Wednesday, October 31, 2012


I freely admit--before relatives and friends from those days point it out to me--that in my much earlier youth my Spanish grandmother occasionally used to call me "sinvergüenza"...meaning "shameless".  Well, perhaps it was more often than "occasionally". She meant it in the sense of "rogue" or "rascal", and typically I had earned it by attempting to talk my way out trouble by a combination of feigned injured innocence and of tortuous reasoning. It rarely if ever worked: she was much too sharp to be taken in by chopped logic and equivocation.

For pretty much all of my adult life I've been living in a culture in which shame is a very important factor in social behavior and personal interaction. Although identifying cultures as shame-based or guilt-based is not nearly as popular among social anthropologists as it once was, and although some of the books that popularized the view of Japan as a shame-based culture (e.g., Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword) have been strongly criticized, it is impossible to live here without observing how shame is used to, for example, control children. You won't hear "Stop that, it's bad!", but you will hear "Stop that, people/the other passengers/that lady/whoever will be angry". Even among adults, there's a great deal less of, "Stop being such a jerk", and a lot more of "Think of what the neighbors/your colleagues will think".  You're more likely to hear "What if someone I know sees me doing this" than you are "This isn't something I should be doing".

It's easy to carry this too far, and to conclude that in Japan the only sin is getting caught. That's not exactly true: there's plenty of both regret and remorse among the Japanese, although perhaps rather more of the former than the latter. I realize that generalizing about an entire population or a whole culture isn't a sensible pursuit. There is, however, a case to be made for "shameless" being considered essentially equivalent to "antisocial", and certainly to "irresponsible".

All of which is a rather long-winded attempt to put into perspective why even I--the sinvergüenza--am enraged by the news that so much of the budget that was supposed to be used for reconstruction of earthquake-and-tsunami-devastated Tohoku has in fact been spent on projects that only bureaucrats vastly more shameless than I could characterize as related to their original purpose.

Even as far back as last December, some people and organizations---not surprisingly including Greenpeace--as Philip Brasor mentions in his Japan Times column, took exception to the use of reconstruction funds to find ways to defend "research whaling", with the rationale that whaling was an important part of the economies of some of the towns in the affected area. More recently, as Mr. Brasor mentions, national broadcaster NHK looked into just how the money is being spent, commissioning an outside (i.e., neither government nor NHK) expert to investigate.

Keep in mind that 10.5 trillion yen of the 2011-2015 budget is supposed to be funded by a 25-year increase in individual and corporate tax increase, and the remainder by government spending cuts

A reasonable--or naive--person might expect that the government would be careful to use the money efficiently and in accordance with both the letter and the spirit of the law. That is, someone with limited experience of the various ministry bureaucrats' typical behavior might expect so. Instead, as indicated in Mr. Brasor's article, in this article in the New York Times, and in this article in Japan Today, money has been spent on or earmarked for such projects as vocational training for inmates of Saitama and Hokkaido prisons, construction of a seawall in Okinawa, an overseas exchange student program, renovations for Tokyo government offices, promotion of the Tokyo Skytree, and (4.2 billion yen worth, with another 4.8 billion worth requested for 2013) research into nuclear fusion

I'll bet that last one went down really well among the folks living in temporary housing in Fukushima or forced to live elsewhere in Japan, many of whom will never be able to return to their homes inside the contaminated exclusion zone. Or among the fishermen who watch reports on continued contamination of fish. Or among the people who used to raise cattle in Iitate.

A combination of vague wording and acquiescence by the ruling DPJ party to demands from the (notoriously pork barrel-prone) opposition LDP-led coalition for making the reconstruction budget available to a more general "reinvigorating Japan" purpose facilitated  this situation. There's plenty of shameless behavior to be seen in the endless obstructionism by the opposition for political advantage (i.e., forcing an election that they are now likely to win) instead of actually cooperating or at least discussing with the ruling party measures sorely needed for the country in general and Tohoku in particular.  Unsurprisingly, though, it's the ministry bureaucrats who, true to form and without a shred of decency, have been avidly pursuing their own agendas to try to get their pieces of the pie that was supposed to be used for Tohoku reconstruction.

The rationalizations they've used to try to justify even the most tenuous of connections between their pet projects and reconstruction of Tohoku would have elicited nothing but disdain from my grandmother.

"Shameless", she would have called them, and shameless they are.