Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column(s) on “Truth Octane”: Vote on which one you like better.


Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan\Foreign Residents and Naturalized Citizens Association forming NGO\「ジャパニーズ・オンリー 小樽入浴拒否問題と人種差別」(明石書店)JAPANESE ONLY:  The Otaru Hot Springs Case and Racial Discrimination in Japan
Hi Blog.  Before I get to my latest Japan Times column, a little story:

I usually start my columns about a week or so before the first draft is due.  That way, I can tinker with it over the days here and there and add ideas as they come to me during the course of life.  I don’t like writing too many things on the fly — things come out half-baked that way.

However, this essay on “Truth Octane” was a rather difficult one.  Getting this complicated analytical concept out and developed with examples within 800 words was a challenge.  Plus I had two weekend trips to Tokyo in the interim.  I wasn’t really satisfied with my first version, so after Edo arrival last Friday, I handed it over to a trusted close friend for perusal.  His verdict, and I quote, was, “It’s a turkey.”  This was about 12:30 AM on Friday night – Saturday morning, and about four beers into the evening.

Well, no trusted friend calls my essays “turkeys” and gets away with it.  So at 1AM, I commandeered his toilet (I’ve done some of my best thinking there) and didn’t leave until I had rewritten the whole thing from scratch.  700 words and 45 minutes later, I had a new draft out.  My friend’s verdict:  “Much better.  Inspirational.  No comparison.”

I gave both versions to my editor at the JT and let him choose which he liked better.  He went with the second, rewritten, toilet version as well.  

But I’m genuinely curious.  What do readers think?  First the published version, then the original version.  Vote which one you like better at the blog poll at the upper right hand corner!  Thanks.  Arudou Debito back in Sapporo



News photo

Truth: a delicate matter of give and take



Every activist and essayist must deal with a singular phenomenon when addressing the public: just how “truthful” one should be.

I’m not talking about a choice between lying or “truthing”; I’m talking about just how much truth one should inject into the message. Because, sadly, there’s only so much truth a reader can take all at once.

I call it a matter of “Truth Octane.” Too much truth and your audience switches off, becoming reflexive instead of reflective. Too little and you get platitudinous warm-fuzzy clouds of fog, and no conclusions drawn.

Consider some activism with a high Truth Octane: Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” irrefutably linking the George W. Bush administration to oil interests, and demonstrating a profit motive behind the Iraq war; Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” conclusively arguing that global warming is man-made and damaging; Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Or even war photojournalism showing suffering, carnage, and death, bringing “the awful truth” into our living rooms.

All are definitive attempts to bring obscured information to light. But again — as the nuance of “the awful truth” implies — too high a Truth Octane and people reject it (Bush got re-elected; Gore had been spinning his wheels until recently, etc.). It’s not just because geopolitics, the environment and war are complicated topics. It works like this:

When advocates come on too strong with their claims, people naturally express a healthy doubt. After all, readers haven’t thought through everything yet to the point that they can agree completely. However, opponents capitalize on that doubt, say “the subject is controversial,” “the presenter is partisan” or “the viewpoint is not fair or balanced,” and dilute down the Octane.

The easiest example to illustrate this with is photojournalism. Shocking images of death and destruction have a very high Truth Octane — so high, the Vietnam War demonstrated, that they can change minds about an entire war. So, even though people intrinsically know that war involves killing and mutilation, it gets censored. People just don’t want to see it, especially if their government is in any way implicated. It would mean people confronting their own paradigms, realizing their support for the war may have been a mistake. So we acquiesce in the censorship to escape those qualms.

But consider a less extreme example. Whenever I point out issues of racial discrimination to the media, even the sharpest reporter dulls his analytical scalpel: “Of course we know the issue is one of race. But our editor and readership might not. So we’ll have to render it as discrimination by nationality or appearance (gaiken).” Or worse yet, portray it as a “cultural misunderstanding” — which means it is not even discrimination anymore. Again, we don’t want to challenge the common paradigm: “Racial discrimination happens in other countries, not Japan.” It’s too much to take.

So how does an activist deal with a high Truth Octane? One way is to dilute it yourself by offering caveats and disclaimers, such as “Discrimination is everywhere, Japan is not unique,” or “I’m not bashing Japan.” That is, if you don’t mind wasting column space on platitudes, and debasing your own argument.

Another way is to use satire; show insight through various contrasts, ironies, metaphors, and parables. Consider examples such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” some of the best episodes of “South Park” or “The Daily Show” — even the recent parodies of American political figures on “Saturday Night Live.” Comedy allows the Truth Octane to enter the psyche unadulterated, aided by the spoonful of sugar that is laughter.

Alas, in Japan political satire is in relatively short supply, especially on broadcast media. This is, after all, a country where sarcasm and irony are rarely seen as forms of humor. That means one less tool for activists to employ. You have to be entertaining while biting, a rare skill.

What can be done? Raise Truth Octane in small doses, and bring people along slowly. History indicates that the most foresighted people, from revolutionary scientists to activists you find on the faces of coins, persisted for years with their assertions and were subject to skepticism, rebuke, even the threat of violence for challenging the status quo.

In the end many prevailed, as they weaned increasing numbers of people onto a stronger Truth Octane. Finally there was a tipping point, then a society-wide paradigm shift. Old ideas that were once taken for granted (such as slavery, lack of universal suffrage, and anti-miscegenation laws) were relegated to the dustbin of history.

That’s how it starts — by speaking truth to power and to the public. How “much” truth you speak is completely a matter of timing. But those who can master their Truth Octane effectively can change the world.


Debito Arudou is a coauthor of the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants.” Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send comments tocommunity@japantimes.co.jp.


By Arudou Debito
Column 9 for the Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column
For publication Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The public debate forum, that is: I realized that when essay writing, even if one grounds their assertions in confirmed and researched sources, it makes no difference. Some people don’t want to hear the truth anyway.

It’s too good to be true. It’s an inconvenient truth. Or because not enough people believe it, it’s unrealistic or idealistic.

I call this phenomenon a matter of “Truth Octane”. Too high an “octane” (i.e. too much “truth” all at once) and people shut down or get reactionary, becoming reflexive instead of reflective. Too low an octane, and you wind up with snoozy platitudes and warm-fuzzy touchy-feely clouds of fog. It’s “muzukashii”, too difficult an issue to draw conclusions about. Down your beer and let it go. Accept the status quo.

“Muzukashii” dilutes debate, making dullards of insightful people. For example, I’ve heard sharp reporters say, “Of course we know you’re talking about racial discrimination. But our editors or readers won’t see it that way.” So their article blurs the issue into “discrimination by nationality”, “foreign appearance” (gaiken) — or, most foggy of all, “cultural misunderstandings” (meaning it’s not even discrimination anymore). Calling the issue one of “race” is too much “truth” for people to take.

But Truth Octane has a political dimension. Consider this dynamic:

If somebody comes on too strong with their assertions (I plead guilty), the reflex is to express doubt. Complex issues have a lot of moving parts to take into account, so even the strongest adherent will thoughtfully say, “Well, I agree with most of that.” They haven’t contemplated or researched the issue enough to agree completely right now.

Problem is, opponents capitalize on this healthy doubt, leveraging near-agreement into incredulity. Unarticulated criticisms morph into “someone out there disagrees”, and suddenly “this issue is controversial”. Disagreements then gain currency because “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, and a 90% Truth Octane gets ratcheted down to 50%.

So, for a quiet life, cautious proponents avoid the ratcheters by debasing their own Truth Octane in advance. They offer mitigators like, “Yes, discrimination exists in other countries.” (So that justifies people doing it?) Or “Japan’s an island society with a history closed to the outside world.” (Therefore after 150 years Japan still can’t help itself? How belittling.) And the ultimate platitude: “I’m not bashing Japan; I like it.” (Yes, that’s why we trying to improve things through criticism; if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t bother.) De rigueur disclaimers waste precious column space.

Moreover, one’s “Truth-Octane Reputation” affects future debate. Those used to straightforwardness in their pundits want more, especially when experiences make them receptive to the message. Others just don’t want another lecture from that know-it-all essayist, so they criticize beyond arguments made (i.e. “this guy is a jerk”). Ad hominem is the ultimate resort for someone who can’t think past platitude and personal animus.

Unfortunately, a quiet life of platitudes has a built-in trap: When opponents actually do take a stand on an issue, they often get stuck on the wrong side. Especially if, judgment clouded by emotion, they haven’t reasoned through all angles.

Again, take the issue of racial discrimination. There is history galore demonstrating that societies with unchecked and unredressed social injustice end up with birth-determined class-ridden societies. Disgruntled people barred from reaching their personal potential become the source of revolutionary movements and repressive governments. It’s misery for multitudes, and unsustainable.

Yet people still try to justify racial discrimination in Japan through, say, history, culture (or cultural imperialism on the essayist’s part), birthright, exceptionalism, even a purported “right to discriminate” itself as a matter of personal choice. They make arguments long debunked elsewhere, often in societies where they themselves experienced the fruits of antidiscrimination movements. When it comes to human rights in Japan, it seems we have to “reinvent the wheel”, and deal with the misology of the double standard.

Even when the passage of time shows opponents backed the bad side of history, they cannot admit they were wrong. That’s just too much truth to take. So they decamp into ideological cliques, long for the good old days, and watch as society sees sense and deposits them on the dustbin of history.

It’s an axiomatic truth: People should be nice to each other. Any kindergartner knows that. And on a societal level, that includes treating each other equally and fairly. It all boils down to that.

That’s 100% Truth Octane, and you can’t argue against it. Yet people do. Pity.


12 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column(s) on “Truth Octane”: Vote on which one you like better.

  • I hate to say it, but I liked the 1:00am 4-beer toilet version much better (though maybe I’m just a 1:00am, 4-beer, toilet kinda guy). I read them in the order that you wrote them, and after reading the first draft I really didn’t understand the point, but the final draft really illustrated it well. Giving examples from (non-Japan-related) activism really helped.

  • As for turning the reader off, I agree that for many people, too much data is a turn off.

    For me however, when someone brings up Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth as examples of too much truth, while the words “irrefutably” and “conclusively” in conjunction with them, I chuckle a bit and stop reading right there. It turns me off immediately.

    Still, since the majority of the expat community is leftist, I guess you shouldn’t worry.
    Though there must also be some more moderate leftists who also are aware that Moore and Gore, at the very least, have provoked counter-propaganda movies, which anyone owes it themselves to check out on Youtube. “Irrefutable” indeed. I wonder what moderate leftists make of that opening salvo. “Take this article with big grain of salt?”

    I guess the main point is that exposing one’s extremist politics right from the start is not the best way to keep 100% of the audience.[yes, if you think Fahrenheit and Truth are 100% fact-filled, you ARE an extremist.. as a moderate rightist, I can admit that SOME parts of the films are true, but just by knowing that many points in the films are demonstrably lies or distortions, or perhaps even innocent mistakes, am I an “extremist” in your eyes?]


    — Please read my article again. I never said Moore and Gore were “100% fact-filled”. However, when it comes to the points I selected as points made in the movies (oil-interest connections, profit motive behind Iraq, etc.), given the documentation provided, I consider those to be substantiated by primary source and science. If I had space to acknowledge the qualms people have with other points M&G made, I would have. But I narrowed it down to the points that I thought were best proven by those video essays, without giving either of them a blank cheque in terms of “Truth Octane”. Just those parts.

  • i dont want to cause any offense,but truth be told,when i read the orig published article i thought you seemed to be having trouble this time round..
    your articles are usually excellent,and i always look forward to reading them but this one wasnt..
    i suppose its a compliment in a way that expectations are so high!

  • Eddie Gomez says:

    What exactly do you mean by the title “Just Be Cause” ?

    After the hole you dug yourself into with the gaijin debacle,
    I stopped reading them, but would appreciate ane explanation about
    what this title means….

    — Read the very first column.

  • I subscribe to the decision of your friend and your editor. The second draft would be much better as an article of newspaper. That said, the original draft seems to mirror your passion and frustration more directly. In that sense, I understand your attachment to the original.

    So, if I understand correctly, Debito, the activist, prefers “too much Truth” rather than “diluted Truth.” It is, as you say, not about “a choice between lying or ‘truthing’.”

    Therefore, for an activist, it must be also very important to try to provide accurate information. In this respect, I have found a defect worth mentioning in your recent entries. I think this is a good opportunity to point it out.

    October 21st, 2008
    You posted as a main entry an e-mail from Chand B reporting that AXA Direct Japan declined an automobile insurance to customers who lack language proficiency in Japanese. At this point it was not sure, as Chand B admitted in his mail, whether AXA would be OK with making a contract through an interpreter.

    October 23rd, 2008
    You posted the second mail from Chand B as a comment to the said entry. In the mail, Chand B reports that AXA accepts “Non-Japanese if they have someone to translate for them.”

    October 23rd, 2008
    To another comment from a reader, you put your own comment as follows:
    ” … There are always means to get around language barriers – and that includes legalese affecting native speakers as well. Just blanket refusals (or wording that invites that kind of misunderstanding used in advertising) are not something that should pass without comment and question.”

    It is clear that, at this point, you knew AXA was not doing “blanket refusals.” The company’s fault is, as you say, in their “wording that invites that kind of misunderstanding used in advertising.

    October 31st, 2008
    You made another entry about Shounan Shinkin Bank which refused to open a bank account to NJ who couldn’t read and speak Japanese. In the lead, you write:
    “As we saw last week, insurance agencies (such as AXA Direct Insurance) are rejecting NJ for not enough language (however determined).”

    Now you must understand what your mistake was. AXA is not “rejecting NJ for not enough language.” Their fault is their wording of advertising. If you mean to say that, your own wording is “not something that should pass without comment and question.”

    If I have missed information between Oct. 23rd and 31st which may explain this inconsistency, I apologize. I couldn’t find any, though.

    Don’t take this as another attempt of fault-finding. I take this seriously for you. This is not about contradicting information in various comments posted by your readers which could be covered by disclaimer. This is not about controversial issues in which we have many points unsettled. This is about the accuracy of simple information you provide us in your own writing.

    You once said that you had to keep the posted comments intact, otherwise you would be “accused of altering the record after the fact by the fight-spoilers.” I understand. Then, something must be contrived to fix the misinformation.

    I send this comment hoping this could be good for your cause and activities.

    — Sorry, but I’ve reread this comment a number of times, and I don’t understand what you’re trying to say in relation to this blog entry.

  • Debito:

    I agree 100% with Level3. When I first visited this blog last year I was a bit hesitant because I expected it to be another far-left blog, full of bias, hyperbole, and just plain nonsense. Yes, I’m a moderate rightist too. However, I found it to be sincere and more informative and balanced than I expected. I was impressed by how much the readers brought to it. Moreover, I was equally impressed by how thick your skin is and your willingness to hear both sides of an argument. That said, recently I’ve been disappointed. This is second time in the past 2-3 weeks you’ve given us Michael Moore as an example of a person who is a cut above the majority of us in terms of delivering the “truth” or solving our economic problems. I can only speak for myself but this insults my intelligence. And today, following Obama’s win (congrats to him), you wrote…”Take back the country from the divisive and capitalizing forces that I have been glad to disassociate myself from.” This is an obvious reference to the Bush Administration and that’s fine. Except it underscores where you are politically and reinforces the belief many hold that the far left see everyone right of them as being “divisive”, but never themselves. And just for the record, Congress is controlled by the democrats and has an even lower approval rating than Bush. So even though Bush is an easy target, I think you need to be fairer.

    As Level 3 noted, the majority of expats are leftists. For that reason, whenever I meet other foreigners, including fellow Americans, I try to avoid political discussions even though the large majority of expats are respectful. While its true reasonable people can differ, that doesn’t stop a few from wanting to tell me how much is wrong with my home country. In my view, the worse is other Americans who do so either because they hate their own country or they think bashing America (even Americans) is a way to ingratiate themselves with other expats. I still respect you and your intelligence (if I didn’t I wouldn’t respect my sister either who is extreme left) but I think you’re misguided in some cases and its disappointing to see the blog lean hard left recently when it has been so much better in the past.

  • Debito,

    In this column you’ve dealt with how truthful activists should be. As a followup column, why not deal with some of the social/psychological mechanisms that make people resist the truth? Address the importance of group identity–be it political, religious, social, ethnic–and how it can act as an information filter or blinder. You could also discuss ideology. I notice above that both Level 3 and David identify themselves as “moderate rightists,” and are also quick to conclude that “the majority of expats are leftists.” Nevermind that those terms are so ambiguous as to be meaningless, it appears that these writers, like so many other people, approach issues from a certain mindset. Their self-identification as moderate-rightists, whatever that means, intimates from the start that they are less interested in objective, verifiable information, i.e., facts, than they are with how this or that information sqaures with the way they are already predisposed to think about an issue. This seems well worth another column.

    — Interesting idea. Thanks! Mulling… Debito

  • Funny, I always thought many of the ex-pats in Japan were (too) conservative. Guess it all depends on your vantage point, as I guess how much “truth” you can tell depends mightily on who your audience is. Good points on writing. The published piece displays a stronger, pithy writing style, but the latter sounds more like your writing here and is a bit more informative. I enjoyed them both.

    And, I like Michael Moore. He was one of the very few to stand up to Bush.

  • The one that was published was published for a good reason. The editor made the correct decision. The first line in the first version should have been enough to toss it in the recycle pile from the start. Keep up
    the good work.

  • The comments about Michael Moore have me puzzled. People may not like his style, but where are the refutations of his claims? We never see them, because most of the time his claims are irrefutable.

    Whether it’s the Bush family/Bin Laden family relationship, the state of health care in the US, or the issues he exposed on TV in The Awful Truth, what he talks about is just that – the truth. In statistics. In documents. On camera. At the Oscars in March 2003, he mentioned the “fictitious” justification for invading and bombing Iraq. Was he booed because he was wrong? No – because he was at the Oscars, and many in the audience didn’t want to hear the truth. Don’t talk about killing and maiming, I’m having dinner.

    The problem he has, as does anyone sending a high truth-octane message, is the resistance to accepting the truth on the part of the receiver. It makes them feel uncomfortable, it often challenges their world-view. Leftists are as prone to this as anyone else: the communist intellectuals in the thirties denying (or justifying!) Stalin’s terror; the pro-Mao communists and the Great Leap Forward, etc..

    Bill makes a valuable suggestion. Mindset is indeed a filter for incoming information. We naturally tend to accept information (and analysis) that supports our beliefs more readily than information that contradicts them.

    Getting the information out in a way that will be accepted, or at least not immediately rejected, is the goal of most politicians. During the Vietnam War, while some crackpot groups on the left were calling for “Victory to the NLF,” the anti-War movement mobilized millions behind the slogan “Bring the Troops Home.” I suspect that compared to “Yes, we can” and “We want change,” (which always made me think, “Can you spare some change?”), “It’s time for a more left-leaning President” would not have produced the same result.

  • About Moore, I’m not sure of specific examples of falsehoods in that 9/11 Film but I think that a more appropriate title for it would have been “A bunch of random bad stuff about Bush that I want to spread around.” I hate Bush but I don’t much like that film (though admittedly I was glad that it came out).

    Back on topic though, I think I agree with the person in one of the other posts who pointed out that in this article you haven’t really identified what you mean by the term “truth” and why people can’t handle too much of it.

    I think one of the reasons people can’t handle too much “truth octane” is that people who feel it is their mission to spread the “truth” tend to infuse a large amount of personal opinion into the “truth” and that inevitably turns lots of people off.


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