Robin LeBlanc is doing a tricky dance. She’s clearly a serious academic devoted to the study of politics, and she does her damnedest to do right by that world. But she’s such a good writer that her prose is accessible, even entrancing, to mere mortals. In fact, sometimes her prose is funny and even beautiful. This is a problem.

THE ART OF THE GUT: Manhood, Power, and Ethics in Japanese Politics, by Robin M. LeBlanc. University of California Press, 2009, 256 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

There is just no tactful way to put this: I’m sorry, but her writing has heart. This must be a real liability for her as an academic, because “heart” is something not usually allowed in this sort of scholarly discourse. This could explain why she falls all over herself in her eagerness to justify her own humanity. When the story of one man and his impact on the local political process jumped out of her research — no graphed trend, no stabilizing data points, just a middle-aged liquor merchant — it so shocked her that she struggled to reconcile it with her training and discipline as a researcher.

This is what happened: She went to “Takeno,” a pseudonymous small town, intending to collect the kind of fascinating research on the electoral process that gives hives to anyone who didn’t major in political science. Takeno was caught up in unusual turmoil. The old-boy politicos, who supported the building of a controversial nuclear plant, were being battered by an upstart group of locals who opposed the plant. To her great suspicion, she was told again and again that the citizens’ movement she went to research was not simply part of a larger faceless trend, but was in fact ignited by the passion, personality and persistence of one man.

This raises complicated questions for her. It flies in the face of what she calls “contemporary power theory’s bias against the individual.” She spends most of the preface and final section having a meta discussion of her writing and approach that at first seems relevant only to other scholars and teachers. She lays out the basic territory: Yes, there are obvious drawbacks to viewing any segment of society through the story of an individual. There are good reasons that we demand numbers, demographic trends and objectivity from our social scientists. But useful though this wide-angle view is, it ignores the key question of how those trends get started in the first place. What causes a revolt, a movement, a change?

She echoes Tocqueville, who cautions that a relentless focus on general causes in social change can serve to deepen the cynicism of citizens who feel themselves “caught up in a vast causal wave so much larger than themselves that they feel utterly powerless.” In a delightfully subversive way, this book is a call to step out of that illusion of powerlessness. She examines a particular set of ethics, in this case an ethics of Japanese masculinity, that enabled one man to bring about great change.

Have no fear, ye disapproving academics, this is hardly an inspirational Saturday night biopic. There is plenty of deadly dull background on Japan’s political parties and stultifying detail about the electoral process. She dutifully compares and contrasts the colorful merchant with a more traditional politician. There is also the requisite murky discussion of Foucault’s theories as they apply to society and the individual (though to be fair, there seems to be no other kind when it comes to Foucault).

LeBlanc gets all that out of the way like a teacher who covers grammar because she is compelled to by her contract, but secretly longs to inspire her students to read poetry and get up on their desks. When she dives into an exploration of the puzzling sake seller/revolutionary, and her own transformation from an objective outsider to a reluctant admirer, then her prose simply sings. The reader remembers how silly it is when writers (even researchers) pretend not to be people. She takes up her proper place in the narrative: a foreign researcher staying in the guest room of a chain-smoking sake merchant, a grown woman with a home, a child and a doctorate who is given a teenager’s curfew by her research subject.

He emerges a hero, but a lonely one, a man who changed his world so much that he lost his own place in it. In the end, “The Art of the Gut” reads not like an academic tome but a philosophical pondering on goodness, its cost and its glory.

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