Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tokyo has four syllables

Dear New York Times:

There are two conventions for writing Japanese in Roman letters, the government way, and a way that makes sense. Foreigners, the only people who need signs to be written in a Western alphabet, inevitably use the Hepburn system, which uses basically English consonants and Italian vowels.

Japanese has long vowels and short vowels, and, unlike in English, where it doesn’t matter how long you hold the vowel when you pronounce it, they carry different meanings. So this difference needs to be noted. Obasan (with a short a in the middle) means aunt. Obaasan (with a long a in the middle) means grandmother. Obasan is a four-syllable word: o-ba-sa-n (n is syllabic in Japanese, which is irrelevant here). And obaasan is a five-syllable word: o-ba-a-sa-n.

Since vowel length does not affect meaning in English, we commonly ignore the difference when writing Japanese words. We write “arigato” for thank you, when actually, that’s a long o at the end. Tokyo, we think of as a two-syllable word. In Japanese, it’s a four-syllable word, because both o’s are long.

If you want to be precise, and indicate vowel length, there are two conventions for writing Japanese long vowels in English. One is to write a macron over the vowel: Obāsan" for grandmother (as opposed to obasan for aunt.) The other is simply to write the a twice: obaasan.

Japanese has five vowels: a, i, u, e, o (to use the Japanese order). Pronounced more or less as in Italian - or Spanish or German, like English ah, ee, oo, ay, oh. More or less. So long a can be written in English as aa or ā, long i as ii or ī, long u as uu or ū, long e as ee or ē, and long o as oo, or ō.

But here it gets complicated.

Because when English speakers see “oo” they think of the sound in “moon,” it's not surprising they have trouble knowing you're supposed to pronounce koo like coe and not like coo.

So people have come up with a different way of writing long o to make life easier for English-speaking people. Two ways: oh, and ou.

The “oh” way is commonly used in names: Katoh, Endoh, Satoh, etc. (People who know no Japanese are happy with Kato, Endo and Sato, of course, but often Japanese themselves squirm when the vowel length is not indicated, so we have come up with this compromise of writing an h to indicate a long o.)

The other way, to use “ou” is actually no more helpful than writing “oo”, since the vowel combination ou in English can indicate any of six different vowel sounds, as in though, cough, through, house, country, or glamour. So choosing ou for long o was kind of a dumb idea, turns out.

If it weren’t for computers, the four variants for writing Japanese long o in English, ou, oh, oo and ignoring it, would probably go on struggling for dominance till the end of time. But with the computer age, the Roman alphabet (rōmaji, in Japanese) has taken on greater importance in Japanese life and become less closely tied just to things foreign. Even monolingual Japanese speakers themselves now use it every time they type. To get the word minami, for example, you type in “minami,” hit the space key, and the computer gives you choices of characters to choose from. (With minami there’s only one choice.) You then hit enter, and the Chinese character 南 (meaning "south") is written instead of minami.

When you want to type the long o, there is only one way to do it: you type ou.

And that means when you type the names of two coastal towns in Fukushima Prefecture destroyed by the tsunami, Soma and Minami Soma (actually Sōma and Minami Sōma), of 37,796 and 70,895 people respectively, you type in souma and minami souma. If you type in minami souma you will get 南相馬. If you type in minami soma, you will get something else, and not the names of these towns. Just as, as an English speaker, you can ignore the long vowels and write Tokyo, and not Tōkyō, you can write Minami Soma in English instead of Minami Sōma. But if you want to get 東京 for Tokyo, you have to type in toukyou. And if you want to get 南相馬 for Minami Soma you have to type in minamisouma.

I just thought I’d provide a little perspective on your “correction” following this morning’s article, “In Japan’s Danger Zone, the Stranded Await the Merciful,” by Martin Fackler, in which you say

Correction: March 18, 2011
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a small port city in Japan in one reference. It is Soma, not Souma.

I understand it’s much better for all the world to read that quick and dirty “correction” instead of putting up with something like, “An earlier version of this article spelled the name of a small port city in Japan according to the Japanese way of writing Japanese in the Latin alphabet: Souma.” We should have used the English way of writing the name of that port city instead: Soma, and ignored the distinction between long and short vowels in Japanese, which many of our readers will no doubt find pedantic.”

But you’re the New York Times.

And in the wretchedness I feel in being unable to help these people, I thought the least I could do was acknowledge how their town was correctly pronounced in their native language.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Good news, bad news

Interesting, how each day we wait and watch the progress at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant the focus changes. Many more people have reached conclusions about how they want to deal with the crisis. Some want to turn away and are annoyed at the endless chatter. Some are angry at the media coverage and believe they are simply fanning the flames of fear. Some are angry at the lack of transparency on Tepco’s part (Tepco - the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the owners of the plant). Others come to their defense and argue they don’t know themselves what is going on. Some are angry at government because it’s clear lots of people are waiting for help and not getting it. Others argue Prime Minister Kan is acting unusually courageously in demanding more transparency and is doing the best he can. Some see the suffering and agonize. Some see the courage and stoicism and admire. It’s amazing how conflicting the reports are, and how many lenses there are to see through.

The American media have shown their colors. Even people I’ve long admired are falling down. Like Anderson Cooper, who just pulled the same number CNN pulled. The networks send their own people to Japan to pose in front of a camera and report yesterday’s news, the only difference being they are now in the picture. How do you feel losing all the members of your family?

Only NHK and the BBC seem to be on top of events as they happen. I understand Al Jazeera is pretty good, but I have not been following their coverage myself. Rachel Maddow is doing a pretty good job of explaining how things work. I just wish she would get the Japanese pronunciation right – it’s Daini (die – knee; not die-eeny) and it’s Sendai (sen-die; not sen-day). I know, I know. I’m polishing the silver when we all ought to be feeding the poor, but these things annoy me.

Americans are not the worst panic-mongers, it would appear. At the moment it’s possible that place of honor goes to the Germans. They were among the first to pull out their people from Tokyo, including news people. (Although no doubt many good reporters ignored those warnings.) People are gulping potassium iodide pills. Angela Merkel is shutting down power plants. Why? Because of the possibility of a tsunami in Frankfurt? And my favorite newspaper, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, had a headline today, "Erdbeben, Tsunami, Atomkatastrophe: Japan steht seit einer Woche am Rande des Abgrunds." (Earthquake, Tsunami, Nuclear Catastrophe: For a week Japan at the edge of the abyss). Others, too, are using the term "Super-GAU." GAU is German for größter anzunehmender Unfall, or "maximum credible accident," the German equivalent of "worst possible scenario." And note, on top of GAU, they are using "Super-GAU." Shame. Anderson Cooper, and now the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

There is good news. The radiation levels are not climbing at the moment, and it appears work is progressing on getting the power back so the pumps will work so the temperature of the rods, both working and stored, will not continue to rise. We’re in an OK holding pattern, in other words.

And that means we can stop worrying about the worst case scenario for a minute and look at other aspects of the aftermath. Several friends of mine have now left Tokyo, some for the United States, some for Western Japan. Others are staying and arguing against the tendency to overreact. And complaining about the lack of food in the stores. And being able to get around.

Stories pour in about missing people, heartbreak story after heartbreak story. To watch is to cry non-stop, especially when you hear expressions like "pockets of extreme suffering." I don’t want to turn away, but I watch only sporadically. And I don't cry any more. Familiarity has set in. But I did choke up there for a minute in my local supermarket yesterday when I saw a sign at the check-out counter, "Relief donations for Japan accepted here." Talk about cognitive dissonance. Something in me wants to insist, "Not Japan! They're rich. They can take care of themselves. Their economy will not be affected by this longterm. Save your money." But we sent money, too. It's the right thing to do. Not because it makes you feel better about yourself, but because the usual systems are all strained at the moment, and your donation is likely to make a difference.

Taku asked last night, “Have you seen the list of the dead?” I hadn’t, because I’m not checking the Japanese sources. “Only in Japan” was a game we used to play all the time, those of us who were grounded in other countries and cultures. I heard myself say that last night. They are putting the names, ages, and addresses of the victims online, as the information comes in. They’re up to nearly 7000 now, and everybody believes they’re going to go over 10,000.

If you do look at the list, you notice something striking. The number of very old people. I picked a list at random and did a quick estimate and found an average age of 55. But look at this list, for example. It’s clear they are not stopping to check the actual ages of the victims, because all ages are rounded out to tens. But look at the ages. Several are listed as 100 years old. Many more are in their 80s and 90s. Maybe this is why we don’t look too closely at these things, and stick to information such as “In the end, the earthquake may be a boon to the Japanese economy, because there will be an enormous amount of construction work to do.”

Isn’t it nice to be able to look on the bright side.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bombs over Daiichi 1 through 4

I have a very clear memory of the many times in the 70s and 80s I went to lectures on the dangers of nuclear power. The chief concern was what to do with all the nuclear waste. But right up there with it was the concern about how little we knew of risks. What happens when a plant breaks down? And there’s that tug of war between those making only financial arguments, especially those with vested interests, and those who fear all kinds of human error.

Somehow I stopped hearing about the problem of nuclear waste. Did it go away? Have we found places to bury used fuel rods where nobody will dig them up for 20,000 years? Actually, we know the answer to that question. In Japan, at least, they're storing the rods right at the sites, where they are building up and becoming a serious problem.

I’m most worried about human folly now. I’m still angry over the discovery a decade ago when there was a leak at the Tokai plant, much closer to where I was living in Tokyo than the Fukushima plant. It turned out JCO, the plant's owners, were not only faking it (making it look like there was no danger) but actually lying about what was going on. In the present case it's not JCO, but Tepco (Tokyo Energy Power Company), another of Japan's fifteen power companies, but the shenanigans are the same. Looks like it’s appropriate to call this Japan’s BP incident.

Even without the deception, there were miscalculations with dire consequences. Following an accident in 1999 when some workers were apparently carrying uranium in a bucket (or so the incident got reported), Tepco cleaned up its act. Allegedly. Actually they didn't, because in 2002 it came out that they had given false information on 200 separate occasions between 1977 and 2002. And then, unbelievably, after promises by the new management that things would be fixed this time, it was revealed in 2007 that there were a large number of unreported incidents. And, as is commonly the case in Japan, the company refused to identify any individuals responsible. The heads simply go on television, bow deeply in apology, and we all move on.

The second order of difficulty in following the news is that the technical stuff is beyond most people’s ken, of course. But one can learn when given the facts, and the first order of difficulty is the fact that both Tepco and the Japanese government authorities are conditioned to say as little as possible. And when they do speak they say infuriating things like “We are doing our utmost… We must take all possible measures…” and the like. Add to that the problem of credibility and their woefully inadequate response to previous accidents, and it’s really hard to remain calm. Seems to me the only thing to do at this juncture is to demand information and hold it
up to scrutiny.

I thought this was all behind me, this struggle to get information in Japan, struggle against the paternalistic tendency to withhold information from you if it might upset you, struggle against the all too quick surrender to authority and unwillingness to create disharmony by challenging the information giver (or non-giver, as in this case), the struggle against all the vertical loyalties, where people will hide information that might shame the institutions they work for.

Now that we see how inadequate were the walls to keep tsunamis away, how foolish it was to miss the obvious, that electricity would go off in an earthquake and require auxiliary pumps, and putting the diesel pumps above ground would make them vulnerable to tsunamis, and that even the second backup, batteries, would only last for eight hours. Now that we see all this we can avoid these errors in the future.

But what about now? Most people simply look elsewhere, and trust they will know soon enough if a disaster has occurred. I’m burned out watching endless loops of devastation and so I play around with probably insignificant facts and pieces of the larger puzzle, like where all the nuclear plants are in Japan, while I wait for this emergency to end, and try to learn a bit of background. (If you want to see how a nuclear power plant works, and specifically how they are dealing with the failures, BBC has an easy-to-follow graphic, entitled “Fukushima: What went wrong?”)

I’m not in Japan, and should be grateful for that. But instead, the survivor guilt (is that what it is when the disaster hasn't happened yet?) I am trying to rid myself of seems to morph into frustration at the lack of information. So I dig. Where are the maps? What is the extent of the tsunami flow? And with the present emergency, who are the people we should listen to? How is one to filter through the media silliness to get at a good grasp of the situation?

So far, I think I’ve found the two extremes available to American news consumers. On the one hand there is a guy named Lake Barrett, one of the guys involved in the cleanup after Three Mile Island. He said on the PBS Newshour the other night, “…I believe, if the people follow the directions of the government… from the health point of view, I think they will be at very low risk….I don't believe this is a health catastrophe.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the outspoken media-savvy physics professor, Michio Kaku, interviewed on ABC’s Nightline the other night. (And shame on ABC for sticking him on at the very end, as an afterthought, and giving him the bum’s rush, without debate or discussion.) Kaku insists pouring water on the reactor sites is like hitting them with a squirt gun. What is needed, he says, is a massive drop from the air of cement, sand, and boric acid, the way they did in Chernobyl, to simply bury the entire site for good, before it’s too late. So what is it? Business as usual until we get more information? Or a time for preemptive action?

And these are only extremes that strike me as reasonable. There are others, particularly those insisting Tepco should be held criminally culpable, which go much further, whose "reasonability" I am not in a position to judge.

There is no evidence for the view that things will be all right. There’s no evidence that it will not be all right, either, but why the hell can’t people say, “We don’t know yet.” Saying there is no danger here might well turn out to be like saying there is no danger to falling out of a ten-story building. It’s not the fall that you have to worry about; it’s what happens when you hit the ground.

I’m with Kaku. Bombs over Tokyo sounded great to me as a kid. I was born five years before the end of the Second World War. But Tokyo has become my home since then. Now I want the city and everybody in it to be safe. Bomb the power plants at Fukushima, I say. They are a loss anyway, aren’t they? Isn’t that what pouring sea water into them means? That they will then become useless?

What is everybody waiting for?


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Waiting and Wondering

The hardest part of this story is sitting and waiting for information. If you have the luxury of time, you sit and wait for the latest news. What’s happening at the reactors? Are we going to be all right? The questions have me up early in the morning looking for answers and finding only more and more questions.

How do you even ask that question, are we going to be all right, when you know the answer is “Nobody knows.” Is it irresponsible to ask? Should we just sit patiently and wait for the “authorities” to tell us what we need to know?

While we wait, we note things are not going well.

A UK team known as the International Rescue Corps has flown to Japan to help out, but has been turned back because the British Embassy there refused to take responsibility for them. It remains to be seen whether the Embassy worries are legitimate. On the surface, one has to wonder how anybody would allow people willing to risk their lives, moving into the wreckage and dealing with digging out hundreds of bodies, to be turned away. To what good purpose? Just what does it mean to “be responsible” for these volunteers? Obviously, one wants to keep do-gooders from getting in the way of serious rescue operations. How does one determine, though, what a serious rescue operation is, exactly?

Meanwhile, the Emperor has addressed the nation. Now why the hell did they do that? Bring him in. Strikes me as a super dumb move, given the history of Japanese emperors stepping in. I don’t remember that ever happening before. Last time was when his father, Hirohito, announced the end of the war and asked the people to “bear the unbearable.” When the Emperor talks, the fact that he talks is the message.

CNN is broadcasting the need to “reisei.” 冷静. Calm down.

Little Japanese lesson here:

冷静にお聞き下さい. (Reisei ni o kiki kudasai.) “Please listen to calm,” says the Prime Minister.

Right. Let’s all calm down.

冷静に行動してください. (Reisei ni kōdō shite kudasai.) Let’s all behave calmly.

So how about some more information.

Here’s the information I do have.

Most disturbing news was the removal of the last fifty employees from the plant. In the absence of precise knowledge of the state of the reactors, one must assume that the 800 employees who left for safety reasons were not dismissed lightly. They were not just floor sweepers, as somebody pointed out. They were crucial to the operation of the plant. That suggests that the fifty who remained may well be sacrificing their lives to prevent a meltdown. Or at least a high risk of cancer and other problems of radiation. At least the government is covering its ass. It has upped the legal definition of what a radiation dose is. So more people can now go in and risk their lives without breaking the law? What would we do without the burocrats?

And now we hear these fifty were also relieved of their jobs for about an hour when the ground radiation spiked. Why would you send them out also? Doesn’t this suggest they are throwing in the towel?

At this stage even asking these questions you risk pouring fuel on the fires of worry. The authorities have little to no credibility, having been found lying before “to prevent panic.” If there is a clearer example of the practical side of ethical behavior, I can’t imagine what it would be.

At the Daichi (Number One) Plant in Fukushima there are six reactors. One, two and three are said to be “experiencing problems” and the cooling systems at five and six are “not functioning well.” That leaves reactor four. And it was reactor four that had the fire on Wednesday. I’d like to hear what the fire did to the fourth reactor, but all the news I can find at the moment says there was a fire and nothing more.

I understand the only way to prevent a meltdown is to get water in to cool down the rods, but because the plant is leaking radiation there is a no-fly order over the plant – and that’s the end of the attempt to drop water on them from helicopters. What is the consequence of that? The chief spokesman for the event announced the other day that even pouring water on the plan is risky, if they do it too much too quickly. But now with a no-fly zone in effect, that hardly seems to matter.

As we watch, we learn. At one point, it was “radiation” that we worried about. Now, we know it’s about “sieverts.” You measure risk in terms of microsieverts and millisieverts. The average person receives about three millisieverts (3 mSv) per year. That’s apparently a very safe level. At Fukushima workers are getting about 400 mSv per hour. That, we are told, is about 160 times what one gets in one year. That’s CNN’s math, not mine. CNN says, “So it is high.” My math would lead me to believe Glen Beck is right. God is pissed at us, and maybe this is the end of the world after all. Fortunately I never draw conclusions on the basis of my math.

Back down to earth, 3 mSv is what you get from a CAT scan. What you get from a chest X-ray is about .1 mSv (and I suddenly feel a whole lot better about X-rays.) You need about 1000 mSv to get seriously sick.

Apparently there are two kinds of separate concerns. One is “total body radiation,” the kind you get from a breakdown at a nuclear power plant. I understand some workers at the plant are being treated for radiation sickness. (Does that mean 1000 mSv? How did that happen?) This is not good news.

The other is the radiation that you ingest, from food or water or by breathing in. That’s the kind we’re most worried about at the moment, because there is some small degree of radiation being leaked into the air.

So here are the names of the things to be concerned about:

Cesium 137. It causes cancer, and has a half life of 30 years. That means whatever cesium is released is going to be in the ground water and other places for the next generation.

Then there’s Iodine 131. Like Cesium, it doesn’t hurt you unless you ingest it. So it’s possible to work with these elements, and chemists and others do all the time, as long as you keep them contained. Iodine 131 has a half life of only eight days, so it’s far less threatening. It does cause thyroid cancer, though, in sufficient doses.

What people are doing is stocking up on Potassium Iodide (KI), because it blocks the intake of Iodine 131. You take it before and after exposure to radiation. There’s a run on KI, no surprise, even in the States, and that’s almost certainly a panic response, and not a reasonable one. On the other hand, there’s an irony to this panic in that KI, while preventing the intake of Iodine into the thyroid, does nothing about the intake of Cesium 137. If you want to join the panic, the brand name in the U.S. is “Iodoral”. It comes in 90 tablet sizes. If you can get it, which you probably can’t.

Or Strontium 90 (Sr 90), the third bad guy. It causes leukemia.

Or Plutonium 239 (Pu 239), the fourth. It causes lung cancer even in tiny amounts. And it has a half life of 24,000 years.

Why are we messing with plutonium?

That question for another day.

Now I realize that the average person is neither interested in this level of detail, nor capable of focusing on it, unless it is brought home it is happening here and now to him or her, but it is disconcerting that the “authorities” are announcing “the levels of radiation have fallen” without ever revealing which of any or all of these elements are in question, and how much. Even the world’s experts are not privy to this information.

And when we do learn things, we also learn we have so much to learn about what the numbers mean. This, for example, from the Nuclear Energy Institute: “At 8 p.m. EDT March 14, a dose rate of 1,190 millirem per hour was observed. Six hours later, the dose rate was 60 millirem per hour, IAEA said.”

That sounds good. Don’t you think?

This is what is so seriously disconcerting about the nature of any crisis. How do we get the people in the know to both fight the problem and explain the problem at the same time? That’s why we have governments. To make things happen and put resources where they are needed. Unfortunately, governments have other goals than giving information. Like withholding information so as to avoid panic.

Which leaves us dependent on heroes. People who do things because they know they have to be done. I suspect we are going to be talking for a long time about the men (and I don’t know if there are women there as well) who are probably giving their lives at this moment.

Meanwhile thousands are flooding into Haneda and Narita to fly out of Tokyo. That includes some of my family members who went to the airport five hours early to contend with the lines last night and are, I trust, now on their way to Oregon. Others are staying behind to care for the dogs, the cats, the goldfish and the turtle.

Taku sent some money yesterday for relief. I hope it gets put to good use.

Just thinking about the whole idea of giving money to Japan because it needs it worse than we do is probably the most sobering thought I’ve had in a long time.

A very agonizing time, this is.

Focus on the face of that soldier who just rescued the baby.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Streets of London

One of the features of this brave new instant communication world is that we have cameras everywhere and the ability to upload things onto the internet. That gives us the possibility of zooming in on misery, if we choose. I was watching scenes of rescue this morning. An old man coming out of buried rubble with a smile on his face. The Japanese can do it so disarmingly simply. "Are you all right?" "I'm all right." And, in Japanese, it's all done with one word. "Daijobu?" "Daijobu."

Then come the scenes of people telephoning their loved ones, telling them they are alive. Here, they're not so stoic. Here you see even the steel-spined Japanese breaking down.

I am not recommending it. I am feeling the need to pull away from my computer where I have been transfixed by the earthquake and tsunami wreckage, and have been complaining of the endless loops that inevitably take over the TV screens as the news agencies work the "oh my God" factor.

I think the thing to do is watch enough to know what's happening, and then pull away. Unless you have the stuff to take it all in, endlessly. If you can do that, more power to you.

I've had perhaps too heavy a dose. Comes from watching a place I still call home undergoing a brutal assault of nature. I think if I were in Japan I might actually be more likely to get on with things. Most of the country is probably going on with its daily life. No better way of dealing with catastrophe.

Sooner or later, though, people are going to have to deal with the grief.

Here's one way, I think. At least it works for me.

Fortunately, there are people with the capacity to see beauty in not turning away but becoming sober and artful about the dark side.

My friend Ed sent me the lyrics of a song written, if I have it right, by Ralph McTell in 1969. There's a YouTube version of him singing it, at any rate. And then Ed sent a video of a German singer doing the German version of the song. It's called "The Streets of London."

(First two verses):
Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the paper,
with his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
And held loosely at his side
Yesterday's paper telling yesterday's news

So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind

Have you seen the old girl
Who walks the streets of London
Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?
She's no time for talking,
She just keeps right on walking
Carrying her home in two carrier bags.

So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind

And here's the German version, sung:


Saturday, March 12, 2011

When home sneaks up on you

My friend Dan sent me a link to Nicholas Kristof’s column, " Sympathy for Japan, and Admiration," in yesterday’s New York Times, with the notation, “This blog entry from Nicholas Kristof seems pitch-perfect to me. I'd like to learn your response, if possible.”

I thought I’d share my response with you.


Thanks for sending that Nicholas Kristof piece. I would have missed it.

I've never liked descriptions of national cultures. Almost any attempt to describe a national culture says more about the parts you are predisposed to see and about your accidental encounters than it does about your ability to find objective truths.

On the other hand, what Kristof is describing has been seen by so many people you have to acknowledge he's probably got it right.

You invite me to comment. How could I possibly resist? Since I don't know how one would actually do an objective description of a nation or a national culture, I am inclined to stick with the strictly personal.

I think this expression of admiration for the Japanese spirit is right on. There is something quite special about the way Japanese give meaning to the words order, conscientiousness, resilience, patience and endurance. I'd add another virtue others don't always include in this list of stereotypical Japanese virtues - generosity.

I've had five years now to put Japan behind me. I live in the present pretty much and Japan doesn't register with me every day anymore. It's no longer part of my daily consciousness. My Japanese is slipping and I don't follow the political goings-on. But when the Huffington Post sent an alert to Taku's i-Phone and we turned on the TV to see what it was all about, I sat there transfixed watching the horror and fighting back the urge to cry. It wasn't just concern about family and other loved ones. It was watching Japan take such a hit that was getting to me.

My loyalty to Japan runs deep. I care what happens to the place. They gave me a home - a good one (I don't describe people as generous without good reason) - and it still feels like home. As long as I have the permanent visa it is home, in Robert Frost's sense - "the place where, if you have to go there they have to take you in." I've decided to give it up because I see no prospect on the horizon of returning there, but it pains me every time the thought crosses my mind that I'm about to sever that connection.

Unlike so many who go to Japan for cultural reasons, I went there simply because a job was handed to me, and over the years I wondered what the hell I was doing there, so weak was the draw. I took a long time to start learning the language, never really was on the same wave length on so many issues, barely paid any attention to the popular culture.

Perhaps for that reason when the awareness came that it had become home, it came without bells and whistles. It was simply quietly the place I lived and worked. It was full of annoyances and I was always happy to get on a plane and get away. And it always felt like home each time I would get back. When I got my "green card" and found I could stand in the Japanese passport line I couldn't believe where the feelings of pride were coming from. The sign at Narita says "Welcome to Japan" in English and "Welcome home" in Japanese and I always read the Japanese and ignored the English.

This quiet seduction can't be analyzed on the basis of Japanese virtues. It's not because Japanese are hard-working, because the streets are safe, because the trains run on time that Japan has my love and affection, as much as I like all these things. It's because Japan has created a society of people that works and because it ultimately opened its doors to me and let me become a part of the place, despite years of kvetching about how difficult it was to do so. I used to go to Thailand and feel envious of the expats who lived there among all the smiles, and come back to Japan and shudder at all the grouchy faces. I used to go to Italy and wonder why I lived with the tackiness of the Japanese urban landscape instead of the elegance of Florence and Rome and Venice. I used to go to Berlin and wonder why I chose Japan over Germany when push came to shove. So many other places had more to offer. They were tropical island vacations to Japan's bus tour to Atlantic City. But Japan, for all its faults and limitations, was home. In the end, when I complained about dirty politicians I realized it was because I thought the Japanese deserved better. When I complained about the tackiness of the architecture, it was because I saw the potential for so much more.

It shouldn't surprise me to discover that the place has grown on me. After all, I gave it over two decades of my life. But it does. Everything came with a great cost. I had a wonderful teaching situation and my university treated me very well indeed. But the politics of the place, in the end, made me feel like retirement was a Great Escape. Living in the Tokyo area meant hours of every day on a train, often standing jammed in and uncomfortable. San Francisco is the place where I became who I am today and Japan could never replace the loyalty I felt to the Bay Area. Because same-sex marriage is recognized neither in Japan nor in California, Taku and I had to live apart. I've never held back my view that the world isn't the one I'd create if I were its king.

But there is always time to pick away at Japan's limitations. This isn't one of them. Japan has been knocked down and I feel it's time for others to join Nicholas Kristof, especially those of us who know the place but are looking on from outside, to show admiration and affection, I think.

Japan just sort of sits there. It isn't flashy. It doesn't look at me with sexy eyes and say, "Come, let us make mad passion love." (It may to others.) It doesn't suggest it is a place to party, or a place to relax, particularly. It doesn't claim to be a place to do anything you can't do elsewhere, actually, unless you commit yourself entirely to its uniqueness. It's just there. Familiar. Comfortable. Friendly. Safe. Interesting. Reliable. Worthy of respect.

One of the better places in the world.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Contraceptive mentalities and other errors

Q: Where does this error of thinking about marriage as “solely for the benefit of adults” come from?

A: Well, if you trace it back far enough, I’m convinced it comes from the contraceptive mentality.

The Church has always understood that the two ends of marriage are: first, the procreation and education of offspring and, second, the union of the man and the woman for the mutual good of the two spouses. They’re inseparable. The contraceptive mentality, however, attempts to separate those two.

When contraception became much more available and prevalent because of marketing, as well as technology in the ’60s, we began to see much more sexual promiscuity. With more promiscuity, you have more children born out of wedlock. Because contraception is not perfect — it misfires, so to speak — children are conceived, so now we need abortion as a backup. We also see a rise in divorce.
This question and answer comes from an interview in the National Catholic Register last month with the Roman Catholic bishop of Oakland, Salvatore Cordileone. You won’t find a clearer outline of the premodern framework under which the Vatican I wing of the church is functioning.

Just look at what’s in this simple exchange.

1. focus on error
The two Roman Catholic churches, Vatican I and Vatican II, start from different places. Like their Protestant Fundamentalist counterparts, Vatican I oriented Catholics focus on authority and obedience. The Protestant Fundamentalists cherry pick the Old Testament for evidence of the fury of an angry God, rage about sin and wrongdoing and the punishment that is coming soon with the end times. Where they focus on scripture, the hardliner catholics focus on the magisterium, the teaching authority of a papacy-centered institution, where you’re either submissive and obedient or your soul is damned. Vatican II Catholics, like members of most mainstream protestant denominations, speak of Christian charity, concern themselves with community and pastoral care, and leave the judgments to God himself.

2. marriage as “solely for the benefit of adults”
Note the hidden slam against those who define marriage as a contract between two people who have determined to go through life committed to each other, in contrast to the church which insists sex is a bad thing unless one does it with the intention to procreate. In this black and white world, one chooses procreation or one chooses chastity. There is no place in between. 80% of catholics admit to practicing birth control, something which distresses Bishop Cordileone and others in the either/or Vatican I mindset. The rest of the modern world understands that one can have both sex and love, can see marriage as about adult partnership and about raising children, that there is no reason to surrender the joys of life because a pope says one ought to. Even within the church there was overwhelming opposition to the most recent encyclical on family planning, Humanae Vitae and every single one of the lay members of the pontifical birth control commission joined 172 American theologians and other Catholics in rejecting the encyclical as “outdated, inadequate and not binding on conscience." Cordileone is in the tiny minority on this issue.

3. contraceptive mentality
One would have to work pretty hard to come up with a sillier reduction of human rights to a "sex is naughty" mindset. One uses birth control to avoid having children. It’s not a mentality, it’s a way of having sex responsibly, of not bringing unwanted children into the world, of not forcing women into motherhood before they’re ready. If ever there was evidence that the decision to practice birth control ought to be in the population at large and not in the hands of a small bunch of closed-minded old men, this is it.

4. contraception became much more available and prevalent because of marketing
The longer this goes on the greater the inclination to laugh. Marketing? Marketing brought on birth control? Did the individual desire to avoid having children not play into this? Does Cordileone really think selling condoms is on the same plane as selling shiny fast automobiles?

5. promiscuity … abortion as a backup … a rise in divorce
– Promiscuity – sex is bad, you see
– Abortion as a backup? Backup? I’m not a woman, but it’s not that much of a stretch for me to imagine precious few, if any, women see abortion as a “backup.” This notion alone ought to disqualify Cordileone from speaking on the subject.
– As for a rise in divorce, we ought to remind ourselves here that all over the world there are women imprisoned in marriages and living without a voice. Cordileone would have us go back to a time when that was common in our societies, as well.
If I wanted to see what the Middle Ages look like, I could get into a time machine and travel back to the 14th Century. Or I could get in my car, go down Telegraph to 52nd, get on the freeway for a mile or two, off at Harrison, and knock at the door at 2121. Hi there, Your Excellency. Would you mind showing me around?

But I suppose he’s busy. And I’ve got to take the dogs for a walk.

P.S. It will come as no surprise that Cordileone is one of the signers of the Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience. That puts him in bed with Charles Colson, Tony Perkins, James Dobson and other right-wing ideologues fighting against the rights of gays and lesbians to marry in the United States and urging civil disobedience of health care workers at hospitals where abortions are performed. You may remember that Apple had an app for the Manhattan Declaration on their iPhones, iPads and iTunes, which they removed when thousands protested it promoted bigotry and homophobia.

And, speaking of the two Catholic Churches... here's evidence of the same split among Protestants. A group known as the Progressive Christian Alliance has objected to the Manhattan Declaration. Cordileone's arguments are now spilling over into right-wing American politics. And the lines that once divided Protestants and Catholics have faded. Today the lines are between supporters, both religious and non-religious of enlightenment values including universal human rights on the one hand, and authoritarians, largely religious, both Catholic and Protestant, on the other.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Baron Cut and Paste

Charlie Sheen and the Baron Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg have something in common. For a brief period, and at roughly the same time, both have dominated the news, one in the United States, one in Germany, and reminded us just what fools we mortals can be.

The parallel ends there, though. In the American case, watching Charlie Sheen’s wheels come off his wagon has had zero redeeming social value. Focusing on him says more about us than about him. If we had any decency, we’d turn away. Instead, every comedian, every TV talk show, everybody has had a heyday with poor Charlie. As a San Francisco columnist put it this morning, we are like the folks that used to go down to Bedlam and watch the antics of the insane. We get a good laugh and we feel superior. Bully for us.

The German case is different. The situation there held German society up to the light and exposed a whole bunch of dismaying facts about how it works, and a couple encouraging ones, as well. Charlie’s story showed only that we can be weak. The Baron KT’s case has revealed that, and a whole lot more.

“Baron Googleberg,” as he is being called, or “Baron Cut and Paste,” has fallen on his face from a very high place. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he was on his way to the very top. He went from being head of the CSU in Bavaria, and thus part of Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU ruling party administration, to Economics Minister and from there to Defense Minister. Until a few weeks ago, when it was revealed that he had plagiarized almost half of his doctoral dissertation in law at the University of Bayreuth. Pretty hot stuff, when it comes to political scandals.

What’s baffling about the Freiherr (=Baron) Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester von und zu Guttenberg (from and of the place that carries the family name)’s case is why a man in his position would ever take such a risk. It has gotten harder to copy other people’s stuff now that everybody knows how to use search engines. You can type in text and see instantly whether it has been lifted. My first thought was this guy can’t be too bright.

But if he’s stupid, you have to wonder how he became such a rising star? What’s the story here? Is it, as some comedians suggest, simply explained by the fact that doctoral dissertations are so boring that nobody reads them? And he knew that? Is it that he’s so arrogant he didn’t think he’d ever have to explain himself? Is it that the internet has changed our attitudes toward intellectual property? Is it that nobody has very high expectations of politicians in the first place? How about the possibility that being young and handsome, rich, married to beauty and brains just sets you up for a fall? All sorts of questions like these are flying around as the dust settles. Germany seems to be polarizing around him. The right is claiming the left, with all those effete intellectuals and their witch hunting media friends are out to get this hero. The left is claiming the scandal is worse than it first appeared. It’s more, they say, than just about the theft of intellectual property. Now the real problem is the arrogance of wealth and power behind first his denial of the story entirely, then an attempted cover-up, and now into a battery of outrageous arguments – he’s too good to lose, the crime was trivial, he’s only human.

Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester von und zu (when you've got a "zu" you have a whole lot more than just a "von"), age 39, is not only German nobility himself. He is married to nobility, as well. His wife Stephanie is the great great granddaughter of Bismarck. Moreover, she is as popular in her own right as he is, as a talk show host and author of a book on child abuse.

To a lot of people, plagiarizing is something like jaywalking. Not smart. Not legal. But forgiveable.

I don’t share that view. I taught writing for over twenty years and I lived with plagiarism always just around the corner. No matter how much time I spent teaching students how to summarize and paraphrase, the temptation to simply reproduce text without attribution was ever-present and I dealt with it constantly. My encounters with plagiarists were pretty small potatoes compared with the fall from grace of Germany’s Minister of Defense for representing the work of other scholars as his own while working on a doctoral degree in law. But I developed the view that virtually all of my writing teacher colleagues held as well, that you don’t trivialize the importance of trust. My students were second language learners and largely unfamiliar with the concept of intellectual property. But I held them to an absolute standard of honesty, even at the early learner stage. KT’s failure to do this at the doctoral level – in a degree in law, no less, is something I consider no trivial matter.

I can understand why one might be inclined to show sympathy for KT. I’ve written a doctoral dissertation and am intimately familiar with the process. We used to say almost anybody could do it with not much more than average smarts, but only if they can find the stamina. It’s a humiliating process for many. You have your ego torn apart and built back up again in a feudal environment, and there are days when the challenges seem insurmountable. On top of it all, just when you get your confidence back and begin to sense you’re on the verge of accomplishing great things, your advisor tells you, “Don’t think of the dissertation as a life’s work – it’s a quick and dirty demonstration of your abilities and nothing more – save your first book for later; just get it done.” I’ve known people who didn’t take that advice to eschew perfection and ended up dropping out. I have no trouble understanding how KT, when faced with such moments, might have crossed the line. It takes considerable clarity in your thinking not to cross that line.

If you don’t go into an academic profession, one has to ask why you would want a PhD in the first place. The obvious answer for a politician and a businessman like KT is the prestige, which is probably especially relevant in Germany, where if you have two doctorates they call you Herr Doktor Doktor. In my case it was less a love of learning that motivated my returning to grad school, at least initially, than a desire not to be pushed around in third rate jobs. I’m not inclined to question people’s motives. Besides, while a politician doesn’t need a PhD, his dissertation was on constitutional law in the U.S. and Europe. He probably deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to motivation.

The question of KT’s motivation in getting a PhD would normally be irrelevant to the issue of plagiarism except for the fact that his defenders, including Angela Merkel, are downplaying his time in academia as insignificant. “I didn’t hire him to be an academic,” she said, implying we should judge him on his political qualifications and dismiss all this fuss about his academic ones.

Now that’s out of the frying pan into the fire, as far as I’m concerned. What a doctoral degree is supposed to represent is the ability to do independent research and be trusted to get it right. It’s a licensing mechanism. Historians, teachers, lawyers and other professionals are not as likely to have life and death decision power over you as doctors do, say, but anybody who has been led astray by lies (and sometimes even by just bullshit) can understand that the theft of intellectual property marks a thief as surely as the theft of a car or a purse. What you hope you get with a PhD degree is a top of the line bullshit detector, the ability to produce and evaluate information in the most useful possible way. When an academic (even a temporary one) is seen to be manipulating information instead of using it productively, you have the researcher equivalent of a shyster lawyer, a quack doctor, or an engineer who bypasses earthquake codes when building bridges and schools. If you think this is overly dramatic, give me a better rule of thumb for trusting strangers out in the world.

So this is where the story gets interesting for me. I wish KT no harm. In fact, I’d like to see him eat a little crow, show some sincere contrition, pick himself up and get back to business. Not that I agree with his politics. I read somewhere that he once tried to get a street in Berlin named for Ronald Reagan.

But what’s going on in Germany is disconcerting. Not only does Angela Merkel want to downplay KT’s little contretemps, to put it the way she sees it. KT’s own father baked him a cake with “We’re with you, KT” and held a little rally at the family castle in Guttenberg, complete with complaints about a witchhunt.

OK, so that’s just fatherly love. What about the YouTube called “We love you, Gutti!” ? What about all those facebook sites? The Swiss magazine Blick reported the other day, that while 7500 people have signed on to a Facebook page called “Students and Academics against Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg”, and some 47,000 have formed a group called “Wir wollen Guttenberg nicht zurück (We don’t want Guttenberg back),” two other groups have formed on Facebook, one with some 400,000 signatories, called “Gegen die Jagd auf Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg” (“Against the (witch) hunt on Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg”) and one with 563,897 signatories, and counting, called “Wir wollen Guttenberg zurück. (We want Guttenberg back.)”

It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Beside the fact that at least one site is claiming the pro-KT Facebook figures are a fake, is this a Rorschach test of German society, with the masses falling for a handsome prince and his lovely princess? Have they drunk the Kool-Aid and come to believe it’s all a leftist plot? A witch hunt? That Germany has so few good politicians that we can’t afford to lose this winner of a guy? What are we to do with all the new information coming out about how KT maybe wasn’t in charge as Defense Minister and failed to get the story straight about a death of a German soldier in Afghanistan? And what about that alleged mutiny in the navy, when a sailor refused to climb a sail after somebody fell to his death? And what about his claim to management experience when appointed economics minister? Is his “company” a real company? Or simply a cover for the family fortune? Are these issues that were properly put to rest? Or should they be reinvestigated? Is this lefty mudslinging? Or sloppy investigative journalism put right at long last?

I’m greatly encouraged by the fact that some 63,609 doctoral and other students and researchers have signed a letter of protest over Merkel’s attempted trivialization of the plagiarism. And they’re not mincing words. The letter speaks of “massive, systematic deception,” and shows serious annoyance at being written off as “footnote fanatics” from the “ivory tower.”

The rallies scheduled in twenty German cities in support of KT have pretty much gone up in smoke. Where some showed up, they were met with others in a counter protest. That probably says as much in the long run as the pro-KT “likes” on Facebook.

The consequences of the scandal are still unfolding. Merkel could conceiveably lose the next election over this. KT’s plans to reduce the size of the German army dramatically could be overridden by his successor as Defense Minister, Thomas de Maizière. From KT’s own perspective, the negatives must appear pretty daunting. The media are all over him. Der Spiegel is calling this scandal Xeroxgate. Bayreuth University has taken back his law degree. And people all over Germany are picking up the pieces. Imagine how his dissertation advisor, Peter Häberle, feels at this moment. He’s apparently gone into hiding.

Whether KT does some serious revising of his personal ethical code and comes out the wiser, or whether he allows the mass support for him, as well as voices in his conservative party framing him as a victim, to turn his head, remains to be seen. Where he goes from here is anybody’s guess.

There’s even a group trying to make him King of Bavaria.

Wouldn’t that put them effete intellectuals and all their plagiarism nonsense in their place.