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Remembering the life and works of Boye De Mente, a giant of writing on Japan

by

Special To The Japan Times

Any Japanophile will have at least one of the 30 or so books authored by Boye Lafayette De Mente during his long and prolific writing career in Japan.

His works are read by travelers, businesspeople and scholars alike, with offerings ranging from “The Pocket Tokyo Subway Guide” to the “Tuttle Japanese Business Dictionary,” and my personal favorite, “Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese.” Several of his books have become classics.

Boye first came to Japan in 1949 during the U.S. Occupation as part of the Army Security Agency’s code-breaking unit. At that time, the ASA was located in the Sanshin Building in downtown Tokyo, about 100 yards from Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. While there, he wrote, printed and distributed a 12-page newspaper called the ASA Star. He went on to publish the Bender Bulletin, and edit the Importer magazine, the Amazing Japan newsletter, the Japan Information Network (JIN) and the Today’s Japan magazine, in addition to working a stint as a headline writer for The Japan Times.

A dapper man with a shock of white hair and soft, penetrating eyes, I met him in person for the first time 2003, late in his career but early in mine. Initially brought together by the internet, we had communicated via email for years before actually meeting and he readily put me in touch with his circle of editors and publishers. Boye helped me develop from columnist to author and mentored me through my first book in 2005. He also introduced me to key people outside of the writing world, including John Banta, the former general manager of the Sheraton Miyako Hotel in Tokyo.

In a recent reconnection, the hotelier recalled that his friend “not only had a deeper-than-most understanding of the ways of the Japanese, but a way of writing about those ways that made the subject easily comprehensible for Westerners.” Banta first became acquainted with Boye’s adroit prose when reading “Japanese Etiquette and Ethics in Business.” The two men would go on to cooperate on the Amazing Japan newsletter for the hotel’s PR department. Banta credits Boye’s savoir faire for saving him countless hours of frustration over the nearly 20 years working within a conservative, old-school Japanese corporation. “I found Boye to be consistently positive about Japan and the Japanese, even in situations that would cause a lesser person to become more jaded than enthusiastic.”

That positive character, along with his own entrepreneurial tendencies, surely facilitated his success in Japan. The author’s first book, published in 1950, was a result of a dearth of appropriate textbooks for studying Japanese. “Japanese Simplified” soon became popular among young military men wanting to communicate with their Japanese girlfriends. This publication later evolved into “Speak Japanese Today: A Little Language Goes a Long Way!” — which became one of Boye’s best-selling books.

In 2004, he enthusiastically helped me launch the Dollar Bookstore, which offered cheap e-books in the form of PDF files (years before Amazon started doing so). He provided me with copious back-listed books to offer exclusively on my site. Together we re-edited and updated several to give them new life. It was then that I became aware of the diversity of content he had penned, from niche guides such as “Bachelor’s Japan,” with editions in both English and Japanese, to tomes on South Korea, China, Mexico and even the Hopi Indians.

When Boye and I weren’t talking about writing and publishing, our conversations invariably turned to the unique behavior of the Japanese people. The quote I find myself repeating often is the most erudite observance of this country’s people I’ve ever heard. “The Japanese,” he said to me, “are very predictable.” It was a eureka moment — so many things fell into place for me.

He encapsulated this idea of predictability in his classic “Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese,” where he proposes that by being attentive to key Japanese concepts and proscribed behaviors, called kata, one could unlock the secrets to the Japanese Way. He compartmentalized specific decorum passed down over centuries that includes philosophy, craftsmanship and rituals in daily life. It is through these conveyances, taught either directly or indirectly, that Japan has been able to hold its populace to high standards of etiquette, politeness and aesthetics. This explains for example, why the presentation of food is just as important as the taste, and how the mere drinking of tea became the ritual tea ceremony.

As a cultural critic, he praised the Asian dedication to the symbiosis between craftsmanship and human development. “There is something of inestimable value in being able to create useful and beautiful things with one’s hands. It is not only one of the fundamental attributes that make us human, it is also a vital factor in keeping us emotionally, intellectually and spiritually balanced and in harmony with nature,” he once wrote in an email.

According to Boye, his compendium “Japanese Manners & Ethics in Business” at one point sold hundreds of copies per day, 10 to 20 in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel gift shop alone. When the shopkeeper there reported that someone had “stolen a copy of the ethics book,” the anecdote was published in a newspaper, which filliped a further surge in demand for the book. It was on this second wave that the publication caught the attention of Billy Graham’s agent in Yokohama, who reportedly ordered 1,000 copies just before a forthcoming series of lectures by the famous American TV evangelist.

Boye never failed to surprise me with his breadth of experience. In 2004, when he heard I was about to sail from Japan to Australia, he sent me a copy of his book “Once a Fool! — From Japan to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep,” chronicling his four-month journey with Australian Ben Carlin that gained them an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1957.

When Boye’s health began to fail, I checked in on him often. He always replied to my emails, but they became progressively shorter. In September of 2016, he made me smile with a simple message: “Yoh, Amy …”

I never met Boye’s wife, but it was she who sent me the email informing me of her husband’s death on May 12, 2017, at 88 years old. “He was a classic gentleman as well as a classic writer,” she said. The note was signed “Margaret De Mente, his loving wife of 58 years.”

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