Violence lurks below the veneer

Tokyo

It was interesting to see that The Japan Times happened to publish three directly connected items in the Jan. 13 edition. On the front page was the Kyodo article “High school coach tries to justify abuse of boy” plus a photograph of Japanese Shinto devotees enduring a self-purification test in which they douse themselves with cold water; then, on the inside, was an editorial about a website in Saitama Prefecture to “combat bullying.”

I believe that, despite a veneer of civility, sophistication and peacefulness, there is a deep, inherent streak of violence pervading Japanese society, including violence in the classroom and the schoolyard, in the workplace, and in sports. The violence is not only physical but also verbal, sexual, racial and age-related harassment.

One of my students is a senior surgeon who told me that his professor regularly yells abuse at junior surgeons “to make them improve.” But they don’t improve when they are too scared of him; instead, they move out of surgery!

Another of my students works in one of the megabanks and tells me that she is daily subjected to verbal abuse and harassment by her boss in front of coworkers, who themselves are subject to the same abuse, often to the point of tears.

So, what kind of society exists just below the surface in this country? One of kindness and consideration for others? One of sympathy and understanding? One of help and support?

I think the evidence suggests otherwise: that we live in a brutal, overly strict, rigid society that lets such abuse continue unchecked — and often go unreported — because it is the way things have always been done here. The boss is viewed as a god, no matter what his errors and methods.

What should be done to cure us of this malicious, virulent and toxic disease?

First, we should honestly acknowledge its existence and expose it whenever and wherever it manifests itself, without fear or exception. Second, we should strive to eradicate it forever from our society, although such steps will necessitate the swallowing of unpleasant medicine — the permanent replacement of the old Confucian hierarchical system with a simple one characterized by going with “the best,” no matter what the age or seniority.

Then we will see a reduction — if not a complete disappearance — of cases where, for example, a second officer on an airplane did not dare to point out his captain’s mistake(s), leading to a crash.

Or where an elderly professor of surgery mistakenly inserted a catheter into a vein resulting in a serious post-op complication that nearly cost the patient his arm despite junior surgeons who were aware of the mistake but dared not to say anything.

Or where parents, other teachers and students hold in awe a sports coach just because he has achieved “excellent results,” regardless of his methods.

“What Japan needs now” (to quote from an article in the same edition) is an urgent, deep and honest search of its soul, leading to a thorough cleansing of its “sins” and its ills. All other things will follow. Doesn’t that apply to all of us individually as well?

paul gaysford
tokyo

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.