• Home
  • About
  • Guest Post

    The unholy trinity

    Posted by Sean at 02:52, November 9th, 2005

    Koizumi’s three-pronged reforms (usually more literally translated “trinity reforms”) are not part of his campaign that we’d been hearing a whole lot about lately, what with the emphasis on Japan Post and the resulting landslide election victory and cabinet reshuffling. They’re back in the spotlight these last few days, though. Yesterday, the government made a few announcements:

    On 8 November, the federal government gave instructions to slash ¥630 billion from the budgets of seven ministries. The purpose of the move is to effect decreases in the amount spent on subsidies, in line with the ¥600 billion worth of the tax revenues that will no longer be transferred to the federal government as a result of the national and regional three-pronged reforms. Though the goal is to speed [the implementation of the Koizumi administration’s platform through] cabinet-level leadership, Kasumigaseki has objected to what it sees as quotas. The government and the LDP have mobilized their machine to take the lead politically through, for example, the new establishment of regular talks between the vice-ministers and the party chairman.

    “It is necessary for us as the cabinet to throw even more energy into coordinating [these reforms]. The relevant cabinet members, we would ask to marshall all their resources swiftly”–so said Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe at an informal gathering after an 8 November cabinet meeting. He requested concrete proposals for fulfilling [each ministry’s quota of reductions in] allocations by 14 November.

    That was one of those little articles that are easy to understand but surprisingly difficult to translate. (Or maybe the difficulties I was having in getting it into non-mangled English were a signal that I was missing something, but I don’t think so.)

    Assuming the vice-ministers referred to are the administrative vice-ministers, the meetings with the LDP point person are going to be very important. When cabinet ministers appointed by the PM (and their immediate subordinates) have problems, it’s usually because they run afoul of and are outmaneuvered by those under them: the career bureaucrats, who are led by the administrative vice-ministers. These are the people who have devoted their entire post-university careers to going up the escalator in their chosen arm of the government, and they are notoriously resistant to change–especially the kind of change that involves cutting their budgets, and thus their power and influence.

    To recap, the three prongs of reform are

    • to slash outright federal subsidies to regional and local governments

    • to overhaul the federal “revenue sharing” system, in which tax revenue comes from local taxpayers to Tokyo, is divided for redistribution in little packets after being haggled over by agencies in the federal ministries, then makes a U-ey back to local governments (or local branches of federal agencies)
    • to make up for the resulting loss of federal subsidies by increasing the amount of locally collected taxes that goes straight into the coffers of regional and local governments–which is to say, to decrease the role of the federal middle man

    You can imagine what the middle man thinks of all this, but self-serving complaints from Kasumigaseki are not the only ones being leveled at Koizumi’s plan. The “three-pronged reforms” have been portrayed as simply shifting much of the government debt burden from federal to regional bodies. One might note that, given the federal government’s notorious wastefulness in handling money, shifting its debt somewhere–anywhere–can hardly make things worse. There’s another problem, though, as noted, for example, in this Asahi editorial from a month or so back: decision-making power is not necessarily being decentralized along with tax collection.

    With regard to the transfer of 3 trillion yen in tax revenue, some people say a figure of 2.4 trillion yen has already been agreed upon. But in reality, the Education Ministry is still against slashing 850 billion yen from compulsory education fees now paid from national coffers. The Central Council for Education, an advisory body to the education minister, took an extraordinary vote during a recent meeting. It is scheduled to issue a report shortly recommending that state funding of compulsory education be maintained at current levels.

    In addition, entities like the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, or the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, have refused to cooperate with a plan submitted by the National Governors’ Association to abolish state subsidies.

    Thus, the situation has not changed from last year. Koizumi is still at odds with the ministries.

    Final resolution of the issue depends on the outcome of talks between the government and the ruling parties. In order to prevent having the subsidies under their control abolished altogether, the various ministries will probably offer their own versions of reducing subsidy rates, or suggest ways to switching to grants, whose purpose is not designated, and, therefore, more convenient for local governments.

    But we cannot approve of switching purpose-specific subsidies to nonspecific grants. This would allow the ministries in Tokyo to retain their power of allocating money. That would be counterproductive to the decentralizing principles of reform.

    It’s worth noting that while left-leaning organizations such as the Democratic Party of Japan and, uh, the Asahi editorial board are reliably against privatization, they often do support decentralization of government budgeting and allocation. Whether that testifies to their economic liberal-mindedness or to the sheer undeniable inefficiency of the bureaucracies is an open question.

    It will be interesting to see what happens on and after the fourteenth.

    All-American girl

    Posted by Sean at 00:28, November 8th, 2005

    As a social commentator, Margaret Cho is a great stand-up comic. She writes the following:

    I like Gwen Stefani, she’s alright. She is very stylish and has a nice voice and a really flat stomach. She is a rock star, and quite good at it.

    Now she has 4 things all together, the Harajuku Girls. I want to like them, and I want to think they are great, but I am not sure if I can. I mean, racial stereotypes are really cute sometimes, and I don’t want to bum everyone out by pointing out the minstrel show. I think it is totally acceptable to enjoy the Harajuku girls, because there are not that many other Asian people out there in the media really, so we have to take whatever we can get. Amos ‘n Andy had lots of fans, didn’t they? At least it is a measure of visibility, which is much better than invisibility. I am so sick of not existing, that I would settle for following any white person around with an umbrella just so I could say I was there.

    I think it’s worth gently pointing out that Harajuku Girls–I mean, the real ones and not Stefani’s backup dancers–are not Asian-Americans but actual Japanese. Many of them, I’d wager, would react to Cho’s post along the lines of “Excuse me? We don’t need you to defend us, you stupid Korean bitch.”

    Let me hasten to say that I do not endorse such an attitude. My love for Japan and the Japanese has never stopped me from pointing out, when people here intimate that they think Koreans are lazy and dumb, that South Korea now has some of the highest educational achievement stats in the world. I’m only pointing it out because you constantly hear Asian-Americans complaining about their lack of visibility and the stereotypical way the American media represent them. It always makes me wonder: surely many of them have visited relatives in their ancestral homelands, if they themselves didn’t grow up there part of the time. They must be aware of the jaw-droppingly reductive and stereotypical ways foreigners are frequently depicted in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. So do they believe in racial equality as a universal moral principle–in which case the Far East has at least as bad a track record as the US–or do they think it’s somehow America’s job to be extra-special inclusive, while Asian countries get a pass if they fall back on local heritage as an excuse for treating people of other ethnicities like crap?

    I’m not playing tu quoque here. I just think some perspective is called for. America is far from perfect when it comes to race relations, but it gives you an opportunity to carve out your own space in whatever place you find most hospitable. You’ll meet hostile, or just plain provincial, people sometimes; but that’s true everywhere. It wasn’t long ago that people of Anglo-Saxon, Irish, Italian, and German descent would not have been indiscriminately identified with each other as equally privileged white people. Lasting social change takes time, even in this media age. I don’t think Gwen Stefani’s annoyingly twee cutesifying approach is all that helpful, but neither is drippy depressiveness.

    (Thanks, Toren.)

    JAL plans to address safety concerns

    Posted by Sean at 02:12, November 7th, 2005

    Japan Airlines is about to pour ¥60 billion (US $550 million) into tightening safety standards:

    JAL has announced a plan for corporate reform of which the pillars will include a ¥60 billion investment in increasing flight safety from fiscal 2006 to 2010. In addition to increasing its competitive edge by introducing state-of-the-art new aircraft, the company will implement cuts in remunerations to board members and base salaries for employees.

    There are plans to retire thirty Boeing 747s currently in service, to add smaller 737s, and to increase the number of international routes, especially to China. The safety measures are set out more vaguely–the hiring of more technicians and a more systematic training program. Of course, JAL didn’t come up with this idea on its own: the Ministry of Land, Transport, and Infrastructure has given it increasingly frequent warnings over procedural failures that nearly resulted in incidents. The publicity has not been good. But if JAL is serious (and I trust it to get Atsushi here and back at least once a month, so I hope so), this could be a welcome and too-uncommon case of a Japanese company’s finding and addressing flaws in its safety procedures before a disaster happens.

    The usual suspects

    Posted by Sean at 23:21, November 6th, 2005

    Rondi Adamson is wondering about something that’s so simple and obvious I hadn’t noticed, and now I feel kind of stupid:

    Hmm…Something’s missing from the French riot news and analysis. I haven’t heard about, or read of, anyone blaming the United States, George Bush, the Jews or Israel for all of this…yet. I may have just missed it.

    It has been a full, what, ten days? Kind of odd. All the Reuters and CNN coverage I’ve seen has referred to “root causes,” of course, and lack of integration into society; and there have been some gingerly references to anti-Semitic violence over the past few years. But the obvious role of America, and those Jews who have had the temerity to become affluent, in fostering a climate of disaffection and hate, hasn’t been touched. Of course, I don’t go near the op-ed pages of The Guardian unless someone I trust gives me a good reason. The front page of The Guardian is right now, BTW, referring to what’s been going on in France as “urban unrest,” which is euphemistic even for the English.

    I ran into a French acquaintance last night, and it was all I could do not to blurt out, “I hope your family’s cars are all okay, honey!”


    Posted by Sean at 08:55, November 6th, 2005

    Ann Althouse reminds us of Jonathan Rauch’s wonderful article from a few years ago on being an introvert. There are too many good parts for an excerpt to do it justice, but I think this is my absolute favorite:

    Are introverts misunderstood? Wildly. That, it appears, is our lot in life. “It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert,” write the education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig. (They are also the source of the quotation in the previous paragraph.) Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

    Not the nicest way of putting it–but hey, truth hurts. It’s funny that I should have run across a reference to Rauch’s article again now because I was just told last week for the gajillionth time that I am “intimidating.” There’s just no good answer to that. “Why, I’m the most approachable guy in the world!” is not exactly something you want to be bellowing heartily in a crowded gay bar. I tried my stock response (“There’s nothing intimidating about me; I’m just not very talkative”) and got the stock response right back (“Well, that’s intimidating”). At this point, in my experience, all hope for a fun conversation–let alone the germ of a potential friendship–is lost for good. Anyone who believes that the occasional silence signals contempt or lack of interest will fail to be satisfied by anything but non-stop smiling, eyes-shining banter. Not my strong suit. (My first boss once told me before a work function, when I offered to be sociable, “Oh, jeez, Sean, no–you’re much scarier when you’re trying to be nice.”)

    One of the many wonderful things about being in a relationship with Atsushi is that we’re both introverted, so we get each other; but we’re complementary types of introverts. When he doesn’t need quiet time, Atsushi is very social. When I don’t need quiet time, I need even quieter time. We give parties, and Atsushi chats and keeps food and drink circulating. I stay in the kitchen communing with the cutting board and gas range. It’s become a joke among our friends, but it makes us both happy.

    Actually, many of you know Connie and Kim, so it will mean something when I point out that one of the best things about visiting their home last year was that it was considered perfectly okay to shut the hell up sometimes. Of course, we talked a lot–and man, do you have to be sharp to keep up with that family. But you could read. You could savor your coffee. You could watch the television. You could stare out the window thinking deliciously naughty thoughts. And then you could share them after they’d had time to germinate in peace. It doesn’t get any better.

    This is not a love song

    Posted by Sean at 07:29, November 6th, 2005

    Remember about eighteen years ago when Madonna had three number one singles off True Blue and the people complaining about her realized she wasn’t a flash in the pan and were all like, “Damn! She’s going to be pushing fifty and still shaking her T&A at us in music videos”? Lo, it has come to pass. Good grief, is she limber. But I kind of prefer the part where she’s striding through the city…perhaps imitating Kylie striding through the city in “Giving You Up“…who was perhaps imitating Madonna striding through a cityscape/fantasy skyway surrounded by fairies* in “Love Profusion.” Or the part where she’s dancing in the club…sort of like Kylie in “Spinning Around“…which is sort of like Madge in “Deeper and Deeper” but much more pleasing to look at. All these circular references may be dizzying, but tracking them is much more fun than paying attention to what Madonna says these days when she stops singing and shimmying and starts talking.

    * By which I refer to the presence of tiny CGI wingèd spirits, not of backup dancers.


    Posted by Sean at 05:43, November 6th, 2005

    It’s a good thing I’m an atheist, because that way I don’t have to believe I’m going to hell for guffawing at this:

    [Criminologist Alain] Bauer said that, contrary to popular opinion, these youths are in a way quite well integrated into French society. The way they erupt in protest and violence against the strong central state reflects the model they see, he said, for example from protesting workers and far-left social agitators.

    I like that man. He is sly. I also liked this (unintentionally, I’m sure) drocirc;le summing up of France’s attempts to deal with its immigrant problems:

    France promised liberty, equality and fraternity but failed to create the jobs that helped integrate earlier immigrants. Paris has tried everything from social programs to police crackdowns to deal with frustration that has resulted.

    Market liberalization is apparently not even within the range of possibilities in its mental framework–of course, those protesting workers help to explain that.

    Got a light?

    Posted by Sean at 04:57, November 6th, 2005

    When I first saw this story, I assumed the suspect had set things on fire to give himself more dramatic stuff to cover–faking stories is not unheard of at NHK, though we haven’t had any really good scandals to laugh out loud over lately.

    It appears, however, that he may just be seriously screwed up in the head. I can’t decide whether that’s more or less disturbing:

    A 24-year-old NHK reporter was arrested Saturday on suspicion of attempted arson at a house under construction in Kishiwada, Osaka Prefecture, with police saying he was a suspect in 11 arson attacks, including burning down a house in Otsu.

    Arrested was Hirofumi Kasamatsu, a reporter at the public broadcaster’s Otsu Station, according to a joint force of the Shiga and Osaka prefectural police.

    Hired by NHK in April last year, Kasamatsu was responsible for covering crimes and accidents in the prefecture at the time of the arson attacks. He is currently on leave from work.

    According to the police, Kasamatsu admitted the alleged attempted arson, saying he lit the fire with a cigarette lighter. He also admitted setting a number of fires in the Shiga Prefecture capital in April and May.

    Kasamatsu told the police that he regretted what he had done. He also said he had committed the arson attacks due to problems at work.

    NHK Chairman Genichi Hashimoto said: “It’s regrettable that a person of the media caused such crimes. I’d like to sincerely apologize. We’re considering how to reprimand him in light of the investigation.”

    Reprimand? Firing him sounds like a pretty good idea, though I don’t suppose administering a good scolding along with it wouldn’t hurt.

    (some dizzy whore, 1804)

    Posted by Sean at 04:50, November 6th, 2005

    Dear gay-friendly straight people,

    You know, we love you lots. If you’ve never been told to your face that you’re a menace to society and that your relationship with your partner should be illegal, you may not know just how much better it is to be considered witty and adorable. I don’t think anyone’s obliged to like gays, understand, but I appreciate it when people do.

    Just, could you show your acceptance without the ooze? A lot of you already do, and if you’re one of them, you don’t really need to read this. “But maybe I’m oozing and don’t know it, and it’d be nice to find out how I can tell,” you say? Okay, here’s the basic idea: When you meet a gay person, do you (1) ask the sensible, ordinary, non-intrusive questions that you would to a new acquaintance of any kind (“Are you married? Oh, anyone special then? Really? How long have you been together? Kids? Pets?”)? Then you’re not oozing. Alternatively, do you (2) start immediately in with the sort of catty joshing that makes it clear that it’s okay for your new friend to let go and be as queeny as he does or doesn’t care to? That kind of mateyness can be taken too far–we aren’t all into serious down-in-it ribaldry with strangers–but it isn’t ooze.

    You ooze if you’re the kind who can’t decide between (1) and (2), so they get smushed together into an unbearable…(3) you wink and mug and smirk and keep making saucy talk that pointedly hovers around gay themes without actually addressing them, so that your interlocutor feels at once baited into and warned away from revealing that he’s gay so the conversation can then move on to something–anything–more interesting. Like this:

    Straight guy: “So, Sean, have you seen [glaring significantly across table] Far from Heaven?

    Sean: “Uh, yeah, sure.”

    SG: “I’d be interested to hear what you thought.”

    S: “Thought? I thought it turned out really well. Genre exercises like that, there’s always a temptation to look down on the originals you’re aping, and I thought everyone did a good job of avoiding that.”

    SG: “What about [glaring more significantly] Dennis Quaid’s character?”

    S: “I don’t know. I wasn’t around in the 50s. It seemed realistic, given that the whole thing was purposefully stylized to begin with.”

    SG: “I mean more his [glaring very significantly] circumstances.”

    S: “I thought the house and office were pretty stylin’.”

    SG: “Of course! [laughs exaggeratedly] Oh, that’s great! But by ‘circumstances,’ I was more talking about…well, he had choices to make, didn’t he?”

    See? Ooze. I’ve never actually snapped and replied, “ALL RIGHT, already. I’m a Madonna fan. My favorite movie is Auntie Mame. I serve Fortnum & Mason tea to my most intimate friends in Wedgwood cups. No, shocking though it may seem, I’ve never owned a copy of Judy at Carnegie Hall. Are we DONE now?” Felt like it, though.

    At this point, there are good-hearted people who will point out that a lot of gays are touchy. Some are completely open, some are completely closeted, and some don’t like to bring up the phenomenon of homosexuality itself but do socialize with their partners as a couple. Hell, you may not even know whether the person you’re talking to is actually gay. It’s easy to sympathize with the desire to indicate your comfort with open and honest homosexuals while giving yourself an escape hatch if, for whatever reason, it turns out not to be needed.

    There’s no faster way to cast doubt on your own posture of easy-going goodwill, though, than to intimate that you’re especially eager to know whether you’re in the company of a homo because we’re freakishly interesting. Even if that is the case, I’d advise sticking to (1) above, which keeps a decent cover on it and lets people decide how much they care to tell you about themselves. If that means you have to wait until your third encounter to find out whether a new acquaintance has memorized the dialogue from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, too bad. Life is full of trade-offs, and you managed to live this long without knowing.


    Posted by Sean at 06:44, November 4th, 2005

    Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara is an endless source of provocation:

    Tokyo Metropolitan Governor Shintaro Ishihara, on a visit to the US, gave a lecture at a think tank on 3 November and warned that, if thrust into a war with China, “the US, which reveres human life, would surely lose.”

    He indicated that the reason was that China, unlike the human-rights-valuing US, would not fear the loss of large numbers of human lives.

    Well, not that long ago we fought a death-glorifying Asian enemy whose air force pilots were notoriously willing to sink our warships by flying their planes into them…uh, not the best historian here…who was that again? Anyway, I’m pretty sure we won, partially because our scruples about human rights didn’t prevent us from striking big-time HARD at the enemy when the time came.

    China has many, many people, true. It also has a decided nationalistic streak that could be used to get those people riled up in war time. But the CCP’s troubles in coordinating its own government, let alone keeping the reins it would like on the Chinese populace, are well known. Invading and taking China over would be exceedingly diffcult; at the same time, projecting force in a coordinated and far-reaching fashion is something the US now has more sustained experience with than any other country on earth.

    Be that as it may, Ishihara’s recommendations go along predictable lines:

    He argued that, to combat the rise of China, what was needed was not military might but “a policy of economic containment.” He called for measures to isolate China by, for example, strengthening ties with India. Given that the Chinese economy is dependent on foreign technology, if exchange with foreign countries is restricted, Ishihara said, “it will dry up economically and be unable to maneuver.”

    Interesting how the best way for the US to further its interests would just, you know, happen to coincide with a policy that would seriously stick it to Japan’s most ancient rival. What a felicitous coincidence, huh?

    In real life, the gigantic Chinese market means a lot to Ishihara’s own people, whose economy, he’s surely noticed, has been having its own share of troubles. Additionally, if there are hazards involved in economic and technological investment in a country run by a regime like the CCP, there are also hazards involved in flagrantly attempting to stunt its growth and prosperity. Beijing would have no trouble using that to its own ends in fomenting anti-foreigner sentiment among its people–it welcomes every chance to deflect dissatisfaction away from itself–in which case our military power might come in handy after all.

    There’s pretty obviously no way to guarantee that China will not become a huge problem, but the current approach seems the best of the available options, even if specific policies sometimes err to far in the direction of making nice with the CCP. Making all billion-plus Chinese prosperous and content at once is impossible, but as long as a solid proportion of people think they have a shot at bettering their lives, they’re less likely to get restive, even if US ally India becomes a major economic competitor and keeps China’s growth in check somewhat.