Category Archives: The Americas

Another Obama appointment, another kabuki metaphor

This time it’s Elena Kagan, this time the culprit is Colorado Law professor Paul Campos speaking on NPR, this time it’s a “ritual,” and as always we are here to call them on it.

I think that to the extent that it’s possible to eventually support this nomination, it has to be based on her answering real substantive questions in the confirmation process instead of going through this kind of kabuki ritual of dodging those kinds of questions, which is what nominees have so successfully done for the past 20 years.

This is, of course, the same metaphor that Joe Biden used in the context of the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, as blogged about on MFT before.

And so I will say it again: if you’re going to compare Washington to any sort of Japanese theater, you’re probably best off comparing it to bunraku.

France, China, Arizona and Narita all want to see your papers

There are two inspirations for this post. The first is a recent blog post by James Fallows (who is exactly the person I would have become if I became a “real” journalist) at The Atlantic: Essay Question: Is AZ More Like China—or Like France? Amid discussion of the new illegal-immigrant-weeding laws in Arizona, specifically the fact that Americans don’t generally have to carry ID around with them, one Fallows reader in France chimes in:

The French must always have their National ID card on them – for the police can demand to see it at any and all times.

Foreigners, in principle, must always have a piece of ID on them – like a passport. I never carry this with me – in 14 years of living here, I’ve never had my passport on me except when I’ve been on my way to the airport and going abroad. But I’m white and look (sometimes sound) French of Gaullish stock. The police, in the vast majority of cases, stop and demand ID papers from youngish (under 40) males of African or Arab descent, be they French nationals or no.

It is not a well-looked upon practice of the police, but the French aren’t adamant enough against it to seek its abolition. As far as I understand, such identity checks have been a long staple of police work in France going back to the Revolutionary/Napoleonic era wherein the State underwent a reinforcement of its prerogatives over the citizenry.

Japan falls in between the American and French models: Japanese citizens are not required to carry ID, but foreigners in Japan have to carry a passport or alien registration card at all times, and the police have a habit of carding visible foreigners at random. Until last month, this had only happened to me a couple of times when I was bicycling around Tokyo, and one of those times I was able to shake off the cop by simply saying I was in a hurry.

Inspiration number two. Last month, six of my family members flew in from the US for the wedding. I took the train out to Narita to meet them on arrival. Their flight arrived 15 minutes ahead of schedule, so I started hustling quickly out of the station to get upstairs to the arrivals hall. A few seconds out of the station gates, a cop with his partner called out to me in English:

COP: Excuse me—(points at watch) Do you have a minute?
ME: (without stopping or slowing down) Nope, sorry. I have to meet someone upstairs.
COP: Oh, OK!

That was the end of that checkpoint, and I proudly announced my triumph on Twitter.

Fast forward a few days, and my family were headed back home, so again I went to the airport to see them off. They checked in before I arrived at the airport, so I met them in the ticketing hall at Terminal 2, and we sat down to relax for a while together before they left.

Two cops appeared from around the corner and made a beeline for the group of seven white people, saying “Excuse me? Passport check?”

My family all had their passports out already, and haven’t read Debito’s website, so they handed the passports over and the police started copying down their names and passport numbers with pencil and paper. I was about to pop, but tried to keep cool.

ME: Can I ask you guys something? There is no way to get into this airport without showing your ID to someone. Why do you have to check it again?
COP: It’s for security reasons.
ME: So you don’t trust the people checking our ID when we get off the train?
COP: Um, do you know what shokumu shitsumon (“official questioning”) is?
ME: I’ve heard of it.
COP: We just ask these questions. Your cooperation is completely voluntary.
ME: Really? You didn’t make that clear at all to my family.
COP: Errrr…. well, we don’t know how to say that in English.
ME: You work in an international airport and you can’t speak English? OK, whatever. I’m not traveling, I’m just seeing my family off.
COP: OK. Sorry to take up your time.

They didn’t check my passport, so it was a lukewarm victory. The police then hit up a couple of South Asians behind us, and disappeared around another corner without questioning anyone else. My father and sister both laughed and said “I think we were just racially profiled”—a bilingual Japanese lady they were talking to apologetically remarked “I don’t know what their problem is.”

About five minutes passed and another pair of police appeared demanding our passports. At this point I popped.

ME: You dumbf—-s just asked them for their passports! Don’t you have anything better to do?!
COP: Oh. Sorry!

Strangely, there was no questioning when my wife and I came back the next day for our flight to Europe, or when we came back a few weeks later—though we passed a couple of white backpackers getting carded before going through the train station gates at the airport. I can only surmise that under Japanese law, an East Asian companion may implicitly substitute for a passport or alien registration card. That said, I would not try any similar stunt with European cops, who all seem to have submachine guns, military experience and serious attitudes, unlike their hapless Japanese counterparts.

NYT on American expats renouncing citizenship

NYT has an article noting that a sizable number of people every year give up their US citizenship for tax reasons. It seems like they are focused on Americans living in Europe, but I have met a few people in Japan who have at least considered this option. It does seem odd that the US is one of the few countries that tries to tax income earned abroad.

Are the Japanese crazy like us? (And by “us”, I mean “Americans”)

Ethan Watters is the author of “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche,” and recently appeared for a six minute interview on the US comedy show The Daily Show. Curiously, much of what he talked about focused on Japan:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Ethan Watters
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

The author raises this question: Is the American focus and treatment on understanding mental health (depression, schizophrenia) a “cultural” export? His answer is yes, and describes how, in treating symptoms that are believed in American culture to be “mental sickness,” we replace some symptoms that are in fact cultural characteristics in other societies. He ends up spending much of his six minutes on the Daily Show interview talking about Japan and criticizing the American “export” of mental health treatment to Japan. He says:

“Japan is actually a very sad culture. They think of sadness… almost as a religious state, as a way to get moral guidance…”

I read more about Watters book, and found some of the numbers that he uses to back his book. One is that GlaxoSmithKline and other drug makers funded favorable medical studies to sell treatments for depression in the Japanese market, with huge success—GlaxoSmithKline’s sales in Paxil went from nothing in 2000 to topping $1 billion in 2008. 27 books were published on depression from 1990 to 1995, but 177 were published from 2000 to 2005. Meanwhile, the Crown Princess is reported to be suffering from depression. So “depression” as a disease and syndrome, as opposed to a result of Japanese cultural characteristics, is now widely recognized in Japan, although I would argue that there is still much more stigma attached to it than in America.

Yet he goes on to say that Japan is perhaps the biggest copier of the American model. This seems to be absolute lunacy to me. Yes, Japan is a sad culture. The Japanese people are much more pessimistic and cynical about their future and their country’s future than any other Western developed nation. (I’ve seen stats to this effect but nothing that I can link to—feel free to weigh in on this point.) But first of all, they are still no where close to institutionalizing mental health on the educational, social, corporate, and government level. And second of all, is this the “Americanization” or “modernization” of mental health? While I think there is an excessive and too broad a focus on mental health in the United States, where everything is deemed to be an issue of mental health, I think that Japanese culture and society still has far too little emphasis on psychology, counseling and mental health.

Race: to be ignored or over-emphasized?

Exhibit 1. Michelle Malkin’s blog (hat tip to Adamu):

Fully one-quarter of the space on this year’s [U.S. Census] form is taken up with questions of race and ethnicity, which are clearly illegitimate and none of the government’s business (despite the New York Times’ assurances to the contrary on today’s editorial page). So until we succeed in building the needed wall of separation between race and state, I have a proposal.

Question 9 on the census form asks “What is Person 1’s race?” (and so on, for other members of the household). My initial impulse was simply to misidentify my race so as to throw a monkey wrench into the statistics; I had fun doing this on the personal-information form my college required every semester, where I was a Puerto Rican Muslim one semester, and a Samoan Buddhist the next. But lying in this constitutionally mandated process is wrong. Really — don’t do it.

Instead, we should answer Question 9 by checking the last option — “Some other race” — and writing in “American.” It’s a truthful answer but at the same time is a way for ordinary citizens to express their rejection of unconstitutional racial classification schemes. In fact, “American” was the plurality ancestry selection for respondents to the 2000 census in four states and several hundred counties.

Exhibit 2. The Rapporteur of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, to the Japanese government (thanks to Debito for putting the transcript online):

The report and [the government’s] responses contain many statistics including figures disaggregated by citizenship, nationality, but paragraph 4 of the report says that ethnic breakdown for Japan is not readily available, Japan does not conduct population surveys from an ethnic viewpoint.

I must say this has caused the rapporteur some heartache in the sense of trying to get a grip on relevant figures. For example, in relation to Koreans, you say that 600,000 approximately, that’s just round up those numbers, foreigners who are Koreans; 400,000 of which are special permanent residents, but there is also a figure of some 320,000 naturalizations that I have come across, and in recent years up to 2008, so we are actually talking about a million, something roughly around a million Koreans and Korean descent.

The committee often asks for statistics; we understand the difficulties that states may have for various reasons including reasons to do with privacy and anonymity and so on, not wanting to pigeonhole people in certain ethnic categories, but it can be tremendously helpful I think and also in many cases necessary to get a grasp of the situation by understanding its dimensions and if an ethnic question can’t be asked in a direct way in a census, we often encourage states to find creative ways around this, including things like use of languages we recommended to other states from time to time; social surveys, etc., and a number of other methods that are…this is essentially designed not simply to help the committee – that’s not the point – but to help the state, I think to understand the dimensions of a particular question, and enable them to focus their policy more appropriately.

“Race” in terms of black and white is a pretty silly idea, but there is something to be said about monitoring statistics on ethnic origin, as opposed to the Japanese government approach of looking at registered nationality alone (that is, when they choose to count foreign nationals at all). Of course, when the world is full of hot-heads on both sides of the political fence, it’s hard to reach a compromise that anyone will like.

Does money have the constitutional right to talk?

This has been a hot topic in American legal discourse recently thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which upheld the notion that corporations have the right to free speech—in this case, the freedom to spend money to defame Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, which was previously banned for corporations under election finance statutes. You can read the whole opinion here (PDF), but it is long, and filled with discussion of the historical concepts of corporations, going back to when the Constitution was written.

The idea of corporations having constitutional human rights seems alien to many American observers and probably bizarre to many Japanese people. So far, the best concise analysis of the subject I have found (in the context of the American case) is this piece by law professor Usha Rodrigues at my favorite “blawg,” The Conglomerate. She points out that even the justices of the Supreme Court did a good job of conflating various types of “corporation,” when in reality a corporation can be a home-office business, a completely non-profit organization or even a type of governmental entity. (Justice John Paul Stevens, who led the left-wing dissent, even brought Tokyo Rose into the argument.)

From this perspective, it becomes more clear that corporate status is not a very good dividing line. It captures Goldman Sachs and the big oil and pharmaceutical companies, but it also captures the Sierra Club, the NRA and all sorts of organizations that do have a valuable role in consolidating a force of popular opinion that might not otherwise be expressed.

The real problem for populists, I think, is the fact that political donations are treated as a form of speech. There’s a way to get around this: amend the Constitution. Good luck doing that without a lot of money to run a campaign.

Since this is mostly a Japan blog, I should add that Japan’s Supreme Court ruled similarly, albeit more tersely, on a similar case in 1970—the Yawata Steel case, outlined in Japanese here. This case was originally brought by a lawyer who held Yawata Steel stock and wanted to stop the company from making political donations. The court’s ruling, which is still law in Japan, was that Japanese corporations have the full array of constitutional human rights “to the extent possible given their nature” (性質上可能な限り). Some extracts from their opinion (available here in Japanese), followed by my English paraphrase:

会社は、一定の営利事業を営むことを本来の目的とするものであるから、会社の活動の重点が、定款所定の目的を遂行するうえに直接必要な行為に存することはいうまでもないところである。しかし、会社は、他面において、自然人とひとしく、国家、地方公共団体、地域社会その他(以下社会等という。)の構成単位たる社会的実在なのであるから、それとしての社会的作用を負担せざるを得ないのであつて、ある行為が一見定款所定の目的とかかわりがないものであるとしても、会社に、社会通念上、期待ないし要請されるものであるかぎり、その期待ないし要請にこたえることは、会社の当然になしうるところであるといわなければならない。
Companies are formed for the purpose of performing a particular business, but this does not mean that they can only act in direct furtherance of the purposes listed in their articles of incorporation. Companies, like individuals, are part of the state, their localities and their regional societies, and have responsibilities toward those entities. Even if a certain type of act is beyond the purposes of the company as provided in its articles of incorporation, such an act should still be allowed to the extent that it is expected and demanded of the company in the course of its social relations.

そしてまた、会社にとつても、一般に、かかる社会的作用に属する活動をすることは、無益無用のことではなく、企業体としての円滑な発展を図るうえに相当の価値と効果を認めることもできるのであるから、その意味において、これらの行為もまた、間接ではあつても、目的遂行のうえに必要なものであるとするを妨げない。災害救援資金の寄附、地域社会への財産上の奉仕、各種福祉事業への資金面での協力などはまさにその適例であろう。会社が、その社会的役割を果たすために相当を程度のかかる出捐をすることは、社会通念上、会社としてむしろ当然のことに属するわけであるから、毫も、株主その他の会社の構成員の予測に反するものではなく、したがつて、これらの行為が会社の権利能力の範囲内にあると解しても、なんら株主等の利益を害するおそれはないのである。
Such acts are not necessarily limited to not-for-profit acts. A company may also (directly or indirectly) find value toward its own development as an enterprise through disaster relief, services to society, funding social welfare projects and other peripheral acts. Appropriate expenses by a company toward these social duties are naturally to be allowed and do not violate shareholder rights or harm shareholder profit.

以上の理は、会社が政党に政治資金を寄附する場合においても同様である。憲法は政党について規定するところがなく、これに特別の地位を与えてはいないのであるが、憲法の定める議会制民主主義は政党を無視しては到底その円滑な運用を期待することはできないのであるから、憲法は、政党の存在を当然に予定しているものというべきであり、政党は議会制民主主義を支える不可欠の要素なのである。そして同時に、政党は国民の政治意思を形成する最も有力な媒体であるから、政党のあり方いかんは、国民としての重大な関心事でなければならない。したがつて、その健全な発展に協力することは、会社に対しても、社会的実在としての当然の行為として期待されるところであり、協力の一態様として政治資金の寄附についても例外ではないのである。
The above reasoning also applies to corporate gifts to political parties. The constitution does not expressly mention political parties nor grant them any special status, but implicitly assumes their necessary existence through its general structuring of the representative democracy system. Political parties are the most powerful constituent body of the people’s government, and to participate in their development is naturally to be expected as a social act even by a company. Political donations are a normal component of the cooperation between citizens and their government.

Adam J. Richards disappointed in court decision in favor of Borat

From Bloomberg:

News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox Film won an appeals-court ruling affirming the dismissal of three lawsuits filed by people who claimed they were emotionally harmed by appearing in the “Borat” movie.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in New York upheld the dismissals from last year in an order today. People who appeared in the film, including those in a dinner-party scene in which the protagonist presents a bag of feces, also sued for fraud and unjust enrichment, according to the ruling. They argued the ambiguity of “documentary-style film” in signed releases meant the lower court couldn’t rely on them to dismiss the litigation.

“While the character ‘Borat’ is fictional, the film unmistakably tells the story of his travels in the style of a traditional, fact-based documentary,” the appeals court wrote. “Indeed, the film’s stylistic similarity to the straight documentary form is among its central comedic conceits, employed to set the protagonist’s antics in high relief.”

...

“It’s disappointing,” Adam J. Richards, a lawyer for six of the seven plaintiffs, said of the ruling in a phone interview. “It allows well-financed parties such as Twentieth Century Fox to outright lie to people and rely on, in my opinion, an ambiguously worded document to get by the lies.”

...

The appeals court found the plaintiffs couldn’t claim the filmmakers fraudulently induced them into signing the releases because they didn’t try to verify what they were told by, for example, asking to meet the “reporter” or learn his name.

“They would have lied to him,” Levine said of his client Psenicska. “To use clear language like ‘mock documentary’ or ‘mockumentary’ would have given the game away. They were clearly trying to use obsfucation.”


While I agree that the plaintiffs should have maybe had a little common sense before jumping in front of the camera, I really hope Sasha Baron Cohen remains the only one making these obviously subversive movies. They work, but only because the makers are doing things everyone knows are completely wrong.

New and changing traditions – skillet apple pie

Mrs. Adamu and I are in Connecticut for Thanksgiving this year. It’s the first time we have been back at this time of the season for several years and I must say it’s been refreshing. New England is cold at this time of year but the air is crisp and the night sky very clear. I do not remember seeing this many stars for a very long time.

I’ve been listening to a lot of NPR on this trip and was inspired by hearing this story on Morning Edition about popular Thanksgiving dishes that have come and gone. So inspired, in fact, that I tried to make one of the dishes, skillet apple pie. I highly recommend listening to the whole story as it gives you an interesting feel for how different Thanksgiving must have been in generations past. Anyway here is what the dish is supposed to do:

Apple pie is an essential dish for Thanksgiving, yet it’s perhaps the hardest dessert to master: making two layers of pie crust; getting flavor into the apples; making the filling sliceable but tasty; making the bottom crust crispy instead of soggy. Here’s our quick and easy answer to the Apple Pie Problem.

While this wasn’t a vintage dish (it was an invention of the person interviewed for the story), it sounded pretty damned good. I’ve never had apple pie with apple cider and maple syrup before. My own variation on the dish did nothing to solve the “apple pie problem” however. I transported the sauteed apples back into a traditional pie plate and used a top and bottom crust. I haven’t tried it yet so we shall see if it works out. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Mad cow protests in Taiwan get crazy

About two weeks ago I talked about how the protests in Taiwan over the importation of American beef are more about anxiety over a loss of sovereignty to the People’s Republic of  China than about any serious concerns over possible mad cow disease. Well, this has only become more obvious as the debates and protests continue. For example, DPP caucus whip Pan Meng-an says “The [lifting of restrictions] on US beef became effective spontaneously, without legislative approval, as did the financial MOU with China. Will [the government’s plan to sign an economic cooperative and framework agreement] be next?” And whether or not allegations that DPP Chairperson Tsai Ying-wen secretly met with American Institute in Taiwan (the unofficial embassy) director William Stanton to promise that the protests were purely an election ploy to discredit the ruling KMT and not a sign of anti-Americanism turn out to be true, that is also clearly a major impetus for the protests.

But what is a mass political protest without a little crazy? Well, some was provided by Chu Cheng-chi (朱政騏), a PhD student at National Taiwan University’s Graduate Institute of Sociology, who posted a video of himself eating a “burger” made out of actual cow-shit to youtube as a symbol of…something I guess.

Chu Cheng-chi (朱政騏), a graduate student at NTU’s Graduate Institute of Sociology, lay down outside the legislature’s front gate and covered himself with a straw mat — a gesture Chu said symbolized how the poor cover the body of a deceased person.

He said he would continue his hunger strike to protest a proposal by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) caucus to amend the Act Governing Food Sanitation (食品衛生管理法).

Chu was referring to a proposal the KMT put forward last Tuesday to authorize the government to “draw up measures to inspect beef products from areas where the risk of mad cow disease has been under control,” instead of two other prosoals for a ban on “risky” beef products from the US.

Chu began a “lie in” protest in a coffin in front of the legislature on Saturday and vowed to stage a hunger strike until today, but police fined him and forcibly removed the coffin on Sunday night, saying Chu had violated the Road Traffic Management and Punishment Act (道路交通管理處罰條例).

Huang Tai-shan (黃泰山), a doctoral student from National Tsing Hua University, who also covered himself with a grass mat next to Chu, said five more doctoral students would join the protest should police forcibly remove Chu and Huang.


But of course, you really want to see the video itself. Enjoy.

After the opening vignette of him tasting a cow patty is the opening title of:

I eat cow dung, I protest!

My rough translation of his monologue is as follows:

I have in front of me some delicious edible beef.
After the Ma adminstration opens the door to American Beef, it will turn into beef that one could fear is poisonous.
I am just an ordinary youth who decided to protest against the government.
I have no power to change things, I am only able to make my own body suffer.
This is the most serious kind of protest!
I am now going to take Taiwanese cow dung and prepare it.
Consuming American beef will absolutely be scarier than eating the dung of a Taiwanese cow!

Followed by another title reading:

Eating American beef is scarier than eating Taiwanese cow dung!

They then drive out to Qingtiangang (擎天崗), a ranch area created during Japanese occupation, now part of Yangmingshan National Park to collect the fresh cow dung as cloying music plays in the background. You finally see him sit in front of the presidential building, prepare the burger, and eat some of it while reciting more nonsense about how he can “absolutely guarantee that it is still safer than American beef” and that “the Ma Yingjiu administration is opening up to American beef and not protecting the safety, well-being, and health of the people.” He then pukes in the bushes.

Enjoy the e-coli, chu. E-coli, for those who forget, is a bacteria found mainly in the digestive tracts and feces of animals, which generally poisons humans when it is transmitted by accidental contamination of meat by feces from the same animal when it is slaughtered.  According to the CDC, e-coli poisoning kills at least 60 Americans and sickens 2000 every year. For comparison, take a look at the CDC’s own stats on mad cow disease-showing only 3 confirmed cases in the US to date. And note that these are the numbers of cases in COWS, to date there have been exactly zero cases of humans contracting the disease from cows raised in the US.

US infrastructure is pathetic

As a simple reminder, look at the plans for the rail line being built to Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport (former Chiang Kai Shek Airport).

Travelers leaving from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport will be able to check their luggage in at Taipei Railway Station before boarding the Airport Rail, the Bureau of High Speed Rail said yesterday.

“When the Airport Rail is launched in 2014, passengers can check in and get their boarding passes in the city first,” Bureau Director-General Chu Shu (朱旭) said. “The Taoyuan airport will be the fourth system in the world to offer in-town check-in service, following airports in Kuala Lumpar, Hong Kong and Bangkok.”


Even in cities that have a half-way decent rail system, most airports in the US don’t even have a rail connection. NYC’s JFK Airport has the so-called Airtrain, but after trying it once I suspect it might be faster to walk. There is also some talk of extending the PATH 2 miles so that it connects Manhattan directly to Newark Airport, with 24 hour access, which would be a huge improvement. But I can’t even imagine any place in the US putting together a baggage check-in service on the other side of an express airport rail. America was once the world leader in infrastructure, and now look at the list of cities in that article that have not just better airports, but better airports AND better airport rails! Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to see the rest of the world catch up, but I’m disgusted that 21st America is making so little investment in similar upgrades. China’s insane empty city aside, they are also pumping $200 billion into high speed rail infrastructure. The United States has only about 10% of that figure promised.