In his June 12 Counterpoint article, “Barber’s cutting comment denies others’ humanity — and hers, too,” Roger Pulvers lamented his young Korean barber’s stereotypical and dehumanizing view of the Japanese and her inability to see other cultures from any viewpoint other than her own.
While I can readily agree that the ability to feel grief — among several other basic human emotions — is undoubtedly universal among human beings, I doubt that it is the “very same grief” to the “very same degree” regardless of background or location. If that were so, then what role would culture and environment, personal history and personality possibly play?
Pulvers is right to maintain that observable cultural differences, in the way and degree of expressing grief, do not necessarily imply that one’s internal experience of grief is different. However, as unexpressed emotion is by nature invisible to others, it is also possible that it is experienced differently. Given the influence of each particular culture and unique personality, I would say that it is likely to be different.
I would phrase the question in reverse: Why would everyone, regardless of cultural background or physical location, feel the “very same grief” and to the “very same degree”? Isn’t that exactly where human cultures tend to differ from one another? The difference is not in the capacity to feel grief, but in degree; not in the presence of grief, but in its emphasis.
Thus whatever emotion we naturally feel and express cannot, in my view, be divorced from whatever culture(s) we are naturally influenced by.
Taking the humanity of one’s own ethnic group for granted, while denying it to others, is an ancient and deeply ingrained human habit rooted in the need for a distinct tribal identity.
Therefore, Pulvers’ Korean barber is not denying her own humanity, but rather affirming it, at least her particular ethnic version of it.
If she could only hold one of those furry, cuddly animated Japanese robots that are warming the hearts of lonely people in Japan as well as in other countries, she might be moved to ask herself: How could a race of allegedly “emotionless robots” manage to design robots that mimic and respond to human emotions if they didn’t themselves have them?
The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.