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Brainwashing Versus Critical Thinking in Japan


In March 2012, while participating in a conference in Prague, I visited the Museum of Communism there. They sold one type of souvenir created from old propaganda posters with the wording replaced by an ironic comment about the reality of life under communism. I bought a refrigerator magnet with a smiling woman holding aloft a piece of laundry underneath the words “You couldn’t buy laundry detergent, but you could get your brain washed.”

At the time I never imagined that eventually I would witness brainwashing first-hand. I thought that I would have to visit North Korea to see a populace in thrall to brainwashing. However, many governments in the democratic world, which failed to stop the spread of COVID, succeeded very well in brainwashing many of their citizens. Those who escaped its spell applied skeptical thinking to the propaganda and panic.

Just as in North Korea or Eastern Europe under communism, the recent all-encompassing brainwashing in Japan produced many Alice-in-Wonderland spectacles. The most jarring one to me was the Hokkaido Marathon. Thousands of unmasked runners ran past our home in Sapporo, while a few feet away thousands of masked spectators cheered them on. Maybe not many noticed the obvious silliness and inconsistency of what they were doing.

Thankfully, at least Japanese universities and the government have not yet resorted to the odious jab mandates, though many companies have been pressuring their employees to get the shots. One man I know flew to Tokyo to participate in a mass-vaccination event for his company’s employees. During employment interviews my graduating students have been asked whether they are vaccinated or not. 

Pressured into compliance, many young students and others suffered high fevers, headaches, and other symptoms from the shots, requiring repeated absences from my classes. Certainly at their age they were in much more real danger from the shots than they ever were from COVID, but the fear-mongering and conformist pressures often swept away all other safety considerations.

The overwhelming majority in all age groups in Japan got caught up in the panic generated by government officials, mainstream news media, and the medical community. For three years now masks have been worn continuously everywhere, including mountain trails and public parks. The widespread use of brainwashing here has been especially disheartening to me, since I have spent much of my time and effort over the last thirty years teaching, researching, and writing about critical thinking education in Japan.

A long time ago, I became convinced of the great need of inculcating critical thinking among students here. As a traditionally consensus-driven and hierarchical society, Japan has a special need for this kind of education, a reality often acknowledged by Japanese people themselves. Regrettably, in recent years the growing influence of political correctness and trends like postmodernism have undermined commitment to promoting rational discourse in education in Japan and elsewhere.

Critical thinking has been defined in various ways, but the best definitions are simply different ways of stating the same idea, which is applying rational judgment to evaluating assertions and information. Robert Ennis defines it as “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on what to believe or do.” More succinctly, Harvey Siegel calls it “being appropriately moved by reasons” (rather than by emotions, slogans, groundless assertions, etc). In his book Educating Reason, Siegel marshals a number of reasons for inculcating critical thinking in education, including “respect for students as persons.” In practice this means “recognizing and honoring the student’s right to question, to challenge, and to demand reasons and justification for what is being taught.” Siegel contrasts this approach with deceiving, pressuring, and indoctrinating students, which does not treat them with respect. 

Obviously, little respect for students as persons is evident at universities forcing students to get unnecessary, risky injections over their personal reservations. The contemptuous treatment of William Spruance at Georgetown Law School for his reasonable dissent is no doubt typical at many institutions. Neither did many officials and doctors pushing vaccine mandates show any respect for resistant, skeptical individuals, as Aaron Kheriaty points out in The New Abnormal.

Moreover, as Richard Paul and others have explained, critical thinking is not simply the mastery of logical techniques but is also an attitude of mind, which includes intellectual humility. As one example, we can observe Dr. John Campbell of YouTube fame, who changed his stance on the mRNA vaccines in light of evidence. 

The polar opposite of critical thinking —brainwashing— has been described in much less flattering terms. Dutch psychiatrist Meerloo calls it “the rape of the mind,” as does French sociologist Jacques Ellul, who labels it “psychological rape.” Likewise, in his classic book Brainwashing: The Story of Men Who Defied It, Edward Hunter calls it “mind attack,” which he condemns as “incalculably more evil than any savage using potions, trances, and incantations.” He details the aggressive brainwashing applied to many American and British POWs during the Korean War.

Various well-known techniques combined to break down their resistance and mold their thinking —including sleep deprivation, bombarding them with propaganda, physical abuse, cutting them off from fellow prisoners and other sources of information, and inducing guilt among them for being uncooperative and supposedly “war criminals.” More generally, Hunter explains brainwashing techniques as “pressures, including arrest or house detention, isolation from outside sources of information, interrogation, endless and repetitive assertions by teams of psychological workers.”

To a lesser extent during the COVID panic, many experienced similar gimmicks in the form of censorship, repetition of mantras like “Alone Together,” and bullying the uncooperative. During much of 2021 and 2022, one could not walk through the Sapporo city underground or subway system without being continually bombarded with PA-system exhortations to “wear a mask” and to preserve “social distance” (the English term was actually used without translation). Recently these constant assaults on one’s ears and mind finally came to an end.

Is brainwashing really effective, even in relatively free societies? Evidently, it is. Most people in Japan have been dutifully getting vaccines and urging others to do the same, despite experiencing their ineffectiveness against infection and severe side effects.

Unfortunately, the application of such brainwashing may have a long-term impact on the mental capacity of its victims. In his book The Technological Society Jacques Ellul predicted a widespread tendency toward collective delusion, in which “the critical faculty has been suppressed by the creation of collective passions . . . [this results in] man’s growing incapacity to distinguish truth from falsehood, the individual from the collectivity.”

How can people resist the power of brainwashing? Offering some hope, Hunter’s book especially highlights the inspiring experiences of those who successfully resisted brainwashing. Such individuals managed to maintain some clarity of mind and strong convictions while viewing the manipulations and brutal behavior of their captors with skepticism. One commented, “The fact that they used force to put their ideas across meant they were lying.”

Such people very often were not particularly sophisticated. Many poor black American POWs with deep religious convictions were among the most heroic and defiant, despite the fact that their captors tried to appeal to their experiences of racial injustice in the US to get them to betray their country. Instead, they prayed and sang hymns. 

Indeed, Hunter observes, “Without convictions, a man was soft clay in the hands of the Reds. I heard of no case where anyone without convictions was able to resist brainwashing.” These days we can also be thankful for the many heroic nobodies (and even Somebodies) with strongly-held beliefs, who are evidently not made of “soft clay.”

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