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10.4. Anthropocentric, Ecocentric, and Biocentric views among students in Japan

- Fumi Maekawa and Darryl Macer
Eubios Ethics Institute;
Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba,
Tsukuba Science City, 305-8572, Japan

One of the fundamental distinctions that can be made in the worldview that people have is whether they focus on human beings, anthropocentrism, or on other beings, biocentrism/ecocentrism. The worldview someone has can have a major influence on how they deal with bioethical dilemmas. In the recent years, people have started to regret their selfish actions towards nature, and various international policies have been debated in order to protect and conserve the environment, for a sustainable future.

Japan is a mountainous country, consisting of very few flat lands for agriculture, where 75% of land is covered with mountains.[1] Japan has 28 national parks across the country. Nearly 70% of Japan in forested. The population density of Japan is very high, and this is concentrated mainly in cities; for example, the population density of Tokyo[2] is 5605/km2. The most densely populated city located near Tokyo has 13955/km2 but on the contrary, there are 37cities[3] where the population density is less than 100/km2. Persons living in urban cities and rural villages are often thought to have a different image towards nature. It may apply not only in Japan but also to all the large cities of the world. We could imagine that children, who grow up in the environment of tall buildings, asphalt, and traffic-jams, have rare opportunities to feel nature. Of course "nature" is a very vague and convenient word. In cities where riverbanks are covered with concrete, and the simple change of seasons has to be realized mainly in parks, some beetles are sold in the department stores for more than US$100.

Considering the above points, environmental education plays an important role in developing the minds of children. Kaneo Inoue, a high school ethics and social studies teacher in Japan has pointed out that the current Japanese environmental education system has serious problems in enlightening the awareness of high school students.[4] In Japan, one type of environmental education is taught through ecology lectures in the classes on biology, where "ecosystems are very complex" and how "it is very delicately balanced", and also in social studies class focusing on environmental pollution and natural destruction as a fact. When it comes to ethics, the lecture focuses on the "co-existence of humans and nature" or "ethical self consciousness in preserving the environment". The present environment education lacks coordination between the subjects, which causes some high school students to become very pessimistic towards human activities.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) renewed the educational guidelines since April 2002. In this renewed educational guideline, one of the attractive point is the establishment of "integrative learning" classes. This new class was founded in order to allow each school to approach in their own original way, multidisciplinary subjects such as: international relations, information, environment, human welfare, and health.[5] Every school had approximately 3years to prepare for the new educational guideline (4years for kindergartens, elementary schools, and junior high school), and many have held workshops to search for a better approach. Still there have been worries and doubts over whether the activity will be truly interdisciplinary. The reason behind this anxiety lies in the insufficient training of present teachers. In reality, for subjects such as information and environment, science teachers are inevitably put in the situation to take care of class attendance, and the basic idea of interrelationship between teachers of different subjects has been forgotten to some extent.

Despite the interest in the subject of bioethics education, and consensus on the need, the appropriate analysis methodology and the answers to questions like "can bioethics be taught" are elusive and varied. In order to examine these questions, analysis of the homework that students gave in the bioethics classes of Darryl Macer, since 1990, in the University of Tsukuba in Japan has been conducted. This paper describes the ideas and thoughts expressed in student reports, and how these reveal their worldview. The categories of report titles given in the class in the past 11 years include: Animal Rights and Experiments, Hierarchy of life, Genetically Modified organisms and food, Gene patents and bio-business, Xenotransplantation, Organ donation and brain death, Surrogacy and assisted reproduction, abortion, Cloning, Human embryo research, HIV and AIDS, Gene therapy, Gene enhancement and eugenics, Alzheimer's gene tests, Genetic screening, and Genome projects. Within these, anthropocentric and ecocentric views shown by the students in reports on selected topics including GM foods, animal rights and experiments, scientific responsibility, and patenting of biotechnology were explored. In this paper we focus on the results from the topic of GM foods.

Table 1: Individual report titles and number of submission on the topic of GM food
YearReport titleSubmission Number for Analysis
1998What do you think about GM foods?13
1999aHow should we assess the data on GM food safety?32
1999bHazard and risk: what's the difference?27
2001My attitudes to GM food and genetic engineering, compared to current agriculture.25

Table 1 shows the year that the reports were assigned, each report title, and the number of reports submitted. Students who submitted the reports were mainly biology major students in their 2nd or 3rd year at university. Before each class, students were given some materials to read, and the discussions in class were based on those materials. The main information source were scientific journals and occasionally, international policy papers. Table 2 shows the categorization of ideas expressed in each student papers. The categories are: risk to humans, environmental concern, solution to hunger, industry responsibility, scientist responsibility, overall risk perception, media responsibility, need for organization (institutions), and the need for information. In the end, three main ideas were identified. Within those categories, anthropocentric, and ecocentric/biocentric ideas were identified.

It has been suggested from previous studies using similar samples that the report title and class materials have some effect on the opinion the students express through reports. In this table, the ideas mentioned in the handout are marked with circles. It is difficult to differentiate from genuinely original ideas from those influenced by the class materials and teaching. However, this uncertainty is true for any kind of opinion or ideas expressed by the students. Information is abundant in Japan. Media reports through newspapers, television, and radio construct the minds of the receivers to some extent. The availability of appropriate information was shown to be of great interest independent to the report title. For example, "There must be both data that supports the safety of GM food and data that reveals the risk", "Data is only a result which is obtained from experiments. Information is made from the data. By how we regard the data, information will change. It is important to see the data from a scientific viewpoint.", "We must not believe only one data on safety.", "It is important for the consumers to get as much information as possible."

10.4 Table 2

Together with this result, a few students mentioned the media's responsibility in sensationalizing the topic. For example, "Media is the only resource of data the public can get and it should have a role to pass on the data more easily. We need to continue to pay attention to the media.", or "Since most of us don't know much about them (GM technology) scientists and media should report them easily" "The media only wants to make people worry, so they prefer to report uneasy points. They use in their program, specialists who have negative ideas, and positive ideas are less frequent. They exaggerate the possibility of allergies, but never exaggerate the need of GM foods or why GM foods were invented."

Similar proportion of students question the scientists' and industry's responsibility. "All data of experiments should be confirmed by many other scientists", "To tell the right information is a significant task of scientists. Furthermore, the media must tell it precisely.", "We should doubt all published data, I think." There were also concerns over a need for an independent organization, or governmental bodies to be in charge of dealing the problem. For example, "I hope for an institution we can trust", "I think society regards the audit of the group standing in higher society to be more reliable than the conclusion by one researcher. But the unit forming the group standing in high society is an individual. There is much corruption and suspicion, so we cannot say that the opinion of the group standing high in society is absolutely correct.", "The audit committee must be independent of cultivators and developers, because they may change data to be profitable."

Concerns about the direct effect of GM food on human health were not mentioned as such. Still, this was the underlying risk perception.

In the 1999b report, only 3 students out of 27 mentioned the influence of GMs to the environment. It is interesting to see that most of the students argued for safety tests for the human's sake, which takes for granted that the tests should be done on animals, then to humans who can volunteer.

In other years, more students mentioned their concern about the environment such as "As genetic modification can change the property of the organisms more rapidly than breeding, the organisms genetically modified will affect the ecosystem more than the ones that are bred. When we modify the crops genetically, we have to consider the safety not only of humans but also of other creatures.", "Humans are members of nature. We should eat natural foods, and we should not modify organisms"

Some students like to mention every position's rights, while others prefer to argue from utilitarian views. Many students seem to feel that if it is properly used, technology is a useful tool for human society. This is however a big conflict when seen from an ecocentric view, whether it is beneficial for the natural habitat of a certain species, or even for the earth as a whole. Some students use the word "nature" or "natural", but the definition of "nature" or "natural" is very vague, and may vary between different people. It is interesting to see that maybe because the students were mostly biology major students, that the term "ecosystem" or "environment" seemed more frequently used. It would be interesting to further investigate whether students from different study areas express in different language, or show different tendencies towards issues of environment and bioethics as a whole.

Is anthropocentrism bad? I would like to argue that the present situation on earth has been caused by anthropocentrism and human ego, to pursue human convenience and materialistic richness. We have been neglecting the fact that human life itself depends on other living organisms that constructs earth. Now that we have started to realize that the human future will not be too bright, if we continue to use up whatever material is available, it is important to raise the awareness of every person to what the consequences of their actions will be. From the results of this research, it can be said that even for biology students, the main purpose and concern of genetically modified foods was on humans. The heat of the media report on GM was in its peak in the years 1999 and 2000, but this has gone quiet. The trend now in the supermarkets is to sell products that are labeled "This food does not contain genetically modified Soya" for example. Though it is questionable whether this choice was the result of public understanding. The market tends to select the safer road, in this case the magic word "non-GM" appeared reflecting the fact that there was no strong voice supporting the direct benefit of GM food. The students, too address the food shortage in the developing countries, especially when given materials mentioning this, but this still is indirect, being in a country having abundant food supplies whether they are imported or not.

Bioethics education should not be propaganda to force students to think in a uniform manner, may it be the position taken by the local government, international organizations, or a specific philosopher (Macer et al., 1996; Macer, 2003). Rather, it is an opportunity to present different aspects around various bioethical dilemmas. Decision-making may not always be autonomous. We are always influenced by the society surrounding us, and also each individual is influencing the society; the gathering of individuals.


Macer, D.R.J., Asada, Y., Tsuzuki, M., Akiyama, S., & Macer, N.Y. Bioethics in high schools in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1996).
Macer, D.R.J. (2003) "The purposes of Bioethics Education: Lessons from Japan and Asia", in pp.4-5 in Song, SY, Koo, YM & Macer, DRJ. eds. Bioethics in Asia in the 21st Century (Eubios Ethics Institute, 2003).




[4] Kaneo Inoue, Bioethics Education in Japanese High schools (2000), Eubios Ethics Institute, pp40-48


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