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A bird’s-eye view of Japanese arts

by Donald Richie

Books on the specifics of Japanese culture (as compared to those on cultural generalities) were not always as available as they are now. The concept of culture did not have the political intentions that are now so much a part of it. Books on the purported uniqueness of the Japanese “national character” (nihonjinron) had yet to begin their advance, and the rest of the world knew so little about Japan that ignorance and mystery became cultural concepts in themselves.

A BILINGUAL GUIDE TO THE TRADITIONAL PERFORMING ARTS by Masayuki Nakamura, translated by Jeffrey Hunter. Tankosha, 2009, bilingual (Japanese/English), 192 pp., with color plates and b/w photographs, ¥1,900 (paper)

I remember 60 years ago when the visitor to Japan was told that sushi was a kind of raw ham and consequently quite edible; when no one but the specialist had ever heard of Zen; and when the Bunraku playwright Chikamatsu was explained as “the Shakespeare of Japan.” There were then few ways that the culturally impoverished, such as myself, could learn much, no matter how great the need.

My need was great at the time because, as the new feature writer on the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes, I was expected to raise the cultural level of our readers. Consequently, I was always looking for easy introductions into subjects of which I myself knew nothing.

And back then there were quite a few such slim volumes — general accounts, quick, easy, simple: “Japan is a group of islands, an archipelago.” I read everything and was even grateful for the prewar and wartime JTB handbooks: “Ikebana,” “Judo — A Japanese Sport,” “Japanese Philately,” etc.

One of the virtues of such a short introductory explanation was that it offered an uncomplicated view of its subject. Yet it was all there, informed, coherent, and I could keep one week ahead of the readers of my Sunday-edition culture series.

Thus equipped I fearlessly slashed through the thickets of ignorance and clumps of prejudice, revealing, I hoped, something of the perimeters of this week’s subject. Kabuki, sukiyaki, kimono, the cherry blossom itself, all fell before the flailings of my enthusiasm, but none of this this would have been possible without my weekday studies in the bookstore, library, or the JTB.

Later, however, over the decades, knowledge grew and books offering short and simple explanations slowly disappeared, giving way to long and complicated ones. Japan studies became a branch of learning and began shortly to evidence specialization. Scholars were expected to concentrate on single aspects of their subjects and the general bird’s-eye-view grew dim.

One consequence of this is that I have long felt a gratitude (even a nostalgia) for these brief guides of my youth and have sometimes complained that there are now so few of them. It is thus with pleasure that I can, on this Sunday, introduce you to a new one.

Professor Masayuki Nakamura’s guide to the Japanese traditional performing arts encompasses this enormous field in less than 200 pages. Actually, in less than 100 since this is a bilingual edition (Japanese on the left of double spreads, English on the right) and so the material is given twice, once in each language.

It is conveniently structured into 10 sections: Noh and Kyogen; Bunraku; Kabuki; Gagaku; Kagura; Shomyo; Japanese dance; Ryukyu dance; the arts of Yose (Rakugo, Kodan, Manzai, etc.); and Japanese musical instruments. Together these are presumed to comprise the palette of Japanese traditional performing arts.

A surprising amount of information is given, including a listing of places where you yourself can experience it, but the major attraction is that the complete subject is packaged. It won’t help you write your thesis, but then it does not intend to. Rather, it assembles the necessary knowledge (excellently translated) and imparts an understanding of the content and the shape of your subject.

I wish there had been a book this good 60 years ago. From it I could have swiped enough material for 10 of my cultural columns.