The Japanese art of non-debating, by Asst. Prof. Hiroshi Yamaguchi

Hiroshi Yamaguchi is an Associate Professor of Global Media Studies at Komazawa University. I am translating his rant-ish essay below because it is such an illustrative look at how the media tends to move debate forward in this country. He applies this general frame work to some older scandals such as the earthquake safety scandal of 2005 and the Livedoor scandal of 2006, but you can see this process playing itself out anytime you turn on one of those panel debate shows.

Responsibility does not add up to 100% — reposted

I feel a little bad about repeating the same ideas, but often in a different context the same words might have a different meaning. So anyway, I am going to repost what I wrote on my blog around two years ago. Please understand that I am not just being lazy. This passage can also be found in my book currently in stores Risk’s True Form (リスクの正体) but I think the same things could be applied to the recent so-called “self-responsibility” debate.
* I don’t think responsibility adds up to 100%
Problems develop one after the other in our society, but I feel like the flow of debate over those problems is always similar. I have always wondered why this is so, and I have concluded that the common thought process is something like this:

Views on “responsibility” (責任 sekinin; the same word is used in Japanese to mean “liability”)
The common flow of debate is as follows. First, a problem occurs. Let’s assume A causes damage to B. Almost simultaneously, an argument springs up over “responsibility.” In fact, many many types of responsibility:

  • – A is wrong. A has responsibility.
  • – No, in fact there is a fixer C pulling the strings behind A.
  • – The ministry of X regulates this issue. The ministry has responsibility as the regulator.
  • – This problem was brought upon us by the Koizumi administration’s policies.
  • – A has connections with a senior official in the Y Party. There’s got to be something to that.
  • – The mass media’s reporting of this problem has been terrible.
  • – Isn’t it actually B’s own responsibility?
  • – This is a conspiracy by the Americans!
  • – It was better in the past, but the youth these days are no good!
  • – It’s the education system’s fault. Schools these days don’t teach anything worthwhile.
  • – A made too much money. We should take this opportunity humble him.
  • – There are people in this world who have it tougher than this. It makes no sense to ignore them just to help B.

There may be more, but I think that’s about right. It’s actually quite a substantial list. It is strange that no matter what happens, there are always those who blame the prime minister or the United States (there are some who even try to blame corporate accounting fraud on the prime minister, but I wonder if they are really serious), but in many cases this is no laughing matter. What comes next is a battle of criticism falling somewhere along this range of opinions:

  • – I cannot believe people would say it’s B’s own responsibility.
  • – It is too simplistic to only criticize A. We have to go after C who is pulling the strings.
  • – A has no capacity to pay damages. The government should do something.
  • – I don’t think it makes sense to blame everything on bureaucrats and the government.
  • – Don’t bring up generational conflict in this case!
  • – The idea of a fixer behind the scenes is hogwash.
  • – Don’t turn this into a political fight.

Then, this sort of debate gets bogged down and leads to a stalemate situation, people lose interest and eventually forget about it. Then, a similar problem occurs. I have been wonder just why it’s always, always like this.
Essentially, the root cause it that people are confused about the word “responsibility.”

There are several types of responsibility. People often talk of the difference between the “responsibility to compensate” and “the responsibility to explain,” but there are others, such as “the responsibility to adopt countermeasures” and “the responsiblity to seek the truth” and even something like “the responsibility to quietly accept the results.” If these are mixed up, then then discussions will never reach a conclusion. When debating, often what you emphasize will differ from what others emphasize, but if all the different kinds of responsibility are mixed up, it becomes impossible to understand the other side’s way of thinking. You’ll react, “Why would you say such a thing? That’s not what’s important!” But really, both sides’ arguments are important.

So, if the argument is mixed up, everything will lead to the conclusion that “the person responsible should compensate for damages.” In other words, the point of view becomes such that responsibility always adds up to 100%, and the argument is over how to divide that up. [In reality,] the responsibility to explain does not always lead to liability to compenate for damages, and in many cases those responsible for adopting countermeasures are different from those who are liable to pay compensation. But if someone argues that C is in the wrong, to the people arguing that A is in the wrong it will seem like that person is trying to lessen A’s responsibility. That is these intense debates develop. Or at least that’s how I see it.

Responsibility is not the sort of thing that adds up to 100%. Of course, the responsibility to compensate for damages does add up to 100%, so there is a specific amount of damages and the argument is over how to determine who is responsible for what portion. That is fine. However, when it comes to other types of responsibility, such as the responsibility to explain or the responsibility to seek the truth, or the responsibility for creating the foundation that caused the ensuing situation, or the responsibility for not helping the victims even when you could have helped, or any other kind of responsibility, shouldn’t all the responsible persons each take 100% responsibility? We should ask not “who has responsibility” but rather “what is your (or my) responsibility in this case?”

There is an argument over “the general penitence of the 100 million” (NB. 一億総ざんげ ichioku souzange, the argument that the Japanese public bears collective responsibility for the Japanese aggression/destruction in WW2), and some counter that this thinking minimizes the responsibility of the leadership. I cannot say since I do not know the circumstances of the time, but I do not think this is a very fruitful argument. Regardless of the leadership’s responsibility, I think [the “penitence” position] was meant to say that “the 100 million” aka the Japanese people all should be aware of their own responsibility. In light of the recent earthquake safety fraud scandal (added Jan. 22, 2006: In fact, the case of Livedoor’s violations of securities laws could apply here), separate from the issue of who should pay for the costs, shouldn’t we debate who should have done what and what should be done in the future? Of course, this is an issue of what “you yourself” should do. Such debate would do nothing to lessen the compensation liabilities of the businesses that committed the fraud, nor would it free the government from its responsibilities to explain and adopt countermeasures. Added up, I am sure it would come to 200 or even 300%.

Allow me to supplement the above for the current context. Regarding issues such as the firing of temporary workers, economic disparity, and the “lost generation” (NB. young people who came of age during the “lost decade” of the 1990s), I am not saying that there are never any cases where the employees in question should be held responsible at least a little. Similarly, I am not saying that there are never any cases in which the corporations, the government or the generations that grew up before the lost decade should be held responsible at least a little. Reality is much more vague, complicated, and diverse than that. This should be obvious if you think about it rationally.

Most of the people involved in this debate are probably fully aware of this. That must be why they are in fact arguing that someone has more responsibility than someone else, under the title “who has responsibility?” There are times when that is fruitful. Such a determination is required when considering what countermeasures to take.

However, looking at the overal picture, I don’t think we have reached that stage yet. At the very least, society at large is most likely looking at these debates in terms of a conflict between Faction A and Faction B, in other words the winner will be either “the people 100% on Faction A’s side” or “the people 100% on Faction B’s side.” In fact, what is said between those two factions is more like criticism than debate, and this is in fact going on in the various media outlets. Any work they are doing to find common ground is not being sufficiently communicated.

We are called upon not to determine “who” should act but “what should be done.” The bigger the issue, the fewer people there are who can dismiss it as having nothing to do with them. John F. Kennedy once famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I think this quote applies in this context, but at the same time and in the same way, we should think not about making demands of the temporary employees who were fired or the members of the lost generation, but rather what we can do for them.

Simultaneously, we have to think about what things got to be the way they are. There may be some disreputable temporary staffing agencies. There might be some common practices in the temporary staffing industry that should be reformed. But just because that’s so, arguments that fundamentally reject the temporary staffing business go too far. This business was born out of a societal need, and plays a major role in our society. This is the exact converse of the notion that fired temp workers and the lost generation cannot totally be held personally accountable for their circumstances. If you want to change the present, you must turn your eyes to the factors that led to the present situation.

I repeat: responsibility does not add up to 100%. Quite the contrary, each of us has 100% responsibility for ourselves. To acknowledge this is to take the first step toward escaping the endlessly repeating zero-sum game of asking “who is in the wrong?”

One thought on “The Japanese art of non-debating, by Asst. Prof. Hiroshi Yamaguchi”

  1. Fascinating: very perceptive stuff. It’s also pretty applicable to the US debate: some of the early reporting on the Peanut Butter Salmonella issue, for example, noted which party the company had been donating more money to….

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