“Japanese Things,” originally titled “Things Japanese” when it was published in 1890, is the book that launched a branch of publishing: explaining Japan and the Japanese to everyone, including themselves. You could draw a line connecting Alice Gordenker’s excellent “So, What the Heck is That?” column in this paper right back to Basil Hall Chamberlain’s investigations and explanations of all things Japanese written during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Japanese Things, by Basil Hall Chamberlain
Tuttle, Nonfiction.

Chamberlain’s range is magisterial, his tone brisk and his style unimpeachable. He mostly prefers the royal “we”; here he is ostensibly talking about “Railways” but he sidetracks for a wonderful vignette about social mores: “We have seen a man — he was a military officer, and his dutiful spouse assisted him — change all his clothes in the car, though to be sure he availed himself of a friendly tunnel for the more adventurous portion of the enterprise.”

The book is organized similar to an encyclopedia and each “thing” ends with references, for further reading. Some of Chamberlain’s choices are odd — polo, being one — and the language is sometimes dated, but, equally, many treatments of other subjects still ring true to this day. Ad infinitum, I might add. It’s no wonder the book is still read today for Chamberlain managed to see Japan up close, while maintaining an independence of thought and a sense of humor. Basil Hall Chamberlain, we are impressed.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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