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The truth is, we have gotten too used to lying

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

Philosophers love truth — that’s a truism. What about the rest of us? Do we love truth or falsehood? Truth, we naturally affirm. So why are we swimming in falsehood?

Last fall, a peculiar scenario played out involving restaurant menus. They weren’t true. You’d read one thing on the menu and be served something quite different. First came the revelation about restaurants run by Hankyu-Hanshin Hotels. Then it snowballed. One prestigious establishment after another came forward with shame-faced mea culpas: We do it too. Hotel restaurants, department store restaurants. The Osaka Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. The Renaissance Sapporo Hotel. The Hotel Okura. Takashimaya Department Store.

What fools they made of us! How they must have laughed at us, sitting there dressed in our best clothes, smugly ordering the best fare, not even suspecting that the premium “kuruma shrimp” was really commonplace tiger shrimp, the high end “Miyazaki pork” was really middling Iwate pork, the “fresh” fruit juice was really frozen — and so on and so on.

Apologies were profuse but somewhat incoherent. “We never had the intention to deceive,” said Hankyu-Hanshin’s then-president, Hiroshi Desaki. Deception not intended to deceive? Maybe there is such a thing. Desaki resigned shortly afterward.

That comedy had no sooner left the stage than another came on. Title: “Japan’s Beethoven.” There is nothing obviously Beethovenian in composer Mamoru Samuragochi’s music, but Samuragochi, like the German maestro, is deaf. Or is he? Well, no. Hard of hearing, yes, but it’s not quite the same thing. To be “Japan’s Beethoven” you have to be as deaf as Beethoven. You also, presumably, have to be a composer. Is Samuragochi one? Well, no. Did Beethoven have a ghostwriter? Samuragochi did — for 18 years. Then the ghostwriter came out of the closet and once more it was apology time.

First restaurants, then music — what next? Science?

“Any expert should have seen immediately that there was something strange about that person,” Hiroshima University pathologist Koji Nanba tells Shukan Bunshun magazine. “That person” scarcely needs an introduction. She was, briefly, the most famous person in Japan. How many scientific breakthroughs anywhere in the world are this startling? Very few. How many of those very few are led by Japanese women? Very, very few, Japanese research being notoriously male-dominated. And if you go on to ask how many of those few leading female Japanese researchers are as young, pretty, media-savvy and radiant with star quality as Haruko Obokata, you descend to a level of rarity that explains — as the science, though exciting, hardly does — the media frenzy she stirred.

Barely 30 and already turning the world upside down! Stem cells show immense medical promise. Harvesting them from embryos is morally problematic. Producing them in the laboratory is difficult. If only an easy way could be found!

Obokata claimed to have found one. She met with resistance at first. She persisted. She conquered obstacles. Sometimes the going got so tough that “I cried all night.” She’s not only fiercely determined, she’s tender, vulnerable and not ashamed to show it. She wore a traditional Japanese kappogi apron. Suddenly everyone had to have one. She not only was cool, she defined cool.

“The media went crazy over the ‘female science star’ bit, and over the kappogi,” says Nanba. (“We did too,” Shukan Bunshun admits contritely.) “The kappogi itself was a giveaway. With its wide sleeves and loose-fitting back, foreign bodies can easily get into it. It’s not laboratory dress. And the makeup and false eyelashes.” Few journalists, Nanba says, know much about science. But all journalists know about cool.

Apparent holes in the research and presentation somehow went unnoticed by Obokata’s employer, the government-affiliated Riken institute and by Nature, the prestigious British science journal that published the work. Subsequent scrutiny brought them to light — the apparent cribbing from the U.S. National Institute of Health website, the photograph borrowed, without citation, from Obokata’s own doctoral thesis.

“I’m not sure whether or not this was a deliberate attempt at falsification,” said Shunsuke Ishii, head of Riken’s investigative committee.

“If any other incidents of this nature have taken place, it would reflect a change in present-day scientific culture that I find very worrisome indeed,” said Riken Director and Nobel laureate Ryoji Noyori. The investigation continues.

The only comment from Obokata herself, so far, is, “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”

If that’s true, it’s astonishing. A scientist doesn’t think it’s wrong to leave herself wide open to accusations of falsifying her data?

Science originally was inseparable from philosophy, and even now that they are separate disciplines, they remain united, supposedly, in their love of truth. Truth is the goal. If it’s not, it’s not science. That’s not moralism — it’s simple definition.

The question inevitably arises: Who can you trust? If not restaurants to serve what they say they’re serving, if not major artists to create their own work, if not scientists — who? The government?

That sounds like a cheap laugh line. Governments, we all know, have a long history of indifference to truth. And yet it’s important business we trust them with! The government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to restart the nuclear reactors idled in the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima meltdowns. Economic recovery, as he sees it, depends on it. Is he above bending the truth, if necessary, to convince the public that nuclear power is safe?

In 1955 a young lawmaker named Yasuhiro Nakasone (who went on to serve as prime minister, 1982-87) declared in a speech to the Diet, “Nuclear power used to be a violent animal, but has now become a farm animal. Japan should increase its national strength through the promotion of nuclear power in an effort to gain a rightful place in the international community.”

Is it possible to succeed in life without lying? If not, are lies superior to truth? If so, what kind of corner have we painted ourselves into?

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    Japanese society is too tolerant of lying. The media is so unquestioning that it is simply a mouthpiece of the elite.

    • http://astronerdboy.blogspot.com/ AstroNerdBoy

      It isn’t just Japanese society. In America, things said by the people with the “correct” political philosophy (the ruling elite as I call them), whether in government, education, science, or even business can have what they say taken at face value by the media, who just regurgitate it, even if it is a lie. The sad part is that even when a lie is called out, the media isn’t going to make a correction because (1) it goes against the narrative and (2) they’ve moved onto the next “whatever” since they were wrong. Thus the lie becomes a “good fact” (what the ruling elite deem is what you should believe) and a “true fact” (the actual truth, taking in all of the facts) becomes a lie.

      • phu

        While I don’t disagree with you, I think we need to try and get past the pervasive (seemingly everywhere) obsession with comparisons. I’m not sure where this came from, but it’s illogical and counterproductive.

        The fact that thing A is or might be as bad as or worse than thing B says nothing about the quality or correctness of thing B. Bringing thing A into it at all, unless it’s directly related to the discussion, is either a straw man or some other logical fallacy I can’t recall the name of.

        Yes, the US has similar issues. But that’s not relevant here, and changing the subject (or the target) ignores, downplays, and/or excuses the real problems that do exist in Japan and should be addressed by the Japanese. Redirecting the discussion doesn’t do anyone any favors.

      • Daishi88

        The irony is that, as AstroNerd above wants to debunk the pervasive myth-making of American media, he’s actually defending the myth-making of Japanese media.

        It’s weird, because the Japanese myth of both superiority and uniqueness has really caught hold with white people around the world, especially Americans.

        Any criticism of Japan invariably brings out at least one or two white guys who just have to jump to Japan’s defense.

        It’s not uncommon for these guys to be open white supremacists, somewhat ironically.

      • Daishi88

        No, actually, in America, we have entire TV shows devoted to the debate and discussion format – the most obvious example being a show like Meet the Press.

        Even channels like Fox News, a known propaganda agency, realizes the importance of presenting a dissenting opinion, even if that “dissenting opinion” is just for show (most “dissenters” on Fox News are actually merely supporting the narrative from a different perspective).

        On top of that, journalism in America is built on asking questions to people in power – figures of authority – government or otherwise – regularly appear on television interviews where they are asked questions and forced to defend their positions.

        Now, you’re right, that there are certain narratives that get stuck in society’s collective consciousness. There are certain myths, legends, and lies that get circulated – and many of the news channels are complicit in that.

        But the simple fact is that, in America, we have a tradition of publicly questioning authority, of open debate and discussion that acts to allevieate to some degree these misconceptions. It isn’t perfect, but the ideal is there. We have an established journalistic and programming format for it.

        In Japan, this tradition just doesn’t exist. You’ll never seen John Taro Tanaka on the morning talk show defending his position on the new tax raise. I’ve yet to see a single politician make an appearance on a TV show or give an interview defending any law, in fact. There are few debate shows, and open discussion is rarely allowed on TV.

        But let’s get to the real point here: you’re way, way, way, way off topic here.

    • Nekkochat

      I have lived all over the world (i am PhD bioscientist) and must agree with Jamie. Japanese society is based on brown-nosing and irresponsibility. It is a perfect medium for growing dishonesty. Science, like many things here, are just a fake of the West

  • goatonastick

    Did you just have an article about lying and misleading, without mentioning the lying from TEPCO? Not to mention, the government’s new ability to censor government secrets?

  • Daishi88

    I think the real context here is – for the past year, Japanese politicians (read: old, Japanese men) have been going on international stages (TV, the Olympics, CNN interviews) and saying really, really, really stupid and racist nonsense.

    Any time someone like Hashimoto comes out and says “Tojo did nothing wrong,” the old Japanese men circle their wagons and defend not just their fellow old man, but Japanese culture as a whole.

    Here we have a woman who made some mistakes in her research. Just some mistakes. Possibly intentional deceit, yes, but probably just honest mistakes. And they are throwing her under the bus. Hard.

    There’s a LOT going on here, and it isn’t just scientific. There are a lot of fair critiques to make on not just Japanese academic culture, but the culture as a whole. Why is this woman scientist getting thrown under the bus when people like Momii get to keep cushy, high-paying jobs? To anyone coming here to say, “You can’t criticize Japan,” no, right here: this is a perfect place and time to say, “Something is wrong here.”

    Obokata’s superiors are coming out and saying things like, “She has no ethics,” or “She was never trustworthy.” You know what? If she was truly unethical, it was her superiors’ jobs to be involved enough to catch that. They obviously dropped the ball here, and now they want to make it Obokata’s fault.

    Notice also how, when the news broke, Obokata’s name was subordinate to the “Japanese discovery!” headline. Now it’s all Obokata all the time.

  • J.M. Becker

    @daishi88:disqus, @disqus_WGOKgX8lUL:disqus: As a radical leftist it’s kinda an intellectual duty (or arguably fault) to study deep into contemptible ideologies. If Nationalism( AKA Corporatism) is the authoritarian right wing fruit tree, then ethnicism is one of the many viable seeds. It’s true that white supremacists value Japan’s example, and there are multiple reasons. First and foremost, Japan was Germany’s main ally, and they look very positively towards reich friendly nations. Secondly Japan is extremely ethnically monozygous, an example they hold on their ideal pedestal. Finally unlike the ‘slightly’ centrist movement in europe, and America… Japan has largely remained nationalistic, even though the people don’t strongly identify as such. They understand the very negative role Japan played during WW2, and thus view nationalism negatively…. but that doesn’t mean they actually changed the underlying character of the society. Nationalists instinctively can grasp the character of Japan, just as I understand the character of ecuador… it doesn’t mean they would do things exactly that way, or even anything like those societies, but they value their character nonetheless.

  • J.M. Becker

    @disqus_WGOKgX8lUL:disqus: Yes you would think so, and thats the reason why nationalism always was engaged with everyone for almost any reason… but at the heart it’s the same ideology either way, just replace the ethnic character and it still works as intended. It really goes to show you beyond culture, which people learn through exposure, we really are one human race.