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There are many good books on Japan (as well as a number of bad ones), so how do you decide which ones are best? The decision is subjective but, objectively, I think that the best are informed with a certain peculiarity, and it is in this that I would find their pre-eminence.

“There is but one way of knowing the mind of a foreign people — to share its life, adopting its own style, allowing oneself to be swayed by its rhythm.”

Such is the observation of Kurt Singer, author of one of these “best” books. This immersion is a qualification. Another, however, is that the reaction must be accounted for.

The book ought thus to constitute an inquiry that includes the emotions as well as observations — how you feel about what you find. It should be the results of the country and its various patterns, and of the writer and his or her various patterns. My idea of “best” lies just at this intersection. Here are a few examples.

JAPAN: AN ATTEMPT AT INTERPRETATION, by Lafcadio Hearn. Charles E. Tuttle (reprint of 1903 edition), 436 pp., $14.95 (paper).

In this, his final book, Hearn sums up his life in Japan and, in doing so, sums up the Japanese. He is the only foreign writer to have seen Japan through its religion and the only observer to have noted that the Japanese religion consists entirely of being Japanese.

He writes of “the conviction that everything should be sacrificed for the sake of the cult. … This discipline brought into existence a wonderful character of surprising patience, unselfishness, honesty, kindliness and docility . . . but only the evolutionist can imagine what the cost of developing that character must have been.”

Such valuations have given the book a reputation of being bitter. It is not. It is, however, even now, a radical and very personal summing up: a rendering of the Japanese complex and an account of Hearn’s reaction to it.

THINGS JAPANESE, by Basil Hall Chamberlain. Charles E. Tuttle (reprint of 1905 edition), 568 pp.

Rude, opinionated and, at the same time, sensitive and fair. For example: “The Japanese language is personified by the habitual avoidance of personification — a characteristic so deep-seated and all-pervading as to interfere even with the use of neuter nouns in combination with transitive verbs.”

The Japanese sense of fun “lacks alike the hidden tear and the self-criticism of humor . . . it has no irony.” On cherry-blossom tea, “the fragrance of this infusion is delicious, but its taste is a bitter deception.”

It does not matter that Chamberlain sometimes dislikes what he finds; what is important is the description and analysis that comes from this emotional reaction.

MIRROR, SWORD AND JEWEL, by Kurt Singer. Kodansha International (reprint of Kodansha International 1973 edition), 174 pp.

Compiled of observations made by the author during his stay in Japan, 1931 to 1939, this important account of the country and its culture was not discovered until after the author’s death and was only then edited in this form by Richard Storry.

The result is filled with such insights such as: “Let [the foreigner] experimentally but unreservedly behave according to Japanese custom, and he will instantly feel what a cell endowed with human sensibility must be supposed to feel in a well-coordinated body.”

“The most drastic proof of the existence of a specific Japanese civilization,” he writes, “is perhaps the impossibility for the foreigner to live in this medium without feeling slightly oppressed, even when charmed, subtly excluded even if allowed to participate.”

EMPIRE OF SIGNS, by Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard. Hill & Wang (1983 print of 1970 French edition), 109 pp., $11 (paper).

Though Barthes spent only a few months in Japan, he came unprejudiced by any general theories about “the Japanese” and set out to describe what he found. He was, from the first, captured by the rhetoric of the country, its signs and what they meant, or didn’t.

On packaging: “It is as if the box were the object of the gift, not what it contains . . . thus the box acts as the sign: as envelope, screen, mask, it is worth what it conceals, protects and yet designates.” On pachinko: “It reproduces on a mechanical level precisely the principle of painting alla prima, which insists that the line be drawn in a single movement, once and for all.”

Barthes’ provocative book is so involved with the effect of Japan that it sees through its own grid and finds a real people, and a real author.

THE ENIGMA OF JAPANESE POWER, by Karel van Wolferen. London: Macmillan Ltd., 1989, 476 pp., $18 (paper).

Though concerned mainly with economics (just as Singer was concerned with sociology and Barthes with aesthetics), van Wolferen, like the others, creates a seminal portrayal of Japan, one that is distinguished by both its originality and its integrity.

His, like all the other good books on the country, is not concerned with the official version, either that of the academic expert or of the Japanese scholar himself. Rather, he wants to describe the people and their systems as precisely as possible, even when this leads to conclusions such as: “An evolution of Western practices in Japanese directions would entail the reproduction of conditions inconceivable as long as social and intellectual freedom are valued.”

Neither basher nor booster, van Wolferen follows where his findings lead him. Hence he can be the first to say that “political arrangements have been a major factor in determining the development of Japanese culture.” In his work Western intellectual rigor meets Japanese pragmatic authority, and the result is spectacular: a true example of how a political culture is put together and how the author feels about what he has found.

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