Posted on October 30, 2023

Nakasone’s World-Class Blunder

Ezra Bowen, Time, June 24, 2001

The word for it in Japanese is ayamachi, diplomatic argot for a grave mistake, even a sin. Last week none other than Yasuhiro Nakasone, Prime Minister of Japan, committed a world-class ayamachi when he told a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party, “So high is the level of education in our country that Japan’s is an intelligent society. Our average score is much higher than those of countries like the U.S. There are many blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in America. In consequence the average score over there is exceedingly low.”
At first few people in Japan’s remarkably closed and monolithic society, 98% of which is native born and historically chauvinistic, picked up on the horrific implications in the remark. Then the reaction from the U.S. hit the fan. William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, black chairman of the House Budget Committee, angrily withdrew a dinner invitation to Japanese Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga. Representative Mickey Leland of Texas led the 21-member Congressional Black Caucus in calling on President Reagan to demand an apology. Esteban Torres of California and his 14-member Hispanic Caucus were equally furious.

An abashed Nakasone promptly tried to “explain it all” by praising the “great achievements” of the U.S. “But there are things the Americans have not been able to do because of multiple nationalities there,” he continued, sinking deeper into the ayamachi even as he struggled to extricate himself. “On the contrary, things are easier in Japan because we are a monoracial society.” These secondary remarks mollified no one. Declared Japanese-American Congressman Robert Matsui of California: “Mr. Nakasone’s explanation is almost as outrageous . . . as his original statement.” At this point, some Japanese also rang in. “Our Prime Minister,” said Professor Kennichi Shibuya, evaluation expert at Joetsu University of Education, “should never have opened his mouth on this question.”


Yet some cool scholarly heads in the U.S. conceded the Prime Minister a point or two, if only for his arithmetic. “Statistically, he’s right,” said Harold Howe, senior lecturer at Harvard’s School of Education. Indeed, a report by British Psychologist Richard Lynn published in May 1982 indicated that over the past generation Japan’s mean national IQ score has risen 7 points to an average of 111, well above the American norm of 100. Other surveys show that 17 million to 22 million, or 7% to 9%, of adult Americans are functionally illiterate, vs. less than 1% of Japanese. And a study by the University of Michigan ranks Japanese youngsters some 10% higher in math than their U.S. counterparts at the first- and fifth-grade levels.

As for ethnic groups’ dragging down the overall U.S. performance, again statistics seem to support the Prime Minister. Historically, black IQ levels have averaged at least 10 points or so below the U.S. standard. According to a 1982 U.S. Department of Education survey, black and Hispanic illiteracy rates range from nearly double to almost four times those of average whites. And in 1985 SAT results showed whites with an average score of 940 (of a possible 1600); Mexican Americans scored 808, Puerto Ricans 777, and blacks 722. Jeanne Chall, director of the reading laboratory at the Harvard School of Education, admits, “We do have whole groups lagging behind.” And, she adds, “it’s alarming. We’re not doing well enough.”

Some familiar combatants in the genetics-vs.-environment IQ controversy thought the lag inevitable. William Shockley, retired Stanford professor and Nobel prizewinner in physics, restated his controversial view: “I’m inclined to believe the major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin, and thus not remedial to a major degree by practical improvements in environment. For Latins in this country, my conclusion is the same and almost as inescapable.”


The prevailing modern perspective is expressed by Princeton Psychologist Leon Kamin, who says, “Certainly Nakasone knows that blacks on the average score lower on IQ tests than whites. But we do not have the technology . . . that would reveal any differences in the relationship of genotypes (genetic makeup) to intelligence.” In fact, most scholars today believe that so-called intelligence and achievement differences stem largely from environmental factors. {snip}