JAPAN THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: Shaman to Shinto, by Alan Macfarlane. Profile Books Ltd., 2007, 256 pp., £16.99 (cloth)

Reviewed by MARIKO KATO “In many ways I was like Alice, that very assured and middle-class English girl, when she walked through the looking glass.”

So humbly admits Alan Macfarlane, professor of anthropology at Cambridge University with a 32-year career and 20 published books. He delightfully reassures us that his initial impressions of Japanese people were only that they “were reserved and many of them wore glasses.” His anthropological interpretations were as naive as the famous Lewis Carroll heroine. And like Alice, Macfarlane discovers a world that challenges virtually every model that he had hitherto used to understand a civilization.

This is not your usual impressionistic, anecdotal book on Japan. A work by an elite intellectual visiting Japan for the first time at age 48 is a passport into worlds unseen by the average young backpacker. The opening chapter is a hybrid of glimpses into court cases and schools, quotes from intellectual travelers past, and Macfarlane’s own eloquent diary entries. With poise he relates a dual narrative of his own thoughts and experiences of Japanese people, and the historical and cultural background of their elusive country.

While much of the work is necessarily academic, it is a relief that Macfarlane overtly dismisses an inconclusive relativist interpretation. It is fully known that Japan — despite being the world’s second largest economy and a hyperproductive civilization — is utterly different from the West.

Macfarlane describes Japan “as far as possible from the inside, thinking through their categories and symbols.” And, although a few more penetrative personal observations from this sharp-minded author would have been welcome, his prose is consistently comfortable and easily to digest.

The only reservation is that at times there is a slight estrangement from the present. The work is based largely on experiences that start at the beginning of the 20th century, and often depends on quotes from past writers, economists and sociologists — albeit wide-ranging — for conclusive sentences. These are apt and effective for illustrating anthropological theories, but for subjects that are still developing and changing in less obvious ways, Macfarlane’s approach can be too black and white.

One such example is the section on Japanese attitude toward sex, in which he asserts that there is “no moral opprobrium associated with [women being sex workers].” This might be acceptable as a grossly sweeping term in a comparison with the West, but its inaccuracy is not easily forgivable if applied in “understanding” the minds of current Japanese. It is a low point for a writer who so carefully and successfully avoids such insensitivities elsewhere.

As the work continues, further counter-arguments are more intriguingly engaged, and a provocative discussion of the Japanese attitude to war shows Macfarlane’s sophistication at its best.

He admits that, at times, the Japanese can be barbaric and dishonest, and therefore considered incomprehensible to the West. Yet the Japanese attitude can be seen as cohesive; the Japanese act on the concept that is surely fundamental to calculated mass killings — that enemies are “by definition ‘nonhumans.’ ” Why shouldn’t Japanese methods be any less excusable than the Christian crusades or the firebombing of Dresden? While remaining essentially neutral, Macfarlane implicitly asks whether there is a better or worse method for slaughtering innocents, a question that puts the hypocritical Western sense of superiority to shame.

Macfarlane finishes in a typically Japanese way, with a thoughtful hansei-kai (time to regret and learn from one’s mistakes), re-considering the views of past intellectuals and his own before he jumped through the looking glass. However, quite contrary to the common Japanese act of enryo (polite hesitation), he boldly concludes that this work shows “how Japan works and how it has to be understood.”

Through conscientious research and lucid prose, he triumphantly decodes this enigmatic country that continues to provoke feelings of alienation and discomfort, wonder and joy, in foreigners. Macfarlane’s mirror, though inevitably reflecting a slightly paler and more static version of reality, hides no truths and avoids no complexities.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.