2005年7月11日 (月)

July 7 is a date to remember in fighting terror


July 7 is a date to remember in fighting terror


With the Group of Eight summit starting in Scotland, and London having been chosen only the day before as the 2012 Olympics venue, the British capital was getting more global attention than usual Thursday morning. Then a series of bomb blasts ripped through the city.

This was an unforgivable act of terrorism aimed at singling out London at this particular time.



In the bidding for the 2012 Olympics, Paris was the favorite, but London came out the winner. The rejoicing in Trafalgar Square and Prime Minister Tony Blair's happy grin are still fresh in my memory. The terrorist bombs have shattered that British euphoria.


I should imagine security in London was tighter than usual because of the summit. Yet, the bombs exploded in several locations of the subway and aboard one of the double-decker buses for which London is famed. The bus was demolished.

The blasts must have spread panic among tourists from around the world.


The city's security setup is likely to be called into question.

The terrorists attacked the heavily trafficked mass-transit system, which is always something of an Achilles' heel in security enforcement. It is difficult to check such safety completely.


It will soon be four years since 9/11, and I have to wonder again if the world has become any safer since then. The United States invaded Iraq, citing "a safer future for the world" as a reason, and Britain has been supporting this war. I wonder how the situation is being discussed by the G-8 leaders, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.


Something like the London terror will not, and should not, bring any democratic society to its knees. Unfortunately, however, July 7 has become another date by which to remember another act of indiscriminate terrorism.


--The Asahi Shimbun, July 8(IHT/Asahi: July 9,2005)

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2005年6月23日 (木)

Credit cards rack up a debt of vulnerabilities


Credit cards rack up a debt of vulnerabilities


I keep a close watch on my credit card bills by scrutinizing the monthly itemized statement sent by the credit card company. Once, I was stunned to find a charge of 1 million Italian lira.

According to the statement, I had incurred the charge when I stayed overnight at a hotel in Rome the previous month.

This happened long before the lira had been replaced by the euro. The value of the Italian currency was slightly less than 10 percent of the yen. Even so, the charge translated into 80,000 or 90,000 yen.

At once, I knew that something was amiss. In the first place, I had not stayed at the hotel in Rome.



I called my credit card company, and was soon informed that the charge was a mistake.

But whether the extraordinary hotel charge resulted from an error in data processing or a mistake by someone at the hotel in Rome remained a mystery.


Credit cards are convenient to have, but they are vulnerable to identity theft. Identity fraud is easiest in Internet transactions because goods change hands on the basis of exchanged information on membership numbers and the expiration dates of cards, not the actual presentation of cards themselves.


Making headlines in the United States now is a massive credit card data leak. The leak came through illegal access to computers. This leak symbolizes the vulnerability of a wired society. The resulting damage has spread to Japan, with many credit card users affected.

A U.S. information-processing company reportedly kept records of card data for the purpose of research when it should not have done so. An unconfirmed report claims that the illegal access to the stored data took place last year. If so, it was an exasperatingly long time before the leaks came to light.


In "Kappa" (Water imp), the novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) writes, "The wisest approach to life is to strictly abide by the conventions of your age, even though you thoroughly despise them."


Now that the use of cards has become the norm of our age, it is difficult to despise them thoroughly or stop using them. A fairly wise approach to life now (to follow the novelist's advice) would be to scrutinize itemized bills and terminate contracts on unnecessary cards.


--The Asahi Shimbun, June 22(IHT/Asahi: June 23,2005)

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2005年6月19日 (日)

School bombing puts our society on trial


School bombing puts our society on trial


Vending machines for soft drinks are everywhere. While it seems machines that sell drinks in plastic bottles have increased, there are still plenty that offer drinks in metal cans, paper cartons and glass bottles.



A homemade bomb the size of an adult's palm exploded last week in a classroom at Hikari Senior High School in Yamaguchi Prefecture. It apparently was constructed by packing a glass bottle for soft drink with gunpowder from fireworks and nails.

All these materials are easily available. although we still don't know where the third-year student, who was arrested for the crime, obtained them.


So are bomb-building instructions. A good number of Internet home pages on Web sitescarry them.

The third-year student who was arrested for the crime told the police that he followed Web site instructions as he took apart fireworks he had bought at a store and packed the gunpowder into a glass bottle.


Consider someone who starts thinking about doing something wicked, possibly going on next to ponder vaguely about whether it is feasible and how to carry out the act.

In most cases, the person's deliberation stops at this stage, preventing him or her from executing the idea. It is because things work out this way that we can manage to live in peace.


But the potential criminal's mind may work in the opposite way. Suppose that the individual comes across bomb-building instructions when he or she is drawn to the use of explosive devices. It is quite conceivable that the person will try his or her hand at making bombs.

The Internet is a wondrous piece of technology that links the entire world. But it also has another side in that it sometimes leads-indeed, incites-people to commit crimes.


In "Remon" (Lemon) by Motojiro Kajii (1901-1932), there is a scene in which the hero steps out of a bookstore after planting a lemon, a purported time bomb, on a shelf. This is a literary device that serves to give the reader a vivid impression as the bomb explodes in his or her imagination.

Why is it that an actual explosion, not a virtual one, occurred in Yamaguchi? Wasn't there an opportunity for someone to keep the student in question from making a bomb and tossing it into a classroom at his school?

These and other questions the case raises concern the very nature of our society as a whole. With this perspective in mind, I intend to write careful follow-up reports on the case.


--The Asahi Shimbun, June 14(IHT/Asahi: June 15,2005)

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2005年5月17日 (火)

A recollection of two canaries and a tragedy


A recollection of two canaries and a tragedy


When I think back 10 years ago to May 16, I flash back to an afterimage of two yellow canaries. The image is so fleeting, I don't even know if I can call it a scrap of memory.



Investigators in camouflage fatigues and gas masks walked in procession, and the birds in the cages were at the front of the line. The fragility and defenselessness of those little birds contrasted sharply with the men's heavily protective outfits.


About two months before, deadly sarin nerve gas had been sprayed in Tokyo's subway system. The investigators were taking no chances.

That was why they took the canaries along, just like coal miners of yore used such birds as detectors of toxic gases.

It was a bizarre and ominous sight, quite alien to our day-to-day lives.


Wondering what became of the two canaries, I did some research and learned they were already dead and had been given a decent burial.

Their grave is under a four-decade-old somei yoshino cherry tree in the front garden of the Metropolitan Police Department's No. 3 Kidotai (riot police unit) headquarters in Tokyo's Meguro Ward.

Near the grave is a monument fashioned from a rock brought back from the investigation site. Engraved on it are the names of 360 police investigators who took part in that expedition.

It also includes the words: ``Two canaries.''


In the summer of that year, the canaries had a chick. The investigators cherished it dearly and named it Peace, praying for a peaceful society in which the baby canary would never have to be used as a toxic-gas detector.


On the morning of May 16, 1995, Chizuo Matsumoto, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, was arrested on suspicion of murder. The cult has since renamed itself. The village of Kamikuishiki in Yamanashi Prefecture, where Aum had its sprawling headquarters, will cease to exist next spring when it will be split and merge with the city of Kofu and the town Fuji Kawaguchiko.

But although time has passed and the name of the village will soon disappear, Aum's crimes will not fade from people's memories.

In my case, it comes back in the form of an afterimage of the two canaries.


-The Asahi Shimbun, May 16(IHT/Asahi: May 17,2005)

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2005年5月11日 (水)

Time to brake merciless quest for convenience


Time to brake merciless quest for convenience


On a recent trip to the scene of last month's train disaster, I took a look at a West Japan Railway Co. timetable at Amagasaki Station in Hyogo Prefecture.

The schedule listed 13 train runs for the hour starting at 8 a.m., going to Osaka destinations like Kita-Shinchi. The train that jumped the rails was running on the same line. I counted 40 runs on the line bound for Osaka Station and Kyoto Station.

It struck me that since the comparative figure for Tokyo's circular Yamanote Line was well below 30, JR West is running a pretty tight operation.



With its train schedules criticized as too tight, the company says it plans to reconsider them as part of its efforts to assure safe operations.

If this means reducing train runs on the main lines, it will be the first downsizing undertaken since JR West was set up as a spin off from the state-run Japanese National Railways, which was broken up into private companies in 1987.

It has taken an accident that killed 107 people to motivate the company to apply the brakes on its policy of ``more and faster trains.''


Perhaps our society's unceasing quest for greater convenience also needs to be braked.

The kanji for ben means ``whipping people into docility to make them serviceable,'' according to Shizuka Shirakawa's Jito etymological dictionary for Chinese characters. Hence the meanings of words we usually use, like benri (convenience) and bengi (facility). Benben means doing obediently as told.


Also whipping up criticism for JR West is the revelation that employees went ahead with planned recreational events, such as a bowling tournament and a staff party, after the accident.

Planned events are just that-planned to take place- and they do unless something happens that applies the brakes.


If something extraordinary happens, senior officials should consider what to do and slam the brakes, if necessary. At JR West, the brakes were applied quite gently or did not exist.

Sad to say, benben is the epithet that applies to the way many employees of the railway company behaved, including the two drivers who were aboard the derailed train, but went on to work instead of participating in the rescue of injured passengers.


Following the train derailment, some people have placed rocks and bicycles on railroad tracks across the country, as if to vent their anger at the accident or play on the uncertainty felt over rail travel. This is an outrageous way to react to this disaster.


--The Asahi Shimbun, May 10(IHT/Asahi: May 11,2005)

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2005年4月23日 (土)

Why high-rises pose a risk to life and limb


Why high-rises pose a risk to life and limb


What was a typical scene in any neighborhood a half-century ago now seems lost to history. But poet Tatsuji Miyoshi's depiction of children's voices in his neighborhood in 1950s and 60s makes me wonder if such scenes could still be around somewhere.

In ``Tsuki no Toka'' (Ten days of the month), a Kodansha Bungei Bunko paperback, Miyoshi writes:



``Every morning, I hear children's lively voices from the house opposite mine. I hear them shout after breakfast, `We're off. See you later.'''

Come noon, and Miyoshi heard their, ``We're home'' just as clearly. With only a narrow alley separating his home from his neighbor's, Miyoshi could pretty much tell what was going on next door, even though he did not have a particularly close relationship with his neighbors.

This is the sort of thing one does not experience living in magnificent residence. ``I would never want to live in a big, towering house,'' Miyoshi adds.


Today's high-rise housing complexes fit that bill. In Osaka, two rattan shelves for potted plants came hurtling down from the balcony of a 27th-floor apartment 77 meters above ground. They were tossed by the apartment's 78-year-old resident, who was arrested by Osaka prefectural police and charged with attempted murder.


The resident reportedly told police that she threw the shelves in anger because she had tripped on them while cleaning the balcony.

One of the shelves barely missed a woman who was passing below on a bicycle.

The shelf was cracked and bent out of shape. Nobody needs a close brush with death of this kind.


When you look down from a towering high-rise, all you get is a distant view of street life. You can't see nearby scenes. You see trees, but you can't see their branches. You see people, but not their faces, nor can you hear their voices.


I can imagine many people actually relish this ``isolation'' from the world below and enjoy the open view they would not get from the ground level.

High-rise housing complexes have brought a new lifestyle to Japan today, but they can also instantaneously turn a perfectly harmless object into an instrument of destruction.


--The Asahi Shimbun, April 22(IHT/Asahi: April 23,2005)

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2005年4月14日 (木)

Speed bumps could help curb traffic accidents


Speed bumps could help curb traffic accidents


The nationwide spring campaign for traffic safety winds up on Friday. Because it is a biannual affair, there is nothing special to say about it except to note that it is conducted when fresh elementary school first-graders start going to school.

The sight of these children trooping across streets like chicks, prattling and walking along with less than certain steps, reminds me that I must be an especially cautious driver at this time of year.



It is important to keep telling little children that they risk their own lives if they do not observe the traffic rules. It is also essential to keep reminding drivers that failure to follow traffic rules could ruin not just the lives of their victims but also their own. But it is not enough to keep calling for adherence to the traffic rules.


Traffic accidents can be reduced by building safer roads. Typical of the new approach are woonerf roads designed for the coexistence of humans and motor vehicles. The concept, known as seikatsu no niwa in Japanese, or ``the garden of life,'' is said to have originated in the Netherlands.

A woonerf road, for example, is built with speed bumps to slow down motor vehicles.


When I came across speed bumps for the first time, it was not in the Netherlands but in the suburbs of Cairo, Egypt. Suddenly, I felt a jolt when I hit a bump. The car I was riding rose and then dropped with a thud. After a while, I struck another bump. If I had hit the speed bump at a high speed, the impact would have been far greater.

I was told that speed bumps had been set up in the vicinity of schools and other public facilities.


Roads with speed bumps have been built in Japan, too. The number of accidents has dropped on these roads. On the other hand, a person tripped on a speed bump and fell near a school.


When it comes to reducing traffic accidents, there is no panacea. These days, cars hurtle along broad avenues and narrow alleys alike. I wish that someone would invent a system that would make it possible for an outsider to slow these cars down.

Reducing traffic accidents is an urgent matter that should be addressed all through the year, not just through seasonal campaigns for traffic safety.


--The Asahi Shimbun, April 13(IHT/Asahi: April 14,2005)

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2005年4月 2日 (土)

Faraway islands need tsunami info, support


Faraway islands need tsunami info, support


In the immediate aftermath of Monday's giant earthquake off Sumatra, panic reportedly broke out in many communities. Fearing a tsunami, people scrambled pell-mell for higher ground, according to reports.



A panicked crowd can lead to tragedies, like people being trampled to death. But what drives people into a panic cannot always be blamed simply on ``irrational behavior.''


When the deployment of theater nuclear weapons was an issue in the Netherlands during the Cold War, the Dutch people reportedly fell into a panic over a radio program about a hypothetical scenario in which a nuclear bomb had been dropped on an air force base.

It was a case of their real fear of a possible nuclear attack being amplified out of proportion by a radio narration of an imaginary scene.

I think the panic this triggered was only natural, if not inevitable.


In Sumatra, people's fear of a killer tsunami coming their way must have been quite intense. Depending on the nature of the jolt, their fear was fully founded. Scrambling to get as far away as possible from the coast made much sense. The question, though, was whether they were guided by accurate, up-to-date information and appropriate evacuation instructions.


This time around, the Japan Meteorological Agency was swift in faxing tsunami information to the quake-affected nations. It had learned a hard lesson from the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster.

In some nations such as Indonesia, however, there were apparently problems with the way alerts were issued and what people were told to do.


Marco Polo, who landed on Sumatra about 700 years ago, noted an ``abnormal situation that would surprise you all.'' In ``The Travels of Marco Polo'' (a Japanese translation available in Toyo Bunko paperback from Heibonsha), he pointed out that: ``Because this land lies so far south, you can see neither the Polaris nor the Big Dipper in the sky.''

I want plenty of support, as well as information, to make it to those faraway southern islands on the equator.


--The Asahi Shimbun, March 31(IHT/Asahi: April 1,2005)

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2005年3月31日 (木)

Indonesia prepares to bury more `martyrs'


Indonesia prepares to bury more `martyrs'


In the Islamic world, bodies are interred, not cremated, perhaps in line with the belief in resurrection in the next world.

Usually, bodies are cleaned and draped with unbleached cloth before they are put in coffins.



The procedure is different in the case of earthquake or tsunami victims. They are buried in the clothes they wore when they died, with nothing done to remove traces of injury or bloodstains.

While it may sound odd to outsiders, Islam is said to attach a special meaning to deaths in a natural disaster.


When people die in a natural disaster, not of illness or old age, they are treated as ``martyrs,'' regardless of whether they are infants or very old. They are held to be as noble as those who have lost their lives in jihad. Even without being cleaned, they become figures that are very much respected.


I learned this much about Muslims when I visited Sumatra in Indonesia early in February to cover the aftermath of the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster.

The stench of death still hung in the air in villages of Aceh province. Hundreds of bodies were being recovered every day. I saw piles of black plastic bags filled with corpses on a roadside.


On Monday night, a full three months later, Sumatra was hit by another giant earthquake.

``Last night, everyone had an illusion that a tsunami was coming,'' Yusdar Zakaria, 46, a local university professor, told me over the telephone. ``All members of my family moved to the room on the uppermost floor and spent the night there until dawn,'' he added.

According to Zakaria, the sounds of cars fleeing to higher ground and numerous motorcycle collisions made the town a noisy place until the early hours of Tuesday.


Many Indonesians had probably dropped their guard when thinking about another Big One striking. They no doubt thought they could rest easy since a disastrous temblor had hit in December.

It turned out that the next Big One struck before the bodies of the tsunami victims were all recovered.

Residents of the stricken areas must be overcome by a sense of powerlessness.

In areas where Muslims outnumber Christians, the coming days will see an increasing number of funeral processions for new ``martyrs.''


--The Asahi Shimbun, March 30(IHT/Asahi: March 31,2005)

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2005年3月30日 (水)

Who put an expressway over Nihonbashi?


Who put an expressway over Nihonbashi?


With the end of March nearing, it is time to offer a collection of quotable quotes:

``Our island has been ruined. I want to cry,'' said an official of a local fishery cooperative of Genkaijima island where many homes were destroyed by the March 20 earthquake that hit northern Kyushu. He was speaking on behalf of all evacuated islanders who are still unable to return home for fear of aftershocks. They have had to pass up the chance to take advantage of the ongoing fishing season.



Ten years have passed since cultists released deadly sarin gas aboard subway trains in Tokyo. Complaining of the paucity of state relief, a victim said, ``With little done to help us, time has been at a standstill during the past decade.'' She is still suffering from the aftereffects of the gas she inhaled on her way to work.


March 10, 1945, is still remembered as the day of massive U.S. air raids that flattened much of eastern Tokyo. The passage of 60 years has not assuaged the anger of novelist Katsumoto Saotome, who was 12 when the carpet bombing happened, over a statement issued by the Imperial Headquarters. He took particular issue with wording that dwelled on the fate of the Imperial Palace, but described the civilian casualty toll only as ``other damage.''

In one passage, Saotome noted, the Imperial Edict for Servicemen said, ``Think of life as worth no more than a feather.'' The novelist went on to say, ``The authorities (in those years) referred to the people by a name that likened them to `grass.' It was only natural that they thought of our lives as worth no more than bird feathers.''


A panel set up to determine the damage done by the government's quarantine policy regarding Hansen's disease has presented its final report on how that policy was administered.

According to the report, the now-repealed policy involved aborting pregnancies.

There was a specimen room at a sanatorium, but samples were often secretly disposed of. This is what probably happened to the fetus who would have become the daughter of former patient Tetsuo Sakurai, a blind poet.

Sakurai had chosen a female name, Mariko, before the fetus was lost to an abortion. His lamenting poem goes: ``Mariko, I can't see you in the specimen room. Where are you now?''

 ハンセン病問題の検証会議が、隔離の実態を最終報告書にまとめた。「真理子よ そのお前は標本室にはいないのです 真理子よ 今どこにいるのです」。元患者で盲目の詩人、桜井哲夫さんは、堕胎手術で失った娘に詩で呼びかける。標本までもが、ひそかに処分されていた。

Photographer Haruo Tomiyama, 70, said, ``Even now, I am still furious. Who the hell gave the green light for building an expressway that runs over Nihonbashi bridge?''

One of the things that make this bridge special is that in commercial and other senses, it was the center of the capital during the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Even now, strictly speaking, all highways that lead from Tokyo start from the bridge.

For his lifework, Tomiyama has been compiling a socially satirical photo-essay titled ``Gendai Gokan'' (Contemporary meanings of words). His rebellious spirit, which one can find in many other people proud to be natives of Tokyo's Kanda area, keeps it readable.


Claude Levi-Strauss, 96, the anthropologist known as the author of ``Tristes Tropiques,'' made a rare appearance in the French media.

When asked what he was going to do in the days ahead, he said, ``Don't ask me such a question. I am no longer a member of contemporary society.''


--The Asahi Shimbun, March 29(IHT/Asahi: March 30,2005)

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