On Being ‘Lost in Translation’ Today

Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun. Charlotte from Lost in Translation

A few months ago, as I was teaching students, mainly from European countries, I came across two unsettling realisations, that I was old, and did not really know anything about Japan.  Or more specifically, did not know exactly what I know about Japan.  It’s all very Donald Rumfeldian.

Let me explain. I was teaching foreign students about Otaku culture.  I always begin this lecture by asking, ‘What was your first exposure to Japan, what film or book introduced you to Japan?’ Most students answer ‘Princess Mononoke’ or ‘Ghost in Shell’.  After that, It is an easy sedgeway to Hatsune Miku and Hiroki Azuma, and the rest of Otaku culture.  But not anymore, because for my students, their first exposure to Japan was no Miyazaki films or Kurasawa films, they were born much later.  For them, the film was Lost in Translation.

On hearing this, I felt old.  I use to lie in these lectures and say that my first exposure to Japan was ‘Akira’, a manga an anime set in a post-apocalyptic Tokyo.  It wasn’t, my first experience of Japan was reading Zen no Kenkyu by Nishida Kitaro, he was writing in the early 1900’s so I felt he wasn’t relevant.  For my students, the adventures of Bob and Chartlotte were key to their introduction to Japan.  I have always been a big fan of the film, and after I moved here to Japan, watch it regularly.  It is a wonderful love story that captures the isolation or alienation that many a foreigner feels on coming to Japan, whether I be for a couple of weeks or the rest of their life.  But wait a minute, isolation and alienation?  That’s why you came to Japan?

Do not mistake me, I love Lost in Translation, but other than making me feel old, my student’s observation prompted another thought in me, and that thought was this: Do we only see the Japan we expect to see?

I am very much an academic, I came here for Buddhism and for philosophy, and that does colour my image of Japan.  The Japan I expect to see is one of temples and shrines, to appreciate the togetherness of all things.  For my students though, they expect existential alienation, not just because of Lost in Translation, but because good friends told them Japan is a wonderful place, but you may feel isolated at times.  And maybe they are right, but we also have to ask, at what point does what they have been told about Japan not just inform, but actually constitute your experience?  They came here thinking that Japan would be isolating, maybe they were right, yet I am also troubled by Charlotte assertion:

Let’s never come here again because it would never be as much fun

How would you know, if you never came back?

The Media, Dr. Obokata & the Curse of Fatal Truth

No one now dies of fatal truths: there are too many antidotes to them.  – Friedrich Nietzsche, Human All Too Human

Philosophers love truth — that’s a truism. What about the rest of us? Do we love truth or falsehood? Truth, we naturally affirm. So why are we swimming in falsehood? Michael Hoffman, Japan Times

Dr. Obokata “..announced the breakthrough in January in two published in the scientific journal Nature, but the discovery was thrown into doubt after researchers elsewhere failed to replicate her work.

 The ruling has not settled the debate over whether her breakthrough was real, though. In a bizarre twist in an already convoluted story, the committee’s ruling against Obokata came moments before an independent researcher claimed to have succeeded in making the cells using a slightly different procedure.

 Much of the scrutiny of Obokata’s claims played out on science websites where researchers pointed several discrepancies in her work, including images that looked manipulated, and text that appeared to have been plagiarised. The doubts led to a split among the authors of the papers, with one, Teruhiko Wakayama, calling for a retraction until the research had been thoroughly checked.

The investigation concluded that Dr. Obokata was guilty of academic wrong-doing and she shall appeal the decision.   As an academic, this entire episode troubles me.  I am an academic philosopher, plagiarism or mis-representing the facts in an academic context, is one of the worst crimes an academic can commit.  Dr. Obokata is rightfully censured, although there are still issues to be worked out.  Science is a slow process, results should remain under constant review with the understanding that a good scientific theory, being one (for some at least) that has yet to be proven wrong, not one that has been given some credence and then left alone.  The best check of any theory is constant testing.  So it shouldn’t surprise that on April 1st 2014, hours after the RIKEN press conference, this was posted, and then on April 3rd, if you view the comments, one commentator suggests a more modest claim is appropriate, given current research.  Further research may indeed yield different results, what that will tell us about STAP cells, remains to be seen.

The way the press dealt with this worries me.  Science is not sexy it’s true, but if it’s a headline you’re after you will not find it in Science. Science is the slow accumulation of results and knowledge in the hope of better understanding the world.  It is not about saying ‘Prof X is wrong and Prof Y is right’, however tempting it is to portray it that way.  It course does not help that Dr. Obokata may  have not acted in the most ethical way as a researcher, and yet the media often misrepresent the academic process, in favour of a sensationalist headline.  I do not necessarily include Michael Hoffman of The Japan Times of being guilty of such a mistake, I always enjoy his articles.  But the entire tone of journalism has been wrong, it looks for wrongdoer and a victim, and academia is rarely that simple.  We are not ‘swimming in falsehood’ rather we are merely wading through numerous, often contradictory and difficult to appreciate research.  It takes time to understand, but the media could help by simply lowering expectations, yes no academic should falsify, but stop looking for some great truth, instead appreciate the more subtle, more modest points of academe.

Science is a slow process, and not always very glamorous, even the idea of a breakthrough seems inaccurate; any good scientific idea has only because one is standing on the shoulders of giants, not because of a flash of inspiration.  Good research, that is, well conducted peer-reviewed research, produces good ideas.