Archive for August, 2010

Why We Ought to Read

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Today, very few people feel the need to read the dusty, classical texts of ancient writers. Or perhaps, a more accurate account may be that they are unable to do so, what with the zeitgeist of contemporary life being one where people are overloaded with societal duties. It seems as if people today are often forced to multitask to incredible extremes. As Nicholas Karr points out in his book “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains,” we are becoming increasingly inept at focusing on one particular task.

Technology has been no savior in this regard. As a matter of fact, as Karr has noted, technology is the prime culprit in preventing people from detaching themselves from society and engaging in leisurely activities.

So then, what do I mean by leisurely activities and how does it pertain to reading? Well, the concept of “leisure” envisioned by say, Hannah Arendt, is a deliberate act of “contemplation.” So thus when we are robbed of time, robbed of time to reflect upon ourselves, robbed of time to read, then we are losing the time we can spend to “contemplate,” or to be inquisitive about the world around us. When men are robbed of their ability to be inquisitive, they are effectively blinded of their ability to see the faults of the established zeitgeist and are washed away with the times.

This is by no means a new phenomenon. Ray Bradbury had pointed out in his book “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953, that though technology shaves time to do chores, it also erodes peoples’ time to contemplate—for example, as dressing up for the day becomes easier, “the man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour.” (p.74).

“Fahrenheit 451,” one of the most well-known novels depicting a distopian society, tells of a chilling alternate history where firemen burn books. The story unfolds as a fireman proudly proclaims, “Monday burn Millay. Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes, then bury the ahes. That’s our official slogan.” (p.15)

As the story unfolds, the protagonist, a fireman by the name of Guy Montag, begins to have doubts about whether or not burning books will really increase society’s aggregate happiness, as he had been taught by his superiors. Montag is led to realize that books must have enormous significance when an old woman commits suicide upon learning that her books must be burnt. In a sudden bout of enlightened discourse, Montag proclaims, “I thought about the books. And for the first time I realized that a man was behind each one of the books. A man had to think them up. A man had to take a long time to put them down on paper […] we need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” (p.68-69).

Yet Montag was challenged by another character who reminds him that “the public itself stopped reading of its own accord […] in any event, you’re a fool. People are having fun.” (p.113) In other words, if the public didn’t care about grave issues, then wouldn’t it be better to let them become carefree of all societal woes?

Ray Bradbury was not the only author who imparts this question upon the reader. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author credited for creating the jazz age, has one of his characters point out in his most celebrated work “The Great Gatsby” that “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool […] everything’s terrible anyhow, everybody thinks so—the most advanced people.”

So then, the question comes down to whether or not the public ought to read books and become aware of societal woes, or remain ignorant?

Ignorance is bliss.
Or is it?

One thing that we can observe is that the cause for reading books is not a lost cause. As a matter of fact, many of Japan’s topmost business “elites” have read classic texts consciously aware of what the books’ significance. For example, Katsunobu Onogi, well-known in Japan as the former president of Long Term Credit Bank, was reputed to have read books voraciously. As Gillian Tett, former bureau chief in Japan for the Financial Times reveals in her book “Saving the Sun”—an account of Japan’s failure to modernize its financial institutions—that “In London, Onogi happily roamed around secondhand bookshops, devouring European and American works by Weber, the German political scientist, John Milton, the English author, and Charles Lamb, the English essayist who had written about the dangers of financial speculation and asset bubbles back in nineteenth-century London.”

So then books, through their ability to store the collective knowledge of mankind, have the ability to give us the wisdom to make better decisions.

Once again, in “Fahrenheit 451,” Montag is made aware of the significance of books when Faber, an academic-in-hiding tells him,“the books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talking to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.” (p.112)

Even the most seemingly infallible of us make mistakes. But we can lessen the severity of these mistakes and make better decisions and thus create a better system of informed decision-making handed down from one generation to the next if we decide to retain our collective knowledge through books—which are tangible relics of our experiences, and arguably our greatest treasure.


For Want of Silence

Saturday, August 14th, 2010

“E pur si muove,” Galileo muttered in 1632 as he was forced by the Catholic church to recant his theory that the earth moved around the sun. Galileo’s four words changed the way we fundamentally view the universe and justified the centuries of scientific inquiry that followed.

In the same century, a little Japanese monk who had carved out a name for himself for his poetry was looking at the island Sato, the stars, and the oceans. The monk was compelled to write, “turbulent the sea, stretching across to Sado, The Milky Way” in the haikai no renga form.

The famous line was written by Basho in 1689.

Be it Galileo or Basho, both have conveyed messages of enormous significance and beauty while maintaining the brevity of a simple sentence unassailed by verbiage. Basho saw the sea and wrote poems that have endured centuries. Today, Japan is still surrounded by the sea, but it is also surrounded by a sea of clutter.

Japan’s major news organs all tout the same headlines. People are bombarded left and right by messages. Noise pollution and light pollution, two evils brewed by urbanization, are the consequences of contemporary modernization.

Public transit has not been spared, either. The tranqulity of the trains are treacherously destroyed by voiced messages reminding commuters not to get their fingers stuck as the train doors close and not to forget their belongings on the train. Urbanites, especially those in Tokyo, do not enjoy the same serenity that clear-minded thinkers had enjoyed during eras of great cultural and artistic achievement.

The Information Age has birthed new words like “digital divide,” and “information literacy.” UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich coined words like “symbolic analyst” in reference to those employed in the tertiary sector that can swim through today’s sea of information and make some sense out of it.

Today’s world is brimming with information; keep the water flowing and we’ll all surely drown.


Jihad, McWorld, and Bureaucratic Officialdom

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

In the March 1992 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Barber, an American political theorist, published his work “Jihad vs. Mcworld.”  He claims, with great brevity, that in today’s world, the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld are the two primary forces vying for the hearts and minds of men.

In his opening paragraph he remarks: “Just beyond the horizon of current events lies two possible political futures – both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe – a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food – with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald’s, pressing nations into one commercially homogeneous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.”

Thus, Barber sees McWorld and Jihad pitted against each other as they exert their influence across the four corners of the world. McWorld, a gruesome patchwork of multinational corporations trumpeting blind, voracious consumerism, has birthed a resurgence of corporate symbolism and the decline in influence of traditional culture in our daily lives.

In contrast, Jihad is traditional culture turned avenging-angel-incognito, causing sporadic acts of violence as symbolic acts of resistance against McWorld’s strengthening clutches upon our daily lives. Barber does not, however, see Jihad as justified, but rather that it is little more than a movement by small groups of people of myriad variety trying to gather whatever vestiges of identity they can morsel.

Barber puts it most succinctly when he observes: “neither McWorld nor Jihad is remotely democratic in impulse. Neither needs democracy; neither promotes democracy.”

It would be stating the obvious to say that Japan, as a nation, has largely sold itself to the seductive luminosity of what Barber calls “McWorld.” One stroll to Shibuya’s notorious pedestrian intersection will dizzy the unsuspecting tourist with relentless bombardments of corporate symbolism.

Though Japan is recognized as a democratic country, in essence, vested interests, largely protected by bureaucratic red tape, holds the Japanese citizenry from garnering true political representation. Ever since the end of World War II, true political power has been firmly in the hands of bureaucrats, and despite a strong albeit short-lived campaign to wrest control from them by former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, bureaucrats are still calling the shots today.

If Japan’s bureaucrats were a well-intentioned bunch with noble ideals and true civil servants in the name of the word, then perhaps a spoonful of bureaucratic paternalism might be digestible to the general public. But such has too often not been the case. This is perhaps most perceptible in the number of excessive and unnecessary public works projects that have been proposed and carried out by bureaucrats and their construction companies (through which they make hefty sums of money) over the years.

Of course, there have always been public protest, no matter how feeble and ignored by the media the protests may have been. The efforts though, were mostly in vain, as Alex Kerr, a critic of contemporary Japan, notes in his book “Dogs and Demons” that “so weak is Japan’s democracy in the face of [bureaucratic] officialdom that in twenty-five out of thirty-three such cases, between 1995 and 1998, legislatures have refused to conduct referendums.”

In his book, Alex Kerr laments the damage that has been wrought to Japan’s environment. Kerr illustrates the ghastly reality of contemporary Japan in excrutiatingly vivid detail: “Japan has become arguably the world’s ugliest country. To readers who know Japan from tourist brochures that feature Kyoto’s temples and Mount Fuji, that may seem a surprising, even preposterous assertion. But those who live or travel here see the reality: the native forest cover has been clear-cut and replaced by the industrial cedar, rivers are dammed and the seashore lined with cement, hills have been leveled to provide gravel fill for bays and harbors, mountains are honeycombed with destructive and useless roads, and rural villages have been submerged in a sea of industrial waste.”

Much of this damage is irreversible, or reversible albeit with a very high cost. The public has been so detatched from policymaking through bureaucratic officialdom and so blinded from relevant matters due to total immersion into the labyrinth of McWorld’s objectified symbols that flowering of true democracy in Japan seems to be the wishful thinking of a fool.

The kind of democracy that Japan should strive to achieve, if it still has the capability to strive for democracy, is the kind of “Open Society” advanced by the late Karl Popper in his 1945 book “The Open Society and its Enemies.” Popper, disillusioned with top-down government after his fellow socialist friends were shot dead in the name of greater societal good, became a strong advocate of liberal democracy. According to Popper, it is the unpredictability nature of the future of society through any viable scientific means that necesitates a bottom-up approach to governmental decision-making, and thus there lies the latent need for true democratic participation by all respective citizens.

Whether or not Japan’s citizens will garner true political representation lies in the citizens’ ability to rally under the battlecry for true representation – which is possible only when they realize that they must represent themselves.


Amartya Sen and Sadako Ogata: Their Views on Japan

Sunday, August 1st, 2010

On July 22nd, Hitachi sponsored a forum where Amartya Sen (Harvard professor, recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics) and Sadako Ogata (President, Japan International Cooperation Agency) exchanged their views about Japan’s future in the coming century.

Sen, the first to talk at the podium, provided an in-depth analysis of the oft-pervasive “culture-based accounting of economic values” In other words, was Japanese culture – in particular its “samurai tradition” – the explanation for its explosive economic growth, as Eiko Ikegami had proposed?

Drawing upon the words of Max Weber (Sen alludes to the links that Weber saw between Protestantism and economic development in Weber’s book “The Protestant Ethic and the Development of Capitalism”) and Michio Morishima, Sen describes the notion of how the “Japanese ethos” and its emphasis on rule-based behavior values (which can be classified as somewhat Weberian) is one convincing explanation of Japan’s growth.

However, Sen is quick to note that the aforementioned thesis was quickly disproved by the rise of the NIES countries in the 20th century, and added that Confucianism cannot account for the “Asian Miracle” considering how Thailand is a Buddhist nation.

Sen concludes his observations regarding the culture-based assertion that the “explanation of economic dynamism [through cultural explanations has] clearly strong arbitrariness.”

Instead of looking at Japan’s culture as the key ingredient in its growth throughout the past half-century, Sen looks at developments during the Meiji Restoration. According to Sen, Japan’s renewed emphasis on global openness and education were key towards positioning itself as a future economic power to be reckoned with.

Sen added that Tadayoshi Kito put it most succinctly when Kito observed, “it only depends on education, or lack of education.”

By 1910, Japan was almost fully literate, and by 1913, Japan was publishing more books than Britain. A rise in literacy rate, Sen observes, is cardinal towards the “expansion of human capability.”

As such, Sen places great emphasis on Japan’s education-oriented approach to economic development, and notes, “widespread participation in the global economy would have been difficult if people could not read or write,” and that “there is much to learn still in Japanese educational expansion.”

In conclusion, Sen stresses the emphasis on human capability and public dialogue, and warned against the obstructive nature of “dialogic neglect.”

Sadako Ogata, whose speech followed Sen’s, was no less visionary and deeply rooted in political realism.

Asked what is meant by “human security,” Ogata first responded that “it started in the 1990′s when the question was, ‘what is needed for development?’” and then added, “it was this background that Kofi Annan saw the need for ‘freedom from fear and freedom from want.’”

Ogata, one of the most well-known figures in Japan for her continued diligence towards overseas aid and her work towards alleviating the woes of refugees, repeatedly emphasized the importance of education, such as when she said during her concluding remarks, “education will have a big role with human equality [...] people should become a bit more sensitive to inequalness, to insecurity,” and noted the role of JICA by adding, “my organization JICA [advances] inclusiveness [...] bring all the people who need more help into the equation – our slogan is inclusiveness.”

Sen was quick to contribute his final words towards stressing the importance of education as well. He proclaimed, “basic education is absolutely essential for living an intellectual life [...] it’s a huge value [...] literacy is a tool for political participation and economic participation.”

Two individuals who both command enormous respect, both Sen and Ogata realized not just the importance of education, but Japan’s success in embracing it.

Geopolitically, Japan is sandwiched between America and China, two polarities vying for the reins of global authority. But Japan’s importance as a role model in the world cannot be overlooked – it has shown itself to be a clear leader in economic growth through the “educational approach,” and still offers a sound method of growth for other like-minded countries to follow today.