Chie Nakane's Japanese Society, is a structural analysis of what makes contemporary Japanese society Japanese. With this work, Nakane wishes to find out what the fundamental elements of society are in modern Japan. In the preface, she tells us that although some of the ideas she presents may not be entirely new, her "interpretations are different and the way in which [she] synthesize[s] these aspects" (viii) are. On the other hand, because this book was written in 1970, I cannot help but feel that some of the interpretations presented are outdated.
Since Nakane is Japanese, I have the tendency, and I think she does as well, to believe that she knows what she is talking about as far as Japanese society is concerned. However, she really only bases her arguments on whatever fits her structural pattern. She even says, "I have also refrained from quoting...precise data directly obtained from field surveys" and admits to having "drawn evidence almost at random" (vii). What Nakane actually does, rather than provide a structural analysis of Japanese society, is use certain aspects of Japanese society to validate structuralism
Nakane begins by saying that the Japanese form social groups depending on their "frame," or their place of work, and not by "attributes," or what one's occupation in a company is (1). What makes these groups uniquely Japanese is that the co-workers, perhaps the boss as well, often go out drinking after work - forming very intimate relationships. Nakane believes this to be the foundation of Japanese society. Here I believe she is absolutely correct - 30 years ago. For instance, the well-being of the company is synonymous with the well-being of the group. Therefore, the Japanese worker tends to feel more inclined to work for the good of the company, rather than his own personal gain. However, due to the decline of the Japanese economy, these feelings are not quite the same anymore. When the economy was great, workers could rely on their companies for stability, but that is not as true anymore.
One of the highlights of this book is how it deals with what are typically seen as traditional and time-honored aspects of Japanese society. For example, the life-time employment and seniority systems are often seen as traditions of Japan. However, we learn that they are actually post-war developments "not to be found during the earlier period of Japan's industrialization" (37). She shows us that although these systems are recent developments, they are the results of the informal structure of Japanese society persisting and finding new outlets within this period of modernization (8). Although the structural approach works well in this instance, I cannot help but think it is too stifling a view with which to approach the entire Japanese society. Since part of the idea of structuralism is that everything can be traced back to a specific root, it denies individuality. In this book, Nakane traces everything back to the "frame" or group someone is a part of. In doing so, she denies the Japanese person a sense of individuality. Even if the Japanese man's life is centered on a group of his co-workers, he is still an individual and has his own thoughts and feelings, regardless of whether they are expressed or not.
Nakane also discusses the structure within social groups. One of the problems I had with this section is that, even though Nakane's approach is well suited to her goal, it is quite possibly one of the most boring things I have read. For example, to explain the idea of vertical and horizontal organization, she uses an elaborate system of diagrams and of a-b, a-c and b-c variables to represent the relationships among group members - this goes on for pages. It would have been much simpler to state that without a group leader, the group falls apart. Instead, I almost get the feeling I am reading a math book. Since she is using a structuralist approach, I can see how these diagrams and variables could be justified, but it makes for dull reading nonetheless.
When compared to Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, I believe Japanese Society has a lot to offer. Whereas Benedict had to rely mainly on interviews, Nakane is able to draw on her experiences of being Japanese. Another key difference is that, while Benedict merely tells us what the Japanese are like, Nakane tries to discover why the Japanese are such a way. Even though I do not entirely agree with Nakane's views, she has, at the very least, given us an alternative angle to look at what makes up the basics of Japanese society. If nothing else, this new angle should be viewed as a significant, though perhaps somewhat outdated, contribution to the study of Japan.
Nakane has two purposes in writing Japanese Society: to explain the core structure of Japanese society and to suggest new ideas about the modern Japanese. Nakane is natively Japanese, which allows her a unique viewpoint into Japanese society. She believes that by writing about her own society, she will be able to use facts that other, non-Japanese authors might have ignored. She uses these facts and observations to arrive at her thesis about Japanese society, and uses her experiences in Japan to support it well.
Nakane's central argument is of a vertical structure that permeates Japanese society. Japanese relations are based through those who are higher in rank (sempai) and those lower in rank (kouhai). In effect, relationships are based on a superior-inferior system, and not on a system of equals. Nakane then uses this thesis to explain why Japanese society works the way it does, why, for example, seniority is the qualification of leaders, not talent. She maintains this argument throughout the book.
Nakane's argument is solid, but weakened by her belief that vertical structure is only applicable to the Japanese. She illustrates the relationships in Japanese and Western societies by using a pair of diagrams. In the West, the leader has a vertical relationship with each of his workers, who also have horizontal relationships with other workers. For the Japanese, however, the only relationships are between the leader and the worker. Nakane uses examples from Japanese society to demonstrate Japan's relationships, however she never explains how Western relationships work. Without a foil to contrast her idea with, the reader is left to question exactly how Japanese society differs from Western society.
Most of the examples used would be different if they happened in a Western setting, only in reference to the details. The core of Japanese society Nakane espouses (the idea of vertical relationships) is not unique to the Japanese. In both Western and Japanese societies, the relationships that the majority of society consists of is between one of higher rank and one of lower rank. The difference lies in what the society considers a person of higher rank to be. In other words, Nakane's argument, as written, fails to be persuasive because she holds the view that vertical relationships are the core of Japanese society, when in fact they are the core of all societies. Had she argued that Japanese and Western societies differ because of what each society defines a person of "higher rank" to be, her argument would have been agreeable, however, because she attempts to argue that a universal concept is unique to only the Japanese, her argument, while correct and well defended, fails to explain the unique core of Japanese society that she is pursuing.
Though her argument applies to all societies, Nakane's Japanese Society can be read as a companion piece to Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which focuses on uniquely Japanese ideas. While Benedict defines actual terms and their places within Japanese society, Nakane builds a base that explains how such terms could work therein. Having a system of vertical relationships leads to having debts to both those higher and lower in rank for what they have done for a person, regardless of how those debts are labeled. Nakane and Benedict differ in how they write: Benedict explains individual terms and fits them together as she writes, while Nakane introduces her main idea first, and clarifies how they work in different situations. Both authors attempt to explain Japanese society to a Western perspective and finish with different, but compatible interpretations.
Japanese Society is set apart from other books of a similar topic because Nakane lays a foundation of society that allows other authors to give specialized description and thought to certain aspects of Japanese society. Without realizing it, Nakane has put into words the foundation of every society, but shown through a Japanese filter. She has explained the relationships that everyone knows exist, but never have consciously been explored as a cause of societal behavior. While Nakane has not discovered the unique core of Japanese society, she has, however, explained a commonality between Japanese society and any other society, effectively allowing any student of Japanese culture to more easily understand the uniqueness of Japanese society based on a common fact that is shared between all cultures. Nakane has failed in her purpose of explaining the basis for Japanese society alone, but has, for the aforementioned reasons, nonetheless enabled others to more readily understand Japanese culture, however they wish to interpret it.