Japanese-US education and some other points

Mon, 18 Apr 1994 10:42:00 -0600

Sitting next to my computer is a copy of `The Impoverished Spirit in
Contemporary Japan: Selected Essays of Honda Katsuichi' edited by
John Lie and just published by Monthly Review Press. Its 223 pages,
rather large type can be read in its entirety in a few stimulating
hours. Of course it's not necessary, even unadvisable to begin it, as I
did at around 12:30 at night, finishing it some three hours later,
making today something between a challenge and an ordeal to negotiate.
Still `The Impoverished Spirit' is worth the effort, not just because of
the valuable insights Katsuichi gives on the problems of Japanese primary
and secondary education, being discussed on this list, but due to the deeper
picture of the spiritual and cultural crisis Katsuichi paints of post-war
Japanese culture. I've been thinking about all this recently, especially
since TR Reid, the Washington Post's Tokyo correspondent. Reid, often
quoted on National Public Radio, came to Denver recently. In an effort
to dampen some of the Japan-bashing so fashionable in our post-Cold War
world, he gave one of the betteer cross-cultural talks that I have heard
in years comparing US and Japanese culture. Katsuichi's book takes the
subject that much further.

The introduction describes Katsuichi as something of an IF Stone (liberal-
left US political gadfly of the 1940s-1960s who, when pushed out of
professional US journalism for his political views during the
McCarthy period, founded his own newsletter - the IF STONE Weekly; in
the spirit of truly independent journalism he also often irritated
the US left for his uncompromising critiques of human rights abuses
in the former USSR). Kasuichi seems cut out of a similar mold - that
kind of tough progressive integrity - as rare in US as in Japanese
journalism that goes after injustice systematically, calmly without
need for heavy doses of political adjectives and gets to the heart of
Japan's contemporary cultural conflicts.

The result is an insight into Japanese culture rather unusual for
American (US-Canadian) readers to obtain. It made me appreciate how
little I know about Japanese culture - you know it is more than a
little disturbing to think Americans still have to fall back on
Ruth Benedict to get present-day insights on Japanese culture. What a
paucity of Japanese writings have been published in English! This
book breaks through that wall of silence

Kasuichi challenges the direction of Japan's corporate culture, looks at
the environmental and human costs, exposing Japanese racism towards the
Ainu, Koreans and also American Black students living and studying in Japan.
His critique of Japanese education essentially pivots around the
over-emphasis on memorization combined with a decided
paucity of emphasis on critical thinking skills - several people
on the list referred to this - resulting in a `tadpole' mentally as he
describes it. The sections of the book which ring out with the
most courage, are those short, pithy little essays in the book's beginning
which point to the collective cultural amnesia and downright hypocrisy of
Japan trying to reduce the memory of World War II to the Hiroshima
and Nagasaki tragedies while avoiding the legacy of war crimes Japan
committed against its neighbors from the rape of Nanking (1937), to
the overall war crimes the Japanese committed against China, Korea, and
the Philippines.

As one might expect, such honesty opens up torrents of blind hatred
from those many Japanese historical revisionists trying to
remold Japan's war record. Indeed, for whatever shortcomings continue
to exist in Germany's attempt to deal with its Nazi legacy, the Germans
- both East and West before reunification - have been far more forth-
coming in examining their sordid past than have been the Japanese. In
fact now nearly 50 years after the end of the war, such a re-examination
has hardly even begun. In this sense, Katsuichi is something of a cultural
pioneer. By the way, although somewhere out there left of center, he
takes on the Japanese Peace Movement (whose main forces are the Japanese
Socialist and Communist Parties) as well as the government for having
ritualized the Hiroshima and Nagasaki tragedies without addressing the
deeper question of Japan's role in the war. Much easier, obviously, for
Japanese to speak of Hiroshima than Nanking.

Rob Prince/Denver