Tuesday, March 31, 2009


It may be the stress of a new job and a new project or it may simply be the approaching spring, but I'm feeling restless. Jittery. Ants in my pants. Irritated. Grouchy. Irascible. Out of sorts. It's hard to stay focused, and difficult to sit still. Even small setbacks and problems get to me and makes me grumpy. It's very annoying - and that just makes it worse of course. Ritsuko of course suffers from it, unfortunately, much as I try not to have my current mood affect her. My Japanese studies suffer, and this blog certainly does too. If you wonder why I don't get in touch, or why I've been letting this blog slide, then this is the reason for it.

At my previous job I had a good 40 minutes by foot to the train station every evening. The station is much closer from NAIST, so I'm not really getting that daily exercise any more; I wonder if that's not a part of this. I mean, I really feel restless, like I should be exercising or something. This, for the record, is highly abnormal. I have almost forty years of practice at not exerting myself more than absolutely necessary; you'd think I'd be pretty good at it by now. Anyway, I may try to make a habit of a lunchtime walk and see if that helps.


What, Me Worry?

Kind of pathetic, by the way, when I do a self-portrait and I still manage to surprise myself with the flash...

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Devotion of Suspect X - Chapter 5

Way late - I'm actually a chapter ahead - but onward we go, with

Chapter 5

Inspector Kusanagi and hanger-on Kishitani are visiting Teito university and Dr. Yugawa. They've just returned from another interview with Yasuko Hanaoka where she apparently conveniently solidified her convenient movie alibi with some convenient ticket stubs, conveniently forgotten in the conveniently saved movie program. This level of convenience did not pass unnoticed by our hawk-eyed inspector; nor is it overlooked by our all-around genius Yugawa. Convenient but, as Yugawa points out, not unreasonable.

Over coffee, Kusanagi mentions Ishikami in passing, and wonders whether he by any chance would be Yugawa's senior at university. A bit of banter and a yearbook picture later it transpires that Ishikami and Yugawa not only were undergraduate classmates, but Kishigami was in fact famous among his fellow students and faculty as an exceptionally bright mathematician. As a budding physicist, Yugawa and Kishigami went on separate course tracks but even so Yugawa got to hear about Kishigami's exploits. Eschewing computers he'd stay late into the night with just a notebook and pencil to work on some problem. Thus Yugawa is astonished to hear that his illustrious classmate is not a university professor or researcher, but a high school teacher.

Cut to Ishigami, who goes out on his (apparently common) trek to the nearby phone booth. He even meets Yasuko in the stairs, but rather than exchange words in the stairwell he has to be all cloak-and-dagger conspicuous with phone booths, telephone cards and sideways glances. I'm surprised the author doesn't have them use code words. Anyway (I promise I'll quit harping on this), Ishigami hears her side of the latest developments; she gave them the movie ticket stubs in a hopefully natural manner, and they asked her daughter Misato for confirmation on what they did that day.

Walking back home, Ishigami sees a tall shape waiting in the doorway. It is not a dead friend come back from his grave to warn him of his folly (this is not a Stephen King novel after all), but none other than our hero Yugawa, come to drop in on his long lost school mate. The circle is complete, the student is the master.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


The winter is finally coming to an end. Herewith, an excuse to post a lot of otherwise unremarkable pictures.


We got cherry blossoms, which means it's spring no matter what the thermometer may say. In this case an early flower on a cherry tree outside the small temple almost next door on Nagahori street.


Winter is too cold for fountains, but they get started up in spring. Here's a small water fountain taken with really short shutter speed; you may want to click the image to see it larger. The frozen water turns almost metallic-looking.

Tsukushi Picker

Like every year, we went out into the countryside to pick tsukushi. It's a weed, growing along ditches and embankments, but if you pick these stalks and sauté with sake and soy sauce you get an amazingly good, savoury side dish that goes well with rice.

The Wall Lantern Bamboo Old Neighborhood

A few vertical shots around the area of Housono and Seika.

Rural Kansai

Of course "rural" is relative. This area was actually incorporated as its own city just a year or so ago, and the farm house neighborhoods are like small islands in a sea of modern single-family homes, like pieces of chocolate in a spread of vanilla ice-cream. Most people don't work around here but commute daily to Kyoto or Osaka.

Monday, March 23, 2009


"Vegesh" is a beer-strength alcoholic vegetable drink. Finally you can feel drunk and healthy at the same time! It's a collaboration between Asahi and Kagome (maker of vegetable juices) so the mix is kind of obvious of course. The taste is perfectly fine. You'd expect something akin to a Bloody Mary, but it's milder and mellower, and there's nary a hint of the alcohol.

This is one mighty curious aspect of the Japanese retail landscape; the incessant - obsessive, even - drive for new canned and bottled drinks. No flavour is too obscure, no concoction too strange not to be mixed, canned and put on sale in vending machines and convenience stores. Most of these appear, sell for a few weeks or months, then disappear again without a trace.

Many of these novel drinks actually taste quite good. Of course, tasting good is probably not nearly enough for them to survive in the long run. We consumers are a conservative bunch, and we won't switch drink type (or political party, or keyboards) if it's just a little better than whatever we normally drink. It'd have to be substantially better (or a lot better marketed) to really have a chance. Still, new and strange drinks are always fun to try.

Monday, March 16, 2009


It's rather busy around here right now, what with a new project to start up and all. And for some reason I've gotten into writing long, rambling posts that take time to write and even more time to prune into something resembling legibility. Things have slowed down around here as a result.

The solution: stop worrying about finishing the long pointless posts, and shove more short, pointless ones out on the blog instead. Such as this picture below, taken in the bathroom at Kita-Ikoma station:


Let's try something different today!

The slogan possibilities are endless, really. If you have any good ones, feel free to post them. Bonus for anything relevant to Japanese politics ("Call Mr. Aso and tell him we found it").

Monday, March 9, 2009

Teito University and Maichō Shinbun

If you have followed my writeup of "The Devotion of Suspect X", you may have noticed the main characters are all graduates of Teito University (帝都大学). While the "Galileo" mystery series may be the most visible example today, Teito university is the home of a number of fictional graduates or the setting for fictional events.

So it is entirely appropriate that Teito university itself is nonexistent. It's one of those things, like Acme Corporation in English, that exist only by the implicit consensus of the writers using it in their own fiction. Another Japanese example is Maichō Shinbun, a fictional newspaper frequently used in television series and literature. The Necronomicon is a fictional book originally made up by Lovecraft that appears in many works of horror or fantasy fiction.

The appeal for writers is that the reader or viewer is likely to have vaguely heard of it already. We are hardwired to see familiarity as a proxy for importance and plausibility (this is why "branding" advertisements work) so the writer gains a sense of veracity with little effort. You can get the same effect by using real places and placing real people in fictional stories of course. But there's no basis in reality, so the writer is free to add or change whatever features they wish. If a writer needs Teito university to have a particle accelerator or Maichō Shinbun to have a Paris news bureau, then they can without anybody protesting that the real thing doesn't have it.

But once a fictional thing becomes really popular, the fictional features become "real" enough that readers or viewers would protest if a writer changed an accepted part of it. In the case of The Necronomicon, for instance, the fictional author is "Abdul Alhazred", and any writer changing that does so at their own peril (and their readers' displeasure). Any movie portraying an "Acme" brand device as high-quality, useful and defect-free would similarly break a consensual agreement on what "Acme Corporation" should all be about. You can get to the point where the fictional entity is just as rigidly defined as any real thing. Terry Pratchett, writer of the extremely popular Discworld book series, has complained that his own fictional city of Ankh-Morpork has become so detailed through the years - with published maps and guidebooks, no less - that he has real trouble adding or changing things without getting called out by his fans for violating known "facts" about the city.

Of course, nobody actually tells you when they present a fictional place or thing as real. Many people probably assume that Teito University is a real place, and there's even people who think The Necronomicon is an actual medieval-era mystical book. It hasn't helped that there's several real books published with the "Necronomicon" title, purporting to be the real thing, it being a figment of Lovecraft's fertile imagination nonwidstanding.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Devotion of Suspect X - Chapter 4

On to chapter 4, and the investigation continues. Our police friends now know the identity of the corpse on the riverbank, and as the curtain opens, we find inspector Kusanagi and sidekick Kishitani on the way to estranged former wife (and, as we know, murderer) Yasuko. They are somewhat surprised she did not know the dead man in the news lately was her former husband, and ask her about her whereabouts on the night in question. Turns out, she and her daughter had gone to the movies, a ramen shop, and some karaoke. Perfectly normal, of course - and also, incidentally, all the kind of place where you're unlikely to actually be remembered or recognized by anybody. Mighty convenient, you might say, and indeed, the point is not lost on Kusanagi.

Anyway, they have no particular reason to think there's anything amiss. They leave, but as they do, they meet Ishigami, our Mathematical Mastermind, on the stairs. They figure that what the heck, and invite themselves in for a quick interview. Ishigami states, not surprisingly, that he never noticed anything out of the usual with his neighbor that day. Of course, what is he going to say? "Oh, I helped her clean out a strangled corpse in the hallway, but apart from that, nothing"? As they are leaving, Kusanagi notices a newsletter from Teito university. And indeed, Ishigami turns out to be a graduate of the very same university as Prof. Yugawa, our main character that we met last chapter - and of Kusanagi himself, though apparently not a student of the science faculty.

After the police leave for real this time, Ishigami produces a sweater and a telephone card, and walks to a nearby telephone booth. He is calling Yasuko to ask her about her interview with the police. Now here's my problem: why is he going to a nearby phone booth?

Obviously he's afraid that the police may find out they're talking. If they'd be tapping her phone it wouldn't matter from where he calls. Instead, he must be worried that they'll look at call logs and see that they have been calling each other. But he's never called from that phone booth before (and as we'll see, he keeps using it); it would have to be a very dense policeman indeed not to get suspicious with repeated calls from a phone booth right after the murder and the police interview. A phone booth, mind you, that's a quick walking distance from her apartment - what kind of person would call from a phone booth instead of walk over and talk in person?

Instead, why not just talk with each other in the stairwell? Nothing would be more natural than a couple of neighbors spending a few minutes in conversation whenever they bump into each other. Especially a single man and a divorced, attractive woman; if asked they could hint that he's trying to court her and she's not interested but doesn't mind. That would explain his frequent visits to her workplace as well and would have had the added bonus of being completely true.

No matter; this is a mystery novel, and if we'd demand stringent logic and consistency in everything very few of them would ever get written. We'll just note this, and let it pass.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ozawa Comes Through

The opposition party DPJ has a well-deserved reputation of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And true to form, party leader Ozawa's secretary has just managed to get arrested for accepting illegal campaign contributions on behalf of Ozawa from a construction company.

Yes, it looks more than a little convenient that this investigation and arrest happens to occur just when it is really, desperately most needed by the ruling LDP - if I understood the morning news correctly the donations happened three years ago - but that does not obscure the fact that the allegations most likely are completely true. This is a disaster for Ozawa, of course, whether he personally knew about it or not, but also a serious blow for the DPJ. As Tobias Harris points out, the only way to even halfway save the DPJ is for Ozawa to step down and anoint a successor before the fallout becomes even worse.

Here's the problem: DPJ and LDP are very much alike. You might imagine them as an old, tired entrenched ruling party on one hand, and a scrappy fresh newcomer full of new ideas and initiatives on the other. That is not the case. The DPJ is very much the same as LDP. Their detailed policies differ, but DPJ and LDP largely occupy the same general area in the political landscape, and they consist largely of the same political old guard, with the same kind of hereditary political background. Ozawa himself is typical: he was weaned within the LDP and left it for the opposition in the aftermath of an internal political fight. The DPJ is effectively more like a broken-out faction of the LDP than like a truly independent party. A hypothetical example for Swedish readers would be if all other current parties were tiny and inconsequential, and the only real voter choice is between two overlapping wings of the Social Democrats.

This is the reason that the relentless decline of LDP in the opinion polls have mostly not been accompanied with a corresponding increase for the DPJ. The DPJ has rightly been viewed as "LDP with another name", and the main challenge for Ozawa has been to break that perception and remake the DPJ into a true opposition alternative. That work has now been well and truly ruined. Taking illegal campaign money - from the construction industry no less; even loan sharks and pachinko parlors have better reputation - is such classic LDP behavior that voters have every reason to ask whether they'd actually get any substantial change with the DPJ. And truth is, they probably won't.

The end result is disconcerting. The consistent winner in opinion polls is "None/None of the above", and that non-answer is likely to gain further if the next election delivers a weak LDP government in the lower house while the disgraced DPJ holds on to the upper house. LDP has consistently shown it is utterly unable to work with the opposition - after almost two years of a divided house the thought hasn't even occurred to them - and so we might see at least another few years of completely ineffectual non-leadership from the political establishment, at a time when leadership is desperately needed.

My fear is that the strength of "None of the above", and the certain decline of voter interest is paving the way for a radical third option, a real alternative to the twins of LDP/DPJ. And while an alternative is desperately needed I'm really worried about what alternative that may be. Had DPJ managed to hold it together and take the reins with an actual mandate, that could have created the opportunity for an orderly transformation of Japanese politics.

But with them falling apart before the election the transformation (which will happen, one way or another) risk becoming anything but orderly. The kind of parties and political movements that spring out of this kind of political chaos are rarely the kind that you'd actually want to have running a country: populist rather than responsible; extremist rather than mainstream; dictatorial rather than democratic; divisive rather than uniting. It's not a substantial risk - not yet - but just the possibility is worrying.