Japanese Critical Thinking

In his article entitled, “Critical Thinking in Japanese L2 Writing: Rethinking Tired Constructs,” Paul Stapleton discusses what he perceives as a new movement in Japan towards a more Western way of critical thinking. Although the speculative conclusions he draws from his research may hold some truths, what drew my attention was his process of investigation that a priori implies the conclusions, allowing himself in effect to pat himself on the back for the results he achieved.

Although I found his article interesting, I could not help noticing the Western screen through which Stapleton views Japanese culture. He asked 70 Japanese college students to fill out a nine-item questionnaire in which answers were scored in a scale of 1 (agree) to 5 (disagree). Although he took careful measures to avoid biases, they are for the most part cosmetic and irrelevant in comparison to more fundamental biases of his entire approach.

Each question in his questionnaire is highly abstract and is devoid of any specific context, and it delimits an aspect of a thought in order to seek its essence, which is a typical Western move. Those who are familiar with philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida would see that such a strategy would create more problems than it would solve. Wittgenstein devoted most of his life to untangling the philosophical confusions that the West had created for itself. His method was to put our thoughts back in to spatiotemporal contexts. Derrida’s strategy for the same problem was to use the Western deductive thinking on itself to prove its untenable position. Applying some of their techniques, I will analyze Stapleton’s questionnaire.

“When I write a report, it is important to state my opinion clearly, even if the topic is controversial.”

By Western standards, traditional Japanese rhetorical styles do not come across “clearly”. (See these brief descriptions of Japanese rhetorical styles.) They often shy away from stating their conclusions clearly, leaving the readers to draw their own. I do agree that their desire to maintain harmony, not to rock the boat, partially motivates them to employ these styles, but more importantly, it is necessitated by their fundamental belief in the multiplicity of truth. Any logical arguments that leave no room for multiple interpretations are often called “Herikutsu” which means something to the effect of “twisted logic” or “convenient logic,” implying that they are naive. (As I grew up in Japan, I had always hated this word since the adults would use it against me repeatedly to dismiss my logical arguments. Now that I am older, I have a better appreciation of this word.)

In the West, what constitutes a good “report” is clearly defined, and not many would argue. In Japan, this assumption cannot be made. An Eastern equivalent of this question would be something like this:

“When I write a report, it is important that I do not rely solely on logic to deduce a simplistic answer.”

If this question were to be asked in a Japanese writing class, I would imagine that more students would tend to agree. In the original question, the adverb, “clearly” is the key term. Disagreement would imply “unclearly” which is an explicitly negative term. In my Eastern version, the adjective, “simplistic” is the determining term. Since the statement negates this implicitly negative term, it invites more agreements.

Being a people of interdependent society, Japanese developed skills for assessing appropriateness of situations and relations. When a question is devoid of any real life context, it loses its meaning for most Japanese. Westerners typically seek an unchanging essence in every delimited object. Easterners tend to expect constant change in everything. If you ask an Easterner such a clearly Western question, he would naturally think like a Westerner in order to be relevant to the question and to the circumstance, especially if it is given in an English writing class, as this one was. Being relevant and appropriate is one of their favorite preoccupations even if it means being logically inconsistent.

In order for Japanese to see any real meanings in the questions, they must be put into more specific contexts than “When writing a report.” It is too abstract of a circumstance. For instance:

“At a funeral for your co-worker who has passed in a car accident, it is important to clearly state my opinion about the deceased’s negative personality, even if it is controversial.”

Although the vast majority agreed with Stapleton’s original question (only one person giving ‘4’ and none giving ‘5’), I would imagine that the vast majority would give ‘5’ to my more contextualized version of the same question. Obviously this example is quite extreme, but from this we can see the possibilities of various degrees in between.

Here is another question:

“When I write a report, it is important to agree with the teacher.”

Again, the answer Stapleton seeks is obvious. The majority responded with ‘4’ to this. Let’s recontextualize this one as well:

“On my first day of a class to learn a new computer program, it is important to agree with the teacher.”

To this, I would imagine that the answers would be closer towards the opposite. After all, why should I disagree on my first day with my teacher to whom I paid tuition for his authority on the subject?

Another question from Stapleton’s questionnaire:

“When I write a report, it is not important to mention the opinion of those who disagree with me as long as I write my own opinion clearly.”

If the opposing opinion is well-known to everyone, or if I am responding to a specific opposing opinion (e.g. to an opinion expressed by President Bush), then this is true. Why should I repeat?

And so on. It is always possible to graft a circumstance to an abstract statement and produce different meanings and answers. An abstract situation such as writing a report in an English class is not sufficient to determine the pattern of Japanese thinking. This is a blind spot of Western thinking which believes in an unchanging truth behind every logical proposition. His questions are so reductive that they crave for reductive answers. Japanese students are smart enough to see the answers he is looking for, because his questions themselves already imply the correct answers. That is, they are rhetorical questions.

However, this is not to say that his speculation is wrong about the Japanese youth adopting Western rhetorical styles. This may very well be true. The problem I see, however, is the reductive, simplistic strategy he employs. In terms of Yin and Yang, the East is passive whereas the West is active. The East, therefore is more feminine, and the West, more masculine. In this sense, understanding the East should be as multidimensional as understanding women, which is not easy for men to do as Jacques Lacan would probably agree.

Imagine a male researcher trying to understand women in which he employs a simplistic questionnaire like Stapleton’s. From a statistical analysis of the results, he draws a conclusion that suggests a new way of treating women. Doesn’t this sound too presumptuous to think that any substantial aspect of women could be understood in such a simplistic manner?

Here is another problem I see in Stapleton’s argument.

To assert one’s own identity and independence is an inherent trait of youth. As we get older, this egotistical tendency slowly fades, and we learn to use critical thinking more appropriately. For this reason, testing only college students would not yield meaningful results, unless we have results from the same test conducted 50 years ago. Just because they show signs of voicing their individuality does not mean that those signs will stick with them as they get older.

He also speaks about Japanese educational system as if it encourages censorship or suppression.

“...the act of giving a course evaluation form to learners serves as notice to them that they have a voice to be heard, a voice that until recently was not encouraged to ‘speak’. These changes, of course, are not confined only to course evaluations. Rather, they are giving notice to learners that they do indeed have an individual voice, which can be used when expressing their opinions in a variety of situations.”

There is a reason beyond the facade why Japanese society does not “encourage” voicing of opinions. He assumes, with a stereotypical Western perspective of the East, that it is about conformity and vertical authority. While I agree that those factors do play a role, a more relevant reason is entirely overlooked in Stapleton’s analysis. Just as studying of religion is imperative to understanding the Western psychological makeup, it is also important to take into consideration the fundamental philosophy of Japanese culture, which is reflected in Zen Buddhism.

While the West tries to foster a healthy ego in a person, the East tries to efface it. What appears to Stapleton as a form of suppression is actually a silent encouragement of youth’s dissent. There are many Zen anecdotes where the disciples challenge their masters with thoughts that are typically Western. Here is an example:

As a Zen master and his disciple were crossing a bridge, the latter cleverly figured out a way to measure the depth of the river. He then challenged his master to also come up with a solution. The master then simply pushed his disciple over the bridge. The latter achieved his Satori while he was soaked in the cold water.

Japanese do not show their affections like the way Americans do. Their way is much more understated and subtle. Just because they do not hug and kiss their kids every day, does not mean that they love their kids any less. By the same token, just because they do not “encourage” their kids outwardly, does not mean that they are suppressing them.

Here is another example of Stapleton’s statement that reveals his Western-centric thinking:

“The former reflects a move away from rote-learning towards creative and critical writing...”

Here he implies that the Japanese way of writing is uncreative and uncritical. To be more precise, it should say, “...towards what the West would consider creative and critical.” The focus of Western creativity is generally on breaking of rules, as it is reflected in expressions like “thinking outside the box”. While there is nothing wrong with this, this way of being creative takes the focus away from what the creator learns for himself in the process, and encourages him to break rules for its own sake. The product of creativity becomes more important than what the creator gains from the experience; a typical Logocentrism of the West where product/result is superior to process. Westerners therefore fail to see any creativity in repetition, or “rote”, where no rules are broken. Japanese express their creativity through predetermined forms and rules, as you can see in Haiku. This allows them to focus on the process of being creative, not so much on the product of it. If you focus too much on the unique/original facade of your product, your focus on process is compromised.

As for being “critical”, the Western idea of it is to be critical of others. The Eastern idea of being critical is to be self-critical. This manifests clearly in the number of lawsuits filed in each country. Just because Japanese do not logically criticize others does not mean that they are not being critical. In order to live in harmony with others, they have acquired a natural tendency to be self-critical. Because of this, it is true that they rarely encounter situations that call for dialectical or forensic skills. But this should not be taken as a lack of “critical” thinking.

Also, just because Japanese embrace some Western ways of thinking does not mean that they are “moving towards” it as he describes. If I were to notice the Western world embracing some Eastern ways of doing things, I would not be so audacious as to describe the West to be moving towards Eastern ways. “Move towards” implies a linear progression, which is typical of Western thinking. The East is inherently multifarious. Things rarely move towards one direction. It is more likely that Stapleton is projecting his own Western prejudice.

As a concluding remark, Stapleton says:

“This suggests that teachers no longer need to hesitate to introduce critical thinking and deductive rhetorical writing styles to Japanese learners, or perhaps any other group of Asian learners who have been characterized as collectivist, non-critical thinkers.”

There is no reason why we must shy away from teaching anything. The problem I see here is that he sees, as most Westerners do, cultural progression to be linear and singular. I am afraid that he is suggesting Japanese students to “move away” from the traditional Eastern way of thinking, which would be quite unfortunate. It is to anyone’s advantage to acquire different ways of thinking. What would be beneficial for Japanese students is to encourage them to employ multiple styles of thinking, not to see one to be superior to the others, and not to be so blindly attached to one.