Criticism changes our actions, but not our attitudes

We often use criticism and accusations to change behavior, be it that of governments, organizations, or individuals. A majority of the cultural improvements in our society have been brought by punishments under the name of justice. But sometimes correcting behavior by force obscures the real issue. I have seen that in two cultural incidents related to Japan: a demonstration by Chinese citizens and a documentary about dolphin fishery.

Five years ago people in China, mainly younger generations, stood up to demonstrate against Japan for its atrocities during the Second World War. They claimed that Japan never apologized officially, and that Chinese people were still suffering from the traumatic past. As a result, the Japanese government cancelled Prime Minister Koizumi's annual visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are honored along with the nation's 2.5 million war dead. So it was a happy ending? No.

After the demonstration erupted, all I kept hearing in the Japanese news media and among my friends was confusion (Why now? Why the spoiled brats?), anger (It’s in the past! Look at what the Chinese do to others), and fear (We gotta get out of China, now). The Japanese government changed its behavior not because it understood the issue more deeply, but because it didn’t want to aggravate China any more.

Few people discussed the real issue: further communication that should have lead to mutual understanding and respect, proper apology or other form of condolence, etc. This incident triggered a “Cold War” between the two countries. Trust was lost, mutual hatred increased, and organizations started to close cultural doors. From what I hear, the relationship has not yet recovered.

Last year, the documentary film “The Cove ” followed the covert operation of a group of animal rights activists fighting against Japanese dolphin fishermen. The film won the Oscar, Japanese media noticed, and the dolphin fishing industry shrank its activity. Win-win? Again, no.

The majority of the comments from the Japanese media and Internet communities can be summarized as follows: Why do they keep bashing and preaching to us for preserving our culture? We just eat some dolphin out of tradition, we preserve the limit, and we don’t extract oil on a massive scale like they did hundreds of years ago.

Again, the real issue, the importance of preserving wild animals based on scientific facts and logical arguments, was nowhere to be seen. The whole argument moved to the tired but addictive “crash of the cultures.”

Accusations and criticism have the power to change our actions, but not our attitudes. I admit that’s easy to say. Let’s face it: punishment and humiliation work as huge (de)motivators in our lives. I don’t know if there is positive way for making an impact on others. But if we succeed only in superficial changes, but worsen the underlying tensions, doesn’t it go against the original purpose?

P.S. As a Japanese, I am obliged to state my personal opinions.

Demonstrations in China: Historical incidents never become history unless we face them to the fullest, and hey, the Japanese haven’t, from the outsider’s point of view, either by avoiding it on purpose (older generations) or by being uneducated about the past (younger generations). So we have to learn. That said, I see that incident as another sign of the surge of nationalism happening worldwide. With fewer people having real memories of real wars and the traditional religions no longer answering our questions effectively, nationalism is gaining power as our new god. That scares me.

The Cove: I am against killing dolphins but I also think every wildlife protection measure should be discussed based on percentages, not on preferences. Personally, I worry more  about the extinction of tuna fish than dolphins. To be honest, I am half sure that some species of tuna fish will be extinct in the near future. And yes, the filmmaker of The Cove, Louie Psihoyos, is a righteous snob.

Noting that some Japanese media have been saying that "The Cove" is bashing Japanese people, Pshioyos said, "To me, it's a love letter. I'm giving you the information your government won't give you."

Who does this guy think he is?