conducted within the honeymoon period of the inauguration of a new cabinet–began with a survey of support for the Masayoshi Ohira Cabinet in 1978.

    The interview survey was conducted at 250 locations across the country on 3,000 eligible voters, with 1,812, or 60.4 percent, of respondents giving valid answers.

    By gender, 63 percent of female respondents supported Fukuda while 54 percent of male respondents backed him. Forty-four percent of the respondents, the largest number, cited the “feeling of reassurance” the Cabinet gave them as the reason they supported Fukuda. On how long the Fukuda Cabinet should continue, 32 percent of respondents, the greatest number, said as long as possible, followed by 25 percent who said two to three years and 9 percent who said the Cabinet members should step down as soon as possible.

    Koizumi shook things up. Abe screwed things up. Voters aren’t unaware that they have to undergo more pain to deal with the most pressing social and economic issues, but their “please, not just yet…” attitude is not surprising. Fukuda’s soothing, avuncular style fits right in.

    People still break down along party lines over the refueling mission:

    Forty-nine percent of pollees said the Maritime Self-Defense Force should continue its refueling operation in the Indian Ocean as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, while 37 percent opposed its doing so.

    By political party, 69 percent of supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party backed the mission and 22 percent opposed it.

    Of those who support the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, 32 percent were in favor of the operation and 59 percent were against it. Of unaffiliated voters, 39 percent of respondents supported it and 42 percent opposed it.

    The DPJ is playing up its fight with the government and ruling coalition parties by sticking to its policy of opposing the continuation of the MSDF’s refueling operation, but the survey might have an impact on the party’s handling of the issue.

    Meanwhile, Fukuda scored higher points than DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa in leadership, political philosophy and goals, clarity and approachability.

    A narrow majority of pollees said the opposition should make compromises with the coalition, which makes perfect sense in policy terms, since the DPJ et al. haven’t offered a platform that distinguishes them much from the ruling coalition. They’re against extending the refueling mission and (like everyone who happens to be out of power) very much morally affronted by all the corruption visible everywhere. But most of the other differences are in the details, many of which shouldn’t be hard to trade horses over.


    Posted by Sean at 23:22, October 9th, 2007

    Over forty municipal employees in Kyoto who had already used up most of their paid vacation found a way to milk the city for more money. The city offers paid days off to arrange for or attend the funerals of family members, so they simply pretended their relatives were dropping dead at a clip of a half-dozen per year. The result was a total of 142 days of paid bereavement leave based on false claims:

    The investigation found that a 49-year-old female official at the Kamigyo Fire Station’s general affairs division illegally took 12 days off when she worked at the Higashiyama Fire Station. In fiscal 2005 alone, she took bereavement leave five times, saying relatives had passed away.

    “I never thought she would lie in applying for bereavement leave,” an official who was her boss at the time said. “I felt sorry for her, as she said so many of her relatives had died around that time.”

    An official of Nishikyo ward office’s general affairs division applied for bereavement leave six times, saying his uncle died and then claiming aunts had died on four different occasions, from fiscal 2004 to 2006. In fiscal 2006, the 43-year-old official took bereavement leave five times.

    His boss said: “I thought that was too many [deaths], so I did ask questions. But since it’s a personal matter, I didn’t ask him to provide evidence.”

    Some of the offenders’ supervisors have also been disciplined. They do come off as easily gulled, but you have to feel sorry for them, too. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that someone could lose several relatives in their eighties in rapid succession; parents and their siblings tend to approach average life expectancy around the same time, after all. As with so many of these scandals, this one was uncovered through what looks like luck: a worker at the environment agency was found to have fraudulently applied for leave, whereupon attendance records in general were inspected.

    I’ve Got a Lover (Back in Japan)

    Posted by Sean at 08:56, October 5th, 2007

    Glad this week is over–productive but super-busy. I was mercifully spared any cross-cultural encounters of the variety below (sent to me by my buddy–those Brits!):

    Speaking of people from the UK, I’d feared, given the title, that Annie Lennox’s new album would consist of Songs of Mass Sanctimony . After all, her attempts at social commentary with Eurythmics could be downright laughable. She and David should have won some sort of Freedom from Self-Awareness Award for this one:

    Nothing really to fear, it turned out, fortunately–not even on the one with the Choir of Concerned Mommies. Nice to have her recording again.

    I also truly enjoyed the opening salvo from this week’s Popbitch:

    “I theme-dress depending on where I’m going… if I was going to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, I would wear a kimono – it makes it more fun.” Kelly Osbourne.

    Good to know the child’s as much as grammarian as she is a geographer, huh? Whatever you do, though, do NOT click on the Anna Nicole Smith link toward the bottom of this week’s mailing. Ugsome. I still haven’t recovered.

    Out of here for the weekend. Have a good one, everyone.

    Selling it

    Posted by Sean at 22:40, October 4th, 2007

    There hasn’t been a high-profile story of defective Chinese goods for a little while, but the trend toward quietly pulling them is continuing:

    One by one, convenience stores and supermarkets are making moves toward replacing Chinese food imports with domestic products and non-PRC imports. 99 Plus Corporation, which developed the everything-99-yen convenience store, will phase out frozen foods from the PRC starting this month and replace them with domestic equivalents. Ito Yokado and Inageya have switched from PRC-produced matsutake mushrooms to those from Canada. In each case, the trend towards consumers’ avoiding Chinese products because of concerns over safety is noticeable, and it is possible that other retailers will make similar moves.

    99 Plus Corporation will gradually stop offering frozen foods from China such as pilaf and gyoza dumplings in its 800 Shop 99 stores nationwide. PRC products have made up about half of the frozen food items it offers, but it has investigated which items have ready substitutes and will replace most of them with domestic products. In order to maintain its everything-99-yen pricing, it will decrease per-package quantities in cases where supply costs increase by a wide margin.

    The stores in question move a lot of food.


    One of the tie-ups the new Japan Post conglomerate has already scored is with Nippon Express (Nittsu) for package processing. Yu-Pack has an extensive delivery network for small parcels, and Pelican has its strengths in the corporate market. The brands will remain separate, but the companies hope to combine their logistical advantages to their mutual profit. (Naturally, there may also be mutual shareholding. *sigh*) The post and package arms of Japan Post have the lowest profit potential, so this first large-scale partnership will be important.

    All that glitters

    Posted by Sean at 01:41, October 4th, 2007

    Speaking of ways Japanese consumers get scammed when looking for ways to invest, an operation called the L&G Group has been in the news all week. These companies usually pretend to market the sort of stuff you see hawked on infomercials–health drinks, odd undergarments, wonder pillows, things like that. L&G (the initials appear to stand for “Ladies and Gentlemen“) had its own “research center” that managed to attract some big-name lecturers, giving it the appearance of a reputable going concern. Apparently not, though. Since it’s a tawdry story, let’s look to the Mainichi for the full effect:

    Police on Wednesday raided the home of the chairman of the troubled L&G group and related facilities in Tokyo amid growing suspicion that the group had illegally solicited consumers to invest in its bedding goods sales business.

    The latest move came after the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan received a growing number of complaints from L&G investors about its failure to pay dividends or refund their invested funds. Investigators suspect that the group violated the Investment Deposit and Interest Rate Law.

    L&G started paying its investors “dividends” in the form of gift certificates to outlets for its own goods–essentially a step up from Monopoly money.

    This is not the first case of this sort of thing. Five years ago, Asia was riveted by the implosion of Genta Ogami’s G.O. Group, which (of course) was supposedly marketing health teas. Time Asia ran an extensive story:

    An estimated 90,000 individuals in Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia became G.O. “members,” investing in the firm’s schemes based on promises they could double or triple their savings. Until his operation unraveled earlier this year, Ogami, 39, had collected a total of $400 million, according to former G.O. Group executives, which he used to finance a lavish lifestyle, expand overseas and buy the offshore bank in the Philippines. He even financed his own action movie, Blades of the Sun, featuring himself in the starring role playing opposite a Filipina starlet.

    What’s fascinating is that Ogami’s phoniness was recognized not by middle-class Japanese investors but by poor Filipino savings account holders. He bought a bank in the Philippines to begin using as his private slush fund, essentially. And then:

    Ogami’s hilarious bumblings over the following months bring to mind Dr. Evil in an Austin Powers sequel–hilarious, that is, if not for the fact that they torpedoed a bank serving 18,000 poor Filipinos. G.O. Group had raised the cash to buy Unitrust by selling unregistered bonds in Japan. He loaned the proceeds to dummy local owners to make the purchase, says Inoue, in order to sidestep Philippine laws prohibiting majority foreign ownership of banks. Ogami announced his September 2001 takeover by posting his face on billboards around Manila and running a two-page newspaper ad offering jobs at three times the going salaries. He ordered Citibank pamphlets photocopied, its logo replaced with that of the new “Bank of Ogami.” He demanded fat personal loans, says Inoue, threw parties on the bank’s dime, and had Genta Ogami figurines created as gifts for customers.

    Instead of inspiring confidence, his behavior caused a bank run. Startled depositors yanked their accounts, and Philippine staffers–not inclined to swallow the weird, cultish rituals Ogami’s officers tried to impose–quit in droves. Unitrust was forced to close its doors this January. With the bank in receivership, thousands of remaining depositors are unable to access their funds.

    Ogami was sentenced to eighteen years.

    Meet the new Japan Post

    Posted by Sean at 00:50, October 3rd, 2007

    I suppose that, given all I wrote about Japan Post privatization while it was being haggled over, it’s odd that I didn’t post anything about it on Monday, when the privatization plan went into effect. But of course, what’s going to be interesting is what happens in the coming months and years; Monday was an important step, but not much happened that we could draw conclusions from. The single biggest problem is that the government still holds all the stock, with divestment from the financial services companies to be completed by 2017. But there’s a lot else to consider. Here‘s the Nikkei editorial:

    Since the former national rail service became JR twenty years ago, this is the first large-scale privatization. The postal service, which began as a public institution 130 years ago, became a privately held enterprise under the Japan Post holding company on 1 October. The holding company came into the world a behemoth group with four companies (postal processing, post offices, postal savings bank, and life insurance) under its umbrella, total capital of 338 trillion yen, 24000 post offices, and 240000 personnel.

    What cemented the privatization was public opinion, which pressed for postal reform that moved “from public to private.” In the election after the “postal dissolution” Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi decided on, the LDP gained an overwhelming majority in the lower house. [Koizumi called a snap election and flatly told voters that he regarded it as a referendum on Japan Post privatization.–SRK] This could be regarded as a vigorous rejection of the public investment [system] that, using trust in the government as a shield, corralled capital from postal savings and life insurance and led to bureaucratic bloat. We must not forget that that was the starting point.

    The postal savings bank will be a sales outlet for housing loans from some regional banks, and also aims to fund its own entry into financing and foreign currency deposits. Financial institutions have cautioned about pressure on the private sector [that Japan Post Holdings could exert by exploiting its still-strong connections with the government], but on the other hand, there have been gestures toward seeking tie-ups with a clear eye on the post office network. What is more important than anything else is that conditions for fair competition between the privatized Japan Post and existing financial institutions be preserved. The Japan Post Privatization Committee, which will review these expansions of operations, has a lot of responsibility. The Finance Agency and the BOJ should also monitor its health unsparingly through inspections and similar measures.

    What both internal and external investors will be paying attention to is where capital is routed by the two financial institutions after privatization. Under the shadow budget system, the postal savings bank had become a dumping ground for mass-issued federal bonds. It will be pressed to diversify deployment of capital into appropriate asset and debt management. The plan is to decrease the postal savings account balance (182 trillion yen at the end of August) moderately but steadily.

    The Asahi editorial focuses more on how privatization will affect customers:

    The most serious is poor legal compliance. Japan Post has been plagued by endless embezzlement and other scandals involving postal workers. Illegal business practices are rampant in postal insurance operations–postal insurance policies are often sold without the legally mandated direct meeting with the purchaser. In fact, compliance has been so poor, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications has given the postal insurance service a record-low quality rating of “D.” Recent evidence has also emerged that employees unlawfully destroyed documents that legally should have been preserved.

    These episodes point to serious corporate ills. The new Japan Post management must ensure it competes with industry rivals in a legal and fair manner. The first test for the postal giant’s compliance will be whether it starts properly explaining to customers the risks involved in its financial products.

    With privatization has also come the end of government guarantees for postal savings and insurance policies–yet Japan Post will still be selling a wide range of risk-carrying financial products, such as investment trusts.

    For many years, people have entrusted their savings to government-guaranteed postal accounts. Many have no understanding about risky financial products and the fact that investors can lose their initial investment principal if the market turns sour.

    That makes it imperative for Japan Post to clearly offer detailed explanations about such risky investments to customers. Should troubles emerge over sales tactics, this would damage consumer trust–its reputation for reliability–and have a serious effect on its bottom line.

    That’s a genuine worry. Japan has a very good educational system, but financial products are complex things, and people’s trust in known brands has enabled a lot of salespeople to put one over on a lot of consumers. It’s people’s responsibility to assess risks as best they can before pouring their money into an insurance policy or what have you; however, I agree that Japan Post’s overseers need to be extra careful to make sure representatives are not using verbal legerdemain to imply that investments are still protected by the government in ways they are not.