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    Listen, can you hear the distance calling

    Posted by Sean at 23:46, November 28th, 2005

    With holiday travel (including my frenetic trip next week) coming up, your friendly TSA has released its air passenger recommendations.

    Note again that the first and most important contribution you can make the air security of the Republic is NOT TO BRING ANY LIGHTERS IN YOUR CARRY-ON BAGS.

    Also note that you should be getting to the airport “in plenty of time.” (Since the TSA, and not we hapless travelers, is in charge of safety procedures, perhaps it would be the better positioned to judge what “plenty” means. Say, two hours? Four hours? Just one hour if it’s a domestic flight? I guess they figured specifying a time would seem, you know, coercive and arbitrary. Wouldn’t want that.)

    Also, you won’t be required to take off your shoes. Well, unless you are.

    Enjoy your trip!

    Made possible by a grant from Mobil Corporation

    Posted by Sean at 05:42, November 28th, 2005

    There’s a post at Right Reason about gay marriage. I know–the topic has been flogged to death already, but Steve Burton’s post brings the topic back to some of the underlying social-fabric issues that can sometimes get lost as the debate gets pickier. The commenters also don’t suffer fools gladly, so if you can still stand the topic, it’s worth a read.

    There’s also a post that links to this piece about Julia Child as culinary conservative. Interesting, although if all cooks had followed known tradition and authority and been afraid to jump off a few cliffs, we might not have, say fugu in aspic. Or–generalizing beyond cooking–countries, such as ours, populated by venturesome immigrants.

    The Julia Child thing reminds me of when I was growing up. We’d come home from services on Saturday evenings, and Julia Child and Company would be on PBS some time around sunset. Later, there would be Mystery!, which I loved even as a small boy. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was that keen on watching a show where people were murdered all the time, but I maintain that the draw was the restoration of the moral order at the end of every episode.

    Anyway, the Mystery Channel in Japan has just launched and is part of my cable subscription, so I’ve encountered the odd nostalgic rerun–A Touch of Frost and the Joan Hickson Miss Marples and the like. (Not all of them are nostalgic. P.D. James couldn’t plot her way out of a paper bag, so I quickly bail if I realize I’m watching a dramatization of one of her coherence-free Dalgliesh porridges.) The other day, it got me thinking about a Mystery! series–one of the many British imports–that was broadcast when I was in elementary school. Since I had the laptop here open, I decided to see whether that nice Mr. Google could tell me anything.

    Man, there is nothing you can’t find on the Internet now. All I’d remembered was that it was about a writer whose wife’s Mini Cooper crashes, and that she’s taken to a place called the Meadowbank Clinic and held there while her alkie husband tries to figure out what’s happening to her. Looking for it, I came upon this page, which not only described the whole thing in impressive detail (“The Limbo Connection”–that‘s right!) but also reminded me of another series I’d completely forgotten.

    It was called “Quiet as a Nun.” In it, there’s a convent being stalked by a phantom nun who blacks her face out with a fabric mask. The site has a video clip of the climactic moment when the protagonist, your typical girlie but plucky suspense-story heroine, decides to go up into one of the towers looking for the Black Nun. She finds her, all right. shivers Watching it again thrilled every fiber of my gay being.

    House of horrors

    Posted by Sean at 04:51, November 28th, 2005

    So many dropped balls are coming to light in the Aneha scandal that I’m starting to expect Mr. Moose to wander by at any moment. One of the sticking points thus far had been over the degree to which the federal government should be helping out people who’ve been stuck with unsafe condos. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport has come up with a partial plan:

    Residents of housing blocks built on falsified structural integrity data who took out loans with the government’s Housing Loan Corporation to purchase their now unlivable homes, will be allowed to defer their loan payments, Construction and Transport Ministry officials said Sunday.

    This will be the first step the government has taken to help those living in 230 condominiums in question. However, only 14 of the households, or about 6 percent, of them took out loans with the corporation.

    Thus, the ministry is also looking into possibly assisting residents who borrowed from private financial institutions, the officials said.

    The ministry holds that the condominiums’ builders should fulfill the defect liability to rebuild the buildings free of charge before the ministry assists residents, but it is not clear how such firms, including Huser, will handle the problem and whether they have the necessary funds to rebuild the housing blocks.

    The ministry is searching for a way to extend a helping hand, as it will take time for the residents to rebuild their lives and they may be forced to repay their loans at the same time they pay rent on new homes.

    I hope my arch tone over the last week hasn’t made it seem that I regard this story as a joke. While it’s true that we’re very lucky no one was killed here, a lot of people have poured savings into mortgages that are now proving worthless. There’s nothing funny about that.

    There’s also nothing funny about the fact that, as the Asahi reported this morning, it’s beginning to look as if everyone–and I mean everyone–involved in these construction projects failed to be vigilant:

    The reports submitted by Aneha, who is based in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, were supposed to be thoroughly checked by eHomes Inc., a private-sector inspection company.

    At the same time, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport only carried out perfunctory reviews of the work done by eHomes in its annual inspection of the company.

    To compound matters, a number of local governments were also lax in their efforts to unearth irregularities in reports put together by Aneha.

    Land ministry officials searched the offices of eHomes in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward on Thursday and Friday to look into the company’s inspection procedures.

    Sources said that eHomes apparently failed to reconfirm the information included in the structural-strength reports as required by the Building Standards Law.

    The whole point of building redundancy into these sorts of procedures is to put as many pairs of eyes as possible on the same information: what one person doesn’t notice, everyone else will. What actually appears to have happened–all Tragedy of the Commons-like–is that everyone assumed everyone else was being vigilant, so once Aneha had put his fraudulent structural integrity reports into circulation, the falsifications weren’t discovered.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport made an announcement today:

    On 28 November, reacting to the scandal in which Aneha Design falsified the structural calculations for apartment complexes and other buildings, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport firmed up new policies of systemic revision that would require the name of any architectural subcontractor that performed structural calculations to be recorded in any application for a building permit. The intention is to have revisions enacted and implemented in basic construction laws governing application documents by the end of the year.

    Well, okay. I’m sure anyone who sees the name Aneha on a building permit application from here on will be sure to put it in the “Reject” pile. Otherwise, if there’s a way this will help ensure greater vigilance on the part of those in charge of inspection and certification, I’m not sure what it is.

    Like other federal ministries, the MLIT takes the tack that the safety of the public is too important for its operations to be spun off into private hands. Since protecting its citizens is the government’s primary responsibility, I’d be inclined to agree. But the above policy appears to add only a little more paper pushing (never a hard sell on bureaucrats). The fact is that it’s already the job of functionaries in government construction agencies to review structural calculations, and they didn’t do it. Perhaps the rules themselves could use some revision, but the major issue is pretty clearly the mindset. It’s not clear what anyone plans to do to change that.

    If you care to depress or scare yourself, BTW, the Japanese Nikkei now has a handy category page dedicated to the Aneha scandal–certain to be updated frequently for the foreseeable future, if this week is any indication.

    Are you hiding somewhere behind those eyes?

    Posted by Sean at 04:07, November 28th, 2005

    You know how there are pop culture artifacts that jolt you so forcefully back into the past that you physically catch your breath? Last week, for what must have been the first time in at least fifteen years, I heard “Electric Blue” by Icehouse. Not the greatest song in the world, but there are worse things to rip off than late-phase Roxy Music, and I’d liked it as a high school sophomore when it was out. I was listening to it on the train last week after work, on my way to Azabu Juban to meet a guy I know. In the sense that it reminded me of adolescent ways of thinking, it turned out to be a fitting soundtrack.

    A woman S. is in grad school with studies the coffee industry, of all things, and was having a party of some kind at a coffee house there; he’d asked whether I’d go. The place was full of grad students in their mid-twenties, many of them flirting in their characteristic don’t-forget-I’m-brainy way. Being a non-flirting guy ten years older than many of them and still dressed for the office, I kind of stood out.

    Friends greeted him. One of them duly asked S. where we’d met. It was a perfectly natural question, but the response came several very noticeable beats later. “Hmmmmm. It was a while ago. I really don’t remember.” A complete lie. Also an unconvincing one. He looked over at me, pretending to want me to jog his memory. I tried hard not to look amused. This happened once or twice more before the party was over, and as we were walking back toward the station, S. said, “I hate that question. Why should people ask something like that?”

    It was right around that point that I let myself show some unfiltered indignation. “Where did you meet?” I pointed out a little astringently, is probably the very least intrusive question it’s possible to ask when first meeting the friend of a friend. You can’t introduce someone to people without providing context; society and sociability simply don’t work that way.

    Either you bring a gay American guy in his thirties–who very clearly has no connection whatever to any world you’re known to frequent–to a gathering of your friends and expect to have to account for your acquaintance, or you navigate social life with your school friends (including the attendant secrecy) without any help from other gay guys. I cannot for the life of me understand the temerity of people who want to play both ends against the middle–drawing on gay organizations while remaining officially straight to their friends in “real life”–and then complain that they feel isolated or put on the spot.

    Upholding the law

    Posted by Sean at 00:09, November 28th, 2005

    They’ve arrested Shingo Nishimura. I don’t see much in the Nikkei report that adds to what we’ve heard over the last week, up to this anticipatory report from a few hours ago:

    Opposition lawmaker [lower house, DPJ–SRK] Shingo Nishimura will likely be arrested today in connection with allegations he allowed a former employee to pose as a lawyer to work on out-of-court settlements, sources close to Osaka prosecutors and police said.

    They said two of the Lower House member’s aides likely will also be arrested.

    Police believe the aides introduced Nishimura, a member of Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), to 52-year-old Koji Suzuki in 1998.

    Suzuki, who formerly worked in Nishimura’s law firm in Osaka Prefecture, was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of mediating insurance settlements for traffic-related cases even though he is not a member of the bar.

    The sources said police suspect Nishimura permitted Suzuki to mediate in 40 or so settlements, all of which took place after December 2002.

    Plenty of fraud to go around these days. It’s alleged that Nishimura falsely claimed for tax purposes that Suzuki was a salaried employee of the firm but instead put the designated amount into an off-the-books fund.

    Are you ready to jump?

    Posted by Sean at 08:40, November 27th, 2005

    When people say, “A long-distance relationship? I could never do that!” they usually don’t mean it any more literally you would when saying, like, “Call me any time.” It’s an exaggeration. An exaggeration of an abstraction meant as a compliment. I take it that way and respond in kind.

    Not infrequently, though, someone makes it clear that he means it literally, and that I do not get. I understand not starting a relationship with someone who lives too far away. Or if, say, your relationship has been rocky, a move away by one partner could be a convenient excuse for breaking up with no hard feelings before hard feelings break you up–I understand that, too. If it’s all working, though, the whole point of a relationship is to support each other through difficulties. What would I have said? “Well, Kyushu’s awfully far. And when I go out, I get a half-dozen numbers without even trying, so I’m thinking now might be a good time to explore some other possibilities”? I did enough exploring of possibilities in my twenties.

    I knew how Japanese companies worked before Atsushi and I met. People are transferred frequently, and at some point, even married couples with children often find themselves living apart, with the wife in the family house in Tokyo and the husband in a little company-provided cell near a branch office in the provinces. This isn’t some kind of unforeseen disruption. He’s the one who’s marooned in a boring city working a job that can often be dull. If he can bear it with a good grace, I don’t see why I can’t.

    Besides, he comes home often. Last night, we ran into a couple–friends of ours since we got together–who commented, affectionately if somewhat drily, that given how often they run into Atsushi and me at our usual haunts on Saturdays, you’d never know he supposedly lives in another city. He was here yesterday and today both because he wanted to have Thanksgiving with me and because, with my conference and subsequent trip home, we won’t be seeing each other for a month. Good, if brief, weekend.


    Posted by Sean at 00:19, November 27th, 2005

    This weekend’s earthquake in China not only is sad in and of itself, but is especially sobering for those following what’s happening with Japan’s beleaguered construction industry and government bodies.

    News is pouring in. The city of Hiratsuka in Kanagawa Prefecture (near Yokohama and the ancient capital of Kamakura) has acknowledged that it failed to check Aneha’s structural strength report:

    Municipal officials in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, failed to detect an architect’s lies about the quake-resistance of a hotel, saying his structural-strength report was simply too big to be checked in time.

    Hidetsugu Aneha, the Chiba Prefecture-based architect at the center of the growing scandal involving unsafe buildings, compiled the report for Park Inn Hiratsuka.

    “The structural strength report was a very thick one measuring about 10 centimeters, and it was very difficult to check it thoroughly in three weeks,” Hiratsuka Mayor Ritsuko Okura said Thursday.

    The oversight came to light after officials of the city’s urban policy department reviewed the report.

    The 14 columns on the first floor of the hotel had between 60 and 70 percent the required strength, sources said.

    Sounds like responsibility-dodging, huh? It may be worse than you think. In the week-and-change over which this story has been unfolding, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that at least some of Aneha’s falsifications should have been caught a long time ago. An on-site manager for the construction firm that built Sun Chuo Home # 15 in Funabashi apparently alerted the company as it was being built that it had too few girders. I’m quoting this at length so I can inflict on my Japan-based readers the full, creeping sense of horror I experienced when first reading it:

    An expert analysis has revealed that structural integrity data on two apartment buildings submitted by architect Hidetsugu Aneha had less than half the required earthquake resistance, with overly small pillars and girders used in the calculations.

    The analysis was provided by a first-class architect asked by The Yomiuri Shimbun to evaluate the plans of Aneha, who has admitted falsifying structural strength certificates for 22 buildings in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

    The expert said the structural data were an outright falsification, with various data combined to reduce material costs, and it was hard to imagine how the inspection agency involved failed to notice.

    Concerning the structural integrity data for Sun Chuo Home No. 15, an apartment building in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, the architect said, “I had an uncomfortable feeling looking at it at first glance.”

    The 10-story ferroconcrete building was designed by Aneha Architect Design Office in Ichikawa in the same prefecture, and constructed and sold by Sun Chuo Home Co. The Construction and Transport Ministry’s recalculation found the building has only 31 percent of the necessary strength.

    Bear in mind that these two condominium complexes were in Chiba Prefecture; they are not the same hotel that Hiratsuka is admitting it rushed through, and maybe Aneha was more careful to cover his tracks there. For his part, Aneha is accusing three of the construction firms with which he contracted of pressuring him to allow them to cut corners on structural strength.

    Several hotels have been closed. A few days ago, the city of Yokohama ordered a condominium evacuated, and now the federal government has stepped in, with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport taking the unusual step of threatening to invoke the building standards law to force people out of condos designated unsafe if they refuse to evacuate. It’s also proposing, naturally more stringent inspection procedures:

    Checks will be tightened on construction authorization procedures in the wake of a scandal that has uncovered dozens of apartment blocks and large buildings built using falsified structural integrity data, the government said Saturday.

    The Construction and Transport Ministry plans to introduce a manual on how to check the structural integrity data of building designs, as well as a random survey of government-designated private inspection companies.

    The ministry will submit the draft reform plan to the Panel on Infrastructure Development, an advisory body to the construction and transport minister, at a meeting to be held next month.

    Reviewing the checking system is one of the most important tasks to prevent a recurrence of the problem.

    “Until now, the system was based on trust in the inspectors,” a ministry official said. “But we must base it on the view that human nature is inherently evil.”

    Those who want to see the original of that last dramatic sentence can find it here: “これまでは設計者や、建築確認を行う民間機関、自治体などへの信頼が前提だったが、今後は性悪説に基づいた制度に変える。”

    I didn’t mention the China earthquake just because of its fatalities, BTW. Its magnitude was 5.7. That’s the Richter scale for released energy, not the JMA scale for surface vibration–still, by all accounts, the quake and aftershocks were strong but not major. I assume they were of about the intensity at which Aneha’s falsely certified buildings are expected to be at risk of failing.

    One of the things commentators have been saying since yesterday is that Jiangxi Province was lucky in a sense: most of the houses that are falling down are only one or two stories, so injuries and fatalities have been minimal. The hotels and apartments we’re talking about here in Japan are all, to my knowledge, multi-story structures. (At least one mentioned above is ten.) If, in the worst-case scenario, one of them collapsed, dozens of people could be buried in moments.

    Fortunately, counts of deaths and injuries in eastern China don’t seem to have ballooned overnight, so resources can probably be devoted to assisting those who have been displaced. It’s cold at night now, so keeping people out of the elements will be the first priority.

    Hayabusa headed home

    Posted by Sean at 23:53, November 26th, 2005

    While Atsushi and I were spending the weekend shopping, eating, and otherwise amusing ourselves, the news cycle kept going. The Hayabusa landed successfully on Itokawa (its second attempt) and gathered its samples; the project manager was apparently elated at the press conference, as well he should be. This article from the English Yomiuri gives more information about the mission itself and its significance.

    West End Girl

    Posted by Sean at 06:32, November 25th, 2005

    If you (1) majored in poetry and (2) are a Madonna fan, life can be very cruel. It’s not just that she sometimes produces lines that could have been written while she was waiting for a bus. (Imagine Madonna waiting for a bus! I’ll wait for your peals of laughter to die down.) I actually don’t mind the sort of time-honored placeholders that rhyme “burning fire” with “my desire” and the like. They’ve become conventions, and every art or craft form needs conventions.

    Thing with Madge is, she’s often ten times worse when she actually seems to want to say something of importance. I think my favorite thing on the new album is “Jump,” which is one of her always-charming songs about navigating through life with pluck and determination. There’s one on every Madonna album somewhere, and she always pours feeling into it.

    This is the second verse of this year’s model:

    We learned our lesson from the start
    My sisters and me
    The only thing you can depend on
    Is your family
    Life’s gonna drop you down
    Like the limbs of a tree
    It sways and it swings and it bends
    until it makes you see

    The top four lines are fine. Unimaginative, but sincere-sounding.

    The bottom four? I just…I don’t…I have this thing, okay? I can’t read a poem or listen to lyrics without trying to interpret them, and I am getting a serious cognitive short circuit here. It sounds as if “life” is what’s supposed to be parallel with “the limbs of a tree,” but it could be “you” instead. Is she comparing you to dead limbs being dropped by the tree? Dead leaves? The latter would be nicely seasonal, but they don’t have a whole lot of the life force she’s obviously trying to project. Maybe she’s telling her fans we’re all fruits (as if we didn’t already know)?

    Or maybe we’re supposed to be kitty cats who have climed up the tree and have to take the risk of jumping off even though the…uh…wind is blowing? That would make sense given the chorus–but what would the tree be making you see by swaying, of all things? Does swaying make trees more instructive, somehow? You’d think that would have stuck in the memory during life science class in eighth grade. And how much bending around does the poor tree have to do until you see whatever it is you’re supposed to see? I guess the other possibility is that the verse is supposed to work as a whole, so it’s a family tree we’re dealing with. Do family trees sway? I thought she just said family was the only thing that was stable.

    This song is going to be so much easier to handle in a disco while surrounded by cute boys, fueled by a vodka or two, and moving it under seizure-inducing colored lights.

    Neither safe nor dangerous

    Posted by Sean at 20:25, November 24th, 2005

    The friends I went out with last night are architects, BTW, so you can imagine that the Aneha scandal was one of our topics of conversation. New revelations include an admission that the firm falsified earthquake resistance certification for more buildings than we already knew about. Another problem:

    But officials still have not managed to identify all of the buildings in question. Since the investigation by the Chiba Prefectural Government was limited to structures listed in Aneha’s notes, officials have been able to identify only about one-third of all buildings, and the location of 20 buildings is unknown.

    In Wakayama, where one hotel came under suspicion, city officials said an inspection failed to find any problems. However, officials added that Aneha’s name had not come up in any of the city’s own data, leaving doubt over whether the firm was involved in the construction of any other buildings in the city.

    Another building was located in Gifu Prefecture. Officials said there was no evidence to suggest that data had been falsified, but added that they could neither regard the building as safe nor dangerous.

    I’ll bet that last bit of PR-speak is of significant comfort to people are wondering whether their house or hotel room could come crashing down on their heads. Of the buildings that are known to be unsafe, there are already plans to demolish some:

    Three contractors involved in the construction of 22 metropolitan buildings built using falsified structural-integrity data have decided to demolish 13 housing blocks the government fears may collapse if hit by a temblor registering upper 5 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of seven.

    At press conferences held in Fukuoka and Tokyo on Tuesday, Hideaki Shinohara, 40, president of Hakata Ward, Fukuoka-based real estate company Shinoken Co. and Susumu Kojima, 52, president of Huser Management Ltd., said they would reimburse costs incurred by those who had to be evacuated, but were divided on the idea of buying back the condominiums.

    On Wednesday, Sun Chuo Home Co. of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, said it would demolish two 10-story buildings and a nine-story building–a total of 177 units in the city.

    Managing Director Keiji Kudo of the real estate company made the announcement during a briefing in Funabashi to the residents, during which he also offered his apologies to them.

    He told the meeting, organized by the Funabashi municipal government, that his company had thought of reinforcing the three condominiums but that emergency inspections of their earthquake-resistance had led to the conclusion that they needed to be pulled down.

    Not being an engineer, I’m not sure how weak a building has to be before you’re better off tearing it down than trying to retrofit it. It doesn’t sound good. It’s been determined that one building, inspected by a team of architects from the Funabashi municipal government, has only 31% of the level of earthquake resistance required by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. That sounds even worse.

    The rating scale, BTW, apparently works like this:

    On Tuesday, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said it will compile a unified set of standards to be applied when local municipalities order buildings that are at risk from temblors to be demolished or repaired.

    The ministry decided on the step because standards differ from one municipality to another. Officials reasoned that residents in the apartments at risk should not be worried further.

    A benchmark of 1 describes strength that will withstand a temblor of upper 6 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale of 7. Structures will be graded in proportion to the benchmark. A reading of 0.5 means that there is a danger the structure will collapse in an earthquake of upper 5 on the seismic scale.

    Those classified as between 0.3 and 0.2 in quake resistance will be ordered torn down.

    Of the 14 completed buildings in which Aneha, 48, was involved, the ministry said Monday that 12 were rated at 0.5 or less in quake-resistance levels. One was classified with a 0.56 reading.

    As my friends and I were remarking yet again last night, an upper 5 is a significant quake, but it’s not really what you’d call major. Nor is it a rare occurrence if you take Japan as a whole. As Taro Akasaka commented here the other day, the good news is that a scandal like this rivets the attention and could help prevent such fraud in the future. The Japanese will gamely put up with all kinds of discomfort, but tell them their houses aren’t safe in earthquakes, and you will know their wrath.