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    Kitaro's scholarly passion was to "synthesize" the best of Eastern and Western philosophical thinking, with the aim of revealing hidden likenesses and building bridges of understanding between the two. He pursued this at a time when the divisions between East and West were nearing their most extreme, and when fanatical nationalism held sway in Japan. Kitaro risked his career and perhaps his life in asserting with characteristic honesty - with the end of replacing the crazed climate that pervaded his society with a more rational and humble outlook - that all cultures can have great merit, and have much to teach us. He wrote that "cultural differences make the world rich," and that "the world will have no rest until it finds a way to global cooperation."

    Soon after the outset of World War II in the Pacific, Kitaro wrote in an essay, "Principles of a New World Order," that "peace that embraces all of humankind is possible only if ... a global world comes into being." This view was considered heretical, and was scathingly lambasted by the expansionist zealots in Japan who had convinced their people to go to war, duping them into believing that the "Japanese spirit" made them superior and would overrun everything that stood in its way to worldwide domination.

    As Yusa Michiko of the Center for East Asian Studies at Western Washington University notes, Kitaro's philosophical perspective represented a "note of conscience and rationality amidst the tumultuous fanaticism all around him," and it was "far too universal in scope" - and far too honest, for humanitarian ends - "to submit to the petty racial egoism, cultural chauvinism, and pseudo-religious belief in the superiority of the Japanese people that was the hallmark of the ... ultranationalism ... prevalent at the time."

    Nishida Kitaro felt it incumbent to speak the painful truth, for noble ends - for the long-term good and harmony of humankind - such was his deep "concern for the future of Japan ... not [as] a matter of abstract philosophical categories, but of living realities of very concrete consequence."


In the latter part of the Republic, written after abandoning any pretense of faithfulness to the type of forthright inquiry practiced by Socrates, Plato endorsed the telling of lies by rulers, if lies served to forge stronger bonds of identity and unity among members of a society. Plato contended that such lies are not only acceptable, but can also be considered "noble."

    While such a lie may serve benign ends in the type of purely imaginary utopia that Plato fashioned, I think historical experience bears out that whenever such "noble lies" are employed in the real world, they oppress some groups of people at the expense of others. Such lies have justified slavery and, as was the case in the World War II era in Japan, legitimized acts of extreme aggression and other forms of human subjugation.

    Much better than Plato's version of the noble lie is the type illustrated by Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Tom gets a terrible licking after taking the blame, and the beating, for tearing out the picture plate in his teacher's textbook, even though his girlfriend, Becky Thatcher, really did it, to protect someone weaker from a sadistic teacher. When Becky told her dad, Judge Thatcher, what Tom did for her, the ebullient Judge declared that Tom's "was a noble, a generous, a magnanimous lie-a lie worthy to hold up its head and march down through history breast to breast with George Washington's lauded truth about the hatchet."

    Thus in Japan, as everywhere else, sometimes the unvarnished truth is called for, but sometimes, an out-and-out lie, depending on the circumstances, in order to advance humanitarian ends.

    In Kyoto, Japan, there is a famous nature trail known as the Philosophers' Walk, or Tetsugaku no Michi. It features a meandering cherry-tree-lined path that runs along the canal in the city, which in many ways is a throwback to a more traditional Japan. Along the way, there are a number of beautiful temples, and bridges shaped like halfmoons, where you can look out over the canal and feel as if you are far removed from the city. It's called the Philosophers' Walk because Japan's revered philosopher Nishida Kitaro (1870-1945) took daily sojourns there.


In her book Polite Lies, Kyoko Mori, although at one point acknowledging the drawbacks of certain types of lying, nonetheless writes that "(l)ies are fascinating because there are so many possibilities for invention and embellishment. In a liar's mouth, facts are no longer boring and predictable, but interesting and surprising." Such lies, I would add, often are all too believable, and are all too capable of being used for the most pernicious ends. Anyone subjected in any way to the heinous lies of the Nazi propagandists, or of the Jim Crow racists, surely would much prefer the "boring and predictable" truth to the "fascinating, interesting, and surprising" lies that led to their subjugation, torture, and much worse.

Surely lies are vital, even virtuous, if one's ends are to advance humanity. A German gentile hiding a Jew during the era of the Holocaust might well lie to Gestapo agents searching her home, just as an abolitionist might have lied to a slave hunter about whether he was harboring a runaway slave. Such lies are not made for the purpose of invention and embellishment, much less to be interesting or surprising, but instead are made to protect the lives of fellow human beings who otherwise would have suffered what to those sheltering them would have been an unconscionable fate.

The inordinately influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant (l724-1804) - founder of the so-called "critical philosophy" movement-said that one should decide whether to tell the truth, or to lie, based on this "categorical imperative": "Your actions should be based only on maxims that you would like to see become universal laws." In other words, if you want to know whether it's better to tell the truth or lie on any particular occasion, first try to imagine what it would be like if everyone lied. Kant believed that all "rational beings" would prefer a world where everyone told the truth to one in which lying was all-pervasive. He reasoned that no one would or could ever trust anyone else in a society of liars. But I don't think there's much difference between the two. If you knew people always lied, you could easily discern the truth from their lies.

    It certainly would be nice if such formulaic imperatives could be applied to every circumstance, as Kant felt they could. But for anyone striving to cultivate a type of virtue in which, at minimum, no harm comes to the innocent or oppressed, there are rare times when dishonesty, even downright lies, might be called for. There's just no way to skirt the hard work of determining what to say, and how to say what one needs to say, in every unique situation.

excerpted from Six Questions of Socrates from Page 47 :


In Confucius Lives Next Door, T. R. Reid, who for five years was the Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief, calls Japan "the native home of the euphemism." He says there is "something mechanical - in fact, there's something arguably phony - about all the flowery verbiage" and "linguistic rigmarole" that "mark normal discourse in Japan.” I think Reid's comments reveal more about himself than about Japan. Their way of conversing certainly may be phony and mechanical and convoluted for him, particularly if he's used to the very discursive and abrupt style of communication used in the United States. But it's not phony or mechanical for the Japanese. For them, it is normal discourse, at least in certain situations. It is every bit as innate in them to talk this way as it is for Reid not to - though the truth is that in the United States, as anyone knows who has ever listened to a government press conference, we can be as adept at "linguistic rigmarole" as anyone anywhere.

    For Reid to characterize pejoratively the way Japanese communicate is, I think, to reveal his lack of understanding and appreciation for a culture that communicates in ways that are different from his own. Reid also does not take note of the fact that Japanese are much less prone to talk in this manner in settings that they consider private, such as the one in which the dialogue I held with them took place.

    His rather one-dimensional take on Japanese ways of communicating would have one think that tatemae is tantamount to what one says, and honne to what one means. But it would be much more accurate to portray them as distinct but in no way contradictory ways of saying what one means-one of them, to be sure, couched in florid social conventions, and the other more direct, but usually no less gentle and empathetic, at its best.

    John Condon is more on the mark in his succinct observation that "each way of communicating, the Japanese and American, must be viewed on its Own terms, and not on the expectations of the other." But it must also be viewed in terms of its ends. What should be critiqued is not how the Japanese communicate, but what ends their form of communication serves. One should examine, for instance, whether their way of communication leads to a more open society that serves to address its serious social dilemmas, or whether it only serves to mask entrenched social problems that eventually exacerbate to the point that society can unravel.