[This was originally written for the JALT (The Japan Association of Language Teachers) Journal's Book Reviews Section]
At 270 pages, this is a slim collection of essays on "key concepts in Japanese culture" (p. 1). Intended as a text, each of the 28 essays is followed by discussion questions which are separated into two groups: one for Japanese students of EFL and the other for foreign students of Japanese Studies. Furthermore, the co-editors intended that through clarity, well-documented research, and demonstrated field-testing, the text would also appeal to the general reader.
Unfortunately, this text fails on almost all accounts. Written by Japanese undergraduate seniors, the explanations are simplistic, superficial, and inconsistent. The first essay on the purportedly unique-to-Japan chinmoku (silence) is an illustration. It is used during times of thoughtfulness, hesitation, restraint, conflict avoidance, defiance. and indifference, in public and in private (pp. 53-55). This "unique" Japanese cultural trait has been defined so broadly as to become meaningless, since it covers almost every moment of silence one could experience anywhere.
The superficiality of the research is reflected in the use of E. Reischauer's (1990) comments originally made in 1977 on the contemporary status of marriage in Japan: "Japanese women are often said to have difficulty in socializing freely... However, women seem willing to play their own roles in maintaining the household as good wives and mothers" (p. 67). One wonders how "freely" socializing women or "good wives and mothers" who are unhappy with their roles and divorce their husbands fit into these nearly thirty-year-old arguments. There is also the incorrect statement that White Day is only found in Japan (p. 98). It is also found in South Korea. Furthermore, there is an inconsistent level of analysis. Honne and tatemae (private versus public persona) receive only two pages of text, but soshiki (funerals) receives 14 pages, even though the latter is high on detail and low on analysis.
However, this text's greatest weakness lies in the editing, for, as the editors admit, the essays are patchworks of many papers on the same or similar topics, which is why no single essay is credited to any one author. The results are frequent jumps in argumentation and awkward or altogether puzzling insertions within the essays, as well as much overlap and repetition among the essays. For example, the concept of amae is defined twice and explained multiple times (pp. 17-19, 67, 103-104). The concept of vertical society is defined three times (pp. 10-11, 144, 187-188). Both honne and tatemae (pp. 104-105, 115-116, 195) as well as ie (pp. 61-62, 119-124, 217-218) are defined three times. Many other concepts are similarly over-defined. There are also basic grammatical and sentence structure errors, including run-on sentences, capitalization, and verb-agreement problems. It is surprising that this book was edited by two professors and has gone through Tuttle's editing process.
The book's basic premise is to explain and create discussion on contemporary Japanese culture. However, it is centered on a historical Japan that not only has changed, but also is changing in many of the areas covered. Not to be found are discussions on contemporary Japanese cultural traits exemplified by enjokosai (teenage prostitution), furiita (young, part-time workers with little hope or belief in the future), or tomodachi-oyako (an unhealthy parent-child friendship deficient in minimal socialising functions that are usually derived from parental hierarchy). From these (admittedly negative) contemporary Japanese cultural traits there is much to be mined, such as the fixation on youth, with the inherent fetishising of school girls and pressure on older women and mothers to be young and girlish, and the effects of 10 years of economic decline on a disenfranchised youth.
This text presents concepts that fit in with the tea garden and mossy stone view of Japan, while in reality, Japanese culture is a vibrant and dense culture in flux, equally as modern as any other. Unfortunately, poor research, writing, and editing misrepresent traditional cultural traits while neglecting contemporary ones. For sociological analyses of Japan, the reader should stick to monographs put out by trained sociologists. Perhaps the flip side of that is linguists should tread carefully in areas that are not their expertise.
Reischauer, E. (1990). The Japanese today: Change and continuity. (M. Fukushima, trans.). Tokyo: Bungei Shunju. (Original work published 1977.)