Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Dangerous Brain from Planet LDP

(This post is far outside my area of competence; for excellent political coverage by people who - unlike me - actually do know what they're talking about, look no further than MTC at Shisaku, Jun Okumura at Globaltalk 21 and Tobias Harris at Observing Japan)

To an outsider with no direct stake in the outcome, Japanese politics is a wonderful combination of spectator sport and soap opera (to the affected insider, of course, it more resembles a Greek tragedy re-imagined by Samuel Beckett). Even so, however, the behavior of the perpetual government party LDP has been stranger than usual lately.

To very briefly recap, LDP together with minor religious party New Komeito holds a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. Opposition DPJ has the majority in the Upper House - a rarity in Japanese politics. The Upper House needs to vote in favour of any legislation passed in the Lower House for it to become law. But, with a two-thirds majority, LDP and New Komeito can override the Upper House vote after 60 days for most (but not all) legislation.

On the face of it, it means LDP can ignore the opposition and do what it wants. The current reality is messier. First, the supermajority is slim, and dependent on a small coalition partner (granted, New Komeito has the role of doormat to LDP down to a fine art, but they're still a different party, with a different agenda) and an increasingly independent-minded diet membership to bring the needed votes. And some legislation, like personnel appointments, can't be overridden; LDP must get the assent of the opposition, or get enough opposition Upper House members to defect their party over the issue.

Also, the next lower house election is due no later than next year with LDP virtually certain to lose the supermajority, so they are facing years of governing with divided houses. Plainly, obviously, high time to find ways to work with the opposition DPJ and accommodate them in order to get things done. Governments in many other countries are able to do so in this kind of situation after all.

The LDP, however, seems incapable of doing so. They have been pushing through legislation using the supermajority override with little regard of the effect on any future cooperation with the opposition. In fact, and more strangely, they have been acting as if the opposition did not exist; as if the LDP still had control over both houses. One example was the appointment of the new head of the Bank of Japan. As I mentioned above, personnel appointments are among the legislative acts that can't be overridden. And yet, the LDP managed to field a total of four candidates in a row guaranteed beforehand not to be accepted by the opposition, overrunning the end of the previous chairman's term, leaving the chairmanship vacant for weeks. In the end, the acting chairman was promoted almost by default.

Another current example is the botched renewal of the perpetual temporary gasoline tax used to fill the coffers of road and bridge construction industries (a major LDP supporter). The DPJ opposed the earmark to the construction industry as Japan has a large surfeit of rarely used motorways and bridges to nowhere already, leaving LDP to use the supermajority to get the bill through. They inexplicably failed to do so on time, however, letting the tax expire and making a lot of motorists happy with the opposition for opposing the bill. This leaves the government with the self-inflicted unenviable task of reintroducing an publicly unpopular tax by walking roughshod over an opposition they desperately need in a year or less.

The LDP is clearly not acting sensibly; but as it happens, I have seen behavior just like this in another field:

The Prefrontal Cortex is a collection of brain areas that regulate and inhibit other areas as needed when the situation changes and their behaviour is no longer appropriate. Some psychologists talk about "executive function", and while I don't like the term, here it is appropriate. Malfunctions in these areas can be diagnosed by a simple test called the "Wisconsin Card Sorting Test".

The subject has a pile of cards with various symbols and colors, and sorts them into piles according to some rule (like "red cards to the left, black to the right"). They don't know the rule for sorting, but are told if they are sorting correctly or not; most people quickly find the right rule. Then, without telling the subject, the rule is changed. Normal subjects get confused for a little while as the old rule no longer applies, but then explore and find the new rule. But subject with damage to their prefrontal cortex frequently can not do this - they will continue to follow the old rule even as it is obvious that it no longer applies. They can sometimes articulate this, telling the experimenter that the rule no longer applies; some can even say what the new rule must be, and still they can not change their own old rule-following behaviour.

Now take a look at LDP behaviour: repeatedly enacting legislation that won't pass the Upper House and missing deadlines as if the supermajority override was not going to be necessary; acting as if the opposition didn't even exist. Then the expressions of incredulous bafflement when the opposition does what it's supposed to be doing: statements that "the situation is intolerable"; that it must be unconstitutional to oppose the government; accusing the opposition of "playing politics" with passing a bill (when, pray, are you ever supposed to "play politics" if not as a politician in the nations premier political arena)? They are, in fact, acting remarkably like a patient with impaired prefrontal cortex function.

The reason for this, I believe, is in the nature of the LDP: it (like the opposition DPJ) isn't really a political party in the the sense of being a coherent political organization tied together by a common ideology, shared history and worldview. It is rather a Frankensteinian agglomeration of multiple small political parties, factions, organizations, special interest groups, ministries and agencies. A look through LDP history shows it constantly splitting off and reabsorbing smaller organizations and members. It is less a party than a political mini-state of its own, with complex internal processes for determining the outward policy stance.

And as any Byzanthine administrator would have been able to tell us, keeping such a diverse array of selfish interests together requires lots of procedures and formalisms for any decision, lest the party tear itself apart. A large, complex set of explicit and implicit rules and regulations become necessary within such a party for all decisions in order to balance out interests and factions with each other. Appointments must be weighed carefully, with a candidate beholden to this faction and beneficiaries from that bureaucracy being repayment to some other group, and creating new obligations to yet other groups in turn. Any legislation must also be very carefully weighed, vetted and gradually moulded in a complex internal process to finally emerge as the consensus decision of the party.

This process has, I'm willing to bet, been gradually solidified and formalised into a "decision machine" over many years of party power until it by now largely is the party. The value of most positions within the party is after all due to how much influence, direct or indirect, the position gives over these decision-making processes. LDP depends utterly on following them; breaking them means losing internal support as the power bases that depend on the process erode. Abandoning these processes mean disintegrating the LDP.

But now the process is disrupted by a viable opposition with power to wield. But people within the LDP can not alter the process even when they see the end result will not be viable; any attempt to change the outcome will inevitably rob some participant or other of a benefit they were counting on, leading to destructive retaliation. And as there is no leadership strong or unified enough to inhibit and alter this decision-making process - no prefrontal cortex, to stretch the analogy - the process continues as it always has, unable to accommodate the widening rift between the past political world it codifies and the changing reality.

So, is LDP doomed to oblivion? Of course not. If you take people that fail to adapt to the changed card sorting rule out of the test room and bring them into a different one, they can suddenly adapt their sorting behaviour just fine. The learned rule is learned within the context of that test, in that room; all they need is for the context to change. Likewise, if the political landscape would really shift - say an opposition Lower House win in the election after the next - that would probably create enough of a context shift for LDP to reform and adapt to current reality.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


The winter in Osaka is chilly and grey, and the summer is long and hot, punctuated with typhoons. The intervening spring feels neither as long, nor as well defined as the slow, lingering season of Sweden with the first hopeful sun-driven snow-melt in early March gradually seguing into the first really warm summer days in June. This really is a fairly unmemorable season in comparison. The two things that do set it apart is the cherry blossoms heralding its beginning, and the "Golden Week" holiday signaling its end.

Corvette Corvette, Owner.
A colleague asked me to take a few pictures of his car during cherry blossom season. "His car" turned out to be a meticulously renovated Chevrolet Corvette in absolutely gorgeous condition. To the left, outside a temple in Takanohara; to the right, in the mountains between Nara and Osaka. A few more pictures here.

Flower Appreciation Fight
Hanami, "flower viewing" is having a party under the cherry trees. For Osaka castle, that means tens of thousands of people barbecuing, eating, drinking and generally enjoying themselves. And this being the age of the digital camera, I doubt a single flower petal has managed to avoid ending up on picture sites by now, as you can see on the left. On the right, a few too many beers have taken their toll, and a couple of revelers decide to settle some grudges.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Immigration according to MTC

MTC over at Shisaku has a dense, significant, yet pleasantly short post about the reality of work immigration in Japan. No real comment about it from me so far; it offers a cornucopia of possible discussion threads and deserves a far more considered response than I currently can manage. Go check it out.

Health Examination

Japanese health care is generally quite good (Jun Okumura has a good post on it), and my own experiences match that. If you're gainfully employed in Japan for instance, you will have a yearly health check. This may be different from Sweden I believe as I've never had such a check while living there - but then, I've never been a company employee there either so I'm not sure what the case is for normal people. The health check is mandated for every employee, but of course, exactly how that health check is being offer in practice can differ quite a bit depending on the employer. Most examinations I've heard about are fairly slow affairs taking half a day or so.

The health check this year was different - good, but different. I am currently employed through a staffing agency, and they of course have hundreds (or more) people spread out all over the Kansai area that all need this examination. So I get an envelope with directions to a clinic in central Osaka, a health form and a small sealable vial, both to be filled-in beforehand. I expect there to be quite a lot of people so I bring a couple of research papers along to have something to read.

Turns out I needn't have bothered. The place is indeed full of people, but the clinic staffs speed and efficiency would make an F1 pit crew dizzy. We all bring our filled-in form, with a number sequence already printed at the bottom, to the desk with the first number. The polite but oh-so-efficient nurse takes the urine sample ("Mr. Moren, the sample please"), and speeds us to the next desk, the path marked by a tape line. The next one, for weight and height is the same ("Mr. Moren, stand here. Thank you.") - blink - Eyes ("Look in here and read the last line") - blink - blood pressure ("Relax please. Quickly now.") -blink - heart, lungs and waistline ("breathe deeply .. and the tape measure - ahh, you've got metabo!") - blink - EKG ("lie here, lift your shirt") blink - hearing ("press the button when it beeps") - blink - X-ray ("Stand here, breathe in deeply, it's only radiation") - blink - blood test ("just one more vial Mr. Moren, no need to faint yet.") - blink - and... done.

All in all, the whole thing, from entrance to exit (head still spinning), took about 25 minutes. That's less time than I would normally expect to wait before even starting a normal examination. And yet, there was never a hint of sloppiness nor any feeling of it being rushed. Everybody even managed to be bright and pleasant throughout the whole thing (I was there early morning; no idea how that holds up over the day of course). Fun for all. And I certainly prefer spending my time in the lab over a hospital waiting room so I'm certainly not complaining. Kind of makes you wonder why ordinary visits take such amazing amounts of time though.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

More Reason

I started on "Reason", a Japanese crime novel, last December, as I've mentioned previously. It's really addictive - I must know why the Koito family has fled; what Katakura lodging house has to do with the murder; and why the superintendent has to air out one of the empty apartments every week to remove a strange smell (I actually asked my teacher this; she just laughed and asked if I really wanted to know beforehand).

I've been reading it during my morning commute, and yesterday I reached chapter 5 ("The hurting woman") on page 153. That makes 93 weekdays for 148 pages (it starts on page 7) - that's about 1.5 pages per day. Now, my average reading speed lately is a bit more than 2 full pages every morning (dialogue is fast; the digressions on the Tokyo housing market are really slow). I'll keep speeding up as I learn more, to three pages or so. That's 15 pages per week, and as the book ends on... *leafing through the back* ...page 676, that makes 523 pages to go, taking 34.8 weeks, to finish the book in early December.

At 10 minutes per page that's about 110 hours of entertainment, which really isn't bad value for an 800 yen paperback. Japanese fiction is nothing if not cost-effective.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Osaka Population

Prodded by Shisaku's post on the Tokyo population rebound, I felt a sudden urge (aided and abetted by a too-long to-do list and gloomy weather) to take a look at some Osaka demographics.

Shisaku shows how Tokyo is growing at a healthy clip of about 0.7% last year. He (she? they? I don't actually know) attributes it at least in part on a reversal of the previous trend of moving out of the city and into surrounding suburbs. If we look at Osaka prefecture, which, like Tokyo, is actually several completely interlinked cities (a major reason, I believe, for large cities being so dominant over medium-sized ones in Japan - but I digress), it produced essentially zero growth the past two years (about 0.07% this year).

But if we break the data down the story is more interesting. The first one is that urban Osaka (at 8,636,197 people) is growing very slightly while rural Osaka (at 191,288 hardy souls) is shrinking. The big surprise here is of course that Osaka even has a rural population, even with the rather relaxed definition of "rural" in this country (where the presence of actual nature seems to be an optional extra).

If we look closer, Osaka city is growing at a fairly healthy clip at 0.31%, which would make it the seventh fastest growing city in Japan; and within Osaka city, Chuo-ku (where we live) is growing the fastest at a very quick 2.8% this year and 3.17% last year. Not hard to believe; looking out the window it seems like new apartment buildings are sprouting around us like mushrooms after an autumn rainstorm.

By contrast, places like Toyono (-2% per year), Tonbabaya and Kawachinagano are losing people (almost 1% per year).In general, the central and western parts of Osaka city - and Osaka prefecture - that face the sea or abuts Kyoto or Kobe, is growing. The east and southeast areas facing the mountains and farmland, and Toyono up in the mountains of the north, are shrinking (so that's where the rural parts are, I guess; should go there sometime).

Osaka Population Change
Osaka prefecture population change over last year.

In general we should expect that rural, sparsely populated areas are losing people, and densely populated centers should gain. So I took a peek at two years worth of population data, and sure enough, there is a positive correlation between density and growth in Osaka, but with a correlation of 0.22 it's pretty weak indeed; nothing I'd want to make anything of. Of course, two years is not a lot of time, and especially for small areas one single event - a factory opening or closing for instance - can make a big difference. Also, the influx of people does depend on other, unrelated factors too, so we'd want to have numerous cities of each size to average out those factors. Many years of data, from a number of population centers, in other words. Not something I really have the time for unfortunately.

But there is another possible factor here as well. Osaka is densely populated - really dense. Southern Swedish city of Malmö has a density of 1700 people per square km, and Stockholm has a density of 4200/km2. Osaka city, by contrast, has a density just shy of 12000/km2. Were Stockholm a city in Osaka prefecture, it would be right on the median, and Malmö would be considered one of those sparse areas out toward the southern border. So perhaps the connection breaks down for very high population densities. Urban enough is urban enough; above a certain point the advantages no longer increase much, while negatives like living costs and crowding does. Take a look at this graph.

Osaka population change and density
Population growth as a function of density, Osaka prefecture.

Above is a graph of population density (on the horizontal axis) and growth (on the vertical axis). The dark green dots are the individual cities and towns in Osaka. The blue line is a polynomial fitted to the data to show the general trend. The orange bars show the average population change for ranges of densities (in the upper X-axis). And true enough: the lowest density areas (0-1499/km2), areas you'd describe as semi-rural or suburban, are losing a significant amount of people (over 1% per year), while urban areas gain people. The densest areas are on average shrinking slightly, but there are so few data points that it's not possible to draw any firm conclusions. It does sort of suggest that there is an optimal density that people will gravitate towards if given the choice, but we'd need a lot more data to tell if it's a real effect.

So, one interpretation is that the same thing is happening locally in Osaka as in Japan at large: Overall population numbers are mostly flat, but the rural areas and small towns are shrinking while the big population centers are growing. And what Shisaku is describing for Tokyo - a return from the suburbs - is possibly exactly the same process; but the vagaries of city borders means it shows up as a net inflow for Tokyo and an static population for Osaka. What will be interesting to see over the next generation or two is what will happen with the three types of area. One possibility is that the superdense areas stay flat while the dense areas slowly approach them and the semi-rural areas empty out. Another possibility - the most likely, I think, is a partial reversal, with the superdense areas shrinking somewhat and the semi-rural areas closest to the urban ones becoming urban areas themselves. A flattening of the density curve as transportation systems improve.

The question mostly on my mind now is of course if or when Shisaku will post a quick analysis of movement patterns in Tokyo, so we have something to compare with.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Ando Momofuku

Busy days; however, I need to make a followup to my previous post on the instant ramen museum in Osaka. Mainichi Daily News reports (in English that a memorial statue of Momofuku Ando has been unveiled outside the museum in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the invention, with is widowed wife and a previous prime minister (an old friend) in attendance. The statue - there's a tiny picture in the article - tastefully (sorry) depicts Ando standing atop a Cup Noodle, holding up a packet of Chicken Ramen.

Unrelated, but I wonder why, in a Japanese-language newspaper, the English-language translation runs a picture of the statue in question while the Japanese-language original - presumably targeting the vast majority of its readers - does not?

Saturday, April 5, 2008


"土筆" (tsukushi), called "horsetail" in english, is a fairly common wild plant - weed - in Japan. They'll grow in ditches, on the edges of ricefields and on overgrown and disused plots. In spring it grows thick spore stalks that kind of resemble colorless asparagus. And as it happens, they are not only edible, but Ritsuko has a great recipe for tsukushi rice topping too.

Stalks of tsukushi (Japanese Horsetail).

The stalks show up towards the end of March so they are a great excuse for us to go outside and enjoy spring for a day. Unlike the cherry blossoms, this is a spring ritual we can enjoy quietly, without braving huge, drunken crowds (not that there's anything wrong with that; I enjoy being a huge, drunken crowd as much as anyone). This is the third year in a row we've gone to Seika in southern Kyoto (that's where I currently work) to spend the day searching for the plant among the rice fields and ditches of the area. One tip is to go earlier rather than later; while they're harder to find early in the season, the smaller stalks are firmer and more flavourful. It makes for a better dish.

Cooking tsukushi could not be easier. Surprisingly often Japanese cooking is based on boiling, sautéeing or dipping your ingredients in a salty, sweet and savoury sauce. It can be thick or thin, and made by some combination of soy sauce, mirin, sake, rice vinegar or dashi. This kind of sauce or soup forms the base of a surprising number of dishes (I'd say almost all of them to some degree). We'll treat the tsukushi in the same way.

Cleaned Tsukushi Tsukushi
Tsukushi stalks before and after cleaning. Tsukushi on the boil.

First, the only really tedious job: clean the tsukushi. Each stalk has a number of dry collars. These need to go. With a little practice you can use the thumbnail of one hand to sort of scrape it off while you rotate the stalk with the other hand. It's still a pain though.

Once they've cleaned, you put them in a large pot and simmer for, oh, 10-15 minutes or so. Strain, put in a smaller pot, then add soy sauce, sake, sugar and dashi. How much? "適当に" - "appropriate" according to our in-house expert. So now you know. Simmer in the soup for a little while, adjusting the taste as needed (how? You gessed it: 適当に) then put on a lid, turn off the heat and let it slowly cool for the next hour or so.

Tsukushi. Put on rice and enjoy.

You end up with dark red-brown, slightly sticky stalks with an amazing flavour that you eat by simply adding it over your rice. Keeps for weeks in the refridgerator too. And you can of course treat many other vegetables the same way; just remember that it has to be a reasonably firm plant that can take the longish cooking time.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


It's April, which in Japan means the start of the real new year in many ways. The fiscal year starts now for most companies, tax returns are due, the new school year starts now for everyone from kindergarten to university, and most new company employees will start their jobs now. On a more personal note there's been a fair amount of work-related turmoil lately, but on the positive side I submitted a conference paper today - always a good way to kick off a new year.

Overall, I like the idea of having the new year in April rather than January; it fits well with the general feeling of spring, rebirth and new beginnings this season always carries with it (along with the rainshowers, cold snaps and high winds of course - but I digress). We picked Tsukushi a week or so ago (post about that later), and the cherry blossoms have just appeared in Osaka, so we'll go to Osaka castle for Hanami this weekend, weather permitting. Good time to be alive.

Cherry blossoms in the rain
Cherry blossoms in the rain. Older picture (from 2005), but one of my favourites.