Media Mix, Aug. 13, 2017

Steps in disposing of nuclear waste

Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the map recently published by METI of “suitable” areas for repositories of nuclear waste. The article’s main theme, in accordance with several media outlets’ coverage of the map, is that METI and the nuclear power industry are dawdling and that it will still be many years before any action to address the issue of Japan’s nuclear waste is begun. As pointed out in the column, the map indicates sites where high-level waste as a product of reprocessing spent fuel could be buried, but Japan has yet to launch its reprocessing program and, in fact, may never do so due to safety concerns. Meanwhile, 18,000 tons of spent fuel sits in storage at nuclear reactors nationwide. That amount will only increase if the government starts reopening idled reactors.

What wasn’t pointed out in the article is that this problem won’t go away even if the government decides tomorrow to abandon its nuclear energy problem. It has to find a repository for all the spent fuel if it isn’t reprocessed, since it remains in a dangerous state as long as it’s just sitting around. Some of the material that lead to the meltdown at Fukushima Number 1 is believed to have been spent fuel.

Japan would do well to look to Europe, which is currently addressing this problem. In an NHK special first broadcast in 2012 about the problem of nuclear waste, a camera crew went to Switzerland to see what that country is doing about its spent fuel (there is no reprocessing system in Switzerland, so no second-hand nuclear waste). The program shows how the country is slowly and methodically building repositories under mountains to receive the fuel and hold it for thousands of years. One dairy farmer, who is against nukes in principle, is participating in the project by donating land and time, because he says that regardless of his opposition to nuclear energy he knows that something must be done with the fuel and, thus, is working to make it happen. “It is our responsibility as Swiss,” he said.

The Japanese people have roundly indicated that they don’t really want nuclear power any more, but haven’t done anything to advance that position except when it comes to their own backyards–don’t restart reactors near our homes and don’t build repositories under our land. But there’s nowhere else to bury waste that’s already here. In a way, the current bureaucrats in METI and the current leaders of the nuclear power industry count on this NIMBY-derived apathy, which only exacerbates the problem. People will have to accept this waste and make the best of it. There’s no other way.

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August 2017 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on July 25.

Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie
Something to Tell You
-Haim (Universal)
The Southern California sound is sunny, expressed in major keys, with white-sounding harmonies. It’s the Beach Boys, whose doo-wop was twice removed from its African-American progenitors, first by Phil Spector, then by surfing culture. This attribute remained ascendant until Fleetwood Mac hired Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks to remake them as a pop band. The two singer-songwriters, both originally from Northern California, synthesized SoCal rock—Brian Wilson, the Laurel Canyon aesthetic, the superior studio skills associated with the Wrecking Crew—and personalized it, mainly on Rumours, which kept the style safe from punk and new wave. Now that this sound is ascendant again, Buckingham and the third singer-songwriter from the last iteration of FM, Christine McVie, release what is basically an FM album. The absence of Nicks is palpable but, given how little of herself she lent to recent FM recordings, not surprising, especially since Buckingham seems charged up by the project, even if his face on the cover betrays reservations. But Mick Fleetwood and John McVie provide the rhythm section, so there’s little to complain about. FM were first and foremost a beat machine, even when they were a blues group, adding bounce to choruses so that they’d sound great on any radio. Buckingham relies on John and Mick to make something of his songs that they aren’t on paper—pop hits with hooks. You can hear the difference between his infectious opener, “Sleeping Around the Corner,” and his excitement-free solo turn, “In My World,” which could almost be a demo. McVie goes with her strengths throughout, namely her facility with melodies that don’t crowd her limited vocal capabilities, and in terms of consistency her material is better than Buckingham’s. That said, both performers are more engaged than they have been for a long time, and with time these tunes will probably turn out to be more resilient than anything they’ve done in the past 20 years. The Haim sisters, of course, are the most obvious heirs to the FM SoCal sound, and, reportedly, received advice from Nicks herself for the recording of their second album. The sisters’ strong suit is their harmonizing, which one rock star characterized as being “gospel.” Though that would hardly have been an original compliment back in the day Haim references, it means something today. But what they really learned from FM is, again, that sense of propulsion which makes good hooks and choruses even more irresistible. The sisters, it should be noted, aren’t kids any more, despite their PR (the oldest is over 30), and Something to Tell You is an assuredly mature work in both sound and theme. There’s even a touch of new wave experimentalism on “Nothing’s Wrong” that sounds practically British, and “You Never Knew” appropriates disco unapolgetically. Lyrically, the confessional mode seems more or less obligatory, since there isn’t much conviction among the rote romantic entreaties, but the music will stand—or dance, whichever the case may be. Continue reading

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Media Mix, Aug. 6, 2017

Tomomi Inada

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about appearances and gender roles in the media. Most of the article addresses a series of forums published in the Asahi Shimbun, which started from the premise that gender stereotyping is a problem the media must admit and deal with. But, of course, the media can only perpetuate something that already exists in some form, and other institutions are just as complicit in such stereotypes. In one of the Asahi forums, journalist Momoko Shirakawa took issue with local governments that carry out konkatsu (marriage activity) events, which assist local men in finding brides, usually from outside the area. These events invariably treat women as being passive participants–the men have to convince the women of their own worth, which implies that it is the men who are creating a relationship. All the woman has to do is accept. Though this may sound like a small issue, it reinforces the idea that women are basically looking for support rather than a partnership.

In such an environment, women will find it hard to be taken seriously, which is why the emphasis on appearances still creates problems. As another forum participant, essayist Keiko Kojima, pointed out, Japanese comedy, especially the TV variety, is all about making fun of the underdog, and the easiest target is a person’s appearance. Since comedians essentially ridicule themselves, they think they can’t be accused of cruelty, but Kojima points out that women who are considered conventionally homely get the most work as comedians on TV, and that the humor poisons society at large when similar jokes are used by children against classmates they don’t like for whatever reason. And while such humor is not limited to Japan–think of the late Joan Rivers and her obsession with “sluts” and overweight women–in Japan such humor is practically institutionalized, a fact that is proved because no one tries to explain it. They just know it exists as something that’s peculiarly Japanese.

Ryan Takeshita touched on this reality in his Huffington Post article. He seemed genuinely puzzled by Tomomi Inada’s “joke” about how good-looking she and the two other defense ministers are. Usually, when a Japanese person makes a joke whose premise is that the speaker is good-looking, it means the opposite, because it is bad form to insist you are beautiful, whether you’re a man or a woman. Consequently, any Japanese person who heard Inada’s remark might conclude that she actually thinks she herself is not good-looking. But, of course, she was talking to a predominantly non-Japanese audience, which could mean that she understood humor in a foreign context. What she didn’t understand was that this audience had passed the cultural point where such a joke is funny a long time ago.

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August 2017 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the August issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on July 25.

Sean Ellis streamlines the facts and fortifies the action for his film about the 1941 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, but unlike similar projects these efforts don’t undermine the story’s historical relevance. Jan (Jamie Dornan) and Josef (Cillian Murphy), a Czech and a Slovak, respectively, are charged with the killing by their superiors in London, and immediately the terror imposed by Heydrich is apparent. Murder is the only response to a murderous regime, but the two assassins differ in temperament to a degree that would seem to jeopardize their mission. Josef is relatively level-headed, even brutal, while Jan can barely steady his gun hand to defend his own life, and Ellis uses this dynamic to ratchet up the tension as the two try to complete their mission and then find a way to get out alive. Though the love interests initially feel forced, they bring home the enormous costs for these two men, which they end up paying during the siege of a church harboring Resistance fighters that seems to go on forever. In English and German. (photo: Project Anth LLC) Continue reading

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Media Mix, June 25, 2017

Isoko Mochizuki

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about access journalism in Japan. In the column I try to make the case that most mainstream reporting in Japan is about gaining and maintaining access to people in power, which necessitates a cautious approach to what is actually reported, since any information that compromises that access is discouraged. At the end of the piece I mention the Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki, the exception that proves the rule. Mochizuki is a dogged interviewer, and her line of inquiry at a recent cabinet news conference assured that she wouldn’t be invited back to that particular venue again. The point was that she isn’t a member of the cabinet press club, so she had nothing to lose by pissing off Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, which just goes to show that the rest of the press club (or, at least, those who are called upon to ask questions there) falls into line when it comes to the government’s wishes.

Of course, real journalsim means being a relentless asker of questions, regardless of how much it annoys the interlocutor. Perhaps not surprisingly, Mochizuki has suddenly become a star, at least within the media sphere. (A lot of Japanese reporters tweeted photos of her when she unexpectedly showed up at former vice education minister Kihei Maekawa’s news conference on June 23) She’s been interviewed and profiled by various publications and websites since her cabinet news conference “performance” for essentially doing the job she’s supposed to do. By rights, that performance shouldn’t have been extraordinary, but everyone is treating her like some kind of superhero. As mentioned in the column, Mochizuki has been working for Tokyo Shimbun since 2000, mainly as a reporter-at-large, her main beats being the prosecutors office and crime. She’s also written a very well-regarded book on arms exports and did an expose in 2004 of improper political donations made by the Japan Dentists Association. What this wide range of interests shows is that Mochizuki doesn’t get stuck in one area where she could form associations that might compromise her investigations. Her professional attitude proves that the normal mass media protocol of assigning journalists to fixed venues, such as this press club or that one, makes for bad journalism. Beyond that, Mochizuki’s performance also showed how much ground a reporter can cover when she does her homework. She had obviously studied the Kake scandal in detail and her questions to Suga were sincere attempts to fill in the holes in her understanding. They were not the rote queries that most press club reporters pose. They had genuine purpose.

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Media Mix, June 11, 2017

Tsuneyasu Takeda

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the press’s take on the female imperial succession issue. As pointed out in the column, there are people involved in the discussion who think one solution to the problem of not enough imperial family members to carry out “tasks” is to reinstate branches that were dropped after World War II. These forces don’t address the notion that the work of the imperial family is basically a postwar invention; that when the emperor was a god he didn’t bother going out into the world for purposes of diplomacy, offering solace to his subjects, etc. Nevertheless, these forces are indubitably conservative. Who else would countenance, in the 21st century, the idea that people within the same extended family should intermarry? Because that’s what it comes down to. These forces want to have their mochi and eat it too: more imperial “civil servants” and a pure blood line.

One of the more vocal advocates of this position literally has skin in the game. Tsuneyasu Takeda is a great-great grandchild of Emperor Meiji and, interestingly enough, a constitutional scholar. He has also managed to spin these twin circumstances into a lucrative side career as a pundit and TV personality. Takeda’s family, which, apropos this week’s column, was descended from the wife of Emperor Meiji, meaning the female line of the prewar imperial family, (note, however, that Emperor Taisho, who succeeded Meiji, was the issue of a concubine) was one of those branches banned by GHQ in 1947, so if in the very unlikely chance that these branches are reinstated in order to boost imperial heirs, he would be back in the palace, so to speak, something he has implied he would like very much. But in a real sense, he’s already there. He wouldn’t be in the public eye if he were merely a constitutional scholar. It’s his connection with the old imperial family that has made him a star. He’s an important member of the Japan Olympic Committee because his father was an important member of the Japan Olympic Committee owing to his lineage. The overriding consideration for public exposure in Japan remains blood, whether the family is/was royalty in fact or in metaphor (show business, sports, politics). This also means that Takeda’s opinions about the imperial succession issue have more weight, and he’s said that the only reason the public cares about the abdication law is because they like the emperor as a person. If he were a real emperor, meaning someone who didn’t have a public profile but simply lingered behind the scenes in a purely ceremonial capacity, the people’s opinion wouldn’t matter, because there wouldn’t be any. And this is the real challenge of any “symbolic emperor” from now on: He has to follow the current emperor’s precedent of being a likable character. Regardless of what conservative groups like Nippon Kaigi want–and they would like nothing better than to revise the Constitution to revert the emperor’s status to what it was before the war–Japan is now saddled with a people’s emperor, someone who is good at gaming the media and projecting an image of a nice guy. Just in that regard, Takeda himself would be disqualified, because for all his fame as someone whose ancestors were in the imperial family, he comes off as something of a jerk on TV–smug, clueless, defensive. What self-respecting female member of the imperial family would want to marry him?

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June 2017 albums

Here are the album reviews I wrote for the June issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

In-ter a-li-a
-At the Drive In (Rise/Hostess)
(Dead Oceans/Hostess)
It probably says more about At the Drive In’s place in post-millennial music that no one really compares them to the follow-up band the two main members—vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez—dissolved in 2013. Of course, Mars Volta was a progressive rock band whereas ATDI was closer to punk, but they had much more in common than people gave them credit for, in particular a manic, deliberate energy that felt unique. Thirteen years after their last album, ADTI might appear to be taking up exactly where they left off, but only if you ignore Mars Volta, which, for all their operatic excess, really were progressive. In-ter a-li-a isn’t. It revives the gymnastic excitement of the group’s peerless interactivity but sounds even more dated than 90s pop punk: That train left the station for the last time. It’s also very much Bixler-Zavala’s album whereas their masterpiece, Relationship of Command, was a thoroughly group effort. The lyrics, which reference up-to-the-minute issues such as the Korean standoff and that Oklahoma police officer who raped all those women, are meant to mean something and as such are more distracting than enlightening, because whatever talents Bixler-Zavala has demonstrated as a performer he’s famous for his incoherence. It’s what made ADTI exciting in their day. For sure, the guitars still sound like God is tuning them, and the funky undercurrents pulse like crazy, but there’s a feeling of playing it safe, as if this is what’s expected of them and they’re now older, wiser, and more receptive to what their fans want. Which is sort of a shame, because I was finally getting to like what Mars Volta was trying to do. The British shoegaze band, Slowdive, has taken even longer to follow up their last album—22 years—and their self-titled return to recording actually sounds as if they’ve been spending all that time wondering how to approach it. Like In-ter a-li-a, Slowdive sounds methodical, calculated, but for a band that is mostly about textures and dynamic subtleties that’s the way it should be. Shoegaze is by definition not very spontaneous. It’s thoughtful. It’s also pop by any other name, and I would like to think that, unlike Kevin Shields, who also spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with a successor to Loveless, the members of Slowdive spent their long summer vacation working on tunes, because that’s what immediately grabs you, not the textures or the dynamics. The guitar work, especially on the single, “Star Roving,” is riff rock at its most potent in 2017, meaning music made by adults who knew what they liked when they were younger and are still able to recall those feelings and translate them into affecting music. What’s surprising is that they’ve been able to keep the polish without losing the personality. At the Drive In would have benefited from such restraint, though it’s so contrary to their form. Continue reading

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