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    Posted by Sean at 23:24, August 2nd, 2007

    Unlike some of my more popular blog friends, I don’t get more mail than I can handle, and the overwhelming majority of messages I get are thoughtful and mannerly, even if their writers disagree with me.

    But then, presumably in an effort to provide a stimulating foil of some kind, there are the hate mailers. Just had my first strafing from one of these characters in a while, and in a few days we have the A-bomb anniversaries, on which I plan to post much the same thing as I always do. Therefore, just so we’re all clear, please bear the following in mind before you hit the contact button there to the left:

    I am unfazed by any and all messages that consist of nothing more than…

    1. “You’re stupid.”

    2. “You’re self-loathing.”
    3. “You’re an asshole.”
    4. “You suck.”
    5. “I bet your mother engages in exceedingly untoward behavior.”

    I’ve euphemized the last two, failed to make any spelling errors, and been sparing with the exclamation points, but I’m assuming you can imagine the real versions.

    Half the time, these people don’t even tell me which post got them worked into a lather. Is it too much to ask that those who think they can wreck my sense of self-worth with a one-line e-mail at least let me know what the problem is? “Self-loathing” generally limits it to something about gay issues; but otherwise, I usually can’t determine whether my correspondent considers me too leftist, too rightist, too pro-Japan, too anti-Japan, too atheist, too soft on religion, too American, or too brunet. I like a rough-and-tumble argument as much as the next guy, but spasmodic little outbursts like these only convince me that the writers are badly in need of a hobby. My faith in the critical thinking skills of the general population is badly eroded as it is. Please don’t make it worse.

    See also posts on this subject by Connie and Rondi. Vitriol-spewers all seem to lean toward the same locutions. (And when, BTW, will people learn that it is no longer either clever or incisive to respond to a straight-talking woman by calling her a bitch?)

    Insert “bought the farm” joke here

    Posted by Sean at 05:25, August 1st, 2007

    The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has resigned:

    Before the election, calls had been growing from opposition parties for Akagi to either prove how the funds were used or resign. Some within the ruling coalition also grumbled that Akagi could become a liability in the campaign.

    However, Abe refused to dismiss the farm minister, saying he does not intend to make the Akagi issue a problem.

    With Akagi now out of the Cabinet, more questions may be raised about Abe’s leadership ability and judge of character.

    Abe appointed Akagi farm minister in June, after his predecessor, Toshikatsu Matsuoka, killed himself amid a similar scandal involving expenses for a rent-free office in the Diet members’ building.

    At least Akagi has apparently been able to escape with his life.


    Posted by Sean at 03:18, July 29th, 2007

    The Nikkei noted on yesterday’s evening edition editorial page, as the headline put it, “War of words revolving around diplomacy boils over.” (Actually, the word used is 舌戦 [zessen: lit., “tongue battle”], though I’m not sure I care to picture Hillary and Barack in a tongue battle with each other. Or anyone else, for that matter.) The subject, of course, was the sparring over head-of-state visits with dictators and military intervention. The content of the article doesn’t give a Japanese viewpoint, really, but it’s significant that it was featured so prominently, with pictures of Clinton and Obama and translations of their biggest soundbites. (I don’t remember what the exact words were in English, but in the Nikkei, Hillary says, “Irresponsible and immature,” at Obama, who responds, “You’re just like Bush.”) Japan knows that it needs to pay attention to these things, especially when the DPRK is mentioned. I liked Steve Chapman’s take in Reason , BTW:

    On the morning after the South Carolina debate, the Clinton campaign trotted out former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to gush about the senator’s declaration that she would not meet with various dictators “until we know better what the way forward would be.” Said Albright, “She gave a very sophisticated answer that showed her understanding of the diplomatic process.”

    Being praised for your diplomatic sophistication by Madeleine Albright is like being complimented on your sense of humor by John Kerry. Albright is the renowned diplomat who helped the Clinton administration blunder its way into an 11-week aerial war in Kosovo. Albright was confident that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic would cave at the first whiff of gunpowder, and was shocked when he didn’t.

    There you have it. A Hillary Clinton presidency promises to unite Madeleine Albright’s zeal for using bombs in pursuit of liberal ideals with Dick Cheney’s vision of the president as emperor. Won’t that be fun?

    I know Hillary sympathizers who’ve argued that Clinton has had to emphasize her willingness to use the military because there are too many voters who doubt a woman would be competent as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. But I agree with Chapman that her pose actually fits in with what seems like her sincere sense of mission. Camille Paglia noted that years ago, too, in her review of Clinton’s memoir:

    But perhaps it is more troublesome for democracy (where religion should be kept distinct from government) if Hillary’s religiosity is genuine. It would certainly explain her air of smug moral superiority and her close to messianic view of her destiny as a reformer. The egotism of career humanitarians was dissected by William Blake and Charles Dickens and later satirised by Oscar Wilde, all of whom saw the nascent tyranny in fervent idealists with a masterplan for humanity.

    On the evidence of this book, Hillary appears to believe that good intentions excuse all. Impediments to her lofty goals may have arisen partly through minor miscalculations on her part, she concedes, but most of the problems, in her view, have come from pigheaded reactionaries “who want to turn the clock back on many of the advances our country has made”, thanks to the Democratic Party, a congregation of the elect whose mission is the salvation of mankind.

    Upper house election today

    Posted by Sean at 02:39, July 29th, 2007

    Polls opened for the House of Councillors (upper house) election this morning. The run-up has been contentious in a rather boring way, with cabinet members suffering from the usual misappropriation scandals and foot-in-mouth syndrome but none of the sense of momentousness of the Koizumi-era show-downs. I miss that guy. Even the Nikkei reports come off somewhat listless:

    Issues such as pensions and “politics and money” are the points of contention in the twenty-first upper house election, for which voting began on the morning of 29 July. Ballot counting will begin today.

    The focus is on whether the ruling or opposition coalition will capture the majority in the upper house. The results of the election will have a major influence on the overall political future of the Abe cabinet. The direction of the results is expected to be clear by late tonight.

    According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 16.93% of the electorate had voted by 11 a.m., exceeding by 0.21 percentage points the comparable figure for the last election in 2004.

    Nevertheless, this could be a turning point. The DPJ-led opposition is not pushing a policy platform that differs all that much from that of the LDP this time around. It’s focusing instead on accusing the LDP of fat cat syndrome–corruption and lack of transparency.

    The office of agriculture/forestry/fisheries minister Norihiko Akagi obligingly ensured there would be a fresh LDP scandal blanketing the media this election weekend:

    Farm minister Norihiko Akagi flew back from Beijing on Friday and landed in yet another political fund scandal–this one involving photocopied receipts to doubly book spending by his two political organizations.

    The new irregularities were uncovered by The Asahi Shimbun, which obtained copies of Akagi’s political fund reports from Ibaraki Prefecture under the information disclosure system.

    Akagi has been under fire for huge and dubious office expenses reported by the support group based in his parents’ home.

    His mother at one time said the group rarely met at the home, and that she covered the utility bills.

    Added later: What they’re showing so far is 29 wins for the LDP and Shin-Komeito combined and 54 for the DPJ, Communist Party of Japan, and Social Democratic Party of Japan combined. Abe has said that he plans to think carefully about reshuffling his cabinet as a move to “take responsibility.” JNN, one of the networks I’ve been flipping through, has been flashing viewer e-mails across the top of the screen. The running themes, not surprisingly, are “this is what the LDP gets!” and “we’ll be watching you, DPJ!”

    Life to the fullest

    Posted by Sean at 23:29, July 25th, 2007

    My blog friend Rondi “Canada’s Coultier [sic]” Adamson has a post at the individualist site righthinker.com about the Canadian national health system. If you know her writing (and read the post title), you won’t be surprised at her conclusion:

    But in Canada’s rationed system, the choices for humans [as opposed to pet cats] are not plentiful and wait lists are frequently long, though few would question the devotion of medical professionals. What Canadians such as myself question is not the public tier itself, but the wisdom of limiting patients and doctors alike to that tier.

    She sent me the link to this post because it riffs off the (brief) discussion we were having about health care here earlier. The point she makes is not dissimilar from the one Bruce Bawer makes in his July 23, 2007 (5:10 P.M., CEST) post, in his case about Norway:

    Norwegians boast of their system’s “total coverage” – but total coverage doesn’t mean guaranteed care, or care on demand. Far from it. Even the media here, which generally push the official line that Norway’s system is far superior to its U.S. counterpart, run occasional stories about Norwegian children who’ve been turned down for life-saving medications, who’ve had to fly to the U.S. to get the care they needed, or who’ve died while waiting for treatment.

    None of which is meant to suggest that the U.S. system doesn’t need fixing. It does. But the solution to its problems doesn’t lie in copying the Canadian and European systems.

    We Americans are a funny lot. We’ll accept (lamentably) the most egregious quacks imaginable as “experts” if they manage to snag a warm endorsement from Oprah, but we absolutely hate “expertise” that’s forced on us from on high, even if it’s got degrees and studies to back it up.

    No health care system is going to satisfy all users all the time. Even in a rich, dynamic society, resources will always be limited. So the question is who gets to decide which trade-offs are made. Whatever the problems with insurance at it currently exists in the States, I think most people perceive that instituting a national health system means giving consumers less choice. Not a good direction for change, even if it would mean a “healthier” society according to criteria that would gladden the hearts of functionaries at the USDA and various UN organizations.

    BTW, both Rondi and Bawer link to this video clip, in which Ayaan Hirsi Ali is interviewed by an insufferably smug leftist wind-up toy who has to be heard to be believed. The best moment is when the interviewer, wonderfully uncorrupted by self-awareness of any kind, complains that Hirsi Ali is speaking in cliches. He’s not wrong in literal terms, actually–the observation that you can come to America penniless and make your fortune if you have the resolve is hardly an original one. But Hirsi Ali has come by her conclusions through experience: living in illiberal societies and then moving to the West. Accusing her of mindless boosterism is ridiculous, even if you don’t agree with all her criticisms of Islam.


    Posted by Sean at 19:58, July 23rd, 2007

    The Asahi ran a story yesterday that concludes that Japan’s “lost generation” (those who came of age in the years following the bursting of the Bubble) is showing itself ready to assume the role in politics it’s been avoiding. Based on the people profiled, I’m not so sure that’s a good thing:

    After she graduated from university in 1998, Yamamoto decided she wanted no part in “mass consumer society.” Instead, she rented a 20-hectare farm in Niigata Prefecture and set about making a living through organic farming.

    She barely managed and had to supplement her income by working part-time as a waitress at a nearby onsen. After two years, she gave up the farm and her job to volunteer her time and energy to local nonprofit activities.

    She started by joining protests against the planned construction of a nuclear plant in the village of Maki. In 2003, she joined the village assembly. During this period, Yamamoto occasionally found odd jobs which paid little more than 200,000 yen a year.

    While campaigning in a shopping district in downtown Niigata on July 15, Yamamoto emphasized that she understands what it’s like to be young and poor.

    As part of her campaign platform she pledges to correct the income and benefit disparity between full-time and part-time workers.

    There’s a certain droll logic to the idea that becoming a politician is the obvious next step for someone who’s spent her adult life avoiding work that has market value and generates wealth. However, being newly engaged with the political system is not the same as having learned anything useful about policy. There’s young and poor because you can’t find any steady work, and then there’s young and poor because you turn up your nose at the possibility of working in “mass consumer society.”

    Promising to “correct” disparities implies that it’s a good idea for the government to continue the Japan Inc.-era practice of knob-twiddling with prices and wages–exactly the sort of behavior that helped the Bubble to inflate and burst in the first place. Perhaps, despite her overall failure as a farmer, Yamamoto managed to grow a money tree that she can use to make up the difference between freeters’ value to the economy and what she thinks they should be paid. If not, the major problems remain bureaucratic drag and the contraction of the population, neither of which is addressed by the Diet hopefuls quoted by the Asahi.

    Ice that doesn’t need breaking

    Posted by Sean at 09:25, July 22nd, 2007

    Oh, great. One of those party game things. Well, since Eric is a good friend, I’ll play along at least partially.

    1. Let others know who tagged you.
    2. Players start with 8 random facts about themselves.
    3. Those who are tagged should post these rules and their 8 random facts.
    4. Players should tag 8 other people and notify them they have been tagged.

    Just what the world needs–another excuse for people to share private details that no one really needed to know about. But okay, let’s see….

    1. My parents met when they were playing in a cover band together. My mother played drums and my father bass; when I was born, they named me after the Beatles’ rhythm section. (My middle name is Richard, and Sean is, of course, the Irish form of John.)

    2. Those who find my voluble Yank patriotism and devotion to the English side of my family annoying may be pleased to know that the gods of mischief have found a way to stick it to me: People I meet are constantly telling me I “look French.”
    3. Those who don’t tell me I look French tell me I look like Matthew Fox on Lost. I take it as a compliment, as I know it’s intended to be, but for the life of me I don’t see the resemblance.
    4. I was brought up in a very conservative Christian sect and, directly out of high school, went to the small Bible college it ran in the East Texas woods. The atmosphere was friendly and upbeat, but classical-liberal skepticism was verboten (unless trained on the theory of evolution and other such intellectual tools of Satan, of course). I lasted six weeks before I had to get the hell out of there for the sake of my sanity.
    5. I don’t seem to have the personality to succumb to the “addictive” allure of sites like Facebook. A friend invited me to sign up last week, so I did. Or tried to. It turned out I already had an account. Another friend had invited me to join some time before; I’d signed up and then not only not gone back but completely forgotten about it.
    6. I grew up with parents who went to a local dairy farm to buy raw milk, went to another local farm to buy eggs, and had a vegetable garden most years. My mother baked all our bread. To this day, I find few things more irritating than food made with mediocre ingredients.
    7. Well, okay–I do have a major weakness for Burger King.
    8. For the love of Pete, one more? Uh, the first album I ever bought with my own money was Beauty and the Beat by the Go-go’s.

    As far as tagging other people goes, I’m with Connie. But if there are eight people reading who’d like to share eight facts about themselves, comments are open. Knock yourselves out.


    Posted by Sean at 22:08, July 15th, 2007

    Strong 6 earthquake in Niigata and Nagano Prefectures, with the focus off Niigata. The strongest surface shaking seems to have been in the luckless Chuetsu region, which got hit badly by a series of quakes in October 2004. We certainly felt this one in Tokyo, too, but I was hoping it was centered offshore in the Pacific. A bunch of nuclear facilities shut down automatically, but there aren’t any reports of damage or injuries yet.

    Added later: For those unfamiliar with the JMA scale, a strong 6 is a big-ass deal–sixth out of seven magnitudes of intensity: “In many buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall. Most unreinforced concrete-block walls collapse.”

    Added at 17:20: NHK is now reporting five deaths and 500 injured. A train derailed with, luckily, no injuries; and as Alan comments below, a transformer at a nuclear reactor caught fire, but it was brought under control by noon.


    Posted by Sean at 05:30, July 15th, 2007

    Last week I got a rare critical link. Very exciting–there are few things I like better than a good argument! And there are few better argument-starters than health care. His post is thoughtful and full of good points. I still don’t think he’s persuasive on his main point, though:

    The health care system in Japan does have it’s problems, just like all systems. But on a whole it’s superior to the States. And that’s based on my anecdotes from living and experiencing the health care here in both countries over a period of many years.

    Well, all right, but plenty of us have anecdotes. There was the dentist here who gave me a root canal (over four visits, of course) and left a live nerve fiber dangling there. It made its presence known with a vengeance a few months later.

    There was the doctor I visited about a sore throat, explaining that I’d already tried aspirin, it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t afford to have my throat feeling raw for a presentation at the office the next day. He gave me powdered Tylenol and Chinese herbs.

    There was the dermatologist at a major research hospital who looked at my skin condition and declared she’d never seen anything like it. The next dermatologist I went to (Japanese but trained in the Netherlands) listened to my story and said, “Huh? This is one of the most common conditions any dermatologist sees!”

    There was my friend who came back from a trip to Thailand with a major fever and a wacked-out white cell count. The doctors told her she might have leukemia. Maybe. Almost certainly. Uh, more tests, maybe? A week later, she suddenly started feeling fine. Oops. Guess it was just one of those infections you sometimes get when you visit Southeast Asia. Our bad, said the hospital.

    I’m not saying that I’ve proved that National Health is awful. I don’t believe that at all. It’s just that we can fling anecdotes back and forth like ping-pong balls without making generalizable points that should drive public policy. My teeth aren’t any less instructive than JST’s.

    He seems to think that Americans should be dissatisfied with our health care system because WHO wants us to be. But there are compromises to be made. The Japanese system guarantees familiarity and stability at the cost of innovation and flexibility. It also, in putting lots of power in the hands of government bureaucrats, creates an incentive system for bribery and back-scratching. I doubt Americans, even those who have had bad experiences themselves, would think that trade-off was a good one. I’m no lover of insurance companies or HMOs, but I’m not convinced that getting Washington involved in managing the system would increase the overall saintliness of the enterprise, while driving costs down and without impeding the implementation of new treatments.

    Earth, wind, fire, and water

    Posted by Sean at 22:38, July 14th, 2007

    This week’s corner-cutting scandal involves elevators:

    Leading elevator manufacturer Fujitec Co. used substandard steel in more than 12,000 elevators, 560 of which could fall short of mandatory strength standards, the infrastructure ministry says.

    Some Fujitec elevators have only 66 percent of the legally required strength.

    When operating under normal conditions, such elevators pose no problem, the ministry said. That is because the Building Standards Law requires elevators to be built to withstand up to three times the load they carry.

    But problems could arise if an elevator were to stop between floors in the event of an earthquake with an intensity of upper 6 or stronger on the Japanese scale of 7. Ministry officials said railings that support the cage could become distorted in such instances, making it impossible for the elevator to restart itself.

    That, in turn, could cause problems for workers rescuing passengers and trying to restore the elevator’s functions.

    One heartening thing, of course, is that the problem has now been discovered, and there’s an excellent probability that reinforcement can be done before the next major earthquake turns potential problems into real disasters. The Nikkei story and others I’ve seen have made it sound as if the Ministry of Land, Transport, and Infrastructure called for fixes and further investigations after being apprised of the problem by Fujitec itself. (The investigation may have been one required by federal safety regulations–I’m not exactly an elevator expert, and the news reports have generally focused on the nature of the problem itself.)

    Of course, sometimes lessons do end up having to be learned through tragedy. Spas and hot spring resorts have been in the spotlight since the methane explosion at a day spa in Shibuya that killed three employees:

    According to the survey, 479 onsen facilities, such as ryokan inns and public baths, draw hot-spring water using an indoor system. Only 22, or 5 percent, have gas detectors.

    The survey showed that 156 facilities, or 33 percent, had checked whether natural gas was present in hot-spring water, and 57 ascertained that it was.

    But 323 facilities, or 67 percent, had never bothered to check.

    Even if natural gas is present, there is no danger of an explosion if the facility is properly ventilated. But only 219 facilities, or 46 percent, were found to have ventilation systems.

    As many as 108 facilities, or 23 percent, are operating in airtight conditions without even natural ventilation.

    I wonder how many of the managers of those facilities were warned, as those at Shiespa were, that ventilation and detection systems were inadequate and haven’t done anything about it.