The good, and not-so-good, reads from 2014


Special To The Japan Times

I was lucky enough to read a number of good and informative books on Japan in 2014, but also read my share of clunkers.

At the top of that list is Haruki Murakami’s “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage.” It is woefully insipid, probing the limits of banality while making me wonder if body snatchers have made off with the author of the excellent “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and someone else has taken over the franchise. “Colorless” is mercifully short and doesn’t linger in the imagination because there is no depth to reflect on and the listless characters are monochrome. This summer I also slogged through “1Q84,” more vapid noodling to nowhere, flaccid prose stretching for endless pages, penance for anyone still harboring hopes for the novelist that once was.

Franz Kafka believed that, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.” These two seem like the consequences of an ax to the cranium and make a strong case against him winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Richard Flanagan’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” won the 2014 Man Booker Prize and is a decent novel, but not his best, about an Australian man’s experiences in a prisoner-of-war camp. He was a doctor taking care of men pushed beyond their limits with no medical supplies and little food while building the infamous Burma Death Railway. Their brutal treatment by the camp guards and their commanders took a horrific toll. The narrative starts in prewar Australia with a passionate affair and returns there after the war as the good doctor reluctantly marries his fiancee, becomes a national icon and slips into many beds while withstanding accusations of medical malpractice. There is also a forgettable detour to Japan where we catch up with the postwar lives of some of the nasty men who made life miserable in the camp.

For some reason the Japanese mistreatment of POWs is getting the limelight this year with Angela Jolie bringing Laura Hillenbrand’s nonfiction book “Unbroken” (2010) to the big screen for a Christmas debut. It is a riveting tale of survival against steep odds by Louis Zamperini, an American Olympian captured and treated inhumanely by the Japanese after his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. The media reports that nationalist groups in Japan have pilloried the film for inaccuracies and seek to get it banned from theaters here — ensuring it more publicity.

It may not be quite as uplifting, but my favorite nonfiction book on Japan this year was Aurelia George Mulgan’s excellent monograph on veteran politician Ichiro Ozawa, once a kingmaker and now a minor player leading the miniscule People’s Life Party. “Ozawa Ichiro and Japanese Politics” spans the ups and downs of one of the most influential, interesting and controversial politicians in postwar Japan — a Machiavellian manipulator, resourceful bagman and artful tactician known as “The Destroyer.”

There were also two excellent overviews on modern Japan: David Pilling’s “Bending Adversity” and R. Taggart Murphy’s “Japan and the Shackles of the Past.”

Pilling, formerly the Tokyo bureau chief at the Financial Times, focuses on the past couple of decades and draws on numerous interviews and encounters with the Japanese to help readers get a sense of what they make of their nation’s prolonged stagnation and the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake. This is an evocative and largely positive portrayal of contemporary Japan that makes a case for “Abenomics.”

Tsukuba University’s Murphy covers much of the same ground in “Japan and the Shackles of the Past,” but with a more critical eye, all while delving deeper into the country’s history and culture. I am not sure I would characterize kabuki as the 17th-century equivalent of pole dancing, but his lucid synopsis of political history and critical analysis of contemporary Japan is invaluable. He argues that Japan’s policy-making is rudderless while illuminating the insidious hand of Washington and the deep flaws of Japanese democracy, both of which are especially pertinent today.

Gregor Smits’ “When the Earth Roars” is a very accessible and provocative assessment of Japan’s history of earthquakes, shorn of myth and illusions. He takes on the “catfish school” of seismologists who attempt to identify some precursor of a major quake in the endless search to predict the next one, always without success. He laments the consequent squandering of vast resources devoted to earthquake prediction, arguing that this would be better spent on projects aimed at mitigating future disasters.

The best book I’ve read so far on Japan’s nuclear reactor meltdowns was also released this year. “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster” by David Lochbaum et al is a meticulous account of the disaster as it unfolded, immersing readers in the prevailing confusion, missteps, faulty assumptions, poor risk management, willful negligence and sheer incompetence — all while making the scientific jargon understandable and exposing a number of pseudo-scientific claims by industry advocates. In discussing other nuclear accidents, and lessons that were ignored, the authors remind us that regulators and utilities have short memories and a tendency to shortchange safety.

Thomas French’s “National Police Reserves: The Origins of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces” details the creation and evolution of Japan’s postwar military and in doing so helps us understand the dynamics of U.S.-Japan interactions during the American Occupation (1945-52). Drawing on archival documents, he shows that Japan’s political elite supported the creation of a national police force to deal with internal threats associated with the Japanese Communist Party, but also intervened against U.S. pressures to militarize the force.

Robert Eldridge’s “The Origins of U.S. Policy in the East China Sea Islands Dispute” is dense, but essential reading to understand how Washington negligently sowed the seeds of the current conflict between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Eldridge argues that the United States should have recognized Japanese sovereignty before the reversion of Okinawa in 1972, but failed to do so out of ignorance and misguided hopes.

“Descent into Hell: Civilian Memories of the Battle of Okinawa,” translated by Mark Ealey and Alastair McLauchlan, takes readers into the Inferno. The horrors, grief and trauma are excruciatingly displayed in this compilation produced by the Ryuku Shimpo newspaper. Back in 2007, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Ministry of Education pressured textbook publishers to delete references to the Japanese military instigating group suicides, but here we are presented with evidence that they did.

An excellent collection of essays edited by Patricia Steinhof titled “Going to Court: Social Movements in Contemporary Japan” examines six cases ranging from minority rights to overwork and product safety that demonstrate how legal channels can promote social change.

Finally, Hamish McDonald’s “A War of Words” tracks down the history of an illegitimate mixed-race child born at the turn of the 20th century and caught between different worlds and wars. This fascinating man was allegedly a spy who sought glory — and found some in the Pacific War when he managed the rare feat of convincing 4,000 Japanese to surrender.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for some recommendations of books that I have not heard of. More potentially good things to put on my ‘wish to read list!’

    David Lochbaum is a nuclear engineer who works for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He writes a weekly post for the blog called All Things Nuclear in which he discusses and explains nuclear power, its challenges, limitations, etc. As he is based in the USA, he generally writes about issues, dynamics, and politics related to nuclear power in that country. But he does occasionally write about Japan/Fukushima, France, etc. As a former employee of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he understands and takes that agency to task for its lack of supervision of the industry when appropriate. He can write about rather technical things in a manner that a non-nuclear energy professional like myself can readily grasp and apply to other situations. I recommend All Things Nuclear very highly for anyone who is concerned about where that part of the energy industry is going.