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Small-Scale Question Sunday for September 3, 2023

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

This is your opportunity to ask questions. No question too simple or too silly.

Culture war topics are accepted, and proposals for a better intro post are appreciated.

Jump in the discussion.

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I'm not sure how to word this, but I have a poor impression of Japanese people's intellect that contradicts their reported mean IQ, which is supposed to be among the highest. Trying to find counterexamples among translated works seems futile, it's all swill for the masses. Even the old stuff, like the tale of genji, or esoteric buddhist writings, don't seem worth diving into. There seems to be no demand for heavier intellectual content beyond cheap existentialism. For instance, the 3-body problem would have never been published in Japan. Am I the only one puzzled by their stunted level of content production? I get reminded of this contradiction every time I read comments from Japanese people on quora or elsewhere. Maybe something is lost in translation, but they commonly come across as substantially and consistently dumber than other ESLs.

The way any nationality or ethnicity's intellectual powers are directed is in large part culturally mediated and orthogonal to their measured intelligence. Imagine all the collective brainpower that has been spent (or wasted, you might argue) by Ashkenazi Jews in debating the finer points of Talmudical hermeneutics or by Indian Brahmins in memorizing and reciting the Vedas for thousands of years. However high IQ those populations were or are, there isn't much there for you to read if you aren't into esoteric religious literature or have some personal connection to that culture. If your interest is as specific as modern science fiction novels for example, then you're probably going to get more out of a random western or western-adjacent country like Poland or Finland than anywhere in Asia simply for contingent historical reasons.

As far as the Japanese go, I'd say from my limited experience that their technical expertise in many areas of manufacturing seems indisputable, that they have made major advances in science above and beyond their neighbors in East Asia, and are pretty much the number 2 country in the world after the United States in terms of unique cultural exports (anime, manga, video games, movies, etc. that don't simply ape American forms like European or even Korean producers often do). The fact that they developed a vernacular literature and achieved nearly complete literacy before even most western nations also ranks them pretty highly in my book.

Those are fine points for pre-modernity but these days Japan is more or less secular and one of the most west-adjacent countries you can get. And moreover, not only were they the West's most diligent student, but they were high tech much earlier, and a co-founder of several genres like cyberpunk and arguably spaghetti westerns. The purpose of bringing up the 3-body franchise was to allude to the subverted expectation of it being written by a chinese author, instead, who are even less likely to ape Western genres. Meanwhile the japanese made ghost in the shell which asks a question and that was that. The japanese smartphone industry went thru a similar divergent trajectory. Anyways to your point about lack of historical continuity for Japan to be writing modern science fiction, I respond then there is no reason for Murakami either.

But this is getting away from my primary confusion, which is regardless of the path Japanese cultural output takes, you would expect a smarter audience to yield more intellectual works than a handful of "really makes you think" or otaku-bait stories. I'm still looking but all I see is a trend toward lowest common denominator twitter comics and animated avatar personalities.

What about film? You have Miyazaki of course, you have Kurosawa, a few other pretty well regarded film makers, or even a few lesser known ones that are quite thoughtful (e.g. my brother speaks highly of Hirokazu Kore-eda). Nintendo is an insanely inventive and productive company with stellar quality. Plenty of other examples... but if you don't speak Japanese, I think almost by definition it's unfair to attempt to judge the quality of the output of a country's intelligentsia. That's an absolutely massive selection and discovery bias, among many others. Certainly, if you are using Twitter as your tool of choice, that says a lot more about you than it does about a whole country.

I mean, all I can say is that the works that really make you (as an individual) think might not do anything for anyone else and vice versa. The impression I received from nearly everyone I talked to last year was that watching the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once would trigger some mixture of existential crisis and spiritual awakening in me and I just came away from it disappointed wondering "did you people not all think through and resolve these particular issues when you were in elementary school like I did?"