The electricity that comes from lively exchanges between different people from different cultures and different disciplines can produce new ideas, new perspectives and stunning breakthroughs and innovations. But please don’t expect that from a Japanese conference.
I recently sat through a conference that reminded me of much of what is excruciating about academic and intellectual life in our wonderful country. PowerPoint after PowerPoint after PowerPoint.
And when it came to Q&A. Not one comment. Not one question. And obviously, not one answer.
The PowerPoints were crammed with information, a lot of it useful no doubt. But how much can you absorb? How can you stay concentrated when there is no humour? Not one joke! And how can your mind be dazzled or stimulated when there are no critical insights or provocative interpretations?
It reminds me of education in our wonderful country. The students just sit there, passively swallowing the information that is fed to them. They prepare to regurgitate it at their exams. The Japanese high school history books are very thin, but crammed with dates and names – of course, to be recited and regurgitated. If the professor asks a question, the students just freeze and look for a book to hide behind.
And then I went to another conference a few weeks back. The Japanese speakers gave long, incomprehensive tirades, again full of descriptive information. They spoke so quickly that I couldn’t take it in. For whom were they speaking? Were the speeches heroic exhibitions of knowledge, arrogant demonstations of power, or just mindless regurgitations of information? One would never know what goes on in the minds of these people.
There is also sometimes the case of a comical entertainer at a Japanese conference, a Japanese who wants to become unJapanese and Western, but who fails on both counts. It is just vacuous showmanship.
Transparency and openness were never characteristics of Japan. At least, information is now circulating more freely. This is a positive step.
However, in the world of ideas, Japan is now competing, not only with the West, but also with its Asian neighbours. The Chinese and Koreans are way ahead of the Japanese in developing ideas, formulating arguments and expressing themselves.
Some of Japan’s Asian neighbours are still afraid of a revival of Japanese militarism. They shouldn’t worry. The best form of defense would be taking away their PowerPoints!
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