Friday, February 25, 2011


I gave a presentation at my home department at Kyoto university this week - I normally work at NAIST in Nara as I'm collaborating with a researcher there - and after the presentation we had a small get-together. Last year, a graduate student had bought a can of Swedish surströmming, fermented herring with a fairly distinct odour (don't confuse it with pickled herring), but had chickened out before opening it. The can had sat unopened for the past year, slowly bulging as the contents fermented, and I was asked to show how to eat it.

Now, this food has a well-founded reputation for being smelly. But if you handle it properly the smell is not a problem. Most of the odour comes not from the fish itself but from the brine. Take the can outside with a bucket or large pot of water, put in the can and open it under water. Pour out the brine in the bucket and dispose of the water. Rinse off the fillets, pat them dry then bring them inside. There'll still be a bit of an smell but it'll no longer be overpowering. The smell soon dissipates - it doesn't cling or stick to anything, and you don't carry it with you after eating the fish either.

The herring itself is good - a fresh sour and salty flavour overlaying a savory base. We had it on bread with sliced cooked potatoes and finely chopped onion. I'd brought a small bottle of snaps, which goes well with it. We were perhaps a dozen people or a few more, all of whom tried it, and the reactions were typical: everybody found it edible, and not nearly as bad as they'd expected (a low bar to clear, admittedly). Most didn't take to it, but some did, and a couple found it quite good and had more than one fillet. The medium-sized can was all gone within the hour.

This is not a tradition in my family so I never grew up with it. But I had it now and again while a student and I like it. About four or five fillets is my normal limit though; bread, potatoes and herring is heavy food. In northern Sweden, where this dish originates, some people eat this perhaps once a week during the season, but once or twice a year is plenty for me. Of course, I hadn't had this for almost ten years so I still have some catching up to do.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What's Eating Ozawa

I've never met Ozawa, I have no background in Japanese politics and I have never studied political science in my life. Take this - and all my political posts - with the consideration it deserves. Caveat lector.

In my previous post, Claire comments on the possibility that Ozawa join forces with one of the new regional parties:

I see what both parties think they could get out of such a tie-up, but it seems like joining up with Ozawa would actually be the kiss of death for someone who's seeking to brand himself as a fresh face.

I don't agree.

Ozawa is an enormously skilled politician. He has a rare ability to take a disparate group and unify them into a well-oiled political machine. Out on the stump he is a master of organizing local efforts to get out the votes and make candidates connect with their voting public. Before Ozawa, the DPJ was a bumbling, ineffectual merger of disparate political groups that were unable to agree on most anything. He, more than anybody else, turned this discussion club into the sharp, unified party that was able to rout the long-time LDP in a general election. The DPJ really is his creation as much as anyones. He has always been - and still is - an enormous asset for any burgeoning political party.

So where does he go wrong? In short, his ambitions do not match his abilities. He wants to become Prime minister, and it is his repeated failed attempts to achieve that position that has been his undoing over the years. It's not that he lacks ability - he is quite possibly the most skilled politician in Japan - but his abilities and his ambitions are misaligned.

Building a political organization and creating an election strategy takes very different skills from being a party leader and prime minister. Ozawa is excellent at the first task; not so much at the second. He is very much like a genius movie director that really rather wants to play the leading role, or the acclaimed conductor that desperately yearns to be the solo violinist.

As long as he is working the back office he is pure gold for any party that has him. But whenever his burning ambition gets the better of him things tend to fall apart. It's not just that he isn't Prime minister material - with the possible exception of Fukuda none of the recent office holders are either - but things go badly because he is such a gifted organizer. Most party members could fight for power without harming their party, but Ozawa can't. He has been a key figure in forging the party into a unified whole, so his power struggles can't but help tearing down that unity again.

A regional party would find Ozawa - his towering skills, his vast national contact networks - almost irresistible. And as long as they can keep a lid on his power ambition he would be an enormous asset. It's telling that the public doesn't resent a party with Ozawa when he is being his organisatorial self. It's only when his ambitions rear their head that the public takes notice. So a regional party may well figure that they can enlist his help for a few years, at which point he may have become too old or frail to continue in politics. Or they may believe that their current political fortunes are better with Ozawa than without, no matter what may happen in the future.

He is called "Ozawa the Destroyer", but what he is mostly destroying is his own impressive legacy, and it is his misplaced ambition that is doing the destruction.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


The man who just keeps bouncing back over and over again after everybody thinks he's gone - no, not Jason, Ozawa - may really be gone this time. Unfortunately, he may decide to bring the DPJ and the Japanese government down with him.

Ozawa was recently formally indicted for his role (if any) in a campaign finance case. DPJ party leader Kan has tried to persuade him to step down ever since, and after he refused, the party governing board decided to suspend him for the duration of the court case. A suspension is apparently according to the internal party rules in such cases.

Now, here is where it gets complicated (it always seems to get complicated whenever Ozawa is involved). He is a strong campaigner and a talented vote-getter. A large group of new DPJ lower house members owe their seats - and their future careers - to Ozawa more than to the party. Ozawa is also very hungry for the prime minister post; that's the one position he has been aiming for for most of his career. In the DPJ leader election last year, Ozawa lost against Kan, but only by a small margin, and he's been looking for another chance ever since.

And it looked like the chance might come soon. The Kan administrations ratings with the public are lousy. The houses are divided, so they need support from at least a couple of small parties to pass any significant legislation - support that the DPJ if finding desperately difficult to drum up. It now looks likely that they will not be able to pass the spring budget. The LDP say they won't vote for any DPJ budget no matter what it contains unless Kan first agrees to call a reelection (and let's generously ignore that the budget bills would be pointless if an election is called), and the smaller parties don't want to attach themselves to a sinking ship. It is only a matter of time until Kan throws in the towel. Enter Ozawa to pick up the fallen mantle, restore the DPJ To Its Full Glory and lead His Glorious Party Into the Glorious Future Under His Glorious Leadership!

Except... He is under suspension, and will be for the duration of the court case. Which might go on for months and months. And under party rules he can't hold any position or stand for election. So if, as seems likely, Kan steps down this spring then Ozawa will be sitting on the sidelines and watch someone else grab the position he so very, very much wants for himself. It'd mean another year or more before another opportunity presents itself, and with his age and health he may not have another couple of years.

So now he is considering leaving the DPJ, taking his supporters along and bringing the governing party down around him. He's done it before - he's called "Ozawa the Destroyer" for a reason - and there's no reason to think he won't do it again. He may well reason that with his chances for premiership gone within the DPJ, he is better off in a new party (with one of the increasingly popular prefectural governors perhaps), and the more damage he can cause to the DPJ on his way out the better.

Sixteen of his lower house members have somewhat incongruously stated that they are no longer part of the governing coalition - although they apparently want to remain in the party. They are threatening to vote against the coming budget bills in revenge of Ozawas suspension; the budget bills presented by their own party, that they seem to think they still belong to. They are effectively saying that unless Ozawa is reinstated and Kan gets the boot, they will leave the party. There's more than a whiff of 3rd-grade "I'll kick and scream until I get my way" playground mentality there.

Now, if Kan actually listens to Ozawa and to whatshisname of the opposition LDP and calls a new election then things could get really interesting. Kan and the DPJ are in dire straits, support-wise, true, but they're not the only ones. For all their bluster about demanding elections, the LDP is completely unprepared for a general election. Newspaper reports say they don't even have viable candidates for many seats around the country, and they're still in the process of downscaling the organization to fit their slimmer economy. Ozawa would not be in a position to contest a general election from the outside at this point either, and he risks having many election-weary voters blame him in part for the whole thing.

So who would win? Seriously, who cares any more? Nobody in this soap opera seems to consider the effect on Japan at large. They're all playing internal politics, manoeuvring for power, while ignoring the corrosive effect this has on Japanese politics. Necessary bills and broadly accepted reforms get lost because somebody can earn a few points by killing them, or they just don't want to give an opponent the satisfaction of achieving something. I'd call these people childish but that'd be doing children an injustice - children grow up, while these sad people never will.


This is not a Diet member. They don't exhibit this sense of responsibility and gravitas.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Son of Return of Revenge of the JLPT1

The Japanese Language Proficiency test results are in, and as expected I failed. Like last year, and like the year before that.

Imazato Line

The test was on the eastern side of Osaka, so I got to go on the Imazato subway line for the first time. It's the newest line in Osaka, and like the Tsurumi-Ryoukushi line it's a linear motor system. The center line on the tracks here is effectively the stator while the train itself is the rotor in a flattened-out electric motor. Look at it go - Wheeee!!!

I didn't study at all for the test, and I didn't aim to pass it in the first place. Like those previous years, I took level 1 as a practice test. This year was the first time with the new scoring system1 which makes it difficult to compare with previous years. I do intend to try for real next year - but then, I said the same thing last year and ended up with no time to do so.

Under the Tracks

Higashi Osaka has a town-y feel to it. It's the kind of place where events seem to pass it by without ever really affecting it. This is a restaurant under the Shinkansen tracks that pass through the city.

I did so-so. Not good - I didn't pass after all - but not a complete disaster either. You have three sections nowadays, with a maximum of 60 points for each. You need to get at least 19 points in each section, and 100 (out of 180) in total to pass. I got 21/60 for vocabulary and grammar; 31/60 for reading and 26/60 for listening. I passed the section minimums, but I would have needed 33-34 points in each section to pass overall. The tests are really not comparable any more but that said, two years ago my score was only 61% of the passing score, last year was 70%, and this year was 78%. If the trend holds I'll pass the test in 2013.

Make a pee-line

The test was at the University of Economics. Large crowds and breaks at about the same time for everyone mean long lines to the bathrooms for the female test takers.

My strong point is reading. It keeps improving and it's now on par with my listening; I guess reading the Asahi Shimbun on the train every morning really helps.

Grammar - well, I suck at that. It's not just Japanese - I suck at English and Swedish grammar too, and I've yet to grasp simple things such as the difference between adverbs and adjectives. Sure, I'll keep struggling through grammar exercise books but really, it doesn't really seem to improve my understanding. I eventually mastered English grammar simply by reading and hearing enough of it to internalize the correct patterns. I suspect the same thing will eventually happen with Japanese too.

DAM - The Hyper Karaoke

I love this retro-futuristic karaoke-sign in Higashi Osaka. Who wouldn't want to experience Hyper-Karaoke at least once in their life?

#1 The points are no longer directly connected to the number of correct answers. The new test uses something called Item Response Theory to score the test.

The basic idea is - I think - that you determine the difficulty score of each question by how many people answered correctly. The score represents the level of knowledge - the higher the score the more you know. So the difficulty score of a question is the level of knowledge that the question tests - half the people with a knowledge level at that exact score will get it right, half will not.

Then you look at all the questions each individual test taker got right or wrong, and you determine statistically which score would be most likely to give this pattern of results. That score is the score you get on the test.

Why do it this way? It's more reliable. Your score will be the same whether you get an easy test or a difficult one, and you can even compare your score with other tests as long as the other tests use the same scoring system.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Ritsuko woke me up at dawn, telling me it's snowing - not a few pathetic flakes, but a real snowfall that lasted all morning. It was dense enough to cover the ground even as it was melting away. By lunchtime the fall had stopped, but while the streets quickly cleared there's still some left on rooftops, tree branches and balconies. The weather service says we may get another round of snow tomorrow.

I know this is not much; lots of places get many times this every winter. But it is truly rare to see snow like this in Osaka city - I believe this is only the second time I've seen it since coming here.


Narrow, crowded sidewalk; slippery, wet surface and a snowfall to cut visibility - what could be better than throw up a large umbrella right in front of your face and steer your bicycle through the slush with only one hand?


Just a little wet snow, but the streets immediately become so much more beautiful and inviting.


A planter and a sign outside a restaurant covered in white stuff.


People aren't terribly well prepared for this kind of weather. This boy seems to have neither the clothing nor the skills to navigate the suddenly snow-covered streets.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My New Homepage

I got myself a new homepage landing page right here on Google sites. It's not pretty or anything - you can't alter the page format very much - and I can't really do anything except keep a static page and a few files, but it's good enough for now.

The idea is just to have some kind of landing page for work-related use. This blog is where I have most of my online self, but it's not really related to my professional1 life. People looking for a research paper of mine don't really need or want to hear about old film cameras, the travails of Japanese politics or where I and Ritsuko had dinner last week.

Now I can link to this page to give people an idea of who I am and what I do, and I can offer the occasional paper and perhaps bits of code as well. If you happen to have a research-related link for me to this blog on some page then you may want to change it to the new landing page above.

#1 I'm over forty and still a post-doc living on temporary funding. "Professional" is very much a relative term here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Contacts and Homepages

Contact Lenses:

I've rejoined the contact lens brigade again, after a seven-year hiatus. I used, then gave up on contact lenses a few times while living in Lund, and when I came to Japan I gave up altogether. I have astigmatism and contacts just don't give me as good vision as glasses do. Now that I have presbyopia too it's even worse. I could never use contacts on a daily basis. So why have I gotten contact lenses again?

Contact lenses are really convenient at times. When I went snowboarding, things would have been much easier with contacts. Same thing for swimming, or visiting an onsen, or any other activity where your glasses would be in the way, would get dirty or steamed up, or would risk getting lost.

But that means using contacts perhaps a few times per month. When I had monthly contacts that wasn't an option. Once you opened a new pair they were good for a month and a half whether you used them or not. Using them only once or twice in that time would have been an expensive luxury. But today the one-day lenses are pretty inexpensive and convenient; I can get a monthly lens pack that will keep for years and use a pair whenever I need to. And since you throw them away there's no need for cleaning or storage or any of the rest.

Home Pages:

Now, a question: do anybody have a recommendation for setting up a simple homepage? I've changed labs and projects fairly frequently so I have never bothered setting up an actual page, but I feel it's time to make one now. At the very simplest I'd just like somewhere I can upload a single static web page, and possibly a few PDF files (a couple of research papers and perhaps my CV).

Ideally it'd be either here in Japan, or in Sweden. I don't mind paying a small monthly sum if I need to, but then it really has to be Japan or Sweden only. If I can get my own domain name then so much the better - but I don't want to spend a large amount of time, money and effort on keeping stuff running, and I don't want to get into trouble if I want to move the domain somewhere else in the future. Hassle-free is important.

So, anybody have a recommendation?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mobile Blogger

Just trying the new Blogger Android app. Seems too flaky to be useful, unfortunately.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On Ozawa's Indictment

So, Osawa has been formally indicted for dirty money deals. I have more than a few thoughts on this, so bear with me.

Very briefly, Ozawa's office engaged in some very dodgy and likely illegal land deals that landed him with unlawful campaign money. The subordinates that were directly responsible have already been indicted and have apparently confirmed the facts (though with Japanese prosecutors there's no guarantee it's genuine). The question has been whether Ozawa himself knew about it or approved it, and what responsibility he has as the head of the office.

The prosecutor's office has twice investigated him and twice declined to indict him, citing a lack of any evidence or wrongdoing. Ozawa himself has refused to give a sworn account for the money deals in the lower house. He has refused to leave his party posts, has refused to leave the DPJ and has refused to step down as lower house member. The refusal to give account is probably the most damaging thing; it's difficult to come up with any reason for him to refuse if he doesn't have things to hide.

A panel of citizens were tasked with going through the material, and they determined Ozawa should indeed be indicted. After a second panel did the same thing, the decision became binding, and the prosecutors are obliged to bring him to trial with the material they have. The reason for the citizen panel thing is of course that the Japanese police and judicial systems are anything but clean and trustworthy, and the judicial panels are supposed to make it harder for police and prosecutors to protect their own corrupt members or corrupt politicians from the law.

So far so good. But I agree with Ozawa - he should not step down from the lower house as a result of this indictment. For a normal indictment it's all but given that a lower-house member will resign. But this isn't a normal indictment. Remember, the prosecutors twice determined they didn't have evidence that would actually hold up in court, and they're only going to court because the citizen panel forces them to. A citizen panel that does not have legal experience, and that may well be driven as much by animosity towards Ozawa as by the strength of any evidence; he is a very polarizing political figure here, and his refusal to testify makes him look very suspicious in the eyes of the public.

A panel of private people, with no judge, no accountability, few legal limitations and no way for the accused to defend themselves, should not be able to drive an elected representative out of office. They may have simply decided they dislike Ozawa and want him gone, any actual illegal activity or not. They may of course have found that the prosecutors protected a powerful political ally and he is guilty as sin. The actual trial will (well, may - this is Japan, remember) find that out.

But whether he should occupy his lower-house seat is not up to an unaccountable panel. It is not up to prime minister Kan. It is not up to a howling press. That is between himself and the people in the fourth district of Iwate to decide. Nothing less than an actual conviction should ever force an elected member out of office. Especially a disliked, despised member - would we want majorities to be able to disenfranchise disliked local minorities at will?

Now, the DPJ may well decide he is not fit to hold a position within the party and that is fine. They may decide he is damaging the party enough that they kick him out altogether (and I would agree with such a decision). But the actual lower house seat is not - and should not be - up for discussion. It is true that a deeply unpopular figure like him may not be the most effective representative for the good folks at Iwate 4. But that's up to them to decide - not us, not the DPJ and not an impatient public.