Monday, August 31, 2009

Election Short Notes

Here's some short notes from the election:

* The DPJ had a good night, ending up with 308 seats. Not enough for a supermajority, but that matters little; they were pledged to govern in coalition before the election and they need the support of their coalition partners in the upper house. Besides, for the past couple of years the LDP has amply demonstrated how little use the supermajority override has in practice.

* The JCP (the Communist party) and the SDPJ (Social Democrats) stayed pat with 9 and 7 seats respectively. No idea how their support has changed as I haven't found any final vote percentages yet. Still, given that the current system disfafours small parties, they should probably be pleased they didn't lose any seats.

* LDP had a bad night, with 119 seats, down from 300. Not as bad as it could have been of course; they kept well above the psychological disaster zone of 100 seats. And the system exaggerates electoral shifts, so the support drop was not as large as the seat loss may indicate. I'll follow up on that once I find vote percentages.

* New Komeito did something I frankly didn't believe them capable of: losing almost a third of their seats in one go, inkluding that of party president Ota. They dropped from 31 seats to 21, losing every single single-seat district they had (eight seats before the election), retaining only proportional seats. They have an incredibly loyal, stable supporter core of Soka Gakkai members that will literally stay with the party until death. But it appears that the core is smaller than many people have been led to believe, and to me at least the party now looks a lot more vulnerable than it seemed before the election.

* The raving loons of the Happiness Realization party, political wing of the "Happiness Science" cult, didn't manage to do anything. They didn't come close anywhere; the most I've found was one guy in Hyogo that got about 10% of the vote, but typically their candidates got no more than 2%-4% of the local vote and often below one percent. They usually had 1/5 to 1/10 of the votes of the next to last finisher. Even independents of the "My Indignant Letters to City Hall are Ignored - I Will Run In the Election And Show Them All!"-variety frequently outpolled them. That said, I'm not sanguine about religious cults entering politics. The deserve being watched carefully and their insane beliefs called out, not just laughed at1.

* Aso will resign, as will most of the LDP party leadership. Several faction heads and other top members have lost their seats. Koike Yuriko lost, which is especially interesting as she was talked about as successor to Aso. Won't be easy when she lost her district. Noda Seiko, another high-profile female LDP member also lost her seat. The LDP seems to be postponing their party leader election (meant to be held at the end of September).

This makes it very clear just what kind of a pickle the LDP is in right now. Chains of command, orders of succession, carefully balanced power centers and webs of favours and counterfavours are all disrupted by the election. Their own decision structures are no longer fully in place any more and my guess it will take a good deal of time (and perhaps a great deal of infighting) simply to realign the party organization to the new reality of being a 100-seat opposition party and be able to make decisions as a unified body again. They need time to come to terms with not being in power, they need time to elect a new leader, to analyze the defeat and to come up with a constructive new set of policies.

This is time they really don't have. The next upper house election is next year (yay, we get to do this - speaker cars and everythng - all over again!), and they will need to present themselves as chasticed, reformed and unified of purpose if they don't want another beating at the polls. And remember, the upper house election is for half the house each time - the half up for election is weighing even between LDP/New Komeito and the other parties while the other half (elected in 2007) is already solidly DPJ. It means that LDP would need a clear majority win to get control over the upper house; drawing even would not do. Even a small slip would give sole control to the DPJ. And Komeito is clearly no longer in a position to pull their full weight in the next election either.

--

#1 This certainly applies for New Komeito/Soka Gakkai, Christian Democrat parties and others as well.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

DPJ is the winner

Right now we have 224 confirmed seats for DPJ against 49 for the LDP. The combined opposition parties are within a few seats of a majority. It's completely clear that the DPJ will be well over the 240 seats they need for a simple majority, and it seems likely that they'll break the 300 seat barrier, completely reversing the LDP landslide in 2005. A few people are speculating that they may squeeze up to the 320 seats needed for a supermajority.

The numbers don't really matter; as far as the overall result is concerned the election is over, and it's a DPJ landslide. The fallout is already beginning: Aso is reportedly (and not surprisingly) resigning as LDP leader, for instance. Ota, leader for New Komeito may lose his district against a DPJ newcomer (he'll still get in on the proportional block of course). If something really surprising happens before we go to bed I'll post it, but otherwise I'll leave the shot-by-shot coverage to Observing Japan and Our Man in Abiko

Hatoyama

New Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama with his wife around 1970.

Remember, kids, posting pictures of yourself on Facebook may be all fun and games, but it may not seem like such a good idea thirty years from now.

Election Day

After years of coy teasing and feeling each other up, the country and the parties finally embraced for election in late July. The parties' long dormant election machinery quickly rose to the occasion and thrust themselves into the public view.

For the past month the parties have been mumbling sweet nothings to the electorate through their speaker cars and their volunteers have pounded out posters and pamphlets, thrusting them into the hands of an eager public. Today the long campaign is finally climaxing in an orgiastic burst of votes flowing out all over the country.

The worn-out campaigners may well be excused if they lean back and relax for a bit tomorrow, perhaps with a cigarette.

See the hand, Follow the hand

See the hand. Follow the hand. The hand knows.


So what will be born out of this process? It looks like my prediction may have been overly cautious. To my amazement the DPJ did not manage a single self-inflicted disaster, and looks set to achieve a majority. People are even speculating on the (remote) possibility of them achieving a 2/3rds majority on their own. The LDP seems to fall hard, and even the party leadership has had to stay and campaign in their own districts rather than travel and help other members.

Some credit for this outcome must be given to the different campaigns. Tobias Harris points out that the DPJ has run a completely positive campaign, talking only about what they want to achieve and largely ignoring the LDP. The LDP in turn has run a largely negative campaign, and mostly talked about, well, what the DPJ wants to achieve. It's a sad indictment on a party when it's best election efforts only manages to reinforce their opponents message.

We're not going to worry too much about the election here. The weather is good - a little hazy but pleasantly cool - so we'll have lunch at a Spanish restaurant near Midosuji, then take a walk around town. I'll drag my Pentax 67 along, see if I can find something interesting election-related to shoot, and we'll shop for tonight's dinner. Tomorrow is a workday so we're off to bed early; we'll see the election results once we get up tomorrow morning.

If you want to look at the election in much more detail, check out Harris' blog, Observing Japan for a lot of background and analysis. stippy.com has an idiosynchratic cheat sheet of sorts for people that want to follow along in detail. Transpacific Radio (which, to be honest, I have never listened to) will hold a live webcast.

The Mainichi Shinbun has an election site, as does the Asahi Shinbun and Yomiuri Shinbun. I have no idea which one is better; they all get fed the same data though so it probably doesn't matter.

Kyodo news agency has an English-language site with a neat, graphical at-a-glance illustration for those who can't be bothered with actual words or numbers.

I guess there won't be any actual data to look at until after 20:00 when the polls close. If anyone knows of a better source than these to get a good overview of the election, feel free to drop a note in the comments.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Posters - The Last Appeal

The election is just two days away. As the voters walk through town to the polling stations the parties have one final chance to appeal, through the wordless faces of the party leaders pleading with the electorate from their campaign posters. Ignore the words on these campaign posters for the moment and let's read what their faces seem to be saying us.

DPJ Poster

DPJ, Yukio Hatoyama: "We care. We care about you and we're concerned about you. We're concerned and caring. You can see my concern and my care right here, in my eyes. Look into my eyes, and see my concern, and my care, deep in my eyes. Come close and look deep into my eyes. Look deeper, deeeper. You are feeling sleeepyy, so sleeepy. You see nothing but my eyes. You feel relaxed and happy and care only about my eyes. You will vote DPJ on Sunday. You will vote DPJ ..."


Komeito Poster

New Komeito, Akihiro Ota: "Come Sunday I know you'll vote Komeito, right? 'Cause you care about fairness, right? I got this religious cult, see, full of members that are all zealous-like about fairness, and they get disappointed when we don't get our fair share of votes, see. They're like kids to me, these people, just like my own kids, right, and I get real upset when they get all disappointed. We had dis guy disappointin' us one time, see, and I got so upset I freakin' snapped his neck with dese hands here, dry twig-like, just snapped it clean off, so upset was I, see. So you don't want to be disappointin' us in any way on Sunday, understand?"


JCP Poster

JCP, Kazuo Shii: "Hello, um, is this thing on? Hi, we're the radical party! Um, except, you know, not radically radical, don't worry, heh. We're really reliable and stable, in fact. Um, our platform hasn't changed since before the war, and hasn't touched reality in decades, that's how stable and reliable we are. Um, what? Slogan? Oh, OK. Comrades, listen up! Let Us Boldly March - no, scratch that, sorry, forget I said anything - Let Us Gingerly And After Careful Deliberation Slowly Edge Backwards To A Past Where We Still Were The Future!"


asoposter

LDP, Taro Aso:1: "We're so fucked."


[Edit: It helps if you actually spell people's name right]

--
#1 In two weeks of idle searching I couldn't find a single Aso poster anywhere in town, so I had to get this one from the LDP website.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rokko Mountain

Rokkosan

Panoramic view from Rokko mountain. Click on the image for a somewhat larger version. You can also view the really large size, though that one is big.

In the center foreground is Kobe's Sannomiya area, with Port Island (site of Ikea and the airport) to the right. In the background left is Osaka city (I think you technically can see our house from here), becoming Sakai city toward the right along the coast. Way in the back on the right, a narrow strip of lights in the sea is Kansai Airport (in the huge version above you can see the bridge connecting it to the mainland).


Our only excursion during this year's Obon holiday was a day trip to Rokko mountain in Kobe. Eastern Kobe lies along a fairly narrow strip of land between the sea to the south and the steep slope of the Rokko mountain to the north. It's pretty high - more than 700 meters - so the climate is notably cooler and drier, and the views can be spectacular.

Rokkosan Cable Car

The cable car ground station.


You can go up by bus on steep, winding roads, or you can take the cable car at the foot of the mountain. You get there by bus from any of the three railway stations (JR, Hanshin and Hankyuu lines) passing by below. The cable car itself is fun, with big open windows and a glass roof that gives you a good view as you get pulled up some very steep gullies and through a number of tunnels on the way to the top.

Corporate Retreat

The mountain top is littered with corporate retreats and summer homes, used for conferences and parties. This one seems maintained but clearly unused (that's why I could get right up to it); the company could be bankrupt, or they may simply have sold the place and the new owners have yet to take it in hand.


There's apparently a lot of outdoorsy things you can do up on the mountain, with a sports center, parks, golf course, hiking trails, farms to visit and so on. For those, like us, with a less physical approach to leisure time the Rokkosan hotel is an alternative.

Beer with a View
Beer with a view

The hotel is a charming, fairly old but well-kept building with plenty of atmosphere (you could shoot a Stephen King movie here I think, or a murder mystery) and some spectacular views of Kobe and the Seto sea. It seems to do a fair amount of weddings so there's gardens and a wedding chapel right on the hotel grounds. If you're not in a marrying frame of mind you can skip the chapel and go up up on the roof to see the landscape below, or take a break in the bar on the top floor with the same spectacular view.

The hotel runs two restaurants in separate buildings right on the edge of the precipice, one an indoor fondue and general Western food, and the other one a mostly outdoor barbecue place with three levels of balconies overlooking the mountainside. We ate at the all-you-can-eat barbecue place ("Djingis Khan" is the Japanese name for it) where you pick up meat, fish and vegetables from the buffet and grill on the hot plate on your table while watching the sun set over the sea.
 
Djingis Khan

Ritsuko and the barbecue place. Surprisingly good food, and with a good atmosphere.


This kind of place is family oriented of course, and usually aims for affordability over quality. Knowing that, we were very positively surprised. Lots of good quality meats, sausages, fish and shellfish to choose from, and the vegetables, too, were fresh and plentiful. I must have eaten a dozen scallops alone, to say nothing about all the lamb, squid and buttered corn I managed to stuff myself with. For dessert you could pick among an assortment of puddings and cakes, and some really good stick ice cream in three flavours. 90 minutes was either not nearly long enough, or too long already, depending on whether you care more about the food or the resulting waistline.

All pictures and more are in the Rokko Mountain set on Flickr.

Sannomiya

Detailed image of Sannomiya. It really hits you how much of Kobe is just a narrow strip of land between the mountain and the sea. Makes the Kobe subway system layout, with two lines running in parallel, seem much more sensible too.


Rokkosan Hotel Barbecue

The view really is beautiful.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dwindling Regions

The always interesting Jun Okumura at Globaltalk 21 has an interesting post about the (mis)use of "urban" and "rural" as terms for a very different dichotomy, between densely populated growth areas with much of the political, cultural and economic power on one hand; and stagnating regions on the other. I'm not going to wade into the terminology issue here, since I have no solution to that. Just try give a good term for places like Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and perhaps Sapporo on one hand; and Aomori, Miyazaki or the infamous Yubari on the other, and do so without building their differing economic and population trends into the definition. It's not so easy.

Anyway, Okumura asks towards the end what, if anything, can reverse the trend in many regions of stagnation and population decline. I suspect that for some places at least there is no stopping the decline. A flawed but quick assessment of a community would be to ask "If there was no village, town or city here today already, would anybody come here and create it?" Places don't spring into existence without reason, and in the long run they don't continue to exist if their reasons to do so are gone.

Perhaps one of the best, most drastic examples in Japan is Hashima island (also called "Gunkajima" - Battleship island - due to its silhouette on the sea). It was a thriving island city built around a productive coal mine. But once the mine was closed in the 1970's, it was quickly abandoned. There was simply no reason left to stay any longer. Today Gunkajima is an amazing place - a densely urban area left to naturally fall apart without human intervention. If you want to know what a modern industrialized city will look like when abandoned, all you have to do is take a look at some of the excellent photography from the place. Annoyingly there is not much high-quality footage posted online; Yuji Saiga has some stunning images, but marred by huge, annoying watermarks that make them almost unwatchable. A search through Google Images gives you another taste. The island is off limits to casual visitors (it's pretty dangerous), but there are occasional tours to small parts of it.

It's sad to say, but a fair number of places in Japan (and elsewhere) is undergoing the exact same process as Hashima island, but over the span of decades and centuries rather than months and years. Most settlements begin for some specific reason: it's a natural harbour; site of a mine, forest or other natural resource; or a river or train transport hub, perhaps. Or they're a company town, with one or two major employers driving the economy. But few reasons remain indefinitely. Mines become depleted, companies move or go bankrupt, transport shifts from rivers to train to roads (and upstream sources of goods may dwindle). Forestry, fishing and farming may be more stable, but they've seen amazing increases in productivity and efficiency. You need far fewer people to work in those fields (sic) than you did a generation or two back; there may simply not be enough farm or forestry workers left in an area to sustain the community that once grew around them.

If a community has reasons to exist independent of the original ones they may be fine. But if they haven't been able to diversify (such as the famous former mining town of Yubari), there just might not be a way to save the place. It's not that people move out - they do, but people move out of all places all the time. It's that without a reason for the town there is no reason for people to move back in any more. That leaves you a population that is dwindling, ageing and becoming less well trained and educated on average over time. that of course just accelerates the pace of change and makes it more difficult to reverse.

Some regional areas will be just fine. But some will not, and in the end there is no policy that will be able to prevent it. The best course in those cases may be to alleviate the hardship for the people affected and make the transition as painless as possible.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Other People's Predictions

To follow up from my own perfectly accurate (until they're proven false) predictions, some people with actual knowledge of politics have been weighing in with their predictions.

First, Tobias Harris of Observing Japan is compiling an "election handbook" and has done a seat-by-seat survey of the chances of every single candidate in the country (I got exhausted just browsing through it). His prediction sees a possible 279 seats for the DPJ, and believes they will manage to get comfortably over the 240 seats needed for a majority. He sees LDP getting 159 seats and New Komeito 15 seats, a substantial loss for both parties (though again, these are probably worst-case figures for them).

Meanwhile, centrist Asahi Shimbun rather optimistically predicts (japanese) a whopping 300 seats for DPJ, completely reversing the 300 seats now held by the LDP. I say "optimistically" not "deludedly" because the Yomiuri Shimbun (close to the LDP) also sees a possible 300 seats for the DPJ according to their survey. Of course, both newspapers have an agenda and may have their own reasons to push the idea of a DPJ landslide. On one hand, the DPJ will want to create the perception of momentum; that tends to bring in undecided voters and fence-sitters. On the other hand, the LDP might want to exaggerate the possible defeat in order to mobilize their base.

Me, I'm still a firm believer in the DPJ's ability to self-destruct, to screw up and bungle even the most surefire win. And I think it unwise to underestimate the LDP election machine; it has long experience of bagging elections after all, and at least passive support of substantial parts of the theoretically neutral civil service. I still think we'll see the DPJ get just about 240 seats, give or take a few. Unlike the people above I also doubt that New Komeito will lose many seats. They have a strong base, a captive audience, and they could probably keep many of their current seats even without campaigning.

Izakaya

A small Yakitory and pub in Shinsaibashi. It's not election related; I just like the picture. It's a good place and we're going there again tonight.

By the way, I have few election-related pictures. The reason is simple: campaigning mostly happens during the day, when I'm at work. In the evenings it's usually too dark (and I'm too tired) to go out and hunt candidates with the camera.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sapporo

Sapporo Manhole
Sapporo manhole cover
with the old clocktower

I was in Sapporo in Hokkaido last weekend on a quick work-related trip. It's Japan's fifth largest city with about 1.9 million inhabitants. It's a fairly new city, and it shows: all the streets are laid out in a neat north-south and east-west pattern, with addresses indexed by the number of streets from the central block with the old clock tower.

As it happened, the meeting and travel schedule left us with part of a day to wander around the city on our own. I'd been there only once before, for a couple of days in winter. It was before I'd moved to Japan; I understood not a word of Japanese and had not a clue about anything related to Japanese society. Combine it with some severe jetlag and my impressions at the time were positive but very fragmentary and confused.

Sapporo Tram

Yes, Sapporo is the kind of city that runs tram lines on the street. Didn't have time to use them, unfortunately.
 
This time it was high summer, no jetlag and I have a better handle on life in this country. To take one example: When we were there about seven years ago we went looking for a place to eat outside our hotel. We failed to find anything until we got to the station and its underground arcade. I happened to pass by the same hotel this time and saw immediately that there are half a dozen restaurants right across the street. Of course, they didn't have big windows or pictures of food, and the signs did not say "restaurant" in English so we completely missed them at the time.

Green, Yellow, Orange
Colorful street

The city is pleasant. Really pleasant; it's seems to be the most comfortable city I've ever visited. The summer climate is near perfect - still hot, but without any of the muggy, clingy humidity of Osaka and other southern cities. From what I remember of my last visit, the winters are also very pleasant, with lots of snow but not very cold.

The whole city layout feels open and clear, with wide, straight streets, broad sidewalks everywhere and no hills or other obstacles to getting around. There's hardly a street without a row of leafy trees to shade you, and lots of parks and green areas wherever you go.
 
Beer Garden

Sapporo is ancestral home to Sapporo beer, and there's both a beer museum and famous Beer Garden that we had no time to visit. But during the high summer in August, a lot of beer companies set up temporary beer gardens in the Odori park; you can find Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi and even foreign beer companies here, with beer (of course) and light foods such as sausages, yakiniku and so on.


It's a large city so everything you'd expect seems to be here, from department stores and large bookstores to small specialists and oddball services. It's a popular tourist destination so much of the business is service oriented. The summer is a major tourist season, and the city center was bustling with people. The city is otherwise famous for it's winter festival, with a large snow-sculpture competition, and the city is popular with skiers.

Sapporo Music Festival

Sunday featured an amateur music festival along the avenue going south from the train station. They closed off the street for the entire afternoon (I think; I was busy the rest of the day), and amateur bands set up and played. Here's one band doing a decent cover of Guns N' Roses Welcome to the Jungle" (a female vocalist works really well for that song).


If this sounds like I'm some gushing fanboy at least I'm not alone. The population of Sapporo has been increasing even the last couple of years, in the face of the economic recession and even as the population of Hokkaido is dropping. Sapporo itself now houses about a third of the inhabitants of the island. Apparently this causes a fair amount of friction between Sapporo and the rest of Hokkaido; I guess that's more or less unavoidable.

Call Me Littlekit

Even the graffiti manages to be interesting rather than ugly. I have no clue whatsoever what this means.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

..and They're Off!

It's the 18th, and the official start of the election campaign (never mind that we've been up to our knees in campaigning politicians for a couple of weeks already). Another twelve days and the thing will be over one way or another. Here's my predictions for the election, nice and precise so it'll be easy to see just how badly I did:


  • DPJ will be the largest party but they'll either just miss the majority mark or they'll get a razor thin majority that leaves them vulnerable to the whims of one or two diet members. Either way they'll need the support of other parties in the lower house, and will elect to work with the same parties they already depend on in the upper house. LDP will suggest a grand coalition but be turned down. They'll claim the DPJ is irresponsible, unpatriotic and really mean, nasty poopyheads for refusing to share when it was their power to begin with. So there.


  • The Insane Clown Posse Let's Preventatively Nuke Our Enemies To Increase Japans Greatness And Pave The Way For The Triumphant Return Of Our Alien Overlords, Jesus And Martin Luther To The Reformed Continent Of Atlantis In The Year 2400 Party1 Happiness Realization Party will get one surprise Diet member through the proportional representation system. Most of their voters feel very embarrassed about supporting them once they find out what the party platform really is.


  • The New Komeito will hold steady. They'll lose some loyal voters through attrition (many are elderly) but will pick up some LDP protest voters that sees a coalition partner vote as a safe way to show their displeasure.


  • JCP and the other small parties will continue to lose seats. With he current election system their days on the national scene is probably numbered, long term.


  • The LDP will face a historic loss. In the upcoming election for party leader its members will conclude that the problem was that a whole year with the same leader is just too long and kick Aso out of office. Aso, having been prime minister and led his party and himself into the history books, has nothing left to prove. He leaves politics to become a day-time TV talento with a penchant for bursting out in Enka at inopportune moments.

    For all its faults, and despite a loss of power, the LDP itself turns out to still be far too valuable as an umbrella organization for its members to abandon it. Instead it will have a couple of small hard-core ideological factions fighting for control over the direction of the party. Meanwhile, most elected members politely ignore them and transform the party into a generic election platform for their own individual agendas. The LDP becomes the first true franchise party where anybody with a will and a wallet can join to push their own agenda.

So there you have it. If I turn out to be right for some strange reason I will of course revisit this post to gloat a bit. If I'm wrong you'll never hear a word of this again.

--
#1 I'm not joking. Of course, their beliefs are really no more absurd or divorced from reality than that of any religion; the old established ones just have a patina of age and a lot of followers to gives them a veneer of respectability.

Monday, August 17, 2009

O-bon; and a quick note on school costs

We've had our O-bon holidays and spent most of it doing nothing much. Went up the Rokko mountain in Kobe once for sightseeing and dinner (I'll post a few pictures later), and I've spent some time developing and scanning negatives and processing images. Since most places were open as usual on Wednesday and Thursday I also took the opportunity to do a bunch of bank errands and such. I can't really do that normally, what with me being at work on weekdays and no bank close to the university.

Wall

Silhouette. I've tried out Delta3200; this shot was exposed at 6400. As you can see there's lots and lots of grain here, but if anything I think it enhances the image.


Anyway, a mildly interesting, but rather short English-language overview of the costs of schooling in Japan in Mainichi yesterday. Takeaway message: school-related costs (not food or clothing or anything, but school) for one child from preschool up to university costs their parents an average of about 8.6 million yen ($90k USD or 660k SKR) for an all-public education, up to 22.5 million ($250k USD or 1.7 million SKR) for all-private schools. Schooling takes about 25% of annual income for high-income families, and over half for people with normal incomes (as a post-doc level researcher I would fall squarely in the normal-income bracket).

Note that the choice between public and private isn't completely free; especially at university level public schools tend to be hard to get into. Also note that these are averages. The article notes that studying science and mathematics is more expensive for students than arts and literature.

It is also worth noting that while individual people decide on a child for all kinds of idiosyncratic-seeming reasons, people are quite rational in aggregate. When the cost of child rearing increases and the benefit of children - as family farm workers, pension insurance and so on - decreases, people respond by having fewer children. The cost of child rearing has increased substantially in Japan; my resident expert informs me that school costs were nothing like this expensive a generation or two ago. The cost of children has increased elsewhere of course, simply because a university exam has gone from a fairly rare luxury almost to a prerequisite for a normal middle-class life. That means both the added cost of university, and another 3-5 years of adolescence (or 20 years and counting in my case).

At the same time, the economic benefits of children have decreased. Few people today have a family business where children are welcome helping hands (to say nothing of the legality of child work). They're still a semi-official part of the pension system in Japan, but that system is in long-term danger of collapse. Fewer pensioners actually have surviving children to take care of them any more. Many middle-aged children find they can't both spend part- or full time taking care of an ailing parent, bring up a child of their own and hold down a job at the same time. This is becoming a frequent theme in TV dramas as well as in real-life tragedies of murder-suicides committed by desperate people unable to cope with the burden.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Shizuoka

Shizuoka prefecture - along the coast between Tokyo and Osaka - isn't having a good week so far. Yesterday, at 5 in the morning, they had a shindo 6, magnitude 6.4 earthquake - strong enough that it woke us up in Osaka. Which was when a typhoon was passing by and drenching the area. It seems only one person died from the earthquake, while at least 13 people have died from the typhoon across the country and dozens more still missing. For all the fear of earthquakes, typhoons are actually both more common and more dangerous.

It lead to a slightly absurd scene on the morning news yesterday where the screen was overlaid with competing disaster information text scrollers and maps, all but covering the announcer. He was busy listing closed train lines and roads, and for some reason adding which disaster was responsible for each closure, as if that matters a whole lot to people unable to travel or even get to work.

This news managed to get top billing for only one day before being pushed back again by this week's real-life soap opera drama of Noriko Sakai - actress/talent with a wholesome Mommy's girl image - and her husband being arrested for drug possession. Apparently this "disaster" is more important to people than a typhoon; the typhoon can't cry and fake repentance on a live press conference, I guess.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Capital Comments.

I'm just back from a short trip to Sapporo; I'll write about it soon, but meanwhile, here's a helpful tip for those who like to post comments anywhere on the net:

When you CAPITALIZE random words to MAKE a POINT, you're NOT really PERSUADING ANYBODY. You JUST make it DIFFICULT to READ your post, and YOU make yourself LOOK like an IRATE CRANK. Please STOP DOING it.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

World Press Photo - Reminder

The World Press Photo is a foundation in Netherlands running a yearly competition for press photographers. And every year the winners and finalists are displayed in an exhibition held around the world over the year. The Osaka exhibition is conveniently right around O-bon next week, from Tuesday the 11th to Thursday the 20th, in Herbis Hall, Umeda. We've gone there the last couple of years and we'll go there this year too. I really recommend you to go see it if you have the chance; check the link above for times and places around the world.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Best Husbands in the World

In a true landmark study (covered by an English-language Swedish paper, Indian business newspaper, Japanese coverage) of impeccable methodology and breathtaking scope, Oxford economist Almudena Sevilla-Sanz has found that the best, most attractive husbands hail from... Sweden. Also near the top is Norway, North Ireland and Britain. At the bottom we find Japan, Germany, Austria and Australia.


Me

As good as it gets, apparently. Oh the humanity...


Just by glancing at the top result it should be quite obvious to anyone that the study is correct; nevertheless, there may be a few fleeting doubts, so let's take a look at the paper itself. As it turns out, of course, the paper is not primarily about the desirability of men in different countries - trust the daily media to focus on that aspect - but really about how gender equality affects the rate of cohabitation and marriage as opposed to single households. Why is that important? The degree of cohabitation affects the birthrate, something countries like Japan and Italy - that battle low birthrates and have low gender equality - should be concerned with.

There's a lot of details - and details matter for this kind of modeling - but Dr. Sevilla-Sanz' idea in brief is that both women and men prefer partners that shoulder their share of the housework, child rearing and other responsibilities in the partnership.

In economic terms (she is an economist), the cost - in time and effort as well as money - of sharing a household increases for a woman when the man is not willing or able to pitch in and help. And when shared households become more expensive, women will become more choosy, and fewer women will live with a partner. On the other hand, of course, in a hypothetical society where men did more than their fair share they would be hesitant to make a household together. The optimal point is when the work is shared equally.

Of course, social norms make men and women shoulder different amounts of responsibility, which decreases the number of shared households. She shows that it is the availability of egalitarian men that is the limiting factor. This has the effect that in a given society, for men that want a partner it's better to be egalitarian, whereas for women it's better not to be. But it's better for both if the society as a whole has a more egalitarian attitude.

To test this model, she looked at an international survey on division of labour and social norms, selecting 13 countries. She compared the survey results with the proportion of people who are married or cohabiting. he finds that indeed, people are more likely to live together in more egalitarian countries and it does seem consistent with the explanation her model gives us. She looks at various other factors (such as age distribution, attitudes towards cohabitation and divorce and the education level of men and women - higher education generally means you're less likely to live with somebody) but she finds they can't explain this effect.

So, men from more egalitarian societies (like *cough* Sweden) are more desirable long-term partners than those from more unequal countries; likewise for women. And whereas more egalitarian men from a given country are more desirable, more egalitarian women are somewhat less so - though that effect is much weaker than the countrywide differences.

As she points out, the proportion of people that live with a partner really affects the countrywide birthrate. I argued in a post a couple of years ago that part reason for the birthrate deline in these societies was that the conservative norms in these countries no longer matched the reality of modern life, making marriage and child rearing too expensive (in a broad sense) for more and more people. Of course, I was pretty much talking out of my hat, like bloggers are wont to do, without any hard data or models to back me up. Dr. Sevilla-Sanz does have a model and data for part of this. As she puts it in the conclusion:

The study of below replacement fertility characteristic of industrialized countries has traditionally overlooked household formation processes. However, cross-country differences in household formation rates are significant. Both, declines in marriage rates and increases in cohabitation rates have followed very different trends across the developed world. In particular, the so-called lowest-low fertility countries, like Italy, Japan or Spain, have experienced a decline in marriage rates that have not been accompanied by increases in cohabitation (and out-of wedlock fertility) rates characteristic of other developed countries. It becomes thus increasingly important to look at household formation processes for the study of fertility.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tsuyu is Over

Tsuyu, the rainy season, is finally over. The meteorological agency has declared it over in the Kinki region from yesterday, 15 days later than usual. And there was much rejoicing... I think.

We'd already guessed it'd be over about now. The air turned perceptively drier on Monday and the temperature climbed from around 30 last week to 35 degrees. According to the agency, we should expect a cooler August than usual; by "cooler" they of course mean "Still too damn hot to leave the comfort of an air conditioner if I can at all help it". It may not creep up to 40 this year, but peak daytime of 35 is still plenty enough thank you very much.

At least we'll be able to dry our umeboshi during Obon next week; we were starting to worry about that.

Monday, August 3, 2009

On Housing

Our Man in Abiko has a quick video up about housing in Japan (his videos are good fun, though I believe Ingmar Bergman can rest easy for a while yet). Mutantfrog has a companion piece with some statistics highlighted. One point Our Man makes is that buildings are badly built and near worthless when old. There's a reason for that.

Old house

Corner house in the neighborhood. It was torn down two years ago.


The climate and the geology here is hard on buildings, with typhoons, hot, humid weather, floods, landslides, earthquakes and so on. The climate and resources also dictate light wooden buildings rather than stone; the islands are volcanic, so there's a relative lack of hard stone good for building, and stone buildings are susceptible to earthquake damage.

And as buildings just weren't expected to last all that long anyway, there was little point in wasting effort and material to overdesign them. Make it last for a generation or two instead, and let people rebuild from time to time. Even temples and shrines sometimes schedule a periodic tear-down and rebuild of their halls.

Yokobori Residence

A peculiarity of the throw-away mentality is that many houses have serious brick or tile facades only toward the street. Out the back they're completely plain, even unfinished-looking.


Today we can make buildings that last longer, but the idea that old houses - single-family homes especially - are near worthless lives on. The land is everything and the building on it is generally worth nothing at all unless near-new. In fact, old buildings may actually detract from the land price since the new owner will have to pay to tear it down.

And since you won't get your money back if you build to last, people usually don't. So you get family homes and apartments with badly insulated paper-thin walls and single-pane windows, no central heating, creaky floors, dingy fake wood paneling and cheap-looking facades. Buildings that naturally are nearly worthless after thirty years, further reinforcing the idea that old buildings are no good.

If a few far-sighted people started building for the long term, attitudes could change of course. But they'd be just one unfortunate landslide or earthquake away from looking less like visionaries and more like wasteful dunces.

Rowhouse

Rowhouses in south Osaka. No new rowhouses are being built and the last pre-war houses are rapidly disappearing, so this will soon be another historical footnote.