Occasionally in the past, a Japanese newsman who saw me practising Judo at the Kodokan, or playing Shogi at the Shogi Association, would have a few words with me. In his article later, he would say something about a blue eyed foreigner skilful at Judo, or Shogi. He saw of course that I did not have blue eyes, but blue eyes were supposed to be the marks of a foreigner. He knew his readers would expect the foreigner to be blue-eyed.
There is no harm in this, because Japanese meet many foreigners now, and can see that in fact very few of us have blue eyes. (We do have hair on our bodies, though – a fact that Japanese newsmen are too polite to mention.)
But there is some danger in thinking that our minds can be typed in some way. Not all Englishmen are gentlemanly but stiff and cold; not all Frenchmen are irritable and witty; not all Germans are hardworking but humourless.
There are all sorts of minds behind the “blue eyes” and they are not all the same, any more than the eyes are all blue.
One way of explaining national character is to take some incident from history, and show that this nation will admire and understand it, whereas that nation will not admire it at all.
They generally say, “He was fantastically brave. But, in a way, he was a fool. He was a very good fighter, and at a crucial time in the battle his presence might ave been vital. But he threw himself away for nothing before the battle began.”
I tell them, “A Japanese would understand that man. Not every Japanese would be able to do something like that himself, but he would know why it was done. Tallifer’s juggling with the sword showed that his nerves were unaffected by the certainty of death; the steadiness of his voice and his beautiful singing showed that he was joyfully going to death. He wanted to inspire his own army by displaying a spirit beyond life and death.”
British people are generally not convinced. We think that bravery and sacrifice should be for some definite and clear purpose, not simply to display flamboyant heroism. I have found that many Chinese think the same. Perhaps they always have thought the same; I remember some sarcastic remarks by Mencius about fools who fight tigers singlehanded. But Poles and Indians, like Japanese, are tremendously impressed by this sort of courage.
There are many similar cases in Indian history.
Two young Hindus came to the Emperor Akbar and offered to serve him. “What sort of service can you do?” he asked. “We are heroes,” they replied. “Prove it,” said the Emperor, rather foolishly. They took out their daggers, and placed them with the point on one breast and the end of the hilt on the other. They caught each other’s shoulders, and pulled themselves together, so that they both died instantly. They had proved their heroism-but they were dead.
British people think, “What a waste!” That is what we think about Tallifer; he was brave, but he wasted his life. He was one of our ancestors, but we do not admire his kind of courage. We have much more respect for the courage of someone like Cobbett, who tried to prevent some of the bad side-effects of the industrial revolution, and was ridiculed, attacked, and thrown into prison for his views, but refused to change them. This steady endurance is not spectacular, but we believe it has more value than dramatic gestures. It is the courage to live, rather than the courage to die.
As I mentioned above, I believe many Chinese think like this also. We Westerners are always told that the greater part of Japanese culture was adopted from China, but my impression is that the Japanese changed it a good deal. Soon after I first came to Japan, in 1939, I heard from a Japanese scholar about O-Yo-Mei. He said that the spirit of O-Yo-Mei was very strong in the Japanese character. Even those who have hardly heard his name are unconsciously influenced by him, because his spirit is part of our way of thinking,” he said. “Well, what did he teach?” I asked, and he told me something about it, summing up by saying, “He taught that if a man’s heart is pure, there rises in his heart a sort of inspiration called Ryochi, which tells him what is right, and then he is willing to die for it.”
I said, “But in Japan you have changed it. You have made it the other way round: if a man is willing to die for something, which proves that his heart is pure, and so what he is doing must somehow be right.”
He looked rather surprised. After a pause he said slowly, “Perhaps there is something in what you say; it is a foreigner’s way of looking at it.”
How do these attitudes actually affect life? We do not ride out to battle on horseback any more, like Tallifer. What would be a modern example?
Some years ago I heard that two companies were proposing to erect two buildings on a hill in Tokyo. When I came back two years later, their buildings had not been started. I heard that the two companies were each determined that its own building should be the higher one; neither was willing to be the first to put in its final plans, because then the other company would modify its own plans to add an extra storey if necessary.
British people find this incredible. We should plan a building for our own needs, quite irrespective of what others might do. No one here compares the heights of buildings; hotels do not compete in height, because height has nothing to do with whether a hotel is good or not. When British people hear that new Japanese hotels take a long t ime to make any profit, because of the enormous capital investment necessary to out-build all previous hotels, we find that as wasteful and meaningless as Tallifer’s exploit.
On the other hand, these things do in fact produce a sort of enthusiasm among the Japanese who belong to the company. The sporting spirit, which makes British people go wild with excitement about favourite football team, has to some extent been canalized in Japan into enthusiasm for the company.
It is not merely that the Japanese identifies himself with his company, but the company identifies itself with him far more than in any other country that I know of. In other countries, a good company gives excellent treatment to its employees, but they themselves are responsible for their happiness. The company has no concern with that.
Sometime ago, a British newspaper reported, “In Japan, the president of a big company feels responsible not merely for the welfare but also for the happiness of its employees.” I can remember hearing some British and American businessmen saying that they could not believe it: “How could a president accept a responsibility like that? The company can only provide good salaries and good amenities, and as far as possible make the work interesting. But a neurotic man with a tangled emotional life will be unhappy even in the most favourable circumstances. The company president cannot concern himself with that.”
I tried an experiment. I asked Mr. Shigeo Horie, for a long time he Head of the Bank of Tokyo, “Have you felt responsible for the happiness of your men in the Bank?” I asked this question without any preparation or warning, but he replied immediately and forcefully, “Yes. Without any qualification, yes.”
I tried another president, in a field that I know, namely broadcasting. (Broadcasters, like musicians and writers, are creative people, and have many emotional ups and downs.)
Late Mr. Kiyoshi Hara, President of the Asahi Broadcasting Corporation, Osaka, made an interesting reply to my question whether he felt responsible for the happiness of his staff, “Yes. I don’t expect always to succeed in making them happy, but… yes, I feel responsible.”
I have noticed that Japanese company presidents try to provide their staff with a feeling that they are working not just for making the company a success, but also doing something for the public good. Konosuke Matsushita’s popular books stress that the company’s purpose is not merely to make profits, but more importantly, to provide the Japanese public with electrical appliances of the maximum excellence, at the cheapest price. Perhaps this policy is a contribution towards the happiness of the staff.
Many British companies pursue a moral and enlightened policy in regard to the public. For instance, the pollution levels in some of the biggest British cities are well below the statutorily allowed limits, because the big companies have voluntarily reduced them. But it is unusual for them to talk about it, except in a small paragraph in the annual report. Perhaps we have something to learn from the Japanese companies in this respect.
On the other hand, we are amazed to hear that sometimes the staff of a Japanese company has helped the company to conceal the pollution seriously affects their own homes near the factory. Their loyalty to their company takes precedence over public responsibility, over their own health, and even their own lives. Tall if er!
Loyalty is a virtue esteemed in Japan more than almost any other—so it seems to us. (Most of us Westerners do not know much about Japanese history, in which there are seemingly many more double-crossings and back-stabbing than in British history.) In British loyalty is esteemed, of course, but we think there are higher value than loyalty; for instance, we do not admire the loyalty of a criminal to his gang boss.
I have wondered why Japanese people admire a loyalty that they know to be mistaken. Perhaps it is the modification of the O-Yo-Mei doctrine that I mentioned before-they feel that a man who is absolutely loyal must be somehow, in some sense, in the right. When the Japanese left-wing students were occupying the Tokyo University buildings, I noticed that some top Japanese businessmen were following the news of the final stand in an apparently sympathetic spirit: “Still holding out-they haven’t given in!”
I asked one of t hese businessmen, “You seem to admire these students. Would you employ one of them in your company?”
He replied, “After a few years, yes. And I would probably give him a good job. He has courage and loyalty and character.”
“But what about his ideas and his judgement?” I asked, “and all the property he has destroyed? In Britain we should think him a criminal.”
“In a sense, he is,” he admitted. “But in fact those ideas that he has are not necessarily very deep. They will probably change. Very likely he joined this group because of someone whom he admired. After they have ceased to be students, they will be separated; then he will be very ready to give the same loyalty to his company.”
“But what about his judgement? In Britain we expect young people to be interested in communism for a bit. But after a year, anyone who is intelligent can see that a good deal of communism has been a cloak for the imperialist aspirations of the USSR And the communist ideas have been such a failure in practice; the people stream out of their socialist “heavens” into what they call our capitalist hells. They have to build elaborate frontier guard systems, and great walls, to stop their people escaping. A man who can be deceived by them has not got much judgement, has he?”
“In a big company his personal judgement will not matter much,” he told me. “Decisions are taken in groups, and his loyalty will carry him along with the group. His sincerity is the only important thing.”
As he said this, I thought inwardly how little fundamental attitudes change. I remembered something that I was told in 1939, about a Japanese who had been very active in promoting the Indian revolutionary movement. An elderly friend of mine, who knew him slightly, once asked him how he had become interested in revolution in India. The reply was very interesting, and I do not t hink it could have come from anyone but a Japanese.
This man had been walking through Tokyo one afternoon with nothing special to do, and he passed a little hall where a lecture was advertised, by an Indian. He saw that it was about to begin. The name of the speaker was given, but not the subject. The Japanese decided to go in to hear what it was about, but found that he was the only man in the audience. The Indian speaker came on to the stage, and looked round the hall. Seeing only one listener, he addressed himself to him, with burning sincerity and great eloquence. But he was speaking in English, to a Japanese who as it happened knew no Biglish, and there was no interpreter. After the speech the Indian came up to talk to him, but of course they could not understand each other at all.
The Indian turned away disappointed, and the Japanese went home and thought it over. He had been overwhelmed by the tremendous sincerity of that Indian, who had shown the same blazing enthusiasm as if he had been talking to thousands. The Japanese resolved, “I will find out what it was that he was talking about, and then devote my life to it.” And he did so.
Loyalty as a supreme value was demonstrated by the Japanese soldiers isolated on islands in the Pacific, who went on regarding themselves as fighting the war even though they knew that it was over. I have oft en been asked about the psychology of these Japanese soldiers, by Western people. I tell them the story of the dog Hachiko and his statue at Shibuya station. The Hchiko story is not unique; we have had some in Britain. Near an Edinburgh church there is a little statue to one such dog. But only the Japanese would make a big one and install it in front of one of the main stations.
What effect does the respect for sincerity and devotion have in an area like science, where cold intellectual analysis is supposed to be supreme? If it really is a national characteristic, it must have some effect on Japanese science.
I am not a scientist, but I follow some of the developments as explained for laymen in a couple of science magazines, and I know a few leading scientists in various fields. One thing that I have noticed is, that Western scientists in general are rather suspicious of enthusiasts. Our scientists believe that when a man has worked long and hard at some theory, he becomes emotionally identified with it. He may become so determined to prove it is true, which he distorts the evidence. So we believe that the claims of an enthusiast must be examined by some other scientist who has no emotional investment in the theory. We believe that the cold clear judgement of the latter will be the right one, however much the enthusiast may protest against it.
I have found, however, that Japanese scientists t end to be much more open-minded, and much more sympathetic towards the enthusiast. They think that the man who has spent years studying and working on the subject is probably right in his ideas. How can the judge, merely reading the results and thinking about them for a few hours, understand them as well as the man who actually experimented and obtained them?
And furthermore (says the Japanese argument) if the supposedly independent scientist, the judge, has himself done work in this field, but not made this discovery, then it is possible that he is not such a good scientist as the enthusiast. He might then even try to suppress work that will upset his own reputation.
I can remember mentioning this last point to a Western scientist of considerable standing; he fell silent, and soon changed the subject. I wondered whether perhaps it had touched something in his own career of which he was ashamed.
I read somewhere in one of the books by Konosuke Matsushita that when his experts have studied a problem and come to him with the figures of their estimates, he says to them, “Could you stake your lives on these figures?”
Now naturally estimates are always to some extent uncertain. But he says, “If they hesitate, I know they have not been into the question thoroughly. And I tell them to go back and study it again, and not to come until they have figures on which they could stake their very lives.” As I read this, I thought, Tallifer!
© Trevor Leggett