Am I a Japan Apologist? If so, sorry!

Found on the Marmot, this look at Japan apologists in Korea before and during the colonial period is fascinating.

It’s amazing to me how after Japan’s defeat in WW2 and subsequent economic growth and close relationship with the US, Westerners’ experiences in Japan have exploded from a few extremely coddled, monitored, and restricted professions (missionaries, academics, o-yatoi gaikokujin) to 10s of thousands of individual experiences in a free society and from a plethora of backgrounds (eikaiwa teacher, human rights activist, programmer, truck driver, Diet member, gangster). Meanwhile, both legal and illegal immigrants from China and Korea as well as those from “periphery” countries like Brazil, the Philippines, and Iran have made semi-permanent homes in Japan, adding to a growing multiculturalism that was spearheaded by the zainichi Korean population.

Despite the surge in openness and the increased diversity and exposure both to and from the outside world that came with it, Japan’s obsessive image management remains along with the “foreign apologists” who are strikingly similar to those employed in the 1920s. There are plenty of them, including Gregory Clark and Ezra Vogel (DISCLAIMER: Haven’t read Vogel yet). But thankfully we live in a time when a) Japan apologists don’t have to overlook unarmed Koreans sliced in half on the street by Japanese soldiers; and b) Those involved with Japan professionally and otherwise have the breathing room to maintain a more sophisticated view of Japan than the Visit Japan Campaign marketing copy. People can even spend all their free time griping about how much Japan sucks even as they live there! Or, more constructively, they can unionize and try and improve their lot in life.

This article and the discussion on “Japanophiles” at several blogs got me thinking – what is it that keeps me interested in Japan after not living in the country for almost 3 years?

My own experiences in and related to Japan (obsessive language study, tumultuous relationship that ended in death threats, meeting and getting engaged to Mrs. Adamu here in Washington) have been, as life tends to be, bittersweet and full of as much pain as joy, but I still feel some pressure to speak well of Japan whenever someone (Japanese or non) asks me about it. Usually, I stick with the food. Nothing controversial about food, and really, Japanese food is the best. I used to have much more heartfelt and uncritical praise for Japan, back when the scenery, the people (“handler” types included), the language, and the fact that it wasn’t America kept me excited.

But right now, I don’t feel one way or the other about “Japan” as a whole. For one thing, 2 years is not enough to truly understand what a whole nation is all about. As I’ve said before: I love Japan, but it’s screwed up. The society’s got major problems that have translated into things that have affected me personally. But at the same time, I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend enough real, intelligent, and genuinely friendly people to keep me from dismissing the whole country as the kind of place that wraps foreigners in lacquer. It makes me sad to see someone who was unable in 12 years to get past all the superficial stuff of first meetings (his “GAIJIN MEETS A FOREIGNER kabuki”). Of course, not speaking the language where English is not widely understood and perhaps just being a reporter might make things difficult. It’s hard not to worry about how you’ll come across in an article when talking to someone from the press.

Anyway, as to the question in the title of whether I am a Japan apologist, I say not yet, but then no one’s paying me. Where I work (an American law firm) is about as far away as you can get from apologism. But if I were to get a swank job at JETRO or RIETI that might be a different story… Just let me apologize in advance for if and when I do get brainwashed and sucked into a world of untold luxury and all-you-can-eat sushi in exchange for my soul.

(Image is random)

24 thoughts on “Am I a Japan Apologist? If so, sorry!”

  1. “Dogs and Demons” is what’s linked to as the more sophisticated view? That book is a crappy whinefest (and overwhelmingly wrong to boot).

    What are you, some kind of Japan hater! (=_^)V

  2. I remember quite liking D&D. What book (if any) do you consider a sophisticated view of Japan? (I ask only because I’d be interested in reading it.)

  3. Death threats? Tell me more!

    Vogel’s Japan is Number One is an interesting book, if you put it in the right context. I believe Edwin O. Reischauer quipped, “This book should be required reading in the U.S. and banned in Japan.” It’s mostly about what Japan did right in the post-War, although most of it is no longer applicable to today’s society. There is also a book called “Is Japan Number One?” that has some interesting additions.

    The vast cultural differences can keep you occupied with Japan for a very long time. I’m reaching my tenth year of “Japan obsession,” however, and the “curious scholar” angle is wearing thin. I am accused of being a revisionist Japan hater, but just like any other area of interest, the most fascinating discussion topics are the problems.

  4. So many good books to read, so little time not wasted on the Internet.

    As for being a revisionist Japan hater, I wouldn’t take momus’ opinion all that seriously !

  5. I agree with Curzon. You should have to be fluent in the language before you can understand a country. Because God knows you can’t express the exotic oriental mystique of Japan without writing in the characters of samurai and geisha.

  6. I dunno, there’s a lot to be learned from some of the books out there. I know for a fact that John Dower’s Japanese ability is lacking (I arranged an interview with him when I worked for a Japanese newspaper), but Embracing Defeat is an amazing book. There were some parts that gave me pause, but the book was definitely worth my time. If someone’s got good assistants (MIT students, I’m sure, are more than passable) then he/she can turn out some good work. And I’m not even sure if Tokyo Underworld is available in Japanese.

    I’m just saying you guys might be giving up too soon. It’s faster, at least, to read books in English. Sure, Memoirs of a Geisha was written by a wonky academic, but I remember getting a lot out of it when I read it soon after arriving in Japan in high school.

  7. Speed Tribes, anyone? Every time I read a shitty book about Japan, I read ST to cleanse the palate. So, basically, I have read it many, many times.

  8. Adamu: clearly our tastes are very divergent. I couldn’t get a third through Embracing Defeat; Tokyo Underworld was interesting but irrelevant (wow, there was once a white dude who owned a pizza parlor in Tokyo after a lackluster pro-wrestling career); and the novel Memoirs of a Geisha is good enough for someone who doesn’t know much about Japan, but not for someone who knows the country (I read it before living in Japan at age 16, but when I looked at it again at 21 I was appalled).

    Frankly, I have few interests in books in either language “about Japan.” Thus far in 2006 I’ve read about ten books (親書) in Japanese generally related to something related to Japan: modern history (Russo-Japanese War, Occupation of Korea), social issues (hikikomori), current affairs (bad relations with Korea, Iraq War), or law (thus far only relating to the Civil Code). Everyone had lots of information that’s simply not available in English. (And yes, you’re welcome to borrow from my library when you’re here.)

  9. What the hell is speed tribes?

    I thought Dogs and Demons was pretty good-yes it’s a whine-fest, that’s the point. His audience for that book was people whose image of Japan is a perfect fantasy, and he wanted to balance it out with some dirt.

    Memoirs of a Geisha- I haven’t read it because, although I love Kyoto, Geisha are boring. Anyone who reads a novel thinking it’s a history book deserves what they get. Hopefully an F in their history class.

    I just read Embracing Defeat and thought it was a very good work of history, and I would say that it’s rather more than just another “book about Japan.” It’s basically a history of the Japanese occupation, and only briefly reaches beyond that specific period of history.

  10. MF: there’s a difference between providing balance and being flat-out wrong. I now feel obligated to give D&D a good Fisking. Can anyone send me the chapter list to refresh my memory?

  11. Well, I think there are lots of great books in English about Japan. It depends on what you want to read. As far as history goes, there are scores of good books out there. Reischauer’s Japan: Story of a Nation comes to mind… I also read an incredibly good book about the Perry expedition a few years back, going into the motives for it (steamship coal), the involvement of the Okinawans and a bunch of other issues that never get covered in the basic outlines.

    Legal stuff doesn’t get covered much in English. There’s a lot to learn from Ramseyer and Nakazato’s Japanese Law: An Economic Approach – a bit dated now, but bashes through many of the common stereotypes about Japanese law and society (also surprisingly funny because the cases all involve hookers and/or yakuza). With all the changes going on right now, though, there probably won’t be good English books on law for a few more years, when things might settle down again.

    As an overall book, I thought Dave Barry Does Japan was funny as hell even before I came to Japan, and I still think it’s funny as hell seven years later. The great part about that one is that he admits he has no idea what he’s talking about… and then he basically gets it all right!

  12. “I’ve given up thinking I can read a book in English about Japan and find it worth my time.”

    Really? Clearly you haven’t read Scooter Libby’s masterpiece, The Apprentice!

    “He held her breasts in his hands. Oddly, he thought, the lower one might be larger. He could hear his own heart.”

    Curzon, that’s some good stuff my man! Lower _and_ upper breasts!

  13. I think Curzon’s low esteem of America-based Japan studies also suffers from the fact that he has very little interest in literature. The study of Japanese literature is probably the strongest aspect of Japan studies in this country!

  14. Death threats? Come on. You can’t put something like that out there and not clarify it for us!

    I liked Embracing Defeat. I don’t know if there has been such a comprehensive document on the period right after the war. As I read, I kept thinking, “Oh. Right. Now I get why my mother knows how to pick all those weeds for food.” Or, “I remember hearing about people eating crickets.” Etc. Some interesting scholarship has been done on the Imperial Family too by westerners — and by the “Korean” contents of the Imperial tombs in Japan. This is stuff you just wouldn’t read in Japan.

    There are also some other books which capture nuances — Daughter of a Samurai, and Reischauer’s wife’s memoir. Yes, literature has an awful lot of stuff which can add to our knowledge.

    But all that being said, how does anyone ever fully appreciate another culture? I mean, I’m American and I “get” America and yet I don’t.

  15. True, it was dumb of me to put something like that online in the first place. Especially since she might be reading.

    Suffice to say that Japanese girls often find it hard to take no for an answer when things aren’t working out. The death threats/suicide threats were the last spasms of campaign against my months-long effort to break up with her. If you insist on knowing more e-mail me.

  16. English books on Japan should be augmented by a diet of authentic Japanese materials, but there is lots and lots of excellent foreign language writing on Japan. There are also a lot of bad Japanese books on Japan: Japanese academic books in general leave much to be desired.

    I recommend Chalmers Johnson’s “Japan: Who Governs?” for a good introduction to the realities of politics in Japan, especially pre-’93.

    “Tokyo Underworld” was a best-seller in Japan, and it has a Japanese-only sequel. Although the protagonist may be irrelevant to Japan today, Whiting’s reporting on the yakuza’s activities still holds up. They took over the Japanese art market in the 80s, and they haven’t exactly gotten rid of those investments.

    “Speed Tribes” is sloppy pseudo-journalism, at least 50% fiction, and there are now dozens of books (in English, even!) that tell the same kind of stories with much more accuracy. Do you really think that the average Japanese kid knows how to “fold a baggy of heroin better than an origami crane” or whatever it is that Greenfeld writes?

    Death threats: I thought you had run afoul of the urashakai. What a let down.

  17. > I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend enough real, intelligent, and genuinely friendly people to keep me from dismissing the whole country….

    I’m an apologist for the U.S. for the same reason…. Despite the current administration’s violent and unilaterialist foreign policy and the anti-immigrant sentiment and racism growing in this country, I still defend the U.S. because of my husband, friends and many other Americans who are truly great people.

    Speaking of the Japanese society with “major problems,” a friend of mine just forwarded this site to me:
    (“Learn to speak ‘CEO English’ to enslave your foreign emplyees as you wish!” that’s basically what this CEO guy is saying.)
    I’m so embarassed about these Japanese businessmen who have no idea what business ethics is about when they deal with non-Japanese employees. I don’t know why our society doesn’t hold these people accountable for what they do/say. I don’t know what will make these people learn……

  18. Marxy: Agreed on japanese academic writing, sans the adjective Japanese. Most academic writing is pretty awful. And Chalmers Johnson is one of the worst “scholars” on Japan in the history of Japan Studies.

  19. Question, if anyone is still reading this thread: is this book cookie cutter or what!?

    When the Butterfly Stings
    By Richard C. Cramer
    (Upfront Publishing, Leicestershire, England, 2002)

    “Your job is as much a cultural ambassador as an educator.” With these words ringing in his ears, Richard Cramer starts his job as a JET (a participant in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program) with high hopes of carrying out this dual role. Enthusiastically he embraces life in Japan, absorbs Japanese culture, learning the arts of the tea ceremony, the shamisen, makes Japanese friends – an ex-kamikaze pilot, a purple-haired tea master, mafia ‘thugs’, to name but a few – and immerses himself in Japanese philosophy. Young and idealistic, he sees a need for improvement in the teaching of English, but when he tries to introduce changes he hits a brick wall. The teachers just aren’t interested in new ideas. Reluctantly, he realizes that to survive he will have to stop rocking the boat and learn to accept the ‘Japanese way’ of doing things.This does not stop him asking questions, and when it comes to the problem of bullying in schools, he refuses to let the matter rest. When his concerns are ignored – with tragic results – he blames himself. Should he have tackled it the ‘American way’ instead of the ‘Japanese way’? Mr. Cramer’s experiences as a JET are fascinating, his evaluation of Japanese philosophy, culture and the education system sharp and incisive, and through the eyes of a young foreigner readers are provided with an exciting pictures of life in modern Japan.

  20. When the butterfly Stings is a great book. I think the dialogue that the author presents and the different viewpoints really set the stage for interesting debate. Although some have complained Kramer is too critical, I am amazed that he could remained as objective as he did especially when a student of his practically died in his arms owing to the failure of the powers that be to recognize the problems inherent in the system.

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