Books on Japan: Japanese Politics & Japanese Society
Books on Japanese Politics
Japanese Politics & Japanese Society books: read reviews of books on Japanese politics & Japanese society, which can be purchased from Amazon US, UK, Japan.
Oxford University Press
Every year dozens of books are published that claim to explain Japan, though mercifully the number and frequency is much reduced from three decades ago when Japan was riding high before the bursting of the bubble. Some are written by journalists after their stint in the Tokyo office, some by academics, and most not only seek to explain Japan but also offer suggestion for how Japan can solve its problems. There is little to distinguish one from the other, and probably the last time any such book has risen to become a classic was Alex Kerr's 2002 Dogs & Demons. R. Taggart Murphy's new book, Japan and the Shackles of the Past, will probably not rise to become such a classic, but stands out as a must read for those who want a greater understanding of contemporary Japan. Though the focus is on the contemporary, the book begins with a history of Japan that increases in scope and depth the closer to today it comes. Along the way he points to particular events that had and continue to have an effect on how things are done in Japan, and while most of these are familiar, he points to a few that other writers have paid less attention to. In terms of the social structures of contemporary Japan and current issues and problems, the book adds little, in fact it seems to be a summary of the current literature on the subjects, but when it comes to the related fields of politics and economics, the book really stands out. To understand politics anywhere it is usually necessary to go behind the scenes, and in Japan, with its deeply embedded concepts of tatemae and honne, it is even more vital. The author does a good job showing the trajectories that Japanese politics have taken in the postwar period and the variety of forces operating in the shadows. He spends a lot of time on the government of the Democratic Party of Japan that came to power in 2009 and seemed to usher in a two party democracy, and shows the people and forces within both Japan and the USA that worked to undermine the DPJ's attempt to loosen the shackle that binds Japan so tightly to the US and their attempt to enact a policy of closer relations with neighbours in east Asia. For me, the most value of the book was in Murphy's ability to explain economics, a subject I find incredibly difficult and which to me seems more like a religious cult with its own special language. For the first time I felt able to grasp an understanding of what Japan's status as an economic powerhouse actually meant and how it was achieved. While reading the book I was reminded of Van Wolferen's 1989 book The Enigma of Japanese Power, and so I was not surprised to learn later that Murphy and Van Wolferen have co-authored some writing. I was also prompted to dig out my copy of Enigma of Japanese Power and give it a reread and have to say it has lost none of its punch. Though more than 25 years old, and with its acerbic style a little dated, it remains, in my opinion, the best book for understanding postwar Japanese politics. If you read Shackles of the Past and like it then I suggest reading Enigma of Japanese Power for more depth, conversely, if you liked Enigma then Shackles works as a kind of update.
The use of the plural "hearts" in the title rather than the singular "heart" is an indication that this book is, unlike many, not going to be one that gives a simplistic, monolithic, view of the culture (s) and history (s) of Japan.
The author is a writer who has lived in Japan for more than three decades and the book is a collection of his writings that have previously been published, mostly in the Japan Times newspaper. They are primarily essays rather than articles written by a journalist, or papers written by an academic, and I would describe them somewhat as musings.
Each essay starts with a question and then looks at various answers and viewpoints before finishing without really coming to a definitive conclusion but having provided plenty of food for thought. The topics and questions are quite varied: What is Zen? What was life like in the Jomon Period? What lies behind the distinctive Japanese concern with death? These are the kind of questions asked by newcomers to Japan but the simple answers first arrived at or given tend to become less than satisfactory the longer you spend in, or study, Japan.
Each piece is liberally peppered with quotes from a very diverse set of sources, including historians, academics, or other experts both Japanese and non-Japanese, but most are drawn from literature and poetry, which is not surprising really considering that the author attributes a fascination with Japanese literature as being a reason he chose to stay and live in Japan. A couple of essays were not so interesting to me, but most were very good. A couple were excellent, my favorite being the one on Confucius, a man with a deep influence on Japan but about whom very little is known. The one on the history of alcohol in Japan was also very enlightening as well as being entertaining.
For me, what makes a good book are two factors, the most important being how much did I learn from the book, and secondly, how pleasurable was reading the book. On both counts this book fared well, somewhat surprising to me as I am not overly fond of poetry and literature. I would recommend the book especially for those who have some understanding of Japanese culture and customs but who still have many questions. An entertaining and educational journey.
What distinguishes this guide from other similar 'love manuals' - apart from its target audience, which has probably never been catered for so specifically - is that it is the product of more than simply the author's opinions about her subject. Pover actually interviewed some 150 western women about Japanese men, and based her guide on their responses, though she is not afraid to make her own asides. Direct quotes from interviewees appear throughout the book in a welcome counterpoint to its more general observations.
The latter are organised into five well-crafted chapters dealing with different aspects of the western-woman/Japanese-man dynamic. In an affectionate and often enthusiastic tone, a little heavy on the exclamation marks in places, Pover directly addresses Japanese men, telling them what western women think of them, and what they can do about it when necessary.
While its empirical evidence base is the book's clear strength, this does have a couple of downsides. First is the occasionally presumptuous tone of the first-person plural that Pover often adopts to provide this collectivity's 'voice': regarding going on dates, for example, Japanese men are cautioned that "driving for hours to get out of town is not something that makes us feel very comfortable -we tend to wonder whether you are ashamed to be seen with us or have a wife and kids hidden away somewhere". Couldn't poor 'Japanese guy' simply want to take 'western woman' to a nice spot out of town?
Second, generalising from a widely ranging body of comments can easily lead to contradictions. In this case, these perhaps reveal more about both eastern and western societies' persisting gender double standards than anything else, but the cognitive dissonance remains unchallenged here, and may trouble some readers. For example, Pover suggests, apparently to bolster the egos of Japanese men diffident about their body size, that "[a] lot of Western women find a smaller physique much less threatening, and more conducive to having a partner on an equal level", but then a few pages later adds, by way of praise for "the Japanese men with somewhat more Western physiques, well you've probably got your pick of the ladies in your neighbourhood, haven't you?!" She thus one moment questions the ability of larger western men to relate to women on an equal level and in a non-threatening way (a quite remarkable charge), and the next appears to affirm the inherently greater attractiveness of the larger western physique! (At least to Japanese women - and why might that be?)
More-genuine insights are to be found in the area of cross-cultural communication: "I have often thought that when you don't share a common language, you might make more of an effort to prevent misunderstandings." Further, Pover shrewdly points out the practical ramifications of being overly persistent when courting a member of a limited ex-pat community: "You don't want her to tell her friends that a weird Japanese guy stalked her when one of her friends could be your future wife!"
While comments from Japanese men are occasionally related, I would have liked to have heard directly from them, too, as this may have gone some way to explaining some of the underlying motives and assumptions behind their behaviour towards western women. (It is notable that all of the positive comments at the front of the book come from western women, even though it is aimed at Japanese men.) However, this book certainly forms part of an authentic cross-cultural dialogue, and, with some exceptions, provides sound and practical advice for those Japanese men game enough to read it in English. Perhaps Pover will provide more of their side of the conversation in a later book.
by Ian Buruma
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.
by Ian Buruma
Author of God's Dust, Buruma, a native of Holland, examines in this work how Japan and Germany have dealt with and manipulated their collective memories of World War II.
In spite of the Dutch experience during the War, Buruma concludes that Germany has faced the past honestly and directly; Japan, on the other hand, continues to try to ignore or rewrite it. In school in the common language of modern Germany, young people are well attuned to and aware of the issues of the past. Young Japanese are either ignorant or indifferent to what their grandparents took part in.
Buruma examines the issues of chauvinism, the history of nationalism, contemporary pacifism, and how Auschwitz and Hiroshima have been remembered and memorialized. Drawing on his childhood in Holland and the ten years he spent in Japan, Buruma is well positioned to comment on modern Germany and Japan. Highly recommended.
by Ian Buruma
For readers familiar with Ian Buruma's writings on Japan and Asia or those who know him as the author of an erstwhile series of weekly articles published in The Guardian, his most recent volume, Inventing Japan, is as eagerly awaited as the latest Harry Potter book.
His first book exclusively devoted to Japan since 1984's A Japanese Mirror (now happily reissued by Phoenix Paperbacks), Inventing Japan is published in the Modern Library Chronicle's series of short non-fiction works.
Like other volumes in the series, it is neat, concise and slips conveniently into a back pocket. A brisk read at just 177 pages, it ably covers 111 years of Japanese history, while still finding time for anecdotes about the impressive size of the samurai Saigo Takamori's testicles.
This is classic Buruma, as is his description of Sakamoto Ryoma as a "wild-haired proto-hippie with a sword" and makes for excellent bursts of light relief as Buruma condenses the history of Japan's modernisation at a rate commensurate with the modernisation process itself. Japan's descent into militarism and its reaction to defeat in the Second World War have recently been the subjects of much weightier Pulitzer Prize-winning tomes.
Buruma himself has already examined Japan's struggle to come to terms with its militarist past in The Wages of Guilt (also recently re-issued by Phoenix Paperbacks). Inventing Japan is a more invigorating and vibrant account, which, like most of Buruma's work, is intensely personal. That is not to say, however, that it is under-researched. The bibliography alone is a must, not only for those new to Japanese history, but for seasoned Japanologists who wouldn't have thought to join the dots between loincloth festivals and Oshima Nagisa.
This review was originally published in Kansai Time Out
by Alex Kerr
Two years ago, Alex Kerr finally left the Japan he had called home for some 30 years. For a look at why, there is no better place to start than his seminal work on the willful and casual destruction of Japanese culture.
Originally written in Japanese, Kerr's work documents the loss of what drew him to Japan in the first place: its spectacular traditional arts. Divided into chapters on Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, legendary American businessman Trammell Crow, Kabuki, Kerr's own art collecting and calligraphy. Lost Japan is a must-read for anyone interested in modern and pre-modern Japan.
by Alex Kerr
When I first read this book I had been in Japan for 6 months, and had become increasingly frustrated by my lack of understanding of the "Japanese Way" in a variety of areas. Why was such a beautiful country being covered in concrete? Why were Japanese cities so ugly? Why did most of the population seem incapable of critical thinking? The answer, according to Kerr, is a bureaucratic and educational system dedicated to the production of goods that has made no attempt to fit in with how the world has changed in the past 50 years.
Once I began this book, I couldn't put it down, as Kerr collects together an enormous number of instances of Japan's "Cultural malaise", from building roads to nowhere, the obsession with constructing "Monuments", the continued attempt to brush under the carpet a massively dysfunctional banking and financial system, and an educational system designed to mass-produce worker-drones. All of which points to a mindset becoming increasingly at odds with reality.
You will find little of this information in most books on Japan. Predictably, Kerr was attacked by Japanese critics for "Japan-bashing", and admittedly he comes across as somewhat of an elitist, but the popularity of this book among expats in Japan indicates how well he has his finger on the pulse of contemporary Japan.
In many ways this book can be seen as an update on Van Wolferen's "The Enigma of Japanese Power", though Kerr's book is far less academic, and hence more readable. Highly recommended to anyone who wants to understand contemporary Japan.
Anyone familiar with and fond of traditional Japanese culture will surely know Alex Kerr. Despite having around half a century of engagement with Japan and having lived in Kyoto for four decades, Kerr does not come across as a jaded expat in Another Kyoto. The book bubbles with enthusiasm and is full of fun facts.
Although officially Kathy Arlyn Sokol is listed as a co-writer, Kerr's voice dominates the text and in the Japanese language credits he is listed as sole author. The book is based on the idea of writing down conversations they had when they visited temples and other buildings in Kyoto.
Kerr studied at Oxford University and at Yale, yet despite this don't expect a dull, dry academic text full of footnotes and references. The writing style is quite casual and easily comprehensible, frequently jumping from one topic to another, like an organic conversation rather than a meticulously prepared and polished lecture.
Although it mainly focuses on buildings and gardens that still survive, Another Kyoto is also packed full of facts about buildings that are long gone. Did you know that in the late 1500's Toyotomi Hideyoshi constructed a castle in Kyoto three times the size of Nijo Castle that was covered in gold? It was destroyed less than a decade after completion. Even if you knew that there is certain to be something that you can learn from this book, whether it is obscure temple vocabulary or the fact that it is not known who created the famous garden at Ryoanji Temple.
One thing that sets Kerr apart from some other Japanologists is his knowledge of China and Thailand. He uses to explain what is uniquely Japanese, rather than simply comparing Japan to the west. Kerr explains what artistic, architectural or religious ideas were imported from China and Southeast Asia and how they were adapted.
From his forty years of living in Kyoto as a keen observer of art and craft, Kerr offers fresh and interesting insight on many topics from walking on floors to recycling. Another Kyoto is divided into nine chapters that each tackle a different theme, for example walls or gates. Using this approach the reader is drawn into Kyoto, and even if you have visited the ancient capital numerous times, you will wish to return again and look at what you missed or misunderstood. The book also recommends lesser known temples, so is perfect for repeat visitors.
Another Kyoto seems on the surface like a love letter to Kyoto, but it is worth remembering that Kerr also attacked environmental destruction and damage to traditional culture in his other books: Lost Japan and Dogs & Demons (see above). Another Kyoto is not afraid to find fault with the city and also explores and explains how deep Chinese influence was in the former imperial capital.
One criticism of the book is that it lacks an index; this plus the fact that the book is split by theme rather than by building or geographical area of Kyoto makes it hard to re-locate information. Some temples are mentioned numerous times in the text for different reasons. But of course this is not a guide book and neither is it suitable as a first book to read about Japan. Recommended to anyone who enjoyed Lost Japan. If you fancy writing a book on Kyoto on an understudied topic, Kerr suggests tackling the many paintings on temple walls and ceilings.
Over the past few decades many Hollywood ventures have shown the "other side" of Japan, far away from flower arrangements and kimono festivals, where the flashy, gritty Yakuza run the streets and alleys behind the glass and neon business world of Tokyo. None come close in breadth of vision as the kaleidoscopic explorations of Karl Taro Greenfeld in Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan's Next Generation.
Instead of limiting his investigation of the "underclass" to the Yakuza (a losing hand of eight-nine-three in an old card game), Greenfeld extends his investigation to the multi-faceted and disenchanted youth who grew up when "the real estate value of Tokyo was greater than the real estate value of the entire United States plus the asset value of every company listed on the New York Stock Exchange." These youth, who grew up when Japan seemed to have it all, came of age when the bubble burst and all that they had taken for granted now seemed unattainable, and where their own roles in an uncertain future were redefined daily.
In twelve distinct chapters, Greenfeld investigates twelve pieces of the Japanese youth culture puzzle, often describing characters on the cusp of two very different worlds: Dai, the Motorcycle Thief, must choose between the hell-raising escapades of the motorcycle gangs known as the bosozoku (literally speed tribes) and a monotonous but reliable life in his father's sushi restaurant; Keiko, a member of "the early breakfast club" must choose between an arranged marriage with its life in the suburbs and the luring pulse of night clubs, ecstasy, and one night stands.
Greenfeld's lucid portrayal makes him seem a part of the inner circles he explores, and on one occasion he even assumes the first person point of view. From porn stars to pop idols, from the drug trade to the information underground, Speed Tribes is not only an account of Japan's contemporary "subculture," but a reflection on an entire generation.
Bamboozled: How America Loses the Intellectual Game with Japan
and its Implications for Our Future in Asia
by Ivan P. Hall
Hall continues here in the vein he began mining in Cartels of the Mind. Hall has spent some thirty years in Japan. In that time, he has worked as a diplomat, journalist, and university professor. In Cartels, Hall argued that Japan was not playing fair in its treatment of foreign professionals. He looked specifically at the obstacles to foreign lawyers, journalists, businessmen, and academics working in Japan versus the freedom their Japanese counterparts enjoyed in the US.
In the current text, Hall takes his scalpel to Japan's propaganda system, which he believes distorts the US-Japan relationship. Moreover, in particular, he dissects the effects of American myopia on the relationship, and the largesse Japanese companies and institutions bestow on American universities.
This excellent text is for the serious student of Japan, for those who engage Japan on a more than a superficial level, and for any students who seek to understand a non-Western culture.
by Norma Field
In 1989 Emperor Hirohito passed away after a reign of more than 60 years. The Japanese mark time by the rule of Emperors, so it was very much the end of an era and an opportunity to finally confront many unpleasant aspects of the Japanese history of aggression in Asia that occurred during Hirohito's reign.
The media however chose not to delve too deeply, and it was up to a few courageous dissenters to bring attention to what many Japanese would rather simply avoid and forget. This book is about 3 individuals who chose not to conform. 3 people who acted in dissent at the increasingly right-wing direction Japan was taking.
The first, a supermarket owner in Okinawa who burnt the Rising Sun flag. Although it was never officially proclaimed the national flag of Japan until August 1999, it was officially treated as such, and carried with it emotions and overtones of the Pacific War.
The second a widow who objected to the state "deifying" her deceased husband, who served with Japan's Self Defense Force, and enshrining him in a Shinto Shrine. Officially there is the separation of Church and State in Japan, and the widow objected on these grounds, and also on the grounds of violating her own religion, Christianity.
The third is the Mayor of Nagasaki, who publicly suggested that the Emperor bore some responsibility for Japan's wartime aggression and crimes. Shortly afterwards he survived an assassination attempt.
The author, born in Japan and raised in the U.S.A. combines well documented research with interviews of the people involved, to show that dissent bubbles under the surface of Japan's public face of consensus, and by showing the protagonists as complex individuals, reveals how the personal and the political intersect. A fascinating book recommended to anyone wanting to understand contemporary Japan.
In Tokyo Underworld (the Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan), the author of You Gotta Have Wa follows the life of criminal mastermind Nick Zappetti, and in the process shows a postwar Japan struggling to rebuild and redefine itself.
As a street smart East Harlem native with a sharp eye for an easy buck, Zappetti finds plenty of opportunity in occupied Japan from selling U.S. inventory on the black market to taking dives as a "professional" wrestler and opening Japan's first pizza joint.
The "king of Roppongi and mafia boss of Tokyo" is by no means an admirable character, but his exploits serve as a sensational vehicle for Whiting's well-researched investigation of the deep-seeded and all pervasive nature of Japan's criminal syndicate, from small time racketeers to international industrial espionage.
Proving that real life is stranger than fiction, and just as exciting, Tokyo Underworld reads like a James Bond thriller and reveals the seamy underbelly of Japan that has long been kept behind the shoji.
Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld
Since this book was originally published in 1986 it has been the standard reference work on organized crime in Japan. This new, greatly expanded edition only adds to its status.
Organized crime in any country tends to share certain similarities. Their activities concentrate on gambling, prostitution, drugs, extortion, and smuggling. Also, they are usually very right-wing and nationalistic.
The Yakuza are no exception, but there are some differences, "...it is as if the Ku Klux Klan and the Mafia formed an enduring, politically potent alliance." The symbiotic relationship between Japan's political system, Big Business, and the Yakuza is a disturbing indication of the depth and prevalence of corruption and bribery in the world's second-largest economy.
The authors (both American journalists) trace the roots of the Yakuza to its medieval beginnings, but most of the book concentrates on the period since the American Occupation, when the present form of Yakuza organization solidified (and also exposes the involvement of the CIA with the Yakuza's post-war growth).
It documents the rise of the Yakuza into a multi-billion dollar enterprise with worldwide investments in real estate, art, big business and more.
The original book ended before the bursting of the "Bubble Economy", and this new version picks up the story and shows how the Yakuza have adapted since then to the new economic climate.
The authors also cover extensively the internationalization of the Yakuza, particularly their various attempts to move into America. A must-read for anyone interested in contemporary Japan and Japanese politics.
by Junichi Saga
When Dr. Junichi Saga first marveled at the striking dragon and peony tattoo of his new patient, and looked upon the face of the man who said with great understatement, "I was a bit wild when I was young," he knew he had stumbled upon someone of great importance.
The man was Ijichi Eiji, one of the last traditional yakuza bosses of Japan, and the result of Saga's efforts to document Eiji's life is a rare and vivid perspective not only of the inner workings of the yakuza, but of a pre-war Japan devastated by poverty and a post-war Japan ruled by chaos.
What is extraordinary about Confessions of a Yakuza is Saga's ability to gracefully retell Eiji's story, showing a perfect narrative control that allows Eiji's story to speak for itself without editorial criticism or glorification. Eiji's story is not a rigidly told history of Japan, it is the tale of a boy who leaves his home to follow the girl next door and find his fortune in Tokyo, who winds up working in a coal depot and serving as lookout for the workers' dice games.
His rites of passage take place in the brothels of old Tokyo and in the doctor's office where his syphilis is cut out with a knife, earning him the respect of the local yakuza and gaining him entry into Japan's underworld.
Through Eiji's ascendance into the mafia ranks, his brutal terms in jail, his military service in distant Manchuria, and his ill-advised pursuits of love where he sacrifices two fingers for the same woman Saga shows us the loneliness and isolation, not the glamour and gloss, of life as a yakuza.
In Confessions of a Yakuza it is always with subtlety that the most poignant details are revealed: the slave-like conditions of women in the sex trade, and often in the home; the semiotic relationship between the police and yakuza, and the intricate hierarchy of the yakuza itself. Even the invasion of Tokyo is shown through Eiji's rare point of view, as an inconvenience to the regular dice games at the inn. While gun blasts from the American fleet roar along the shore, Eiji says, "you might as well die doing something you enjoy," and as the shelling continues, it is business as usual.
For its portrayal of Ichiji Eiji not just as leader of the infamous Dewaya family, but as a survivor of extraordinary times and circumstances, Confessions of a Yakuza is honest, vivid, and just good storytelling. Junichi Saga is also author of Memories of Silk and Straw: a Self Portrait of Small Town Japan, and Memories of Wind and Waves: a Self-Portrait of Lakeside Japan.
Social Scientist Peter Hill has added to the literature on Japanese organized crime with his detailed work on the boryokudan, or the Japanese mob.
This is a dense, academic piece of work. It first defines what exactly organized crime is and the services and protection and problem-solving it might provide. From there he moves on to the possible origins of organized crime: in the case of Japan, "there are mafias which develop due to the inability of the state to afford protection as a public good within the geographical area over which it claims jurisdiction." This was also the case in Sicily and the former Soviet Union.
Sections on the American mafia, Russian crime groups, Hong Kong Triads, and Italian Cosa Nostra make for an interesting comparison to the Yakuza. Hill, moreover, also examines the role a mafia may play with the state, which also after all is in the protection business. Tax collection on behalf of the state, Lucky Luciano's legendary work for the US military during World War II, strike-busting, and other examples are cited.
In later chapters, Hill covers the evolution of the Yakuza from their gambling origins (co-opting low-level tekiya and bakuto gamblers). From there he covers the Post-war period through to the bursting of the Bubble economy. Also fascinating are sections on the various sources of income for Japanese organized crime; the relationship between Japan's outcasts the burakumin and Koreans and the Yakuza; and the symbiotic relationship with the police.
The text ends with the future of the Yakuza: whither the 21st-century Japanese mobster. For those with an interest in a tome on the Japanese mafia that is highly detailed, well researched, and written in academic but quite readable prose, The Japanese Mafia is just the book for you.
Published just as the infamous Japanese 'bubble' economy was set to burst - and from which, more than ten years down the road, Japan has yet to fully recover - van Wolferen's work remains a classic in the field.
The Dutch journalist spent more than thirty years reporting from Japan. Though the tenor of Japan's relationship with the outside world has changed considerably in the intervening years, much of what van Wolferen noted remains true.
Following publication, van Wolferen's speaking engagements dried up or were suddenly canceled, and he was tagged with the 'Japan basher' moniker. More than anything, van Wolferen had broken the taboo of uttering what all knew to be, on various levels, the truth about how Japan's political and bureaucratic culture functions.
In places the book is dense. The general reader can skip to relevant sections. They include pieces on education, the elusive Japanese state, the all-pervasive bureaucracy, the middle class, ritual in society, intimidation, the press, and others. Very persuasive.
This book could easily have been titled "Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex In Japan, But Didn't Know Where To Look," as Bornoff, a journalist with 11 years experience in Japan, takes us on a tour of Japanese sexuality, both past and present, which leaves nary a door unopened or stone unturned.
Going right back to the very beginning with Japan's creation myths, on through the promiscuous Heian Period, on to the fabled "pleasure quarters" of Yoshiwara in Edo and right up to the contemporary scene, every period of Japanese history is covered to show the political, social, and religious factors that have contributed to the changing practices of, and attitudes towards, sex in Japan.
Marriage, romance, family relations, gender issues are all explored, as well as art, pornography and Japan's huge sex industry (estimated to be worth 2.3 trillion yen annually). In the hands of anthropologists or other academics, even a subject as universally fascinating as sex can become dry, lifeless, and boring, but Bornoff manages to maintain pace and interest throughout the book while being very informative.
The sections I found particularly interesting were on phallic symbols and fertility festivals, some of which are still maintained today, though on a much reduced scale than in former times, and the extensive coverage of Japanese "Strip Clubs" which bear a closer similarity to gynecological exams than to strip clubs in the west.
As well as being read as a broad study of sex, the book can also be read as a history of Japanese society using sexuality and the erotic as the narrative. The rendering of Japan's creation myth being one of the most succinct I have read.
Published in 1991, most of the research for the book was conducted during the 80's, so the information and statistics about the laws relating to sex have been superseded somewhat by recent changes in the pornography and prostitution laws. Also recent phenomena such as the spread of Enjo Kosai (schoolgirl prostitution) are not covered, plus being a nation obsessed with quickly changing fashions and fads, coupled with the economic downturn of the 90's, the sex industry has continued to invent novel ways to attract custom, but in essence the book is fundamentally up-to-date.
If you need to have a grasp of Japanese society and history and you only have time to read one book, you could do much worse than this one.
This book is about as subtle as its title. Japan's Sex Trade is in essence a catalog of the amazing variety of services offered by Japan's huge sex industry.
Known variously as the "Pink Trade" or the "Ejaculation Industry", the business of sex is Big Business in Japan, operating openly and shamelessly.
How is this possible given that Japan has laws outlawing prostitution? The answer lies in the fact that all the prostitution law is concerned with is "genital to genital connection" which leaves anal sex, oral sex, and a host of other practices outside of the domain of the law.
There are three basic types of businesses offering sexual services in Japan. Soaplands, Health Massage, and Pink Salon. Constantine delves into the history and development of each type of business, showing how competition, the pressures from changes in laws and their enforcement, and the insatiable desire of the Japanese consumer for the new, combine to create a seemingly endless variety of "products".
In fact, numerous magazines exist solely to keep customers informed of the very latest trends in this reputedly oldest profession in the world. Constantine also covers the gay sex trade and the burgeoning growth of S & M clubs and services, as well as a chapter on pornography that I found to be the most interesting and informative of all the chapters.
Constantine came to this area of study from his previous work on Japanese street slang, which brings us to the meat of the book, where each section has a "dictionary" of the services offered. Those who enjoy euphemisms will revel in the terminology used to label what is, in essence, a limited number of acts. From ANARU ZEME (anal attack) to TEMAKI ZUSHI (hand rolled sushi) to ZENSHIN MITCHAKU (full-body adhesion) each service on the menu is graphically described with relevant pricing guidelines.
A fascinating little book that is part history, part guide book, offering no psychology, anthropology, sociology, or any other -ology, but which is nevertheless educational and informative.
by Mark Schreiber (Editor)
Japan's weekly news magazines bear little relationship to publications such as TIME or NEWSWEEK. There are more akin to British tabloid newspapers. Their target is the lowest common denominator, and so therefore specialize in the lurid, sordid, scandalous, and sometimes just the simply strange.
Sex, crime, and the latest trends, businesses, and products make up many of the topics, and if all 3 can be combined into one story, all the better. Consequently a recurring theme is the latest innovations in Japans diverse and ever-changing sex trade.
Another popular topic is the newest trends in social (and anti-social) behaviour, 'parasite singles' (unmarried children who continue to live with their parents), sexless marriages, sexual harassment, divorce, cosmetic surgery, and so on.
But it's not ALL lowbrow. Serious subjects such as pollution and AIDS are also covered. In fact, freed as they are from Japan's restrictive press-club system, it is usually the weeklies that break the news on the latest political scandals. Tokyo Confidential is a collection of 100 stories culled from the weeklies in the 1990s, and as such they offer an overview of what the Japanese were reading and writing about themselves.
Thoroughly entertaining, though quite probably not always actually true, these are the stories that form the subjects of much of the daily conversation that goes on in coffee shops, izakayas, hair salons, and homes across Japan.
If you are tired of books on ikebana and other such subjects expressing Japan's uniqueness, and want to see Japan in a more human light, then this is for you.
by Wim Lunsing
My Websters dictionary defines common sense as "the unreflective opinions held by most people." Common sense is that which we take for granted, that which we assume is "natural". However, common sense is a cultural construct, it differs from one society to another. When it comes to questions of sexuality and gender, Japanese common sense is simple and straightforward - you get married and have children. In fact, as many observers have noted, in Japan you are not considered to be a complete adult until you do marry and have children.
This is the starting point for Lunsing's fascinating ethnographic study of sexuality and gender in Japan. By studying those that fall outside the "norm", a clearer picture of the mainstream society is possible, so he chose to study Gays, Lesbians, Feminists, and others who choose to remain single.
Covering the variety of discourses on marriage, questions of identity and self - including the Japanese system of tatemae (public face) and honne (private self)-, issues of "coming out" and "passing", Lunsing reveals that a surprising variety of behaviour is tolerated in Japan, which he attributes to Japan's efforts to educate people about sexuality and gender issues to bring about a change in "common sense" as opposed to the West, where laws are changed and made, but common sense in the majority of people left untouched.
Throughout the book Lunsing goes in to some depth as to the meanings of words concerning sexuality and gender in the Japanese language, uncovering some of the subtle differences between the literal meanings and common usages, as well as how these words are glossed into English. The importation of the many English words into Japanese is also discussed.
The book is a little pricey, but it covers a lot of ground and is readable even for the general reader. Recommended.
by Jeffrey Kingston
Professor of History at Temple University Japan and longtime Japan resident Jeff Kingston has in 200-odd pages put together a concise, readable, and insightful primer on Japan since the end of the US-Occupation.
Divided into 11 sections: the Occupation, Postwar Politics, the Economic Miracle, Security, Women, the Demographic Time Bomb, etc. Kingston outlines the tectonic changes that Japan has experienced in half a century.
Though Kingston's argument is clearly stated, he manages to weave in opposing points of view. And, unusual for an American academic, Kingston writes well.
The glossary, Who's Who, Chronology, and Bibliography at the end of the book are a wonderful resource. This is a valuable addition to Japan studies that can be read by both those with little prior knowledge or those who have lived and studied in Japan for many years.
by Tadahide Ikuta
Though nominally a democracy, Japan is ruled by a triumvirate of power groups - known as the "Iron Triangle." Of the three - Politicians, Big Business, and the Bureaucrats - the bureaucrats are probably the least well known outside of Japan.
Tadahide Ikuta is a journalist who has been investigating Japan's bureaucracy and its relationships to politicians and Big Business for the past 20 years. In this slim volume he gives us an introduction to the way things are done in Japan, and goes a long way to explaining the power-plays behind the political headlines.
Japan has more than 4 million civil servants, but this book concentrates on the elite - the top officials of such ministries as Finance, International Trade & Industry, and Foreign Affairs. The vast majority of this elite are graduates of a handful of top universities, in particular, Tokyo University (Todai). Gaining a place at Todai's Law School is a virtual guarantee of becoming a top bureaucrat.
From Amakudari (lit. descent from heaven), the system that puts retiring officials into jobs with semi-public companies, to "administrative guidance", whereby the wishes of the administrators are enforced on private companies and local governments, Ikuta explains how the bureaucrats maintain power. Throughout he quotes extensively from the bureaucrats themselves.
Written originally in Japanese in 1992, this English translation includes extra chapters introducing the subject to non-Japanese readers, as well as being brought up to date with developments since 1992. The book emphasizes the part played by the bureaucracy in the ongoing "Trade Dispute" between Japan & the U.S. - and is a useful introduction to the subject for the general reader.
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