You’ve Got to Have Ki: Japan’s tendency to mix science, mysticism, and the paranormal

One of the most commented upon features of Asia's intellectual culture is the ability of individuals to subscribe to several competing and apparently contradictory belief systems. The Chinese famously combined their native Taoism and Confucianism with imported Buddhism, and now appear to have little difficulty in declaring themselves Communists while pursuing the path of Capitalism. Likewise the Japanese: Renowned for praying at Shinto shrines, getting married in Christian-style chapels, and living materialistic lives, they are nevertheless packed off to the next world by Buddhist priests.

To people from the mono-faith West – be they Christian, Muslim, or dogmatic atheist – this sort of mix-and-match doublethink might seem fuzzy-minded or even look like a cowardly and superstitious attempt to hedge one's bets vis-à-vis whoever’s really in charge up there. Alternatively, it can be viewed more positively, as an open-minded and liberated way of thinking – a readiness to think outside the box, or at least dip into several boxes.

This tendency towards inclusive – if not always logically compatible – thinking also extends to Japan’s scientific and technological communities. With a less purist outlook than their counterparts in the West and a residual interest in what once passed for 'science' in these parts before the shining light of Western rationalism descended, Japan's technocrats often appear very unscientific, in a way that recalls the mysticism, astrology, and alchemy of Europe's great groundbreaking scientists of the 17th century – Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Robert Boyle.

Several years ago, perfect proof of this came in the story that the Daioh Temple of Rinzai Zen Buddhism was holding a special "information service" to pray for the preservation of data stored on computer discs and had launched an on-line virtual temple. The chief priest, also claimed to have received about 5,000 requests for prayers, presumably many of them from Japan's tech-savvy whizzes, who saw a timely donation to Cyber-Buddha as perhaps the ultimate back up for their data.

Japan's lab scientists also like to mix and match proven science with the grey areas of pseudo-science, superstition, and new age insights. Perhaps no finer example of this kind of brain exists than Yoshiro Nakamatsu, a.k.a. Dr. NakaMats, who is a successful scientist and inventor and – quite frankly – a bit of a fruit bat. Alongside his sterling work on the early floppy disc and digital watch, he has also spread his scientific genius in more unorthodox directions.

While there is at least some practical aspect to his musical golf putter – it emits a harmonious musical tone when the ball is correctly struck – his design for the "Dr. NakaMats House," a habitation that he claims will achieve energy self-sufficiency by converting 'cosmic rays' into electricity is science adulterated with generous doses of new age or old-fashioned oriental mysticism.

It may be easy to dismiss a failed Tokyo gubernatorial candidate who promotes his own spray–on anti–impotency cure, claims his special diet will enable him to live to 144, and deprives himself of oxygen to spark new ideas, as an eccentric crank or a one off. It is less easy, however, to explain away the connection of one of Japan’s major hi-tech companies with the pseudo-scientific and mystical realms.

Between 1990 and 1998, the Sony Corporation, the world's leading consumer electronics company, ran a research facility that investigated a range of psychic phenomena, including extra sensory perception (ESP) and ki, a supposed form of 'bio-energy' and 'energy flow' common in traditional Asiatic medicine. Supported by Masaru Ibuka, one of the company's founders, the lab was headed by Yoichiro Sako, a mathematics and computer science graduate from Tokyo University who had previously worked on voice recognition technology.

Sako conducted experiments on ki by measuring physiological changes, like pulse and skin temperature, while ki practitioners attempted to alter a patient's ki energy. Another experiment involved one ki practitioner putting ki energy, into a glass of water and then having another practitioner detect which glass contained it.

An ESP experiment involved writing or drawing on pieces of paper that were crumpled up and placed either between the subject's fingers or in his or her ear. The subject then tried to identify what was on the papers. Sako claimed a success rate of 97.1 per cent when he presented these findings at the 1996 conference of the Society for Scientific Exploration, an organization consisting of scientists interested in UFOs, the paranormal, and other scientific anomalies.

Sony's interest in the commercial potential of harnessing the paranormal was signaled the same year when a company executive Mika Ishida spoke to Wired magazine.

"Sako's main interest is in pushing on the boundaries and definitions that shackle traditional science," she said. "There might be a new type of communication system out there, a system that transmits data through mediums we've never before considered. We don’t know, but we're trying to find out."

In 1998, the company finally made a statement that Sako's research had in fact been successful, while at the same time pouring cold water on the project and announcing that it was being closed down.

"We found out experimentally that, yes, ESP exists, but that any practical application of this knowledge is not likely in the foreseeable future," a Sony spokesman Masanobu Sakaguchi told the South China Morning Post.

With the death of Masaru Ibuka, the lab's most powerful supporter, in December 1997, the facility's days had been numbered. Other factors were the adverse international publicity that Sony's foray across the sharply delineated scientific boundaries was causing. Yoshihiro Otsuki, a Waseda physics professor represented the scientific purists at home.

"By pouring money into paranormal research," he said, "Sony might as well be denying that its products can be trusted."

But the real problem faced by Sony's blending of Western science, Eastern mysticism, and the paranormal was that it wasn't the only one attempting this synthesis. During the period the lab was operating, the Aum Shinrikyo cult rose to prominence. Its mix of Eastern religion, pseudo-science, and laboratory development echoed Sony's more altruistic efforts. The cult also did a good job attracting the kind of elite science graduates who would otherwise have found good jobs at scientific institutions or tech-driven companies like Sony. Unfortunately many of them had studied chemistry, including sarin gas.

With a vision of a group of spiritually evolved scientists surviving a catastrophe to rebuild civilization – derived partly from science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" novels – the group effectively muddied the waters for companies like Sony, and helped push Japan towards the state of knowledge apartheid that exists in the scientifically purist West.

Kansai Time Out
August 2008
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