AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for March, 2011

Newspapers east and west

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 31, 2011

THE CHUBU SHIMBUN, a regional newspaper based in Nagoya, ran an editorial on Sunday titled The Key to Recovery is the Strength of the Private Sector. Here’s most of it in English:

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More than two weeks have passed since the Tohoku earthquake, and the rebuilding work has already begun. While government measures are of course necessary, full consideration must be given to policies that utilize the strengths of the private sector…

…Many from the private sector are contributing to the relief effort. Toyota and Panasonic have pledged JPY 300 hundred million, and the head of the clothing company Uniqlo has offered JPY one billion as an individual. Doctors, nurses, and other volunteers have gone to the stricken area. We believe that the real strength supporting the recovery will arise from these expressions of goodwill, charity, and self-sacrifice.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of the victims and private sector support, the relief and rescue activities of the Kan Naoto government have been insufficient. While it is true that the unprecedented size of the disaster has probably caused delays in gaining a clear view of the situation, we wonder if the government’s efforts to exert control have been so harsh as to squeeze out the private sector’s rescue and support activities. For some time after the earthquake, for example, expressways leading to the Tohoku region were restricted to emergency vehicles from the police, fire departments, and Self-Defense Forces. Private sector vehicles carrying food, fuel, and other supplies found it difficult to enter the area.

It’s natural that the government would be in control of the efforts, but on the other hand, it’s not possible for them to have an accurate understanding of all the circumstances. It is essential that the activities be both detailed and adaptable, and that is possible only in the affected areas and the shelters.

The Democratic Party government were the ones one to have brought up the concept of a “new public commons” to begin with. They also should have been the ones to actively support private sector NGOs shouldering the work of the public sector. Gemba Koichiro combines his portfolio as the Minister for National Policy with the special portfolio of Minister of State for the New Public Commons.

When considering full-scale recovery measures, the government should use the perspective of the New Public Commons to think long and hard to devise measures that utilize the strengths of the private sector

One idea might be a sweeping expansion of the Furusato Nozei to create the funds for recovery. Under the current system, that is a mechanism in which households can contribute to specified local governments through deductions from their residential tax and income tax. The limits on these deductions could be raised. The mechanism could also be expanded to companies paying the corporate tax. The government would thereby encourage the private sector sentiment to help the people in the affected areas. We think this would be a splendid example in accord with the concept of a New Public Commons.

LDP Head Tanigaki Sadakazu has proposed a tax increase to fund reconstruction, but it is not the work of government to conduct rebuilding enterprises using tax money. If the distribution of funds was entrusted to the private sector without government intermediation, it is likely that the money would be used effectively.

Another idea is to establish a special recovery district. This district would be defined as the stricken territory without regard for prefectural or municipal borders. Preferential measures could be devised to enable private sector investment in the district and the use of tax money and subsidies for recovery activities. Again, the private sector should take the leading role–not the government.

Measures designed to maximize human resources are also necessary. Many in the affected area are at loose ends after losing their families and their homes. If they were to be hired by NGOs or companies, the government might subsidize their salaries. This would better serve their needs than being hired by the government directly.

The work of recovery presents employment opportunities. It is important that the basic approach should be to have the private sector take the lead in performing the work and to have the government provide support.

The financial hit from the disaster will probably reach 11 figures in yen, if the amount resulting from the expected radiation leakage is included. We should not be surprised if the cost of the government’s recovery measures also reaches 11 figures. Finding the money to pay for those measures will present problems.

Some have observed the confusion attending the implementation of the rolling blackouts and suggest that a surtax be levied on electric bills, citing energy conservation as the reason. Considering the chilling effect the disaster will have on the economy, however, tax increases should be avoided for the time being.

We think it would be a better idea to have the Bank of Japan subscribe to bonds floated by the government. The BOJ might also increase the money supply by purchasing the bonds in the market. In any event, a joint effort by the government and the BOJ should send a strong message of the intent to rebuild even if extraordinary measures are taken.

The basic issue when dealing with a crisis is the reasons for a government’s existence, and what a government is capable of doing. The fundamental job of the government is to protect people’s lives and their livelihoods. Nevertheless, the government is by no means omnipotent. We should have faith in our own abilities first.

(End translation)
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N.B.: The Furusato Nozei idea was devised a few years ago by current LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu and championed by Suga Yoshihide as a way for people to contribute financially to their hometowns after they’d moved to a more urban area.

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The basic ideas in this common-sense editorial are quite good (except the one about the BOJ), but if we bet on form, it will go over the heads of the Kan administration. The most apt explanation for that is the Japanese expression Uma no mimi ni nenbutsu—Buddhist sutras in a horse’s ear.

It as if Mr. Kan and his Cabinet are taking a page from the book of the unlamented Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, who said that a crisis shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. They’ve wasted little time in bringing up again the tax increase they’ve always wanted but were unlikely to achieve before the earthquake. One of the deals they cut to gain approval from Big Business for the increase was a reduction in the corporate tax rate. Now they’re ready to take that off the table.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported that talk was circulating of nationalizing Tokyo Electric, if only temporarily. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio denied that it was being discussed by any organ of government, demonstrating that he is just as capable of mincing words as he is at slicing bologna. It was certainly mentioned within the Democratic Party, which controls the government. That was evidenced by Mr. Gemba’s rebuttal of Mr. Edano, saying that nationalization couldn’t be ruled out. Further, no one needed another demonstration that the left hand of the DPJ doesn’t know what its right hand is doing, but there it is.

The nationalization of utilities can never be ruled out with governments of the left, and the Kan government in particular might find it a convenient step. They’re also thinking of applying the Act for the Compensation of Nuclear Damages for the first time and assume the complete liability for damage compensation. Those who qualify would be the 220,000 people who evacuated the area near the Fukushima plant, companies whose business suffered, and farmers who can’t sell crops due to concerns—even though the Kan government created the latter concerns themselves with bans of uncontaminated vegetables. The damages are estimated to exceed JPY one trillion.

The law states that the power company should be liable for any damages from a nuclear accident, but one provision allows the government to assume that burden after large natural disasters or social upheaval.

That raises the question of why anyone should be compensated for damages resulting from a natural disaster, absent a finding of negligence. That’s what insurance is for. But that’s a question the DPJ is incapable of answering.

Unless they need an excuse to raise taxes.

It’s not as if the DPJ is entirely serious about finding ways to save money and use the savings on relief. Even after the disaster, they wanted to maintain their unaffordable child subsidy scheme that most people didn’t want to begin with (and winds up costing some households money with the elimination of the income tax deduction for children). It’s one of the few pieces of legislation they’ve managed to pass that represents a clear difference from their predecessors. The subsidy is due to expire at the end of this month. Indeed, rather than cutting back, the government wanted to increase the payments to parents of children up to age three, but the DPJ’s lack of an upper house majority prevented its passage. Most of the opposition parties wanted to eliminate it altogether, but at the last minute the Communist Party said they would vote with the government to extend it.

There you have the augend of two and the addend of two producing the sum of four as the motivation for the payments. It has nothing to do with increasing the birthrate, because that’s not possible. It has nothing to do with helping parents financially, because the income tax deduction was eliminated. Rather, it has everything to do with getting people accustomed to depending on cash payments from the government for things they should handle themselves. In other words, it’s a gateway drug program.

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Truman Capote famously said that he lost a point of IQ for every year he spent on the American West Coast. The endemic West Coast virus has infected the United States from sea to shining sea since Capote’s time, rendering geographical location irrelevant. The same effect can now be achieved, however, by reading any New York Times article on Japan. Those confident in their intellectual rigor can use their favorite search engine to find the Times’ latest exercise in the use of distorting mirrors. It’s headlined In Deference to Crisis, a New Obsession Sweeps Japan: Self-Restraint.

Self-restraint is the term most commonly used to translate the Japanese word jishuku. This self-restraint is exercised, both individually and socially, when celebrations of any sort would be unseemly. For example, one funerary custom is to refrain from sending New Year’s cards when a close family member has died during the preceding year. People in Japan consider New Year’s to be a happy and auspicious occasion, which is evident from the o-medeto gozaimasu phrase used as a greeting during the season. Some people send cards later to explain the reason they didn’t send a New Year’s card.

That same custom is observed by society after national disasters, such as the death in 1989 of the Showa Tenno and the Kobe earthquake in 1995. That the nation would respond in the same way after the Tohoku earthquake earlier this month should have been anticipated by anyone familiar with Japan.

That leaves out the Times.

The international section of a newspaper is supposed to be a window on the world presented by people employing nation- or region-specific expertise to provide information of interest or of use to the lay reader. What the Times presents instead is an upper-middle class Weird Japan article that gives its readers another excuse for self-congratulation.

That much is obvious from the use of the words “new obsession” in the headline to describe a social custom that is probably more than a millennium old and isn’t obsessive in the least. And no, that word wasn’t chosen by some slope of a headline writer—the authors of the piece use the same term in the body of the article.

Here are some examples of the attitude:

Even in a country whose people are known for walking in lockstep…

A fact known only by those people who don’t know anything about the country.

…a national consensus on the proper code of behavior has emerged with startling speed.

Nothing startling about the speed at all—it arose naturally, as long-established customs do. The unfamiliarity of freewheeling Manhattanites with walking in lockstep seems to have rendered them incapable of recognizing a shared sense of national purpose.

…anything with the barest hint of luxury invites condemnation.

They of course offer no specific examples of the barest hints of luxury resulting in condemnation. In contrast, it would have been easy to find examples of Japanese commentators urging people not to get carried away with self-restraint—for those who read the Japanese-language print media.

For example, Tobita Hidekazu, the director of the Kanagawa Keizai Doyukai, a business group, gave a speech in which he warned that self-restraint in areas unaffected by the earthquake–most of the country–could bring the economy to a standstill. He added that this was a good opportunity to implement tax breaks for companies that choose to relocate their headquarters or factories outside of Tokyo in regional areas.

But his speech wasn’t delivered in central Tokyo, so the Times missed it.

Cosmetics and karaoke are out; bottled water and Geiger counters are in.

They could do their consumers a favor by choosing the appropriate tone–either that of the paper of record they pretend to be or that of a supermarket checkout stand tabloid. Smirking is incompatible with the former.

The almost overnight transformation is likely to continue for months, if not years.

At least this sentence is unobjectionable, including the last three words. The self-restraint won’t last years.

The hot summer ahead is expected to further strain the nation’s electrical network, leading to more disruptive blackouts that make it hard for business to be conducted the Japanese way, face to face and often into the night.

The authors seem not to have noticed that the Japanese also use e-mail these days. They also seem not to know that the western and eastern parts of the country are on different grids. That means the amount of electricity Western Japan can contribute is limited, so the strain on the network will not be nationwide.

The vast entertainment industry that greases corporate Japan, including sushi bars and cabarets, is likely to be deeply hurt.

Last weekend, my wife, two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law, and I took the Shinkansen to another city to attend a wedding. We spent the night there, so 10 of us went out to dinner together afterward. The downtown restaurant was so crowded we had to wait for half an hour to be seated. We decided to stick it out because the wait at all the other restaurants in the building would have been just as long.

The Kyushu leg of the Shinkansen began full service one day after the earthquake. There were supposed to be ceremonies commemorating the start of service, but they were cancelled. The Shinkansen service itself began as scheduled. That is typical of what self-restraint means in these circumstances.

Japan has gone through spasms of self-control before…

Were the editors on a coffee break, or is contorted prose and a superior attitude part of the Times stylebook?

The authors mention that politicians running in the upcoming gubernatorial election for the Tokyo Metro District have toned down their campaigning. They quote only Higashikokubaru Hideo, however, and identify him as a “politician” and “former comedian” without citing his successful term as governor of Miyazaki Prefecture. Conforming to the guidelines of the Weird Japan style manual, they also present examples of politicians who will not exercise self-restraint in the election—the Communist Party, which few people pay attention to, and a vanity candidate.

And they think the Japanese are insular?

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While the Chubun Shimbun editorial is full of good suggestions, and the New York Times article is just full of it, a recent Dong-a Ilbo editorial is chock full of the deep-space eccentric wackiness that characterizes much of the South Korean approach to the Takeshima issue. In baseball terms, you might say it’s the face of the franchise.

The Japanese government recently restated its claim to the islets, which the South Koreans seized by force more than 50 years ago. That was all it took for the newspaper to break out in a truther/birther/Heaven’s Gate rash.

The Dong-a finds it mighty suspicious that the Japanese bring up their claims anywhere from four days to one month after one of several North Korean outrages, and “soon after” the Lee Myung-bak administration was inaugurated and anti-American protests about beef imports evolved into anti-government protests. It hasn’t occurred to them how easy it would be for any event to occur in temporal proximity to the most recent unanswered Pyeongyang provocation or a South Korean street demonstration. They don’t explain what they think the point of the timing would be, or what they think the Japanese might gain from it. They’re just sayin’.

There are other possibilities than the figment of Japanese neo-colonialism in the Joseon imagination, however. One might be that the default state of mind about anything to do with Japan in the Korean media is semi-hysteria. Another is that some South Koreans share a personality quirk with the fictional Basil Fawlty, who thought an order for shrimp cocktail from a German patron in his dining room was a reference to the Second World War.

If it is true, as some South Koreans suggest, that the Japanese restatement of the claim puts a damper on the former country’s sympathy following the earthquake, then that sympathy was only ankle deep to begin with.

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The Chinese in Tokyo also succumbed to the vapors. The following photo was taken in Narita Airport on the 18th. The lines at the Chinese airline company counters were reported to have been 400 meters long.

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Linkage

Speaking of hysteria, here’s a link to an article about how the problems at the Fukushima reactor have caused frothing at the mind in Europe.

And to close on a more realistic note, here’s a link to an article that offers six reasons why Fukushima is not Chernobyl.

Thanks to Get A Job Son for the link to the Times article.
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Talking loud and sayin’ nothing in New York, Seoul, Nagata-cho…and Shinjuku too.

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Posted in China, Government, International relations, Mass media, Politics, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Nasake

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 25, 2011

THE WORD nasake in Japanese means sympathy, compassion, or fellow feeling. It appears in the proverb, Nasake ha hito no tame narazu. That literally would be “Compassion is not for the benefit of other people.” It’s actually used, however, to mean that if you help someone in trouble, he’ll be sure to do you a good turn when you need it.

The truth behind the proverb was borne out earlier this week when the Foreign Ministry revealed that 130 countries and territories had offered assistance to Japan in one form or another after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Bringing the total to 130 were the offers from Brunei and Haiti.

While the normal sentiments of charity and compassion surely inspired the offers, the generous Japanese ODA program and disaster assistance over the years were likely factors as well, demonstrated by Haiti’s message. When more than 220,000 people died in the Haitian earthquake last year, the Japanese contributed $US 70 million and sent a medical team and the Self-Defense Forces.

Here are some other examples.

Come On-a My Huis

Huis ten Bosch (House in the Forest) in The Hague is one of the official residences of the Dutch Royal Family. It’s also the name of a theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki, in which The Netherlands is recreated with full-size replicas of Dutch buildings. The 152-hectare resort—roughly the size of Monaco—was built with the approval of the Dutch royal house. In addition to the buildings, there are forests, gardens, amusements, shops, restaurants, five hotels, a marina, and a residential area.

Earlier this week Nagasaki Gov. Nakamura Hodo said that Huis ten Bosch and 37 ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) with hot springs would accommodate 1,700 people from 538 households left homeless by the earthquake. The prefectural government will be responsible for their clothing, food, and the transportation expenses from Tohoku. They’ll also help place people in schools and jobs.

The Tohokuans will be able to stay until the national government’s assistance program takes effect on 11 May. Anyone who wishes to remain after that (and Nagasaki is a lot warmer than the Tohoku region) will be offered public housing. Said Gov. Nakamura:

“People from around the country helped us after the disaster caused by the Mt. Unzen eruption. We’d like to return the favor.”

Cap’n Paul’s indirect contribution

The Maritime Agency reported that the Nisshin-maru, the mother ship of Japan’s whaling fleet, would sail today to transport supplies to the Tohoku region. The fleet had just returned from the South Pacific after ending their expedition early due to concerns over crew safety stemming from Sea Shepherd harassment. The agency said the idea to help came from the crew members themselves, many of whom are natives of Iwate and Miyagi. The Nisshin-maru’s cargo is primarily heating oil and food.

Firemen, dinghies, and farmland

A group of 57 firemen from Tokushima in Shikoku returned from a rescue and assistance operation in Miyagi earlier this week. Group leader Igawa Hiroyuki said one of their tasks was to transport elderly people from hospitals with power outages to other facilities with heat. They also worked with a group of firefighters from Nagano to search for missing people from a large agricultural facility destroyed by the tsunami. The metal frames of the greenhouses remained, but the people didn’t.

The group operated mostly in rural areas. Six days after the quake and tsunami, the farmland was still underwater and oil tank trucks were piled on the roads. The firemen used rubber dinghies to look for people, and they found several bodies on a foundation of a house that had been washed away. Said Mr. Igawa:

“I thought I had a general idea of what to expect from news reports, but I was speechless when I saw the reality for myself.”

He added that a site for identifying the deceased was set up in a public park, and there was always a long line of people waiting to get in. He hopes to use the experience gained from the mission to help Tokushima prepare for an earthquake.

Nasake nai

The word nasake also appears in the expression nasake nai, or cold, unfeeling, and cruel. Some people might think Kamei Shizuka’s comment about the Cabinet at a news conference on the 23rd qualifies as nasake nai, especially considering the People’s New Party he heads is still part of the ruling coalition.

He was asked about the government’s plan to amend the Cabinet Law to add three new members and put one in charge of disaster relief. He answered:

“Increasing the number of people in the Cabinet isn’t such a good idea. Add idiots to idiots and of course you’ll get idiots.”

He quickly added that he wasn’t referring to any of the current cabinet members—no, no, of course not—and said this about Prime Minister Kan Naoto:

“He should just take decisive steps to implement integrated reforms. Having too many ship captains is not a good thing.”

Particularly when the nominal captain behaves as if he’s a clone for Lieutenant Commander Phillip Francis Queeg.

The truth may be nasake nai, but it’s still the truth.

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The yakuza sense of civic duty

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 22, 2011

THE ROMANTIC legend of Robin Hood, as historians tell us, is almost certainly a lot of hooey. Far from being a hero, he was probably a drunken lout of a thug, if any one person could be identified as Robin Hood at all. Nigel Cawthorne, author of A Brief History of Robin Hood, is quoted in this overview as saying: “If Robin Hood existed, he was just a common criminal.”

The first recorded story of the proto-gangster Merry Men is called Robin Hood and the Monk and dates from 1450. In this tale, Little John kills a monk, Much the Miller murders a boy to prevent their identification, and Robin welshes on a bet with Little John. The love interest with Maid Marian was a later addition by the French–no surprise there–and even then, she was getting it on with Friar Tuck instead of Robin.

The yakuza, in contrast, are seen as the Mafia of Japan, but as Jake Edelstein writes, they’ve been living up to their code of ninkyo (任侠) since the Tohoku earthquake:

“(A)ccording to yakuza historical scholars (it) is a philosophy that values humanity, justice, and duty and that forbids one from watching others suffer or be troubled without doing anything about it. Believers of “the way” are expected to put their own lives on the line and sacrifice themselves to help the weak and the troubled. The yakuza often simplify it as “to help the weak and fight the strong”.”

Mr. Edelstein notes that the yakuza see themselves as chivalrous organizations, and chivalry is one of the dictionary definitions of ninkyo. Here’s how they’ve been helping:

“Hours after the first shock waves hit, two of the largest crime groups went into action, opening their offices to those stranded in Tokyo, and shipping food, water, and blankets to the devastated areas in two-ton trucks and whatever vehicles they could get moving.”

And:

“The Kanagawa Block of the Inagawa-kai, has sent 70 trucks to the Ibaraki and Fukushima areas to drop off supplies in areas with high radiations levels. They didn’t keep track of how many tons of supplies they moved. The Inagawa-kai as a whole has moved over 100 tons of supplies to the Tohoku region. They have been going into radiated areas without any protection or potassium iodide.”

This is well worth reading, because Mr. Edelstein knows what he is talking about. He also emphasizes that the yakuza are criminals and “tribal sociopaths”. Despite his extensive knowledge of the subject, however, some of his statements and omissions are curious. For example:

“It may seem puzzling that the yakuza, which are organized crime groups, deriving their principal revenue streams from illegal activities, such as collecting protection money, blackmail, extortion, and fraud would have any civic nature at all. However, in Japan since the post-war period they have always played a role in keeping the peace.”

Scratch “post-war period” and replace it with “Edo period”, which was from 1603-1868. The subject requires a lot of historical detail to explain, but the groups were in the odd position of being both outlaws and, at times, empowered to maintain public order. There’s also been an anti-authoritarian/guerilla band streak to their activities as well. They’ve participated on the side of the farmers in farmer rebellions throughout Japanese history. In his book Yakuza to Nihonjin (Yakuza and the Japanese), Ino Kenji devotes a lot of space to their involvement in the Chichibu Incident, a farmers’ revolt of two weeks’ duration in Saitama in 1884.

Their adherence to the code of ninkyo didn’t prevent them from hiring on as the muscle to crush labor, left-wing, and burakumin liberation movements, however.

The Japanese themselves often refer to the yakuza as parasites. Perhaps their readiness to provide disaster assistance is an expression of altruism and patriotism. But parasites also instinctively understand they can’t survive without a healthy host.

“To those not familiar with the yakuza, it may come as a shock to hear of their philanthropy, but this is not the first time that they have displayed a humanitarian impulse. In 1995, after the Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi was one of the most responsive forces on the ground, quickly getting supplies to the affected areas and distributing them to the local people.”

Again, this isn’t an exclusively post-war phenomenon. An interesting contrast, by the way, is Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s appointment of Diet member Tsujimoto Kiyomi to coordinate volunteer efforts in the Tohoku region. After the Kobe earthquake, she went to the area to distribute anti-government leaflets.

“There is an unwritten agreement amongst the police and the yakuza groups that is acceptable for them to perform volunteer activities during a crisis but not to seek publicity for it. Before the crisis the police were cracking down severely on the yakuza and any activity placing them in a heroic light might make the police look foolish.”

I don’t understand the last sentence, least of all why it would make the police look foolish. What I would understand is a sentence explaining that the widespread public knowledge of heroic, selfless activities might vitiate to an extent the efforts of police and the private sector to crack down on them. These efforts include the cooperation of some sub-national governments with the financial services industry in Kyushu of late to cut off bank lending to individuals or companies known to be associated with the yakuza.

“Naoya Kaneko, the deceased Sumiyoshi-kai boss who was a friend and a source, once said, “In times of crisis, you learn the measure of a man.” To understand the real meaning of that you have to understand how the generally male-dominated and sexist yakuza define “a man.” The core of that is giri, a word that can be translated many different ways but which I interpret to mean: reciprocity.”

That’s a good interpretation of giri, though it does omit the sense of obligation. But the people in Japan who value giri also expect women to honor it as well.

The Sumiyoshi-kai, incidentally, are considered a particularly nasty organization. Reports say that the country’s largest group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, prohibits drug trafficking as a matter of organizational policy, but the Sumiyoshi-kai deal in weapons and drugs with the North Koreans.

Speaking of the Sumiyoshi-kai:

“An executive in Sumiyoshi-kai, the second-largest crime group, even offered refuge to members of the foreign community—something unheard of in a still slightly xenophobic nation, especially amongst the right-wing yakuza.”

Oy, this again. That he would offer refuge might be unheard of, but the scale of destruction in the Tohoku region is also unheard of. These guys aren’t in the business of running shelters for the homeless. As for xenophobia, we’ve recently seen that an estimated 10-20% of gang members are Japanese-born Korean nationals, some of whom have become gang leaders. Perhaps the xenophobia doesn’t extend to other Asians. Also, xenophobia is not exclusively a right-wing phenomenon, as some of the policies of the British National Party demonstrate.

And “slightly xenophobic” compared to whom? I could make a case that the United States is still “slightly xenophobic”, as if the International Bureau of Weights and Measures had phobia-meters for that sort of thing. It’s worth a visit to the foreign-language pages of local government websites throughout this country to get an idea of the many services they provide to non-Japanese residents.

Indeed, some of the yakuza I’ve encountered have been just as curious about me and ready to strike up a conversation as any other Japanese. Some years ago, I was invited to a family get-together (of a family that were probably burakumin), and I was told in advance that the gangster husband of one of the relatives would be there. (They didn’t want me to freak out when I found out who he was. They assured me he was perfectly safe in this context.) He certainly wasn’t xenophobic; if anything, he was the opposite. After a couple of hours, it got to the point that I started wishing he would give me a break and talk to someone else.

That was also the case with the two or three yakuza members who happened to sit next to my table at a yakitori shop one night. To be sure, they had already worked up a full head of steam by the time they got there, but they were full of questions for me and had no hesitation answering mine. One of them even unbuttoned his sleeves and the front of his shirt to show me his tattoos without being asked. They were quite artistic.

The Japanese guys I was with were ambivalent about the experience. On the one hand, they didn’t mind the rounds of beer that were being bought for us because of my presence. (See how xenophobic they are?) On the other hand, one of them told me later that they were too frightened to go to the bathroom lest the hoods take offense at people leaving their presence without permission.

But here’s the most curious part of Mr. Edelstein’s article:

“The Yamaguchi-gumi member I spoke with said simply, “Please don’t say any more than we are doing our best to help. Right now, no one wants to be associated with us and we’d hate to have our donations rejected out of hand.””

They don’t want the Japanese to know what they’re doing, but they went out of their way to tell Mr. Edelstein, who no longer works as a reporter. Why would they do that? Because they understand that information published in English about Japan, especially information that isn’t widely discussed in public, will eventually slip into Japan through the back door. By that time, their donations will already have been distributed. In other words, an ex-journalist has gotten back into harness to perform once again the journalistic function of serving as a PR conduit for his sources. In exchange, he gets to file a colorful story with inside information.

Note that he considered the late boss of the Sumiyoshi-kai, a gang the Japanese think is the most vicious of the lot, to be his friend. Imagine what Americans would think if a Japanese reporter filed a story in Tokyo promoting the Chicago mob’s Robin Hood-like behavior after a disaster, while letting it slip into the article that Al Capone was his friend.

Mr. Edelstein did make sure to tell us that he thinks the gangsters are sexist, sociopathic thugs. But why should they care? They got the PR they wanted.

Giri takes many forms, it would seem.

Even if their recent benevolent activities were better known, however, it probably wouldn’t change the attitude of people like my wife. There’s a for-profit parking lot in a nearby commercial/restaurant district whose yakuza ownership is commonly known. She refuses to park there, and insists that we use the next closest lot instead. That usually adds another five minutes to the walk to our destination.

For some people, it’s a matter of principle.

*****
That’s your wife on the back of my horse, sheriff.

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Posted in History, Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: | 18 Comments »

Spring

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 21, 2011

MONDAY is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring and a public holiday in Japan. This year spring arrived 11 days after one of the five strongest earthquakes ever recorded and the resulting tsunami killed more than 20,000 people. That was followed by a seven-day period with 262 aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater.

It was fitting, then, that Monday’s news reports focused on renewal and recovery. Nissan Motors and Sony announced they will restart production this week, and gasoline production and deliveries in the Tohoku region began yesterday. Factories in Kyushu have been operating at full production for nearly a week, particularly in the energy (gasoline), food products, and pharmaceuticals sectors. Yamato has resumed express parcel delivery service in the three prefectures where the damage was the greatest. The website J-Cast reported that radiation readings in the capital region were declining, and were at normal levels at noon in Tokyo.

More important, the SMBEs that are the backbone of all national economies have been picking themselves up off the floor. The Kisennuma, Miyagi sake brewery producing the well-known Fushimi Otokoyama brand got started on the final batch of winter last week. The company was founded in 1912, and their office building, which dates from 1980, was destroyed in the tsunami. The brewery itself, however, was intact, and it took only two people to get it running again. One of them has been sleeping in his car or in the brewery itself.

No one knows when the essential lifeline services will be restored in Kisennuma, and 80% of the city’s liquor merchants, the brewery’s primary companies, have been damaged. That hasn’t deterred company President Sugawara Akihiko:

“This will protect local employment and industry. I want to brew good sake now more than ever.”

In Iwanuma in the same prefecture, the employees of Iwanuma Seiko, a precision machining company, began cleaning up the premises. They have no electricity, the floor is buried in mud, and the only light is that which shines through the plant windows. A truck with relief supplies finally reached them on the 17th.

Company President Chiba Kiyoshi was in Tokyo on a business trip when the earthquake and tsunami hit, but his wife responded quickly to the emergency and all 50 employees escaped harm.

The monetary losses they incurred are incalculable at this point; 60 of their machines were flooded and under water. That’s not how the 63-year-old Mr. Chiba views his situation, however:

“We can buy new machines as replacements. But our employees have stayed with us, and they can’t be bought with money. That’s the best thing…we must absolutely not be defeated.”

Gambare Shiogama was launched two years ago in the Shiogama district of Miyagi to use local traditional techniques and modern equipment for the production of salt from sea water. The disaster occurred just when they thought they had finally gotten the kinks ironed out. Production isn’t possible at moment, but the company finally confirmed on the night of the 17th that their employees were safe. Said plant manager Oikawa Fumio:

“We’ll start again no matter how long it takes. Our original purpose for making salt was to stimulate the local economy. Now more than ever is the time to give it everything we’ve got (gambare).”

Meanwhile, in another time-space continuum, an article appeared in the Western media today with the following headline: “Rich Japan’s Descent into Misery Stuns”.

I like this one better: “Bankrupt Media’s Descent into Irrelevance Stupefies”.

There are also contrasting views in the Japanese media. For example, the headline on the cover of the 1 April special edition of the weekly Shukan Post reads, “Let’s Put Our Faith in Japan.” Here’s what it looks like:

The special edition of the weekly Aera that hit newsstands a day or two ago had a different approach, however. The headline reads, “Here Comes the Radiation”. This is what it looks like:

Neither Japanese language ability nor familiarity with the magazines’ content is needed to know which was published by the media outlet with the left wing political philosophy.

It’s also worth noting that the yellow vertical headline at the right on the Shukan Post cover reads, “Radiation Contamination and False Rumors”.

The Japanese have no doubt about where they stand. Shinhodo 2001 conducted a quick poll in Tokyo and asked the question, “Can Japan recover?” The results were lopsided:

Yes: 94.6%
No: 2.6%
Don’t know: 2.8%

Aera’s publisher Asahi posted an apology on their website today for their choice of cover and headline.

The plums are in bloom here in Kyushu. In another week or two, it will be cherry blossom season.

Any day now, spring will be here for real, not just on the calendar.

UPDATE: Can’t let this post by James Delingpole go by without mention. It’s titled, Whatever Happened to the Nuclear Meltdown?

The best parts aren’t his, though. He quotes Lewis Page:

“As one who earns his living in the media these days, I can only apologise on behalf of my profession for the unbelievable levels of fear and misinformation purveyed this week. I have never been so ashamed to call myself a journalist.”

And:

The Fukushima reactors actually came through the quake with flying colours despite the fact that it was five times stronger than they had been built to withstand. Only with the following tsunami – again, bigger than the design allowed for – did problems develop, and these problems seem likely to end in insignificant consequences….Other Japanese nuclear powerplants in the quake-stricken area, in fact, are sheltering homeless refugees in their buildings – which are some of the few in the region left standing at all, let alone with heating, water and other amenities.

He also quotes from a letter to another website by German astronomer and physicist, Dr Peter Heller:

“Stopping nuclear energy is nothing less than rejecting the legacy of Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr and all others. It is tantamount to scrapping it, labelling it as dangerous – all in a fit of ignorance. And just as creationists attempt to ban the theory of evolution from the school books, it almost seems as if every factual and neutral explanation in Germany is now in the process of being deleted.

“The media suggests a nuclear catastrophe, a mega-meltdown, and that the apocalypse has already begun. It is almost as if the 10,000 deaths in Japan were actually victims of nuclear energy, and not the earthquake or the tsunami. Here again one has to remind us that Fukushima was first hit by an unimaginable 9.0 earthquake and then by a massive 10-meter wave of water just an hour later. As a result, the facility no longer found itself in a highly technological area, but surrounded by a desert of rubble. All around the power plant the infrastructure, residential areas, traffic routes, energy and communication networks are simply no longer there. They were wiped out. Yet, after an entire week, the apocalypse still has not come to pass. Only relatively small amounts of radioactive materials have leaked out and have had only a local impact. If one considers the pure facts exclusively, i.e. only the things we really know, then it exposes the unfounded interpretations of scientific illiterates in the media.”

But we knew that already, didn’t we?

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Posted in Mass media, Popular culture, Social trends | Tagged: , | 9 Comments »

A day in the life of Japan

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 20, 2011

SUNDAY MORNING at 10 o’clock, a Buddhist memorial service was conducted for my father-in-law, who died last year, and my sister-in-law, who died 24 years ago. It was held at a temple near my wife’s family home, where my brother-in-law and his family now live.

It ended about an hour later, and then we had lunch in a nearby banquet hall. The hall sent a bus large enough for 25-30 passengers to the family home, and we went in a group. The priest came too. There was plenty of good food and drink served by amiable waitresses in kimono who made sure that no one had to ask for anything.

Everyone enjoyed themselves. Some people hadn’t seen each other since the series of services for my father-in-law. There was a nice present for each family that came. This is part of what people mean when they talk about ancestor worship in Japan.

It was raining hard when it was time to go home, so the employees of the hall opened umbrellas and escorted the party one by one to the bus. They would have seen us to the door regardless of the weather.

The family home is in Morodomi, on the Chikugo River, an old district said to have been the point of arrival in Japan for the Chinese explorer Xu Fu (徐福, or Jofuku in Japanese). The drive took about five minutes, but it required navigating some narrow streets with tight turns. The town was laid out long before modern automobile traffic had to be taken into consideration.

The demeanor of the bus driver, a man in his mid-30s, was what the Japanese might call heiki—calm, and self-possessed. Both careful and confident, he maintained a roughly constant rate of speed. There wasn’t much room for error to turn a bus that large on roads that small, but he handled it with expertise. At no time did he come to a full stop.

My wife’s family was in the business of producing nori, the dark green paper-like wafers made of seaweed used to wrap rolled sushi. There’s a large shed on the property housing all the machinery, and just enough space to park a few cars and mini-trucks. The area between the house and the shed is covered and can be used as a carport. Without hesitation, the driver pulled straight into it so his passengers wouldn’t have to disembark in the rain.

People here notice these things. Several passengers remarked on the driver’s thoughtfulness, loud enough for him to hear. Everyone thanked him as they got off. He just nodded; he thought it was part of his job. Then again, they would have thanked him if the weather had been clear and he parked out in the open.

The layout of the parking area is such that he couldn’t turn the bus around. He had to back out for a distance of about 50 yards, half of which is along a path with little room on either side. Then he had to edge out onto the adjoining street while checking for traffic from the far end of the bus. The large mirrors placed at small intersections giving a view of oncoming traffic from both left and right made it easier. No one said a word, but two or three people opened their umbrellas and walked alongside to help. The driver didn’t need it. He left as smoothly as he came.

The most remarkable part of this episode is that in Japan, none of it is remarkable at all. This is what happens in everyday life.

Quite a few people on the web have been offering theories to explain the reasons that looting and thievery in the Tohoku area after the earthquake/tsunami have occurred much less frequently than they would expect it to occur in other places. They’ve cited IQ, population genetics, geography, shared history, benign ethno-nationalism, and social stability with a well-defined hierarchy.

I don’t need the theories. I saw the reason–again–with my own eyes today.

*****
David Warren–excellent as always, this time in a column titled Fukushima:

“The actual destruction, of lives and property, that could be accomplished by an earthquake that cracks a major hydro dam is on a vastly greater scale. There are a string of those, along the tectonic front line of northern India, harvesting the meltwaters of the Himalayas. There is the Three Gorges Dam in China, building its incredibly heavy reservoir near six seismic fault lines, with the whole valley of the Yangtse River downstream from it. When environmentalists say nuclear energy is unsafe, the question must be, “Unsafe compared to what?” Sane policy discussion begins in the knowledge that there is no such thing as safe, or entirely “clean” power…Ideologues (environmentalist and other) prey on human credulity by comparing real things, not with alternative real things, but with absolute conditions in some paradise of their imagination.”

*****
Que te pasa a ti…

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Posted in Popular culture, Traditions | Tagged: | 22 Comments »

Life its own self

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 18, 2011

LIFE its own self continues….

Yesterday’s post quoted Katie Benner of Fortune speculating about Japanese government debt. She wrote, “If those insurers don’t have to make massive payments, they probably won’t have to liquidate assets like JGBs.”

They will have to make massive payments, but they might not have to liquidate assets to do it. At a press conference on the 17th, Suzuki Hisahito, the chairman of the General Insurance Association of Japan, said he expects the payouts for earthquake insurance in the Tohoku quake to exceed the previous record high of JPY 78.3 billion (just under $US one billion) paid after the Kobe earthquake. He offered a rough estimate of several hundred billion yen.

Mr. Suzuki explained the insurers are liable for everything up to an amount of JPY 115 billion. The government and the private sector insurers will split the liability equally for benefits exceeding that amount. Further, the government will be liable for 95% of the amount if the combined payout of the government and the private sector exceeds JPY 1.9250 billion.

One factor contributing to a much higher payment, apart from the scale of the disaster, is that public awareness of earthquake insurance rose after the Kobe quake. Mr. Suzuki thinks the payments won’t have a serious impact on the insurers’ business. The government and the insurers had aggregate reserves of JPY 2.919 trillion as of the end of 2009, JPY 1 trillion of which is the private sector portion. The chairman thinks those reserves will be cover the claims.

The insurance companies might have to liquidate some assets, but that would come after the payout to restore the reserves.

New Komeito

New Komeito is a political party aligned with Soka Gakkai, a group of lay Nichiren Buddhists, though their funding is separate. They don’t care for suggestions that the party is the group’s political arm, but that’s what most people in Japan think. Unlike Western parties with a religious orientation, they favor social welfare policies with aspects similar to those supported by social democrats. (The part of their Wikipedia entry that suggests otherwise is incorrect.)

I hold no truck for mixing politics and religion, but since becoming party chair in September 2009, Yamaguchi Natsuo has often spoken with uncommon good sense. He’s done it again: Now he’s proposing that all Diet members cut their salary by one-third for a year and allocate the funds to rebuilding the country.

They won’t starve

Meals on wheels

During a news conference on the 16th, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yuko asked that people outside the Tohoku region not get carried away with panic buying and hoarding. He repeated the request later and said the government would consider coercive measures to prevent it.

The accompanying photo was taken on the afternoon of the 16th as a deliveryman wheeled in one of two loads of 29 cases of instant meals to the DPJ’s private chambers in the Diet building. Each case carries 12 packaged meals.

One newspaper deliberately ripped off the prime minister’s comment to Tokyo Electric officials and asked, what in the world is going on here? A DPJ employee on the site explained, “It’s not hoarding. One supporter of a party executive said he wanted us to use them and sent them over. We’re thinking of some way to send the food to the stricken area.”

The next sentence in the newspaper report was a reminder of how few campaign promises the DPJ has kept.

As for the food itself, reporters spied two types of yakisoba with sauce. The DPJ doesn’t seem to know the expression about sauce for the goose being sauce for the gander.

Labor intensive

The United States deployed 280,000 soldiers to invade Iraq, a total accounting for 11% of their armed forces. The maximum American military deployment during the occupation was 171,000 people in 2007, or 6.9%.

In comparison, about 100,000 of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are involved in the relief effort, or 42% of the country’s military manpower. Adding the support personnel brings the total to 180,000, or 75% of the overall strength.

Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg Prime Minister Kan Naoto made the decision on troop deployment. First he settled on 20,000 people on the 12th, but it grew to 50,000 later in the day. By the evening of the 13th, the total had swelled to 100,000. Ministry of Defense sources say they were never consulted.

Better things to do?

The media finds it curious that The Man Who Would Be Boss, Ozawa Ichiro, has been keeping a low profile this week. Mr. Ozawa, currently suspended from the DPJ he once led for his recent indictment over a political funding scandal, represents a lower house district from Iwate, one of the three prefectures hardest hit by the earthquake. His current district is Iwate #4, located inland away from the area where the tsunami hit. When districts were larger before the Diet reorganization, however, he represented two cities with 373 confirmed deaths and more than 1,000 missing as of the morning of the 16th.

He hasn’t been to the district since the earthquake—he certainly has the money to rent a helicopter—nor has he said anything in public. The last update to his website was on the 11th, the day of the earthquake, inviting people to a fund-raising party in April. Some are wondering if he’s doing what he does best—political scheming. He held a meeting of loyal MPs on the 10th, the day before the quake, and told them to get ready for an election because the lower house would be dissolved soon.

An Ozawa aide objected that of course his boss is concerned, but he’d only get in the way if he visited the area. He plans to visit after the situation has stabilized.

If the aide had anything to say about the lack of a website update, it wasn’t reported.

Update: He posted a blog entry on the 18th, and it wasn’t very constructive. Mr. Ozawa wrote, “This crisis situation is as serious as the postwar period of devastation.”

It’s serious, but it’s nowhere near that bad. The devastation now is primarily in three prefectures. Then it was spread throughout the country. That sounds suspiciously like a man who wants to turn a natural disaster into political capital.

He’s back

The people upset with the DPJ’s disaster response (and there are many) have one consolation—at least Sengoku Yoshito is no longer the chief cabinet secretary. The person in that job has the primary responsibility for providing information to the public. Let’s count our blessings: detested for his insulting demeanor when dealing with opposition politicians and the media, detested for his attempt to shirk responsibility for the government’s mishandling of the Senkakus incident, detested for copping an attitude from the sokaiya gangsters he once defended…so detested Mr. Kan had to can him when the upper house censured him after only six months in office. Imagine what the news conferences over the past week would have been like if he were conducting them.

He was also detested for behaving as the de facto prime minister behind the scenes because he thought Kan Naoto wasn’t up to the job. Well, we can cut him some slack on that one.

But he’s back! One of Mr. Kan’s aides resigned, and he was replaced by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujii Hirohisa. It was thought the 78-year-old ex-Finance Ministry bureaucrat and finance minister with a rumored taste for the daytime grape couldn’t physically cope with the work involved in coordinating disaster relief, so Mr. Sengoku assumed his duties.

By all accounts he’s an intelligent and capable man apart from his repellent personality and political behavior, so he’ll probably be effective in providing some much-needed organizational skills to his disorganized party mates. His new job won’t require much direct contact with the public, media, or opposition politicians, which is the way they’ll like it. Now let’s hope he learned his lesson from hiding the Coast Guard video showing the collision with the Chinese fishing vessel. Unfortunately, people who throw their intelligence around the way bullies throw their weight around are not often susceptible to re-education.

It surpasseth understanding

Here’s the headline and first paragraph of a news article yesterday:

Away from north, much of Japan lives in eerie normalcy

OSAKA / Television stations here on Thursday were broadcasting golf tournaments and game shows, supermarket shelves were packed with plentiful products and fancy foods and department stores buzzed with content customers carrying bags of recently purchased goods. This port city in the heart of Japan’s second largest metropolitan area of Kansai 400 kilometers southwest of Tokyo seems little affected, perhaps even willfully oblivious to what’s going on in the northeast of the country, where the drama at the critically damaged Fukushima nuclear power continues to unfold.

Is it so difficult to understand that it isn’t “eerie” to behave normally when everything about you is normal? Normality includes television returning to its regular schedule, supermarkets in a prosperous country being “packed with plentiful products”, and people going shopping. Does the author expect everyone to curl up in a corner and moan?

The suggestion that people are “willfully oblivious”—on no basis other than a hyperactive imagination–has no business in a news story. As for using the word “drama” to describe a life-or-death situation, the English-language media have been doing that for nearly 40 years. By now it’s futile to expect them to learn the distinction between the stage and life its own self.

This attitude would be unremarkable for most news media outlets–after all, to them 380,000 people in shelters is “nearly half a million”. But it’s incomprehensible for this one—the newspaper publishing the article was the Jerusalem Post.

If any people should understand the importance of going about the business of life its own self in the face of adversity, it should be the Israelis. Yet even some of them are mystified by the refusal to indulge the emotions. It’s as if the journos half expect some Japanese to walk up to them and say, “Greetings, Earthling, we are visitors from a far-off solar system. Let’s exchange opinions about popular foods.”

I listened to NHK on the car radio while attending to an errand this afternoon. The program they regularly broadcast at that time on weekdays encourages people to send e-mails or faxes to express their opinions on current events, which are read by the announcers. (I’ve never heard a call-in show in Japan.)

This week, people have been offering each other encouragement. Today, one woman from Gunma sent this message: I don’t have time to cry. I’ll put that emotion off for some other time. It’s important now to live, and to keep a smile on my face.

Let that be a lesson for us all.

******
A tribute to the man who wrote the song:

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Posted in Military affairs, Politics, Popular culture | Tagged: , , , , | 14 Comments »

Constants

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 17, 2011

HERE’S an excerpt of an eyewitness account of the tsunami that struck the Sanriku area of Japan:

“The angry roar of the waves gradually intensified with a sound that resembled branches snapping off a tree. People shouted warnings about the huge tsunami as it struck the shore, but even as they spoke, the six-meter wave was rushing onto land like a galloping horse.”

It was filed in June 1896 by a special correspondent for the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun, which became the Mainichi Shimbun in 1943. Tsunami are one of life’s constants for Japan in general and the Sanriku area in particular. Gregory Clancey, the author of Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868-1930, explains in an article in The Telegraph:

“The people of Sanriku are fated to live with seismic waves like the people of Bangladesh with cyclonic storms and the people of the American Midwest with tornados. It’s just that the region’s tsunamis are on much longer cycles, and, when they do come, give far less warning and often no ready means of escape…. The spectacle of burning debris from wooden houses carried over Japanese rice fields by fast-moving sheets of water had until last week never been captured on camera. Yet such phenomena were illustrated more than a century ago by Kokunimasu Utagawa (1874-1944) and other artists seeking to bring the sublime devastation of a Sanriku tsunami to urban Japanese audiences.”

Leave it to someone with a cubicle in the Ivory Tower to describe devastation as “sublime”; Webster’s defines that word as something inspiring awe through grandeur or beauty. The unconscious exposure of self-absorption is just as much a constant among academics as it is among journalists. The only differences are that the former use more complex sentences and often conduct actual research.

Prof. Clancey does describe briefly how technology has sometimes mitigated the effects of the tsunami in the Sanriku area. That’s a point worth remembering in light of newspaper reports in the Western media, such as the one I mentioned yesterday claiming that the Japanese deluded themselves into thinking that technology could beat nature. (The same bottom feeder was responsible for another stinker in The Independent today.)

Some people regret that modern affluence has robbed us of our connection to the realities of life. The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley quickly dismisses that idea using a copy of the newspaper clipping that he borrowed from another site, and which I swiped from him. The title of his post is, Wealth and Technology Make the Death Toll Smaller, Not Larger.

One academic always worth reading, Victor Davis Hanson (perhaps because he was a farmer), thinks the real problem is complexity in a post called Thoughts on Japan. One aspect is:

“…the inability to transmit knowledge and the dire wages of specialization. The original architects of such systems are now mostly dead, and we, their replacements, often lack their education and respect for civilization’s protocols. The result is that millions of Americans are simply enjoying a system built for them by others which they are not quite able to use, repair, expand — or understand…. Today’s popular culture knows Facebook well, but does one in a thousand know that a bee is necessary for an almond to set, or what a piston and cylinder are, or the difference between a southern and northern storm? I once asked my students to explain the winter solstice, not just the astronomy of it, but what such a date portended in terms of work, culture, and mindset. It was in the 1990s, and my favorite answer was, “She was a rap singer, Sister Solstice that mouthed off too much.”

He is unlikely to use the word sublime to describe devastation:

“There is no more ordered, successful and humane urban society than found in Japan. Like most Americans, these last few days I have been moved as never before by the courage and calm of the Japanese people amid such horrific conditions, as one of the most sophisticated and complex urbanized cultures on the planet in a split second is nearly paralyzed. I confess I do not quite fathom the constant American news blitzes about all sorts of China Syndrome scenarios. Radiation pollution is a serious worry, but right now no one has died from exposure and perhaps 10,000 have perished from the tsunami and earthquake. It seems to me the greater worry right now is not yet a meltdown, but the vast dangers resulting from disruptions in food, water, power, and sewage. Odder still, it was almost crass to watch American TV heads lead in with shrill, hyped-up mini-dramas about possible radiation clouds descending here on the West Coast, even as their backdrop screens showed biblical disasters of earthquake, flood and human wreckage.”

*****
Another constant resulting from a natural disaster is confusion; no one can be sure of actual conditions. For example, many in Japan were relieved to read that the Self-Defense Forces were given responsibility on Monday for distributing food and supplies. That means the job is in the hands of highly trained people who understand logistics and how to coordinate the actions of a large group. They will also be undeterred by any consideration other than that of accomplishing their mission.

Actor Tatsumi Takuro, however, is convinced that conditions in Tohoku are much worse than the broadcast media is presenting. (The Japanese news media does not indulge in hyped-up mini-dramas about radiation clouds adorned with pictures of biblical disasters.) Reader Ken sent a link to a Japanese language blog post in which the actor relays part of a conversation over satellite telephone with a friend in the north. Said the friend:

“Tell as many people as you can about the situation. There are dead bodies all over the place. I’m in a shelter, but there’s no food, and the children are starving.”

Based on his experience working in television, Mr. Tatsumi says that news crews go only to the safest areas and are prevented by the broadcast code from showing the worst images. Those images will be seen, he predicts, when the magazines publish special issues on the earthquake and run the gruesome photos.

Is his friend unnerved by the proximity of such death and destruction, or is the situation as dire as he describes? That’s another constant: We’ll have to wait and see.

*****
There’s also confusion about the effect of the earthquake/tsunami on the national and international economy, especially considering Japan’s sovereign debt. Katie Benner in Fortune thinks people shouldn’t bank on a debt crisis yet:

“(T)here are two reasons that the earthquake may not trigger a sharp rise in (bond) yields. First, the quake is unlikely to force insurance companies to make massive payments for earthquake damage, since only about 18.5% of Japanese households have earthquake insurance, according to reports. If those insurers don’t have to make massive payments, they probably won’t have to liquidate assets like JGBs.

“In fact, Japanese bonds have remained stable and the yen has even strengthened since the disaster. Economists have attributed this phenomenon to speculation that Japanese institutions could sell US Treasuries to raise money, and that domestic companies might repatriate money to pay for earthquake damages. Japan, the largest buyer of US debt after China, could also momentarily stop buying Treasuries while it figures out how much it needs to spend on rescue and clean up efforts.

“Second, Japan holds more than 95% of its own debt, according to Bank of Japan data. Even if foreign investors began to unload their bonds, they account for a small part of the overall market.

“So while the specter of a debt crisis hangs over Japan as much as it ever has, it’s unlikely to occur in the immediate wake of the earthquake. The day of reckoning for Japan’s debt problem will come when foreign markets determine the interest rates on JGBs.”

Her article suggests that the Americans are the ones who should have more pressing concerns about the disaster’s effect on sovereign debt. Who’ll offset the shortfall in the purchase of Treasuries if the Japanese use the money for themselves?

That’s one of the reasons a financial advice peddler named Chris Martensen has turned into a fountain of hysteria warning of a global meltdown, as you can see here in a link sent in by both readers Marellus and 21st Century Schizoid Man. His advice for Americans on the West Coast is to prepare for a “fallout event”, while he urges the rest of us to top off our fuel tanks, buy extra food at the grocery store, have long-term storage food put aside, and get extra medicine. He also advises us to stock up on chocolate and other luxury items that will be at a “mental premium”. This will help, he says, those grasshopper friends and relatives who didn’t prepare for disaster. What he doesn’t say, but probably thinks, is that the Kit-Kats can be used as a financial instrument for later sale at mental premium prices.

Also worth noting is his disclaimer that, “I cannot fully support 100% of my concerns with hard data and evidence”, his unawareness that the region affected by the earthquake is not a major manufacturing center, and his need to identify himself on the masthead as a Ph.D.

*****
The confusion about the threats of nuclear disaster is natural because the fears of the harmful effects are exacerbated by the cyber-equivalent of street-corner Bible thumpers and bearded sandwich-board doomsters. Some people are thumping their chests instead of Bibles and bristling with exclamation points to declare, I told you so! The nuclear power industry is already funding a tsunami of pro-nuke propaganda on the web!

Here’s another constant in the formulas of modern discussion:

People who express opinions I agree with = Truth, justice, and the American way
People who express opinions I disagree with = Paid propaganda by vested interests

A contrast with that view is this guest blog post by David Ropeik at The Scientific American, sent in by reader AK. It’s titled, Beware the Fear of Nuclear Fear. In the last post, I included a link to another site that explained the extensive research on Chernobyl reveals that disaster wasn’t as bad as most people think. Mr. Ropeik uses the extensive research done on the atomic bombing victims for the same objective:

“(T)he Japanese themselves have taught us, in the most awful way imaginable, what the actual health danger of radiation like this might be, and we need to keep the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind as we assess how catastrophic events like this actually are.

“We know from studying the survivors of those bombings, who were bathed in horrific doses of high level radiation – far worse than anything that could come from the Daiichi plant (or that came out of Chernobyl) – that ionizing radiation from nuclear energy is a carcinogen, but a relatively weak one…

“They have also been extensively studied, and 66 years later, by comparing them to cancer rates among Japanese not exposed to radiation, public health researchers estimate that only about 500 of the hibakusha died prematurely from cancer due to radiation exposure. Radiation-induced cancer killed roughly half of one percent of the exposed population. (This research is done by the Radiation Effects Research Institute, a Japanese organization supported by international public health agencies).”

And:

“(W)hat about environmental damage? A huge area around Chernobyl is off limits to humans for hundreds of years. But that’s to limit human exposure to ionizing radiation which, while dangerous, is less so than many of us presume. With people removed, wildlife in those areas is thriving.”

That last sentence is no exaggeration, either, as you can see from this article, which resembles an account of a safari in search of wild game.

Some people just don’t want to hear it, however. The last post also discussed the broken window fallacy, in which people claim disasters are ultimately good for the economy. This time, it’s some guy at the unsurprising source of the Huffington Post:

“But if one can look past the devastation, there is a silver lining. The need to rebuild a large swath of Japan will create huge opportunities for domestic economic growth, particularly in energy-efficient technologies, while also stimulating global demand and hastening the integration of East Asia.”

Tom G. Palmer points out once more that disasters do not create wealth. Perhaps this will penetrate some of those with the ears to hear. Keynes didn’t get much right, but one thing he nailed was the importance of ruthless truth-telling.

As for the integration of East Asia, readers of this site are among those who know that East Asia is already integrating economically quite well on its own. A natural disaster has nothing to contribute to the process.

As for political integration, no one takes that seriously except Hatoyama Yukio; the vapor-based community at think tanks, universities, and editorial offices; and the bureaucrats and other political time-servers in the West. Few people even in Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party thought it was an achievable or worthwhile goal. They humored the man because he bought and paid for the party and happened to be in position to become prime minister when it took control of the government after the August 2009 election. Since his departure last May, I haven’t seen it mentioned at all.

******
Speaking of politics, the first sprouts of political dissension are emerging. DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya says the party will be willing to shift all the funds earmarked to offset the elimination of expressway tolls to disaster relief, as well as some of the government’s child support stipend. The opposition Liberal-Democratic Party and New Komeito, however, insist that all the latter funds be allocated for rebuilding as well. (New Komeito’s position is interesting, because a child-support stipend was their idea to begin with.)

The DPJ unwillingness to give up the child support payments is understandable because it would roll back their primary legislative achievement. Even they probably realize it won’t have an effect on the birth rate despite their claims; their primary interest was strengthening the social welfare state. They also know that in the next Diet election many of them will be swept away by another tsunami of historical proportions, so they’re anxious to preserve whatever form of it they can.

That isn’t to say the LDP and New Komeito are behaving responsibly. More than 1,000 local elections are scheduled throughout the country next month, and most people want to postpone them for a few months. Municipal and prefectural governments have more serious matters to deal with at present than an election. The two opposition parties want to hold the elections as scheduled, however, because everyone knew before the earthquake that the DPJ would be flayed. (Quick update: The government has settled on a policy of allowing those local governments that choose to delay the elections the option of postponing them for up to six months. Some are criticizing the decision; they think all elections should be delayed for the same amount of time.)

And speaking of the DPJ getting flayed in local elections, the people of Nagoya held a City Council election on Sunday after the council was recalled by voters in February. They somehow managed to drag themselves to polling places despite the paralysis, desperation, and fear gripping the country, as described by some in the Western media.

As we saw at the time, that recall was the most visible expression to date of the ongoing revolt of the Japanese voter. There are 75 seats in the council, and Mayor Kawamura Takashi’s tax-cutting and government downsizing party took 28 of them. They are now the leading party in the chamber, but fell short of their target of an overall majority. The DPJ had been the leading party, but their representation was slashed from 27 to 11. The LDP and New Komeito have even fewer seats.

******
As always, there are people of good sense capable of distinguishing between the important and the froth. One of them is Tokyo Metro District Vice-Governor Inose Naoki, who had a long career as a non-fiction writer before becoming involved with government. Mr. Inose distributes an e-mail magazine once a week. Here’s what he writes in the latest issue:

“Just before he died, (novelist) Mishima Yukio argued that post-war democracy (in Japan) gave birth to hypocrisy. In the 7 July 1970 edition of Sankei, he wrote, ‘A certain inorganic, empty, neutral-colored, affluent, and shrewd economic power will likely remain in one corner of the Far East.’

“But the focus on the quotidian that Mishima abhorred ended at 2:46 p.m. on 11 March. Without fear of expressing myself poorly, I will say this country has experienced a discontinuance of the quotidian for the first time since the Second World War. We must rebuild our country once again.

“But there is a great difference between today and the Second World War. In those days, the dissemination of information was in the form of a pyramid. The people had no choice other than to swallow whole the announcements of Imperial Headquarters. It’s different today. We can obtain information from various networks, due to the creation of Twitter and Facebook. The people can be linked with each other horizontally through an information network that didn’t exist 66 years ago.”

*****
Horie Takafumi went from youthful entrepreneur and media sensation to jailbird. Since returning to shaba, a Buddhist term for the everyday world that incarcerated gangsters appropriated as slang for the streets outside, he’s started to appear on television again and has a blog. Reader 21st Century Schizoid Man sent in a link to his latest Japanese-language entry. Here it is in English.

—–
The effects of the Tohoku Earthquake have caused serious conditions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, and it isn’t possible to know what will happen in the future. But as one can understand from Ikeda Nobuo’s (Japanese language) blog, even in the worst case, if people are evacuated from the area near the plant, it is unlikely there will be many fatalities or people with serious health problems (That of course does not apply if people are unable to be evacuated. The people struggling to minimize the impact of the nuclear accident could very well be exposed to large amounts of radiation and suffer serious health problems.)

In other words, it would be as if they contracted an incurable illness. But if all of Japan can be compared to a single human being, it isn’t an illness that will cause the person’s death. People will be unable to live in the area for a while, and we will have to live with that illness for the rest of our lives. The most pressing concern is whether Tokyo, the heart of Japan, and the economy, the country’s circulatory system, will cease to function. If that were to happen, it is possible that Japan would die.

We should gather information ourselves and make the appropriate judgments without being led astray by strange psychological theories or urban legends. At the minimum, there is absolutely no need to evacuate Tokyo at the present. What we should do instead is go to work as we normally would, and consume as we normally would. Nothing can be done when one’s district is affected by the rolling blackouts, but other than that, there’s no need to curl up and cower, and we certainly shouldn’t buy things out of panic. There’s also no need for people who live in areas other than those supplied by Tohoku Electric or Tokyo Electric to conserve electricity. The Kanto and Kansai areas use different frequencies, so Chubu Electric and the other power companies to the west can send a maximum of only about 1.07 million kW. The most that Hokkaido Electric can accommodate is 600,000 kW. The measures to do so have already been taken.

To say that we will have to suspend events or modify our behavior in similar ways because it would look bad or be unseemly for the people in the stricken areas is the height of stupidity. The likely result of that would be to bring the economy to a standstill and bankrupt small and medium-sized companies. It would cause something like necrosis of the hands and feet if the blood stopped circulating in the peripheral circulatory system.

The best thing for people who aren’t in the affected areas to do is to go about their lives as they always do and contribute what money they can.

(end translation)

Finally, I sent an e-mail asking after Prof. Shimojo Masao, who sometimes contributes articles for the site (see the tags at left). He says that everything’s OK in Tokyo for now, but the more important question is how to link the disaster to the reconstruction of a new Japan.

Keep in mind what Matsuoka Yuki wrote: We’ll rebuild without making a sound—so swiftly the world will be astonished.

Afterwords:

There was another 5+ Richter scale earthquake in the northern part of the country a few minutes ago. A friend in England e-mailed on Monday worried because of news about another big quake in Tokyo. He didn’t know that as of that day, there already had been more than 200 5+ earthquakes in Tokyo and points north since Friday. I haven’t heard the count as of today.

Yesterday I saw a report that scientists think the force exerted by the tsunami in the Sanriku region was roughly 50 tons per square meter.

One of Japan’s handicaps is that they won’t be able to look for as much assistance from the rest of the world as some people get, or they’ve given themselves. They’ve got too much money, and they haven’t accepted all the offers of help. Oh yes, and aid workers often get in the way. We’ve known that last one for a while, but isn’t the timing of the application of that knowledge interesting?

I’m putting a post together now on the dark side of the post-disaster situation, and no one will be shocked to know that Kan Naoto is one of the characters.

*****

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Self-references and side glances

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The greatest cause for optimism about Japan is that it’s full of Japanese.
- Dennis Mangan

THE AMERICANS say that the sport of baseball doesn’t develop character, it reveals it. After 11 March, we now know that natural disasters do the same. They also tend to bring out the self-referential in people.

Reader TonyGoalder (AKA Tony) sends in a BBC article about the Chinese response to the earthquake in New Zealand in February. Of the 166 people who were killed, 60 were foreign students (including some Japanese). The article explains:

“The families of visitors killed in New Zealand are eligible for a one-off funeral grant of up to NZ$4,500 (£2,071;$3,327) and a one-off survival grant of $4,700 (£2,163;$3,473) for a spouse and $2,351 (£1,082; $1,737) per child or dependent.”

That’s a generous policy; most countries wouldn’t consider themselves liable at all. But that’s still not enough for China. Because seven Chinese students also died:

“Both the Chinese ambassador Xu Jianguo and embassy officials were reported by Radio New Zealand to have asked for higher compensation payments because the one-child policy made China unique.

“”You can expect how lonely, how desperate they are, not only losing loved ones, but losing almost entirely their source of economic assistance after retirement,” embassy official Cheng Lee said.

“Higher payments would be “a demonstration of the importance the New Zealand government attaches to the Chinese international” students, he added.”

Opposition Labor Party leader Phil Goff politely disagreed:

“”I’m sorry, you can’t base your policy on that, there may be many students here that are only children in their families whether they be Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Filipino,” Mr Goff said.”

Mr. Goff must live on a remote island somewhere. Doesn’t he realize that the Chinese are the flower in the center of the world? The Japanese know I’m not exaggerating. The combination of “center” and “flower” are exactly the characters used to write the adjectival form of “Chinese”, which has been borrowed for use in Japanese in the phrase chuka ryori, or Chinese cuisine.

At least the New Zealanders seem to have been diplomatic enough to refrain from telling the Chinese diplomat that they aren’t responsible for the Chinese one-child policy.

*****
Less loathsome, but just as self-involved, is the decision American columnist Mark Steyn made about his website content this week. Mr. Steyn often revisits his past columns, a practice that anyone who writes for an audience on the Internet will understand. But here’s the lede for his latest bit of recycling:

“In Japan, the tsunami has wreaked death and devastation, and what looks (so far) like a nuclear near-miss. What comes next is the politics.”

Not quite yet in Japan. There’s still some tidying up to do. Mr. Steyn is always worth reading, but he writes little about this country and probably knows even less. What was he was getting at? Read the next sentence:

“Here’s what I had to say in the Telegraph after the last front-page tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean just after Christmas 2004:”

Here’s part of what he had to say:

“But the waters recede and the familiar contours of the political landscape re-emerge – in this case, the need to fit everything to the Great Universal Theory of the age, that whatever happens, the real issue is the rottenness of America.”

For Americans, apparently, everything provides a reason to talk about themselves, including the long-dreaded arrival of The Big One on the other side of the world. He does make some excellent points in the article, but that was more than six years ago. It would have been more seemly had he run one of his Song of the Week columns instead.

*****
The events of the past five days have made some Japanese self-referential too. Reader 21st Century Schizoid Man (a Japanese guy who isn’t schizoid at all) sent in a blog post in Japanese by Matsuoka Yuki. Mr. Matsuoka is the president of a company offering web services and English language instruction. Here it is in English:

We’ll rebuild without a sound

I’m often asked where I’m from when I travel. In the past, I would hesitate to answer clearly that I’m Japanese, because it would sharply increase the possibility that I’d be gouged or deceived by local merchants.

But I’ve visited more than 30 countries and had the opportunity to work with the people of many of them. As a result, I’ve come to think that the Japanese might be the most exceptional ethnic group in the world. It’s not due to patriotism, but rather to a simple comparison. That’s why I always clearly answer that I’m Japanese when I’m asked that question now.

Many people have died in the Tohoku earthquake, but at the same time many people throughout the world have praised the Japanese for their behavior. One reason cited for that behavior is that we always envision the worst-case scenario, and that we are educated to do so. We always envision what can happen in an earthquake, a tsunami, or a fire, and are not negligent in our preparations. There aren’t many countries that prepare for disasters by building 10-meter-high dykes.

The same can be applied to work. When working with people from other countries, I’ve noticed that if I ask them to do something requiring an effort of 10, the most I’ll get is 5 or 6. They won’t perform unless I give them detailed instructions. Many don’t even try to meet deadlines.

Japanese people are capable of performing at a level of 10 even if they are given instructions on the level of 1. They always have the worst-case scenario in mind, and are not negligent in giving their best effort to deal with that scenario. They conduct their work as objectively as possible, and the range of their behavior does not come close to encompassing egocentrism. They will bend over backwards to meet a deadline.

The worst-case scenario infrequently comes to pass in other countries, but that isn’t true for Japan. We were defeated in the war, and became the first country to have atomic weapons used against us—not once, but twice. Typhoons and earthquakes are always a concern. The Kobe and Niigata earthquakes are fresh in our memories.

For Japanese, the worst-case scenario is always a familiar one.

Every time it occurs, however, we recover brilliantly. Intending to do all that we can do, we rebuild—without making a sound, and without causing a commotion.

Prime Minister Kan gives speeches with the expression of a beaten man and demonstrates no leadership whatsoever. But when has a Japanese prime minister ever demonstrated leadership?

We are a people who haven’t relied on others, but have made it this far through our own individual efforts. We integrate those efforts to make outstanding industrial products. We’ve also developed a sense of service that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else.

As always, the government has lost the plot, and the mass media uses emotional broadcasts to arouse a sense of crisis in Japan. But now we have Twitter, which we use to share information and encourage each other, and we’re connected to the world with Facebook.

We will recover brilliantly without making a sound–so quickly the world will be astonished.

(End translation)

Does Mr. Matsuoka strike you as arrogant and self-centered? Perhaps he is.

He’s also right.

Side Glances

Let’s get this one out of the way now. People who should know better will subject us to a lot of glop in the coming months and years. One who really should know better–and should have known since his undergraduate days–is Larry Summers, the former Harvard University President, the former Director of Obama’s National Economic Council, the former Chief Economist at the World Bank, and the former Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton.

Mr. Summers offered an idea that was identified as the “broken window fallacy” more than 150 years ago by Frederic Bastiat. Said the economist:

“(The disaster will) add complexity to Japan’s challenge of economic recovery. It may lead to some temporary increments ironically to GDP as a process of rebuilding takes place. In the wake of the earlier Kobe earthquake Japan actually gained some economic strength.”

Several people noticed immediately. David Theroux quotes Ryan Young’s rebuttal:

“If this were really the case, then the best possible way to boost Japan’s economy would be to level the entire country. Every building should be destroyed, brick by brick. The number of jobs that policy would create would dwarf any tsunami stimulus.”

Mr. Theroux calls it Keynesian nonsense and quotes Mr. Ryan further:

“Here’s why: if the tsunami had never happened, people would still have all the buildings and cars that they had in the first place. They would be able to spend their money on other, additional goods that they want.”

There’s a lot more at that post that’s worth reading too.

Another one we should get out of the way quickly is the issue of price gouging after natural disasters. I haven’t seen any reports of that occurring in Japan, and it may not occur, but it’s always possible. Some people find this so offensive they pass laws preventing it. This is one of many explanations of why that’s a bad idea, and can be counterproductive. There are several reasons:

“Price gouging legislation, like any price cap, reduces the ability of the market to send signals on how to reallocate resources. Without higher prices, potential suppliers do not have an extra incentive to increase supplies to an affected area, or to stockpile additional supplies in case they are needed.”

And:

“Without the price increase, fewer items will be supplied, and the shortage will be worse during the next blackout. On the demand side, higher prices send a signal for consumers to use less….if prices increase the people at the head of the line have an incentive not to buy the second, third or fourth unit, which allows a greater number of people to meet some of their resource needs.”

And one that should be common sense:

“(I)f prices are allowed to fluctuate, the first entrepreneurs to bring the needed supplies in will be able to charge very high prices, which will distribute those goods to the ones that need them most. As other entrepreneurs see the potential for profit they will bring additional goods in and this competition will drive the price down until the price stabilizes and nearly everyone can purchase the goods at a cost they are willing to pay.”

*****
The popular reaction to the earthquake/tsunami caused the always worthwhile David Warren to lament the deluge of absurdity and triviality that is Twitter. He recalls how easy it was to ignore the print media, and concludes:

“There were tabloids for people who did not “need to know,” but only to be distracted. Alas that, and only that, is expanding, in our seven-billion channel universe.”

*****
Reader Slim assures us that there were reams of sober and factual news coverage by responsible members of the media in the West. That must not include the New York Times. Their slide show is headlined, “Paralysis Across Japan”. No, it’s an obstruction across one part of Japan. Where I live, and most other places, people don’t have the palsy. They’re moving around like they always do.

It also doesn’t include the Irish Times, which headlined an article, “Japan’s belief that technology could tame nature is shaken”. True, it’s not the first time David McNeill has presented the consumers of his journalism with figments of his imagination, but anyone who spends more than three weeks in this country should know that, if anything, Japan’s belief is just the opposite. He probably does too, but I guess you gotta write what your editors want you to write. Shame he enjoys it so.

Then there’s the headline writer of the Times Colonist, a Canadian newspaper. The paper ran an article by Reuters for the hanky brigade about how tough things are now for many people, but the headline writer was gripped by a seizure of fantasy and wrote, “Desperation and Panic Grip Japan after Massive Quake”.

Desperation and panic probably gripped the considerably fewer than 127 million people who thought their lives were ending, but not after they survived. Again, if anything, the truth lies 180 degrees in the opposite direction. If anyone is desperate and panicky, it’s the stockholders of newspapers looking over the latest quarterly report.

Jay Alabaster of the AP combined with the headline writer of the Sacramento Bee to present a gruesome little piece headlined, “Tsunami-Ravaged Hospitals Leave the Sick in Misery”. Neither the hospitals nor the people working there, of course, are doing anything of the sort. The limited amount of supplies that have reached some areas are being provided to shelters first. The article is an exceptional piece of crap that luxuriates in masturbatory emotionalism. Here’s how it starts:

“Within the dark and fetid wards of the Senen General Hospital, some 120 patients lie in their beds or slumped in wheelchairs, moaning incoherently.

“”There is no food!” cries an old man in a blue gown, to no one in particular.

“Last week’s powerful earthquake and tsunami heaped untold new misery on those already suffering – thousands of elderly, infirm and sick people in hospitals that were laid to waste by the violent shaking and the walls of water that followed.”

Readers who can hold their noses through the dark and fetid swamp of prose will find that the hospital is without power and running water, and the people who work there are doing the best they can. I hope Alabaster helped them out and brought along plenty of food and water when he came to interview them.

Simon Tisdall emits a massive dose of radioactive tedium in the Guardian in an article headlined, “Japan needs leadership, but can Naoto Kan deliver?” Mr. Matsuoka’s blog post makes clear that Japan does not need political “leadership” in this situation, but that should have been obvious to a correspondent in Japan anyway. Putting aside the reality that in the Japanese system, the chief cabinet secretary is the person who most frequently appears before the public, Mr. Kan can’t deliver, and no one expects him to. (And he’s not; he’s even more punch-drunk than usual.) Here’s one sentence:

“Perceptions of Kan’s performance over the coming days will undoubtedly affect Japan’s future political course.”

Tisdall’s trunk and limbs might be in Japan, but the part of his body above the collarbone isn’t. The perceptions of Kan’s performance were set in cement months ago. The piece is so disjointed and incoherent it’s one of the most skimmable pieces of journalism I’ve ever encountered, as well as one of the most painful whenever the eyes happen to alight on a random sentence. Mine had the misfortune to fall on these:

“North Korea’s alarming military stunts, which almost provoked a war with South Korea last year, are another unwelcome reminder of Japan’s shaky geostrategic position. Maybe Beijing and Pyongyang will offer earthquake help: it would be a positive if unexpected gesture.”

It takes real talent to follow a non sequitur in one sentence with nonsensical filler passing as geostrategic analysis in the next. How useful that talent is, I don’t know, but it is a gift.

His article does raise a question, however. Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, think of themselves as autonomous, free-thinking units, and the Japanese as rabbit hutch-dwelling drones too timid to upset group harmony by acting on their own. Why then is it that the Westerners think a disaster demands a secular sermon from the political leader of the moment to heal the wounds and stop the waters from rising, while the Japanese couldn’t give a flying furoshiki what the man in the Kantei says and get on with the work that has to be done?

Those readers who wish to subject themselves to the complete versions of these sober exercises in factual journalism have enough clues to access them through the search engine of their choice.

******
Japanese readers have been the first to point out that we shouldn’t expect all of them to be saints. Reader Get A Job Son (haven’t you gotten a job yet?) offers a short Japanese language piece from NHK about looting in Miyagi. The local police say that in the 72 hours after the earthquake, there were 40 incidences of theft, mostly food from closed shops. The value of the losses was JPY 1.6 million (just under $US 20,000), but one incident alone accounted for roughly JPY one million of that total. That’s not sainthood, but it’s not perdition either. Most countries would be glad to use that as an excuse to self-reference their wonderfulness.

People have been remarkably level-headed and composed, but there are always exceptions. Wouldn’t you know that one of them would be Tokyo Metro Gov. Ishihara Shintaro?

“Japanese politics is tainted with egoism and populism. We need to use tsunami to wipe out egoism, which has rusted onto the mentality of Japanese over a long period of time…I think (the disaster) is tembatsu (divine punishment), although I feel sorry for disaster victims.”

He wound up apologizing after his remarks irritated Miyagi Gov. Murai Yoshihiro. What he really should do is apologize to the people of Tokyo for running for a fourth term in the election next month.

*****
He doesn’t say whether it’s tenbatsu, but Indian astrologer Lachhman Das Madan thinks the worst is yet to come:

“The period ending 2nd June, 2011 is horrible and they must take effective measures to protect themselves from severe troubles like escalation of military operations, more ferocious weather and nature including volcanic eruption. Setback to Govt and Parliament, eruption of violence, loss of huge property and loss of life is feared. Unexpected types of diseases and epidemics are feared. Cases of suicide are also likely to be reported…The periods around April and May, 2011 are more horrible….. The year 2011 is highly ominous and the people should remain ready to meet the unexpected challenges which may develop in this year.”

Maybe there’ll also be frogs, birds, and swastikas falling from the sky.

******
James Delingpole in The Telegraph allows Roddy Cambell a guest post to put anti-nuclear hysteria in perspective. Fukushima is unlikely to be as bad as Chernobyl–and that wasn’t as bad as you think it was. Mr. Cambell covers deaths up to 2005, potential deaths, cancer victims, and birth defects. He concludes:

“(T)he health and environmental impacts of Chernobyl, while not a Good Thing, are far less bad than people thought and indeed still think. That’s what the reports say. And the impacts derive from a really bad disaster; one might exaggerate and say it’s difficult to think of how a civil nuclear disaster could be worse. And you have to compare nuclear impacts over decades to the deaths, illnesses and environmental impacts caused by other energy generating businesses, which are the natural comparatives – coal mining, oil drilling, gas. So let’s not exaggerate. Stick to nuclear. Overall it is clearly a Good Thing.”

*****
Have no fear for atomic energy
Cause none of them can stop the time.

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Letter bombs (17): Korean editorial

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 15, 2011

MATT IN YOKOHAMA sent his translation of an editorial that appeared in the 14 March Joongang Daily. I don’t know whether he translated it from Korean or the Japanese edition of the paper, but it’s worth reading. Here it is.

*****
Stronger Than an Earthquake

The whole world has been shocked by the huge earthquake that hit Japan last week. First, the world has been amazed by the immense damage the quake inflicted on the country. At least 2,000 people have died and more than 10,000 are still missing. In addition, the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Fukushima Prefecture has raised serious concerns worldwide.

But the Japanese government has successfully evacuated about 210,000 residents in the area near the plant and has taken emergency measures to cool the over-heated reactor, which will help avert a much bigger tragedy.

More surprising, however, is the way the Japanese are coping with the huge disaster, as they do not appear shaken, even by fear of death. Japanese citizens escaped from ruins carefully guided by professional evacuation personnel. Even the disrupted bus and subway systems didn’t lessen their will to survive the disaster, as they trudged for hours to reach their homes. And the next morning, people went to work as if nothing had happened the previous day.

The world has often witnessed incalculable confusion and disorder following natural disasters in other countries. Some commentators even say that the looting and violence that come after disasters are more frightening than the disasters themselves.

This was not true in Japan, however. The Japanese people’s calm, orderly reaction to the unexpected crisis deserves our compliments and our envy. TV broadcasts around the world showed hardly any images of crying or screaming Japanese. In the face of nature’s fury, survivors patiently waited in line to receive emergency food.

The Japanese people’s response to the disaster can not be explained only by building designs meant to guard against such disasters. Disaster education and repeated evacuation drills were major factors in their response. It shows that a great nation only proves its character when faced with disaster.

Naturally, the view from Japan reminds us of our shameful response to tragedy – crowds yelling loudly whenever disaster hits. Even when flights are temporarily delayed, we rush en masse to the airline (counter) to complain about it. And whenever some mishap takes place, we prefer to blame the government.

We hope the Japanese people’s reaction will teach us all a lesson. We still have much to learn from Japan, and a long way to go before we become a mature, advanced country.

(end translation)

Thanks, MIY!

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What went right

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 14, 2011

BUSY with work at the moment, but a reader sends in this blog post from a native English-speaking foreigner in Japan with a small software business and a background as an engineer. The subject is what went right in Japan over the past few days. Judging from the comments, it puts the “reporting” from the U.S. and Great Britain in much-needed perspective.

For example:

“The overwhelming response of Japanese engineering to the challenge posed by an earthquake larger than any in the last century was to function exactly as designed. Millions of people are alive right now because the system worked…”

Another:

“All levels of the government, from the Self Defense Forces to technical translators working at prefectural technology incubators in places you’ve never heard of, spend quite a bit of time writing and drilling on what to do in the event of a disaster.”

That’s one reason why the Japanese don’t need to look to politicians at times such as these.

And:

“The story of Japanese railways during the earthquake and tsunami is the story of an unceasing drumbeat of everything going right.”

Also:

“(C)onsidering the magnitude of the disaster we got off relatively lightly. (An earlier draft of this post said “lucky.” I have since reworded because, honestly, screw luck. Luck had absolutely nothing to do with it. Decades of good engineering, planning, and following the bloody checklist are why this was a serious disaster and not a nation-ending catastrophe like it would have been in many, many other places.)

That isn’t to say there aren’t a few problems with the post. He incorrectly states that Honshu is larger than Great Britain. (It isn’t, but just barely.) He’s also incorrect to say that typhoon was originally a Japanese word. (The fact that tsunami is now an English word, and has been for decades, helps support his argument.) Some of it is a bit over the top in a software engineer sort of way, but all of us are what we are.

The comments are worth reading too. There’s the usual snark that comes with opening Internet sites to commenters. One guy thinks a million people are on the verge of starvation. A few others are upset because the Japanese are…well, Japanese, from what I can tell.

Here’s what some other people say:

“If you look at the way Japan reacts to crises like this you’ll see a one quarter dip in the economy and then a large bump in the economy due to the vast number of people being employed to review what happened, rebuild what washed away, fix what broke, and put a coat of paint on everything else. You won’t see a lot of lawyers getting rich or politicians grandstanding.”

And:

“It is hard sometimes to filter out the eagerness for sensation from CNN, the NYTimes or even BBC News.”

Remember what I said about people overseas indulging their emotions?

This person is talking about coverage outside of Japan.

“I found all local news coverage to be emotional rather than factual.”

And:

“I have learned more about Japan from your writing than from the sensationalist news sources to which I have access.”

Someone else knows why they call it infotainment:

“The news coverage here in the UK has been cringeworthy – as if they’re desperate for something bad to happen (like a nuclear meltdown and release of deadly radiation into the atmosphere, or another quake and tsunami) because it makes people watch their channel.”

My favorite:

“Most excellent! Thank you for the information. Maybe when we grow up we can be like Japan!”

I suspect we won’t be seeing any more articles for awhile about a defeated country slinking off the world stage, written by people who don’t know snot from day-old chewing gum when the subject is Japan.

Here it is, one more time, and now more than ever:

If what you know about Japan you learned from the overseas mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.

*****
Back when I have the time. Thanks to AK for the link.
*****
UPDATE: Link from James A. with some more calm analysis.

Posted in Science and technology | Tagged: | 10 Comments »

No surprise

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 13, 2011

HERE’S a quick quiz for those familiar with the people in Japanese politics: If you had to guess which politician would be the first to break ranks and try to turn recent events to their party’s advantage, who do you think it would be?

Did you say Fukushima Mizuho of the Social Democrats? Got it in one!

She chaired a meeting of her party–in an office, though they could have used an airport limousine bus–and took the opportunity to complain about the government’s information management. Her party is the standard-bearer for Japan’s loony left, so of course they detest nuclear power. She complained about that, too, even as people were putting their lives on the line in Fukushima Prefecture (no relation) to bring the problems with the nuclear plants there under control. Her complaint amounted to: We told you so! She plans to make an issue of it.

There was one benefit to watching the brief film clip on TV. One couldn’t help laughing to see her dressed in work coveralls. If she’s going to zip them up to her neck, she probably shouldn’t have worn that designer outfit underneath. It looked awfully lumpy.

To give you an idea of the tilt of her gyroscope, she complained last week that the Kan Cabinet idea to raise taxes was evidence that it was “neo-liberal” and Koizumian.

Meanwhile, LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu said that while there’s a lot they don’t like about the DPJ budget, his party is willing to be flexible on their demands to facilitate the recovery. Some in the party want the government to divert the funds for the child stipend to relief efforts and infrastructure repair. The government will convene a special committee tonight to hammer out a policy to handle fund allocation.

In other news, Prime Minister Kan appointed reform minister Ren Ho to be in charge of the effort to save energy, with rolling blackouts to start tomorrow. That’s reasonable, considering she’s a TV announcer/model turned politician. Her job will be to appear before the public and urge them to cut consumption to a minimum.

Mr. Kan also appointed unaffiliated MP Tsujimoto Kiyomi to be his aide in charge of coordinating volunteer efforts. That makes sense from one perspective, considering her work to create Peace Boat (who are anti-nuclear power too). She’s also probably well-connected to the NGO types.

On the other hand, the It Girl of the hard left once told a reporter in an unguarded moment that she thought her job as a Diet member was to destroy the country. One has to wonder once again what possessed Mr. Kan to make such a personnel choice.

Quick update: Mr. Kan just finished a pep talk to the nation live on television, and he came very close to losing it. Fortunately, he didn’t (as he was praising the people for maintaining their composure), and just as fortunately, he was followed by Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio, who quickly restored the equilibrium. The prime minister needs a pep talk more than most of the people in the country. From what I’ve seen the rest of his Cabinet have presented themselves very well.

On another note: There’s a report that more than 300 important cultural treasures (i.e., Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, etc.) were damaged (to an undefined extent) in the earthquake and tsunami.

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Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

I’m not the only one

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 13, 2011

SUNDAY’S edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun has a Kyodo report datelined from Beijing and headlined, “High Praise for Japanese Composure”. They write that the Chinese corner of the Internet is filled with commendation for the Japanese attitude and give specific examples.

The first is a tweet on the Chinese version of Twitter with a link to a photo of people at work on a stairway who deliberately sat at both sides to allow passage down the middle. The Chinese poster wrote, “This is the result of education. It’s not something that can be obtained by the size of a country’s GDP.” The tweet was forwarded 70,000 times. Here are some of the comments: “China won’t be able to achieve this even after 50 years.” “This is very impressive.” “We should learn from this.”

A correspondent from a Chinese newspaper in Hunan Province studying Japanese in Tokyo was equally impressed by the coolness of his Japanese teacher during the earthquake. The teacher directed the students to safety, was the last to leave, and calmly turned off the lights.

Headlines on articles appearing on the Chinese net read: “Japanese behavior is the best in the world.” “The most advanced (先進性) people in humanity are in Japan.”

Some are also envious of the sturdiness of Japanese school buildings, with good reason. One person writes that during the Szechuan earthquake of May 2008, “Chinese schools were hell, but Japanese schools are evacuation sites.” He adds that 5,000 children died in those Chinese earthquakes because the school buildings collapsed and teachers ran out of the classrooms leaving their students behind.

Finally, the government-affiliated Global Times, known for its belligerence during the Senkakus Incident last year, headlined its front page with this: “The World is Impressed at Japan’s Composure”.

Quick update: Unpleasant news…the government thinks fatalities will reach 10,000. They’re also worried about another explosion at the Fukushima power plant, though Mr. Edano says it won’t be of the worst kind. Rather, it will the same kind as yesterday. He’s also providing more explanation than he did yesterday.

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Posted in China, Mass media, Popular culture | Tagged: | 9 Comments »

Letter bombs (16): An objection

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 13, 2011

READER A disagrees with some of my opinions. His full note is here. Here’s part of it, and my answers.

“I find the fact that they’re admittedly flooding seawater into a nuclear power plant…to be sufficient cause for a certain degree of reasonable alarm or, at the very least, an active concern.”

The people dealing with the situation are reasonably alarmed and actively concerned. They’re evacuating people as necessary. What practical purpose does it serve for everyone else in the country to worry about events outside of their control? That’s part of what I mean about indulging one’s emotions.

“(H)ow much of the imperative to preserve an outward appearance of ‘calmness’ do you think is a product of deeply engrained social conventions as well as an attempt to maintain a ‘face’.”

None. I disagree with the premise of most of this. The imperative for the authorities to preserve an outward appearance of calmness is important because it fulfills the first requirement of leadership–defining reality.

We can also turn that around. How does this work for you? “How much of the imperative to present an outward appearance of heartfelt emotional engagement and concern do you think is a product of deeply engrained social conventions, as well as an attempt to signal that one is a “caring” person?”

“Maybe if they focussed a little less on behaving like a good ‘Japanese’, staying eternally ‘calm’, and did panic a little and ask hard questions of their government and their corporate partners they might be able to avoid an even bigger tragedy or at least know the full extent of the risks they are and will continue to face.”

Oh, they’ll ask the questions, regardless of whether they continue to be unreported in English. As for the risks they are facing, the people in immediate danger know about them.

As for the media coverage and government reports, adjectives, adverbs, and analogies are not only unnecessary, they’re counterproductive.

As for the suggestion that anyone is focused on behaving like “good” Japanese, you’re getting close to running off the rails there.

Quick update: If I heard that report on the radio correctly, there have been 150 aftershocks counted so far that have been over 5 on the Richter scale. They’re warning of the possibility of more to come.

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Posted in Letter bombs | 2 Comments »

The morning after

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 13, 2011

YOU KNOW that the situation has evolved when the politicians are throwing darts at each other on television. Representatives of all the parties in the Diet discussed the matters at hand on the NHK Sunday morning political blabathon. Everyone was level-headed and no one was posturing. The primary topic of the segment I saw was how to handle the national budget, which is a pressing question because the fiscal year in Japan starts in April. Had normal circumstances prevailed, issues with the budget would probably have brought the Kan Cabinet down this month.

The representative from the ruling DPJ mentioned that they had to maintain their only real achievement, the budget-busting and controversional cash stipend from the government for child-rearing. One of the opposition politicians said he was surprised to hear that, considering all the money that would be required for relief and infrastructure repair.

Otherwise, everyone maintained the same calm, clear-eyed determination that has defined the country’s response since Friday. There were criticisms about the amount of information released in regard to the problems with the power plant in Fukushima and the difficulty the layperson would have understanding much of it, but that’s legitimate. On the other hand, the educational system here is such that in general, people are more comfortable with handling numbers in unfamiliar scientific units than those elsewhere.

In one sense, that means this is the morning after, even though it’s the second morning after. In another sense, we’re not out of the woods yet. The aftershocks are still strong and frequent, and they are made more dangerous because structures have already been weakened by previous earthquakes. There are still serious problems at the Fukushima power plant, and they declared a state of emergency there early this morning. They’ve been adding water to a third reactor on the site, but that system broke down, lowering the water level and probably exposing the fuel rods. Nineteen people were confirmed to have suffered radiation exposure.

The latest estimate on fatalities is about 1,700, and there is now a report that they have yet to confirm the whereabouts of about 10,000 people. How many of those are among the more than 300,000 people now in shelters is not known.

There is still not the slightest sign of panic or hysteria in public, not to mention wild, uninformed speculation.

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Posted in Government, Popular culture | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

See what I mean?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 13, 2011

I’VE glanced at a few American websites and their coverage of the events in Japan.

Here’s one:

(T)he (news) reader dispenses the facts with an almost eerie calmness as all hell breaks loose in the clips shown. The shots of the tsunamis sweeping through port cities looks more like a horror movie than a news broadcast.

Here’s a roundup of coverage:

“(A) streaming live feed of CNN, which has wall to wall coverage of this disaster.”

And:

“Horrific video of the tsunami that struck Japan…”

Followed by:

“(C)lick here for a continuously updated stream of images, including this incredible nighttime shot of a fireball-shaped explosion at a steel refinery in Chiba”

This site understands that Japan was prepared. Nevertheless:

(Quoting) Town of Kurihara has been completely destroyed

“If this is the same town (and judging by the map it’s in the right area), the population is in the neighborhood of 77,000.

God help them all.”

Another site’s comment: “News is breaking fast and furious…”

This fellow always seems sensible whenever I read one of his posts. These events, however, inspire him to philosophy:

“Planetary forces are so enormously powerful that attempts to control the environment must often fall a far second to simply being able to survive what Mother Nature throws in humanity’s way.”

He then offers a long quote from H.G. Wells.

Still more:

“Tons of incredible and terrifying video footage taken by people on the ground is showing up online. Breaking News has linked to this video of swaying Tokyo skyscrapers and this one of a family in Sendai, Japan trying to evacuate their home. There are also breathtaking photos. This gallery from The New York Times is particularly unsettling. The Daily Mail has a collection of a number of disturbing AP photos.”

This site also corrects an English-language report that said 88,000 people were missing. At no time in Japan have I ever seen anything that suggested there were more than 1,300 or so dead and missing combined.

Do you see what I mean now? No one in Japan is behaving like this. No one in Japan is using anything remotely like this kind of language.

The Americans are only spectators, but they’re the ones indulging their emotions. The Japanese are the ones who have to deal with it, and their upper lips are stiff. Notice that one of the people I quoted thought the Japanese calmness was “eerie”. One gets the impression that the Americans are excited by all the shock and awe. I think we all know what the tone of American coverage would be like if this were a local disaster.

Meanwhile, earlier this evening on NHK, I saw a video of the tsunami hit a small town on the coast. (I missed the first bit, so I don’t know which town.) A huge mass of water filled with debris rushed through the streets, knocking down light poles and lifting houses off their foundations. The video was taken from what seemed to be a parking lot on the side of a hill looking down on the town and the small waterfront area. A group of people stood watching at the edge of the area behind a chain link fence. All the adults were quiet, and only a few children were crying. The American above would probably think they were eerie, too. There was a quick shot of one mother comforting her daughter. The woman, about 30-35, was not crying at all.

The person on the scene who filmed the video, or was accompanying the person filming the video (I’m not sure if they were part of the media) yelled, “Sugoi!” two or three times. (In this context, terrible, or horrible). Then again, he was there watching it as it happened. No one else said that, even though they were probably thinking it subliminally.

I’ve long thought that the Japanese have a more solid grasp of the brass tacks of life than do Westerners. Now I’m convinced.

UPDATE: Reader M-Bone makes the following points. I agree.

The 88,000 missing number started circulating in a number of UK newspapers. Since it is roughly the same number as the official number of people stuck in central Tokyo who “had not yet returned home”, I am guessing that these papers either screwed up the Japanese here or more likely were using machine translation.

No matter which it is, this frightening number, attributed to “Japanese officials”, is a very bad mistake.

And:

Hundreds of websites claiming 88,000 confirmed missing reported by “the official Kyodo news agency via BBC” among them ABC, Huffpost, etc. No sign of this anywhere from Kyodo in Japanese or English. BBC website has removed the claim. Some sites have changed this to 88,000 dead.

Searches for 88,000 in Japanese ONLY turn up an approximate number of Tokyo workers who could not return home…We usually joke about bad Japan reportage – this isn’t a joke…

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Posted in Mass media, Popular culture | Tagged: | 13 Comments »

 
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