Cultural insights through books

When the writer of Ecclesiastes complained that “there is no end to the making of books” (author paraphrase of 12:12), he could have been referring just to books on Japan! A plethora of books analyze Japan from every conceivable angle. Such books are a source of interesting insights into Japanese culture and the factors that have moulded it. Here are four English-language books I’ve read in recent years (all except Bending Adversity can be borrowed from the Japan Foundation Library in Yotsuya).

Japan and the Shackles of the Past1

Written by a professor of international political economy, this book seeks to give a comprehensive overview of Japanese society, including its history, politics, economics, and culture. The first part surveys Japanese history, while the second part shows how historical developments affect Japan today. The author makes a case that it is impossible to understand Japan and the problems it faces today without a grasp of the country’s history. At the end of the book, he contrasts Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, whom he is quite critical of, with the inspirational ice skater Yuzuru Hanyū, and he yearns for the day when a leader like Hanyū will arise and lead Japan to a better future.

Showa Japan: The Post-War Golden Age and Its Troubled Legacy2

This book starts from the 1950s and considers developments up to 2008. The Dutch author lived in Japan from 1950 to 1974 and again from 2003, and the book is an interesting mix of his personal recollections and analysis based on other sources. He contends that many Japanese look back at the Showa era with nostalgia, viewing it as a kind of golden age for Japan characterised by “hard work, clear goals, unparalleled economic success and regained national pride” (p. 5). In the final chapter, he describes the three main challenges he believes Japan faces: encouraging independent, unshackled thinking; coming to terms with the past, particularly the part Japan played in the Pacific War; and addressing the problems caused by a plummeting population.

Japan: The Paradox of Harmony3

The authors consider various aspects of Japanese culture and society through the lens of social harmony, or wa, which they see as a key characteristic of Japanese society. They point out the positive aspects of harmony such as honour, self-reliance, orderliness, and loyalty. But while these qualities have served Japan well in the past, the authors fear that the negative sides of harmony will hinder Japan from advancing. They note that Japan’s harmony discourages traits like innovation, flexibility, diversity, and openness.

Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival4

I enjoyed this book the most. The author lived in Tokyo between 2002 and 2008 as the foreign correspondent of the Financial Times. Despite having only lived in Japan for six years, he has a deep appreciation and knowledge of Japanese culture. He notes that Japanese people are resilient in disasters and is thus upbeat about Japan’s ability to overcome the challenges it presently faces.

Some reflections

Japanese aren’t unique 

Sometimes Japanese people are viewed as being completely different from people of other countries. While Japanese culture is distinctive, each characteristic of Japanese people falls on a spectrum. For example, Japanese people tend to be highly group-orientated, but so are people from other cultures, to a lesser or greater degree.

Japanese culture is changeable

I found the historical perspective of these books helpful as it shows how historical factors influence Japanese people today and that the Japanese psyche is continuously changing. What was true of Japanese people today will not necessarily be true in a couple of decades.

The greatest need for Japanese society is the gospel

Most books analyze the problems Japanese society faces today and propose ways to overcome them. I’m often struck by the fact that the gospel is the ultimate answer to the many challenges facing Japan. Robots, greater intellectual freedom, and immigration may all help, but only the gospel can meet the deepest needs of society. While we should be concerned for the salvation of individuals, the gospel also has the answers to big problems facing every society.

1. R. Taggart Murphy, Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford University Press, 2016).
2. Hans Brinckmann, Showa Japan: The Post-War Golden Age and Its Troubled Legacy (Tuttle, 2008).
3. Keiko Hirata & Mark Warschauer, Japan: The Paradox of Harmony (Yale University Press, 2014).
4. David Pilling, Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival (Penguin Press, 2014).

Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company and is the Executive Editor of Japan Harvest. Originally from Wales, he moved to Australia in 1988.

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