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    Japan Post privatization approved

    Posted by Sean at 03:51, October 14th, 2005

    Japan Post privatization was approved by the House of Councillors today:

    The Japan Post privatization bills were approved and enacted by a majority, mostly from the ruling coalition, in a session of the upper house on 14 October. The final vote was 134 in favor, 100 opposed. On 1 October 2007, the Japan Post Public Corporation will be privatized and spun off into four companies: one for postal service, one for postal savings, one for postal insurance, and one for window services.


    Posted by Sean at 03:35, October 14th, 2005

    My, things have changed since I was nearing the end of my éphèbe years.

    The day after Maria Guevara turned 18, she packed her bags and moved out of her mother’s Floral Park home.

    She had a strained relationship with her father, who she said physically abused her when she was younger — a charge he denies — and she said her mother was too strict, setting an early curfew and denying her money for restaurants and fashionable clothes.

    But after she moved into a friend’s basement in Bellerose Terrace in March, Guevara did something her mother didn’t see coming: She sued her parents for child support in Nassau Family Court.

    But Maria, who just started her first year at Nassau Community College, argues that her parents should pay for school. She works part-time as a teacher’s aide at the John Lewis Childs School in Floral Park, but three hours a day at $12 an hour doesn’t pay for her living expenses and tuition, she said.

    “I’m 18, but I still need support,” she said. “I’m going to college. I don’t have time to be working full-time. It’s hard for me.”

    Telling an 18-year-old that she has to be home by 7 p.m. strikes me as a bit neurotic (though there may be part of the story we’re not hearing–does Guevara’s mother go to work at night and need her daughter to look after her little brother?), but the rest of her complaints? Sheesh. In my day, the standard speech was “Look, buddy, when you’re 18, you can move out of this house and make your own rules. But until then, you’re living under our roof and what we say goes. IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?” It was understood. I had parents indulgent enough to send me to a hoity-toity private college, but I took a year off after high school and worked full-time and saved, too. Starting college at 19 instead of 18 doesn’t seem to have blighted my life much.

    Oh, and the reasoning that goes “it’s hard; therefore, I shouldn’t have to do it”? What is that?

    (Via Joanne Jacobs)

    Hello, stranger

    Posted by Sean at 00:21, October 14th, 2005

    Occasionally, the Andrew Sullivan who inspired so many of us a decade ago reemerges to write a reflective, even-handed piece about gay issues. This is the latest. It’s a bit verbose, and the social-climby lens through which he views cultural life manifests itself frequently, but I’ll take a little A-list smugness over Bush-betrayed-me screechiness any day.

    Slowly but unmistakably, gay culture is ending. You see it beyond the poignant transformation of P-town: on the streets of the big cities, on university campuses, in the suburbs where gay couples have settled, and in the entrails of the Internet. In fact, it is beginning to dawn on many that the very concept of gay culture may one day disappear altogether. By that, I do not mean that homosexual men and lesbians will not exist–or that they won’t create a community of sorts and a culture that sets them in some ways apart. I mean simply that what encompasses gay culture itself will expand into such a diverse set of subcultures that “gayness” alone will cease to tell you very much about any individual. The distinction between gay and straight culture will become so blurred, so fractured, and so intermingled that it may become more helpful not to examine them separately at all.

    There’s much less psychological need now to define yourself against society when you figure out that you’re gay, and a lot of mainstream straight people would find it strange if you did. It was my half-dozen or so closest college friends, all straight, who convinced me to stop warring against my own identity and come out. The friends I feel most assertively gay around are a straight architect couple–I was delighted to learn earlier this week that they’re moving back to Tokyo from their home base in San Francisco–who are constantly joshing with me about my clothes and their friends in the Castro and the difficulty of getting the perfect piece of pottery for the entryway table. I don’t know that I’d take things as far as Sullivan does in that last sentence above, but the main point is a good one.

    Something that is substantive

    Posted by Sean at 23:20, October 13th, 2005

    The US and Japan are still in negotiations over the Futenma USMC base in Okinawa and (of course) the ban on beef imports. Thomas Schieffer, Howard Baker’s colorless successor as US ambassador to Japan, appears to be trying to apply pressure:

    Japan has proposed holding a “two plus two” top level security meeting on Oct. 29 over the issue and expects the two countries to compile an interim report on the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan before U.S. President George W. Bush’s expected visit in November.

    Schieffer said the Futenma issue should be resolved before discussing these matters, while stressing that they should be left to the two countries’ negotiators.

    “I think the purpose of the interim agreement is to announce something that is substantive,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to have a meeting just for a meeting’s sake.”

    He called ongoing bilateral talks on the U.S. military’s realignment plans strategic negotiations.

    “What we have been continuing to try to stress throughout the negotiations…are strategic elements in the alliance,” Schieffer said. “What we also want to do is look at what those forces would be and what they will need to be capable of doing in the future in order to be effective.”

    Schieffer also expressed strong dissatisfaction with Japan’s ban on U.S. beef imports due to concerns over mad cow disease.

    “I’m afraid it has done real damage to the American-Japanese relationship, because it has reminded people of some of the trade frictions that existed between our two countries in the 1980s,” he said. “I hope that the issue resolves as soon as possible, because if this continues to go on, I think that the United States Congress is going to impose sanctions on Japan.”

    “I hope that the matter will be largely resolved, if not completely [by the time of Bush’s visit],” he said.

    Well, the beef import ban is excessive given what scientists know about BSE; I’m not sure that comparisons with Japan’s outright protectionist trade barriers of two decades ago really work. In any case, the Japanese government appears to be relenting on the issue of where to move Futenma’s helicopter operations, which to judge from reports will make restructuring easier for the armed forces.

    When will you make up your mind? (I can’t stand it)

    Posted by Sean at 07:28, October 13th, 2005

    Smiler of the day: Joe Riddle at Ex-Gay Watch on choice:

    We ought to begin every argument over gay rights on that footing: Do we choose to be gay? Absolutely! And we love it! Who the hell are you to tell us we can’t be happy?

    For context, it might be helpful to separate two entangled notions of “choice.” Do humans have a choice about who attracts us sexually? No, of course we don’t. Attraction is a chemical, biological phenomena, not subject to conscious will. Do we have a choice about whom we have sex with? Do we make choices about our sexual conduct and identity? Yes, of course we do. To say otherwise is silly.

    While it deserves to be pointed out that choice rhetoric is misused by gay activists, too–Virginia Postrel, when she was still editor of Reason, wrote a wonderful editorial on that subject–Joe clarifies things from the opposite direction. I think it’s great that programs exist for miserable people who want to change their behavior, but the mere fact that they’re using their sexuality for ill and pain doesn’t mean that more mature types can’t use it for good and joy.

    Off to Shinjuku for vodka and fag talk with a friend.


    Posted by Sean at 23:51, October 12th, 2005

    A friend e-mailed me about outgoing German Chancellor Schroeder’s making a weenie of himself in his farewell speech:

    He quickly composed himself, hitting his stride in a passionate defense of a strong German state and lashing out at “Anglo-Saxon” economic policies favoured in Britain and the United States, which he said had “no chance” in Europe.

    In an apparent reference to Hurricane Katrina, Schroeder castigated Washington for liberal, hands-off policies that left it exposed in times of crisis. The Bush administration was widely criticised for its response to the devastating storm.

    “I do not want to name any catastrophes where you can see what happens if organised state action is absent. I could name countries, but the position I still hold forbids it, but everyone knows I mean America,” he said to loud applause.

    I like the way Germans are now experts in hurricane management.

    BTW, one of yesterday’s Nikkei editorials on the subject contained the sort of play on words that diva-loving gay guys live for. I’m sure 1000 suit-and-tie fags on trains into the Marunouchi yesterday morning nearly died. I’ll give it to you with the set-up:

    The prospects for new Chancellor Merkel present a lot of difficulties. Her major mission will involve treating the country’s case of “German Disease,” in which high unemployment rates and slow economic growth have become chronic, in order to restore the nation to eminence as a major economic power. No prescription will be effective except structural reform with liberalization of the labor market, finance reform, and deregulation as its pillars.

    Could Merkel, as German Chancellor, have what it takes to forge ahead with reform, as the UK’s Thatcher did to earn the nickname “the Iron Lady”?

    As so often happens, the pivot word is impossible to translate well. Here’s the sentence in the original:


    メスを入れる (mesu wo ireru) literally means “plunge the scalpel in”; it’s used figuratively the way we would use, say, “bite the bullet” to refer to taking difficult but necessary action. But メス doesn’t just mean “scalpel”; it also means “female.” The kanji for “female” is 雌, but it’s frequently written in kana as it is above. The sense hovering in the above sentence, especially after the Margaret Thatcher reference, is that Merkel may need to thrust the implacable bitchitude of reform into the German economy. I’d love to see that, though the election gave the CDP nothing like a mandate and it’s not at all clear whether she has the stuff.

    Only some cats catch mice

    Posted by Sean at 03:04, October 12th, 2005

    Take a look at this Reuters report on economic dislocations in the PRC. (Links disappear from Reuters fairly quickly, so I’m citing quite a bit):

    The leadership in Beijing is deeply concerned there could be a wider backlash, threatening a decade of strong economic growth and the Communist Party’s grip on power, says Wenran Jiang, a China expert at the University of Alberta.

    “They have come to the conclusion that … the regime will not survive if they don’t address the growing wealth gap, and more importantly, the perception that the government only cares about economic growth and the urban rich,” he said.

    When China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ignited the country’s market reforms in the late 1970s, he espoused a trickle-down approach, saying: “Let some people get rich first.”

    Some have become gloriously rich. Next week, the Hurun Report, which tracks China’s wealthy, will issue its 7th annual China Rich List on which the average wealth for the richest top 400 is about $200 million. Seven are billionaires.

    To be sure, tens of millions of people have been lifted out of abject poverty since the party came to power 56 years ago. [How’s that for setting your time frame conveniently!–SRK]

    But the wealthiest 10 percent of China’s urban households now own 45 percent of the urban wealth while the poorest 10 percent have less than 1.4 percent, Chinese statistics show.

    Reporter John Ruwitch has a strange way of departing from the quotation from the University of Alberta’s Jiang. Jiang all but says outright that the CCP is primarily concerned with retaining power and that the benefits of economic growth to the Chinese people are little more than means to that end. Ruwitch makes some vague statements about attempts at relief that, combined with his human-interest portraits of desperately poor people living hard-scrabble lives in the booming coastal cities, make today’s PRC regime look like a bunch of well-meaning public servants saddled with unworkable twenty-year-old reforms and trying as hard as they can to patch holes wherever possible. Unfortunately, when you encourage entrepreneurship without providing reliable enforcement of contracts, protection of intellectual property, punishment for corruption, and other niceties of the rule of law, you cannot be surprised when many of the enterprises you’re facilitating are exploitative.

    BTW, speaking of the rule of law, Simon has been following the case of a group of villagers who entertained the fantasy that elected officials in the New China are supposed to be accountable to their constituents. They know better now. The story’s been developing for a while, but it’s worth reading from beginning to end.


    Posted by Sean at 00:35, October 12th, 2005

    The Nikkei reports on yet another initiative to curb government spending:

    The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications will establish an index of how much tax and other revenue prefectural and municipal governments are allocating to debt repayment and will introduce a system to limit regional bond generation (the issuing of new bonds) by those entities saddled with heavy liabilities. The regional government entities will be divided into three groups based on the proportion of their financial resources that goes to repayment of bonds; those deemed to be in financial health will be able issue bonds freely with the recognition of the federal government, and those whose figures are poor will be put under restrictions. The idea is to increase the number of regional government entities that can plug in to their economic strengths and finance themselves without relying on the federal government.

    Printing bonds like poetry slam fliers to cover bad debt is as endemic a post-war Japanese pastime as, say, pachinko. Under the new plan, regional government bodies in poor fiscal health will still be able to issue bonds, but they’ll be on their own when it comes to looking to the market for capital and to backing them.

    Japan Post privatization–take 2

    Posted by Sean at 09:05, October 11th, 2005

    No surprise here, but the Japan Post privatization bill package has passed the House of Representatives:

    On Tuesday morning, the Lower House special committee on postal privatization held deliberations on the bills presented by the government and those submitted by Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan), the main opposition party. After receiving approval at committee level, the government-proposed bills were immediately sent to the Lower House plenary session for voting in the afternoon. Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner New Komeito supported the bills. Minshuto, along with the Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and the newly established People’s New Party and New party Nippon, opposed the bills.

    Of the total of 480 lawmakers in the Lower House, 17 are former LDP lawmakers who voted against the bills in the previous Lower House plenary session in July. Some now belong to the two new parties or are independent.Of those independent lawmakers, some, including former posts minister Seiko Noda, voted for the bills.

    See also this Yomiuri article on the shifting meaning of being a faction leader within the LDP. Of course, we’re still in the midst of the special Diet session, but it’s not surprising that the ripple effects from the Koizumi-led election victory in the summer are already discernible.

    Local knowledge in earthquakes

    Posted by Sean at 01:37, October 11th, 2005

    Virginia Postrel notes some factors that would have affected people’s behavior after this weekend’s earthquake in South Asia. She indicates yet more ways in which effective response to disasters requires local knowledge:

    In L.A., they also tell you to STAY INSIDE, but they also tell you that Central American immigrants are hard to keep inside during quakes, because if you live in a Third World country with bad construction, you’re safer outside. After the Northridge quake, which did relatively little damage to houses (CNN showed the same apartment building, which was practically on the epicenter, over and over again), one of the city’s big challenges was getting the Guatemalans and Nicaraguans to go back inside rather than camping out in parks.

    I wasn’t surprised that people living in mud-brick or unreinforced stone houses in poorer areas would be told to–or instinctively know they had to–flee outdoors. What I was curious about was that the collapsed building CNN was showing in Pakistan was part of a complex that was apparently home to many expats. Usually, foreign businesspeople and diplomats in Third World countries get the highest-quality built environments available. I kept straining to see whether there was rebar sticking out of the concrete, but I could never tell whether the visible dark stuff was that or just debris. (Virginia’s parenthetical struck me as darkly funny, since anyone who was watching CNN’s coverage this weekend saw the exact same footage of the collapsed Islamabad apartment tower again and again and again. Of course, being a 24-hour news network, CNN has to repeat things for those who are just tuning in. Still, every five minutes? It might have been more informative to have, every once in a while, NHK-style CGI of how earthquake waves pass to the surface and how different types of geological structures react to them. A lot of people outside earthquake zones don’t know that stuff, having studied s and p waves in eighth grade and promptly forgotten about them. I understand CNN’s predilection for human-interest angles, but there really wasn’t much pathos in the pile of white concrete they kept showing.)

    Of course, rebarred concrete is only one element of earthquake-resistant construction in the First World. Many buildings in Tokyo have a sort of Brutalist-lite style that shows off both the unadorned surface of the concrete and the diagonal metal bracing against shear. There’s also ground stability to consider. Atsushi and I are fortunate enough to live in a building that’s on relatively high, solid ground, but a lot of Tokyo is built over filled-in river and creek beds.

    Being a megalopolis that’s engulfed a broad seaside plain, Tokyo isn’t really a good analog for northeastern Pakistan. However, Japan did very recently have an earthquake disaster in an area that is, in fact, quite similar: last year’s series of strong quakes in Niigata Prefecture (here and here). Niigata, like most of Japan outside the Kanto and Kansai plains, is very craggy, with lots of people living in old-fashioned houses in remote areas accessed by narrow, cliff-hugging roads. The region also had the misfortune to be hit by earthquakes just after a particularly bad typhoon season had left a lot of ground waterlogged and unstable. There were many injuries and considerable property damage, but the final fatality count was, IIRC, below fifty.

    Japan not only has better construction standards but also bad-ass fire and rescue teams with high-grade equipment–not to mention educated citizens who know what to do in an earthquake or typhoon. Even though the Niigata quakes hit just after sundown on an autumn night, evacuation and rescue went as smoothly as could be expected. The scale of destruction in Pakistan is much worse than it was in Niigata, and it’s no wonder the government is having a hard time keeping up.

    On that subject, one final thing to note: Japan pledged aid in the form of equipment and manpower on the day of the quake, along with the US and the various Western European biggies. China, which not only has noisy pretensions to global leadership but is right next door to the affected region, took a full day to offer assistance, if the news outlets were reporting things in real time.