Book review: “数学者の言葉では” (In the words of a mathematician) by 藤原 正彦 (Masahiko Fujiwara)

By | June 11, 2014

This book I picked up at the same time as 影の現象学, and the two works are similar in that I misunderstood both to be fiction when in fact they were nonfiction academic books.

This book is a collection of short essays from the mathematician and popular essayist Masahiko Fujiwara, whose parents were also popular authors. The first chapter tells the story of a woman who tried to become a mathematician, but ended up leaving the field for several years because she couldn’t accept the fact she would have to sacrifice a huge part of her life. The author goes on to talk about four characteristics required to become a proper mathematician. I remember three of the four so will mention them here:

  • 執拗 (persistence)
  • 野望    (ambition)
  • 知的好奇心  (intellectual curiosity)
  • ?

He goes onto say that making any serious progress on difficult math problems requires giving up almost everything and devoting all your time and energy to that problem’s solution.

Having a strong interest in math, to the extent that I have worked on a very difficult problem in some of my spare time the last few months, I could appreciate much of Mr. Fujiwara’s commentary on that field and profession. I think much of his opinion is right on the mark, though the end result is sort of depressing for me since it means a half-assed attempt at math won’t yield much in return. Also, as an essayist is he quite good at explaining things in great detail, but I feel sometimes he goes overboard, spending around ~30 pages on a topic which could have been done in half that. Having said that,  if you enjoy his writing style and can empathize with him you may enjoy this book.

Rather than the content itself, my biggest challenge with this work was the high level of the Japanese text. I consider myself somewhat well-read in Japanese (at least for an American who has learned Japanese as a hobby), but this book really tried my skills in terms of vocabulary and in some cases complex grammatical constructions. While there is some advanced math terms used that even an average Japanese person probably would struggle with, the general level of even the non-math specific parts is quite high, and I found myself having to look up over 10 words per page in some areas. Part of this may be because this book was published in 1984, so there are some expressions which aren’t that popular anymore. One phrase that comes to mind is “後顧の憂いなく” which means something along the lines of “with no worries for what was left behind”.

Just as I was at the point of debating whether I should continue this book due to it’s long-winded style and difficult Japanese, the topic of the second chapter made it easy for me to put it down indefinitely. It’s titled 体罰, “physical punishment”, and in it Mr. Fujiwara talks about how he has physically punished children on the subway who were acting up, like a 10 year boy who was pulling his mother’s hair. His forms of punishment include kicking children (on the butt or lightly on the shins) as well as grabbing their shirt collars.

To quote his reasons for doing this,

“子供を正しい方向に導くのは、 親や教師の責任ばかりではなく、 社会の責任でもあると私は日頃思っている”

(my rough translation)

“I have always felt that guiding children in the right direction is the responsibility of not only parents and teachers, but also of society as awhole


I can empathize with wanting to give words of warning or encouragement to a child whom I happen to pass on the street, but to enact physical punishment, even that which does not cause any major injury, is quite outside of what I would consider proper education.  I wonder how Mr. Fujiwara would feel if he was given a kick to be guided in the “right direction”?

To give the author’s side of this debate, his reasoning is that many children of a certain age (around middle school) commit wrongdoing while willingly understanding it is wrong, and trying to reason with words is not very effective. He remarks how many of the more memorable punishments from his younger days involved something physical, like being punched or forced to run a long distance. His final justification is that adults can get emotional when speaking, and the wrong words said to a child can leave a long-lasting emotional mark, something akin to emotional trauma. I find this ironic since he just stated physical punishment was more memorable than verbal. While I can the author is doing his best to convince himself that kicking children he’s never seen before is the proper thing to do, as a whole his argument is weak to me.

Mr. Fujiwara does state near the end of the chapter that adults need to be prudent when dishing out corporal punishment to avoid injury, but this doesn’t excuse his actions.

Because of the incompatibility with the authors morals and mine, I am not really interested in reading the rest of this book. To make matters worse, this topic really doesn’t have anything to do with math or mathematicians, so why did he even include it?

All in all, I think this book was worth the ~$2 I paid for it (used), but I cannot recommend it to anyone except those who can overlook his stance on physical punishment for the sake of learning the style of a popular Japanese essayist.

Note: For those interested,  there is a few lines quoted (in Japanese) of the “physical punishment” chapter on this blog post:


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