Friday, 11 November 2011

Ten Essential English Language Books About Japan

Yesterday I got my first writing gig in over two years with a magazine for which I was once a regular contributor – Tokyo Weekender. A monthly magazine produced in Tokyo and geared for the city’s Anglophone expatriate community, Weekender was one of the most fun gigs ever. As a Weekender contributor, I got a chance to write about pretty much everything you can imagine – finance, real estate, health and wellness, travel, sports and the ins and outs of Japanese culture. Weekender helped sharpen my writing skills at a time when I was a whole lot less experienced than I am now and gave me a chance to write about topics that I probably never would have otherwise. It was always a pleasure, and having been away from Japan for over three years now, getting the nod from them to write yet more material about Japanese culture is a real honour.

Japan is a place that has impacted me greatly. I’ve spent a total of six and a half years of my adult life there, including stints as a research scholar, an English teacher and an editor-proofreader-translator for a translation firm in Tokyo. It’s the place where I began my freelance writing career, a place that continually fuelled my creative fires and a place that still occupies a lot of intellectual and psychological real estate in my mind – even after three years back on the terra firma of Canada. It was a great country in which to be a writer, and indeed it took my quite some time to find my stride again as a freelancer after returning to my native country. And it goes without saying that Japan has been even more on my mind since the terrible events of March 11 of this year, making me feel more compelled than ever to write about the place.

I’m also far from the only westerner to have this experience. Somebody once told me that Japan was the world’s most written about country, and while I have my doubts about this (How would you even calculate this?), the amount of writings purporting to explain the place is nothing short of phenomenal. Look up Japan on and you get 324,424 results. That’s a lot of ink. Part of that is that Japan is a big, wealthy and influential country in the world, but there’s definitely more to it than that. Japan’s beautiful and beguiling traditional arts and culture, fascinating and complicated history and always intriguing modern day idiosyncrasies continue make the country an absolute goldmine for the expatriate scribbler. Just when you think the well has been exhausted, another bucket of fresh ink is dredged up from the bowels of the Japanese archipelago.

There are literally thousands of English language books out there that purport to explain Japan to the outside world. Many of them are not particularly good and some are frankly annoying, particularly after you’ve stayed in Japan long enough to realize that many of the west’s stereotypes about the place hold little water in reality. However, there are some truly wonderful books about Japan that I would recommend to anyone planning on spending any time in the country or is otherwise desirous to learn more about this fascinating country. Here are my top ten – in no particular order.

A Lateral View by Donald Richie

Front CoverAt 87, Donald Richie is the granddaddy of ex-pat raconteurs in Japan. A US navy purser and medical officer during the Second World War, Richie first crossed paths with Japan during the postwar occupation, and never really left. He is best known in the west as an expert in Japanese film and is famous for having introduced Akira Kurosawa to western audiences. A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan was published in 1992 and spans several decades of life in Japan’s capital city. While much of the content is a tad dated now, particular as regards gender roles and societal expectations, his shrewd observations of social grammar and captivating snapshots of Tokyo life throughout the decades makes this a must-read.

Embracing Defeat by John Dower

Front CoverIt is rare that an academic treatise is so captivating that you’re compelled to read it from start to finish. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II is one such read. In this Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, MIT historian John Dower tells the story of the short but profoundly transformative six-year period of US occupation following Japan’s defeat in World War II and its political, economic, cultural and psychological legacy on the part of the Japanese people. For anyone looking to understand the lingering ghosts of the war, the unresolved constitutional issues and the cultural insecurities that continue to bedevil Japan, this book is highly recommended reading.

Inventing Japan by Ian Buruma

Front CoverIf the year 1945 was a year of enormous consequence for Japan, the year 1854 was at least as consequential – and perhaps even more so. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry’s ‘Black Ships’ in Edo (Tokyo) harbor in that fateful year demanding that Japan open its borders for trade, the country was transformed from an isolated, inward-looking pre-industrial domain into a country scrambling to catch up with the western powers. In Inventing Japan, Anglo-Dutch historian Ian Buruma examines that transformation as it played out over the period from 1854 to aftermath of the Second World War and how the forces set in motion by the Black Ships still underpin the country today.

Green Tea To Go by Leza Lowitz

While the canon of western writings on Japan has for the most part been overwhelmingly male-dominated, some of the most offbeat English language writings on the country – particularly in the fiction category – have been written by women. American ex-pat poet and short story author Leza Lowitz is one of the best known contemporary female writers in the ex-pat crowd, and her story collection Green Tea To Go: Stories from Tokyo is an absolute delight. Her stories delve deep into the masks of manners and unspoken truths that characterize Japanese social grammar, which she brings to the fore by way of a motley assortment of frazzled business executives, political extremists, self-conscious yakuza gangsters and lovestruck English teachers. Cultural difference made fun.

For more on Leza Lowitz, who is also a Tokyo-based yoga instructor, check out her website.

Losing Kei by Suzanne Kamata

Bicultural families may be a dime a dozen anymore in Japan’s larger cities, but expatriate parents of bicultural children in Japan still face challenges in a society long characterized by its racial and cultural homogeneity. One such issue is that of child custody following a divorce, wherein Japanese parents are overwhelmingly favoured in such cases and incidents where the foreign parent has effectively been denied access to their child are well known. In her debut novel Losing Kei, ex-pat American author and gaijin supermom Suzanne Kamata tells the poignant tale of an American woman who fights to regain access to her son following her divorce from her Japanese husband.

For more on Suzanne Kamata and bicultural parenting in Japan, check out her wonderful blog, Gaijin Mama.

Hitching Rides with Buddha by Will Ferguson

Click for larger image.Canadian readers know Will Ferguson as the wise-ass satirist behind such books as Why I Hate Canadians, Bastards and Boneheads and Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw. However, it is little known to most Canadians is that the Calgary author first cut his teeth as a writer during his years in Japan as an English instructor. Originally released under the title Hokkaido Highway Blues, Hitching Rides with Buddha is the hilarious and fascinating diary of Ferguson’s hitchhiking journey from southern Kyushu through Honshu to the far northernmost tip of Hokkaido. Delightfully self-deprecating and refreshingly cliché-free, the book paints a picture of an endlessly quirky country made up of ordinary yet surreal characters plying Japan’s highways.

Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr

Of all the authors on this list, Alex Kerr is arguably the most ‘Japanese’, not only due to his impeccable fluency in Japanese but also for the fact that his writings fit more within the context of Japan’s own cultural commentators and social critics than within the ranks of ex-pat lit. Lost Japan was originally written in Japanese under the title Utsukushii Nihon no Zanzō (美しき日本の残像, "Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan"), with which Kerr became the first foreigner to win the Shincho Gakugei literary prize (the Japanese equivalent of the Booker Prize) in 1994. The book examines in loving detail the traditional art forms for which Japan is renowned, while also lamenting the demise of much of Japan’s cultural and environmental splendour by a development-obsessed elite.

D&D ENG02Lost Japan, however, was to be but a warm-up punch for Kerr’s most provocative book to date, Dogs and Demons (犬と鬼, “Inu to Oni”), a book that amounts to a declaration of war on Japan’s political and business mandarins. Published in 2001 after nearly a decade of research, the book paints a disturbing picture of a country besieged by wasteful pork-barrel projects that rack up debt while destroying the country’s mountain, rivers, coastlines and traditional architecture, at the behest of corrupt bureaucrats in collusion with big business and elected officials.

While the book was slammed by some overseas critics as anti-Japanese, Dogs and Demons proved extremely popular in Japan, where it helped generate a groundswell of opposition to the practices excoriated in the book and a shift toward restoring traditional villages and old urban neighbourhoods, especially in Kerr's beloved Kyoto. Kerr remains an in-demand public speaker in Japan and has become something of an overseas tourism ambassador for the country. You can read the interview I did with Alex Kerr in early 2008 on the author's official website.

The Japan We Never Knew by David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa

Front CoverIn what can only be described as a literary mid-life crisis, renowned Japanese-Canadian biologist and environmental crusader David Suzuki embarked on a journey to the heart of his ancestral homeland in the mid-1990s. Together with cultural anthropologist Keibo Oiwa, Suzuki sets about dismantling the clichéd picture of Japan as a homogenous cookie-cutter society. The Japan We Never Knew examines little known communities within Japan such as the Ainu (Hokkaido’s aboriginal people), the Okinawans, the Burakumin (the descendants of Japan’s former ‘untouchable’ cast), the Zainichi Koreans (Japanese-born ethnic Koreans) and other ethno-cultural groups, as well as a cast of environmental activists, educational reformers and others unafraid to rock the boat in famously conformist Japan.

The Japanese Have A Word For It by Boyé Lafayette De Mente

Front CoverIt is often said that in order to understand a culture you have to have an appreciation for the language that goes with it. And nowhere is this adage truer than in Japan, whose native language is replete with colourful expressions and concepts found nowhere else. The Japanese Have A Word For It explains such quintessentially Japanese concepts as wa (, “harmony”) and the relationship between honne (本音, “deeply held beliefs”) versus tatemae (建前, “publicly stated opinions”), while also delving into some of the language’s more colourful insults and bedroom talk. An excellent introduction into the linguistic underpinnings of Japanese society and culture.

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