Books on Japan: Japanese Culture Books II
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by Komatsu Kazuhiko (Author), Hiroko Yoda & Matt Alt (Translators)
Hardback, 196 pp
This book is an example of the growing trend of translating academic Japanese texts into English. This is a trend to be welcomed, because it adds to the richness of the intercultural knowledge base, but this particular work is not without its frustrations.
Komatsu has tried to write an accessible cultural-anthropological guide to yōkai culture - the colourful folklore of Japan's monsters, ghosts and goblins that he rightly sees as embodying more general Japanese cultural beliefs - yet his style veers between curious non sequiturs of overgeneralization and an academic's fastidiousness that often results in him reeling off lists of academic articles likely unavailable in English.
The latter issue can be excused given the text's origins, but the former is a real barrier to readability. Here is one example. Having clearly described the general characteristics of one of the most well-known types of yōkai creature, the kappa, as "child-sized humanoids, with shells on their backs, and dish-shaped indentations atop their heads, filled with water", Komatsu then unnecessarily states: "On the other hand, a strange waterside presence without these characteristics would not have been identified as a kappa." But within a few sentences, this apparent truism is contradicted by another sweeping statement: "Any strange creatures that appeared in or around water were labeled kappa…."
Despite being accompanied by a handsome collection of illustrations, such confused prose frequently dulls the point of Komatsu's research, sadly limiting the appeal of this volume to only the most persistent yōkai fans. Such an introduction needs to be extensively reworked to be palatable for the English lay-reader. Instead, the average punter with an interest in Japan's eerie folk culture would do better to begin with the earlier work of Komatsu's translators Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, who put together the much more accessible guide Yōkai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.
by Nicholas Bornoff (Author), Michael Freeman (Photographer)
There are two books in my library with the title "Things Japanese". The first was published in 1890 and was written by one of the first Japanologists, Basil Hall Chamberlain. The second, and the subject of this review, was originally published more than 110 years later in 2002, but has recently been republished in paperback. The subject of both books does overlap somewhat, but the older book would be of more interest to those more interested of the history of Japan at the time of its modernization in the Meiji Period.
The second book also introduces a lot of historical context, but is aimed at a wider audience. The book focuses on more than 50 "Everyday Objects", but you won't find computer controlled hi-tech toilets, shinkansens, or Hello Kitty, nor will you find anything connected to "Cool Japan" with its focus on anime or manga, rather the objects are all what could be classed as traditional.
The book organizes the topics into three broad groups: house and garden, eating and drinking, and, culture and custom, but I would break it down into two groups. The first being things you can easily see on a daily basis nowadays, tatami mats, noren, sake, etc. The second would be things that have become "Art" and will only be seen in museums, galleries, high-end antique shops, or sites of cultural performance such as festivals. This would include swords, netsuke, Satsuma ware, etc.
Each object is illustrated with excellent photos, but the real value of the book is in the "significance" of the objects, not just its history and how they are made, but the part the objects play in Japanese culture.
The author uses some of his own anecdotes but most of the material is drawn from historical sources, Edward Morse's 1886 "Japanese Homes and their Surroundings" seemingly being a favorite. Again and again I found myself learning something new, even after 14 years of living in and studying Japan. The book will be of use to anyone starting to learn about Japanese art and culture, the photos are good enough for it to work as a coffee table book, but it would be invaluable to anyone planning a trip to Japan and wanting to have a good grounding in the meanings of much of what you will see and experience.
Zack Davisson's new book on Japanese ghosts begins by proclaiming the uniqueness of Japanese ghosts, something that immediately makes me wary. The word unique is so overused when writing about things Japanese that it almost has no meaning at all. For it to have any meaning surely it needs a wide range of comparisons? Without which it strikes me as a somewhat lazy use of the word. However, as I continued reading I was delighted to discover that this is the kind of book I like best, that is to say that while the subject of the book is just one specific thing, in this case Japanese ghosts, or Yurei, the book touches upon a multitude of other topics in order to show the contexts and histories that ground the subject. Davisson takes us through the development of some classic Japanese yurei through literature, kabuki, bunraku, and into film. Ghost stories have been a favorite topic for Japanese film makers since the early days of the medium, and some of the classic stories have been remade many times. Fans of the J-Horror genre will be fascinated to trace the Sadako ghost from the Ring movies back to her roots in the early 19th century kabuki play about Oiwa. One of my own favorite movies, the 1953 Mizoguchi classic "Ugetsu Monogatari" is a ghost story. Along the way Davisson fleshes out with biographical details many of the artists and writers, like Lafcadio Hearn, who have contributed to the telling and retelling of ghost stories.
Of course, the ultimate source for ghosts is in the ways a particular culture deals with death, or rather its conceptions of what happens after death, and for me this is the heart of the book. Any brief description of Japanese religion will always include "ancestor worship," and if you have ever wondered what exactly that means, then you will find out in this book. Going back to the ancient chronicles, Davisson documents the changes that have occurred since then to Japanese beliefs about the afterlife, with the influence of Buddhism and later Neo Confucianism, and the various customs and practices that continue up to contemporary Japan. Pacifying "angry ghosts" is not just a cultural practice, but also a political one.
While being a book about ghosts, and not just a collection of ghost stories, there are however plenty of such stories scattered throughout the book. Translated by the author himself, they include the most famous stories which have been available in English translation for some time, but also others that are appearing in English for the first time.
Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is destined to become the primary reference in English for the subject of yurei - Japanese ghosts.
by Betty Reynolds (Author)
First published in late 2014, Clueless in Tokyo, is a fun introduction to the colorful sights and sometimes bizarre traditions of modern Tokyo and to a wider extent the country as a whole. Author Betty Reynolds, a former creative consultant and art director in the States, accompanied her husband to Tokyo, where she was free to wander the streets, observe and draw what she saw. The author has produced a number of illustrated books on Japan including Squeamish About Sushi and Tokyo Friends, which focus on the oddities and peculiarities of Japanese culture as seen first hand by foreign visitors. Clueless in Tokyo is Reynolds' most ambitious book to date and combines her lovely illustrations with a clear and straight-forward text, explaining them. The book is divided into sections: Traditional Tokyo, Seasonal Tokyo, Tokyo Today & Oddities & Entities. Reynolds cast her roving eye on temples and shrines, food, clothing, sumo, ryokan, flea markets, matsuri, manga & anime, street fashion, architecture, onsen and even pet cafes. There is much, even for the jaded long-term resident, to glean from the cute drawings and concise text. I never knew the term biru-bochi, which refers to the roof top cemeteries appearing in Tokyo and Japan's other big cities or that train companies lend umbrellas called kashigasa to commuters on rainy days. Did you know that yomawari was the name for patrolling the streets at night with wooden clappers to warn of the dangers of fire? Or that the small bath towel supplied in onsen ryokan is a tenugui? I didn't but I do now after reading the book. Clueless in Tokyo makes for an excellent gift for friends hoping to visit Japan or just for you if you need a bit of inspiration on your sojourn in Japan. Generally suitable for children except for a few definitely adult illustrations. Find these before reading with your child.
by David Galef (Author); Jun Hashimoto (Illustrator)
Among the many ways to learn about a culture is to study the proverbs of that culture, as doing so can give you a good idea about what is valued in that culture.
If you want to learn about Japanese culture, David Galef's Japanese Proverbs: Wit and Wisdom (2012) is a fun place to start.
There are 200 Japanese proverbs, with each proverb being given a full page. On the top right of the page is the proverb written in in ornate kanji, which can be a bit difficult to read if you are not a native Japanese. A usually, but not always, amusing drawing helping to illustrate the feeling of the proverb takes up more than half the page.
Below that is the proverb written in kanji (for example, 出る釘は打たれる). Next to that is the romaji translation (in this case, "Deru kugi wa utareru."). Below that is a literal English translation of the proverb (in this case, "The protruding nail will be hammered."). Below that is a more simplistic explanation (in this case, "Don't make waves."). Finally, at the bottom is a three- or four-sentence explanation of the proverb.
It sounds like a lot to digest, but most pages have less than 75 words on them, so the pages go by very fast.
Some of the proverbs have a moral (for example, "A short temper is a disadvantage."), while others just describe a situation or mood (for example, "a meal of rice under the evening moon.").
People from every country will recognize proverbs similar to what they grew up with because some truths are universal. Westerners will recognize proverbs such as the neighbors' flowers are red, which is similar to "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," and "the blind do not fear snakes" which can be likened to "ignorance is bliss."
It would be difficult for most anybody to come up with 200 proverbs in their own language, so as you might suspect not all of the proverbs in this book are well known. Occasionally you will find a note at the bottom of a page acknowledging this.
Not only is there Table of Contents listing each proverb in Japanese and English scripts, but there is an Index of English Language Proverbs and Expressions and a separate Index of Concepts and Keywords by Proverb. This is very helpful as you can look up proverbs quickly.
This book can be digested quickly or slowly. I'd suggest going slowly to give yourself some time to think. You might even ask several Japanese to comment on what you find interesting. The Japanese I asked all had different perspectives.
by Paul Norbury (Author)
Culture Smart is a perfect, pocket-sized primer for first-time visitors to Japan to gain valuable insights into this often beguiling and enigmatic culture. Organized in ten chapters including Land & People, Values & Attitudes, Religions, Customs & Traditions, Gift Giving, Food & Drink, Living in Japan, Business, and Language & Communication, this easy-to-read handbook is just right to delve into and understand the things you are seeing and experiencing during your stay in the country. Nicely laid out in a pleasant shade of purple, Culture Smart guides the reader through the major do's and don'ts over food, conversation, and general interaction with Japanese people as well as providing an introduction for more in-depth topics such as actually living and working in Japan and doing business here. Ideal to skim on the plane and keep in your pocket to peruse after a day's sightseeing or business meetings.
by Karen Pond (Author), Akiko Saito (Illustrator)
Getting Genki is a collection of whimsical and funny stories about expat life in Tokyo. Karen Pond, her husband, children, and dog (!) relocate from Maine in the US to Tokyo. They neither speak nor read Japanese. Adventure and faux pas ensue. Pond pokes fun of her missteps, mispronunciations, and general befuddlement as a newcomer to Japan.
"Genki" in Japanese means healthy, energetic, healthy, brave. And Ms. Pond, in each short essay, indeed is genki as she stumbles and eventually adapts in her own way to life in Japan. Each vignette comes with an illustration by Akiko Saito.
For those new or even not so new to Japan or Tokyo, this book will bring nods of recognition. In chapter one, she and her children go out into Tokyo shortly after arriving - and Mom (Pond) realizes she has no idea where they are, cannot read the signs, and the only word she knows is "sumimasen" (Sorry, excuse me). This is followed by trips to the pharmacy, super market, coffee shop, and in a taxi. Very funny.
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.
What a great idea for a book. Get a grant from the Japan Society to research Japan. Don't speak Japanese.
With the exception of Princess Masako, get to interview just about any Japanese woman you want.
Have a months-long slumber party with Japanese women-famous and not-in which you listen to bitching in English about the shortcomings of Japanese men (it does not seem to have occurred to Ms. Chambers that these women would say quite different things were they speaking in Japanese.).
Sell a lot of books with a catchy title and great cover design.
Grumpiness aside, though, Veronica Chambers, who has worked at the New York Times and Newsweek, does manage to capture the cultural vibe of a side of Japan that is little reported: in the last twenty years Japanese women have changed, while Japanese men for the most part have not.
Japanese men are confused, and Chambers even admits at one point to feeling sorry for them. Still slogging away at the company, the men are portrayed as being a bit clueless.
Japanese woman, on the other hand, are having expensive lunches (thanks to their husband's paycheck) or not marrying or starting great companies. Many have been abroad and "seen the light" of another way.
In chapters on fashion (the whole book is about fashion), tea, Banana Yoshimoto, love, marriage, and work, Chambers draws a picture of a society in flux.
The book is entertaining and an easy read. It could have used tighter editing in places, though. In one of several zingers, Chambers accurately states that many salarymen receive 1,000 yen a day from their wives - the banker of the family - as spending money. This is then parenthetically converted to "$10,000"! If only. Then we could all pity Japanese men a bit less.
The origins of the board game go are not known for certain. Go is thought to have originated between 2500 - 4000 years ago in China, and it is played today more or less in its original form.
From its roots in China, go crossed into Japan around 1000 C.E. Go is mentioned in Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji.
The game really became popular in the 1600s when warlord Tokugawa decreed that four schools of go would be established in the newly united Japan.
Every year representatives of the four schools would play in a "Castle Game"
series. The winner was then appointed to the Cabinet-level position of Minister of Go for one year.
By the late 1800's, however, go had fallen into a period of relative decline in Japan. However, in the 1920s the Japan Go Association was created, breathing life once again into the ancient game.
In recent decades, go has spread to the West. For those interested in taking up the game, Go Basics is the ideal guide.
Go Basics is a simple but thorough introduction to the game. It features easy to follow instructions and more than 600 diagrams with examples of how to play.
Go Basics begins by focusing first on smaller 9 x 9 games, making it easier to understand basic go tactics and strategies. Next it dives onto fundamental strategies such as invading, sacrificing, using ko, and how to think territorially. Author Peter Shotwell also explains go's unique handicapping system, which makes it possible for experienced players and beginners to play together.
Go Basics also includes a CD-ROM created by the American Go Association.
Go expert Peter Shotwell teams up with the publisher of Go World, Richard Bozulich, to put out another fabulous work on the ancient board game of go.
Winning Go: Successful Moves from the Opening to the Endgame is the first book in English to cover the board game go in such a comprehensive manner.
Winning Go: Successful Moves from the Opening to the Endgame illustrates the nuances of the opening (fuseki), mid-match moves (chuban), and endgame (yose).
In addition, there are chapters on strategic moves (tesuji), "life and death" situations (shikatsu), how to win battles in the corners (joseki), and how to count accurately, an important skill in the game.
The 203 problems and detailed answers in the text make clear to the reader not just successful moves, but also the wrong moves and why they are so, so wrong.
Having read Winning Go, players of all levels will be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses in their games. From the opening move to the endgame, Bozulich and Shotwell have produced a key tool for serious go players to take their game to the next level.
The Chinese invented the game of go 2500-4000 years ago; in the several millennia since, the game of go has bewitched many in Asia, where it has played an integral part of the cultural scene in China, Korea, and Japan.
In the West, go has become popularized, especially in the US, thanks mainly due to its appearance in movies and, more recently, on the Internet and go software. Players of the game are attracted to both its mental and spiritual aspects.
Author Peter Shotwell is an expert on go, and has written many books on the topic some of which are reviewed on these pages.
Go! More Than a Game uses clear, easy to understand methods of teaching. In a short time, anyone can understand the two basic rules that underlie the game and begin to enjoy the mental challenges the game throws up. The book also outlines the long history of the game.
The object of go is to surround territory. Shotwell lays out games and strategies from small 9x9 boards, then 13x13, and finally to the traditional and much more complex and challenging 19x19 size competition board.
The Attack! series, Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Compiled by wife-and-husband writing team Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, these playful, colourful guides are informative and well-researched introductions to the world of Japanese folk culture, and a refreshing antidote to the recitation of dull facts and figures found in standard approaches to Japan. As well as making excellent use of archival images, they showcase the original art of three talented Japanese manga artists. Layout designer Andrew Lee synthesises text and image into attractive and distinct packages for each book, effectively conveying the authors' enthusiasm for their material. However, efforts to attract the Western reader perhaps go a little too far in the presentation of Japanese words, which are Romanised without macrons for long vowels (such as the eponymous yōkai and yūrei of two of the books) and with inadvisably anglicised pronunciation guidance (wisely abandoned in the latter two guides, though there is still no sign of those informative macrons).
An expanded, full-colour 2012 edition of the original 2008 guidebook. Lavishly illustrated and annotated, it will prove particularly fascinating to teenagers obsessed with Japan grotesqueries, but is also a great introduction to Japanese folk culture for the general reader. The Japanese monsters chosen are not the post-war Godzilla behemoths but rather yōkai, creatures from an older age, which clearly reflect the proclivities and fears of traditional Japanese society.
Some, such as the Ōdokoro giant skeleton, are as terrifying as any big-screen monster, while others are almost laughable. There is the akaname that licks the soap scum off unscrubbed bathrooms, and the futakuchi-onna, a woman-like creature with an extra mouth in the back of her head, for eating you out of house and home. Reflecting Japan's Shinto animism are the tsukumo-gami, long-discarded possessions with a chip on their shoulder. Yoda and Alt perceptively place them as "anthropomorphic versions of the remorse felt when throwing away an item one has owned for a long period of time." The careful reader is sure to come across many other ethnological gems while examining the slimy, scaly underbelly of Japanese yōkai.
The most in-depth and serious of the three guides, Ninja Attack! still has plenty of fun features secreted like shiny shiruken throughout, most notably the Illustrated Ninja sections, which provide details of ninja practices and equipment. (This new expanded edition is also now in full colour.)
Covering Prince Shōtoku in 593 AD, through to Nippon Zaemon in 1746, and then on into later fictional figures, the book is a chronology of ninja exponents, opponents and employers, beginning with the Prince himself, who was himself the first ninja, or shinobi, and leading to the present day. With historical figures such as Oda Nobunaga and Matsuo Basho making appearances, Ninja Attack! represents almost an alternative history of Japan, and certainly comes in a more palatable form than the average textbook. You are sure to have a more nuanced understanding of all things ninja after reading this guide.
Yūrei, or ghosts, haunt the imaginations of every Japanese child, and in their latest guidebook Yoda and Alt do a good job of capturing the fascinations of this wide-ranging genre with their usual light, but not insubstantial, touch. They have attempted to make the material more accessible by dividing ghostly experiences into types, such as Furious Phantoms and Dangerous Games. However, not every subject really fits the overall 'Attack' conceit.
The book features, for example, an artistic depiction of the Okiku doll as a head-severing murderess, when in fact the accompanying article makes it clear the doll, sitting unmoving with its ever-growing hair, is merely the sad embodiment of a little sister who died young. Similarly, the 'attack' of the ame-kai yūrei (literally, 'candy-buying ghost') is simply staring at a man in a graveyard, which prompts him to uncover her newborn child still alive in her grave and rescue it. Further, a little more proofreading is required. Bodies of the deceased are surely subject to interment, not "internment"; and a 1-inch length of hair is not 25 centimetres long.
The gorgeous, if occasionally gory, full-colour illustrations commissioned especially for the book, along with generous use of photographs and woodblock prints, greatly enhance the overall package. While there may be little to fear from an actual spectral attack, Yurei Attack! at least ensures you are familiar with some of the most intriguing figures to be documented in the Japanese spirit world. The spectres themselves may not necessarily be palpable, but Yoda and Alt's interest in their subject is.
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