Unraveling the evolution of modern Japan


ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF JAPANESE CULTURE AND SOCIETY. Edited by Victoria and Theodore Bestor with Akiko Yamagata. Routledge, 2011, 325 pp. (hardcover)

This is a tremendous book and should jump the queue of all those books on contemporary Japan you have been intending to read. The editors deserve kudos for putting together a stellar group of specialists and our gratitude for making them abandon the usually scholarly trappings.

The chapters are written in an accessible and thoughtful style and focus on explaining various aspects of culture and society for nonspecialists. This academic-lite approach is a welcome relief from the usual trudge through a specialists’ tome, jettisoning the disciplinary discourse without sacrificing the insights. Lucidly written, this is an ideal book for undergraduate classes as it includes a glossary, bibliography and comprehensive list of relevant websites. Experts will also find this a rewarding collection.

The volume is divided into three parts: (1) Social Foundations, (2) Class, Identity, and Status, and (3) Cool Japan. Each chapter is an overview of a specific subject on post-World War II Japan ranging from politics, education and religion to aging, popular culture and identity. It is an amazing smorgasbord that does more than any book I have read on Japan to unravel the stereotypes and provide fresh, cogent perspectives on such a wide range of topics.

Many of the chapters examine continuities and transformation and how, “contemporary Japanese culture and society have been shaped in response to a number of radical shocks or historical disjunctures.”

The editors comment, “from the early 1990s to the present, many institutions, once considered the mainstays of postwar Japanese life, have been fundamentally altered or called into question, and a feeling of national malaise has pervaded public discussion of Japan.” This malaise stems from the, “Long recession, the destabilization of employment, widening income gaps, a declining fertility rate, the growing population of elderly, and the government’s unresponsiveness to problems with the pension, health care, and education systems.”

One of the strengths of this interdisciplinary volume is the way the authors weave such common threads into their analysis, giving us multiple takes on similar themes. Each of the chapters usefully references other chapters that explore similar issues.

With 22 contributors its hard to do justice to such a comprehensive volume, but suffice to say anyone interested in Japan will find something that piques their interest and many will be tempted to delve into terra incognita. The first essay by Peter Duus takes us briskly and perceptively though Japan’s modern history, setting the broader context for the more narrowly focused chapters that follow.

David Leheny’s chapter on politics as a cultural phenomenon burnishes his reputation for original and witty insights delivered in elegant prose. He dissects corruption, reform, nationalism and civil society in ways that breath life into what can be a staid topic. He observes with withering accuracy, “Ozawa’s machinations and backroom deals seem in many ways to hark back to a time of principle-free LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) politics, with tactics dictated far more by expediency and access to power than fidelity to ideological imperatives or even the will of the voters.”

Roger Goodman’s chapter on educational reform draws our attention to the disagreements among social scientists about the state of the system and its future. He reminds us that reforms like patriotic education represent state intentions, but it is misleading to assume that teachers will passively embrace them, citing the continuing controversies about singing Kimigayo while standing and facing the flag. He also notes how interpretations of the educational system evolved during the Lost Decade, with increased attention to “the extent to which the Japanese educational system reproduced social inequality rather than acted as a force for social mobility.”

Lawrence Repeta’s chapter is a tour de force on recent judicial reforms and controversies that argues persuasively, “The law is too important to be left to the experts.” He analyzes the ambitious reform agenda, what it misses and how it is proceeding.

There are brilliant sections on the politics of law, on abuses of police and prosecutorial powers (“hostage law”), trampling of freedom of speech and significant developments in family law.

Writing on race, ethnicity and minorities, Richard Siddle warns: “ethnocultural conceptions of the Japanese nation as a community of common ancestry and culture militate against the acceptance and equal treatment of those who reside within the territorial boundaries of Japan but are categorized as Other.”

Akihiro Ogawa’s superb chapter on the dynamics of civil society reminds us about the folly of sweeping generalizations, pointing out that there are important differences between the various nonprofit and nongovernment organizations and their relationship with the state, ranging from the critical to the collaborative or co-opted. While many dismiss the vibrancy of Japan’s civil society, Ogawa notes, “The grass-roots peace movement mobilized by the Article 9 Association and other similar groups is a major new social movement.”

Hopefully these snippets will intrigue readers, but the seal the deal chapter is the finale by Theodore Bestor, a mouth watering look at cuisine and foody culture.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan and editor of recently published “Tsunami: Japan’s Post-Fukushima Future,” an ebook available for Kindle on Amazon.com and as a PDF from Foreign Policy magazine. Proceeds from sales go to charities in Tohoku. www.foreignpolicy.com/ebooks/tsunami_japans_post_fukushima_future