The advent of the internet has given new life to a lot of old wives’ tales and urban legends. With so much information (and disinformation) out there, how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? When spotting errors of fact, whether stemming from simple ignorance, laziness or intentional deception, is it worth taking the time and trouble to flag errors and offer corrections?

To be honest, I don’t know. Even before Google and the World Wide Web, many nonsense stories became perpetuated and attacking their credibility became almost futile.

Maybe you’ve heard this one, which I spotted in the Bangkok Post’s “Night Owl” column of July 12, 2002, in which the writer remarked, “How much force is legally permissible to resist a perpetrator? In Japan, a second dan and above (higher than a black belt) has to register his hands with the police as lethal weapons.”

This one was easy to debunk. I telephoned a contact at the National Police Agency, who put me in touch with its Office of Public Information. I explained my purpose in calling, and the officer in charge, an outgoing fellow named Ikeda, told me, “So iu horitsu wa arimasen” (“There is no such law”). So there you have it — right from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. (bit.ly/JTdanweapon)

The last time I visited relatives in the United States, the subject of guns came up and I mentioned in passing that Japan currently has fewer than 400,000 legally owned firearms, as opposed to an estimated 300 million rifles, shotguns and handguns in the U.S.

An uncle who strongly supports the unrestricted right to bear arms informed me that no less a figure than Japan’s Adm.Isoroku Yamamoto had once remarked to the effect that Japan would never attack the U.S. mainland because American civilians all had guns. Yamamoto’s statement supposedly went, “You cannot invade mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind each blade of grass.”

I retorted that there’s no evidence Yamamoto ever made such a remark; but the fantasy of armed civilians courageously fighting off a foreign invasion has an inspiring ring to it, and supporters of the Second Amendment like to cite it anyway. (Yamamoto, who died in 1943, is in no position to deny having said it.) (bit.ly/yamamotofc)

Meanwhile Spa! (June 13) ran a four-page article titled “Obei no kenko-ho wa Nihonjin ni Kikanakatta” (“European and American health methods did not work for Japanese”).

To people with Japanese genes and lifestyles, the magazine asked, can Western-style health methods actually be harmful? The article raised such points as, Japanese had a shorter “health longevity,” meaning that seniors may live long but tend to be extremely frail; and Japanese internal organs, blood vessels and metabolism are “weak.”

It also states: “Even consuming dietary fiber like crazy won’t relieve constipation.” And that “For over 1,000 years, Japanese had not consumed meat, and their diet was centered on grains and vegetables rich in dietary fiber, which takes longer to digest. For that reason, compared with Westerners, they evolved intestines that are 1.5 to 2 meters longer.”

Back in 1987, when former Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata was serving as chairman of the agriculture research council, American newspapers scoffed at his making the same claim in order to justify restrictions on the import of U.S. beef to Japan.

Is there any truth to this?

“The idea that Japanese intestines are longer that Westerners’ is a piece of evidence-free folklore similar to the idea that the ABO blood group correlates with character; in other words, it’s nonsense,” Dr. Gabriel Symonds, former director of the Tokyo British Clinic, told me flat out in an email.

An inquisitive gent named Andy Raskin appears to have spent a lot of time and effort researching this subject, which can be read online (bit.ly/jpintestines).

According to Raskin, the length of Japanese intestines has been the subject of interest for more than 140 years. Back in the late 19th century, a German physician named Heinrich Botha Scheube conducted autopsies on 26 Japanese cadavers. Comparing the data he collected with that of the typical length of intestines in Europeans, which he learned from a European anatomy textbook, he published a paper titled “The Length of the Intestine in Japanese.”

Scheube wrote, “In my (previous paper,) ‘Remarks on the Japanese Diet,’ I said that very probably rice is better used up in the intestine of the Japanese than in that of the European, and I expressed a surmise that the Japanese intestine must be the longer of the two.”

He cautioned, however, that 26 intestines was not a lot to go on.

“Whether further measurements will confirm these conclusions,” he wrote, “remains to be seen.”

Intestines aside, the Spa! article raised other interesting points related to diet and health that may or may not resonate with its Japanese readers, noting that 1 Japanese in 4 has a caffeine intolerance; that alcohol can easily damage the liver; and that the best diet for Japanese is based on rice, seafood and soybeans.

An article in the Sunday Mainichi (June 18) examined another common malady, particularly among politicians and celebrities, that is often described in English as “foot-in-mouth disease.” These are people who make thoughtless, inappropriate, boorish and politically incorrect remarks, which invariably generate outrage among their listeners, and frequently force the speakers to apologize and/or step down from their positions.

The article identifies 10 typical speakers of bōgen (reckless remarks) and shitsugen (verbal gaffes), including 1) the person incapable of considering the implications of his remark; 2) the person with the reputation of having a “poison tongue” who thinks he can get away with anything because he’s popular; 3) the person who feels safe saying anything because he’s surrounded by supporters or underlings; 4) the insensitive person who’s completely out of touch with the ways of the world; and 5) the person whose views have become outdated.

With Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, these verbal slips are multiplying exponentially. And needless to say, they are by no means confined to Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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