Japan: To you who will graduate this year

Spring is fast approaching, and in Japan that means two things: the fall of cherry blossoms and the start of the new school year, which coincides with last year's graduates joining the workforce. With economies both global and local slumping to new lows, and no end in sight to the practice of un-hiring fresh graduates, the outlook for young people leaving Japanese universities this year is far from bright.

Japanese graduation (photo by Flickr user gnurou)

Japanese graduation (photo by Flickr user gnurou)

With these circumstances as backdrop, a blog post by Japanese blogger and university professor id:next49, addressed (anonymously) to a student, struck a chord with many readers and drew a huge reaction in the local blogosphere last month. Posted on February 22nd, the post begins:


To you who will graduate this year.


Congratulations on your graduation. In truth, although it would be best for me to express these things to you in person, my position as professor would exaggerate their impact, and so I can't say them to you directly. However, if I don't get my thoughts off my chest, they will cling to me for the rest of my life. So I am going to put them into words here.


You really struggled this year to finish your graduation thesis. You yourself know, I think, the reason why you struggled so much on that thesis: it is because you are always seeking the correct answer in the world outside of you. Whenever I would ask you, “Why do you think that is so? Please tell me the reason.”, your face would always freeze over and you would go silent. I expressed to you many times that “there is no right or wrong answer in research. It's research precisely because nobody knows the answer. So first of all state your claim, and then if you find that someone else's rebuttal is correct, you know that your claim was mistaken.” I said this, but up till the very last moment, you could not express the correctness of your own claim in your own words, and were constantly seeking my assurances. That was extremely painful for me, to be honest.


When we were just chatting, you were capable of having a cheery conversation with me, but the instant it came to discussing research, you froze over. The reason is that, whereas in a chat you have self-confidence since you can say whatever you like just based on what you're feeling (whatever you feel, there is no right or wrong), you lose all that self-confidence when the topic is research.


And I think the reason you have no self-confidence about research is that, just perhaps, you are terrified of making mistakes. You are terrified of making mistakes because you haven't got any emotional backbone. You haven't got any backbone because you depend on other people to make value judgments, you don't have the capacity to make them yourself. What you consider to be your own sense of value judgment is actually a picture of “you being an honor student”, of “you being a capable [student]”, that depends [for its affirmation] on those around you.


Of course there are many people who really do understand the meaning of “being capable”, who have emotional backbone. Your standard [for judgment] is based on “what other people think of you”, [but that's not enough]: emotional backbone comes down to “what you think about yourself”. Roughly-speaking, what this means is that even if other people think you're uncool, as long as you think of yourself as cool, you shouldn't be bothered. Whether you define what is cool based on your parents’ view, or your girlfriend's view, or your friends’ views, or the views in a short story, or the views of characters in anime, doesn't matter. What's important is that you yourself really internalize it. If you really internalize it, then even if the world around you suddenly changes, you won't suddenly feel the ground fall out from under you.


The foundation for my own value judgment was built by my parents. From this basis, I've developed an emotional backbone by mixing various experiences, of books I've read, of television programs I've seen, and of the great teachers — the really interesting ones with personality — who taught me in grade school and in high school. The statements and thoughts of my university supervisor are even today a prominent part of my emotional backbone. Nowadays when I make progress with my research, I can hear my supervisor's voice: “Is there any significance to that?” “What's the definition of that?” Up to this very day, the standard I use for beauty and ugliness very clearly comes from short stories and manga that I've read in the past.


People with emotional backbone can generally forgive themselves for making mistakes. The reason is that a mistake in something that is trivial from the view of their own standard of judgment can be improved simply by fixing it. If the mistake is important from the view of this standard, then they may lose heart. But people who have once built up their emotional backbone are able to strengthen and change the backbone itself, and therefore they are surprisingly tough.


On the other hand, people who have no emotional backbone are unable to forgive any mistake. The reason for this is that this type of person bases their judgment on something that is outside of themselves, and therefore they are not able to judge which mistakes are fatal, and which are not. Because in the end, it's other people who make the call. They want to behave flawlessly, but they lose their sense of what kind of behavior is perfect, and then they lose confidence, and end up hating themselves. It's like a shellfish that places all their pride in their shell. The judgment call is outside of themselves, so the only alternatives that are open are “to avoid being disliked by others”, “to avoid other people thinking I'm not cool” and “to not be seen by others as incapable”. They can't strengthen or change [this backbone].


People who leave value judgment calls to those around them never become adept at expression. Whether it is research, or a speech, or drawing pictures — to express something is to take the standard for judgment that is already within yourself, and based on that standard, to question the outside world about your thoughts or ideas. People who leave value judgment calls to those around them are constantly worrying about whether they are living up to the quality demanded of them from the outside world, and thus cannot bring what is within themselves out. And a person who cannot bring this out of themselves also cannot express themselves well.


For people adept at expressing themselves, questioning the outside world about one's thoughts and ideas is at the heart of the very meaning of one's existence. To question the outside world is to be met by counterargument, tearing skin and severing flesh. The bone, however, is protected. The wounds heal, the body is restored back to shape, bones are strengthened — or in some cases replaced — and once again one questions the world about one's thoughts and ideas. Nothing else can even start without questioning the outside world.


So if you want to be someone who can express themselves, then you'll need emotional backbone. Anything will do. What's important is not what I think about you, but what you think about yourself. You're not me, and I'm not you. Ultimately, you have no business being influenced by what I think of you.


I have my regrets that I wasn't able to provide you help in finding your own backbone, but I pray that your experience of writing your thesis at this research lab will come in useful many years from now. I hope that you will be well trained by your new teacher, in your new place. Sayonara, and look after yourself.

There are a huge number of reactions to this post, most prominently a highly-bookmarked response [ja] posted at Hatena's AnonymousDiary. For more reactions, see id:next49's follow-up post [ja], in which the blogger summarizes some of the main discussion points related to the original blog entry.

This blog entry was translated in its entirety with permission of the blogger.


  • TDoc

    Wow… that’s a really dedicated letter from a professor… I think his comments on lack of self-confidence and emotional backbone could be applied to too many students in the Eastern cultures as well. Seniority proliferates submission and that has forced East Asian youths to remain in the box after all this time.

    Undoubtedly, things are changing now. Social rebels have become prominent and praised by many in the society.

    Nonetheless, with or without emotional backbone, the new graduates should brace themselves for the challenges arising in the gloomy global economy.

  • The use of “backbone” bothers me as saying one lacks one in English is rather pejorative. In psychology, this is called having an “external locus of control” rather than an internal one. That is, you are controlled by outside factors rather than your own wishes.

    I’ve encountered many people in Japan, particularly those currently in academia, who have similar issues and it comes down to how the education system handles them and how they are socialized. There is a continuum of how hesitant people are to express themselves to others, but most Japanese people have been conditioned by their culture not to express themselves freely or with confidence and indeed are punished when they do so. An education system that emphasizes giving the teacher the answer he or she wants over the right answer is a big part of this.

    Perhaps working in research requires that one overcome the years of conditioning up to that point, but, lamentably, it generally serves people well in their society to have a weak “emotional backbone” and to seek the approval of others.

  • @Orchid64

    Thanks for your comment. Actually the term “emotional backbone” is a translation of the Japanese 「精神的な背骨」, and it could arguably be expressed in other ways. But I do think the sense was somewhat pejorative in the original Japanese. That’s also the reason the blog post sparked quite a few responses, more than a few of which were critical.

  • Jannie

    Fascinating article! From my limited understanding and experience with the Japanese and Japanese culture, I can see how not having an “emotional backbone” is both a desired trait here and a prevalent one. The most surprising thing about this article was the fact that a Japanese professor was speaking out against not having an emotional backbone. I would have thought the professor would want his students to uphold and reinforce and praise his previous research.

    I teach a wide age range of Japanese students, starting from 2 year olds to the middle aged. From what I can tell, again from my very limited experience in Japan, is that Japanese people are not inherently afraid to assert themselves. Somewhere in the process of growing up, the culture starts to impose this norm of not having an emotional backbone or an original thought or an opinion. I’m going to be bold and say that the change over begins in junior high school. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, prior to the teenage years, my Japanese students express their individuality and express it loudly. After the beginning of adolescence, it appears my students no longer have a voice and just go along with the crowd; they conform.

  • Hi Jannie,

    That’s an interesting observation about people losing their “emotional backbone” in junior high school. I don’t have much experience with Japanese people younger than university age, but at least at that stage I understand (to a degree) what this professor is writing about.

    But I also think there is a sense in which arguments about “conformity” tend to set up an implicit standard for what “individuality” means. The tendency of students to just do as they are told instead of thinking for themselves (as described in this post) frustrates me a great deal. At the same time, though, school/university are one particular type of context — people who follow blindly in that situation may very well show their “individuality” in other ones. This is my strongest reservation with this blogger’s argument — it is very university-centric, as if a person who can’t demonstrate their emotional backbone in university will never be able to do so. I see no reason why that should necessarily be so.

  • Hey Chris,

    Overall good translation. Orchid64, I do defend Chris’ use of “emotional backbone,” but was he talking to all graduates or one particular person in general?

    Well it is true that most Japanese students will “give the teacher the answer he or she wants over the right answer,” I think it is a sign of progress that the professor is encouraging his student(s) to have more confidence in one’s abilities and not be dependent on another person’s confirmation. However, I’m not sure, how being a professor will would increase the impact of telling someone to have more confidence in oneself.

  • […] ruggegraat’ te ontwikkelen en voor zichzelf te bepalen wat ze juist achten of waar. Lees ‘To who will graduate this year‘ en de Engelstalige reacties op GlobalVoices […]

  • RCane

    Words of Wisdom …..goes a long way….

  • […] I Google’d it and this is what I found. A disheartened professor’s final letter to his graduate students: You really […]

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