Being sincere versus being right in Japan

In 1938, my first year in Japan, I noticed how often the word ‘sincerity’ came up. Sometimes I was surprised at how it was used. For instance, before leaving Britain I had met the Japanese ambassador in London, Mr. Mamoru Shigemitsu. He walked with a stick, and I assumed that he had probably been in a car accident. Later on, I was told that he had had a bomb thrown at him by a Japanese nationalist. Many years later, I heard that Mr. Shigemitsu had met this bomb thrower, after he had finished his dozen years in prison.

The Japanese press asked Mr. Shigemitsu how he felt about this man, and he replied something like this: ‘I have no resentment against him, because I feel that he was sincere in his beliefs’. A British politician would not say this. In fact, after an attempt was made to kill her by a bomb, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher said: ‘These people may be sincere in their beliefs, but those beliefs are completely wrong. They are half-mad, and they are cowardly murderers’.

We can say that most British people would feel like this. So I felt it strange that some Japanese were more impressed by the sincerity of a person than by his words. If a person was very earnest, they respected him.

After Judo practice I regularly went out with some Japanese student friends. They wanted to practise their English, and I wanted to practise my Japanese. So the conversation was a mixture of broken English and broken Japanese. Occasionally we were joined by others, who wanted to meet a foreigner. (There were not many of us in Japan in those days.)

On one occasion, one of these Japanese students began a long talk about the world: ‘The old name for Japan was sumera-no-kuni, and world civilization began in Sumer in Mesopotamia. Sumer was obviously a mistake for sumera, and therefore world civilization began in Japan’. He said all this very earnestly, not aggressively, but often looking at me, evidently hoping to convince me. I could follow enough of his Japanese and English to understand him. He repeated himself often, which made it easier.

It was obvious nonsense, and I expected someone to say so or at least interrupt him. But they listened to it all with respect.

After he had gone, I asked one of them, ‘Surely you don’t believe that sort of thing, do you?’ ‘No, I don’t’, he replied. ‘But we feel that he is very sincere. We generally respect a sincere man, even if he is talking nonsense’.

Later I asked a Japanese professor whom I was helping

with an English translation. He looked a little embarrassed and said: ‘These ideas are dreamed up by some ideologues; they publish them in little magazines, and that man had probably read an article about it. In our present wartime climate, it can be dangerous to laugh at such ideas. Apart from that, we Japanese are impressed by someone very sincere, because we feel he must have put in a good deal of his life into his belief. So some of us think that he must know quite a lot about it, and probably he is right on at least one or two points’.

Ever since then I have noticed this Japanese attitude again and again, and I still do today. There is a big contrast with the British standpoint. Not so many British people think like that. We feel that someone who concentrates on a single subject may often become too narrow. He may know that particular subject, but he forgets everything else. Although the one-pointed action is very impressive, it sometimes happens that the outer situation has changed. Then the action has become meaningless.

But the Japanese born in Meiji believed that sincerity has a value in itself, and that it is a sort of guarantee that an action is somehow right. Many young Japanese feel opposed to the old attitudes, but unconsciously they are strongly influenced by them.

© Trevor Leggett


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