JAPAN ENCYCLOPEDIA, by Louis Frederic, translated by Kathe Roth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002, 1102 pp., 48 illus., 14 maps, $59.95 (cloth).

This large, beautiful and indispensable volume is a translation of “Le Japan: Dictionnaire et Civilisation,” published in 1996, the year of the author’s death. It is a detailed but concise guide to Japanese history from its beginnings until now, filled with general information but with a particular emphasis on religion and the arts. It contains a detailed chronology as well as a concise bibliography. In addition, cross-references and an index help the reader find what is wanted.

Frederic, whose lifelong and final work this was, is well known to anyone interested in Japan for his masterly volume translated into English as “Daily Life in Japan at the Time of the Samurai: 1185-1603.” In the introduction to this most readable of social histories, he wrote: “There are countless ways of getting to know a race, countless ways of understanding. Moreover, the Japanese themselves are the first to have extremely diverse and contradictory ideas and points of view about their country.”

For this reason, many of the most unified histories of Japan have been written by foreigners — in English alone, George Sansom, Edward Reischauer and Marius Jansen, among others. The same holds for such historically based works as encyclopedias where the “countless ways” must be refined through knowledge and judicious choice.

The finest encyclopedia on Japan ever published in English, the 1983 eight-volume (plus index) “Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan,” was compiled at Harvard. Entries were written by some 680 Japanese scholars and 524 non-Japanese. The project was overseen by an advisory committee of 11 Japanese and 12 non-Japanese.

This large, intricate, difficult and triumphantly successful enterprise created a balanced accounting of Japanese history and civilization which, for sheer size and full inclusion, has never been bettered. It is no longer published, however, and has not been available for years. Those fortunate enough to own it can consider themselves lucky. I do, and consult mine virtually every day.

Later, Kodansha International cut down the eight volumes into one and produced the version of the work that is still in print. It is slightly more than one-tenth its former size, and so becomes the main competition for this new Harvard Frederic edition. As might be expected, both volumes have their virtues.

The Kodansha entries were subjected to expert scrutiny, and each has its own small bibliography attached. This was general in the full edition and partial in the single-volume version. The entries in the original edition were quite long, covering whole pages. Now many are much reduced, but the more complicated subjects are still allowed something of their original length.

In addition both multi- and single-volume editions were referenced so that one could move from authority to authority, a great aid to scholarly research. Finally, both employed a very reader-friendly format — different font-size headings so that subjects could be located at a glance.

Frederic’s volume has many of these virtues, but the entries are, on the whole, shorter. Only such large subjects as, say, “History” are allowed more than a column. All entries are cross-referenced, but there is no scholarly apparatus until the very concise bibliography at the end of the volume.

Of course, Frederic’s encyclopedia is more up-to-date, the earlier multivolume edition being more than 20 years old. Back then, for example, the Kodansha volumes could not find room for butoh (an avant-garde Japanese dance form), whereas the new single-volume Frederic edition does. Naturally, events that occurred in the decade up to 1996 are also included.

What makes me prefer Frederic’s work, however, is that it is written by one person — a scholar with his own opinion of things, his own style. The Kodansha volume(s) were created by committee. (I know. I wrote some of the cinema entries and saw my style corrected to conform to set standards.) The inevitable result is not only a kind of blandness but also a blunting of some points.

Frederic, on the other hand, had no committees to satisfy and he could point out parallels. He could interpret. For example, in writing of post-World War II history, he says: “All of the country’s industry had been destroyed, the problem of feeding the population was immense, and it no longer had its colonies to count on. General MacArthur organized his own bakufucreating an occupation agency called SCAP, and an international court was convened to hear the case of and set sentences for those responsible for the war.”

A committee is not likely to have allowed that telling and accurate reference to a Japanese feudal means of ruling (the bakufu) in this context. A mixed Japanese-foreign committee might have blunted that point.

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