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Politics and Society Books IV

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God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey

by Ian Buruma

ISBN: 0-09980-210-4
267 pp

Longtime Asia hand Buruma visits much of Asia and writes about a similar crisis of identity that is shared by vastly different societies.

A visit to modern Bangkok or Tokyo may leave the impression that Thais and Japanese have become for all intents and purposes completely Westernized. What, Buruma posits, does it mean to be Japanese? The holding onto ceremony? Language? Race? Are Japanese, for example, less Japanese because they eat at McDonalds and wear jeans?

Buruma examines this cultural dislocation as it is felt in Burma & Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia & Singapore, Taiwan & South Korea, and Japan. This excellent book is a series of portraits of societies coming to grips with momentous changes. The writer spent one year travelling in the region looking at the dilemmas and cultural confusion and endless search for national identity in Asia.

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Sandakan Brothel No. #8

Sandakan Brothel No. 8: An Episode in the History of Lower-Class Japanese Women

by Tomoko Yamazaki, Karen Colligan-Taylor (Translator)

ISBN: 0765603543
256 pp

This is the story of Osaki, who, at the age of ten was sold to a procurer and shipped off to Sandakan, North Borneo, where a scant three years later she began to serve customers as a prostitute.

She was one of thousands of young Japanese women who left the impoverished countryside of Meiji Japan to work in Japanese brothels throughout Asia, and known by the name Karayuki-san.

In her own words, Osaki relates the story of her life from her childhood in a Kyushu village, to Borneo and her life as a prostitute, becoming a concubine to an Englishman, her return to Japan and subsequent move to Manchuria, and finally her return to her village after the war.

The author's own story runs parallel to Osaki's, from her drive to record the history of lower-class Japanese women, her journeys to Kyushu to try and contact ex-Karayukisan, her befriending of Osaki, and their ongoing relationship. She also adds to Osaki's story with research from other sources.

Bracketing the main text are a hefty introduction and afterword by the translator, who puts the story of the Karayukisan into a socio-political context, drawing a connection from Japan's licensed prostitution system in the Edo Period to the Karayukisan and on to the comfort women of World War II right up to the Japayukisan who now come to Japan to work in the sex industry from countries throughout Asia.

This book has been popular in Japan since its first publication 30 years ago, and was even made into a movie that was nominated for an Oscar.

A good book for exploring beyond the overly romanticized view of Japan's historical sex industry as portrayed in books like Memoirs Of A Geisha.

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The Japanese Disease:
Sex & Sleaze
in Modern Japan

The Japanese Disease: Sex & Sleaze in Modern Japan

by Declan Hayes

ISBN: 0595370152
640 pp

iUniverse

Billed as "the mother of all Japan bashing books" economics professor Declan Hayes takes deliberate and detailed aim at what he describes as the "putrid underbelly" of Japanese society: the LDP, the undemocratic political system, the yakuza, the Japanese (child) sex industry, Japan's universities and bureaucratic corruption. This shotgun approach has mixed results, some of his barbs (culled mainly from the English language newspapers) hit the bullseye but others fall wide of the mark.

At times the book is a refreshing expose of modern Japan's "cultural warts", at others a tiresome, holier-than-thou rant that brings too much unfocused material to the mix: America, Hayes' home country Ireland and even his faculty problems at Sophia University.

Poorly edited with frequent spelling mistakes, the lack of an index is not compensated for by the overly long endnotes. That said, The Japanese Disease is a worthy wake-up call to the political and moral bankruptcy that is the modern Japan experience.

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Kickboxing Geisha: How Japanese Women are Changing Their Nation

Kickboxing Geisha: How Japanese Women are Changing Their Nation

by Veronica Chambers

ISBN: 0-7432-7156-4
288 pp

What a great idea for a book. Get a grant from the Japan Society to research Japan. Don't speak Japanese.
With the exception of Princess Masako, get to interview just about any Japanese woman you want.
Have a months-long slumber party with Japanese women-famous and not-in which you listen to bitching in English about the shortcomings of Japanese men (it does not seem to have occurred to Ms. Chambers that these women would say quite different things were they speaking in Japanese.).
Sell a lot of books with a catchy title and great cover design.
Grumpiness aside, though, Veronica Chambers, who has worked at the New York Times and Newsweek, does manage to capture the cultural vibe of a side of Japan that is little reported: in the last twenty years Japanese women have changed, while Japanese men for the most part have not.
Japanese men are confused, and Chambers even admits at one point to feeling sorry for them. Still slogging away at the company, the men are portrayed as being a bit clueless.
Japanese woman, on the other hand, are having expensive lunches (thanks to their husband's paycheck) or not marrying or starting great companies. Many have been abroad and "seen the light" of another way.
In chapters on fashion (the whole book is about fashion), tea, Banana Yoshimoto, love, marriage, and work, Chambers draws a picture of a society in flux.
The book is entertaining and an easy read. It could have used tighter editing in places, though. In one of several zingers, Chambers accurately states that many salarymen receive 1,000 a day from their wives - the banker of the family - as spending money. This is then parenthetically converted to "$10,000"! If only. Then we could all pity Japanese men a bit less.

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Tabloid Tokyo 2

Tabloid Tokyo 2

by Mark Schreiber et al

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4770030606
288 pp

Continuing where he left off in Tabloid Tokyo 1, Mark Schreiber once again dives head first into the world of Japans salacious weekly magazines. Forget Kyoto (the temples at any rate). Forget geisha. Forget zen. This is what's happening in Japan right now, goes the premise of this highly entertaining book.
Schreiber and his tireless comrades search for the most interesting articles from lowbrow magazines such as Aera and Sunday Mainichi, where truth and accuracy are fluid concepts.
The articles were originally translated and annotated and appeared in the Mainichi Shinbun, much to the delight of many foreigners resident in Japan.
Unlike the news that emanates from the establishment press or the image that Japan assiduously cultivates of itself abroad via the Japan Society - think tea, tatami, kabuki - these magazines reflect more accurate down market version of what the average Japanese person is thinking and interested in. (Ask someone in Tokyo what he thinks about Noh or Kabuki. Then ask him about porn or baseball.)
If you liked Tokyo Tabloid 1, this is just for you.

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Enduring Identities: The Guise of Shinto in Contemporary Japan

Enduring Identities

by John K. Nelson

University of Hawaii Press

ISBN: 0-8248-2259-5
324 pp

The Japanese religion known today as Shinto remains little understood by many visitors to Japan, and even by many Japanese of the post-war generations. The most often used description of it as "the ancient religion of Japan" is simply inaccurate and misleading.
For anyone seeking to understand Shinto, Enduring Identities is a great place to start.
John Nelson spent a year at Kyoto's Kamigamo Jinja, one of the major shrines in the Kyoto area, and the fieldwork and interviews he did there explore the forms that Shinto takes today.
Kamigamo Jinja pre-dates Kyoto, and the book contains a lot of interesting history of the area that one normally doesn't find in the standard tourist literature, and particularly interesting is the information on the area being primarily settled by immigrants from what is now the Korean peninsular.
By interviewing many of the visitors to the shrine, as well as the parishioners, and the staff and priests, Nelson builds up a description of what Shinto is and means that is far more diverse than, and sometimes contradictory to, the commonly heard cliches. He also does an excellent job of presenting the relationship between contemporary Shinto and State Shinto, the nationalistic, militaristic cult that held sway in Japan for the first half of the twentieth century. Anyone interested in the Yasukuni Shrine issue will find it informative.
There is an interesting chapter on the "sacred space" of the shrine that is useful and relevant to an understanding of how such concepts manifest themselves in many areas of Japanese life, not just shrines and temples.
The longest chapter concerns itself with the annual cycle of rituals and ceremonies that take place at the shrine. Being both very old (7th century), and important, Kamigamo is home to some major ceremonies, most notably what is commonly called the Aoi Festival, and also the lesser-known Crow Sumo, but the information is also relevant to an understanding of Shinto rituals in general.
A book that would be rewarding to anyone interested in Kyoto or contemporary Japanese cultural anthropology as well as Shinto and Japanese religion.

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No One's Perfect: Buy this book from Amazon

No One's Perfect

by Hirotada Ototake

Kodansha International

ISBN: 4-7700-2764-8
226 pp

This memoir is easy to very read, but equally thought-provoking, and it was a best seller in Japan. It covers the childhood and young adulthood of Hirotada "Oto" Ototake, who, in a country obsessed with conformity, has always stood out--dramatically: he was born with tetra-amelia, a congenital condition leaving him without arms or legs.
Both Ototake and his parents are determined to give him as average a life as possible, and the story of their efforts--and successes--are what make this tale so extraordinary.
Enrolled at a mainstream school with no specific facilities for disabled students, Ototake confronts life with an almost relentless optimism. He joins the basketball team, partakes in numerous clubs and leadership positions, and implicitly demands, through his utter self-confidence and lack of self-consciousness, that his teachers and peers treat him like any other.
Throughout, Ototake narrates these challenges and triumphs in a tone that is almost childlike in its enthusiasm, but the reader should not be fooled into believing that this renders his story a simple one.
Ototake eventually enrolls at at Waseda University where he becomes an activist in support of maintaining "barrier free" environments across the country. It is here that he realizes the rather complex moral of his memoir, and what makes it so important politically for people, disabled and able alike, to read: that his "disability" is a gift that allowing him to positively impact the world by making it a more accessible place for all, and that rather than a symbol of lack, his body is actually a catalyst for this rare and powerful ability.

Tracy Slater, PhD

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Japan Through
The Looking Glass

Japan Through The Looking Glass

by Alan Macfarlane

Profile Books

ISBN: 978-1-86197-952-0
256 pp

To write a small or medium-sized book on a topic as broad as Japan without resorting to generalizations and stereotypes is very difficult, if not impossible. On this score Macfarlane does fairly well.
Most aspects of Japanese society are covered as he takes us through the various stages he went through in encountering and understanding Japan. However, the book would probably have been quite different if he had gone on to the final stage of actually living in Japan long-term, and learning the language. Then he may have been less inclined to simply repeat tatemae (public statements), rather than dig a little and find the honne (private truth). There was a section early in the book when almost every page has a tatemae statement given unquestioningly as a fact. The result was that I found myself unable to completely trust the rest of the book.
Macfarlane's looking glass is distinctly rose-tinted. We are left in no doubt that he likes Japan - nothing wrong with that - but more balance would have been better, rather than several pages of glowing descriptions of some aspect of Japan followed by a single sentence, almost a disclaimer, that there are actually downsides to what he has just described. How about some details?
The book is strongest when he makes comparisons with his native Britain, and there is some excellent work on similarities between the two cultures, especially in relation to inheritance and primogeniture. He also quotes extensively from writings of early visitors to Japan in the mid to late 19th century, though these are more useful in understanding Japan's past rather than Japan today.
One final moan, directed not just at this book, but at many books on Japan, and that is the overemphasis on the Tea Ceremony. Imagine if almost every book you read on England and the English wrote at great length about fox-hunting and its meaning. Interesting maybe, but hardly representative. So it is with the Tea Ceremony. Yes, it's interesting, but far less relevant than such books would have us believe.

Jake Davies

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Splendid Monarchy:
Power & Pageantry
in Modern Japan

Splendid Monarchy: Power & Pageantry in Modern Japan

by T. Fujitani

University of California Press

ISBN: 0-520-21371-8
305 pp

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 is somewhat of a misnomer as there was no restoration of a previously existing imperial system, but a complete reinvention and manufacture of a new imperial system.
Faced with the task of creating a modern nation state out of a diverse collection of horizonatally seperated domains and provinces, and rigidly separated vertical classes, the new leaders of Japan chose to build an imperial system to serve as the unifying paradigm. At that time the vast majority of Japanese had no idea who, or what, the emperor was.
As with so much of the new Japan, they looked to the West for models, and in the case of the imperial system, to European monarchies, especially Britain's.
Fujitani focuses mainly on the external public forms, the new state ceremonies, the Imperial Progresses whereby the Emperor traveled the length and breadth of the country so the people could be introduced to him, the building of the new capital in Tokyo and other new public buildings. Many of these sites have now become major tourist sites: Meiji and Yasakuni shrines in Tokyo, Heian Jingu in Kyoto, Kashihara Shrine in Nara, all built in the late 19th Century, and all symbolic of Japan's "ancient" imperial history. There is a lot of fascinating background on the creation of the new religion of State Shinto, the destruction of local nature-based shrines, the suppression of "superstitions", the creation of national shinto ceremonies, Yasakuni, the enshrinement of emperors, and so on, as well as the rewriting of history to make the imperial system central to Japanese history.
Much of contemporary Shinto owes more to this State Shinto than to earlier forms of religious practise, for instance the "traditional" Shinto wedding ceremony created in the 20th Century.
All nation states have used "invented traditions" in their creation, but what comes across in Japan's case is not only the extent and number of these invented traditions, but the fact that they are so widely believed, by Japanese and foreigner alike, to extend back into Japan's past.
A fascinating book for those who wish to learn more about just exactly how modern Japan is, and the massive disjunction between modern Japan and its past.

Jake Davies

A version of this review was originally published on Jake's Blog

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The Blue-eyed Salaryman
From World Traveler to
Lifer at Mitsubishi

The Blue-eyed Salaryman: From World Traveler to Lifer at Mitsubishi

by Niall Murtagh

Profile Books

ISBN: 1-8619-7789-1
227 pp

This is the story of a young Irishman who became the first non-Japanese "lifer" - permanent employee - of Mitsubishi, the largest corporation in Japan. A couple of days after finishing the book the thought struck me that the author had been very clever and written the book in a style that reflected his life at Mitsubishi, because quite frankly not a lot happens. "From World Traveler to Lifer" implies some sort of a journey, with some sort of drama or struggle, but the journey is about as interesting as a subway trip in Tokyo.
Murtagh seems born to the existence of a salaryman. Other than his life in the company we learn little of Japan outside Mitsubishi. His romance and subsequent marriage to a Japanese woman scarcely gets a mention, which pretty much reflects the reality of salarymen in Japan. We get the obligatory story of neighbors complaining about his incorrect trash sorting, and an indignant story of him being stopped and asked for ID by a cop. He was so outraged that he wrote about it to the Asahi Shinbun. I've been stopped by the police in Japan dozens of times, and never felt like writing about it, but then I'm not a salaryman.
I remain unconvinced that the life of a corporate employee in Japan is fundamentally different from that of a corporate employee anywhere else. There may be humorous and idiosyncratic differences, but basically corporate drones anywhere share a similar reality. For anyone considering working for a Japanese corporation, the book would prove useful, but otherwise it has little interest.

Jake Davies

A version of this review was originally published on Jake's Blog

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Men and Masculinities: Buy this book from Amazon.

Men & Masculinities in Contemporary Japan: Dislocating The Salaryman Doxa

Edited by James E. Roberson & Nobue Suzuki

ISBN: 0-415-27147-9
222 pp

Whether seen as "Corporate Samurai" valiantly fighting an economic war to make Japan Number One, or as "Corporate Drone" slaving mindlessly for his masters only to die young due to overwork, the salaryman (white collar worker) epitomizes the Japanese male.

Despite the fact that the salaryman has never been a majority of the working population, he is still held up as the ideal masculinity for men to be judged by. This collection of essays by Japanese and Western authors examines a variety of masculinities that differ from this norm, and thereby contribute to an understanding of the diversity of gender roles in Japan.

The essays cover male roles at work, in the home, and male sexuality. As with any collection of essays, some will be more appealing than others. The three essays on support groups (for gay men, men raising children, and men committing domestic violence) I found a little dry, and the number of men sampled a little too small to be representative.

However, most of the essays are interesting, Laura Miller's piece on male beauty work, Christine Yano's essay on masculinity in Enka, and Tom Gill's essay on Day Laborers all broadened my understanding of gender in Japan, but for me, the best 2 essays were Nobue Suzuki's essay on Filipina-Japanese marriages for the insights into marriage practices in Japan, and James Robertson's essay on blue collar men for its highlighting of class differences in a society that claims to be overwhelmingly middle-class.

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Shutting Out
The Sun

Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation

by Michael Zielenziger

ISBN: 1-4000-7779-6
352 pp

Shutting Out The Sun is very much a book of two parts. In the first five chapters, former Tokyo-based journalist Zielenziger looks at the recent, disturbing, phenomenon of hikikomori - where over a million young people (mostly men) shut themselves away in their rooms, shunning society. The author's investigative journalism in tracking down and interviewing the hikikomori sufferers and their families is the best part of the book. The remaining nine chapters look at Japan from a more general perspective and seek to trace what has gone wrong with the country and Japanese society since the recession of the 1990s. Zielenziger identifies the usual targets and hits them hard - Japanese women's worship of brand name products, the falling birthrate, the high-rate of suicides, Japan's over-reliance on America's military protection leading to its own hikikomori stance in world affairs and the continuing stagnation in politics and education. However, a note of unease is struck when Zielenziger begins to compare Korea's society and economy favorably with Japan because of Korea's more pronounced Christian influence. More worrying still is the overt glorification of US capitalist risk takers and the implicit link to Christian principals as the underlying driving force of a robust US capitalism as opposed to the risk averse politicies of non-Christian Japanese business. Despite its decidedly US-centric standpoint, Shutting Out The Sun should be on the bookshelves of anybody wishing to better understand current Japanese society and trends, set against the backdrop of the rise in the power of its giant neighbor, China, which threatens to leave Japan trailing in its wake.

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