Finding the foundation of professional ethics in Japan: a socio-cultural perspective

Teruya Nagao, Kiyoshi Murata


The rapid development and widespread availability of information and communication technology (ICT) has made various types of information processing possible. A huge amount of data are collected and stored in databases and flexible database management systems and sophisticated software furnishes us with ability to manipulate data as we like. Broadband networks covering nation-wide as well as world-wide transfer any types of data files at light speed. Bulletin board systems, social networking services and blog services provide us with opportunities to publish our opinions casually.

On the other hand, the advent of the ICT-driven information society requires us to carry out our social responsibilities for information behaviour in return for the great convenience of ICT. In particular, people working for organisations such as firms, governments, hospitals, schools, research institutes and NPO/NGOs should develop and establish professional ethics concerning collection, processing, transfer and disclosure of information suitable to the information age in their respective area of work, because the core activity of their work is information behaviour and it affects the quality of life for a broad range of people to some degree or another.

However, it may be a real challenge in Japan to develop professional ethics regarding information behaviour in response to the development and spread of ICT. First of all, even though the importance of controlling influence of development, usage and dissemination of ICT in a socially favourable way has broadly been acknowledged, it is not necessarily the case in Japan. Many Japanese people consider that ICT is just a technological matter and does not relate it with social and ethical issues. Furthermore, in the mature society, ordinal Japanese people tend to consider that discourse on ethics is just for children; adults should internalise the traditionally cultivated values based on which appropriate judgments are made. In fact, the circumstances have caused seemingly farcical, but socially serious, muddles with respect to ICT and information behaviour. In March 2001, IT Strategic Headquarters, the taskforce set up at the prime minister’s office to propose national policies in respect of ICT, submitted “e-Japan Priority Policy Program”. According to this report, “information” was decided to be a mandatory subject at Japanese high schools from 2003 and this got the Japanese field of education into a mess. In order to get a teaching qualification in information, students have to acquire credits of subjects including “Information society and ethics”. At many Japanese engineering colleges, however, the teaching staff were at a loss what educational content to be taught in this subject and who to ask to give a lecture on it.

In addition to these factors, the greatest obstacle to development of professional ethics concerning information behaviour in Japan is the lack of responsibility ethics of individuals, which are necessary components of professional ethics. Japanese ethical and political tradition was built up through the three epoch-making events: (a) the introduction of Tang legal scheme in the eighth century, which enhanced to establish the “Ten’no” (Japanese Emperor) Regime, (b) the adoption of Song Neo-Confucianism as the state thought in the seventeenth century, which ideologically supported the Tokugawa Shogunate system, and (c) the introduction of Western political scheme between the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, which helped establish Meiji nation-state. At each of the events, the original scheme or thought was “Japanised”, i.e. was modified in order to be adapted to Japanese conditions at the time. Unfortunately, at the last event, although responsibility ethics of individuals consistent with Japanese socio-cultural tradition should be established in step with building Meiji modern state, they failed to be and have not yet been developed.

In order to develop a practical code of professional ethics in some society at some time, the code has to be correlated with core ethical thought or fundamental ethics shared among people in the society at the time, because the code can practically work well only if the fundamental ethics endorse it. In other words, the code should be designed through the process of interpreting and rethinking the fundamental ethics. It is obvious that professional ethics are not identical to fundamental ethics. However, in order to make a code of professional ethics efficacious, it is necessary that the code is accepted and supported by ordinal or non-professional people as well as professionals in the society at the time. This means the code developed is inevitably ethnocentric in a certain sense; the code is not universally efficacious because it is developed based on the socio-cultural context.

In Japanese circumstances in which there is no clear conception of responsibility ethics of individuals, to develop and establish reliable and efficacious professional ethics, a code of which is totally endorsed by fundamental ethics, is really a hard task. This is sort of a tragedy to the modern information society, because Japan is one of the leading nations in the field of ICT development and usage. In order to surmount the difficulty, perusing and reflecting the historical circumstances of the formation of Japanese socio-cultural context to compensate the lack of responsibility ethics of individuals is absolutely necessary.