How Asians and Westerners Think Differently

I have sometimes postulated that if I ever get to heaven, I risk being bored to death by the lack of bad news.

Can you imagine picking up the papers every day and finding nothing but positive articles? No crime, no political disputes, not even a hint of salacious gossip. Your favourite team wins every game and there are no celebrity deaths to mourn.

In the modern era, newspapers are struggling to retain readers but at least they have no shortage of issues to write about. Bad news thrives online: Twitter is bursting with accounts of human conflict.

A good argument

But is my fascination with bad news and a passion for a good argument partly down to my own culture? Would it be different if I was Asian?

A Japanese friend told me recently that the concept of a lively discussion does not exist in Japan because of the emphasis on group harmony.

I have also heard it said that combative, rhetorical forms of argument are extremely rare in China.

“Most of the time Chinese people are quiet and they don’t talk about politics. They might talk about it the dinner table but they don’t talk about it in public,” observed the artist Badiucao, in an interview with the Financial Times this week.

My research on this topic turned up an intriguing book called The Geography of Thought written by Richard E. Nisbett, an American who has tried to work out why Asians and Westerners think differently.

“East Asians live in an interdependent world, in which the self is part of a larger whole. Westerners live in a world in which the self is a unitary free agent,” suggested Nisbett.

Turning to the topic of argument and debate, he observed: “Westerners have faith in the rhetoric of argumentation, whereas Asians avoid controversy and debate. Easterners are highly attuned to the feelings of others and strive for interpersonal harmony.”

School problems

These generalisations may help to explain why some East Asian students find it difficult to adapt to Western education systems. It’s not their lack of confidence in English which necessarily holds them back – although that can be a factor – but they are unaccustomed to the way argument and counterargument are seen as central to the learning process.

Nisbett claims it is not unusual for American professors to give bad grades to Asian students, not because they are lazy or slow but because they have not grasped the rhetorical style.

I recently led a course for a group of students from China. The British and Western professors who taught them were sometimes frustrated by the lack of lively question and answer sessions at the end of their talks. I have heard similar remarks by teachers in Japan.

Heavenly lessons

I don’t know if heaven contains classrooms in which we can extend our learning. I hope that it does and that our teachers will come from every age and nation.

We could study art from Leonardo di Vinci and go on to learn science from the geniuses of future generations. I expect the teachers will have the patience of saints and essay deadlines will be extended indefinitely.

But I also hope that among those learners there will be those who challenge what they are told, or even deliberately start an argument.

When the rebels do cause conflict, it will give the angelic scribes a topic to put in the heavenly journal. I shall read it with interest.

North Korean fighters march on the Budokan

A group of North Korean fighters are planning to throw their opponents to the ground in Japan’s most iconic sports venue, the Nippon Budokan.

The athletes have applied to take part in the World Judo Championship later this year.

The Budokan, which is hosting the event, was built specifically for martial arts tournaments, although it has also been used as a venue by many pop and rock stars including The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Deep Purple.

Entry opportunity

The Japan Times explains that North Koreans are usually forbidden from entering the country but they have used a loophole that allows them in to take part in sports tournaments.

The North Koreans use international sporting outings for propaganda purposes and they were delighted to be the centre of media attention at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

For some traditionalists, the Budokan and the sport of judo are almost sacred symbols of Japan’s heritage, so it will be bewildering to watch the North Koreans unfurl their flag at the world judo event.

Japan does not recognize North Korea as a sovereign state and there are no diplomatic relations between the nations.

Tough line

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been consistently tough on the North Koreans, in contrast to the more friendly approach of Donald Trump and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-In, who have both met several times with their leader Kim Jong-Un.

Mr Abe’s critics complain that he is a hardliner who cannot see the value of compromise.

However, other people think Mr Abe has avoided a political trap.

No concessions

The Oxford University Professor Rana Mitter wrote in the Sunday Times that “Kim Jong Un has seduced the presidents of America, China and South Korea into following his overall agenda without giving any real concession so far.”

Professor Mitter said that the North Korean leader is not insane but he is “one of the most rational if ruthless leaders of any dictatorship today.”

There will be another striking sports event in Tokyo next year when a team made up of judo athletes from both North and South Korea will compete jointly in the 2020 Olympics.

This will leave spectators in the strange position of watching an ally of Japan and its principle enemy join forces in a martial arts battle.

Strained relations

Although South Korea is an ally of Japan, their relationship is strained at the moment. Shinzo Abe declined to meet President Moon face-to-face at the recent G20 summit in Osaka.

He is irked at suggestions that Japanese firms should compensate the victims of forced labour from the period of Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula during the last century.

But despite these disagreements, Japan and South Korea remain crucially important to each other. They are prosperous democracies and are anxious about the trade war between China and the United States.

When it comes to North Korea, both would like to see complete denuclearisation, although they have different views on how to achieve this.

However, North Korea is led by a man who – as Professor Mitter put it in is piece for the Sunday Times – “has the power to turn East Asia into a wasteland with his conventional and nuclear arsenal.”

Better then to confront the country in the judo hall than on the battlefield.

The gulf between Japan and Russia is widening

Japan and Russia lie so close together geographically that there’s even been discussions about building a bridge between them.

A rail bridge to join Cape Crillon on the Russian island of Sakhalin to Cape Soya at the northern tip of the Japanese island of Hokkaido would stretch about 30 miles. There are many longer bridges elsewhere in Japan.

However, there is an enormous political gulf between Russia and Japan and it is getting wider. President Vladimir Putin made this plain in an interview before he travelled to Osaka for the G20 summit last week, when he declared that “liberalism is obsolete.”

“Liberalism is obsolete” – Vladimir Putin

He told the Financial Times that liberal ideology has “outlived its purpose” and praised the rise of populism in Europe and America, saying that ideas like multiculturalism are “no longer tenable.”

Liberalism and democracy

Many articles in the press contrasted the Russian approach with “western liberal values.” For example, the BBC said that liberalism “has underpinned Western democracies for decades.”

The British Prime Minister Theresa May lashed out at what she called Russia’s “irresponsible and despicable behaviour” and her likely successor Boris Johnson said that the Russian president was “totally wrong; our values – freedom and democracy, the rule of law and free speech – those things are imperishable and they will succeed.”

As host of the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was carefully not to clash with Mr Putin publicly. Instead he spoke of his desire for a “peace deal” with Russia.

One of his dreams is that Russia will one day return to Japan some of the islands which were occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two.

Danger Zone

They form part of a chain of islands which are known as the Northern Territories and a few years ago this was the preferred location for the friendship bridge. However, it has now become one of the most dangerous regions in East Asia.

The Russians have been carrying out missile tests, which Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kano has called “unacceptable.”

Nevertheless, many Japanese businesses still work with the Russians. The Nikkei Asian Review reports that companies cooperate in the energy and medical sectors and engage in joint activities such as tourism, waste disposal and vegetable farming.

None of that matters much to the Japanese economy. What is far more significant is the liberal economic values which underpin Japan’s society.

The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, which Mr Abe leads, states clearly on its website that it is a liberal political party which advocates democracy and basic human rights and “strives to make positive contributions to world peace and prosperity of mankind.”

Party politics

Rival parties – such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and the Democratic Party for the People – have different policies but share similar ideas about the importance of parliamentary democracy.

According to an opinion piece in the Financial Times which responded to the Putin interview, countries with liberal market-based democracies generally enjoy high standards of living, driven by a “dynamism” which generates prosperity.

The Financial Times is owned by the Japanese business newspaper Nikkei, so it seems to be stating a view which is widely held in Japanese business and political circles.

There are some notable dissenters, such as the Japanese Communist Party. But even if it uses a political process based on elections to get its voice heard.

And even though many people say they are tired of Mr Abe and the LDP, it is a party which nearly always wins elections – a sign that liberalism is far from obsolete in Japan, even though Russia and China advocate rival systems of government.