Safety First and mind conditioning

An-zen Dai-ichi: Calm-All Number-One

Safety First: an-zen dai-ichi Calm-All Number-One

If you listen to these recordings (something that I find hard to imagine right now), you might think that

  1. I’m a really smart person (or a person who thinks he is really smart), or
  2. I’m somebody really dumb (who thinks he’s very smart).

I suppose you’ve even swung like a pendulum from one pole to another, from thinking that I’m really smart to thinking that I’m actually really dumb, just pretending (to himself and to others) to be smart.

The truth is a bit more complicated:

I am dumb for some stuff, and  I am smart in some respects, in certain directions.

I assume I know much more about aikido (Ki-Merging Path 合氣道) than a lot of Europeans, and a lot of Americans, and a lot of English speakers in general.

Why? Because I speak Japanese and I can read Japanese, which puts me in a minority (among native speakers of European languages). Nonetheless, anybody in Japan who has taken the trouble to read about aikido would know more than me.

One thing that puzzles me to no end is that very few Japanese people seem to be aware of what aikido could offer Japan.

Aikido is different from judo (Soft-Way 柔道), karate (Empty-Hand 空手) and all the other martial arts which are intrinsically Japanese as they have

all sprung from the same root:

budo (Warrior-Way 武道, which is rendered using two words in English, “martial arts”),

a root from which several branches have developed.

Aikido is different because at least one of its branches (shinshin-toitsu aikido: Mind-Body-Into-One Ki-Merging-Way 心身統一合氣道) presents us with more than just fighting techniques.

Just to be clear, I am talking about this particular branch whenever I talk about aikido. There’s another branch with many more members (in Japan and abroad) which concentrates (like other martial arts or sports) on the actual techniques and does not put much emphasis on aikido as a way of life with its own distinctive philosophical and spiritual aspects.

The names of the several branches developed from old martial arts show you what is considered most important, what is central in each branch:

  • karate using the hands (te )
  • kendo (Sword-Way 剣道) using (nowadays) a bamboo sword (bokuto 木刀 Wood-Long-sword)
  • kyudo (Bow-Way “traditional Japanese archery” 弓道) using the bow (yumi 弓)
  • merging with the ki for aikido (合氣道)…

I happen to know more about the last one, which makes me more smart to some people, but obviously I appear very dumb to anybody who knows more than me about aikido.

Maybe I’m exaggerating, maybe I’m Oriental-ising (the discourse on the Oriental).

Maybe I’m Occidental-ising when I talk about the Western world and its values.

Maybe I’m Romanian-ising when I talk about the Romanians’ passion for jokes.

Of course to the people who belong to that (ethnic, cultural, racial, etc.) group and think they know more than me, to these people I appear very dumb (stating truisms).

On the other hand, for the people who are outside this group (i.e., those who are not Romanian, Westerners, Japanese, or aikido practitioners), to these people I would appear very smart.

So I’m swinging between appearing smart and trying to appear very smart…

Allow me to present you with a concrete example: the slogan.

When we explain (to a Japanese audience) a semantically-loaded concept like “slogan” which is well established in English but has also been borrowed into Japanese (suro-gan), we have to explain that the English “slogan” is rather negative.

Why is it associated with BAD? Because we (in the West) think of slogans as being propaganda-related (e.g., the slogans of the Communist Party).

There is a political background to slogans and their political background is not cute.

We also have advertising slogans: those catchy phrases from the commercials which you can’t remove from your head.

Why are they perceived negatively in English, but not in Japanese? Even towards advertising slogans, you (=the Westerner) would feel quite defensive because they’re taking away your freedom.

Freedom is (of course) a huge value in Anglo culture.

A high-level Anglo cultural script connected with “personal autonomy”

people think like this:

when a person does something, it is good if this person can think about it like this:

“I am doing this because I want to do it” (Goddard 2006: 6)

Why do the slogans take away your freedom?

  • Because in political terms, they take away your freedom to act as an individual.

The crowd chanted slogans: ” Dear leader, dear leader, wise, kind and blessed by the rainbow”

His birth at Baekdu Mountain was foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow across the sky over the mountain and a new star in the heavens.

  • Similarly, advertising slogans take away your economic freedom by somehow controlling your wants, your desires.

What do we have in Japan? In Japan we have safety slogans.

“Pointing with the Finger and Calling out loud” (yubi-sashi kosho 指差呼称)

Calling out loud what? “Safety First”, for example (anzen dai-ichi 安全第一).

If you have seen a construction site operated by a Japanese company, you probably saw it written. It’s that common.

It’s a slogan about which everybody in Japan thinks “safety first, perfectly okay”.

It doesn’t have a negative connotation, as it does in English, obviously.

Now it appears that I know more about the Japanese language, if you’re not Japanese.

On the other hand, if you’re Japanese, you might say “okay, I didn’t think about it like that” because now you’ve seen the light shining from “slogan” in English, which is the original coinage, and about whose semantic valencies you haven’t been aware until now.

What if you’re Romanian? Well, same as the Westerners, right? You’re probably thinking

“Why does he have to explain, isn’t it obvious? And what’s with the Japanese?

Aren’t they brainwashed into behaving like robots?

Why is everybody repeating (bleating like sheep) the safety slogans?”

For a Romanian it is very hard to grasp these positive connotations, because it does feel like a form of mind control.

Romanians (and many Westerners) do not realise that it is a form of mind training (brain self-conditioning), which is something you do voluntarily.

Why? Because you’re just trying to get your brain (and your body, 心身統一 shinshin-toitsu Mind-Body-Into-One) to react properly (quickly and automatically) in certain situations.

Pointing and calling out, at the same time, helps people concentrate better; this has been proven in experimental tests.

Let’s say that you’re about to press a button which will lower a 20-tonne stamping die onto a sheet of metal which is sitting on another 20-tonne die.

Is everything as it should be, is everything set up correctly?

Or is it possible that there will be a problem at the time of impact between the upper die and the bottom die which is meant to shape that sheet of metal into a car-body part (a fender, a door etc.)?

  1. You can check visually, you can have a look and say “Okay, it looks mmkay” and then press a button, or
  2. you may be thinking “Come on, I’ve done this so many times, I’ll just press the button”.

Which one is safer?

The safest way is to include a step whereby somebody is pointing with the finger, so he (she) is following his (her) gaze to the piece of metal inside the stamping press (by the way, “stamping die” is rendered matrita “matrix” in Romanian). You look at it to check if the die will impact in a way that is safe or not.

It is possible that the sheet of metal is set askance (= not properly set), so at the time of impact it’s going to fly and, I don’t know, stab somebody, whatever a-piece-of-metal-flying-from-a-stamping-press-kind-of-accident looks like.

I don’t know because I’ve never seen such an accident, despite working in a stamping die manufacturing factory for a year.

Why didn’t I see an accident? Because everybody was careful, everybody would point first, follow their own gaze, make sure that everything is okay, anzen dai-ichi 安全第一 “Safety-First”, and then press the button.

Which method is going to ensure safety?

  1. The guy who points with the (index) finger and calls out?
  2. Or the guy who’s like “Yeah, I’ve done this many times, I’ll just check it; I don’t have to shout like an idiot, like a robot”?

You’re not a robot; you’re just a human who has conditioned his (her) own brain out of his (her) own accord to ensure that he (she) doesn’t hurt himself (herself) or other people around him (her).

So that’s what the Japanese industrial safety culture means, that’s why slogans have a positive connotation.

This is another area where I may sound more knowledgeable than other people; or maybe not, maybe I sound very dumb, stating the obvious, stating that which is common knowledge in Japan:

だって、常識だもん (datte, joshiki da-mon)

I guess I could continue by contrasting English “common knowledge, common sense” with the Japanese equivalent Always-Knowledge, Permanently-Aware (jo-shiki 常識), but why not stop here?


Goddard, Cliff. 2006. ‘Ethnopragmatics: A new paradigm‘. In Cliff Goddard (ed.), Ethnopragmatics: Understanding Discourse in Cultural Context. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 1-30.

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