The Cultural Connection to Ideas of Morality


During the Second Sino-Japanese War between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan,[1] unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army conducted research in China to develop biological weapons. The unit was officially known as “The Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army”. As part of the research they dropped plague[2] bombs on the local Chinese population and then observed the effects. They also tied people to stakes and subjected them to various biological agents, extreme cold and other conditions in order to investigate the results. One of the ways they investigated the effects was to perform live vivisections without anesthesia. One of the surgical investigators in unit 731 reminisced to a New York Times reporter[3] in the 1990’s about the process:

“The fellow knew it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down. But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming. I cut him open from the chest to the stomach and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped.”

They didn’t use anesthesia apparently out of concern that it might affect the experimental results. The people they harvested from the local area were called “logs” (maruta). This may have been somewhat of an inside joke because the cover story for the camp to the local occupied government was that it was a “lumber mill”. The commander of the unit, Shiro Ishii, was a graduate of Kyoto Imperial University. He became interested in biological weapons after hearing they were banned by the 1925 Geneva Protocol for war. He reasoned they must be powerful if they were banned.

Shiro’s word was law in the camp. If he wanted a brain to study all he needed to do was say so. His underlings would hold down a prisoner, open up their skull and deliver it promptly. After the war ended in September of 1945, the United States offered immunity to the participants in exchange for the results of their work.

Behaviors like these can only be understood in the context of cultural forces that we are all exposed to as we develop our individual identity. Japanese children who became soldiers during this war were taught that the Emperor of Japan[4] was a descendant of a god.[5] They were raised amid ideas that the Chinese, Koreans and Mongolians among others were enemies and less or non-deserving of status as human beings. In this context the behaviors of Unit 731 could be viewed through the cultural lens as an entitlement, a duty and an act of devotion to the Japanese leader among other things. This cultural lens was a source of passion and justification for the cruel treatment, takeover of land and other invasive behaviors by some Japanese at the time. Devaluing people at the receiving end of these torturous behaviors by calling them “logs” was just one of the ideas that greased the wheels of cultural identity.

The cultural currency can lead to any number of destructive acts, but this is by no means unique to Japanese history.[6] The definition of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior differs widely from culture to culture. Males of the Murut tribe of northern Borneo once sincerely believed that cutting the head off an individual from another tribe was a natural, acceptable and expected to properly prepare for marriage. As part of the culture, some of the men carried decorated baskets in which to put the head they planned to cut off.

Different headhunter tribes of Borneo and other places had different beliefs and rituals surrounding the practice of severing heads. Some communities on the Upper Fly River of Papua New Guinea also practiced cannibalism.[7] Some tribes held other beliefs such as those that considered the jawbone a protection charm. Some cultures used headhunting as part of a naming ritual for the children that were born into the tribal community. The practice of headhunting in Borneo was largely abandoned as of the late 20th century because of influences from other cultures.[8]

It is not simply values surrounding human interaction that are defined by cultural convention. In some cultures dogs are valued as companions. In other cultures they are valued as food. Once a specific practice such as the consumption of dogs as food is established, efforts to ban it by other cultures can be viewed as an “attack” on the culture.[9] Some cultures perform live vivisections on animals for the purpose of medical or product research, education and so on.[10] Still other forms of live dissection, decapitations and other forms of execution without anesthesia are performed, not for research, but for food[11] or as punishment.[12] Industrial farm chickens are raised in concentrated quarters, crated and shipped to slaughter houses where they are shackled by the feet, semi paralyzed in an electrified salt water solution as their heads are dunked in upside down. The chicken’s necks are slashed, they are sent through a bleed out tunnel alive, (so the heart continues to pump blood as they die) then they’re dipped in semi scalding water. Some of the chickens flail in agony so much during this process that they have been reported to have “broken bones and disfigured and missing body parts because they’ve struggled so much in the tank”.[13]

Many of us happily feast on dismembered carcasses as part of what we simply consider a balanced diet. It’s not uncommon in cultures familiar with these practices to accept them without much thought. The acceptance of rituals and beliefs associated with cultures that embrace factory farming is viewed as cruel and appalling by a certain subset of vegan[14] culture and animal rights activists[15], among others. To a vegan, eating meat looks like a macabre ritual autopsy where the remains are eaten.

It is possible to be horrified at the practices of certain Japanese soldiers, headhunters or those that eat dogs or other animals because of cultural bias while at the same time ignoring very similar behaviors practiced within one’s local culture. Social acceptance of conventional behaviors is applied to what would otherwise be viewed as savage or immoral simply because they take place within the context of what we become accustomed to.

The point here is that behaviors are viewed in the context of how they are valued within a specific culture. Things that are seen as horrendous in one culture can be viewed as justified, admirable, natural, and otherwise having high value within another culture. What we come to accept, expect and value is powerfully influenced by the relational environment we develop in.

The impact of cultural context on our identity is far more complex than the few factors being outlined here. Authoritarian, communal, egalitarian and monetary relational aspects can mix and match to shape individual and cultural identities.[16] These have an impact on the relationships that characterize family, community, national and international interactions. It has been said; “socialization to evil is all too easy”.[17]  There is no moral judgment on “good” or “evil” being asserted here. Instead this is to identify how we are susceptible to the effects of our social environment – regardless of whether the influences are constructive or destructive.

Our standards for truth are often built on past and present accidents of association that influence our individual and group identity.[18] In order to forge an intentional identity, we need to recognize that tradition as the legitimizing factor for what we typically see as truth is not reliable with respect to what nourishes our fullest potential. If we don’t question the enculturation process by which we acquire our values and behaviors we become prisoners of those values. We also tend to use the local ideological glue that forms our culture as the means to determine self and other, worthy, and unworthy. Perhaps an even larger impact is the way destructive notions perpetuate through the generations. Although there is change in cultural norms over time, it is painfully slow. Our children pick up the notions of their peer group and pass them on to their children. In the absence of vision that can transcend the narrow orbit of our local developmental environment we can become slaves to the experiences spawned by this lack of vision.

Of the cultural perspectives we can intentionally point ourselves to that can help us transcend the perpetuation of self-destructive behaviors, understanding that humanity by nature has no “us” and “them” is an effective place to begin.  We’re in this together.

 [1]This war was fought between July 7, 1937 and September 9, 1945. It began as the Second Sino-Japanese War, but ultimately became part of the Pacific War portion of World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941.

[2] Bubonic plague, septicemic plague and the pneumonic plague is believed to have caused what is known as “the Black Death”. It is estimated to have killed 25 million people in Europe during the 14th century C.E. All three of these are variations of the Yersinia pestis bacterium.

 [3] For more information see the New York Times article by Nicholas D. Kristof, March 17, 1995: “Unmasking Horror — A special report.; Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity” Also see the Daily Mail article by Christopher Hudson, March 2, 2007: “Doctors of Depravity”

 [4] Known outside Japan as Hirohito, while he lived he was called “his Majesty the Emperor” by the Japanese (天皇陛下, Tennō Heika) or “his current Majesty” (今上陛下, Kinjō Heika). After his death he is now referred to as Emperor Shōwa. (昭和天皇, Shōwa tennō)  Shōwa is the name of the era in which he lived and reigned.

 [5] According to the Japanese constitution of 1889 the emperor of Japan had a divine power over his country. This power was said to be derived because of the royal family’s descent from a sun goddess called Amaterasu (天照), Amaterasu-ōmikami (天照大神/天照大御神) or Ōhiru-menomuchi-no-kami (大日孁貴神).

[6] For more information on this topic look up the term “psychological manipulation”. Also read the book “Who’s Pulling Your Strings? How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life. Harriet B. Braiker (2004)

[6]  American Anthropologist Volume 54, Issue 2 Page 221.

 [7] It is thought that there was a relatively small reemergence in the late 20th, early 21st century due to ethnic violence in Borneo. Mexico’s drug gangs also use beheading presumably as an act of control and vengeance. For more information see the article by Tim Johnson in McClatchy News April 1, 2010: “Why are beheadings so popular with Mexico’s drug gangs?”

 [8] See the article by Anthony L. Podberscek “Good to Pet and Eat: The Keeping and Consuming of Dogs and Cats in South Korea” in the Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 65, No. 3, 2009. (Page 615) Also see: “Some Head Hunting Traditions of Southern New Guinea” By Justis M. Van Der Kroef

 [9] See “The Ethics of research involving animals”, Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Section 1.6. Also see “Vivisection in Historical Perspective” by Nicolaas A. Rupke, Routledge Kegan & Paul 1987

[10]  For more information on the food industry as it stands in the early 21st century read “Animal Factory” by David Kirby. St. Martin’s Press, 2010.

[11]  For more information read “Dark Justice: A History of Punishment and Torture” by Karen Farrington. Smithmark Publishing, New York, New York, 1996

 [12] There are various methods of slaughter used. This is just a typical method used in industrial farming of the early 21st century. Source information from United Poultry Concerns,

[13]  Vegans do not to use or consume animal products of any kind. This is sometimes for perceived health reasons, ethics, or both. According to the Vegan Society,, “veganism” denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.

[14] Along with traditional organizations that defend the rights of animals not to be subjected to abuse, there are also those that suggest we have no right to dominate other animals in any way. Animal rights culture has emerged over time. There is a move in the early 21st century by scientists to have dolphins declared non-human persons. See the Sunday Times article by Jonathan Leake January 3, 2010 “Scientists say dolphins should be treated as non-human persons”.

 [15] For more information on this look up the term “relational models theory” and “Alan Fiske”

[16] The quote is from an interview with Robert Jay Lifton in speaking of doctors in Nazi Germany during World War II on the show “Conversations with History” in October of 2001 – Show ID: 6081.

[17] For an example of how the influence of individuals and cultures works on the development of identity read “The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South” by John W. Blassingame. New York: Oxford University Press 1979.

Additional references to how we can be carried on cultural currents:

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