Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Books to help you understand Japan

So you want to understand the real Japan. You have a sense that the typical stereotypes are wrong and outdated and full of derp, and you want to go deeper than anime or "crazy Japan" blogs will take you. So you decide to ask your friendly neighborhood Noah: "What books can I read that will help me understand the real Japan at a deep level?"

Unfortunately Noah hasn't had his requisite 3 daily cups of oversteeped black tea, so he grouchily responds: "How about instead of reading a book, you learn the language fluently, live there for a few years, talk to a bunch of people, and learn for yourself?" But then Noah gets his caffeine fix, and the norepinephrine flows freely through his brain, and he says "Oh, BOOKS? Sure, I got books." And walking over to his lovely fake mahogany Wayfair bookshelf, he proceeds to make you the following list:

Culture and Daily Life

1. New Japan, by David Matsumoto

This book, which you can read in an hour or less, basically summarizes a bunch of social psych studies to prove that Japanese culture changed dramatically in the 1980s. Most of the old stereotypes - conformity, group orientation, etc. - used to be pretty true, but now are totally false. Japan used to rate as more conformist, group-oriented, etc. on most measures than the U.S., but now rates as individualistic and independent as the U.S., or more. Feel the power of data destroying your preconceived notions!

2. Nightwork, by Anne Allison

Also from the 90s, but also still relevant. Nightwork is about two things: corporate culture and sex culture. Japan's corporate culture is, without a doubt, the biggest difference between the West and Japan - although Don Draper might find it a little less alien. Sex culture is different too, mostly because most kinds of prostitution are both legal and well-accepted in Japan. This book is about the convergence of the two - about how Japanese companies solidify their corporate cultures by paying for employees to go to pseudo-prostitutes (actually, more like in-house escorts) called "hostesses." Anne Allison, who is one of the best English-language anthropologists who studies Japan, actually lived and worked as a hostess for years to do research for this book. It's really pretty amazing.

See also: Office Ladies and Salaried Men, by Yuko Ogasawara

3. Capturing Contemporary Japan, ed. by Satsuki Kawano

This is just a bunch of vignettes of modern Japanese people's lives. Kind of dry, but pretty wide-ranging.

See also: Bending Adversity, by David Pilling, Goodbye Madame Butterfly, by Sumie Kawakami

4. Fruits, by Shoichi Aoki

This is a picture book of Japanese street fashion from the 1990s. It's mostly just photos, but it also has mini-interviews of colorful kids at the bottom of each page. These are actually excerpted from a magazine of the same name that was popular back then.

See also: Tokyo: A Certain Style, by Kyoichi Tsuzuki

Economics and Business

1. Can Japan Compete?, by Michael Porter, Hirotaka Takeuchi, and Mariko Sakakibara

This is basically a history book about Japan's industrial policy - what it was, where it seems to have worked, where it went wrong (spoiler: almost everywhere, after the 1970s). It also contains Michael Porter's theories about competition, but you really don't need to believe those in order to appreciate the history here.

2. The Japanese Economy, by David Flath

This is an overview for people who have studied econ. The author, David Flath, is a friend of mine (we met on the streets of Tokyo, where he recognized me from my blog photo), and also happens to be the PhD advisor of Karl Smith, the former econ blogger and prof.

See also: Reviving Japan's Economy, ed. by Takatoshi Ito, Hugh Patrick, and David E. Weinstein

3. Reimagining Japan, ed. by Brian Salsberg, Clay Chandler, and Heang Chhor

This is a bunch of articles written write before the big 2011 earthquake, mostly about Japanese business, but also a little about the economy and culture. The authors are a collection of business leaders, writers, consultants, etc.

See also: The Power to Compete, by Hiroshi and Ryoichi Mikitani, Saying Yes to Japan, by Tim Clark and Carl Kay

History and Politics

1. Democracy Without Competition in Japan, by Ethan Scheiner

This book explains a lot about Japanese politics - most importantly, why one party has ruled Japan for most of the postwar period, despite strong democratic norms and a free and fair election system. The reason, according to Scheiner, is that the Japanese fiscal system and electoral system combine to make it easy to basically just buy votes. But you don't have to accept this thesis in order to appreciate the political history here.

2. Japan at War, by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook

Modern Japan's institutions were partially shaped by a big war that almost no one now remembers. This book consists of a bunch of first-hand accounts of Japanese people from that war period. Just remember that these old people's way of thinking is just as alien to that of modern young Japanese people as your grandparents are to you.

See also: The Rising Sun, by John Toland, Dear General MacArthur, by Sodei Rinjiro

3. Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara

The war memoir of Japan's (probably) best naval captain, this book gives great insight into Japanese military culture. It also shows how traditional samurai culture (the author is from a samurai family) clashed with the modern militaristic culture of WW2-era Japan. Finally, it displays some interesting Japanese cultural quirks - women hitting on men! - that seem to have survived through the ages.

See also: Zero, by Masatake Okumiya, Jiro Horikoshi, and Martin Caidin

On my list to read: Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style, by W. David Marx, Embracing Defeat, by John Dower, Tokyo Vice, by Jake Adelstein

So there you go. Happy reading. If you know of any other books along these lines, send them my way. And remember, even the best books will only scratch the surface of any culture...


  1. Anonymous8:48 PM

    thoughts on Princes of Yen?

  2. And then there is the Liberal Democratic Party, which is neither liberal nor democratic nor a party.


    1. I am so happy to be on the list. It's a depressing book and much has changed but it's a fun read at the start.

  3. Anonymous5:27 AM

    John Dower is the gold-standard historian on Japan. His "Embracing Defeat" was the best, most thorough book on Japan I've read. A great story how the war and its aftermath put in place institutions which were then quite persistent, and which really shaped modern Japan.

    I feel like, if you read that, you don't need much else.

  4. Hiroshima by Hersey? havent read it myself although it's on my list.

  5. I read this and really enjoyed it: Reid, T. R. (2000). Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West

  6. Todd Kreider4:21 PM

    I think David Flath's "The Japanese Economy" is the best overall book on Japan's economics that I've read and am glad it has a new edition from 2014. But for those who want a great discount, get the 2004 edition for a penny (+ $3.99 shipping) at Amazon.

    I listened to the Cook's "Japan at War" on cassette in 1996 and found the second half of the tapes in 2006 on Amazon. If possible, listening to the stories is ideal with this book I briefly talked to the Cooks in 1994 after he spoke in Toyama City and had no idea that they had written such a powerful book on Japanese memories of the war.

    I would avoid "Reimagining Japan". The idea for the book was good but there were very few interesting essays - maybe 5. There is a lot of filler in this collection.

  7. Written *right* before the big earthquake

  8. Tokyo Vice was good. I don't know how much of it is true - it feels like Adelstein might be dramatizing things in parts to tell a better story - but it's still really good.

  9. Please try "Can Abenomics Succeed? : Overcoming the Legacy of Japan's Lost Decades." Japan's revitalization plan, dubbed the "three arrows of Abenomics," devises a three-pronged strategy-combining fiscal, monetary, and structural policies-to overcome that country's apparent inability to sustain economic recovery. This book is the first comprehensive assessment of Abenomics and the reforms needed to make it a success, including aggressive monetary easing, growth-friendly fiscal consolidation, and structural and financial sector reforms.

  10. Anonymous9:09 AM

    Oh Hell

    Yoshio Sugimoto's Introduction to Japanese Society is in its 5th edition; also edited Cambridge Into to Japanese Culture

    Janet Hunter - Japanese Women Working is a little old at 1993 but balanced

    Toshie: A Story of Village Life in Twentieth Century

    Brian McVeigh's books are good, especially Wearing Ideology

    R Taggert Murphy - Japan and Shackles of the Past

    I liked Charles Shiro Inouye Evanescence and Form, but N Smith might not

    Miller and Kanazawa Order By Accident

    Kojin Karatani is brilliant, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature

    Mark Metzler's Lever of Empire is terrific on the economic 1920s and the Gold Standard

    And Penelope Franks and Karen Wigen are doing great economic history.

    Bob McManus

  11. Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival by David Pilling (Asian Correspondant for FT) is really good. It came out in 2014 so is a good account of modern Japan.

  12. Anonymous4:18 PM

    Anything on Japanese History pre-WW2?

    1. Marius Jansen is good.

      But I don't think old Japanese history tells us very much about modern Japanese culture. Maybe a few tidbits and memes. Very little continuity, though.

    2. Anonymous9:09 AM

      Bob McManus

      Let's just say that I disagree with Smith here, and could cite or quote adequate material to make a case.

      1) There isn't just one "Japanese Culture"

      To argue by analogy, if your experience of the US is working with upper middle class professionals in Manhattan, you might well claim that America has no significant hunting or gun culture. If you are working in tech in even Atlanta let alone Boston or San Jose, 200 years of racialist continuity might not be obvious, unless you are looking for it with the presumption that it exists.

      Certainly there have been changes, there are always changes, and Japan has always for about a millenia had a constructed functionalist, from material circumstances and history and imports, society and culture.

      But the Japanese I think are more aware of constructing their culture than say South Koreans of residents of Hong Kong, and that in itself, the self-consciousness(Nihonjinron)of Japanese society and culture makes it different.

    3. I totally agree that there are many Japanese cultures.

      I do think that most cultures have some sort of self-concept or self-monitoring, even if it isn't as "canonized" as nihonjinron.

  13. Speed Tribes is an interesting book, as well. It is a (sometimes disturbing) look into Japanese sub-cultures. Published in the 90's. I believe, it may be a but outdated.

  14. Tracy Lightcap5:53 PM

    You missed:

    Ian Buruma. 1984. Behind the Mask.
    The best book ever written about Japanese culture by a Westerner.

    Mitsuo Fuchida. 2001. Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan.
    Commander Fuchida was Admiral Nugumo's operations officer and an acute observer of the foibles that cost Japan so much in WWII. An example: at first the plan was to take the carrier division with Zuikaku and Shokaku, the biggest and most modern Japanese carriers as the second division to accompany the invasion fleet to Midway. Damage to Shokaku prevented that, but Nugamo was going to take Zuikaku and leave behind Soryu and Hiryu, Admiral Yamaguchi's division behind. When Yamaguchi heard of this at the preliminary staff meeting, he went to his cabin and consumed a good deal of saki. He then burst in on Nugamo and challenged him to a wrestling match; if Yamaguchi won, his division would go instead of Zuikaku. The remarkable thing is that Nugamo agreed to the match and, when he lost, took along Yamaguchi's ships instead. Imagine what would have happened to an American flag officer who attempted something similar.