Japan has been witnessing something of a baka explosion recently. Whether or not the actual number of idiots or incidents of idiotic behavior are on the increase or not, there is certainly a sharp rise in the public irritability index, a lowering of the threshold at which people call others “baka.”

Prime evidence for such widespread feelings of frustration and impatience is the first million-copy best seller of the year, “Baka no Kabe (The Wall of a Fool)” (Shincho Shinsho), by Yoro Takeshi. Although Yoro, formerly a professor of anatomy at Tokyo University, has been using the phrase “baka no kabe” for 20 years, it has hit a nerve this year in particular, propelling his paperback to the top of the best seller chart at the end of June — two months after publication — where it has remained ever since with more than 1.2 million copies now in print.

What exactly is Yoro’s baka no kabe? It is the wall preventing people from hearing a message they don’t want to hear. In the words of the jacket copy, ” ‘Hanaseba wakaru’ nante ouso! (It’s a big fat lie that people will understand each other if they just talk it over).”

In Yoro’s now famous formula “y = ax,” “x” is input into the brain, “y” is brain output and “a” is “genjitsu no omomi” or the degree to which something is real/relevant to that individual. If “a” is plus or minus, additional information might, for example, change one’s feeling for another person from negative to positive, but if “a” is zero, as in a child being lectured by a parent, then no amount of additional input will have any effect.

Yoro’s basic point — that one should keep an open mind and not take refuge in one-dimensional certainties — is clear enough, if not exactly revolutionary. However, I had some difficulty in following his argument as to why Japanese have increasingly fallen into such one-dimensional thinking in the postwar period.

If I am interpreting him correctly, Yoro is arguing that the shift to urban living, and the resulting brain-oriented society, has led, without conscious intent, to a collective forgetting of the physical body, of the unconscious, and of the community (kyodotai). This neglect has resulted in various lifestyle distortions, such as a lack of contact with the natural world, a dismissal of sleep as a waste of time, and a loss of a sense of communitas in one’s workplace and neighborhood. He also points out the fallacy of believing in a permanent and unchanging self and laments mindless calls for more individualism when what is needed to perpetuate life in a civilized society is a better understanding of others.

Yoro doesn’t pretend to have any final answer to the baka phenomenon. Rather, he calls for more awareness of the problems that are emerging from a modern information society and for more debate on such questions as how to preserve fairness in a corporate culture that is shifting from seniority-based promotions to merit-based promotions, and how to ensure that people can find a meaningful purpose in life in a society of affluence.

Yoro’s phrase baka no kabe, however, now seems to be taking on a life of its own, popping up in TV game shows or in magazine articles on dating. Rather than heeding Yoro’s warning against unwittingly building one’s own baka no kabe, the public seems to be taking the phrase as a lament about how hard it is to live in a world filled with baka.

This “everyone but me is a real idiot” type of thinking was recently examined in Aera (Sept. 8). Consumer-support centers have found an increase in angry callers making unreasonable demands, and an airline association reports that verbal and physical attacks on flight attendants have increased fivefold in the past four years. The reporter herself witnessed several men hoping to catch a glimpse of a baseball celebrity boarding their flight suddenly take umbrage, supposedly at economy-class discrimination, when they were asked to get on board before the first-class passengers.

One commentator blames a decade of people being brainwashed to be more self-assertive, while an office worker points to the new emphasis on work performance, where a colleague’s success is seen as a threat to one’s own position. All agree that under the weight of the accumulating stresses and anxieties of the prolonged economic slump, Japanese are losing their tolerance of others; they are now eager to pounce on any opportunity to vent their self-righteous anger, even if it exceeds the scope of the situation.

What is one to make of this baka explosion? In some ways, the mistakes of Japan’s government and business leaders deserve an angry response, but unfortunately it is being misdirected at undeserving targets. Beyond that, however, it is evident that erosion is taking place in the shared cultural values the Japanese still expect to be present across the lines of gender, social class and generation, so that one person’s joshiki (common sense) is now another’s bakalike behavior. Judging from Yoro’s comments and from the ongoing societal debate over yutori kyoiku (education with latitude), notions of the self and individualism are particularly in flux. In this sense, the sales of Yoro’s “Baka no kabe” may reflect a widespread search for better ways to interact with others in an age of changing values and attitudes.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.