Report of the Kyoto Bioethics Seminar, and Comments on Comparative Bioethics

- Masahiro Morioka
International Research Center for Japanese Studies
3-2 Oeyama-cho, Goryo, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto 610-11, JAPAN

(Email: PBI01055@niftyserve.or.jp)


Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 6 (1996), 157.
On October 14th, 1996, the Kyoto Bioethics Seminar was held at International Research Center for Japanese Studies. The title of the seminar was "Comparative Bioethics in Asia: Are Japan, Israel, and India the Ends of Asia?" We invited Dr. Frank Leavitt as a lecturer, and Professor Carl Becker and Professor Jayapaul Azariah as commentators.

First, Dr. Leavitt gave us detailed analyses on the Jewish way of viewing life and religion, and similarities between Jewish thoughts and Buddhist ones, showing us several impressive examples drawn from ancient Jewish philosopher's texts and Buddhist sacred writings that he got at Tsukuba Sky Hotel when he visited Japan three years ago. Then he emphasized similarities these two religious traditions shared indicating that we can learn a lot from ancient wisdom in both East and West ends of Asia. He also gave us precious information about actual practices of physicians and nurses in Jewish hospitals, and some ethical problems they are faced with today.

Professor Becker made comprehensive comments on Leavitt's lecture from the viewpoint of Buddhist philosophy. He basically agreed with Dr. Leavitt, but he stressed that it was still important to pay attention to the differences between Jewish and Buddhist thoughts. For example, in Judaism there is the idea of God who created the World, but in ancient Buddhism, on the contrary, there was no such idea of the creation of the World by God. Among other examples was the difference of the idea of time; Judaism think of time as linear while Buddhism think of it as cyclic. It was very interesting for me that through discussion it became clear that there were enormous diversity among various Buddhist thoughts, and even among various Jewish thoughts because I had thought by mistake that there were not so much diversity among Jewish religious traditions.

Professor Azariah then interpreted the idea of "the Middle Way" which was found in both traditions in terms of environmental sciences. He emphasized that the Middle Way is not the static point located in the middle of the two extremes, but that it is a kind of "condition" which determines the behavioral pattern of living things, a waving pattern of increasing and decreasing between the upper and lower limits. He also explained to us the concepts of harmony and diversity found in natural ecosystems, and their relationship with ancient Indian thoughts.

After the lectures, we had a long discussion from various angles. One of the most important points all of us had to recognize was that there are profound discrepancies between Jewish or Buddhist theory and people's actual conduct, habits, and rules they really follow. For example, Buddhism encourages celibacy, but many Japanese monks have wives and children. Buddhism originally permitted suicide if it is committed in a sound way, but today's Japanese Buddhists usually persuade people not to commit suicide. Prof. Susan Long, a US anthropologist, said that the United States is considered to be a Christian country, but people's everyday conduct do not necessarily follow Christian moral rules.

We discussed truth-telling and informed consent in Japan, Israel, and India. Dr. Tanida and Dr. Asai, both physicians (and present also in Tsukuba), talked about ethical problems concerning truth-telling to cancer patients, and asked the participants how to solve the truth-telling problem in Japan, where only 20% of the cancer patients can gain the true information. One of the reasons for the low rate is that many family members hesitate to let the patients know the truth; hence doctors usually give information first to the family, and after that ask them if it is good to tell the truth to the patient. If the family refuses then the doctor gives up handing information to the patient. Some of us insisted that doctors should give information directly to patients; but some showed sympathy to the present Japanese custom that doctors first get permission from the family members.

It was curious that the next week we had an annual conference of Japan Association for Bioethics in Tokyo, where we had a special session on informed consent, and there was a battle between medial professors who stressed that the Japanese should not place so much importance on the idea of informed consent, and a legal professor who stressed the importance of it. This shows that today's Japanese bioethical thoughts are getting into a sort of chaos, where some people stick to the so-called traditional Japanese (or Asian) values while others actively try to accept some of the European-American values and ideas.

For example, Professor Hyakudai Sakamoto, the president of Japan Association for Bioethics and the president of East Asian Association for Bioethics, writes that "this way of thinking [=new bioethics he advocates--note: Morioka] might admit a new sort of paternalism, even the idea of some new type of "eugenics", which has been long rejected in Western world denouncing the violation of Human Rights" (1). I can never agree with this support for "paternalism" and "eugenics", and we had some discussion on this in the Tsukuba Bioethics Roundtable. Although he is the president of two Bioethics associations, I don't agree with him on this point, and a lot of my friends don't agree with him either. In this sense we can say that no one can represent "the" Japanese view, or "the" East Asian view of bioethics, there is deep diversity!

1. Hyakudai Sakamoto "The Gene, Artificial Evolution, and Human Rights; A New Way to Post-Modern Global Community" read at the Symposium, Ethics in Human Genetics and Gene Analysis, Aug.9,1996, International Institute for Advance Studies, Kyoto (Proceedings forthcoming from Eubios Ethics Institute).

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