• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    I run to the future and jump

    Posted by Sean at 14:06, May 7th, 2006

    Our reputation for bitchiness notwithstanding, I’m always touched by the way homos make a welcoming, nurturing, non-judgmental safe space for anyone who’s taking the difficult step of coming out. Ball’s in your court, Nick. 😉


    Posted by Sean at 07:50, May 7th, 2006

    It’s the end of the Golden Week holiday today. Atsushi’s birthday is this week, and he won’t be home for it, so I made dinner for him today. He wanted (can you guess?) broiled chicken with pan gravy. My man is nothing if not reliable. But then, a quiet afternoon at home was almost an exotic undertaking after the last week.

    In addition to the usual getting together with friends, we finally went to see the Tokyo-Berlin/Berlin-Tokyo exhibit. Like a lot of exhibits here, it was pretty well edited (though the continuity was sometimes a little sketchy) but wretchedly designed. When are Japanese curators going to start getting lighting design from people who know what they’re doing? As things are, they may as well hang flashlights from bell wire and be done with it. The effect would be the same. How is it that institutions in New York, London, and Vienna can figure out how to display old, fragile works so that they’re being preserved while you can actually see them well enough to drink them in…but every artwork on display in Tokyo is either begloomed to the point of near- pitch dark or cursed at by light bright enough to perform surgery by? It’s a real shame. So is the omnipresence of little appliances–humidity sensors and the like–plunked openly in corners right under the artworks. Does a lot, don’t you know, to enhance your ability to wrap yourself completely in the world depicted by the pieces on display.

    We also had a wedding present or two to pick up–nothing makes you feel more in touch with your fag self than casting a critical eye over everything in the housewares department. And Atsushi got his birthday iPod early. I’m not sure how much music he’ll be throwing on it, but he’s been looking pretty hungrily at the various news-site podcasts.

    It’s kind of windy and rainy here, so I’m hoping his flight doesn’t get thrown around too badly. I’m figuring I’ll get his “I’m back in Kyushu” e-mail in a half-hour or so. Then it’s back to the usual. Hope everyone else had a great weekend.

    The burden

    Posted by Sean at 07:16, May 7th, 2006

    Michael explains his support for the Fair Tax. (I kind of understand why that choice of name is shrewd, though it seems to me that the old designation National Sales Tax was more transparent and not all that scary. Reason solicited a bunch of opinions about whether the Fair Tax or the Flat Tax was a better replacement for the current Income Tax a decade or so ago. It’s still worth reading.)

    You won’t be surprised to see libertarian me endorse the idea. You also won’t be surprised to see Japan-resident me wonder whether it’s realistic to expect to be able to extirpate a deep-rooted bureaucracy that’s used to exercising a great deal of arbitrary power over citizens’ money and privacy and knows how to play the system (largely because in a significant way it is the system). In that Reason piece, the Cato Institute’s Edward R. Crane articulates the chief worry:

    Critics of a federal retail sales tax who point to the danger of politicians simply adopting the retail sales tax on top of reduced rates for the present system have a very legitimate concern. The last thing we should want would be a sales tax in addition to the taxes we already have. The movement for the sales tax must reject any deal that allows the income tax to survive even at one-half of 1 percent.

    The danger of a monstrous hybrid “reform” is very real, in my opinion. People bitch about income taxes, and everyone hates the IRS, but we’re used to them. A lot of Americans who don’t understand much about math and money could probably be pretty easily scared away by warnings that they’ll end up poorer under the new system. A lot of Americans who are affluent and keep track of their money have a stake in keeping their own constellations of deductions just as they are…and finding ways to get others to pay in more. A lot of tax lawyers and accountants (not exactly groups that lack connections) would not quietly resign themselves to being forced to look for a new line of work.

    Of course, defeatism isn’t part of the American mindset, and as Michael says, gays in particular have reason to bestir ourselves over the income tax issue:

    Much of the discussion surrounding the marriage equality debate has been focused on the more than 1000 tax benefits married couples receive that gay people cannot. And that’s a big point. Not to diminish the debate over marriage equality, but when it comes right down to it, the difference between a married couple and a gay unmarried couple comes largely down to money.

    Those of us with partners who are foreign nationals have issues that come into play a bit before the money part, but Michael’s essentially right.

    Speaking of the federal government and money, am I the only one who LAUGHED OUT LOUD at that proposal to give citizens a $100 rebate for gas money? I mean, people have been saying it’s stupid, but it was so…rube-ish. The legislative branch of the US government looks forward to serving you ($100 that you yourself earned, anyway) again!!!! Sheesh.

    Bedside manner

    Posted by Sean at 09:16, May 5th, 2006

    An interesting window on Japan’s group-over-individual culture as it applies to the practice of medicine–I may have mentioned this before in a post related to health care before, but I don’t remember–is that if you’re gravely ill, they don’t tell you what’s wrong. They tell your family. It then becomes the responsibility of the ranking party (such as your eldest son) to tell you and take the lead in deciding what kind of treatment you should get. The Asahi has a new survey with some figures. Of course, surveys have to be swallowed cautiously, but the results here ring true:

    The survey was conducted by a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare research group in October and November 2004. Questionnaires were sent to 1,000 randomly selected hospitals with between 50 and 300 beds, since many terminal patients die in such hospitals rather than hospices or palliative care units. A total of 145 hospitals responded.

    In only 45.9 percent of the reported cases, hospitals said they informed a terminal patient–generally considered someone with less than six months to live–what disease he or she was suffering from.

    In contrast, they told the patients’ families 95.8 percent of the time.

    Occasionally (and not mentioned in this survey), doctors seem to lurch in the opposite direction and raise the possibility of truly frightening diagnoses without more than iffy information. Several years ago, a friend of mine returned from a trip to Thailand. She was weak and feverish and went in for a blood test. They told her she might have leukemia. She spent a few agonizing days before suddenly returning to her usual hale and hardy outdoorsy self. Must’ve been one of those things you pick up in Thailand. You know, oops.

    Okay, so she was a foreigner, and maybe the doctor figured he was supposed to be as frank as possible. But a few months ago, a friend was told that he might have liver cancer. He was–and do you wonder?–seriously spooked. I couldn’t get anything out of him but that his blood sugar level was elevated, according to the doctor. He went into the hospital for more tests. It turned out to be…well, I’m not sure what it is. He didn’t use the word for “diabetes,” but he definitely said it wasn’t cancer. Given his former drinking habits, the shock may have been for the good; he’s been sober since then. Still, his doctor gave him a real freak-out.

    I know you like it like this

    Posted by Sean at 08:58, May 5th, 2006

    Ghost of a Flea is, naturally, the source of this article about a new Kylie monument to be erected in her hometown of Melbourne. Apparently, her antipodean assets will be fittingly framed with her famous “Spinning Around” lamé hotpants. I haven’t seen anything really recent, but word seems to be that her recovery from cancer treatment is going well.


    Posted by Sean at 06:07, May 3rd, 2006

    By way of the Nikkei , a South Korean newspaper reports that a US embassy in Southeast Asia may be harboring some North Korean refugees:

    On 3 May, the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo reported that, according to American government sources, 5 or 6 refugees who are DPRK nationals are under protection at a US embassy in Southeast Asia and that procedures to move them to the US are in progress. For safety reasons, the name of the country and the planned arrival time in the States are not being disclosed.

    The US government has adopted a policy that would allow it to accept North Korean refugees through the North Korea Human Rights Act passed in 2004, but there have been no instances of asylum actually granted within the US to such refugees since the establishment of the law; when the current group enters the US, it will constitute the first such case.

    Good move, of course–it’s hard to imagine anyone who deserves a chance to start over in the States more than a North Korean who’s managed to get out through the northern border and tough it out afterward. (The PRC is the DPRK’s primary backer; it’s not exactly hospitable to refugees.) It could complicate the 6-party talks, I suppose, but it’s not as if there were any pretense of amity between us and North Korea anyway.


    Posted by Sean at 00:38, May 1st, 2006

    The Lucie Blackman case is well-known in Japan and England; US readers may not be familiar with it. Blackman was a British woman who quit her job as a BA flight attendant to take an under-the-table job at a hostess bar here in Tokyo. Several months later she was murdered, or killed accidentally in the course of a Mickey Finn, by a customer of the bar where she worked. This article from around a year later lays on the apocalyptic atmosphere a bit thick–as if Japan were a month away from sinking into Third World conditions–but it’s a pretty comprehensive discussion of the development of the case. Blackman’s family had to push hard and publicly to get police to investigate when she went missing.

    The Asahi reports that Blackman’s father helped launch a safety-minded service two years ago:

    The idea bore fruit in July 2004 with the launch of Safety Text, through which users send details of their plans for a day to registered recipients back home.

    Messages are stored for up to 24 hours, allowing users to cancel the text once they arrive at their destination. If they do not make contact, the alarm is raised.

    Facial photographs and contact details that are stored in the system would be then transmitted to the police to ensure a prompt investigation.

    “If Lucie had such a service, she might have wished to disclose that she was going off with this Japanese businessman (just in case),” Blackman said. “Then she might have been found in several hours, not seven months.”

    As part of the campaign to raise awareness of personal safety, the trust has distributed “personal safety information packs” for travelers to more than 650 educational establishments across Britain. It also warns women to make sure their drinks aren’t spiked with date-rape drugs.

    That poor family. You can see how they’d look for solace in trying to prevent what happened to their daughter and sister from happening to anyone else. But I’m not sure a system such as Safety Text is likely to help much. There’s an inherent risk in going back to the apartment of a lascivious-minded stranger, and no messaging system can exercise judgment on someone’s behalf. Blackman, after all, called her roommate several times after meeting up with Joji Obara on the day he killed her. (I guess I should say “allegedly,” but there appears to be next to no doubt.) She probably wasn’t out of contact until very shortly before being drugged. And given that she hadn’t been in Japan long, she might not have been entirely aware of which municipality she was in.

    Besides, whatever information is given to police, they need to feel a reasonable need to act on it before they’re going to go searching for someone. Blackman told her roommate she’d be back in about a half-hour and then didn’t show up. If it were my friend, I’d be worried, but I doubt I’d be all that worried until the next morning. People in their early twenties do get sidetracked and end up staying out all night. The first serious cause for alarm was the phone call the next day saying Blackman had joined a cult, but it’s pretty certain she was dead by then. The Safety Text system might have accelerated the recovery of her body, which is worthwhile in itself, but it seems unlikely to have prevented her death. (Given the wording Blackman’s father used in that quotation, he may be aware of that himself.)

    Bush touched by families of abductees

    Posted by Sean at 09:47, April 30th, 2006

    This is kind of old news by now for those who have followed the abductee issue, but President Bush met with the families of several abductees and a few North Korean defectors last week:

    “It is hard to believe that a country would foster abduction. It’s hard for Americans to imagine that a leader of any country would encourage the abduction of a young child,” Bush said about the North Korean regime and its leader, Kim Jong Il.

    Wearing a blue badge on his suit lapel to express solidarity with the families, Bush called on Pyongyang to return abductees, saying, “If North Korea expects to be respected in the world, that country must respect human rights and human dignity and must allow this mother to hug her child again.”

    In her press conference later Friday, Sakie Yokota expressed her hope that the U.S. president’s first meeting with an abductee’s family would encourage other world leaders to unite in pressuring North Korea to resolve the issue.

    “I thanked the president for sharing time with us in his busy schedule. He said he was never too busy to find time to talk about human dignity and freedom. I really wish leaders of all countries would share that thought,” Yokota said.

    Of course, “solidarity” is a rather vague term. To judge by precedent, the abductee issue will be readily backburnered at future meetings with the DPRK once negotiations over nuclear development start getting sticky. That’s not to cast aspersions on Bush’s sincerity or sympathy; it’s just to say that if the Yokotas and others expect a change in diplomatic approach, I’m not so sure they’ll get one.

    Just in case you need your memory jogged about what a vile hellhole North Korea is, Human Rights Watch gives the genteel version here. Note that while I focus on the thirteen Japanese abductees here, the number of South Korean abductees numbers in the thousands:

    According to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, a total of 3,790 South Koreans were kidnapped and taken to North Korea between 1953 and 1995, of whom 486 remain detained. Some of the abductees have been used in propaganda broadcasts to South Korea, while others have been used to train North Korean spies. North Korea has rejected repeated requests from families of the South Korean abductees to confirm their existence, to return them, or, in the cases of the dead, to return their remains.

    It’s not clear that having the US play policeman–a role for which it’s usually criticized–will have much effect on the issue. At the same time Washington can hardly prove to be more impotent than, say, the UN:

    The North Korea Human Rights Act, which the U.S. adopted in 2004, opens up the possibility for North Korean refugees to be admitted for resettlement in the United States. Thus far, however, little action has been taken, and it is unclear how many refugees could benefit or when. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution for the third straight year calling on North Korea to respect basic human rights. In November 2005, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution against North Korea, citing “systemic, widespread and grave violations of human rights.”

    North Korea has largely shunned talks with U.N. human rights experts, except for a few meetings on children’s and women’s rights. It has not responded to repeated requests by Vitit Muntarbhorn, special rapporteur on North Korea, to engage in dialogue.

    Dialogue only works as a problem-solving tool among people who can trust one another to be working from similar principles.


    Posted by Sean at 06:34, April 30th, 2006

    No, guys, I haven’t forgotten about you. Remember in March when I said that it was the end of the Japanese financial year and that things should start to get a little less hectic in April?


    In truth, the busy-ness was only part of it. The ugliness of the debates over, say, immigration and the rape allegations at Duke has not exactly provided an incentive to get right in there and contribute. At least, it hasn’t provided any incentive to me. So despite the DPJ’s much-discussed win last week and the death of urban planning critic Jane Jacobs and other newsworthy stuff, I didn’t feel much like posting. I don’t think I even remembered to mention that I’d been blogging for exactly two years as of mid-April. (Did I?) Anyway, thanks to those who have kept checking back despite the silence.

    The Nikkei lead editorial spot was devoted to a single piece today–no surprise, considering the topic:

    On 1 May, the “Corporate Law,” with its nearly 1000 articles, goes into effect. It is the new fundamental law that has been set up to bundle Section 2 of the Commercial Law with the Limited Company Law, among others, which up to now stipulated how enterprises may be constituted.

    A variety of options have been established to permit companies from start-ups to corporate giants to be created and operated in accordance with their respective statures. That means the large-scale deregulation of entrepreneurial activity. Enterprises will have to take decisive responsibility for themselves and set strategies with a new level of clarity.

    A few notes here: Japanese has a good handful of words that can be translated “corporation,” depending not only on the kind of organization but also on which aspect of corporation-ness is being emphasized. The most literal equivalent to the Latinate sense of embodiedness in our English terms is 法人 (houjin: “law” + “person”). The strictest equivalent of limited, both in terms of meaning and in terms of use in company names, is 有限会社 (yuugen-gaisha: “limited company”), which is the word used in the name of the law referred to above.

    In the era of numerous legal restrictions, they were like so-called “rails” that had been laid down. From here on, [enterprises] will have to decide for themselves which directions to travel. Without being kept in line by government supervision, they will get direct feedback on their business acumen in the results of applying it. Toshitaka Hagiwara, chair of the Nippon Keidanren’s Joint Committee on Economic Regulation and chairman of the board of Komatsu, sees the new law this way: “We won’t be able to exploit our increased number of options if we don’t adopt solid policies based on what will truly profit those with a stake in our organizations, starting with our shareholders.”

    Making money for shareholders was, of course, approximately priority number 953 in the Japan Inc. era. Expansion was the goal, and with the book value of assets (especially property) increasing so rapidly during the Bubble, it was easy to justify.

    Yes, I know that the Bubble burst a decade and a half ago. Unfortunately, the Japan Inc. mindset and ways of doing things still have a hold on too many organizations. Outside a handful of world-famous giants, most companies have only a hazy idea of what competing in global markets would actually require of them. That means that whether the nationwide corporate culture in Japan is really ready to make the most of the its new options is an open question. The new law abolishes minimum capitalizations on public companies and LLCs. It allows terms of up to ten years for directors and allows for the requirement that board members be shareholders. It also eases the dissolution of holding companies and the spinning off of subsidiaries.

    It doesn’t address other factors, such as the financial sector’s continuing poor lending judgment. (Risk assessment and risk management are still underdeveloped here in just about every field. So, for that matter, is the financial sector itself.) And a quite extraordinary number of people–even around my age–still look on their companies as social entities to which they owe loyalty, rather than enterprises to which they contribute productivity. That’s not to say they don’t work hard. But most people, including those who go on to become CEOs, still don’t seem to think in terms of developing their own talents their own way and looking for the organizations (and niches within organizations) where they best fit. The relaxing of regulations on corporate structure is itself a sign of a cultural shift, naturally, but how much of one remains to be seen.

    First anniversary of Amagasaki disaster

    Posted by Sean at 23:09, April 24th, 2006

    The Amagasaki train derailment was exactly one year ago today.

    The representative of the families, Naho Asano (33), whose mother and aunt both died in the accident, was in tears as she appealed to JR West: “There’s nothing more important than people’s lives. I want it etched in the consciousness of JR West that it’s people’s lives that it’s conveying.

    A recent survey suggests a better etching tool is needed.