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    I don’t want to sail with this ship of fools

    Posted by Sean at 10:30, June 4th, 2007

    Ann Althouse is getting some criticism for for making playful fun of Al Gore’s tone in this article:

    “… I haven’t ruled out for all time thinking about politics again. It’s just that the way it works now, I don’t think that the skills I have are the ones that are most likely to be rewarded within this system. It’s like a washing machine that is permanently set on the spin cycle. It doesn’t stop spinning. That creates real problems for a politics based on reason.”

    Friends have urged him to run for president again, but he wants to see a “transformation of this conversation of democracy” that de-emphasizes imagery and spin-doctoring.

    Althouse says:

    What?! You think this is spinning? You’re spinning. You’re always spinning. You’re like a washing machine. Al Gore is grateful to those who have a good opinion of him, but you… you don’t seem ready for reason, you know, reason, that process that yields a good opinion of Al Gore. Why don’t you help him transform the conversation of democracy. De-emphasize imagery! You washing machine.

    You can bet he’s not referring to one of those new energy-efficient washing machines, either.

    Gore’s way of expressing himself is pompous and self-flattering as always, and Althouse is justified in poking fun at it. Nevertheless, the essential point seems to me a reasonable one. Maybe it’s time for Gore to resign himself to never being in a position to use federal power to realize all of his nanny-state dreams and to work as he can to bring them to pass through other means. Who knows? He might discover along the way a few useful truths about humility and compromise.


    Posted by Sean at 09:36, June 4th, 2007

    I’m surprised we haven’t heard this sort of thing much more frequently before now:

    The decision by four apparent North Korean defectors to brave 900 kilometers of open water in a small wooden boat to reach Japan suggests a level of desperation not seen before.

    And it may signal that North Koreans are seeking out new routes to escape from the repressive regime in Pyongyang.

    China traditionally was the route of choice. But after Beijing began to crack down out of consideration for its ties with North Korea, defectors started turning up all over Asia.

    The arrival Saturday of four defectors at Fukaura port in Aomori Prefecture could well be an isolated case.

    “It may just be random occurrence rather than an entirely new route,” said a South Korean government official.

    Possibly. But it wouldn’t be difficult to believe that the PRC’s tightening of border controls has convinced many would-be defectors that almost any alternative is better. There was that widely-linked Times Online story last year, detailing at least one “repatriation” of a refugee:

    The [PRC] soldiers, who later told family members of the incident, marched the woman, who was about 30, to the mid-point of the bridge. North Korean guards were waiting. They signed papers for receipt of the woman, who kept her dignity until that moment. Then, in front of the Chinese troops, one seized her and another speared her hand — the soft part between thumb and forefinger — with the point of a sharpened steel cable, which he twisted into a leash.

    ‘She screamed just like a pig when we kill it at home in the village,’ the soldier later told his relative. ‘Then they dragged her away.’

    Of course, that’s a third-hand account, so it’s not certain whether every detail is accurate. It’s certainly not hard to believe that the DPRK is making an extra effort to make an example of those who are returned after trying to escape.

    Gunpowder and lead

    Posted by Sean at 08:52, June 4th, 2007

    I gather it’s a straight-guy fantasy here in Japan to find out what it’s like to ride on one of the women-only commuter train cars, which were instituted a few years ago by rail companies looking to offer women protection from, among other things, rush-hour groping.

    Well, as of today, I can tell you, though the experience was wasted on me, naturally.

    I got on the train around 6:30 on the way to getting a haircut. I suppose that, when I used to live along the Toyoko Line, I knew that trains heading out of Shibuya had the women-only car in effect during evening rush hour, but I didn’t think much about it. My commute was during off-hours, when anyone can ride any car. The floral-patterned pink decals designating which car is women-only are still there, but the rule isn’t in effect during the afternoon. I wasn’t used to having to pay attention, and I guess I just always figured that any man who inadvertently stepped onto the wrong car would be promptly informed by one of its occupants that he belonged elsewhere. Or maybe that the nearest station attendant would chase you off. (Yes, Japanese women are brought up not to make a fuss, and yes, I’m a foreigner; still, it’s not uncommon to have someone crisply inform you when you’re committing a serious transgression in a public space–say, smoking where it’s not allowed, or what have you.)

    Instead, I rode through five express stops before I figured it out. I’d had a vague sense that there were several women around me wearing quite a bit of perfume, maybe. I didn’t notice anyone looking askance at me. No furtive whispering. (You get that as a foreigner here, even if you’re not doing anything to violate decorum.) I was mostly lost in my iPod anyway. Perhaps the passengers around me heard Miranda Lambert leaking through my headphones and figured I was a fan of sassy women and unlikely to cause problems?

    Anyway, it’s funny how the mind works. The moment I realized my mistake and began plotting to maneuver to the door at the next stop, the woman scent, which I hadn’t really noticed until then, became overpowering. I had a stronger-than-usual urge to bury my face in Hugh Jackman’s gym shorts. There didn’t seem to be any harm done, but I toyed with the idea of apologizing to the woman in front of me. (Her rear was pushed against my fists, which were innocently clenched around my little Hermès bag. I doubt the pressure felt anything like a touch of the more untoward kind; still, I assume her whole intention in getting on that car had been to avoid worrying about what the guy next to her was doing with his hands.)

    Anyway, sorry, ladies. Trust me, it was no better for me than it was for you, and I’ll be paying more attention in the future.


    Posted by Sean at 23:26, May 31st, 2007

    Rondi has spotted an interesting report on IMDB:

    Martin Scorsese has disclosed that he is planning to direct a movie, set in 17th-century Japan, that may have implications related to the war in Iraq.

    “It raises a lot of questions about foreign cultures coming in and imposing their way of thinking on another culture they know nothing about,” Scorsese told the A.P.

    I’m used to celebrities being vapid morons, and tackling issues way out of their depth, but I expected better from Scorsese. I mean, I assumed he was anti-war but I figured even he would see the silliness in comparing missionaries in 17th-century Japan with Americans in 21st-century Iraq. Apparently not. The Americans aren’t imposing “their way of thinking.” In fact, the Iraqis have freely elected their own government, an administration with which, I suspect, Washington is not thrilled.

    Like Rondi, I must admit that the parallels aren’t entirely obvious to me. The Portuguese didn’t invade Japan, take it over, and see to the installation of a new government. Indeed, when the Tokugawa Shogunate began to see the increasing influence of the Portuguese over its nobles (who liked the access to trade they got from converting to Christianity and being in well with the seafaring foreigners), it confined them to an island off Nagasaki and eventually expelled them entirely.

    Of course, missionary work intrinsically involves trying to persuade people to change culturally coded ways of thinking. In Japan Studies departments, the arrival of the Portuguese is treated as the beginning of an archetypal clash between polytheistic, of-this-world Japan and the monotheistic, transcendence-minded West. I can see Scorcese making an interesting movie out of Silence that limns those conflicts, but I doubt it’s going to happen if he’s busy pursuing Political Relevance. (Why on Earth would Martin Scorcese think he needs to make like Oliver Stone, by the way?)

    If an anti-war director really wanted to undertake a bold, risky project about Japan that would raise questions about justifications for war and efforts by one culture to impose its thinking on others, he might elect to focus on Japan’s attempts to create an “Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” in Korea, China, and on down in the decades leading up to World War II. I can’t think of a novel that could be readily adapted for a screenplay, but certainly there’s enough in the historical record for a good writer to come up with high drama and big moral issues.

    In which Sean complains gratingly

    Posted by Sean at 04:24, May 31st, 2007

    If there are any managers of housewares departments reading, may I ask you a favor? When hiring men, please make sure they’re queens.

    Straight men are great–my very own father is a straight man, and I just love and respect him to pieces–and there are plenty of roles they can fulfill in society that constitute a real contribution. Just not when they’re supposed to be selling you vases, endtables, or curtains.

    I thought I was going to end up making this guy cry yesterday by asking whether he could measure the depth of a vase for me. You know, I wanted to buy flowers for it on the way home, and I needed to know how long the stems had to be without unpacking it right there at the flower shop. (You can eyeball these things sometimes, but it can be tough to gauge how thick the bottom of something is.) If the flowers are too short, they have to be entirely defoliated and end up looking as if they were being garroted, which isn’t a pleasing decorative effect unless you happen to live in a dungeon, and maybe not even then. The more I tried to explain this, the more traumatized he looked. By the time the ordeal was over (the first vase got marred when they tried to scrape off the brand label for me, so they had to bring a second one out of the stockroom–yet more agitated activity for one of these foreigners with their strange requests), I was feeling traumatized myself.


    Luckily, one of my friends was back from a week home in Australia, so we went out for a restorative drink and catch-up. Less luckily, just as the vase encounter had blissfully slipped from the memory, I was beset by two guys who had been talking and flirting with my buddy.

    It was the usual round of questions: How long have you been here? Where are you from? Oh, and where did you grow up? Oh, where on the East Coast? Pennsylvania? Where in Pennsylvania? Oh. Well, then, where on the Philadelphia end of the state?

    At this point, I know I’m in for it. Long draught of vodka. Sigh. “From just outside Allentown.”

    One beat. Two beats.

    Oh! You mean like the Billy Joel song?

    Now, that everyone I will ever meet in my entire life will respond to the mention of Allentown with that exact sentence is a harsh reality to which I have long been inured. That everyone seems to think he’s the first to think of it also doesn’t bother me–we’re all less original than we like to imagine we are.

    But rarely do two people utter it at the same time.

    And then start singing the song at me in stereo.

    My buddy, who’s seen this conversation and my wearied reaction many times before, stifled an uncharitable chuckle and excused himself to go to the toilet. (Bitch. I’ll remember that.) Fortunately for me, another friend, one who actually understands the meaning of loyalty, was on my other side. At the first opportunity, he commandeered my empty glass and waved one of the bar guys over. “Oh, darling–not just the Allentown comment, but impromptu karaoke as well? I saw your fist clenching and unclenching–just be glad it’s over now and relax and drink this.”


    And while I’m mewling, why do delivery services find it necessary to play head games with you? Tokyu Hands originally told me my latest acquisitions could be delivered between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., but that I’d be called with a more exact time this morning. Fine. I get a call at 8:30: “I’ll be arriving at your place between 11:00 and 13:00.” Okay. At least that’s a reasonably narrow range.

    At 10:30 I’m getting ready to get in the shower so I can be out, dressed, and maquillage-èd by the time the guy comes. (Just because I want to be able to leave for work right after receiving my delivery, not for the other reason that may occur to the image-conscious gay mind. Japan must be the only country on Earth without hot delivery men and construction workers.) My keitai rings. “Hi! It’s XX from Tokyu Hands. I’m at your building in less than five minutes.” Granted that being early is better than making you wait around endlessly, I was just lucky I hadn’t decided to go out and run some errands under the assumption that it would be okay to be back at my apartment by 10:55 or so. (I’ve done so before with unpleasant results.)

    On the bright side, the apartment is nearing completion.


    Posted by Sean at 03:14, May 28th, 2007

    Wow. Honor-saving suicide is common here, but rarely is it the way taken out by someone so high up in the government hierarchy:

    Toshikatsu Matsuoka, the farm minister who stubbornly refused calls for his resignation over money scandals, died Monday after hanging himself at his Tokyo residence, government officials said.

    He is the first incumbent Cabinet member to have committed suicide since the current Constitution took effect, and the seventh Diet member since the end of World War II.

    Opposition lawmakers in the Diet as well as the media had demanded Matsu-oka explain shady expenditures by his fund-management group for utilities and other costs for his office. He refused.

    He was also criticized for political donations that allegedly came from organizations connected to a bid-rigging scandal.

    The Asahi article doesn’t elaborate on the utilities thing, but my understanding–I haven’t been following the story all that closely, but it’s been in the news a lot–is that he double-charged for utilities, getting reimbursements for charges that were already covered by the Diet. There’s already been a raid on a semi-governmental agency in relation to the bid-rigging charge.

    Added later: I meant to link to the Nikkei story, which I didn’t quote except in the post title but which was where I first saw the news. Somehow I forgot. Of course, since this morning, there’s been time for all the relevant parties in the Abe administration to get their (stunned) comments in. Reuters sums up pretty well in English. Interestingly, the Yomiuri is reporting on the Reuters report, among others. Headline: “Suicide of Agriculture Minister Matsuoka ‘will be serious blow to Abe administration,’ say major foreign news services.” It’s not that they needed the AP to tell them that, of course; what’s presumably of interest is that the foreign press has latched onto the political significance of the event faster than the Japanese media. Since this is a local story, we’ve been mostly hearing about what kind of hook Matsuoka was hanging on and what tie his aide was wearing when he discovered the body. Well, okay, it’s not that bad, but you get the idea.

    Minister of the Environment Wakabayashi is set to become acting Minister of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries on 30 May. The Asahi has posted a roundup (in the original Japanese) of Matsuoka’s more choice soundbites in response to charges of malfeasance.

    BTW, if you’re wondering about that quotation from Abe, I think what he originally said that was translated as “I am overwhelmed with shame” was “慙愧に堪えない,” and it’s not entirely clear what he was referring to. Shame that a minister under his leadership was driven to suicide? Shame that he didn’t manage the scandals better before they ended up here? Everyone is going to be watching how he maneuvers in the next few days.

    And we orchestrate the moves that complement the play

    Posted by Sean at 09:30, May 24th, 2007

    Just finished using my ice cream maker for the first time; there’s no better way to assess how nimble the temperature control is on your burners than by making custard. (Double boilers are for sissies.) Things turned out fine, though even on the lowest setting, we got perilously close to Scramble City. So we’ve now established that I can contrive all my staple foods without incident here.

    I think I accidentally took Atsushi’s grater and a few other kitchen-drawer things, too. Will have to give him yet another parcel of items now. We’ve been meeting pretty regularly; the still-friends thing is working, if still a bit awkwardly. This weekend, I finally had a chance to give him back my key to the apartment, and there was a sense of finality to it that put me a little out of sorts. (Silly, I know, given that we broke up in October and I moved out a month ago.) I’ve been on a Fleetwood Mac jag since then. Mostly Tusk . Yeah, yeah, yeah– Rumours is the break-up classic, but it doesn’t fit. Between Atushi and me, there’s neither Lindsey-Stevie hostility nor a John-Christine thing in which one helplessly watches the other’s spiral of self-destruction. We’re just kind of wary around each other–acutely attentive to boundaries and things. So it’s mostly Tusk with Interiors thrown in occasionally.

    In other news, the weather has been absolutely gorgeous here. Time to start thinking about houseplants, actually. Hope everyone else is enjoying the slide into late spring.

    Fearful freedom

    Posted by Sean at 01:18, May 24th, 2007

    Wendy Kaminer has a column in Opinion Journal about the ACLU’s increasing political slant, visible more through omission than through commission. The shift is bad enough simply because it’s a corruption of the organization’s supposed mission, but it has the nasty side-effect of playing into the sort of condescending gays-are-emotionally-frail-and-need-to-be-shielded-from-hostility malarkey that’s a real impediment to progress:

    [I]n 2004, when Tyler Chase Harper was disciplined for wearing a T-shirt declaring his religious objections to homosexuality, civil libertarians might have expected the ACLU to protest loudly. Mr. Harper was barred from attending classes when he wore the antigay T-shirt to school on an official “Day of Silence,” when gay students taped their mouths to symbolize the silencing effect of intolerance. Represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, he sued the school district. That same year, the ACLU initiated the first of two actions against a Missouri school that punished students for wearing “gay supportive T-shirts,” eventually securing a promise from the school to “stop censoring,” the ACLU Web site boasts. Mr. Harper, however, was unsuccessful in his quest to stop school censorship. In a patronizing, antilibertarian decision in which Judge Stephen Reinhardt stressed the imagined feelings of gay students, the Ninth Circuit rejected Mr. Harper’s First Amendment claims. (There was a sharp dissent from Judge Alex Kozinski.)

    Perhaps the ACLU was observing its own prolonged Day of Silence, because, while it pays close attention to federal appellate court decisions on civil liberties, it effectively ignored this terrible precedent, even when Mr. Harper appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court dismissed the case as moot because Mr. Harper had graduated but took the unusual step of vacating the decision so that it no longer exists as precedent (no thanks to the ACLU).

    Yeah, I’m focusing on the gay thing because it’s a pet peeve of mine, but Kaminer has more on the Muhammed cartoons and counseling related to abortion. None of it’s really news, but it’s disturbing to see it all laid out together and coherently.

    In better news, Kaminer is one of the bloggers at thefreeforall.net. Good reading if you were won over by the likes of I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional .


    Posted by Sean at 22:18, May 23rd, 2007

    You will doubtless be shocked to hear that, in the wake of the fatal roller coaster accident a few weeks ago, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport is finding safety lapses all over the place:

    Seven roller coasters examined in emergency inspections following a fatal accident at an amusement park in Osaka Prefecture had problems such as worn wheels and cracked axles, it has emerged.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport on Wednesday announced the results of its emergency inspection of roller coasters around the nation. A total of 306 roller coasters were to be subject to the inspections, and problems were found with seven of the 256 roller coasters whose inspections have already finished.

    Ministry officials said that failing to deal with the problems could lead to an accident.

    The inspection also found that operators of 119 roller coasters, nearly 40 percent of the total number, had not carried out annual flaw inspections as required by Japanese Industrial Standards. A total of 72 of the 306 roller coasters, or about 24 percent of the total number, had never once [!!!!–SRK] been inspected for flaws, the ministry investigation found.

    Nice. Of course, we should all be used to this by now. Every time something like this happens–the JR West derailment springs readily to mind–it’s discovered afterward that there’s a record of laxity. Often there’s no cover-up involved per se, just a failure to focus attention on addresing problems or attending to things that aren’t going to be immediately visible to people on the outside.


    Posted by Sean at 21:57, May 23rd, 2007

    The bill for the restructuring of United States military forces stationed in Japan was passed yesterday. There are still complaints about its incentives for municipalities that will be taking installations. The federal government (of Japan, I mean, of course) will be providing subsidies:

    However, for some in the opposition parties and the regional governments affected, opposition remained deep-rooted, and there remained a lack of transparency about the progression of the development plan: “The autonomous judgment of region[al governments] will be distorted.”

    The Yomiuri has an English report. It’s hard to dispute that offering subsidies tends to motivate local governments to play along as they must to get them, even if it’s something they (or their citizens) might not otherwise like. But this is hardly a special case in that regard, and at least military installations serve a more obvious purpose than cultural halls and multi-lane highways to depopulated hamlets. Bases, nuclear facilities, and waste treatment plants all have to go somewhere.