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Japan scores high on lies but U.S. is in a league of its own

“Are Japanese just more honest about lying?” (Nicolas Gattig asks in his April 24 Foreign Agenda column). Perhaps. Tatemae [pretense] was vitally necessary in the Edo Period, when a lowly peasant could face the wrath of a proud katana-wielding samurai for simply frowning at him in contempt. In this feudalistic cultural context, if I were a rice-planting serf (smile baby, smile), I’d be sharpening my tatemae skills like nobody’s business.

But hey, what about those Manifest Destiny clowns in 19th-century America? Talk about the Big Lie. What of the antebellum South’s biblical defense of its “peculiar institution”: body- and soul-crushing African-American slavery, along with the myth of white man’s inherent superiority? It took a trip through the Ozarks of southern Missouri to remind myself that there ain’t nothin’ inherently superior about any racial group.

When it comes to the Big Lie, America is in a league of its own. Who accepts this nonsense that the U.S. Constitution was about “justice for all” when the tobacco and cotton plantation-owning Founding Fathers were framing that document of the so-called “Enlightenment”?

But then again, what about Japan’s wartime “co-prosperity” strategy for all of Asia? No doubt the militarists wanted all the people of Asia to prosper much like Hideki Tojo’s Imperial Army “comfort women”: Bend over, China and Korea, prosperity is just around the corner! Japan attempted to out-manifest America! And it nearly did.

Perhaps spiritually awakened men like Mahatma Gandhi are still revered because they tried to get beyond the lie and suffered as a consequence. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. The world can endure only so much truth. The American poet Emily Dickinson had it right when she wrote, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.”

I did my undergraduate degree in political science, which isn’t really a science at all. In graduate school I turned to literature because, as Henry David Thoreau said, “In . . . truth we are immortal.” Politicians are natural born liars. The best writers, poets, and novelists, by contrast, seek to get at the truth of things. The public generally prefers politicians to writers since it loves to be lied to. Politicians understand how to cajole the voting public like nobody’s business.

And it’s no coincidence that so many politicians were trained in the law. Skillfully talking out of both sides of your mouth is just good legal training. When you enter a court of law in the United States, be prepared to ignore the Ten Commandments, especially the one about not telling a lie.

Certainly, George W. Bush knows how to pad a resume. If he wasn’t a very retired U.S. president, he could make a living counseling graduates entering the job market! Where the hell are those WMD in Iraq? Bush found it all so amusing when the weapons were never found. Talk about a natural born hustler. If there was a Nobel Prize for hustling and the Big Lie, Bush would certainly be short-listed.

What about the lies heard in the medical profession? Tatemae reaches new heights in hospitals across Japan, and in veterinary clinics too! If your beloved dog is terminally ill, the vet will offer all sorts of expensive treatments to prolong the suffering pet’s life. It’s called the “veterinary hustle.” Never mind if this gives rise to false hopes. It’s a most profitable approach to the vet business. Just yesterday I learned all about the vet hustle all over again. At least the “good” doctor didn’t talk about a kidney transplant.

Book to read: “People of the Lie,” by M. Scott Peck. By the way, Nicolas Gattig is one brilliant essayist — don’t let him go. And yes, much like Gattig, I’m a truth-loving liar, which makes me oh so human.

One reason a dog is man’s best friend is that a dog is not capable of telling a lie. You know what Mark Twain said about telling lies, don’t you?: “Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.” And also, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on his shoes.”

Or even better: “One of the striking differences between a cat and a lie is that the cat only has nine lives.” And finally, my favorite: “The old saw says, ‘Let a sleeping dog lie.’ Right. . . . Still, when there is much at stake, it is better to get a newspaper to do it!”

ROBERT MCKINNEY

Otaru, Hokkaido

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Adam

    When I first read this article I had written a very extensive comment pointing out how this author confuses lying with ignorance. Then I noticed that the fundamental idea behind it was what you pointed out. It’s just being dismissive of bad habits because other do it too. I should test this out and not pick up my dog’s “foon” because others don’t.