Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
What is it with Japanese and “feelings”? Many years ago I endured a Japanese high school English teacher and doctoral candidate’s presentation on the Japanese approach to English language education by listening to her speak for two hours about what she “felt.” “I feel that...” etc. What she meant, of course, was what she thought, without realizing that thoughts and feelings are not synonymous. At the end of it I felt great resentment towards her. I thought she was full of feelings but completely empty of any ideas, boding ill for Japanese education.
I think Japanese are more disposed to talk of “feelings” as a strategy for avoiding or at least softening the social confrontation of opposing ideas. And if there’s one thing Japanese dislike it’s confrontation. But feelings are neither a substitute nor a synonym for ideas, and I suggest that clashing ideas is largely a virtue for civilization.
Now, when reading “Fishermen cry foul over‘Cove’ depiction,” (July 4th) we read complaints from Taiji townspeople that the film is more propaganda than documentary because, among other things, it “does not represent the fishermen’s feelings.” Does it need to represent fishermen’s feelings? Wouldn’t it be better, if the producers were so inclined, to present their ideas? People’s actions are what reveal their ideas and beliefs and The Cove is a documentary, not therapy. People who are committed to dolphin welfare may or may not object to killing animals for food, but they are clearly more concerned with the matter of cruelty to sentient animals than with the emotional disposition of their hunters. It is easily arguable that Japanese culture bears a stark streak of cruelty on display in daily occurrences like serving up living fish as sushi, eating cephalopods live, hazing young sumo wrestlers to death, forcing young school boys to wear short pants to school in the winter, harboring a disposition towards sloppy knives or poisons as instruments of murder, and then hanging convicted murderers by their necks until they are dead, etc.
Published on Thursday, July 8, 2010 as “The Japanese and their ‘feelings’.”
Maybe I should have written“mollusks” instead of “cephalopods.” Unfortunately, the paper deleted the entire first two paragraphs in which I explained my distinction between “feelings” and “ideas” or “thoughts,” which was seminal to my position on the exclusion of the fisherman’s “feelings” from the Taiji dolphin cull debate. This is one of those few abominable editing jobs that effectively changed my letter. I’m not happy about it. The reason, most likely, was to trim the length of the letter in order to make space for other responses to the July 4thstory about screenings of “The Cove” at local movie theaters. The editors seemed to want to push my suggestion of Japanese culture’s embedded disposition towards cruelty over what I considered my main idea, that concentrating on feelings over ideas is a strategy for avoiding debate and conserving the myth of social harmony. But I don’t think that Japanese are cruel, which is what I fear many readers will interpret from the printed version. I did not say that Japanese are cruel, and I did not say that Japanese culture is cruel. What I said is that it is easily arguable that there is a clear streak of cruelty evident in the culture.
The predictable result of the paper’s editing of the letter appeared in the Sunday, July 18th response “Most cultures harbor ‘cruel streak’” by Charles Gates of New York. Mr. Gates’wrote that my list of examples to the proposition that Japanese culture can be said to harbor a stark streak of cruelty is ridiculous. Well, I don’t mind the accusation that my examples were ridiculous because that does not mean that my examples are not true nevertheless. But I must point out that I was not saying that, in fact, Japanese culture does indeed harbor a stark streak of cruelty. After all, what do I know? I was proposing only that the case can be made, not actually trying to make it myself.
The matter of cruelty - to animals or any other - was a tangent in my letter so far as I was concerned, because my main point was not the treatment of animals but Japanese culture’s use of “feelings” as a decoy for avoiding meaningful public debate of issues.