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    Posted by Sean at 11:26, April 5th, 2006

    Zak, who comments here sometimes, directed me to an old post of his on the Japanese willingness to part with priceless artifacts:

    A Japanophile is merely someone who doesn’t really know Japan.

    Sometimes you will hear people refer to “old cultures” as though that age gives the culture some measure of wisdom. What rubbish. The opposite is perhaps more likely to be true: the older a culture, the more time it has to accumulate really stupid ideas which become part of the national consciousness and continue doing damage century after century.

    Sure, some beautiful things have originated in Japan. But, the whole culture seems geared towards insuring that those things don’t survive. This is visible on many levels. Again in the shakuhachi world, for instance, traditionally if you go see another teacher you’ll be excommunicated from your old one. So, everyone practices and learns in little pathetic isolated islands, prevented from venturing out by fear that they’ll never be let back in.

    Ask most Japanese people if Japan is an “ashi no hippariai no sekai,” and most them will nod. This is a particularly Japanese phrase which means “pulling each other back to ensure no one gets ahead.” This is not just me ranting—most Japanese people freely acknowledge this to be the case. It’s just that no one really minds. Japan is an “old culture,” after all, but not one where people are stupid; this just means that its dysfunctionalities are recognized but met with nothing but blithely passive acceptance.

    Zak’s covering a lot of ground there, some of it a bit sketchily. At its broadest, the issue is that the Japanese tend to accept external reality as obdurate, something to be adapted to, even as they recognize that particular circumstances are endlessly shifting. One reason for that is the environment: Much of the country consists of near-impassable crags and gorges; a lot of the soil is poor for agriculture–we modern Western students, having been preached at about healthy Japanese eating habits are since we were little, are often shocked to learn in Japanese history classes about the poor food quality that was the rule until the Meiji Restoration–and natural resources are few. Even the closest trading partner is a sea journey away; for all intents and purposes, the Japanese Archipelago is at the edge of the world. It is also regularly visited by earthquakes, vulcanism, tidal waves, typhoons, and heavy snows.

    Therefore, the Japanese have felt isolated and at the mercy of nature for pretty much the entire history of their civilization. I don’t know that the way society evolved to value group affiliation, discipline, and emotional detachment was inevitable, but it was certainly understandable. Nature frequently took away things that people had let themselves get invested in; in those sorts of circumstances, one reasonable reaction is to avoid investing yourself in things and to find safety in numbers.

    Japan has taken those ideas to extremes that, it could be persuasively argued, aren’t very wise. But then, let’s remember that they aren’t necessarily very old, either. In many fields, the idea that there’s a rigid, codified “right” way of doing them down to the last millimeter actually originated in the Meiji Restoration in attempts to “reclaim” a static, idealized Japaneseness that was in fact being projected backward. Not that Japan up to 1868 was a devil-may-care kind of place–art forms had gone through the usual stages of fresh experimentation through balanced formal perfection through ossification and breakdown. Still, the great Japanese art traditions overall involved improvisation based on circumstance and idiosyncratic wisdom that was passed down by masters, and other sets of customs–the warrior culture and native religion among them–weren’t nearly as formulaic as we’re accustomed to thinking of them now.

    And where Japanese mediocrity is concerned, blithe is possibly the last word I’d use. Mediocrity here is in fact full of tension, maintained as it is through constant effort to avoid doing anything that would be (literally) egregious. The costs have become obvious. Tamping down individual initiative not only keeps people from pursuing contentment but also keeps them from following through on offbeat, experimental ideas that could bear unexpected dividends later. But there are benefits, too. Strict adherence to group and hierarchical roles provided stability, which is a value in its own right.

    It’s starting to sound as if I disagreed with everything Zak wrote, I fear. In fact, I agree with him in the main with regards to Japanophilia, one of the most tiresome mental disorders on the planet. Far too many Westerners, undervaluing the rich strains of spiritual quest in our own traditions, are willing to look at any and every custom in Japan as a manifestation of mystical profundity, toward which the proper posture is receptive, uncritical awe.

    Japanese customs are actually like everyone else’s customs, having developed through the usual combination of practicality, happenstance, and arbitrary decisions along the way. Many of them serve a purpose very well–Japanese society wouldn’t still exist, let alone be this successful, if they didn’t–and others could stand to be transformed or dropped. In some contexts, the emphasis placed on how ephemeral this life is is as pragmatic and as moving as it’s cracked up to be; in others, it produces needless waste. It’s possible to love Japan and acknowledge that.

    Added on 9 April: Rondi Adamson has kindly linked this post and added some interesting observations of her own, based on her experience of having lived not only in Japan but also in Turkey and in France. Worth reading as always.

    Ozawa and Kan in race for DPJ leader

    Posted by Sean at 09:42, April 5th, 2006

    It’s now official: Naoto Kan and Ichiro Ozawa will run for the position of Democratic Party of Japan president this coming week:

    On the night of 5 April, the DPJ’s Ichiro Ozawa and Naoto Kan officially announced in rapid succession at press conferences their intention to stand as candidates in the 7 April election for party leader in the wake of current leader Seiji Maehara’s resignation. Ozawa stated emphatically that he has “resolved to throw my political viability into find a solution to our current hardships and realize [the goal of] a DPJ administration [in the Diet].” Kan related that “the DPJ is truly standing at the edge of a cliff. I aim for an administration that will revitalize it.”

    The vote is expected to be close.

    Japan and South Korea may cooperate on Yokota case

    Posted by Sean at 09:28, April 5th, 2006

    Apparently, Japan and the ROK are teaming up to try to find out the identity of Megumi Yokota’s husband:

    In February, the Japanese government took blood and other samples from the families of five South Korean abduction victims who were cited as possible husbands of Yokota, and had been testing the DNA of the samples.

    In response, South Korean officials said that if the possibility of Yokota’s husband being a South Korean abductee arose, it would ask Japan for DNA information from Yokota’s daughter, Kim Hye Gyong, and conduct its own verification of the identity of Yokota’s husband.

    Five South Koreans who disappeared in 1977 and 1978 have been citied as possible husbands of Yokota. South Korea has acknowledged that all five were abducted by North Korean agents.

    For Yokota’s husband’s sake, let’s hope his affairs are settled more easily than hers have been. The poor woman’s father has been on television so frequently over the last few years that a lot of us news watchers know him by sight now. The reason, of course, is that the DPRK keeps playing games about releasing her remains–who knows whether Pyongyang even knows where they are by this point? Some abductees have returned to more (Hitomi Soga, wife of US Army deserter Charles Jenkins) or less (several others who have returned to quiet lives in the provinces) publicity, but Yokota’s case has become a symbol of North Korea’s inability just to do something…anything…forthright.

    Push, push, push

    Posted by Sean at 13:48, April 4th, 2006

    Agenda Bender finds subliminal messages in the darnedest places. (And the scary thing is, he doesn’t seem to be forcing it at all.)


    Posted by Sean at 13:39, April 4th, 2006

    The proprietor of this site, clearly a lady of rare discernment, pronounced my blog “beautiful” in the process of linking to a cherry blossom poem I translated last year. (Yes, I’m a sucker for flattery, but her blog is a good read, too, with lots of interesting comments about offbeat Tokyo stuff without that look-how-weird-Japan-is tone that can get tedious. And if she doesn’t have a serious posse of gay friends, she needs to get one pronto. Lines such as “Love shoes made from reptiles [my shoe closet looks like a zoo]” are wasted on any audience that doesn’t include a healthy contingent of uproariously approving fags.)

    Anyway, the poem was here, and now that the cherry blossoms are just beginning to shed their petals, it’s nice to reproduce:



    negawakuba/hana no moto nite/haru shinan/sono kisaragi no/mochidzuki no koro

    Saigyō Hōshi

    If I have my wish,
    I will die beneath the boughs
    laden with blossoms–
    Spring, the night of the full moon,
    second moon of the new year.

    The Priest Saigyo

    See, if you die beneath the boughs while the petals are still on them, looking gorgeous, you don’t have to be disillusioned by the sight, a week later, of them all lying on the ground in a dingy, grey, gutter-choking paste.

    Japan Post post-debate

    Posted by Sean at 11:11, April 4th, 2006

    Today’s lead editorial in the Nikkei is about the post-privatization Japan Post, which quietly began operating yesterday. The information isn’t new, but it’s a good reminder of what’s at stake:

    Despite being labeled “privatization,” the changeover will in real terms leave, in October 2007, operations still under state control–the government holds 100% of the stock of the holding company under which the mails, window services, Postal Savings, and Postal Insurance subsidiaries will be arrayed. There’s a real danger that, if while the government’s interest is still strong it will keeps adding new businesses, it will not be in fair competition with private enterprises. When the time comes to investigate the introduction of new business by the privatized corporation, we call on the privatization committee to consider this point thoroughly.

    For the gajillionth time, the Nikkei editors also call upon the government to sell off its controlling interest ahead of schedule.


    Posted by Sean at 10:30, April 4th, 2006

    Yes, of course, even while I was taking a break from the blog, I noticed that Seiji Maehara was stepping down as head of the Democratic Party of Japan, thus reducing the number of I’d-do-him politicians in Japan by approximately 100%. The cause was the disastrous handling of the (beyond wearisome) fake e-mail scandal:

    DPJ Secretary-General Yukio Hatoyama and other top executives will also resign.

    Moreover, Hisayasu Nagata, a DPJ member of the House of Representatives at the center of the scandal, who had stubbornly refused to step down as a legislator, finally agreed Friday to give up his Diet seat. His resignation was accepted by the chamber’s speaker, Yohei Kono, later in the day.

    “I’m solely to blame for causing this problem to expand. As the party leader, I’d like to take responsibility for that,” Maehara told a news conference. “The party should elect a new leader at an early date to fulfill its responsibility as the largest opposition party.”

    Based on an e-mail he had obtained from a former freelance journalist, Nagata falsely accused ruling Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Tsutomu Takebe during a Diet session in mid-February of having collusive relations with Livedoor Co. founder Takafumi Horie.

    However, the DPJ concluded that his claim was groundless after the e-mail, which suggested Horie had ordered that 30 million yen be sent to Takebe’s second son, proved to be fake.

    The Livedoor scandal is one of those things you can’t be an informed resident of Japan without following, but I’ve never found it all that engaging. That there was such a flap over an e-mail, however, was an almost too-perfect symbol of the conflict between the smartypants tech-minded Livedoor crew and the scowling suits who are nostalgic for the Japan Inc. era. Maehara’s insistence about it did seem odd; perhaps he was taking the opportunity to demonstrate some implacability vis-à-vis Prime Minister Koizumi, who, though he’s often not so hot at follow-through, is absolutely brilliant at stagey showdowns.

    In any case, as divisive as his stance on defense and his relative youth were, they at least suggested that the DPJ might be moving in the direction of welcoming fresh thinking about the changing realities Japan is operating in. It’s hard to be hopeful about that given who his potential successors are, though it’s hard to blame DPJ higher-ups who think what’s necessary now is a leader with name recognition, a power base, and a clear relation to the DPJ brand.

    Still seeking understanding from Nago mayor

    Posted by Sean at 10:14, April 4th, 2006

    The head of the Japan Defense Agency is still trying to get Nago residents to agree to a slightly adjusted proposal for relocating the helicopter facilities from Futenma:

    JDA chief Fukushiro Nukaga met with Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro of Nago, the site to which US military facilities now at the Futenma base (Ginowan City, Okinawa Prefecture) are slated to be moved, on 4 April. Nukaga once again sought Shimbukuro’s understanding, conveying once again that, while [the government] will not make broad changes to the relocation to the coastline of Camp Schwab that has been agreed upon by Japan and the US, he is of a mind to respond flexibly to proposals for limited changes, such as in the orientation of runways. The focus was on the mayor’s advocating that the runways be shifted more than 400 meters offshore [from their proposed location].

    It had been hoped that an agreement would be reached by the end of last month.

    On a not-entirely-unrelated note, the Yomiuri took a poll that found that 71% of those who responded believe that the constitution should be revised to clarify the role of the SDF:

    Seventy-one percent of people think the Constitution should clarify the existence of the Self-Defense Forces, an organization that protects the nation yet is not mentioned in the supreme law, according to a Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

    Fifty-six percent of respondents said the basic law should be revised, marking the ninth straight year since 1998 that a majority of pollees in similar surveys have favored revising the Constitution.

    The interview survey was conducted on March 11 and 12 on 3,000 eligible voters in 250 locations across the country, with 1,812, or 60.4 percent, of them responding.

    However, 32 percent of pollees opposed constitutional revision, the survey said.

    Regarding the war-renouncing Article 9, a focal point of the constitutional amendment, 39 percent–the highest figure for five consecutive years–said it should be rewritten because there was a limit to interpreting the article and putting it into practice, the survey said.

    Thirty-three percent said the article should be handled as it has been so far, but 21 percent said Article 9 should be strictly upheld and that its spirit should not be watered down through changing interpretations, the survey said.

    Twenty-seven percent of respondents said the top law should be revised to allow the country to exercise the right to collective-defense and 23 percent said interpretation of the basic law should be changed to allow for the right to be exercised. This meant 50 percent favored exercising this right, the survey said.

    Of course, you can’t cite polls without the usual avalanche of disclaimers, but those results ring true to me. People like the way Article 9 makes Japan’s involvement in NGOs seem more saintly (to those who pay attention to such things), and besides, this is, despite the economic upheavals of the last decade and a half, an extraordinarily prosperous country. Most people have little incentive to approach defense issues with a real sense of urgency. But they know, at the same time, that Japan is a resource-poor country with nearby enemies. There’s almost always some current reminder–a little skirmish between a Japanese and a North Korean ship, news about the expansion of a Chinese military program of some kind–of the delicacy of its position.

    It’s interesting that 1998 was the first year the Yomiuri reports having a majority supporting the revision of the constitution. I wonder whether the poll was first conducted that year or, maybe, the DPRK’s missile test over Japan jolted a lot of people. Of course, if the poll is always in the spring, that wouldn’t explain anything, since the test missile was launched in summer.

    It’s the shiny time

    Posted by Sean at 09:36, March 31st, 2006

    Hi, everyone. Remember me?

    March wiped the floor with this bitch.

    It wasn’t bad, mind–there was a lot to accomplish, and it all got done–just intense. Last night I came home and realized that, for the first time in, like, ever, my head wasn’t buzzing with 5000 things that had to be done TOMORROW OR ELSE. And I got into bed and talked to Atsushi when he called and read my book for a while (actually paying attention to it) and then went to sleep without once jumping up for my datebook to scrawl in something I’d forgotten.

    Of course, I actually did have to do 5000 things today–I just wasn’t anxious about them ahead of time. Now that the month is REALLY over, I need to do a punishing workout or something. But I can’t because I got up early and worked out this morning. So I think it’s a long walk up Meiji Avenue. Despite the pointlessness of the new subway line, I like the construction sites.


    Posted by Sean at 21:34, March 28th, 2006

    There don’t seem to be many new stories or particularly fascinating developments on existing ones–which is good because I’ve been busy as hell. The cherry blossoms are blooming early, though–third earliest in Tokyo proper since record-keeping began, apparently.

    The neighborhood in which my office is is called 桜ヶ丘 (sakura ga oka: lit., “cherry hill,” though putting it that way has somewhat Joisey-ish connotations for me), and that is, of course, because the main through street is lined with cherry trees. By yesterday, the blossoms seemed to be about 80% open, and last night was the first night this year that they floodlit them. I spent yesterday doing a fair bit of end-of-year document-shredding and straightening up, so by 8 p.m. or so I was feeling a little dusty and decided a walk down to the bottom of the hill for a Coke or something was in order. When I got to the end of the alley from our building and looked up, there they were: clouds of cherry blossoms, like an apparition from some other, purer world, somehow feeling pink without actually looking pink. I may have gasped. It was one of those mono no aware moments that remind you why the Japanese have always regarded the natural surroundings in their native islands as spookily, mysteriously beautiful.

    Then I was snapped back to Earth for another Japan moment, this one of somewhat more recent origin: I had to thread through all the people trying to take each other’s pictures (“Yumi-chan, dame yo…you have to get closer in!”) with the blossoms in the background, in addition to the usual steady procession of taxis, delivery guys on motorbikes, and sauntering students with their gigantic backpacks, in order to get down the street to the Family Mart. But hey, I’m always the one saying I like the crush, so no complaints. I still reserve the right to bitch about the kiln-like summer heat, though.

    Work should clear up in a few days, leaving me not so much more time as more mind space to devote to other things.