Talking to crickets

By William Wetherall

A review of
Tadanobu Tsunoda
The Japanese Brain: Uniqueness and Universality
Translated by Yoshinori Oiwa
Tokyo: Taishukan Publishing Company, 1985

A version of this article appeared in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 132(18), 1 May 1986, pages 43-44

Japanese men and women may be at their creative worst while smoking a cigarette after making love in English beneath a full moon-or a new one if they are shy. Such a view of Japanese behavior is implied by the speculative theories that Tokyo Medical and Dental College otologist cum audiologist Tadanobu Tsunoda has advanced in his most recent book on how the brains of Japanese people are affected by language and possibly environment.

Tsunoda's first "Japanese brain" book became a bestseller in 1978. In December 1985 the same publisher issued three new Tsunoda books in coordinated design editions. One of them is a "sequel" to the 1978 book consisting of articles that have since appeared in magazines. Another is a shorter summary of Tsunoda's research to date.

The Japanese Brain is the third volume of the brain book blitz. Though an English translation of the second, it has the subtitle, frontispiece, and bibliography of the first, and the sensational (and deceptive) title of the 1978 bestseller. None of this is explained in the foreword, but the book's vague identity is perhaps the least of its problems.

Brain-function research is flourishing in most countries with a surplus of doctors like Japan. Many studies have shown that the right and left hemispheres of the brain may work the same, but may not always do the same work.

It is well known, for example, that the right brain controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. There is also some evidence that the left brain may be more involved with language, while the right brain may be more specialized in visual-spatial skills.

But brain science, like other fields of knowledge, has spawned its inevitable myths. The most popular misconception is that the integrated hemispheres, which share their thoughts and feelings, are split into an autonomous left brain that is the province of all logic, and an autonomous right brain that is the seat of all emotion.

Such simplistic schemata are quickly pressed into the service of ethnic stereotypes. Hence people who believe that "Westerners" are rational and anti-nature, while "Japanese" are emotional and pro-nature, have a ready-made "scientific" explanation for what they have always believed to be true.

Tsunoda's books directly appeal to the pseudo-scientific mind. What he writes in a scientific vein about how the brain hears certain sounds under highly controlled laboratory conditions may not be wrong. But the value of such data is compromised by the speculative leaps that Tsunoda takes from the objective realm of his hearing tests to the subjective regions of culture and behavior-subjects he has never explored experimentally and understands mainly through stereotypes.

In a nutshell, Tsunoda reports that "Westerners" and "Japanese" alike hear meaningful sounds in their left brains and mechanical sounds in their right brains. But the two groups differ as to what kinds of sounds are meaningful.

About two decades ago, Tsunoda began to observe that "Western" subjects hear pure vowels in their "non-verbal" or "harmonic" right brain, while "Japanese" subjects hear such sounds in their "verbal" or "non-harmonic" left brain. This was contrary to North American reports, according to which the subjects of both groups should have heard such "mechanical" sounds in their right hemisphere.

Tsunoda also observed, in agreement with North American reports, that speakers of both Japanese and English hear syllables containing consonants in their "verbal" left brain, and mechanical noise, white noise, and "Western" instrumental music in their "musical" right brain. But he found that speakers of Japanese hear "traditional Japanese" instrumental music in their left "verbal" brain, while speakers of English hear such music in their right "musical" brain. Moreover, emotional sounds like sobs, laughter, and sighs; humming; cries of domestic animals, insects, and birds; and natural sounds like streams, winds, waves, and raindrops are reportedly heard by "Japanese" in the left hemisphere but by "Americans" and other "Westerners" in the right hemisphere.

Tsunoda attributes the Japanese anomaly to the "vowel dominance" of the Japanese language. He believes that the Japanese language has many words which consist of only vowels, while vowels are prominent in most other words, also. Hence pure vowel sounds are meaningful to native speakers of Japanese, who consequently hear such sounds in their "verbal" right brain.

Since the "natural" sounds of insects and Japanese musical instruments are thought to be closely related to vowel sounds, they too are heard in the left brain. And so the Japanese language enables its native speakers to "communicate" with nature. Or perhaps Japan's natural environment nurtured the vowel dominance of the language.

Tsunoda hypothesized that because "the Polynesian language is similar to Japanese in the abundance of meaningful vowel sounds" its speakers should process vowels and natural sounds like speakers of Japanese. When he ran a few Tongans, Eastern Samoans, and Maoris through his battery of hearing tests, they apparently discriminated sounds like his "Japanese" subjects.

But Maoris who lived in northern cities showed a "Western" pattern because "The change of their mother tongues from Maori to English before the age of nine caused their brain dominance pattern to change from the Maori (same as Japanese pattern) to Western type, and in this process they may have lost some of the Maori culture ingrained in their brain activity, presumably because changes in language may cause cultural changes."

Tsunoda's understanding of vowels has been questioned. In a critical review that Tsunoda fails to list in his bibliography, an American scholar has taken exception to Tsunoda's vowel domination thesis, calling it an "uninformed marshalling of faulty linguistic data [which] runs the serious risk of having the other aspects of his work dismissed out of hand as well" (Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 5 No. 2, Summer 1979).

At least one collaborative Japanese-British study contradicts Tsunoda's reports of hearing differences. A research report in an English-language Japanese journal suggests that "Japanese people process animal sounds in the same manner as Westerners do" (Psychologia, Vol. 22 No. 3, September 1979). This report, also, is missing from Tsunoda's bibliography.

The Japanese Brain reports other Tsunoda discoveries of differences (and some similarities) in "Japanese" and "Western" brain functions. But more important than the differences themselves is what Tsunoda makes of them.

Tsunoda reports that certain forms of stimulation, including sexual ejaculation, smoking, and foreign languages, cause the "Japanese" left brain to process in the left brain the mechanical tones that are usually heard in the right brain. He thus concludes that foreign languages have a negative effect on Japanese speakers. Hence Japanese representatives at international conferences should be allowed to speak Japanese.

Since the use of English allegedly shifts all right-brain functions to the left brain, the left brain must do double duty. Yet Tsunoda argues that "foreign languages may serve as a highly useful tool to develop the [logical] left brain." He warns, however, that "the excessive use of foreign languages may cause an imbalance of the hemispheres where the development of the [emotional] right brain is stunted, resulting in a poverty of nonverbal creativity and insight originating from the right brain."

Tsunoda's theory has a built-in proviso that makes Joseph Heller's Catch-22 seem very Japanese.

The ear specialist claims that "Western subjects can be tested anywhere in the world as long as verbal stimuli are removed from the test condition." But "the examination of Japanese subjects outside Japan would be extremely difficult because of the chronically shifted dominance pattern caused by the daily use of a foreign language." So "Japanese subjects must be tested in Japan where the influence of a foreign language is at a minimum." This is true only for foreign languages which a Japanese speaker has learned to the point that the sounds are meaningful. Since unfamiliar languages are processed as meaningless background music, their words fail to occasion the debilitating shift of right brain work to the left brain.

Tsunoda's ethnic biases are immediately apparent in statements like "Western people seem to place no particular significance on [the sounds of cicada in the summer], and to them the sounds of the insects are as irrelevant as the noisy rumbles of a care and the low rattles of an air conditioner."

Tsunoda believes that "the Japanese are Japanese because they speak Japanese." Twenty years of research have suggested to him that "the Japanese language shapes the Japanese brain function pattern, which in turn serves as a basis for the formation of the Japanese culture."

Tsunoda complains that his research is not yet well understood even by his Japanese peers. But this has not stopped his views from being adopted by the champions of Nihonjinron, that prelogical and metascientific branch of Japanology which preaches that Japanese culture is not just unique (in the sense that all cultures are different while being essentially human), but is somehow uniquer than any other.

Shortly after the appearance of his 1978 best seller, Tsunoda exchanged views with Nihonjinronist Shoichi Watanabe, a professor of English at Sophia University in Tokyo, in a magazine article that was first published in 1979 but appears in the 1985 sequel to the best seller.

"When I think of Japanese culture," Watanabe observed, "there are features which are simply not [those of] the culture of an ordinary civilized country. It's really a strange culture."

Watanabe equated Tsunoda's belief that Japanese are able to hear insect sounds as language with his own widely proselytized notion that the Japanese language and its culture retains vestiges of an evolutionarily primitive tail in ways that no other language-culture does. Watanabe also seemed to think that Tsunoda's theories support his argument that a foreign language like English should be studied by all students in public schools, as a means of intellectual stimulation rather than as a tool for communication.

According to Tsunoda, Japanese fall asleep at international conferences and feel tired after hearing English all day because English affects their brain function. But the phenomena could just as well be explained by the way in which Japanese are taught English-as an entrance-exam subject to be mastered through the eye, rather than as a language to be heard and spoken.

A year before the publication of the 1978 bestseller, Masao Kunihiro, best known then as an interpreter and translator but now more familiar as an international newscaster, was reported to have said in an interview: "I regard [Tsunoda's theories] highly and eagerly await further documentation." But as though he really needed no more proof he added: "Frankly, I have long held the notion that there is an as yet indefinable difference in the Japanese."

In the same 1977 interview by (then) Japan Times columnist Maureen D'Honau, Tsunoda himself is quoted to have said: "In our kokoro (i.e., minds and hearts) we Japanese feel different."

Such strong preconvictions, and nothing else, may be all that makes the real difference, not in what Tsunoda is actually measuring with his hearing tests, but in how he goes about interpreting his measurements and how eagerly others accept his interpretations. If anyone ever succeeds in bridging the empirical chasm between his laboratory data and his faddish brain-function theories, Tsunoda will surely get a Nobel Prize. If not, then his work will be forgotten as just another flash in the Nihonjinron pan-an ethnocentric glitter that proved to be fool's gold.

Tsunoda, for his part, seems unaware of how insect cries and other natural "noises" are appreciated in "Western" countries, not only in poetry and other literature, but directly by people who like nature despite their inability to speak Japanese. One is reminded of the meanings that Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) found in the sounds he heard from his famous retreat on Walden Pond. Or of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) who, imagining himself building a Thoreau-like cabin on the lake isle of Innisfree, wrote:

And I shall have some peace there,
     for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning
     to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer,
     and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

It may be unfair to expect that Tsunoda ought to know that the Japanese are not the only people in the world who at times imagine that they can communicate with nature. He did not, after all, have a "Western" father who took him camping in the summer and marveled at the rasping of the crickets from a sleeping bag under the stars.

Nor, despite his global travels, has Tsunoda read a newspaper article about a "Western" airline pilot who, sitting in his house, his shoes off, asks the reporter who had come to find out why he had moved from the city to the country: "You hear that? Crickets! No traffic noises. No nothing. Isn't that nice?"

Another phenomenon Tsunoda's theories fail to explain is why he thanks his wife in the English edition of his book but not in the Japanese. Would he blame this, too, on the nature of the Japanese language?