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The confounding case of Japan’s creativity crisis

The first clue to the conundrum is in the palm of your hand, writes Mark Gottlieb


As Japan enters the new year, pundits and panjandrums across public, private and academic landscapes are agonizing over what they call the country’s “creativity crisis.”

Where, they ask, are the new big thinkers — the world-class wizards who will use their prodigious brain power to propel the nation’s economy with innovative ideas?

Rising to the challenge, young people scan bookstore shelves groaning under the weight of self-help volumes, hoping to find the one instruction guide that will somehow awaken their slumbering imaginative genius.

But that is not where the answer lies.

Help can indeed be found in a bookstore, but not in the aisle displaying myriad versions of “I’ll Make You Creative or Kill You in the Process.”

Head instead to the racks marked “Fiction,” and look for the works of a fellow named Doyle — Arthur Conan Doyle.

The man who gave the world Sherlock Holmes was a literary innovator of no small degree, but it is the protagonist of his tales — Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective — who embodies the fundamental and indispensable basic elements of creativity. In fact, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that Sherlock Holmes was the most creative individual of all time.

Creativity is not making something from nothing. It is not a goal to be pursued through sheer doggedness, nor a tangible product that can be purchased in a shop, like rice balls or cornflakes.

You create with the materials at hand. The trick is to be fully aware of those materials, to recognize their value, and, then, to combine them in novel ways — to discover the connections between them that will produce new ideas, or new products, or new ways of looking at the world.

At its heart, creativity is really nothing more than deductive reasoning. And there has been no more elegant practitioner of the art than Sherlock Holmes.

On a case, Holmes discerned details that were apparently trivial and unimportant. From these he “created” in his mind the crime to which the details led him. Once he had established the true nature of the wrongdoing — how, when, where and why it had been committed — he was always able to track down the perpetrators. While victims were baffled and Scotland Yard befuddled, the master detective applied deductive reasoning to reconstruct a nefarious act and “create” a solution to a seemingly insoluble problem.

Holmes gathered evidence by following the oldest of maxims: We have two eyes and two ears but only one mouth, so we can look and listen twice as much as we speak. Nothing escaped the attention of Sherlock Holmes because Sherlock Holmes was always paying attention.

Consider, for example, his initial meeting with the man who would become his flatmate, friend and chronicler of his deeds: Dr. John Watson. Holmes had never met Watson and knew nothing of his circumstances beyond the fact that he was a physician. Yet his very first words to the doctor were, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

The key term in that line is “perceive.” Holmes left the good doctor open-mouthed at what the latter assumed was a lucky — albeit perfectly accurate — wild guess. But as the detective later explained, he reached his conclusion based solely on the details he observed: Watson had the upright bearing of a military man; his face was tanned but his wrists were their natural pale color, indicating he had recently been in a warm climate; his left arm appeared injured; and he had the haggard demeanor of someone who had suffered extreme hardship. Combining these observations, Holmes concluded that Watson had been wounded while serving as a physician in the British Army’s then-ongoing second war in Afghanistan.

Which he had.

In his first adventure with Watson, “A Study in Scarlet,” Holmes used partial footprints, minute scratches on a wall, a faint trace of odor and even the ash of a cigar to unravel the crime. He missed nothing because he was aware of everything. And he was aware of everything because he kept himself open and receptive to the connections between seemingly disparate sights, sounds, smells, objects and events. Perception, he knew, is the prerequisite to creativity.

And so we arrive at Japan’s crisis.

Walk the streets of any Japanese city and you will not see potential Sherlocks alert to the possibilities around them. Instead, you will be surrounded by herds of zombies — heads down, blind to all around them, meandering aimlessly along the sidewalks while attending to nothing but mindless tweets, music videos, Instagram photos or childish games on the smartphones that hold them in thrall.

“You see, but you do not observe,” Holmes once chided Watson, when the latter failed to recognize a clue that the detective deemed obvious. How much less prepared to exercise their creative faculties are Japan’s smartphone zombies, who do not even see?

A marvelous bit of technological kit it may be, but the smartphone is ultimately little more than a distraction. It demands the attention and occupies the mind of its owner, crowding out the random impressions that — were they observed — might just lead to insights, ideas and novel solutions to seemingly intractable questions.

To be sure, other factors play a role in creativity. But the one step that anyone can take to prime his or her innovation engine is quite simple: Turn off your phone, put it in your pocket or handbag and forget about it until the end of the day. It is a diversion from the more important and ultimately more fulfilling task of remaining alert to everything around you — the details, large and small, that are the very essence of Holmesian creativity.

Try it for a week. You have nothing to lose and much to gain.

And before you dismiss this suggestion as the purest of poppycock, answer one question: Would smartphones have been developed if the individuals who invented them had spent their every waking moment staring at the screens of smartphones?

Mark Gottlieb is a freelance writer who travels the world without a smartphone. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on Thursdays. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • kyushuphil

    Good for Mark Gottlieb.

    Japan’s youth (as those of any other “modern” country) might be open to more — be more imaginative, more alive, more human — and teachers can help.

    Teachers can do this by themselves modeling openness. They can stray from the text in class often, and cite analogies, other examples from many different areas. They can do this as easily, in English, for instance, as that particular language equips us for breadth by relative clauses, appositives, simile, and metaphor.

    The benefits go beyond creativity, to humanity itself. Natsume Sōseki noted this, in “Kusamakura” saying the same thing as Mark Gottlieb does here. Where Gottlieb discounts the chances that we can up our imaginations by “doggedness,” Sōseki discounted too much rationality, in a much-loved opening passage of that gloriously rediant novel of nearly 100 years ago.

    How to spot chances to be more open, to free us from our traps? Lovely, vital Q — then as now.

  • happyjapan

    IMO, technology is turning the whole world into morons. Japan is a perfect example of this. Far from “freeing” people and imaginations, the internet/smartphones etc has allowed unprecedented control by a small number of organisations over the imaginations and thoughts of millions. People spend all their time passively absorbing information, but doing nothing with it, simply sharing it with others, regurgitating it. They do it in school, they do it in work and then they do it at home, via facebook/mixi/smartphones etc.
    The Japanese used to understand the power of silence and contemplation, hence the development of their wonderful traditional arts and crafts, and practice of zen etc. The great output of Japanese art,film, literature,fashion, cooking,technology in the twentieth century had its roots in this kind of culture but imaginative, energetic people are hard to control, so Japan INC prefers to have a population of narcisstic, passive morons. In fairness, most of the “west” especially the Anglophone countries also suffer from the same problems, with the added problem that their kids are malnourished and fat!

  • qwerty

    “Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources”

  • Steve Novosel

    “Would smartphones have been developed if the individuals who invented
    them had spent their every waking moment staring at the screens of

    Yes. probably. Sergey Brin’s a great tech innovator and he quite famously walks around wearing his Google Glass. Steve Jobs was no Luddite.

    I get that the author doesn’t like smartphones and probably not even technology. That’s fine. But he doesn’t seem to understand that not everyone is like him. Some people are playing pachislot games, some people are reading, some are thinking when using their technology. A lot of creative types are inspired by reading or listening to music.

    Don’t like the technology? Great, don’t use it. But please spare your criticism of those of us who do like using technology and devices and find that they augment, not detract from our daily lives.

  • midnightbrewer

    Smartphones are symptomatic of a different problem dealing with socialization issues. The foundation is laid long before the age when people get to an age where they are that sucked into smart phones.

    Also, Sherlock Holmes prided himself on analysis, experimentation, and the scientific method. He famously said that he was very determined to forget those things which did not contribute to his work; he hated extraneous experiences. I think he’d disagree with being called creative, and definitely disagree with the notion that simply walking around without a smartphone would magically open the door to the imagination.

    Sent from my iPhone while listening to a Sherlock Holmes audio book.

  • Creativity is an attribute of the individual. Culturally, the more groupthink and “need to belong” you have, the less creativity you will get. Economically, the more crippling rules and regulations there are, resulting in increased risks for acting on one’s own judgement and lesser rewards, the less other people will be willing to apply their creative ideas and make what they have inside themselves real.

    The culture does not value creativity. It values collectivism. It’s not rewarded, so you aren’t getting any. This is all pretty simple stuff.