The Pitfall of Analysis

On Zoom In Super (NHK’s info-tainment morning show) yesterday morning they compared three different breads: one commercially prepared supermarket bread, one loaf from a professional bakery, and one produced by an automatic home bread maker. After showing a housewife taste-test, they took the remaining halves of the three loaves to a laboratory, where they were extensively analyzed, including a softness test under a durometer (bakery bread had a winning softness score of 188, in case you were interested). The tendency of Japanese people to subject something so mundane as bread to such intense and reductive analysis seems absurd to me sometimes. But the problem is not that they concentrate on the details, the problem is that when they concentrate only on the details they lose the gestalt. Analysis is valuable, but it can not and should not replace holistic thinking.

Renaissance artists studied the human body; skin, bones, muscles, viscera. While artists in prior eras were content with painting the surface, these artists were willing to risk Church censure by studying human cadavers in order to know more about how all those parts fit together to make a body. That knowledge informed their art and had a profound effect on the quality of their work. So much so, that over 500 years later, this period is still credited as being one of the biggest golden ages in representational art.

Sommeliers learn about wine both by learning about the microbiology and organic chemistry of fermentation, and by experiencing wine. Knowing about what they are smelling and tasting, what processes formed it, how it can change, what starting conditions produce what results at a particular stage are all things that help them to recognize and appreciate different aspects of wine and choose the best of those they taste.

Analysis provides the tools for filtering experience, channeling effort, improving technique, but without switching back to an overall view, you get lost in the details. Too often, the Japanese reduce things to numbers, graphs, tables, but forget to appreciate the whole.

The opposite is also a problem I’ve noticed. Particularly when it comes to Japanese culture or art, they seem unable to articulate what elements of something are worth noting and retreat to the shelter of the mythical cultural barriers that separate Japan from “gaikoku-land”1and which make it “impossible” for foreigners to understand or appreciate a given aspect of Japan. This blind spot in their thinking is also what leads them to teach so many things by brute force rote-memorization instead of applying the same systematic and analytic thinking that they use so successfully in other areas.

Their analysis-o-meters seem to be stuck in binary mode: completely on or completely off. Something is either broken down into statistics and mind-numbingly detailed graphs and tables, or set on a pedestal to be appreciated and experienced, but never, ever studied or questioned.

It’s not like Americans are completely immune to these tendencies. Witness 1- to 5-star reviews of everything you can think of and simplistic thumbs up or thumbs down on movies, books, games and other entertainment. And the opposite lack of introspection is obvious when you look at the best-selling anything in the US; too often the most popular books, movies, music, etc. are among the crappiest examples of their respective arts. Ask most Americans what the formula is for a given Hollywood blockbuster-type movie and they’ll look at you like you’re speaking Swahili even though the plot and character points are glaringly obvious if you think about them at all.2 But the dichotomy is not anywhere near as extreme as what I see in Japan most of the time.

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1 A friend’s semi-derogatory comment on the typical “us” and “them,” Japan vs. Everywhere Else in the World viewpoint far too many Japanese hold.

2 Warning signs: “This summer…!” “One man…!”