What Does It Means to be Truly “Interdisciplinary”?

  • Akira AkabayashiEmail author
Open Access


Before concluding this work, let us return to some bioethical theories. The theme of the present chapter is integral to bioethics. My main intent is for each reader to revisit his or her definition of the meaning of “interdisciplinary,” a core term in discussions of bioethics. The manner in which this term is used varies widely. At the simplest level, “interdisciplinary” is used to indicate that researchers and others from multiple academic fields have collected together their own individual theories on a particular topic. However, it is worth wondering how much each researcher actually understands the writings and thoughts of those in other fields. In the present chapter, I first ask what is required to be truly “interdisciplinary” and present a sport ethics article my colleagues and I wrote as an experiment to demonstrate these points. My hope is that my readers will consider how this article could be changed in order for it to be understood better by as many readers as possible.

Bioethics is often said to be an interdisciplinary field of study. However, “interdisciplinary” is a complex term. In the initial stages of the debate on brain-death in Japan, it was quite typical for symposiums comprising researchers and others from multiple fields to begin with “from the standpoint of medicine,” “from a legal perspective,” or “from a philosophical point of view,” before presenting their own opinion from the specialty field. However, as various opinions were voiced from different fields, this approach was considered “interdisciplinary.” Unfortunately, this approach cultivates a very shallow level of debate. This, in turn, means that valid interactive conversations never begin. At the time of the brain-death debate, communication skills within science and technology had not yet developed in Japan, and there was little that could be done when facing this first major problem in bioethics.

A truly interdisciplinary conversation will never begin if we merely listen to the perspectives of the specialists, but then investigate the issue no further. So the question remains: what does it mean to be truly interdisciplinary? I feel that truly interdisciplinary dialogue implies a particular posture taken when addressing a given problem. Thus academic debate should result in the participants achieving a deep understanding of each other’s opinions, and even if a resolution is not achieved immediately, obtaining the sense that “the discussion moved forward/the understanding of the other person has deepened.” Dialogue can only begin with a general understanding. As the dialogue begins and the discussion continues, a mutual understanding of each participant’s views is deepened further, and the result is something that might be considered truly interdisciplinary. Nonetheless, it is difficult to define exactly that what is “truly interdisciplinary,” but one prerequisite might depend on the “attitude” of those involved while conducting the dialogue.

In the present chapter, I will give an example. The paper below has not been published elsewhere. Using sumo wrestling as an example, one author wrote the first draft without limiting the argument to any one academic field. After the first draft was created, other authors from a variety of specialties added the flesh to the skeleton. All co-authors consented to the publication of this article in the present text. It is written with terminology from ethics, philosophy, sociology, law, psychology, and anthropology. Scholars in some specialties may criticize this as superficial. However, as a discussion increases in specialty, more specialized terminology is used such that some researchers may not be able to understand sufficiently the writings of their colleagues in other fields. One other criticism may be, “Well, that’s somewhat interesting, but you need to deepen the discussion.” However, to “deepen the discussion” in one specialty field would make this less interesting to those in other fields.

Sports ethics, which has a slightly different feel from the other themes mentioned thus far, is becoming an important field within bioethics. I hope that my readers will consider the relevance to the objectives of the text below as we discuss the topic of sumo wrestling, the national sport of Japan.


  1. 1.

    On the subject of Equality in sumo, Thompson notes that, although women previously could not even watch sumo, they now can. In effect, he found trends of Equality in the modernization in Oh-sumo. Thompson carefully avoids judging whether sumo is modernized or not by using Guttmann’s seven characteristics [21]. However, we have some concerns.

    In Oh-sumo, the tradition holding that the dohyō ring is off limits to women persists. In 2000, during the March Oh-sumo tournament, Osaka’s prefectural governor Fusae Ōta expressed her desire to present a Governor’s Award during Senshuraku (last day of the tournament) by herself in the ring, but the NSK strongly disapproved. This became a widely publicized social issue, but the governor ultimately abandoned the plan.

    The tradition still continues to this day. At just after 2 pm on April 4, 2018, during the Oh-sumo Spring Tour’s “Oh-sumo Maizuru Tournament” held in Maizuru City, Kyoto Prefecture, Mayor Ryozo Tatami (67-year-old male) collapsed while giving a welcome speech. As several women were performing cardiac massage on the mayor in the ring, announcements were made at least three times saying “Women please exit the ring” and “Men please enter the ring [28].”

    On the evening of April 4th, Hakkaku, the NSK chairman, admitted that the NSK’s gyoji referees made several announcements saying “Women, please leave the ring,” and commented, “The gyoji made these calls because they were distressed, but it was not an appropriate response to a situation in which a human life was on the line. I deeply apologize [29].”

    This comment by Hakkaku suggests the view that a human life overrides the value of tradition, which we agree with. However, NSK’s position has not changed at all since the case of Ōta in 2000. On April 6, 2018, only two days after the Kyoto case, Mayor Tomoko Nakagawa (70-year-old female) of Takarazuka City, Hyogo Prefecture, was prohibited from giving a speech in the ring for the same reason as in the Ōta case in 2000. Mayor Nakagawa commented that “It is regretful I could not make my speech in the ring. While keeping the tradition, it is important to have courage to change [30].” This has become a social issue once again, but change seems unlikely. Does Oh-sumo reflect the form of society of this period as Thompson stated?

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biomedical EthicsUniversity of Tokyo, Faculty of MedicineTokyoJapan

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