"Any damn fool can answer a question. The important thing is to ask one."
These truly insightful words were spoken by Joan Robinson, easily one of the most celebrated economists of the 20th century. Her words of wisdom are many and varied. The very title of one of her pieces of writing in 1932 states that: "Economics is a Serious Subject: The apologies of an economist to the mathematician, the scientist and the plain man." Anyone with the perceptiveness and courage to write something like this is bound to be a questioner par excellence.
Such a person however, is clearly not welcome in the eyes of politicians, policymakers, bureaucrats, CEOs and other people in positions of responsibility. This is certainly the impression one gets as one watches those responsible people in action in the media and elsewhere. That impression, alas, is most acutely felt when those people happen to be Japanese.
The question-averseness was painfully in evidence as the first news of the Niigata earth- quakes hit the nation last month. The very body language of the officials supposedly in charge conveyed, as no words can, their terror of questions, their paralysis in the face of them, and their deeply rooted suspicion of ulterior motives.
To be sure, Japanese officialdom does not have the monopoly on the general dislike of questions. Indeed, had Joan Robinson been present today to watch the winner of the most recent U.S. presidential election, she would surely feel compelled to admit to erring in parts of her sagacious statement. At the very least, she would feel the need to qualify it and say something like: "Any damn fool can answer a question, provided he is carrying a strange oblong object on his back, strategically concealed under his jacket."
That said, the feeling still remains that Japan is the place where questions tend to be most widely abhorred. Those in the position to answer them seem to regard questions as accusations, if not inquisitions. Questions make them feel threatened. Or humiliated. Or both. That psyche makes them paranoid. They become totally defensive. They try as best they can to get away with saying nothing. Alternatively, they become totally vicious and vindictive. If they have a nimble tongue, they fight back with facetious cynicism, as is the case with the guy with the top job in Japanese government at present [Editor: Back in 2004, this was prime minister Junichiro Koizumi].
Such attitudes are off-putting for the questioner, too. The more feebleminded will tend to forego asking the question, for fear of what revenge may be in store.
None of this, of course, is at all helpful. In times of crisis, we all just want to know what is going on. Nobody is accusing anybody of anything. Nobody wants to hear excuses. Nobody is trying to make people say things that they do not know. As yet another high-ranking U.S. official once famously observed, the known unknowns can be very significant. Not to say the unknown unknowns, of course. Here, clearly, is somebody who does not need the aid of strange objects concealed about his person to tackle tricky questions.
The supreme question-dodger is somebody who ignores the question and chooses to answer an unasked question of his own making. That way, any damn fool can, unquestionably, always answer a question. But that brings us no nearer to the truth under any circumstances. When lives are at stake, which is unfortunately and increasingly the case in this time of typhoons, earthquakes, terrorist attacks and hostage-taking, what we need more of are good questions and honest answers.
May Heaven send us more questioners of Joan Robinson's caliber. And people with the courage to respond to them.
About the author:
NORIKO HAMA is currently an economist and a professor at the Doshisha University Graduate School of Business. She studied international economics at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. Having graduated from the university in 1975, she joined the Mitsubishi Research Institute where she has addressed a variety of macroeconomic issues, including the United States economy, European integration and financial deregulation in Japan.
In 1990 Ms Hama was appointed to the post of the Institute’s first resident economist and chief representative in London. She returned to Japan in 1998, and served as research director in the Research Center for Policy and Economy in Mitsubishi Research Institute’s Tokyo headquarters. In 2002, she moved to Doshisha University Business School to take up a professorship in international economics there.
Ms Hama writes regularly on current issues in newspapers and economic journals including the Mainichi Shimbun, Japan Times, Les Echos and the Financial Times. She is a frequent commentator for the BBC’s World Service Radio and Television broadcasts, Japan’s NHK Television, CNN and other current affairs media.
Ms Hama also serves on a variety of committees advising the major central government ministries as well as local authorities in Japan.
Publications include: Can the Dollar Recover? (Nihon-Hyoronsha Japan, co-authored 1992); Visions for the 21st Century (Adamantine Press UK & Praeger Publishers USA, contribution, 1992); Disintegrating Europe (Adamantine Press UK & Praeger Publishers USA, 1996); Pirates Wearing Neckties (Nikkei Shinbun Japan, 1998); The Economics of Euroland: new currency, old politics (PHP Books Japan, 2001)); How the Global Economy Goes Round (Chikuma Shobo Japan, 2001); How Can the Japanese Economy Recover? (Chikuma Shobo Japan, contribution, 2003); Common Sense and Beyond (Jitsugyo-no-Nihon Sha Japan, 2003); and The Japanese Economy in Synopsis (contribution, 2005).