Being a slow reader and owning more books than I could possibly hope to read in a lifetime (over 7,250 at last count), I hardly ever reread a book. But one book I have read multiple times is The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture.1 My Japanese wife has also read it many times. We keep going back for its valuable insights into Japanese culture and the way Japanese people think. There is a plethora of good books on Japanese culture, but I’ve yet to find one as insightful and thought provoking as The Japanese Mind.
As its title indicates, The Japanese Mind sheds light on that most inscrutable of entities—the Japanese psyche—from a Japanese perspective. Many books on Japanese culture are written by non-Japanese authors, but this book contains reflections of Japanese people on their own culture. It is a collection of 28 essays written by cross-cultural communication students at Ehime University and edited by their professors Osamu Ikeno and Roger Davies. Each essay is based on a word or phrase that captures one aspect of Japanese culture. These include aimai (vagueness), giri (social obligations), gambari (trying one’s best), nemawashi (the practice of obtaining consensus before holding a meeting), shūdan ishiki (group consciousness), soshiki (Japanese funerals), and uchi and soto (insiders and outsiders).
This organisation makes it easy to dip in and select a topic that interests you. Alternatively, it is rewarding to read from cover to cover. Each chapter includes questions relating to Japanese culture and cross-cultural issues. The book is suitable for both beginners wanting an introduction to Japanese culture and for those desiring to deepen their knowledge of the culture.
To get the most out of the book, I recommend reading it with others and discussing it with them. If possible, read the book with a Japanese person and get their thoughts on the matters it raises. The last time I read it, I discussed its contents with a teacher on the language-learning site Cafetalk.com,2 which was most helpful. Also, JEMA member Anne Crescini regularly runs a great free online course based on the book through the RJC Academy website (academy.rjcnetwork.org/japan-102). The course provides a forum for students to discuss the issues raised by the book: each week, students write their impressions on three or four selected chapters and then Anne and other students comment on these reflections.
You could think up questions about how each point relates to the gospel and church life. For example, how should we reconcile the Japanese preference for ambiguity with Paul’s desire to preach the gospel clearly (Col. 4:4)? Does the Japanese propensity to strive hard partially explain the popularity of cults that stress self-effort and does it have implications for the way Japanese Christians live the Christian life? How far can Japanese Christians participate in Buddhist funerals? In what ways is Japanese group consciousness more biblical than the individualism of the West?
A follow-up book by Davies called Japanese Culture: The Religious and Philosophical Foundations was published in 2016.3 It examines the religious and philosophical underpinnings of Japanese culture. After considering Shintoism, the book describes the various waves of external influences that have affected Japanese culture: Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, Confucianism, and Western influences (including a brief mention of Christianity). While I didn’t find this book as engaging as The Japanese Mind, it does provide useful background information on Japanese culture and how it is an amalgam of various influences. Again, each chapter ends with discussion questions.
I strongly recommend reading (or rereading) The Japanese Mind and discussing it with others.
Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ: rjcnetwork.org
1. Roger H. Davies and Osamu Ikeno (eds.) The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture (Tuttle, 2002).
2. For more information about Cafetalk, see p. 32 in the Autumn 2016 issue of Japan Harvest.
3. Roger H. Davies Japanese Culture: The Religious and Philosophical Foundations (Tuttle, 2017).