Books on Japanese Politics VI
Books on Japanese politics & society VI: read reviews of books on contemporary Japanese society and politics.
This outstanding book on the JAL 123 crash of 1985 and the first full-length treatment in English to deal with the accident surely deserves a wider audience.
Christopher Hood looks into a multitude of issues surrounding the crash, its causes, and the aftermath. He examines how the crash was reported in the media, the issue of responsibility, the ways in which those who died are remembered, and the media's varied responses in the aftermath of the crash.
Japan Airlines flight 123 crashed on August 12, 1985, with the loss of 520 lives (actually 521, as Hood points out, as one passenger was pregnant; 4 people survived). The Boeing 747 was on its way from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Osaka International Airport when the rear pressure bulkhead ruptured due to an influx of decompressed air, causing an explosion that ripped off the vertical fin which led to the severing of the hydraulic cables, leaving the plane without hydraulics and therefore uncontrollable. This catastrophic hydraulic failure was later deemed to have been caused by repairs that had been incorrectly carried out following a tail strike seven years earlier in 1978.
Hood meticulously examines the immediate response to the crash. The SAR (search and rescue) teams took an inordinate amount of time to reach the crash site, and a U.S. helicopter from the Yokota base - the base had been in contact with the pilot as he fought to control the plane - was dispatched and located the site 20 minutes after the crash, but was told to pull away by someone within the Japanese government. This information was kept under wraps until a U.S. serviceman who had been on the helicopter spoke out publicly in 1995. The Japanese newspaper helicopters were also on the scene within a few hours, but the SAR teams did not subsequently reach the crash site, which was in a very remote and mountainous area of Gunma Prefecture, until the following morning, almost 15 hours after the crash had occurred. According to the four survivors, there were a number of passengers still alive on the mountain who died overnight.
As the plane went down - it took 32 minutes from the initial explosion to the crash - several of the passengers wrote down their last will and testament, scribbled hurriedly on paper and later recovered. These are heartbreaking to read. One passenger took photos in the cabin, one of which shows the oxygen masks hanging down, and these photos were later published. A few of them can be seen online with a quick search.
The author looks in detail at the variety of ways in which the major newspapers reported the crash and the differences in the coverage due to the level of investigation that each media outlet carried out. He also focuses on what he terms the "Osutaka Pilgrimage" every August as the families of those who died climb to the site of the crash on August 12th to pay their respects. Even though it has been over 30 years since the crash, a lot of interest remains (the author calls it "Japan's Titanic"). What is emphasized here is the importance not only of the crash, and the lives lost, but the importance of life itself.
The author had the outstanding idea of listing the names of two or three passengers at the bottom of each page, so when a reader goes through the book they can see the names and ages of all those who died, acting as a constant reminder of the scale of the tragedy. This small touch makes a huge difference - the reader's eye naturally wanders to the end of the page, making one think about the lives lost and the many living who are still affected by this terrible disaster.
While there is very little to criticize here, the introduction is overly long and would have benefited from some editorial pruning, particularly the section on conventions and the rumination on whether Japanese language ability is necessary (or not) when studying Japan. Readers also do not need to know the difference between notes, quotations, and the fairly lengthy treatise on references---brevity would have been far better here. Aside from that, the depth of research carried out is excellent, including, for example, asides on the numerous coincidences that happened prior to, during, and after the crash, fueling conspiracy theories in some quarters. This is a really engaging work that I highly recommend to anyone interested in Japanese society, politics, anthropology, and culture.
David Pilling worked in Japan from 2001 to 2008 as bureau chief for the Financial Times and returned again a number of times in 2011 and 2012 to report on the great Japan earthquake and its aftermath. Despite that this book is neither a dull economic history of Japan's so-called 'Lost Decade', nor is it a depressing account of 3/11.
Bending Adversity could easily have chosen to focus only on the disaster of 2011, or on the perceived economic malaise of 21st century Japan. Instead Pilling uses his visit to a small town in the northeast of the country, soon after the mega quake as a starting point to take readers on a journey across several centuries of economic and social history of a country he once called home.
Pilling learnt to speak and read Japanese and his job afforded him opportunities to meet with many well-known figures and to maximize these chances to get interesting tales for readers. Amongst many others the author was able to meet with novelist Haruki Murakami and many people who are closely connected to Junichiro Koizumi, the maverick former prime minister.
The author obviously has genuine affection for Japan, yet he refuses to flinch away from discussing difficult topics such as sexism or a perceived lack of opportunities for the younger generation. These issues are looked at from both conventional and alternative angles. This is one of the great strengths of the book, along with great prose and an index that makes it easy to relocate information.
Bending Adversity moves at a surprising pace and the narrative jumps around from different eras and topics, yet it somehow seems focused and well ordered. Pilling's book is full of 'fun facts', some of them predictably are related to Japan's economy. This book, like many others on Japan - aside from chapters on the earthquake - feels a bit too Tokyo-centric. Another minor criticism, and not surprising from a British author, is that there are perhaps too many comparisons between Japan and the U.K. Although considering that they are both advanced island nations, whose best days are perceived to be in the past, perhaps this is permissible.
One final (minor) criticism is that Japanese use of social media is barely mentioned. This is especially surprising considering that Japan created its own popular social network (Mixi) that had around 5 million users by the time Facebook was made available to the general public. This squandered chance would have made for an interesting case study. Having completed this book, I felt exhausted as I attempted to recall all that I had read. There is enough information to make the reader think that they had read a book on Japanese economic history, an account of the 2011 disaster and a biography of Koizumi, arguably the most important figure of 21st century Japan.
As a general introduction to modern Japan and how it arrived at this point Bending Adversity has surely set the standard for years to come and any long term foreign resident here will wish they had written it. Whether you read this book as an introduction to Japan before a first visit, or as a reminder of what happened here so far this century, you won't be disappointed.
Charles Robert Jenkins has become one of the most famous, and infamous, military men in the more than half-century conflict between The United States and North Korea. His fame comes from circumstance and poor judgment, not from accomplishment, heroic action or treachery.
After intentionally crossing the demilitarized zone in 1965, Jenkins was found by North Korea and remained in their custody for almost 40 years. There is no other Westerner in the world who is able to speak from a similar perspective.
Jenkins grew up dirt poor in rural North Carolina (USA), with no electricity or even running water in his house. He was never issued a birth certificate and was not anybody's idea of a scholar, or probably even anybody who was going to grow into much to be proud of.
His big accomplishments were having the fastest car in the area and getting a $4 tattoo of two cross rifles with the words "US Army" when he was accepted into the military in 1958. He was sent to Korea, near the border with North Korea.
One night, scared, drunk (he had polished off 10 cans of beer) and homesick, Jenkins decided to cross the border into North Korea. His less-than-brilliant plan was to get captured and then, he hoped, traded for a North Korean prisoner of war and sent back to America.
Nearly 40 years later, that hoped-for trade hadn't come through and he was still living in what has been called the world's largest prison, North Korea.
Along the way he married Hitomi Soga, one of a number of Japanese that North Korea had kidnapped. They had two daughters. Jenkins spent many years doing pretty much nothing.
Jenkins and the three other American soldiers who had crossed into North Korea were taken care of very poorly, but still lived a better life than most North Koreans. When he first got there, he was given a stipend of 5 won a month, then worth about $2.50. (Two of the other Americans died while Jenkins was in North Korea, and the last, Joseph Dresnok, reportedly died in 2016.)
The North Koreans, or as he calls them throughout the book, "the Organization," really had no idea what to do with the four Americans. Eventually, they had them star in communist propaganda movies extolling the virtues of "the workers' paradise." Eventually, Jenkins and Dresnok taught English to, basically, spies.
Soga was ultimately allowed to visit Japan, after a tactical mistake by Kim Jong-Il. She never returned to North Korea. Later, Jenkins was allowed to visit her, with their daughters, in Indonesia, and he decided at that point to move permanently to Japan.
At times it seems Jenkins was not really sorry for what he did, only how he did it. Late in the book he says that he wouldn't take back his decision of crossing the border because it would mean he wouldn't have his wife or daughters in his life.
One of the mysteries of the book is how Jenkins' story was not more well-known. While in the course of making the propaganda movies, he met many family members of diplomats and also many foreign businessmen.
The book is interesting and unique but not at all complex. Cynics might scoff and say that that is because it was written by a simpleton. If nothing else, Jenkins talks straight from the heart about his truly unique life.
by Tomoko Higa
War always leaves in its wake superhuman stories of love, devotion, desperation, valor, cruelty, hatred, abject misery and hope, among other things. One such story was left untold for almost 40 years, the story of seven-year-old Tomiko Matsukawa.
Matsukawa was separated from her family and had very little human contact during the chaos that was the fighting on the island of Okinawa during the closing weeks of World War II. Many Okinawans hid in caves during the strafings and bombings of the island, and nobody wanted a parentless waif making noise and drawing attention to their cave.
Tomiko drifted aimlessly until the close of the war, showing survival skills far beyond what could be expected of such a tiny child. She hid alone in caves during the days and meandered at night, looking for her lost sisters. She found food mostly from rummaging through dead soldiers' haversacks. She witnessed numerous killings that no child, or really no human, should witness. Just when she had decided that her fate was death at age seven, she stumbled into an elderly couple whose wretched misery is surpassed only by their self-sacrifice for Tomiko. The early part of the book describes a happy, carefree life of a child who completely adores her family. Undoubtably, her father teaches Tomiko harsh life lessons, some of which later help her survive, but some of which judged in today's light would be considered barbaric at best. The book is written (translated) using very simple language, which makes it easy to believe it was written by a still seven-year-old. It also makes the pages fly by. A dedicated reader could probably finish the 127 pages in one sitting. The reader will be amazed at some of the fortunate things that happen to Tomiko. Some will say that undoubtedly God had a hand in her survival, and the author hints at that. Others might say that some of her dead relatives helped her from beyond the grave, which the author also seems to believe. A few of the coincidences which save her life are truly extraordinary. One will note that this is one exceptional girl whose heart is about the purist thing that could be imagined. For example, even though she was close to starving, several times she leaves some of her extremely limited food for animals that she believes have helped her to continue on. The closing pages of the book reveal one last twist that is heart-warming, and gives the reader a deep satisfaction. Although not nearly as long, this book has a number of similarities to Loung Ung's struggles in her excellent memoir, First They Killed My Father, a book about the incredible tribulations of a five-year-old girl during Cambodia's Khmer Rouge era.
A word to the wise when reading either of these books: have Kleenex.
by Sakie Yokota
In November of 1977, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota seemingly vanished into thin air while walking home from badminton practice at her middle school in Niigata, Japan, located on the Sea of Japan facing the Korean Peninsula. There were seemingly no clues left, although dogs later tracked her scent to within 50 meters or so of her house.
For more than 19 years her family searched for her, hoping and praying that somehow she would return. For many years they left their porch light on, just in case Megumi somehow reappeared. The family had at least one person home at all times during that 19-year wait, not wanting to miss a call from Megumi should a miracle occur.
Then, in early 1997, the Japanese government finally admitted what it had known for a long time - that the little girl had been kidnapped by the North Korean government and forced to teach North Korean spies Japanese language and culture so they could more effectively infiltrate Japan.
North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter is written by Megumi's mother, Sakie Yokota, and tells of the trials and tribulations of having your middle schooler whisked away by government agents of a hellish, communist country.
Megumi was the youngest of perhaps as many as 450 people from 14 countries taken by North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. Kim's son, Kim Jong Il, the father of the current dictator, continued the practice, also taking Choi Eun-hee, a South Korean actresses that he thought were particularly beautiful, and famed Korean director Shin Sang-Ok, who was forced to make films extolling the virtues of Kim and the Workers' Party of Korea.
Sakie Yokota tells in this book of the source of her amazing strength - her faith in God. The seeds of her faith were planted and watered by a Reverand McDaniel and his wife, missionaries who lived in the Yokota's neighborhood and who helped put up posters after Megumi's disappearance.
Later, the mother of one of Megumi's classmates came to the Yokota house and, after giving Sakie a Bible and asking her to read the book of Job, invited her to a Bible study circle. Sakie eventually became a Christian, although her husband did not.
Along with Sakie's favorite Bible verses, the author includes some tanka (like haiku, but with 31 Japanese syllables instead of 17) which she composed after the disappearance of Megumi.
Early every morning
The birds sing in sadness
The pale porch light beams
Waiting for three years.
North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter is clearly written by a non-professional writer, which is actually one of its strengths in that it lends a convincing air of reality to the whole tragedy. A mother's pure love for her daughter is felt with each heartrending detail of the passing of time. A lot of tears are shed during the course of the book, by Sakie and her family and later, no doubt, by the readers.
The author uses irony well. In one passage she writes of a brief solo that Megumi sang at a school play not long before her disappearance. It went like this: "Black-eyed maidens begin to dance. Those torn from a home where they were happy, see the beloved land in their dreams."
There is a bit of a time gap between the story that is told in the book and the updated pictures included in the book. The book ends in 1999, but the pictures include information which is not mentioned in the book. The book was written in Japanese in 1999, but not translated into English until several years later.
The post-1999 information is of great interest to the readers, including (without giving away the whole story), the confirmed existence of Megumi eventually marrying a South Korean man (himself abducted at age 16) with whom she had a daughter named Kim Hye-Gyong. Megumi's parents have now met Kim Hyu-Gyong.
If you have interest in gripping, non-fiction stories regarding the power of both human depravity and human grace this deserves a place on your must-read list.
With so many books promising untold riches, then failing to deliver, this journalistic adventure by Jake Adelstein is rare: it is unputdownable and a real eye-opener into a side of Japanese society that foreigners and Japanese themselves very rarely see, and as such is highly recommended.
After graduating from Sophia University in the early 1990s, Adelstein became the first Western reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun, the biggest Japanese-language newspaper in Japan (and the newspaper with the highest circulation in the world). He was soon assigned to the crime beat and after a stint in Saitama (north of Tokyo and as the author describes it, "the New Jersey of Japan") he was sent to cover the notorious red-light district of Kabukicho and the foreigner's playground of Roppongi in central Tokyo. In doing so he made contacts of pimps, prostitutes, hostesses, yakuza gangsters, various members of the police force, and other assorted characters for information.
He details the various complexities of his job and illuminates the necessity of having good connections, which means spending almost every other night wining or dining police connections, or turning up at their houses with gifts. The loyalty Adelstein has for his profession, his colleagues, and his sources is truly admirable, and the friendships he makes are unforgettable. He also makes his way between various competing factions of the police agencies, the media, the government, and other organizations to try and get what he wants.
Adelstein details his descent into this world with both glee and weariness; his evenings become drunken prowls around hostess bars, sex industry establishments, and the nightlife and detritus of Tokyo as he searches for information. His insider's view of the Lucy Blackman case and the way the police handled it are fascinating. He details his involvement in other cases involving various lowlifes of Japanese society and opens up a whole new world to the reader.
The Yakuza are very prominent throughout - indeed, it appears that there are few businesses in which they do not have some kind of presence - and the sheer power that they command, both in physical presence and financially, is breathtaking; the police's role appears to be just to keep them in check as much as possible rather than to attempt to try and eradicate them.
Adelstein eventually gets in way too deep. Knowing too much about Goto Tadamasa, leader of the Goto faction, a branch of Japan's biggest Yakuza organization, the Yamaguchi-gumi, and a man who was able to enter the USA and obtain a liver transplant despite being on various blacklists, Adelstein is threatened to "either erase the story, or we'll erase you. And maybe your family." He decides that enough is enough and to get out, but not before a showdown with Goto.
The book succeeds on all levels - it is a fascinating glimpse into Japanese society on a level rarely penetrated by Westerners and Japanese alike; it is the journey of a man who loves his job and family but wades in way too far; and it is a truly great read. With stories like these, Jake Adelstein would make a phenomenal drinking partner.
The world of bar hostessing is one of the more enigmatic aspects of Japanese life to explain to the hard-wired westerner. Yet the fantasy world of beautiful woman flirtatiously pouring drinks and engaging in small talk with their customers (male, of course) is very much an economic reality, with a turnover of billions of dollars and employing hundreds of thousands of women from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
Western women (blonds preferred) have traditionally occupied a relatively high position on the scale, a trend perhaps only recently undermined by the recent influx of Romanians, Russians and others from the post-Soviet bloc. To a young presentable woman from the U.S. or Britain hostessing can be an attractive, and sometimes more lucrative, alternative to English teaching. If you're going to get paid for basically just talking to people, then why not be allowed to drink and practice a new language? Added to that is the high-energy after hours nightlife of Tokyo to party hard and meet young people from all over the world.
Of course it isn't as easy as all that, but in 2000 a young British woman, Lucy Blackman, like many before her and many after her, landed in Tokyo and found employment at a club in Tokyo's famous Roppongi district. Her disappearance and death are the subject of Richard Lloyd Parry's fascinating book. If People Who Eat Darkness were a work of fiction the author could be congratulated on providing all the elements of a great thriller, albeit one without a happy ending. Tragically, of course, Lucy Blackman's story was very much true.
The author deals with the subject sensitively with the skill of both a storyteller and a social observer. Its various sub-plots (the inevitable red herrings, the enmity between Lucy's parents and even the accusation that Lucy's father was somehow enjoying the investigation among others) engage the reader and its depiction of Japan is never patronizing and largely sympathetic. At the same time the book doesn't shrink from dealing with the issues about contemporary Japan that the case inevitably raises. These include police competence, or alleged lack of it, sexual relations and race. (Not only was the victim foreign, in one sense so was the killer as an ethnic Korean.)
In a lesser writer's hand the Lucy Blackman story could have been salacious, particularly given the sexual nature of the crime. As it happens the author has succeeded in treating both the story and its setting with the respect they deserve. Although the case is now over ten years old (The idea of a hostess not having her own mobile phone is risibly unimaginable now.) the society and city it portrays are still very contemporary and well-explained to both those familiar with Japan, and those who have never been here. A highly recommended read.
Jeff Kingston's latest book on contemporary Japan covers the time period of 1989 to 2010. 1989 is a good point to start as it roughly coincides with three events that have greatly influenced Japan since then. First Emperor Hirohito died, and truly an era ended. Spanning the greater part of the twentieth century, Hirohito's reign covered the disastrous period of militarization and war, the postwar rebuilding, and the ascendancy of the Japanese economy. Secondly the economic "bubble" burst, and finally the Cold War ended and Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors as well as with the USA have undergone significant changes as a result.
Beginning with an excellent and concise overview of postwar Japanese history the book then goes on to explore themes such as the changes in family and work connected to the aging of the population and the extremely low birth-rate.
In the political realm much is made of the decline of the LDP, and perhaps the author is a little too optimistic about future prospects. Of particular value is the section on the North Korean "abductee" issue and how it has been co-opted by the right wing. Surprisingly he also focuses on issues of war remembrance: the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, and the history textbook issue.
There is a large section on environmental issues that does a good job of exposing the "green washing" that leads many to believe Japan's situation environmentally is a lot rosier than it actually is. A chapter on whaling, like the rest of the book, contains information that is usually omitted from the mass media and helps to make the issue less black and white. Ample statistics throughout the book also help in this regard. Kingston is an academic, but the book is written in an almost conversational tone.
The final section looks to the future through an analysis of two Japanese "institutions," the Imperial system and the Yakuza.
An excellent introduction to the state of contemporary Japan, and a good starting point for those who want to delve deeper into particular issues, the author shines a light onto some of the darker aspects of Japanese society but remains optimistic about its future, though perhaps less so than in his earlier Japan's Quiet Transformation.
Edited by Roger J. Davies & Osamu Ikeno
The Japanese Mind is a collection of 28 essays on "key themes" of Japanese culture written by seniors at a Japanese university and edited by their professors.
Designed as a text book for foreign students of Japanese culture and advanced Japanese learners of English, each chapter ends with discussions questions aimed at these two groups.
The Japanese Mind is also of use for visitors to Japan to gain a quick insight into such cultural themes and concepts as amae, bushido, giri, nemawashi, sempai-kohai and wabi-sabi.
First published in 2002, The Japanese Mind is beginning to feel its age but remains a useful introduction to Japanese culture, though, it should be remembered that the chapters are written by young Japanese students, who are by no means experts in the field of Japanese sociology.
The book comes with a good glossary of key Japanese terms and a bibliography that inspires further reading.
Note To Authors & Publishers
If you wish to have your title reviewed by JapanVisitor's team of Japan-specialist reviewers please contact us to arrange for a review copy to be sent to the editors.
JapanVisitor provides a thorough and professional review.
JapanVisitor works in cooperation with the following publishing houses: Kodansha International, Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, Penguin, Alexandra Press, Oxford University Press, Vertical, APA Publications, Columbia University Press, University of Hawaii Press, Dark Alley, ME Sharpe Inc., Tokyopop, Trafalgar Square Books, Houghton Mifflin Company, Grove/Atlantic Press, Tuttle Publishing, Yale University Press, Intercultural Press, Pantheon Books, Pan Macmillan, Bantam Press, Faber & Faber, University of California Press, Harvard University Press.