Friday, July 31, 2009

That Foreign Policy Thing

Commenter Noah left a comment on my previous post about foreign policy issues. My answer ended up pretty long so I'm posting it here as a separate entry. It's a bit disjointed; sorry about that:

I agree with you that there is little that can be changed when it comes to domestic policy, and that the DPJ is only offering so much, but I think there is something to be said for how the DPJ might make a real difference in Japanese foreign policy. A lot of the DPJ's past rhetoric has been very critical of the US-Japan alliance, and this may be one area where the DPJ can actually change the status quo.

The rise of China as a peer but not necessarily a direct competitor also means that the US may not have the same strategic view of Japan as a country to contain China as it once did, they may prefer to engage China rather then try and use Japan as a strategic hedge against them.

Considering the DPJ has had no foreign policy experience, this allows for even greater mismanagement.

I left out foreign policy in my previous post, in part because the thing was getting way too long already, and partly because I really don't know my around the field. But lack of expertise doesn't stop anybody else from bloviating about it. Why should it stop me, right?

First, as far as the election is concerned foreign policy simply doesn't matter. Election politics is local, and you don't get more non-local than foreign policy. You could put an entire Osaka bar to sleep by just mumbling "bilateral security agreement" at them. As long as a party doesn't come up with something utterly ridiculous ("Let's have an American base on the east side of Shikoku, a North Korean base on the west side and let them fight it out on reality TV!") it's just not going to be a factor in the election no matter how much the punditry is wringing their hands over it. This is nothing specific for Japan, by the way; unless you have a shooting war going on, foreign policy is rarely a factor in elections.

Second, I have no concerns at all about the foreign policy competence of the DPJ. The DPJ is partly old LDP members; the party itself has never been in power, but plenty of its members have. This is really just another variation of the "only those in power can be entrusted with power" argument. Would that argument hold water, Swedish foreign policy should have become a complete mess when a center-right coalition took power for the first time after over 40 years of Social Democrat rule. We did get an economic mess, partly due to inherited problems and partly because the coalition was unstable and unsustainable; but foreign policy, notably, was never an issue.

There is nothing actually wrong I can see about the DPJ stance on foreign policy. One may or may not agree with all of it, but just because we disagree with some idea doesn't necessarily mean it's wrongheaded. It just means the means for achieving common goals - security and stability - are somewhat different than what you prefer. Foreign policy is very much one of those areas where rational, well-informed people can reasonably disagree.

We may agree or disagree, but one thing the DPJ is absolutely correct about is that an open debate about the future of Japan's security arrangements is long overdue. It may well be that the very tight security arrangement vis a vis USA has run its course; neither country needs such a tight arrangement anymore, and the negatives start outweighing the benefits. As you say, China plays partly different roles for Japan and USA - naturally, since Japan is part of the region while the US is not - and that means that the security concerns as far as China are also different. That is an argument in favor of a looser alliance, rather than a tighter one.

Ozawa did spell out the situation quite accurately, for all the criticism he got: Japan taking on greater responsibility (in manpower, money and so on) for the security arrangement goes hand in hand with Japan being a more independent party in the arrangement. Can't have one without the other.

This goes for both sides. Some security hawks may want Japan to shoulder greater responsibility for regional security, but that will necessarily mean that Japan becomes more independent of the US in security decisions too; since the goals and the concerns are not identical, that will lead to more disagreement and occasionally directly opposing goals. Some people want Japan to get out from under the US and become more independent (this seems to be a goal uniting parts of both the extreme left and extreme right - for very different reasons of course), but that would mean having to pay their own way (in money, manpower and risk) to a whole different degree as well.

Foreign policy is a bit special in that it's both long term, and very interdependent, and the US-Japan security arrangement is an example of this. Changing it takes a lot of effort since you need to change a lot of specific policies in tandem; and the long term nature means you can't do it on your own; you need to have not just your current cabinet on board, but your entire party, your coalition partners, at least part of your political opposition (for long-term stability) and your foreign counterparts. Things just don't change fast or on a whim - which is one reason it doesn't make for good election campaign material.

With the exception of fringe fruitcakes like the Happiness Realization Party or the black speaker-van crowd, I don't see any Japanese parties being actively harmful to Japan as far as foreign policy goes. Just as I wrote about policy in general in my last post, the rhetoric may be strident but the reality is a bland compromise informed by the winners' guiding philosophy no matter what the electoral outcome.

You could even have the JCP or the social democrats in power and still nothing disastrous would come of it. For all demonization, people are generally not incompetent or actively stupid, and everybody has a shared interest in keeping Japan safe and on good terms with the international community. The means may differ as may the precise goals, but remember the bit about "reasonable disagreement" above.

Let's just for arguments sake assume that the unthinkable happens and a coalition of the JCP and social democrats come into power. Disaster? No. They would want to break the alliance with the US. But, not being insane, they would not try to kick everybody out then and there; there's ongoing treaties and contracts to honor and Japanese forces would be completely unprepared to take over any responsibilities anyway. What would happen in practice would be a phased out shift over, oh, 20 years or so, with responsibilities and capability gradually shifting to Japan over time. And it would all happen with the consent and active participation of the US - neither side would want to have the relationship deteriorate and would work to keep the relationship amiable even as the terms of it change.

In short, if there's any one area that really doesn't matter at all for this election, foreign policy is it. The electorate, by and large, doesn't care; there'll be no significant change in the short term no matter who wins; and any long-term changes will be consensual and so slow all parties will easily adapt to it anyhow.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

All You Ever Wanted to Know About the Upcoming Japanese Election But Were Too Bored to Google on Your Own

Study Time!

I realize not everyone is fully up to date on the details of the coming election so I thought I'd give a primer of sorts for those not in the loop. I'm no expert on Japanese politics, or on anything related to it. Give this all the consideration an online rant by a nobody is worth, in other words. It's long, so I've set it in a question and answer format for simplicity.

Q: Election, huh?

A: Yes. National elections to the lower house must be held within four years of the previous one. The prime minister can decide for himself when to call an election, though. An election has been expected for more than a year already, but it has repeatedly been put off for various reasons. Now time is running out and the current prime minister has little choice left. This election will be on August 30th.
Two-thirds of the seats in the lower house are single-seat constituencies, where candidates represent a specific area and one winner takes all. One third are proportional, where you have a number of seats for a large area and the parties assign people to the seats in proportion to the votes the parties got. So people vote twice, once for their representative and once for the party proportional seats in their region.

Getting the vote

Q: Both single-seat, and proportional?

A: Bit of an interesting hybrid, really; Sweden, for instance, has only proportional seats while countries like Britain has only single-seat voting.

The single-seat system - where the winner gets the seat and the losers get nothing - heavily rewards the largest parties. You can have two parties with almost the same number of sympathizers, but one party gets almost all seats. You can even get a result where the party with the largest number of votes still come out with only a minority of seats. It tends to create two-party systems that reduce choice and representation. On the other hand, it usually gives you strong governments with stable majorities.

Proportional election systems doesn't penalize smaller parties so much, so the representatives in the house - and the available parties - tend to reflect the aggregate views of the voters. But it can also give you weak governments that depends on voting support from other parties, and that can give small parties an outsize influence on the agenda.

The Japanese compromise tries to combine the benefits of both. Not a bad idea, perhaps, but it seems to combine the drawbacks as well. Small parties are very underrepresented in the Diet here; at the same time, in the last few years Japan has had an LDP government completely dependent on the small New Komeito to govern, and opposed by the DPJ who controls the upper house only by cooperating with a number of small parties.

Q: Ah, yes, parties. So, what do we have?

A: There's two main parties in this election, the incumbent LDP and the opposition DPJ.

The LDP is a conservative party of old political dynasties, torn between wildly divergent factions, lacking any ideological coherence, and with few policy ideas beyond staying in power.

The DPJ is a conservative party of old political dynasties, torn between wildly divergent factions, lacking any ideological coherence, and with few policy ideas beyond gaining power.

Q: Ummm...

Election Candidate
JCP Campaign

A: We also have the supporting cast of small parties. The election system penalizes small parties but they're still important since the major parties need their support. There's two small parties that manage to matter on a national scale: New Komeito and the Japan Communist Party (yes, you could argue that the social democrats is a third, even smaller one; but this is getting too long already).

New Komeito is the support party to the ruling LDP and the political arm of Soka Gakkai, a large religious sect. The party is vaguely similar to European Christian Democrat parties, both by being grounded in deeply held religious and ethical beliefs and by being very flexible about said beliefs whenever they conflict with the goal of political power. They get about 13% of the vote (but fewer seats).

The Japan Communist Party is similar to many European socialist and communist parties and has evolved from a revolutionary organization into a fairly generic left-wing party. And like its European counterparts, the party rhetoric tends to be more strident than the actual policies it pursues. It is noteworthy for being the largest non-conservative national party. They get about 7% of the vote, but again far fewer seats (they don't have a single single-seat constituency in fact, only proportional seats).

There's a gaggle of smaller parties that hold just a few seats each. They're peripheral to the election itself but do matter since the major parties need their support. There's also the "Happiness Realization Party", a newcomer. They're part of the new Happy Science cult, similar in spirit to scientology - the leader talks with Jesus and Buddha, and aliens will return to Earth in the 24th century - and batshit insane. A harmless diversion just as long as they don't manage to get elected anywhere.
It's worth noting that the combined vote totals for the small parties equaled that of either of the two main parties in the latest upper house election. The political stage may be dominated by the LDP and DPJ but the electorate is a lot more diverse than the election results may indicate.

Q: OK, but the election is mainly about the LDP and the DPJ, right?

A: Right.

Q: So, leaving the trite quip above aside, what's the difference between them?

A: Well, the LDP is fielding Tarō Aso, the current prime minister, and incidentally the third LDP prime minister in a row to get the job unelected. He's the fifth-generation scion of an old political dynasty, grandson of a prime minister and wealthy heir to a major construction company conglomerate. At 70 years, he's not exactly a spring chicken any more. With his weathered face, hoarse voice and glum expression he comes across rather like a grumpy old potato.

After Ozawa's departure, the DPJ candidate is Yukio Hatoyama. He's the fourth-generation scion of an old political dynasty, grandson of a prime minister and heir to Bridgestone, making him even wealthier than Aso. His brother Kunio was until recently a minister in Aso's LDP government. He's a fair bit younger than Aso of course, and has managed the rare feat of getting caught in a political fund raising scandal with himself as both donor and recipient - a possible first in Japanese politics. He is losing his hair big time.

As an aside, Hatoyama's grandfather Ichirō Hatoyama and Aso's grandfather Shigeru Yoshida were political rivals, and Hatoyama replaced Yoshida as prime minister in the 1950's. Yes, more than a few people see the symbolism of history repeating itself with their grandchildren.

So there's your choice: a conservative scion of an old, monied political dynasty that looks like a potato; or a conservative scion of an old, monied political dynasty that is going bald.

Q: You don't choose a party based on the look of the Prime minister candidate!

A: Don't be so dismissive - the winner is going to be all over the media for the next six months or so. Might as well be someone you can stand to look at, right?

Q: But what about politics? What about policy?

A: What about it?

Q: Surely the LDP and the DPJ have real, serious policy differences?

A: Well, yes and no. They occupy much the same end of the political spectrum, and their politicians hail from the same political dynasties. A substantial part of DPJ members are ex-LDP, and a lot of LDP and DPJ politicians are all related to each other. Of course, while the parties overlap there is a difference around the extremes, with LDP harboring more people of the loony right than DPJ while the DPJ has a more influential - or at least more visible - social liberal group than the LDP.

So yes, there are some real political differences. And they're playing them up for all they can during the campaign of course. But - with one exception - it doesn't make any difference in practice.

Q: It doesn't? Why?

A: I'm glad you asked. There's three reasons.

Q: Three?

A: Yes, three. Pay attention.

Homeless tent
A big tent for Aso

These are "big tent" parties, and it's fair to say that they have few specific policies that are supported by everyone within the party. In both the LDP and DPJ, for instance, some are in favor of the postal reform while others are bitterly opposed and want it reversed. Some in both parties are in favor of a stronger, independent Japanese military and a revision of the pacifist clause of the constitution; some are steadfastly against.

So election rhetoric notwithstanding, the policies that will actually be pursued won't be decided until after the public election. Over the coming months, the winning party will have an internal fight among its interest groups over what direction to take and what policies to follow. That fight will lead them toward the political center on most issues.

Second, neither party can govern alone. The DPJ holds the upper house but is dependent on small parties to do so. The winner will need cooperation from the upper house and will be dependent on the small parties there (and the DPJ, if LDP wins) to get any legislation enacted. It's also likely that the winner will be dependent on one or more small parties in the lower house, like the LDP is dependent on New Komeito now.
In effect pretty much everyone in the diet will have a say on policies, guaranteeing a bland middle-of-the-road compromise government no matter who wins. That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it means a radical agenda is off the table.

Q: You mentioned a third reason?

A: The third reason is economic. The current crisis is hitting Japan very hard. Japan was already in bad shape before, with an enormous public debt, rapid increase of pensioners and a social insurance system badly adapted to the changing society and an unraveling employment system. The next government is going to have their hands tied economically.

Both parties are pushing some specific vote-grabbing measures they will have to honor. The DPJ is pushing for a substantial raise in the child allowance, for instance, while the LDP wants to make preschool free of charge. The winner will have to enact at least some of those measures or risk swift and serious backlash. But as far as overall policies and the general political direction is concerned, who wins really isn't going to make much of a difference.

Q: But there was one exception?

A: There is. Policies and people may not differ much between the main parties, but there is one difference that really matters:

Administrators at work

The LDP has been in power for over half a century. The DPJ has not. With the same party almost constantly in power, the Japanese bureaucracy has become thoroughly politicized. Appointments have all been via the LDP, and the same people move between the LDP, the bureaucracy and the private sector, creating a strong interdependence between party and administration.

The unelected, unsupervised bureaucracy can and does create and change policy by itself, unchecked by the political leaders theoretically in control. It's a political power comparable to the main parties, rather than a neutral, professional body implementing government policy. On occasion, turf battles between ministeries have gone out of hand to the point where it's materially hurt the country. Needless to say, that's not a healthy state of affairs.

So on one hand the LDP, with their deep connections in the bureaucracy, is more likely to get its policies enacted than the DPJ, which will have to fight their own ministeries to get their policies implemented. On the other hand, the DPJ stands a better chance of reforming this system over time and breaking this unhealthy politicization of the bureaucracy. In fact, just having any party other than LDP in power for a couple of electoral cycles would make a major difference, since it'd remove some of the strong incentives for administrators to hitch their career wagon to a single party.
In fact, this factor alone is important enough for a lot of people to support a DPJ win, in the face of any and all deficiencies of the actual party.

Q: OK, so the nitty-gritty stuff isn't going to differ much, and the things that matter have little to do with any actual party policies. But they must still be running on some kind of platform, right?

A: Sure. The DPJ platform is, in short, "We Are Not The LDP".

Not too creative, true, but it has the advantage of simplicity. It's really saying that the LDP is responsible for all that ails the dysfunctional Japanese political culture - the favoritism; the graft; the partisan bureaucracy; the low-level grubbiness; and the handouts to the construction industry, the agricultural sector, rural party sympathizers and just about anybody else with an outstretched hand and a roomy conscience.

A vote for the DPJ, they argue, would be a vote against this dysfunctional culture. Of course, It presumes the voters will overlook that the DPJ members are steeped in the very same culture, and that the party has a history of setting low expectations only to fail meeting them.

Q: And the LDP platform?

A: Is just as disarmingly simple: "We Are The LDP".

Q: Huh?

A: Really. They can't run on not being the LDP after all - well, Koizumi did just that in the 2005 election and got away with it. But Koizumi was a showman and could convince people by force of personality. Aso is not, and can not.

The approach isn't bad. Remember all that favoritism, graft and political back-scratching that the LDP is so famous for? A lot of people have benefited from it over many years of LDP rule. The construction industry, medical associations, farming and food production - the list goes on and on. It's not a bad idea to remind all those people just who's been buttering their toast for the past half century.

They argue that while they may be corrupt and venal, they're at least good at it. They have fifty years or more of experience, and the bureaucracy is at least listening to them. The DPJ, they say, is too inexperienced to be entrusted with the levers of power. It's a neat one-size-fits-all argument; by their own definition no other party than LDP could ever be considered for a position of power.

Q: Ok... But the Aso government has, what, 20% approval, right? And the LDP is faring no better in the polls. They've lost Tokyo and all other regional elections lately. Nobody's going to vote for them, right. Right?

A: It is an uphill battle for the LDP, true - but many people who vote LDP aren't really voting for Aso or for the LDP. Politics is local, and people vote for their local representatives as much as for a national party.

Harbor bridge
Aomori Bay Bridge.

You may not like Aso too much, but chances are you don't really care; the guy who really matters to you is your diet representative. He is the one making sure there is money flowing into the community by whatever means necessary. That grey concrete highway overpass may not look too hot but it did create a lot of local work for years when it was being built, and the rest stop is a source of jobs for dozens of people in the area. Every farming subsidy, every visitor's centre or lavish museum, every government contract to a local business, every allocation for school children with special needs is flowing directly or indirectly through your representative.

Q: So the LDP is basically buying the vote through its local representatives?

A: Well, that's too cynical a way to put it, I think.

The thing is, in rural districts especially, the local diet member probably really is local. He's likely been in office for years and years, and chances are his father or uncle held the same seat before him. He may well have been your councilman in the local assembly before moving to the national level; his relatives may be in local politics right now. His family business may have dealt with your family business for generations. He's a long-time recipient of donations and other help from the local business community - legal or not - that guarantees him as a champion for the local economy. He may be a crooked, underhanded politician, but at least he is your crooked, underhanded politician.

Q: So, really, for a lot people the election is not primarily about the national government at all, then?

A: Exactly. Of course the national issues matter - and especially now, when the LDP is doing its level best to collapse - but the local aspect is very important.

And locally, many communities are faced with a choice. You may choose the long-time representative, who may be crooked, perhaps, and associated with a disliked LDP, but who has a proven track record in siphoning off money to the local community and to local businesses. Or you choose a new DPJ representative who may be a local politician, but without proven, reliable political connections on the national level. More worrying, the DPJ representative and his party is arguing against the current system of interdependence between government, bureaucracy and local businesses that so many people are benefiting from, and that's an applecart a lot of people want left unturned.

Q: So, come August 30, what will happen?

A: Who will win? No idea. It does look good for the DPJ, but they have an absolutely limitless ability to screw things up. The LDP is backed by a lot of powerful business and community interests and has a history of pulling off improbable victories. The election system, with single seat districts, is another wild card. Small shifts in voting patterns and distribution of votes can have a large effect on the final outcome. Also, rural districts that traditionally favor the LDP have much more voting power in the national elections than the large urban districts.

My guess is - and I'm saying this with all the authority of someone who blissfully slept through his three years of high-school social science classes - that what will ultimately decide this election is not Aso's impopularity or the DPJ's blunders, but the track record the LDP has in the regional centers and rural areas. That's where the power shift will have to take place for the DPJ to pull off a win.

As I said, politics is local and rural districts have favored their long-time LDP representatives. But it's becoming clear that the system doesn't really work anymore. There's little money left for the kind of stimulus funds local communities have depended on for many years, such as highway projects, museums, colleges and other subventions. Also, they don't actually seem to work. They don't revitalize communities or create jobs long term, they haven't prevented local economies from deteriorating, and the regions continue to bleed people - often the young and educated - to the major metropolitan areas, making the regions still older and poorer.

In other words, the LDP-created system has perhaps not been the bounty it seemed. Changing this system may not only be a good thing for the country overall, but for many depressed communities may be only chance they have left for survival at all. The election hinges, I think, on how many people realize this.

Choose wisely.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Osaka Harbour

Osaka harbour seen from one of the tall canal bridges.

Taishō is one of the westernmost wards in Osaka city. As it's by the sea, it's part of the Kansai harbour complex. The harbour itself (actually several separate harbours) is absolutely huge; the entire coastline from Sakai in the south, through Osaka and on to Kobe in the northwest is really all harbour, with terminals, piers, wharfs, warehouses, manufacturing plants and supporting businesses.

Cement Factory

Ishigawa cement factory out in the harbour. I guess the heavy raw materials can be shipped in cheaply by barge. In the far right, the Osaka Dome (actually "Kyocera Dome" nowadays).

This being Japan, it's not a pure industrial area, but thoroughly mixed, with middle-class neighbourhoods rubbing shoulders with city tenement blocks, chemical plants and harbour installations. Many Okinawans that came to Osaka settled in Taishō, and it's still noticeable in the area. It's also notable for being the site of Ikea in Osaka, a decent place for Swedish foods and ingredients, candy and other things you miss when living abroad if you happen to be Swedish.


Lunch at an Okonomiyaki place along the main street Taishodori, right where it turns sharply right in the south. I really like the atmosphere in this kind of place, and the food is usually way better than the low price would lead you to believe.

We've passed by the area a few times to visit Ikea. I always felt it'd be fun to come here for sightseeing and perhaps take some pictures. When Ritsuko was in Sweden last week I left for Taishō over a Sunday to explore the place. The weather was not good, unfortunately, with heavy clouds and occasional drifting rain (which save you from getting a sunburn; I'm still flaking as I post this). The weather was not good for photography, and I tended to choose subjects as much for whether I'd get rained on or not as much as anything. Worse, I had just gotten a new wide-angle lens, and I took every chance to use my new toy, even when wildly inappropriate. In short, I got a bunch of images that are grey and lacking in contrast, and with interesting features reduced to mere pinpricks.


Disused crane installation along a pier. A wide-angle shot isn't always wrong.


Meganebashi - "glasses bridge"- is a landmark here. The bridges have to be high to accommodate large ships, but a normal on-ramp takes a lot of space. So here they built two spiral on-ramps and a curved bridgeway in between, making it look like a huge pair of old-fashioned spectacles from above. The space below seems to be used for baseball practice and sports.

Ritsuko pointed out, quite reasonably, that we should go to the harbour area in the fall instead. The weather is much better after all, with high skies and cool air. By then I'll be over the lure of the 45mm and can go back to try for good pictures rather than wide ones. For more pictures I have a Flickr set here.

Flood Gates

Typhoons and heavy rains are a fact of life here, so the channels leading by the city all have flood gates of various types. This one apparently rotates down toward the right to close it.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Handy Household Tip: Stop the Jingling

Household Tip
Zipper with
shrink tubing

Like many people I have several nylon bags with metal zippers. They're light, they work well and if they're good quality they're near indestructible. But they jingle. Those metal zipper "handles" rattle against each other and against the zipper, creating a jolly jingling sound that gets amazingly annoying after a while. A backpack with three or four zippers makes you sound like a cat with a bell around its neck.

Here's an easy solution: Take a piece of heat shrink tubing (everyone's got that at home, right?), and stick a piece on each handle. If you've got one of those heat-shrink tube sets with tubing of different sizes you're bound to have a piece of large-diameter tubing that you have little use for. It doesn't work completely - the handles still rub against their own fasteners - but it cuts don on the noise a lot. As a bonus they become much easier to grip, and if you're feeling particularly hipsterish you can get tubing in various colors instead of plain black.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Chilled Eggplant

Let's forget about elections for a while and focus on what's really important. Ritsuko makes chilled eggplant as a side dish now and again, and it's one of my favourites. The cool, salty dish is especially welcome in summer, and it's really easy to make.


Here's the ingredients: One eggplant, some dashi (light Japanese-style soup stock), soy sauce, sugar and mirin (cooking sake).


Cut away the stalk and slice the eggplant lengthwise. Make shallow crosswise cuts in the skin side of each half, about a centimeter apart. Be careful not to cut too deep.


Fry up the eggplant quickly on both sides. You don't want to cook it, but just brown the surface a bit. It adds to the flavour and it makes the eggplant hold together better.


Prepare the dashi and boil it up. You'll want around 20cl or so. Put the eggplants cut side down in a small pot just big enough to hold them. Pour over the hot dashi. Not too much; you want the top half of the eggplant uncovered. Then add about 1 teaspoon sugar, and 1 tablespoon each of mirin and soy sauce. You want the stock to be flavourful but not thick. Bring it up to a slow boil.


Simmer the eggplants for about five-ten minutes or so. Turn them over a couple of times - be careful; they're soft - so both sides get to simmer and soak in the liquid. They're done when they're really soft and the stock has reduced a bit. Turn off the heat and let them cool down under a lid.


Carefully move the eggplants into a dish and pour over a bit of the stock. Put the dish in the refrigerator and let chill for a couple of hours. You eat them as-is, straight from the fridge so they're still cool. And they're delicious!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

45mm f/4

I got a second lens for my Pentax 67 a while back, the wide-angle 45mm f/4. 45mm on this camera has an angle of view of 89°, which is really wide, bordering on extreme wide angle. It's about as wide as a 21mm lens on a 35mm camera, or a 15mm lens on most digital SLR cameras.

Day Off

A couple of hosts and their dog killing time outside their apartment building in Shimanouchi, Osaka. The wide perspective works well here but would have been even better had the dog come forward another couple of steps.

While small-format cameras have even wider rectilinear1 lenses (up to 115°), medium-format cameras all stop at 90° or so. Wider lenses for medium format are all fisheye lenses, not rectilinear. The reason for this is, I think, that even wider lenses are extremely hard to make with high image quality, and really wide lenses inevitably give you some quite ugly perspective distortion near the edges. Not many medium-format customers - who often use MF precisely to get the best possible quality - would be willing to pay the high cost of such a lens if they have to cut away the edges anyway. Hobbyists don't care as much about distortion or image quality so small-format makers can make relatively inexpensive ultra-wide lenses for them. I don't like that perspective distortion so 90° is about as wide a rectilinear lens as I'd be want to use.

Open Yard

Sometimes you may need wide angle simply to really get everything in frame. Here I was unable to back up further. I avoid the corner distortion when I can, but you can just see a hint of it here, with the box-like hatch in the bottom left and the pillar in the upper right both kind of "stretching" a little towards the corner. At this angle of view it's noticeable but not bad. It quickly gets worse if you increase the angle even further.

Nothing is small when it comes to the Pentax 67, of course, but the 45mm is a surprisingly compact lens. It's 90mm by 60mm, and it weighs just shy of 500g. It's only slightly larger than the 90mm that I also have, and about the same size as the standard 105mm. The camera, both lenses and accessories all fit nicely in my usual compact camera bag, and I can hang the tripod on the outside for that extra-nerdy look.

The maximum aperture is f/4, which sounds slow by small-format standards. But with medium format you generally want to use smaller apertures when you can since your depth of field is narrower for the same angle of view. And with MF cameras you often use a tripod anyway, so large apertures (to get faster shutter speeds) are not nearly as important as for small cameras.

It's also easy to forget that a large maximum aperture doesn't come for free. High quality, large aperture, wide angle lenses are difficult to design, and the result is big, heavy and expensive. You don't really want to pay the cost - in price, size and weight - of a fast lens if you don't need it. Handheld low-light photography is where digital SLRs really shine so I'm happy to use digital for those times and have slower MF lenses if it means they're lighter, cheaper and better.

The 45mm is light, it is cheap (well, at least used), and it really is very good. Plenty sharp enough in the center. The corners - always an issue with wide lenses - are a bit mushy near wide open, but get better as you stop down. That's easy to live with; the corners never really look good anyhow due to the wide-angle perspective distortion. More importantly, there is very little light falloff towards the edges and there's no barrel distortion (where lines get a little "wavy" or bent near edges) to worry about.


Doutonbori canal. About 12-15 second exposure. This shows the benefit and drawback of wide lenses: You can capture the impression of a wide vista, but everything will look tiny and unengaging unless you make an effort to place something close into the frame. Which I failed to do here.

Using this lens is fun, but using it well is difficult. Unless you're really close, things become tiny. On the other hand, once you do get close small things become really big. Wide angle lenses exaggerate distances, while telephoto lenses compress them. This is why wide angle lenses aren't used for portraits much; closer features like noses, chins and lips get bigger relative to features farther away like ears, neck or the head itself.

I'm no good at using really wide lenses and most of the images here show it. It's so tempting to use it to simply get "everything" into the frame. The result is inevitably disappointing - the interesting bits become tiny and surrounded by lots and lots of nothing much. The reason we do this is, I think, because we don't really see the world this way. We really only focus on a fairly narrow area at one time. We don't notice all the space out in the margins, so we simply forget to compose with that space in mind. A near normal-angle lens is much easier to compose with precisely because it matches our own perception much better.

No Bicycles Parking

Street sign outside a bicycle speciality shop along Sakaisuji street. Here we have two layers with the sign right up close and the bicycle shop in the background which lets us contrast two things of very different size. It might have have worked even better had I stopped down a bit more to get the shop a little more in focus.


#1 "Rectilinear" means that straight lines stay straight in the picture. The penalty is that proportions get distorted near the edges. Fisheye lenses, on the other hand, keep proportions right but bend straight lines instead instead. Which is right? Both. Neither.

You're trying to take a half-spherical map of reality and flatten into an image. Something has to give. It's the exact same problem as making a flat map of a round earth.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Diet Dissolution

The party is supported by 36% - one in three - of the population. Only 28% - one in four - thinks its leader is suitable for the Prime minister's office. That's not good numbers, you say? Open goal for the opposing party? This party - the DPJ - is the opposing party and it manages to look good only by comparison to the governing party LDP. Their latest support figure is 18%, and their leader - Prime minister Aso Tarō - is considered suitable in his job by 11%, according to the latest Mainichi poll.

Aso dissolved the diet today in preparation for the upcoming election, and the LDP is showing signs of breaking apart over it. Last week a group within the LDP announced they had the lawmaker signatures needed to force a party general meeting. The idea was to depose Aso and elect a new party leader before the general election. Only, just after rebel leader Nakagawa had his triumphant press conference a number of his signatories started backtracking, removing their names, saying they didn't really mean anything by it. The end result was a non-binding meeting today where Aso listened to complaints and grievances from disaffected members - and likely completely ignored them, of course, as he has nothing left to lose and nothing left to prove anyway. He's been Prime minister of Japan, he'll stand for election and he'll go down in history no matter what the result. From his point of view it's no doubt better to be remembered as "The Last Prime Minister of the LDP" than "Temporary Nobody #4".

The house dissolution kicks off the "pre-campaign" season, until the start of the official campaigns on the 18th of August. I have to confess I do not know the detailed election laws here - I have no authoritative sources in English or Swedish - but they are many, strict and frankly quite strange. Once the official campaign period starts, some ridiculously restrictive campaign rules come into force. They're worth a separate post, but when a single car with a loud-speaker chanting the candidate's name is the most effective allowed means of reaching a couple hundred thousand people in an electoral district something is seriously out of whack.

However, before the 18th any campaigning is forbidden, by anybody. What constitutes "campaigning" seems a muddy, stretchy concept. Any online or mass media discussion of policy or merits of one candidate over another could be considered campaigning if you were in that frame of mind. In the run-up to previous elections the "pre-campaign" period has been short. This time, however, there's a whole month of dead time, with the house out of session and election called but with no legal way to campaign. Expect to see lower-house candidates stretch the definition of "campaigning" to its breaking point in the weeks ahead.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Taisho - prelude and warning

Ritsuko is traveling while I'm staying behind to work. But yesterday was Sunday so I went to Taisho ward in Osaka - that's part of the harbour area - to take pictures. Lots of cool industrial facilities and harbour installations. I've yet to process the pictures so a full post will come later.

However, a timely warning about something I've forgotten: Clouds are not a good sun blocker. The sun will burn you even if it's overcast. My face, underarms and backs of my hands were crayfish red when I came back yesterday and I still look vaguely ridiculous today. Oh, and it hurts. At least I did use a hat part of the time so my face isn't as bad as the arms.

Takeaway message: Use long sleeves. Use a hat. Use sunblock. Even if it's cloudy and looking to rain.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Not going to Sweden

I'm not going to Sweden. Not exactly news, true; I'm not going to Shanghai, Shizuoka, Swaziland, Switzerland, Svalbard or the Seyshelles either. The point is that, while I'm not going to Sweden, Ritsuko is.

She's going for a week to see my parents (and my sister, who's also visiting) in Borlänge and do a bit of sightseeing. Also, she's studying Swedish here in Osaka, but there isn't much opportunity to use the language here. A trip to Sweden gives her a good opportunity to practice. I would join her - we have a lot of fun on our trips together - but I'm just too busy at work to take any time off right now. That's good for her Swedish of course; without me there to translate she'll have to use it for real.

I'll join her the next time instead. And we'll make sure to take a short trip together later in the year. Meanwhile I'm staying alone in Osaka, stressing about the project, melting away in the sweltering summer heat and missing Ritsuko very much.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Election, Braindeath

Election time is finally coming around, and the entire Japanese politics blog world just wet itself in collective anticipation.

The LDP took a hammering at the polls in the local Tokyo elections, losing control of the local assembly to the opposition. Prime minister Aso Tarō's position was looking more uncertain by the hour; the long knives were drawn and the push was already on to force another leadership election. So he's pulling the trigger on the only gun he has left and calling for national elections on August 30th.

This most likely means that the LDP will go to the polls with Aso at the helm - the same Aso that is (fairly or unfairly) blamed for the recent election defeats in Tokyo, Nara and elsewhere, and that is openly being called a disaster for his party. Since the alternative - hold a leadership election and trot out yet another new face just weeks before the real event - is even worse, the LDP will probably just have to grin and bear it.

In a bit of delightful coincidence, the Japanese diet today passed a law defining brain death to be legal death. The purpose is to make it easier to obtain consent for transplantation, and to transplant organs from donors younger than 15 years of age (something that up until now had been illegal). It's a welcome change, and one that puts Japan in line with many other countries.

The parallels to a headless LDP still breathing and shedding disaffected members to other parties ahead of its fall is of course purely coincidental, but no less enjoyable for that.


Back again after a two-night trip to Riken in Yokohama. Actually, of course, the institute isn't in Yokohama city itself, but in a ward - a local community - called Tsurumi, north of the city. And if you want to be all nitpicky, it's not so much in Tsurumi as in an industrial park in the harbour area outside Tsurumi itself. Nestled in between a sewage pipe factory and a Tokyo Gas facility, and just down the road to the Yokohama garbage treatment plant and incinerator.


The Riken institute in Tsurumi. The cool-looking buildings is not in fact an alien spacecraft docking station, but the NMR research center (MRI, that you can use to scan brain activity, is one kind of NMR scanning, but you can use NMR for scanning all kinds of other materials too). And no, I have no idea what it looks like inside; you're not even allowed to eat in the cafeteria without a site ID card, much less visit the actual facilities.

This, by the way, seems to be a deliberate policy in Japan. Almost all institutes and research labs I've worked at or visited here are placed in inaccessible rural or industrial areas; the more desolate and harder to reach the better. I fully expect future institutes of higher learning to be accessible only by helicopter.

Anyway, the meeting was fun; it was focused on poster sessions rather than talks, which suits me fine. I learn a lot more from talking to people about their work standing by their poster than listening to a twenty-minute monologue about the same thing. I find it much easier, too, talking about my own work with other people directly than stumbling through an incoherent speech. And since this was a multidisciplinary meeting ("computational science" was the connecting thread, with contributions from computer graphics to neurology to solid-state physics), posters make it easy to focus on the stuff that you are interested in, and skip the stuff you have no clue about.

Tsurumi seems to be a typical no-frills town. Busy center around the train stations, surrounded by mixed business and residential areas with apartment buildings, single homes and half-shuttered shopping streets; all criss-crossed by elevated highways and local train lines. The only real wrinkle to the place is the large harbour area with its industrial park. It's decent enough but not a place you'd visit without a particular reason to do so.


Much of Tsurumi actually looks like this when you get away from the main roads. Quite cosy and inviting small-town feel, but still close to major cities. I bet most residents really like living here. I probably would.

Shuttered-up shopping streets, by the way, are a real and growing problem in many communities. Places like Tokyo, Osaka and so on are doing OK of course, but you can't have a news report on the problems facing regional economies without the camera panning across a desolate shopping street, shutters all drawn and customers conspicuously absent.

Shopping Street

Shuttered, or at least temporarily closed, shops along one street, mid-afternoon on a weekday.

A major culprit is of course faltering local economies. The recession hits regional areas far harder than the large metropolitan areas. Another reason, specific to these kind of streets, is that shop owners typically own the building and live above the shop itself. When they quit - for whatever reason - they are unwilling or unable to rent out the business space to somebody else; the shop really is part of their home after all. So the shops stay closed. And closed shops sour the mood on the street, leading to fewer customers and more closures.

But I wonder if there isn't a simple problem of over-establishment as well. A walk from the center of Tsurumi down to the harbour sees not just one but several long, roofed shopping streets on the way, with what to my naive eyes looks like way too many shops to be sustainable. It's like every street wanted to be a shopping street during the economic boom, and competition is killing most of them off again.

Tsurumi Ono station

Tsurumi Ono station out toward the harbour on a Friday evening, and commuters are all gathering to go home.

All pictures from Tsurumi is in the set Here

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


I'm in Yokohama - actually, in Tsurumi, north of Yokohama proper - and preparing for a research meeting tomorrow and Friday; don't expect any substantial posts for another few days in other words.

This meeting is oriented around poster sessions rather than talks. This is good: posters mean you get to talk one-on-one with people doing research you're interested in. But every poster submitted - our included - has a 1 (one) minute talk telling everybody why they should come by and check it out.

This is hard. This is really hard. I've done this kind of poster presentation before, and it's really difficult. I can talk about our research of the cuff for ten or twenty minutes, no problem. I can do a one-hour seminar with some preparation. But condensing it all into 60-90 seconds - including title and contributor names - is really tough.

And then you have to actually deliver it in that brief time, with a hundred people looking at you (well, they're mostly surfing the web, but still). You can't "iummm" or "ahh", or "well" or "maa" no matter how much you may want to. I'm a champion "umm"-er, but one good "ummm" - delivered with confidence and gusto - could eat up half the time you have. If I would try an unscripted delivery I wouldn't get as far as the names of my collaborators before people start forcibly pulling me off the stage with a hook.

So yes, I'm going to sound stilted and wooden when I rattle through my presentation tomorrow. Not a major problem; anybody with an interest in our work will get as much detailed, unscripted explanation as they can stand.


Statue at the soccer stadium in Nagai park, Osaka. Yashica Mat with Kodak Ektar film (Fuji has some real catching up to do here). No connection to the above; I just like this shot.

Monday, July 6, 2009


I have a fair amount of things to take care of as I'm heading to a symposium in Yokohama towards the end of the week. On the political front everybody is waiting for the Tokyo local elections and for prime minister Aso to a) be kicked out of office by his irate party members; b) get off the pot and just call the national elections already; or c) admit that he's been stringing everyone along just to see how many blogging pundits' heads will explode in frustrated anticipation before the time limit expires.

So to shift gears a bit, the spiral below1 is a pretty cool visual illusion (from here):


Red, green and blue spirals.

There's three wide, coloured spirals going clockwise inward above: a red, a green and a light blue one. They're crossed by narrow orange and purple lines.

Except that those wide green and blue spirals are actually the exact same colour. You don't believe me? Go ahead and check - you can save the image and compare the colors directly in a drawing program if you want.

One of those greenish spirals is crossed by thin orange lines. The other one is crossed by purple lines. And that's enough for our vision system to get completely fooled; in comparison to the orange colour it looks green while in comparison to purple it's blue.

This kind of thing is fun of course, but it's not just a neat demo or toy. Illusions like this one help us figure out how the visual system works. It's very hard to figure out exactly how the visual system processes the images it gets. But when it fails - like when we get fooled by an illusion - the way it fails can tell us a lot about exactly what our brain was trying to do.

This also reminds us that our vision is not some passive, deterministic mechanism. Our eyes are not cameras and our minds are not memory cards. We don't see what we think we see, and we don't remember what we think we saw. Eyewitness reports are notoriously unreliable for this very reason. Far from any objective observers of reality, we spend every waking moment actively fooling ourselves.


#1 I'm certainly not implying any suggestive likeness to the Aso governments slow spiralling down the drain of political defeat into the cesspool of history. Well.. OK, but only a bit, mind you.

Friday, July 3, 2009

DPJ - No hurdle too low, no goal too open

So, the LDP is crashing in the opinion polls. The party is in complete disarray, Aso has lost what little authority he had but refuses to step down, and an election must be held within months. It's an open goal for the opposition.

Of course, the DPJ has never yet seen a golden opportunity they can't squander. The ink not yet dry on his appointment, new DPJ leader Hatoyamas office is already under investigation for illegal campaign contributions. This time it's money from himself donated to his campaign office with the names of unwitting - and sometimes dead1 - people used as cover. There's a 10 million yen limit for donations by any one individual but this way his campaign aide could transfer several times that from his personal accounts.

Now, when the predecessor Ozawa was ultimately forced from office for illegal campaign contributions, did it even once cross what passes for the DPJ leadership's minds to perhaps vet the candidates for this sort of thing? Couldn't they even have just asked him if, oh, by the way, you don't happen to have any illegal campaign money-related problems do you, the kind that will completely derail our attempts at a once-in-an-era chance at political power? No, of course not. I suspect that if they really did, they'd have a hard time filling a single post in the party.

As the incumbent LDP and the Aso government is exposing itself as a thieving group of dishonest, sleazy, money-grubbing, power-mad, backstabbing selfish bastards, a lot of people seem to be asking why anybody would ever want to vote LDP in the upcoming election.

I do understand why. At least the LDP people are good at being dishonest, sleazy and money-grubbing. The DPJ can't even manage low-grade sleaze competently. Imagine having such clowns bumble about in office, completely fumbling the large-scale corruption that comes with being in office. It'd be embarrassing and painful to watch. It'd be like one of those TV amateur talent shows where an earnest and likeable singer who should never have passed the first round is making a complete and total ass of themselves on a national stage.

I don't vote in Japanese elections of course. And I'm happy I don't; I'd really hate to have to choose between two such miserable alternatives. Let's hear it for a resounding win by mr. None Of The Above.


#1 Ah yes, dead "voters". At least he knows the classics in political fraud.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Aso Government Death Watch

'Tis a Dark and Stormy night. In the old, run-down house, Aso, the ancient sorcerer (curiously resembling a grumpy potato) is fighting desperately to keep his tortured creation alive, even as the whippoorwills outside sing about its imminent death. Aso looks up in panic as the protective seals and sigils groan and weaken when an indescribable eldritch horror - formed in the darkest reaches of space, forged from the pain and anguish of a million betrayed LDP supporters - inexorably forces its way inside to reach the tortured ..thing that still agonizingly moves on the granite slab in some cruel mockery of life and reclaim it as one of its own.

Aaanyway, we're well into the Aso government death-watch in other words, and possibly (only possibly) the end of LDP as the dominant force in Japanese politics. Right now we have three elections and three dates to consider.

First, on July 12, the Tokyo metropolitan area holds their local elections. Yes, they're "local", but it's greater Tokyo we're talking about. They matter a lot, and they're widely seen as a bellwether for the national election.

Second, we have the upcoming national Lower House election, which must be held in early September at the latest (though the election date could apparently be prolonged into October). The exact date is decided by Prime Minister Aso.

Third, the term of office for Aso himself expires on September 30, and he has to stand for re-election as party leader in the LDP no later than that. He is hugely impopular even within his own party by now, and a fair amount of LDP members want to push him out and elect a new leader before

One question is basically if Aso calls the election before the Tokyo elections or after. Coalition partner New Komeito is dead set against calling it before, as they don't want to fight two election campaigns at the same time in the Tokyo area, but their clout with the LDP may well be on the wane.

If Aso calls them early enough he can schedule the election to August 8, during the Obon holidays. At that time many, many people return to their family villages to see their old folks and visit the family graves. And since you can't vote by post or by proxy here, it means a lot of city folks (who tends to support the opposition) will not be able to vote, while the rural population (who tends to support the LDP) can. This would be sneaky and underhanded - and frankly a creative, well-played political strategy, as long as it doesn't ruffle feathers enough to cause a public backlash.

The other alternative would be an election in early September. This would give the economic mood a bit more time to improve and perhaps lift the LDP approval ratings along with it. Of course, waiting as long as possible risk looking like Aso has no grip on the situation and is unable to take initiative.

The wild card really is how long Aso can stay in office. On one hand, most LDP members recognize that they'd stand a greater chance with the Kuidaore Tarō doll as their prime minister candidate than with Aso at the helm.

On the other hand, switching the Prime Minister for a fourth time in a row, just a month or two before the election, would come across as a cynical, transparent attempt at manipulating voter sentiment for short term electoral gain. It might actually hurt the party even worse than keeping Aso around - also, I suspect that Aso's accession was an attempt to do the same thing, and look just how well that's turned out.

Still, things have gotten bad enough that Aso apparently no longer is in full control over his own cabinet anymore. And last week some high-level LDP people even asked a popular governor and former comedian Higashikokobaru to run for a seat on the LDP ticket, who responded he'd run if he'd be a candidate for the party presidency. This did not sit well with the exisisting LDP members and underscores how the LDP is lacking in any kind of actual leadership. edit: Shisaku has a good, oven-fresh post on these events.

But the Prime Minister has the nuclear option: he, and only he, calls the election. If calls to push him out get too strident he can always push that button and end it with a political bang as it were. Consider his position: well into his 70's, at the topmost post he's ever going to hold, and most likely the last post no matter what happens. He may well want to go out fighting and go in history as the last prime minister of the LDP era, rather than be recorded as Temporary Nobody #3 in the row of short-term prime minister stand-ins.