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A dose of dumb: Governor Ishihara's racist yammerings

CoCo Puffs bird

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 it.

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.

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Hi there,Stumbled on the site

Hi there,Stumbled on the site from google, and just been going through - was pleasantly surprised to find you too have found and excoriated the guy who, regarding Japanese web design, chose a chopstick metaphor obviously influenced by the two restaurants in his town (he says he has never been to either China or Japan) and their arbitrary choice of chopstick producer. (Anecdotally, gathering from my travels I would actually say the usage trends are the exact opposite, but anyway...)I agree with much of what you say in this article and many others, however I feel at times you are guilty of what you accuse Ishihara of. Here you have just held up what he has said and called it ridiculous, without too much proof, or at least arm-chair sociologising, of your own. Perhaps it is because I have recently been reading some historical and sociological texts of my own, and have fallen for the very generalisms that I originally wanted to investigate and perhaps debunk, but I would agree with at least Ishihara's fourth point.Japan has quite a history of self-consciously adopting traditions and knowledge of other countries, which many places do, but the differing is that Japan constantly reminds itself of the foreignness of these things. I would cite for example the katakana-isation of foreign words, or the separation of food between 'washoku' and things that are definitely Japanese, but are still not accepted as being Japanese down to the soul, such as niku-jaga. Foreign things are then easy to take on and off, like the costumes of OLs at the weekend, something unimaginable for the proverbial American/British punk/goth/what have you of this common argument.This feeling of transience is especially noticeable with foreign things, but so too with most others, something taught by denial of the group over the self (causing the ability to adopt, at least at face value, whatever the majority consensus says one must) as well as the teachings of the Mahayana, especially the Zen branch, even more than Nichiren or Shingon, of the Buddhist tradition.The main problem with any of my pronouncements though is exactly what you have said - lack of evidence. However when one gets in to Humanities conversations, you cannot demand someone to back up every statement with 'as proved by Gibbs et al(1993)'. You may say that I have provided insufficient proof for my previous views, which I would still understand. However, repeating everything ever said on these subjects that I have ever read is again difficult. I have reached however, a slightly muddled and incoherent conclusion (to go with the incoherent and muddled rest of it I suppose :D ). The link is dead and I have not been able to read this article, so I cannot even claim to have any detailed knowledge to defend Ishihara, even if I am perhaps defending something he just stumbled on, through logic that I disagree with or just regurgitation of hysterical nihonjin-ron authors.I apologise for the length of this comment, but now that I've started I might as well get out my last  thoughts.1. As easy as it is to say, I wouldn't expect "falsifiability of the hypotheses, open access to methodology and data, and reproducibility of results" of sociology or history (especially of intellectual concepts) 2. In cases where it IS possible, please try to follow what you tell others to. Saying "People making austere, elegant pieces of traditional artwork… and people making gaudy, cluttered web sites… are generally not the same people" isn't exactly providing public statistics. Also, this doesn't explain the fundamental question of why Westerners would have good design, since the same skill distinctions could be said about people outside Japan. 3. Re: "the silly delusion that a shared affiliation with a political entity (“country”) among multiple individuals should mystically create a shared sense of (among other things) aesthetics". Do you really believe this? That no communities, 'imagined' (pace Anderson) or not seems to me instantly false - can one really say that Australian aboriginal art pieces share no objective commonalities with each other, never mind differences relative to say classical Japanese art? Even if one were to explain aesthetic similarities to the work of specific communities to purely practical factors such as availability of certain materials or similarity of experience, it seems to me blatantly obvious that art according to ideological, political, or cultural factors, whether a conscious decision or not, shapes each community differently.I again apologise for this long and quite rambling comment, and also for the implication that I have not enjoyed your writing. I tend to harp on about negative things, belying the true character of my overall sentiments. I also recognise that it is not always worth one's time to back up all one's criticisms when arguing with somebody, especially when that somebody is Ishihara.

Really?

Japanese people I am in contact with don't really separate Japanese things and western very well in my opinion. I hear people often exclaim "this is the Japanese way" or "this is Japanese" and many many many times thy have no idea where that thing came from originally. Namely the attitude is that things they call "Japenese" whether items or ideas are UNIQUELY Japanese and they are not. Like the article mentions claiming a special sensitivity to ....welll anything. But Nature! the 4 seasons! There is an attitude of superiority that got Japan into trouble because they thought they were better than other nations and peoples. This way of thinking needs to be cleansed from Japan or the natural end is another war.

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