Kanshi Eyes

kanshi no me: "observing eyes"

kanshi no me: "observing eyes"


In Japan someone is always watching you.

Japan is a shame-based society (i.e.: you’re in trouble if you get caught doing something wrong) so the police try to make everyone feel like someone is always watching them. Signs like these, which “gently” remind people that stealing bicycles and shoplifting are still crimes, are fairly common. I’ve also seen “scarecrows” consisting of wooden signs or fabric strips affixed to utility poles in the distinctive shape of the white high-visibility stripes of police uniforms set up to serve as a reminder of absent authority.

A few years ago, I created an assignment to practice expressing opinions. I used the same question format as interview problems for English proficiency tests like the TOEIC or STEP Eiken, but chose my own topics based on the kind of issues my students might be asked, and on what I thought would be interesting to discuss in class.

I’ve used the same assignment since then, so it’s effectively an informal survey on those topics. At this point, I’ve checked around 1,500 papers and gone over the material in at least 40 classes. Along with more innocuous questions like, “Do you think learning English in school is useful?” and, “Many parents limit the time their children can watch TV or play video games. Do you think this is a good rule?” are two more provocative ones.

Whether in private on the homework paper, or in public polls in class, about 90% of my students answer, “Do you think police cameras are necessary?” in the affirmative. About the same proportion of students also have no problem saying yes to, “Should certain books, movies, or music be censored?” In fact, most of them seem to have trouble even understanding why I would ask this question, considering the term 検閲 (ken’etsu: examine, censor) to be akin to deciding the ratings on movies and video games.

This is not particularly surprising, considering the overwhelmingly authoritarian training everyone is exposed to in Japanese culture, along with a general lack of teaching critical thinking skills in favor of a brute force drilling and fact-regurgitating approach to academics. While these questions were written in English, the root of the problem isn’t a language barrier, but rather a cultural barrier. Even in Japanese, most of the students couldn’t articulate reasons for supporting their opinions.

Japanese are taught not to be inquisitive, not to think critically, and especially not to question authority. The result, as I pointed out earlier when talking about gun control in Japan, is a generally peaceful and orderly society. But there is a cost.

The Japanese economy, which was once seen as a miracle of growth, is foundering and stagnant in the information age. The orderly, authoritarian model of production works well for an industrial society. It doesn’t work so well for an information society. Seth Godin makes the point several times in Linchpin that both education and conventional business in the US (and presumably most other Western societies) destroys individual creativity, which is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing since that creativity is becoming more and more valuable in an information age.

Unfortunately, I think that Japan will become even more authoritarian and insular for a time before circumstances force changes. The warning signs are there. There is lower enrollment in universities — particularly enrollment in foreign universities which was depressingly minuscule to begin with. Fewer Japanese are traveling overseas, even with the relative strength of the yen over the last few years. Since the 1990s, Japanese nationalism has been increasing, as shown in part by selective amnesia and bias in textbooks, the re-institution of nationalistic school courses, and increasingly positive attitudes toward Article 9 reform. But through it all, the authorities in Japan aim to keep the populace quiescent and frightened, and always aware that someone, somewhere, is watching.

"shoplifting, stealing is theft"