Letter from Kyoto - Trends in International and Asian Bioethics

- Masahiro Morioka,

International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Nishikyo, Kyoto, Japan 610-11.


Eubios Ethics Institute Newsletter 4 (January, 1994) 2.

In November last year I joined the Third International Bioethics Seminar in Fukui, and read a paper on the possibility of international and cross-cultural bioethics. In that paper I stressed that we would have to take international and cross-cultural perspectives seriously in creating world wide bioethics movement in the 21st century.

In the same session, Professor Hyakudai Sakamoto, former president of the Japan Association for Bioethics, talked about "Eastern Bioethics." He insisted that we need a new bioethics paradigm different from today's American-European one, and advocated Eastern Bioethics based on the philosophy of "relationships" instead of individualism, and of "harmony" instead of autonomy. He said Chinese and Japanese world view is holistic and naturalistic so that the western way of thinking cannot be accepted in the future in this region.

Hearing his argument I had lots of questions in my mind. In a coffee break I asked some foreign scholars how they thought about Sakamoto's argument. I was very surprised to know that some of them had the impression that his lecture was similar to my talk because both of us stressed cultural factors in bioethics.

Of course I stressed to respect various traditional value systems outside the American-European one in making health care decisions there. However, I didn't say we need special Eastern Bioethics in Asian region. I had really strange feelings about Sakamoto's lecture.

For example, Sakamoto argues that Eastern people see the human being holistically, so they have never had the body/mind dualism. Hence, he says, the concept of brain-death doesn't match the eastern holistic way of thinking. Hearing his speech I was wondering what Sakamoto meant by his word "Eastern people." Does it include Indian and Islam in South Asia? Or it only meant people living in China, Korea, and Japan. According to the traditional Buddhist view in South East Asia and Sri Lanka, the human body after his death is corpse without mind because at the moment of death the soul escapes his body and goes to another world. This is a kind of body/mind dualism which Sakamoto wants to deny. Japanese traditional Buddhism has a little bit different world view. Japanese traditional customs tell us that after human's death his soul hangs around his former body, and in this sense it sticks to his body for some time. Here the body/mind dualism is weak, but certainly exists. Needless to say, Islamic countries in Asia have another story about human death and his soul. We must also keep in mind the fact that 20-30% of Korean is Christian today.

In addition, according to my questionnaire research among contemporary Japanese, some of them clearly state that the essence of human being lies in his mind, not in his body. They affirm so called "the western way of thinking.

I have many other things to be pointed out about Sakamoto's argument, but the most important thing to be noted here is that there is great diversity concerning the way of thinking among "eastern" countries, and among people living even in the same country. It is nothing but a hopeless cliche to say that Eastern people live in relationships and harmony so that they need their own special moral rule and paradigm.

This is not to say that we need one universal bioethics which ignores cultural diversity. We should respect cultural diversity, but I think Eastern Bioethics has a danger that might suppress more micro diversity existing among Asian countries and people living there. An this is probably the same danger Sakamoto felt against universal American-European Bioethics.


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