Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Books on Japan That Kind of Suck

It’s amazing how people think they can understand an entire country just by reading a book about it.

I certainly felt that way at one time. Before moving to Japan for the first time in 2000 I got hold of as many books as I could–most of them written by non-Japanese authors. By the time I was done I was sure I had the whole country figured out. No physical contact. No bringing your wife to office parties. Doctors are rough and unsympathetic. Take your shoes off and wear slippers (except on tatami mats, and except in bathrooms, where you wear bathroom slippers).

Most of it was bullshit.

Sure, anyone who’s lived in Japan for a few years can give you some basic tips on etiquette and what to expect. But this idea that you can gain a comprehensive understanding of 120 million people by reading a book–a claim that a lot of these books seemed to make–is ridiculous. These days the only real advice I give people is to expect the unexpected. And to take your shoes off. That rule still holds.

At a recent conference panel on foreign media responses to the March 11 quake and tsunami, one professor said he was disappointed that foreign impressions of Japan don’t seem to have evolved much beyond The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (still considered a valuable book by many, but written in the 1940s by an anthropologist who had famously never been to Japan). More than 60 years after that book’s publication we again learned that…the Japanese are stoic. They value group unity over individual freedom. They’re very polite. They didn’t loot  (not really true) because they’re inherently more civilized.

Sadly, a lot of books on Japan written during the 1990s–and still read by many people looking for insider knowledge of Japan–aren’t any better. Non-Japanese writers seem determined to keep stereotypes alive, even the ones that carry very little weight.

One problem is that so many of these books were written by men who seemed to be doing double duty as cultural advisers and pick-up artists. Slipped in between tips on eating and renting an apartment are all sorts of observations about the charmingness of Japanese women and recommendations for the best places to find girls. I remember being horrified at one author’s descriptions of sneaking a camera into a mixed-bathing onsen to take covert photos of nude women (which he described with a sort of “boys will be boys” attitude).

By far the worst example of this kind of book was Rex Shelley’s Culture Shock! Japan, which was, unfortunately, the book that my English language school gave me when I first arrived back in 2000. Rex seemed to think that a) everyone who was coming to Japan was male, b) they all had annoying wives who had to be placated on a regular basis, and c) no one coming to Japan would actually like it here, they would just suffer through the backwardness to make their money, have their sex and get the hell out. (This seems to be the message of a lot of guides to doing business in Japan–get in, make your money, have your sex and get the hell out.) In the case of Culture Shock! Japan, all of Rex’s examples of cultural faux pas and how to deal with them basically centered around the “What to do when your wife screws things up yet again” premise. Nice.

Another depressing look into contemporary Japanese culture–one that masqueraded as hip, edgy reading–was Karl Taro Greenfeld’s 1995 Speed Tribes: Days and Nights With Japan’s Next Generation, a collection of essays on Japanese subcultures. While I’ll give Greenfeld credit for moving away from the usual portraits of Japan as a conformist society of suited drones, he really just replaced one set of stereotypes with another. Speed Tribes billed itself as a look at the “real” Japan, but the book felt more like it was reveling in the dregs of society, presenting violent gangsters, ditzy club girls, ultra-nationalists, and porn film directors as the most authentic Japanese out there. Greenfeld also seemed to genuinely loathe his subjects–his narration in each chapter dripped with sarcasm and contempt. At one point he just stopped pulling his punches altogether, saying of Tokyo suburbanites, “Think of them as leeches sucking the city dry.” At the end of the book anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is filled to the brim only with violent, miserable, self-centered people.

So what are the Books That Don’t Suck, then? For women coming to live in Japan, I always highly recommend Caroline Pover’s Being a Broad in Japan, one of the few how-to guides written by and for women. In general I’d just say avoid any book that claims to explain Japan in full. Only time can do that–way more time than most of us have on earth.

Next up: Fictional Books Set in Japan That Kind of Suck. Really just an excuse for me to rant about Memoirs of a Geisha.


7 comments on “Books on Japan That Kind of Suck

  1. flory
    July 15, 2011

    Thanks, you’re fucking fabulous. All the guidebooks rarely squared with a lot of my experiences with Japanese people inside and outside of Japan, and they’re never geared at teens forging cross-cultural relationships either. Would you care to write a guidebook that’s actually good? 🙂

  2. Grace
    July 15, 2011

    Now I’m curious to see what you think about Memoirs of a Geisha, lol.

  3. broadsideblog
    July 15, 2011

    I’d love to hear some good rec’s…I have yet to visit Japan but eager to…I read “Dogs and Demons” and found it an extended rant, although interesting. It’s always hard to know what’s true and what’s the author’s little drama when you read about a country and culture you don’t know.

  4. gradland
    July 15, 2011

    Wow, looks like I’m not alone on this one! Flory, I don’t know that I’m equipped to write a really great guidebook, but I hope I could at least put one together that didn’t condescend or look at things from a 100% guys-trying-to-make-lots-of-money perspective. Broadsideblog, Alex Kerr actually knows his stuff pretty well, but yeah, his books can often feel like one long stump speech.

    I think the bottom line for me is that when it comes to understanding a people and a culture, you just have to go. Books can teach you a lot about food, history, architecture, etc., but to really begin to gain an understanding of the society itself you just kind of have to be there. Still, I have a few recommendations on specific topics:

    Patrick Galbraith’s The Otaku Encyclopedia (an interesting history for non-otaku and otaku alike)
    Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan, a concise examinations of some of the most significant changes in Japan’s history
    Metropolis magazine ( for plenty of local Tokyo flavor for contemporary Japanese film discussions for excellent reviews of all kinds of Japanese books

  5. takingitoutside
    July 23, 2011

    I haven’t read many guides to Japan, but I’ve read a fair number of travelogues and noticed the tendency there as well. I’ve seen “Looking for the Lost” listed as among the best Japan travelogues in several places, but when I read it I was horrified by the way the author characterized practically every woman he met by comparing her to an animal. He also ascribed all sorts of, shall we say, impure motives to the people he met for no apparent reason and eyed pretty much everything female between 15 and 50 lasciviously. And then he whined about having trouble getting through to his wife on the phone.

    For Kerr, I haven’t gotten around to finishing “Dogs and Demons” yet, but I have read his earlier “Lost Japan” and I quite liked it. He clearly hammered his point home, but the writing was pretty and I felt like he did take a different tack than the other books I’d read at the time.

  6. gradland
    July 23, 2011

    Yeah, I trust Alex Kerr more than a lot of Japan travel writers because he speaks the language and has spent so much time here. Plus, he really pays attention to local perspectives rather than just making his own outsider judgments about everything. Chiiori, the thatched farmhouse that he runs as a sort of eco-retreat in Shikoku, is a great place to visit.

    That “Looking for the Lost” book sounds really creepy! I find it bizarre that so many books that praise Japan as a travel destination also seem to have an inherent mistrust / dislike for its people.

  7. takingitoutside
    July 25, 2011

    I didn’t realize that Kerr was running the farmhouse as a retreat now – that’s really cool. I want to go.

    “Looking for the Lost” is kind of weird – I don’t want to defend it, but, in fairness, it apparently was put together based on a draft after the author’s death from cancer. The author had the cancer while he was on at least one of the trips detailed in the book, and there are some sections reflecting on how the cancer was eating away at him towards the end of book. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that the generally disgusting/nasty tone of the book was some sort of displaced anger at his impending death, but the way he depicted people was objectionable throughout the book and he didn’t suggest that that sort of thing was wrong or not his usual way. He has another book – “The Roads to Sata” – which might be better (or worse), but I haven’t read that one.

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This entry was posted on July 15, 2011 by in Books, Japan and tagged , , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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