Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The uniquely unique uniqueness of Japan

A review of "Japan through the looking glass" by Alan Macfarlane.

We heard the author as a guest on late night Radio 5 last year, talking about his new book, which sounded interesting. So we got it for Christmas. He's a professor at Cambridge University in cultural anthropology who has visited Japan extensively, so we were looking forward to finding out if he could provide any insight to help us make sense of our experiences - or whether conversely, he wouldn't be able to tell us anything we didn't already know. Perhaps most importantly, would he explain the Japanese approach to scientific research?

The author has not lived here for any extended period of time, and does not speak the language, so was highly reliant on the various contacts he had during his visits (which have mostly been stays at a number of Japanese universities). This unfortunately shines though his writing in some places, and made us wonder who was really writing the book, and for whom. For example, he starts on an unfortunate note by quoting a judge who explains that the reason they take so long over their legal decisions is that the Japanese take a nuanced view of things, life is not black and white. However this can hardly be reconciled with the 99% conviction rate, whether or not one accepts the claims that only the guilty are brought to trial. Indeed to anyone who has followed any of the dubious high profile cases here it seems much more plausible that the lengthy delays are caused by the judges agonizing over just how brazen they can be in discounting any evidence of innocence on the flimsiest of pretexts. There are plenty of other places where the book reads like the Japanese intelligentsia explaining away Japan's less admirable qualities, like when he talks about the "separate but equal" status of women here (no, he doesn't actually use those words, but might as well have done).

There are some well-made points: the way that the Japanese have imported all sorts of Western ideas but completely gutted the essential nature of them, often apparently without even realising that they have done so. For example, their "democracy" in which everyone dutifully goes out and votes for the governing party every few years (a year ago, the opposition actually got a majority of the vote in some elections for the upper house, which panicked them into proposing a merger with the govt). But as for his comments about consultation and "nemawashi", he is either very wrong, or JAMSTEC is a particularly unusual employer! Again, it is easy to envisage some academics talking about the process of "consultation" and consensus-building without perhaps realising what a complete sham the process is, compared to (say) the UK system where the workers do actually have some teeth (backed up by legal force and due process). For example, we have a "worker's representative" here, who is proposed by the management, elected in an unopposed public ballot ("sign here if you approve"), and who dutifully sits through "consultation" meetings in which he is told what the management have decided to do. I asked a colleague about this process, and she said she did not even know who he was but had voted for him anyway...but I'm supposed to be talking about the book, not my own petty grumbles.

A major focus of the book is how Japan's society seems inside-out from the Western perspective, but nevertheless seems to work just as well. Some of his examples reinforce our own experiences, but others seem rather flimsily supported, based on nothing more than an anecdote. Although I'm no great expert, I think his comments about Japanese language are as often wrong as right. Among the latter, I'd noticed myself soon after arriving that my dictionary translates "kenri" as "right, privilege" and that the Japanese appear to have no clear concept of the difference between the two terms (which directly feeds into their understanding - or otherwise - of human rights). But contrary to another of his assertions, it is easy, and indeed common, to communicate in an equal-status manner - and the range of relationships considered "equal status" can be rather broad - although some relationships like staff-customer do invariably use status-laden language.

The underlying theme that runs like a coal seam through the book concerns the tribal nature of society here. I'm not sure how much of this is a synthesis of other writers versus his own analysis. Probably everything has been said before: the skill may be in drawing out the important and useful bits. But anyway, perhaps the cornerstone of his analysis is that (due to its isolation) Japan never went through an Axial age, at which time (elsewhere in the world) the human sphere started to be considered as separate system from the natural world - and therefore subject to separate ethical rules, initially religious, perhaps now more secular but still moral and prescriptive in nature. Hence no "human rights", and no separation between mankind and nature. Society is still an undivided whole, and laws are more of a guidance for social cohesion, than a rigid structure based on assumed principles. We (or rather, the Japanese) are all part of the same compost heap, with their existence defined only via their relationships to others, rather than in themselves as human beings. Mind you, AA Gill said much the same thing in a rather cruel but very funny article many years ago: "a Japanese man by himself doesn't think he exists."

As for what else we learnt, or at least came to accept and understand more fully: the Japanese won't change, at least not in the ways that we would like them to. We'd actually got that far by ourselves, but the reasons behind that make more sense to us now, as do various minor events that have happened during our stay here. Ultimately it's hard not to feel sorry for them, trapped in their individually helpless situations, where life is something that happens to them while they don't even bother making other plans. But I have to admit that most of them seem happy enough with it (or maybe resigned would be a better term), and on a practical level, life runs very smoothly.

A paragraph right near the end is worth quoting in full:

It is difficult for me to tell whether I am attracted or repelled by Japan; indeed most outsiders who know Japan feel both these emotions. At times it all seems so beautiful, meaningful, attractive, a return to paradise, Eden, childhood and security. It fulfils the romantic longing for a lost world, Paradise, Atlantis, the Lands of the Grail, fairylands forlorn. Then when one awakes from the dream, Japan seems a savage, childish, conformist and aggressive land, clogging, sticky, regressive, a trap, a siren song leading to shipwreck for the Enlightenment and reason. Japan is full of hybrids, ambiguities, full of attraction and repulsion simultaneously, absorbing people and also rejecting them.

I see that the Amazon page now has 4 reviews: two think it is is wonderfully evocative and fascinating, one thinks it's too academic, and one says "I'm the only gaijin in the village". That's probably a fair mix of opinions.


dirty dingus said...

That AA Gill article would make my (Japanese) wife frothing mad if she saw it.

As for the book. It seems to me that you shouldn't write a book about a culture you haven't lived in and can't speak the language of. Otherwise you are tied to interpreters and interpreters are never ever neutral. Having said that, the writing of books and articles about "Inscrutable orientals* for the occidentals back home on the back of no more than a brief visit is something that has been done since time immemorial and is quite profitable if you can do it well.

The problem is that when you actually live in a country your view becomes more nuanced and nuance, unfortunately, doesn't seme to sell as well as black'n'white cardboard cutouts.

Unknown said...

During my handful of years living in Japan I too, as with nearly all Gaijin, ran the gamut of impressions and reactions.

The isolation caused by the language barrier (though I can understand some Japanese) and even more so by the barrier of not having shared experiences (such as those key social/personal transitions in life, such as graduation, marriage, etc.) led me to conclude that part of what it means to be Japanese would forever evade me.

Nevertheless, though observation of children and adults in various situations, and also discussions with my Japanese friends, patterns do emerge. My conclusion was that the fundamental human needs of the Nihonjin around me weren't that different from my own, but that through various mechanisms the Japanese simply found that life on a crowded island required them to end up as they have.

Thus I am rather loathe to ascribe too much particular-ness to the uniqueness of the Japanese. Many Nihonjin that I know who have moved long term to the US adapt and once Americanized no longer fit so smoothly when they return to Japan.

So, I'm really hesitant to ascribe the differences to anything more than geographic adaptation (and perhaps that a lack of iron ore kept them from growing during the early iron age, thus initiating a perpetual inferiority complex.)

The Japanese have learned how to accomplish much while starting with little, unlike the large Anglo nations (US, Canada, and Australia).

Overall, I came away with more admiration than disdain, more respect than demur, and still desire to return one day.

EliRabett said...

If you want unique, try this from Bug Girl


Japan is a semi-police state that rules by brainwashing and mindcontrolling its thoroughly lovable people, with 100 VIP families running the show through interconnected corporations and marriages. I lived there for 5 years and love the people. The governments, bigtime, and condemns its people to a life of mediocreness and unfulfilled dreams. Says this Edokko boy from Boston.