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Communication difficulties continue to torment Japan

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

If communication is measurable in terms of number of words, we are the greatest communicators in the history of our species. Question: Who’s listening?

There’s the rub, says President magazine. Listening is the hard part.

It’s harder than talking — in part, writes Toshiyuki Goda of the NHK Broadcast Research Center in his contribution to President’s feature on “listening ability,” because, as speakers, we can keep the dialogue within our comfort zone, while listening may take us outside it — into the realm of our own ignorance, which is uncomfortable enough; or, worse, into that of the awkward silence.

The on-air broadcaster is particularly sensitive to the latter, but it bedevils all social intercourse. Goda gives an innocuous but clear example.

“What,” asks the interviewer, “were your thoughts at the time?”

The guest struggles to recall. “Hmm. Well … it was 20 years ago.”

“You must have felt sad?”

“Yes, I suppose I did.”

“And angry?”

“Well … yes.”

The faux pas leaps off the page at you — putting words in the interviewee’s mouth. Even on-air, a little silence is permissible. Off-air, much is. Our torrent of words chokes the silence in which words can acquire depth and meaning.

All too often we speak — and the word must be understood in its broadest sense, to include mailing, posting, tweeting, messaging, thumbs up, thumbs down, and all the other communicating tools at our increasingly restless fingertips — past each other rather than to each other, fears AI researcher Noriko Arai, a National Institute of Informatics mathematician best known for her efforts to develop an artificially intelligent robot smart enough to pass Tokyo University’s entrance exam.

Her concern, in her article written for President, is a perceived decline in reading skills. Just as speaking now often means writing, so listening includes reading. To read badly is to listen badly. President being a business publication, Arai focuses on the office implications. Bosses despair, she says, at how their simplest instructions get misconstrued. She doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that the writing is muddy. The fault is assumed to be the reader’s. Maybe it is. Reading tests she cites suggest as much. Persistent misunderstanding of simple texts bewilder researchers who take elementary literacy for granted.

We communicate and communicate, young people especially, and yet, says Arai, young people in particular, particularly nowadays, are shockingly deprived of what she calls “real life experience.”

Parents take care of their daily needs, extracurricular cram schools guide them step by step up the exam ladder, package tour operators send them on trips to remote places with all the conveniences of home packed into the package, and so on — to say nothing, as she for some reason does, of mass absorption in virtual reality, which is reality scrubbed of what makes it real.

What does this have to do with communication? Simply this: To speak (or write) we must have something to say; to listen (or read) with attention requires faith that the speaker has something to say. Arai mentions a test question. Make a sentence, it says, with the word katto, meaning trouble, conflict, anxiety, to be upset. She presents three sample answers, one from a student who was upset when his parents challenged his choice of university arts over science; another from a young woman who suffered anxiety when her mother emailed to ask whether she wanted curry or hamburger for dinner — didn’t her mother know she was on a diet? The third is from a young man who feels katto when he thinks about the end of the world.

Arai’s objections, respectively: (1) trivial; (2) trivial; (3) spacey; vision focused either too close or too far to bear practical fruit, like marketable products, innovative sales campaigns and so on, which is what your employer hired you to think about, and if that’s what you were thinking about, maybe you’d misread your boss’s emails less often. Many Tokyo University students, Arai says, want to work not for corporations but for NGOs and NPOs. They want to be of use, to help people in need — people, that is, coping with real katto. Many fail to make the cut. They have good intentions and good heads — but their real-life experience is so thin, Arai says, that they are judged to have nothing substantial to contribute.

Her overriding concern is expressed by the title of her recent bestselling book: “AI vs. Children who Can’t Read their Textbooks.” With AI gaining ground as rapidly as it is, insufficiently literate children face a bleak future — a redundant future, a “hiring ice age” to make the last one, which relegated much of the generation born in the 1970s and ’80s to a life of unrewarding part-time labor, seem warm by comparison. Why hire human intelligence when artificial intelligence is so much more intelligent, inexpensive, indefatigable, and obedient? (Will it be obedient? Or will we have to be, to it?) Maybe even adequate literacy will be no protection.

The themes President addresses — speaking and listening, reading and writing, communicating and failing to communicate — are always timely, doubly so now, as Japan wallows in scandal, corporate and political, faked data being the common thread, and the world braces for what is shaping up as a most extraordinary summit.

The summiteers are surely the most remarkable ever to meet at this level of power and urgency. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is heir to an established tradition in his country of rule by terror and has yet to break new ground, unless his summiteering is the new ground.

U.S. President Donald Trump, any way you look at him, is revolutionary. He communicates, as President notes, in a manner quite foreign to world leaders of comparable importance. His tweets proclaim a new era, the “Trump Era,” in which nuanced articulateness is an unlamented thing of the failed past. Real leaders are actors, not orators. Their speaking is doing, not speechifying. They make deals, not speeches.

So we’ll see what kind of deal these two leaders make.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”