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    Golden Boy in Middle Kingdom (or not)

    Posted by Sean at 07:03, January 11th, 2006

    Myrick at Asiapundit and Hunter at East Asia Watch note that Kim Jong-Il recently made a state visit to the PRC that may have represented a CCP effort to keep his feathers smoothed over the nukes issue. Hunter says, “On Monday, the DPRK indicated an unwillingness to resume nuclear talks. Was the invitation to China an effort to persuade Kim to stick to a diplomatic path?” The article cited by Myrick indicates that that’s the most likely possibility:

    The secrecy makes it impossible to know what the exact purpose of Kim’s visit is. But a source in Beijing said Kim would spend four or five days in the country and meet with President Hu Jintao to discuss stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and expansion of economic cooperation between the two countries. The talks are in limbo as North Korea has said the U.S. must lift economic sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s alleged counterfeiting activities.

    The Nikkei‘s Beijing correspondent also reports that the PRC has “evaded” giving any confirmation that Kim was visiting, with equivocations along the lines of “China and North Korea are friends that share a border”…and therefore, presumably, their heads of state sometimes wander into proximity like billiard balls…though whether Kim has wandered toward Hu this particular week is not a topic that would be appropriate to discuss just now. We’ll see what comes of it.

    Moi-même meme

    Posted by Sean at 03:45, January 11th, 2006

    It seems to have been Pelt Sean with Memes Day when I wasn’t looking, and since I didn’t arrange to be on an inaccessible island in time, Ghost of a Flea got me.

    Okay. This one is “five weird things about me,” which means we need to get something out of the way right from the get-go: I’m normal; it’s the other 6,499,999,999 of you who are weird.

    Actually, I don’t think there’s much that’s all that interestingly quirky about me. I’ll focus on five things that other people are constantly telling me are weird.

    1. I was named for the Beatles rhythm section. My first name is Sean (Irish form of John; also, it recalls Sean Connery, of whom Mom was a fan) and my middle name Richard (given name of Ringo Starr). My parents met just after high school, when they ended up playing in the same cover band. My mother drums and my father plays bass. I spent my years as a toddler playing around with stray cords and strings and brushes and things while they jammed with friends. It’s a wonder I never strangled or electrocuted myself. Anyway, lots of people born in the early 70s were named after celebrities from the period, so as I say, other people think this is weirder than I do.

    2. My favorite band is the Church . Whenever I say so to a hetero guy who actually knows who the Church is, he invariably–invariably–stares in disbelief and says, “But they’re so STRAIGHT!”
    3. I wear jeans until they basically fall off me in shreds. You would think that in the Shibuya-Shinjuku zone of Tokyo, wearing ripped up jeans would be so unimaginative as to be hardly worth commenting on. And it’s not like I wear them to the office, or to dinner when everyone else is in coat and tie. I have plenty of proper trousers. But when things are cas, people are always like, “Wow! Those are some seriously air-conditioned jeans you’ve got there.” Well, yeah, they’re ten years old, and I’m from a thrifty family. Besides, good stuff ages well, even when it’s threadbare. (One of my buddies responded to this with “I somehow don’t think Granddad meant you to apply that to jeans through which guys can see your boxers when you’re hanging out at gay bars.” Some people just can’t turn off the catty.)
    4. About once every four months or so, I’ll feel like a cigarette when everyone around me is smoking–and in Tokyo, everyone around you is always smoking–so I bum one, smoke it, and then…you know, go back to not smoking. Totally freaks people out. They’re like, “Sean? YOU with a cigarette?” Well, sure. Considering that I live in one of the largest urban agglomerations on the planet, with the air to match, I don’t think that my life expectancy is going to sink like a stone because of three cigarettes a year. I don’t seem to have the addictive personality.
    5. When I write in cursive, I turn the paper sideways. I’m a lefty, and we were away for the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkoth if you’re Jewish; we were in a Sabbatarian Christian church) the week my third grade teacher starting teaching how to angle the paper, so when I got back and was hastily catching up, I kind of winged it. The way it ended up was, the paper was sideways and I was writing, essentially, vertically. Mr. Davis thought it was odd, but the letters were formed correctly, so he didn’t go ballistic. But other people are constantly doing exaggerated double-takes. Once I was at…uh, Saks, maybe, or Barneys…you know, one of those places where the sales clerks cultivate an air of too-cool-for-you unflappability…and when I signed the credit card statement, the girl got all animated and asked her friend from another counter to come over and get a load of this guy who was writing sideways. What the big deal was, I have no idea. My signature is as illegible as anyone else’s, anyway.

    Now you know.


    Posted by Sean at 00:57, January 11th, 2006

    Today’s lead Nikkei editorial is headlined “Toward small government: Give us serious ministry re-reform.” Being an editorial, it doesn’t stake out any new territory, but it lays out most of the essential problems:

    A movement has appeared from within the government and the LDP, seeking re-reform of the central ministries and agencies. The current system has now passed through exactly five years since the restructuring of January 2001, so this is a good opportunity to examine whether it is functioning in a way that meets the goals first set out for it. There is still no small degree of waste and inefficiency in the central ministries and agencies. Politicians who want [to be key players in] post-Koizumi policy should articulate a bold vision of ministerial re-restructuing oriented toward [achieving] “small government.”

    In autumn of last year, the government settled on an objective of decreasing the raw number of federal civil servants by 5% in the next 5 years. In order to achieve that goal, some rather large-scale reforms are going to be necessary.

    The ruling coalition is taking the tack of submitting its proposal to elevate the Japan Defense Agency to ministry level at this year’s regular Diet session. This change in status is long overdue. Prime Minister Koizumi had already raised the possibility of forming a Ministry of Information and Communications. Consolidating this strategically crucial area–jurisdiction over which is now divided between the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry–is a promising approach.

    To slim down the government, taking reductions in federal subsidies a step further will be indispensable. Through the Koizumi administration’s Trinity Reforms, subsidies have already been reduced by 4 trillion yen, but even with the proportion of federal subsidy money toward compulsory education funding dropped from 1/2 to 1/3, the amount of paper-pushing to be performed by the federal ministries and agencies will not decrease. The second phase of Trinity Reforms must be orchestrated by [someone who] can aim for fearless abolishments of subsidies.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport and the Ministry of Health, Education, and Welfare remain gargantuan entities. By straightening out the subsidy system and structuring work more rationally, it should be possible to slim down even their regional branch offices. It will be necessary to put even the satellite agencies of the central federal ministries–take the Social Insurance Agency–under the knife of clean-up and reconfiguration. At the same time, the organizations and personnel that deal well with an administrative style of checks and verifications must be retained. Before it raises the consumption tax, the role of [a post-Koizumi] government will be to show the public that it has become, in concrete ways, a fine-tuned small government.

    One of the problems is that Japanese post-War social structures, unlike its car and furniture industries, don’t value modularity. People learned little in college, but it didn’t matter because their training rotations when they entered their chosen company or public sector employer lasted a good year or two and gave them the skill sets they needed to negotiate its elaborate and idiosyncratic filigree of procedures. Switching jobs was frowned upon; you stayed with the same company for a lifetime and became an expert in its ways, the way an old tea master amasses an intimate knowledge of the esoteric practices of his school. Buying, selling, lending money, and glad-handing generally took place within one’s own supply chain. Put all of that together, and you have…well, the problems Japan’s grappling with right now. When making knowledge and skills transferrable isn’t a priority, you get duplication of effort and multiple reinventions of the wheel. When you say “Japan,” outsiders think Sony and Toyota, but in reality, efficient organizations that can compete on a global scale are a minority in the economy here, even after the painful downsizings since the bursting of the Bubble.

    It’s understandable that you don’t have legions of minor civil servants standing up to say, “Well, gee, my job’s kinda redundant. I guess I’ll see whether they’ve got any openings at Nippon Lever,” for the good of the state. But it’s also understandable why people at the top, who are supposed to be able to have a more clear-eyed view, have trouble figuring out how to change things effectively. Japan Inc. was engineered to work as one gigantic, archipelago-spanning machine; its systems weren’t supposed to have to be adaptable. Reform, though necessary, is going to continue to be painful as long as the many people who have a stake in keeping things as they are are still entrenched.

    From what shall I wear / To who I have kissed

    Posted by Sean at 06:16, January 10th, 2006

    Gaijin Biker has tagged me with one of the blogosphere’s endless number of variations on the Cosmo quiz. Get ready to, like, totally learn more about the real me.


    I. Seven things to do before I die:

    Figure out how to rein in my class-clown/flirt impulse

    Visit Poland (ancestral homeland on my mother’s side of the family)

    Own a pick-up truck

    Go a week without wearing anything purple (a friend has bet me–handshake and all–that I will never be able to do this)

    Learn Korean

    Find a Soseki novel I enjoy

    Take the Japanese Proficiency Test

    II. Seven things I cannot do:

    Play any instrument really well, though I’ve taken lessons on several

    Follow the words to 「上を向いて歩こう」 (ue wo muite arukou: “I’ll Walk with My Head Up,” a.k.a. “Sukiyaki,” which Japanese people think all Americans can sing) after ten drinks at the karaoke box

    Drive in Japan

    Remember anyone’s birthday on time

    Sleep with a shirt on

    Function on too little sleep

    Inflict blog-meme-things on people

    III. Seven things that attract me to blogging:

    It gives me a vehicle for showing Atsushi my unfiltered, in-English, American personality without subjecting him to endless in-person rants.

    Translating news articles for an audience that includes others who are also proficient in Japanese forces me to make sure I’m understanding what I’m reading and not just doing that fluent-but-shallow skimming thing.

    Reader feedback restores my faith in humanity.

    The sicko search strings that bring some people here send my faith in humanity right back out the window, but they do tend to be good for a nervous chuckle.

    It’s led to several friendships I otherwise wouldn’t have, some of which have now extended off-line.

    I’m not nearly as naturally bold and unflappable as I like to present myself here. Knowing that whatever I write about my principles, my politics, and my sexuality is going to appear on a Google-able archived page with my full name there big as life has forced me to think harder about what I’m willing to commit myself to. I’m both more hesitant to jump to lazy conclusions and less hesitant to voice deeply held beliefs just to avoid ruffling feathers.

    Crap television is much less grating–indeed, downright enjoyable–when 75% of your brain is occupied with composing a post.

    IV. Seven things I say most often:








    V. Seven books that I love:



    A Benjamin Franklin Reader

    The Future and Its Enemies

    Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

    Miss Pym Disposes

    Sexual Personae

    The Story of English

    VI. Seven movies that I watch over and over again [Note to straight folk: If you’re going to tag gay men with these things, you probably want to specify “feature films.” Just for future reference.–SRK]:

    2001: A Space Odyssey


    Auntie Mame

    Desperately Seeking Susan

    Double Indemnity

    The North Avenue Irregulars


    VII. Seven people to whom I pass the meme:

    See II, Item 7, above.

    Sweet music

    Posted by Sean at 05:23, January 8th, 2006

    I’m not sure what Atsushi was looking for when he found the Mozart Liqueur page, but he thought some of the recipes sounded soothing to the throat, so we picked up a bottle on the way home last night.

    I’m being generous with the word “recipe” there, BTW. The recipe for Hot Mozart Milk is, essentially “Dump as much Mozart liqueur as you like into 30 ml of hot milk.” Tasty, to be sure, but more like what one would usually call a “serving suggestion.” If you want to make even less effort, you can make an Angel’s Kiss: “Dump 3 parts Mozart liqueur into a glass and float 1 part cream on top.” For dessert tonight, after an arduous day of shopping, we’re about to have Mozart Ice Cream, the recipe for which is–how’d you guess?–“Slap as much ice cream as you like in a bowl and pour 45 ml of Mozart liqueur on top.” Well, okay, that one’s a little more complex because step 3 in the instructions tells you to add a spoon (JIC you thought enjoying this treat the authentic Salzburg way required you to do the no-hands thing and stick your face in the bowl). Priceless.


    Posted by Sean at 00:47, January 8th, 2006

    I have a short work trip to a certain renegade Chinese province this coming weekend; I’ll be flying to Taipei with Japan Asia Airways (JAA), a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan Airlines (JAL) that exists exclusively as a relic of make-nice moves toward the PRC in the 1970s. (For the life of me, I cannot figure out where the IATA code EG came from, BTW. Just one of those weird things.)


    Unfortunately, make-nice moves toward the PRC are not all relics of the past, and not all of them simply involve ghettoization that’s barely noticeable to consumers. (I ordered my JAA ticket through my JAL Mileage Bank portal just as I’ve done with every other ticket I’ve bought.) I’m probably the last Asia-focused blogger to be linking Rebecca MacKinnon’s coverage of Microsoft’s repugnant go-along-to-get-along policy toward Chinese bloggers–this post isn’t the first chronologically, but it sets up the issues well and is probably a good starting point to scroll up and down from. Key passage:

    In my view, this issue goes far beyond China. The behavior of companies like Microsoft, Yahoo! and others – and their eager willingness to comply with Chinese government demands – shows a fundamental lack of respect for users and our fundamental human rights. Globally.

    Microsoft, Yahoo! and others are helping to institutionalize and legitimize the integration of censorship into the global IT business model.

    Do not count on these companies to protect your human rights, if those rights are threatened by the over-stretching hand of any government anywhere on the planet.

    These are not the usual garbage complaints about “censorship” in the West when one of many competing publications declines to disseminate the views of someone who can then look for other outlets, or when someone’s published views are scrutinized and argued against in a way that bruises his ego. It’s hard to read this as anything but Microsoft’s blithe agreement to be an executive arm for the CCP’s content managers. And as Mark Alger emphasizes–MacKinnon makes this point, too, but it’s easy to lose it in all the column inches of coverage–Microsoft is being anticipatory. It’s scrambling to avoid trouble rather than changing its policy after being warned by Beijing. Even more outrageous.

    Mouthy bitch roundup

    Posted by Sean at 01:21, January 7th, 2006

    Can I just tell you how much I totally enjoyed typing that title?

    Jeff flays gays whose idea of tolerance has gone from excessive to positively lunatic. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t have to be said again and again, but it does.

    Eric is reminded that some people think we’re uncritical vessels into which art pours messages. He also knew a gay Marlboro Man.

    Fred at Gay and Right says something else that has to be repeated over and over: Gays have no genetic predisposition toward leftism.

    Toby, the Bilious Young Fogey, linked something of mine (thanks!) as the point of departure for a post about settling post-war responsibility.

    Tom uncharacteristically misses the opportunity to joke abou the use of the word “seminal.”

    Mike at Ex-Gay Watch finds, though he doesn’t call it that, confirmation bias in an analysis of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

    Jeff at Alphecca has raised the linguist shortage issue again.

    Michael at Gay Orbit may be finding love. As North Dallas Thirty says, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

    Chris at Coming out at 48 reminds me that it’s been quite a while since I’ve thanked everyone for reading and writing. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to avoid meeting new people, but in the nearly two years I’ve been posting, I’ve managed to make a few new friendships, deepen a few existing ones, and get sharp feedback from plenty of poeple I’ve never heard from again. Almost no incivility or hate mail, either. The constant reminder that the world is full of cool and interesting people is very welcome. Thanks.


    Posted by Sean at 23:47, January 6th, 2006

    The way I met my last boyfriend was this: A yenta-ish friend who runs one of the bars I go to showed me Ryuichi’s photograph and asked whether I’d be interested in meeting him. When I arrived, a space was cleared and Ryuichi’s friends–I swear, I’m not making this up–acted the part of his elders and protectors and interrogated me about my job, where I lived, and whether I was from an intact, respectable family! Good thing for him they were so adamant on that first point, too, since he quit his job soon after and decided to spend a year doing little but surfing.

    This post from the always-interesting Cathy Young a few days ago isn’t about Japan, or about gay life, but it illustrates the kinds of questions I was alluding to here–things Western journalists tend to neglect while cooking up Hamburger Helper articles about the evolution of Japanese household patterns:

    Is anyone going to seriously argue that a man’s resources–income, power, status–are generally irrelevant to women’s preferences in the mating game in modern-day American culture? That doesn’t mean most women are calculating golddigers (as some men’s rights folks like to depict them), but yes, women generally prefer not to “marry down,” and not just in terms of money but also in terms of prestige, education and intelligence, for which a college degree is considered a marker. To deny this fact is, shall we say, not very reality-based. Unlike many conservatives, I’m not saying that this is the way it should be or the way it always will be. But for now, such a trend is definitely there.

    Japan’s post-War constitution, interestingly enough, defines marriage as between a man and a woman not because of any prescience about the fight over gay marriage (there isn’t any here) but in order to outlaw forced arranged marriages. Family elders could no longer use marriageable young adults as instruments by which to carry out politicking or feuds, at least legally.

    But the practice of finding a spouse through お見合い (o-miai: lit., “looking at each other,” a meeting between two eligible people, usually arranged by their families through a matchmaker) lingered on, and though people date freely now, it’s still common. While marrying “for love” is much more the norm now than it used to be, a good job is still recognized up front as the major criterion when a man is under consideration as a potential husband. And that certainly would have been the case thirty-five years ago, when the women whose husbands are now retiring and driving them crazy around the house were sizing up the available men.

    You don’t get a sense of that or its implications as spouses aged together from the recent Reuters article:

    “Japanese men’s life expectancy falls by about 10 years if they divorce late in life,” said Nishida, who now runs regular discussion days to help couples overcome the hurdle of retirement. “That’s because they can’t do anything for themselves.”

    She did not divorce but insisted her own husband at least learned to cook for himself.

    “Couples need to rebuild their relationship,” Nishida said. “Retired men still tend to act like the lord and master.”

    Not all men see a need for change.

    “Mature Divorce” star Tetsuya Watari said in an interview on the program’s Web site that he never cooks and has not bothered to give his wife a birthday present in decades.

    “I don’t think Kotaro’s way of life is wrong,” he said of the workaholic character he played in the drama.

    Some viewers agreed with him.

    “I can’t agree with the wife’s point of view,” said one poster on the Web site.

    “She says Kotaro works all the time and doesn’t help around the house, but that’s normal for someone devoted to his job — I think it’s admirable. At least he’s not a talentless loser.”

    The above passage gives every appearance of an effort at scrupulous fair-mindedness. But even in giving both the he-said and the she-said, it leaves a lot out. Retired men may act like the lord and master, but it’s equally true that plenty of married women of that generation–and this is hardly a phenomenon unique to Japan–regarded the home as their turf alone and would hardly have encouraged their husbands to poke around in “my” kitchen cabinets or work less overtime if it meant a decrease in money and prestige for the household. True, one hears of wives who begged their husbands to trade down in employment so they had more time with their families, but that was not the norm in the era of post-War economic hypergrowth.

    The viewpoint ascribed to the men–and I should take the opportunity to point out now that how much of the superficiality of the final version is due to Isabel Reynolds’s reporting, as opposed to, possibly, an editor who was bent on giving the paying customers what they want out of their stories about the aging society in workaholic Japan–is just as reductive. The Japanese have been known for working long hours, but, especially before the end of the Bubble, the time spent away from home “for work” often involved a few hours of carousing with coworkers at the end of the day. Sure it was basically mandatory if you wanted to advance, but the reason it was possible to make it so was that men let the women take care of the household in its entirety. There were undoubtedly husbands who worked stone-cold sober at their desks right up until they had to dash for the last train and then collapsed wordlessly into bed and started snoring away when they got home; but most offices, at least, were not set up that way.

    Also, a funny thing happened on the way to the year 2000: Japan became super-rich. It remains rich despite the bursting of the Bubble. When today’s retirees were getting married, Japan was on its way to becoming a global economic power, but war and rice rations were still in living memory and made certain kinds of sacrifices seem fair enough, even necessary. Now that the Japanese are accustomed to the choices available to consumers in a First World country, those sacrifices are less palatable.

    All of which is to say, it takes two to do the dysfunctional marriage tango. The bargain struck in Japanese marriages after the War was that the men worked themselves to death (sometimes literally–the word is 過労死 [karoushi: “death from overwork”]) until retirement, thereby earning themselves the right to do nothing but play golf from then on. Women were supposed to satisfy their desire for work by rearing the children and keeping the house, but they also had money and time to spend on flower arranging classes, movies, and lunch at trendy restaurants with the girls.

    Of course their husbands never learned how to take care of themselves. Not only have they not been taught to, they’ve been taught not to. BY WOMEN. Mother did for them all through childhood; if they didn’t live at home after college, they lived in a corporate dorm with a dining hall; and once they were married…well, see the above. (As someone who’s dated three first-born sons of Japanese households, I could say a lot more about that, but it would be unseemly.) You can certainly point out plenty of ways that the system is unfair to women, but it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable for a sixty-year-old man whose wife decides she wants a divorce to say, essentially, “Just a minute here–I fulfilled my end of the deal, and now you want to welsh on it and still have me support you!”

    One final thing worthy of note: Reporters understandably cover conflicts and tensions and things because they’re interesting, and the resulting problems tend to drive developments in society and policy. Unfortunately, if the only Japanese people you ever read about are homicidal teenagers, consumers of manga porn, and geriatric couples who hate the sight of each other, you can start to get the sense that the entire archipelago is utterly bonkers. Those problems and others do exist, and they’re serious. I talk about them myself. But Japan is a great place that, in the main, does right by its people. Walk in Tokyo parks on weekends, and you’ll see plenty of old couples who have an easy, if amusingly bickersome, intimacy and are clearly devoted to each other. Not the sort of thing that gets media attention, perhaps, but an important part of the picture.

    I could give you a mirror

    Posted by Sean at 12:17, January 6th, 2006

    Atsushi comes back for the three-day weekend tomorrow, sounding much worse than when he took off for Kyushu a few days ago. I would have said that that’s what he gets for going somewhere where he’s without my loving arms to hold him, but he hardly contradicts me on that point, so there’s no point in being a punk about it. The day after our last social obligation, I used the leftovers from the holiday to make chicken soup with a pretty scandalous amount of ginger. And garlic. And pepper. Any self-respecing mucous membrane would have been positively euphoric. When I saw him off, he was much better than he had been, but he was going right back into the incubator. Anyway, the flu is pretty severe here, especially on the Sea of Japan coast; everyone stay healthy.

    One survivor of mine explosion

    Posted by Sean at 06:05, January 4th, 2006

    Wow. That’s horrible. Atsushi and I watched the initial reports on CNN yesterday. Certain physical-labor jobs can only be made so safe–my father’s gotten into a few scrapes at the steel plant over the years, and that’s not a few hundred feet underground–but modern detection and rescue equipment is very sophisticated. With that and the memory of the PA incident a few years ago, I wasn’t really all that worried (despite the regularity of reports of high-casualty disasters from the PRC). My thoughts are with the families.

    Added later: CNN’s thoughts are with the families, too, though for what appear to be slightly different reasons. I’m copying the link in the parenthetical even though it won’t work from here:

    It was about three hours after the first news — at roughly 3 a.m. — that Hatfield, the CEO of International Coal Group, announced that 12 of the 13 were dead. (Watch relatives weep over ‘a miracle taken away’ — 3:21)

    Egads. I’m all for candor, but there’s something to be said for keeping a decent cover on your exploitativeness, even if everyone recognizes that being pushy is part of your job.