UMESAO TADAO AND 3/11 - Discuss Japan
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Culture, No.7  Sept. 30, 2011



Photo : Umesao Tadao

Umesao Tadao (1920-2010)

Umesao Tadao (1920-2010) was a Japanese anthropologist and ethnologist, in addition to being an intellectual who strongly influenced Japanese society in the 1970s to 1990s. His activities were not confined to ethnology but extended to social commentary and studies on civilizations around the world. In his earlier years, Umesao predicted the arrival of an information society as seen today, being endowed with foresight into future society and culture. He also had significant influence in business and political circles. He proactively supported Japan’s cultural diplomacy and contributed greatly to the establishment and operation of the Japan Foundation, as president from 1983 to 1990. This article takes a look at Umesao’s achievements and asserts that the paradigm in his days needs to be changed with respect to science and technology’s relationship with society in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11.

The “Visionary” Umesao Tadao and his times

Umesao Tadao was born in Kyoto and received his science Ph.D. from Kyoto University, specializing in animal ecology. As a young boy, Umesao had loved climbing mountains. Inspired by seniors at Kyoto University in mountain-climbing and exploration, such as Imanishi Kinji and Kuwabara Takeo, he developed his scholastic style by exploring northeast China and Mongolia. After World War II, he literally went all over the world, to places like Afghanistan (1955), Southeast Asia (1957), Tanzania (1963), Europe (1967 and 1969) and Libya (1968). Based on his achievements in anthropology, he established the National Museum of Ethnology, known in Japanese as Minpaku, in 1974. As the museum’s president, he led Minpaku and Japan’s anthropology for two decades until 1993.

Not only did Umesao work in anthropology; he was an active critic in a broad array of domains. From the 1970s to 1990s, he was a vigorous participant in Japan’s intellectual debating circles. He continuously published essays that accurately predicted social values and dynamism 30 to 50 years into the future (see Table 1). “Introduction to the Ecological Conception of the History of Civilizations” (1957), for instance, explained the parallel evolution of Japan and Western Europe. His publication on feminism in 1959 asserted that full-time housewives would become unnecessary in households. “Information Industry Theory: Dawn of the Coming Era of the Ectodermal Industry” (1963) foresaw today’s advanced information society. And The Art of Intellectual Production (1969, Iwanami Shoten) proposed methods of storing and organizing information using paper cards that are identical with methods used on personal computers today. Umesao was one of the first people in the world to propose an ecological view of history, information industry theories and globalization, among other concepts.
Umesao Tadao and.2JPG.JPG
However, I feel that after the major earthquake on March 11–which destroyed the relationship of trust between science and technology and Japanese society–it is essential to overcome his framework while in part maintaining it. I review the period from the 1950s to the present to explain why.

Published in 1957, “Introduction to the Ecological Conception of the History of Civilizations” is considered to have freed post-war Japan’s debating circles from their ideological constraints stemming from dogmatic Marxism. Challenging dialectical historical materialism that adhered to monistic development, his ecological view of history advocated pluralistic development of civilizations. After making debates considerably more open, Japan devoted itself to modernization in pursuit of efficiency, and thus achieved economic growth. Society followed a path of development as envisioned by Umesao. The Japan World Exposition in Osaka in 1970 symbolized and was at the peak of this development.

Yet the pursuit of efficiency without philosophy began to fall into confusion as economic growth slowed. Lacking in principle, Japan had no idea as to which direction to take. Even so, the country surmounted two oil crises, its conservative government regained stability and the nation enjoyed prosperity amid the economic bubble. During this period, Umesao’s activities and commentary were inclined to cultural administration and showed increasing hints of nationalism.

The materialistic goals vanished after the bubble burst. As the end of the Cold War brought a fall of the order that supported Japan’s position in the international community, Japan suddenly plunged into turmoil. The 1990s came to be known as the Lost Decade. From today’s standpoint, it appears that people in Japan in those days were confused about who and where they were in addition to their lack of direction.

In 1993, Umesao resigned as Director-General of Minpaku. Meanwhile, Japanese society was in full-blown stagnation. The culture had reached its full maturity. As the population aged and the birthrate declined, the demographic pyramid took on an awkward shape. Japanese politics became increasingly chaotic with no escape. The Koizumi government followed the neoconservative wave in the West that was expected to gather momentum. However, looking back now, the events of September 11, 2001 were just the start of an era of increasing chaos.

In the 21st century, what should we do and where should we go? What will Japan be like in the future? The economy is in the doldrums while the gap between the rich and the poor widens. The cumulative fiscal deficit is growing with no limit in sight. The national pension and other social security systems cannot be sustained. Japan’s medical care system, which was once seen as a world leader, is now on the verge of collapse. Similarly, Japan has fallen from the world’s peak to near-bottom among developed countries in the levels of its primary and secondary education.

A vague anxiety existed in everyone’s mind. Even so, many continued their consumption and led idle lives. Even after 2000, the market penetration of personal computers, flat-panel televisions and digital cameras continues to rise.

And on March 11, 2011, the powerful earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant accident broke out, and they have changed the world.

Implications of 3/11

For me–someone studying science and technology’s relationship with society and practicing communications between scientists and the public – I feel ashamed to discuss the 3/11 earthquake. The Fukushima Daiichi accident and the faulty communications between the Tokyo Electric Power Co., Inc. (TEPCO) and Japanese government that followed negated my academic identity. They made me feel powerless.

The crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant demonstrates that governance of science and technology for nuclear power generation in post-war Japanese society was ultimately deficient. We were increasingly frustrated by the fact that no information on the concentration and dispersion of radioactive substances was made public. Explanations from TEPCO and the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency were constantly changing. Nuclear engineers kept their mouths shut. Findings on a simulation of radioactive substance dispersion were not quickly made open to the public. The meltdown of reactor cores was finally confirmed more than two months after it happened. The accident revealed that no preparations had been made at all regarding how to deal with science and technology information in the event of an emergency. This is not confined to the field of nuclear studies. Japan’s robotics in practice proved useless, Japanese nuclear medicine sent no effective message and its seismology completely failed to predict this major earthquake.

Photo : Tower of the SunThe failure of Japan’s science and technology–that is what the 3/11 has uncovered.

This is not solely a matter of the science and technology sector and the government. Japan’s society, nation and citizens all failed to deal with and govern science and technology. All these parties are offenders as well as victims. A huge number of nuclear reactors were constructed for the stable supply of electric power in large quantities. As frivolous consumers of electricity in the cities, we are to some extent responsible for the configuration. The mainstream of the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies, as well as myself, failed to proactively comment on nuclear power plants. The pros and cons of the nuclear power plant issue were clearly divided and entrenched, with no one able to speak from a neutral standpoint. No public domain existed on the issue. We abused this situation so that we could distance ourselves from comments made on the issue and put a lid on the controversy. And with the lid in place, we enjoyed the convenience and prosperity offered by science and technology.

March 11, 2011 was the day when the state of Japanese society, as described above, collapsed.

Post-3/11 and Umesao Sadao

We have reached the point where we associate 3/11 with Umesao. I define the 3/11 earthquake as the end of the 1970 Expo paradigm on science and technology’s relationship with Japanese society. It marked the end of the honeymoon era between two, which brought us convenience and prosperity, providing extensive and stable support for our lifestyles. The 1970 Expo in Osaka demonstrated to the rest of the world Japan’s cutting-edge science and technology that resulted from its rapid economic growth in the 1960s. Attracting a total of 64,218,770 visitors, it was the most visited World Exposition until being surpassed by the 2010 Expo in Shanghai. As a symbol of what Japan was like at that time, it still has great significance.

From 1970 onward, science and technology did not always maintain a good relationship with Japanese society. It is exactly during this period that its drawbacks began to become noticeable, such as pollution and marginalization of people. Rather, the 1970 Expo may be seen as the ultimate peak or as the start of the end. At any rate, 3/11 finalized the end of this era.

Umesao Tadao worked behind the scenes for the 1970 Expo, but fairly close to its command center, discussing the philosophy and plans for the event with Sakyo Komatsu, a science-fiction novelist, among others. He chose the chief producer and members of the committee for working out the Expo’s unified theme. He also drafted speeches for the prime minister and Expo chairman. Because he held that position, the National Museum of Ethnology was constructed upon the former site of the 1970 Expo.

Photo : Tower of the SunWith the Osaka Expo at its peak, Japanese society’s development after World War II coincided with Umesao’s path. He was a modernist who favored material affluence. A steady quantitative rise in the standard of living and intellectual level was seen as happiness for the time being. With a premonition that the future of human society might be gloomy, he had no doubt about society, for a while, moving in that direction.

Umesao is of course not responsible for the fact that post-war Japan intently sought material affluence, but I cannot help feeling that there is some underlying common factor between his clear-headed stance of neglecting the values of things and the absence of persistence in Japan after the war. From his youth to the very end of his life, Umesao repeatedly said that he would not talk about what people should do and that he had no option but to avoid referring to it (e.g., Umesao’s talks in Mirai eno taiwa, Yukonsha, 1967; and Technology and Human Nature, NTT Publishing, 2004). His words were separated from values and drift freely in the sphere of debate. Like notes taken on cards, they can be referred to by anyone and can be used as one pleases. People use Umesao’s comments and concepts with various intentions and in a range of contexts even though he himself had no such intent. Values are thus added to his words. We should understand that there must have been an underlying reason why he was employed by national and local governments as a key figure in cultural administration during the last quarter of the twentieth century. His activities at that time as a cultural planner give us a glimpse of his focus on the Japanese state and on his elitism.

The prosperity of post-war Japan can be said to have been supported by the perspective that prioritized system production efficiency. This was not Umesao’s intent. He probably did not even regard it as desirable. He clearly stated in The Art of Intellectual Production (p. 19) that that book would be nearly useless for business. He simply presented a technique of organizing information designed for individuals for the purpose of enriching their personal life. Japan’s industrial capital and market economy, however, swallowed up his better self to take advantage of this technique for increasing production efficiency.

Umesao kept himself deeply involved in the intrinsic aspects of many different domains, which may explain why he not only represented the bright side of post-war Japanese society, such as democracy, fairness and love of peace, but also produced remarks that eventually furthered its dark side – that being the reliance on technology for pursuit of immediate profit. In this sense, the date March 11 may be seen as the end of the era of Umesao Tadao.

The following part of this article assesses which aspects of his legacy we should maintain as well as extend and which we should blame then throw out.

Umesao as “living scientist”

First, what should be inherited from Umesao’s thinking is his sense of amateurism. In his “Amateur Thinker Declaration” (Shiso no kagaku, no. 1, 1952), he argued that thoughts were not to be discussed by specialists but rather to be used to the fullest by the public. He added that thoughts should be broken down into parts so the public could make the most of them, and cited material culture as a model. Cameras, for instance, and other tools are, according to Umesao, much more useful since they are independent and separate from the system of the entire culture. In this sense, thoughts are the same.

This amateurism was based on the perspective of ordinary citizens. Umesao was able to make impressive predictions because he collected and examined data from his own standpoint that was oriented to the general public. His own everyday life provided him with a field for his analyses on households, information society, Japanese civilization and other subjects. He developed his arguments based on data obtained from the field, which added great persuasiveness and foresight to his commentary. Philosopher Tsurumi Shunsuke commented that Umesao’s thinking reflected a perspective of everyday life since his early days (Shiso no kagaku, no. 65, 1967).

The 3/11 disaster has made it clear that specialists’ views and knowledge alone are unable to cover the entirety of today’s huge and complicated system of science and technology. Even experts are like the ignorant masses struggling to find the real meaning. In commenting on the nuclear power plant, nuclear physicists and power engineers have different points of view. Technical knowledge in nuclear medicine is insufficient for assessing the impact of the nuclear plant accident. Knowledge in meteorology, soil science, epidemiology, ecology and other sciences is also required.

Researchers and specialists are not in the business of organizing knowledge from a vast range of disciplines from one single perspective. They give priority to the perspectives of their respective specialties. Therefore specialists are incapable of determining a rational order of priority among different technical domains. What is needed here is interpretation with non-specialist perspective or values, especially those of ordinary people. With regard to the radiation level and internal exposure, technical knowledge must be reorganized from the perspective of what impact it has on people in everyday life and what social behaviors will be observed. Put another way, it is for reinterpreting scientific and technological information from a perspective that is close to daily life. Experts do not offer knowledge from the standpoint of ordinary citizens.

I once asserted the importance of “living science” in a joint project with Ueda Akifumi, Furuta Yukari and other members of the Citizen’s Science Initiative Japan (Sakura Osamu and Furuta Yukari, Ohayo kara oyasumi madeno kagaku, Chikuma Primer Books, 2006). This entails the task of reediting technical scientific knowledge from ordinary peoples’ perspectives. Umesao was actually a living scientist.

Specialists should provide scientific and technological information based on perspectives and values of ordinary citizens, whereas ordinary citizens should edit the information from their own standpoint and give specialists their feedback on missing data and information that they need. Putting this cyclical process into practice will let science and technology supply their benefits to society and allow ordinary people to take advantage of them. In reality, inadequate construction of a system for the cyclical process caused Japan’s nuclear power administration to lose contact with the public and bring an end to itself, forcing its collapse.

Umesao’s perception of science

Now, let us delineate Umesao’s thoughts, which had limitations. The first of these is observed in his perception of science and the second lies in his approach of disregarding individual specificity and paying attention solely to the system.

We can first focus on his perception of science. Umesao was basically a nihilist and inclined to value relativism, given that he admired Taoism, especially Zhuangzi’s philosophy. He had a chilly, distant attitude toward natural sciences. He recognized that scientific approaches were limited and with regard to understanding humanity were completely inadequate; this is still a valid point and quite true under today’s circumstances. As genomic sciences and neurosciences develop, it becomes increasingly significant to study the essence of what scientific understanding of humanity is all about.

Though Umesao had this amateur and ordinary-citizen perspective, he evidently believed that scientific methodology was beyond the reach of non-specialists. In a dialog with Dr. Yukawa Hideki, a Nobel Laureate in physics, Umesao commented:

We often hear about everyday science. I think this term contains a fundamental contradiction. Science can be science since it deals with the extraordinary. No science comes from everyday experience. (Yukawa Hideki and Umesao Tadao, Ningen-ni totte kagaku towa nanika, Chuko Shinsho, 1967, p. 96

Methodologies in natural sciences are in fact so distant from human intuition that they cannot be understood and fully utilized without a certain type of training. Yet Umesao lacked the perspective or concept of putting the knowledge and view of nature gained through these methodologies back into everyday life.

In his mind, amateurism and elitism evidently had a mixed coexistence. In the abovementioned “Amateur Thinker Declaration,” Umesao referred to cameras as an example of amateurism, but he often boasted that he was an expert photographer. His photographic skills were in fact comparable to those of a professional. He published several photo books in the Iwanami Shashin Bunko (Photo Library) series and was a member of the Japan Professional Photographers Society, whose membership was exclusively for professional photographers. Similar foresight and limitations are seen in Minpaku’s emphasis on citizens. While Umesao insisted on building a museum for the people, he repeatedly stressed the importance of delivering “accurate” knowledge on ethnology (The Museum as Media, Heibonsha, 1987). This is based, without criticism or skepticism, on his enlightened assumption that “accurate knowledge” is determined by ethnological experts and researchers.

Such was Umesao’s ambivalence that he highly appreciated high-level achievements unique to professionals while powerfully calling for opening the world of thought to amateurs. Without clearing up this internal contradiction, it is impossible to identify science and technology’s position in society.

Bridging between the system and individual differences

The second point reflecting Umesao’s limitations is his stance of studying the entire system without the slightest consideration of individual differences. He always solely discussed the dynamism of the entire system in his ecological conception of the history of civilizations, in his theory on information industry and in his argument on the lack of need for full-time housewives.. This in itself is no problem, but the complete absence of considering the behaviors, activities and lives of individuals in the system is a problem.

At the time of collecting data, Umesao acted completely from the viewpoint of ordinary people; in other words, at a personal level. At that stage, his data collection was thorough. In accordance with his principle of recording everything he observed in his ethnological field work, he not only took notes but also drew pictures, took photos and collected information using his entire body, including the sense of smell and touch. He then shifted the viewpoint to a reference point outside the system to take an overall look at the huge amount of data collected and grasp them as a single system. For Example, in his ethnological field survey in Afghanistan, he observed historical ruins of an ethnic group. He then placed his outside reference point at “the present time” to provide effective discussion from a bird’s-eye view (Umesao Tadao, Exploration to the Moghols in Afghanistan, Iwanami Shoten, 1956).

His methodology is basically the same as for any domain, other than for anthropology. For example, when discussing information civilization, he defined the television industry as inside of the system while defining schools and religious activities as being outside (he also integrated both of them into a single system). In his reviews on world civilizations, Japan and ethnic groups in Asia were inside and Europe was outside.

However, once he acquired the bird’s-eye view, he dropped the insect’s-eye view for closely examining the details inside the system. He eliminated the huge amount of data on details and merely discussed the behaviors and characteristics at the system level both in his discussion of ecological conception of the history of civilizations and in his theory of information industry. As a result, his arguments lost their strong persuasiveness and remained just as rough sketches rather than academic observations.

We can recognize just one from among his works trying to link the elements with the system level–that is, his early study in animal ecology. Shortly after returning to Japan after the end of World War II, he carried out theoretical and experimental studies (appearing in Seibutsu kagaku, vols. 1-3, 1949-51) on mathematical description of the distribution of animal groups based on interferential relations between individuals. This academic achievement earned him a doctorate in science in 1991. His works surely were revolutionary by the academic standard of ecology at that time since they bridged elements (individuals) and system (society). Even in this work, he attempted solely to develop a model of dynamics at the group level without paying attention to the differences among individual animals. He disregarded the possibility of subtle individual differences might produce certain effects on the structure of society. This was an oversimplification, however. According to the findings of recent results on the studies of individual-based models with computer simulation, it is quite likely that a small individual difference can cause a major structural change.

This is totally true of human society. The approach for assessing science and technology’s relationship with society varies widely depending on who is involved, where and when. It is impossible to reach a universal answer to this type of question. I feel it is necessary to persistently tackle such questions and take responsive action each time they occur, no matter how burdensome this may be. We failed to do so and we excluded then isolated debates on nuclear power plants from our society. By just viewing the nuclear “village” from afar, we left it unaddressed, and this resulted in the Fukushima Daiichi accident. This lesson shows that we cannot run away from these issues.

Umesao’s homework for us

On March 10, 2011, just the day before the earthquake, the special exhibition on “Umesao Tadao” opened at the National Museum of Ethnology, or Minpaku (and ran until June 14). It displayed part of the huge number of materials related to Umesao stored at the Minpaku. That was a valuable exhibition that clearly demonstrated his way of thinking and his method of collecting materials.

Photo : Umesao Tadao ten
Fryer of the Special
Exhibition “UMESAO Tadao.”
Courtesy of National Museum of Ethnology

Arima Makiko, president of the Japan National Committee for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), contributed a memoir to the exhibition’s catalog (Umesao Tadao–Chiteki senkusha no kiseki, The Senri Foundation, 2011). She says that he advised her not to get involved in the issue of so-called comfort women, describing it as too complicated and hard to manage. That was a realistic and rational judgment that I do not mean to criticize. However, someone has to address it. If everyone but those immediately concerned avoid the issue, there will be no progress toward its settlement. I think that we who are not directly concerned should at least seek to provide an opportunity for public “forum” on the issue.

At present, a pile of problems having similar qualities–clashing values and complicated backgrounds–, is emerging as a consequence of diversification of values and changes in social structure. Nuclear power-related issues and energy policies are prime examples in Japan, not to mention like problems related to medical care, education and aging society, which fall under this category. We can recognize similar conditions even at the global level: such problems include ethnic confrontation, the conflict between globalism and localism, poverty and the environment. We non-specialists can make little contribution to address these problems, but we believe that continuing open discussion in public forums could help thaw the frozen deadlock, if only slightly. The circumstances will never improve and will grow even worse if we deny the possibility of sorting problems out or avoid tackling them from the very outset.

Umesao Tadao left assignments for us living in the post-3/11 world. That is, in building a major framework, running the cycle of small activities, and continually thinking about the world from the perspective of everyday life. To accomplish this, it is inevitable to gradually change the curriculum of science education and the structure for governance of science and technology, but it will take a long time. Instead we should start with what we can do, which is just keeping these challenges in mind. I believe that Japan’s science and technology will regain public confidence and will revive if a great number of scientists and engineers earnestly address Umesao’s homework.

Photo : Umesao Tadao ten
Umesao Collection: Umesao signed
his name in katakana, memorized a
short background of each book in
Esperanto, and then sealed his
ownership mark on it.

Note: This article was originally prepared for “Umesao Tadao and 3.11,” Chuo Koron, August 2011, pp.24-41. The author has rewritten this article for use in Japan Echo Web, under permission from Chuo Koron Shinsha.