Books on Japanese Politics & Society II
Read reviews of books on Japanese politics & Japanese society, and purchase from Amazon US, UK, Japan.
David Matsumoto's catchy title is sure to reel in more than a few browsers of bookstore shelves devoted to the Far East and/or Japan.
The seven stereotypes he debunks have to do with myths about Japanese collectivism, Japanese self-concepts, Japanese interpersonal consciousness, Japanese emotionality, the Japanese salaryman, lifetime employment, and Japanese marriage. To the uninitiated, surprising conclusions ensue.
Professor Matsumoto first takes the reader on a concise tour of some of the classic writers in the field - those who have helped in shaping the stereotypes he will go on to refute: Lafcadio Hearn, Edward Reischauer, Inazo Niitobe, Ruth Benedict, Ronald Dore, Chie Nakane, and others. These writers have, for example, promulgated various theories on on and giri - to mention but two concepts of obligation - hierarchy and context, shame and guilt, etc. He neatly outlines how these and other, more recent observers of Japan have created the image of a mono-cultural entity that has existed in much the same form for thousands of years - and which many if not most Japanese themselves believe and will with a straight face say, This is how Japan is today.
Matsumoto goes on to note rightly that younger Japanese are indeed different from their elders - and in ways not only related to youth. Younger women in particular have quietly rejected many of the expectations and obligations their mothers either accepted or suffered silently. He also refutes out the myth of lifetime employment, if there ever was such a thing. The institution of marriage - central as it is to patriarchy - has also come under great strain in the last twenty years.
The New Japan is a good primer for students with more than a passing interest in Japan. Several aspects of the book however could be improved. First is Matsumoto's over-reliance on both his own data (almost exclusively of university students) and data that was culled from Asahi Shinbun polls.
Second, Matsumoto's writing can at times be clunky. To appeal to a broader audience, Matsumoto and his editor might perhaps have aimed for a more flowing prose style. The conclusions and assertions he makes, though, are fascinating.
In 1947, Donald Richie moved to Tokyo from small town mid-century Ohio. Young, intelligent, and gay, Richie was both fleeing the banality of Middle America - and embracing the destroyed but resilient and ancient culture of Japan.
Since arriving in Japan more than 50 years ago, Richie has written hundreds of books, become a filmmaker and the leading interpreter of postwar film in Japan, and befriended the likes of composer Toru Takemitsu, nationalist novelist Yukio Mishima, and film director Akira Kurosawa. Richie has moreover been the conduit to Japan through which many foreign artists met and experienced Japan (the segment on Truman Capote's visit to Tokyo is especially hysterical).
For all of his erudition and experience, though, Richie is as down-to-earth and unpretentious as he is well-known. Sex and his myriad sexual relationships are ubiquitous in his journals.
For Richie sex appears unladen with guilt; it is, rather, an every day thing. Reading The Japan Journals: 1947-2004 is also a window on the tectonic changes that have taken place in Japan as seen through the eyes of one very astute observer (reading about his rail trip from Tokyo to Kyoto in the late forties is akin to visiting another planet). Richie alludes at times to Japanese xenophobia, racism, and how (little) Japanese have changed in spite of all of the superficial changes in society.
Arriving on New Year's Day, 1947, as a typist for the US Civil Service, Richie started a journey that continues to this day. He has documented his life and Japan through these diaries. Asked years later why he kept a diary, Richie merely said, "I wanted to find some pattern in my life. I was not looking at larger events but the particulars of everyday life. That's very Japanese, like ikebana or bonsai."
Richie still lives in Tokyo, and is still writing and recording his own life and the changes his adopted home is undergoing. For anyone with even the remotest interest in Japan, this is a wonderful book.
by Anne Allison
We read non-fiction books for a variety of reasons. Sometimes to learn more about a subject that interests us, sometimes to reinforce what we already believe. Every now and then a book comes along that causes us to see something in a new and different way, a book that causes us to rethink assumptions.
Allison's latest book is one such book. While many writers are quick to point out that sexuality in Japan has less of a connection to morality than in a Christian or Muslim society, Allison suggests that there is also a different psychology operating.
She does this by contrasting the Oedipus myth at the root of western concepts of father-centred family structure with the Ajase complex which explains Japan's mother-centred family.
Through a series of what at first glance appears to be fairly disparate subjects; children's comics, motherhood, adult ero-manga, the content of pornography, and Japan's obscenity laws, she paints a picture of Japanese sexuality and gender which differs from our own societies, and suggests conclusions that are both surprising and enlightening.
Concepts of the male gaze, and domination go a long way to explaining what is permitted and what is prohibited in Japanese sexual fantasy and desire. Allison is an anthropologist, and at times the language she uses becomes a bit dense and technical, especially for those not versed in contemporary theories of psychoanalysis and sexuality, but the book is important enough, and interesting enough to warrant several readings.
If you find any aspects of Japanese sexuality puzzling, i.e. why is pubic hair obscene, but violent rape not; or if you are interested in the role of the State in formulating sexual discourse, then I highly recommend this book.
Many books have been written on the subject of understanding Japanese behaviour and how to behave correctly when interacting with Japanese, yet few, if any, of these books actually explain WHY Japanese behave the way they do.
Over the past 30 years Boye Lafayette De Mente has written dozens of books introducing Japan and the Japanese to visitors, primarily businessmen, coming to Japan. While his latest book, Kata, is also aimed at the businessman who must deal with Japan, it deserves to be read by a much wider audience, including even long term residents.
In Kata he reduces the intricacies and the sometimes frustrating complexities of Japanese behaviour down to just one word: Kata. Kata means "the way of doing" something, and in Japan just about every activity and form of behaviour imaginable has a Kata. To outsiders these Kata often seem to be rigid and illogical, and therein lies a lot of the often voiced frustrations that come with living in Japan.
Boye traces the history of the "kataization" of Japan and illustrates it with the obviously quintessential Japanese activities such as ikebana, tea ceremony, martial arts, etc and also includes a heavy dose of Japanese business etiquette, but far more interesting, to my mind, were the examples drawn from contemporary Japanese society, such as tourism, and the culture of "cute".
The final two chapters on the weakness of the Kata system, and the future of the Kata system will find many ex-pats in Japan nodding their heads in agreement. In the end, there is little in the book that cannot be found from other sources, BUT the clear and concise writing style and the distillization of so many aspects of Japan down into one easy to remember concept makes this book very useful.
There are dozens of books on the market offering to explain the sometimes puzzling behaviors of the Japanese by using words and phrases that illuminate core concepts of Japanese society. Many of these books have in fact been written by the author of Code Words, but his latest one stands out from the crowd by the length of the book and the depth of the explanations.
He writes from five decades of experience living and working in Japan and though his grasp of Japanese history and society is strong, he is not constrained by the dictates of academia, and so can for instance date the end of feudalism in Japan as 1945 and not the 19th century, and can openly admit that a major factor influencing western men's attraction to Japan is the women.
There is a certain amount of repetition, but that is understandable there are only a limited number of factors that culturally condition any society - and that makes it a book that is easier to read in short bursts rather than in long sittings.
One point that is hammered home is the history of oppressive enforcement of conformity that for centuries has caused the Japanese to "act" in ways that contradict human nature and has led to so many of the dualisms of Japanese society; honne-tatamae, uchi-soto, kohai-senpai, etc.
While observing that many aspects of Japanese behaviour are in fact changing, he states that it will take several generations before any fundamental change occurs, a point of view refreshingly at odds with the constant stream of books proclaiming that the latest superficial changes in Japan reflect a fundamental shift to a "new" Japan.
He attributes the continuation of many outmoded forms of behaviour to the pervasive influence of the education system. Many of the terms are aimed at foreigners who must do business with Japanese, and while that is a sizable market, more emphasis could have been placed on behaviour more likely to be encountered by those visiting Japan.
All in all a solid book with a few gems scattered throughout.
by Mikiso Hane
Writing on the fifty years that have passed since Japan's surrender in 1945, Mikiso Hane examines the historical factors that have contributed to Japan's dramatic rise from the ashes of absolute destruction to the wealth it enjoys today.
Beginning with the US occupation, Hane documents how the reforms foisted upon Japan, combined with the work of the Japanese political class, helped the country forge ahead in its development while still managing to retain many of the values and customs of pre-War Japan.
The text is broken into eight chapters. The first chapter is devoted to the end of the War; Hane moves thence to sections on political development, foreign relations, the economy, social conditions, education, intellectual and cultural developments.
A final chapter is about the death, in 1989, of the Showa Emperor, and the rise of his son, the Heisei Emperor. The book has a useful reading list and is supplemented with statistics that compare the US and Japan.
Japan is one of the most "media-saturated" societies in the world. Its five leading dailies all have circulations that are many times that of the New York Times. NHK, a public service broadcasting agency and quasi-governmental organization, is second only to the BBC in size. A wide range of magazines and manga - from the serious to scurrilous - are available to the most literate nation in the world.
Moreover, in polls, Japanese evince a level of trust in their mass media not found anywhere in the West.
What role, then, do the media play in Japan? Professors Susan Pharr and Ellis Krauss have collected twelve insightful essays in this text. Issues that are addressed include the role of kisha kurabu (press clubs) in Japan, the influence the government wields in what appears in the media, non-mainstream media sources, media coverage of US-Japan relations, and more.
The press clubs, in particular, have infuriated foreigners and those on the left within Japan. They act to filter the news - and with the acquiescence of the media, who willingly participate in the system.
For both specialists and those with a general interest in the media in Japan, this is a fascinating and lively read.
by Laurie Anne Freeman
The Japanese read more newspapers than anyone else in the world, but if you were to read 3 different newspapers, you would find that they all printed the same stories almost word for word. There appears to be one "official" take on all the news. This is due to an interlocking set of organizations that control the news media, forming a de facto cartel.
Ivan Hall's Cartels Of The Mind showed how this system operates to exclude foreign journalists from legitimate newsgathering activities in Japan, but Freeman's book goes much further and exposes the ways a handful of news organizations prevent any alternative news sources from establishing in Japan.
She traces the history of mass media in Japan and shows how though they may appear the same as in the west, Japanese media have never had the function of the "Fourth Estate", rather they have always been used to disseminate information from those in power to those who are ruled.
Even with the post-war democratic reforms initiated by the American Occupation Authority, the small number of media owners continued with their mutually beneficial relationship with the politicians.
The advent of TV did little to alter the situation, as the same handful of newspaper owners took control of the new medium, and made the TV news operations dependent on the same news organizations as the newspapers.
During her research Freeman was able to go places no other outsider had been before, and her research is broad and thorough with numerous appendices. What did become irritating was her constant praise for American journalism, which, while certainly more diverse than Japanese, is hardly a shining example of what news journalism should be.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in news media, and those interested in the forces limiting political discourse in Japan.
Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict was a commissioned anthropological study of Japanese culture at the end of the second World War.
In this classic text, Benedict outlines hierarchy, cultural obligation (both on and giri), child upbringing, the history of the development of Buddhism, and much more. This book can be read as a primer on Japanese society, circa 1946, and also as how an American with limited Japanese language skills - though very perceptive analytical skills - described a culture vastly different from her own.
Benedict did much of her work by interviewing Japanese living in the US. Still, for all of the obvious objections that can be and have been leveled at the book - it is a must read for anyone interested in Japan. It is still widely read within Japan itself.
Edited by Atsushi Ueda, translated by Miriam Eguchi
Atsushi Ueda's work is a diverse collection of essays by Japanese academics on Japanese popular culture.
The "electric geisha" of the title is a metaphor for karaoke, one of modern Japan's most common forms of entertainment. Among other topics, the origins of the still common public bathhouse, the Japanese "tea" house (i.e., a coffee shop), the "manga city" (Osaka), group tours, the origins of the mass media, changing sex roles, wedding receptions, the Gaijin (foreigner) in popular imagination, and more are explored.
For the longtime resident of Japan, some of the observations are not as profound as the prose would have them - having read much Japanese academic writing in its original, I can vouchsafe that Miriam Noguchi has done a splendid job in maintaining the intent of the writers while avoiding making an English-speaking reader gag.
Moreover, at times, some of the writers veer towards the Nihonjinron school of "Japanese are the most unique" people on the planet. Another issue is that the book, published in 1994, is at times dated.
That said, though, architect and social critic Atsushi Ueda has pulled together a fascinating collection of essays. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the book was the overall sense of how spontaneous and nearly Latin in their approach to life Japanese of yore seem. Highly recommended.
by Eiji Oguma
One of the prevalent myths in contemporary Japan is that the Japanese are, and always have been, an ethnically homogenous people.
In the press, out of the mouths of politicians, and from people on the street, Japan's supposed homogeneity is used to explain and excuse many aspects of Japanese society, from the low crime rate to the non-acceptance of refugees. It is also repeated unquestioningly and mantra-like by many Japan observers and commentators.
Yet this notion is of very recent vintage. Seiji Oguma's lengthy and compelling work examines the history of Japan's images and definitions of itself from the Meiji period up to the post war period. Drawing from the media of the time and academic pronunciations he catalogs the ideas put forth by historians, archeologists, politicians, philosophers, folklorists, writers, eugenicists and others and shows that the dominant idea until Japan's defeat in WWII has been that of Japan being a "mixed nation". The origins of the Japanese were put variously as Korea, China, Mongolia, Malaysia, the South Sea Island, India, the Middle East, and even Greece and Italy.
The idea of a homogenous Japanese nation did not begin to take hold until the 1940s, and did not become dominant until the 1960s when Japan entered the world of economic superpowerdom. This was also the peak of the Nihonjinron (theories of the uniqueness of the Japanese) boom.
To explain the varying theories of whom the Japanese are and where they came from, Oguma likens history to a Rorschach test - something that will be interpreted differently by changing historical circumstances.
As the Japanese Empire expanded by annexation, assimilation, and invasion, the theory of a mixed nation was useful as justification.
The translator of the book claimed he was not able to reproduce Oguma's colloquial writing style, but nevertheless the book is easy to read, and I found myself unable to put it down once I had started.
by Inazo Nitobe
Riding on a wave of enthusiasm sparked by movie The Last Samurai comes a new edition of Inazo Nitobe's classic work on Bushido - the Japanese way of the warrior. New to this Kodansha print are a matt black and red cover, bringing it in line with other current editions of samurai literature such as Hagakure and A Book of Five Rings, and a foreword which places the work in its historical context. This is a necessary step to prevent Bushido from being misunderstood.
First written at a time when many Western ideas were being absorbed by a certain class of Japanese intellectual, Bushido is at once much more and much less than the plain explication of the samurai code that it appears to be.
Nitobe was himself a Seventh-Day Adventist and places Christian ethics above those of his native tradition. He makes so many references to western thinkers that he could be accused of being overeager to win the favour of his Victorian audience.
In fact his role as an apologist for Japanese culture places his work clearly in the bracket of nihonjinron ("theories of Japanese-ness"), a genre of literature that attempts to justify and set apart Japanese culture rather more than rationally investigate it.
Nevertheless, Bushido is a digestible read for those interested in the foundations of samurai morality. Starting with the sources of the samurai code in Confucius, Mencius and Zen, it takes individual values of the samurai in turn and relates samurai parables and folklore to their parallels in occidental culture.
This is as much enlightening about western values as it is demystifying with regards to their Japanese counterparts. Nitobe's education in western philosophy is both broad and deep and he gives the reader much to ponder on what at first seems exotic in the ethics of Bushido but what is in fact much apparent in our own culture though perhaps lost to history.
And yet, such was also the fate of Bushido. Nitobe eloquently writes the epitaph of the samurai code in his final chapter, writing at the very point in history when the materialism was cementing its power on his own native shores.
With reference to both the Bible and the Koran, Nitobe both laments the passing of Bushido and entreats us to find it again in its ashes. In Bushido, we have not only an anthropological presentation of the way of the samurai, however flawed, but also a document of the clash of this traditional ethic with the modern world.
by Tom Kishida
160 pp, 150 photos
The Yasukuni Sword is a legendary sword that was manufactured during World War II. At the time there was an unusual confluence of events - a high demand for swords coupled with a short supply of steel - that resulted in the Yasukuni. Between 1933 and 1945, just 8,100 of these swords were produced. They were forged by a small, elite - and now extinct - group of swordsmiths.
The quality of the swords was well-known among both Japanese and non-Japanese troops - and the swords became a highly sought-after trophy for American soldiers. Today they are valued highly for their beauty and historical significance.
For the average collector, there is little to distinguish a mass-produced blade and the Yasukuni. Thus, The Yasukuni Swords: Rare Weapons of Japan 1933-1945 serves as an excellent reference. The text describes how the swords were made, and gives detailed guidance in how to distinguish the swords from their lesser brethren. Also, there are 150 beautiful photos.
by Bruce Rutledge (Editor)
Chin Music Press
"Some of us live here and that means something, even though it doesn't sound exotic or esoteric. All your talk about "Japan" and the "Japanese" ...you don't know a thing about it you pretentious pricks."
So writes Will Fennel in his contribution to Kuhaku, a collection of essays and accounts set in Japan that demands to be described as a first of its kind and hopefully paves the way for more of the same.
Japan, once the subject of so much mystery and misunderstanding is enjoying a place in the global consciousness like never before. The 2002 World Cup circus came and went and everyone who has seen Lost in Translation knows what the inside of a Tokyo karaoke booth looks like. However, a quieter, more committed role in increasing this awareness is being played, sometimes unwittingly, by the large and growing number of current and former foreign residents who have experienced the country, and for whom Japan will always be a part of their lives. These are the people who have written Kuhaku and for whom it was put together.
The essays and accounts that make up this attractive volume look at Japan from the perspective of those who have made it their adopted home and have been moved to reflect, criticise and appraise it while creaming off their share through teaching or media. Thus, it reflects the lives of the majority of Japan's English speaking foreign community. Kuhaku is popular literature for the JET generation.
Looking at Japan from street-level up, we have personal accounts of rage at being groped, garbage being snooped at, a dot-com gone wrong and a glimpse of life through the eyes of a canned coffee connoisseur.
The broad range of topics and writing styles (fiction, eye-witness, anthropological, anecdotal) prevent Kuhaku from falling into the trap of reducing Japan to something pithy and digestible. Its authors present Japan from wherever the lens happens to be pointing. One gets the feeling that Kuhaku leaves countless stories, just as compelling, out there waiting to be told.
In amongst the variety links can be drawn. The violent teenage boys described in "Father Hunters" could be the brothers of the girls working in the sex industry described by Akuma Sho in "Blind Alleys" and both are likely to be the children of parents whose married lives are portrayed in a trilogy of interviews given by unfulfilled wives.
Something of an epilogue to these is the account of a retired woman who runs an independent shelter for victims of domestic violence, interspersed with thumbnail accounts of the horrors inflicted on women who have arrived there.
Like any book on Japan it simply cannot fail to be critical but not in the sense of the cold light of academic analysis nor the rage of those who lament what Japan has "lost". Because Kuhaku tells its stories from a human perspective, Japan comes out intact, indeed, with all its flaws intact, as the imperfect partner in the lives of its authors.
by John Nathan
In September 1990, the Tokyo Stock Exchange lost nearly half of its total value in four days: this marked the end of Japan's irrational exuberance of the 1980s.
With the bursting of the bubble came a decade-long recession, the longest since World War II. Financial woe has brought with it yet another search for identity in Japan, writes John Nathan.
Professor Nathan was the first foreigner to be admitted to Tokyo University, and he draws upon his decades of experience in Japan and his total fluency in the language to paint a highly readable portrait of a nation undergoing significant changes.
The traditional agrarian system that supported the multi-generation family under one roof - all but extinct. Salarymen in their 40s and 50s on the cusp of promotion and the long-awaited perks after decades of single-minded striving for the company - restructured. Students who cannot keep up with the torrid pace of Japanese education - bitter and violent. On top of this social breakdown is the right-wing, which continues to whitewash Japanese history, and calls for "moral education" eerily reminiscent of pre-war schooling.
Of particular interest are chapters on Carlos Ghosn, the Brazilian president of Nissan, and Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist governor of Tokyo. Ghosn has slashed workers, cut old keiretsu ties - and become the darling of Japanese business. Beneath the surface of his myriad successes lurks discontent. Some of this is articulated by the former novelist turned politician Ishihara, who blames foreigners for most if not all of the ills affecting Japan today.
Nathan writes in a fluent style that captures what is missing from media reports on Japan. He meets ordinary citizens and the elite, and draws a picture of a troubled but proud giant in search of a way forward. An excellent work on a fascinating society in flux.
This is a delightful and refreshing book. It's a book about the Japanese in their own words, and not only that, there is no interpretation at all by historians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, or any other kind of -ologist. In the 1970's a doctor in a small town in Northern Japan began taping his elderly patients' reminiscences of their childhood, and stories from their younger days.
The result is a collection of short autobiographies from all segments of society, of people born between the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th. The picture vividly painted by these elderly people is a good indicator of what life was like in the first half of the 20th Century in Japan, for at that time most people in Japan lived in small towns and in rural areas.
As might be expected from elderly people everywhere, there is a lot of "Life Was So Hard Back Then But We Had Fun", and it would be hard to argue with them, but their stories are also rich in details missing from orthodox histories. The subjects are a diverse group ranging from Geishas and gangsters, to farmers, fishermen, and tradesman, the rich, and (mostly) the poor, predominantly men, but plenty of women also, and they all speak frankly and candidly.
The book deservedly won the Book of the Year Award from Japan's foreign press, and the translation from colloquial Japanese into colloquial English works very well. A book to scour for gems as well as simply savor.
by Jina Bacarr
60 pages with b/w illustrations
This book is essentially about the sex "secrets" of the geisha, those high-end dolls of the Japanese licensed quarter (who, it must be repeated for the umpteenth time, are not prostitutes).
Author Jina Bacarr has worked as a "companion" - a woman paid to drink and talk with men at arranged parties - and apparently knows whereof she speaks.
The text begins that, in Japan, "sex is not about just having orgasms." Rather, she continues, "Sex is a game of seduction, about extending passion into the realm of spirituality and using all of your senses." This can include anything from bathing, erotic mediation, sex toys, and even (gasp!) conversation.
This is a step-by-step guide for women hoping to spice up their sex lives. Though the material is explicit, it is not crude or in bad taste. If anything, in its emphasis on spirituality over technique (a welcome break from Dummies books), it is done in good taste.
Also, there are fun little tidbits about the geisha themselves. For starters, how do you know when an apprentice geisha has lost her virginity? By her hairstyle (a virgin wears her hair in bagel-like bun called wareshinobu that is decorated with ribbons, ornaments, and flowers; after her first experience, her hair style becomes a plainer ofuku).
Fun fact two: geisha don't wear panties. Fun fact three: if a geisha really likes a man, she will invite him to sit on her right (since kimono are worn with the left side crossing the right, this allows the man to slip his hand in and fondle her). And more. A fun read.
This is the first biography of the legendary polymath Miyamoto Musashi. Swordsman, artist, strategist, author, and zen disciple were among the notations on Miyamoto's impressive resume.
He was known first and foremost as a swordsman. He jung up his sword at 30 never having lost. In a career that began at age 13, this was a truly impressive feat. At age 30, though, he "retired" to pursue a more spiritual path.
Translator and Japan authority William Scott Wilson paints a riveting picture of the life of Miyamoto, his successes and failures, trials and tribulations. Wilson supplements this with armchair psychology: he delves into the mind of this fascinating character who outwitted his opponents by using their strengths against them.
Miyamoto's life has been the subject of numerous samurai films in Japan and he is best known as author of The Book of Five Rings, but The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi is the first biography in English of the man.
Miyamoto, Wilson concludes, was more than anything a free spirit. Read in the early 21st century - in which Japan is a highly centralized and bureaucratic state that regulates so much of its citizens' lives - this is a refreshing read. Even for those who can't bear the thought of anything to do with samurai, this comes highly recommended.
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