Watch your manners!


MANNERS AND MISCHIEF: Gender, Power and Etiquette in Japan. Edited by Jan Bardsley and Laura Miller. University of California Press, 2011, 245 pp., $22.95 (paper)

Don’t let the cutesy Hello Kitty cover fool you. “Manners and Mischief” disdains frivolity and stands firm as an academic text for students serious about extending their anthropological knowledge of Japan.

The book features essays written by university professors in America and Japan. The essays use a wide range of current social media as the basis of research, citing popular books, delving into magazines or analyzing weekly advice columns.

The book’s first two essays frame their arguments from a historical and cultural base. First, using “The Tale of Genji,” the author explores how literature and literary criticism guide Japanese manners.

In “Box Lunch Etiquette,” the popular Kabuki Onnagata (male Kabuki actor who specializes in portraying female roles) is used to discuss the Japanese feminine ideal.

The essays cover gender and women issues, although society’s mannerly constraints on men is also addressed. The essay “The Oyaji Gets A Makeover” details modern society’s expectations for the “new” salarymen. The advice offered seems designed to force salarymen into an “elite, global men’s club” by their becoming more Westernized, but the social commentary revealed by the advice certainly justifies itself in Japanese society.

Women and gender issues are dissected with articles ranging from a discussion of motherhood and pregnancy manners to how to be a “dignified” Japanese woman.

In “The Dignified Woman who Loves to be ‘Loveable’ ” the public outcry against the stereotypes presented in the 2006 best-selling book “The Dignity of Woman” by Bando Mariko is included, and provides a balanced view of Japan’s changing expectations on women and their role in society.

The book focuses on the manners of mainstream society, yet the fringe elements are not ignored. The last two essays deal with the indoctrinated manners of those normally considered outside of the mainstream of society. In “A Community of Manners,” fringe social media, such as advice columns for lesbian and gays, is used to reveal a shared code of manners for like-minded readers.

The manga created for government campaigns against bad manners on trains or other public places in the article “Behavior That Offends” adds a fascinating final twist to Japan’s culture of acceptable etiquette. The article highlights proper behavior on group dates or gokon, how to act as a proper “Gothic Lolita,” and suitable conduct for women during sex — put away your cellphone, please, ladies.

The book pieces together the societal influences that shape a people known worldwide for their strict code of behavior. Although more suited for the classroom than summer reading, the essays reverberate with well-researched truths, and should be added to the library of those studying Japanese society.