Some think of him as a retired anatomist par excellence; some revere his knowledge of the human brain; while to others he’s simply someone who’s nuts about insects.
Takeshi Yoro is definitely all of these things and more, as well as being one of the foremost thinkers on the condition of contemporary Japan.
Back when he was a professor specializing in dissecting cadavers at the Medical Department of the University of Tokyo, Yoro, now 67, came to be widely known as the author of numerous books, including his 1989 “Yuinoron” (Seidosha), in which he proposed that society and the forms it takes are extensions of human consciousness.
However, he cautions, all this mental activity comes at the price of ignoring the role of the body, an organic form that consciousness cannot control. Nonetheless, as the cerebral organ is part of the body, too, it too will eventually be overthrown, he explained.
As esoteric as all this may seem at first glance, Yoro is often credited with fostering a broad public interest in the relationship between the neural sciences, the study of the mind, and social science.
This interest — and Yoro’s public renown — reached new heights following the publication in 2003 of his best seller, “Baka no Kabe (What a Fool Believes)” (Shinchosha), which has sold some 3.98 million copies to date in Japan, and has also been translated into Chinese and Korean.
There, in his characteristically mind-expanding way, Yoro describes his notion that there is a “wall” of non-understanding between people — a divide founded on their belief that there are such things as absolute truths. But then, through examining conceptual opposites such as mind/body, city/countryside and consciousness/unconsciousness, he proceeds to take down that “wall” brick by brick.
Yoro’s popularity ensures a constantly busy schedule of writing, lecturing and guest speaker engagements, but this resident of Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, says that since he retired from his professorship in 1995, his top priority has most definitely been his research on insects. However, Yoro says he is not just interested in insects from a natural history point of view, but as pointers to a much bigger picture. “There is so much you can tell from looking at insects,” he says, adding that observing them is “the most fundamental part of his thinking.’‘
Right now, in fact, Yoro is in Bhutan in the Himalayas on an insect safari, but, just before he left last week — and between delivering a speech to high-flying bankers and a meeting to discuss educational matters with Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara — he slowed down just long enough to share his thoughts with The Japan Times on that “wall,” how best to think about it, and much more.
Of the many books you have written, “Baka no Kabe” continues to be especially popular with readers. Why do you think that is?
Basically, I question the premises that lie behind people’s thinking. I flip them over, and that usually bothers people. “What is he saying?” they think.
I talk about substance — about [the consciousness] that we tacitly have in common — and that includes Buddhism and nature. As these are at the base of Japanese culture, that’s what I am also discussing.
The reason why I write is to reflect on our postwar education, and on what I was taught as “common sense.” Actually, what I was taught didn’t feel right to me; it made me suffer, so I wanted to dissolve that feeling. I believe I’ve been able to review it objectively now that I’ve reached this age.
The education that people of my generation onward received after World War II was about developing our individuality. But that’s completely the opposite of muga [denial of the self], which is one of the fundamentals of Buddhist thinking.
Some people have felt the same awkwardness I had, and have told me that they’ve been awakened to the truth [through my book]. Some have also said that I’ve made them feel easier, and that was really nice to hear.
For some reason, Japanese are made to believe that they have to think in a certain way. I say that’s wrong. And that’s probably why people read my book.
But I bet that many people just bought it simply because it was popular (laughs).
In your book, you say that you are a “dualist,” and criticize “monism” because, you say, that is where baka no kabe (what a fool believes) comes from, and it is the cause of that “wall” which prevents people understanding each other. Would you care to elaborate?
It’s not correct to believe that there’s only one truth. Because consciousness is disconnected. There is no one whose consciousness is continuous, because we all go to sleep [and that is when the mind is unconscious].
But consciousness makes things convenient for itself, and even though things are disconnected, we talk as though everything is continuing.
You know, if you wanted an accurate autobiography, one-third of the book would have to be blank. But instead, every page is filled with words. That’s evidence of how humans believe that our lives are sequential. But there’s no way you can believe that there is 100 percent truth, because you’re asleep some of the time.
Do you think everyone can appreciate that subjectively?
I don’t think so. That’s because people want to take the easy way out. They want to decide “this is the truth,” because that way they don’t have to think about it anymore. That’s actually a practical approach, and it’s common that people stop thinking at that point.
But if you don’t have enough to eat, your thoughts won’t get anywhere, so at some point you have to go and find something to eat (laughs). If you’re not well-fed, you can’t think, and that’s a matter of fact. And if you don’t eat, your brain will change. The brain requires a lot of nutrition, so if you don’t have enough of that, your thoughts will change. At this point, what you come to realize is that there is no “self” that doesn’t change.
If you ate only what I ate right after the war for two or three months, your consciousness would definitely change.
Your work is frequently a direct challenge to Western philosophy of the self. Is there any neurological basis for this?
In the brain, there is a nerve cell called a “mirror neuron,” which is found in the speech center. That neuron reacts to other people’s actions, and though the precise function of this neuron has still to be determined, I speculate that it is very important.
What happens with this neuron is that when a person sees another’s movements, they can feel as if they are also doing it themselves. That made me think about pornography. The viewer’s brain — not the body — is excited, because the action that others are taking has been directly transmitted to them.
This gives you the idea that “there is no self” is closely related here, doesn’t it?
People generally believe that their consciousness belongs only to themselves. If you’re on a desert island, that can seem to be true. But the human is a social animal, and can’t live alone. The mirror neuron was first found in monkeys, which makes sense because they are also social animals. For such animals, this neuron is important.
And this neuron made me understand more about North Korea, prewar Japan — and Aum Shinrikyo. They could all be called closed societies with something very extreme being taken as though it were normal. That’s because everyone is connected through mirror neurons.
If people view this through the prism of the “modern Western self,” they won’t be able to understand it. Modern intelligence is founded on the premise that a person thinks individually, that there is an individual character.
Thus, they can’t understand that a person’s feelings derive from empathy. They believe it’s their own feelings. But if you see a person crying, you also cry if you are close with that person, and if someone is feeling good, then others around them will also feel the same.
You see? That’s the mirror neuron functioning.
That’s very interesting to consider such things from a scientific viewpoint, because it puts them in quite a different light.
Doesn’t it make you realize how dangerous it is not to have such a viewpoint? The good thing about science is that it allows you to explain phenomena that don’t seem to be related. In a way, it’s reassuring, because it makes you balance opposing theories. One says this and the other says that, but they are both pointing the same way.
Is there a way to overcome the inability to understand each other that you refer to?
I think it depends on what you mean by “overcoming” something. I’m saying that there is no absolute truth. I believe that we can have a variety of ways of thinking.
You mentioned some criticisms of the postwar education in Japan. In what other ways do you think there are problems?
I think it introduced lots of contradictions to the Japanese way of life, but people have not taken this into account very much. This is actually an issue we’ve had since the Meiji Restoration [in 1868], but it has especially been so since World War II. The change experienced in people’s ordinary lives has been dramatic. Things weren’t like this 50 years ago.
Of all the contradictions, the biggest one is this: It is said we have “peace and democracy,” and people seem to believe that citizens decide everything. But is that really so? Did we decide in a democratic manner to change our lives like this? Did the Diet vote for the entire nation to own a car? Air conditioning? Or television?
This momentum [of change] is almost like the time during the war, you know. It’s almost like during wartime when there were slogans like ichioku gyokusai [all be ready to die for Japan]. People believed that it was a good thing to get a TV and air conditioning — but they never discussed it. Nor did they discuss paving roads. That made hunting bugs easier for insect-chasers like myself, but “progress” also chased them away [from the cities] — so I end up going a lot further to find them (laughs).
If you were able to establish a school and become its headmaster, what kind of school would you like it to be?
First, I’d build it in the countryside. Second, I’d keep the parents out of the way, because parents these days are annoying. Kids can grow up without their parents.
It’s only the children we can change. I’ve taught college students for nearly 40 years, but it’s already too late to correct them.
Today’s education is superfluous, because they teach one way of looking at the world but fail to teach others. They should start from things like how to cultivate the ground. That’s where life starts. There’s no need to teach complicated things.
The Internet is another example of what you call “noka” — in other words, a physical manifestation of thought — but how do you regard people committing suicide together after meeting up on the Internet?
I think the value of a human has become so insignificant.
Part of this is because the sheer number of people has grown so much. The value of each person becomes less when there are more people. I think there’s some kind of rule like that at the root of this.
A world in which we have lost a firm grasp of substance makes human interactions so much less significant. People meeting on the Internet and killing themselves together — that’s really evidence that people’s lives have become so insignificant. They can’t appreciate the weight of their own self.
I believe this is the result of a lack of consciousness or awareness that every existence is different. On the Internet, everything is the same. I mean, when you leave it as it is, nothing changes. But if you look at nature, that’s not possible. Even if a Web site is updated, somebody is changing it. But that’s just replacing things.
Information is something that just doesn’t change. It’s very persistent. Perhaps when people keep browsing the Internet, they feel that they are like that, too.
No way! In two days, your feelings will change. There is no way you can get back to yourself two days ago.
Anyhow, everything has become so insubstantial in a world where people have lost trust in substance. That makes things easy for people meeting on the Internet to plan their suicides.
Are you worried about this tendency toward insubstantiality?
No. Not at all. Because it’s not my problem. I’m just happy chasing insects. Insects are multifarious; they belong to the world of the senses. And so is dissection, because every person is different. But that’s such an obvious thing. Nonetheless, it is actually very important to confirm the obvious with your senses.
Is that why you are encouraging people to move back and forth between urban and rural areas?
Yes. You have to use your body. If you dig the land, you will realize that some things just can’t be done, and you’ll also understand how much you can and cannot do. If you live in the same place in a city all the time, you don’t come to realize these things.
The body is nature. People do communicate with nature outside their bodies, but the body is nature within you. I think people who associate with their body tend to have healthy thinking.
You’ve written that the reason why so many young people joined Aum Shinrikyo was because nowadays we have “forgotten our bodies and move with our brain.” What do you mean?
Young people these days don’t know anything about nature. So, when they realize [through their training under the cult’s leader, Shoko Asahara] that their bodies have such huge power, they are immediately attracted to that. I believe that was one of the reasons why Aum Shinrikyo increased its following so much in such a short time.
Established religions, especially Zen and esoteric Buddhism, should have absorbed these people, but monks these days don’t practice asceticism, and so they do not have such accomplishments to convey to others.
You know, yogis are amazing people. About 50 years ago, when I was a medical student at the University of Tokyo, the professor in our physiology class invited an Indian yogi to visit one day, and had him do yoga in front of us. We looked at an electrocardiogram he had been connected to, and we could see that that guy stopped his heart beating for a minute just through his own will. Then, he lay with his head on one chair and his feet on another and nothing in between like a bridge, and the professor sat on him. You could say that this was just an acrobatic show, but in fact it was a lesson to show us how much the body can do, so we weren’t surprised by anything like that anymore.
If you know what your body can and cannot do, there is no way you’ll be deceived.
So I was so shocked when a medical student came up to me once and said that he wanted me to be the “official witness” at a public experiment by Asahara, in which he was supposed to stay underwater for an hour. I was startled. That was my first encounter with a student who was an Aum follower. I thought he was joking.
Is there a way to make our brains function better?
It’s not necessary to think that you have to make it function better. What’s important is that you are happy. Or, at least, that you’re not unhappy.
In order to be in that state, you need to understand what the brain is all about. That means that you have to maintain your health.
People still don’t understand that society is something created by the brain, and that means that many people are sharing a kind of cerebral consensus. So if you fall out of that society and leave that consensus — like if you lose your ability to speak — you become a very unhappy person, because if your brain isn’t functioning, others won’t think of you as a member of their society.
Do you think your mind-body explanation about society and human consciousness has been widely understood yet?
I’ve been reading Buddhist scriptures recently, but do you think they are really understood by people? They are something that people value, and which they believe they are understanding, but they actually don’t understand. I’ve been thinking that people may have a similar reaction to my explanations (laughs.)
Are you a Buddhist?
Oh, no I’m not. It’s just that I’ve thought very hard and came to my own conclusion, and I am telling it to people. One day, I read a commentary on what was written in the sutras, and I realized that what I’d been thinking was exactly the same. That was a shock!
But then, I realized that perhaps that was natural, because all Japanese abstract nouns derive from Buddhist teachings.
Finally, as you are now about to head off on your third trip to Bhutan, I wonder what it is about that country that you like so much?
Bhutan is full of nature, and the insects there have never been examined thoroughly. Even the British [whose public collections of insect specimens Yoro particularly admires] barely have examples from there. So I think it’s the largest place in Asia whose insects are still relatively unknown.