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    Which exit?

    Posted by Sean at 02:09, May 23rd, 2007

    While we’re on the subject of blame-shifting losers, I may as well point out that James Kirchick at IGF has a very good piece on why James McGreevey should be excommunicated from gay community life. Yes, the point has been made already, but gay leaders keep feting the guy, so it bears repeating:

    There are millions of gay people in this country. Most of us are not as politically powerful and connected as Jim McGreevey once was. We work hard, pay our taxes, put up with discrimination, and, I’d like to think, if we ever get caught doing something wrong, do not rashly blame our fate on an inability to deal with sexual orientation. But Jim McGreevey was too much of a coward to admit that what he did was just plain wrong and that he was entirely to blame for his misfortune.

    The world is unfair to gay people and the higher rates of suicide, depression and personally destructive behavior amongst gays, especially gay men, has a great deal to do with external homophobia. But let there be no mistake: McGreevey was forced to resign because he was a corrupt politician who shared more in common with the men in his administration now serving time in jail than he would care to believe.

    Rather than own up to his abuse of office, McGreevey conflated his political corruption with his own struggles as a gay man. In so doing, he lent credence to the ignorant meme peddled by conservatives that gays are emotionally unstable and shifty people who cannot be trusted as individuals, never mind as public servants.

    America loves a redemption story; ace image manipulators like McGreevey and Stephen Glass know that. Unfortunately for them, there’s a fly in the ointment: To pitch yourself as shriven and reborn, you have to be able to admit to wrongdoing. For some people, that’s an unbearable prospect. So they end up twisting themselves into moral-ethical pretzels along the lines of, “Oh, my, yes…I totally betrayed the trust of people close to me, people who counted on me to fulfill my responsibilities. I’m just sick with guilt. But, you see, I wasn’t quite myself at the time…it was all the pressure…the pressure…so, uh, you do love me again, right?”


    Posted by Sean at 01:46, May 22nd, 2007

    At Reason.com, Steve Chapman gives a very Reason-like rebuttal to claims that Generation Y is so coddled, lazy, and fatuously self-loving as to spell doom for America:

    Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, reports that college students increasingly agree with statements indicating oversized egos, such as “I am an important person.” Marian Salzman, a senior vice president at the advertising agency JWT, told The Christian Science Monitor, “Gen-Y is the most difficult workforce I’ve ever encountered,” because they “are so self-indulgent.”

    But before Gen Y-ers start to feel bad about themselves, they should know that worse things were said about their parents. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, it was universal wisdom that the kids of that era suffered from too much coddling. Vice President Spiro Agnew blamed student unrest and other problems on “spoiled brats who never had a good spanking.” Best-selling author Norman Vincent Peale, author of “The Power of Positive Thinking,” complained about youngsters whose parents felt a duty to “satisfy their every desire.”

    The indicators Chapman cites–lower rates of teen smoking, drinking, and pregnancy; tightened acceptance rates at top colleges–make sense as evidence that These Kids Today aren’t irredeemably screwed up, although there are useful qualifiers to add. Chapman doesn’t cite anything to disprove the allegation that those arriving at their first jobs have unrealistic expectations. Also, while the acceptance rates for individual colleges have gone down, the number of colleges to which the average student gunning for the hoity-toity schools applies has gone way up. It’s not really certain how much harder it is for a given student to get into top-tier schools in general than it would have been for a student with the same qualifications a decade or two ago.

    The stuff about pressure to perform in Chapman’s article was interesting because, looking for a DVD to play in the background while I did stuff around the apartment, I idly picked out a copy of Shattered Glass . Because my mind was on kitchen equipment and grocery orders, I didn’t fully register the title; I thought someone had made a movie version of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass , which I’d seen performed a dozen years ago and been unimpressed by. Maybe I’ll feel differently this time around.

    When I got home and actually looked at the cover, I realized I’d made a mistake: Shattered Glass was a dramatization of the Stephen Glass story-fabrication scandal at TNR nine years ago. It turned out to be pretty well done, and it did a good job of avoiding the specific annoying pitfall I feared it would fall right into.

    There’s a point early on when one of Glass’s colleagues confronts him about applying to law school. He whines that he’s under tremendous pressure from his parents in Lake Forest to become a lawyer, not a journalist. I was afraid that, as the movie developed, that pressure would be presented as a possible sympathetic explanation for his motivations: chilly phone conversations in which his mother pointedly informs him that the boy he grew up with down the street is doing his residency at Massachusetts General, or his father casts aspersions on his income potential as a political commentator.

    It turned out that no such scenes were forthcoming, and I was pleasantly surprised. Glass was, after all, one of thousands of graduates of Penn and comparable schools with pushy, demanding parents. To the extent that one wants a more specific explanation for his behavior than sheer amorality (which is enough for me, frankly), his problem seems to be less that he was under pressure than that he couldn’t stand the idea of not always being the golden boy. Miss Manners once wrote something to the effect of, “Anyone who expects to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral is in for a difficult life.” There are few things more salutary–when you’re in your 20s and everyone is constantly going on about how smart and sharp-witted and charming and capable you are–than to be assigned a load of scut work you disdain, do a half-assed job of it, and later discover that you overlooked something important that comes back around and bites you. (Yes, this is experience talking.) Glass only wanted to do the glam stuff, so when the right subject matter didn’t come his way organically, he invented it. Buckling down and making the best of a boring story or lackluster quotations would have been beneath him.

    No one is accusing Generation Y en masse of such extremes, of course. I was more thinking in terms of pressures in the workplace and how people can be expected to respond to them. Self-esteem is notoriously difficult to quantify, so I’m not sure that an increase in the number of students who agree with such squishy propositions as “I am an important person” says much. And my sense is that, even if Ms. Salzman is right about college grads who’ve just been hired, most of them will adjust pretty quickly to reality and learn to perform.

    Added later: It goes without saying that if Glass had had a fraction of Alice’s sense, he wouldn’t have gotten himself into such a pickle.


    Posted by Sean at 22:54, May 20th, 2007

    The apartment is basically assembled now. There was no DIY that would pass muster as such at, say, Casa d’Alger, but I did manage to set up a kitchen in which you can actually cook.

    You know how it is when you find an apartment you like–there’s always one thing so seriously wrong as to be a possible deal-breaker. Everything about this place was fine except for the kitchen, which has no counter space. I mean none at all. There’s not quite a sheer drop from the edge of the cooktop into the sink, but the space between them won’t even accommodate a dinner plate. By Tokyo standards, Atsushi’s apartment was a cook’s dream: task lighting; work space wide enough for your extra-long cutting board, a bowl or two off to the side, and your glass of wine; three burners; and acres of cabinet space. But then, it’s a two-bedroom place, the assumption being that it will be occupied by a couple with children and that the lady of the house will not be satisfied with a kitchen she can barely turn around in.

    My new apartment was designed for a (heterosexual) single person, so the assumption is that there will be nothing more complicated going on than the warming of a bento from the convenience store. (Okay, fine. That parenthetical was a little unfair. I have gay friends who can’t boil water, too. But even they recognize that you need room for fabulous equipment on the countertop.) The only solution was to eat some space from the living room and set up a counter of sorts there. I had an old set of steel shelves kicking around that cleaned up fine, and the manufacturer still makes modular wood tops in the right size. I had a piece of cobalt blue acrylic cut to fit at Tokyu Hands and fastened it on as a serviceable backsplash. It works just fine and looks, frankly, much better than I’d expected. In Tokyo built environments, better than expected often has to be enough.

    Still no plans to compromise on the throw pillows, though.


    Posted by Sean at 22:14, May 20th, 2007

    Wow. Just, wow. Perhaps we’ve found an explanation for Japan’s extraordinarily low murder rate:

    Forensic doctors ridicule certain facets of this country’s medical practices, saying, “The living are offered advanced care, but the dead receive Edo-period treatment,” meaning that while sick people receive excellent medical treatment, those who die of unnatural causes are cursorily examined only by sight or touch–a practice not much different from that used during the Edo period (1603-1867).

    With a shortage of forensic doctors, equipment and funds, the autopsy rate for unnatural deaths is lower than 10 percent–a figure that continues to fall.

    When someone dies of unnatural causes, doctors working for the police, on a commission basis, are asked to examine the body at the site. But these doctors are private practitioners who lack forensic expertise.

    Since they determine the cause of death purely by sight or touch, they cannot determine whether a person died from poisoning or drugs, or whether the person suffered internal bleeding or broken bones.

    In a field where even experienced forensic doctors make false diagnoses in 40 percent of cases, police officers–laymen in this area–and private practitioners are entrusted with the job.

    A senior police officer experienced in the matter said most people who die unnatural deaths are cremated, and are presumed to have died from causes such as heart failure or stroke after an initial examination, which rules out the possibility that they died at the hands of a criminal.

    Of course, it’s not just crimes that it’s helpful to uncover; it’s helpful to know about unnatural causes such as accidental poisonings or reactions to medication, too. One contributor to the worsening situation is that medical school students are staying away from forensic medicine.

    Some medical facilities even lack autopsy tables and basic medical equipment.

    Administrative rigmarole is also seen as a hurdle to increasing the autopsy rate.

    When an initial examination determines that a death may be crime-related, the public prosecutors office is put in charge of the judicial autopsy under the Criminal Procedure Code.

    In the case of an unnatural death unrelated to crime, autopsies fall under the supervision of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

    Under the law for conserving cadavers for autopsy, prefectural governments should determine whether an autopsy should be conducted from the standpoint of public hygiene, but bereaved families are usually allowed to have the final say.

    I doubt the official murder rate would, like, double if practices were brought more into line with those of other countries. Even so, being offed by a family member (it used to be for life insurance money) is the stock Japanese sort of killing, and the likelihood that it will be discovered is seriously decreased if families get deciding power over whether even an initial autopsy is performed.


    Posted by Sean at 09:34, May 20th, 2007

    This story was published over a week ago–been busy–but given how much complaining I do about useless bureaucracy, it’s only fair to note that the government also addresses real issues in Japan’s changing society and economy. You know, sometimes:

    Workplace accidents involving temporary workers are increasing rapidly in line with an increasing number of day labor jobs whose workers have little experience, a survey by the Tokyo Labor Bureau has found.

    The bureau’s survey found that the number of workplace accidents in 2006 was nearly 50 percent higher than the previous year’s figure.

    In line with revisions to the law concerning temporary workers, the bureau began conducting surveys on workplace accidents among temporary workers in 2005. It collected data from job placement firms headquartered in Tokyo.

    A total of 99 people died in workplace accidents under the Tokyo Labor Bureau’s jurisdiction in 2006, while 10,078 people were injured. Two of the workers who died and 401 of the people who were injured were temporary workers. The number of injuries to temporary workers was 49.6 percent higher than the figure for the previous year.

    Many of the injuries involved workers getting caught in machines or falling down from high places. 142 people suffered serious injuries that forced them to take a month or more off work. Other accidents involved people injuring their backs when lifting heavy objects and getting their hands caught in presses, indicating a lack of experience and safety instruction.

    “Compared to regular company workers, there’s a tendency to neglect safety instruction for temporary workers, and so we want to warn companies,” a Tokyo Labor Bureau representative said.

    The surveys have only been conducted since 2005, and there’s no indication in the article of whether the bureau has just gotten better at getting reports in the interim. The 49.6% increase may be exaggerated. (The original Japanese story has a pie graph with a further breakdown.)

    Nevertheless, the conclusion that shifting work patterns are causing more injuries as inexperienced, untrained people work with equipment they can’t handle rings true.


    Posted by Sean at 09:23, May 20th, 2007

    Some of the reactions to last week’s hostage standoff have been predictable. As in, “We have to make sure no one can ever do this with a gun again!” It’s not going to be news to anyone what I think of that argument, yeah? Others have been equally predictable but more troubling:

    The hostage standoff in Aichi Prefecture, in which a member of the prefectural police force’s Special Assault Team was fatally shot, has left a number of urgent tasks for police to address.

    The police will have to reconsider what protective gear is needed for officers, how to respond to cases where suspects are armed, and when police should storm locations where perpetrators are holed up.

    The case also has raised a number of questions. Why did this situation lead to the death of one officer and the serious injury of another? Why were the police unable to secure the release of the hostage? And why did Sgt. Akifumi Kimoto, the first police officer who was shot, approach the scene alone where Hisato Obayashi was holed up, armed with a handgun?

    Witnesses said Kimoto, standing on the street in front of the house, began negotiating with Obayashi before walking alone up a path leading to the house.

    A senior official at the prefectural police headquarters said, “Negotiating with a suspect is not the duty of a police officer in charge of a local patrol.” But he added, “It was a tense situation with other people having already been shot, and there was a hostage, so I presume there was some reason he had to get closer to the gunman.”

    The biggest question is why a police officer was left lying on the ground for about five hours before being rescued, the whole time being broadcast on live television.

    Everybody watching the scene unfold must have wondered why police did not immediately rescue him. The Yomiuri Shimbun‘s center for readers received many phone calls asking this very question.

    (What they’ve been saying on the news is that Ohbayashi threatened to shoot anyone who came within range.) I’m not sure that there’s much of a mystery here. The plain and simple fact is that a hostage-taker armed with a gun who’s willing to shoot at police officers from where he’s holed up is something not even Tokyo and Osaka police officers have to deal with frequently, let alone in random places outside Nagoya. The first officer who was shot probably hadn’t registered that he was dealing with much more than a domestic dispute taken to extremes, though we may learn more as the investigation continues. The inquiry into whether special assault teams should be equipped and trained better sounds like a good idea.


    Posted by Sean at 23:35, May 13th, 2007

    Since it’s still (narrowly) Sunday where my own mother is, I think I can scrape by and still not feel late in saying, “Happy Mothers Day, mothers!” She and I just spent a happy half-hour discussing the trials and tribulations of moving into a Tokyo apartment. She reacted with proper Middle-American horror to the information that cold-water kitchen and bathroom sinks were still standard here until a decade or two ago (“Didn’t I ever tell you that before in the last ten years, Mom?”) and was relieved that my new place is hygiene-enabled.

    She was probably slightly worried about the throw pillows–I’m looking for this particular shade of poison-green raw silk, see? Not chartreuse…yellower and a little more intense. Kind of like danger yellow with green highlights…without actually being iridescent. It’s one of those things you can see in your head, and it just maddens you when you’ve gone to every department store and shop you know and no one can give you the poison-green raw silk you want. ERGGGH. The problem has now gone global, with friends in Bangkok, New York, and San Francisco having promised to keep an eye out for me.

    Anyway, hope it a was a good weekend for everyone.

    Domine Dirige Nos

    Posted by Sean at 10:09, May 7th, 2007

    Should we laugh or cry?

    Despite being one of the world’s major financial centers, with large scale securities, foreign exchange and bond markets, the number of subsidiary and branch offices of foreign financial institutions in the city has fallen by almost one-third over the past decade.

    The Urban Renaissance Headquarters, chaired by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the Financial Services Agency will work together to develop a district where overseas businessmen can go about their day-to-day lives speaking English by providing condominiums, day care centers and medical facilities for foreign residents near Tokyo Station.

    The plan also envisages spacious new offices specifically designed for foreign financial institutions, to be offered in high rise buildings.

    According to the sources, the FSA will discuss its proposal with foreign executives to better understand their needs, with a view to starting to draw up plans some time this year.

    Ah, yes–a JAL Pak Tokyo Village for foreigners! (And it’s to be modeled on the City of London. No chance of that turning out kitschy.)

    It’s already an easy task to find housing, medical care, and other services provided in English. Much of it is expensive, but that’s hardly a worry for people here on expat packages. Spacious offices can be difficult to come by, even for big-guns foreign financial institutions, but providing them in yet another gaijin ghetto (there’s one in the Azabu-Hiroo-Roppongi-Aoyama area that seems to do its job perfectly well already) is not going to draw them back to Tokyo. Money flows where there’s a dynamic economy with ascendant opportunities for investment.


    Posted by Sean at 11:48, May 6th, 2007

    Between the move and the Golden Week holiday, I haven’t had much energy to post. One of the things I missed while it was current was the Nikkei‘s series of editorials last week about mergers and acquisitions. The first installment (of three) lays out the justification for all the column inches:

    M&A is increasing–why now? It’s a fact that in March, listed companies are posting record profits for the fourth consecutive month; however, the reality is that operations efficiency is still low compared with that of enterprises in Europe and America.

    According to Nomura Securities, the return on equity, which indicates the ratio of net profit to capital from shareholders, for 2006 is projected to have been a little more than 9%. That’s a little more than half of the 16% figure for United States enterprises. In a study by the Mizuho Research Institute, the return on assets, which expresses the ratio of net profit to gross capital (including debt and liabilities) was found to be 4.7% for the U.S. and 3.1% for Japan for 2005.

    It goes on to talk about worker productivity and other indicators. None of the information is really new, at least in its general import. What’s interesting is the gingerly tone. Remember, the Nikkei is the premiere business and economics newspaper in Japan. Its editorial page leans pretty reliably toward being pro-markets. But even the Nikkei‘s editors seem to feel the need to reassure their readership that it doesn’t need to regard M&A as some kind of scary monster.

    Roller coasters

    Posted by Sean at 11:00, May 6th, 2007

    One of the big news stories this weekend is the fatal accident at an amusement park in Osaka. A car on a roller coaster derailed and listed. One woman collided with a rail and was killed, and a few dozen people were rushed to the hospital. (Well, some of the English stories say “seats,” but it was apparently one of those rides on which you stand and have your torso held in by an overhead harness-type thing.) Not surprisingly, it’s suspected that lax enforcement of safety standards is the culprit:

    In February, the amusement park took the roller coaster apart for inspection. However, it said it did not inspect the integrity of the axle shaft because there was no garage available at the time. The park subsequently postponed the inspection until May 15.

    The police suspect improper safety management may have led to the accident, and are investigating the amusement park on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

    And at a different amusement park, there was another accident–this one a sort of fender-bender with nothing more serious than nausea resulting, luckily, though it still gives one cause for worry:

    Four people were taken to hospital after a roller coaster car carrying a parent and child rear-ended another car carrying a parent and child at about 2:50 p.m. Saturday at Wonderland amusement park in Sakai, Fukui Prefecture. The four complained of feeling nauseous after the collision.

    Local police questioned employees of the amusement park on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in injuries.

    Two accidents in one weekend don’t constitute an epidemic of safety violations, but they do indicate a problem that’s very real with infrastructure, industry, and public accommodations here: No one really knows where the accidents waiting to happen are, because government oversight of safety is erratic. There are some cases in which the evidence is heartening. Transportation authorities have been riding JAL hard over safety violations, for example, and they haven’t needed an airliner crash to motivate them to do so. The Aneha scandal literally hit the Japanese where they live, but it was brought to light before an real, live catastrophic earthquake revealed that all those fraudulently certified buildings weren’t actually safe. But in other sectors–nuclear power, toxic waste disposal, and pharmaceuticals are big ones–one wonders whether things are actually humming along generally well or it’s only a matter of time before luck runs out.