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'The Japanese Mind'' review'

Front cover of 'The Japanese Mind'I’ve just finished reading ‘The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture’, edited by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno.

Overall, I really was not impressed by the book. I would even go further and say that I found it offensive at some points, and generally quite irritating to read.

It does have its good points, but these are overwhelmed pretty comprehensively by its bad ones.

The good stuff

On the face of it, the idea behind ‘The Japanese Mind’ is a good one. It’s a collection of short essays written by Japanese students of English, explaining various aspects of their own culture to outsiders. Each essay takes only a few minutes to read, and covers one particular topic or theme in Japanese culture. The topics seem quite varied, although they often seem inspired by a fairly narrow view of what ‘culture’ means. More on that below.

In general the style is clear and unobstructive, and the book is easy to read.

That rounds up the good points.

The bad stuff

The title

Right off the bat, the title of the book seems quite inappropriate. In three words it manages to make a massive generalisation, or at least suggest that there will be massive generalisation in the book (and there is). According to this title, all Japanese people share the same conscious experience and think in the same way. It could be forgiven as controversial but necessary marketing if the book then delivered a subtle and careful introduction to Japanese culture, but unfortunately it doesn’t. This title is just as bad as something like ‘The Black Mind’ or ‘How Blonde Women Think’. Hopefully these books don’t exist, or are at least out of print if they do.

The generalisations

As mentioned above, the book is full of huge generalisations about not only Japanese people, but various other cultural groups that the book attempts to compare them to. At first that might seem to be exactly what you would want from a book on Japanese culture, but it doesn’t have to be done this way. We are frequently told things like this:

"The Japanese have difficulty saying no, in contrast to Westerners, who are able to do so more easily." (p19)

What?! There just isn’t a place for sentences like that in the modern world. A book on culture could look at interesting movements, events or literature from the country in question. It could look at trends in art or media, or what politicians say to try and gain support. But it should only look, and perhaps make some tentative suggestions, rather than trampling all over the topic with crude statements.

The essay on Japanese aesthetics probably sums up the attitude of the book with things like this:

"...in Western art, people try to construct something of beauty with a logic ... In contrast, Japanese art focuses not on what is logically considered beautiful, but on what people _feel_ is beautiful. The Japanese aesthetic is very subjective ... In the West, however , there are explicit and well-established criteria for beauty."

The dubious explanations

The essays often give brief explanations for their sweeping analysis of Japanese culture. Nearly all of these revolve around either a) rice agriculture being important in Japanese history or b) Japan’s geography forcing people to live close together. Despite the fact that these conditions are prevalent in numerous other countries, they are repeatedly cited as reasons for a whole number of Japanese traits, mostly in terms of ‘group harmony’ or a lack of individualism.

Now and then an essay will cite the work of a scholar in the field, but these quotes are never analysed. They are just put there as if their presence makes the writing more accurate. ‘According to so and so, Japanese people…’ is a common structure. This is not followed by some sort of critique or elaboration; it’s just a quote.

The lack of global awareness

Another thing that annoyed me about this book was the lack of wider awareness on the part of the writers. Frequently, the ‘insights’ about Japan actually apply to a lot of people all over the world.

"[In Japanese life] ... people learn to become aware of one another's thinking and feelings instinctively." (p11) "If students see someone being bullied, they may ... just try to keep a distance ... for fear of becoming mixed up in the bullying themselves." (p55) "... When the Japanese are asked to judge the behaviour of others, they often attach importance to the personal background behind the behaviour rather than specifically on what the person has done." (p137)

These sorts of things are recognised all over the world; it’s just how people tend to behave.

The bad structuring

Each essay in ‘The Japanese Mind’ is not necessarily written by one author. The editors have often taken several essays, cut them up, and then created a sort of Frankenstein essay from various chunks. The result of this is that the essays can suddenly change direction, and frequently contradict themselves and each other. There is a real consistency problem.

Another drawback to this approach is that the same idea may be repeatedly covered and reiterated, or one topic may be randomly scattered throughout the book making it difficult to read about.

Rant over

Perhaps I’ve been too harsh in criticising the book. There are some useful ideas and explanations, and as the book has a multitude of authors, some bits aren’t as bad as others. Overall though, it’s far more useful as an insight into what’s important to a particular group of students at Ehime University than as a thoughtful introduction to cultural themes in Japan.

‘The Japanese Mind: understanding contemporary Japanese culture’, ISBN 978-0804832953, Tuttle 2002