THEY CAME, THEY SAW, THEY WROTE Five Books on Japan

“Words have been coming into English from Japanese since at least 1600,” said Peter Gilliver.

“When travelers brought back tales of ‘samurai’ and ‘katana’ swords,
thosewords entered our literature and therefore our language.”

Gilliver, an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, was trying to explain why a book of that title contains so many Japanese words. Give it a moment’s thought and you could probably list a dozen of them yourself. Karate. Bonsai. Kimono. Sushi. Origami. Zen. There are even less obvious ones like Honcho and Tycoon, along with some that are downright obscure, like Skosh or Magatama. There are even a few English words that have their roots in Japanese words that in turn have their roots in English words, such as Walkman, Pokemon (“POcKEt MONster”), and Karaoke. (The “-oke” is short for “orchestra.”)

Considering that international travel is so much easier now than it was in the 1600s, the flow of Japanese words into English can only increase. More and more travelers are bringing back more and more tales, and a lot of them are writing books. Here are a few recent examples, ranging from the erudite to the zany:

Bruce Feiler’s LEARNING TO BOW

Feiler is an American journalist who spent a year on the JET Program (or something very similar) as an assistant English teacher at a junior high school in Sano, Tochigi-ken. Though he clearly devoted a lot of time to research, Feiler writes only about topics with which he has had direct personal experience. Naturally, most of his stories revolve around his school, but since education holds a much more central place in Japan than it does in the West, this is not as limiting as it might sound. Also, his year in Japan included attempts at dating and even a short hospital stay, so a fairly complete picture of the community in which he lived does gradually emerge. His book is neatly organized and clearly written, reporting hundreds of well-chosen details of everyday life with gentle humor. If you want to know how the average person lives in a medium-sized Japanese city of the 1990′ s, then this book is an excellent place to learn.

T.R. Reid’s CONFUCIUS LIVES NEXT DOOR

Much has been written about the ” Japanese economic miracle” or the broader ” Asian economic miracle” in recent decades. Reid’ s book focuses on what he considers to be a second and more significant miracle — the ” Asian social miracle.”
In his own words:
Asians have built modern industrial societies characterized by the safest streets, the best schools, and the most stable families in the world… [T]hey manage to maintain minimal levels of violent crime, property crime, and drug use, along with egalitarian distribution of wealth and opportunity and a sense of civility and harmony that you can feel when you walk down the street…
All of which raises an obvious question: how’d they do it? In a phrase, Reid replies, by adhering to the ancient Asian values first taught by Confucius 2,500 years ago. This answer is likely to annoy the many Westerners who think — as I did before reading this book — that Confucianism is mainly about conformity, obedience, and control. This view exists in part because of the suave Asian dictators who insist to the West that they are giving their people the exact form of “Asian values” government that they need and want (even if they have to toss their Asian critics in jail to maintain it). The dictators declare that Confucianism is all about respect for authority, regardless of where it comes from.
Reid maintains that Confucian respect is a two-way street. The government must earn the respect of the people by showing the people respect. The most important job of a ruler, according to Confucius, is that of a moral teacher. Furthermore, this teaching must be done primarily by example. ” [C]orruption in high places,” writes Reid, “is a total perversion of true Confucianism.”
And just what are the values the government should be teaching? According to Reid, they are ” concern for the group, close family ties, a deep commitment to education, and a sense of shame [or guilt] that acts as a guard against wrongful conduct. [Also] social harmony and a sense of loyalty.”
None of these values is particularly alien to the West. In fact, a very early Confucian named Mencius (who might be likened to St. Paul in that he was the most revered scholar among the immediate disciples of his master) foreshadowed Thomas Jefferson when he wrote that the people had every right to overthrow and replace any ruler who failed in his duty to govern benevolently. ” The consent of the people is the will of Heaven,” he wrote. ” The will of Heaven is not immutable.”

If Eastern and Western values are so alike, then why has the East achieved social success when, by some measures, the West has not? He concludes that it is because they have done a better job of passing their values on, and of reinforcing them throughout life.
Though Reid’ s book is about East Asia generally, most of his specific examples come from Japan, where he lived for a number of years as the Washington Post’ s chief Tokyo correspondent. One specific example of how Confucian values are passed on in Japan is the Nyu-Sha-Shiki, or annual company-entering ceremony for new employees who are fresh out of high school or university. Nearly all companies have these ceremonies, which drive home to the new hires that they are now members of a something larger than themselves, and to impress them with their new responsibilities.
Reid thinks that the US (his country and mine) should have something like that, too. After all, he points out, taking on one’ s first full-time job as an adult is a significant turning point in life, and it society should place some value on it. It would be salutary for the new people to be told, ” You’ re one of us now, and we’ re counting on you.”
It’ s a charming idea, but one reason that this ceremony packs a punch in Japan is that two-way respect mentioned earlier. Not only do Japanese employees promise to be loyal to the company, but at the same the company promises to be loyal to them. According to other parts of the book, for example, the lengths to which Asian companies will go to avoid layoffs is truly extraordinary, at least by US standards. Unless Western companies are willing to make the same commitments (and sacrifices) for their employees, a Westernized Nyu-Sha-Shiki would probably be greeted with eye-rolling and snickers by most of the participants.
Reid’ s admiration for ” Confucian capitalism” is obvious, understandable, and even a little contagious. It’ s tempting to agree when he suggests that Western companies adopt certain Eastern ways, but from a practical viewpoint it is hard to imagine just how such a transformation would take place. Reid offers not even a vague transition scenario, and indeed it is hard to imagine one. As a description this book is marvelous, but as a prescription it is more than a little wistful.
Still, this is the first book I’ ve ever read that increased my knowledge of business and philosophy in equal measure. Furthermore, it has a lot of interesting Japan anecdotes, including the amazing story of how a company that was the leading builder of icebreaker ships transformed itself into something completely different. It is definitely worthwhile reading.
And by the way, a special thanks to reader Shoma Nandi Ramaswamy, who first brought this book to my attention.

David Mura’s TURNING JAPANESE

This disappointing book had an alluring premise. According to the dust jacket, the author is a Japanese-American who visited Japan for the first time on a voyage of self-discovery. David Mura is an academic who applied for a year-in-Japan fellowship more or less on a whim. He reminds his readers again and again — and he has to remind them since it doesn’ t show in his writing — that he is a professional poet. Considering himself to be an ” artist” and having no clear objectives, he decided to take up the study of butoh, a grotesque form of modern dance that is often deliberately ugly and which is considered to be obscure and uninteresting even by most Japanese. It doesn’ t seem to have done him much good.
His awareness of the role ethnicity plays in his identity — allegedly the focus of the book — manifests itself primarily through feelings of sexual inadequacy. He seems obsessed by the stereotypical notion that Japanese men have small penises and that Japanese women have small breasts. He prattles on and on about his anger and shame ad nauseum without ever revealing how he dealt with those feelings — or even if he tried to. Perhaps he just enjoys feeling sorry for himself.
By the end of the book, Mura understands himself (and Japan) no better than he did at the start, and readers understand Japan (and butoh) no better than they did at the start. After spending an aimless and disappointing year in Japan, he came home and wrote an aimless and disappointing book about it.
Not recommended.

David Suzuki and Keibo Oba’s THE JAPAN WE NEVER KNEW

This book had many themes, one of them similar to that of ” Turning Japanese” : a Westerner of Japanese descent exploring himself and the country at the same time. Happily, ” The Japan We Never Knew” handles the topic more adeptly. In the introduction, Suzuki writes, ” While my physical features reflect my ancestry, the mind behind the face feels completely Canadian. So who are these people who look so much like me and my family and yet become completely alien the minute we attempt to communicate?” A page later he writes that his first visit to Japan ” had a huge impact on my life. I gained an insight into how much my identity in Canada was caught up in being physically different. In Japan, surrounded by people who looked just like me, I suddenly felt as if I had disappeared.”
Co-author Keibo Oba approaches the theme from another direction. He’ s a Japanese anthropologist who learned only in adulthood that he is ” really”
half-Korean. However, the book is not narrowly focused on their own experiences. Instead, as Oba writes in the epilogue, it is an attempt to ” challenge [the] image of the Japanese monolith, a people all conforming to a single identity.”
Ironically, if all of the people they interviewed lived in North America, they could still be lumped under the single identity of ” liberal activists.” Everyone they met and interviewed has built a life around anti-war, environmental, or minority issues. Nearly all of them are more notable for their unconventional biographies than for their actual achievements.
Still, a collection of unconventional biographies can be an eye-opening read. However, it would have been much more enlightening if the authors have provided a bit more background about their various subjects. For example, an Okinawan man who burned the Japanese flag in public says, ” Sixty-five lawyers from as far away as Osaka and Tokyo have volunteered to defend me.” Since his story up until that point has been framed largely in terms of Okinawa-vs-the-mainland (a very real divide), it would seem that large numbers of mainland lawyers feel strongly about the Okinawan cause. In fact, though, the flag is a bone of contention all over Japan, and for a lot of different reasons that have little to do with Okinawan identity.
Another area in which more background would have helped is in the chapter in which Suzuki and Oba meet a natural farmer. ” Natural farming” might sound like organic farming, but it is even more radically passive. The two styles are contrasted several times, but neither the authors nor their subject explain that ” organic farming” means one thing in North America and quite another in Japan.
About a year ago I noticed that virtually every ” family restaurant” in Japan uses the word ” organic” at least once on its menu. Denny’ s features an ” organic tofu salad,” for example, and Jonathan’s claims that all of its rice is “organic.” Nationwide, these two chains alone would require a huge organic crop, and that didn’ t seem consistent with the Japan I saw around me. I happened to be acquainted with an organic spinach farmer at the time, so I asked him what organic farming was all about in this country. ” I grow my crops naturally,” he said, ” without fertilizers.” ” Or pesticides,” I added. He chuckled at my naivet・ ” Of course I use pesticides.”

To me, then, the chapter on ” natural farming,” with its many references to ” organic farming,” had a considerably different meaning than it would to a reader with a purely North American perspective. Defining the basic terms would have been helpful.
At other times, the interview subjects say things that the authors probably should have clarified, challenged, or explored, but didn’ t. For example, when an anti-militarist told them that ” education is managed and run by those who make weapons,” the statement made it into the book on its own. There was no accompanying note to say whether it was true or even to explain what it means. The same interviewee complained that the practice of assigning grades in school encourages children to gamble. That one really left me scratching my head.
On the whole, ” The Japan We Never Knew” is a mixed bag of insight and flakiness. It is adequate as a supplement to other reading, but if you have time for only one book on Japan this shouldn’ t be this it.

Dave Barry’s DAVE BARRY DOES JAPAN

This is one proves the wisdom of the saying ” Don’ t judge a book by its cover.” The jacket photo of the author flanked by two pseudo-geisha is truly embarrassing, especially since they’ re all performing a palms-together, fingertips-up gesture of greeting that I’ ve seen in Japan exactly once (from a Sri Lankan restaurateur). What makes this photo particularly painful for me is that it is a reminder of the time that Bill Clinton used this gesture to welcome Emperor Akihito to the White House just before serving him a dish of marzipan sushi. (And as Barry himself might add, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.) Fortunately, what you will find inside this book is every bit as irreverent as the cover, but far more accurate, and often screamingly hilarious. Do not read this book in a quiet place. It has taken me years to learn as much about Japan as Barry observed in three week, but then he’ s a mad genius and there simply is no explaining such people.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.


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