From Taiji to Okinawa, readers dissect some issues of 2012

In the first of our new Community Chest letters columns, we bring together a selection of mails received in response to some of the final Community stories of 2012.

Dolphin defenders’ bad science

Re: “Taiji hunts continue to anger, confound readers,” (Have Your Say, Oct. 30):

Sadly, this season once again, Sea Shepherd activists are intruding on the activities of those involved in the whaling and dolphin-hunting industry in the town of Taiji, in Wakayama Prefecture, photographing their operations and harassing them. The Sea Shepherd activists appearing in videos on the Internet smile broadly and they are clearly in high spirits. No doubt they regard their actions as worthy.

However, what Sea Shepherd is doing is tantamount to prowling around one particular part of a Japanese country town and poking their cameras into people’s houses. If these people were no older than 13 or 14 and playing at being activists in the way that children play “doctors and nurses,” it would make for good fun and happy memories, but in fact they are almost all adults, aged 20 years or more.

The people of Taiji have been vilified on Twitter and Facebook as dolphin-butchering monsters. Some of them have had their photos and personal details posted online, and I must say I am horrified at the obsessive nature of these scurrilous attacks.

It was through reading a posting on Oct. 9 (“Call to stop dolphin hunt in Taiji makes waves,” Have Your Say) that I was able to get an insight into what dolphins mean to these people.

The “science” of these people is a science whose purpose is to prove the nobility of the dolphin. This is like science in the Middle Ages, which had to conform to the views of the Catholic Church.

The brain of the bottlenose dolphin is similar to that of humans in both size and shape, and this is claimed to be evidence of intelligence. However, CT scans of dolphin brains show that the part of the brain linked with intelligence and emotions — the frontal lobe — is not well-developed in dolphins. The dolphin’s echolocation faculty and swimming ability truly are astonishing, but in terms of intelligence and social sophistication, dolphins are no more remarkable than jackals or prairie dogs.

The animals we see in pet shops have been selectively bred for characteristics that appeal to human owners, and they are put on display in bright, clean cages. However, livestock traders face commercial pressures and must bring meat to the market as quickly as possible, and accordingly, animals that are bred for their meat are handled in a harsher environment. Wouldn’t it be inconsistent to treat dolphins as a special case?

Many Japanese people, while feeling uneasy about the hunting of dolphins, do not actively oppose it, and that’s because of the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the position taken by those of you who are believers in the superiority of the dolphin.

History shows that when people, on the basis of their own beliefs, brand others as nonbelievers and try to make them do something against their will, the “nonbelievers” will inevitably rebel against this coercion.


The dolphin rescue myth is born

I read a comment by Mr. Ken Wheaton titled “Dolphins’ moral compass” (Have Your Say, Oct. 30). Most Western people seem to believe a myth that dolphins have been rescuing humans at sea since antiquity.

I would like to interpret this myth based on the behavior of dolphins. Many dolphins have a tendency to poke material floating in the water. In such a case, the dolphin does not care which direction it pokes the material.

When a person is poked by a dolphin to the seashore, the person might be said to have been rescued — luckily — by the dolphin. And in such a rare case, the person might go on to spread the word about the event and express their gratitude. In this way, a myth is born.

However, other dolphins in other cases may poke a body in a completely different direction. In such an unfortunate situation, the person would have died, and would not have been able to report back about the event. In this way, evidence that contradicts the myth is unlikely to come to light.


Assigning dolphins human morals

The Japan Times has created a forum for a truly excellent debate surrounding the Taiji dolphin hunt. After reading the responses, I would like to refocus my argument and respond to some specifics.

First, I am not arguing that we need to prove anything about the moral sense of dolphins in order to make killing them illegal. Nor do we need to reach any conclusions about the amount of pain animals suffer when we make certain killing methods illegal. I don’t think the opponents of the Taiji hunt would be any less satisfied with a law banning the hunt that was based on political, economic or arbitrary grounds rather than one based on morality.

Second, Ken Wheaton and others have argued that dolphins have a moral sense. In other words, dolphins that save human swimmers, for example, do so not out of instinctual coincidence but out of genuine altruism. If so, does that mean that dolphins who fail to help human swimmers do so out of indifference, or even malice?

Once we confer human morality onto dolphins, every action (and inaction) is now subject to moral judgment. As with humans, doing the “right” thing becomes the accepted norm and failing to do the “right” thing becomes “wrong.” Dolphins who have demonstrated an ability to act contrary to their instinct in one situation (to save a human swimmer) would be expected to act contrary to their instinct in other situations (not assaulting another dolphin over a mate) lest we judge them to be “bad,” and deserving of punishment.

This exercise shows just how ridiculous it would be to confer human moral status on dolphins. Perhaps we could find a middle road by stating, “Dolphins behave according to a moral system that, while sharing some aspects with the human moral system, is largely incomprehensible to humans, therefore, while it is possible to raise dolphins to a level above all other animals, it is not possible to put them on an equal footing with humans.”

As of this writing, not one respondent has attacked my criticism (Have Your Say, Oct. 9) of Bowen-Saunders’ original argument (“Stop the annual Taiji dolphin massacre, make your children proud,” Hotline to Nagatacho, Sept. 11): that what happens to a dolphin is not morally equivalent to what happens to a human, so it is wrong to label the killing of dolphins “murder.”

I am not making the argument that killing dolphins (particularly in the way it is done in Taiji) is not wrong, or that it should not be a crime. I am arguing that it is irrational to claim that stabbing a dolphin to death is morally the same thing as stabbing a human to death.

If you disagree, then you must admit that it would be just for the fishermen in Taiji to spend the rest of their lives in prison (or hang) for their crimes, because that is what we do to murderers. This line of reasoning would also hold for a dolphin who “murdered” another dolphin.

How is it possible for a dolphin to be a victim of “murder” at the hands of humans, but impossible to be a victim of “murder” at the hands of a member of its own species?

Taragi, Kumamoto

Silence on other whaling nations

It is most interesting to see the comments and thoughts about the terrible sacrifice of the Taiji dolphins; likewise, it is most interesting and revealing to see that nobody mentions the slaughter of pilot whales (considered by many as large dolphins) occurring every year in the Faroe Islands under the jurisdiction of Denmark.

Similarly, nobody again seems to mention a word about whaling by other countries, like Norway and Iceland.

Moreover, going through popular search engines browsing for information on dolphin and whale hunting, the Japanese are always the first to come in the list; sites referring to other countries’ similar activities are uncommon.

Maybe it’s time for the outspoken critics, media and popular Internet social networks to also look and widely disseminate information about what is happening in other countries today; maybe it’s also time to make another movie about slaughterers, but this time focusing on the annual Faroe hunt, for example?

Certainly this would be more just and refreshing than only criticizing the Japanese, as other countries also deserve the same treatment.

Asturias, Spain

Tactics for unmotivated students

Re: “Failing students: Japanese universities facing reckoning or reform” by Nicolas Gattig (Zeit Gist, Nov. 13):

I have over 20 years experience teaching English in Japan, mostly in college. My opinion is that this article is the typical response of a relatively new idealistic teacher to unmotivated students taking required English courses. Some answers to this problem are:

• Have them do dialogues with interchangeable vocabulary and listening exercises — they have neither the motivation nor the English ability to do open-ended questioning.

• Segregate students by English ability and give these type of discussion questions to the top-level students, if you have students of a level that high (around TOEIC 500 or so). If you’ve ever learned a second language, you would know that open-ended discussions in a foreign language are difficult and are therefore for advanced students.

• Get the department to change the English requirement to a language requirement where students can choose from several languages, so English classes aren’t full of students who hate English but have no choice but to be there.

Heguri, Nara

Start with the little ones

In response to Nicolas Gattig’s article, I’d like to submit a short “prequel” to provide some insights into the formative years of the apathetic and befuddled college students that he so accurately describes. As the owner and head teacher of an English “cram school” in a suburb of Tokyo, I’ve been engaged with children aged 4 to 14 (rarely older, as high schoolers become obsessed with examinations and clubs at their “regular” schools and English lessons fall by the wayside) for the past 14 years.

Many of those passive college students begin as perky little nursery schoolers who attend English lessons because it is fun and because it is a social activity. I know this, because mothers fill out a survey beforehand listing the reasons why they chose to enroll their child in my school. Children enroll in groups, and rarely does a mother enquire about enrolling her child without asking, “Who are the other children in the class?” Of course, this is none of their business, but without the security of one or two friends from school, children are reluctant to plunge into a class full of “strangers.”

When mothers explain this to me, I am always puzzled and frustrated, wondering who is more insecure — the children, or the mothers themselves? With enrollment and attendance dependent on the security of friends, one child leaving the school often means another child going along, too (“I won’t stay if Sasuke-kun’s not there!”). Happily, English cram schools have been “fashionable” for the past few years, and I encounter very few who bail out midstream.

Another reason that mothers enroll their small children is an expectation that English cram schools will “build confidence.” I assume this is because of the Japanese image of foreigners as larger-than-life, incessantly talkative and potential fun-loving buddies for their children. Mothers often speak in admiring tones about my “power” and how they hope it will rub off on their children, but I confess to no extraordinary or superhuman abilities. When I first began teaching, I assured mothers that yes, I would do my best to turn their shy little toddlers into bright and courageous English speakers. Now, I very bluntly state that I am an English teacher, not a magician. I cannot change the inherent qualities of a very shy and passive child, and how well he or she progresses in the language is partly dependent on the child’s personality and motivation.

When my perky little nursery schoolers reach elementary school age, they grow steadily quieter and more reluctant to speak or sing. Fear of making a mistake, looking or sounding strange, and of speaking in front of others all come into play. Shyness, embarrassment and shame are all described by the adjective “hazukashii” in Japanese, and many children seem steeped in a potent mixture of all three.

They are confident in their own language, surrounded by their own friends in an environment that’s familiar and comfortable. Take away the security of the Japanese language and the security of their friends, then seat them on a carpet in a circle and their confidence instantly crumbles. They must make a leap of imagination and “guess” at what the teacher is saying; they must repeat and pronounce without knowing exactly what they’re saying (at the risk of sounding funny ); they must sing, dance, and use dramatic gestures (again, at the risk of sounding and looking funny); and they must participate — no exceptions in my school.

For some children, this is visibly painful, and I long to say, “Just go outside, run around, and have fun. You’re obviously unhappy here.” Coaxing a simple phrase out of the mouth of an extremely shy child can take an equally painful amount of time, and it’s a good bet that the rest of the class has either fallen asleep or begun behaving badly while the teacher patiently smiles brightly and encourages.

For me, the early elementary school years are a constant struggle between children’s frantic desire to be passive learners and my insistence on eye contact, participation and the imaginative leaps that are necessary in language learning. For many little ones, “guessing” is torture when they want to be “told,” and for others who are used to dreaming away the time unnoticed by a harried public school teacher dealing with 39 other students, a full hour of constant participation is exhausting. “Where’s your adventurous spirit? Listen! Speak! Think! Guess! It’s all fun and exciting!” is the very basic truth that I struggle to impart on a daily basis. It’s tiring for me, too.

Between third and fourth grade, children begin to drop out of their after-school English lessons, as the classes begin to involve more study and less play. This is also when elementary schools begin to introduce the “romaji” alphabet (learning the Japanese syllables in roman letters), which turns all my hard work upside-down and causes much tearing of hair and wringing of hands on everyone’s part. Children who were learning to write and spell in perfectly natural English now think a “bag” is a “baggu” and a “dog” is a “doggu”, and I must set things straight in their heads.

From here on in, I know that it’s a battle between me and my one-hour-a-week classes and the influence of Japanese popular culture as a whole. The bizarre English plastered on signs, blazoned across shirts and jackets (which are not cool without English letters) and heard on television looks and sounds just fine to them, while they giggle at the oddness of the correct pronunciation of “America.”

Oh, and by the way, by the time these same children have become fifth and sixth graders, most of them will have realized that it’s a huge embarrassment to greet the large (I swear, I’m not that big, but living in Japan makes me feel enormous) friendly gaijin English teacher on the street in front of their friends, so prepare to be coolly rebuffed. On the other hand, once safe in the privacy of the cram school (which has now, after several years, become the familiar, comfortable environment), most of the older elementary students are friendly, pleasant, hard-working, and willing to admit, “I can speak English . . . a little.”

Those who were unable to overcome their reluctance to speak have quit by this time, and some others have been corralled into more “standard” cram schools by their concerned parents. Those who remain are the devoted ones, who have stuck with the program since nursery school or first grade, and who will go on to at least get stellar grades in their junior high and high school English classes. Some few will go on to international high schools, and a handful will actually study abroad. Like every teacher, I dream that maybe one of my students will go even further and will remember me in the “acknowledgements” of his or her first (preferably English) publication.

And so, returning to Nicholas Gattig’s article, I would suggest that his college classes are filled with the same type of students who dropped out of my English cram school. Those whose shyness, insecurity and passivity were not only tolerated, but even rewarded in early childhood. Many of them had parents who reinforced these traits (“You don’t want to talk in English class? Oh, I understand! Dad never liked to talk, either.” And how about: “You don’t like your Tuesday class because there are no friends from your school? Oh, well, we’ll change days, then.” Or this one: “You need help with your homework? Don’t ask Mom! She doesn’t understand English!” or “You want to quit English because your big sister quit? Oh, sure. That’s OK.”). And most were able to cope quite well and progress smoothly through elementary school surrounded by friends, never making waves, and never standing out in the classroom. Disengaged already, from early childhood.

My advice for teachers of English in Japan, then, is to start with the little ones. Plunging directly into a college classroom without the proper perspective can turn even the freshest, most energetic optimist into a jaded cynic. Take the time to see the world through the eyes of a Japanese toddler, a nursery school age child, and then an elementary school child. You will then find it easier to be understand how English education has gone so terribly wrong in this country, and easier to be kind to students of any age. And with an infinite amount of patience, ingenuity and compassion, you will find that some of those little ones eventually morph into passionate, active learners who go on to conquer the system.

Owner/head teacher,
Rainbow Phonics English School
Hadano, Kanagawa

Missing the female perspective

I was just folding old newspapers for recycling and saw again the (Nov. 20) Zeit Gist article by Gianni Simone about learning Japanese, “Tackling nihongo mountain by strategy: veteran’s tips.”

I want to tell you how offensive and lacking I found the article because not one of the learners consulted was female. I don’t think any of them were non-American or native speakers of languages other than English, either. Mark Schreiber, Mark Schilling . . . — was Simone just asking his friends over beers what they do rather than doing any serious thinking or reporting?

Patrick Galbraith? He used him as a source a few months before.

And editors? You were asleep at the wheel too, not to catch the fact that all his sources were male, representing only a tiny slice of those who learn Japanese or read The Japan Times.

You do your readers a disservice to publish such shallow, poorly researched material.


Mitchell’s reportage is invaluable

Re: “Were we used as human guinea pigs on Okinawa?” by Jon Mitchell (Zeit Gist, Dec. 4):

Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) has long been interested in Project 112, the SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense) project, the potential long-term effects of exposures to toxic chemical and biological substances — and the lies told by officials well after “disinformation” during warfare has ceased to be a legitimate weapon in one’s arsenal.

It was VVA that pushed the U.S. Department of Defense to come clean about the 134 planned SHAD experiments, only 50 of which were actually conducted. We barely scratched the surface of the direct experimentation on troops; that is now coming out in federal court in San Francisco. And we know only broad outlines of buried chemical weaponry at U.S. bases in Guam, Korea and other ports of call. Which is why Jon Mitchell’s reportage is so very valuable, especially to us and to thousands of U.S. veterans who had been stationed on Okinawa.

Vietnam Veterans of America, Deputy Director for Policy and Government Affairs
Silver Spring, Maryland

Better fighting through chemicals

As all of my hippy friends used to say in the late ’60s, “better living through chemicals”. Gotta love the U.S. Army and its respect for the ecology of Okinawa and the health of local residents. Not!

Perhaps the Pentagon was sending a message to Moscow and Beijing at the height of the Cold War: “If we do this level of harm to our own people, imagine what we’ll do to you if we go to war!” (The nuclear bombings of) Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of the biggest “homo sapiens as lab rats” wartime experiments in human history.

But it is nice to know that no laws were broken and that no U.S. Army personnel were ever punished for exposing soldiers and civilians (men, women, children) to deadly chemicals, all in the name of “truth, justice and the American way.”

Why didn’t the U.S. Army just order those soldiers to strip naked and take a “chemical shower” to get the best test results? Oh, you think some of the GIs would have protested? Most would have shouted, “Thank you sir, may I have another dose, sir?” Ah, the mind of a closely drilled soldier who fears his command sergeant major the way a Trappist monk fears God.

I’m just thankful I never had to serve in the American armed forces, unlike my father and all my uncles. I would have spent most of my time in the brig for insubordination. The “best and the brightest” were never the best or the brightest. Would you like a spoonful of Agent Orange in your coffee this morning, sir? Didn’t think so. But it was all right to dump millions of gallons of the carcinogenic toxic chemical on the villages and farmlands of Vietnam (North and South).

But what the hell, the U.S. Army never thought of the Vietnamese as quite human, just subhuman “gooks” for the most part. How do the U.S. soldiers in Okinawa today view the local natives? That’s what I feared.

Otaru, Hokkaido

Keep up the investigative work

Thank you for this article. It’s refreshing and encouraging to see The Japan Times offering investigative journalism articles that foster greater awareness of what is taking place in Japan and worldwide. Keep up the great work!


Okinawa is Japan’s garbage pail

Re: “What should be done about the recent incidents involving off-duty U.S. servicemen in Okinawa?” (Views From The Street, Dec. 12):

While I agree with most of the comments of others about the way criminals should be punished, I think the J.T. is missing the forest for the trees. Okinawa has become Japan’s garbage pail — anything the national government doesn’t want on the mainland just ends up here.

Take a look; the proof is in the pudding. They wanted to send a bunch of nuclear garbage here (as well as other areas) but were successfully blocked by the residents who petitioned their local representatives. There are probably a dozen or so other cases I could list. The big headline should read: “The national government has been ‘poo-pooing’ on Okinawa long enough.”

Nago, Okinawa

Self-criticism is strictly for natives

Re: “Do Japan a favor: Don’t stop being a critic” by Debito Arudou (Just be Cause, Dec. 11):

Arudou Debito makes the bald assertion that it is hazardous to express anything but praise for Japan. Even if one takes his claim at face value, how different is this country from his native land? Americans, like many another people, are quite capable of even harsh self-criticism but bristle when others say what they say about themselves — and, yes, the “others” can include nonnative citizens.

In Germany, where exuberant patriotism will quickly get one branded, outsiders must nonetheless be cautious about mentioning the bad old days — wallowing in collective guilt being, of course, the exclusive right of insiders. Germans themselves take delight in pointing to examples of Teutonic rudeness in the service industry, but woe unto any non-Teuton who does the same!

Nowadays the French will talk more openly about how widespread collaboration with the Nazis was, but non-French are still ill-advised to dwell on the issue themselves.

So just how nationalistically thin-skinned are the Japanese? I would respond: relatively speaking, not at all. How many Japanese claim to believe in the Sun Goddess as the founder of Japan? How many (South) Koreans claim to believe in the Dangun myth? How many young Japanese want to go to war over Takeshima/Dokdo in comparison with their Korean counterparts?

So what is the social cost of criticizing Japan, to say nothing of outright Japan-bashing? At least in the pages of The Japan Times, it requires about as much courage and independent thinking as ordering a beer in a bar.


A slur on my character

Re: “Your discrimination is showing,” Have Your Say, Dec. 11:

After crafting my response to Mr. Arudou’s column (“If bully Ishihara wants one last stand, bring it on,” Just Be Cause, Nov. 6), I would have been content to read any quality debate it encouraged. But, as the only retort forthcoming was libel against my character from another reader, I am compelled to respond. Rather than address the argument I presented, Mr. or Ms. Name Held Upon Request elected to go directly for an ad hominem attack, questioning my professional acumen, and implying that I possessed discriminatory views.

That Mr. Arudou is not “of Japanese descent” is hardly the premise my objections rest upon. Mr. Arudou’s line of descent has nothing to do with it; the fact that his perception of a threat from the conservative branch of Japanese politics and Japanese societal racism are lacking sound reasoning are what I take umbrage with.

The scientific method tells us that in order for a hypothesis to be valid it must also possess the possibility of being proven false. The theory of “microaggressions” he purports as showing that even the very Japanese language impinges on expatriates is logically flawed. Paraphrasing the Journal of Counseling Psychology: Microaggressions can take a number of different forms, for example, questioning the existence of racial-cultural issues, colorblindness, denial of personal bias, and minimization of racial-cultural issues.

What a wonderful theory that the more you deny it, the more it is true! Essentially, once an expat in Japan claims that they’re being “microaggressed” against, the Japanese, even with empirical evidence to the contrary, are powerless to prove themselves innocent. This circular reasoning Mr. Arudou engages in to show Japanese iniquity might make popular fodder for the like-minded, but is fundamentally unsound. My concern is that by its continued repetition in his monthly columns, it’s being given tacit validity.

I must have really not proof-read my last letter very well, because I missed the part where I called for Mr. Arudou’s freedom of speech to be stripped from him. Saying that I did is called “reductio ad Hitlerum”; you jump straight from me saying Mr. Arudou is wrong to implying I think he has no right to speak (as odious a position as the Nazi tyrant’s character). When Mr. Arudou makes quixotic charges at the “ferocious giants” of Japanese prejudice, pointing out that they are actually “windmills” is not an act of discrimination but the statement of a fair-minded, rational person.

Koshigaya, Saitama

Arudou writing a disappointment

Just when I thought it was safe to read The Japan Times today, I see this article “Don’t stop being a critic” by Debito Arudou.

What a disappointment his writing has become. Mr. Arudou is like the scratched record that keeps playing the same song over and over. His liberal views of the world have clouded any rational thought processes he has left. He does not provide social critique but constant attacks on those that do not believe or think like him and follow his liberal agenda.

What I don’t understand is, why does The Japan Times give Mr. Arudou the soapbox to spew his hate of those with different views to his? Mr. Arudou’s only correct comment was “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all, right?” Mr. Arudou should live by his own words and practice what he is trying to preach to others. His beliefs are totally contrary to Japanese culture and beliefs — but then again, he is not a native Japanese and may never understand what it really is to be Japanese from the heart.

Takahata, Yamagata

But do you like the real Japan?

Here’s how I obfuscate, maintain face all round while also having a sly dig at Japanese nationalism with a China reference, and use ironic postmodern symbols to get out of this one:

J-fan: Do you like Japan?

Me: Yes, I like the songs.

J-fan: The songs?! J Pop?

Me: I like “Life in Tokyo”

J-fan (puzzled,thinking I have changed the subject): What do you like about your life in Tokyo?

Me: I like the (Japanese) synthesizers, also Georgio Morodor’s production, I guess.

J-fan (zooming in on the most important word to them, “Japanese”): Oh, you like Japanese synthesizers?

Me: Yes, especially in “Visions of China”— one of Japan’s best songs!


Or, when the penny drops and they finally get that I like Japan the band, and not Japan the country, if they insist on persisting, so will I!

J-fanatic: No, no. I mean do you like Japan the country?

Me: Sure — Japan was important in the development of the British band Japan. They sold out Budokan several nights in a row and were one of the foreign bands to top the J-Oricon charts. They later played with (Ryuichi) Sakamoto, and recruited Masami Tsuchiya as guitarist for their final tour.

J-fanatic: What about J-pop?

Me: What about it? It is different from Japan. I like Japan.

There. Faces saved, but also challenged. J-nationalism met with the irony that a British band called “Japan” topped the Japanese charts 1979-82. And the point of a British band called Japan releasing songs about China and performing them with a Japanese guitarist is certainly a multi-cultural aspect that Japan could learn from right now.

N.B.: Surprised Debito is not more into this band, as they were a big influence on early Duran Duran.


Send your comments to The Community Chest at community@japantimes.co.jp