Trouble at Yasukuni Shrine

Spirit worship and possible side-effects

TOKYO AND BEIJING – Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, shocked East Asia by visiting the controversial Yasukuni war shrine which hosts about 2.4 million kami or “spirits,” among them a dozen Class-A war criminals such as former wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo.

The visit took place on Dec 26 when the West was at Christmas and China celebrated the 120th anniversary of the birth of its founding father Mao Zedong. Mr. Abe chose that day to pay his respects and pray for the souls of the enshrined countrymen who had fought for Imperial Japan and died for its cause. His statement for peace can be studied at The Japan Times.

History as we see it

Beijing and Tokyo both interpret parts of 20th Century history differently, and both powers frequently remove unfavorable historical details from their nation's school textbooks. In Beijing's case, the human losses during Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s or the Tiananmen incident in 1989 come to mind. In Tokyo's case, the government is downplaying Imperial Japan's role as aggressor during WWII, in particular the Nanjing massacre and the systematic exploitation of 'comfort women' (mostly from Korea).

Unlike post-war Germany's 'Historikerstreit', Japan didn't experience a thorough discourse about its war crimes, including their comparability with the crimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Beijing naturally wants to exploit this situation and tries to manipulate Tokyo's top politicians. Hence the intimidation of prime ministers who plan to visit the Yasukuni (Junichiro Koizumi, unimpressed, visited the shrine six times as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006, despite Beijing's protest).

All kami (spirits) are equal

In Shinto tradition, kami are treated egalitarian. Their previous lives and deeds are nonrelevant. China and South Korea have no kami and interpret things differently: The Asian neighbors are shaken, vexed, perplexed, and, in the case of Beijing, fuming with rage at Sinzo Abe’s alleged tactlessness and insensitivity (towards the victims of Japan’s war crimes before and during World War II) at a time when Japanese warships, a Chinese aircraft carrier, missile boats, and US B-52 bombers are patrolling up and down and around the disputed Senkaku (in Chinese “Diaoyu”) islands in the South China seas.

Reading China’s state media’s responses today was no pleasant experience. A frontpage editorial in the Global Times wants Abe “blacklisted” and “kneeling-down statures of Japanese war criminals” being erected. China Daily featured a piece by Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi who demands Abe’s admission of guilt, otherwise he’d “end up being an out-and-out loser in history.”

Whatever Abe’s New Year’s resolutions are, if there are more unnecessary provocations, so some commentators argue, he might lose his popularity in Beijing, Seoul, and even Washington (which on Thursday evening already expressed its “disappointment” about Abe’s move that “will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors”). Needless to say, China’s permanent anti-Japanese propaganda, bullying, and threats of retaliation are over-the-top and offer little diplomatic tact either.

New Year resolutions

The 195+ countries and regions of the world are now preparing for the turn of the year and as we are celebrating our shared values (and shelve our differences) and as people of all faiths are praying for peace there’s perhaps one token of wisdom that is immediately understood and which translates well, I think, into all cultures. It goes “Love your enemy.”

Image credit: Scirocco340/

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.