Saturday, June 19, 2010

Life is made of worldly materials.

Things that ever happened in my life, if successfully registered, remains as the connection pattern between neurons in my brain.

On the first day of my elementary school, I recall that the sunbeam was reflected in a white impression on the long and straight road that lead to the school premises. On the very first class room meeting, I was at my desk with my newly found classmates, with my cheek on my hand, looking at nothing, absent-minded. Ms Arai, teacher of our class, took notice and remarked "are you now bored, my little one?"

Parents were requested to remain at school after the entrance ceremony on that day. My mother was at the back of the classroom, too, and laughed with the other parents. I brushed in shame.

There was a large sweet acorn tree near the front gate of the school. When I was in the second year, there was a "boom" of acorn eating among us. As we left the school in the after hours, we would compete to find good the ones, and would eat them on the way, with the school satchels cozily on our backs. At break times, we would play "hand baseball", in which we used our hand as the hitting bat. I remember quite well that the balls were green.

Each remembrance constitutes a "page" in my life, a part of the richness of my humble personal history. All those memories are encoded as patterns of connectivity between neurons. There would be memories long forgotten, but secretly stored in the cortical network pattern. I might happen to remember them sometime, or might never recall them. In any case, when the physical presence of my brain disintegrates, the rich storage of memory of my life would be lost forever.

Memories are integral constituents of my existence. The "self" critically depends on these memories. The removal of them would leave a "self" as a transparent "core", vibrating poignantly in the great nothingness of the universe.

In "In my life", the Beatles sing thus.

There are places I'll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

These words are simple. It is as if a middle aged man is reflecting on his own life late at night, with a glass of whisky in his hand. Freed from the admittedly difficult assessment of what life means, he would recall past events in his life ; that was then, then was that.

The lyrics of "In my life" are elementary in its world view. It reflects the significant fact that an ordinary human being would reflect on his own mortal existence on this earth in such a manner. In the past, such ideas as god, heaven, hell, afterlife, and reincarnations have been regular features of the genre when one would ponder one's own life. These concepts would not find their places in the mannerisms of modern times. That the sentimental musings of an ordinary human being on his own life have become secular is one of the most important features of human spirituality today. For the modern human, how he or she actually lives in "this world" is all that there is, with nothing to be added or subtracted.

The novelist Takeshi Kaiko writes thus in his essay collection "The Last Supper": "Detective and spy novels are without doubt the secreted products of the modern times. To the extent that I came to know, such joys of the human intellect were not produced in countries where modernization has not visited."

A song like "In my life" by Beatles would be cherished only in a world where the "superstitions" about the afterlife, heaven and hell, and God with personality are long gone. A priest in the medieval times is unlikely to enjoy singing a song like "In my Life". An ordinary enough pop song. Behind it, however, are the fruits of efforts by philosophers, writers, scientists, and artists who have been trying to deepen the human understanding of life and death, and the universe that we inhabit. The commonplace view on life has become possible only though the hard-won perceptions of the world we inhabit.

In the universe, there are mysteries about ourselves and the world still out of reach for humans. We would be ill advised, however, to revive the "superstitions" so that we go from the world of "In my life" back to an ancient world in which we chant:

Oh, God, I don't ask much for this earthly life. Just let me have a wondrous life in the afterlife. Please make me reborn as somebody with a higher social status, in the next cycle of reincarnation.

To go back to such a system of superstition would be tantamount to make nothing of the efforts of the human race as a whole over centuries.

Life is made of worldly materials. Whatever we might set out to think about the world we inhabit, we need to confirm this point first and foremost.

Translated from the original Japanese essay in Ken Mogi, "Ikite Shinu Watashi" ("I live, I die") published from Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1998. Translation by the author.

The cover of "Ikite Shinu Watashi"

Friday, June 18, 2010

How would you feel in the autumn of life?

After finishing the job for the day, we went to an onsen (hot spring) place in Fukui prefecture. If you are "vetted" by the Japanese culture, you know what to expect in an onsen ryokan. If you are not, well, you don't.

The meal was superb. We had fun chatting and laughing, and the idea naturally sprung up to go to a Karaoke place.

Matsuoka went around and reserved a table at a Karaoke bar. When we arrived, several senior gentlemen were already having a good time. The bar ladies sang along with them, and danced with them when the tunes came along. One girl, who was rather stoutly build, attracted my attention. I wondered how she would have been at the age of five. The bar ladies danced and flirted with the senior customers with the beauty and mastery of people who knew how to handle drunken men.

Somehow Matsuoka got the idea of dancing all by himself. He held his own shoulders tightly, as if to simulate two people in a passionate embrace, and slowly ventured onto the floor. His mimicry with perhaps a bit of mockery did not attract the attention of the old men, as they were in the blissful amnesia of intoxication.

A job description of singing along and dancing with customers at random every night might not have been a part of the girl's dream at the age of five. However, in a very strange way, the sight of Matsuoka trying to mimic and light-heartedly ridicule the whole situation might have been a transformation of a little girl's idea of a prince on a white horse in the pipedream.
On the morning after, I was in the great onsen bath. In Japan, the idea is always to share a single gigantic bath with miscellaneous people (it is usually NOT co-ed. Don't start getting ideas!). While enjoying the comfort of the volcanic water, I noticed that some gentlemen from the Karaoke bar last night was there.

I noticed also that their hairs were very gray. Their flesh fragile, their movements slow. Once in the bath, they apparently went into an meditative mode. Maybe they are reflecting on the past days. Maybe they are thinking how many more dances they would be getting.

This is the autumn of their lives.

Dance, dance, dance, every living creature.

How would you feel in the autumn of life?

As I start to reflect on what happened the night before in a more mellow and favorite light, the rich enigma of life would slowly unfold in my mind. Everybody has his or her time, and there is after all beauty in miscommunication.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The fair assessment of my performance as an agitator would have to be "an utter failure".

Yesterday, during a lecture I gave at my old university, I tried to make some noise. But I utterly failed.

Observing the flow of students on University of Tokyo Komaba campus, I asked the simple question: Why are there only Japanese people on this campus? Then I went on to argue that Japanese Universities, or Japanese society in general, are failing in the era of globalization. Why don't we have more people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds mixing and fusing and resonating with each other on this campus, or in this country?

That started an agitated discussion, and the scientific materials (social construction of the self, moral judgment) had to be postponed for other opportunities. After having a discourse for 90 minutes, the fair assessment of my performance as an agitator would have to be "an utter failure".

This is a pity. To the best conscience of my rationality, I am still convinced that I had a point. But it simply did not ignite. Maybe my argumental style was wrong. Maybe I lacked the personality. This "volcano", as a result, might become dormant for a while after this.

Last word: The dynamo is still here in my bosom.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I was busy even before the internet.

Yesterday I was talking with a couple of book editors and writers in the heart of Tokyo. One of them, a writer who helped me author several books, casually mentioned how the advance of the new technologies has made us all busier.

"You know, we get all these e-mails, we search for more information on the web, and we are constantly getting busy. Do you think the advance of technology is a good thing?"

Well, I am certainly have heard it said many times, but my genuine puzzlement is whether the internet and other technologies have really made us "busier".

For sure, the quality and sheer volume of things that you can do within, say, 10 minutes have dramatically improved by the advent of internet. Nowadays, when in a conference, I can simultaneously talk and make notes and search for information and read papers and send and read e-mails and tweet and even ustream on my laptop. Yesterdays, I used to just listen and perhaps draw some doodles on my notebook. That's a fact. However, I wonder if we can say that we have become categorically busier nowadays.

When I was a kid, computers and internet were not here with us. And yet, I was quite occupied, from morning till night. I chased butterflies in the field. I read books, sometimes several in an afternoon. I "invented" various games which I played alone, like the "pachinko ball and pencil" baseball games which I hugely enjoyed playing. I painted in oil, I swam, I played baseball (the real thing), I talked with my friends, with my parents, with passers-by. I dreamed, I sighed, I reached, I stumbled.
I think I was busy even before the internet.

"Never say busy!" I said to the writer. "The internet is not the villain!"

She just smiled enigmatically. Because I did not explain in detail my childhood days, I suspect that she thought I was just being diplomatic there.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Towards a more open-ended English education.

Towards a more open-ended English education.

Ken Mogi
Sony Computer Science Laboratories

It is a widely recognized fact that the Japanese people are not particularly good at expressing themselves in English. To some observers, this is a genuine puzzle, considering the many hours of study that the Japanese typically put towards the acquisition of English skills.
Here, based on the general view of the human brain being elucidated in the neurosciences, I put forward some ideas towards the improvement of English learning process of the Japanese. These concepts are not necessarily limited to the Japanese phenomenon per se, but could be applied elsewhere in the world.

(1) Open-endedness. Natural language is an essentially open-ended system of communication. Given the sheer number of possible word combinations, it is quite conceivable that an non-negligible part of phrases we use in our daily conversation are spoken and heard effectively once in a lifetime. A person with a mature linguistic ability will be able to comprehend what is being said on the first hearing. Even when an unknown word is included, the listener is often able to make a fairly good guess as to its meaning. Parents and other mature speakers rarely restrict their vocabulary when conversing among themselves in the presence of children. Thus, open-endedness seems to be an essential component of the linguistic ability and its learning process.
Considering the properties of the linguistic system above, it may appear that the current teaching guideline ("shido youryou") put forward by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, Science and Education might be too restrictive in its scope for vocabulary. It suggests that during the three years of English education at the junior high school, about 900 hundred essential English words should be acquired [1]. While it is a good idea to start from the easy pieces, too much restriction on the words to be used in the school texts would inevitably lead to an impoverishment of its contents and a suffocation of the intellect of the curious low-teens, who might be otherwise able to assimilate knowledge at a formidable speed.

(2) Context of language acquisition. The human brain is very sensitive to the context in which it executes and develops its functions. Cognitive processes supported by the neural circuits including the orbitofrontal cortex identify the context in which the agent interacts with other agents, and coupled with the brain's reward system, reinforces the relevant circuits of functionality [2].
From this perspective, it may appear that the present system of English education in Japan is putting too much emphasis on doing well in examinations, rather than encouraging the pupils to express their views in an open and free environment, where the grammatical correctness and scoring are not necessarily the primary concerns. A change in the context of English learning would be necessary to improve the situation.

(3) Power of volume. It is no hidden secret that the dexterity of language abilities increases monotonously as exposure increases. From this perspective, it may appear that the "volume" of English language materials which an average pupil is exposed to in Japan is simply too small, which, again, is related to the vocabulary restriction problem referred to above.
The brain's memory system extracts semantic significances from the multitudes of episodic memories stored in its circuits. The flexible way in which the various words are employed in the English language simply cannot be acquired by referring to a "lookup table" in the style of a dictionary. The appropriateness of the usage of a particular word in a given context could be judged in a robust manner based on a rich accumulation of episodic memories in the brain. From this perspective, the current English education policy in Japan might be simply lacking in volumes of material. The child's brain is naturally ready to absorb more. It is too patronizing for the educators to restrict the number of texts and spoken materials in the education process.

I will finish by citing two anecdotes. People sometimes have the notion that education at an early age is necessary for the efficient acquisition of English. The life history of Joseph Conrad, who was exposed to the English language only after he was over twenty years old, and yet went on to write masterpieces in English literature such as "Heart of Darkness" is a good counterexample to this notion. Hidekazu Yoshida, a famous and respected Japanese music critic, once told me that in the education system of "Kyusei Kouko" (senior high schools in the prewar Japanese education system), the foreign language education was rather "savage". Mr. Yoshida said that when they learned German, on the first day they were taught the ABC (in German pronunciations) and rudimentary grammar, and on the second day they were made to read an essay of Friedrich Nietzsche on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer!
These two anecdotes, I hope, will remind those concerned with English education in Japan of the dynamic range in the learning potentials of the human brain. Findings from the current studies in the brain sciences would also suggest the validity of a more open-ended and dynamic English education system, away from the suffocation of too much standardization and an pre-occupation with scores.
There are lots of things that a proper usage of the emergent information technologies can help towards an more open-ended English education. The availability of Michael Sandel's lectures at Harvard [3] is a good example. It is not a far-fetched idea to expose the low-teens to such lectures at some rather early stages of their English learning, in view of the open-endedness of language acquisition.

[1] Teaching guidelines given on The Ministry of Culture, Sports, Science and Education webpage (in Japanese) at
[2] Rolls, E.T. The orbitofrontal cortex and reward. Cerebral Cortex 10, 284-294 (2000)
[3] Harvard University's "Justice" with Michael Sandel, provided free of charge at

(Abstract for a conference talk by Ken Mogi at LET 50 )

Monday, June 14, 2010

Poetry meets modern technology in Hayabusa reentry.

It was heartening to observe the overwhelming response to the news of Hayabusa reentry yesterday.

Hayabusa, an unmanned space mission to return a sample from the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa, made a successful reentry into the Earth's atmosphere last night. It is not known at present whether the capsule, which apparently landed on an Australian soil, contains a sample of the Asteroid. If successful, the material taken back to the earth would reveal important information about the origin of the solar system.

As I monitored the tweets of my friends here in Japan on twitter, some of them scientists, others writers and artists, there was definitely something qualitatively different from the reactions to other science and technology news. I suspect that the very idea of the Hayabusa devise ending its life of service to science in a display of glowing visual apparition stroke a chord in many hearts.

Traditionally, Japanese culture appreciated very highly the transience and fragility of life. Hojoki ("An account of my Hut"), an essay written by Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216) famously begins thus:

Though the river's current never fails, the water passing, moment by moment, is never the same. Where the current pools, bubbles form on the surface, bursting and disappearing as others rise to replace them, none lasting long. In this world, people and their dwelling places are like that, always changing.

(Translation by Robert N. Lawson given on The Washburn College webpage

I suspect that for many of my compatriots, the burning of Hayabusa in the earth's atmosphere was beautiful and moving, because it reminded us of our own immortality, and the very enigma of the passing of time.

Last night, in the public's reception of the news of the Hayabusa reentry, poetry and modern technology met in a deep and unexpected resonance.

The hayabusa reentry. From the webpage.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

They have in mind a vivid description of almost algorithmic rigor as regards how to move around.

There are certain things that restrict the realization our potentials. The most harm is done when the restriction is imposed on each of us as a system of implicit and often unfathomable constraints.

Although the phenomenon is quite universal, we can start from specific examples. The social enclosure of challenged people, for example.

Recently, I had a chance to converse with a few people who are without vision by birth or through medical conditions, as part of a research for a book project. I found, or should I say rediscovered, that the brains of the visually challenged people are used in a different manner from us. As a consequence, they have developed a unique set of abilities which are a marvel for those "cursed" with visual abilities.

As an instance, when we move around the city, we rely on the visual information so much that our navigation is executed relying on the incessant sensori-motor interaction supported by vision. So when questioned out of location, one has only a very fuzzy idea of the nature of the actual route taken. A blind person, on the other hand, plans and remembers the journey in a very explicit and rule based way, so that they have in mind a vivid description of almost algorithmic rigor as regards how to move around.

Thus, one finds a more logically robust and dense set of abilities in a visually challenged person. There are accompanying difficulties naturally, but if we can find a way to overcome these obstacles, a visually challenged person has a great chance of flourishing in a unique way. Sadly, because of the assumptions and prejudices about what one may do in society, these great capabilities are not tapped to the full yet.

Similar cases of untapped talent resources are rampant in society. Glass ceilings are broken constantly as society progresses.

The real problem is that in many cases we don't even realize the existence of the glass ceiling, and suffocate without knowing the reason why.