Japanese Logic from the English Heart of Tradition

Periodically in the British newspapers there is a quotation from some Japanese official report on Japanese educational standards. Sometimes it is said that the standard in mathematics is very high compared to that of the rest of the world, but that the standard of logical thinking is weak. For instance, the students were set to complete a number of sentences, and only about 60% managed to do this satisfactorily. The others completed the sentences in a way that showed that they had failed to understand and then extend the thought of the sentence.

Some explanations are suggested by the Western newspapers, obviously copied from a Japanese commentator. It is often said that the effort of memorizing the kanji must result in a weakness in comprehension. Mindless memorization is supposed to be a handicap to logical thinking.

However, I have never been convinced by this.

Traditional Indian education has always stressed learning by heart, yet India has produced wonderfully elaborate systems of logic. An educated Indian today is generally very sharp in verbal reasoning. Yet Indian children have to learn a mass of material by heart—much more than most children in the West. For instance, we Western children have to learn our alphabet: a b c… and so on up to x y z. We need to know that order when using a dictionary. But an Indian boy brought up in the old tradition had to learn his alphabet of 50 letters (some of which change their form in the middle of a word); then he had to learn it backwards! Later on in his schooling, he was expected to learn parts of his textbooks by heart, and most educated people could recite very long extracts from books and poems.

The great German scholar Paul Deussen related in his memoirs how at the end of the 19th century he went to India to study Sanskrit under a famous Indian pundit. The latter asked him what book he wanted to study, and Paul Deussen chose Tattva Kaumudi, a difficult Sanskrit classic. The appointment was made for the first lesson, and Deussen went to the pundit’s house, where he was received very kindly. After the preliminary greetings, Deussen took out his copy of Tattva Kaumudi, and put it on the table, with his notebook and pencil beside it, ready to begin the lesson. He expected the pundit to fetch a copy, but the old man made no move. He waited, and the old Indian scholar seemed to be waiting too. There was a short silence. Finally the latter said, “Well, if you are ready, will you open your book?” Deussen complied, still wondering where the Indian’s copy was. To his amazement, the pundit recited the first half-page of this difficult text from memory, and then said: “Now, please ask me any questions about this passage which I have just recited.” In this way the lesson proceeded, and all future lessons were the same. The Indian scholar never used a book: he knew the whole classic by heart.

Even today it is noticeable how strong the Indian student is at memorization. Yet the Indian tradition also revels in dexterity in logical debate and verbal fireworks in argument. This system of education produces an extremely quick mind. In fact, one of the weaknesses is that practical application often seems to be secondary to theory. Sometimes an Indian will argue brilliantly and persuasively for one side, and the next day he is arguing just as well for the other side of an argument. The ordinary

Japanese is not good at this sort of thing: he dislikes it, as does the average Englishman also. I have seen an Indian politician asked by a Japanese newspaper correspondent about the small number of universities in India per head of the population, compared to the much higher number in Japan. The politician looked keenly at his questioner, and said in an apparently friendly way, “Tell me, are you satisfied with the standard of education at all these numerous universities of yours? We can imagine that there are many problems in mass higher education on that tremendous scale, and we should like to hear about your experience”. The Japanese, surprised but obviously a bit flattered, replied seriously, “Well, of course, we are not satisfied with our standards. Some of these places have been founded only recently and” He paused to think. But before he could continue, the Indian burst out, “I knew it, I knew it! You’re not satisfied with the standards, and yet you go on  founding more and more of these places. You’re ruining your country. You’re simply setting up hundreds of factories for grinding out fools!” The Japanese was so taken aback that he could not find a reply. The Indian politician just said, “Well, let’s pass on to another subject,” and began to talk about something else.

A few days later, however, that same politician was telling some of his friends about the great number of Japanese universities (as he had just learnt it from the Japanese he had met). He was blaming the Indian Government because India had lagged behind. “India,” he said, “must make a big drive to create more universities”. One of the friends made just the same objection that he himself had made to the Japanese, “But what is the standard in these Japanese universities? Are they satisfied that there is a good standard?” He at once made the answer which the Japanese correspondent ought to have made. “No, of course they are not satisfied with the standard. But the point is, that with that large number, they have a much better chance of producing some universities with the very highest standards.” The objector was silenced. When I heard this same man one day attacking and soon afterwards defending the same point, I thought to myself, ‘India is a nation of lawyers’.

I suppose that we can say, looking at the example of India, that a good deal of memorizing in youth does not impede the growth of logical thinking. It is true that the kind of logic which he was using was just a tool in argument. He had no actual conviction about it at all. But the point is, that he was very sharp in producing this kind of argument. And my experience is, that Japanese on the whole are not good at it.  One reason is, that they distrust it. Perhaps they are right to distrust it: after all, when all the words have died away, it is Japan which has the large number of universities, some good and some bad, it is true. India has a much smaller number, and of these also some are good and some are bad. Though Japanese may lose the verbal argument, still Japan wins the argument from facts.

To apply logic, one has to use abstractions. My impression is that Japanese people are not so willing as Westerners and Indians to make abstractions, because to make abstractions involves ignoring individual characteristics. Strict logic deals with partial aspects of an object: the rest is ruled out.

Japanese have their own logic, which is often a surprise to Westerners. For example, when a book is published in Britain, the publisher and author make a contract; usually the author gets a basic royalty of 10% on the number of books sold. If not a single copy is sold, then the author does not receive anything at all. He has simply been unlucky. There is always a big element of luck in the success or failure of a book, and in this case, he has been unlucky. The author recognizes that the publisher too has been unlucky. He accepts the situation: it cannot be helped.

But Japanese publishing has a different logic. The view in Japan is something like this: the publisher is bringing out many books, and the author has only one book. So the publisher has many chances of getting a big success, and the author has only one. It is not ‘fair’ that an author should spend time and labour on a book, good enough to be accepted by the publisher, and then receive nothing at all. The publisher is rich, the author probably poor. So the publisher should pay to the author royalties on the first edition, even if not one copy is sold.

When British people hear of this, they are surprised at the Japanese logic. But sometimes they smile and say that it shows great human feeling. Still, we should not call it logical.

The next contrast between Western logic and Japanese logic comes if the book is a great success. Suppose it runs into a dozen reprints. Our view is that after the second or third printing (in which possibly a few minor errors have had to be corrected), the publisher has comparatively light expenses. He just has to provide the paper, and to print, bind, and distribute the book. He does not have the big expense of setting it into print, which he had to pay  out for the first edition. So as our British publisher now has comparatively little to pay out, the author should get a higher royalty. In our publishing contracts, after 5,000 copies have been sold, the author’s royalty goes up to 12%, and after another 5,000 are sold, it rises to 15%. We feel this is ‘fair’: the publisher is getting a bigger profit now from the author’s work, so he should pay more royalties. Therefore there is a rising scale of royalties in the contract.

Japanese logic is the reverse. The author has done well already, and for the later reprints, he is doing no extra work at all. The publisher is entitled to all he can get from this book, because he took the risk of publishing it at the beginning. He continues to pay the author just the same 10%. There is no rising scale of royalties in the contract.

I suppose that with the extra money which the Japanese publisher makes on the successful authors’ books, he can pay the unsuccessful authors their royalties on the first edition. It is a sort of redistribution of wealth between rich authors and poor authors, engineered by the publishers. And it has a logic of its own, which takes in a much wider field than our Western publisher’s logic, where author and publisher and book are just abstract symbols with no background at all.

It seems to me that Japanese people are reluctant to deal in mere abstractions, disregarding the background. This makes them slower to come to a judgment on important things, and of course the effect carries over on to small things also.

The BBC Overseas Services broadcast programmes in many different languages. As a senior in the BBC, I have occasionally had to take charge (for a day, perhaps) of other services than the Japanese. I have noticed that the translator-announcers in the different languages vary in the speed of translation, when they are suddenly asked a question like: What is the translation into your language of the phrase ‘a government investigating commission’?

Faced with this question, a Hungarian or Frenchman or Pakistani translator will generally try to make an instant reply. Then he will think a bit more, and perhaps he will modify his translation. But a Japanese generally pauses, even when he is fairly sure of the answer. He often consults a dictionary, and perhaps one of his colleagues. When the translation is finally made, it is a very good one; but it cannot be called quick.

British people try to answer as quickly as possible (though we are not always as sharp as a bright Hungarian). I think some of this tendency is due to our up-bringing in school. At many British schools, the master used to write a problem on the board;  perhaps it was a mathematical problem, or perhaps a ‘ problem of translation. For instance, he might write the penetrating and profound Latin political comment: Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (But who would guard the guardians themselves?) Then he would say:  “First boy gets the mark!” The whole class would puzzle over the problem, and then one boy’s hand would shoot up. The master would say: “Well?” and the boy would give his answer. If it was correct, he would get a mark, which the teacher would note. At the end of the week, the marks were totalled, and the ‘class order’ was put up in the classroom. If the boy’s answer was wrong, he simply did not get a mark; there was no penalty. Another boy would probably have a try, and so on till someone (or perhaps no one) got something like the right answer: “But who is to guard the guardians themselves ? ” In other words, who will control the controllers, who will police the police? Not all work was judged in this way; essays and homework were marked on merit alone, not speed. But pupils who could answer quickly had a distinct advantage in getting near the Top of the Class, as it was called.

My experience is of course limited, but I have not heard of such methods being systematically used in Japanese schools. In fact, many Japanese to whom I have described the ‘first boy gets it’ method have said that it is unfair. They thought that the important thing is, to get the right answer; whether it is produced slightly more quickly is irrelevant. British people would not understand this comment. We should agree that accuracy is essential, but we think that there are many cases where speed also is vital. In business competition, for instance, it is not enough to have a good new idea; one must also put it into practice before the competitors can think of it.

As a matter of fact, Japanese people can and do act very quickly and decisively when the situation is familiar to them. If, on the other hand, they are confronted with a sudden demand for action, without knowing the background, they do not seem happy. I should expect that some Japanese pupils, when abruptly presented with half a sentence without context (as in the test reported at the beginning of this chapter), and told to complete it instantly, would feel confused. That need not necessarily be a weakness in capacity for logic; it may be merely lack of practice in ‘instant logic’. Perhaps an occasional thinking race on the lines of ‘first pupil gets the mark’ might be a useful addition to the Japanese school curriculum. After all, this system used to be employed in the soroban juku classes, so it is part of the Japanese tradition. And in the swordsmanship of the jidaigeki TV programmes every evening, the lone swordsman must strike first. Of course, as there are twenty opponents against him, no one can call it ‘unfair’.



© Trevor Leggett 1987

Index for this series of articles
1 Foreword
2 Consideration for Strangers
3 Social Conventions and Surprises
4 Cruel to be Kind
5 Losing to Oneself
6 North-South-East-West
7 It Likes That
8 Warukuchi
9 Japanese Logic


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