TO NURTURE CREATIVITY OUR UNIVERSITIES MUST TAKE NEW APPROACH
Hisashi Yamamoto, a prominent organic chemist frequently mentioned as a candidate for the next Nobel Prize, urges young Japanese to have the sensitivity to be moved by new encounters in their daily environment. “I believe strongly that a child who has experienced the joy of being impressed early in life will be sure to grow significantly in his or her adulthood and be capable of valuable discoveries or inventions benefiting mankind,” stresses Yamamoto in his latest book published this month: Japan’s Problems Lie in Humanities Studies (Sankei Shimbun Publishing Co., Tokyo). The author is a member of the faculty at the University of Chicago and a professor at Chubu University, Aichi Prefecture.
Facing family, friends, society, and country with a sensitive heart leads one to deep connections with everything in the universe, asserts Yamamoto. Without knowing the joy of being moved, it would be difficult for anyone to form human relations that will help one cope properly with and survive a world in which everything keeps changing at a speed far faster than one can ever imagine. Yamamoto argues that we Japanese must hurry to go back to the rich sensitivity that reflects the innate values that many of us have sadly lost today.
In a 2020 book entitled Japanese Don’t Have to Be Logical (Sankei Shimbun Publishing Co.; 2020), Yamamoto maintains that the strength of the Japanese actually rests in our emotions. In other words, he called for us to have greater confidence in being Japanese, pointing out that the gentle and rich sensitivity that Japanese have innately possessed is the seedbed for the great imagination we Japanese have demonstrated in academics and research. It will also constitute a seedbed for a rejuvenation of Japan, he stresses. Yamamoto’s assertion that being creative is impossible without being sensitive reflects his long experiences in the real world as a gifted researcher. He notes that he has never come across a Nobel laureate who thinks logically, as they all are rich in emotions.
The sentiments Yamamoto identifies with goes way back in history—to the Jomon Era (ca. 10,500-ca. 300) which he believes nurtured our emotions and delicate sensibilities. Over an estimated 10,000 years or so, our Jomon ancestors maintained a remarkably gentle society, cultivating a highly advanced civilization. I feel there must be a close link between the spiritual world of Jomon people and Shintoism, which represents the basis of Japan’s national character.
Take, for instance, the way Jomon people mourned the deaths of their loved ones. In Jomon villages unearthed across Japan, archeologists have discovered the tombs of the dead that Jomon people had dearly maintained very close to where they were living. I believe that our Jomon ancestors who safeguarded their villages with 1,000 to 1,500 dwellers for tens of thousands of years lived in a spiritual world in which the dead and the living became one. The belief of Jomon people that the souls of the dead will stay close and protect the living even after their bodies perish is likely connected to the Shinto view of life and death.
Spirit of Meiji Restoration
Amid the rich nature of the Japanese archipelago, Jomon people created a mutually supportive and sophisticated society that might surprise modern Japanese. In addition to adhering to the belief that the dead were always watching over them, Jomon people respected nature and cherished their village companions. They had a high standard of living that included a variety of food and well-designed handicraft that could compete with what Japanese enjoy today.
The values that sustained Jomon villages were a gentle social norm of treating everybody with respect. I believe Prince Shotoku’s 17-article constitution—a code of moral precepts for the ruling class—was born in the seventh century Japan thanks to the fact that a community of villagers rich in humanity had lasted over centuries.
In the Kamakura Era (1180-1336), these values led to a simple code of behavior defining “a denial of fighting itself” as “dori” (reason). Those were precisely the values of that time which Yamamoto emphasizes gave top priority to members of the community committed to prospering together. With “dori” later constituting the moral basis of Japanese society, our ancestors were able to overcome the crisis of the last phase of the Edo period (1603-1868), implementing the Meiji Restoration thanks to the primacy of the group, as Yamamoto sees it.
As Japan underwent a massive transformation through the reversion to imperial rule, a group of patriotic Japanese lived through this period dauntlessly, each playing an indispensable role in an evolving drama. Some died young, while others survived to contribute immensely to the grand scheme of creating a modern Japan through the Restoration. In the middle of a national crisis presumably similar to the sea change in the international community that Japan is faced with today, all Japanese made frantic efforts for the birth of a new and stronger Japan.
Among them were outstanding individuals like Sanai Hashimoto of the Fukui Domain in Echizen (now Fukui Prefecture), who was a son of Genya Hashimoto, the chief physician for the domain. Sanai was a brilliant boy who allegedly started learning Chinese classics at age 7 and was capable of reading with ease The Records of Three Kingdoms, a 65-volume third century historical text, at age 10. Even a well-educated adult would find reading 65 volumes of any literature difficult.
Reading Sheng wuji (Record of the Conquest) by Qing Dynasty historian Wei Yuan (1794-1857), Sanai came to grips with the reality of the Opium War (1840-42), realizing how ruthlessly England exploited and committed atrocities against the Chinese people. Alarmed by the menace and brutality of the Western powers, Sanai was convinced that Japan must end its foreign seclusion policy, open its ports, and bolster its national resilience. He then formulated a geopolitical strategy urging Japan to cement diplomatic relations with Russia.
One is overwhelmed by the depth of Sanai’s knowledge reflected in the many letters he has left behind. His keen perception of the world in a broad perspective is simply stunning.
Sanai was executed in the Ansei Purge (1858-59), a crackdown on extremists promoting Japan’s opening to the world. My heart hurts just to think of what a loss this was to Japan. Sanai was 26 at the time. Imagine what his death cost Japan in terms of its future possibilities. Takamori Saigo, the legendary statesman who eventually revolted against the Meiji government over its drastic westernization scheme, noted that, without his close interchange with Sanai, who was six years his junior, he would not have been able to develop his view of the world.
Sanai was eager to learn endlessly, unafraid of any difficulties. Thanks to Sanai and many others like him, Japan moved on to implement the Meiji Restoration, fending off the threat of the Western powers. Yamamoto feels that we Japanese now need to revive the spirit of the Meiji Restoration. I fully agree with him.
Crawling Economic Stagnation
What has Japan come to in the Reiwa Era, some 150 years after the Restoration? Our national power has been on the downhill for at least 30 years. It is because Japan and its people have steadily been losing the essence of what it means to be Japanese. Especially notable is the progressive decline in our academics and research. Put simply, Tokyo University, still top-ranked in Japan, was barely ranked 35th—certainly not 10th, mind you—in the Times World University Rankings 2021. And, realistically speaking, Japan has been becoming less and less affluent. While virtually all other nations have been achieving a steadily increasing economy growth rate over the past 30 years, Japan alone has continued along the road of a crawling economic stagnation. Our per capita income threatens to be overtaken even by South Korea’s.
Yamamoto declares that the reason for Japan’s stagnation is no doubt attributable to our society consistently losing its traditional values. He deplores the fact that Japanese have forgotten to put to the best use the merits of our traditional group-oriented society nurtured by a long history. He points out that the case particularly applies to our universities, the permissible range of activities of individual researchers, and the operations of our corporations. What the importance of the group means to Yamamoto is more effectively utilizing individual talents for the benefit of the whole entity. This is what Yamamoto himself has done.
Let’s take a close look at what Sanai was entitled to in spotlighting what is lacking in Japan today. Yoshinaga Matsudaira, the feudal lord who headed the Fukui Domain, had the insight to send Sanai to Osaka to study under Koan Ogata, a renowned doctor and Dutch scholar. The lord later promoted him in the political circles of the domain. Although Sanai was executed because of the political role he went on to play, Matsudaira had seen to it that his talented subordinates, including Sanai, would never remain unnoticed, ready to make the stage for them to work wholeheartedly for the benefit of the nation as they would be expected to demonstrate their abilities more fully by banding together as members of a closely-knit group.
As a seasoned educator and researcher, Yamamoto predicts Japan’s decline will remain unstoppable unless a remedy can be worked out as early as possible. To prevent a further decline, he asserts that young researchers must be set free from the cloistered university hierarchy of full-time professors, associate professors, assistant professors, and researchers that deprive them of creativity. He stresses that Japan should take resolute steps now to increase its national power by adopting a new system widely employed by universities in the US, Europe, and China: paying salaries to the younger generation serving as researchers while being on doctor’s degree programs or attending graduate schools, and allowing them to freely engage in research activities of their choice. I can’t agree with him more.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 989 in the March 3, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)