Books on Japan: Japanese Politics & Japanese Society V
Books on Japanese Politics & Society V
Books on Japanese politics & society V: read reviews of books on Japan's politics, history, society and thought.
Edited by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi
I read books about Japan so that I can deepen my understanding of the place I live. After 9 years and having read hundreds of books it has gotten hard to find books that add much to what I have already learnt, so it was a thrill to pick up and start to read this one.
The book starts with the late Edo Period, and examines the changes in Japanese thought up until the present time. The bulk of the book is made up of chapters from the Cambridge History of Japan, with an introduction and a chapter on post-war Japan added, so the quality is what you would expect from such an authoratitive source. The introduction is excellent, and by itself is well worth the price of the book. The first chapter on Japan's turn to the West does a good job of introducing all the different strains of thought that began to influence Japan in the late Tokugawa period, the medical books introduced by the Dutch being particularly important, and dismisses the overly simplistic notion that Japan was a "closed" country before Perry.
The second chapter on Meiji Conservatism documents the reaction of those who held power in Japan doing everything they could to resist any new ways of thinking that threatened their hold on power. The third chapter covers the chequered history of socialism, liberalism, and Marxism, in Japan, and the fourth "Japan's revolt against the West" covers the politics and philosophies that fed into the drive to colonial expansion and war. The final chapter covers the period after the end of World War II.
One thing that recurs again and again in Japan, in the late Tokugawa, early Meiji, early Showa, and Late Showa eras, in reaction to what is perceived as negative changes in Japan, is the looking back to the village, and "Folk" as the primary source of Japan's uniqueness.
If you are wanting to know why so many "western" notions, like democracy, or Human Rights, don't quite make a transition into contemporary Japan, this book will help.
A version of this review was originally published on Jake's Blog
by Ed Jacob
The adjective "unique" applied to describe things Japanese is so overused as to render the word almost meaningless, but there are some Japanese things that truly are unique, and love hotels must be one of them. Of course, the idea of renting a space for a short time to engage in a sexual liaison, either romantic or professional, is not a Japanese idea, and has probably been around for as long as the concept of rent, but in Japan the idea is taken to a logical conclusion, and with a complete industry built around it. From Hello Kitty S&M to European palaces, love hotels are more than anything else sites for fantasy and pleasure, more akin to theme parks than anything else, offering possibilities for every kind of fetish, including some I'm sure you have never heard of, and increasingly nowadays for romance.
The author has done his fieldwork, visiting many of the establishments in the book. Most of the numerous photos are his. Incidentally, in the print version of the book the photos are only black & white, but full color in the downloadable version, another reason to choose the PDF. He has also done his homework, drawing from all the available literature on the subject, most of which is in Japanese. The book covers just about every aspect of love hotels, from design and designers, the staff who work behind the scenes, trends and changes, etc but goes much further and explores many areas of sexuality and attitudes towards sex in Japan. In this regard a particular enlightening section are the excerpts from the hotel guest books, messages, mostly from women it seems, either to the management, their partners, or to no-one in particular. There is more informative and relevant information on sex in Japan than many books on the subject.
The book is also a complete guide to love hotels, ranking them according to kinkiness, romance, style, and whether reservations are needed. The book ends with an area guide to love hotels in the major cities with telephone numbers and prices.
Love hotels have changed, and while the overtly sexual and kinky still exist, many are more like regular hotels except that the facilities are usually better, the rooms, beds, baths, and TVs bigger, yet most guide books on Japan or local tourist information centers never mention them as an inexpensive accommodation option.
This book is destined to become a classic on Japanese sexuality.
This is a very general and a very light book, and as such might suit someone who is coming to the subject for the first time and needed a quick introduction. The author covers most aspects of Japanese sexuality and Japanese attitudes towards sex, historically and up to more recent times. Pornography and the sex-trade are also touched upon. One gets the feeling that the book is based on the authors own experiences and that he has enjoyed his relationships with Japanese women very much, but one also gets the feeling that this may have been some time ago as there is a dated feel to the book. Almost half the book is taken up with a final chapter, "Lovers language" which is like a phrase book for sexual and romantic matters. It is interesting to learn the background to the language and the euphemisms used gives insights into Japanese attitudes about sex and gender, but I wonder how useful it really is as a phrasebook as sexual slang tends to change very quickly, and also has regional variations.
This is an easy-to-read book that appears to be somewhat outdated at times, but for those who wish to read a quick introduction to certain aspects of Japanese history and culture, it is good for background knowledge. Written in a light, breezy style, the author covers a multitude of topics in short, easy to digest paragraphs, giving a kaleidoscopic if shallow introduction to Japan.
At times the author dwells on the "uniqueness" of Japan too much - after all, every country is unique -but his obvious affection for and knowledge of Japan and the Japanese shine through. He refers to the "traditional Japanese lifestyle" but never really seems to elaborate on what this is and what it entails. His rapture over the beauty of Japan's coastlines seems somewhat dubious as much of the coastline is blighted by concrete tetrapods, the result of the economic machine that has spent the last fifty years worshiping concrete. Much of the book appears to be a westerner's (especially male) stereotypical and idealized view of Japan. If anything, the author's focus on aesthetics and beauty highlights just how much the country has lost in its rush to "modernize." He delights in describing the intricacies of the "water trade," an area in which he appears to be an expert, and likes to reference the many other books he has written.
The author points out how easy Japan is for visitors, with the Japanese going well out of their way to help a foreign guest, something that remains true. His descriptions of privacy (or a lack of) are spot-on and still very relevant, and his comments on the seriousness of Western society are interesting, although his allusions to the fun- and pleasure-loving Japanese appear to be somewhat overblown in present-day Japan, where overwork is a fact of life, and exhaustion, burnout, and depression are widespread.
The book also includes basic Japanese phrases in roman characters for the visitor. This may be an interesting book for the first-time visitor and for some basic background knowledge, but at 150 pages, this book is way too short and of little use to those who would like to read something of depth.
by Ian Reader
More than 20 years in the making, Ian Readers book on the Shikoku pilgrimage is simply the best book in English on the subject. If you are planning on making a pilgrimage in Shikoku you will need one of the many guide books, but for background information this book is indispensable.
The 88 temple, 1,400 kilometer pilgrimage that circumnavigates the island of Shikoku is certainly the best known of all Japanese pilgrimages. The book focuses on the pilgrimage as it is nowadays, but traces what little is known of its origins and charts the changes that have occurred to it over the centuries. Most importantly for me he extracts the historical truth from the countless legends and myths that have built up around it, most significantly showing that Kobo Daishi, the saint most closely and intimately linked with the pilgrimage today actually has only a sketchy connection to it historically.
The title of the book Making Pilgrimages has a double meaning. On the one hand, people who undertake journeys for religious purpose are said to be making a pilgrimage, but on the other hand the title refers to organizations that nowadays have been responsible for creating and maintaining the pilgrimage largely as a commercial enterprise. It is this focus on the creation of the pilgrimage that sets Reader's book apart from other books on pilgrimage.
Probably the biggest difference between the pilgrimage as it is practiced now and as it was practiced in earlier times is that whereas earlier pilgrims by necessity traveled on foot, most pilgrims nowadays travel using some form of transport, most notably organized bus tours. One of the differences this has created in the pilgrimage is that the 88 temples themselves have now become the focus of the pilgrimage, whereas for earlier pilgrims and those nowadays who still walk the route, the focus was on the time and space between the temples. He looks at the organizations that represent the temples, pilgrim guides, and especially the bus companies that organize the pilgrimage tours.
Reader walked the complete pilgrimage himself one time, and over a period of twenty years went back repeatedly and covered parts of the pilgrimage again on foot and also on organized tours. His interviews with pilgrims and others balance out the academic research.
A final chapter looks at something rarely covered in pilgrimage literature, the so-called "Shikoku Sickness" - people who return again and again to the pilgrimage, some who spend their whole lives doing it. Most books on pilgrimage see it as a liminal act, something outside the normal life and world, but this chapter shows the distinction is blurry for some at least.
The Shikoku Pilgrimage is now a well established feature of Shikoku's identity, as well as being a considerable source of tourism income for the island. Thanks to a series of TV documentaries by the state broadcaster NHK that portrayed the pilgrimage as a part of Japanese culture and heritage, rather than a marginal activity it was historically, it has become what the TV programs portrayed it as.
Like most of Reader's other works this book gives a solid insight into the meanings and practices of Japanese religion today.
The authors, a Canadian, a Spaniard, and a Frenchman, have written a book that falls squarely into the genre of books that explain "what is wrong with Japan and how it can be fixed," and is one of the better books of the genre. Maybe because of their combined years of experience in Japan the book has a bit more depth than many of its type.
The essence of the authors' argument is that while Japan made a remarkable and swift transition from a Pre-Modern to a Modern society, it has failed to make the jump to a Post Modern society, and still clings to the mercantilism that enabled its economy to grow and prosper, but which is no longer suitable for the modern world of globalism.
The introduction is excellent and gives a brief history of Japan without resorting to any of the myths that color much of other writings on Japan. The brief section on Japan's imperialist expansion and World War II manages to cover all the details that continue to haunt Japan and influence its relations with other countries.
The chapter on global communication covers Japan's poor performance with foreign languages, particularly English, but also has some interesting insights on communication issues within Japan. Many of the examples given come from the world of business, and this emphasis on business and economics continues throughout the book, with the next two chapters focusing on the Japanese economy. Written in a way that makes the subjects understandable to a layman, one still needs an interest in the topics to stop the chapters from becoming hard going. The chapters on Japan's civil society and Japan's global roles cover most of the issues where Japan clings to exceptionalism.
Throughout the book the authors point out that were Japan to open itself more (globalism in not so many words) the people of Japan would benefit greatly, however they barely touch upon any negative results of globalization.
In the conclusion they make an interesting suggestion that China's growing economic penetration of Japan may lead to the forced opening of Japan on a par with Perry's black ships.
by Mark Weston
Boasting a rich history, cultural depth and the second largest economy in the world, Japan deserves and demands respect. Yet in the U.S. and much of Europe, there seems to be a fundamental lack of knowledge regarding Japanese society. Whether due to lingering Western-centric attitudes, a hesitancy to approach the unfamiliar, or a simple lack of exposure, many in the West never seem to move beyond a few generalizations in their thinking about Japan.
In the preface of his book, Giants of Japan, author Mark Weston makes it clear that his intentions are to broaden the Western reader's understanding of this influential nation by providing insight into the lives of some of its greatest men and women. The body of the work goes on to do so in a highly readable and accessible manner. Divided into five parts, the book looks at some of the greatest personalities from Japanese industry, traditional culture, history, literature and various other realms. While many of those covered in this book, such as Oda Nobunaga and Emperor Hirohito, will be familiar to most readers, there are some people of great import that few in the West will have ever been exposed to. Characters such as Izumo no Okuni, the female creator of Kabuki, and Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of Aikido and instructor of baseball great Oh Sadaharu, are just a few examples of the fascinating figures of lesser fame in this book.
Weston acknowledges that it was not is intention to provide exhaustive lists of men and women from each category covered, nor to provide complete biographies of them. He has not set out to create an exhaustive almanac for all things Japanese, but rather hopes to provide informative and sometimes personal glimpses at the extraordinary lives of a particularly influential cross section of individuals from this great nation. This book would serve as an excellent introduction to Japan for someone unfamiliar with the country, or as an enjoyable and informative read for those who are more well-versed in the field. It provides interesting insight into each person's life, and covers a wide enough range of personalities that it would most likely have something new for most readers. Furthermore, the book's focus on individuals allows readers to get more of a feel for each figure's story than the more thematic or chronologically based books that one usually finds on Japanese history.
Sumie Kawakami's journalistic interviews with a number of Japanese women of all ages and backgrounds are illuminating and often difficult to put down. This is a very well-written (and translated) tome on the state of marriage and relationships in modern Japan. The frankness with which the interviewees speak is refreshing.
It is sometimes hard to believe just how much the women in these interviews put up withabusive men, husbands openly cheating on them with multiple womenand a couple of the women in the book actually call up and even confront their husband's mistresses. The majority of the men in the book come off as childish and looking for a mother figure rather than a wife, and most of the women come across as very practical and somewhat pragmatic in their dealings with men or in finding a husband. However, the men cannot be blamed entirely and the long working hours they must endure from the pressure within a company has adverse effects. In general, Japanese men come home late, tired, and therefore communication is limited, and sex even more so.
The lack of any real opportunity (or limited opportunities) for Japanese women also comes through; to be economically independent is by no means impossible, but it does appear to still be difficult. For those returning to the workforce after raising children, the possibilities are very slim, and so many of the interviewees resign themselves to a life of boredom in the home. The loneliness comes through in the interviews, and in some ways the idea of gaman (grin and bear it, put up with it) is an unspoken but common thread.
The variety of women interviewed illuminates a real depth that is missing in mainstream journalism: there is Mitsuko, the company owner and virgin until aged 52; she eventually marries a man 14 years younger than herself, only to discover that he wants a mother figure to do everything for him; he leaves, and goes back to his mother. Then there is Misa, on the surface the perfect wife, who puts up with her husband's affair with a coworker until she confronts the other woman with her mother-in-law in tow; there is Ai, the single mother who has an affectionate relationship with her married boss Masayuki; and the only interviewee who seems to have a relationship that seems to work, the Shinto priest's wife, Shoko. There are also interviews with several other women of various ages and differing situations.
The absence of sex in the relationships (married or not) is a common thread, especially after children come on the scene. Japan's falling birthrate is in large part due to the fact that married couples are simply not having sex, and thus children are not being born. Communication is lacking between couples and this in turn fuels a lack of sex, and a descent into boredom.
Kawakami's lone male interviewee in the book is 44-year old Hideo Sasaki, a sex volunteer and (in his regular daytime job) an IT specialist. He volunteers through a clinic to have sex with women of all ages; ironically, his own marriage is sexless, yet he finds satisfaction in helping women to enjoy sex, something he appears to be unable to do with his own wife at home.
The book though is not all about sex, it is about people, and about the way these people cope with every aspect of their lives. What comes through most powerfully is the lack of communication, on every level.
As Japan frequently ranks near the bottom or at the very bottom in various global sex surveys (the most famous being those by the condom company Durex), this is a timely and necessary book.
The book is beautifully designed and illustrated, with a lot of care obviously taken by the publisher, Chin Music Press. One wonders why other publishers don't put the time and effort in to make their books as well-designed as this one.
This is a quick and easy read, a selection of 230 Japanese expressions, with some great asides and anecdotes from the author thrown in. The author stresses at the beginning of the book that the key to understanding Japan and its people is the language, something that cannot be underestimated.
The subtitle of the book ("A complete guide to Japanese thought and culture") is very much overstated, but nevertheless this a fun, easy to read book for those with an interest in Japan and Japanese culture.
The author provides the meaning to common (and not so common) expressions to highlight the ways in which Japanese communicate and function within society and in certain social situations. As such, it is far from the "complete guide" of the title but is nonetheless very interesting and entertaining. The explanations sometimes go off in all directions, but nevertheless the way the author has woven a huge volume of history, personal anecdotes, and his various observations on society and culture, as well as other tidbits, makes for a great read.
The author gives a pretty good introduction to concepts and terms that are used in everyday life, and the importance of these concepts within Japanese society. This book is useful for anyone with an interest in Japanese culture, and in particular gives some great hints for those unfamiliar with doing business in the country.
There are two points that ruin the quality of the book: one is the awful Romanized pronunciation of Japanese words (rendered in parentheses) which are often off-target and really of no use at all, especially for people just beginning to study Japanese; and the second is the poor quality of the printthe cover of the book is fantastic, but the print of the main text is poor.
Aside from these minor quibbles, this is a good read, and because the chapters are just one or two pages each, it is easy to dip in and out the book at any page.
by Yuiko Fujita
This is an academic and readable book on young Japanese who choose to live in London or New York for cultural purposes - to become artists, dancers, DJs, etc - rather than for purely economic reasons.
The book traces the lives of some of these Japanese "cultural migrants" as they move from Japan to New York or London, then back to Japan again. This is done in a series of interviews with twenty-two migrants who express their views, ideas, opinions, prejudices, etc regarding their lives in London, Tokyo, or back in Japan.
A huge variety of reasons are presented for going abroad, and women appear to outnumber men. These migrants also gain a degree of independence when abroad (in particular being away from family), and some feel that they have reached a deadlock at work in Japan and need to go abroad for more opportunities.
The way the interviewees see their identity and/or the identity of Japan in the world, and how they view Western countries, makes for interesting reading. The images that many of them hold of New York and London prior to visiting these cities are very strong, and the influence of the media, in particular TV shows, is emphasized.
The book also includes discussions on identity in the context of the ideas of Nihonjinron ("theories of Japaneseness"), and the interviewees' sense of identity, often expressed positively (mainly for the men) and a little negatively (mainly for the women). The ideas that many of these young people hold relating to race and ethnicity changes when they live in London and New York; many of them make friends with Koreans and Taiwanese (arguably the countries that are culturally the closest to Japan), and find that their images of British people and Americans ends up being shattered, in both good and bad ways.
Some respondents claim their own hierarchy of racism, for example, looking down on other Asians, and many of the interviewees heighten their sense of nationalism when abroad. It was also particularly shocking to read of violence and racial taunts to some of the interviewees in both cities.
If there is any weakness in the book, it is this: a few months (or even a few years) is really not enough to understand and put in context the experience of living overseas, although it can be said that this often depends on the individual concerned. The reader comes away with the feeling that half of the interviewees have fleeting and superficial experiences abroad, while the other half find some depth to their time spent away from Japan and attempt to integrate and understand their unfamiliar surroundings, albeit for a short time.
Ultimately the book delivers an interesting mix of opinions and shows the sheer variety of views and the importance of focusing on individuals and individual experiences. Some of the interviewees returned to Japan and were later interviewed back home, and some remained abroad. In fact, one of the most important questions all of them faced was whether to stay or leave.
It is a shame that this book will not find a wider readership; it is academic in nature, which may put some off, but easy to read; unfortunately (as is the case for many academic works), it is expensive, and so may find a limited market, when it deserves a larger one.
Stone Bridge Press has issued a wonderful collection of essays by the celebrated writer Donald Richie.
Some of the essays have appeared in previous collections, but there are new and worthwhile additions.
Following childhood and adolescence in Lima, Ohio, Richie has spent much of his adult life in Tokyo.
Rereading pieces written in the 1960s makes one realize - again - how things change and change and change in Japan.
Some of the writing feels inevitably a bit dated, though at the same time capturing a time and place with precision and insight and wit. Richie's descriptions of being stared at, in Tokyo no less, would surprise anyone who arrived in Japan circa 1990 or later.
However, Richie's beautiful prose and insights make the collection a delight.
The short essays range from Kyogen drama to sex shows, film and Buddhism, Butoh to wasei eigo (Japanese/English).
The writing spans a half century, and document a life.
Richie is a leading authority on post-War Japanese film, and his writing on film is piercingly brilliant.
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