Nakasone's World-Class Blunder

  • The word for it in Japanese is ayamachi, diplomatic argot for a grave mistake, even a sin. Last week none other than Yasuhiro Nakasone, Prime Minister of Japan, committed a world-class ayamachi when he told a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party, "So high is the level of education in our country that Japan's is an intelligent society. Our average score is much higher than those of countries like the U.S. There are many blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in America. In consequence the average score over there is exceedingly low."

    At first few people in Japan's remarkably closed and monolithic society, 98% of which is native born and historically chauvinistic, picked up on the horrific implications in the remark. Then the reaction from the U.S. hit the fan. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, black chairman of the House Budget Committee, angrily withdrew a dinner invitation to Japanese Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga. Representative Mickey Leland of Texas led the 21-member Congressional Black Caucus in calling on President Reagan to demand an apology. Esteban Torres of California and his 14-member Hispanic Caucus were equally furious.

    An abashed Nakasone promptly tried to "explain it all" by praising the "great achievements" of the U.S. "But there are things the Americans have not been able to do because of multiple nationalities there," he continued, sinking deeper into the ayamachi even as he struggled to extricate himself. "On the contrary, things are easier in Japan because we are a monoracial society." These secondary remarks mollified no one. Declared Japanese-American Congressman Robert Matsui of California: "Mr. Nakasone's explanation is almost as outrageous . . . as his original statement." At this point, some Japanese also rang in. "Our Prime Minister," said Professor Kennichi Shibuya, evaluation expert at Joetsu University of Education, "should never have opened his mouth on this question."

    In his heart of hearts Nakasone must have agreed. For in addition to the anger swirling around him, there was deep irony in his situation. Just last month the Prime Minister invoked the term ayamachi when he fired his Education Minister, Masayuki Fujio, for having infuriated half the Orient. In a magazine article Fujio claimed that Korea bore some responsibility for Japan's deeply resented 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula and, moreover, that Japanese atrocities in Nanking during 1937 were acceptable in the context of military conflict. Having fired his top educator for such a profound national and ethnic offense, Nakasone appeared to have stepped into the same minefield. At week's end the Prime Minister backtracked completely, expressing a "heartfelt apology" through Ambassador Matsunaga, who read the statement on Capitol Hill. His words won a measure of forgiveness from Gray and Leland, thus perhaps defusing political and economic consequences of the affair. But as Professor Shibuya's blast indicated, the Prime Minister still had an earful coming from educators, who rated his remarks simplistic, if not downright wrong.

    Yet some cool scholarly heads in the U.S. conceded the Prime Minister a point or two, if only for his arithmetic. "Statistically, he's right," said Harold Howe, senior lecturer at Harvard's School of Education. Indeed, a report by British Psychologist Richard Lynn published in May 1982 indicated that over the past generation Japan's mean national IQ score has risen 7 points to an average of 111, well above the American norm of 100. Other surveys show that 17 million to 22 million, or 7% to 9%, of adult Americans are functionally illiterate, vs. less than 1% of Japanese. And a study by the University of Michigan ranks Japanese youngsters some 10% higher in math than their U.S. counterparts at the first- and fifth-grade levels.

    As for ethnic groups' dragging down the overall U.S. performance, again statistics seem to support the Prime Minister. Historically, black IQ levels have averaged at least 10 points or so below the U.S. standard. According to a 1982 U.S. Department of Education survey, black and Hispanic illiteracy rates range from nearly double to almost four times those of average whites. And in 1985 SAT results showed whites with an average score of 940 (of a possible 1600); Mexican Americans scored 808, Puerto Ricans 777, and blacks 722. Jeanne Chall, director of the reading laboratory at the Harvard School of Education, admits, "We do have whole groups lagging behind." And, she adds, "it's alarming. We're not doing well enough."

    Some familiar combatants in the genetics-vs.-environment IQ controversy thought the lag inevitable. William Shockley, retired Stanford professor and Nobel prizewinner in physics, restated his controversial view: "I'm inclined to believe the major cause of the American Negro's intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin, and thus not remedial to a major degree by practical improvements in environment. For Latins in this country, my conclusion is the same and almost as inescapable."

    A majority of academics in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere, however, have found such conclusions entirely escapable. They point out that French Psychologist Alfred Binet created the original IQ ratings in 1905 to identify children with learning difficulties. Binet insisted that his system, "properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence" for the simple reason that intelligence is too complex to be measured mathematically. Nevertheless, much of the world, and especially the U.S., led by Psychologist H.H. Goddard, embraced the IQ scale as a measure of the mind. In the early 1900s Goddard insisted that on the basis of IQ scores vast numbers of Italian, Jewish and Russian immigrants were "high-grade defectives" or morons -- a stone that few would care to cast today.

    The prevailing modern perspective is expressed by Princeton Psychologist Leon Kamin, who says, "Certainly Nakasone knows that blacks on the average score lower on IQ tests than whites. But we do not have the technology . . . that would reveal any differences in the relationship of genotypes (genetic makeup) to intelligence." In fact, most scholars today believe that so-called intelligence and achievement differences stem largely from environmental factors. For example, a study of children in the Boston and Philadelphia-Balti more regions showed white and black youngsters of the same social stratum scoring only a few points apart, indicating that income level or "class" affects such evaluations. In his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, Harvard Biologist Stephen Jay Gould maintained that even if intelligence is inheritable, there are such wild swings of hereditary traits within groups that the "average difference between whites and blacks in America might still only record the environmental disadvantages of blacks." Other scholars argue that most standardized tests were originally constructed by middle-class whites to be taken by middle-class whites. Thus they lack validity for measuring other ethnic and social groups, including Japanese.

    Some of Japan's best and brightest agree. Says Tamotsu Senogoku, director of the Japanese Youth Research Institute: "It is simply outlandish to think that you could generalize the state of intelligence or even education with but a few words." He points out that in Japan, discipline and expectations for the young are much more stringent in schools and in family life than they are among Americans. In the U.S., schools run an average of 180 days a year. In Japan, they run 240 days and assign heavier course loads and homework. Hence the Japanese superiority in, for example, early math -- though in cognitive capacity (the bedrock ability to learn) no difference shows between youngsters of the two nations.

    Significantly too, in a monolithic nation like Japan, where more than 90% of the people consider themselves middle class and the ethic is to conform to society rather than challenge it, the dropout rate among high school seniors is 2%, in contrast to 27% in the U.S. Yet Japanese scholars view the regimented conformity of their schools with increasing concern, fearing that it stifles creativity. Says Joetsu University's Shibuya: "Consider the number of Nobel Prizes won so far by Japanese -- fewer than ten. The number in the U.S.? More than 100." Steven Jobs, who founded Apple Computer on a shoestring and no college degree (he dropped out), is an example of the kind of creativity that American society can foster; Jobs' achievements would be unthinkable in Japan, where no degree equals no such chance. Notes Harvard's Chall: "Their computer managers . . . are trying to emulate the more freed-up American approach."

    The Japanese are also aware that, once in college, their students tend to slack off -- possibly out of relief from surviving their earlier regimen -- while Americans turn up the heat. As a result, the top 10% of U.S. students equal or surpass the achievements of their Japanese counterparts. With such contrasts in mind, the Research Institute's Senogoku concludes, "There are, in fact, differences in education between our countries. And as far as I am concerned there should be differences." Hiroshi Minami, one of the most respected Japanese psychologists, concurs. Nakasone, he says, "fails to & understand the essence of American culture" -- namely pluralism, accompanied by the same defensive pride in that pluralism that Japanese nationalists feel in their homogeneous society. Sums up Professor Shibuya: "The question of which side is doing better or worse than the other is such a demanding question that all I can say is that political personages would do best to stay out of it all the time."