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Monday, Nov. 15, 2004

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

The importance of questioning fearlessly and answering honestly


"Any damn fool can answer a question. The important thing is to ask one."

These truly insightful words were spoken by Joan Robinson, easily one of the most celebrated economists of the 20th century. Her words of wisdom are many and varied. The very title of one of her pieces of writing in 1932 states that: "Economics is a Serious Subject: The apologies of an economist to the mathematician, the scientist and the plain man." Anyone with the perceptiveness and courage to write something like this is bound to be a questioner par excellence.

Such a person however, is clearly not welcome in the eyes of politicians, policymakers, bureaucrats, CEOs and other people in positions of responsibility. This is certainly the impression one gets as one watches those responsible people in action in the media and elsewhere. That impression, alas, is most acutely felt when those people happen to be Japanese.

The question-averseness was painfully in evidence as the first news of the Niigata earthquakes hit the nation last month. The very body language of the officials supposedly in charge conveyed, as no words can, their terror of questions, their paralysis in the face of them, and their deeply rooted suspicion of ulterior motives.

To be sure, Japanese officialdom does not have the monopoly on the general dislike of questions. Indeed, had Joan Robinson been present today to watch the winner of the most recent U.S. presidential election, she would surely feel compelled to admit to erring in parts of her sagacious statement. At the very least, she would feel the need to qualify it and say something like: "Any damn fool can answer a question, provided he is carrying a strange oblong object on his back, strategically concealed under his jacket."

That said, the feeling still remains that Japan is the place where questions tend to be most widely abhorred. Those in the position to answer them seem to regard questions as accusations, if not inquisitions. Questions make them feel threatened. Or humiliated. Or both. That psyche makes them paranoid. They become totally defensive. They try as best they can to get away with saying nothing. Alternatively, they become totally vicious and vindictive. If they have a nimble tongue, they fight back with facetious cynicism, as is the case with the guy with the top job in Japanese government at present.

Such attitudes are off-putting for the questioner, too. The more feebleminded will tend to forego asking the question, for fear of what revenge may be in store.

None of this, of course, is at all helpful. In times of crisis, we all just want to know what is going on. Nobody is accusing anybody of anything. Nobody wants to hear excuses. Nobody is trying to make people say things that they do not know. As yet another high-ranking U.S. official once famously observed, the known unknowns can be very significant. Not to say the unknown unknowns, of course. Here, clearly, is somebody who does not need the aid of strange objects concealed about his person to tackle tricky questions.

The supreme question-dodger is somebody who ignores the question and chooses to answer an unasked question of his own making. That way, any damn fool can, unquestionably, always answer a question. But that brings us no nearer to the truth under any circumstances. When lives are at stake, which is unfortunately and increasingly the case in this time of typhoons, earthquakes, terrorist attacks and hostage-taking, what we need more of are good questions and honest answers.

May Heaven send us more questioners of Joan Robinson's caliber. And people with the courage to respond to them.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University School of Management.


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