FIVE GENTLEMEN OF JAPAN: The Portrait of a Nation’s Character, by Frank Gibney. D’Asia Vu Reprint Library, Eastbridge, 2002, 356 pp., $24.95 (paper).

Fifty years ago, a young American writer named Frank Gibney, fresh out of the U.S. Navy where he had been a Japanese-speaking intelligence officer, published “Five Gentlemen of Japan,” in which he delved into the values and virtues, the faults and failings of a people who had been his mortal enemies only a few years before.

“Five Gents,” as Gibney himself calls it, has been re-issued by D’Asia Vu Reprint Library and is as revealing as the day it first appeared. The author says he hasn’t changed his mind about Japan although he says, wryly: “On reflection, I find my judgments and conclusions at 27 were stated with somewhat more firmness and assurance than I could muster at 77.”

About the vigor of the Japanese, the book says: “Struggle is in their bones and hard work is the condition of their life. They do not shirk struggle — and its rigors have made them hard but not brittle, pliant but never dissolving. It has not lessened the extent of their art and their capacity to feel. It has left their culture narrow but deep.”

On a bothersome note, “Five Gents” claims: “The Japanese have been dangerous and may be dangerous again; in the intensity of their feelings, in the power and violence of their acts, in the cramped complexity inside their heads.”

Even so, Gibney was and still is optimistic. In the introduction to the new edition, he writes: “I have lived with the Japanese through hard times and good, from the economic dynamism of the high-growth ’70s to the doldrums of the ’90s. I have witnessed cultural expansion and generational change.” The web that holds Japan together and makes it work, he concludes, “has yet to be broken.”

Although “Five Gents” was intended for American readers, anyone who may find it difficult to figure out Japan could benefit from the book. Gibney has done for the Japanese what they do so inadequately for themselves, which is to explain their nation and its ways to other people, Asian and Western alike.

The five gentlemen Gibney chose to write about were the late Emperor Hirohito, a farmer named Sakaji Sanada, former Imperial Navy Vice Adm. Fumio Shimizu, newspaperman Tadao Yamazaki, and steel mill foreman Hideya Kisei. Aside from the Emperor, Gibney knew them all personally but none of them knew each other.

Yet their lives were surprisingly complementary, and in the original edition Gibney writes this was because “they belong to a peculiarly close-knit civilization.” He asserted: “There are, in fact, no strangers among this people. They are united — united in their greatness, their defects, their hopes, their eccentricities.”

He compares Japan with other nations: “Britain is a tradition. Russia is a mood. America is a way of life. Japan is a spirit, insular and protesting. It is a spirit that hurls itself in the face of physical facts — a troublesome spirit, unsure of its place, but jealous of its station. Wherever Japanese are, this spirit shows itself.”

“The Japanese is oddly young,” Gibney later writes. “He is childlike in his refusal to admit defeat. He is childlike also in his plastic ability to assimilate new ideas and adjust to sudden changes in his situation. The Japanese look toward their continent — and towards the world — with the great injured innocence of island nations.”

“Yamato damashi — the soul of Japan — has the toughness of a swordmaker’s steel,” Gibney says. “It has also the delicacy that makes the gauze beauty of a Japanese garden.” It is this paradox that he sets out to explain, a paradox that mystified most people outside of Japan more than a half-century ago and continues to mystify many today.

After writing “Five Gents,” Gibney went on to a distinguished career with Time and Newsweek magazines, as a publisher in Asia of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in his present position as president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College in California. He wrote 11 more books, including “Korea’s Quiet Revolution,” “The Pacific Century,” and “Japan: The Fragile Superpower,” a rebuttal to those who saw Japan as either a super-state or a fleeting blossom.

But it was “Five Gents,” his firstborn, that began to inform an entire generation about what had been to many an inscrutable Japan. Over the years, a few books have equaled it, but none has surpassed it.

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