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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Comparative Morality and The Horrible Helper

A recent video showing the extent to which Japanese children return wallets moved me to tears.

In the USA when a child found some money (admittedly not inside a wallet) he was lauded for giving it to someone else.

Handing the money into lost property did not seem to cross anyone's mind in the USA.

Western commentators since the Edo period have marvelled at Japanese honesty with regard to personal possessions and the absence of theft. They also marvelled at the sexual mores (nakedness and the prevalence of prostitution), and speech crime (e.g. flattery, deceit, and creative accounting). That said I believe the Japanese to be the most moral nation on earth.

"The Lost Letter Technique" made famous by Milligram et. al. (1965) found that 70% of personally address letters but only 25 of Nazi/Communist party addressed "lost letters" were returned. Earlier research by Merritt and Fowler (1948: see Liggett, Blair, & Kennison, 2010) found that 85% of letters, but only 54% of letters presumed to contain money were returned.

And yes, there is comparative Lost Letter Technique research. West (2003) dropped phones and wallets containing cash in Tokyo and New York and the results were T 95% vs NY 77% for phones and T 85% vs NY30% for cash. That makes Tokyoites about three times more honest when it comes to returning wallets. Near Tokyo rates of return were obtained outside a Japanese supermarket in New York, so this is not something geographical. The Japanese are extremely honest when it comes to personal property.

In Japan stealing is almost absent, but creative accounting and linguistic obfuscation is reported to be prevalent. In the historical record numerous commentators report the low level of stealing (Bird, 1880; Cocks & Thompson, 2010; Coleridge, 1872; Golovnin, Rīkord, & Shishkov, 1824) and the strict way in which it is dealt with. At the same time, visitors have noted that linguistic misdemeanour's such as flattery, deceit, and "the squeeze" (taking a kickback of up to 100% to 200% of cost: see Bird 1880).

I claim, as always, that the amazing way in which the Japanese do not steal things but are at the same time able to "squeeze" double or triple the expenses from their employer relates to the nature of the Other (and horror) in Japanese culture.

Westerners have a horrible other that listens. This encourages us to be fairly honest, if very self-serving, in our self-narrative. Our narratives are self-enhancing but are constrained by the need for them to be palatable to another imagined human being. On the other hand, we feel no one is watching, so how we look, however, is far less fraught, ego-involved. We can get very fat, or even justify theft as redistribution of wealth (Robin Hood), since "property is [or can be argued, narrated to be] theft." We are good at promises and institutions of linguistic trust (such as insurance, and financial products) since we want to be heard to be, narrated to be, good.

The Japanese, on the other hand, have an Other (that is almost as horrifying) that looks, concealed not in the head but amongst the crowd. This encourages them to be fairly upstanding, if very self-serving, in their posture (sekentei). Their self-imaginings are self-enhancing but are constrained by the need for them to be palatable to another imagined human being. So the Japanese abhor crimes and misdemeanour's that can be seen, such as theft and physical violence. When it comes to linguistic malfeasance such as "the squeeze" or kick-back however, this can be seen as just a way of doing business involving no visual injury. The Japanese are good at creating things (monozukiri) since they want to be seen, imagined to be, good.

This modal -- language vs vision -- difference highlights one aspect of the origin of the myths of individualism and collectivism. It is not in fact the case that the Japanese are any more or less individualistic or collectivist, nor Westerners likewise. Both Japanese and Westerners care to an extent about real others and care more about their horrible intra psychic familiars, but in each case the horror of the familiar must be hidden.

It is only because our familiars, our imaginary friends, are horrible that they can remain hidden and continue to be familiar. Identity is a contradiction that depends upon horror, or sin, on a split that must be felt to be, but not be cognised as being. Identity or self is impossible (nothing can see or say itself) but the dream of its possibility is maintained by desire for, and abhorrence -- and resultant obfuscation -- of the duality required.

In the Western case the necessary, horrible imaginary friend is hidden *inside* the person as an interlocutor that, as inside the person, can only therefore be denied by being claimed to be part of, and one with the self. Eve, that gross "knowing" helper we have, is hidden by virtue of being thought of as just another me (see Levinas vs Derrida and "altrui"). She disappears because, as Adam Smith says, we are just splitting ourselves into two of ourselves. If there is just me and me, then there appears to be nothing disgusting going on. Westerners think, "I think to myself."

But if on the other hand the Other is external, as is required by any visual (self) cognition, there is little way of claiming that the Other is me. Spatial dualism, or rather distance, eye and surface, as required by visual cognition, becomes apparent, and undeniable. So the Japanese claim that all they are doing is being collectivist. The Japanese horrible Other is just another person, one of many other people. The Japanese hide the horror, their familiar, their imaginary friend, in the crowd.

Individualism and collectivism are myths by which means we hide Eve/Amaterasu, a part of our souls, our "helpmeets"or "paraclete" (John's term for Jesus). 

In a similar way to paradox of Japanese morality in which Japanese will not steal your wallet even if you leave it on a table at a restaurant and walk out, but may (or did) charge a kickback doubling or tripling the price, the British will be utterly polite, honest and even humorous as they sell you narcotics and destroy your country, as we did to China for 150 years. Some estimate that the enforced import of opium into China resulted in the deaths of 100 million Chinese, but at least one British academic makes jokes about it .

Paraphrasing Isaiah, those that worship the logos have a tendency to smear over their eyes so that they cannot see, and those that worship idols have a tendency to smear over their hearts so they cannot comprehend.

Bibliography (all available online)
Bird, I. L. (1880). Unbeaten Tracks in Japan: An Account of Travels in the Interior Including Visits to the Aborigines of Yezo and the Shrines of Nikkô and Isé. J. Murray.
Cocks, R., & Thompson, E. M. (2010). Diary of Richard Cocks, Cape-Merchant in the English Factory in Japan, 1615–1622: With Correspondence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coleridge, H. J. (1872). The life and letters of St. Francis Xavier : in two volumes. Asian Educational Services.
Golovnin, V. M., Rīkord, P. Ī., & Shishkov, A. S. (1824). Memoirs of a Captivity in Japan, During the Years 1811, 1812, and 1813: With Observations on the Country and the People. H. Colburn and Company.
Liggett, L., Blair, C., & Kennison, S. (2010). Measuring gender differences in attitudes using the lost-letter technique. Journal of Scientific Psychology, 16–24. Retrieved from http://www.psyencelab.com/images/Measuring_Gender_Differences_in_Attitudes_Using_the_Lost-Letter_Technique.pdf
Milgram, S., Mann, L., & Harter, S. (n.d.). The lost-letter technique: A tool of social research. Retrieved from http://www.communicationcache.com/uploads/1/0/8/8/10887248/the_lost-letter_technique-_a_tool_of_social_research.pdf
West, M. D. (2003). Losers: recovering lost property in Japan and the United States. Law & Society Review, 37(2), 369–424. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1540-5893.3702007/full

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No one here considers $20 in a parking lot lost property because there's no good way to find the owner. I would never go back to the store in search of my lost dollars or coins (because the logical conclusion is to turn in pennies as well, if you really expect people to turn cash over to the lost and found) - how would I ever prove they belonged to me anyway? Cash is anonymous. Of course that kid kept the $20. Everyone would keep the $20 unless they saw it actually slip from someone's fingers, at which point you could measure the morality of the person who picks up the money. Do they call out to the person who dropped it? Or do they keep it?
Thank you very much for your comment.

I confess (don't tell anyone!) that I very much agree with your sentiment, but then I am a Westerner too. I might also think things along the lines of "anyone who drops their cash obviously does not value it greatly," or "no one returns cash, so cash losses even themselves out" or "the person will never attempt to claim it anyway," etc. Reason is very flexible except when it comes to justifying unreasonable misdemeanours, specifically dishonesty (lying in all its forms). Justifying lying is a bit like denying the cogito.

The Japanese on the other hand are made of something else. As mentioned in West
in the year 2000 "Japanese police received cash totaling ¥13.1 billion ($131 million) in voluntary finds from ordinary citizens" of which 71% was reclaimed. One has to say how much money there was, where and when one dropped it, whether it was folded, etc. One is encouraged to give 10% to the finder and most people do although some finders waive their access to the finders fee. It is an amazing thing to go to a police station and say "I lost some money in the car park" and find that someone has handed it in. But that is Japan for you.

At the same time, when it comes to lies, they more likely to be thought of as "white" or "lies are also expedient" as the Japanese saying goes (uso mo houben) and kickbacks, cartels, amakudari, and many other language crimes, or expediency may be more prevalent. This is because, I believe, in Japan no one is listening.

That is not to say that the Japanese are inveterate liars. Far from it. But despite having many times less theft and violent crime, Japan looses to Britain in rankings of corruption
To be honest, I think that corruption may be worse that it is being reported since a little bit of oil on the squeaky wheel may not be seen as corruption. It is notable that for instance Japan is not a strong enforcer of anti-corruption measures.

There is only a weak (although positive) relationship between the level of OECD enforcement and BPI (r value 0.291) and CPI values (r value 0.386). In other words, countries that are perceived as less corrupt tend to enforce foreign anti-bribery laws a little bit more–but not a lot more. This trend is not consistent, though: while only relatively non-corrupt countries are strong enforcers, a number of non-corrupt countries are also non-enforcers. These countries (including the Netherlands, Japan, and Belgium) are probably the low-hanging fruit for those who are attempting to improve the coverage of the OECD Convention.

And books like "The Enigma of Japanese Power"
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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.