There Is No Scapegoat

仕方が無い
There Is No Scapegoat

 

 To stand atop other people… is to bear a great many responsibilities, and hand down a great many decisions. As a result, governments and organizations have different beliefs and ideals depending on their positions. People are no different. When one wishes to do something, there are inevitably some who see it as good and others who see it as evil. However, if you are able to place yourself in different positions, then all of them will appear to be right.

And… although it is sad, there may not always be a path which satisfies each and every one of their wishes… No matter what you rely on at those times, or what path you show to those below you… If you hesitate at those times… then you must have the courage to stand still and look back at how you arrived there.

And… you must never hesitate to stain your own hands with blood. Those who show others the way must not avert their eyes from the weight of responsibility.

煌武院 悠陽,マブラヴ オルタネイティブ
Yuuhi Koubuin, Muv-Luv Alternative

 

If there is a will, is there always a way? When discussing The Human Condition in class, many people found that the characters portrayed as good or nice people were actually wrongdoers because they failed to act. “Michiko’s ignorance is inexcusable”, or “Kaji could’ve done something else, earlier”. This echoed an earlier discussion of the Japanese concept of “仕方が無い”, commonly translated as “It cannot be helped”. Most who voiced their thoughts took the stance that this was very passive and fatalistic, an opinion other Westerners have shared [1][2]. “In any situation, you can do something that makes your situation better, so if you don’t do it you are responsible!” is the idea, but how realistic is this? While the Japanese may have fatalistic tendencies, their literature and reality itself make a solid case that most things cannot be helped. They attempt to take responsibility, but responsibility itself is too idealistic. Responsibility is largely an irrelevant concept: in general and in the greater scheme of thing, there really is nothing to be done.

 

The Japanese place an importance on personal responsibility; they simply also do not place too much worldly significance on it. In Japan, people do expect others to take responsibility for their actions, and do take responsibility themselves. In Ihara Saikaku’s (1642-1693) short story Hunting Early Mushrooms Sows the Seeds of Love, a man merely knowing his lover and a stranger shared a cup of sake caused him to attempt a murder-suicide [3]. This man does not consider reporting it to the authorities, or writing about it in the news, or taking it up with the stranger: he takes it upon himself, literally immediately. More recently in post-WW2 Japan, there were many people who took the emperor’s message to “bear the unbearable” to heart, and took it upon themselves to do what they could. John Dower’s Embracing Defeat retells a housewife’s story of the time, where even in the harshest of times, she does not loot or engage in other immoral activities:

Out of principle as well as poverty, the family tried to use the black market as little as possible […] [Her husband], too, began to suffer noticeably from malnutrition, his entire body beginning to swell up. The children ceased screaming and lay motionless. Only feeble cries from the newborn baby broke the silence. [4]

The Japanese famously have companies where the upper management take pay cuts and scale themselves down in times of financial hardship. Nintendo’s CEO halving his salary is a recent example: regardless of the shame vs guilt culture, a particular man made and executed a decision on himself [5]. However, these individual responsibilities aren’t treated in the same manner as responsibility in Western cultures. There is no sense that if one does something wrong, they will stand before the one omnipotent god with a checklist of their every last sin and be ultimately judged for all eternity. Similarly, each individual decision, no matter how important and no matter how dire the situation, is considered to be a choice that only affects the situation locally in both time and space. Would the CEO of Nintendo’s salary cut really change the course of a company worth over a trillion yen? Would being an amateur looter or user of the black market really have helped the housewife’s children? The Japanese find it personally important that they take the actions they do, perhaps even to an extreme. Unlike Westerners though, they do not think that the world therefore changes.

 

Humanism, the most prominent philosophy in recent history that dictates responsibility, is wholly unrealistic. Traditional responsibility for crimes only covers direct active harm, but humanism extends this to indirect passive harm. Wang, the leader of the Chinese prisoners, had a line for the literary climax of The Human Condition: No Greater Love[1] summarizes the humanist position. The impending situation in the movie was the execution of some Chinese prisoners under the watch of Kaji, our protagonist. Kaji was assigned these prisoners by the kenpeitai, the all-powerful Japanese military police, and he wanted to treat them as humanely as possible. The meaning of Wang’s statement is that if Kaji does not stop the kenpeitai from executing the Chinese prisoners accused of attempting to escape, then he will be a murderer:

You and I will both make minor mistakes. We can be forgiven if we correct them. But an error made at the crucial moment becomes an unforgivable crime. So far as I can see, your life has been a long series of errors stemming from the conflict between your work and yourself, though you’ve probably tried to correct them. But for this coming crucial moment… that moment will separate the murderers who wear the mask of humanism from those worthy of the beautiful name “human being.” [6-1]

It should first be clear that Kaji isn’t actually a murderer; he does not aid and indeed makes many different honest attempts to stop it from happening. Despite this, Wang says “And yet you do nothing?”, as if all of the actions Kaji did take might as well have not been taken. No attempt except one that actually ends up stopping the execution is good enough for Wang, only the result is important. In itself there is no problem in only evaluating results; a murderer is a murderer regardless of their reasoning. However, Kaji quite literally had nothing to do with the situation except that he was assigned to those prisoners. He did not encourage, help, plan, or tell the prisoners to escape or anger any of the mine authorities. He did certainly get more involved, but according to Wang all the things he did do up until that conversation were irrelevant because they didn’t yet stop the final conclusion. If Kaji fails to stop the executions, he is no longer a “human being”? From the time of making this movie to the present day such fleeting logic has exploded in usage, and its implications are just as nonsensical. One netizen noticed the necessary logical conclusion of pinning responsibility on those who are causing indirect passive harm in the video game industry:

>person 1 does not have money to buy $60 new VIDEO GAME
>person 1 watches the paint dry on the wall for entertainment
>person 1 contributes $0 to game dev

>person 2 does not have money to buy $60 new VIDEO GAME
>person 2 pirates game and plays game for entertainment
>person 2 contributes $0 to game dev

Person 2 contribution = Person 1 contribution.

Not playing the game and not paying hurts the dev as much as playing the game and not paying.

Using your logic every human being alive should be forced to give money to dev because otherwise they’re hurting the industry. [7]

The in-class discussion of The Human Condition showed that people do indeed think this way, namely, that Kaji’s wife Michiko was also partly at fault for the poor conditions and the executions at the mines. If Michiko, who basically never leaves the house except for errands, is responsible for occurrences at the mine where she never visited and people she’s never met, why don’t we hold some random British sergeant on the other side of the planet responsible? Supposing the story was real, you and I and Abraham Lincoln would also be “murderers” because we didn’t stop the execution. Saying that the Japanese or those with the Japanese mindset, from Kaji to Michiko, fail to be humanists is fine. But saying that they’re passive, fatalistic, and fail to be responsible is a simply not true in the slightest.

 

In the stories of The Human Condition and of Psycho-Pass, the Japanese craft a strong stance: Across all fields and schemes of life, one human is ultimately powerless.

 

Revisiting the execution scene of the Human Condition, could things really be helped either way? As Wang declared Kaji a comrade/countrymen to everyone after three executions, it’s unclear whether Kaji’s rebellion against the kenpeitai would have made a difference if he made his declaration right before the first execution, or right before the last one. More broadly, Kaji’s existence at the mines doesn’t really change the general situation for the Chinese P.O.W.s. The prostitutes were the mine president’s idea and the barbed electric fence the kenpeitai sergeant’s idea, so about the only major difference Kaji made was less whipping and occasional time outside the mines and fence. The latter activity was not shown to have any consequence except making the Chinese expect more out of Kaji, and the former saved probably as many lives as he did at the execution. That being said, those improved margins were things Kaji took pride in improving, and all he got in the end was shame from the prisoners, sent off to the military by his company, with all his work undone by the next guy that would be replacing him. Short of a high-ranking kenpeitai of Kaji’s beliefs gracing the mines with his presence and declaring something different, the situation would not have changed in any realistic way – which would be unrealistic in and of itself. In the book version of The Human Condition it’s shown that the kenpeitai sergeant was himself just a poor farmer who learned his cruel ways from the military [6-2]. How strong does one’s mind have to be to endure past such indoctrination?

 

The 2013 anime Psycho-Pass creates a similar setup with the relation between its protagonist Akane Tsunemori and her subordinates. In this post-cyberpunk world the automated Sibyl System actively determines your aptitude for everything, and largely plans out your entire life for you. One of the things the system is able to determine, based on your psychology and motives, is your potential for criminal activity. Akane joins the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Division where she works with “latent criminals”, people who have been determined by the system to have a high “Crime Coefficient”. Latent criminals in this world are generally locked up with little to no contact with the outside world, but a lucky few are chosen for their detective abilities. These few instead spend their time confined to the PSB building, unless they’re out to make an arrest, in which case an entire area is sealed off by automated robots first. Even during the high-tension scenes, it is the Sibyl System which gives the final decision: the only weapons the PSB are allowed are guns called “Dominators”, which fire to stun or kill depending on the Sibyl System’s judgement, and remain locked otherwise. It is in this world that Akane, with her near-perfect aptitudes and the uncloudable color of her psycho-pass, tries to act on her idealism.

The ostensibly perfect Sibyl System is revealed to be fundamentally flawed first by the humanization of the latent criminals and then by the existence of the primary antagonist, who, standing at the other end of a Dominator, has a Crime Coefficient that drops to zero as he murders a woman. While the kenpeitai system of The Human Condition is portrayed to be largely destructive and cruel, the Sibyl System of Psycho-Pass is lauded for achieving John Stuart Mill’s “greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people”, its city the wealthiest and safest place in the world, and is intimately necessary for the fundamental logistics of the whole country. Through befriending her coworkers and the death of a few of her friends, Akane comes to despise the system. However, she cannot bring herself to support the antagonist, whose goal is to destroy the Sibyl System. Kaji had a fairly easy to criticize position in comparison, as he had to prevent the executions of seven prisoners by a single man. In opposing the Sibyl System due to its flaws, supposing she could find a way around her own personality and all the automated scanners and robots and was able to succeed, Akane would bring “the only country on Earth ruled by law” to anarchy.

You instinctively hate and emotionally detest us right now. And yet, you still cannot deny the Sibyl System’s significance and necessity. You accept the fact that the current social order cannot hold without Sibyl. You place the importance on its necessity rather than its justifiability. We highly value your standards. […] Akane Tsunemori possesses a sense of purpose that is shared by the Sibyl System. Hence, we decided that the chance that you’d reveal our secrets and endanger the system is infinitely small. [8]

Supposing Akane did choose to oppose the Sibyl System, more likely than not she would simply get eliminated and then replaced. The world would continue on.

The one person that does almost make major changes is the antagonist, Shougo Makishima. His special “Criminally Asymptomatic” personality allows him to evade scanners to set up and execute elaborate plans, but as the series continues and his plans get more and more devastating, the character himself is actually revealed to be less and less powerful. In the final episodes, though the setup and the motives of all characters are made clear and reasonable, the most crucial of events are shown to be results of chance. The final fight is a knife fight between the story’s main latent criminal and Makishima where the main character happens to win. By their nature, knife fights cannot be trained for and are highly variable as every cut could be the last, so this is plausible [9]. Shortly after in another location, Makishima attempts to shoot Akane, but the gun is out of bullets, as five shots were shown earlier in the episode and no reload had occurred by the only person who possessed bullets [10]. From the standard narrative structure of “main character trains harder and has more willpower than the enemy, therefore the main character wins no matter what”, what occurs in Psycho-Pass amounts to deus ex machina. Every instance is nonetheless believable. Every character did what they could in accord with their means and beliefs, and as with The Human Condition this is one of Psycho-Pass’s strongest points. The Japanese posit that one’s means and beliefs do not alone determine the outcome of a situation; that most things affecting your life are out of your control. These modern cinematic stories echo the more ancient and traditional book Hagakure by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, often referred to as the Book of the Samurai: You can only do your best.

It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one’s aim is to die a dog’s death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one’s aim. [11-1]

There is a saying that goes, “No matter what the circumstances might be, one should be of the mind to win. One should be holding the first spear to strike.” Even though you have put your life on the line, there is nothing to be done when the situation doesn’t go as planned. [11-2]

 

As Hagakure is a book for samurai, often they would only be able to make the one final choice, but even in less lethal circumstances the 仕方が無いway of thinking is not unrealistic. As Americans the individualist culture is as common to us as the air we breathe, but how often do Americans take personal responsibility and go against the grain? As the accusation is that Japanese don’t do it enough, do Americans do it more often than the Japanese? From the 1600’s writings of Saikaku to the 2013 anime Psycho-Pass, it is fairly clear that the Japanese admire taking individual responsibility at least as much as Americans do. They do their best, but don’t expect that the world will change because of it. There are powers in existence greater than our individual wills, many whose existence we cannot fathom and whose extent we cannot imagine. Taking into account such powers and the infinitely detailed logistical proceedings that consist of real life, the mindset of 仕方が無い arose. Those crucial differences make the Japanese attitude much more pragmatic.

 

Cited Works

[1] Hugh Cortazi, “The curse of ‘shikata ga nai’”, The Japan Times, April 16, 2001. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/author/int-hugh_cortazzi/

[2] Robert Neff, “Japan Explained”, Bloomberg Businessweek, Oct 29, 2000. http://www.businessweek.com/stories/2000-10-29/japan-explained

[3] Ihara Saikaku, “Hunting Early Mushrooms Sows the Seeds of Love”, trans. David Gundry.

[4] John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat (New York: Norton, 2000). pg. 102

[5] Ryan Fleming, “Nintendo’s CEO Takes 50-Percent Pay Cut Following Poor Earnings”, Digital Trends, Jan 29, 2014. http://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/nintendos-ceo-takes-50-percent-pay-cut/

[6] James J. Orr, The Victim as Hero (Hawaii: University of Hawaii, 2001). pg. 120, pg. 124

[7] korezaan, “Mar 22”, Lines, Mar 22, 2014.  http://korezaan.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/mar-22/

[8] Psycho-Pass, Ep 17 – “Iron Heart”. Dir. Naoyoshi Shiotani, Writ. Gen Urobochi, Makoto Fukami. Production I.G., 2013.

[9] “Knife fighting lies”, No Nonsense Self-Defense http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/knifelies.html

[10] “Fridge: Psycho-Pass”, TVTropes. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Fridge/PsychoPass

[11] Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure, trans. William Scott Wilson (Boston: Shambala, 2012). pg. 3, pg. 145

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One thought on “There Is No Scapegoat

  1. Pingback: The Top 10 Things I Learned of at College [1~6] | All Else Is Halation

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