Friday, 7 March 2008
Takeshi Yoro, intellectual
Dr. Takeshi Yoro is a Professor Emeritus at Tokyo University, a famous Japanese philosopher, and the author of the best-selling book, “Baka no Kabe” (The Wall of Fools). What follows is not an interview, but has some of the characteristics of one. In late 2006, I contacted Dr. Yoro and asked him to write an article explaining his philosophy for publication in the spring edition of a magazine I was editing at the time. Although we corresponded in English, the final piece was written in Japanese and then translated into English.
Three of my "Kabe" (Wall) series books have been published over a two-year period in the paperback Shinsho format. The first, "Baka no Kabe" (The Wall of Fools), has sold over 4 million copies, and the three books combined have sold about 5 million copies.
I did not write the text. Mr. Yuji Goto of the Shinchosha Publishing Co. transcribed my words. I wrote about the concept underlying the book in another book called "Yuinoron" published more than 10 years ago, but it was too difficult for the public and it did not sell as well as expected though total sales were probably over 300,000 copies. The concept is quite simple. What humans think and do is merely the performance of brains that weigh only 1,350 grams on average. That is basically a universal explanation of human beings across all cultures, and that's all.
Many people ask me why “Baka no Kabe” has been selling so well. All I can say is ask the people who bought the book. I didn't think it would sell. I was 65 when I finished the book and I didn't have much time ahead of me. As far as I’ve heard, readers' responses are quite simple. People say the book cheers them up and helps them to stop fighting with family members. Intellectuals say the book doesn't say anything special and is simply common sense. Then why does it sell so well I ask?
What did I say in the book? I talked about fundamental things, so I can come up with many specific examples. My background is in anatomy so I have been interested in the brain. Yet I am not a Nobel Prize scholar like Francis Crick, Gerald M. Edelman, or Susumu Tonegawa. I have written only one paper about the brain. What I thought was that most people do not realize that society is a product of human consciousness, and all I did was to point that out using specific examples.
The first example in “Baka no Kabe” was a BBC documentary about a young British couple from the time they decided to start a family until a child was born. I showed the program to students at Kitasato University and asked them to write down comments. The results were polarized. Male students wrote that the documentary wasn't helpful and that it contained nothing that they didn’t already know. Meanwhile, female students said it was interesting and they got a lot out of it. They are all human beings but there is a perceptual 'wall' between them. Why are people talking about equality of the sexes when there are such huge differences?
It is easy to explain this symptom when looking at the brain. This is an oversimplification, but I use the linear equation of y=ax as an explanation. In this case, input into the brain is x and output from the brain is y. When entering, information is delivered to the brain as a sensation, and when going out, it leaves the brain as action. The key in this formula is 'a.' Even if the input is the same, the response is different depending on the value of 'a.' The most obvious result is when 'a' is 0, which represents a situation in which there is input that doesn't result in any output. This would be the case regarding the male students in the example above. They are not interested in childbirth. I define such a situation as being “unreal for the person.
The ‘a’ adds weight to the information system, and to use an ordinary expression is equivalent to likes and dislikes. People who tend to simplify things would say that a computer doesn’t have feelings. That is not correct. If weight is selectively added to information, a computer would act as if it has feelings. If a computer prints only text containing the word “war” in a small font, or doesn't print such text at all, that can be recognized as meaning that it dislikes wars. Information tools without any weight become Buridan's Ass.
If a=0, even if there is input, there is no output from the person. I have loved insects since my childhood, but most people have no interest in them. When I find insects, I stop and see what kind of bugs they are. Most people simply walk past them. When I see the input “insects” my actions change, but most people’s do not. So insects are reality for me, but not for most people. Reality differs depending on the person.
In the Western world, reality refers to objective actuality, because there is only one “person” who can see it. That is the God of the world’s three major religions and he ensures the only objective reality. There is no such god in Japan, but instead there are multitudinous numbers of gods. The Japanese sense of reality is clearly illustrated in the movie “Rashomon” directed by Akira Kurosawa. Each of the three main players describes the same incident differently. Such differences between monotheistic faiths and polytheism in fact come from our brains.
Just as I did above, I used many specific examples to explain basic brain functions in the “Baka no Kabe” series. The fact that they were widely accepted indicates that modern Japanese are uncertain about what to adopt when thinking about things in general. The traditional Japanese approach doesn’t work any more, yet Western or American styles of thinking are somewhat foreign and hard to get used to. Western thinking seems to simply destroy the advantages of Japanese society. So how should we think? I gave the answer at the beginning––what people do is merely the result of consciousness that arises from a 1,350 gram brain.
Actually this is not my original finding, but a classical concept in Japan. You will understand it if you learn about Buddhist scriptures a little. Buddhism is in fact really old brain science. What I did was to put the clothes of modern science on traditional Japanese ideas to explain them. For example, the Heart Sutra is the scripture most widely known in Japan. The character “mu” (nothing) accounts for 10% of the slightly more than 200 characters in this sutra. When asking Japanese if they believe in any religion, 70% of people answer they believe in nothing. In fact, this “nothing” is the same one found in the Buddhist concept, but people who answer this simply don’t realize that. This is because in the Western world the concept is “only that which people are conscious of,” but in the traditional Japanese sense, the concept is “only that which people acquire.” “To acquire” means that something becomes your own at an unconscious level, so it is natural for Japanese “not to be able to explain their thoughts,” because explanation is not necessary if it is acquired. It is for this reason that Zen denies speech.
People may say that I have explained things. What I did was I explained traditional Japanese concepts in a Western style, so to speak. Otherwise my book wouldn’t have sold among modern Japanese. However, I am not a Western person. More accurately, I used what Japanese people think is Western style to explain traditional Japanese concepts in a unique way. That means that Japan has become westernised. I had to go to this trouble because of Commodore Perry's arrival in Japan. When Sir Rutherford Alcock, the first British ambassador to Japan, saw Japanese people enjoying watching the foreigners they saw for the first time, he wrote, “I sometimes doubt whether the opening of Japan to foreign influence will promote the general happiness of this people.”
Do you think about Newtonian mechanics when walking? If you try to think of such things while walking you would end up falling. Yet you cannot develop a bipedal robot without deeply considering them. Even without understanding the dynamics at all, humans can walk effortlessly compared to robots. So I have to say that humans “understand” Newtonian mechanics in a different sense, and this is a traditional Japanese concept. I hope you understand this explanation. It also means that as long as you can walk unconsciously, you don't have to understand Newtonian mechanics. At least my Scottish Fold cat would say so.
There is another reason why my books have been successful, and that is Mr. Goto's dedication. When speaking about complicated concepts, if you can talk to an intelligent, skilful writer, that person will write text in an understandable manner. If only I understand something, that information is contained in only one brain, but if Mr. Goto writes what I say, the information goes through two brains, and generality and universality increase accordingly. I don't believe in originality. I worked at a mental hospital for a year as a doctor. Patients I saw during that time were extremely original because they talked about stories that only they could understand. In contrast, true originality is something very universal. If universality is too strong, ordinary people won’t understand it, because ordinary people are strongly restricted by the particulars of the time, the particular culture, and the circumstances surrounding them. You can understand Albert Einstein’s first paper if you read it now though it was rejected by physicists at the time. Many scientists today would say that it is not even anything special, far less creative. I believe that what’s in my books will eventually be considered as being “matter of couse.