Ah, April in the Northern Hemisphere! If you're in a location with sakura cherry trees – whether Washington D.C., Seattle, Seoul, or any number of locales – you're in for a treat as entire trees erupt in fluffy pink blossoms.
In Japan, the blooming of the cherry blossoms is eagerly awaited every year. It's a time for relaxation and fun: walking under pink canopies along the river, taking photos in the park, and – best of all – enjoying all-day (or all-night!) hanami picnics under the blossoms with friends, food, and drink.
Unless you're Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, that is, in which case sakura season adds an extra activity to your calendar: a spring-fresh burst of the racist blathering for which you're infamous.
The front page of the April 7 Sankei Shimbun newspaper features an article by the Governor titled "At Hanami Time" (花見の頃に). "Uh-oh", I thought, "I don't see much chance of Ishihara not following a title like that with some self-praising ethnic chauvinism". True to form, the Governor did not disappoint.
The entire article would be as much of a bore to relate here as it is to read. In brief, it's a missive in the "let's not lose the things that make our people great" vein, which is the sort of stuff you have to expect from politicians. But among some musings on the nation's favorite types of sakura and other flowers, sure enough, the article tossed up hackneyed claptrap of the sort all too familiar to many readers. Ishihara teaches us that:
- Appreciating the fleeting, ephemeral beauty of sakura is a "feeling unique to the Japanese".
- Most peoples hear the sounds of autumn insects as undifferentiated noise; only a few ethnicities (including the Japanese) distinguish among the different types of song.
- Few places have four seasons as distinct as Japan's, and "that rareness has fostered unique Japanese sensibilities".
- Among those sensibilities (and this one gets pretty tortured): Only Japanese have learned, through the changing faces of nature, to appreciate the transience of things, which lets them see the big picture among the rise and fall of human works, and lets them create philosophies of discerning the big changes within the small, which lets them create the world's shortest poetry (haiku), and, through the thought process of finding the macro within the micro, excel at electrical engineering and nuclear physics, and what's more, there was a Japanese mathematician who solved some famous problems only because he walked the same paths as haiku master Basho, and...
Bloody hell, I give up. There's more along the same lines; read yourself (or get a translator) if you can bear it.
First, let me get one tangent out of the way: While Japan does indeed have countless spots of amazing natural beauty, "special relationship with nature" claims are particularly ridiculous coming from residents of sprawling concrete metropolises – first and foremost, Tokyo. The core "23 Wards" area of Tokyo is just what you'd expect in terms of nature: wall-to-wall cars and people; far too little green among the pavement and power lines; crows, pigeons, roaches, and stray cats as the predominant wildlife; and a damn poor showing of the touted "four seasons", with typically one day of real snow in winter. Sorry, Governor, but my home area has far more nature, and far more distinct seasons, than your Tokyo. Does that mean I have even more of the "unique sensibilities" you praise?
My rant above having been made, let's put things in context. Clearly, Ishihara's comments above are pretty tame as far as ethno-centric fantasies go. It's hardly what you could call hate speech. It's also mundanely common stuff among many Japanologists who are otherwise perfectly nice folks. Still, even if not particularly harmful, it's a claim of specific superiorities in one ethnic/national group – and if nothing else, that's at least foolish and annoying.
Unless it's true, of course! There's nothing wrong with stating a truth. So regarding the above set of claims, my simple response to Ishihara, and to all those asserting the same, is but two words:
Prove the above claims with evidence. Not with philosophical suppositions, not with personal subjective observations, not with an anecdote or two ("The plural of anecdote is not data" remains one of my favorite expressions), but with real facts. In other words, with proof rigorous enough to satisfy a scientist.
It's important to understand that, just as with claims of magic gods or alien abductions or Venus's influence on career changes, the burden of proof is entirely on the party making the claim. So, Mr Ishihara, clearly define the phenomenon you wish to claim as real, propose hypotheses to explain it, design the experiments or other research that would provide the required measurable evidence, and begin your observations. Don't forget key requirements of falsifiability of the hypotheses, open access to methodology and data, and reproducibility of results. Any scientist should be able to help you out in assuring proper conduct of the research and analysis of the results.
And in the absense of that proof... Well, we could just take the above claims as more data supporting the widely-known hypothesis that Ishihara is cuckoo for narcissistic ethnic fantasies.