Books on Japan: Japanese Politics & Japanese Society
Japanese Politics & Society Books IIIJapanese politics & Japanese society. Read reviews of books on Japanese society and politics.
by Chie Nakane
For many years now any list of must-read books for the aspiring student of modern Japan has included Ruth Benedict's Chrysanthemum & The Sword, which popularized the notion of Japan being a shame-based culture, and Chie Nakane's Japanese Society which explored the notion of Japan being a "vertical society", and though it is has been more than 30 years since Japanese Society was first published it is still a valuable introduction to how Japanese interact with each other.
Nakane is a social anthropologist, and her analysis focuses on both the group structure and the vertical nature of Japan's society - in Japan your identity is based on what group you belong to, and your position within its hierarchy, what she refers to as "frame", rather than any individual "attributes" you may have. Using examples from assorted groups: companies, schools, political parties, associations of intellectuals, etc., she illustrates the dynamics of relationships within groups and also between groups, including the sometimes fierce competition that pervades inter-group rivalries, noting when the Japanese group dynamic increases efficiency of a group's aims, or decreases it.
She makes comparisons with other societies, notably the U.S.A. and the Hindu caste system. As she says in her conclusion, Japan has undergone some drastic changes in the past 200 years, but the nature of social relations has stayed fundamentally the same.
Her conclusion also gives a good explanation why democracy has a subtly different meaning in Japan than in western nations and why revolution is impossible in Japan. That Japan is a group-oriented and vertical society is well known, but reading this slim volume will show you some of the more subtle ways it operates and help you understand the pressures that constrain Japanese people in their daily lives.
by Lois Peak
University of California Press
At the time they enter preschool, Japanese children are often spoiled and undisciplined, used to getting everything they want, and they revel in their unquestioned status as family king or queen.
Yet, by the time these children enter elementary school as six year olds, nearly all have become obedient, cooperative and able to take care of themselves to a surprising degree. Most are energetic, not docile.
Author Lois Peak came to Japan to study this phenomena, and this book is the result of her observations and research. Her findings can virtually be boiled down into one word: preschool. She wrote,
"...developing character traits and interpersonal skills such as obedience, cooperation, courtesy, and responsibility is usually described as the responsibility of the preschool, not the home."
It would be a mistake for any foreigner in Japan to assume that they could not get much insight into Japan by reading about preschool education in Japan. Even if they are not teachers and even if they do not have children who are, were or will be in Japanese schools, almost 100% of the people they deal with on a daily basis have gone through Japanese preschools.
In some places, Japanese preschools have the reputation of being hard-nosed academic academies. This is far from the truth. Most preschools are all about playing with and becoming friends with the other students and, more importantly, learning how to subordinate yourself to Japanese society. There is very little academic education happening.
Those completely unfamiliar with Japanese schools and culture will undoubtedly get a number of surprises. One example of this is the importance placed on the o-bento lunches that mothers prepare for their preschoolers.
The director of a Tokyo preschool observed by Peak sent word to mothers that the bentos be "nutritious, be the kind of food that children enjoy, look colorful and be cutely prepared."
The director's letter went on, saying, "When the child removes the lid of his lunchbox at lunchtime, his mother's love and feelings for him should pop out of the box. Children should feel, 'My mother made this just for me.' "
This book was published in 1991, leaving the reader to wonder how much has changed in the succeeding years. In my discussions with two young mothers of preschool age children, the answer appears to be "not much."
One Tokyo preschool observed by Peak mandated that children's mother's prepare the following items, and that each be handmade, not store purchased: a long-sleeved, button down painting smock, a cloth bag for modeling clay (lined with vinyl), an appliqued (cq) bag to take home monthly magazines and books, a wrapper for the lunch box with velcro closing, a drawstring bag for the drinking cup, a drawstring bag for a toothbrush, and a special flame-retardant hooded cape (in case of fire).
When I recently asked about this, a high school teacher and mother of a preschooler admitted sheepishly that all of those items were hand made for her son, not by her but by her mother-in-law "because she likes doing that kind of stuff and I don't have enough time."
Not only readers who have a good intermediate knowledge of Japan, but also neophytes of Japanese culture will enjoy and get new insights from this book.
The readers' confusion starts early in this unfulfilling 2001 collection of essays about "the education and attitudes of Japanese college women." Although the author often mentions being a professor at Mary Baldwin College in America, when writing about his teaching experience in Japan he writes, "I have employed a fictional name, Kansai Women's College (KWC) for the university where I taught."
Actually, there has been a Kansai Women's College in Japan for over 50 years, but it is unclear if this is where he taught. Readers might wonder the reason for this secrecy. Perhaps it is because the book is so poorly written.
Let's first focus on the few positives in this book.
The most informative parts are discussions regarding the different curricula that Japanese women are taught in co-ed schools as opposed to women's (mostly junior) colleges. Curricula in women's colleges aren't what need to be learned in order to climb up any corporate ladder, but just enough to get low-level, subservient jobs.
College women's attitude towards love and marriage also make for good reading.
In the closing pages are four short essays written exclusively about the Japan Exchange Teachers (JET) Program by former JET participants. These offer some interesting perspectives.
There is also an informative, one-page essay written by a former diet member talking about the original ideas and motivations for starting the JET Program.
Some other topics are also relatively informative.
The most notable thing, by far, about this book is the mind-boggling lack of even basic editing. There are, very conservatively, at least 60 editing errors including, but by no means limited to, misspellings, typos, improper wordings, capitalization gaffes, nonsensical sentences, sentences breaking in the middle to start new paragraphs and bizarre bold-facing of random paragraphs, etc.
Even things like personal pronouns and pairing a closed quote with an open quote seem to be too much of a challenge for the editors. Dashes are hilariously long and proper footnoting is something way beyond the editor's ability. Footnote numbers look like they are suffering from a case of elephantiasis.
There is one paragraph early in the book that has four editing errors, and one sentence late in the book that has three editing or factual errors. That must be some kind of publishing record. Other head scratchers can be found. For example, the author says that customers in Japan "can end up waiting 30 minutes" for McDonalds to wrap a Big Mac.
Since the book was published in 2001, some of the information is naturally dated. For example, any statistics about cell phone usage would be moot by now.
Mentioned several times is Japan's poor performance on standardized English tests in relation to other Asian countries, even North Korea. Not mentioned is the fact that in many countries only the top students take these tests, while in Japan a much larger percentage of students take these tests, thereby not being an apples-to-apples comparison.
If this book is any indication of the quality of education at Mary Baldwin College, then you should never send your children there.
by Merry White
University of California Press
If newspaper headlines are to be believed, Japanese families are in crisis. Blame for the falling birthrate, climbing divorce rate, increasing juvenile delinquency, and the problems associated with the aging society, are all laid at the feet of the Japanese family and, by default, Japanese women, as the family is seen to be almost exclusively the domain of the woman in Japanese society.
The Japanese State has often promulgated an "official" version of family, from the imposition in the Meiji era of the samurai-based ie system, a rigid, patriarchal, hierarchical system that bore little resemblance to how the majority of Japanese families were structured, to the postwar "democratization" of the family.
White's book examines the various ways that real Japanese families have differed from and coped with the official image. With all the relevant statistical information you could need, she analyzes the variety of forces that impact families.
Among these are industrialization and urbanization and the employment practices responsible for the economic revival of postwar Japan, the education system that lays the responsibility for the child's success firmly on the shoulders of women - the aptly named "education mama" - social welfare systems, and the State's reliance on the family to supply services that in other nations are supplied by the government, the changes brought about by changing gender roles (and the official resistance to such changes), and the impact of advertising and consumerism on both the creation of family identities and in offering solutions to family needs.
In fact the book is as good an overview of Japanese society as you could get. White helps break down the stereotypes held by many of the Japanese family, and shows some of the human diversity that is often lacking in depictions of Japan.
University of Hawai'i Press
In the nearly 40 years since his death, Arthur Waley's reputation as a translator of Asian literature has, somewhat inevitably, suffered. The decline is based on two often repeated facts: Waley had a tendency to cut, alter and supplement his source texts; and far more damning to the contemporary reader, he never set foot in either China or Japan.
Although dated, there is little doubt that Waley's most well-known translation (continuously in print since 1935), The Tale of the Genji, is still the most enjoyable version of the book and that his prose skills were far greater than his more linguistically adept successors.
Despite the fact that Waley published close to 40 books between 1916 and 1964, and almost single-handedly introduced some of Asia's most significant classical works to the English-speaking world, Orienting Arthur Waley is the first, full-length study of the man.
Rather than concentrating on Waley's life, about which fairly little is known, John Walter de Gruchy sets out to establish a context (Japonism, British socialism and imperialism) for his attitudes and argues that more than a mere translation, Waley's Genji is an "English novel."
Aimed more at the academic than the general reader, Orienting Arthur Waley nonetheless provides a wealth of information on early English scholarship on Japan and the British literary climate between the wars.
Princeton University Press
Princeton professor Sheldon Garon has set out to explain how the Japanese state persuades its citizens to act and behave in certain ways. Whether overtly not so overtly, the government in Tokyo - working in tandem with its many tentacles throughout Japan - works tirelessly to promote a national essence, a national modus operandus, a national way of thinking. And it achieves this in ways that a Western government with the same goals could never hope to.
How for example does the government convince its subjects to maintain such a high savings rate? To care for the elderly at home? To yield much educational decision-making to schools? In the past, how did the "average Japanese" come to support legalized prostitution as being in the national interest?
Garon explicates the pervasive relationship Japanese have with their government. To give one example, elementary school teachers hand out a booklet to new parents on how to be or become "good parents," with minutiae and graphs on allowance money, the average amount of time spent watching TV in other countries, and much more. And this is welcomed by most parents. The reflexive "It's none of their %$# business" reaction is all but unheard of.
In a series of five case studies, Garon examines how citizens have cooperated with government officials in the areas of welfare, prostitution, and household savings, and in controlling religious "cults" and promoting the political participation of women.
At the most rudimentary level, the state mobilizes its citizens to organize themselves into "chonai-kai," the omnipresent neighborhood association. Made up mainly of housewives, it functions to reinforce accepted norms and dictates from the state. Though a volunteer organization, members act with great zeal to carry out their duties for the good of all.
Though in places not particularly well written, Molding Japanese Minds is a compelling read.
Japanese weekly news magazines, shukanshi, do not have an exact equivalent outside of Japan. Combining real news, similar to Time or Newsweek, with celebrity gossip a la People or Entertainment Today, with soft-core pornography and the worst kind of scandal and sensationalism such as you would find in the British tabloids Sun, Star, etc and in American supermarket tabloids such as National Enquirer.
Operating outside the infamous "Kisha" press-club system, the weeklies have been given little attention in studies of Japanese media except to note that they are the usual source of political scandal news in Japan, and while their readership is quite small compared to newspapers, millions of commuters are exposed to their sensationalist adverts that dominate the interiors of many trains.
A Public Betrayed is the first book on the subject of shukanshi. Beginning with an overview of Japan and its media drawing from the writings of Karel Van Wolferen, Chalmers Johnson, Alex Kerr, Ivan Hall, etc, it is followed by a history of the shukanshi.
The book then concentrates on 5 case studies. Two concern smear campaigns and defamation of a Buddhist leader and a victim of an Aum terrorist attack, both of which highlight the extremely weak libel laws in Japan. Another chapter focuses on the curious cases of anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denial reporting and the final 2 concern the whitewashing of the Nanking Massacre, and the issue of Japan's wartime sexual slavery, the "comfort women" - two issues that continue to make the news even since the publication of this book.
Overall, this easily readable book paints a picture of a system that contains little or no sense of journalistic ethics (or training), with a commercialism that panders to the rising nationalism in Japan and to a tendency by some in Japan "to ascribe to 'social truths' that are independent of observable phenomena or logic."
Is it a warning to the West? I think yes, but only insofar as the news media in Japan illustrate the path that western media has to a large extent already chosen.
Edited by Timothy J. Craig
This book turned out to be a nice surprise. As I started reading the introduction, I was hooked. This is a good collection of essays on contemporary Japanese pop culture, highlighting the range of Japanese popular cultures, if not the depth.
The book's main strength is in its balance of being able to successfully straddle the line between a pure academic text and informed articles. Every article included in this volume is inherently readable, and although the quality varies in places, there is much to be learned not only about contemporary Japanese pop culture but also contemporary society.
The balance of articles means that the readership of this book should be broad, with the book being split into four main sections: Popular Music, Comics and Animation, Television and Film, and Japanese Popular Culture Abroad.
The introduction by Timothy Craig is well written and pulls you in immediately. There is a lot to learn here, even for long-term residents of Japan. The collection starts with what is probably the most academic-oriented and easily the best-written article included - a superb article by historian E. Taylor Atkins detailing 'authenticity' in Japanese jazz, addressing the question of whether Japanese jazz musicians can play 'authentic' jazz music. Atkins also details Japanese jazz musicians plight to find a 'unique' Japanese jazz, and the need to 'authenticate' jazz. Christine Yano focuses on emotion in enka, traditionally popular ballads popular with mainly older Japanese, as a form of naki-bushi (crying songs), with songs frequently sung about failed romance and the longing for home.
There are also short and very readable articles on women's changing roles in pop music, and the influence of karaoke in society. The animation section focuses on religious manga, in this case the monumental Buddha series, romantic elements in manga, women's roles, and the ever-popular Sazae-san and Crayon Shin-chin series, a sound article illustrating the change in family roles and social change in Japanese society. The collection also contains excerpts for the classic manga about the Hiroshima atomic bomb, Barefoot Gen.
Television dramas are analyzed to show the changing role of both men and women in dramas, the influence that they have in Japanese society, and the way women's roles have gradually evolved to stay contemporary and 'fresh'. Jayson Chun looks at the media coverage surrounding the wedding of the current Emperor and Empress in 1959 and the boon in economic terms that this did to television sales but fails to compare the reaction in Japan with royal weddings in other countries, a comparison that could have given a broader perspective to his analysis.
The ever-reliable Mark Schilling profiles the world's longest film series, Tora-san, and rounding off the collection is an analysis of pop idols and Asian identity, a well argued article that also manages to give voice to a variety of young people's opinions on Asian identity.
The main criticism that can be made of this collection is that it attempts to cover too much ground. Each of the four main sections could be expanded and made into separate publications with more depth and range.
However, as a primer on Japanese pop culture and a good introduction to the sheer variety of the world of popular culture in Japan, this collection succeeds admirably.
Japan's Dysfunctional Democracy: The Liberal Democratic Party and Structural Corruption
In 1887, when Lord Acton wrote that "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," he was not, of course, referring to the Liberal Democratic Party, which, wouldn't come into being until more than 50 years later. But as Roger Bowen's racy and occasionally bad-tempered book shows, the LDP has done more than perhaps any other political party in a "Western" liberal democracy to affirm the British historian's famous postulation.
While Bowen concedes that Japan's postwar leaders do not have a monopoly on abusing their influence for political or financial gain, it is the frequency and extent of their misconduct that makes Japan such a special case.
Bowen's research of Nagata-cho's crimes and misdemeanors during the LDP's almost uninterrupted 55 years in power bears him out: Lockheed, Kyowa, Recruit, Sagawa Kyubin - names that will be forever associated with collusion between the political and corporate worlds.
So why has Japan immersed itself in sleaze in a way that so horrifies the rest of the democratic world? Bowen is not the first Japan specialist to single out the vagaries of the old multi-seat electoral system, which rewarded candidates with direct lines to major players in business and the bureaucracy.
But the electoral system has changed, and with little noticeable effect on the conduct of the country's politicians. Instead, the roots of the problem are to be found in the fabric of Japanese democracy itself: namely, a weak prime minister, a constitution that is often ignored at will and a dominant, unelected and unaccountable bureaucracy.
Bowen is critical, too, of the failure of Japan's opposition parties to offer credible alternatives to LDP rule. But a momentarily reinvigorated opposition and manifesto-led campaigns alone are not enough to rid Japanese politics of graft, corruption and cronyism.
The message from voters, Bowen says, must be forceful and consistent. Only time will tell whether they live up to his expectations or retreat again into the shikata ga nai society.
by Mike Millard
Leaving Japan, written by formerly Japan-based journalist Mike Millard, offers his insights into not only the U.S.-Japan relationship but also a few interesting tidbits on Japanese society and the way certain aspects of it function. Written in a fluid style in 24 short chapters, it is not so much an academic text as a series of very light journalistic essays.
However, Mike Millard, as he admits in the preface, spoke almost no Japanese after 11 years in Japan and so relied completely on English language sources and translated material. This is a major weakness for the book and it is lacking input from Japanese language sources. To be fair to Millard, he does the book justice by including snippets from his own personal life as a young marine stationed in Okinawa, and by describing the lives of ordinary Japanese citizens that he knows.
A couple of well-written pieces on Okinawa and his experiences there combined with the present problems of military bases are informative but lack scope. Unfortunately, ultimately the book comes across as less about the U.S.-Japan relationship than about the author's relationship with the country where he resided for 11 years. He appears to harbor a fair amount of bitterness over certain aspects of Japanese society, even basically stating that he must get his young son out of the country (Millard's wife is Japanese) while he is young, because, as the child of an American father and Japanese mother, he will be bullied and/or subjected to problems of some sort in the future.
His criticisms of Japan and its current political and economic problems are sound, but when they are wrapped in personal frustrations experienced, it renders his arguments hollow here. Maybe this is also because the arguments he presents here have been heard and written about many times before, and written with much more depth and clarity.
For an in-depth study of academic and institutional exclusion, Ivan Hall's Cartels of the Mind is recommended. The America-centric views expressed here and subsequently imposed on Japan's economic and political system seems to be a rather futile exercise. He is, though, highly critical of the U.S. government's lack of understanding of Asian countries and cultures, often putting them together haphazardly.
Although Millard stresses that change is long overdue and that an overhaul of the bureaucratic, social and political systems are needed, his conclusions are shallow as they are backed up by second-hand information and very one-sided observations.
If the establishment media in Japan represents one type of reality - a watered-down, "harmonious," surface perspective of Japan - the weekly magazines offer the dirty, innuendo-driven, rumor-based stories that the Asahi and Yomiuri won't go near.
Mark Schreiber et al scan the pages of these lurid weeklies for the exotic, salacious, and scandalous. Tabloid Tokyo is a greatest hits of the best and bawdiest from these mags: sex, yakuza doings, and political and financial scandal. The book is divided into sections on the above and food, pets, fashion, love and the family, business, and more. How much of this is true? You decide.
Funny as hell. Very entertaining.
Japan has always borrowed from other cultures, but, as the Japanese themselves readily point out, have always insisted on changing what they take and making it distinctly "Japanese". This was as true with the great influx of culture and technology from China and Korea more than a thousand years ago as it is with the equally enormous importation of Western culture and technology over the last century.
This eclectic collection of essays looks at this process during the past century, and as such it illuminates both how Japan sees the "West" and how the Japanese market the West to themselves. The range of topics is broad, ranging from the popularity of Argentinean Tango, selling Japanese French cuisine to Japanese in Hawaii, and the world of fashion to more mundane subjects such as the change in Japanese baths, and how Western-style interior decorating is being marketed in Japanese Home magazines.
The essays that stood out for me were Tobin's excellent introduction, Stephen Smith's piece on drinking etiquette and the changes brought about not only by the introduction of many new types of alcoholic beverages from the West but also by the methods used to package and sell the archetypal Japanese drink, Sake, Mary Yoko Brannen's chapter on the world's most popular theme park, Tokyo Disneyland, which advertises itself as an exact copy of the original American Disneyland, but in fact contains numerous differences, and Millie Creighton's look at Depato, Japanese Department stores, which not only market Western products, but serve as sites of education.
Probably the most interesting paper is James Stanislaw's "For Beautiful Human Life" which takes a peek at English loan words in Japan, a subject that bemuses many western visitors and residents of Japan. If you are interested in Japanese consumption, or why it is that Japan appears both Western and yet not at the same time, Re-made In Japan is a good read.
by Karin Muller
I must admit that it was with some trepidation that I began to read A Year in Search of Wa. My bookshelf groans under the weight of volumes written by westerners who spent a year or two in Japan and felt the need to share their experiences, and most of these books rarely get any deeper than reiterating common cliche and stereotypes. I needn't have worried though. A few minutes in and I was enjoying not only the writing style, which is very visual, probably due to Muller's profession as documentary filmmaker, but also the warmth of her attitude as she negotiates the conflicts between her own desires and the expectations of Japanese society.
At times her style reminded me a little of Alan Booth, one of the better writers on Japan, as her personal experiences are the basis of the book, yet it doesn't descend into a "Me Me Me" book. Much of the book concerns the deteriorating relationship between herself and Yukiko, the upper-middle class "host mother" whose rigid expectations of acceptable behavior eventually causes Muller to leave her host family.
What also comes across strongly is the relief she finds on her trips into the rural areas of Japan and the more relaxed and tolerant attitudes she finds among the people there. The range of characters she gained access to in her year in Japan was broader than would be available to a normal visitor, and the stereotypes of salaryman and middle-class families, geisha, sumo wrestlers, etc are well represented.
But it is the more unusual characters that were more interesting: - a Brazilian studying to be a sword-maker, a homeless man in Osaka, a training camp for mountain ascetics, etc. Aside from a few minor quibbles with her research, for instance she writes of used-panties vending machines as if they still exist whereas they all disappeared some years ago, and that the book feels a little thin and rushed at times- it would have been nicer to have more details in some of the episodes-, it is a very enjoyable read and better than many books of this genre. So, does she find Wa? Read it and decide for yourself.
Famous, or perhaps infamous, as the far-right, outspoken, and extremely popular governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara has lived quite a life. Unknown to most Westerners, prior to his incarnation has a China-hater and politician and neo-nationalist, Ishihara was a prominent novelist and the child of privilege.
Born into a wealthy and elite family, Ishihara was actually the second most famous child in his family. His younger brother, Yujiro, was a screen idol in the 1950s and 60s until his untimely death from cancer.
Ishihara himself was a sensation from an early age. His debut novel, "Season in the Sun," won the Akutagawa Prize in 1953. It was about the feckless lives of rich teenagers who brawled and screwed with abandon on and near the beaches near Yokohama.
In 1999, he co-authored "The Japan that Can Say No" with the late chairman of Sony, Akio Morita. According to John Nathan, Ishihara is "a national hero and for many Japanese an appealing alternative to the party hacks who led the government throughout the nineties, while the economy collapsed and scandals involving fraud, bribery, and collusion among government ministers and yakuza bosses toppled one cabinet after another. When voters are polled about who they would like to see as Prime Minister, he gets high marks."
This work is non-fiction and documents his passion for the ocean - and his love of danger. He is a yachtsman and a scuba enthusiast, and fans and foes alike will find it entertaining.
Professor Takashi Inoguchi has put together a primer of the highest order on Japanese politics. The book presents a comprehensive survey of Japan's postwar politics, economics, and international relations. Though the emphasis is on the most recent two decades, Inoguchi deftly traces the sources of much current ideology and practice to its Tokugawa roots.
In particular, he notes the influence of the Meiji Restoration, the US Occupation, and the postwar developmentalist state. The text ends with an analysis of the 1990s, the so-called "lost decade" - a thesis the author rejects.
Japan's modern political history dates to the late 16th century. At that point, unlike Europe, Japan was not ruled by absolutism. Oda Nobunaga quelled opposition, and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoashi united the country - but only after tremendous compromise. In this lie the seeds of modern day Japanese governance with its factionalism and centralized authority.
For one new to Japan or an old hand, this text is a wonderful introduction or a comprehensive review. Highly recommended.
A book about corporate extortionists in the Japanese business environment may sound, to some, like the equivalent of watching the proverbial grass grow, but in fact this is a very readable tome that gives great insight into a phenomenon barely known outside of Japan.
Sokaiya are people who disrupt shareholder meetings and generally harass corporations in order to extort a sum of money or manipulate the share price in some favorable manner. The author covers this peculiar practice in depth with a look at the historical view of corporate extortion and the role that sokaiya now play within the Japanese business world, deemed as they are a 'necessary evil'.
He also looks at the education of sokaiya and finds that rather than the image of street thugs or petty hoodlums that they are assumed to be, many sokaiya are in fact very well educated, usually with degrees in business or economics, and mixed with a certain street-savvy intelligence they are able to exploit corporations for sometimes huge gain. Tactics used by the extortionists and a dialogue taken from an actual shareholder's meeting are included, making this book well-worth reading on a relatively unknown subject.
The second edition of Japan's International Relations (RoutledgeCurzon 2005) is a weighty, 600-page tome that delves deep into Japan's political, economic and security relationships with the United States, European Union, East Asia and various international institutions such as the United Nations.
Though ostensibly a textbook aimed at a specialist readership - students and policy-makers alike - the quality of the writing makes this accessible to informed general readers, too.
There is no more comprehensive book on the subject available in English and all four co-authors are leading academic authorities on contemporary Japan. Anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Japan's increasingly proactive military posturing or Tokyo's attempts to avoid getting crushed between Washington and Beijing will find plenty of answers within.
Those wishing to broaden their horizons could do far worse than pick up Michael Yahuda's The International Politics of the Asia-Pacific (Routledge Curzon 2005).
Yahuda, one of the world's experts in this field and a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, is blessed with a writing style that is both authoritative and engaging.
This new, expanded edition of his standard work offers a comprehensive overview of the changing nature of the Asia-Pacific's regional politics since the end of World War II, with a heavy emphasis on the activities of China, Japan and the United States, as well as plenty of good background on the region's two potential hotspots: Taiwan and North Korea.
Jeff Kingston takes issue with the oft-stated claim that the 1990s was Japan's "Lost Decade" in his admirable new work Japan's Quiet Transformation (RoutledgeCurzon 2004).
Taking a quite different tack from the plethora of experts who have spent the best part of the last fifteen years wringing their hands over Japan's bleak future, Kingston lays out a convincing argument that Japan is currently reinventing itself and in the early phases of a far-reaching transformation in both the social sphere and in civil society.
The roots of this radical - if muted - transformation lie in the reaction by the populace to the stench of sleaze and scandals that has fouled the air ever since the bursting of the economic bubble in 1989, and the accordant clamouring for transparent governance and increased political accountability that entailed.
Affordable housing and the improvement in women's lives thanks to better childcare facilities are just two of the positive outcomes Kingston notes in the social sphere, but he is well aware that much more still needs to be done, especially with regards to the place of women in society.
Kingston covers a number of topics in detail, including Japanese nationalism, which he argues is an almost entirely benign phenomena, the ridiculous waste of the country's construction industry, the inhuman treatment of leprosy patients, and how the government has failed food consumers with its myopic policies towards "mad cows and ocean cockroaches."
Written by a former Hiroshima University professor, this book is a series of letters Toyofumi Ogura writes to his wife after she dies from radiation sickness--born of "the desire to inform her of the events leading up to and following her death." Toyofumi chooses simple description to narrate conflagration, mass death, and the incineration of an entire city, creating a pragmatic love note with a harrowing effect.
Ultimately, the simplicity of Toyofumi's prose both belies and highlights the utter horror of his tale: as if the destruction of atomic warfare holds a story so near unspeakable that creative writing becomes obscene.
By the book's conclusion, the reader confronts another paradox, of the author's perspective on responsibility. This holocaust, he writes, was "brought upon the country by the wartime leaders of imperial Japan[and so the Japanese people] have no one but ourselves to blame. We have to accept the dropping of the bomb in expiation of these sins." Perhaps Toyofumi suffers from survivor's guilt in assigning blame--so singly--to himself and his countrymen.
Or perhaps we should not question opinions from a man who survived what he did, and then managed to make meaning in and of the world. Yet at the same time, his book leaves us feeling that, in the end, we can do no less.
Tracy Slater, PhD
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